My Conversation with Steven Pinker

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Steven of course was in top form. We started with irregular verbs, and then moved on to Chomsky, theories of language, the mind and Jon Haidt’s modules, reason, what unifies the thought and work of Steven Pinker, rap music, William Shatner (underrated, “although maybe not his singing”), Sontag on photography, the future of world peace, and the Ed Sullivan show.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let me now put on my economist’s hat and ask you about this. As you know, in George Orwell’s 1984, the Party bans all irregular verbs. It’s a kind of excess regulation. But from a social point of view, are there too many or too few irregular verbs in English?

PINKER: [laughs] I like the irregular verbs. I’d like to see more of them.

…One distinction that is vanishing that I think is sad is the three-way distinction in verbs like sink, sank, sunk; stink, stank, stunk; shrink, shrank, shrunk; where the shrank and the stank are giving way to their participle forms shrunkand stunk.

COWEN: No shrank and stank.

PINKER: No shrank and stank. Admittedly it would have been hard to have a movie called Honey, I Shrank the Kids instead of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In my style manual, The Sense of Style, I recommend hanging on to them. I think they’re nice.

And on Chomsky:

PINKER: It’s a moving target. Also, as you say, it was neither specified in a precise way nor field‑tested against a dataset of language variation, which I think is unfortunate in terms of ordinary scientific practice.

On peace:

COWEN: Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city.

They could buy something, some kind of explosive. It would cost them $10,000. How long would it take before someone actually did this?

PINKER: I don’t know. My optimism doesn’t consist of prophecy in that sense. That is, my optimism consists of looking at what has happened and noting that, first of all, the pessimistic view is factually incorrect. Namely, people believe that we’re living in unusually violent times and we’re not.

How to project that into the future is a separate set of questions. There are many unknowns that I’m not arrogant enough to know the answer to. It’s something that we could debate. We could explore them. I am not an optimist in the sense of saying, “Well, let’s just extrapolate the curves in the future without asking questions like that.”

Self-recommending, to be sure…


His comments on Haidt were kind of unsatisfactory. I'm not sure he's actually read him.

Good to learn that he's not as arrogant as this guy:

How long before we get irregardless?.

What do you mean by "get"? It's already in the dictionary.

Then the dictionary is an ass.

Irrespective of that, irreparable damage by double negative to clear thought.

Regarding the peace question. Someone can by ammonium nitrate fertilizer for about 3-400 dollars per ton, its a powerful explosive on its own, and mixed with other things even more so. Ammonium nitrate is used as a bomb making in wars the world over (so much so that sales were banned in Afghanistan).

For ten thousand dollars you'd be looking at perhaps 20-30 tons of explosive. Which could destroy a lot of a city, especially if several bombs were used.

The lack of such huge bombs in the US isn't down to a lack of money, but other things (eg lack of motivation or skills and effectiveness of law enforcement and intelligence agencies). Motivation is probably the most important. The vast majority of people don't actually want to commit mass murder.

+1. Our current level of safety in the U.S. isn't due to methods of mass murder being difficult or expensive, it's due to a lack of motivated killers. Look at the attack in Nice -- dozens dead and injured and nothing more required than a crowd and a rental truck. Why doesn't this occur routinely outside sporting events? The answer can really only be a lack of willing attackers.

I agree that motivated killers are the limiting factor, but I'm also pretty sure that first-time buyers of ammonium nitrate are all investigated. That has feedback. The number of "foiled plots" reduces the number of real ones.

Not "investigated" unless some pattern suggested large or frequent purchases, I think. Like, if you buy a couple kg for home use, I sure as hell hope that doesn't lead to investigation. But, if you place an order for 5 tons or anyone notices that you're picking up the materials every few days/weeks or something (and thus possibly the same at multiple locations), I sure hope someone would report something.

However, the original comment significantly exaggerates the explosive potential of these materials. You could do bad damage to nearby buildings, or if placed correctly perhaps even demolish one or two. But that's nothing really substantial from the civilizational perspective or which should concern us particularly more than slippery bathtubs.

I don't like the idea of heavy monitoring for such low risk, but hey, it's not like many people need access to the stuff for routine things. However, I would want to get the opinion of some farmers on what they think about whatever scrutiny might come on them, were we to go gung-ho on beating this concern into the ground through excessive monitoring/surveillance.

If there's anything more than a simple background check, is that not a constitutional violation? Due process, 4th amendment and all?

