I am in the middle of a post on Dreamland (Sam Quinones) and how it is so wrong, but honestly I don’t think I can wait that long so here’s an easily encapsulated teaser.
On page 39 Quinones says “Most drugs are easily reduced to water-soluble glucose…Alone in nature, the morphine molecule rebelled.” I am reasonably certain that is horseshit. Glucose contains three kinds of atoms- carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. The big three of organic chemicals. Your body is incapable of atomic fusion, so the atoms it starts with are the atoms it ends up with, it can only rearrange them into different molecules. Morphine is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, and that nitrogen has to go somewhere, so I guess technically you can’t reform it into just sugar. But lots of other medications have non-big-3 atoms too (although, full disclosure, when I spot checked there was a lot less variety than I expected).
This valorization of morphine as the indigestible molecule is equally bizarre. Morphine has a half-life of 2-3 hours (meaning that if you have N morphine in your body to start with, 2-3 hours later you will have N/2). In fat that’s one of the things that makes it so addictive- you get a large spike, tightly tying it with the act of ingestion, and then it goes away quickly, without giving your body time to adjust. Persistence is the opposite of morphine’s problem.
This is so unbelievably wrong I would normally assume the author meant something entirely different and I was misreading. I’d love to check this, but the book cites no sources, and the online bibliography doesn’t discuss this particular factoid. I am also angry at the book for being terrible in general, so it gets no charity here.
I really love physics puzzle video games. The general pattern for physics puzzlers is that you have a fairly small set of tools that alter some fundamental law, like gravity, and you use them to get to the other side of the room. The puzzles are quite separate from each other, and there is no metapuzzle. You walk into a chamber, you solve the puzzle, you walk out. None of this wondering if you’re did the puzzle wrong or it’s just a tree you walked in to, no metagame (I’m looking at you, The Witness. Either be a book of mazes or have a story, doing neither is annoying), just a puzzle to solve with a little reward pellet when you’re done. I have enough things in my day where it’s not even clear if I’m solving the correct problem, I don’t need that from my leisure activities.
The example you’re most likely to be familiar with is Portal.
Thomas Was Alone uses a couple of my favorite themes, including disparate people (rectangles) bonding together to solve a problem, and entwined moral and practical leveling up. The puzzle solving of using different rectangles to get them all where they need to go becomes a metaphor for social cooperation in really impressive ways. It is the first game I ever went through to get the collectibles not because I wanted the reward pellet from getting 100% completion, but just because I wanted to spend more time in the world. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out the creator, Tom Bithell, had a new game coming out, and by coming out I mean came out a year and a half ago and was in a Humble Bundle, because I am not super up on my video game releases.
Story wise, Volume is no Thomas Was Alone, and I think that’s true even accounting for the facts that I was playing during a truly awful week, and Thomas was Alone‘s story couldn’t have targeted me better if it tried. If you removed the story from both Volume is clearly the better the game, but part of what made Thomas Was Alone work was the superb integration between story and mechanics, so that’s not really fair.
But Volume‘s gameplay is excellent. You play a thief playing a AI-driven simulation of stealing (but are also actually stealing? To be honest I wasn’t paying attention. Oh, apparently you’re simulating it to show other people how to steal and then they do? That explains the moralizing at the end) from people who totally deserve it. If you filmed the results it would look a lot like a wireframe of a Bugs Bunny Cartoons. Guards can only see in a very prescribed area, so often the best thing to do walk directly behind them. If you enter their line of sight they will chase you, but if you leave it for long enough they will give up, which led to a couple of really entertaining chases where I ran around columns perfectly opposite them until they gave up. The game pokes fun at the simplifications it made- “I didn’t have the money to illustrate a bunch of objects so just pretend each of these identical gems is something different”, “Yes, transporters are impossible, but stairs are hard to code please just go with it.”
You’re given a variety of tools to manipulate the guards, like a bugle to create sound far away from you, and a way to generate a ghost of you running away so the guards will chase it (this one is a mixed blessing because it makes the guards more vigilant). The tools vary dramatically in entertainment value: I found the stun gun was no fun at all, because it removed the need for planning. Encounter a problem? Shoot it. It doesn’t even take that long to recharge. But the stunning tripwire was fantastic. Figuring out where to place it so you have as much time to run past the guard to your goal as possible and then lure them to it without getting shot is hard.
