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I've got a new feature almost ready to go. I'm pretty stoked about this one because I've been wanting it for quite literally years, but it was never possible on Reddit.

Hey, guess what? We're not on Reddit!

But before I continue, I want to temper expectations. This is a prototype of a first revision of an experimental feature. It is not going to look impressive; it is not going to be impressive. There's a lot of work left to do.

The feature is currently live on our perpetually-running dev site. Log in, click any thread, and go look below the Comment Preview. You'll see a quokka in a suit asking you for help. (His name is Quincy.) Click the cute li'l guy and you'll be asked to rate three comments. Do so, and click Submit. Thank you! Your reward is another picture of Quincy and a sense of satisfaction.

So, uh . . . . what?

Okay, lemme explain.

This is the first part of a feature that I'm calling Volunteering. Once in a while, the site is going to prompt you to help out, and if you volunteer, it'll give you a few minutes of work to do. Right now this is going to be "read some comments and say if they're good or not". Later this might include stuff like "compare two comments and tell me if one of them is better", or "read a comment, then try to come up with a catchy headline for it".

These are intentionally small, and they're entirely optional. You can ignore it altogether if you like.

I'm hoping these can end up being the backbone of a new improved moderation system.

Isn't this just voting, but fancy?

You'd think so! But there are critical differences.

First, you do not choose the things to judge. The system chooses the things it wants you to judge. You are not presented with thousands of comments and asked to vote on the ones you think are important, no, you are given (at the moment) three specific comments and information is requested of you.

This means that I don't need to worry about disproportionate votecount on popular comments. Nor do I need to worry about any kind of vote-brigading, or people deciding to downvote everything that a user has posted. The system gets only the feedback it asks for. This is a pull system; the system pulls information from the userbase in exactly the quantities it wants instead of the userbase shoving possibly-unwanted information at the scoring systems.

Second, you can be only as influential as the system lets you. On the dev site you can volunteer as often as you want for testing purposes, but on the live site, you're going to - for now - be limited to once every 20 hours. I'll probably change this a lot, but nevertheless, if the system decides you've contributed enough, it'll thank you kindly and then cut you off. Do you want to spend all day volunteering in order to influence the community deeply? Too bad! Not allowed.

But this goes deeper than it sounds. Part of having the system prompt you is that not all prompts will be the system attempting to get actionable info from you. Some of the prompts will be the system trying to compare your choices against a reference, and the system will then use this comparison to figure out how much to trust your decisions.

That reference, of course, is the mods.

I've previously referred to this as the Megaphone system or the Amplifier system. One of our devs called it a "force multiplier". I think this gets across the core of what I'm aiming for. The goal here is not majority-rules, it's not fully decentralized moderation. It's finding people who generally agree with the mods and then quietly harnessing them to handle the easy moderation cases.

(We have a lot of easy moderation cases.)

There's another important point here. The mods are only human and we make mistakes. My hope is that we can get enough volunteer help to provide significantly more individual decisions than the mods can, and my hope is that the combined efforts of several people who don't quite agree with the mods in all cases is still going to be more reliable than any single mod. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if there's people out there who are better at judging posts than our mods are! It's just hard to find you; some of you may not even comment, and you're pretty undiscoverable right now, but you will certainly get a chance to volunteer!

Also, this will hopefully improve turnaround time a lot. I'm tired of filtered comments taking hours to get approved! I'm tired of really bad comments sticking around for half a day! There are many people constantly commenting and voting, and if I can get a few minutes of help from people now and then, we can handle those rapidly instead of having to wait for a mod to be around.

Wow! You get all of this, with absolutely no downsides or concerns!

Well, hold on.

The big concern here is that virtually nobody has ever done this before. The closest model I have is Slashdot's metamoderation system. Besides that, I'm flying blind.

I also have to make sure this isn't exploitable. The worst-case scenario is people being able to use this to let specific bad comments through. I really want to avoid that, and I've got ideas on how to avoid it, but it's going to take work on my part to sort out the details.

And there's probably issues that I'm not even thinking of. Again: flying blind. If you think of issues, bring 'em up; if you see issues, definitely bring 'em up.

Oh man! So, all this stuff is going to be running real soon, right?

Nope.

First I need some data to work off. Full disclosure: all the current system does is collect data, then ignore it.

But it is collecting data, and as soon as I've got some data, I'll be working on the next segment.

This is the first step towards having a platform that's actually better-moderated than the current brand of highly-centralized sites. I don't know if it'll work, but I think it will.

Please go test it out on the dev site, report issues, and when it shows up here (probably in a few days) click the button roughly daily and spend a few minutes on it. Your time will not be wasted.


Blocking

Right now this site's block feature works much the same as Reddit's. But I want to change that, because it sucks.

My current proposal is:

  • If you block someone, you will no longer see their comments, receive PMs from them, or be notified if they reply to your comments.

  • This does not stop them from seeing your comments, nor does it stop them from replying to your comments.

  • If they attempt to reply to your comment, it will include the note "This user has blocked you. You are still welcome to reply, but your replies will be held to a stricter standard of civility."

  • This note is accurate and we will do so.

That's the entire proposed feature. Feedback welcome!


User Flair and Usernames

We're going to start cracking down a bit on hyperpartisan or antagonistic user flair. Basically, if we'd hit you with a warning for putting it in a comment, we'll hit you with a warning for putting it in your flair. If anyone has a really good reason for us to not do this, now's the time to mention it!

Same goes for usernames. On this site, you can actually change your display username, and we're just leaving that in place. So we'll tell you to change your name if we have to. Extra for usernames: don't use a misleading or easily-confused username, okay? If it looks like you're masquerading as an existing well-known user, just stop it.

I'm currently assuming that both of these fall under our existing ruleset and don't need new rules applied. If you disagree strongly, let me know.


The Usual Stuff

Give feedback! Tell me how you're doing? Do you have questions? Do you have comments? This is the place for them!

Are you a coder and want to help out? We have a lot of work to do - come join the dev discord.

11

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

2

Be advised: this thread is not for serious in-depth discussion of weighty topics (we have a link for that), this thread is not for anything Culture War related. This thread is for Fun. You got jokes? Share 'em. You got silly questions? Ask 'em.

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

63

We have somehow survived another move.

I feel like a broken record here, but, seriously, good job everyone, and thanks. While the moderators of a community are important, the community simply doesn't exist without its members. Y'all came over here and kept on posting, and that's exactly what we needed.

With luck, this is going to be the last move we ever need to make; we have our own domain and servers, we're no longer really existing with any specific other person's permission.

We are, however, not out of the woods.

I mentioned during some of the original Reddit-exodus posts that I had a serious medium-term worry about userbase. We've cut ourselves off from the Reddit pipeline and that means we're in danger of slowly eroding away; people will always leave the community and right now we don't have a good way of getting new users. We wouldn't be the first community to do so! Every community needs an influx of people, and now we need to figure out the right way to manage that.

So I now have a few requests, ordered roughly by how comfortable I am asking it.

First: Send links to people that you think will be interested. If you know someone looking for political discussion, send them a link to the site as a whole; if there's a specific post you think they'll be interested in, link that. Remember that we have The Vault, which has unfortunately gone a bit neglected while I worked on this changeover. Please don't spam anyone - I don't want anyone just posting links to our front page on a hundred subreddits - but if you have a good opportunity, either regarding friends or communities that you're an established member of, take it.

Second: Propose places that might be willing to do a link trade. I'm planning to reach out to a bunch of subreddits shortly and see if they're willing to crosslink, especially places that are serious-political-discussion-adjacent in the hopes that we can draw off that section of their population and both be better off for it. If you have personal connections you can bring it up to them yourself, otherwise just let me know and I'll see what I can do. I expect a low success rate but even a low success rate might be pretty dang valuable.

(And don't limit this to subreddits! There's a number of good communities out there that aren't on the big social sites.)

Third: If you have time, help out. We have a dev server that you can join if you want to work on a huge number of pending issues, and it's thanks to the people on this server that we've had such a constant flow of updates, fixes, and tweaks. If you're less programmery but more editorial, we do have a lot of Vault-related editing that we'd like to get done; this goes faster than you might think. If there's some other skill you have that you think might be valuable, hop on the dev server and send me a message.

And finally, fourth, which is the one that I really hate to ask, but I'm doin' it anyway.

I've set up a Patreon to take donations. If you have spare cash and think this is a worthy destination for it, please chip in.

I'm not sure what this whole "money" thing is going to end up looking like. At the very least this will pay for server costs; any income above that will go into making the site better, in whatever way seems most valuable. I've been thinking about taking out ads in an attempt to pull more users here, for example, and that isn't cheap.

This is going to be very experimental and will probably involve false starts. I'd love to hear suggestions on good ways to spend money on the site - if you have any, let me know - but note that in order to hire programmers we would need a lot of money.

For those who are more crypto-minded, I'm also taking donations via Ethereum (0xa97e126DCEcC7Ea3AF05d252B49c03ae35547dD9) and Bitcoin (bc1qnj0mvg90dfawjq3kxq4wdvcq0ejksgyf2m0xnq). All of these links are on the new (and very primitive) Support page.

I know there's going to be people who think that we left Reddit just so I could cash out. I frankly suspect that even if I just pile all of the results into a giant sack with a dollar sign on it and walk off while cackling evilly, I still won't be making minimum wage, so this would be a terrible plan :V No, I do actually like this community a ton, and want it to keep going, but I can't fund an indefinite amount of stuff on my own. And part of this push is to figure out just how useful this site is to all of you, in order to see what can be justified and what can't be justified.

So there's the ask! If you have connections, use them; if you have time, contribute it; if you have money and want to put it towards this, please provide financial support so I can figure out how to keep the new-user pipeline going.

If you don't, that's cool! Keep on posting and I hope you enjoy your time here.


Finally, this is the new Bugs/Suggestions/Small Comments thread. If you have feedback, post it here! A lot of the stuff in that Pending Issues link up above was submitted by users, and we're getting through it slowly.

54

I'm not a regular poster on /r/TheMotte. I've done a bit of work getting this website up and running and I plan to stick around and try to help a little more, but I don't know that I will contribute much to the discussion. I just wanted to say that I appreciate that there exists a place where people can discuss the sorts of things that get you banned everywhere else, while setting aside their partisan, political, religious motivations (for the most part) and demanding effort and evidence. That's valuable to me, even if I'm not participating. It's important that someone, somewhere, can do that.

So I appreciate everything you guys do. Thanks for being here.

Let's say you want to fix up a length of road. There are various strategies for this. Traditionally, you would perform a "resurfacing": mill away two or three inches of the existing asphalt, and replace it with the same thickness of new asphalt (of a type prescribed by the pavement experts—not all asphalt is the same). However, such a project carries with it certain extra costs, such as the federally-imposed requirement of upgrading all the pedestrian curb ramps in accordance with the ADA standards. In recent years, resurfacing has been largely displaced by "pavement preservation"—the application of a thin layer of asphalt (1 inch or less) directly on top of an existing surface that still is in reasonably good condition. For example (making some numbers up because I'm not a pavement expert), instead of doing a resurfacing every ten years, you might do a resurfacing in year 0, then pavement preservations in years 5, 10, and 15, and restart the cycle with another resurfacing in year 20, resulting in cost savings over years 0–19 in comparison to just doing resurfacings in year 0, year 10, and year 20. (It is being rumored that the asphalt industry now has gotten angry that roadway organizations aren't ordering as much asphalt, and is spinning up its lobbyists to promote a return to resurfacing, so pavement preservation may fall by the wayside in the future.)

So, anyway, let's say you want to "preserve" the pavement on a particular stretch of road—or, rather, the pavement experts in your organization have decided that this particular stretch of road should receive a particular preservation treatment, and they tell your bosses to design the project, and your bosses assign the work to you (the roadway engineer). What's the first step? Getting a survey of the area? No—the first step is getting the jurisdiction maps, to see which roads are actually the responsibility of your organization. You (the reader) already know that public roads in the United States are variously designated as municipal, county, or state roads. ("State", "US", and "Interstate" highways all count as state designation. US and Interstate highways are not owned by the federal government, but a project on a state road can be paid for by the feds if the road is in the National Highway System, or if the state government receives a one-time grant through the Surface Transportation Block Grant program. The state also gives grants to its subordinate county and municipal governments.) What you probably don't already know is that, very often, the jurisdiction does not match the designation. When a state-designated road intersects a county- or municipal-designated road, the state government usually will assume jurisdiction over the entire intersection, including any ramps or jughandles, and sometimes extending several hundred feet up the nominally county-owned road. (This can get very complicated when a state road that's controlled by the Department of Transportation, a state road that's controlled by a different organ of the state government (such as a toll-road authority or an interstate port authority), a county road, and a municipal road all meet in a single interchange.) So you (the roadway engineer) need to check your organization's archive of jurisdiction maps, to see exactly what the extent of the paving will be. Maybe the pavement experts told you to pave county roads X and Y, but it turns out that state road B will chop a few hundred feet out of your project where it intersects road X, and on the other hand municipal road N that runs between roads X and Y was signed over to county jurisdiction back in 1965, and you've also got to deal with some negligible pieces of municipal roads Q and R that intersect road Y. (And, of course, it's possible that the jurisdiction map is missing from the archive. In such a case, you can do nothing but take your best guess.)