Steal if from a farmer...

i.e. we don't as many disgruntled Arab Muslims as Europe and elsewhere

They might be less disgruntled if "we" stop dropping bombs throughout their home countries with excessive disregard for civilian life.

Also, rumours that someone`s going around using drones to assassinate whoever is said to be of whatever type of risk might lead them to believe that now, not later, is the time to do whatever crazy stuff they might have come into their minds.

Whatever the case, your original statement appears to be true. The direct colonial history of some European countries might also shade this differently for some people. Recall, the USA was formerly known as the land of freedom, democracy, opportunity for any and all who wanted to try, etc., which is much different from "remember how they conquered and occupied us for 100 years?" American influence is often much more subtle than that, of course.

@Troll me,
Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq, and even after seeing the chaos that that loosed, she pushed for bombing Libya and sending arms to Syrian rebels. But maybe she has now leaned, but wait she is talking about enforcing a no fly zone in Syria.

I hope that she is just lying and has learned from recent history.

A partial history:

2011 March - Security forces shoot dead protestors in southern city of Deraa demanding release of political prisoners, triggering violent unrest that steadily spread nationwide over the following months.

2012 March - UN Security Council endorses non-binding peace plan drafted by UN envoy Kofi Annan. China and Russia agree to support the plan after an earlier, tougher draft is modified.

2012 August - Prime Minister Riad Hijab defects, US President Obama warns that use of chemical weapons would tilt the US towards intervention.

2012 December - US, Britain, France, Turkey and Gulf states formally recognise opposition National Coalition as "legitimate representative" of Syrian people.

2013 March - Syrian warplanes bomb the northern city of Raqqa after rebels seize control. US and Britain pledge non-military aid to rebels.

2013 December - US and Britain suspend "non-lethal" support for rebels in northern Syria after reports that Islamist rebels seized bases of Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

2014 September - US and five Arab countries launch air strikes against Islamic State around Aleppo and Raqqa.

Any Hillary-centered history is insane.

"Any Hillary-centered history is insane."

No it isn't! Hillary is for the terrorists, she's for them coming into this country, she's for all the drugs coming into this country. Anyone who would kill a child or a baby is not fit to run this country! She needs to REPENT to almighty G*d.

Floccina - in this and many other regards, I see Clinton as the status quo candidate, for which reason I do not support her, although I do think she is worthy of respect for her accomplishments despite whatever imperfections (or worse) have come up over the years.

But with Trump as the alternative? Yes, he's unorthodox enough to fix a lot of things, maybe, but also unorthodox enough to throw too much shit into the fan. The risk of a Trump presidency is much higher, especially considering that a lot of military and intelligence activities would basically have to keep him out of the loop due to very real reasons for concerns about his numerous, long-lasting and high dollar value Russian ties.

Trump's America:

Student should have been studying in his home country. No reason he needed to be here.


I could link to an article about the Orlando massacre and precede it with "Hillary's America". But I won't because that's just stupid.

It would be stupid because they are different. See Pinker on the U-shaped turn. It is in the transcript.

The police have not even established a motive in that murder, you dweeb.

It lines up with a measured, factual, reality. As noted by Pinker. As measured here:

Denying this social change benefits whom?

Oops, I copied from this tweet but it seems there was link rot

The point was, I think, being able to blow up a large part of a city very easily (rather than simply the money). It would clearly not be easy with ammonium nitrate fertilizer bombs.

It depends upon your definition of 'easy'. If that covers what could be achieved by a small group of determined individuals then its possible. An IRA cell destroyed a large part London's financial district in 1993 with a single 1 ton ammonium nitrate bomb in 1993, and that was in the face determined efforts by the UK, whose security forces were well aware of the danger:

Anders Breivik blew up several government buildings in central Oslo with an ammonium nitrate bomb , and he acted on his own. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by two people with a two ton ammonium nitrate bomb.

If someone or a small group can build a single one ton bomb on their own, then they can build five, or ten, or 20. Its more difficult to detonate several different bombs, but that's a skill that has been learnt in war zones around the world.

When we talk about mass destruction of a city, I'm picturing something worse then say the Oklahoma City Bombing or even 9/11. Imagine if half of NYC was destroyed and millions dead. Something like a nuke if not a nuke.

I assumed that was the kind of destruction Tyler is referring to but I'm not sure. I think that level of destruction would be more impactful then a 9/11, and I'm not sure its really that easy to do. Especially that easy to do for an average joe.

