Open Questions

Some anomalies/questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find existing explanations to be unsatisfying.
biology, cats, politics, history, genetics, nootropics, psychology, sociology, design
2018-10-172020-12-07 finished certainty: possible importance: 3

A list of some ques­tions which are not nec­es­sar­ily im­por­tant, but do puz­zle me or where I find ex­ist­ing ‘an­swers’ to be un­sat­is­fy­ing, cat­e­go­rized by sub­ject (a­long the lines of Patrick Col­lison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas).

? ? ?


  • Why do hu­mans, pets, and even lab an­i­mals of many species kept in con­trolled lab con­di­tions on stan­dard­ized di­ets ap­pear to be in­creas­ingly obese over the 20th cen­tu­ry? What could ex­plain all of them si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­com­ing obe­se? (Is it some­thing lit­er­ally in the wa­ter?)
  • Does mod­er­ate al­co­hol or con­sump­tion have any health ben­e­fits, or not?

Jeanne Calment

Jeanne Cal­ment holds the ver­i­fied record for hu­man longevity at ~122.5 years at her death over 22 years ago: Cal­ment is his­to­ry’s first & only 122 year old; and also the first & only 121 year old; and also the first & only 120 year old. No chal­leng­ing cen­te­nar­ian has come close to her record, and arith­meti­cal­ly, they will not for years to come: she will have held the record for a min­i­mum of 3 decades, de­spite count­less coun­ter­vail­ing fac­tors. Some sta­tis­ti­cal sim­u­la­tions sug­gest that Cal­men­t-like record gaps are not ex­pected from the dis­tri­b­u­tion of hu­man life ex­pectan­cies, and as time pass­es, her record be­comes in­creas­ingly anom­alous.

This truly re­mark­able longevity raises the ques­tion of whether Cal­men­t’s longevity is due to the same fac­tors as all other cen­te­nar­i­ans: did she ben­e­fit from some unique fac­tor like ge­netic mu­ta­tions, or, as ac­cused in late 2018 of be­ing, is she, in fact, merely a fraud which has es­caped pre­vi­ous ver­i­fi­ca­tion?

Why did live so many more years than other cen­te­nar­i­ans (to 122 years & 164 days), break­ing all records and set­ting a life ex­pectancy record which decades later has not just not been bro­ken, but not even ap­proached? As of 2019-08-17, the old­est per­son record is held by , then age 116 years, 227 days (2,128 days less than Cal­men­t), who would have to sur­vive un­til 2025-06-14 to match Cal­ment; in other words, even if Tanaka turned out to be the first per­son to break Cal­men­t’s record, Cal­men­t’s record would have stood from ~1995 to 2025, a re­mark­able min­i­mum of 30 years.

Graph of time each “old­est per­son” record holder held record be­fore dy­ing (2013 Geron­tol­ogy Re­search Group data); out­lier is Jeanne Cal­ment (her pre­de­ces­sor Flo­rence Knapp died in 1988, she died in 1997)

Which is ex­tra­or­di­nary con­sid­er­ing that she smoked & loved her & choco­late (the se­cret to longevi­ty‽), med­i­cine has con­tin­u­ously ad­vanced, the global pop­u­la­tion has in­creased, life ex­pectancy in gen­eral has in­creased, and the im­plies that, with mor­tal­ity rates ap­proach­ing 50%, cen­te­nar­i­ans should die like flies and ever closer in age to each other and not have oc­ca­sional enor­mous per­ma­nent >3 year gaps be­tween the record set­ter (Cal­ment) and every­one since then. (I did some Gom­pertz curve sim­u­la­tions, and Cal­men­t-like records .)

It is­n’t nec­es­sar­ily odd that the first well-val­i­dated longest-lived per­son might ex­ceed pre­vi­ous records from sparse poor­ly-kept datasets by a large mar­gin (much as it is not odd now to see Olympics sports or weather records shat­tered by large mar­gins1), but it is odd that decades are pass­ing and still no val­i­dated cen­te­nar­i­ans have reached, much less sur­passed, Cal­men­t’s record. (I had a sim­i­lar ques­tion about the “Dream Mar­ket” dark­net mar­ket, as its longevity was ex­tremely anom­alous, es­pe­cially when one looks at how .) Typ­i­cal­ly, if one looks at record datasets such as the , as one would ex­pect from or­der sta­tis­tics, the ‘gap’ be­tween each suc­ces­sive record holder is smaller and small­er, par­tic­u­larly as the num­ber of ‘com­peti­tors’ in­creas­es; in run­ning, the num­ber of run­ners has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally over time, it has be­come a ma­jor sport/profession with con­comi­tant im­prove­ments in train­ing and so on, and this re­sulted in records be­ing reg­u­larly set but by smaller in­ter­vals each time, as the ex­treme of what is hu­manly pos­si­ble is ap­proached. Sim­i­lar­ly, with longevi­ty, we should see early on large gaps be­tween suc­ces­sive ver­i­fied record hold­ers as a small num­ber of rea­son­ably-re­li­ably ver­i­fied su­per-cen­te­nar­i­ans from the most in­dus­tri­al­ized & bu­reau­cra­tized coun­tries (as op­posed to the enor­mous num­ber of frauds/errors pre-doc­u­men­ta­tion: /) reach the longevity fron­tier, with gaps reg­u­larly shrink­ing as the rest of the world ‘comes on­line’ with proper doc­u­men­ta­tion, hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple start com­pet­ing for the record, im­proved med­i­cine pushes out the av­er­age life ex­pectancy & makes it much more prob­a­ble to reach an ex­treme, there is greater sci­en­tific & pub­lic in­ter­est in track­ing the ex­tremes, and so on. In­stead, what we see is this steady or­der sta­tis­tic effect of shrink­ing record break­ers—ex­cept for Jeanne Cal­ment, who smashes the record and con­tin­ues to hold it de­spite decades of chal­lengers from an ex­po­nen­tially grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

The eas­i­est an­swer is that she is a fake like so many sup­posed cen­te­nar­i­ans, but against that, she does­n’t fit the usual fake pro­file of ex­ist­ing only like pa­per like the fraud­u­lent Japan­ese cen­te­nar­i­ans, be­ing male, or be­ing in a Third World il­lit­er­ate coun­try where old age is ex­tremely cul­tur­ally val­ued, dates ex­hibit bla­tant , no con­tem­po­rary pa­per records ex­ist or their pa­per trail only be­gan late in life, etc; she was fe­male, born in Third Re­pub­lic France in a highly bu­reau­cratic well-or­ga­nized well-doc­u­mented lit­er­ate so­ci­ety which did not es­pe­cially value ex­treme old age, was ap­par­ently fairly so­cial & not an un­known recluse, was known for longevity in her life­time (as op­posed to after­ward­s), was vet­ted by the & oth­ers, etc.

On the other hand, Valery Novoselov & Yuri Dei­gin (1/2) & in 2018–2019 ac­cused Cal­ment of hav­ing been a fraud, specifi­cal­ly, hav­ing died and been re­placed by her young daugh­ter Yvonne Cal­ment who sup­pos­edly died un­ex­pect­edly in 1934. The fraud the­ory orig­i­nally pos­tu­lated that the mo­tive for the fraud would be evad­ing the es­tate taxes which would have been due (on top of the es­tate taxes paid due to two deaths in the fam­ily just 3 years be­fore) & Jeanne Cal­men­t’s later an­nu­ity (which would’ve been con­sid­er­ably un­der­priced since she was sup­pos­edly much old­er); aside from the ob­ser­va­tion that Cal­ment is such an out­lier and was re­mark­able healthy & youth­ful-look­ing for her os­ten­si­ble ages (but more con­sis­tent with how old the daugh­ter Yvonne would’ve been), Novoselov notes the sus­pi­cious­ness of the Cal­ment fam­ily archives be­ing de­stroyed by them, some anom­alies in Cal­men­t’s pass­port, odd­i­ties in fam­ily arrange­ments, ap­par­ent in­con­sis­tency of Cal­men­t’s rec­ol­lec­tions & tim­ing of events & pho­tos, fa­cial land­marks like ear fea­tures not seem­ing to match up be­tween young/old pho­tos, and an ob­scure 2007 ac­cu­sa­tion in a French book that a French bu­reau­crat and/or the in­sur­ance com­pany had un­cov­ered the fraud but the French state qui­etly sup­pressed the find­ings be­cause of Cal­men­t’s na­tional fame.Robert Young has crit­i­cized some of the points, sev­eral claims like the es­tate tax mo­tive have been aban­doned by fraud the­o­rists en­tire­ly, and . (Pre­sum­ably DNA test­ing offers a de­fin­i­tive an­swer, if the Cal­ment fam­ily co­op­er­ates, and al­lows ac­cess to ex­tant blood sam­ples.)

Over­all, the fraud the­ory seems highly un­likely to ex­plain the Cal­ment anom­aly, but the re­newed at­ten­tion & at­tempts to vin­di­cate her record have un­for­tu­nately also shed lit­tle light on what al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions might be true.

Cats & Earwax

While pet­ting cats, I ac­ci­den­tally dis­cov­ered cats are fas­ci­nated by the smell & taste of , par­tic­u­larly that of hu­mans, and this in­ter­est can last in­defi­nite­ly. Dogs & hu­mans, for com­par­ison, are not. A num­ber of anec­dotes have re­ported this over the years, but no for­mal re­search ap­pears to have been done on this. What makes ear­wax at­trac­tive to cats? Pheromones? Some nu­tri­ent?

Mas­sag­ing cat ears while pet­ting them, I ac­ci­den­tally dis­cov­ered that cats can en­joy fin­gers in­serted into their ears, per­haps be­cause, like hu­mans, ear­wax can build up to un­com­fort­able lev­els (and I once dis­cov­ered un­di­ag­nosed in a kit­ten this way); after test­ing about 7 cats, I then dis­cov­ered that cats are fas­ci­nated by the smell and taste of their own ear­wax. (I’m not en­tirely sure if they ex­hibit a , as Kolb 1991 claims. Most of my tests oc­curred be­fore I learned what a Flehmen re­sponse was.) This has held true of most cats I have tested this on. Search­ing, I’ve found a num­ber of com­ments in pub­li­ca­tions and on­line also not­ing this phe­nom­e­non. There are not many con­texts a cat owner would no­tice cats’ in­ter­est in ear­wax, and many of them are ac­tively dis­cour­aged (a cat lick­ing your ear hurt­s!), but when there is, it ap­pear that ear­wax in­ter­est is often not­ed. I’ve found that cat ear­wax is not even the most in­ter­est­ing ear­wax: cats are more in­ter­ested in dog ear­wax, and hu­man ear­wax most of all: the re­ac­tion can be quite strong—­given the op­por­tu­ni­ty, a cat will lick a hear­ing aid for quite a while, and I’ve had to take away hear­ing aids from my cats be­cause the in­ten­sity of their lick­ing made me worry about them dam­ag­ing it. Aside from the cost of re­place­ment, this is a safety con­cern: hear­ing aids, ear­phones, or (e­spe­cial­ly) dis­pos­able foam earplugs are small enough to be eaten & en­dan­ger cats’ health.

I first thought that it might be like sniffing butts, a way to learn about the health/status of an­other cat2, but that does­n’t ex­plain why dog & hu­man ear­wax is more in­ter­est­ing, and cats don’t seem to seek out ear­wax even after they know about it (with the ex­cep­tion of one of my cats who’d some­times try to lick my ears when I was in bed)—I find that I some­times have to touch their noses with a waxy fin­ger be­fore they abruptly be­come in­ter­ested (sug­gest­ing that what­ever the odor is, it does­n’t travel far). Dogs, on the other hand, typ­i­cally nei­ther ap­pre­ci­ate fin­gers in ears nor show much in­ter­est in smelling or lick­ing ear­wax.

What is it about ear­wax that fas­ci­nates cats? Is there a par­tic­u­lar chem­i­cal re­spon­si­ble, like a fat or salt or ?3 Ear­wax in hu­mans comes in ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ forms, differ­ing by race and I would de­scribe cat/dog ear­wax as be­ing like ‘wet’ hu­man ear­wax; do cats like ‘dry’ ear­wax as well? (While there is no short­age of con­fi­dent as­ser­tions that the rea­son is the “in­cred­i­bly high con­cen­tra­tion of fatty acids and cho­les­terol” or salt in ear­wax and sim­i­lar claims, ex­actly zero ev­i­dence is ever offered for these ex­pla­na­tion­s.)

Search­ing Google Scholar/Google, I’ve found the fol­low­ing anec­dotes:

  • Arny 1990, “A Crav­ing For Wax”: let­ter to Na­ture ask­ing if any­one knew any­thing after not­ing

    I dis­missed this as a cu­rios­ity un­til I found that our sec­ond Siamese cat also liked it. In fact, the sec­ond cat leaps on the bed in the morn­ing hop­ing to be offered some. I men­tioned this odd be­hav­iour to 3 other peo­ple and have learned from them that their cats also liked the wax.

    I emailed Arny in No­vem­ber 2019, and he said he “got a few replies from peo­ple who had no­ticed the same be­hav­ior with their pet.” but oth­er­wise noth­ing use­ful.

  • Kolb 1991, “Chap­ter 25: An­i­mal mod­els for hu­man PFC-related dis­or­ders. The Pre­frontal Its Struc­ture, Func­tion and Cor­tex Pathol­ogy”, a pa­per which notes in pass­ing that:

    The most com­mon com­po­nents of the re­sponse pat­tern in­clude ap­proach­ing, sniffing, and touch­ing the urine source with the nose, flick­ing the tip of the tongue re­peat­edly against the an­te­rior palate be­hind the up­per in­cisors, with­draw­ing the head from the urine, and open­ing the mouth in a gape or ‘Flehmen re­sponse’, and lick­ing the nose. This be­hav­ioural pat­tern ap­par­ently al­lows ol­fac­tory stim­uli to reach the sec­ondary ol­fac­tory sys­tem, which ap­pears to be spe­cial­ized to analyse odours that are species-rel­e­vant. Cats show this re­sponse to urine of other cats, and oddly enough to hu­mans, but they do not show it to urine of rhe­sus mon­keys, dogs, rats, or ham­sters. They also do not show it to cat fe­cal mat­ter or cat fur, al­though they do show it to cat ear­wax!