What's the next step? The next step is to get a detailed map of the road where the work will be proposed, called "topo" (short for "topographic survey") in the jargon of the field. Ideally, a professional survey was performed for a resurfacing project five years ago, and the electronic files still are in your organization's database (or can be requisitioned from the consultant that designed the project), so you can just make some minor modifications to those files and go on your merry way. More likely, however, no professional electronic survey has been done (maybe the last project that was done on this road was a generic "maintenance and resurfacing" project that used no formal construction plans at all), and your organization isn't going to shell out the cash for a new survey for the sake of a mere pavement-preservation project. Therefore, what do you have to do? That's right. You, the roadway engineer, will have to MANUALLY draw the ENTIRETY of the multiple-mile project yourself—using as a basis either ten-year-old, one-bit-per-pixel scans of fifty- or seventy-year-old "as-built" plans of past resurfacing/reconstruction/original-construction projects, or (if no as-builts are available, which is somewhat unusual but definitely not impossible) dozens of Google Earth screenshots. This can take several weeks just by itself (I can say from extremely painful experience).

But that's not all. Topo alone is not sufficient for laying out construction plans. You also need the baseline—the set of lines and circular arcs that defines precisely where on the 2D plane the highway is located. (Earth's surface is 3D, but each state has at least one "state plane" for survey purposes.) Ideally, a baseline is included with the topo from the five-year-old resurfacing project. If there's no electronic baseline, then the second-best option is that, when the road was originally constructed fifty or seventy years ago, dozens of "monuments" were installed alongside it, and your in-house surveyors can uncover those monuments (find them with a metal detector and literally dig them up from where they've been buried by eroded soil) and get GPS coordinates for them, and you can relate those coordinates back to the as-built's "tie sheets", which are likely to have (1) all the bearings and radii, but (2) either (a) no coordinates or (b) coordinates in an outdated coordinate system that (i) can be manually copied into your CAD software, floating unmoored in the 2D plane, but (ii) cannot easily be converted to the current coordinate system and fixed in their proper place. (Converting between coordinate systems isn't just a matter of translation and rotation. There also is complicated scaling involved. I once tried to convert between coordinate systems using ArcGIS, and ended up with nothing but egg on my face and a shamefully inaccurate set of baselines. But maybe that's a me problem.) More likely, however, you have tie sheets, but the monuments were destroyed and not replaced when the roadway was widened thirty years ago, or no monuments ever were installed in the first place. What is a humble roadway engineer to do in such a circumstance? The closest thing to a monument—something that's very unlikely to have been moved since the roadway was constructed—is a drainage inlet on the side of the road. Therefore, the engineer is forced to use a few dozen inlets as ersatz monuments, send out his in-house surveyors to get GPS coordinates for them all, and manhandle the baseline from the as-built tie sheets (which, again, is just floating unmoored in the 2D plane at this point) to match those coordinates as closely as possible. (If it's a divided highway, don't forget that your organization's policy probably requires you to draw one baseline for each direction. And don't forget to draw baselines for all the ramps as well. This can get pretty annoying, especially when there's a typo in the as-built tie sheet from year 1985 and you need to figure out what's wrong by comparing it with the actual angle of the road.)

What's next? Can we start drawing the proposed work now? No, we can't. Now the engineer must draw the typical sections of the road. The typical sections are just slices of the roadway—not just the surface (lane widths, and the sideways slopes necessary for proper drainage), but also the materials that make up the subsurface (surface course, intermediate course, base course, subbase, the hundred-year-old concrete road that seventy years ago was paved over rather than being "rubblized" into subbase…). Ideally, the limits of your project perfectly match the limits of an old as-built, and you can redraw the typical sections from that raster as-built in vector format with minimal changes. More likely, however, this roadway was drastically reconstructed piecemeal in half a dozen different projects over the years, and the as-builts from those old projects are like puzzle pieces that you must fit together while keeping in mind that some have been partially overwritten by others. (And don't think that you can skip this step just because you're doing a project where the contractor won't interact with the subsurface at all! Even pavement-preservation jobs require typical sections to be included. My current, unusually-large project may end up with as many as seventy different typical sections, which could take up something like 15 or 20 sheets. My bosses are hoping that we'll be able to get their bosses to update the procedures for pavement-preservation jobs so I don't have to spend a week or two drawing all this stuff that the contractor will have no use for.)

Now for temporary traffic control. On a pavement-preservation project, this isn't too bad. Since slathering a thin slurry of bituminous material onto the pavement is a one-night job (the road can be opened to traffic on the following morning), responsibility for determining temporary detour routes falls on the contractor rather than on the designer—and, let me tell you, drawing a detour route for each of the dozen ramps on a project, including a list of all the signs that need to be installed for each detour, is a very tedious task. However, even without detour routes, the designer still needs to go through his organization's list of standard traffic-control details and estimate how many drums, cones, barricades, and square feet of temporary construction signage the contractor will need to employ. (Most contractors will just reuse the equipment that they already have and bid something like one dollar per unit for each of these items, but we are not allowed to make such assumptions in our cost estimates—it's full price for everything.) Even on a pavement-preservation project, you may still need to draw a nonstandard traffic-control detail if the bigwigs who drew the standard details failed to take into account a particular situation, like a ramp or a roundabout. (Oh, you thought something as commonplace as closing a ramp for overnight paving would be in the standard traffic-control details? Well, you thought wrong.)

Finally, we can start figuring out the quantities of the proposed work. Asphalt? No, not yet! I'm talking about the (permanent) pavement markings. You've got to compile a spreadsheet listing every single stripe segment in the entire project—white or yellow; four-inch or eight-inch (or six-inch on Interstate highways); broken (colloquially called dashed), solid, or double solid (or broken on one side and solid on the other side, or that newfangled dotted)—including any upgrades that need to be done (e. g., changing the line along an auxiliary lane from broken to dotted). And don't forget the RPMs (raised pavement markers—those little shiny things that your headlamps highlight when it's raining), with different spacings in different places! And the rumble strips (not just in the outside shoulder, but also in the centerline, or in the inside shoulder if it's wide enough)! And the "markings" (made of a different material than "stripes" proper, thermoplastic rather than epoxy—e. g., 8-inch crosswalk lines, 24-inch stop lines, and "← ONLY" at intersections)! And the separate pay items for removal of the existing pavement markings before the pavement treatment can be applied, and for the application of temporary pavement markings during construction!! (My current project's stripe calculation spreadsheet has around 800 rows, but this project is unusually large. My previous project's spreadsheet had around 200 rows, and my spreadsheet for the project before that had around 300 rows. All three projects are/were pavement preservation.) Oh, and don't forget—three paragraphs ago you drew all the road edges from as-builts. You need to draw all the existing pavement markings as well. (They normally would be picked up in the survey, but this part of the survey technically isn't included in the same "topo" file, since it's shown only on the striping sheets, not on the construction sheets. Or maybe I'm just being too pedantic.) I hope you're proficient with your CAD software's offset tool!

The pavement markings are only the most important part of the "incidental work" that surrounds a pavement-preservation project. Less important, but still needing to be done, is the inspection (typically via Google Street View) of all the drainage inlets that sit in or alongside the pavement within the project limits. If you're a bicyclist, you may be aware that, over the past few decades, the slotted grates that will catch your front tire and flip you over the handlebars have been gradually replaced with "bicycle-safe grates", which replace the long, wide slots with smaller holes. This process still is ongoing. Additionally, sometimes the "curb piece" of an inlet that's embedded in the curb has incurred damage after too many tractor-trailers ran over it, and needs to be replaced. There are the environmental regulations: a curb piece whose mouth is taller than two inches allows too much debris to enter waterways, and must be replaced with one that has a smaller mouth. There are concerns received from the maintenance experts: Way back when the aforementioned environmental regulations were instituted, people didn't want to go to the trouble of replacing all those zillions of curb pieces, so instead they tried affixing a little slotted faceplate to the front of the curb piece in order to cover up the overlarge mouth. It turned out, though, that these faceplates tend to catch on snow plows, so now any curb piece that received that treatment needs to be replaced in its entirety anyway. And, finally, there are the rare occasions where the concrete box underneath the grate appears to be broken (as evidenced by a suspiciously low grate elevation), requiring the entire inlet to be replaced. (And some non-inlet incidental work: the designer should take a field visit on the day after heavy rain, and check for any ponding that can be fixed with some localized milling and paving.)

At long last, we can draw the proposed asphalt. This step is relatively simple, as are the steps of (1) referencing everything into the actual plan sheets, (2) labeling all the proposed work on the construction and striping sheets, and (3) summing up the quantities and plugging them into the (somewhat finicky) estimation software… Wait a minute—did I say it was simple? No! No, you've got to run everything past more environmental regulations! Increasing the elevation of the roadway by just half an inch requires the project to be reviewed for flooding. Some pavement-preservation treatments (thankfully including the one that's being used on my current, oversized project) are thinner than half an inch—but others are not. So now you have to wait for the environmental consultant to review your work. Somehow, the in-house environmental experts who coordinate this review are understaffed even though they've got their thumb in every pie, so your project probably will be delayed by a month or two past its originally-scheduled submission date. And, after all this rigmarole, the environmental experts will tell you to mill down one or two arbitrary 500-foot segments of road by an extra inch, and that'll be that. Also, don't forget to mill underneath any overhead structures, in order to maintain the existing clearance—not just bridges, but also sign structures. I hope you didn't forget to draw the sign structures into your topo file! They probably aren't included in the roadway as-builts that you were looking at before, because structural stuff is done separately, so it's back to Google Earth screenshots for you. And also-also you've got to do a little bit of milling wherever your new pavement meets old pavement (at intersections and at ramp terminals), in order to avoid a sudden change in elevation (also known as a bump). And also-also-also you need to mill along the curb, because otherwise you'll change the drainage characteristics of the roadway. And finally don't forget to ask the electronics experts about any electronic stuff that's embedded in the road—you can't mill over it without replacing the whole system afterward. (But maybe the electronics experts want it to be replaced as part of the same project, since you're already working in the area.)

After that, it passes out of your hands and into the hands of the bigwigs who do pencil-pushing stuff like drawing up the tentative construction schedule, compiling the construction specifications (the standard boilerplate, a bunch of lines that need to be filled in by the designer, special stuff that the pavement or environmental or structural experts think need to be added, affirmative-action requirements from the "affirmative-action experts", construction-office requirements from the construction experts, etc.), and making the final electronic submission to the bigger wigs (the project manager, the in-house reviewers, and I think some kind of FHWA review).

For the xianxia fans: 哭笑不得 (I don't know whether I should laugh or cry). For the zoomers: 😂.

42

I think anyone who's been watching this switchover has noted it hasn't been the smoothest. I'm still kinda decompressing from that and I figured I'd write up why, just so you could all marvel at the ridiculous chain of catastrophes.

So.

We get the site up. People register their accounts. People start almost immediately reporting 429 errors when registering.

429 Too Many Requests is an error that means a user has done too much stuff lately, commonly known as "rate limiting". A lot of the site is rate limited, but it should be rate limited well above what an actual human will do. For example, the account creation is rate-limited at 10 per day per person; if you need more than ten accounts every day then uh maybe you're not behaving quite like we want.

Of course, people weren't making ten accounts per person; rate limiting was broken.

We looked into the rate limiting code. Rdrama runs on a service called Cloudflare, which relays connections and does a bunch of fancy caching and performance optimization and also doesn't provide service if you're farming kiwis. An annoying thing about this kind of a service is that it makes it a little trickier to figure out "who" someone is; Cloudflare includes that information on requests, but it's not in the normal place. The rate limiting code was using the Cloudflare-specific IP info. Problem: We're not on Cloudflare. So that info was just wrong. I took out the Cloudflare-specific stuff and the problem did not get fixed in any way.

Well, Cloudflare does all this fancy optimization (it's called "reverse proxying", please don't ask why), but actually, so do we. The Motte runs on the same server setup as The Vault, and The Vault is specifically designed to be extremely cacheable. We've got our own little similar frontend server doing something identical, and all connections, including Motte connections, go through it. This means we needed to get the IP from our own reverse proxy, using a different technique, which we did, and which also entirely failed to fix the issue.

At this point I tried to disable the rate limiter entirely. The rate limiter refused to disable. We'll get back to this one.

The reason, I guessed, the reverse-proxy IP didn't work is that our reverse proxy is actually behind another reverse proxy. It's reverse proxies all the way down. You may not like it, but this is what peak web development looks like. Anyway, we were getting one layer further up, but we needed to be another layer further up. The hosting service I use does in fact have a switch for enabling this; it's called Proxy Protocol. I turned Proxy Protocol on and the entire site instantly went down. So I flipped it back and the site came back up. Then I did this a few more times just to be sure it wasn't a coincidence. It wasn't.

It turns out that the reverse proxy run by me requires some very specific configuration settings to be compatible with the Proxy Protocol setting. The problem is that I'm running this proxy in sort of a weird way. Most people using this server architecture have, like, an entire devops team. I don't! It's just me. And I don't really know what I'm doing. So cue half an hour of occasional outages as I try something new. It is worth noting that some of the changes I made also broke the site, but I was suspicious that the two changes had to be made together to work at all, so sometimes I'd break the site, then I'd break the site in another way, then I'd sit there for a minute hoping it worked, and it wouldn't, and then I'd revert both changes.