Nothing but a nuke can do that kind of extreme damage. Dirty bombs kill almost no one, but they do scare the bejesus out of people.

Just for fun, I once estimated how much damage to Tokyo a Hiroshima sized bomb lobbed onto the heart of that city, Shinjuku, would do. As I told a friend walking in Shinjuku with me a few years ago, "Shinjuku would be toast, but not much else."

One Hiroshima sized bomb would kill 2% of the good people of Tokyo and very few (0.5%) from radiation. That is a complete nightmare scenario, but hey, 98% left! (always the optimist.) Now if North Korea could lob 5 Hiroshima nukes....

That is, 0.5% of the 2% or .01% of Tokyoites would die of radiation, assuming Hiroshima's percentage.

Being a moving target is Chomsky's whole shtick. "I never said precisely that."

Thank you for providing the options of audio, video, and transcript. I myself prefer text, and am always disappointed when something seems interesting but it's only a video or podcast or similar. However, there are a lot of people who differ, it seems.

PS Here's a long news article on ammonium nitrate and its potential for use as an explosive:

I think this is the interview I liked the most.

The blood as organ analogy is good one, no modules, no specific boundary but you can identify specific functions. The module analogy comes from computers with CPUs, RAMs and hard disks......if I understood well, Pinker inferred there are no modules because there is no apparent communication bandwidth limit among mind "modules".

I also found interesting his description of fashion choices: "People who have some claim to already being in the elite will then reinforce it with an unusual look".

Finally, I just loved this one: "What are we doing here if you don’t believe in reason?".

I am surprised by the Behavioral section. I thought Shiller got his Nobel because he could show irrationality in major markets.

Also surprised that Pinker worries about run-away, long term, climate change:

COWEN: Why climate change? Even if one thinks that’s very costly, is there really a scenario where it ends civilization? Can’t people move, adjust, build?

PINKER: They could, yeah. It could be unrecognizable under the most extreme scenarios of what could happen. It would be pretty miserable if you imagine the number of people that would die, and the decrement in prosperity. It would be pretty bad. I don’t think it would extinguish us as a species, for the reasons that you mentioned.

I would have to think that means over centuries, and change so bad the "happy few" end up in subterranean arctic bunkers. Definitely an outlier prediction.

Yeah, that's bizarre. CO2 levels have been much higher in the past without any run away. Humans would not exist if that were even possible.

From what I remember, CO2 even loses effectiveness as a greenhouse gas before that even happens.

CO2 levels were once so high that alligators lived near the North Pole.

The Planet can survive that. Life can survive that. But half a billion coastal people might not survive that.

In the Cretaceous period, sea levels were a couple hundred meters higher than now. I don't think that would be desirable.

Think, Cooper, think!

The land near the north pole used to be close to the equator. If you want some links to remind yourself of grade 5-6 science on such questions (I honestly just had a decent refresher the other week) lemme know.

True, the problem with getting a physics degree is that you forget science that 11 year olds know.

Link away.

While technical accuracy is probably similar, the production is much inferior to the Facebook video that I cannot find again, but here's one: It starts to get more interesting at about 2 billion years ago when there are enough data points to model the movement without such long time lapses.

If you skip to 3:30 in the video, keep an eye on the green part which is at the equator, now the land mass near the north pole.

Heh, Steven Pinker as gram weenie. Been there, done that, still have the scale.

Pinker is a self-described atheist. How does he know there is no God? How did he prove it? What he means is that he doesn't believe there is a God. It's the difference between belief and knowledge. For a cognitive scientists and linguist, he should know better.

If I understand him correctly, he is one of those who believe that evolution is an entirely satisfactory explanation for how we got here, who we are.

The list of things you yourself disbelieve for certain is much, much longer than the list of things you yourself have conclusively disproven. So then why do you disbelieve anything at all?

"Keep your mind open, but not so open yourbrain falls out."

yeah I reckon you're real open minded.

There's a huge difference between a) believing there IS NO GOD and b) not believing in God, the second of which is highly consistent with agnosticism as opposed to atheism.

These are the words of someone who has just assumed he knows how atheists think without actually encountering the thoughts of an actual, you know, atheist. Poor showing.

Such a silly post. "What he means is..." I know that when person A begins to tell me what person B means, it isn't going to be about anything but person A's beliefs. You should know better.