  • 2007, “Aug­mented Fish Re­al­ity”, an in­ter­view with an artist who men­tions:

    At one time we had 13 cats and 7 dogs. I be­gan be­ing very in­ter­ested in com­mu­ni­ca­tions with cats and dogs and the sub­tle body lan­guages that an­i­mals use to com­mu­ni­cate. We had a cat named Que tu bu who loved to lick the ear­wax out of our ears, which was a strange scratchy affair, though clearly a cat show­ing affec­tion and love to­ward a hu­man. Lat­er, as a teenager I be­came in­ter­ested in Ma­rine Bi­ol­o­gy…

    Ri­naldo also men­tioned this in a 2016 es­say:

    After min­utes of stroking, Catabu would sud­denly pop up on his back paws and place his front paws on my shoul­der. He would then be­gin to probe my in­ner ear with his scratchy tongue. His whiskers tick­led as he dug fur­ther, lick­ing my ear slowly and de­lib­er­ate­ly. This was some­how a plea­sur­able ex­pe­ri­ence, though his tongue was sticky. Cat be­hav­ior­ists, would spec­u­late he was claim­ing me as lit­ter-mate. I think we were ex­chang­ing love and affec­tion. This was my first tran­s-species ex­pe­ri­ence. Here was a cat, find­ing plea­sure in the taste of my ear­wax while we pro­vided mu­tual affec­tion. This cat/human re­la­tion­ship eft a last­ing legacy and deep­-prob­ing ques­tions for me about an­i­mal-hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion, sym­bio­sis and the con­tem­po­rary no­tion of the com­puter in­ter­face.

  • Lynch 2007, “‘No Writer Nor Scholar Need Be Dull’: Rec­ol­lec­tions Of Paul J. Ko­r­shin”, in a mem­oir of Eng­lish pro­fes­sor Paul Ko­r­shin, rec­ol­lects:

    At the Os­age house, Paul re­vealed him­self as a dot­ing cat lover. He and De­bra had adopted brother and sis­ter tab­bies he’d named Os­car and Sher­win for his un­der­grad­u­ate men­tor at City Col­lege. Os­car, the color of an or­ange cream­si­cle, would jump into Paul’s lap and purr dur­ing the sem­i­nars. Paul would cra­dle him, say­ing, “He likes to be made much of.” Both cats had free run of his ex­quis­ite suits, though he kept lint tape handy to pick up the fur. When Paul met my tuxedo cat Edgar, I men­tioned that Edgar was par­tial to ear­wax. In­trigued, Paul said, “I don’t know if I have any,” but he put a fin­ger to his ear and al­lowed Edgar to lick off the spoils. In time, Gay­lord and Holly would join Paul and De­bra’s cat fam­i­ly. We ex­changed Christ­mas cards over the years “from our cat house to yours.”

On the gen­eral In­ter­net, some cat own­ers have noted this be­hav­ior:


  • Why do hu­mans have such a large mu­ta­tion load on com­mon ge­netic vari­ants? Com­mon SNPs make up a large frac­tion of vari­ance, even for traits which must be fit­ness-affect­ing. “Cul­ture or tech­nol­ogy slow down evo­lu­tion” does­n’t wash when hu­man fit­ness differ­en­tials are so large and so many peo­ple died young or as in­fants, and how did the many dele­te­ri­ous vari­ants get pushed up to such high fre­quen­cies in the first place? Par­tic­u­larly given that my un­der­stand­ing is that al­most all in­ter­est­ing SNPs date back many tens of thou­sands of years, pos­si­bly mil­lions, and GWAS analy­ses in­di­cate that causal vari­ants are largely shared across all hu­man races, un­der­min­ing de­mo­graphic ac­counts like ge­netic drift.

  • Why does the im­mune sys­tem so often sur­face as a or tis­sue en­rich­ment in GWASes for many things not gen­er­ally be­lieved to be in­fec­tious, such as schiz­o­phre­nia or Alzheimer’s dis­ease? Are we miss­ing an enor­mous range of in­fec­tions di­rectly caus­ing bad things (or in­di­rectly through au­toim­mune mech­a­nism­s), or is the im­mune sys­tem just sort of like in­tel­li­gence in be­ing a gen­eral health trait?

  • Cats:

    • Can do­mes­tic cats be bred to be health­ier & hap­pier un­der mod­ern con­di­tions of pet life? Or are they ne­glect­ed, and in­deed , con­tribut­ing to vast fe­line suffer­ing & mor­tal­i­ty?
    • Why does vary so much across coun­tries in do­mes­tic cats, and also across fe­line species, with no ap­par­ent phy­lo­ge­netic or en­vi­ron­men­tal pat­tern? It is so her­i­ta­ble in do­mes­tic cats that a ge­netic rea­son is plau­si­ble, but if it’s adap­tive, what is it do­ing when cat­nip does­n’t ex­ist in the ranges of most tested cat species, and if it’s neu­tral why can so many close­ly-phy­lo­ge­net­i­cal­ly-re­lated species re­spond to it in differ­ent ways?
    • Hy­brids: is it just me or are do­mes­tic cats for a mam­mal? It seems like you can cross them with just about other aside from the big cats, de­spite spe­ci­a­tions go­ing back >5mya.
  • Psychology

    • What is “per­sonal pro­duc­tiv­ity” and why does it vary from day to day so much? And why does it not seem to cor­re­late with en­vi­ron­men­tal vari­ables like or sleep qual­ity (at least us­ing my non-sleep­-de­prived ), nor man­i­fest as the usual kind of la­tent vari­able in my fac­tor analy­ses? Is it some­thing much weirder than the usual kind of la­tent vari­able, like a set of ze­ro-sum mea­sure­ments draw­ing on a generic pool of ‘en­ergy’ or ‘mana’?

    • Does lis­ten­ing to mu­sic while work­ing serve as a dis­trac­tion, or mo­ti­va­tion?

    • one of the best stim­u­lants on the mar­ket: legal, cheap, effec­tive, rel­a­tively safe, half-life much less than 6 hours. It also affects one of the most im­por­tant and well-s­tud­ied re­cep­tors. Why are there no at­tempts to de­velop ana­logues or re­place­ments for nico­tine which im­prove on it eg by mak­ing it some­what longer-last­ing or less blood­-pres­sure-rais­ing, when there are so many vari­ants on other stim­u­lants like am­phet­a­mines or modafinil or caffeine? (The one ex­cep­tion I cur­rently know of is a biotech com­pa­ny, Tar­ga­cept, which at­tempted to de­velop nico­tinic re­cep­tor drugs for ADHD/de­pres­sion/Alzheimer’s/bladder prob­lems such as vari­ants on , but their drugs failed in clin­i­cal tri­als and they were ac­quired in 2015. Given the highly risky na­ture of drug de­vel­op­ment, it’s un­clear how much to in­fer from their fail­ure about whether bet­ter nicotines ex­ist—Alzheimer’s dis­ease is where ex­cit­ing drugs go to die, and a use­ful stim­u­lant may not have so large a ben­e­fit as to be com­pelling in tri­als for ADHD or de­pres­sion—I doubt caffeine or modafinil could jus­tify large Phase III tri­als on the ba­sis of their effects on ADHD!)

    • does modafinil build tol­er­ance, or not? The aca­d­e­mic lit­er­a­ture’s con­sis­tent claim that it does­n’t com­pletely con­tra­dicts the equally con­sis­tent anec­dotes from most modafinil users that it does, and seems a pri­ori im­plau­si­ble.

    • Why does (anec­do­tally so far) seem to be so effec­tive for writ­ers, even ones who are not morn­ing per­sons? While pro­gram­mers, which seems like a sim­i­lar oc­cu­pa­tion, are in­vari­ably owls?

    • Richard Feyn­man made a fa­mous cri­tique of poor ex­per­i­men­tal con­trols in psy­chol­ogy ex­em­pli­fied by flaws/side-channels in mouse ex­per­i­ments, as demon­strated by a “Mr Young”; but who was Mr. Young & what re­search was it?. It’s not like Feyn­man to make things up, but all at­tempts to find the orig­i­nal re­search in ques­tion have failed and it’s un­clear who Young was.

    • in 1935, the psy­chol­o­gist David Wech­sler com­piled a dataset of hu­man per­for­mance on every­thing from run­ning to punch-card pro­cess­ing, where absolute/cardinal mea­sure­ments were pos­si­ble (rather than or­di­nal ones like IQ) and ob­served that the ab­solute range of hu­man ca­pa­bil­i­ties is ~2–3x (best/worst out of 1000 healthy peo­ple): The Range of Hu­man Ca­pac­i­ties. Look­ing through the rare ci­ta­tions of it, his gen­er­al­iza­tion does not ap­pear to have been mean­ing­fully gain­said since.

      Since run­ning across this in, I be­lieve, Ep­stein 2013’s The Sports Gene, I have felt like this is a ne­glected ob­ser­va­tion that should tell us some­thing im­por­tant about hu­man bi­ol­ogy or ge­net­ics or in­tel­li­gence—why only 3x? and so con­sis­tently 2–3x?—but noth­ing has ever gelled.

    • dis­so­cia­tive traits:

      • how com­mon are, and what is go­ing on psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, in the oc­ca­sional erup­tion of large shared fan­tasy worlds () among chil­dren & ado­les­cents?

        There are many cases of a (typ­i­cally pu­bes­cent, typ­i­cally fe­male) child or ado­les­cent build­ing such an in­tense fan­ta­sy-world that they wind up suck­ing in & con­vinc­ing friends/classmates. They typ­i­cally go un­re­ported ex­cept in ex­treme cases (such as the 4, the , the Man­ches­ter stab­bing), often re­ported only in pass­ing5 or via anec­dotes—I have been told of 3 cases (2 from ac­quain­tances, one in­di­rect­ly), all of which fol­low the same pat­tern of a young fe­male teenager build­ing up a fan­tasy world (with heavy in­put from dreams) and en­gross­ing friends/classmates.

        But there does­n’t seem to be any rec­og­nized name for this pat­tern (“”? “ com­plex”? ) or dis­cus­sion of epi­demi­ol­o­gy. Is it an ex­pan­sion of ? Is preva­lence un­der­es­ti­mated due to (sim­i­lar to how s are not anom­alous but may be had by the ma­jor­ity of chil­dren, though they for­get as adult­s)? Are the dy­nam­ics the same as pro­to-re­li­gions (the ways in which the para­cosms are ex­tend­ed, par­tic­u­larly by dream­ing, bear a great deal of re­sem­blance to the ori­gins of re­li­gions like Chris­tian­i­ty)?

      • speak­ing of dreams, a cu­ri­ous In­ter­net sub­cul­ture is : us­ing imag­i­na­tion and med­i­ta­tive prac­tices to en­vi­sion & cre­ate an so strongly that one can hal­lu­ci­nate them & per­ceive them as act­ing au­tonomously (typ­i­cally done to cre­ate a friend or ad­vi­sor); one ‘tul­pa­mancer’ I know re­marked that suc­cess seemed to cor­re­late with an above-av­er­age abil­ity to en­gage in or to be , sug­gest­ing that tul­pa­mancers are un­usu­ally able to . (Would day­dream­ing, or mal­adap­tive day­dream­ing, be also more com­mon?)

        This im­me­di­ately re­minded me of Luhrman­n’s 2012 When God Talks Back, which doc­u­ments evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian and other cult prac­tices which en­able the be­liever to ac­tu­ally hear God’s voice and ‘be­friend’ Je­sus through a va­ri­ety of au­to-sug­ges­tive med­i­ta­tive prac­tices. Are these be­liev­ers en­gaged in lit­er­ally the same psy­cho­log­i­cal task as tul­pa­mancers, and the prac­tices effec­tively make a Je­sus tul­pa? (What would brain imag­ing scans show the neu­ro­cor­re­lates of hear­ing a tulpa vs hear­ing God, one won­der­s…)

    • What is with red color per­cep­tion be­ing so im­por­tant that red is the first named color in pretty much every cul­ture stud­ied & for mil­len­nia, when hu­mans ac­tu­ally see green (a vastly more com­mon col­or) most eas­i­ly?


    Mouse Utopia

    One of the most fa­mous ex­per­i­ments in psy­chol­ogy & so­ci­ol­ogy was John Cal­houn’s Mouse Utopia ex­per­i­ments in the 1960s–1970s. In the usual telling, Mouse Utopia cre­ated ideal mouse en­vi­ron­ments in which the mouse pop­u­la­tion was per­mit­ted to in­crease as much as pos­si­ble; how­ev­er, the over­crowd­ing in­evitably re­sulted in ex­treme lev­els of phys­i­cal & so­cial dys­func­tion­al­i­ty, and even­tu­ally pop­u­la­tion col­lapse & even ex­tinc­tion. Look­ing more closely into it, there are rea­sons to doubt the replic­a­bil­ity of the growth & patho­log­i­cal be­hav­ior & col­lapse, and if it does hap­pen, whether it is dri­ven by the so­cial pres­sures as claimed by Cal­houn or by other causal mech­a­nisms at least as con­sis­tent with the ev­i­dence like dis­ease or mu­ta­tional melt­down.

    What re­ally hap­pened in “Mouse Utopia” ex­per­i­ments? Mouse Utopia is a leg­endary ex­per­i­ment in which mice were put in a high­-den­sity en­clo­sure (“Uni­verse 25”) with un­lim­ited food, a ‘mouse utopia’—only to see the ini­tial pop­u­la­tion growth be fol­lowed by a pop­u­la­tion col­lapse gen­er­a­tions lat­er, while the late mouse pop­u­la­tion ex­hib­ited bizarre phys­i­cal & so­cial ab­nor­mal­i­ties such as autis­tic-like be­hav­ior & ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity & fail­ure to re­pro­duce. Mouse Utopia is in­ter­preted as il­lus­trat­ing the dam­ag­ing effects of the en­vi­ron­ment & over­crowd­ing by John B. Cal­houn and oth­ers. After he pub­lished an ex­tremely pop­u­lar ar­ti­cle in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can in 1962 de­scrib­ing the first phase of Mouse Utopia ex­per­i­ments, it be­came a stock ex­am­ple em­ployed by lib­er­als in ap­pli­ca­tion to hu­man pop­u­la­tions, par­tic­u­larly for global & ur­ban pop­u­la­tion growth and any hu­man prob­lem that might be caused by en­vi­ron­ments, such as the ur­ban de­cay and ri­ots and spik­ing crime rates of that era.

    As WP puts it, de­scrib­ing the most fa­mous Mouse Utopia (not to be con­fused with the al­so-du­bi­ous & high­ly-pop­u­lar ex­per­i­men­t), Uni­verse 25:

    Ini­tial­ly, the pop­u­la­tion grew rapid­ly, dou­bling every 55 days. The pop­u­la­tion reached 620 by day 315, after which the pop­u­la­tion growth dropped marked­ly, dou­bling only every 145 days. The last sur­viv­ing birth was on day 600, bring­ing the to­tal pop­u­la­tion to a mere 2200 mice, even though the ex­per­i­ment setup al­lowed for as many as 3840 mice in terms of nest­ing space. This pe­riod be­tween day 315 and day 600 saw a break­down in so­cial struc­ture and in nor­mal so­cial be­hav­ior. Among the aber­ra­tions in be­hav­ior were the fol­low­ing: ex­pul­sion of young be­fore wean­ing was com­plete, wound­ing of young, in­abil­ity of dom­i­nant males to main­tain the de­fense of their ter­ri­tory and fe­males, ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior of fe­males, pas­siv­ity of non-dom­i­nant males with in­creased at­tacks on each other which were not de­fended against.[2]

    After day 600, the so­cial break­down con­tin­ued and the pop­u­la­tion de­clined to­ward ex­tinc­tion. Dur­ing this pe­riod fe­males ceased to re­pro­duce. Their male coun­ter­parts with­drew com­plete­ly, never en­gag­ing in courtship or fight­ing and only en­gag­ing in tasks that were es­sen­tial to their health. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed them­selves—all soli­tary pur­suits. Sleek, healthy coats and an ab­sence of scars char­ac­ter­ized these males. They were dubbed “the beau­ti­ful ones.” Breed­ing never re­sumed and be­hav­ior pat­terns were per­ma­nently changed. The con­clu­sions drawn from this ex­per­i­ment were that when all avail­able space is taken and all so­cial roles filled, com­pe­ti­tion and the stresses ex­pe­ri­enced by the in­di­vid­u­als will re­sult in a to­tal break­down in com­plex so­cial be­hav­iors, ul­ti­mately re­sult­ing in the demise of the pop­u­la­tion.

