Missing old friends

January 9th, 2018

Modern humans may be missing old friends:

With good reason. Hookworms are a leading cause of disease in the developing world with around 750 million people suffering from infection, which can cause anaemia, growth retardation and malnutrition in heavily infested populations. Hookworms can even be lethal, with hookworm related death standing at an estimated 60,000 people per year (Crompton 2002, de Silva 2003).

In first world nations, cleanliness, sanitation and clothing measures have eradicated hookworm infections by breaking their life cycle. (Brooker 2004, Crompton 2000)

This may seem like a good thing at a casual glance. The economic impact of hookworms is huge for some countries. For example, productivity losses due to hookworm infections in South Asia have been estimated at a value of approximately 5 billion dollars annually. (Crompton 2002) At first glance, exterminating these parasites seems wholly sensible.

There is a caveat however, to throwing nature out of balance by Man’s crude intervention. By vastly overpopulating areas in developing countries, we have created the perfect conditions for huge hookworm burdens. Then, by removing hookworms completely, we induce conditions unnaturally sterile. Our bodies, finely tuned through eons of evolution to respond to the challenge of parasite infection, react erratically.

Westernised nations have witnessed a dramatic rise in the incidence of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, a rise that is concurrent with hookworm eradication. Researchers soon realised that many autoimmune diseases are largely absent in Third World populations. This discovery gave rise to the Hygiene Hypothesis.

The Hygiene Hypothesis theorises that the absence of various micro-organisms in Western society causes dysfunction in immunoregulation (Stiemsma 2015, Versini 2015). We see this manifest itself in diseases such as MS, Crohns disease, Asthma, and Rheumatoid Arthritis. This theory can be traced back to the 1870s when it was noted that aristocrats and city dwellers were more likely to get hay fever than farmers.

This idea was further developed into the ‘Old Friends Hypothesis’.

Whilst it would be rash to state that the sole cause for the increase in autoimmune diseases seen in our society is due to helminth eradication, it is certain that the underlying cause in genetically susceptible individuals is environmental. One of these environmental factors is the removal of Helminths, or ‘old friends’ (Rook 2012).

In Rooks’ words:

“The Old Friends hypothesis suggests that one reason for the increasing incidence of chronic inflammatory disorders in developed countries since the mid-nineteenth century is the depletion from the urban environment of organisms that accompanied mammalian evolution and had to be tolerated. In parts of the world where there was a heavy load of organisms causing immunoregulation (such as helminths), there has been selection for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) or other gene variants that partially compensate for the immunoregulation. As soon as immunoregulation inducing organisms (Old Friends) are withdrawn by the modern lifestyle, the genetic variants lead to excessive inflammation, and become risk factors for chronic inflammatory disorders”

In effect, organisms like helminths have been present in the human environment since the evolution of our species. Our immune systems have been titrated to their presence. Further, genes have evolved to help to manage the burden of these organisms, genes which predispose individuals to autoimmune disease once the helminths have been removed.

The fellow writing about old friends suffered from terrible psoriasis and decided to try Necator Americanus therapy:

A few short weeks and a lot of reading later, I sat at home, looking, with serious trepidation, at a small vial filled with clear liquid.

Inside it, were 25 stage L3 NA Larvae, purchased online with laboratory assurance that they were as sterile as a multicellular organism that comes from faeces can be.

Now I am not by nature someone who puts off what needs to be done. But I won’t lie when I say it took a few minutes of serious contemplation before I pipetted the innocent looking fluid onto the supplied dressing, and pressed it onto the skin of my inner arm.

Would this work? Did the larvae survive transit? Would they find their way onto my skin?

I needn’t have worried, less than two minutes after application, it felt like dozens of hot needles were boring into my skin. This was very real, and now there was no going back. They were inside me.

I didn’t sleep that night such was the itching on my arm, and I got a low grade fever the next day that lasted 48 hours.

Exactly 5 days post inoculation, I awoke in the middle of the night thinking someone was choking me. My throat was burning and closing up fast, causing my breath to rasp in my chest. As I sat in the bathroom gasping for breath, I knew exactly what was happening. They had made it to my throat and were about to finish their migration down into my intestines.

10 days after inoculation, I awoke once again in the early hours of the morning to terrible stomach ache. My regular regimen of intermittent fasting was out, the only remedy for this was a large breakfast, which for reasons unbeknownst to me helped ease the symptoms. My skin, likely because I had stopped the Methotrexate, worsened.