Like Thomas Was Alone and unlike every other puzzle game I’ve ever played, I completed Volume without once looking at a walkthrough. For Thomas this was pretty clearly because the puzzles were easy; for Volume I think it’s at least partly really excellent design. I didn’t know how to solve everything right away, but I always had more ideas of things to try. None of this staring at a brick wall wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do (I’m looking at you Fez).
If I had one complaint about Volume that wasn’t about the lack of the magic of friendship, it would be that you don’t get enough time with any one mechanic. I wish the game had had more confidence that the puzzles were fun and it didn’t need to keep feeding me novelty. Luckily there is an ecosystem of user-made levels that I can only assume solves this exact problem.
So I heartily recommend Volume. While I’m at it, if you like this type of game you’ll probably love Swapper, which might be more fun mechanically than even Portal and has narrative/mechanic integration to rival Thomas Was Alone, although this time the narrative is about watching your body die horribly over and over again, which is somewhat easier to represent in gameplay. And for people like me who will enjoy even mid-tier representatives of the genre, Q.U.B.E is totally adequate.
Mountains Beyond Mountains is a biography of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who founded a small clinic in Haiti and ended up saving hundreds of thousands of lives, possibly millions. But that’s at the end. The beginning is spent with him doing obviously suboptimal things like spending $5000/year per patient treating AIDS patients in a country where people were constantly dying of malnutrition and diarrhea (average cost to treat: <$30), while baiting me by bragging about how cost ineffective it was. I was very angry at him for a while, until it dawned on me that getting angry at a man for distributing lifesaving drugs probably said more negative things about me than it did about him. Plus he did maybe avert a worldwide epidemic of untreatable tuberculosis, so perhaps I should stop yelling at the CD player and figure out what his thinking was.
Let’s take tuberculosis. At some point in the story (it’s frustratingly vague on years), Farmer’s friend brings him to Peru, which had what was widely considered the world’s best TB containment system (called DOTS). The WHO held it up as what the rest of the world should aspire to. DOTS did many things right, like ensuring a continuous supply of antibiotics to patients and monitoring them to ensure compliance (intermittent treatment breeds resistance). On the other hand, the prescribed response to someone failing to get better on drugs (indicating their infection was resistant to them) was “give them all the same, plus one more.” This is exactly the right thing to do, if what you want is to make sure the bacteria evolve resistance to the new drug without losing its existing resistance. The protocol specifically banned testing to see which drugs a particular patient’s infection was susceptible to, because that is expensive and potentially difficult in the 3rd world.
The WHO ignored the possibility of drug resistant TB because it was considered an evolutionary dead end. Resistance had to evolve anew in each patient, and rendered the infection noncontagious. I don’t know what evidence they based this on, but at best it was a case of incorrectly valuing evidence over reason. At worst, it indicates a giant sentient TB cell has infiltrated the WHO and is writing policy.
If your evidence says a contagious disease spontaneously becomes completely noncontagious at a convenient moment, your first thought should be “who do I fire?” because obviously something went wrong in the study design or implementation. If you check everything out and it genuinely is noncontagious, your next thought should be “wow, we really lucked out having all this extra time to prepare before it inevitably becomes contagious again.” At no point should it be “sweet, cross that off the list”, because while you are not looking it will redevelop virulence and everyone will die.
Farmer’s response to the ban on treating multiple drug resistant TB was to steal >$100,000 worth of medicine and tests from an American hospital to treat a handful of patients. When caught, a donor bailed him out.
Or take cancer. A young child with weird symptoms shows up at his clinic. He drops a few thousand dollars on tests to determine the child had a rare form of cancer. 60-70% survival rate in the US, no chance in Haiti. He convinced an American hospital to donate the care, but when the child becomes too ill to travel commercially he spends $20,000+ on medical transport.
Both of these went against standard measures of cost effectiveness, as did Farmer’s pioneering work treating AIDS patients in the 3rd world. But let’s look at his results:
The WHO’s “yeah, it’s probably fine” approach to drug resistant TB worked as well as you would think. Farmer proves it is contagious, is treatable, and drives down the price of treatment (to the point it is $/DALY competitive with standard health interventions). He goes on to change the international standard for TB treatment and lead the effort in several countries. Book gives no numbers but I estimate 142,000 lives and counting, plus avoiding an epidemic that could cost 2 million lives/year.*
Kid’s cancer is inoperable, he dies in the US. American hospital agrees to take a few more cases each year.