Finally I figured out the magic incantation! The site worked, we got IPs, the rate limiting was functional. The 429 error was forever vanquished! I looked at the site, and checked the perf charts, and noted that we were capping the CPU on the absolute-bottom-barrel server I'd chosen, so I figured, hey, I tried moving servers before as part of a test, this should be fine, let's just fork over an extra $12/mo and boost the server a bunch, and I did this, and the site broke entirely.

I spent another thirty minutes trying to fix it; if anyone noticed the site being entirely down for a while, well, that was me trying to untangle what was wrong. I tried connecting directly to the site from its own computer; it didn't work. I spent twenty minutes analyzing this and eventually realized I was just doing it wrong. Worked fine once I did it wrong. I eventually decided this was a routing issue and had a deep suspicion.

See, Proxy Protocol was set using a switch on the hosting provider's GUI. But that's sketchy as hell - why is it a manual switch? I went back and checked and sure enough it had gotten turned off. So I turned it back on.

Site back up and running.

As near as I can tell, there is a switch on the GUI. But this switch is also overridden by some settings in my configuration. Importantly, it's overridden irregularly; sometimes you'll do something, and it'll say "oh shucks, gotta go check that switch!" Because I hadn't realized this, it went and checked it and dutifully turned it off again.

I think I've fixed that now.

So, what was the deal with rate limiting not turning off?

If you use Kubernetes to run a process, and you tell it you want the latest version of a Docker image, it will download that latest version every time you restart the process.

If you tell it you want a specific labeled version, then it won't. It'll just use whatever it has, even if the label has changed.

So if you changed from "latest" to "dev" and "main" . . . then things just don't update when you think they will, and this change happens silently unless you're aware of what Kubernetes is about to do.

I think I've fixed that now too.

I bet this new server makes things faster, doesn't it?

Nope.

Turned out the CPU usage wasn't even coming from The Motte. It was an Archive Warrior I was running on that just to soak up some extra bandwidth. Apparently it's just stupidly CPU-hungry?

I think I've fixed that also.

And that was my day, more or less.

How's your day going?

(Extra thanks to the various people who were helping out on Discord, incidentally, especially Snakes who fixed a whole bunch of not-quite-as-critical-but-still-pretty-dang-important stuff while I was fighting with the servers.)

(Edit: I forgot to mention that I also spent a few hours trying to unclog an HVAC drain line so it wouldn't flood the house. That doesn't even feel like the same day anymore.)

40

[Originally posted on Singal-Minded back in October & now unlocked. Sorry for telling the normies about this place!]

It's an homage to a philosophical pitfall, but the name is also thematically fitting. It conjures up a besieged underdog, a den of miscreants, an isolated outpost, or just immovable stubbornness.

It's The Motte.

This is an obscure internet community wedded to a kinky aspiration --- that it is possible to have enlightening civil conversations about desperately contentious topics. Previously a subreddit, it finally made the exodus to its own independent space following mounting problems with Reddit's increasingly arbitrary and censorious content policies. The Motte is meant as the proverbial gun-free zone of internet discussion. So long as everyone follows strict rules and decorum, they may talk and argue about anything. At its best, it is the platonic ideal of the coffeehouse salon. This tiny corner of the internet has had an outsize influence on my life and yet despite that, I've always struggled to describe it to others succinctly.

In order to do so, I'll have to explain medieval fortification history briefly. Picture a stone tower, sitting pretty on a hill. It may be cramped and unpleasant, but it's safe. Likely impenetrable to any invasion. This is the motte. One cannot live on a diet of stone fortification alone, and so immediately surrounding the motte is the bailey --- the enclosed village serving as the economic engine for the entire enterprise. The bailey's comparative sprawl is what makes it more desirable to live in, and also what makes it more vulnerable, as it can be feasibly fortified only by a dug ditch or wooden palisade. So you hang out in the bailey as much as possible until a marauding band of soldiers threatens your entire existence and forces your retreat up the hill, into the motte. Bailey in the streets, motte in the event of cataclysmic danger, as the kids might say.

We don't have a lot of real-life mottes and baileys these days, but we do have a rhetorical analogy that is very useful: the motte-and-bailey fallacy. Someone bold enough to assert something as inane as "astrology is real" (bailey) might, when challenged, retreat to the infinitely more anodyne "all I meant by astrology being real is that natural forces like celestial bodies might have an effect on human lives" (motte), and who can argue against that? Once the tarot-skeptical challenger gives up on charging up the rampart, the challenged can peek from behind the gate and slink back to the spacious comforts of the bailey, free to expound on the impact of Mercury in retrograde or whatever without any pesky interruptions. Once you recognize this sleazy bait-and-switch, you'll spot it everywhere around you. Other examples are motte: common-sense gun control; bailey: Ban all civilian firearm ownership. Or motte: addressing climate change; bailey: Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. On and on.

Back to the history of my favorite online community: In the beginning, before The Motte was The Motte, they were the Rationalists (a.k.a. "rat-sphere" or just "rats"). These are a bunch of painfully earnest and lovable nerds unusually mindful about good epistemological hygiene.

Across their odyssey, they gather around various Schelling points, with the blog-cum-encyclopedia LessWrong as one of their most prominent congregation points. Whatever hurdles to logical reasoning (confirmation bias, availability heuristic, or motivated reasoning, to name very few) that you can come up with are guaranteed already to be extensively cataloged within its exquisitely maintained database.

It is understandably suspicious when a group names itself after what is presumed to be a universally lauded value, but you can see evidence of this commitment in practice. My favorite vignette to illustrate the humility and intellectual curiosity of the rat-sphere happened when I attended my first meetup and overheard a conversation that started with "Okay, let's assume that ISIS is correct... " with the audience just calmly nodding along, listening intently.

Even if you don't know about the rats, you may have heard of the psychiatrist and writer Scott Alexander. His blog remains a popular caravanserai stop within the rat-sphere. While his writing output is prodigious in both volume of text and topical scope (everything from mythological fiction of Zeus evading a celestial amount of child-support obligations to a literature review of antidepressant medication), what consistently drew the most attention and heat to his platform were his essays on culture war topics, perennial classics like Meditations on Moloch or I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup to name a select few.

Culture wars are best understood as issues that are generally materially irrelevant, yet are viciously fought over as proxy skirmishes in a battle over society's values. (Consider how much ink is spilled over drag queen story hours.) But something can be both materially irrelevant and fun. And inevitably, like flies to shit, people were most drawn to the juiciest of topics --- the proverbial manure furnaces that generated the brightest of flames. Scott *tried *to keep all this energy contained to a dedicated Culture War Thread on his blog's subreddit, but the problem was that it worked *too well *in encouraging unusually intelligent and cogent articulations of "unthinkable" positions. In part because Scott has made some enemies over the years, and said enemies have eagerly sought opportunities to demonize him as his star has risen, the internet peanut gallery frequently (and disingenuously) attributed the most controversial opinions on the subreddit to Scott himself. This in turn directed ire at the host for "platforming" the miasma. And so in early 2019, Scott emancipated the thread, and a crew of volunteers forked the idea away onto its own subreddit and beatified it with its new name: r/TheMotte.


Because the space was rat-adjacent from the beginning, it had a solid basis to succeed as an oasis of calm. Even with that advantage, the challenge of building a healthy community almost from scratch should not be underestimated. Props to the moderators, who kept the peace with both negative and positive reinforcement. As you might expect in a community dedicated to civil discussion, you could get banned for being unnecessarily antagonistic or for using the subreddit to wage culture war rather than discuss it.

But equally important was the positive reinforcement part of the equation. If anyone's post was particularly good, you would "report" it to the mods as "Actually A Quality Contribution," or AAQC. The mods collected the AAQC and regularly posted roundups. Consider for a moment and appreciate how radical a departure this is from the norm. The internet has developed well-worn pathways from the constant barrage of wildebeest stampeding to the latest outrage groundswell, famishing to feast on its pulped remains. This machine increasingly resembles one purpose-built for injecting the worst, most negative content into our brains every second of every day. And instead here were these dorks, congregating specifically to talk about the most emotionally heated topics du jour, handing out certificates of appreciation and affirmation.

The AAQC roundups were a crucial component of the community, particularly when they unearthed hidden gems that would otherwise have remained buried. Reddit's down/upvote feature is often ab/used as a proxy for dis/agreement (leave it to the rats to create two-factor voting for internet comments), but the mods made sure to highlight thought-provoking posts especially when they disagreed with them.

Part of the draw was just how unassuming it all was. A small handful of people who wandered in happened to already have well-established writing platforms built elsewhere. But by and large, this was an amateur convention attended by relative nobodies. And yet some of my favorite writing ever was posted exclusively in this remote frontier of Reddit.

The highlights are numerous. How about a grocery store security guard talking about his crisis of faith about modern society that happened during a shift? Or the post that forever changed how I viewed Alex Jones by reframing his unusual way of ranting through the prism of epic poetry tradition? Or the philosophy behind The Motte, where Arthur Chu is cast as the villain? Or how people talk past each other when using the word "capitalism"? Or an extended travelogue of Hawaii's unusual racial dynamics? Or this hypothetical conversation between a barbarian and a 7-11 clerk? Or how Warhammer 40k is a superior franchise to Star Wars thanks in part to higher verisimilitude in its depiction of space fascism? Or this effortlessly poetic meditation on Trump's omnipresence? Or an ethnography of the effectiveness of rifle fire across cultures? Or how the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox straddles the trad/furry divide? Or this catalog of challenges facing a Portland police officer? Or this dispatch from an overwhelmed doctor working during India's horrific second COVID-19 wave? Or a technical warning about Apple's ability to spy on its customers? Or why the major scale in music has such broad multicultural appeal? Or a man brought to tears by overwhelming gratitude while shopping at Walmart? Or how the decline of Western civilization can be reflected in the trajectory of a children's cartoon series? Or how RPGs solved a problem by declaring some fantasy races to be inherently evil only to create another issue? Or how about the potential nobility of --- get this --- indiscriminate retributive homicide from the standpoint of a Chinese military officer going on a shooting rampage after his wife died of a forced abortion?

The structure of the community was such that it gained a sort of natural immunity to trolls. The community was primed to take the arguments trolls made seriously, and this meant drafting intimidating walls of text in earnest. And that wouldn't be the end of it, because you could reliably expect the community to obsess and mull over that same topic for weeks on end, churning out thousands of words more in the process. Most bad-faith actors find it impossible to keep up the charade for that long, and it's just Not Fun™ when a troll's potential victim reacts by obliviously submitting immaculately written essays in reply. Consider an example of the type of discourse that gets prompted by something as wild-eyed as the question of "when is it ethical to murder public officials?". The goal of trolling is to incite immediate, reactive anger, and it must've been dispiriting to enter the space solely to cause trouble, and to slink out having encouraged more AAQCs instead. Anyone dumb enough to try a drive-by bait-and-snark quickly found themselves exhausted and overwhelmed.

Places that explicitly herald themselves as an offshoot to the mainstream quickly gain a reputation as a cesspit of right-wing extremists. Setting aside the question of overall political dominance, it remains true that major institutions (media, finance, tech, etc.) are overwhelmingly staffed by liberal-leaning individuals. Conservatives who feel hounded by the major institutions can opt to carve out their own spaces, and yet nearly every attempt to create the "conservative" alternative to social media giants ends up a toxic waste dump (See Voat, Parler, Gab, etc.).

Scott Alexander described this best when he wrote:

The moral of the story is: if you're against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

So it's unsurprising that people have criticized The Motte for being a den of right-wing rogues. For what it's worth, a survey of the community found the modal user to be a libertarian Hillary Clinton voter. But homogeneous thinking is explicitly not the goal here, and the point of the entire enterprise is to have your ideas challenged. Sterilized gruel is the antithesis of critical thinking and the reason why we need places like The Motte.


That's the backstory, and here's how it impacted me personally.

I've always been insatiably curious. But communicating in writing was a momentous struggle for me. Although I coasted through college, writing assignments were virtually the only source of anxiety for me. I once described the writing process as "struggling to take a painful shit." Eking out anything remotely worthwhile was a cataclysmic struggle. I'd stare at a blank page with dread, draft voluminous paragraphs, find myself meandering into gratuitous prose, delete passages until I forgot the point I was making, and then sift through the remaining dessicated husk wondering why anyone would give a fuck. Years ago, before I found my groove in my current job as a public defender, and outside the veil of school-mandated writing, I had ideations of making a living as a writer. A few more of the above-described painful shit sessions conclusively disavowed me of that delusion.

In contrast, though, talking about ideas came naturally to me very early. I was always indefatigable and relentless and confrontational and (with all due humility) easily ran laps around people who had the misfortune of engaging in discussion with me in real life. Few were surprised that I became a lawyer.

My frustrations with writing never sapped my passion for reading, but consuming others' work left me feeling forlorn about my own inadequacy. It was hard for me to admire prominent writers without also feeling pangs of envy. But browsing The Motte only sharpened my frustration because these weren't big-name writers churning out incredible posts --- they were random nobodies. So when it first started, I mostly lurked and did not write much, because I did not believe I had the requisite caliber to contribute anything worthwhile.

I changed my mind about contributing after getting drunk with a friend in the backyard of a bar while a Bernese dog eyed our uneaten sandwiches. My friend (a bona fide socialist) and I got into a passionate but civil discussion about the ideal contours of free speech. The specific disagreement doesn't matter, because that afternoon reminded me how invigorated I feel by in-person discussions. It dawned on me how I could properly contribute to The Motte. A few weeks later I memorialized my pseudonym with a fresh new account, and my immediate goal was to start a podcast. Naturally, it was called The Bailey.