Bereft that I might have to drag my arse back to the Dermatologist and actually ask her for worming tablets, I toughed it out.

It worked.

Far from being a dying system

January 8th, 2018

The New York Times pokes fun at modern monarchists, but admits that they may have a point:

Their core arguments: Countries with monarchies are better off because royal families act as a unifying force and a powerful symbol; monarchies rise above politics; and nations with royalty are generally richer and more stable.

Critics say such views are antiquated and alarming in an era when democracies around the globe appear to be imperiled. The count and his band of fellow monarchists, however, are determined to make their case at conferences, in editorials and at fancy balls.

A recent study that examined the economic performance of monarchies versus republics bolsters their views. Led by Mauro F. Guillén, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the study found “robust and quantitatively meaningful evidence” that monarchies outperform other forms of government.

Far from being a dying system, the study said, “monarchies are surprisingly prevalent around the world.” They provide a “stability that often translates into economic gains”; they are better at protecting property rights and checking abuses of power by elected officials; and they have higher per-capita national incomes, the study said.

Mr. Guillén says he was “shocked” by the results, which have not yet been published. “Most people think monarchies are something anachronistic,” he said. “They think that modern forms of government are superior and have trouble accepting that monarchies have advantages.”

When he presents his findings, “there is more skepticism in the room than with the average paper,” said Mr. Guillén, who is not a monarchist. “It’s been an uphill battle.”

The birth of the digital camera

January 8th, 2018

Former Kodak employee Steve Sasson tells the story of the birth of the digital camera:

I worked for Eastman Kodak Company for over 35 years. I began in July of 1973. I was a junior engineer. My supervisor said, ‘We’ve got a filler job for you. There’s a new type of imaging device called a charged couple device imager; we want someone look at one of these and see if we could do anything useful with it.’

Our conversation probably lasted about 30 seconds, it was nothing.

Most of the parts I used to build it, I stole from around the factory. Digital volt meters and chips, digital tape cassette, prototype box, it looks like an erector set with a blue box on top with a lens stuck on top. And I would output to a television set. We took our first full images in December of 1975.

I folded the camera up, and I walked down a hallway, and there was a young lab technician, her name was Joy. I asked her, ‘Could I take a snapshot of you?’ She said, ‘sure, whatever.’ The tape started to move, that’s how I know I made a picture. I popped it out of the tape player, put it into the playback system. It was quite a moment, because this crazy thing actually worked. Up popped the image. We could see her black hair and a white background, but her face was complete static, completely unrecognizable. Jim and I were overjoyed at what we saw, because we knew so many reasons why we wouldn’t see anything at all.

Joy had followed us in, she looked at the picture and she said, ‘Needs work.’

We filed for a patent, and the first patent for a digital camera was granted in 1978. U.S. Patent 5016107. We started to show it to people at Kodak. Then, it became more interesting.

I thought they’d spend all their time asking me how did I get this to work. They didn’t ask me any of the hows, they asked me, ‘Why? Why would anyone want to do this?’

Clean up your room

January 7th, 2018

Kermit the Frog — and Jordan Peterson — remind you to clean up your room:

A remarkably mild dysgenic trend

January 7th, 2018

The Audacious Epigone looks at fertility by race and intelligence and finds a remarkably mild dysgenic trend — among whites:

Fertility by Race and Intelligence

Iran is dirt poor

January 6th, 2018

Iran is dirt poor, Edward Luttwak reminds us:

I recently saw Iran’s general poverty at first-hand driving through one of Iran’s supposedly more prosperous rural districts. In an improvised small market next to a truck stop, several grown men were selling livestock side by side, namely ducks. Each had a stock of three or four ducks, which looked like their total inventory for the day.

That is what happens in an economy whose gross domestic product computes at under $6,000 per capita: very low productivity, very low incomes. The 500,000 or so Iranians employed in the country’s supposedly modern automobile industry are not productive enough to make exportable cars: Pistachio nuts are the country’s leading export, after oil and petroleum products.


Much of the economy is owned by bonyads, Islamic foundations that pay modest pensions to war widows and such, and very large amounts to those who run them, mostly clerics and their kin. The largest, the Mostazafan Bonyad, with more than 200,000 employees in some 350 separate companies in everything from farming to tourism, is a very generous employer for its crowds of clerical managers.

That is why the crowds have been shouting insults at the clerics—not all are corrupt, but high-living clerics are common enough to take a big bite out of that theoretical $6,000 per capita.