In retrospect his actions in the TB case seem pretty damn effective. But he didn’t set out to change the world. He stole those drugs for the exact reason he flew that boy to the US: someone was dying in front of him and it made him sad. It’s possible you couldn’t correct his answer in the cancer case without also “correcting” his answer in the TB case. And while someone more math driven could have launched the world changing anti-MDR TB campaign, they didn’t. Farmer did, and we need to respect that.
Lots of people in the philanthropic space, including Farmer and most EAs, say that it’s unreasonable to expect perfect altruism from everyone. People need to spend money on themselves to keep themselves happy and productive, and constant bean counting about “do the morale effects of name brand toilet paper make up for the kids I won’t be able to deworm?” is counterproductive. You put aside money for charity, and you put aside money for you to enjoy life, and you make your choices. What if we view Farmer’s need to save the life in front of him as a morale booster that enables our preferred work (averting world wide incurable TB pandemic), rather than the work itself? By that measure, $150,000 on a single kid’s cancer and 7 hours doing a house call for one patient in Haiti is a steal. Given that I pay my cats more (in food and vet care) than what 1/6 of the world survives on, I do not have a lot of room to judge Paul Farmer’s “saving children from cancer” hobby.
Farmer himself raises this point, in a way. It turns out that effective altruism did not invent the phrase “that’s not cost effective.” Lots of people with a lot of power (e.g. the WHO) have been saying it for a long time. From Farmer’s perspective, it seems to be used a lot more to justify not spending money, rather than spending it on a different thing. He also rejects the framing of the comparison: cancer treatment may save fewer lives per dollar than diarrhea treatment but it saves way more per dollar than a doctor’s beach house, so how come it only gets compared to the former? Those are fair points.
It’s not clear he could have redirected the money even if he wanted to. Most of the care for the cancer patient was donated in kind; there was no cash he could redirect to a better cause (although that’s not true for the cost of the medivac). No one gave him $100,000 to spend on TB treatment, he stole drugs and got bailed out. It’s not clear the donor would have been as moved to rescue him if he stole $100,000 worth of cheap antibiotics.
In essence, I’m postulating that Farmer operated under the following constraints.
Evaluating cost effectiveness is emotionally costly even in the face of very good information.
Low quality information on effectiveness
Financial discipline was emotionally costly
Some money was available for treatments of less relative effectiveness but could not be moved to the most effective thing. But the money was not clearly labeled “the best thing” and “for warm fuzzies only”, he had to guess in the face of low information.
Under those things, evaluating cost effectiveness could easily be actively harmful. Judging by the results, I think he did better following his heart.
Doing The Most Effective Thing is great, and I think the EA movement is pushing the status quo in the right direction. But what Farmer is doing is working and I don’t want to mess with it. At the same time, his statement that “saying you shouldn’t treat one person for cancer because you could treat 10 people for dysentery is valuing one life over another.” (paraphrased) is dangerously close to Heifer International’s “we can’t check how our programs compare to others, that would be experimenting on them and that would be wrong.” (paraphrased), which is dangerously close to Play Pump’s “fuck it, this seems right.” (paraphrased) as they rip out functional water pumps and replace them with junk. So while Farmer is a strong argument against Effective Altruism as “the last social movement we will ever need” (because some people do the most good when they don’t compare what they’re doing to the counter-factuals), he’s not an argument against EA’s existence. Someone has to run the numbers and shame Play Pump until they stop attacking Africans’ access to water.
And just like you couldn’t improve Farmer by forcing to him do accounting, you can’t necessarily improve a given EA by making them sadder at the tragedy immediately in front of them. EA is full of people who didn’t care about philanthropy until it had math and charts attached, or who find doing The Best Thing motivating. We’re doing good work too. I understand why people fear doing the math on human suffering will make them less human, but that isn’t my experience. I cry more now at heroism and sacrifice than I ever did as a child.
Ironically the one thing I was still angry at Farmer for at the end of the book was his most effective choice: neglecting his children in favor of treating patients and global health politics. I could forgive it if he felt called to an emergency after the children were born, but he had kids knowing he would choose his work over them. For me, no amount of lives saved can redeem that choice. Maybe that is what he feels about letting that Haitian child die of cancer.
*This paper (PDF) estimates 142,000 deaths averted 2006-2015 by the program Farmer pioneered, and the program is still scaling up. I estimate a drug resistant TB epidemic would cost a minimum 2.3 million lives/year (math below), although how likely that is to occur is a matter of opinion. That’s ignoring his clinical work in Haiti, the long term effects of his pioneering HIV treatment in the 3rd world,the long term effects of his pioneering community-based interventions that increased treatment effectiveness, infrastructure building in multiple countries, and refugee care. I would love to give you numbers for those but neither Paul Farmer nor PIH believe in numbers, so the WHO evaluation of the TB program was the best I could do.