Pinker: "it’s kind of tacky to look like you belong in a Donald Trump hotel."

Pinker is fantastic. One of, if not the, best public minds in the world today.

Thanks for interviewing him.

About the terrorist risk hypothetical:

Generally speaking, once it is known that certain materials are required to make certain types of explosives (or other substances of major risk to public safety), the necessary materials and/or parts (etc.) required to make them tend to come under intense scrutiny across all levels of the supply chain. So, for example, we may soon find much more scrutiny across the entire supply chain for materials and parts needed for certain types of genetics labs, which is quite different from controlling access to technologies which emit in the 100MHz-5GHz (very roughly) or so region of electromagnetic radiation, which are "bioeffective" on neural and independently some other physiological processes - in this case we're talking about technologies not unrelated to those already integrated into CD players, cell phones, wifi and other things which are commonly used, and moreover (and more importantly) for which the necessary materials are easily obtained (and should be for a million reasons) and the technical processes similar to them are easily accessed in diverse industries (and should be for a million reasons) - essentially removing the most easily effective and known-to-be-reliable means of controlling many risks related to different forms of terrorism.

For the case of monitoring supply chains, consider even a simple fertilizer bomb with loaded trucks of fertilizer. It takes HUGE volumes of this explosive to cause relevant damage, yet any odd purchases beyond a few bags could attract scrutiny (despite legitimate uses).

The concern might be about highly multipurpose technologies which bear risks that we are willing to accept, say, due to the benefits, in consideration of some risk at the level you propose (for example). The objective would be to uphold a privacy-respecting means of monitoring for abuse of such a technology, and the necessity of punishment to be severe would rise with the difficulty and/or any low probability of detection.

Also, non-paranoia-inducing awareness and promoting reporting and communal attention without falling into "turn in your brother, mother, father, neighbour, friend ANYONE ANYONE!!!" (with the tiniest hint of suspicion) sort of trap could go a long way.

The point being that high security can be obtained in such situations with awareness and open non-paranoia-inducing discussion of concerns, without having to resort to the Pandora's box of ubiquitous surveillance or any other such similar nonsense which comes paired with relevant risk of bringing us towards the conclusion of humanity flipping into some AI-mind controlled circular (or worse) autopilot (or any such sort of thing, from the perspective of those whose lived experiences are affected by whatever security, monitoring and reporting mechanisms would be in place.)

Keep it human. We are safer when we do not know everything. Even a substantial portion of a major city every few years (the proposed hypothetical) pales in comparison to even a few percent risk of the various branches of highly dystopian possibilities associated with strategies most likely to be proposed by those presently responsible for formulating related strategy.

Human life is valuable. However, losing much of it is not a big deal compared to, say, the potential mental enslavement of humanity (or any part of it, proportionally speaking, with either result deemed highly undesirable).

correction: pulsed in that spectrum, if you know what I mean ...

Some number of millions of us will happily die so Nathan can feel safe from the mind readers. Just let us know how many you need.

Ideally none.

Now, you don't mind if a place a small speaker in your vicinity and run AI-driven subliminal programming trained on all things you've ever written, said or even thought, specifically programmed to try to eviscerate your sense of sense and appreciation for whatever you hold dear. Do you?

I can't imagine how that could ever go wrong. Surely, people who would use such technologies have the public interest at heart.

And, for that matter, what of the risk that such technologies would then be brought to bear to CAUSE someone to do such an act. Say, I want to blow up Staten Island but will not risk doing so myself ... hmmm, I think I'm getting some ideas for the subliminal messaging that will be used to program you. Not to mention all the other technologies which already exist that could be brought to bear in such a neurowarfare campaign.

You see, if you rolled over like a good doggie from the get-go and decided to "get in" with the rest of the puppets, you would be entirely unprepared to uphold your own free thought if/when the time came.

Last words: no such thing as a mind reader. But there are hundreds and thousands of publicly available scientific studies which may help you to understand technologies which may access thoughts (by means of machine trained algorithms and prediction) which are brought to the fore. Read up on "evoked potentials" through Google Scholar if you want to see how many dozens of reputable articles have been published on related subjects in recent months alone.

And in your mind this has something to do with....?

Risks of similar or greater concern to blowing up substantial portions of a large city.

I wasn't at all surprised by Pinker's alarmist possible scenario and highly doubt he gets his information about climate change other than The New Yorker, CNN or Al Gore's movie.

