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10 Oct 00:07

Silkworms that eat carbon nanotubes and graphene spin tougher silk | Chemical & Engineering News

by brandizzi

Silk—the stuff of lustrous, glamorous clothing—is very strong. Researchers now report a clever way to make the gossamer threads even stronger and tougher: by feeding silkworms graphene or single-walled carbon nanotubes (Nano Lett. 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03597). The reinforced silk produced by the silkworms could be used in applications such as durable protective fabrics, biodegradable medical implants, and ecofriendly wearable electronics, they say.

Researchers have previously added dyes, antimicrobial agents, conductive polymers, and nanoparticles to silk—either by treating spun silk with the additives or, in some cases, by directly feeding the additives to silkworms. Silkworms, the larvae of mulberry-eating silk moths, spin their threads from a solution of silk protein produced in their salivary glands.

To make carbon-reinforced silk, Yingying Zhang and her colleagues at Tsinghua University fed the worms mulberry leaves sprayed with aqueous solutions containing 0.2% by weight of either carbon nanotubes or graphene and then collected the silk after the worms spun their cocoons, as is done in standard silk production. Treating already spun silk would require dissolving the nanomaterials in toxic chemical solvents and applying those to the silk, so the feeding method is simpler and more environmentally friendly.

In contrast to regular silk, the carbon-enhanced silks are twice as tough and can withstand at least 50% higher stress before breaking. The team heated the silk fibers at 1,050 °C to carbonize the silk protein and then studied their conductivity and structure. The modified silks conduct electricity, unlike regular silk. Raman spectroscopy and electron microscopy imaging showed that the carbon-enhanced silk fibers had a more ordered crystal structure due to the incorporated nanomaterials.

Some questions remain. One is exactly how the silkworms incorporate the nanomaterials in their silk. Another is what percentage of the nanomaterials eaten by the worms make it into the silk instead of being excreted or otherwise metabolized. The carbon materials are not visible in the cross sections of the silk threads, perhaps because the nanoparticle content is low, Zhang says. Answering these questions might be a task for biologists, she adds.

Polymer chemist Qing Shen at Donghua University reported similar work in 2014 using 30-nm-wide multiwalled carbon nanotubes, which also increased the silk fibers’ strength and toughness (Mater. Sci. Eng., C 2014, DOI: 10.1016/j.msec.2013.09.041). Zhang says that the smaller, 1- to 2-nm-wide single-walled nanotubes her team uses “are more suitable for incorporation into the crystalline structures of silk protein.”

This work provides an “easy way to produce high-strength silk fibers on a large scale,” says materials scientist Yaopeng Zhang of Donghua University, who has fed titanium dioxide nanoparticles to silkworms to create superstrong silk resistant to ultraviolet degradation. The electrical conductivity of the carbon-reinforced silk might make it suitable for sensors embedded in smart textiles and to read nerve signals, he says.

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13 Oct 12:03

Enter Sandman by Rachel Aviv - Poetry Foundation

by brandizzi

Illustration by Marianne Goldin.

I. The pencil had a life of its own
A few years ago Burrell Webb, a retired landscape artist living in Oregon, discovered that a poem he wrote and never copyrighted had become one of the most widely circulated verses in the English language. He says he composed the lines in 1958, after leaving the navy and being dumped by his girlfriend. “I was stressed, distressed, and single,” he says. “When I received those divine words, I broke up the lines and made a kind of poem out of it.” The finished product, which he published anonymously in a local newspaper—he felt it was God’s work, not his—tells the story of a man who has a dream that he and God are walking along the beach. When the man asks why sometimes there is one set of footprints and other times there are two, the Lord says he has been carrying him through his struggles.

Forty years later, Webb was alarmed when his son informed him that the poem was on napkins, calendars, posters, gift cards, and teacups. Usually “Footprints” was signed “Author Unknown,” but other times the credit was given to Mary Stevenson, Margaret Fishback Powers, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who have all registered copyrights for the poem. (Registration does not require proof of originality.) The three versions differ mostly in tense, word order, and line breaks. With no way to prove that the work was actually his, Webb paid $400 to take a polygraph test. Now he routinely sends the results (“No deception indicated”) to those who question his claim.

Although several people have suggested to Webb, as consolation, that God gave the idea to multiple authors in order to more efficiently spread His Word, Webb is unsettled by the idea that “the Lord would be the author of confusion.” However the verse came into being, its message has reached all over the world. “Footprints” is the kind of poem we all seem to know without remembering when or where we first saw it. We’ve read it dozens of times, never paying attention. The verse is dislocated from context, so familiar and predictable that the boundary between writing and reading seems to disappear.

Yet the authors who claim to have composed "Footprints" have memories of the precise moment when they dreamed up these lines. Mary Stevenson, a former showgirl and nurse, said she composed the verse in 1936, following the death of her mother and brother. According to Gail Giorgio's 1995 biography Footprints in the Sand: The Life Story of Mary Stevenson, Author of the Immortal Poem, Stevenson was inspired by a cat's footprints in the snow and scrawled out twenty lines, as if the "pencil had a life of its own." She was so pleased with her work that she handed out the poem heedlessly, jotting it down for anyone she met without thinking to sign her name. (Early in the book her father tells her, “Poetry’s nice to read, but essentially it’s just rambling words on a piece of paper.”)