But the largest cause of popular anger is undoubtedly the pasdaran, a.k.a the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), an altogether more costly lot than the several hundred aghazadeh or tens of thousands of high-living clerics.

The process for catching these people is equally elegant

January 6th, 2018

Scott Alexander shares some highlights from his notes from a forensic psychiatry conference:

Contrary to popular belief, the insanity defense is not overused. It’s used in only about 1% of felony trials and successful only about a quarter of the time it is used. 90% of people who successfully plead insanity had been diagnosed with a disorder before they committed their crime.

Felons found insane usually get locked up in forensic hospitals even longer than sane felons are locked up in prisons. Some statistics say that by pleading insanity you increase your time behind bars by 50–100%

For some reason, there is a law saying juries are not allowed to be told what will happen to defendants if they return a certain verdict. Juries assume that if a defendant is found “not guilty by reason of insanity”, they will be released scot-free. Although this is completely false, no one is allowed to tell the jury this. So it’s really hard to win an insanity defense simply because juries think it will mean a felon will be put right back on the streets.

Forensic psychiatrists have become very effective at determining which criminals who plead insanity are “faking it”. They usually rely on patterns of mental disease which psychiatrists know but criminals don’t. For example, they’ll start by asking “Do you hear voices?”, and most fakers, anxious to please, say they do. Then the psychiatrist will ask questions like “Which side of your head do the voices come from?” and “Do you ever have smells associated with the voices?” Still eager to please, the fakers will choose a side of the head for their voices to be on, and make up smells that happen at the same time as their voices. But real schizophrenics don’t generally hear their voices to one side or hallucinate smells, so this decreases the likelihood that they’re telling the truth. Some of these questions are very tricky – for example, one psychiatrist asks both “Do you ever hear secret messages for you from the TV or radio?” and “Do cats and dogs ever give you secret messages?”. The first is very common in mental illness; the second practically never happens. Unless you’re a psychiatrist yourself, you’re not going to know these things and you’ll end up claiming symptoms that make no sense.

Some criminals also claim to be mentally retarded, especially in states where it’s illegal to execute retarded people. The process for catching these people is equally elegant. They are asked to take a multiple-choice vocabulary test with easy, medium, and difficult words. Real mentally retarded people will do okay on the easy words but perform at chance on the medium and difficult words. Fakers will also do okay on the easy words – they are smart enough to understand that even mentally retarded people know some things – but then they intentionally throw the medium words and do worse than chance. On the difficult words, the fakers honestly don’t know them and so they go back to performing at chance again. Computers can detect these patterns and easily and confidently point out a fake.

Professional ironists love drug history

January 5th, 2018

Scott Alexander recently wrote about Adderall, and this got Steve Sailer wondering about the cultural effects of speed-type drugs. He ended up stumbling across the same 15-year-old article that I cited, well, 15 years ago, which reviews Marcus Boon’s The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs:

The hundred and eighty years since De Quincey’s invention [of "the discourse of recreational drug use"] have seen a great expansion in the pharmacopoeia, especially since 1862, when the drug company Merck began to produce cocaine. (One of its great early advocates was an ambitious young Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud, who claimed, among other things, that “repeated doses of coca produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further; on the contrary one feels a certain unmotivated aversion to the substance.” Yeah, right.) Diamorphine, also known as heroin, was first synthesized for commercial use in 1897. The men who discovered it, Felix Hoffman and Arthur Eichengrun, had also, a couple of weeks earlier, invented aspirin; for some years, heroin could be bought over the counter and aspirin required a prescription. Professional ironists love drug history.

To Sailer’s point, Jean-Paul Sartre’s wrote his 1960 “existentialist blockbuster” The Critique of Dialectical Reason on speed:

Sartre is probably a bad advertisement for the effect of amphetamines as an aid to composition, but he is by no means the only example of a writer who used speed to help him work. For sheer quantity, Boon notes, it is hard to beat Philip K. Dick, who from 1963 to 1964, under the influence of the methamphetamine Semoxydrine, wrote “eleven science fiction novels, along with a number of essays, short stories, and plot treatments in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzy that accompanied or precipitated the end of one of his marriages.” (That “accompanied or precipitated” nicely captures how little fun it must have been to be Mrs. Dick.) If Philip K. Dick does not entirely convince on grounds of literary merit—and the books in question aren’t quite his best material—then how about Graham Greene, who was pounding Benzedrine when he wrote his 1939 travel book about Mexico, “The Lawless Roads,” and the novel that came out of his Mexican travels, “The Power and the Glory”? (The paranoid and menacing atmosphere of that superb novel, which describes a whiskey priest being hunted by Communist revolutionaries, surely owes something to Greene’s pill-chugging.)

Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen,” with the important proviso that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Auden seems to have been the only unquestionably major writer to use drugs in quite this way, as a direct source of energy for his work. He represents the apotheosis of a utilitarian approach to drugs; and it is therefore logical, if he was going to take drugs, that he would gravitate toward speed, which is the utilitarian drug par excellence.

42 rules for dealing with Life, the Universe, and Everything

January 5th, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s answer to What are the most valuable things everyone should know? garnered quite a bit of attention and led him to consider writing a book of his rules, rather than a simplified version of his Maps of Meaning for a popular audience:

  • Tell the truth.
  • Do not do things that you hate.
  • Act so that you can tell the truth about how you act.
  • Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
  • If you have to choose, be the one who does things, instead of the one who is seen to do things.
  • Pay attention.
  • Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you need to know. Listen to them hard enough so that they will share it with you.
  • Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationships.
  • Be careful who you share good news with.
  • Be careful who you share bad news with.
  • Make at least one thing better every single place you go.
  • Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
  • Do not allow yourself to become arrogant or resentful.
  • Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.
  • Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  • Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
  • If old memories still make you cry, write them down carefully and completely.
  • Maintain your connections with people.
  • Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or artistic achievement.
  • Treat yourself as if you were someone that you are responsible for helping.
  • Ask someone to do you a small favour, so that he or she can ask you to do one in the future.
  • Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  • Do not try to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued, and be very careful about rescuing someone who does.
  • Nothing well done is insignificant.
  • Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  • Dress like the person you want to be.
  • Be precise in your speech.
  • Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  • Don’t avoid something frightening if it stands in your way — and don’t do unnecessarily dangerous things.
  • Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  • Do not transform your wife into a maid.
  • Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
  • Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
  • Read something written by someone great.
  • Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
  • Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  • Don’t let bullies get away with it.
  • Write a letter to the government if you see something that needs fixing — and propose a solution.
  • Remember that what you do not yet know is more important than what you already know.
  • Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

He thought he’d title his book 42 and include 42 rules for dealing with Life, the Universe, and Everything, but he instead pared it down to 12 Rules for Life.

Here he gives a preview:

His former student, Gregg Hurwitz, included the (older) rules in his thriller Orphan X.

It took a world war to educate them all

January 4th, 2018

The Second World Wars takes an unusual approach to its subject:

Hanson starts with the idea that the Axis powers were more or less destined to lose, then works backward to understand the reasons for their defeat. The book revolves around a question highly relevant to our own brewing confrontation with North Korea: Why, and how, do weaker nations convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are capable of defeating stronger ones?

Hanson begins by putting the Second World War in a “classical context.” Although it was a high-tech conflict with newly lethal weapons, he writes, it still followed patterns established over millennia: “British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans.” In many instances, military planners on both sides ignored the lessons of the past. Some lessons were local: it’s always been hard to “campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian peninsula,” for example, which is exactly what the Allies struggled to do. Others were universal. Small countries have difficulty defeating big ones, because — obviously — bigger countries have more people and resources at their disposal; Germany, Italy, and Japan, therefore, should have been more concerned about their relatively small size compared to their foes. History shows that the only way to win a total war is to occupy your enemy’s capital with infantrymen, with whom you can force regime change. Hitler should have paused to ask how, with such a weak navy, he planned to cross the oceans and sack London and, later,Washington. At a fundamental level, it was a mistake for him to attack countries whose capitals he had no way to reach.

In terms of management and logistics, the Axis powers were similarly, and sometimes quite conspicuously, disadvantaged. Before the war, the United States produced a little more than half of the world’s oil; Axis leaders should have known this would be a decisive factor in a mechanized conflict involving tanks, planes, and other vehicles. (The Nazis may have underestimated the importance of fuel because — even though they planned to quickly conquer vast amounts of territory through blitzkrieg — many of their supply lines remained dependent upon horses for the duration of the war.) In general, Allied management was more flexible — British planners quickly figured out the best way to place radar installations, for example — while the Axis powers, with their more hierarchical cultures, tended toward rigidity. Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.” For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.