Our release schedule may not be the most reliable, but we have put out 29 episodes so far (for the record, that's more than the hilarious and informative legal podcast ALAB). In between recording episodes, I wrote posts on The Motte, almost as an afterthought. But the point here is that I wanted to start a podcast because I thought my writing sucked.

I always knew I could anticipate some vociferous pushback at The Motte. The pushback was crucial, as it was the whetstone to my rhetoric. I knew that if I were going to do something as foolish as post on The Motte, I had to be loaded for bear. I'd sling the grenade by hitting "post," but the notifications that followed promised some reciprocated shrapnel. All the better.

Posting on a dusty corner of Reddit about some culture war bullshit was obviously very low-stakes, but then a very curious thing happened: People noticed my stuff. I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit how gleeful I was telling my girlfriend that something I wrote was recognized as an AAQC and included in the roundup. And it kept happening, again and again. Eventually I was picked to be one of the moderators (joining veterans like podcast apprentice Tracing Woodgrains) in a process that mirrored how the Venetian Doge was selected. I realized over time just how much of a gargantuan amount of writing I had absent-mindedly accumulated over the years just by posting on The Motte, and so when I started my own Substack almost a year ago, its only purpose was to find a home for that compendium.

I kept writing there for years, obliviously using its space to workshop my writing craft and barely noticing. It wasn't until some of my writing escaped into the wild earlier this year (assisted by a certain sentient fox) and received recognition by the powers that be that I realized how grateful I am for the precious space cultivated here.

I could not have accomplished any of this without The Motte. I owe that space --- especially the jerks who deigned to disagree with me --- so much.

40

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

There comes a time in every discussion forum user's life that they espouse an unpopular opinion. Not something unpopular in a way that they have broken any rules. But unpopular in a way that many other users want to chime in with their disagreement.

Ratioed

On twitter it is called getting "ratioed" where the unpopular tweets have a higher than normal number of comments relative to likes and retweets. It is viewed as a negative thing to happen when you are on twitter, because saying unpopular things on twitter is seen as bad.

Here on themotte saying unpopular things is not bad. We are here to have discussions with people who have different points of view. If you say something unpopular but not against the rules then you are serving the purpose of themotte. Not only have you not done something bad, you have done something good. You have provided everyone else here with content. There might be some tribal instincts in the back of your head screaming warnings at you "oh no! you have said something unpopular. quick! defend yourself, moderate your position, attack your most aggressive detractors!" These instincts are wrong. Instead, by saying something unpopular you have become the bell of the ball. The star athlete that all the recruiters want. Etc etc. We all want to talk to you!

Death by a thousand cuts

Being the center of attention and wanted by everyone can be stressful, especially when it feels like a form of infamy. There is a common failure mode that we as the mods have to witness happen again and again. The person that is at the center of attention is getting minor attacks that don't rise to the level of moderation. Multiple people might say the equivalent of "I think you are wrong because you aren't smart", or other forms of implied insults. The person at the center of attention will eventually get worn down by all these small cuts and jabs, and they will lash out at someone making the jabs. The lash out often does rise to the level of moderation.

You are the solution

The mods have talked about this phenomenon and we have realized that there isn't a good way to solve this problem through moderation. But! That doesn't mean there is no good solution at all.

These are the strategies I have used when getting ratioed, they've kept me sane, kept me calm, and helped me enjoy my time far more:

  1. Attitude - You are the popular one. Everyone wants to talk with you. Keep these in mind to avoid the tribal anxiety of 'everyone hates me I have to defend myself!'

  2. Match Effort - There are lots of responses flying at you and these responses have varying levels of effort. If someone has a low effort comment I do not respond with a well researched and cited response, I will often try and avoid responding to low effort comments altogether. Remember, you are the bell of the ball, they need to come to you.

  3. Prioritize the Best - Try and respond to your best disagreers first. The ones that bring up the best points, address all the things you said, or are just very polite about how they say it. You should be rewarding their effort, and hopefully signalling to other potential commentors that this is the type of comment you will respond to. This also helps with the next piece of advice:

  4. Refer back to yourself - Don't get frustrated saying the same thing a bunch of times. If you find yourself having the same argument in two different places, then only have it in the place with the better disagreer, and then point the other people to those posts, or just extensively quote yourself. "I addressed your point while talking with [other user], see my comment here(link)".

  5. Limit the back and forth - I will usually only give one response to most users. I will try and match their effort and address their points. I will try and have an extended discussion only with the best disagreers. So many instances of me moderating people happen ten or fifteen comments deep into a conversation, when almost everyone else has stopped reading. Both sides have already said the same thing multiple times, and they just become frustrated at each other "How can you resist the amazing logic and beauty of my arguments! Only a cretin and scum could fail to be convinced!" My suggestion is to just say your point and get out. You should expect to not have the last word when you are getting ratioed, so just embrace that reality up front.

  6. Leave when you are done - Sometimes even with all these strategies you might reach the end of your patience. You just don't want to talk about it anymore. Try and be introspective and recognize when you have reached this point. Once it happens, thank your best disagreer for the good discussion, say you are done with this topic and leave the discussion. Do not feel obligated to respond to additional comments. Your further participation is only likely to get you in trouble. You will likely get more and more frustrated until you lash out.


I also have advice for when you see someone getting ratioed and you want to join in on the dogpile. But that advice is more of a charitable nature, like it would be helpful to the community as a whole, but probably not as much to you personally. If people are interested I'll add it.

36

In Paul Fussell’s book on class (I think), he says that people are really worried about differentiating themselves from the class immediately below them, but largely ignorant of the customs and sometimes even existence of the classes above them. When I found SSC, and then The Motte, and stuff like TLP, I was astonished to find a tier of the internet I had had no idea even existed. The quality of discourse here is . . . usually . . . of the kind that “high brow” (by internet standards) websites THINK they are having, but when you see the best stuff here you realize that those clowns are just flattering themselves. My question is, who is rightly saying the same thing about us? Of what intellectual internet class am I ignorant now? Or does onlineness impose some kind of ceiling on things, and the real galaxy brains are at the equivalent of Davos somewhere?

36

I'm a latinamerican psychologist, and I've been working for 5 years in this field. Starting in my undergraduate years, I've always been very aware of some fundamental flaws of my profession, and I've gathered some arguments that I'd like to discuss. My point is the following: Psychology is grossly overrated, and this allows all sorts of abuses. I believe that I'm not saying anything new, and I'm certainly not the first one to bring up this issue. However, I've found that psychologists have very little interest in discussing it.

For the most part, all of my arguments stem from a conference given by philosopher Georges Canguilhem at a conference back in 1956. My main thesis is the same as his, but I say it in my own words, and I have adapted it to the recent developments of psychology.

This conference was called: What is psychology? So, what is it?

If we go to the American Psychological Association's webpage, we'll find the following definition:

Psychology is a diverse discipline, grounded in science, but with nearly boundless applications in everyday life.

They then go on to detail the different fields on which a psychologist may work. Notice how the emphasis is less on what psychology is, and more in what psychology is useful for. This is because, as Canguilhem says, as psychologists cannot define what they are, they are forced to justify their existence as specialists by means of their efficacy.

Now, this isn't necessarily bad. You can help people without knowing why or how you are helping them. The problem is that psychologists take their efficacy as proof that their theories are right. For instance, let's take one of psychologist's objects of study: Depression. There are literally hundreds of psychological theories about depression, and you'll find the whole range of them: From those that state that it's merely a neurochemical imbalance in the brain; to those that state that it's a lack of positive reinforcement in life; to those that believe it to be an existential and spiritual crisis arising from capitalist conditions. They all have techniques to treat depression, and they all work. But they cannot be all equally correct at the same time. It's the Dodo bird Verdict: "Everyone has won and all must have prizes".

A psychologist may argue that this is in fact something good, since psychology studies a complex problem, and having a diversity of opinions broadens the discussion. And perhaps, there must be some common factors that explain why different, and even opposing theses all seem to work at the same time. This is a good argument, but it's already far from mainstream psychology: Each psychological school is only interested in selling their particular brand, and they explain the other schools' success only because of the parts of their own theory that the other schools implement. And there's a good reason for this: It's simply impossible to integrate all of psychology without a common language. And this common language has never existed (Watson, the founder of behaviorism, complained in the 20's that two psychologists with different formations would define a simple concept like "emotion" in a different way). So the integration path only leads to an eclecticism where everything that is useful is sewed up into one profession in order to give the impression that it's just one seamless discipline, an eclecticism where everything works but nobody knows why, but the fact that it works is taken as the only and definite prove that it is true. As a psychologist called Steven Hayes said: "What is considered true is what works". I'm still still at awe at how a psychologist such as Hayes, who is one of the fathers of contemporary psychology, can blatantly speak about the epistemological bankruptcy of psychology in such outrageous terms, and how can he believe, even for a second, that it's a satisfactory answer to the problem at hand!

In the current state of the matter, the only reason why cristal therapy and angel therapy are not psychological therapies approved by the APA, is because they are lacking evidence of their efficacy. But this lack could easily be fixed if we really wanted to. Under the right circumstances, literally everything works. There's art therapy, massage therapy, cognitive therapy, psychoanalytical therapy, sex therapy... hell, under the right circunstances, even murder may be therapeutic. We can produce thousands of working solutions to a problem, without shedding any light on its nature.

Psychology is, therefore, the science of producing solutions that work for people that need them. Sounds too broad? It is. Psychology knows no limits. Are you depressed? There's some psychological advice for you. Are you having children? There's some for you too. In love? Out of love? Yep, we got it. Are you a political candidate? A psychologist may counsel you. A mathematician? Psychology is the science of cognitive processes. You want revolution? Not without psychology. Are you a failure? Then you need a psychologist, obviously. Are you the most successful man in the world? Psychology will help you manage all that success. Since all problems are human, and since psychology studies human beings, there's no single problem where psychologists don't meddle. This should be cause for caution. We shouldn't hurry to find solutions to problems that we do not yet understand. But psychology goes in the opposite direction, and it goes the whole nine yards, and then some.

But, by what authority? Why do we trust psychologists to speak about politics, family, or work? Because, according to them, they are grounded in science. But we have shown that this science is epistemologically bankrupt: It works, therefore it's true. So we may not argue with psychology's results, but we may question its authority. How do we know that psychology is more than just a systematization of common sense, categorized by the criteria of efficacy, and translated into scientific terms? I believe that this is why psychological theories are oftentimes awfully boring. They are just made to suit a specific audience, to answer a specific question with the terms that are popular at the time when it appears, and made to be discarded, not when better evidence comes up, but when something else becomes popular.

So, does this mean that we should stop teaching psychology, and burn all psychology books? Not at all. Psychology is useful, and it does help. But the fact that you have an effective technique to treat anxiety, does not mean that you get the authority to determine what's rational or what's irrational. You only have that: A technique to treat anxiety. And that's good enough, in my opinion. I believe that psychology's problems may be fixed with a healthy dose of skepticism and humility - two things of which we are in dire need nowadays. Psychology, to me, is a good example of how scientific hubris plants a whole forest in order to hide one leaf. In the current state of affairs, perhaps not all problems can be solved, and there are things that are outside our control. We shouldn't try to hide those problems, we should try to understand them to the best of our ability and live them as the problems they are. Psychology simply has too many solutions, and too few interesting questions.

Here are some references that I quoted on this text, I'm too lazy to cite them all in APA format:

Canguilhem, G. (1958). What is psychology? First published on Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale.

Hayes, S. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. In S. C. Hayes (Ed.), The act in context: The canonical papers of Steven C. Hayes (pp. 210–238). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-53131-013

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1926-03227-001

Definition of psychology by the APA: https://www.apa.org/about


It is of note that I didn't even mention the replication crisis in this text, which further complicates psychology's epistemological basis. Here's the wikipedia article about this problem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis#In_psychology

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33

I'm going to talk about what the Boring Company is doing and why I think it is not only not a terrible idea, but actively a good idea!

Preamble:

This is a complicated idea with a lot of moving parts, both metaphorically and literally. You will have totally reasonable questions! Hopefully they will be answered by the time I reach the end, but keep reading until you get to the end; in written format I can only answer questions one at a time, and your specific question might take longer to get to.

In addition, this is describing the system that I think Elon Musk is working on. He hasn't announced that this is what he's working on - it's guesswork and theorycrafting by me - but there is some evidence to it.

A summary: Elon Musk is attempting to redesign urban and suburban transportation on a grand scale, so thoroughly that the majority of commuters choose to use this system because it's better. This is not a thing you accomplish by building a few tunnels under Las Vegas. The Loop is a prototype of a prototype of a prototype; the beginnings can be seen there, but claiming his plans are invalid because of Loop's problems is like criticizing the concept of trains based on Locomotion #1's terrible speed.


Elon Musk has a unique goal: to make a fast inexpensive public transportation system.

Uber and Lyft have a similar goal! They want to make a fast public transportation system, and they have succeeded! They don't care about inexpensive, and in fact they can't accomplish inexpensive, because drivers are expensive. They're working on self-driving vehicles, and this will help, but it won't solve the issue because Uber and Lyft need lots of roads, roads take up land, and land is also expensive. Note that land isn't just financially expensive, it's valuable - we only have so many square meters of sunlight surface on this planet, and it's a shame we're using it on transportation. This is opportunity-cost even if we don't normally count it as a cost of roads; it's kinda factored in right now because we don't have an alternative, but we could have an alternative and we should consider land usage as part of cost.