Powers, a Baptist children's evangelist, was more savvy about licensing the verse—she sold it to HarperCollins Canada in 1993—and she describes “Footprints” as the culmination of a life of religious devotion. In her memoir, Footprints: The True Story behind the Poem That Inspired Millions, she enthusiastically recounts all the tragedies she endured while never losing her belief in the Lord. In the course of 100 pages, she gets struck by lightning, develops spinal meningitis, gets hit by a truck, and has a near-death experience with a bumblebee. Her daughter gets crushed by a motorcycle and later slips down a 68-foot waterfall while her husband, watching, has a heart attack. In the hospital room a nurse pulls out “a little piece I have here in my pocket” and recites “Footprints” to ease the family’s pain. When she casually mentions what a shame it is that no one knows the poem’s author, Powers’ husband croaks from his bed, “It’s my wife.”

Far from dead, Powers currently travels around the world giving sermons about the power of faith. She has licensed the poem to nearly 30 companies, including Hallmark Cards and Lenox Gifts. Her lawyer, John A. Hughes, a self-described atheist, won’t say how much Powers has earned from her publications, except to guess that “Footprints” might be the “best-remunerated poem in history.” When pressed, he compares its success to that of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He has written more than 100 companies, requesting that they replace “Author Unknown” with his client’s name. “I am completely satisfied factually that Margaret is telling the truth,” he says. He acknowledges that “Footprints” is not entirely consistent with Powers’ other poems, which are composed of rhyming couplets, but he’s confident it’s within her range. (To prove that “Footprints” couldn’t be written by Stevenson, he contemplated hiring Donald Foster, the forensic literary analyst who studied the letters of the Unabomber.)

"Footprints" is far less of a stylistic aberration for Powers than it is for Mary Stevenson, who wrote sporadically, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who struggles with punctuation and spelling. Carty is the most hostile of the contenders and she frequently issues error-ridden cease-and-desist letters to those who post the poem online. (She signs her e-mails “World Renowned Poet.”)

Carty wrote “Footprints” in 1963, when she was six. She says she based the idea on a poem written by her great-great-aunt, a Sunday school teacher. More than 20 years later, she copyrighted the verse as part of an 11-page document of stream-of-consciousness prose (“the gift, who are you, where have you come from, where are you going! I am a writers inkhorn that stands beside the sea”), which concluded with the text of “Footprints.” She declined to be interviewed but characterized her writing style in an e-mail: “I like common denominators in subjects, I always look for the common bond when trying to create a universal message.”

In describing her literary taste, Carty also articulates the intangible draw of “Footprints.” The poem reads as if it were written by consensus. Light, peppy, and moderately Christian, “Footprints” succinctly dramatizes an idea that will never be original: When we think we’re alone, we’re not. God is here. The footprints metaphor is so ubiquitous that perhaps the authors absorbed the message at some point without realizing it, then later sat down and wrote it out again, seeking to appeal to the largest number of people.

II. Do I know you?
In “Cryptomnesia” (1905), a paper about accidental plagiarism, Carl Jung argues that it’s impossible to know for certain which ideas are one’s own. “Our unconsciousness . . . swarms with strange intruders,” he writes. He accuses Nietzsche of unwittingly copying another’s work, and urges all writers to sift through their memories and locate the origin of every idea before putting it to paper: “Ask each thought: Do I know you, or are you new?”

In the realm of Christian poetry, the process of distinguishing which ideas are original is significantly harder—the same body of collective epiphanies has been passed down for years. When artists open themselves up to the inspiration of the Lord, it’s not surprising that sometimes they produce sentences that sound as if they’ve been uttered before. The first line of “Footprints,” which varies slightly among versions, seems to announce the authors’ access to the collective unconscious: “I had a dream,” “One night a man had a dream,” “One night I dreamed a dream.”

One of the earliest articulations of the poem’s premise—the idea that God reveals his presence through marks in the sand—comes from an 1880 sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a noted Baptist preacher.

And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked, and say, “I am alone, — alone, — alone, — nobody was ever here before me”? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience; and when I looked, lo! it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints; they were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to myself, “If he has been here, it is a desert island no longer.”

Spurgeon’s formulation, more nuanced than the Footprints poem, rehearses the same fear of being “alone, — alone, —alone,” and then happily resolves it.

In other uses of the metaphor, the footprints image speaks to man’s omnipresence, not God’s. This seemingly banal metaphor has become a truism in secular writing as well. In an 1894 essay about composing his first book, Robert Louis Stevenson (whom Mary Stevenson, coincidentally, claims as a relative, and whom Carty cites as an influence) refers to footprints in the sand when acknowledging how hard it is to avoid borrowing from previously published work. After admitting adopting characters from Washington Irving (“But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside”), as well as “trifles and details” from Daniel Defoe and Edgar Allan Poe, he invokes the footprints image. It’s as if he already associates the phrase with authorial confusion:

I am now upon a painful chapter. No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. . . . These useful writers had fulfilled the poet’s saying: departing, they had left behind them Footprints on the sands of time, Footprints which perhaps another—and I was the other!

The “poet’s saying,” which Stevenson refers to, is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”: “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.” It’s fitting that in defending himself against plagiarism, Stevenson deploys a quote that has spawned so many interpretations. “Footprints on the sands of time” is a perfect image for cliché: terrain trod over and retraced, flattened with overuse.