    Cal­houn saw the fate of the pop­u­la­tion of mice as a metaphor for the po­ten­tial fate of man. He char­ac­ter­ized the so­cial break­down as a “sec­ond death,” with ref­er­ence to the “sec­ond death” men­tioned in the Bib­li­cal book of Rev­e­la­tion 2:11.[1] His study has been cited by writ­ers such as Bill Perkins as a warn­ing of the dan­gers of liv­ing in an “in­creas­ingly crowded and im­per­sonal world.”[3]

    If Cal­houn had merely found that rat/mouse pop­u­la­tions had an op­ti­mal equi­lib­rium pop­u­la­tion den­sity which they nat­u­rally reached when per­mit­ted, and that if a pop­u­la­tion was forced be­yond this den­si­ty, var­i­ous things be­gan to get worse to some de­gree, I do not think any­one would have been too sur­prised or his re­search so world-fa­mous & text­book ma­te­r­i­al. What he found was more dra­mat­ic: the mouse pop­u­la­tion was not self­-reg­u­lat­ing and would grow to un­sus­tain­able lev­els, re­sult­ing in not just mod­er­ate de­crease in qual­ity of life, but an ex­plo­sion of all sorts of strange & novel patholo­gies fol­lowed by to­tal pop­u­la­tion col­lapse and pos­si­bly ex­tinc­tion. This nar­ra­tive of growth → pathol­ogy → col­lapse → ex­tinc­tion fed into anx­i­eties over the ap­par­ent melt­down of Amer­i­can cities and wide­spread fears like Ehrlich’s 1968 that the had to­tally failed, hu­man pop­u­la­tions were in­creas­ing ex­po­nen­tially with­out bound, and within years there would be global mass famine deaths of “hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple”.

    So Mouse Utopia quickly be­came one of the most fa­mous ex­per­i­ments in psy­chol­ogy (and highly in­flu­en­tial on not just psy­chol­ogy but so­ci­ol­o­gy, ur­ban plan­ning, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and sci­ence fic­tion, in­spir­ing eg The Rats of NIMH), and con­tin­ues to be dis­cussed (eg by Down the Rab­bit Hole); as “Es­cap­ing the Lab­o­ra­to­ry: The Ro­dent Ex­per­i­ments of John B. Cal­houn & Their Cul­tural In­flu­ence”, Rams­den & Adams 2008/2009 put it:

    Cal­houn pub­lished the re­sults of his early ex­per­i­ments with the rats at NIMH in a 1962 edi­tion of Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can. That pa­per, “Pop­u­la­tion Den­sity and So­cial Pathol­ogy”, went on to be cited up­wards of 150 times a year.9 It has since been in­cluded as one of “Forty Stud­ies that Changed Psy­chol­o­gy,” join­ing pa­pers by such fig­ures as Freud, Pavlov, Mil­gram, Rorschach, Skin­ner, and Wat­son ([pg249, ch32: “Crowd­ing into the Be­hav­ioral Sink”, ] Hock 2004). Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skin­ner’s pi­geons, Cal­houn’s rats came to as­sume a near-i­conic sta­tus as em­blem­atic an­i­mals, ex­em­plary of the ways in which be­hav­ioral ex­per­i­men­ta­tion at once marks and vi­o­lates the hu­man-an­i­mal dis­tinc­tion. The macabre spec­ta­cle of crowded psy­chopatho­log­i­cal rats and the avail­able com­par­isons with hu­man life in the dense­ly-packed in­ner cities en­sured the ex­per­i­ments were quickly adopted as “sci­en­tific ev­i­dence” of so­cial de­cay. Ref­er­enced far out­side of the fields of ecol­ogy and men­tal health, Cal­houn’s rats have—or cer­tainly had—­come to seem part of the com­mon cul­tural stock, short­hand for the prob­lems of ur­ban crowd­ing just as Pavlov’s dogs were for re­spon­dent con­di­tion­ing. Along with their pub­lic pop­u­lar­i­ty, the ex­per­i­ments played a crit­i­cal role in the de­vel­op­ment of dis­ci­plines and re­search fields, so much so that so­ci­ol­o­gist and hu­man ecol­o­gist Amos Haw­ley (1972) would re­mark that the ex­tent of their in­flu­ence was it­self a “cu­ri­ous phe­nom­e­non.”

    Like any sym­bol, it has shown adapt­abil­i­ty—in 2015, now some rein­ter­pret it to re­flect con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal de­bates and ex­plain it not as about crowd­ing & so­cial break­down but as be­ing about sex­ism & in­equal­ity:

    …To­day, the ex­per­i­ment re­mains fright­en­ing, but the na­ture of the fear has changed. A re­cent study pointed out that Uni­verse 25 was not, if looked at as a whole, too over­crowd­ed.10 Pens, or “apart­ments” at the very end of each hall­way had only one en­trance and ex­it, mak­ing them easy to guard.11 This al­lowed more ag­gres­sive ter­ri­to­r­ial males to limit the num­ber mice in that pen, over­crowd­ing the rest of the world, while iso­lat­ing the few “beau­ti­ful ones” who lived there from nor­mal so­ci­ety. In­stead of a pop­u­la­tion prob­lem, one could ar­gue that Uni­verse 25 had a fair dis­tri­b­u­tion prob­lem.

    How­ev­er, there are red flags:

    • the im­me­di­ate and long-en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity in lib­eral pol­i­tics & pop cul­ture was fed by Cal­houn’s own high­ly-an­thro­po­mor­phized de­scrip­tion of the var­i­ous kinds of mice, and he fully en­dorsed the grand ap­pli­ca­tions of Mouse Utopia to con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can prob­lems (even­tu­ally cul­mi­nat­ing in an an­gry NIMH res­ig­na­tion let­ter in 1986 heavy on ref­er­ences to George Or­well’s 1984).12

      One might note that his­tor­i­cal­ly, a num­ber of high­-pro­file ide­o­log­i­cal­ly-friendly psy­chol­ogy re­sults dat­ing ~1950–1970, often used to jus­tify pol­i­cy, have proven to be se­ri­ously flawed (even more so than one would ex­pect from the con­tem­po­rary so­cial psy­chol­ogy repli­ca­tion cri­sis): the Pyg­malion effect, the , the by­stander effect/Kitty Gen­ovese, the Third Wave, Zim­bar­do’s Stan­ford Prison Ex­per­i­ment, the dou­ble-bind & re­frig­er­a­tor-mother the­o­ries of schiz­o­phre­nia, Project Nim etc fre­quently fail to work in the long run or repli­cate, and in­volved heavy an­a­lytic bias or out­right in­ter­fer­ence by the ex­per­i­menter to make the ex­per­i­ment ‘work’ and tell the de­sired sto­ry.

    • an­i­mal stud­ies in gen­eral often than sim­i­lar hu­man stud­ies: even smaller n, large be­tween-s­train ge­netic differ­ences (in ad­di­tion to all the be­tween-species differ­ences)13, pseudo-repli­ca­tion from group housing/relatedness, typ­i­cally non-blinded rat­ings, heavy pub­li­ca­tion bi­as, etc.

    • Mouse Utopia is al­most com­pletely un­pub­lished. De­spite work­ing on it and sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ments with NIMH fund­ing for decades (he “con­tin­ued to work on his re­search re­sults un­til his death on Sep­tem­ber 7, 1995”), Cal­houn ap­pears to have pub­lished al­most noth­ing sub­stan­tive about his re­search, lim­ited to a hand­ful of short sum­mary ar­ti­cles or pass­ing ref­er­ences. (Cal­houn’s 1963 book The Ecol­ogy and So­ci­ol­ogy of the Nor­way Rat de­scribes only his “quar­ter-acre” ex­per­i­ments which ended in June 1949, be­fore the NIH ex­per­i­ments on over­crowd­ing.) The ma­jor ci­ta­tion for his Mouse Utopia ex­per­i­ments is the afore­men­tioned 1962 Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can ar­ti­cle (pub­lished 33 years be­fore his death), which con­sists of 9 pages of pop­u­lar writ­ing, of which about half is generic il­lus­tra­tions of mice (rather than data-based fig­ures or plots or ta­bles). Cal­houn 1963, “The So­cial Use of Space” touches briefly on be­hav­ioral sinks & mor­tal­ity in some of the ear­lier ex­per­i­ments. Cal­houn 1971, “Space and the Strat­egy of Life” presents a brief dis­play of data from “Uni­verse 14” and “Uni­verse 15” but goes into more de­tail about 25 un­spec­i­fied uni­verses done to fol­lowup the Kessler 1966 the­sis and men­tions that they are fol­low­ing Uni­verse 25, still wait­ing for it to ac­tu­ally col­lapse.14 The ar­ti­cle Cal­houn 1973, “Death Squared: The Ex­plo­sive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Pop­u­la­tion”, be­gins with an ex­tended anal­ogy to the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, and presents some lim­ited in­for­ma­tion on Uni­verse 25, which has only halved in pop­u­la­tion at this point. His 1970 ar­ti­cle, for ex­am­ple, is just a redac­tion of the 1962 one, and de­spite ap­par­ently con­sult­ing Cal­houn’s man­u­scripts at the NLM, Rams­den & Adams 2009 shed lit­tle light on Cal­houn’s re­search or cite much be­yond the 1962 ar­ti­cle. (Con­sid­er­ing how lit­tle he pub­lished, it’s sur­pris­ing that NIMH funded Cal­houn un­til 1983, lead­ing to what Rams­den & Adams 2009 de­scribe as a “forced re­tire­ment” in 1986—ap­par­ently Cal­houn was un­able to get fund­ing any­where else.)

      This causes con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion in read­ing since it’s un­clear what pa­pers re­fer to what. The 1962 ar­ti­cle de­scribes high in­fant mor­tal­ity but not col­lapse in uniden­ti­fied ‘uni­verses’, which are not the fa­mous Uni­verse 25, which was started lat­er; Cal­houn 1971 had not yet seen a col­lapse in Uni­verse 25; Mars­den 1972 de­scribes a pop­u­la­tion in slight de­cline and ex­trap­o­lates out to pos­si­ble col­lapse in a sin­gle un­spec­i­fied uni­verse; while Cal­houn 1973 ar­ti­cle shows a graph of a uni­verse’s pop­u­la­tion defi­nitely de­creas­ing and ap­par­ently doomed by steril­ity & ag­ing, which is iden­ti­fied as Uni­verse 25. Are these all the same pop­u­la­tion, and if not, how many differ­ent ‘se­ries’ or ‘uni­verses’ are be­ing de­scribed? How many ex­hib­ited the ‘senes­cence’ phase, much less pop­u­la­tion col­lapse? (In­deed, how many were done in to­tal?)

    • it is un­clear just how many ex­per­i­ments Cal­houn had to run to get the one re­sult which is al­ways talked about; the name “Uni­verse 25” im­plies at least 24 prior ex­per­i­ments, and Cal­houn speaks vaguely of mul­ti­ple “se­ries” of ex­per­i­ments, ref­er­enc­ing ear­lier ex­per­i­ments with sta­ble pop­u­la­tions (un­like Uni­verse 25), some which were ap­par­ently con­trolled to fixed pop­u­la­tion sizes and some which ap­par­ently were not. Nor did all of the over­pop­u­lated uni­verses de­velop the “be­hav­ioral sink” phe­nom­e­non Cal­houn lays so much stress on, which he at­trib­utes to an oth­er­wise-un­ex­plained change in the food type. The num­ber of ex­per­i­ments Cal­houn ran im­plies that vari­ance in out­comes was high, and in Kessler 1966, the two ex­per­i­men­tal group repli­cates were nev­er­the­less differ­ent on many mea­sures.

    • aside from 2 stud­ies on brain hor­mones prior to 1973 in “mice se­lected (by Dr Cal­houn, Dr Mars­den, and their as­so­ci­ates) to rep­re­sent spe­cific be­hav­ioural states ex­ist­ing dur­ing the de­clin­ing crowded pop­u­la­tions”, there ap­pear to be no fol­lowup or sec­ondary analy­ses of any kind, so there are no archived bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ples any­where which could be checked; Cal­houn’s 1973 claim that re­mov­ing mice for analy­sis would dis­turb the colony dy­nam­ics sug­gests that few or no sam­ples were kept in the first place

    • no fol­lowup lit­er­a­ture: only 2 par­tial repli­ca­tions have ever been done by third par­ties that I know of15; like­wise, if unique as­pects of Cal­houn’s ex­per­i­ment like the “beau­ti­ful ones” have been re­ported since, I have not en­coun­tered any ref­er­ences to them.16 They do not con­vinc­ingly sup­port the Uni­verse 25 Mouse Utopia nar­ra­tive. They are:

      1. Kessler 1966 the­sis, : Kessler used 4 strains of mice si­mul­ta­ne­ously (rather than Cal­houn’s use of a sin­gle kind of mice), in 2 sep­a­rate ex­per­i­men­tal high­-den­sity groups (plus a con­trol) and achieved a re­mark­ably high & ap­par­ently sta­ble pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty. Cal­houn 1971‘s sum­mary does not men­tion any pop­u­la­tion col­lapse nor whether there were Cal­houn’s patholo­gies like the ’beau­ti­ful ones’. Kessler’s ab­stract re­ports that he achieved den­si­ties “sev­eral times greater” than prior ex­per­i­ments, with sta­ble pop­u­la­tions main­tained by low preg­nancy & high in­fant mor­tal­ity rates; while Kessler notes “aber­ra­tions of sex­ual be­hav­ior”, the high­-den­sity mouse be­hav­ior nor­mal­ized (eg they were able to re­pro­duce) when trans­planted to low­er-den­sity en­vi­ron­ments or when en­vi­ron­ments were con­nected in an ‘em­i­gra­tion’ ex­per­i­men­t’. The two ex­per­i­men­tal groups showed vari­ance, differ­ing from each other in many ways (“Co­horts in Pop A and B differed with re­spect to re­pro­duc­tion phys­i­ol­o­gy, mor­tal­i­ty, and be­hav­ior, and in­ter­co­hort differ­ences per­sisted at all lev­els of pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty.”), de­spite be­ing gen­er­ated the same way & put into the same kind of en­vi­ron­ment. Kessler fur­ther saw signs of nat­ural se­lec­tion, as in­di­cated by changes in ge­net­i­cal­ly-in­flu­enced coat color pro­por­tions (which were con­sis­tent in both group­s). Kessler sums up as:

        The large sizes and un­usual de­gree of crowd­ing at­tained by the freely grow­ing pop­u­la­tions in this study com­pared with pre­vi­ous stud­ies may be re­lated to the types of an­i­mals used, to the num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als in the founder nu­clei, and to the phys­i­cal struc­ture of the en­clo­sures. Ex­treme crowd­ing was com­pat­i­ble with gen­eral phys­i­cal health. The de­cline of fer­til­ity and fe­cun­di­ty, the de­creased sur­vival of new­borns, and the ap­pear­ance of be­hav­ioral aber­ra­tions—rather than dis­ease or an in­crease in adult mor­tal­i­ty—rep­re­sented the ma­jor self­-reg­u­la­tory mech­a­nisms that even­tu­ally lim­ited pop­u­la­tion growth. The growth of in­di­vid­u­als was not in­hib­it­ed. So­cial with­drawal and the de­cline of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion rather than a rise of in­ter­ac­tion char­ac­ter­ized the pop­u­la­tions. Such find­ings cast doubt about the gen­er­al­ity of the so-called “Stress” the­ory of so­cial ecol­ogy that em­pha­sizes in­creased in­ter­ac­tion and pi­tu­itary-a­drenal hy­per­ac­tiv­ity as the prin­ci­pal mech­a­nisms in­volved in self­-reg­u­la­tion of ver­te­brate pop­u­la­tions.