TB rates have been dropping since ~2002, but that’s due to aggressive
treatment. New infection rate held steady at ~150 people/100,000
from 1990-2002, so let’s use that as our baseline. With 7.3 billion people, that’s 11 million cases/year. 11 million * .7 chance of death = 7.7 million deaths. Per year. 25% of those are patients with AIDS who arguably wouldn’t live very long anyway, so conservatively we have ~5.7 million deaths. If I’m really generous and assume complete worldwide distribution of the TB vaccine (efficacy: 60%), that’s down to 2.3 million deaths. Per year.
For comparison, malaria causes about 0.5 million deaths/year.
Let me begin by describing something The Hot Seat does not do. A while ago I read Never Say Die, about how society talks about old age. Sometimes I would want to argue with its factual statements (“old women have no access to sex”), but feel immediately aversive. Eventually I realized that this was because Never Say Die spent a long time deriding anyone who believed anything good about old-old age as delusional or mean. I didn’t want to be delusional or mean, so even in the privacy of my own head I resisted arguing. This is a bad tactic for finding out the truth. You don’t win arguments by deriding people who oppose you, you win them with facts. And the facts are that old people in nursing homes get a lot of STDs.*
A lot of business books do this too. “Other people will tell all a company needs is a website and a mascot, but we’re not like that. We think you should have a product.” It’s not quite argument from bravery– more like argument against stupidity. It often follows statements like “we won’t sugarcoat this” and “fancy new economy idiots/stodgy old economy losers believe…”. The effect is to discourage critical thought about what they are telling you.
The Hot Seat does not do this, at all. It gives you information- both legal rules and the unspoken ones, from funding to people management. I think it would be useful for someone planning on starting their own company, but that wasn’t my use case. I want to be an early employee at a start up, and want to be able to tell good start ups from bad. Hot Seat isn’t a complete book for that, but it is a very strong foundation that will make it easier to assess if I’m getting good advice from other books. It is also extraordinarily readable, to the point I would read it for fun.**
*When I went to look up the numbers I saw that they counted everyone above age 65 or even 50. The book’s main thesis is that people take happy statements about the (upper class) young old and inappropriately apply them to the old old (80+). So the author may not have even been wrong, but I don’t like the way she proved her point.
Recently I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I have well known trouble distinguishing “things the book said” from “thoughts I had while reading it”, so I’m just going to tell you what I thought and if you’re interested you can track down the book and see how original this was.
The book’s official tagline is “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work” and it frames itself as anti-passion, but Newport eventually admits that’s a marketing hook. Mostly his thesis is that passion alone will not make you happy, and skill can be used to extract concessions from your employer that make life more pleasant, so you should focus on skill. Passion is a great driver for developing skills so that seems like a weak criticism of passion (he puts all the positive aspects of passion under “mission”), but he also suggests that it’s impossible to find something you’re really passionate about until you have a certain amount of skill, so still focus on that. Given the essentially infinite number of skills available it seems like there’s room for your interests to have input earlier in the process. I think what he’s really attacking is the idea that your job should be a source of entertainment. That has given me severe clarity in what I’m looking for job-wise.
The epitome of the jobs-as-entertainment model is “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. That is neither true nor desirable, unless you use a very specific definition of work. Let’s take this blog. No one is forcing me to write it. For the first year I had something like five readers, most of whom I regularly talked to in person. Obviously it was motivated entirely internally, which is another way of saying “powered by love.” And yet, it was still work. Even if you discount all the reading I did as “things I would have read for fun anyway”*, and the thought I put into it as “a thing I can’t stop my brain from doing”, I have to organize my thoughts and translate them to things other people can understand. I had to configure the page layout so it was neither hideous nor generic. I had to proofread and correct mistakes. I had to retype entries from scratch after WordPress broke again. I had to correct all the typos Beth pointed out to me after I published. Nothing past writing the first draft could be considered entertaining the way playing Twenty is entertaining, and even the reading, thinking, and first drafts took considerable time and effort. That sounds like work to me. And yet obviously I was doing something I loved because there was no other reason to do it. **
Love doesn’t erase the fact that something is work. It can motivate the work, it can cushion the annoyances of work, it can give you the incentive to continue when you would otherwise give up, but it can’t erase it. And I kind of resent attempts to try. I am a grown up human, I do not need swings or field trips to chocolate factories to trick me into swallowing a pill showing up.