But those claiming to have written “Footprints” argue that the image came to them as suddenly and surprisingly as a new gift. Burrell Webb rejects the notion that he somehow inherited an existing metaphor. It’s far more likely, he says, that people are trying to profit from his work. “I’ve never heard of the fellow [Spurgeon], so he couldn’t have possibly inspired me,” Webb says. “That allegorical poem was strictly a prayer relationship with myself and the Lord when I was feeling bad and crying for help and whining a little bit, which everybody goes through.”

Although nearly all of these authors claim they wrote the poem in longhand, dictated by God, the controversy didn’t surface until everyone began putting their versions online. There are hundreds of “Footprints”-inspired Web sites. One has a soundtrack of waves lapping against the shore; another features lines of the poem jiggling to the beat of Christmas songs. In Andrew Keen’s 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur, he writes that the Internet has induced a state of communal amnesia; we’ve lost “our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard.” Perhaps the "Footprints" writers are living a version of this peculiar situation. There's not only an abundance of amateur authors, but they've all written the exact same thing.

Along with Webb, Carty, Stevenson, and Powers, at least a dozen other people have claimed, less rigorously, to have penned this poem. None of their accounts are particularly convincing, yet they all seem to genuinely believe they wrote the poem. They describe the words coming out effortlessly, even uncontrollably, as if they were finally articulating something they’d always known.

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15 Oct 12:22

Climbing Chains

by Greg Ross

Princeton mathematician John Horton Conway investigated this curious permutation:

3n ↔ 2n

3n ± 1 ↔ 4n ± 1

It’s a simple set of rules for creating a sequence of numbers. In the words of University of Calgary mathematician Richard Guy, “Forwards: if it divides by 3, take off a third; if it doesn’t, add a third (to the nearest whole number). Backwards: if it’s even, add 50%; if it’s odd, take off a quarter.”

If we start with 1, we get a string of 1s: 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, …

If we start with 2 or 3 we get an alternating sequence: 2, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3, …

If we start with 4 we get a longer cycle that repeats: 4, 5, 7, 9, 6, 4, 5, 7, 9, 6, …

And if we start with 44 we get an even longer repeating cycle: 44, 59, 79, 105, 70, 93, 62, 83, 111, 74, 99, 66, 44, …

But, curiously, these four are the only loops that anyone has found — start with any other number and it appears you can build the sequence indefinitely in either direction without re-encountering the original number. Try starting with 8:

…, 72, 48, 32, 43, 57, 38, 51, 34, 45, 30, 20, 27, 18, 12, 8, 11, 15, 10, 13, 17, 23, 31, 41, 55, 73, 97, …

Paradoxically, the sequence climbs in both directions: Going forward we multiply by 2/3 a third of the time and by roughly 4/3 two-thirds of the time, so on average in three steps we’re multiplying by 32/27. Going backward we multiply by 3/2 half the time and by roughly 3/4 half the time, so on average in two steps we’re multiplying by 9/8. And every even number is preceded by a multiple of three — half the numbers are multiples of three!

What happens to these chains? Will the sequence above ever encounter another 8 and close up to form a loop? What about the sequences based on 14, 40, 64, 80, 82 … ? “Again,” writes Guy, “there are many more questions than answers.”

(Richard K. Guy, “What’s Left?”, Math Horizons 5:4 [April 1998], 5-7; and Richard K. Guy, Unsolved Problems in Number Theory, 2004.)

15 Oct 13:54

The Present | Curta alemão baseado em tirinha brasileira já ganhou mais de 50 prêmios em festivais – Cinemateca

by brandizzi

‘The Present’ é um curta produzido na Alemanha e que já conquistou mais de 50 prêmios ao redor do mundo em festivais, entre eles o prêmio de Melhor Curta Infantil na última edição do AnimaMundi.

Na história, Jake é um menino que passa a maior parte do tempo jogando videogames. Até que, um dia, sua mãe traz um presente muito especial.

A trama emocionante do curta é baseada em uma pequena história em quadrinhos do brasileiro Fábio Coala, ilustrador responsável pelo site A tira viralizou na internet até chegar nas mãos de Jacob Frey, que decidiu entrar em contato com o criador do HQ e depois disso foi responsável pela direção e animação do curta.

O contato entre os dois aconteceu graças a Natália Freitas, brasileira que conseguiu entrar na conceituada escola de cinema alemã Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg – a mesma onde Frey estudou.

‘The Present’ foi exibido em mais de 180 festivais ao redor do mundo, recebendo mais de 50 prêmios. Com o enorme sucesso, o diretor decidiu disponibilizar o curta em sua página oficial do Vimeo. Assista:

[embedded content]

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12 Oct 06:33


by Greg Ross

wile e coyote, super genius

Cartoon laws of physics:

  1. Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation. Daffy Duck steps off a cliff, expecting further pastureland. He loiters in midair, soliloquizing flippantly, until he chances to look down. At this point, the familiar principle of 32 feet per second per second takes over.
  2. Any body in motion will tend to remain in motion until solid matter intervenes suddenly. Whether shot from a cannon or in hot pursuit on foot, cartoon characters are so absolute in their momentum that only a telephone pole or an outsize boulder retards their forward motion absolutely. Sir Isaac Newton called this sudden termination of motion the stooge’s surcease.
  3. Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter. Also called the silhouette of passage, this phenomenon is the specialty of victims of directed-pressure explosions and of reckless cowards who are so eager to escape that they exit directly through the wall of a house, leaving a cookie-cutout-perfect hole. The threat of skunks or matrimony often catalyzes this reaction.
  4. The time required for an object to fall twenty stories is greater than or equal to the time it takes for whoever knocked it off the ledge to spiral down twenty flights to attempt to capture it unbroken. Such an object is inevitably priceless, the attempt to capture it inevitably unsuccessful.

