Polyamory ITT

The bad news is that none of the culture war questions got really close enough to be certain to be 50/50. The good news is that I have a lot of emails of people who disagree with me about polyamory and I intend to take advantage of this.

The “anti” side is people who believe that polyamory is worse for its participants and society than monogamy. The “pro” side is people who do not believe this. I particularly encourage participation from people who believe that polyamory is better than monogamy on some level (even if only emotionally, if they override their intuitions because they recognize that other people may be different from them, etc.)

I will cap participation in the “pro” side at ten people. Pro participants after the first ten will be placed on a waiting list, and if we get more than ten anti signups I’ll message the pro participants.

To participate, please email me by Wednesday, July 15th at ozyfrantz@gmail.com. Your essay must be submitted by Wednesday, July 22nd if you wish to participate. If you are on the pro side and discover you will not be able to complete your essays, please tell me as quickly as possible so someone can join from the waiting list.


  1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?
  2. Choose one, or more than one if you’re an overachiever. Assume “change relationship styles” is not on the table:
    1. A monogamous person is jealous of their partner (for example, because they’re afraid their partner has a romantic interest in someone else). In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
    2. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
    3. A polyamorous person gets an STI.
      1. [If writing for anti-poly] what typically happens next?
      2. [If writing for pro-poly] in a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
    4. A polyamorous person hates their partner’s other partner (their metamour).
      1. [If writing for anti-poly] what typically happens next?
      2. [If writing for pro-poly] in a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
    5. A polyamorous person has a date scheduled with their primary partner, but their secondary partner is in the hospital with an emergency and needs support.
      1. [If writing for anti-poly] what typically happens next?
      2. [If writing for pro-poly] in a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
  3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

Monsterhearts Moves List

In the game Monsterhearts, one of the available advancements for your character is taking moves off other skins. My players have sometimes been frustrated because there’s no easy way to find a thematically appropriate move for your character other than by reading through every single skin. So I reorganized the moves by broad theme, with a summary of each move. I present the list here in case it is helpful to other players.

My list includes every skin in the core book, Second Skins, and the free skins available on Buried Without Ceremony. Some moves are cross-listed in multiple categories. (Feel free to suggest cross-listing.)

For the sake of simplicity, both the Disciple’s Wicked Master and the Infernal’s Dark Power are referred to as a Dark Power.

It is an MC judgment call how certain moves should be interpreted when taken by characters of other skins. This list is canonical for my game; however. Some MCs may wish to disallow certain characters taking particular moves (for example, they may wish to disallow anyone but the Infernal taking Soul Debt). When in doubt, talk to your MC.

This list can also serve to familiarize prospective players with the broad themes of Monsterhearts to help them decide whether this is a game they want to play.


Moves for abusers, stalkers, bullies, and the generally cruel and controlling. 

Arbiter (Cerberus): When you give someone a Condition, mark experience.

Bark Then Bite (Cerberus): When you take advantage of a Condition you gave someone, it’s a +2.

Covetous (Wyrm): When someone you care about shows affection for someone else, +1 against the object of their affection. 

Creep (Ghost): When you witness someone in a private moment, gain a String on them.

Cold As Ice (Vampire): When Shutting Someone Down, choose an extra option.

Dig Deeper (Cerberus): When you snoop for dirt on someone, on a 10+ you learn a secret and you can give them a Condition.

Firstborn (Heir): Gain a String when you get someone to attend to your needs.  

Inescapable (Vampire): You can demand others stay in your presence.

Opportunist (Wyrm): When you gain a String on someone with 2+ conditions, gain an additional String. 

Patience Is A Virtue (Serpentine): When you hold your tongue, gain a String on your adversary or take 1 forward to shutting them down in a future scene.

Secret Mission (Disciple): Gain a String on someone when you lie to them about your true motives and they believe you.

Where I Want You (Wyrm): Spend 4 strings on someone; they have to be with you in the place of your choosing until you use a move. 


Moves for idealistic characters that strive to do good and help others. 

Growing Pains (Chosen): When you fail to protect your friends, mark XP.