Car manufacturers also have a similar goal! They want to make a fast inexpensive transportation system, and they have succeeded! They've abandoned "public" by requiring people to buy into the system with a large upfront expenditure (specifically, "buying a car".) This allows them to get rid of that whole "pay for a driver" thing - the passenger is the driver. It's not as inexpensive as it could be, though, because cars need lots of roads, thus land, thus expense.

Public transport systems also have a similar goal! They want to make an inexpensive public transportation system, and they have succeeded! But it's not fast. In fact, it cannot be fast. Group transportation is intrinsically slow; putting more people on a vehicle either requires frequent stops which slows down everyone else on board, or it requires stops at junction nodes which implies transfers which also take a lot of time. Short-to-mid-distance buses, trains, and subways cannot match uncongested cars, and you can test this on Google Maps by going to a city of your choice, picking two positions, and twiddling with the "Start At" option until you find the fastest times for cars and the fastest times for public transportation; in almost all cases, cars are significantly faster, and I've never found a case where cars are more than a minute slower.

(Airplanes have the same problem, but they're fast enough that people put up with it; nevertheless, an airplane trip still involves an hour or two of bureaucracy and waiting on either side, and chances are good you're not landing at the exact time you'd prefer to. Long-distance trains also have the same problem and the same solution, specifically, "we put up with it because the speed makes it worth it". In both cases, avoiding all that added complexity would make them significantly better. If you can think of a way to accomplish that without a drastic price increase you will become extremely rich.)

tl;dr: Transportation has traditionally been "fast, inexpensive, public; pick two", and Elon Musk is trying to pick all three at the same time.


The Basic Idea

If you haven't heard of the Boring company or the Las Vegas Loop, here's the concept:

Elon Musk thinks tunnels can be built for much cheaper than they previously could be. He is building a large underground network under Las Vegas, with something like 45 stops (this number keeps increasing as they add more to the plan). You will walk up to a stop, request a car, and travel to any other stop in the network. You can do this today, although right now they only have 3 stops, but construction continues.

This is literally the basis of the plan; "let's make tunnels and drive cars through them". I acknowledge this sounds dumb, but it may actually be the best way to accomplish Fast, Inexpensive, and Public.


Let's tackle the easy ones first.

Boring Company tunnels are public because you don't need to buy in with a large investment to use them. You can just show up at a stop, pay a fare, and ride a vehicle to wherever you want to go.

Boring Company tunnels are fast . . . sort of . . . because it's point-to-point transportation. The vehicle is ideally already at the stop, or close by, when you request it, and it takes you directly to your destination, as long as your destination is on the system. This "on the system" limitation is a flaw! We'll get back to that, though.

Boring Company cars currently require drivers, which is expensive. They've said multiple times that this is a stopgap until they have self-driving working. I see no reason to doubt them and the rest of this post is going to take on faith that they'll get self-driving working. Again, prototype of a prototype of a prototype. If you're skeptical about self-driving in general, note that as of this writing there are multiple companies running public services in multiple cities; if you're skeptical about Tesla self-driving, well, me too, but they can always license it. I'm going to just accept this part as solved-in-the-next-decade-one-way-or-another.

Boring Company tunnels are inexpensive because oh god this is where the complicated part starts


Price

Tunnels are, traditionally, very expensive.

There's a lot of reasons for this. Cost disease, in general, is one of the big ones, and if Boring Company gets hit by cost disease then this entire thing might be doomed. I think they're more resistant to this because they are not having cities come to them asking for services, they are going to cities to propose services, and if they're expensive, they won't get any contracts. Note that Boring Company has already turned down a contract because the company was going to waste a lot of money on things that weren't the tunnel, and they just didn't want to be a part of that. I'm going to just cross my fingers that this doesn't happen.

Tunnel size is another big one. Tunnels get much more expensive as they get larger. Train tunnels need to be surprisingly large; they need to hold a train that's big enough for people to stand up in and walk around in. They also need to hold some kind of emergency exit system. With trains, this traditionally hasn't been compatible with the train rails themselves; the cross-ties are a tripping hazard. If you have to run a second extra walkway next to your train then that makes your tunnels even larger. Finally, you need a lot of emergency equipment. The reason this is required is that stations are rather far apart; if stations were closer, the safety regulations let you basically say "look, there's an exit right there, just walk to the exit". Far-apart stations cause significant added tunnel expenses.

The biggest issue, surprisingly, is the underground stations. The most common way of making an underground station is as simple as it is costly:

  • Knock down all the buildings above the station

  • Dig a giant rectangular hole

  • Reinforce the top of the hole

  • Fill the top of the hole back in

  • Build new buildings on top

This isn't a lack of foresight on the part of the builders, this is actually how it tends to be done. Underground stations are horribly expensive, and this has consequences for the rest of the system. Remember how I kind of skimmed past "far-apart stations cause significant tunnel expenses"? Well, they do, but this is still cheaper than building more underground stations!

This is how the Boring Company is going to solve tunnel price:

  • Cars are much smaller than trains [citation needed] and don't require as much sheer size.

  • Cars travel on concrete, not rail, and this surface is perfectly suited for passenger exit, meaning that you don't need an extra passenger lane as long as there's enough room to get past the cars. (Note: in the current Loop tunnels, there is, even though it's not obvious in a lot of the videos that have been posted. It's not comfortable, but it's enough for emergency evac.)

  • We can reduce the necessary emergency equipment by having frequent stations. Trust me on this for now! I'll get back to this one very quickly.

All of this put together makes Boring Company tunnels a whole lot cheaper than train tunnels.


Stations

Twice, now, I've glossed past issues with stations. The Las Vegas Loop requires stations at every stop so people can get on and off; our emergency system also requires frequent stations. These can both be solved by having lots of stations.

but wait, I thought stations were expensive Nope! Stations are cheap. Underground stations are expensive. The solution is that you just put your stations above-ground. Any parking lot can become a station terminal, as can underground floors of already-constructed buildings.

This works for Boring Company cars because car station positioning is far more flexible than train station positioning is. Train stations have to be long because trains are long; cars are short and so car stations can have basically any layout. Trains run on rails, which have extremely low friction - this is good from an efficiency perspective, but means that trains cannot handle significant slopes without expensive equipment like cable cars. If trains can't handle slopes then above-ground stations for underground rails simply aren't possible. Meanwhile, the minimum footprint of a full-fledged aboveground car station connecting to an underground network is the same footprint as a small house; a tunnel up, a tunnel down, and a few parking spaces, done.

Now we have cheap stations! We can toss a station at every casino on the Las Vegas Loop and not think twice about it. Our tunnels become smaller because we don't need as much emergency equipment, and our trips are faster because you can enter and exit from the cars in more places.

This is a reasonable solution. But it's not a great solution. We still have to drop people off at stations and pick people up at stations; what if someone doesn't have a station nearby? What if someone wants a car from their house off in a suburb or true rural area? Do we need to build tunnels to every single neighborhood, and then require that people walk across half their neighborhood to get home? It's 108 degrees out right now, I'm not walking in that weather. Screw that. And worst, we still need significant land dedicated to this system for the parking-lot terminuses, and land, as I've mentioned, is expensive.

We can do better.


Stationless Point-To-Point

This is where I move into speculation territory. But I really do think this is the plan.

We have an underground network of self-driving vehicles. We have cheap entry and exit tunnels. This is all we need to finish the entire system.

We keep our entry and exit tunnels, and we put them everywhere (which also solves our emergency exit requirements.) However, we get rid of the stations. The tunnels are simply a way of transiting from the underground network to the aboveground road network. "The aboveground road network", you ask? Sure; we're going to co-opt the aboveground road network for part of this. We're not using it for long-distance travel, so we can get rid of the giant tangles of freeways and onramps. But we are using it for last-mile travel, because it's there.

When you request a vehicle, one shows up at your doorway. You get inside and it heads to the nearest convenient tunnel entrance. Most of your trip is spent underground, and then it pops back up into the sunlight to bring you straight to your destination.

No stations, low land usage, point-to-point congestionless travel.

That's the actual goal.


Common Objections

Moved to its own comment due to character count limitations.


Conclusion

The goal of the Boring Company is to make the first fast inexpensive public transportation system. Cars are fast and kinda inexpensive, but not public; Uber/Lyft are fast and public, but expensive; trains and buses are inexpensive and public, but not fast. Elon Musk is trying to get all three at once, and the decisions being made are in service to that. The thing being designed really could not exist before self-driving vehicles; it is a truly 21st-century transportation system and hopes to redesign the urban landscape on a level that we haven't seen in a century.

I have no idea if it will succeed.

31

Internet addiction is something that I've struggled with for well over a decade now. Innumerable days, weeks, probably years, lost to aimless scrolling with no goal in particular. My interests are more "intellectual" than the average social media addict who only looks at TikTok and Instagram, so perhaps my habits are more defensible in that regard, but I think it's still had a significant negative impact on my life and has prevented me from spending more time on things that I actually care about.

I wanted to see if anyone struggles with the same issues, and also share some of my recent thoughts on the nature of internet addiction.

  • First, it has to be recognized that the internet can be both a force for great good and a force for great evil. Unlike hard drugs, total abstinence is neither possible nor desirable. The internet made me the person I am today, and gave me so many wonderful, unforgettable experiences. I can't just repudiate it entirely - rather I have to learn to live with it, and take better control of my relationship with it.

  • I don't support the use of strategies like apps that automatically cut off your access during certain times of the day. Nietzsche once said something to the effect of, "only the weak man wants to pluck out his eyes to avoid looking at lustful things". It's a sentiment I agree with. Any solution that "forces" you to reduce browsing time is just putting a band-aid over the problem. The goal is to fundamentally reconfigure your desires and dispositions so they're more naturally aligned with your actual goals.

  • A key factor in understanding internet addiction is understanding the need to accept boredom. Before smartphones, people used to get bored way more often. Sometimes you'd just have to sit there with literally nothing to do, not even anything to think - you won't always want to read a book, or entertain yourself with your own thoughts. Smartphones permanently cured boredom - scrolling the web is infinitely entertaining, and takes zero effort. It's like a liquid that seeps in through the cracks furnished by boredom and gradually fills up all available space, taking over every second of time that you have. I think that one of the biggest keys to reconfiguring my relationship with the internet, for me anyway, is accepting and embracing that there will simply be times where I am bored and I just sit there doing literally, absolutely nothing. But that's not an excuse to resort to web browsing in those cases.

  • I'm currently trying to take an organic approach where I accept that the internet is extremely fun and beneficial, and I will browse it multiple times a day, but I try to consciously remind myself to limit it and make time for other things as well. For example, making short-term plans like "I won't look at my phone until I'm back from my morning walk, at which points I will check websites X Y and Z, and then I won't look at my phone again until after lunch". We'll see how it goes. The unfortunate thing about addiction isn't that any one mitigation strategy is difficult to implement and stick to, but rather that I seem to have little control over exactly what person I'm going to be next week. I always seem to wind up back in a place where, on a meta-level, I simply no longer have a desire to control my web browsing at all and I no longer see it as a problem, so I ditch any prevention strategy and I just go back to unrestricted scrolling. I'd really like to fundamentally reconfigure myself so that doesn't happen anymore. But I don't know how to do that.

I view this as a societal problem, not just an individual problem with me. I saw a family of three at a restaurant the other day, mom and dad and a young boy, and all three of them were glued to their phones, ignoring each other. That made me very sad. I hope that more will be done in the future to raise consciousness of internet addiction, and smartphone addiction in particular.

28

As the academic system is slowly imploding, my career followed suit and I recently found myself licking my wounds in a cushy industry job (read: adult daycare) and dreaming of startups. This was one of my brainstorms, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out a way that it could ever be profitable, so I’m releasing it into the wild.

You’ve probably heard of the hygiene hypothesis; in a nutshell, our immune systems ‘evolved’ to deal with lives that were, immunologically speaking, nasty, brutish and short. Consequently, the dial on the thermostat got turned up a bit too high for our fully [immunologically] automated gay space communism with pesky luxuries like vaccines, soap and plumbing. The incidences of immune conditions like asthma, allergies, MS, Crohn’s, T1D have gone up three to four fold in the last 70 odd years in developed nations which is too rapid for dysgenics as an explanation. Some interesting pieces of evidence hinting at a deeper truth;

  1. Adult immigrants from developing nations to the first world are by and large unaffected, but their children do have increases. This suggests an environmental rather than genetic etiology, and furthermore, that the environmental influences have to happen while the immune system is developing (though the evidence for this latter point is not particularly strong in my opinion). 1 2 3 4 5

  2. Abiotic mice (no bacteria or fungi in their gut, skin, esophagus, etc) have very defective immune systems. Whole compartments of the immune system fail to develop properly, suggesting that interplay between pathogens, benign commensals and the immune system is required.

  3. A number of studies have shown that even within developed nations, individuals raised on farms or exposed to animals at very young ages have lower incidences of atopy and autoimmunity.

  4. Your immune system develops in ‘waves’ and is ‘educated’ throughout your development (and almost certainly beyond!). Furthermore, there is substantial variation in our immune systems due to infectious history/environment. (Note that some competing papers took similar approaches with significantly different conclusions). These all point towards significant environmental influences* on these complex immunological diseases.