There are 10 laws altogether, including “9. Everything falls faster than an anvil.” As early as 1956 Walt Disney was describing the “plausible impossible.” In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant says, “Do you mean to tell me you could’ve taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?” Roger answers, “Not at any time! Only when it was funny!”

13 Oct 16:28

Comics That Aren’t XKCD


That title is NOT dig against XKCD. We love XKCD, but XKCD has been one of the top Old Reader feeds almost since our beginning. If you’re not an XKCD reader, we definitely recommend it. But today we want to highlight as many other comics as possible. 


To start, we want to point everyone to one of our personal heroes,the anonymous programmer behind ComicSyndicate. If you love newspaper comics like Doonesbury, Foxtrot, or archived Calvin and Hobbes, the comic syndicates that put them online often make them hard to subscribe. Thankfully, the ComicSyndicate has links to put hundreds of syndicated and independent comics in your feed.


Crude line art done in Microsoft Paint about heavy themes including depression and mental illness might not sound like fun reading, but Allie Brosh’s blog is still one of the most interesting and insightful reads online.

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The Perry Bible Fellowship is updated irregularly, but delivers beautiful art and dark humor with every new edition. 

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Not a comic, per se, but if you like funny and clever charts, graphs, and Venn Diagrams on index cards, Indexed is the blog you’ve been waiting for. 

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Silly, clever, weird, and funny, Tree Lobsters nails all four quadrants. 

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PHD Comics is obviously written for grad students of the world, but we think it’s funny, too.

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Not far below XKCD, The Oatmeal remains one of The Old Reader’s most popular comic feeds. The comics, quizzes, and occasional articles by Matthew Inman aren’t just entertaining—they are often thoroughly researched and informative. 

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An ongoing, female-centric steampunk fantasy-adventure story, Girl Genius has been publishing online since 2005 (and regularly winning Hugo awards in the process). 

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OR Picks

The Weekly Reader Picks are a new series designed to introduce The Old Reader users to some of the great feeds that we enjoy.

14 Oct 00:09

Epistemic learned helplessness: squid314

by brandizzi
I love this essay.

I love it because it's an articulation of a serious argument that I respect but still end up ultimately opposed to.

I've spent a lot of time considering "What should a person do about weird claims?" The stuff that *sounds* like the ideas of a crackpot, but potentially a crackpot so clever that you can't see a hole in his reasoning -- and, also, potentially not a crackpot at all but an insightful, correct thinker. I used to have roughly the same conclusion as you. And roughly the same problem with a tendency to believe the last thing I read, and along with it, a fear of reading things that might delude me.

But the thing is, I've come to the conclusion that it's not actually that hard to make your own judgments about ideas. I was confused about strong AI for a while. What did I do? I read a bunch of papers and textbooks. I talked to my friends who were AI researchers. I still don't *really* know what's going on because I never really learned mathematical logic, but it's a hell of a lot better than a black box. I know *some* mathematics, and I can tell the difference between a proof and a hand-wavy argument, and I've had independent confirmation of the falseness of the ideas I was skeptical about...I'm pretty sure, sure enough to go on with my life, that my picture of "what's up with AI" is more or less accurate.

I'm learning how to do this with biomedical research papers. I am not a biologist so I have to black-box a lot, but not *everything*. I can tell that claims with five conjunctive hypotheses are less likely than claims with one. I can tell when a study was done with 15 subjects or 15,000. I can certainly evaluate statistical methodology. I can come to estimates of my true beliefs -- not high confidence, but not all that biased, and way better than learned helplessness.

I don't go to the trouble of doing this with everything. I haven't checked out climate change skeptics, because I don't know fluid dynamics and I'm a little scared of the work involved in learning. But mostly, my heuristic is, "When confronted with a weird claim that would be really interesting if true and isn't immediately obvious as bullshit, it's worth checking Wikipedia and reading one scholarly paper. If I'm still uncertain and still interested, it's worth reading several more scholarly papers and asking experts I know."

A lot of bunk is not that hard to debunk. I looked through an 1880 book of materia medica (herbal medicine) once; most treatments were not just useless but poisonous, and it took 30 seconds of googling to find that out. (Oil of tansy will *fuck you up*, ladies and gentlemen.)

A good all-purpose scientist can more or less trust his/her bullshit-o-meter. You should know where you're least able to evaluate claims explicitly (for me, that's physics, chemistry, and anything to do with war or foreign policy) and use implicit meta-techniques (were their results reproducible? do they make a lot of conjunctive claims? that sort of thing). But often, I can just *go in and check the math.* Tim Ferriss makes arithmetic errors in his books. You don't have to be a fitness expert to catch them.

I'm no longer afraid of being deluded by charlatans. I wouldn't go to a Scientology meeting, because they engage in physical brainwashing, but I can read racists without becoming a racist, read homeopaths without becoming a homeopath, and so on. I've banged my brain against a *lot* of things, and come out more or less clean.

Maybe not everyone can do this (my education certainly helped a lot), but it is *possible*, and I think most people who are comparably educated and bright (e.g. you) can get better at evaluating weird claims themselves and do better than they would with epistemic learned helplessness.