        Over­all, de­spite achiev­ing a den­sity far higher and one that would be ex­pected to have a far larger harm­ful effect, Kessler 1966 only some­what re­sem­bles Cal­houn’s re­sults: while Kessler does de­scribe de­viant mice be­hav­ior dri­ven by den­sity (such as ho­mo­sex­ual mat­ings) and high in­fant mortality/cannibalism, on the other hand, there are no pop­u­la­tion crashes or ces­sa­tion of re­pro­duc­tion but sta­ble pop­u­la­tions after ini­tial growth, there are no be­hav­ioral sinks, any ‘beau­ti­ful ones’ or ‘drinkers’ or ‘autis­tic’ mice are not de­scribed as such by Kessler, the mice are healthy over­all, and trans­planted mice re­vert. Fur­ther, Kessler’s ob­ser­va­tion of con­sid­er­able be­tween-pop­u­la­tion vari­ance & ge­netic changes raise ques­tions about sta­tis­ti­cal power & in­ter­pre­ta­tion of any effects.

      2. Ham­mock 1971, “Be­hav­ioral changes due to over­pop­u­la­tion in mice”: uses a differ­ent mouse strain, Swiss Web­ster, and in the pri­mary ex­per­i­ment, fol­low­ing up a pi­lot, ob­tained “a to­tal lack of over­pop­u­la­tion.”

        The groups reached a cer­tain pop­u­la­tion and then main­tained it, bounc­ing back after any culling (and rais­ing ques­tions about Cal­houn’s claim that a pop­u­la­tion which had stopped re­pro­duc­ing after reach­ing an equi­lib­rium must be doomed). Ham­mock notes ex­ten­sive pathol­ogy in the pi­lot sim­i­lar but not iden­ti­cal to Cal­houn’s (eg no ‘beau­ti­ful ones’ but in­stead the pi­lot mice be­gan to groom only their head), some in­di­ca­tion of a pop­u­la­tion de­cline dur­ing the short du­ra­tion, and no ap­pear­ance of harems/territories/behavioral sinks. In the main ex­per­i­ment, how­ev­er, the ex­per­i­men­tal pop­u­la­tion quickly reached a low-den­sity equi­lib­rium and no patholo­gies were ob­served other than high in­fant mor­tal­ity (pri­mar­ily from can­ni­bal­ism, main­tain­ing the equi­lib­ri­um). Ham­mock notes “No other ex­per­i­ment re­viewed had this phe­nom­e­non oc­cur. In all other re­search, the pop­u­la­tions first over­pop­u­lated then re­duced their num­bers. This ex­per­i­ment sug­gests an in­born pop­u­la­tion con­trol mech­a­nism based upon the den­sity avail­able per mouse…”

    • other re­search on an­i­mal so­cial dy­nam­ics & pop­u­la­tion den­sity find that there are (of course) re­la­tion­ships be­tween them, and changes in so­cial pat­terns with den­si­ty, but noth­ing like Cal­houn’s re­sults of ex­plo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth, ut­ter so­cial de­cay, wide­spread steril­i­ty, uniquely patho­log­i­cal types emerg­ing, and com­pletely collapse/extinction (eg com­pare Mouse Utopia with the changes ob­served in Berman et al 1997 for a colony of rhe­sus mon­keys).

    • Cal­houn fails to con­sider al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions other than pure­ly-den­si­ty-based so­cial break­down:

      • dis­ease: for ex­am­ple, the steril­ity noted is also a side-effect of many con­ta­gious dis­eases or par­a­site load, which are greatly as­sisted by den­sity in spread­ing, and den­sity fos­ters “evo­lu­tion to­wards vir­u­lence” of ex­ist­ing dis­eases as dis­eases can be more lethal to spread faster (while in­fec­tions in more iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als must be more care­ful to not kill their hosts be­fore in­fect­ing an­other host). Noth­ing was done to pre­vent dis­ease nor to check for its pres­ence, and Cal­houn sim­ply de­nies it could be a fac­tor.17

      • ge­net­ics: the de­scribed col­lapse closely re­sem­bles ex­per­i­ments (which also fea­ture steril­ity and sub­se­quent pop­u­la­tion col­lapse); that is typ­i­cally demon­strated in asex­ual or­gan­isms by re­mov­ing all re­pro­duc­tive con­straints like re­sources and so elim­i­nat­ing nat­ural se­lec­tion as much as pos­si­ble, al­low­ing the con­tin­u­ous buildup of mu­ta­tions un­til fi­nally or­gan­isms are no longer even able to re­pro­duce, but should be pos­si­ble in sex­u­al­ly-re­pro­duc­ing or­gan­isms as well.

        Melt­down should be much harder to in­duce in sex­ual or­gan­isms (the re­com­bi­na­tion the­o­ret­i­cally al­lows much greater se­lec­tion and is part of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the ex­tremely com­plex, ex­pen­sive, er­ror-prone process of sex­ual re­pro­duc­tion) and it’s un­clear if Uni­verse 25 ran enough gen­er­a­tions to plau­si­bly gen­er­ate mu­ta­tional melt­down, but it will be faster in tiny pop­u­la­tions (eg Cal­houn men­tions that some used 56 rats as a seed but not which strain—­many lab­o­ra­tory strains are un­healthy & re­pro­duc­tively un­fit to be­gin with, highly adapted to the lab en­vi­ron­ment, and highly in­bred or even clon­al)18. Uni­verse 25 ap­pears to have been be­gun with just “4 pair of mice”, based on fig­ure 2 in Cal­houn 1973. (Based on Mars­den 1972, they were prob­a­bly mice; the WP ar­ti­cle de­scribes them as in­bred & notes that they tend to­wards anx­i­ety & males to­wards ag­gres­sion.) Fur­ther in­creas­ing in­breed­ing, Cal­houn 1962 de­scribes ‘harem’-like be­hav­ior where the dom­i­nant male could en­sure near-ex­clu­sive ac­cess to all the fe­male in one sub­di­vi­sion of the cage, dubbed “brood pens”, and force out ri­val males. Cal­houn ap­pears to ad­mit in dis­cus­sions that they would be highly in­bred but de­nies any pos­si­bil­ity of rel­e­vant ge­netic change.19

        As well, highly so­cial or­gan­isms with com­plex colony mech­a­nisms, de­pen­dent on sub­tle in­ter­ac­tions be­tween mem­bers (eg proper use of alarm pheromones and bor­der guard­ing), where mem­bers can in­flict a great deal of harm on each oth­er, may be es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to ge­netic mu­ta­tions, as the genes of in­di­vid­ual mice affect cage mates (, Baud et al 2018), caus­ing “in­di­rect ge­netic effects” (IGEs) or “so­cial epis­ta­sis”.

        Cal­houn did not do any­thing to check or avoid these al­ter­na­tive mech­a­nisms, such as run­ning fos­ter­ing ex­per­i­ments with the sur­vivors (if the prob­lem is ge­net­ic, the off­spring of the sur­vivors would, even if fos­tered into a nor­mal healthy mouse colony, still be un­healthy, while if it’s a con­ta­gious dis­ease, in­tro­duc­ing a few sur­vivors into a healthy colony should re­sult in no­tice­able colony-wide dam­age); Cal­houn notes a qua­si­-fos­ter­ing ex­per­i­ment in his 1962 pa­per (8 of the health­i­est from one un­spec­i­fied uni­verse were spared culling, had fewer lit­ters & no sur­viv­ing off­spring), but does not note that this more strongly sup­ports a ge­netic rather than so­cial dys­func­tion­al­ity ex­pla­na­tion, as the rest of the colony had been re­moved and could no longer ex­ert any neg­a­tive effects. Cal­houn 1971 de­scribes the Kessler 1966 the­sis, “In­ter­play be­tween so­cial ecol­ogy and phys­i­ol­o­gy, ge­net­ics and pop­u­la­tion dy­nam­ics of mice” as us­ing 4 differ­ent strains (16 pairs to­tal) as founders (in­creas­ing to­tal ge­netic vari­ance great­ly) and had “un­usual at­tain­ment of very high den­sity” with­out any col­lapse de­spite “less than three square inches per mouse”; Cal­houn as­sumes that it is again due to the en­vi­ron­ment, re­lated purely to so­cial effects stem­ming from the num­ber of founders (rather than the great in­crease in ge­netic vari­ance from us­ing more in­di­vid­u­als from more strain­s), ig­nor­ing Kessler’s other find­ing of nat­ural se­lec­tion op­er­at­ing on the mouse pop­u­la­tions (show­ing that no­tice­able ge­netic change is pos­si­ble within a sin­gle ex­per­i­men­t), and in de­scrib­ing his fol­lowup ex­per­i­ments to Kessler (with un­clear use of strains but al­most cer­tainly only 1 strain as Cal­houn’s pa­pers seem to typ­i­cally only use the BALB/c mice, so changes in founder pop­u­la­tion would not be as effec­tive as in Kessler 1966), and finds lit­tle effect from vari­a­tion in founder size and again does a qua­si­-fos­ter­ing ex­per­i­ment where again de­spite the ab­sence of their toxic en­vi­ron­ment the sur­viv­ing mice had only a few pups & are often ster­ile & un­able to even get preg­nant by nor­mal mice.

        One won­ders what Cal­houn would have found if the uni­verses had been run with wild-type mice in a ful­ly-s­ter­il­ized en­vi­ron­ment, uni­verses fol­lowed un­til ac­tual ex­tinc­tion, and all uni­verses were fully re­port­ed.

    Over­all, Mouse Utopia is a sketchy and un­re­li­able re­sult: it is se­lec­tively and scant­ily re­port­ed, it is un­clear how often the claimed be­hav­ioral sinks or pop­u­la­tion col­lapses hap­pen even just within Cal­houn’s ex­per­i­ments, whether any such prob­lems are due to ex­oge­nous­ly-forced den­sity in­creases rather than the colonies nat­u­rally reg­u­lat­ing pop­u­la­tion den­sity close to their op­ti­mum, the few repli­ca­tions repli­cate only parts of it (if at al­l), it is en­tirely pos­si­ble that it is a fluke of that par­tic­u­lar mouse colony or mouse strain, and if the ex­per­i­ment ever was repli­cated ex­actly (as­sum­ing the un­pub­lished ma­te­ri­als are ad­e­quately in­for­ma­tive), it would be un­clear what the ac­tual causal mech­a­nism of the col­lapse would be as the de­sign & analy­sis is am­bigu­ous and Cal­houn tested no hy­pothe­ses (much less the most likely ones of dis­ease or ge­net­ics, which he res­olutely ig­nored)20. I am left con­fused what hap­pened in Mouse Utopia, to what ex­tent it re­flects any real nat­ural dy­nam­ics in­volv­ing pop­u­la­tion growth & den­si­ty, and ex­tremely doubt­ful of the peren­nial at­tempt to link it to hu­mans.


    • Face-to-face meet­ings, even brief ones, ap­pear to ce­ment per­sonal con­nec­tions of trust and lik­ing to an ex­tent not achieved by even years of more me­di­ated con­tact like phone calls or In­ter­net text dis­cus­sions / emails / chat; this ap­pears to be true in al­most every con­text, even ones like British in­ven­tors meet­ing their he­roes (in a differ­ent field) just on­ce, with large step func­tions in con­nec­tions de­spite the ap­par­ent near-zero mar­ginal in­for­ma­tion con­veyed by a brief phys­i­cal visit after long-term in­ter­ac­tions & track records. (This might be re­lated to “21.)

      Is there some­thing qual­i­ta­tively differ­ent about per­sonal meet­ings, and if so, where is it? Is it eye con­tact? Body lan­guage? (It’s prob­a­bly not .)22 Is it mere phys­i­cal prox­im­ity and a cer­tain “in­abil­ity to sus­pend dis­be­lief” about a tech­no­log­i­cally me­di­ated per­son? Can large wal­l-sized TV screens for tele­con­fer­enc­ing achieve the same effects as reg­u­lar con­fer­enc­ing? Or do they need to be 3D? What about VR head­sets, are they ad­e­quate al­ready with avatars and hand-track­ing ges­tural con­trol, or do they re­quire eye­track­ing, or fa­cial ex­pres­sion map­ping? How much is enough?

    • Given the cru­cial role of trust and shared in­ter­ests in suc­cess sto­ries like Xe­rox PARC or the Apollo Project or cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tions in gen­er­al, why are there so few ex­tremely suc­cess­ful pairs of iden­ti­cal twins, and rel­a­tively few ex­am­ples of duos like the Win­klevoss twins, or Hol­ly­wood’s & Wa­chowski broth­ers? The reader will strug­gle to think of more than a hand­ful, or even any other ex­am­ples (the , over half a cen­tury ago? some ran­dom foot­ball or base­ball peo­ple?). As iden­ti­cal twins are ~0.5% of the pop­u­la­tion, and a large frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion has at least one sib­ling, and the ben­e­fits seems so clear (thus lead­ing to enor­mous elite over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion by the usual tail/order sta­tis­tic effects eg Jews/East Asians which have sim­i­lar base-rates as iden­ti­cal twin­s)—where are they?