What I do need is a good working environment, clarity around my goals, and the tools to achieve them. Those are what let me accomplish things, which is the reward I want from work. An occasional morale event when I we’re all producing really good work together can be really rewarding, but frequent events (like my job has) when I’m unhappy with my productivity feels like… like eating too much dessert when what I really need is a nutritious meal. My taste buds notice the sugar but I don’t get any of the associated psychological rewards, and it turns into queasiness. Speaking of which: office candy counts as entertainment but the nutritious-organic-local-cuddled meals at work are productivity aids. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Like 80,000 hours, So Good They Can’t Ignore You has a large emphasis on building career capital. This section isn’t perfect. A lot of the case studies are opportunistic (in the positive sense of the word), and serendipity is not repeatable. I feel like it’s skipping a critical step without acknowledging it. It’s also a little too “be a good worker bee until you’re called up to the the big leagues” for me; traditional corporate or academic paths work for a lot of people and the whole “the only thing holding you back is fear” narrative is stupid, but there’s a lot of other paths to success that get a lot less publicity. But this was still useful.
I have some topics I find both interesting and skills that would be useful in an associated career. But as you may have noticed, I have a lot of interests, many of which require expensive, brittle credentials to pursue. It would suck to spend years in school only to get bored with the field. I highly suspect interests are a better predictor of what will be entertaining than what will be rewarding. What SGTCIY suggests in this situation (actually all situations, but I think it applies to me more than most) is to build capital in things that will be useful in service to lots of interests/goals. Like, say, programming, a skill and job I already have but really always skated through on raw intelligence and a willingness to do low status work. Between this book and not getting a job I really wanted I’ve started make deliberate choices and investing.
It’s also really nice to read a career guide by someone with a career that is not writing career guides (Newport wrote the book in between finishing a computer science PhD and starting a professorship), and one with writing skills to boot. I finished the book in two days because it was just that readable.
*I used to read things with the explicit goal of blogging about them; they were worth blogging about so rarely I stopped.
**I was planning on using the blog as a portfolio for job purposes, but one of the reasons blogging works as a signal of interest and skill is that it’s so costly and low-reward no one would do it unless they loved it.
Recently I read Poor Economics, which is excellent at doing what it promises: explaining the experimental data we have for what works and does not work in alleviating third world poverty, with some theorizing as to why. If that sounds interesting to you, I heartily recommend it. I don’t have much to add to most of it, but one thing that caught my eye was their section on education and IQ tests.
In Africa and India, adults believe that the return to education is S-shaped (meaning each additional unit of education is more valuable than the one before, at least up to a point). This leads them to concentrate their efforts on the children that are already doing the best. This happens at multiple levels- poor parents pick one child to receive an education and put the rest to work much earlier, teachers put more of their energy into their best students. Due to a combination of confirmation bias and active maneuvering, the children of rich parents are much more likely to be picked as The Best, regardless of their actual ability. Not only does this get them more education, but education is viewed as proof one is smart, so they’re double winners. This leaves some very smart children of poor parents operating well below their potential.
One solution to this is IQ tests. Infosys, an Indian IT contractor, managed to get excellent workers very cheaply by giving IQ tests to adults and hiring those who scored well, regardless of education. The authors describe experiments in Africa giving IQ tests to young children so that teachers will invest more in the smart but poor children. This was one of the original uses of the SATs in America- identifying children who were very bright but didn’t have the money or connections to go to Ivy League feeder high schools.
This is more or less the opposite of how critics view standardized testing the US. They believe the tests are culturally biased such that a small sliver of Americans will always do better, and that basing resource distribution on those tests disenfranchises the poor and people outside the white suburban subculture. What’s going on here?
One possible explanation is that one group or the other is wrong, but both sides actually have pretty good evidence. The IQ tests are obviously being used for the benefit of very smart poor children in the 3rd world. And even tests without language can’t get around the fact that being poor takes up brainspace, and so any test will systematically underestimate poor children. So let’s assume both groups are right at least some of the time.
Maybe it’s the difference in educational style that matters? In the 3rd world, teachers are evaluated based on their best student. In the US, No Child Left Behind codified the existing emphasis on getting everyone to a minimum bench mark. Kids evaluated as having lower potential than they actually do may receive less education than they should, but they still get some, and in many districts gifted kids get the least resources of any point on the bell curve.