But I know people with science PhDs who sound as self-aware and confident but they think global warming and Keynesianism are hoaxes and that there's some huge cover-up going on regarding Benghazi and Obama's coming for our guns any day now. (This before the election, so before the Sandy mass shooting.)

>Jonah tells me of a guy in Seattle who is now living according to the principles of Islam

I heard it was Catholicism. (Unless there's a second guy in Seattle who believes in Pascal's Wager and destroying nature to reduce animal suffering, which would be...surprising.) But he's taken down that page on his site, so he might have changed his mind.

I've never met him, but as far as I can tell, he does take his ideas seriously.

I thought I heard Islam...or, actually I think I just inferred he chose Islam from hearing the general story and then a separate comment that he's keeping halal, but he might be a Catholic who keeps halal to hedge his bets.

From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-03 02:12 pm (UTC)


"Bostrom's simulation argument, the anthropic doomsday argument, Pascal's Mugging "

The doomsday argument doesn't belong on this list. If you follow what Bostrom calls the "self-indication assumption" then the doomsday argument is obviously false. The alternative to the self-indication assumption that Bostrom uses to make the argument seems non-sensical, note for example that if there is another civilization in parallel with the one you care about, the probabilities change using his alternative.

The trouble with rationalist skills is that the opposite of every rationalist skill is also a rationalist skill. We have the Inside View, and the Outside View. Overconfidence is a problem, but so is underconfidence. You're supposed to listen to the tiniest note of mental discord, yet sometimes it's necessary to shut loud mental voices out. And while knowing the standard catalog of biases is obviously crucial for the aspiring rationalist, it can also hurt you. Et cetera, et cetera.

Furthermore, everything exists for a reason -- including things we've decided are bad. Which means that bad things are inevitably -- or at least typically -- going to be good for something, some of the time. Yet they're still bad.

Epistemic learned helplessness may have its uses, but it's certainly not something I would want to celebrate, or -- heaven forbid -- teach. "Normal" people have it by default already, and they already err too much in that direction (to the point, some would argue, of literally killing themselves, e.g. by not signing up for cryonics). I think I'd gladly accept an increased number of homeopaths and terrorists in order to gain an increase in the average rationality of the population as a whole.

"Think for yourself" is still a good meme, despite the fact that for most people it's actually a bad idea and they would do better by just following the right guru. (How do you know which guru is the right one in the first place?)

""Normal" people have it by default already, and they already err too much in that direction (to the point, some would argue, of literally killing themselves, e.g. by not signing up for cryonics). I think I'd gladly accept an increased number of homeopaths and terrorists in order to gain an increase in the average rationality of the population as a whole."

I think your argument that they err too much in that direction requires more support than you give it here. I think if we relaxed the average person's epistemic helpfulness we would get many new terrorists and homeopaths for each new better-than-average person we got.

Worth reading, for those who haven't: Anna Salamon's Making your explicit reasoning trustworthy. Key quote:

"When some lines of argument point one way and some another, don't give up or take a vote. Instead, notice that you're confused, and (while guarding against confirmation bias!) seek follow-up information."

Edited at 2013-01-03 02:53 pm (UTC)

Thomas Aquinas deliberately wrote in the flattest style he could muster, so that his errors would not be swept along in rhetorical charms.

I think you're making this into something bigger than it is. Arguments are mental models of reality. Mental models are incredibly error prone. Don't trust a mental model of reality that hasn't been tested against reality. Know how to test a mental model against reality. (Caveat: some mental models are designed such that their flaws are made obvious, like math but not like formal logic with inductive premises.)

In software engineering, this is called unit testing.

Unfortunately, testing against reality is exactly the problem. Usually the evidence gives a certain number of degrees of freedom (which of various conflicting studies you believe were done well vs. poorly, how you interpret evidence, etc).

I agree the questions you can trivially test against reality (like simple physics questions) are the ones that are least vulnerable to crackpottery.

From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-03 02:58 pm (UTC)


On "destroy nature guy": I've previously had the thought that maybe the world would be a better place with far fewer non-human animals in it. What kept me from exploring this possibility further is that, if I'm honest with myself, I don't care all that much about animal suffering.

To give you a better idea of the extent of my (non-)caring: I care enough to have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for a few years, but then someone persuaded me that eggs may contribute more to animal suffering than beef, and I said, "okay... I care about animal suffering, but not badly enough to go full vegan" and went back to being an omnivore.

Oops. That was my comment. I failed to select my usual "use Facebook to post" option by accident.

>"If you have a good argument that the Early Bronze Age worked completely differently from the way mainstream historians believe, I just don't want to hear about it."

Hey, wait a minute -- didn't you say somewhere before that you liked reading contrarian arguments?

I'm not sure what exact quote you're thinking of, but it seems plausible. But I mostly like them when I expect to learn something from them, not when I expect to be bewildered by them.

For 99% of the cases you're worried about, I think a better solution than, "don't trust your own reason" is "remember that sound pure *a prior* arguments are very rare, and that believing one person's argument without further investigation is just trusting them to get the empirical stuff right, not only by not saying anything false but also by not omitting relevant evidence."

But it seems we have very different formative experiences in this area. My experiences reading replies and counter-replies with things like the evolution-creationism debate or Christian apologetics more generally is that it does eventually become clear who's right and who's full of shit.

My experiences are similar to celandine13's in this way. I wouldn't necessarily say it's "not that hard," as she does, but "doable eventually with time," yeah.