In any event, Hanson shows that the Second World War hinged to an unprecedented extent upon artillery (“At least half of the combat dead of World War II probably fell to artillery or mortar fire”): the Allies had bigger, faster factories and could produce more guns and shells. “The most significant statistic of the war is the ten-to-one advantage in aggregate artillery production (in total over a million large guns) enjoyed by the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States over the three Axis powers.” Russia, meanwhile, excelled at manufacturing cheap, easily serviceable, and quickly manufactured tanks, which, by the end of the war, were better than the tanks the Nazis fielded. Many Allied factories remained beyond the reach of Axis forces. There were a few possible turning points in the war: had Hitler chosen not to invade Russia, or not to declare war on the United States, he might have kept his Continental gains. Similarly, Japan might have contented itself with a few local conquests. But temperance and Fascism do not mix, and the outsized ambitions of the Axis powers put them on a collision course with the massive geographical, managerial, and logistical advantages possessed by the Allies, which, Hanson suggests, they should have known would be insurmountable.

The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable. When the Allies perceived just how far Fascist fantasy diverged from reality, they concluded that Axis leaders had brainwashed their citizens and themselves. They began to realize that “the destruction of populist ideologies, especially those fueled by claims of racial superiority,” would prove “a task far more arduous than the defeat of a sovereign people’s military.”


The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world — they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable. The Allies, meanwhile, underestimated their own economic might in the wake of the Great Depression. They allowed themselves to be intimidated by Fascist rhetoric; justifiably horrified by the First World War, they wanted to give pacifism a chance, and so refrained from the flag-waving displays of aggression that might have revealed their true strength, while hoping, despite his proclamations to the contrary, that Hitler might be satisfied with smaller, regional conquests. “Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives,” Hanson writes. “Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions. It took a world war to educate them all.”

Better understand the mechanics of radicalization

January 3rd, 2018

T. Greer lists every book he read in 2017, and it’s a long list, but he picks out one book he thinks is the most important for others to read, William Freehling’s two volume Road to Disunion:

I highlighted the first volume of this book back in 2013 as one of the top-ten reads of that year; the second volume is not quite as good, but would probably make it into the top-fifteen cut for this year. Together they provide an immensely satisfying social and political history of the American south from revolution to secession.

Why this book? The national fracas over the cause of the U.S. Civil War revealed just how ill-informed we are about why that war happened. “Slavery” is the easy, obvious answer. It is also utterly inadequate: slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic, and slavers willing to sacrifice the Union for sake of slavery had been around just as long. So why did they succeed in only in 1860—not 1789, or 1800, or 1820, or 1855? Some might answer that the South was more ‘radical’ in 1860 than decades earlier, but all that reflexive answer does is give you another question: just how did the South get that way? Radicalism does not just happen. In the South radicalism emerged because it was planned. Freehling’s first volume tells the story of the plans that failed: of attempts to get southerners of different stripes and interests to identity with “the South,” convince these converts that this magical “South” was under attack, and that the only defense of “Southern” institutions was secession. In a wonderful mix of cultural, social, and political history Freehling shows why each of these attempts fell apart. But the last group of secessionists were by far the most self-aware of the bunch. In the second book, Freehling charts the rise of a conniving group of tyrants who consciously used the history past defeats to craft a stronger, more sinister political strategy. This strategy was intended to radicalize the South and drive the Union into a crisis intentionally designed to make compromise impossible.

It is a remarkable book. It is masterfully written. It is topical. But most important of all, its concepts can be generalized. No other book has helped me to better understand the mechanics of radicalization. All Americans should be aware of these mechanics. There are eerie parallels between the principles and strategies employed by the secessionists of antebellum days and certain political groups in America today. This book will help you see them.

I suppose a more detailed exposition on that theme deserves its own post. I will not say anything more on this one. But consider buying and reading both volumes.

Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation?

January 3rd, 2018

Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation? That’s what Andy Weir estimates it’ll cost — eventually, in the 2080s, when Artemis takes place. Here are his key points, edited down:

The cheapest way to get mass to LEO (at the time of this writing) is with a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. They charge $61.2 million for the launch, and it can put 13,150kg of mass into LEO. So right now, that means it costs $4,653 per kilogram.

The commercial space industry, through competition and engineering advances, will settle down to the same fuel-to-overhead ratio as the modern airline industry.