Pinker also missed with theater nuclear weapons: "But they haven’t been used on the battlefield because leaving a huge radioactive crater is just not a very coherent war goal." Those weapons don't leave a "huge radioactive crater" as the radiation reduces to harmless levels fairly quickly. My guess is that they have not been used for a combination of overwhelming conventional military power by countries like the U.S. over those like Iraq and Afghanistan and for other political reasons.

Pinker also said human genetic modification in babies is highly unlikely because " we’re so risk‑averse in genetic manipulation even when it comes to our tomatoes. People won’t eat a tomato if it’s genetically modified. The idea that you’re going to take that kind of risk with your children — I think it’s extraordinary unlikely that we’ll get there from here.

Someone needs to remind Pinker that hundreds of millions of people *do* eat genetically modified tomatoes.

Overall an interesting interview.

On the genetic manipulation for intelligence...I wouldn't be worried about "risks" like 30 fingers or any pulp movie idea. The highest risk is that people offering genetic enhancement are simply lying, how can you prove the gene modification was successful or not? If the child becomes super-intelligent, the scientist takes the credit. If the child is below average, it was bad parents, nurture, etc.

It's much easier to verify the claim "this GMO apple that does not turn brown after cut" that "this child was modified for intelligence". Keyword here is falsifiability.

Good point.

I think serious genetic engineering will gradual happen over time but at each stage there will have to be very high safety probabilities. That's why we are grateful when trail blazers like Tyler and Alex agree to participate in the early trials.

Longer term, I think the danger is that we have a set of genetic modifications that combine both higher intelligence in some general sense with a lot of other traits (personality, specific mental strengths and weaknesses, etc.), and that combines with the more-or-less meritocratic system we have to give us an entire ruling class that all shares the same personality traits and blind spots.

Nukes haven't been used because of fear of retaliation.

They are not needed for small foes, and use against them would rapidly turn the globe against any perpetrator. For larger foes, they probably have friends with lots of nukes, or have lots of nukes themselves, and fear of the extent of mass destruction and nuclear winter that could follow I think are sufficient to keep most people from encouraging their use or proliferation (Trump being an apparent exception).

The irregular verbs in English follow an older regular pattern, which changes the vowel in a predictable way instead of adding an '-ed' suffix. The vowel change pattern is part of the inheritance from Indo-European's variation of the root's vowel to carray meaning: "e/o/", called "ablaut". That's four to five thousand years back. See

It was much later (one thousand years ago) that some of the Germanic languages started using a suffix as the regular rule. I was taught that it was essentially suffixing "did" to the verb stem (e.g. "stopped" is "stop-did"). Most verbs started using the new system, it was only the really common verbs learned early in childhood that didn't change and kept the ablaut.

I was surprised that Pinker missed the chance to explain this historical background and left the "irregular verbs" as having an unexplained origin.

He probably doesn't know. He's a psychologist with very little background in historical linguistics. That what he does became known as "linguistics" is only due to Chomsky hijacking the discipline for decades with his nonsense.

He mentions the "did" hypothesis in his book The Language Instinct. So he certainly knows about it.

As the American system breaks down further, the level of trust among citizens and between rulers and ruled decreases dramatically and an even more oppressive enslavement becomes the unavoidable lot in life of more and more Americans, we probably will see an explosion of domestic terrorism, particularly "lone wolves", in the USA.

I really don't know what to make of this, if people this nutty are all out of power, or if some of them are this nutty AND working at the FBI.

Remember 1891!

You lie, boy! Brazil was ever defeated. In 1891,Brazilresisted British aggression and defeated the Navy Rebellion.

Maybe Brazil did those things too, but they surely got spanked by Benjy's Boys.

It is not true. Why would you make up a lie like that?

Interesting story, I hope it doesn't presage US 2020

Yes, we are a master people.
Apparently both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Trump have had their skirmishes with the legal system. Sad.

Interesting interview, but I'm always let down when a linguist or philosopher talks about the theory of mind and language. It just seems so...dated. We have this field called neuroscience that can give us more enlightening answers about what is happening in our brains. I honestly do not understand why theoretical linguistics exists in the modern world.

Somewhat more indicative of good education, intelligence and dedication to quality that Trump is associated with than the average Trumpista

On the issue of diminishing costs of violence and its consequences for security, strongly recommend Daniel Deudney's Bounding Power - an extraordinary book.