We may also differ psychologically, in that if I read one thing and *don't* have time to read the replies and counter-replies I find it easy to suspend judgment. Your previous comments about your reluctance to read "Good Calories, Bad Calories" suggest you find this hard, so I'd point out that what you need to do to compensate for that problem doesn't necessarily apply to other people.

The evolution/creation debate is a special case for a few reasons.

First, the prior is so skewed in favor of evolution that it's hard to take creationism seriously. Even on the rare cases there's a superficially good creationist argument (right now this and my uncle's version of irreducible complexity are my two go-to examples of creationists who at least seem to be putting a little effort into their sophistry) I've never been at risk of taking it seriously; I always just think "Wow, these people are quite skilled at sophistry". Other fields where I am less certain of the consensus position do not give me that feeling and so I get less of an advantage from hindsight bias.

Second, there is a really good community of evolutionists, some of them experts in the field, who devote a lot of effort to point-by-point rebuttals of creationist arguments. This is incredibly valuable; some of the better arguments I don't think I would be able to rebut on my own without a daunting amount of work and research. But this is pretty uncommon; real historians rarely address pseudohistorians (Sagan's critique of Velikovsky was a welcome counterexample), and I've never been able to find a mainstream nutritionist really address the paleo people. I am constantly disappointed in the skeptic community, who tend to be domain non-experts in these fields who fail to take them seriously, who just use ad hominems, or who don't even bother to understand the opposing arguments (for example, the number of people who try to tell homeopaths they're wrong because their concoctions don't even have an atom of the active ingredient, even though homeopaths understand this and their theories actually depend upon it, is amazing) So the arguments on many of these topics are very one-sided, which isn't a problem evolution arguments have.

But last of all, I'm surprised you've found Christian apologetics in general to be an easy issue. I've been constantly impressed with, and every time I look at them I end up thinking their defenses of certain Biblical points are much stronger than the atheist attacks upon them (this could be because atheists massively overattack the Bible; the Bible being mostly historically accurate, or not having that many contradictions, is perfectly consistent with religion being wrong in general). The camel issue comes to mind as the last time I had this feeling, although apparently that's not tektonics at all and I might be confusing my apologetics sites.

>Also, he wants to destroy nature in order to decrease animal suffering.

I don't. But I do think that what to do about the "Darwinian holocaust" is a troubling problem for consequentialism.

Edited at 2013-01-03 04:41 pm (UTC) seems relevant.

> (This is the correct Bayesian action, by the way. If I know that a false argument sounds just as convincing as a true argument, argument convincingness provides no evidence either way, and I should ignore it and stick with my prior.)

It's correct, I suspect, only with additional assumptions, like assuming you are either average or above-average so accepting new arguments at random hurts you. If you aren't, then you can do better. For example, if you hold 50% false beliefs, but 90% of arguments you are given are true and 10% are false, and the false are exactly as convincing as the true, then you'll still improve your 50% falsity by ignoring convincingness and believing everything you're told.

It would be a neat trick to acquire 50% false beliefs in an environment where 90% of what you're told is true.

The basic defense against Pascal's Mugging and such is to treat "epsilon" probabilities as equal to zero. So it doesn't matter how severe the offered consequence is since it's getting multiplied by zero anyway.

One of my preferred approaches is construction of a Pascal's Mugging compelling a conflicting course of action. If there's no practical way to judge which "infinity is larger", inaction wins by default.

I very much agree with this post!

Another point that complements yours: people often rationalize to convince themselves of something. People also love to argue and to convince others of things. Smart people are better at this, so they do it more.

So smart people are open to good arguments, because the best arguments they hear are usually their own. They not only lack negative associations from harmful arguments that convinced them in the past, but they have positive associations with arguments they themselves made up, which convinced others.

How high a level did your business friend want to work at? I mean, there's certainly plenty of room to argue about capitalism (I've seen otherwise rational-seeming people passionately arguing that the only possible economic system is free market capitalism, which if done properly is completely impeccable and divinely preserved from all sin - presumably courtesy of the 'invisible hand' - and is the only one true way to liberty, happiness, democracy and all good things) but perhaps your friend just means he wants people who will believe, after being presented with the evidence, that option A is the only one that will work in this situation and that no, it is not because "You don't care about social justice!" or whatever.

Bostrom's simulation argument, the anthropic doomsday argument, Pascal's Mugging - I've never heard anyone give a coherent argument against any of these, but I've also never met anyone who fully accepts them and lives life according to their implications.

When I think about these arguments, I don't actually see how I'd change my life if I believed them, not in any meaningful way.

I actually do believe in Bostrom's simulation argument, in the sense that my prior for that was ~0%, but now it's more like 60%, which is a huge move. How has it changed my life?

It means I can argue with singulitarian atheists in a more entertaining way, by pointing out that if they are in a sim that someone created it, and that someone can be considered our God for all intents and purposes.

But other than debates, I don't think my life is much different. I also don't believe in free will, but there's no particular way to operationalize that belief. (And if there were, could I do it?)

The others are pretty similar. Pascal's Mugging, which I cheerfully fail to believe because human reasoning about morality is completely horrible when the numbers get big, so I don't even try, doesn't effect me in any real way regardless of what I believe. If someone actually tries to pascal's mug me, I think that would be an entertaining novelty.