Helpful Spirit (Ghost): Mark XP when you help someone resolve a Condition.

Hot Take (Cerberus): +1 to rolls when you are righting an injustice. 

Just What You Do (Unicorn): Gain a string on someone you dislike when you help them.

Mercy (Chosen): When you spare someone you have reason to kill, take a string on them.

People Should Never (Unicorn): Your moves are powered by your high moral standards. 

Transference (Ghost): When you listen to someone’s struggles, they heal 1 harm and transfer their remaining harm to you.

The Long Fuse (Sasquatch): When you or someone you hold would take harm, you can negate it at a price of something you hold dear.

Watchful Golem (Ghoul): Mark XP when you protect someone without them knowing it.

Helping Others

Moves related to inspiration and leadership. 

I Believe In You (Unicorn): Improve your friend’s rolls with your inspiring example.

Light The Way (Chosen): +1 to your friends’ rolls when they follow your command.

To The Books (Chosen): You and your friends work together on research.

Mental Illness

Moves for traumatized, mentally ill, or neurodivergent characters. 

Better Than Nothing (Hollow): Mark an XP when you get a Condition. 

Blank Canvas (Hollow): +1 to a roll when you embody a Condition. 

Doomed Outsider (Cerberus): When trying to drive others away from you or escape their care, you can take advantage of your own Conditions.

Projected Blame (Ghost): When you have the condition Traumatized you may act as though others had the condition At Fault For My Trauma. 

Try Harder Next Time (Hollow): When you screw up, gain a Condition and take 1 forward.

Self-Deprecating (Neighbor): When you insult yourself, people either need to argue with you (and Shut You Down) or give you a String. 

Unresolved Trauma (Ghost): When someone reminds you of your trauma, you gain the tradition Traumatized; you and they mark XP when someone helps you resolve it.

Unstable (Werewolf): When you become your Darkest Self, mark XP.


Moves for human characters.

Can’t Save Myself (Infernal): When someone saves you from forces too powerful for you to reckon with, mark XP and they gain a String on you. 

Down The Rabbit Hole (Mortal): When poking your nose into things not meant for your kind, someone involved gains a String on you and you mark XP.

Home Life (Neighbor): Monsters have feelings about your very normal home life. 

Lucky I Guess (Neighbor): Take 1 forward when you are oblivious to troubling/supernatural occurrences. 

Mess With Me, Mess With Him (Mortal): +2 to Keep Your Cool or Shut Someone Down when using someone else’s name as a threat.

Spooked (Neighbor): When you run into someone’s arms, either you mark XP or they go Darkest Self.

Normal Life

Moves that model ordinary teenage experiences. 

Dig Deeper (Cerberus): When you snoop for dirt on someone, on a 10+ you learn a secret and you can give them a Condition.

Fake (Hollow): +1 to lying. 

Failing Dynasty (Serpentine): You have a meddlesome family.

Nap Fan (Neighbor): When you fall asleep on screen, weird things happen when you wake up.

Or Else (Heir): You can tell your siblings what to do.

Patience Is A Virtue (Serpentine): When you hold your tongue, gain a String on your adversary or take 1 forward to shutting them down in a future scene.

Sanctuary (Witch): +1 to rolls in your home base. 

The Bait (Wyrm): You have a cool collection and others are jealous. 

The Clique (Queen): You have a clique.

The Shield (Queen): -1 to rolls against you when surrounded by your gang.


Moves related to romance, flirting, and sex. 

All The Wrong Places (Neighbor): When you help someone you have a crush on find love somewhere else, they take 1 forward to realizing your affections or you gain strings on each other.

Ending (Ghoul): When you tell someone about your death, roll to Turn Them On with cold.

Horizons (Unicorn): When you have sex in a new way, mark XP and gain a String on your lover. 

Jumping Out Of Clocks (Cuckoo): When you take your clothes off in front of someone, 1 forward to Volatile, and they decide whether to tempt you or trigger your Darkest Self. 