Or it could be because the tests are trying to do very different things. The African and Indian tests are trying to pick out the extremely intelligent who would otherwise be overlooked. The modern US tests are trying to evaluate every single student and track them accordingly. When the SATs were invented they had a job much like the African tests; as more and more people go to college its job is increasingly to evaluate the middle of the curve. It may be that these are fundamentally different problems.
This has to say something interesting about the meaning of intelligence or usefulness of education, but I’m not sure what.
As a follow up to yesterday, I just want to say that having a thing I look forward to that I can only do on the bus is working out brilliantly as a device for making commuting less miserable and it was totally worth buying the Kindle Fire to make it happen. If you want to try for yourself, I recommend getting the 16gb, the 8gb could barely hold three HD episodes. I also recommend an anti-glare screen, because its glare is awful and the screen picks up fingerprints like woah.
The next recommendation is a little weirder. I bike to the bus, which means I’m in biking clothes and have to maneuver my bike onto the cow catcher. This makes waiting for the bus a little tricky- anything I have in my hands will have to be put away really quickly so I can rack my bike and get on, but I have no pockets. And for reasons that may not be entirely rational, the time it takes to unsling my backpack and put a toy away makes me really stressed out. But if I don’t use a toy the time at the bus stop is wasted, and that’s stressful too. What I wanted was a way to make the whole of commuting feel either productive or like an indulgence.
So I made myself a shirt, out of two shirts and some fabric glue.
Place desired toy on shirt, cut patch around it. Leave space for depth.
Put fabric glue on single edge of patch and apply to surviving shirt.
Lock cat in other room.
Reapply patch to surviving shirt. Once you have it aligned, apply glue to other two edges and apply (you leave the top open so it’s a pocket). Remember to apply it less than completely flat, so the pocket will have depth.
I don’t know if this is a property of the fabric glue, my shirt, or this project in general, but some of the glue filtered down such that the base shirt was glued to itself and the patch ran free. If you catch this early enough you can separate and try again.
This shirt is not aesthetically pleasing and is weirdly stiff where I overapplied fabric glue, but it gets the job done.
[explicit spoilers for episode 1 of Hannibal, implied spoilers for 2 and 3. I haven’t seen past that but I am making predictions about what will happen]
My need to make movies make sense is most obvious when it comes to animal behavior*, but that’s not its only manifestation. Take police procedurals. I made Bones tolerable by saying la la la science fiction. I’m now watching Hannibal because it’s one of the best shows available on Amazon Prime Streaming, which is the only streaming service that allows offline viewing, which is important because I have a bus commute again.**
Hannibal… does not make a ton of sense. The premise is that an ex homicide detective is a brilliant criminal profiler but unable to get into the FBI because he couldn’t pass the psych screening, so they just hire him as a “special agent” that does everything a normal agent does, including field work. You would think that was Hannibal Lecter, but it is not. Lecter is the psychiatrist the FBI hires to babysit the unstable profiler (who I can only imagine will one day regret copying Lecter’s answers off a psych test). Lecter also accompanies the agent on field work, which I don’t think even regular FBI agent’s counselors are normally allowed to do. The actual profiler (Will Graham) comes up with theories more or less out of thin air and they always turn out to be correct. He insists the evidence makes it obvious.
On the face of it, this makes no sense. But what if Hannibal is set in a just slightly alternate universe, where psychic powers exist but are considered shameful because they make people mentally unstable? The FBI can’t officially hire them, and they in fact test for powers before hiring to make sure they don’t hire any psychics. But if there just happens to be a profiler who makes totally evidence based leaps, enabling them to catch really gruesome serial killers they otherwise couldn’t, well surely you can hire them on a contract basis.***
Why doesn’t the psychic Graham notice Hannibal is murdering and eating people? I’m glad you asked. Hiring a babysitter for a psychic is tricky business. You wouldn’t want someone they could manipulate or even read, that would defeat the purpose. So you hire someone who’s a null field to psychics, or at least your psychic. As a bonus, this person can lie to them when need be. Note that Graham says he hates going to psychiatrists- presumably every one he’s been to has been unreadable to him, and he hates that.
And that’s how I learned to enjoy Hannibal.
*Ask my brother about watching the King Kong with me.
**”So you’re coping with your motion sickness by watching a show about food and gore?” “Yes”
***The same way my team at Microsoft rehired the same contractor for our Apple version over and over again.
First, it’s great, and totally reverses Pixar’s downward slide. Second, they did an amazing job of making everything work as a character/story and a metaphor for how the brain works and an Aesop. A good chunk of the time kids’ shows teach lessons I consider abhorrent (looking at you, My Little Friendship Means Never Having Boundaries) , and at the beginning it looked like they were setting up one of those, but in the end in became clear they considered it exactly as problematic as I did.