You’ve probably also heard of Alex Jones claiming that the US government is turning the frogs gay. With this audience, you probably also know that, uh, ‘turning the frogs gay’ isn’t a very honest description, but it is a real problem. Indeed, the process for dumping a new chemical into the environment is labyrinthine, but it probably isn’t particularly effective at screening substances that might influence the immune system. They seem largely focused on chemicals that mimic hormones (see: declining sperm counts and the aforementioned gay frogs).

The crux of this post: Why isn’t more effort expended towards identifying environmental factors, preferably added in the last 70 odd years in the developed world, that modify the immune system?

The hypothesis: Increased exposure to certain chemicals in our environment (food, makeup, air pollution, water contamination), when intersecting with susceptible genotypes, has led to an increase in allergy and autoimmune disease in the developed world.

So, to test it, you’d want to screen large numbers of chemicals in some kind of high-throughput immune assays. Good news: The dataset exists, and you can download it yourself! Bad news: It’s crap! Half-good-half-bad news: Nobody (as far as I know) talks about it or uses it for anything.

About 10 years ago the EPA decided to modernize environmental toxicology and generate The Dataset to end all datasets. They spent (wasted?) tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars building the data architecture, contracting an army of adult daycare inmates like myself to carry out the assays all to generate a half-dozen low-impact publications nobody has ever read (don’t trust their publications page, it’s padded with anyone who uses the data for any purpose) and this monstrous dataset. Here’s a 728 page pdf some poor soul generated to describe the in vitro assays.

I fiddled around with the data about a year ago at this point, and generated this list of compounds if anyone is interested. I mostly focused on assays relevant to T cells (due to personal biases - B cells are Boring, T cells are Terrific) that came up with a Ka < 10uM, although keep in mind that the majority of these things will be false positives*. Tldr; pesticides are really, really bad and you shouldn’t eat them; they light up every assay like a roman candle. Triclosan was an interesting hit as it’s been (weakly) shown to influence autoimmunity in some mouse models as well as an association with allergy development. Here it came up as a potentiator of lck activity, which is one of the major stimulatory proteins in T cells.

So…who cares? I suppose one might imagine mining some of these molecules as precursors to new drugs after the medicinal chemists have their way with them, although that kind of ‘pharma 1.0’ thinking never really appealed to me. Then again, everyone tells me to just try to make something work, and then your second company can be your vanity project/moonshot. Alternatively, I’ve got to assume that such a large database is amenable to machine learning, maybe along the lines of this paper? I think the largest problem is that the majority of the data here is without a doubt crap. Less relevant to the startup perspective is what the EPA actually wants to do, which is regulate some of these compounds. This would probably be prosocial, but then, if you wanted me to do prosocial stuff you should have given me my academic lab, ja?

*Note that, as complex traits, there are obviously genetic influences on the development of atopy and autoimmunity. The intersection of susceptible genetics and environment leads to disease.

**Cons: - Tons of false positives as many of these compounds won’t be bioavailable or aren’t present in quantities large enough to be relevant

Dataset sucks and others have claimed it to be unreliable

Unclear that people suddenly started being exposed to these things in the last 70 years

Assays poorly optimized and either cell-free (very prone to false positives) or done artificial overexpression systems

27
post thumbnail

TL;DR? Bouncing off a literally unreadable schizopost? Just read the graph that should be displayed above to see the prices of various heating options (colored lines or dots) compared to heat pumps (somewhere in the blue area). Better units or milder climates move right on the X-axis, shitty units or cold climates move left. The blue area shows the realistic range of costs with electricity between 12 and 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, and poor to very good efficiency. I'm lucky to be at the bottom right where it's cheaper than gas even at last decade's low prices.

Are you in the market for a new heating or cooling system? Or buying or renting new construction that came with a mini-split system? Or have you just heard the endless advertising and propaganda about MINI SPLIT HEAT PUMPS SAVING THE WORLD and wondered if you were being sold a bill of goods?

The New York Times tells us they are The Future. They will Save The Planet while saving you money for being green! The price might seem high, but this listicle of intangible benefits will convince you it’s the right thing to do (or else)!

If you’re as cynical as you should be, one of your hands is now guarding your wallet while the other flips the safety on your Browning. Don’t shoot just yet, I'm only the messenger!

This post is an effort to make some use of the autistic research I did before buying and installing my own, now that I’ve confirmed its performance and the rebate check is safely cashed. It's a bit of a rough draft that I hope can be improved with feedback, but I wanted to get it out as a response to Haroldbkny's question from a few months ago.

We can skip the basics: you’re here, you know how refrigerators and air conditioning move heat using the latent heat of phase transitions between liquid and gas. It’s literally just that but flipped to heat up the inside and cool down the outside instead. Simple as. Let's get right down to the costs.

Coefficient of Performance (COP) and Running Cost

COP is your heat/work ratio. Electric heating elements give you 1 watt of heat per watt of electricity, making it the shittiest way to produce heat short of burning charcoal in your van with the windows taped up. A decent heat pump can move 4 or more watts of heat for every watt of electricity in the right conditions, for an efficiency of 400% or COP=4.

(The commonly stated HSPF efficiency rating is an American measurement that’s basically just estimated seasonal average COP multiplied by the 3.412 BTU (British Thermal Units)/watt ratio.)

Because electricity is almost always more expensive per watt than other fuels, you need this over-100% efficiency to be competitive. See the above chart for average current prices, or play around with cost calculations on this page. (Maybe 10milBTU would be more readable?)

Short version: fuel prices are currently high enough that heat pumps are almost always the cheapest option unless your electricity is very expensive, but this is likely to change in the next decade (right before posting I got an email from my utility announcing a 6% rate increase every year from now on). They are the cheapest option in a mild climate with low electricity costs, but in a harsh climate with high power costs they can be 40% more expensive than gas even at current record gas prices. However, they handily beat oil and propane at any kWh price. Electricity price matters far more than efficiency of the unit or the climate.

Let me know if you’re interested in European prices, which are literally off the scale of this graph (€73/Mcf vs $18/Mcf for gas, with heat pumps’ cost zone well above the cost of US fuel oil).

While this naive cost comparison leaves heat pumps looking very good, especially with CurrentYear fuel prices, there’s a big problem the NYT doesn’t like to mention: both the output and COP of heat pumps drops with air temperature due to physical law.

High end cold climate mini splits are now misleadingly advertised as “maintaining 100% capacity down to -5F,” but this is using rated rather than maximum capacity; it still loses output, it simply started with almost twice what it’s rated for (21kBTU vs 12kBTU, for a Mitsubishi FS12). It also doesn’t mean that the efficiency stays high, and everyone pushing cold climate heat pumps talks about “capacity” in a way that deceptively insinuates that cold temperatures have no effect on the system's efficiency.

Heat pumps are just inverse heat engines that use work to move heat from a cold temperature source (Tcold) to a warm temperature sink (Thot), rather than generating work by moving heat from hot to cold like a steam engine. It takes more work to move heat from a 0F source to a 100F sink than it does from 47F to 100F. Think of it lifting the heat like a bucket of water from a well: the deeper the well, the more work you do pulling the rope. The colder the outdoor air, the more work the heat pump has to do for every ounce of heat.

The theoretical maximum (Carnot) efficiencies for those temperature gradients are COPs of 5.6 and 10.5 respectively, and you can’t do better than that without the thermodynamics police arresting you for building a perpetual motion machine (a heat pump powered by the steam engine it makes heat for). So ignore anyone who says that new heat pumps are "just as good" in cold weather. (Edit: holy fuck fix all three of these paragraphs)

The formula is Carnot COP=Thot/(Thot-Tcold), so efficiency drops as the weather gets colder or the outlet temperature goes up. Thot has to be much higher than room temperature for comfort, airflow limits, or radiator sizing for liquid systems (the radiators on air to water systems get ridiculous to bring the hot side down from the 160F used by normal central heating to the 120F of heat pumps). Still, Thot policing is important for heat pump efficiency: radiant floor heating can go down to 95F if you have money to burn on the install, but on an air unit turning the fan up and keeping coils clean to reduce condenser temperature helps too.

Tcold is the outside air temperature, and this being so variable is the big downside of using an air source rather than a ground source with a stable temperature. The colder it gets the more work is needed for every BTU moved, and at the same time your house needs more BTUs to stay warm.

Here are two top of the line 12kBTU mini splits for comparison: one a regular Panasonic, the other a Mitsubishi cold climate hyperheat. Both have much higher maximum BTU output than their rated capacity: 21k and 18k max vs 12k rated. You can see that both lose maximum capacity at lower temperatures, but the Mitsubishi retains its rated output. Both lose COP as temperatures drop, although the Mitsubishi’s magic Japanese regenerative vapor injection compressor holds on better (but sacrifices efficiency at low output, making it a poor choice for mild climates).

Modern heat pumps already work at almost half of theoretical efficiency, which is pretty good, but they’re not magic.

COP and cost aren’t linear: doubling the COP halves the cost. If resistance heat would cost $100, a COP 2 heat pump will cost $50. Doubling again to COP 4 will give $25, or twice the efficiency gain for half the savings. An impossible COP of 8 would save only another $12.5. Most of the savings are gained early on the curve, which is something to keep in mind weighing the cost/benefit ratio of a more efficient but more expensive unit. This explains the shape of the curve in the pricing graph. The latest Mitsubishi FS Hyperheats maintain a COP above 2 down to -13F, so consider this an absolute floor when comparing running costs.

Note that at a COP below 2.5 heat pumps have little advantage over gas from an energy conservation standpoint: a 40% thermal efficient gas power plant sending power to a 2.6 COP heat pump with 10% transmission loss uses exactly as much gas per BTU as a 95% efficient gas furnace. In cold weather events such simple cycle peaking turbines will be generating the marginal watts for all this new electrical demand. (The math for a 30%ηth german brown coal-burning power plant is left as an exercise for the reader, but needless to say there is a significant toll paid.)

2.6 is around the COP of a Mitsubishi unit at 17F, which is a newsworthy cold snap for me but Tuesday for much of the country. This will probably still work out in your favor due to pricing, but it’s a thumb in the eye for the “ending fossil fuels” justification.

The drop in COP during extreme weather poses a problem for the grid similar to being overwhelmed by summer air conditioning, which I will discuss in the culture war sibling post. Here I’ll just say that it’s a very good reason to have a backup system that doesn’t rely on the grid, because it will cause problems in future. Being slapped with “peak demand” fees on a cold winter night requires an alternative even if the power stays on.

Finally, how often your home is occupied makes or breaks heat pump cost-effectiveness. Their efficiency depends on modulating to the load, and a system that can rapidly ramp up the heat right before you get home would be too large and expensive. If you work from home or are retired, they’re a great choice. If you only come back to your house to eat and sleep for 9hrs a day, they will waste an enormous amount of energy heating your home while you’re away, or working in inefficient turbo mode to raise the temperature when you come home. A furnace will be much more efficient in that use case.

This is almost never mentioned, as most of the people pushing heat pumps are either from the laptop class or rich retirees building custom “zero net energy” mansions. The current move to mandate heat pumps rather than gas for the working poors is likely going to hurt them for no benefit, but what else is new.

Equipment cost, installation cost, and rebates:

So far I’ve only talked about high end $2400+ units, but I bought the cheapest $1100 white label chinesium piece of shit made by Midea that had an inverter and a decent US warranty (22 seer/11.5 hspf 5yr parts). Part of this was a rigorous cost-benefit calculation: the extra $1300 for a Mitsubishi would save only 20 cents a day on average, for a silly 18 year payback time. But the bigger part was that I am a money-grubbing bastard and wanted to make a profit on my power company’s crazy $1500 rebate. That tiny bit of free money gives me a warmer glow than the actual heat output every time I look at it.

If you also live in a very mild climate or are only going to use a mini split’s heating mode for the shoulder season, I’d strongly recommend at least looking at cheaper, non-hyperheat units, which home depot will deliver for free.

If you get one of these after this December, you’ll also be able to get a 30% federal tax credit thanks to the inflation protection act. Right now it’s only $300. Many states and local utilities also have their own rebate programs with various requirements, so check before buying a unit. Some aren’t even worth it, especially if they’re limited to specific models or contractors. The rebate I got was an exceptionally good deal.

If you don’t DIY it and get a contractor to install it for you, expect to pay like $2500-5000 just for them to bash a hole in your wall and connect the indoor and outdoor units. It’s ridiculous and there is no excuse: HVAC in this country is just piracy. If it makes you feel better, at least you’re not in Britain (unless you are, god help your soul), where you’d be paying higher rates for work that looks like it was done by literal monkeys, according to nonsensical gold-plated government standards that were also written by monkeys who have a banana stake in the companies they’re subsidizing.

If you do DIY, you can just pay a few hundred to a single HVAC tech who can check your work, fix any flares you fucked up, do a proper (and vital) nitrogen purge and vac on the line set, and most importantly sign for the warranty and any rebates. I wouldn’t advise doing this part on your own with a Harbor Freight vacuum pump like some youtubers, as a fuckup will leave you both warrantyless and with many hours of work to be done by a professional who will charge you a punitive DIY-cleanup rate. There are "fully DIY" units from Mr Cool, but they are leak-prone (designed for temporary field use in Afghanistan, IIRC), older models, and the extra cost is about what a HVAC tech would charge anyway.

Takeaways:

If you live in a mild climate and have cheap electricity, mini splits are a good buy, pretty much period.