Someone is EVIL because something or other about email stuff that most people don't even understand, so lets get the guy who molests women, fails to pay workers, screws over fellow investors, and uses methods of tax reduction which are presumably turned down for their illegality a relevant share of the time. (I'd like to know how much human resources the IRS has spent reviewing Trump files over the years - quite possibly more than many of us will earn in an entire lifetime.)

No, silly, Trump IS God. Just ask him.

so frustrating that so many smart people ignore that the "hard problem" rests on the assumption that "a heap of neurons that registers the environment, that organizes the information, acts on it, including a model of it" should not be expected to "feel like something" (as pinker puts it). but we don't have any evidence you could have a heap of neurons operating that way without any internal feeling (i.e., no evidence zombies are even a coherent concept). without that evidence, there's no problem. instead, we "know" that a heap of neurons operating in a certain way generates certain internal feelings. why's that a problem? is it any less mysterious than the brain's ability to have me walk, learn to play ping pong, speak, etc.?

A heap of neurons that registers the environment, that organizes the information, acts on it, including a model of itself: from my point of view, it feels like something. Why that should be true? I don’t know.

His answer to your 10k bomb changed my mind on the subject. That we already have incredibly deadly devices easy to use and still walk around the city without fear of them is pretty convincing. He managed to make it pretty visceral by saying a bomb could easily go off where you were but that people didn't expect it said a lot about what, let's say, the base rate of those events are.

Good talk, can't wait for Henrich's.

I sure wish TC would stop using "Hayekian" as if it's a well defined school of philosophical thought applicable to any subject in any context. TC, imho, your overuse is abuse. It seems to be form over substance....again. For those of you who didn't read/listen to Pinker/Cowen's actual talk, Cowen's last snippet (above) of Pinker's response to the $10k bomb is a significant distortion of what Pinker actually said.imho. Pinker's responses imply he believes all evolutionary processes have linear (proportional) effects on the population. This seems contrary to what we know about threshold effects, non-linear dynamics, catastrophe theory, emergent phenomena, etc.Sure wish they'd explored that further; but time...

Well, at least we know Pinker's stand on irregular verbs. Funny how no EASL issues were raised. Isn't English hard enough without the irregulars? Why wouldn't that be THE obvious question? Too obvious?

It should be avoided like the word "keynesian", for the same fact that a certain region of the political/ideological spectrum uses the word in a manner that bears only passing resemblence to the corpus of what those thinkers/writers said.

For example, I think Hayek is quite clear in his most famous book that he's just about, or perhaps equally, concerned about the right wing going off the deep end as the left. Hayek is not remotely as far right as most who quote him think he is, and most often he name is lobbed out there as a sign of supposed credibility when making some particular argument that is otherwise poorly argued.

No matter what anybody thinks of Edward Snowden, I would hope that we can all agree that he has unleashed an epidemic of genuinely stupid behavior on the part of people you would think would be smarter. In this case I am referring to the stupid people who run the website. In their effort to seem cool to the cool kids of Silicon Valley that have opted to encrypt all parts of their website with cheap encryption that blocks older browsers from accessing their content, including this interesting-sounding talk between Pinker and Cowen. As a general rule, the harder you make it for people to access your website, the fewer people will visit your site. Encrypting things that don't need encrypting is not a way to expand your audience.

If it needs to be encrypted it should not be on the web, imo. Except for passwords. So ... to make sure the passwords are not so obvious in the data flows, everything should still be encrypted.

Or, we could follow the FBI's advice and mandate back doors which offer criminals direct access to everyone's everything. I'm sure that will actually be effective in anything related to actually dangerous people.

It will be a better world when everything going over the net is end-to-end encrypted. Part of that is requiring https (so an attacker can't force a downgrade to http), and another part is requiring up-to-data browsers that can use non-broken crypto.

The rapidly growing surveillance state is a response to growing public demands for safety against scary lone wolf terrorists.

A world in which $10K and three months lets anyone blow up Staten Island is a world in which the government will want to monitor everything that is said and purchased.

How about do things in a way so that no one wants to blow up Staten Island?

Monitor materials, not people.

We already live in a world in which almost nobody wants to blow up Staten Island. But I have no idea how you'd prevent some nutcase somewhere from deciding he'd like to blow up a bunch of people.

You can't keep every last loon from their looniness.

Some of Nathan's "fight the mind-reader" buddies were busted just yesterday:

This would make a good Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child book.