      Iden­ti­cal twins should have col­lab­o­ra­tive su­per­pow­ers, be­tween shared ge­net­ics & up­bring­ing, in their much-en­vied abil­i­ties to com­pletely im­plic­itly trust each oth­er, pre­dict what the other would agree to or be in­ter­ested in, and so on (col­lab­o­ra­tion taken to the point of iden­ti­cal twins re­port­edly some­times de­vel­op­ing a pri­vate lan­guage or cre­ole in child­hood); sib­lings should also have sim­i­lar (but much small­er) ad­van­tages in col­lab­o­ra­tion com­pared to work­ing with strangers. Is the an­swer some­thing rel­a­tively bor­ing like “the slight health/IQ penalty for be­ing an iden­ti­cal twin plus the low base-rate of iden­ti­cal twins plus their re­main­ing vari­ance mean­ing that one of the pair won’t clear var­i­ous thresh­olds means you would­n’t ex­pect to see many and this is con­sis­tent with what we see” or is there some deeper les­son here about greatness/creativity/risk-taking? (The most amus­ing ex­pla­na­tion, of course, would be “most suc­cess­ful peo­ple are in fact se­cretly iden­ti­cal twins”.)

    • Why did it take un­til the late 20th cen­tury for to de­velop and the crush al­most all other un­armed mar­tial arts at the start of (or per­haps ), when hu­mans have en­gaged in un­armed com­bat for mil­lions of years and every ma­jor coun­try has long lin­eages of spe­cial­ized com­pet­i­tive mar­tial arts and tremen­dous in­cen­tive to find mar­tial arts which worked and quick feed­back loops? (Re­gard­less of whether the Gra­cies’ early achieve­ments were over­hyped, it still seems like MMA had a enor­mous im­pact on the prac­tice of tra­di­tional mar­tial arts and that MMA con­tin­ues to re­sem­ble BJJ much more than most things pre-MMA.)

    • Is phys­i­cal beauty rel­a­tive or ab­solute and if the lat­ter, is it ob­jec­tively in­creas­ing over time? Pho­tographs of ex­cep­tion­ally beau­ti­ful women from the 1800s or early 1900s, or nude/erotic paint­ings from be­fore then, strike most peo­ple are be­ing drab and un­at­trac­tive. Given the sta­bil­ity and cross-cul­tural con­sis­tency of beauty rat­ings, it seems un­likely that it is merely a mat­ter of shift­ing norms or pref­er­ences or fash­ion but rep­re­sents a real ‘ab­solute’ gain in at­trac­tive­ness.

      What is go­ing on? Has cos­met­ics and hair­dress­ing re­ally ad­vanced that much or should we look at ex­pla­na­tions like vastly su­pe­rior vac­ci­nes, elim­i­na­tion of child­hood dis­ease, su­pe­rior nu­tri­tion, elim­i­na­tion of hard (e­spe­cially agri­cul­tur­al) la­bor23, poverty etc? (Large gains in means would not be un­prece­dent­ed: when we look at pho­tos of chil­dren or peo­ple from those time pe­ri­ods, one com­mon ob­ser­va­tion is how short, scrawny, and stunted they look—and in­deed, as an ob­jec­tive fact about an ac­cu­rate­ly-mea­sured car­di­nal mea­sure with ab­solute val­ues, they were short & scrawny, and things re­ally have im­proved that much.) If phys­i­cal beauty is not ze­ro-sum, how far can it go? Can we ex­pect weird effects akin to or the Spear­man effect where after suffi­cient base­line gains, ‘beauty’ starts to di­verge in or­thog­o­nal directions/specialized types? Or might, like the Flynn effect and height, we al­ready be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­ver­sal due to the obe­sity cri­sis or other fac­tors like mu­ta­tion load and we have al­ready seen ‘Peak Beauty’ (at least for the av­er­age per­son, of course CGI/growing populations/cosmetic tech im­plies that mod­els & ac­tors will con­tinue their evo­lu­tion into su­per­stim­uli)?


    • What, al­go­rith­mi­cal­ly, are math­e­mati­cians do­ing when they do math which ex­plains how their ?

      Is it equiv­a­lent to a kind of tree search like or some­thing else? They would­n’t seem to be do­ing a lit­eral tree search be­cause then there would al­most never be mis­takes in the proof (as the built-up tree of the­o­rems only ex­plores valid in­fer­en­tial step­s), but if they’re not, then how are they han­dling ‘log­i­cal un­cer­tainty’? Are they do­ing some­thing like MCTS’s ran­dom play­outs where lem­mas are not proven but sim­ply heuris­ti­cally given a truth value to short­cut ex­plo­ration and the heuris­tic is ac­cu­rate enough to usu­ally guess cor­rectly and this is why the proofs are wrong but the re­sults are right?

    • NN over­pa­ra­me­ter­i­za­tion: We can train large deep slow neural net­works to hu­man-level per­for­mance on many tasks, and we can then train small shal­low fast ver­sions of those NNs to save energy/enable mo­bile de­ploy­ment, so why can’t we train small shal­low fast NNs in the first place? And what would hap­pen if we did fig­ure it out?


    • Who com­mit­ted the 2013 and why? Fur­ther, why have there been no sim­i­lar at­tacks since?

    • What­ever hap­pened to Blake Ben­thall (“De­f­con”) of Silk Road 2? In al­most all other cas­es, ar­rested DNM staff/operators have been ex­tra­dit­ed, tried, plea-bar­gained or con­vict­ed, and largely done with within a few years and were well-doc­u­mented pub­licly through­out. In the case of Ben­thall, how­ev­er, 4 years lat­er, not only is the res­o­lu­tion of his case un­known, his PACER docket has­n’t up­dated since shortly after his ar­rest though the case re­mains open & charges pend­ing. In May 2019 leaks fi­nally in­di­cated Ben­thall was still alive and it seemed like he would be pros­e­cuted only for tax eva­sion‽ If he has been co­op­er­at­ing with LE, what on earth did he have to offer them all this time when the SR2 server was seized in its en­tire­ty, and SR2 quickly be­came an­cient his­tory for the DNMs and any per­sonal con­nec­tions or in­side info have long since gone stale?

      • On a sim­i­lar note, how did the FBI re­ally find the Silk Road 1 server in Ice­land—which was so key to find­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia backup server and then Ross Ul­bricht him­self in SF? Agent Tar­bel­l’s story never made sense (sound­ing sus­pi­ciously like an ob­fus­cated SQLi at­tack, rais­ing ques­tions about le­gal­i­ty) and he de­camped bizarrely quickly for the pri­vate sec­tor after what should have been a ca­reer-defin­ing tri­umph, nor has the FBI ever gone into any de­tail about it (it did not come up at trial due to ma­jor strate­gic er­rors by the de­fense). It is also highly sus­pi­cious that some fake IDs Ross Ul­bricht bought to rent servers were in­ter­cepted & he was in­ter­viewed in SF by LE not long be­fore the server was sup­pos­edly lo­cat­ed—quite a co­in­ci­dence in tim­ing. The SR1 in­ves­ti­ga­tion was rid­dled with cor­rup­tion and ques­tion­able ac­tions, and the find­ing of the SR1 server smells like an­other case, of a rogue agent or per­haps par­al­lel con­struc­tion. What re­ally hap­pened in Ice­land?
    • How does the , where any ad­ver­tise­ment on a web­site ap­pears to re­duce broad­ly-de­fined us­age by ~10%, work when most users can­not be both­ered to in­stall ad­block and don’t seem to care? Is there a sub­tle av­er­age effect on all users, who are sim­ply un­aware of the ir­ri­ta­tion or have never ex­pe­ri­enced the al­ter­na­tive and so are sim­ply mis­taken in claim­ing to not mind & not us­ing ad­block, or is there het­ero­gene­ity where a rel­a­tively small frac­tion of users do mind in­tense­ly, and that dri­ves the effect?

    • What hap­pened to short sto­ries? Short sto­ries used to be one of the most dom­i­nant medi­ums, pub­lished in count­less mag­a­zi­nes, and mak­ing the fame (and for­tune) of writ­ers like F. Scott Fitzger­ald. A new­bie writer could eas­ily write solid short sto­ries in rel­a­tively small amounts of time, giv­ing them feed­back and money and a cor­pus and a rep­u­ta­tion while grad­u­ally prepar­ing them for the rig­ors of an ex­tended nov­el, Par­tic­u­larly in SF/F, the clas­sic ca­reer path was to pub­lish sev­eral short sto­ries, sta­ple them to­gether into a nov­el, and start a tril­o­gy. One could even be­come a mil­lion­aire off sales to places like the Sat­ur­day Evening Post. All of that has com­pletely van­ished. Short sto­ries are writ­ten for the love of it, and for aca­d­e­mic pur­pos­es; the idea of read­ing shorts for en­ter­tain­ment is un­fath­omable. How did such lu­cra­tive eco­nom­ics just van­ish?

    • re­turns to good de­sign: what is the ‘shape’ of re­turns on in­vest­ment in in­dus­trial de­sign, UI/UX, ty­pog­ra­phy etc?

      Par­tic­u­larly with ty­pog­ra­phy, there seems to be an in­fi­nite num­ber of finicky de­tails one could spend time on. One’s ini­tial guess is that it’d be di­min­ish­ing re­turns like most things: it’d look some­thing like a log curve, where every ad­di­tional tweak costs more effort as one ap­proaches the Pla­tonic ide­al. A more so­phis­ti­cated guess would be that it’d look like a : at first, some­thing is so aw­ful that any fixes are ir­rel­e­vant to the user be­cause that just means they suffer from a differ­ent prob­lem (it does­n’t mat­ter much if a web­site does­n’t ren­der be­cause of a JS bug if the text when it does ren­der is so light-shaded that one can’t read it); then each im­prove­ments makes a differ­ence to some users as it ap­proaches a re­spectable medi­oc­rity; and after that, it’s back to di­min­ish­ing re­turns.

      My ex­pe­ri­ence with im­prov­ing the de­sign of Gw­ & read­ing about de­sign has made me won­der if ei­ther of those is right. The shape may re­sem­ble more of a parabo­la: the sig­moid, at some point, spikes up and re­turns in­crease rather than di­min­ish?

      I no­ticed that for the first half-decade or so, no one paid much at­ten­tion to the tweaks I made, as it was a fairly or­di­nary Mark­down-based sta­tic site. As I kept tin­ker­ing, a com­ment would be made once in a while. When Said Achmiz lent his con­sid­er­able tal­ents to adding fea­tures & en­hance­ments and ex­plor­ing novel tweaks, com­ments cropped up much more fre­quently (con­sis­tent with the enor­mous in­crease in time spent on it); by 2019, the re­design had mostly sta­bi­lized and most of the sig­na­ture fea­tures had been im­ple­ment­ed, and 2020 was more about bug­fixes than adding piz­zazz. Un­der the in­tu­itive the­o­ries, the rate of com­ments would be about the same: while the bug­fixes may in­volve huge effort—the dark mode rewrite was a 3-month agony—the im­prove­ments are ever small­er—­said rewrite had no user-vis­i­ble change other than re­mov­ing slow­ness. But while re­mained steady, 2020 at­tracted more com­pli­ments than ever!

      Sim­i­lar­ly, the LW team put an un­usual amount of effort into de­sign­ing a 2018 es­say com­pi­la­tion, mak­ing it styl­ish (even re­draw­ing all the im­ages to match the color themes), and by un­usu­ally large the pre­orders were: not a few per­cent­age points, but many times. (There are many books on data vi­su­al­iza­tion, but I sus­pect Ed­ward Tufte’s books out­sell them, even the best, by sim­i­lar mag­ni­tudes.) And what should we make of Ap­ple & de­sign, whose de­vices & soft­ware have glar­ing flaws and yet, by mak­ing more of an at­tempt, com­mand a pre­mium and are re­garded well by the pub­lic?

      If the sig­moid were right, just how much more effort would be nec­es­sary to elicit such jumps? Or­ders of mag­ni­tude more? I & Said have in­vested effort, cer­tain­ly, but there are count­less sites (even con­fin­ing the com­par­i­son to just per­sonal web­sites and ex­clud­ing sites with pro­fes­sional ful­l-time developers/designers), whose cre­ators have surely in­vested more time; mil­lions of books are self­-pub­lished every year; and Ap­ple is cer­tainly not the only tech com­pany which tries to de­sign things well.

      What might be go­ing on is re­lated to the the aes­thet­ic-us­abil­ity effect: at a cer­tain lev­el, the de­sign it­self be­comes no­tice­able to the user for its es­thetic effect and the es­thet­ics it­self be­comes a fea­ture adding to the ex­pe­ri­ence. That is, at the bot­tom of the sig­moid, the user thinks “this web­site sucks!”, while in the mid­dle, the user ceases to think of the web­site at all and just gets on with us­ing it, only oc­ca­sion­ally ir­ri­tated by de­sign flaws; fi­nal­ly, at a cer­tain lev­el, when all the flaws have been re­moved and the site it­self is gen­uinely uniron­i­cally beau­ti­ful, both the beauty & ab­sence of flaws them­selves be­come no­tice­able. The spike is where sud­denly the de­sign it­self is per­ceived as a dis­tinct thing, not merely how the thing hap­pens to be. De­sign­ers often as­pire to an end-s­tate of sprez­zatura or the “crys­tal gob­let”, where they do their job so well the user does­n’t re­al­ize there was a job to be done at al­l—but in this fallen world, where ex­cel­lence seems so rare, the bet­ter one does the job, the more the con­trast with all the botched jobs in­evitably draws at­ten­tion.

      It is diffi­cult for even the reader least in­ter­ested in the topic to open a Tufte book, or walk into an Ap­ple store, and not be struck by first im­pres­sions of el­e­gance and care­ful de­sign—which is not nec­es­sar­ily a good thing if that can­not be lived up to. (Any per­son struck by this must also re­al­ize that other peo­ple will be sim­i­larly im­pressed, us­ing their own re­sponse as a proxy for the gen­eral re­ac­tion24, and will take it as a model for as­pi­ra­tion; lik­ing Ap­ple or Tufte sig­nals your good taste, and that makes them lux­ury prod­ucts as much as any­thing.)

      This sug­gests a dan­ger­ous idea (dan­ger­ous be­cause a good ex­cuse for com­pla­cency & medi­oc­rity, es­pe­cially for those who do not man­age even medi­oc­rity but be­lieve oth­er­wise): if you are go­ing to in­vest in de­sign, half-mea­sures yield less than half-re­sults. If the de­sign is ter­ri­ble, then one should con­tin­ue; but if the de­sign is al­ready rea­son­able, then in­stead of there be­ing sub­stan­tial re­turns, the di­min­ish­ing re­turns have al­ready set in, and it may be a too-long slog from where you are to the point where peo­ple are im­pressed enough by the de­sign for the es­thetic effect to kick in. Those mod­er­ate im­prove­ments may not be worth­while if one can only mod­estly im­prove on medi­oc­rity; and a suffi­cient­ly-flawed de­sign may not be able to reach the es­thetic level at all, re­quir­ing a rad­i­cal new de­sign.


    Physical Beauty

    “Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, com­ing up from the wash­ing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone.”

    4:2 (prais­ing a beau­ti­ful woman for hav­ing all her teeth)25

    Is , mas­cu­line or fem­i­nine, a neg­a­tive-sum, ze­ro-sum (po­si­tion­al) or pos­i­tive good? And has beauty in­creased or de­creased over time? Think­ing over var­i­ous anec­dotes and ex­am­ples and changes in pub­lic health and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors like nu­tri­tion and in­fec­tious dis­ease and den­tistry, I sug­gest that phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness of men & women in the West is not purely po­si­tional & rel­a­tive, but has in­creased in an ab­solute sense over the past few cen­turies (al­beit pos­si­bly de­creas­ing re­cently as a con­se­quence of trends like obe­si­ty).