If you have no access to gas, mini splits can be a good alternative no matter your climate. Pay attention to any peak demand surcharges your power company has, and expect them to be introduced soon if they don’t.

If you have a garage or workshop heated with electric resistance that you would like to get AC for, consider getting a mini split for it instead. Heating for less than half the cost will quickly pay for itself. There are even one-piece window units now with no install required.

If you have a long shoulder season before it gets seriously cold, mini splits can handle it incredibly cheaply and delay lighting up the furnace. Worthwhile if you do a cheap install and/or needed to add or replace AC anyway, or to hedge against fluctuating gas prices.

Always have a backup, ideally something like a fireplace, boiler, or something else with locally stored fuel. Keep old oil furnaces if you can, even if it means giving up on an enticing “fuel-switching” rebate (or fudging the application...). Propane works too, especially if you also have an emergency generator running off it.

If you’re thinking about giving up your gas connection, probably don’t unless the base charges are unsustainable. Eventually you won’t be able to get a new one, the electricity/gas price ratio will climb again soon, and I expect gas to be better managed and more reliable than the electrical grid in future.

If you’re paying over 25 cents a kWh and have access to gas at any price, for god’s sake don’t even think about it. You have no idea how many angry north-easterners complain about their bills doubling after paying $30,000 for heat pump installs because they trusted the New York Times and didn’t think their green indulgence would have ongoing costs.

Try not to go with multi-splits that have multiple heads per outdoor unit. They are notoriously shit. Seriously, one head in the living room does every room in my house, so don’t go overboard or let an HVAC contractor go nuts putting one in every closet for $3k each.

Many people repeat a mantra that mini splits “require well-insulated houses.” This is nonsense: a BTU is a BTU no matter what makes the heat. The Japanese were the first users of mini splits, and they think well-insulated means having a second layer of rice paper on the wall. The only real benefit is flattening the heating curve to reduce the range of loads the unit needs to work at. Some insulation is good, but it suffers the same diminishing returns as COP: twice as much for half the benefit with each doubling.

Also, no heat pump made recently has an electric heat strip for backup. They simply aren't used any more.

If you’re the least bit handy and drilling a hole in your wall isn’t terrifying, consider doing a DIY to save money. We can talk about it if anyone’s interested. Rest assured: if a lazy retard like me can do it, anyone can.

If you’re in a cold climate with no access to heating at a reasonable price, consider getting a shovel and digging a ground source heat pump trench; at least the exercise will warm you up, and water-to-water units are mono-blocs that don’t require refrigerant pipe connections. Downside: the guy you need to hire for hookups is worse than an HVAC tech. He is, may Allah forgive me for uttering the word, a plumber. Pump overhead is not factored into COP, and water-to-water units are not as heavily reviewed, so be careful.

Get a surge protector for all this stuff and hook it up yourself (and double check your panel and house grounding: I didn't realize how shit mine was). This shit’s expensive and sensitive to large surges. Take good care of the equipment generally. The indoor unit getting dirty and restricting airflow lets Thots get out of hand, and you saw how badly that affects efficiency in the earlier graph. Keep your filters and the outdoor coils clean.

Anything you can cost-effectively do to make yourself less reliant on the electrical grid is probably a good idea at this point. Shit’s going to get crazy, and you should expect electricity prices to rise and reliability to fall significantly to where the current overwhelming advantage of heat pumps vanishes.

I haven’t discussed solar, but it is a realistic opportunity for people in southern states. Inverters are an option, but there are mini splits that work directly from DC on the market (it just skips part of the AC-DC-3phaseAC conversion, IIUC) It requires either a battery bank or thermal storage, so wouldn’t be cheap, but there are people doing it in the Arizona desert, and 6-9kBTU mini splits are common RV retrofits.

If you live in the UK or Germany, uh… I’m sorry. If I was living there and couldn’t afford a plane ticket out, I’d get some of those charcoal burners and maybe tape for the windows.

If you’d like to hear more, head on over to the companion Culture War thread post (coming soon) where I can rip and tear until- calmly and rationally discuss possible disadvantageous trade-offs being made in the area of energy policy regarding mandatory electrification while neglecting the consequent demand growth.

If there's any interest in additional detail about the technical side, and where the technology could go from here, I'd be happy to do a followup post with all the stuff I had to cut for clarity/sanity. I didn't even get to post a single Temperature-Enthalpy diagram in this one :(

CCing @wlxd and @haroldbkny , who wanted to hear the results and asked the original OP question, respectively. Hopefully this reassures Harold about his leaning towards a gas furnace.

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25

Mottizens sometimes use terms with obscure origins that can be confusing to newcomers. This is an attempt to provide a brief explanation of what these terms mean and where they came from to help anyone new to the community.

50 Stalins: A style of commentary which pretends to criticize something while actually praising it, e.g. “critiquing” Stalinist Russia by suggesting that it is not Stalinist enough and it should have even more Stalins. The term was coined by Scott Alexander in Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-sized Nutshell (2013).

Chinese Robber Fallacy: A dishonest argument that uses a generic problem to attack a specific person or group, even when the other groups have the problem just as much, e.g. complaining about the problem of Chinese robbers without providing evidence that Chinese people are more likely to be robbers than other groups. It was first described by blogger Alyssa Vance in 2015.

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Human Biodiversity / HBD: A viewpoint that holds that there are socially relevant differences between groups of people that are genetic in origin. Most controversially, HBD advocates generally maintain that the observed differences between the average intelligence of people of different races originate in genetics.

Ideological Turing Test / ITT: An exercise where you try to pretend to hold an opposing ideology convincingly enough that outside observers can't reliably distinguish you from a true believer. It was first described by economist Bryan Caplan in 2011.

LessWrong: A discussion forum founded by AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky in 2009. The forum focuses on cognitive biases, rationality, artificial intelligence, and other topics. It is the primary nexus for the so-called “rationalist community.” LessWrong could be considered an ancestor forum to the Motte, since Scott Alexander blogged there before founding Slate Star Codex and this community originated in the subreddit for Slate Star Codex.

Lizardman's Constant: The share of the population (around 4%) who gives absurd responses in opinion polls (such as saying that lizardmen run the world); perhaps a combination of trolls, people who don't understand the question, people who just want to agree with the pollster, and people who are completely apathetic to the poll. It was coined by Scott Alexander in Lizardman's Constant is 4% (2013).

Motte and Bailey fallacy: A dishonest form of argument where one conflates two positions, one easy to defend but with limited implications (the motte) and another hard to defend but with far-reaching implications (the bailey). The fallacy was named after a kind of castle. It was coined by the philosopher Nicholas Shakel in 2005 and popularized by Scott Alexander via Social Justice and Words, Words, Words (2014) and All in All, Another Brick in the Motte (2014). The motte-and-bailey fallacy is the namesake of the Motte; in this community, we would like people to only hold positions that they can defend.

Neoreaction / NRx: A right-wing political philosophy whose signature viewpoint is that monarchy is a better form of government than democracy. Its most famous advocate is the blogger Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug. The neoreactionary movement first grew on LessWrong, although they were always a very small faction there.

Prior: A term from Bayesian Statistics that essentially means one's belief about something before they take new evidence into account. To say that one's prior is X is essentially to say that one's belief is X. To say that one has "adjusted their priors" is essentially to say that one has changed one's mind to some degree about the topic at hand based on the evidence presented; in theory this is done by applying Bayes' theorem.

Quokka: A kind of Australian macropod. They have no natural predators and are therefore not particularly fearful. Some people, beginning with a 2020 Twitter thread by “Zero HP Lovecraft”, who believe rationalists are too trusting or naive compare rationalists to Quokkas.

Rationalist: An online community of people originally formed around the blog Overcoming Bias, founded in 2006 by economist Robin Hanson and AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky; the discussion forum LessWrong, founded in 2009 by Yudkowsky; and the blog Slate Star Codex, founded in 2013 by Scott Alexander. The rationalist community is generally focused on cognitive bias and reason. Because the Motte originated in the subreddit for Slate Star Codex, it could be considered part of a rationalist “diaspora.”

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Red Tribe / Blue Tribe / Gray Tribe: Terms used to describe different cultural groups in America. The terms were coined by Scott Alexander in I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup (2014). They are sometimes used interchangeably with the concepts of Republicans (Red Tribe) and Democrats (Blue Tribe), but in their original conception, Red Tribe (or Blue Tribe) meant something more precisely stated as “the sorts of people likely to be Republicans (or Democrats), regardless of their actual political views.” For example, a vegan Harvard graduate who lives in Manhattan and loves musical theater is part of the Blue Tribe even if he is actually politically conservative. The Gray Tribe is a sub-tribe of the Blue Tribe characterized by things like working in STEM fields and often having libertarian-ish politics.

Scissor Statement: A highly controversial statement that reliably provokes arguments. Coined by Scott Alexander in Sort By Controversial (2018), a work of fiction in which scissor statements are generated by a machine learning system trained on Reddit comments.

Slate Star Codex / SSC / Astral Codex Ten / Scott Alexander: Scott Alexander is a psychiatrist who lives in the Bay

Area. He blogged from 2013-2020 at Slate Star Codex and since 2021 at Astral Codex Ten. The Motte was created as a subreddit in 2019 as the home for a weekly "culture war roundup" thread that was hosted on the subreddit for SSC until then. The culture war roundup threads were removed from /r/slatestarcodex at Scott Alexander’s request. Scott Alexander’s writings are a major influence on the norms of this community. His blog and the community around it are generally considered part of the rationalist community. Scott Alexander was a popular writer at LessWrong before founding SSC and the community around SSC has a lot of overlap with LessWrong.

SneerClub: A community of people critical of the rationalist community, including the Motte, that lives at the subreddit /r/SneerClub.

Steelman: The strongest possible form of an opposing argument; the opposite of a strawman.

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Weakman: A weak argument that someone has actually made (so it’s not a strawman). A poor form of argument is to choose the weakest argument that someone has actually made in favor of a position and argue against that while ignoring stronger arguments for that position.

24

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

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Affirmative Action Empire by Terry Martin deals with the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy in the period from 1923 to 1939. I picked it up based on my interest in ethnic politics in colonial and post-colonial states. While it seems well-researched and was very interesting at points, I’d call it a book for specialists rather than one of general interest. It filled in a lot of details, but didn’t have many surprises, and I finished it without gaining any wholly new insights into the broader topic of ethnopolitical competition.

Before I go further, I hear you ask: Wait a minute, was the Soviet Union a colonial state? I contend that for practical purposes, yes. The Soviets didn’t think of themselves that way – Martin says that Lenin was comparable to Woodrow Wilson for anti-Imperialist rhetoric. But the Soviet Union inherited the geopolitical boundaries and governing infrastructure of the old Russian Empire, a vast entity encompassing millions of square miles and numerous ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups. For convenience sake, I’ll be referring to the non-Russian population of the USSR as “subject peoples”. Since the new government didn’t intend to grant any of these subject peoples political or economic independence, they were effectively sitting on the old tsar’s throne.

If I were to summarize the Soviet nationalities policy in a single sentence, it would be: “a f*cking mess.” Throughout the period in question, the Soviets were torn between a) their desire to encourage national self-expression on the part of the subject peoples in the belief that it would enhance Soviet power and b) their intense mistrust of any possible social or political competitor to the central government. Martin differentiates between the “positive line”, associated with the first impulse and the “negative line”, associated with the second. The positive line fostered celebrations of national language, culture, etc, while the negative line brutally suppressed any unsanctioned nationalist activity. Critically, there doesn’t seem to have been a clear line between sanctioned and prohibited forms of national self-expression. Rather, the line was constantly in flux, as a result of intra-party conflicts and the changes in the geopolitical environment. More than once, Martin recounts stories of mid-level figures who were caught on the wrong side of the line by a sudden shift in the prevailing winds. Revolutionary politics being the cutthroat business it was, these figures usually paid a severe price for their miscalculation. At best, they lost their position. At worst, they went to the gulag or the firing squad.

The Soviet’s initially indulgent attitude towards national self-expression had several drivers. The first was Marxist ideology, which asserted that nationalism was one of the necessary stages on the road to communism. Second was the assumption that a pro-nationalities policy would make the subject peoples feel more invested in the new Soviet state. Lastly was “the Piedmont Principle”, the belief that encouraging nationalism amongst the Soviet Union’s subject peoples would actually help the USSR project influence beyond its borders i.e. the Belarussians within the USSR could be used to influence the Belarussians in Poland, etc. The Soviets would ultimately prove to be badly mistaken in this last assumption, and this realization would trigger a major shift in policy. More on that later.

The ”positive line” of the nationalities policy took several forms. First was linguistic preferencing, i.e. the right of the various subject peoples to be educated and conduct business in their own language. This point, seemingly minor in comparison to other measures like land redistribution, occupies a good chunk of Martin’s book, and also seems to have absorbed a great deal of attention from the highest levels of the Soviet leadership. My guess is that this is because it was a relatively low-cost way for the central government to signal their support for subject peoples. Material support, what we would nowadays call “development aid”, was expensive and the object of fierce competition. Political or economic independence was obviously out of the question. Ergo, linguistic preferencing.

