Some anomalies/questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find existing explanations to be unsatisfying.
created: 17 Oct 2018; modified: 08 Jun 2019; status: finished; confidence: possible; importance: 3
Some questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find existing ‘answers’ to be unsatisfying (along the lines of Patrick Collison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas).
What, algorithmically, are mathematicians doing when they do math which explains how their proofs can usually be wrong but their results usually right?
Is it equivalent to a kind of tree search like MCTS 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?
Why did Jeanne Calment live so many more years than other centenarians, breaking all records and setting a life expectancy record which decades later has not just not been broken, but not even approached? Which is extraordinary considering that she smoked, medicine has continuously advanced, the global population has increased, life expectancy in general has increased, and the Gompertz curve 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. 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 have a similar question about the
“Dream Market”darknet market, as its longevity is extremely anomalous, especially when one looks at how Type 1 DNM life expectancies appear to be.)
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 age heaping, 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 GRG & others, etc.
On the other hand, Valery Novoselov & Yuri Deigin (1/2) in 2018 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 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. Presumably DNA testing offers a definitive answer, if the Calment family cooperates.
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 wine consumption have any health benefits, or not?
What happened to the famous genome sequencing cost curve around late 2012, which halted the exponential price decreases for years, keeping whole-genome sequencing prices high, and thus delaying whole-genome sequencing replacing SNP genotyping in genetics research by up to a decade? Was it really just the Illuminati’s fault?
Where else besides genetics can we use behavioral genetics’s workhorse of variance components analysis to nail down the net contribution of entire classes of effects rather than the usual (and usually futile) approach of attempting to exactly estimate one or a handful of said effects? If power analysis tells you whether you have enough light to find the needles in the haystack, variance components can tell you whether there are even any needles to look for. This requires some form of ‘distance’ equivalent to genetic relatedness for doing the clustering, which typically doesn’t exist, but how much of that is simply that practitioners in all other areas simply don’t think about this at all? We have seen some imaginative applications of it in high-dimensional data like brain imaging or leaf spectral imaging, so perhaps there is far more that can be done:
“Phenomic selection: a low-cost and high-throughput alternative to genomic selection”, Rincent et al 2018
“Morphometricity as a measure of the neuroanatomical signature of a trait”, Sabuncu et al 2016
“Morphometric Similarity Networks Detect Microscale Cortical Organization and Predict Inter-Individual Cognitive Variation”, Seidlitz et al 2018
“Intact Connectional Morphometricity Learning Using Multi-view Morphological Brain Networks with Application to Autism Spectrum Disorder”, Bessadok & Rekik 2018
“Analyzing Brain Morphology on the Bag-of-Features Manifold”, Chauvin et al 2019
“Resting brain dynamics at different timescales capture distinct aspects of human behavior”, Liégeois et al 2019
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 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?
Why does the immune system so often surface as a genetic correlation 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?
Can domestic cats be bred to be healthier & happier under modern conditions of pet life? Or are they neglected, and indeed actively undergoing dysgenics on domestication traits, contributing to vast feline suffering & mortality?
Why does catnip response 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 cats, and if it’s neutral why can so many closely-different different animals respond to it in different ways?
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 weather or sleep quality (at least using my non-sleep-deprived logs), 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?
nicotine is 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 mecamylamine, 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 writing in the morning (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, psychologist 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.
how common are, and what is going on psychologically, in the occasional eruption of large shared fantasy worlds (
“paracosms”) 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 Parker–Hulme murder case2, the Slender Man stabbing, the Manchester stabbing), often reported only in passing3 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 (“Tlön syndrome”? “Terabithia complex”? folie à plusieurs) or discussion of epidemiology. Is it an expansion of maladaptive daydreaming? Is prevalence underestimated due to childhood amnesia (similar to how imaginary friends 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)?
Why does sleep deprivation briefly treat depression (Boland et al 2017)? This makes no sense under the usual theories of depression like chronic inflammation or risk-aversion or too-little brain plasticity, but the experimental effect appears well-established. (And how does ketamine work anyway?)