There is no such thing as a mind reader. But there are technologies which have similar effects if a stimulus is successful in forcing you to think about something.

And I neither know nor have any interest in those who seek to perpetrate violent acts at a time when such a huge diversity of peaceful means exist (despite highly unfree, constrained and blockaded ability to make use of them). Which is the reason that rule #1 in my outline of a strategy is to immediately report to the police anyone who proposes any illegal activity.

Why "mind reading" as something that a human can do without being primarily aided by technology:

1) Wrong format of information.

2) Total quantity of information (photons / radio waves / whatever you want to call them) is too low, and therefore too low in total energy, to plausibly cause brain-to-brain mind reading in the absence of technological intermediation. As shown by the earlier studies by Frey in the 60s and 70s, there is a W/m^2 threshold under which these technologies are not effective, and direct emissions from the brain (as opposed to volumes of reflected, etc., wave particles which can then be read and decoded by a variety of means) are many orders of magnitude below this threshold.

**canNOT do**


I know too many more like him in Alaska:

His preferred rant was about HAARP.

The HAARP research program was necessary to understand the ionosphere, which was requisite for satellite tranmissions which reach land with sufficient precision to be bioeffective in similar-to-expected manners, but that does not mean that the researchers were aware of its eventual applications. The Air Force has a lot of research in bioeffects of wave particles, including synthetic telepathy (you can easily find official documentation which states this, but will not understand it as such unless you are aware of the surrounding vocabulary). Thus, the Air Force in fact does have an understandable and legitimate interest in researching these technology, and in the specific case in all that HAARP was expected to produce.

But certainly understand the potential abuses of knowledge from HAARP does not prove that the designers of the HAARP program intended to abuse the proceeds of that research in attacks against civilian targets. (Although there is zero doubt that others would have been well aware of the other applications of the research.)

Those people you're talking about are barking up the wrong tree, and moreover, at ancient history of a program site that is no longer active in that research for military communications purposes.

That's why you focus on materials, not people.

Not enough discussion of Shatner's merits, at a time when the rebooted Star Trek provides a useful reminder of just how good he was.

Sorry, didn't mean to carp. Good interview. The disaster default is an interesting concept. "What is your biggest mistake" is usually much more illuminating (except in job interviews, where everyone has an answer prepared).

How long would it take before someone actually did this?

Isn't the obvious answer about 10 seconds given the lack of compunction by ISIS with blowing stuff up, killing people and committing atrocities? If spending $10k would get you a device that could blow up half a city, wouldn't ISIS be ordering them by the truckload? What am I missing?

It's not that I feel we are living in an especially violent time, it's that I--and lots of other people to judge by the surplus of dystopian entertainment--feel a violent time coming. We all have an inner Cormac Mcarthy constantly pointing out portents of our coming doom. And it makes sense. Global warming will make deserts out of big chunks of the planet. It will also make other chunks more fertile. That suggest that a huge number of people are going to be on the move from the middle of the planet poleward. In addition, global warming will also very likely bring a host of unforseen events: weird weather, new diseases, extinctions of important species. They will be unforseen because we have never changed the climate of the planet before, but likely because whenever you change such a huge system, things are going to be weird. These kinds of events may cause shortages of important goods like food, medicine, and fuel, triggering cross border competitions for resources. And finally, in wide swaths of the world they are cranking out babies. At the same time the large effects of global warming are just starting to warm up, we are exponentially increasing our population. It's just more people to migrate, starve, fight. More people unstable environment = violence.

such genius on display!

Seems to me that Tyler overstates the impact of the falling cost of destruction because he fails to account for dynamic effects. Properly speaking, the falling costs of destruction aren't important; what is important is the difference between the cost of destruction and protection. Given the (relatively) small amounts of destruction in the last 20 years, we haven't invested much in protection (pace 9/11). But people will react quickly... If one or two big bombs go off in urban areas, expect a quick and concerted flight of people and business to more spread-out suburbs, gated estates, walled office campuses and similar means to protect against bombs.

There are plenty of historical parallels: the building of castles at the close of the early middle ages; white flight from inner cities in response to urban violence; towers of Bologna to protect against urban factionalism; hardened hotels and office buildings in London and Mumbai to protect against domestic terrorism.

All of this is costly, both in material, time energy and loss of clustering synergy. But its hardly the end of civilization.

I enjoyed this one. After a few uneven entries, you'd have a nice run. Does your interview style change or are some guests better at answering your questions than others?

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