For each flight, I noted the price of each class of ticket, then worked out the take — the total amount of money the airline gets if every seat on the plane is sold at its listed cost. The fuel consumed is based on the flight duration and the fuel consumption rate of the aircraft. The cost of that fuel is based on the market price of jet fuel on the day I looked up those tickets, which was $0.475/kg. (Actually, the price was 38 cents per liter, but I wanted price per kg and jet fuel has a density of 0.8kg/L). [...] So for the rest of this paper I’ll assume a commercial airline spends 16.5% of its take on fuel.

A passenger spacecraft would weigh the same as a passenger aircraft capable of carrying the same number of people.

The commercial space industry will use hydrogen-oxygen fuel.

The thing that matters most about rocket fuel is a property called “specific impulse.” I don’t want to bore you with physics (I’m here to bore you with economics) so I’ll just say this: specific impulse is a measure of how efficient a rocket fuel is. The higher a fuel’s specific impulse, the less of it you need to get a ship moving a given velocity. And hydrogen-oxygen fuel has the best specific impulse known. Also, it creates water as its exhaust, so there are no pollutants. And finally, it’s cheap to produce.

Right now, there are engineering limitations to using hydrogen-oxygen fuel. The main one being that it burns very hot — hotter than any engine can handle. But again, I’m assuming all these challenges get researched and solved by a profit-hungry industry.

The final piece of the puzzle is the cost of hydrogen and oxygen. This was a little harder to find. I was able to find reliable data on the 2002 price of bulk hydrogen, so I adjusted the 2002 dollars into 2015 dollars and got $0.93/kg. As for oxygen, I used the publicly available data on what NASA pays for it — $0.16/kg in 2015 dollars. The reaction requires one part hydrogen and eight parts oxygen (by mass), so the total fuel cost is $0.245/kg.

Okay, we have a ship that weighs 165,500kg and we’re going to put 550 passengers on it. We’ll give them 100kg each for their bodies and luggage. That’s a total mass of 215,500kg.

The specific impulse of hydrogen-oxygen fuel is 389s (yes, the unit for measuring specific impulse is “seconds”. It makes no intuitive sense, just roll with it). To get to LEO you need to accelerate by 9,800m/s. LEO actually only requires 7,800m/s, but you lose around 2,000m/s during the ascent to air resistance and other inefficiencies.

Again, I’m skipping over the physics (Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation, if you’re curious) but those numbers mean we’ll need 12.04kg of fuel for every 1kg we want to put into LEO. We want to put 215,000kg into LEO, so we need 2,594,620kg of fuel.

At our calculated fuel cost ($0.245/kg) that means the total fuel cost for the launch is $637,200.

Now I get to use my airline fuel overhead figure. Airlines have 16.5% fuel overhead ratio and we’re going to assume the space industry will as well. So $637,109 is 16.5% of our total ticket take. And that means our total take is $3,861,266.

Our ship carries 550 passengers, meaning each passenger will have to pay $7,020.48.

According to my research, it takes a total of 5,930m/s of delta-v to get from LEO to the surface of the Moon. More physics and math happens here, but it means that for every kilogram of cargo you want to put on the lunar surface, you have to put 4.73kg of mass into LEO. 1kg of actual cargo, and 3.73kg of fuel to get that cargo to the Moon.

So what’s it cost to put freight on the Moon? Well, it would cost 4.73 times what it would cost to put the cargo in LEO. So, while it costs $35.10 to put a kilogram into LEO, it would cost $166.02 to put it on the surface of the Moon.

You have to get your body to LEO ($7020), and then soft-landed on the moon. So you end up needing the same overhead – 4.73 times the LEO cost. $33,206.87.

So let’s say you want a two-week stay. That’s a total of 28 days of expenses at $800, so $22,400. Round that up to $25,000 because vacations always cost more than you expect. That plus the $45,000 travel costs totals $70,000.

So I ask again: Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation?

We need to have some rules for making some rules

January 2nd, 2018

A group is its own worst enemy, Clay Shirky explained, almost 15 years ago:

Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.


The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion called “Experiences in Groups,” written in the middle of the last century.

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?

He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: “Hopelessly committed to both.”

He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.

In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this kind of emotive group experience.

Now, it’s pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups that have been labeled and named like “I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a massively multi-player online role-playing game,” it’s easy to see how you would have some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion’s thesis is that this effect is much, much deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I’ll use a story from your life. Because even if I don’t know you, I know what I’m about to describe has happened to you.

You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.

You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.

And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.

This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?

So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.

Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.

The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, “A group met for pairing off.” And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members.

You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say “Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label.” And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it’s about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.