Many Bodies (Queen): +2 to Turn Someone On when you promise your gang members to someone; your Sex Move occurs when the sex happens. 

The Wild Hunt (Fae): +1 to Turn Someone On if you act like an animal.

True Love (Mortal): You have a True Love; +1 to earning their affections, they have a string on you.

Two Eyes (Neighbor): When you take your glasses off, Hot 3, -2 to rolls where you need to see.

Unashamed (Fae): Give someone a String on you; +3 to your attempt to Turn Them On.

Understanding (Sasquatch): When you hold someone close, gain a String on them.

Wingman (Wyrm): +1 to others’ Turn Someone On rolls when you describe how pretty they are.

Social Awkwardness

Moves for characters who are awkward, inexperienced, autistic, or just bad at people. 

Catch of the Day (Selkie): Mark XP when you are confused about a social situation and that makes you make a bad choice.

Mixed Messages (Neighbor): Accidentally insult people you’re attracted to; accidentally flirt with people you’re not.

Icebreaker (Sasquatch): Blurt out a question and others have to answer it.

The New Order (Serpentine): Others mark XP for helping you fit into society; you mark XP for learning to fit into society.

The Supernatural (Generally Useful)

Moves that model various supernatural powers which many different characters could reasonably have.

A Natural (Cuckoo): When pretending to be someone, spend a String to ask a question about them. 

Beyond The Veil (Fae): Allows you to seek an audience with the Fairy King (or other beneficent Power, at the MC’s option). 

Downward Spiral (Mortal): Cause yourself 1 harm when Gazing Into The Abyss to get a +2 to your roll. 

Esprit de Corpse (Ghoul): When you Gaze into the Abyss, gain a ghoul Hunger temporarily. 

Feathers (Cuckoo): Shapeshifting into other humanoid creatures. 

Feathers Made Of Knives (Cuckoo): Protection against being detected while shapeshifting.

Guide (Fae): Travel from one dimension to another.

Heightened Senses (Werewolf): Very sharp senses.

Hex-Casting (Witch): Spellcasting.  

Hidden in the Shadows (Sasquatch): Invisibility (eavesdropping-specific). 

Hypnotic (Vampire): Mind control.

Inescapable (Vampire): You can demand others stay in your presence.

Limitless (Ghost): Walking through walls and flight.

Lesser Beasts (Unicorn): Talking to animals. 

Metamorphosis (Hollow): When you Gaze into the Abyss, swap two of your stats.

Mesmerizing (Serpentine): You can freeze people by staring at them. 

Ocean’s Breath (Selkie): The ocean (or other natural force) tries to comfort you, but is confused about how.

Prophecies (Unicorn): Precognition. 

Short Rest for The Wicked (Ghoul): When you die, you wake up a few hours later fully healed.

Siren Song (Selkie): Magically entrancing singing voice. 

Strange Impressions (Hollow): Temporarily pick up moves from other characters when they harm you or help you heal. 

Streaming (Queen): Telepathic connection to gang members.

The Big Reveal (Serpentine): You can reveal your true form to others.

The New Order (Serpentine): Others gain XP for helping you fit into society; you gain XP for learning to fit into society. (May be suitable for characters from alien species.)

Transgressive Magic (Witch): +1 to Dark rolls when transgressing your community’s moral standards.

Unnoticeable (Sasquatch): Invisibility. 

The Supernatural (Very Specific)

Moves which represent very specific powers only useful for certain character concepts. 

Bargaining Ceremony (Wyrm): I refuse to explain this one, it’s too weird.

Blood Offerings (Disciple): When you suffer harm, the Dark Power gains a string on you and you mark XP. 

Body of Water (Selkie): You must submerge yourself in water regularly; submerging yourself in water heals you. 

Dark/Soul Recruiter (Infernal/Disciple): Mark XP when you bring souls to the Dark Power. 

End Of The World (Disciple): You have sworn fealty to a Dark Power that wants to end the world.

Faery Contract (Fae): You may supernaturally punish people for breaking promises.

Howl at the Moon (Werewolf): You have Dark 3 when bathed in moonlight.