If child abuse and emotional neglect is so harmful and there is nothing more to it than that, why does it appear in the biographies of so many people who achieve greatness, often middle/upper-class? It may do this by increasing variance (offsetting, for the top end, decreases in mean outcomes), but how—why would any subset of children have better outcomes for any reason because of abuse/neglect? If it increases motivation and creates a ‘drive to mastery’, is there any way to capture the benefits without being evil?
what and why and when are “furries”?
One of the core demographics of Patreon, by amount spent, is the “furries” subculture commissioning artwork & other things catering to their fetishes; furries are also very well-represented on image boorus, providing some of the largest & best tagged databases (even larger than Danbooru); further, furry conventions are surprisingly robust, catering, among other things, to fursuit makers selling extremely expensive (and often custom) fursuits; even further, furries appear to be extremely overrepresented among tech workers (an autism spectrum connection?). I’ve kept noticing furries within a few degrees of me (an artist acquaintance does SFW furry commissions, an online acquaintance learned English thanks to furries, another told me of furry IRC channels for just techies coordinating projects & trips & donations, yet another told me that it was not uncommon to see furries suited up in datacenters, the Damore lawsuit materials mention furry groups in Google along with ‘otherkin’4, and so on), public examples of furries like SonicFox are increasingly common, and I’ve begun to wonder. In general, furries are bizarrely rich, well-connected, and capable—the Quakers of fetishes.
Is this true, why are furries so rich and well-funded, and why tech, specifically? When did ‘furries’ become a thing? I have yet to run into a clear reference to them before the 1970s-1980s, typically vaguely ascribed to convention dynamics, and they may primarily postdate even that (see WP & WikiFur & 2 Reddit discussions).
But it is not as if anthropomorphization or novels featuring animals or funny artwork of animals were only invented in 1970s or 1980; for example, the Playboy bunnies were 1960s, the Batman character Catwoman was 1940 (just barely preceding Cat People), Disney had centered around anthropomorphization since 1928, Japanese catgirls were 1920s (although one could trace it back to Cordwainer Smith publishing in 1960s, assuming one didn’t tap into the general eroticization of cats which arguably goes back all the way to the Egyptian use of ‘miw’ for cats and then girls, and the fertility cat-goddess Bastet, serving along the way as a symbol of promiscuity, and Egyptian cartoons from thousands of years ago comically depict cats & rats, see Malek’s The Cat in Ancient Egypt) and probably one could trace many examples much further back than 1970. So why did it come into existence then, rather than long before, and what has made it so common? Why does it follow the apparent demographic patterns it does? If it indeed did arise in the 1970s due to some generic combination of economic development, popularity of comic books, technology, or cultural shifts, did many other paraphilias arise in the same time period? Indeed, where do paraphilias in general come from?
Does low levels of lithium in drinking water reduce violence/suicide/mental illness/death, or not?
How concerned should we be about concussions/head injuries/
“traumatic brain injuries”/TBIs? Are we crazy for not wearing walking/driving helmets?
“Disability Caused by Minor Head Injury”, Rimel et al 1981
“Disability in young people and adults one year after head injury: prospective cohort study”, Thornhill et al 2000
“Traumatic brain injury among men in an urban homeless shelter: observational study of rates and mechanisms of injury”, Topolovec-Vranic et al 2014
“Risk of suicide after a concussion”, Fralick et al 2016
“Long-Term Outcomes Associated with Traumatic Brain Injury in Childhood and Adolescence: A Nationwide Swedish Cohort Study of a Wide Range of Medical and Social Outcomes”, Sariaslan et al 2016a (media)
“Triggers for Violent Criminality in Patients With Psychotic Disorders”, Sariaslan et al 2016b
“Employment Outcome Ten Years after Moderate to Severe Traumatic Brain Injury: A Prospective Cohort Study”, Grauwmeijer et al 2017
“Association of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury With and Without Loss of Consciousness With Dementia in US Military Veterans”, Barnes et al 2018
- the CDC TBI Blue Book:
“Traumatic Brain Injury In The United States: Emergency Department Visits, Hospitalizations and Deaths 2002–2006”(note the pervasiveness of falling as a cause of morbidity/mortality in all age groups)
“Vietnam’s Neuroscientific Legacy”;
“What If PTSD Is More Physical Than Psychological?”
- Henry VIII:
“The jousting accident that turned Henry VIII into a tyrant?”