The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. This is a very common pattern. Anyone who was around the Open Source movement in the mid-Nineties could see this all the time. If you cared about Linux on the desktop, there was a big list of jobs to do. But you could always instead get a conversation going about Microsoft and Bill Gates. And people would start bleeding from their ears, they would get so mad.

If you want to make it better, there’s a list of things to do. It’s Open Source, right? Just fix it. “No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr …”, the froth would start coming out. The external enemy — nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.

So even if someone isn’t really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.

The third pattern Bion identified: Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated something that’s beyond critique. You can see this pattern on the Internet any day you like. Go onto a Tolkein newsgroup or discussion forum, and try saying “You know, The Two Towers is a little dull. I mean loooong. We didn’t need that much description about the forest, because it’s pretty much the same forest all the way.”

Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: “This is for discussing the works of Tolkein.” Go in and try and have that discussion.

Now, in some places people say “Yes, but it needed to, because it had to convey the sense of lassitude,” or whatever. But in most places you’ll simply be flamed to high heaven, because you’re interfering with the religious text.

So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it’s being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we’re going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.

He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

In the Seventies — this is a pattern that’s shown up on the network over and over again — in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up BBSes. This was launched when people didn’t own computers, institutions owned computers.

Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. “Communitree” — the name just says “California in the Seventies.” And the notion was, effectively, throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.

And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways they weren’t before.

And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren’t terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.

And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn’t defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying “No, that’s not the kind of free speech we meant.”

But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was something that they needed to have that they didn’t have, and as a result, they simply shut the site down.

Now you could ask whether or not the founders’ inability to defend themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There’s no way to completely separate them.

What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they’d set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within. And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn’t shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn’t happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn’t care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.

Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.

The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.

This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.

There’s a great document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which is about the wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis’s Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”

And then, I think about 18 months later — I don’t remember the exact gap of time — they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.

“So we’re back, and we’re taking wizardly fiat back, and we’re going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart.”

People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but when you’re dealing with groups of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an incredibly different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds of crises a constitutional crisis. It’s what happens when the tension between the individual and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that something has to be done.

And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it’s not just “We need to have some rules.” It’s also “We need to have some rules for making some rules.” And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogeneous groups.

Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.” As a group commits to its existence as a group, and begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing. I told him I was reminded of Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics, and Elam Bend noted that my post comes up first if you Google that term.)

Yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke

January 2nd, 2018

Tyler Cowen interviews Andy Weir (The Martian, Artemis) on the economics of space travel, and it veers off into some less technical topics:

Cowen; Now let me ask you some questions about governance in space. I’ve read some of your favorite works are by Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Red Mars of course by Kim Stanley Robinson; Asimov’s Caves of Steel. And it’s a consistent theme in these stories. In fact, the stories you love, they involve an element of rebellion.

Weir; They do.

Cowen; If we had a colony on the Moon, how long do you think it would be before that colony would seek independence from Earth rule?

Weir; Well, first off, it wouldn’t be Earth rule. It would be ruled by some specific country. Right?

Cowen; Sure, or company.

Weir; Or… Country. You can’t really seek independence from a company.

Cowen; Well, it could be like the East India Company, right? The Kenya Space Corporation, they have some features of East India.

Weir; Right. They’re much nicer than the East India Company was.

Weir; Yeah, well, the Kenya Space Corporation in my book is just… They have a very simple business model. They build Artemis and then rent out lots. They don’t try to control its economy or its people or anything. They’re literally just landlords, and absentee landlords at that. But you can’t declare independence from a company because, by definition, the company owns all the assets. If you say, “I’m independent from the company,” what you’re doing is resigning. Right?

Cowen; Well, you’re stealing, in a way. But it happens, right?

Weir; Yeah. But if you’re talking about some sort of revolution or something like that, well I guess the first step is you’d have to be pretty sure that you are self-sufficient and independent. You have to be, like, Earth-independent. Which, in the case of Artemis, it’s not.

Cowen; But you have some allies. So what’s now the United States declares independence from what was then Britain, and the French help us. Other people who are upset at Britain help the American colonies to become independent.

So as long as you have some outside allies, wouldn’t you expect, within say 50 years’ time, a lunar colony, a Mars colony would try to seek independence so those rents could be captured by domestic interests?