Idols (Disciple): You create idols to your Dark Power.

Incantations (Disciple): You can learn the next step of the Dark Power’s plan. 

Invited (Vampire): You can’t enter a home without being invited; gain a string on people who invite you in. 

Keep Away (Selkie): You must obey the current holder of your pelt. 

Marked For The Hunt (Vampire): You can track people you feed on.

Musk (Sasquatch): You smell really bad.

Outer Skin (Selkie): You have a selkie pelt. 

Satiety (Ghoul): Gain mechanical benefits from satisfying a ghoul Hunger. 

Spoken For (Disciple): When someone gains a string on you, the Dark Power gains a string on them. (With MC approval, this move may be taken with a different target, e.g. the Mortal’s Lover.)

Soul Debt (Infernal): Contract with a Dark Power. 

Spirit Armor (Werewolf): When bathed in moonlight, take 1 less harm and +2 to Keeping Your Cool.

Sympathetic Tokens (Witch): You gain power from items of personal experience taken from others. 

The Clique (Queen): You have a cult.

The Hunger (Ghoul): You pursue a ghoul Hunger. 

The Feeding (Vampire): You feed on blood.

What The Right Hand Wants (Ghoul): Gain an additional ghoul Hunger. 


Moves for characters who are abused, bullied, or taken advantage of. 

And Your Enemies Closer (Queen): Gain a string on people who betray you.

Better Than Nothing (Hollow): Mark an XP when you get a Condition. 

Excuses Are My Armor (Mortal): Mark XP when you ignore a problem with how someone treats you.

Entrenched (Mortal): If you and another character have 5 or more strings on each other, gain +1 to rolls against them. 

Fake (Hollow): +1 to lying.

Loyal (Cerberus): Whoever has the most Strings on you is your master. +1 to rolls assisting your master; they gain a String on you when you do.

Keep Away (Selkie): You must obey the current holder of your pelt.  

Precarious (Neighbor): Offer someone a string on you in exchange for a favor or a second chance.

Sympathy Is My Weapon (Mortal): Mark XP when you forgive someone for hurting you. 

Under Pressure (Infernal): If someone has 3+ strings on you, +1 to doing their bidding. 

Unicorn Hunters (Unicorn): Someone is hunting people like you. 


Moves for characters who do violence. 

Family Portrait (Heir): When you show a sibling how dangerous you are, take a String on them or take 1 forward against non-siblings. 

Final Showdown (Chosen): Spend 4 strings on a side character to kill them dead.

Mercy (Chosen): When you spare someone you have reason to kill, take a String on them.

Primal Dominance (Werewolf): When you harm someone take a String on them.

Scent of Blood (Werewolf): +1 to rolls against those harmed in this scene.

Take The Blow (Chosen): You can step in and take the blow instead of someone else.

Unicorn Hunters (Unicorn): Someone is hunting people like you. 

Watchful Golem (Ghoul): Mark XP when you protect someone without them knowing it.

Where I Want You (Wyrm): Spend 4 strings on someone; they have to be with you in the place of your choosing until you use a Move. 


Moves that don’t fit in anywhere else. 

Close To The Sun (Cuckoo): When someone is suspicious of your identity while you’re passing as someone else, gain XP. 

Lure (Fae): You get XP if someone breaks a promise to you; they get XP if they make a promise.

That Good (Cuckoo): When someone would gain a String on you while you’re passing as someone else, they instead gain a String on the person you’re passing as.

Watch Dog (Cerberus): Mark XP when you put someone on the correct side of a liminal boundary.

Petrov Day

This is the ritual script I used for last year’s Petrov Day.

This script is different from other scripts because it’s more focused: instead of going through the whole history of humanity, it begins with the Industrial Revolution. It also has songs, both lighthearted (X Days of X Risk, We Will All Go Together When We Go) and somber (Do You Hear What I Hear, We Will Become Silhouettes). I selected relatively well-known songs with catchy tunes, so it should be usable with minimal prep.