- Phineas Gage
- The Genius Factory (Plotz 2006) includes a case of TBI destroying Robert Klark Graham’s son’s life:
“…Another suffered a traumatic head injury as a boy, never quite recovered, and died in middle age after a difficult life.”
- mathematician Stanislaw Ulam was, his close friend Gian-Carlo Rota notes in Indiscrete Thoughts (1997)5, apparently severely affected by a case of encephalitis in 1946 despite making a “full” recovery—formerly a dandy, he became a sloppy reckless dresser, and while still highly creative, dependent on collaborators to fill out details and unable to focus for more than a few minutes despite having laser-like focus during the 1930s—even struggling to solve quadratic equations! The sadness of those who knew him, one suspects, must have been similar to that of Eugene Wigner upon finally meeting David Hilbert, who had developed pernicious anemia.6
- Ron Porambo: talented youth boxer who became a reckless and ultimately criminal journalist
- Steve Wozniak
“The Catastrophe: Spalding Gray’s brain injury”, Oliver Sacks 2015
- Frankie Muniz can’t remember acting on Malcolm in the Middle due to TBIs/head injuries: 1, 2
- Peter Meldrum
- Kelly Catlin (
“…She just felt like she couldn’t say no to everything that was asked of her and this was her only escape. She had suffered a concussion a few months ago and had not been the same mentally ever since.”)
“How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke: Recession or no recession, many NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players have a penchant for losing most or all of their money. It doesn’t matter how much they make. And the ways they blow it are strikingly similar”
“A Natural Mother: The Story Of An Intellectually Disabled Woman Who Had Long Wanted A Child But Decided To Adopt A Doll Instead”
- Henry VIII:
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 7.)
Is there something qualitatively different about personal meetings, and if so, where is it? Is it eye contact? Body language? (It’s probably not pheromones.)8 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 Coen brothers & Wachowski brothers? The reader will struggle to think of more than a handful, or even any other examples (the Bee Gees, 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 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to develop and the Gracie family crush almost all other unarmed martial arts at the start of MMA, 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 (Langlois et al 2000), 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) labor9, 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 ‘the tails come apart’ 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)?
Who committed the 2013 Metcalf sniper attack 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 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 key to finding the Pennsylvania 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 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?
Is physical beauty, masculine or feminine, a negative-sum, zero-sum (positional) or positive good? And has beauty increased or decreased over time?
“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.”
Song of Solomon 4:2 (praising the beauty of the beloved for still having all her teeth)
In looking at historical paintings & statues, I’ve always been struck by how, 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 Jean Harlow, after making allowance for the fashions like hideous eyebrows and frying their hair, I can only find them odd looking; was Audrey Munson 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, 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), and Rubik cube puzzle solvers have drastically 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.
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 labor10, 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, urbanization rates 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 despairing worn-out woman with her children, 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, offering a relatively controlled comparison, particularly using composite/average faces, and the differences in attractiveness over time is striking. 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 Afghan Girl: 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. Isabella Bird, 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 Ainu, 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 Ludwig I of Bavaria collected a Jane Digby or Lola Montez; a similar 1600s gallery, the Windsor Beauties, depicts many mistresses of King Charles II, and there is the somewhat later Hampton Court Beauties (King William III)—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 They Shall Not Grow Old 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 The Road to Wigan Pier—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, salt iodization 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 cretins11, 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”.12 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 scarlet fever (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:
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.
beauty is (mostly) objective/cardinal and is perceived as objective: a beautiful person is above average on objective attributes like facial symmetry, 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 mutation load, 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.
“Maxims or Myths of Beauty? A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review”, Langlois et al 2000, 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=.9/.85; cross-ethnic, r=.88; cross-culture, r=.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=.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=.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.
And in the case of sports, we also know why it might not be odd that some records set in the 1960s-1980s haven’t been broken yet…↩︎
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 The NeverEnding Story, 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.”
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 John Oxtoby, 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.
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.
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”…↩︎
Chemical pheromones have been suggested for many things in humans—Frank Herbert invokes them 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 ‘Flehmen response’ 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 very 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.↩︎
Nobody looks more prematurely aged than a subsistence agriculture peasant.↩︎
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 purdah is not better off for it.↩︎
The Discovery of France, 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.
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.’