In spite of numerous decrees and directives, linguistic preferencing never got as far as either the Politburo or would-be nationalists would have wished. Martin says this this because the Soviets never backed up these decrees with the USSR’s most effective way of signaling commitment to a policy: the gulag. Local officials naturally spent a good bit of energy on figuring out exactly what would and would not get them sent to Siberia. When they realized that failures to meet various linguistic targets (hire X percent of Y language speakers, publish X documents in indigenous language, etc) rarely led to more than a stern talking to, they de-prioritized accordingly. This tendency was exacerbated by the fact that the “negative line” occasionally did crack down on supposed “bourgeois nationalists” whose support for linguistic preferencing seemed a little too enthusiastic. Naturally, prudent officials chose to play it safe and give lip service to linguistic preferencing while putting little actual weight behind it.

Another component of the “positive line” was land redistribution. This took place mostly in the “Soviet East”, the region you now call Central Asia if you’re being scholarly or “the Stans” if you’re feeling snarky. Then as now, these countries were relatively under-developed and only lightly touched by western influences. A number of efforts were made to redistribute prime agricultural land from Russian settlers to the indigenous population in these regions. This went exactly as well as you’d expect. In my experience, the desire to hold on to what you have is virtually a universal constant of human nature; I can only presume this goes double for Russian peasants living close to starvation for generations. There was much discontent, and occasionally outright bloodshed, mixed in with forced relocation and ethnic cleansing. In the case of Kazahkstan the forced relocation was done with such a heavy hand that the Politburo

actually rebuked the local security services for their handling of the issue.

Martin identifies poverty, land ownership disputes, and a relatively recent date of colonization by Russian settlers as the major factors driving ethnic conflict throughout the USSR. Given that these conditions were so prevalent in the Soviet East, it seems unsurprising that the USSR’s “de-colonization efforts”, to include land redistribution ultimately never got very far. As Martin puts it, the Soviets inherited a segregated society in the region, and while they abolished legal segregation, they soon accepted de facto segregation – in living spaces, in work environments, and even in lines for rations – as the price of doing business. In one example, a Soviet factory inspector noticed that the workers barracks were broken down along ethnic lines. When he asked why, he was told that there were fewer brawls that way.

To me, however, the most interesting aspect of the “positive line” was a campaign of “affirmative action” that corresponds almost precisely to the modern use of the word. The Soviets made a concerted effort to recruit members of the national minorities to jobs within the administrative state – in other words, to bring them into the professional managerial class as we now call it. In effect, it was an attempt to manufacture a new elite, one which was presumably more loyal to the state, system, and party which had given them their position. Martin doesn’t explicitly say this, but I think we can infer it.

To me, this raises all sorts of fascinating questions. Was this new elite actually more loyal to the USSR? (The fact that when the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, someone like Heydar Aliyev could transition seamlessly into an Azerbaijani nationalist after 28 years as KGB officer suggests that they probably weren’t). Did they clash with traditional elites within their own communities, or they mostly recruited from said traditional elites? (Given that elite=landowner in most societies up until very recently, and that the Soviet Union was notoriously not fond of land owners, I suspect the former, but I could be wrong). Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t share my fascination with intra-elite competition, so he doesn’t explore these questions very much.

There are some insights to be gleaned, however. For example, there is some discussion of the “Red/Expert problem.” In a paranoid state like the USSR, which prioritizes loyalty above all else, how do you deal with the fact that certain highly-technical enterprises can only be run with the assistance of specialists of dubious loyalty? For a striking example of this problem in action, consider Sergei Korolev, who after six years in the gulag, rose to become head of the Soviet Rocketry program, because the USSR could not afford to fall too far behind in the arms race. The Soviets faced an analogous problem when trying to promote individuals of the desired nationality into leadership positions in technical departments.

One answer, apparently, is to have figureheads who hold the title, but leave the actual work to others, nominally lower-ranking. In one example, neither the head nor deputy of an oblast (an administrative unit that seems to correspond roughly to a county, I am happy to be corrected on this because I’m really not sure) agricultural ministry actually had an office or desk. Instead, the ministry was de facto being run by a non-party specialist. Martin draws a parallel with Malaysia’s “Ali Baba businesses”.

This whole thing caused me to reflect on a deficiency in the “simple model” of societal hierarchies. There’s a tendency to think of hierarchies as strictly linear, something like this:

Elites

Middle Class

Working Class

Applying this to the USSR, we might construct a model with the central committee at the top and rural non-party members at the bottom. In fact though, an examination of the structure of the USSR would reveal a complex web of different agencies and officials whose authority and responsibility overlapped in complex ways

[I can't post the diagram on the site for some reason. Take my word that's a mess)

I’m oversimplifying the the hideous tangle that was the CPSU, but that only reinforces the point I’m trying to make, which is that hierarchies don’t actually work like this in practice. The reality of power relationships is that they’re always in flux, and that multiple parallel hierarchies can coexist and intersect in surprising ways. A more accurate model might be something like:

[Another diagram I can't post]

I can’t find any information about whether Korolev himself ever became a member of the communist party; for the point I’m trying to make, we’ll assume the answer is no. As a non-red expert, Korolev was in theory subordinate to the party apparatus. But as a key leader in an area of vital strategic importance, Korolev presumably enjoyed access and influence well beyond that of most low-ranking party members. The likely outcome of any conflict between Korolev and a party member would depend on who that party member was, what their connections within the party were relative to Korolev, the nature of dispute, et cetera. Whatever the theoretical great chain of being that bound the Soviet Union together, in practice there would always be room for competition. This room for competition is exacerbated by the fact that the upper echelons of any hierarchy, by their nature, tend to be dominated by fiercely ambitious individuals who are quick to exploit any opening to advance their own agenda. In the words of that great strategic thinker, Jack Sparrow, at the end of the day, the only rules that really matter are what you can do and what you can’t. The true balance of power was thus constantly being re-negotiated.

This isn’t a new idea of course, though I’m not sure how often I’ve seen it formalized. C.S. Lewis wrote of the “Inner Ring”, the self-appointed clique which asserts itself through influence. I’ve heard that Foucalt liked to say that power was multifocal, and maybe this is what he meant. Once you start to look, discrepancies between official hierarchies and non-official ones are everywhere. Stalin himself is a textbook example of someone who rose to wield near-absolute power in spite of being nominally a mere administrator. His title of “Secretary General” literally referred to his position as someone who took notes at the meetings of the politburo. Under certain circumstances, I can imagine that these discrepancies serve a useful purpose – useful for someone, anyway. Deflecting responsibility for unpopular decisions, for one thing. Concealing key nodes/personnel from potential hostile actors for another application.

Where was I? Oh right, talking about the creation of a new elite. Unfortunately for the various nationalist actors, at a certain point, the USSR began to reverse course. Remember the Piedmont Principle? The idea that cultivating nationalism would allow the USSR to project power into ethnic minority groups in neighboring regions? Gradually, Soviet decision makers perceived that the current was in fact running in the opposite direction; cross-border nationalist ties were trumping loyalty to the Soviet Union. By 1932, the USSR was in the midst of the Holomodor, one of the most brutal famines of the twentieth century. Ukrainian cross-border nationalism was blamed, rightly or wrongly, as a major contributor to the situation. Additionally, the resentment of the Russian majority was reaching potentially dangerous levels. So, the USSR reversed course.

By the late 1930s, the “Great Retreat”, as Martin calls it, was in full swing. National institutions were gradually abolished, various symbolic policies such as linguistic preferencing were walked back, and Russian culture and identity were gradually rehabilitated. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union was reinvented as a largely Russo-centric entity. This does not seem to have been a crudely ethnocentric form of Russian chauvinism, but rather cultural nationalism. “The Russian language was the principal path for non-Russians to participate in that culture.” Assimilate and you could, at least in theory, enjoy the full status of any other member of the USSR.

So what can we learn from this book? Mostly, I think, that there’s a strong tendency on the left to underestimate the power of nationalism. Earlier in the twentieth century, a number of prominent leftists had declared that then-hypothetical Great War was just a clash of capitalist imperialists and that the workers of the world would unite and turn against their masters. This spectacularly failed to happen, and the working classes mostly turned out to be enthusiastic participants in the war effort, at least at first. Given the First World Wars contribution to the ultimate breakdown of the prevailing European class system, perhaps this was the right choice for them. I’m not sure why this tendency exists or how it developed. Both the political left and nationalism in the modern sense are in some sense products of the enlightenment. Revolutionary France certainly demonstrated that the two could be tightly fused. For that matter, so did Zionism. My best guess is that it’s because “left” ideologies tend to be universalist in character. Like, say, Christianity (as opposed to traditional Judaism), left ideologies offer a prescription for all mankind, one which is supposed to transcend the petty divisions of language, culture, or geography. Additionally, these ideologies naturally attract wonkish intellectual types who see themselves as transcending these same barriers, and don’t see why everyone else can’t or won’t.

I suppose we also learned that when position and prestige are at stake, vast amounts of fire and brimstone will be spilled over seemingly minor issues (language, various symbolic policies, etc). But I feel like we already knew that. We also learned that when you sort people into groups based off of any particular set of characteristics, they immediately start competing on the basis of those characteristics. But I’ve always felt like that was pretty intuitively obvious to anyone who bothered to stop and think about it.

Could a similar scenario occur today? I’m not sure. The USSR was, as mentioned before, the heir of a vast multinational empire. Various groups competed on the basis of language, ethnicity, and culture. Affirmative action programs today mostly seem to happen within a nation, along (arbitrarily defined?) sub-national identity categories. When those categories are sufficiently robust, robust enough to lead to significant conflict, sure, I could see a backlash. But I don’t think we’re there yet. My basic model for this is that affirmative action is a form of elite patronage, and that competitive elites engage in it in order to create or mobilize their own base of support. In times of elite overproduction, you naturally see patronage of all sorts materialize from rival elite groups. In order to face a backlash, enough elites would have to decide that affirmative action was causing more trouble than it was worth. I’m not really sure what sort of upheaval it would take for the American ruling class to walk back affirmative action policies or rhetoric. Competitive elites are willing to take risks, after all. That’s what makes them competitive. And as the existence of more or less the entire post-colonial world attests, elites are willing to accept quite a lot of collateral damage before they abandon identity-based mobilization of potential supporters.

/images/16652055407168725.webp

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23

So there's a delusional take you see on twitter Etc. All the time. From both sides of almost any issue but especially anything related to Russia, elections, Etc. You see people who respond to normal criticism or an abundance of criticism (usually relatively earned by how bad their takes are) accusing their detractors or those who disagree of being bots or astroturfed Putin or Clinton agents... The implied premise being that only lumps of code or Chinese sweatshop workers employed by bad faith actors could hold views that disagree with the complainer. That only bots or paid shills could oppose Ukraine, or support Clinton over Bernie, or Biden over Trump... Etc.

I used to dismiss these complaints... but now I feel I might owe a general apology.

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I've noticed since TheMotte moved to its new Site that the Quality of a lot of Comments are just off. Not that the takes are bad or low quality or have odd opinions But that they're Bizarrely and Unnervingly detached from even the barest context of the discussion itself. Stuff completely out of character for even a bad rulebreaking poster on the motte.

Short comments that don't engage with any arguments presented, or even engage with the context of the discussion... but that Immediately tangent off on some culture war point utterly unrelated to the discussion, and then not engaging wit any replies (often with a single external link)... I've seen weird shit on twitter so I've dug into a few of these accounts... and all of their comments are like this, short snipes that never engage even 1 or 2 comments deep with anyone who replies. but that are slowly wracking up a history on the platform...

And then today I was hit by a smoking gun, this Comment:

“The Ukraine conflict is one of the clearest examples of good vs. evil in the past century"

You said it! Look at how despicable these people are!

Video: Ukraine Soldiers Sing Praises Of WW II Era Nazi: https://youtube.com/watch?v=4H-yMmNh5Cs

And now NPR is just casually rehabilitating the Nazis: https://www.npr.org/2022/03/03/1084113728/a-closer-look-at-the-volunteers-who-are-signing-up-to-fight-the-russians

Now the links are to real pieces of media, The Jimmy Dore Show and NPR... both respectable enough... and there'd be little to suggest this was a bot trying to manipulate the discussion... except for one thing:

No one had said the quote he was replying too...

Indeed I know where he got the quote. It was from a discussion/long take weeks before in relation to Ukraine, and would not even have fit the discussion in that piece, since it was a meta-discussion about how figures discuss Ukraine relative to other wars. I'd quoted it back then as an example of something we'd think was delusional and completely detached from intellectual rigor if said about Iraq 1991 or WW1...

Indeed another comment making the opposite argument used the same quote and drew other quotes from the same two week old discussion... except arguing the opposite way (pro-Ukraine)... And likewise replied not at all to having it pointed out that nothing they quoted was at all mentioned in the actual thread or discussion that was being had.

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This obviously killed the discussion in that thread... when half the thread becomes comments quoting things, points and arugments, that were never said, and the other half must become replies saying in effect WTF!?

Well you can't have a discussion any more. Any organic back and forth between actual mottizens was killed. And obviously none of these either schizos or bots responded to keep discussion going.

Now if this becomes the norm it will kill the space...

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But its also really unnerved me with regards to the rest of the internet.

The "Dead Internet Theory" doesn't feel like a theory anymore. The Motte is an obscure space with discussion levels high enough you notice if an actor isn't actually thinking or engaging with what's been said... and 2 out of 15 comments in that thread were Fairly undeniably bots....

On a site that's only been up a few months.

What the hell must it be like on other forums? Newspaper comments? YouTube comments?

Hell 4Chan had to implement Capchas for every comment to avoid the problem.