    In look­ing at his­tor­i­cal paint­ings & stat­ues, I’ve al­ways been struck by how, ath­letes & war­riors look sub­par by con­tem­po­rary stan­dards (eg knights), and even in erotic art­work or work meant to de­pict the epit­ome of hu­man beauty or art­work in­tended to flat­ter a pa­tron (or serve as an ad­ver­tise­ment for a pos­si­ble be­trothal), they just aren’t that beau­ti­ful. (Yes, them be­ing ‘Rube­nesque’ may be part of it but the mod­ern age of obe­sity should have long ago negated that.) The dis­par­ity gets worse when you look at Amer­i­can pho­tographs from the 1800s on­ward, such as in bi­ogra­phies; a woman might be de­scribed as stun­ningly beau­ti­ful but look quite av­er­age in the pro­vided pho­to­graph. Or when read­ing about clas­sic Hol­ly­wood star­lets such as , after mak­ing al­lowance for the fash­ions like hideous eye­brows and fry­ing their hair, I can only find them odd look­ing; was re­ally “the most per­fectly formed woman in the world”? Or when highschool/college class pho­tos are pro­vided from the early 1900s, I can com­pare them to my own high school class pho­tos, and the sets are al­most dis­joint in at­trac­tive­ness—per­haps the top quar­ter of the old pho­tos over­laps with the bot­tom quar­ter of the new pho­tos. But on the other hand, Amer­i­can ma­te­r­ial from the 1970s or 1980s, does not strike me as any worse than in the 1990s or 2000s (per­haps even bet­ter), with most of the in­crease be­ing per­haps in the 1920–1960 time range. (There may have been in­creases be­fore then, but while re­lated things like adult life ex­pectancy & height can be doc­u­mented to have in­creased con­sid­er­ably be­fore the 1920s, there are no high­-qual­ity pho­tographs from be­fore then to judge beauty by.) So if I can see such a clear trend in in­creas­ing beauty over time, does that mean that beauty is in­creas­ing?

    Few would deny that Olympic ath­letes have, ob­jec­tive­ly, be­come much bet­ter over the past few cen­turies—the run­ners run far faster, the pow­er­lifters lift far heav­ier weights, and so on, due to pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion, bet­ter equip­ment, bet­ter train­ing, larger pop­u­la­tions to re­cruit from, and many other points of progress. Sim­i­lar­ly, box­ers and body­builders are ob­jec­tively far more im­pres­sive than they were less than a cen­tury ago in the 1930s (thanks to ul­tra­-cheap pro­tein and gyms every­where and drugs and im­proved train­ing): who would bet a bent penny on box­ing world champ , who toured the USA punch­ing out chal­lengers in sec­onds against a Mike Tyson, much less a MMA star? (Sul­li­van hardly even looks like he ‘lifts’—be­cause he did­n’t.) puz­zle solvers have dropped solve times from min­utes to sec­onds, and video game play­ers or speedrun­ners have achieved sim­i­lar im­prove­ments, and moun­tain climbers or cliff climbers make im­pos­si­ble climbs now, and all of these are quite ob­jec­tive and diffi­cult to dis­pute. If all of these can im­prove so much, why not beau­ty? Surely phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness should ben­e­fit from many of the same things: more knowl­edge about phys­i­cal fit­ness and di­et, cheaper food and trav­el, bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the spread of ‘tricks’ (like lub­ing a Ru­bik’s cube for speed), a larger pop­u­la­tion to draw from, etc.

    If it has, then there are many pos­si­ble rea­sons. The 20th cen­tury in par­tic­u­lar saw ma­jor progress in nu­tri­tion (eg iodiza­tion elim­i­nat­ing goi­ters, which surely are not beau­ti­ful), vac­ci­na­tions elim­i­nat­ing harm­ful and dis­fig­ur­ing dis­eases like small­pox, an al­most to­tal shift from out­doors work to in­doors work (bring­ing with it pro­tec­tion from the sun and the el­e­ments), de­layed en­try into the work­force, far less man­ual la­bor26, cheaper cloth­ing and cos­met­ics (not to men­tion a rad­i­cal ex­pan­sion in the kinds of cos­met­ics avail­able such as the cre­ation from al­most noth­ing of the plas­tic surgery in­dus­try), lower life­time birth rates etc. Many of these changes hap­pened dur­ing the 1920–1960 time win­dow, in which iodiza­tion went na­tion­wide, key vac­cines like po­lio were rolled out or used to erad­i­cate dis­eases in the USA, al­most dou­bled, per capita GDP dou­bled, etc.

    All of these could be ex­pected to im­prove phys­i­cal beau­ty, and we can see first-hand proof of how ‘ag­ing’ life in poor coun­tries can be when we look at pho­tographs of wom­en: for ex­am­ple, there is a fa­mous pho­to­graph “Mi­grant Mother” from the Great De­pres­sion of a , who one might guess was in her 40s or 50s—she was 32. An in­ter­est­ing dat­a­point comes from Amer­i­can high school year­books (“A Cen­tury of Por­traits: A Vi­sual His­tor­i­cal Record of Amer­i­can High School Year­books”, Gi­nosar et al 2015); high school year­books are ho­moge­nous por­traits that stu­dents pre­pare for, which haven’t changed much over time, cover most of the pop­u­la­tion then and now, offer­ing a rel­a­tively con­trolled com­par­ison, par­tic­u­larly us­ing composite/average faces, and the differ­ences in at­trac­tive­ness over time is strik­ing—it looks to me like at­trac­tive­ness in­creased from ~1910 to ~1980 and has per­haps fallen to­wards ~2000s (where over­weight­ness is clearly tak­ing a tol­l). The main ar­gu­ment of Gi­nosar et al 2015 is that smil­ing has in­creased, but look­ing at them, I am con­vinced that the differ­ence be­tween the 1900 av­er­age and, say, 1970, is not merely a mat­ter of smil­ing, and of course, why did smil­ing or longer hair length be­come pop­u­lar? ‘Pho­to­graphic im­prove­ments’ aren’t an an­swer since cam­eras got bet­ter rapidly and were effec­tively in­stan­ta­neous for most of that sam­ple. Im­proved nu­tri­tion and over­all health, and op­tom­e­try & den­tistry es­pe­cial­ly, or cost/quality im­prove­ments of soap & in­door plumb­ing, might have had some­thing to do with that… (Pos­si­bly be­cause they could—­some­one miss­ing most of their teeth, or un­able to grow more than scrag­gly clumps of hair, is not go­ing to be so ea­ger to smile or adopt long styles.)

    Over­seas, a strik­ing ex­am­ple is pro­vided by the before/after of the fa­mous : from the orig­i­nal pho­tograph, one might guess at her 20s (she was 12), and when she was re­found 17 years later at age 30, one might guess she was in her 60s from how hag­gard and worn her face is. , trav­el­ing in im­pov­er­ished cen­tral Japan in 1878, was struck in the moun­tains by the sight of the peo­ple: “The mar­ried women look as if they have never known youth, and their skin is apt to be like tanned leather. At Kayashima I asked the house­-mas­ter’s wife, who looked about 50, how old she was (a po­lite ques­tion in Japan), and she replied 22—one of many sim­i­lar sur­pris­es.” (Un­beaten Tracks in Old Japan, pg94, Let­ter XII) com­par­ing them un­fa­vor­ably to the women of the , who “look cheer­ful, and even merry when they smile, and are not like the Japan­ese, pre­ma­turely old, partly per­haps be­cause their houses are well ven­ti­lat­ed, and the use of char­coal is un­known.” One can also see this phe­nom­e­non in other coun­tries like Rus­sia with jokes about how ‘de­vushkas’ turn into ‘babushkas’ overnight on their 30th birth­day. In the 1800s, King col­lected a “”, a col­lec­tion of por­trait paint­ings of the most beau­ti­ful women he could find re­gard­less of sta­tion, rang­ing from an ac­coun­tant or cob­bler or pawn­shop clerk’s daugh­ter to his own daugh­ter, in­clud­ing sev­eral mis­tresses famed for their beau­ty, such as or ; a sim­i­lar 1600s gallery, the , de­picts many mis­tresses of (eg , “one of the most beau­ti­ful of the Roy­al­ist women”), and there is the some­what later ()—my own im­pres­sion is that they are clearly try­ing to­wards beauty con­sis­tent with mod­ern stan­dards but don’t get too far, de­spite Lud­wig in par­tic­u­lar cast­ing a wide net. I was struck watch­ing by how the care­ful­ly-re­stored video footage of WWI-era Eng­land re­vealed many of the drafted men—those who were not re­jected for rea­sons of health—were stunted and short, with teeth al­ready miss­ing (per­haps be­cause of—shades of —all that jam on white bread we see them eat­ing), and draftees re­port­edly gained “1 stone” of weight on av­er­age due to be­ing fed real food & ex­er­cise. Even as late as 1968 in Eng­land, 36% of the pop­u­la­tion aged >16yo were “eden­tu­lous” ie had no nat­ural teeth left; this is not merely dri­ven by the el­der­ly, ei­ther, since 25–34yos av­er­age ~8%, and by the 35–44yo age brack­et, the rate reaches ~20% (Gray et al 1970); this makes the oc­ca­sional claim of to­tal teeth ex­trac­tion for den­tures as birth­day & wed­ding presents not so im­plau­si­ble. (Need­less to say, Eng­lish den­tal health has im­proved dras­ti­cally since.) In the US, only came about some­time later as a re­sult of draftees not fit­ting in their uni­forms due to the preva­lence of goi­ters (n­ever mind the cre­tinis­m); France was lit­tle bet­ter, with trav­el­ers not­ing whole vil­lages of re­tarded cretins27, where a quar­ter of young (rel­a­tive­ly) healthy men were re­jected by the mil­i­tary and many men were in­sane, hunch­back, bow-legged, or club-footed due to con­di­tions which were lit­tle kinder to young rural women ei­ther, who one con­tem­po­rary called often, “a Venus [with] the face of an old mon­key”.28 Life ex­pectancy in­creases ap­pear to have rel­a­tively lit­tle to do with head­line med­ical treat­ments like can­cer, and more to do with pub­lic health mea­sures like re­duc­tions in pan­demics, with re­duc­tions in child­hood ill­nesses pre­dict­ing in­creases in adult life ex­pectan­cy; and dis­eases like de­men­tia have been in re­mark­able de­cline. All of this points to large im­prove­ments in over­all “bod­ily in­tegrity”: every­thing is more ro­bust and bet­ter due to less ac­cu­mu­lated dam­age from lifestyle and child­hood in­fec­tions and pol­lu­tants like in­door fires and in­creased pro­tein con­sump­tion.

    This ac­cel­er­ated ag­ing, in­ci­den­tal­ly, turns out to be rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, as many wealthy coun­tries grant spe­cial im­mi­gra­tion priv­i­leges to peo­ple un­der 18 years, but older peo­ple in poor coun­tries can claim to be much younger than they are and prov­ing oth­er­wise is diffi­cult. Jean Har­low her­self fur­nishes an in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple, as after long-run­ning health prob­lems such as weight gain/fatigue/paleness, she died aged 26 of kid­ney dis­ease (now mostly treat­able) which was prob­a­bly the se­que­lae of a child­hood in­fec­tion by (now cur­able & oc­cur­rence largely sup­pressed by an­tibi­otic­s).

    Some ob­jec­tions come to mind:

    • with an in­creas­ingly large pop­u­la­tion, the most ex­treme mod­els and ac­tresses will be much more beau­ti­ful than early on, sim­i­lar to sports. The USA was a smaller pop­u­la­tion in 1900 than in 2016, and Hol­ly­wood & ad­ver­tis­ing have like­wise ex­panded enor­mous­ly, in ad­di­tion to re­cruit­ing glob­al­ly. Early Hol­ly­wood star­lets were big fish in small na­tional pools. Or per­haps mod­ern ad­ver­tise­ments and me­dia are in­creas­ingly ma­nip­u­lated with Pho­to­shop

      But then why does it also hold true when we com­pare pho­tographs of or­di­nary peo­ple, and why would the art­work, whose artists were lit­tle con­strained by re­al­i­ty, have been ex­ceeded as well? And can we re­ally say that the elim­i­na­tion of things like small­pox scar­ring makes no differ­ence?

    • beauty is purely rel­a­tive

    There are at least 2 pos­si­bil­i­ties for how beauty works:

    1. beauty is (most­ly) relative/ordinal and is per­ceived as rel­a­tive: a beau­ti­ful per­son is merely some­one above the av­er­age on some ar­bi­trary cul­tural mea­sure­ments which are caused by no im­por­tant ob­jec­tive at­trib­utes like health or strength; in an­other group of peo­ple, the same per­son would be rated by the same raters as ugly rather than beau­ti­ful. Par­tic­u­larly good ex­am­ples of the rel­a­tivism in­clude the cen­turies of tooth-black­en­ing and eye­brow-pluck­ing among the Japan­ese aris­toc­ra­cy, Chi­nese foot-bind­ing, tan­ning vs white skin, gav­age in Mau­ri­ta­nia etc.

      Changes in beau­ty, there­fore, in­di­cate no gains to the pos­ses­sors of beau­ty, cause no ad­di­tional pleasure/displeasure in those around them (as they will per­ceive the same av­er­age level of beauty re­gard­less), will vary wildly from cul­ture to cul­ture, and beauty it­self is a harm­ful con­struct in that the bi­ases in fa­vor of beauty can dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm sub­groups and in gen­eral causes waste­ful arms races in time & money spent on tac­tics like cos­met­ics, cloth­ing, or surgery, which leaves the group worse off.

    2. beauty is (most­ly) objective/cardinal and is per­ceived as ob­jec­tive: a beau­ti­ful per­son is above av­er­age on ob­jec­tive at­trib­utes like , long hair, smooth undis­eased skin, height, en­ergy & health, per­son­al­i­ty, in­tel­li­gence etc. Hence, en­tire groups of peo­ple can in­crease or de­crease in their av­er­age beau­ty, and rat­ings of in­di­vid­u­als will not shift based on ref­er­ence group.

      Changes in beau­ty, there­fore, may be due to ob­jec­tive im­prove­ments or it may be due to cos­met­ics etc. How­ev­er, since per­cep­tions are not rel­a­tive, peo­ple will en­joy more what they see, so the arms races may be worth­while in the same way that any dec­o­ra­tion or art­work is worth­while—be­cause it looks nicer. On the other hand, to the ex­tent that beauty serves as an in­di­ca­tor for ob­jec­tive things, this may be harm­ful: for ex­am­ple, if beauty & re­pro­duc­tive fit­ness are to re­duce ge­netic , use of cos­met­ics is harm­ful as it hides the harm be­ing done by bad genes & pre­vents them from be­ing purged.