And I can't think of why the anthropic doomsday argument should change my behavior either, though I'm very suspicious of an argument that would have been just as convincing but totally wrong in recent history.

So what am I missing? If someone believed those things, how could you tell from their behavior?

From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-03 10:55 pm (UTC)


If you really think you're likely living in a simulation, this essay by Robin Hanson about how you should change your behaviour if you are may interest you.

A most excellent post, that's something I've been thinking about recently too, and I've come to the conclusion that in many cases it's perfectly okay to be close-minded, or to reject an argument without having a good counter-argument. I hadn't made the link with why atheists and skeptics should probably mellow out when making fun of religious people.

I think *everybody* should study crackpots (or at least, everybody who cares about ideas); so that everybody gets a better idea of how it feels to be convinced by bullshit. That would probably increase the crackpots' audience, but on the other hand might make people less likely to turn crackpot.

You could probably make interesting exercises by mixing crackpot arguments and mainstream-but-old arguments (so that they may not use the latest vocabulary), and have a CFAR exercise about distinguishing them.


I don't think the simulation argument is *wrong* as much as irrelevant - as for Boltzmann brains, even if it's true my decisions should be the same, so I don't see why I should care. Sure, on one level it's kind of interesting to know that I might be being simulated, but it's not as if it mattered much.

I agree. I was thinking of following this up by posting links to some of the most reasonable-sounding and convincing crackpots who have short, accessible persuasive arguments online. Steven from Black Belt Bayesian linked to this a while back, which is a decent example of the sort of thing I'd be looking for. You have any suggestions?

As for the exercise, I kind of intended my hermeneutics game to work kind of like this, in making it clear how convincing an argument even smart people could come up with for even randomly chosen positions in a short amount of time.

Your story about Velikovsky is pretty much exactly the same as my father's story about reading "Chariots of the Gods".

Logically valid arguments are only sound if the premises are true. Most crackpot arguments are indeed pretty close to valid, but they're not sound because they have a false premise.

(See also.)

Von Daniken is a special case in that AFAIK he actually did completely make up some data (eg he talked about caves with certain artifacts that were just totally imaginary).

Most of the good crackpots I have read avoid that, and are just very good at interpreting real data to fit their theories. Dealing with data-fabricators seems to require a totally new level of paranoia, although luckily convincing ones seem to be rare.

I never found anything by von Daniken at all convincing, and his theme park was kind of a disappointment.

I was confused to notice you assign female gender to the average high school dropout. Normally people default to male gender unless talking about a population dominated by women; I websearched for "high school dropout rates by gender" and the first hit suggests the gender ratio is pretty even. Have you had a different experience?

(Oh -- maybe high school dropouts visiting hospitals are mostly female?)

I assume he was just hewing to the trend of using the female gender pronoun in a gender-neutral sense, and did not mean anything in particular by it.

Everything in this post strikes me as basically correct. The one awful thing I would add is that when most people adopt epistemic learned helplessness, they don't believe it's possible for *anyone* to do better. In particular they don't believe it's possible for you to do better, and that you're stupid for trying, and that if you think you can do better you're claiming social status above theirs, and so on. They have given up on Reason itself, not on their own use of it, and if you try they will smile down upon you superiorly - or for those of a kinder nature, take you aside and give you worried advice about how that whole Reason stuff doesn't actually work. The novice goes astray and says "The Art failed me", the master goes astray and says "I failed my Art".

My father's response would be, basically, that yes, you *can* Do Better, but only if you go to the effort to become an expert in the domain you're trying to form an opinion on - which, on many topics, would take years of study. Being able to present an argument that a smart layperson would find convincing isn't very good Bayesian evidence; being able to present an argument that a fellow expert would find convincing is both a much harder task and is much stronger evidence in favor of the argument's conclusion.

(Also, as far as I can tell, "become an expert yourself" is a bar that you, Eliezer, appear to have met in your own field(s), despite your lack of formal credentials.)

Yeah. I've basically decided my argument-evaluator is likely quite stupid unless and until its results show definite good results of some sort, even aesthetic. Until then it's just being played by other people's superior simulations of me. Many of the stupidest things I've ever done have basically been because I was convinced of something that I later realised was utter tosh.

My first thought upon reading this was the LW post on "Reason as memetic immune disorder ("

Edited at 2013-01-06 01:54 am (UTC)

From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-06 04:00 pm (UTC)

Well, I'm quite glad that you came around to sanity.


A brief remark on the "Even the smartest people I know have a commendable tendency not to take certain ideas seriously. Bostrom's simulation argument, the anthropic doomsday argument, Pascal's Mugging - I've never heard anyone give a coherent argument against any of these, but I've also never met anyone who fully accepts them and lives life according to their implications."

That's because those arguments truly are of bullshit-grade reliability.

E.g. in the simulation argument, you make some very fishy assumptions - such as an assumption that probability of your existence is equal among all copies of 'something like you'. It would be highly likely to be wrong via a mere lack of reason why that would be so - but there's more - you should already start smelling the overpowering stench of bullshit because your conclusion depends on arbitrary and fuzzy choice.

That is far more than sufficient argument to dismiss persuasiveness of simulation argument entirely.

But some people have poor understanding of what is required for dismissal, in the far mode. E.g. they require a persuasive argument in favour of some other set of assumptions. That puts bullshit at too much advantage.

The doomsday argument is even worse in this regard.

The problem with this is that often totally valid conclusions are explained by bullshitting, and due to the social vetting process, people tend to be exposed to a bunch of true conclusions supported by bullshit.