Also I need to see it at home so I can cry harder. That is all.
Like many people who know things, I often find inaccuracies in movies frustrating. I’ve learned to let this go in most instances, but I still have a weakness around behavioral ecology, possibly because I spent so long studying it and use that knowledge so little now. This week’s victim is How to Train Your Dragon (1 and 2). The questions I want to answer: how/why are they so many different types of dragons, and what is their social structure? The ecosystem as described by characters makes so little sense I’ll never come up with a plausible system that makes their statements true, so I’m going to focus on generating a system that could generate their observations without being constrained to make them actually true. For example: real species always have variation between individuals, even if they’re all clones (because of environmental variation). Vikings indicate all dragons of a given type are identical. So I will design dragons that have little enough variation that Vikings could plausibly mis-measure them as having none, but not actually none, because that would be dumb.
I’m also just going to ignore the fact that that ecosystem couldn’t support that many predators of that size, and the whole fire breathing thing, because those are just things you accept when you watch a movie.
Here are the observations I need to explain (enormous spoilers for both movies, although mostly not the parts anyone else cares about):
There are a lot of different types of dragons that live together and appear to work cooperatively.
Nests with lots of dragons tend to be controlled/led by a single enormous dragon.
Movie 1 had a queen dragon and Movie 2 had a king dragon. Valka says that kings outrank queens.
The nest with the queen (a Red Death) was in a volcano, lesser dragons hunted for her, and she ate them if they failed.
The nest with the king (a Bewilderbeast) was located in an iceberg, and he fed the other dragons.
There was a second collection of dragons led by a different Bewilderbeast under the control of a human that we don’t know much about.
Dragons react to human speech at a level that indicates understanding, not just keyword matching. They pick this up without formal instruction.
The kings are shown giving sophisticated commands to lesser dragons. The queen did not do so on screen, but that may be how she compelled the lesser dragons to hunt for her.
The bewilderbeasts breathe ice and can stay underwater indefinitely. They can survive on land but do not fly.
A number of underwater dragons are mentioned.
The Vikings believe very strongly that dragons are groupable into distinct species where members have identical stats. They refer to these as species, although it’s never mentioned how Vikings define that.
For all their morphoological diversity, we see dragons doing mostly the same things. This could be an artifact of their interaction with humans.
Dragons appear to congregate in massive nests.
There is some variation in morphology even among juveniles
The mass nesting and single head sound a lot like bees/ants/termites, where thousands of sterile workers coordinate to support a single breeding individual. The technical term for this is eusocial. Eusociality was something of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists for a while because wait, individuals are not breeding? How could that ever be selected for?
The answer is kin selection: workers bees are able to pass more of their genes onto the next generation by caring for eggs the queen lays than they would by raising their own offspring. In the particular case of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants), this may be helped by the fact that females are more related to full sisters than they are to their own offspring (I’ll explain this tomorrow), but this is neither necessary nor sufficient to generate eusociality. Eusocial animals have some variation in their breeding structure: ant queens mate once and store sperm for life, males die shortly after mating. Termites, certain shrimp, and Damaraland mole rats have a single breeding pair. Naked mole rats and some bees have a queen and several breeding males. Bees and wasps can have either either the first or third structure (and not all bees or wasps are eusocial). However, and this is important, there’s no known (non-fictional) eusocial species with one male and multiple breeding females. There are animals with a harem structure (e.g. gorillas, lions), and females may have some cooperative care (e.g. lionesses will nurse others’ cubs), but children are cared for primarily by their mother and immature siblings, and there are no permanently non-breeding females.
The sheer number of dragons, the size differential, the fact that they cooperate to feed the alpha (sometimes), and that they can be compelled to take orders points to eusociality. However eusocial animals are usually pretty dumb. Dragons are smart, and have relationships outside that with their alpha (e.g. Toothless trying so hard to impress Valka’s dragon). This suggests they have a more complex social structure than a beehive. Moreover, they actively work to understand what humans want and to do it: this suggests they’re something like wolves, where there is a complex hierarchy beyond a simple alpha, and that like wolves dragons have applied their ability to interpret intentions and respond to them to us.* This doesn’t necessarily mean they view humans as alpha, they may view us as a senior pack member to be listened to.