Candles are not required. It is recommended that you purchase a large red button and record a horrible squawking noise on it. If the button is pressed, all people must leave the party immediately. (This is an extremely fun game to play if you have three toddlers at your ritual.)

I was pretty happy with this version and planned for it to be my final version of Petrov Day, but given the current situation I think I’m going to have to do some major rewrites.

This day, September 26, is Petrov Day. In 1983, the story of humanity nearly ended. We’re gathered here to remember that moment, and others like it. But to really feel the magnitude of those events, we need to visit them in their proper context. Let us begin at the beginning.

By Andrew Eigel

Hands chip the flint, light the fire, skin the kill
Feet move the tribe track the herd with a will
Mankind struggles in the cellar of history
Time to settle down, time to grow, time to breed

Plow tills the soil, plants the seed, pray for rain
Scythe reaps the wheat, to the mill, to grind the grain
Towns and cities spread to empire overnight
Hands keep building as we chant the ancient rite

Coal heats the steam, push the piston, turns the wheel
Cogs spin the wool, drives the horses made of steel
Lightning harnessed does our will and lights the dark
Keep rising higher, set our goal, hit the mark.

Crawl out of the mud,
Ongoing but slow,
For the path that is easy
Ain’t the one that lets us grow!

Light to push the sails, read the data, cities glow
Hands type the keys, click the mouse, out we go!
Our voices carry round the world and into space
Send us out to colonize another place¸

Hands make the tools, build the fire, plant the grain.
Feet track the herd, build a world, begin again.

“By the aid of a telescope any one may behold this in a manner which so distinctly appeals to the senses that all the disputes which have tormented philosophers through so many ages are exploded at once by the indisputable evidence of our eyes, and we are freed from wordy disputes upon this subject, for the Galaxy is nothing else but a mass of innumerable stars planted together in clusters.” — Galileo, The Starry Messenger (1610)

“Matters that vexed the minds of ancient seers,
And for our learned doctors often led
To loud and vain contention, now are seen
In reason’s light, the clouds of ignorance
Dispelled at last by science. Those on whom
Delusion cast its gloomy pall of doubt,
Upborne now on the wings that genius lends,
May penetrate the mansions of the gods
And scale the heights of heaven. O mortal men,
Arise! And, casting off your earthly cares,
Learn ye the potency of heaven-born mind,
Its thought and life far from the herd withdrawn!”
— Edmund Halley, preface to Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687)

“By calculations similar to these may be determined universally, what expectations are warranted by any experiments, according to the different number of times in which they have succeeded and failed; or what should be thought of the probability that any particular cause in nature, with which we have any acquaintance, will or will not, in any single trial, produce an effect that has been conjoined with it.” — Rev. Thomas Bayes, An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances (1763)

“I was thinking upon the engine at the time, and had gone as far as the herd’s house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and injection-water if I used a jet as in Newcomen’s engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. … I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.” — James Watt (1765)

“I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.” — Dmitri Mendeleev (1864)

“I then shouted into the mouthpiece the following sentence: Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you. To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said. I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said, Mr. Watson come here I want to see you.”” — Alexander Graham Bell (1876)

“I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty was in constructing the carbon filament. … Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials used, until finally the shred of bamboo, now utilized by us, was settled upon.” — Thomas Edison (1890)

Understanding the world gave us the power to change it.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the first commercially successful steam engine. It was the first significant power source other than wind, water, and life. In 1769, James Watt designed a more efficient steam engine, paving the way for its use in trains, steamboats, and factories. The Industrial Revolution began.