    If #1 is right, then there should be high lev­els of dis­agree­ment about whether a pho­to­graph of an in­di­vid­ual is ugly or beau­ti­ful be­tween raters (who will have been raised in differ­ent so­cial groups and have differ­ent stan­dard­s), higher still across eth­nic groups, and al­most to­tal global dis­agree­ment across cul­tures; and beauty should cor­re­late min­i­mally with traits be­cause so­cial treat­ment has lit­tle effect on sta­ble traits like height or health or in­tel­li­gence or per­son­al­i­ty.

    , meta-an­a­lyzes a va­ri­ety of stud­ies, and on the first point, finds that rat­ings of beauty are re­mark­ably con­sis­tent and ac­tu­ally in­crease with dis­tance: with­in-cul­ture, r = 0.9/.85; cross-eth­nic, r = 0.88; cross-cul­ture, r = 0.94. (Given the lim­its of such in­ven­to­ries, this might im­ply that agree­ment on beauty cross-cul­tur­ally ap­proaches iden­ti­ty.) Lan­glois et al 2000 also finds that more at­trac­tive adults are more em­ployed, date & have sex more and are more so­cially skilled & ex­travert­ed, are in bet­ter men­tal & phys­i­cal health, and are slightly more in­tel­li­gent. Un­sur­pris­ing­ly, be­liefs that the beau­ti­ful are treated bet­ter by other peo­ple also turn out to be true. (Given that sex did not strongly mod­er­ate the re­sults, this sug­gests that ei­ther men pay too lit­tle at­ten­tion to their ap­pear­ances or women too much.) Com­bined with the other ev­i­dence for things like fluc­tu­at­ing sym­me­try, #1 can be re­ject­ed. (The­ory #2 is also more con­sis­tent with my per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion­s.)

    The past is a for­eign coun­try, so it seems like a safe as­sump­tion that the beauty rat­ings of some­one in, say, 1920 would cor­re­late r = 0.94 with ours. Then rat­ings will still be sim­i­lar—eg some­one rated at the 84th per­centile (+1SD) by us would on av­er­age be rated 82nd per­centile (+0.94SD) by them. So we would ex­pect that the mod­ern mean of beauty would be higher as long as it’s at least 0.06SDs high­er, which is not much at all.

    That would as­sume the differ­ence is ran­dom, though, and not sys­tem­at­ic: in the worst case, if that re­main­ing 0.06 re­flects a con­sis­tent cul­tural pref­er­ence & fash­ion of the mo­ment, then some­one in 1920 will rate higher all peo­ple from 1920, and some­one from 2016 will rate higher all peo­ple from 2016. How large would this rat­ing bonus have to be to pro­duce an over­all cor­re­la­tion of r = 0.94? The to­tal vari­ance is , so a bi­nary vari­able to­tally ex­plain­ing the re­main­ing vari­ance must have the effect b = 0.342. So in the worst case, we would have to demon­strate an in­crease by our stan­dards of +0.342SDs be­fore we could be sure that peo­ple from 1920 would agree there had been an in­crease. The im­pli­ca­tion of this in­crease is that our 50th per­centile would have to match their 63rd per­centile; or to put it an­other way, in ran­dom pairs, ~59.5% of mod­ern peo­ple would have to be judged the more beau­ti­ful. I think this is a bar that could defi­nitely be met, so even in the worst case, beauty has in­creased over time.

    1. And in the case of sports, we also it might not be odd if some records set in the 1960s–1980s haven’t been bro­ken yet, and why Mark McG­wire & Barry Bonds et al as­tounded saber­me­tri­cians by shat­ter­ing records that had some­times stood since Babe Ruth…↩︎

    2. The Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States Com­plete Guide to Cat Care, Chris­tensen et al 2004, notes in its ear clean­ing sec­tion that with mul­ti­ple cats who are good friends, it might be un­nec­es­sary, be­cause it is a “al­logroom­ing (mu­tual groom­ing) task that cats seem to love do­ing for one an­oth­er.” Be­cause of so­cial bond­ing or to learn about each oth­er—or be­cause ear­wax is in­ter­est­ing & an­other cat is the eas­i­est source? (I’ve never owned cats which were good enough friends, ap­par­ent­ly, to see this for my­self.)↩︎

    3. Both bu­tyric acid and salt would also ex­plain the in­ter­est in lick­ing sweaty hands/armpits. I tested out the pos­si­bil­ity of bu­tyrate on my ear­wax-lov­ing cat. A 2006 chem­istry fo­rum dis­cus­sion out­lined a num­ber of strate­gies for ob­tain­ing bu­tyric acid, of which the sec­ond sim­plest was adding and the sim­plest was ran­cid but­ter. I made ran­cid but­ter by putting a few ta­ble­spoons of but­ter into a zi­plock bag in­side a tup­per­ware and stor­ing it on top of my hot wa­ter heater for a week and a half; after a day it had melted and sep­a­rated into a yel­low liq­uid & a solid white mass, and after a week it smelled bad. I stored it in my re­frig­er­a­tor, and tested my cat three times by offer­ing two saucers of a ta­ble­spoon of ran­cid but­ter and but­ter which I heated si­mul­ta­ne­ously in my mi­crowave for 10s. All 3 times, if he started with the ran­cid but­ter, he would even­tu­ally lick and eat a lit­tle of the ran­cid but­ter, but slowly and with­out en­thu­si­asm, and switch to the fresh but­ter which he would eat more of and much more en­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, and vice ver­sa, al­ways leav­ing more of the ran­cid than fresh. The ear­wax-style fas­ci­na­tion was ab­sent for both kinds of but­ter. It’s pos­si­ble that the ran­cid but­ter had other break­down prod­ucts which off­set the ap­peal of the bu­tyric acid, but I would have ex­pected differ­ent be­hav­ior if he was si­mul­ta­ne­ously at­tracted & re­pelled. I fur­ther tested ‘caramelized but­ter’ (but­ter heated up to a point where it browns, which can be sweet­ened and used as de­li­cious cake frost­ing); my cat liked it, but an­other cat I tried was al­most in­differ­ent. For a fol­lowup ex­per­i­ment, I bought some lye and mixed 2tsp lye with a quar­ter stick of melted but­ter (vs an­other quar­ter, both left to cool to room tem­per­a­ture), which turned it darker yel­low and gave it an odd smell (al­beit not nearly as strong as the ‘rot­ten’ but­ter smelt) even­tu­ally hard­ened to a cracked white crust, and tried it on my cat; again, he showed no in­ter­est in the treated but­ter com­pared to the nor­mal ‘fresh’ but­ter.↩︎

    4. Per­haps more rep­re­sen­ta­tive than out­right mur­der is the loose­ly-in­spired-by-Park­er-Hulme Simp­sons episode, “”.↩︎

    5. An ex­am­ple is Esmé Wei­jun Wang’s The Col­lected Schiz­o­phre­nias:

      As Wang nar­rates the Slen­der­man sto­ry, she re­vis­its her own mem­ory of a fraught child­hood imag­i­na­tion. Her young mind has been cap­ti­vated by the world of , a 1984 film de­pict­ing a fan­tasy world that even­tu­ally in­cludes its reader in the nar­ra­tive. Wang de­scribes con­vinc­ing her best friend Jes­sica that their life, too, was just an­other thread in the sto­ry, craft­ing a com­pli­cated uni­verse of rules to dic­tate their time to­geth­er. “We’re just play­ing, right?” Jes­sica fi­nally asks, be­mused and a lit­tle fright­ened; Wang’s child­hood self dis­agrees, telling Jes­sica that the imag­i­nary world was, in fact, re­al: “With my every de­nial, she be­came in­creas­ingly hys­ter­i­cal while I re­mained calm. I watched her leave in sobs; I re­mained grounded in the world of my imag­i­na­tion.”

    6. Al­though wul­frick­son asks if oth­erkin are in de­cline—hard as these things are to gauge, they do seem to come up less?↩︎

    7. Pg63–64:

      One morn­ing in 1946 in Los An­ge­les, Stanis­law Ulam, a newly ap­pointed pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, awoke to find him­self un­able to speak. A few hours later he un­der­went dan­ger­ous surgery after the di­ag­no­sis of en­cephali­tis. His skull was sawed open and his brain tis­sue was sprayed with an­tibi­otics. After a short con­va­les­cence he man­aged to re­cover ap­par­ently un­scathed.

      In time, how­ev­er, some changes in his per­son­al­ity be­came ob­vi­ous to those who knew him. Paul Stein, one of his col­lab­o­ra­tors at the Los Alamos Lab­o­ra­tory (where Stan Ulam worked most of his life), re­marked that while Stan had been a metic­u­lous dresser be­fore his op­er­a­tion, a dandy of sorts, after­wards he be­came vis­i­bly sloppy in the de­tails of his at­tire even though he would still care­fully and ex­pen­sively se­lect every item of cloth­ing he wore.

      Soon after I met him in 1963, sev­eral years after the event, I could not help notic­ing that his trains of thought were not those of a nor­mal per­son, even a math­e­mati­cian. In his con­ver­sa­tion he was live­lier and wit­tier than any­one I had ever met; and his ideas, which he spouted out at odd in­ter­vals, were fas­ci­nat­ing be­yond any­thing I have wit­nessed be­fore or since. How­ev­er, he seemed to stu­diously avoid go­ing into any de­tails. He would dwell on any sub­ject no longer than a few min­utes, then im­pa­tiently move on to some­thing en­tirely un­re­lat­ed.

      Out of cu­rios­i­ty, I asked , Stan’s col­lab­o­ra­tor in the thir­ties (and, like Stan, a for­mer Ju­nior Fel­low at Har­vard) about their work­ing habits be­fore his op­er­a­tion. Sur­pris­ing­ly, Ox­toby de­scribed how at Har­vard they would sit for hours on end, day after day, in front of the black­board. From the time I met him, Stan never did any­thing of the sort. He would per­form a cal­cu­la­tion (even the sim­plest) only when he had ab­solutely no other way out. I re­mem­ber watch­ing him at the black­board, try­ing to solve a qua­dratic equa­tion. He fur­rowed his brow in rapt ab­sorp­tion while scrib­bling for­mu­las in his tiny hand­writ­ing. When he fi­nally got the an­swer, he turned around and said with re­lief: “I feel I have done my work for the day.”

      The Ger­mans have aptly called Sitzfleisch the abil­ity to spend end­less hours at a desk do­ing grue­some work. Sitzfleisch is con­sid­ered by math­e­mati­cians to be a bet­ter gauge of suc­cess than any of the at­trac­tive de­fi­n­i­tions of tal­ent with which psy­chol­o­gists re­gale us from time to time. Stan Ulam, how­ev­er, was able to get by with­out any Sitzfleisch what­so­ev­er. After his bout with en­cephali­tis, he came to lean on his unim­paired imag­i­na­tion for his ideas, and on the Sitzfleisch of oth­ers for tech­ni­cal sup­port. The beauty of his in­sights and the promise of his pro­pos­als kept him am­ply sup­plied with young col­lab­o­ra­tors, will­ing to lend (and risk­ing the waste of) their time.

    8. The rec­ol­lec­tions of Eu­gene P. Wigner as told to An­drew Szan­ton, Wigner 1992, pg109–110:

      Does it seem odd for a math­e­mati­cian like Hilbert to take a young physi­cist for an as­sis­tant? Well, Hilbert needed no help in math­e­mat­ics. But his work em­braced physics, too, and I hoped to help Hilbert some­what with physics.

      So I was quite ex­cited to reach Göt­tin­gen in 1927. I was quickly and deeply dis­ap­point­ed. I found Hilbert painfully with­drawn. He had con­tracted per­ni­cious ane­mia in 1925 and was no longer an ac­tive thinker. The worst symp­toms of per­ni­cious ane­mia are not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, and Hilbert’s case had not yet been di­ag­nosed. But we knew al­ready that some­thing was quite wrong. Hilbert was only liv­ing halfway. His enor­mous fa­tigue was plain. And the cor­rect di­ag­no­sis was not en­cour­ag­ing when it came. Per­ni­cious ane­mia was then not con­sid­ered cur­able.

      So Hilbert sud­denly seemed quite old. He was only about 65, which seems rather young to me now. But life no longer much in­ter­ested him. I knew very well that old age comes even­tu­ally to every­one who sur­vives his stay on this earth. For some peo­ple, it is a time of ripe re­flec­tion, and I had often en­vied old men their po­si­tion. But Hilbert had aged with aw­ful speed, and the pre­ma­tu­rity of his de­cline took the glow from it. His breadth of in­ter­est was nearly gone and with it the en­gag­ing man­ner that had earned him so many dis­ci­ples.

      Hilbert even­tu­ally got med­ical treat­ment for his ane­mia and man­aged to live un­til 1943. But he was hardly a sci­en­tist after 1925, and cer­tainly not a Hilbert. I once ex­plained some new the­o­rem to him. As soon as he saw that its use was lim­it­ed, he said, “Ah, then one does­n’t re­ally have to learn this one.” It was painfully dear that he did not want to learn it.

      …I had come to Göt­tin­gen to be Hilbert’s as­sis­tant, but he wanted no as­sis­tance. We can all get old by our­selves.