If they are eusocial, they’re going to be more like naked mole rats (where any individual can theoretically become alpha) than insects (where alpha-ness is designated at birth). I believe this because we see three different dragon types as alpha (Red Death in the first movie, two Bewilderbeasts and Night Fury in the third), and because alphas obviously retain the capacity to be ordered around (by both humans and other dragons).
That’s social structure. What about speciation? We see an enormous variation in dragon morphology and behavior in the movies. There’s a few ways to generate that:
There are many closely related species, like whales. This does not gel with the fact that dragons are clearly cooperative. While different species sometimes cooperate (e.g. humans and dogs), there’s nothing approaching interspecies eusociality.
There are very different species with tight, possibly obligate, mutualisms (humans and dogs were probably this once, and gibbons and gazelles have some mutualism as well). But those species tend to be good at very different things (dogs and gazelles have smell and we and gibbons have eyesight), while the dragons seem to mostly do the same thing. This could be sufficient to explain them nesting together, but not following the alpha.
They could all be the same species (meaning they can interbreed), but have diverged into semi-distinct genetic pools, like dogs. Rare types could be hybrids. If hybrids are frequent and distinct enough to be recognized as their own type, it suggests morphology is controlled by only a few genes, or that all the genes are located on the same chromosome. Otherwise you would just have a bunch of dragons that were intermediate between their two parents.
Dragons are born having the ability to take many forms, and move through multiple forms in their lifespan or settle on one form based on the environment. This would be a good fit with eusociality, where drones often specialize in a single task.
Dragons vary a lot and the Vikings more or less made up categories to shove them into
I suspect there’s more than one base form, because the babies in HTTYD2 were already bigger than the smallest adult dragons we’ve seen. But the different types must be able to interbreed, because different species don’t cooperate that extensively. This points to 3 and possibly 4.
I also have to explain the feeding. Eusocial alphas get fed, they do not feed their drones, which doesn’t match the behavior in movie 2. The easy answer is that it depends on environmental conditions: when food is plentiful the alpha feeds their minions, when it’s not their minions feed them. Since the sex making the larger investment in offspring is usually the one fed by the other, this suggests alphas are male in the water and female in volcanos. Normally that would make no sense, but I’m about to get to a really satisfying explanation.
Let’s talk about reproduction. Given the babies in movie 2, alphas must reproduce with members of their own nest, not an alpha from another nest. All the examples I can think of with a single alpha that have that level of control (as opposed to a dominance structure with one member at the top) are eusocial and have a female leader. This gels with the minions feeding the alpha in movie 1. Or they could be like gorillas, with a single male keeping a harem of females. That matches well with the fighting between the two alphas and the loyalty shifts, plus Valka would probably notice if her king laid hundreds of eggs. It seems to me to be incredibly unlikely a species would have the ability to have alphas of either sex, so we have to choose one or choose hermaphroditism. There’s only one reptile that could be called hermaphroditic, and that’s really more like being intersex than a true hermaphrodite.
But… hermaphroditism is really common in fish. Fish also feature more morphological variation through their life than reptiles, and have more and more complex social/pack behavior. And we know there are underwater dragons. What if those came first, and they moved out of the sea later? The intermediate step would look a lot like flying fish, which totally exist. I’m not sure about the fire breathing thing, but it’s not like assuming they’re reptiles makes that so much easier to explain. Dragons eat fish a lot, even the terrestrial ones. While I said I was going to ignore the inability of that environment to sustain that many predators, the ocean comes closer to meeting their requirements than land. And it explains the variation in feeding behavior.
Dragons are descended from fish, and have a highly cooperative harem structure when food is plentiful and a eusocial one when it is not.
The alpha is a hermaphrodite who leans male when food is plentiful and female when it is not. Either minion dragons are also hermaphroditic, or male and female forms exist and whichever complements the alphas goals gets to reproduce.
There may be other dragons that get an occasional shot at reproduction, who may or may not be considered part of the pack (a la the side-blotched lizard or marine isopods).
There are probably a lot of non-breeders of either sex, or dragons stay sexually immature until promoted by an alpha.
A given baby dragon can turn into many (but not all) kinds of dragons, and may be more than one over its lifetime. Minion dragons are extremely intelligent and can understand complex instructions, but have limited ability to talk back. They can be compelled to follow these against their will but also have a strong desire to follow them without compulsion.
Not all dragon types can be alphas, but more than one can.
As for the movie plots… yeah, they were pretty good.
*Wolves are obviously not dogs, but they’re much more trainable than other animals.