“Modern economic growth is the increase of income per head by a factor of 15 or 20 since the 18th century in places like Britain—and a factor of 8.5 worldwide even including the places that have not had the luck or skill to let it happen fully. It is certainly the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants, perhaps the most important since the invention of language.” —Deirdre McCloskey (2004)

“If we continually sample from the urn of possible technological discoveries before implementing effective means of global coordination, surveillance, and/or restriction of potentially hazardous information, then we risk eventually drawing a black ball: an easy-to-make intervention that causes extremely widespread harm and against which effective defense is infeasible” — Nick Bostrom (2013)

X Days of X Risk
By Ray Arnold

On the first day of X-Risk I suddenly could see:
The end of humanity

On the second day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Nuclear War!
And the end of humanity

On the third day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

On the fourth day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

On the fifth day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Unfriendly AI…
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

On the sixth day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
One nanite making
Two nanites making
Four nanites making
Eight nanites making
Sixteen nanites making
Thirty-two nanites making
Sixty-four nanites making
A hundred twenty eight nanites making
[Deep breath]
Unfriendly AI…
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

We Will All Go Together When We Go
By Tom Lehrer

When you attend a funeral
It is sad to think that sooner o’
Later those you love will do the same for you
And you may have thought it tragic
Not to mention other adjec-
Tives, to think of all the weeping they will do
(But don’t you worry.)
No more ashes, no more sackcloth
And an armband made of black cloth
Will some day never more adorn a sleeve
For if the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbors too
There’ll be nobody left behind to grieve

And we will all go together when we go
What a comforting fact that is to know
Universal bereavement
An inspiring achievement
Yes, we all will go together when we go

We will all go together when we go
All suffuse with an incandescent glow
No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance
Lloyd’s of London will be loaded when they go

Oh we will all fry together when we fry
We’ll be french fried potatoes by and by
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie
Yes, we will all fry together when we fry

And we will all bake together when we bake
There’ll be nobody present at the wake
With complete participation
In that grand incineration
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak

Oh we will all char together when we char
And let there be no moaning of the bar
Just sing out a Te Deum
When you see that I.C.B.M.
And the party will be come-as-you-are.

Oh we will all burn together when we burn
There’ll be no need to stand and wait your turn
When it’s time for the fallout
And Saint Peter calls us all out
We’ll just drop our agendas and adjourn

And we will all go together when we go
Ev’ry Hottenhot an’ ev’ry Eskimo
When the air becomes uranious
And we will all go simultaneous
Yes we all will go together
When we all go together
Yes, we all will go together when we go

“Moore’s Law of Mad Science: Every 18 months, the IQ
required to destroy the world drops by 1 point.”
— Source unknown (2005)

The story of how humanity gained the ability to destroy itself begins a little more than a third of the way through the twentieth century.

Starting in 1939 and continuing until 1945, World War II killed about 60 million people. Seventeen million people died in the Holocaust, including a third of the world’s Jews. The Japanese government perpetrated the Nanking Massacre, the Bataan Death March, the Manila Massacre, and many other atrocities.

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” — Hannah Arendt

And so the world’s greatest minds believed they had no choice. They had to gather in secret, and create the atomic bomb – a weapon to destroy cities, or the whole world.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer

“I shall write peace upon your wings, and you shall fly around the world so that children will no longer have to die this way.” — Sadako Sasaki, victim of the bombing at Hiroshima

Pause for a moment of silence.

In 1962, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a crisis. US destroyers under orders to enforce a naval quarantine off Cuba did not know that the submarines the Soviets had sent to protect their ships were carrying nuclear weapons. So the Americans began firing depth charges to force the submarines to the surface, a move the Soviets on board interpreted as the start of World War III.

“[Savitsky, a submarine captain,] summoned the officer who was assigned to the nuclear torpedo, and ordered him to assemble it to battle readiness. ‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ – screamed agitated [Savitsky], justifying his order. ‘We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet’. But we did not fire the nuclear torpedo – Savitsky was able to rein in his wrath. After consulting with Second Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and his deputy political officer Ivan Semenovich Maslennikov, he made the decision to come to the surface.” — Vadim Orlov (2007)

Soldiers were not the only ones involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A musician, Noel Regney, had been asked by his producer to write a Christmas song. Progress was slow, in part because both he and the producer were constantly listening to the radio to see if they, along with millions of other people, were about to die.

When he was walking home from the studio, Regney encountered two babies in strollers. The babies saw each other and smiled.

The babies didn’t know about Communism and capitalism, the US and the USSR, any of the reasons that we were posing humanity on the verge of destruction. All the babies knew is that seeing another human face made them happy.