    9. Cal­houn re­flects on this in: Cal­houn, J. B. C. 1979. “Em­ploy­ee’s con­tri­bu­tion to the Per­for­mance As­sess­ment of his Sci­en­tific Ser­vice. [Draft.]” 4 De­cem­ber. John B. Cal­houn Pa­pers, Na­tional Li­brary of Med­i­cine (NLM), Bethes­da, MD. n.p.↩︎

    10. The study al­luded to by In­glis-Arkell here ap­pears to ac­tu­ally be the dis­cus­sion of the be­hav­ioral sink in chap­ter 32 of the Hock 2004 text­book.↩︎

    11. An­other ex­am­ple of this in­ter­pre­ta­tion would be Moore 1999, “Pop­u­la­tion Den­si­ty, So­cial Pathol­o­gy, and Be­hav­ioral Ecol­ogy”.↩︎

    12. Cal­houn ap­pears to have main­tained this po­si­tion up to his death in 1996, ac­cord­ing to his NYT obit­u­ary: “But his work had its frus­tra­tions as well, she [a col­league] not­ed, be­cause its im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture of the hu­man rat race were often met with stud­ied dis­re­gard. But Dr. Cal­houn was con­vinced that his mice and rat pop­u­la­tions were an ac­cu­rate model for hu­mans.”He did­n’t re­gard it as hy­poth­e­sis any more, he re­garded it as fac­tu­al," Mrs. Kerr said."↩︎

    13. It’s par­tic­u­larly worth not­ing in this con­text that Rat Park may also have suffered from ge­netic con­founds, as could not repli­cate Rat Park us­ing a differ­ent, out­bred, strain.↩︎

    14. Given the dis­parate re­sults of all these uni­vers­es, it seems, con­trary to the claims of some jour­nal­ists that Cal­houn “had been build­ing utopian en­vi­ron­ments for rats and mice since the 1940s, with thor­oughly con­sis­tent re­sults. Heaven al­ways turned into hell.”, many of them did no such thing.↩︎

    15. I’ve been told that a UK uni­ver­sity quashed a third Mouse Utopia pro­posal on, iron­i­cal­ly, ‘ethics’ grounds. (The same rea­son Zim­bardo gives for why no one should ever try to repli­cate his Stan­ford Prison Ex­per­i­ment, in­ci­den­tal­ly.)↩︎

    16. One is re­minded of ’s ob­ser­va­tion that in the hard sci­ences, the­o­ries are built on and pre­dic­tions quan­ti­ta­tively re­fined or are clearly re­fut­ed, while in the more patho­log­i­cal so­cial sci­ences, the­o­ries are never re­futed but sim­ply fade away, re­sem­bling more than facts.↩︎

    17. “Dr Cal­houn said that they (the in­ves­ti­ga­tors) were not very san­i­tary in their hus­bandry, if that was the kind of pol­lu­tion in­ferred. The en­vi­ron­ment was cleaned, most fe­ces and soiled bed­ding re­moved, every six weeks or two months, but noth­ing was ever ster­il­ized. He did not con­sider this nec­es­sary in such a closed sys­tem and the mice had bet­ter sur­vival than in most lab­o­ra­tory colonies.” In claim­ing Mouse Utopia mor­tal­ity rates su­pe­rior to ‘most’ reg­u­lar lab mice, Cal­houn is pre­sum­ably ex­clud­ing the ex­tremely high in­fant or youth mor­tal­i­ty.↩︎

    18. See also the .↩︎

    19. Cal­houn 1973: “Dr Cal­houn felt that there prob­a­bly was some mu­ta­tion. Mice which con­tin­u­ally cir­cled, about a dozen, had been not­ed, but these might have been ‘vestibu­lar’ mice and a re­sult of an in­fec­tion, not mu­ta­tion. Even if mu­ta­tion rates were known, the first gen­er­a­tion would have been very much like the last. So the real con­clu­sion was that tremen­dous be­hav­ioural differ­en­ti­a­tion could oc­cur as a re­sult of so­cial en­vi­ron­men­tal in­flu­ences even given a high de­gree of ge­netic ho­mozy­gos­i­ty.” Mars­den 1972, pre­sent­ing a ‘syn­the­sis’ based on a year with Cal­houn, de­nies any pos­si­bil­ity of ge­netic change: "The ge­netic po­ten­tial for ex­ploit­ing this mouse par­adise was qual­i­ta­tively and quan­ti­ta­tively present in equal pro­por­tion in each of the orig­i­nal eight col­o­niz­ers and would re­main es­sen­tially un­changed even to the _n_th gen­er­a­tion."↩︎

    20. A , as I doubt that the ur­ban plan­ners or de­mog­ra­phers or De­mo­c­ra­tic politi­cians who took an in­ter­est in Mouse Utopia would be as in­ter­ested if the causal mech­a­nism turned out to be “ur­ban den­si­ties in­crease STDs or ge­netic mu­ta­tions to the point of col­lapse”. And if it turned out that Mouse Utopia repli­cated in mice but never hu­mans (early at­tempts to cor­re­late pop­u­la­tion den­sity with so­cial de­cay in hu­mans ap­par­ently did not do well, in­ci­den­tal­ly), I also doubt if most peo­ple cit­ing it, aside from a few zo­ol­o­gists, ethol­o­gists, or mouse breed­ers, would be do­ing so.↩︎

    21. Al­though hav­ing be­come much more cyn­i­cal about psy­chol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion in par­tic­u­lar since I first heard of Bloom’s re­sult back in the 2000s, I would sug­gest re­nam­ing it “Bloom’s 0.5 Sigma prob­lem”…↩︎

    22. Chem­i­cal pheromones have been sug­gested for many things in hu­mans— as a pos­si­ble mob mech­a­nis­m—but as far as I know, the ev­i­dence they do any­thing in hu­mans is quite weak (the rel­e­vant genes are bro­ken and it’s un­clear if we even have a VMO), and some of the rel­e­van­t-seem­ing hor­mones even weaker (like the oxy­tocin lit­er­a­ture turns out to be badly afflicted by pub­li­ca­tion bias). Given the Re­pro­ducibil­ity Cri­sis, can we re­ally take se­ri­ously any of these n = 40 stud­ies where “we had some fe­male un­der­grad­u­ates sniff un­der­wear and fill out a sur­vey”? In an­i­mals, it’s im­pos­si­ble to mis­take that scents/pheromones are an im­por­tant thing, in a way that they are not in hu­man­s—any cat owner will have no­ticed the ‘’ or ‘gape’, even if they don’t know the name for it (and you don’t have to spend too long around horses to no­tice it there ei­ther).

      And what are the testable im­pli­ca­tions? For ex­am­ple, meet­ings held in well-ven­ti­lated ar­eas should be dis­as­trous be­cause any pheromone con­cen­tra­tion would be di­luted far be­low other meet­ings. Meet­ings where you no­tice body odor, in­di­cat­ing po­tent bod­ily out­put and lit­tle ven­ti­la­tion, should go great. Lead­ers would be well-ad­vised to avoid us­ing de­odor­ant, as that re­duces the di­rect route for pheromone emis­sion. Di­rect in­ter­ac­tion should be weaker than ex­pected as a pre­dic­tor of bonding/success, be­cause the pheromones are om­ni­di­rec­tion­al. ‘Mere ex­po­sure’ effects should be sub­stan­tial. Peo­ple with lower smell acu­ity should be less affected by meet­ings as bro­ken ol­fac­tory ca­pa­bil­i­ties may break any down­stream pheromone sen­si­tiv­i­ty; anos­mics pre­sum­ably would be en­tirely in­differ­ent be­tween vir­tual and real meet­ings. A (very clear) glass pane should elim­i­nate meet­ing effects, while in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments in la­ten­cy, screen res­o­lu­tion, or au­dio qual­ity would pro­duce small or no gains over the base­line. Gas chro­matog­ra­phy could prob­a­bly iden­tify pheromones and should be able to pre­dict meet­ing suc­cess—while it’s true the hy­po­thet­i­cal pheromones may be un­known, hormones/pheromones are fre­quently in the steroid fam­i­ly, and so my un­der­stand­ing is that it should be pos­si­ble to mea­sure a “to­tal steroids” con­cen­tra­tion in sam­ples which would pick up on any so­cial pheromone and be used in a re­gres­sion.

      Many of those have not been con­duct­ed, but some of them don’t tally with my own ex­pe­ri­ences. For ex­am­ple, one 2018 con­fer­ence I at­tended was what prompted me to ask this—in sev­eral cas­es, I’d known peo­ple I met there for years on­line be­fore, and yet, meet­ing them in per­son seemed to make a large differ­ence in how much I trusted or liked them. Good—ex­cept most of it was held out­side be­cause the weather was so nice and there was a pleas­ant breeze; every­one got along de­spite the con­di­tions be­ing aw­ful for any pheromone effects.↩︎

    23. No­body looks more pre­ma­turely aged than a sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture peas­ant.↩︎

    24. Which might ac­count for why im­prove­ments in Gw­ de­sign also seem to cor­re­late with more com­ments where the com­menter ap­pears in­fu­ri­ated by the de­sign—that’s cheat­ing!↩︎

    25. The Pub­lic Do­main Re­view notes in “The Se­ri­ous and the Smirk: The Smile in Por­trai­ture” that miss­ing teeth was so com­mon that it was hardly a point of shame:

      It re­mains a com­monly held be­lief that for hun­dreds of years peo­ple did­n’t smile in pic­tures be­cause their teeth were gen­er­ally aw­ful. This is not re­ally true—bad teeth were so com­mon that this was not seen as nec­es­sar­ily tak­ing away from some­one’s at­trac­tive­ness. , Queen Vic­to­ri­a’s Whig prime min­is­ter, was often de­scribed as be­ing dev­as­tat­ingly good-look­ing, and hav­ing a ‘strik­ingly hand­some face and fig­ure’ de­spite the fact that he had a num­ber of promi­nent teeth miss­ing as a re­sult of hunt­ing ac­ci­dents. It was only in later life, when he ac­quired a set of flap­ping false teeth, that his im­age was com­pro­mised. His fear of them falling out when he spoke led to a stop-s­tart de­liv­ery of his speech­es, caus­ing to openly poke fun at him in par­lia­ment.

    26. Which one might ex­pect to hurt, but man­ual la­bor is not as effec­tive as reg­u­lar ex­er­cise as it is highly repet­i­tive, can be harm­ful, does not spread the work over the body evenly and can­not be cal­i­brated to one’s fit­ness lev­el, and must often be done at rates, times, places, and con­di­tions min­i­mally of one’s choos­ing. So in­creas­ing gen­der eq­ui­ty, per­mit­ting—even ex­pect­ing—­women to par­tic­i­pate more in sports and use pub­lic gyms etc, could well off­set this re­duc­tion. Cer­tainly an Afghanistani woman con­fined to her house by is not bet­ter off for it.↩︎

    27. , Robb 2008; ch5:

      At the end of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, doc­tors from ur­ban Al­sace to rural Brit­tany found that high death rates were not caused pri­mar­ily by famine and dis­ease. The prob­lem was that, as soon as they be­came ill, peo­ple took to their beds and hoped to die. In 1750, the Mar­quis d’Ar­gen­son no­ticed that the peas­ants who farmed his land in the Touraine were ‘try­ing not to mul­ti­ply’: ‘They wish only for death’. Even in times of plen­ty, old peo­ple who could no longer wield a spade or hold a nee­dle were keen to die as soon as pos­si­ble. ‘Last­ing too long’ was one of the great fears of life. In­valids were ha­bit­u­ally hated by their car­ers. It took a spe­cial gov­ern­ment grant, in­sti­tuted in 1850 in the Seine and Loiret dé­parte­ments, to per­suade poor fam­i­lies to keep their ail­ing rel­a­tives at home in­stead of send­ing them to that bare wait­ing room of the grave­yard, the mu­nic­i­pal hos­pice.

      When there was just enough food for the liv­ing, the mouth of a dy­ing per­son was an ob­scen­i­ty. In the rel­a­tively har­mo­nious house­hold of the 1840s de­scribed by the peas­ant nov­el­ist Émile Guil­lau­min, the fam­ily mem­bers spec­u­late openly in front of Émile’s bed-rid­den grand­mother (who has not lost her hear­ing): ‘“I wish we knew how long it’s go­ing to last.” And an­other would re­ply, “Not long, I hope.”’ As soon as the bur­den ex­pired, any wa­ter kept in pans or basins was thrown out (s­ince the soul might have washed it­self—or, if bound for Hell, tried to ex­tin­guish it­self—as it left the house), and then life went on as be­fore.

      ‘Happy as a corpse’ was a say­ing in the Alps. Vis­i­tors to vil­lages in the Savoy Alps, the cen­tral Pyre­nees, Al­sace and Lor­raine, and parts of the Mas­sif Cen­tral were often hor­ri­fied to find silent pop­u­la­tions of cretins with hideous thy­roid de­for­mi­ties. (The link be­tween goitre and lack of io­dine in the wa­ter was not widely rec­og­nized un­til the early nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.) The Alpine ex­plorer Saus­sure, who asked in vain for di­rec­tions in a vil­lage in the Aosta Val­ley when most of the vil­lagers were out in the fields, imag­ined that ‘an evil spirit had turned the in­hab­i­tants of the un­happy vil­lage into dumb an­i­mals, leav­ing them with just enough hu­man face to show that they had once been men’.

      The in­fir­mity that seemed a curse to Saus­sure was a bless­ing to the na­tives. The birth of a cretinous baby was be­lieved to bring good luck to the fam­i­ly. The id­iot child would never have to work and would never have to leave home to earn money to pay the tax-col­lec­tor. These hideous, crea­tures were al­ready half-cured of life. Even the death of a nor­mal child could be a con­so­la­tion. If the baby had lived long enough to be bap­tized, or if a clever witch re­vived the corpse for an in­stant to sprin­kle it with holy wa­ter, its soul would pray for the fam­ily in heav­en.

    28. The Dis­cov­ery of France, Robb 2008; ch6:

      In the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, over a quar­ter of the young men who stood naked in front of mil­i­tary re­cruit­ment boards were found to be un­fit for ser­vice be­cause of ‘in­fir­mity’, which in­cluded ‘weak con­sti­tu­tion’, a use­less or miss­ing limb, par­tial blind­ness and eye dis­ease, her­nias and gen­i­tal com­plaints, deaf­ness, goitre, scro­fula and res­pi­ra­tory and chest com­plaints. In a typ­i­cal con­tin­gent of two hun­dred and thirty thou­sand, about one thou­sand were found to be men­tally de­fec­tive or in­sane, two thou­sand were hunch­backs and al­most three thou­sand had bow legs or club feet. A fur­ther 5 per cent were too short (un­der five feet), and about 4 per cent suffered from un­spec­i­fied com­plaints which prob­a­bly in­cluded dysen­tery and vir­u­lent in­fes­ta­tions of lice. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, peo­ple suffer­ing from in­fec­tious dis­eases were not ex­am­ined and do not ap­pear in the fig­ures.

      This was the health­i­est sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion—y­oung men in their early twen­ties. The phys­i­cal con­di­tion of every­one else might give the trav­eller se­ri­ous doubts about in­for­ma­tion culled from books, mu­se­ums and paint­ings—even if the painters be­longed to the Re­al­ist school…If one of the liv­ing fig­ures turned around, the trav­eller might find him­self look­ing at what Lieu­tenan­t-Colonel Pinkney un­kindly called ‘a Venus with the face of an old mon­key’. [More pre­cise­ly: “The peas­ant women of France work so hard, as to lose every ap­pear­ance of youth in the face, whilst they re­tain it in the per­son; and it is there­fore no un­com­mon thing to see the per­son of a Venus, and the face of an old mon­key.”] To judge by the re­ac­tions of con­tem­po­rary trav­ellers, the biggest sur­prise would be the pre­pon­der­ance of women in the fields. Un­til the mid- to late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, al­most every­where in France, apart from the Provençal coast (but not the hin­ter­land), the north­east and a nar­row re­gion from Poitou to Bur­gundy, at least half the peo­ple work­ing in the open air were women. In many parts, women ap­peared to do the li­on’s share of the work…The re­port on south­ern Nor­mandy cru­elly sug­gested that women were treated as beasts of bur­den be­cause hard work had robbed them of their beau­ty: a sun-baked, arthritic crea­ture was hardly an or­na­ment and might as well be put to work. In parts like the south­ern Au­vergne, where so­ci­ety was pa­tri­ar­chal, women seemed to be­long to a differ­ent caste…Her face con­firms the truth of what she says in all but one re­spect. That evening, at Mars-la-Tour, the trav­eller re­mem­bers her face when he writes his ac­count: ‘It speaks, at the first sight, hard and se­vere labour. I am in­clined to think that they work harder than the men.’ ‘This wom­an, at no great dis­tance, might have been taken for sixty or sev­en­ty, her fig­ure was so bent and her face so fur­rowed and hard­ened by labour,—but she said she was only twen­ty-eight.’