Weir; Possibly. Ultimately, I believe that all major events in history are economic. And, I mean, independence was really about who gets to collect taxes, right? So if the people who live in a city are content with the economic status that they have, they’re not going to rebel. People don’t… People, despite what you see, I would challenge you to show me any situation where people revolted over purely ideology without any economic reason.

Cowen; But think about the American colonies. So the British were taxing us maybe 5 percent of GDP —

Weir; And the American colonies preferred that those taxes went to the American colonial governments.

Cowen; Yes, absolutely. But it wasn’t that much money, in a sense. That to me is what’s surprising.

Weir; Well, at that time, taxes globally were not that much money.

Cowen; Yeah.

When you read these books by Heinlein, Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson . . .

Weir; Yeah, they always end up being political thrillers and that’s not what I’m going for. I’m showing the frontier town and the kind of cooperative aspects of human nature. I’m not…

For some reason, every book about colonizing space ultimately seems to lead to a revolution. Because that’s exciting, right? It’s Star Wars.

You know, you’ve got a rebellion, so “yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke,” and it has historical parallels and it’s all awesome like that. But I don’t necessarily think that’s going to be the case. Partially because as long as we keep following the rules of the Outer Space Treaty, which I believe we will, there’s no such thing as sovereign territory outside of Earth. So Artemis is, functionally speaking, an offshore platform.

Cowen; On Earth, do you think we should experiment more with seasteading? Set up sea colonies?

Weir; Yeah.

Cowen; Underground colonies?

Weir; Absolutely.

Cowen; Have them be politically autonomous, if they want?

Weir; You would have to change maritime law to be able to do that. Right now, under maritime law, you can seastead. I mean, you can do it right now. You can go out into the international waters and build something. You have to flag to some country, though.

Cowen; Right. A cruise ship, yeah.

Weir; Yeah. Well, yeah, you could flag to like Suriname or something like that. You could fly a flag of convenience. But, one way or another, you are subject to the laws of the country that you’re flying the flag of, just as Artemis is subject to the laws of Kenya.

Regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together

January 1st, 2018

It wasn’t always clear that World War II, or the Second World War, would be seen as a single, unified war, as Victor Davis Hanson emphasizes in The Second World Wars:

By 1939, Germany had entered its third European war within 70 years, following World War I (1914–1918) and, before that, the Franco–Prussian War (1870–1871). Conflicts throughout history become serial when an enemy is not utterly defeated and is not forced to submit to the political conditions of the victor, whether in the two Peloponnesian or three Punic Wars, or the later Hundred Years’ and Seven Years’ Wars. Such was the case with the preludes to World War II, when many of the major familiar nations of the European world were again at war. Germany was once more the aggressor. That fact also helped spawn the familiar idea of “World War II” and its alternative designation, the “Second World War.” Yet this time around, both sides tacitly agreed that there would not be a World War III — either Germany would finally achieve its near century-long dream of European dominance or cease to exist as a National Socialist state and military power. Yet the Allies understood history far better: In any existential war, only the side that has the ability to destroy the homeland of the other wins.

The war, also like many conflicts of the past, was certainly chronologically inexact, with two official denouements known in the Anglosphere as V-E and V-J Day. The war, like many, was also ill-defined, especially for a country such as Bulgaria, to take one minor example, which had no common interests or communications with its nominal Pacific ally Japan. Likewise, the Greeks were indifferent to the war against fascism in China, and in the same way the Soviet Union cared little whether Italy had invaded France.

Often border disputes on the periphery of Germany, ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and political grievances and national ambitions set off regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together as World War II, at least in Britain and the United States. Most sides had hopes of allying their parochial causes to larger ideological crusades. But far more important, they just wanted to join the right side of strong allies that might be likely winners and divvy up spoils. General Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain was emblematic of such opportunism that transcended ideological affinities. During 1939–1941, Franco — despite horrendous recent losses in the Spanish Civil War and despite Hitler’s occasional rebuffs — considered possible entrance into the war on the Axis side. Franco assumed that the Allies would likely be defeated and there might be colonial spoils in North Africa allotted to Spain. He often boasted that Spain might unilaterally take Gibraltar or enlist hundreds of thousands of warriors to the Axis cause. But between 1943 and 1944, Spain increasingly began to reassert its neutrality, in recognition that the Axis powers would now likely lose the war and their war-won territories — and prior allegiance might earn an Allied invasion and with it a change of government. By late 1944, Fascist Spain was no longer exporting tungsten to Germany and was instead reinvented as sympathetic to British and American democracy and eager to become an anticommunist ally after the war.