From: Dmytry Lavrov
2013-01-07 11:21 am (UTC)

I wonder if you'd call not driving while intoxicated 'learned helplessness'


Taking ideas seriously while being ignorant and/or stupid is like driving while intoxicated. Nothing to be glad about. It is a bit difficult to ingrain into people - in their own minds, the drunks are sober...

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14 Oct 11:31


by brandizzi

It's nice to think one can easily go from being dirt poor to filthy rich, but it doesn't usually work that way.

Of people born into lower income households, few will ever make it into the middle class, according to a recent study from Pew Charitable Trust. Only a tiny percentage rise into the highest income bracket.

131112174947-income-brackets-tl-614xaOf those that did move into at least the middle class, they had these traits in common:


The report noted a strong correlation between those able to move up the income ladder and family wealth -- having things like home equity, stocks, vehicles and other assets.

Median family wealth of those who made it to middle class was $94,586, while the median wealth of those stuck at the bottom was just $8,892.

While this might seem obvious -- of course people with a higher income will have more wealth -- the report said the two actually feed each other. The higher a family's wealth, the greater ability they have to invest in things like education or job training, which in turn boosts their income.

"Building savings is a tremendous tool for promoting upward mobility but it is largely ignored by policymakers," said Justin King, policy director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation.

King said that while the government promotes wealth building for some -- largely through the mortgage tax deduction and other tax loopholes used mainly by the middle and upper class -- it actually discourages wealth building for the poor. Many government assistance programs take wealth into account when determining eligibility.

"They have to trade their long-term well-being for short-term assistance," he said.

The Pew data is from a study that has followed families since 1968. It uses 2009 numbers.

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14 Oct 17:19

English Muffin

by Reza


14 Oct 11:49

Taxes, Healthcare and Culture

by Scandinavia and the World
Taxes, Healthcare and Culture

Taxes, Healthcare and Culture

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10 Oct 21:55


12 Oct 14:44

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Dust in the Wind


If you look back at the original clay tablet, there's a watermark for 9gag at the bottom.

New comic!
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Wednesday Book Reviews!

Lesser Beasts (Essig) A fun little book on the history of the relationship between humans and pigs. The use of pigs as a tool for conquest (really!) was especially interesting. 

Weapons of Math Destruction (O’Neil) This is a great book. O'Neil is a mathematician who went to finance and was appalled by some of the things she saw. The topic of the book in particular is the way we create mathematical models and then become beholden to their weird results, in many areas ranging from finance to education.

We (Zamyatin) A really interesting novel, written in the 1920s, and which may be an early entry in the genre we now think of as Orwellian dystopia. It's one of those books that's both an enjoyable read and an interesting look into historical views of the organization of society.

Arms and the Man (Lowther) Probably the best book on Gerald Bull, whose life I've been really into lately.

The Mind Club (Wegner, Gray) Another great book! This is a book on the philosophy and neuroscience that goes into how humans decided what counts as a conscious mind, and what creatures thereby derive ethical rights. It's not just reporting on what scientists and philosophers think, either - this is a theoretical framework for how we make those judgments.

12 Oct 05:00

Comic for 2016.10.12

by Kris Wilson
12 Oct 07:13

Night Sounds

by Doug

Night Sounds

More relaxation.

Oh and hey I wrote a new post about creating a toxic waste maze!

12 Oct 00:00

Record Scratch

The 78-rpm era was closer to the Civil War than to today.
10 Oct 04:01

Maybe, This Time.

by Matt

NEW ENGLAND PALS: I’ll be the special guest at TopatoCo’s Drink and Draw Event, this Wednesday the 12th! Come through!

Couple of things for sale!


The Nib Calendar of Obscure Holidays! – I drew the cover and also February!


10 Oct 00:00


I have this weird thing where if I don't drink enough water, I start feeling bad and then die of dehydration.
09 Oct 14:18

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - The Mammal Conspiracy


Well then, let's just construct prosthetic thumbs, and... shit, no thumbs.

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09 Oct 01:42


by Lunarbaboon

08 Oct 14:34

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Punishment



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07 Oct 07:01

Cat Plumber Saves the Day

by Doug

Cat Plumber Saves the Day

Happy birthday, Stacey R.! Time for another Cat Plumber for you! :)

06 Oct 04:30

Geração Brasil’s prodigious coder on a scene where he shows his...

Geração Brasil’s prodigious coder on a scene where he shows his skills in a job interview.

05 Oct 22:53

Bancos em Greve

by André Farias

Vida de Suporte

Tirinha inspirada em sugestão enviada por Márcio Ximenes.

Bancos em Greve é um post do blog Vida de Suporte.
07 Oct 07:37

Comic for October 07, 2016

by Scott Adams
06 Oct 07:01

Aliens Playing Poker

by Doug
05 Oct 14:00

Say Mama

by Brian


Bonus Panel

The post Say Mama appeared first on Fowl Language Comics.

30 Sep 18:16

A Reader's Blessing

by Grant
Posters are available at my shop.

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30 Sep 12:40

In the eye of the beholder

by Scandinavia and the World
Adam Victor Brandizzi

"I suspect archaeologists just see vaginas everywhere."

In the eye of the beholder

In the eye of the beholder

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26 Sep 05:00

Comic for 2016.09.26

by Dave McElfatrick
05 Oct 15:51


by Reza