Inspired, Regney wrote a song that became a Christmas classic.

Do You Hear What I Hear?
By Noel Regney

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song
High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

We now reach the historical event that is today’s namesake: the Petrov incident. On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early warning system.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock. Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems – on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct; the probability factor is two. … The highest.” — Stanislav Petrov

“I imagined if I’d assume the responsibility for unleashing the third World War – and I said, no, I wouldn’t. … I always thought of it. Whenever I came on duty, I always refreshed it in my memory.” — Stanislav Petrov

Had he followed procedure, and reported up the chain of command that the Americans had launched missiles, this could have set off a nuclear war. So instead of telling his superiors what the system was saying, Petrov told his superiors that it was a false alarm – despite not really knowing this was the case.

At the time, he received no award. The incident embarrassed his superiors and the scientists responsible for the system, so if he had been rewarded, they would have to be punished. (He received the International Peace Price thirty years later, in 2013.)

Things eventually calmed down. The Soviet Union dissolved. Safeguards were put on most of the bombs, to prevent the risk of accidental (or deliberate but unauthorized) detonation.

We Will Become Silhouettes
By The Postal Service

I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food
Filtered water and pictures of you
And I’m not coming out until this is all over
And I’m looking through the glass
Where the light bends at the cracks
And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs
Pretending the echoes belong to someone
Someone I used to know

And we become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go

I wanted to walk through the empty streets
And feel something constant under my feet
But all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors
Because the air outside will make
Our cells divide at an alarming rate
Until our shells simply cannot hold
All our inside’s in and that’s when we’ll explode
And it won’t be a pretty sight

And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go
And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go
And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go
And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go

We meet today outside the city of San Francisco. This is a particularly appropriate place, given our next topic, as San Francisco is the place where two of the most iconic institutions related to human coordination were founded: the United Nations and Starfleet.

It is easy to think of human coordination as a thing that happens between governments and big institutions, something extraordinarily difficult and rare. As rationalists, we often think about coordination problems: about defection on Prisoner’s Dilemmas, the tragedy of the commons, inadequate equilibria.

But now we will think about the many times when we succeed.

I am a lead pencil…

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the labeling. That’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon black?

My bit of metal—the ferrule—is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain…

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Leonard Read, I, Pencil

An idea began to take hold: Perhaps the ancient god could be killed.

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children…

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

Jai Dhyani, 500 Million, But Not A Single One More

In 1985, not long after Petrov’s fateful decision, Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin made a disturbing discovery. The ozone layer, the part of our atmosphere that filters out most UV radiation, was disappearing due to chlorofluorocarbon pollution. Just two years later a treaty was written to ban the use of CFCs, and two years after that, in 1989, it was in effect. As of today, every country in the United Nations has ratified the Montreal protocol.

“The hole in the ozone layer is a kind of skywriting. At first it seemed to spell out our continuing complacency before a witch’s brew of deadly perils. But perhaps it really tells of a newfound talent to work together to protect the global environment.” — Carl Sagan (1998)

It is often easy to miss the signs of a solved coordination problem.

It is easy to miss the rivers that don’t catch on fire, the fish species on our plate that aren’t extinct, the medical waste that doesn’t wash up on a beach, the ozone layer that isn’t destroyed. It is easy to forget about smallpox and hookworm, polio and congenital iodine deficiency syndrome. It is easy to get used to pencils and laptop computers, blueberries and Avengers: Endgame, without thinking about the extraordinary human effort that brings these items into being.

Coordination Forever
Mostly by Pete Seeger with edits by Ozy Brennan; to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

When we all shall work together
Though it seems our day is done
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one?
But our union makes us strong

It is we who plowed the prairies
Built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops
Endless miles of railroad laid
Now we stand afraid and desperate
Mid the wonders we have made
But our union makes us strong

In our hands is placed a power
Truly wond’rous to behold
Greater than the might of atoms
Magnified a thousand-fold
We can bring to birth a new world
From the seedlings of the old
For our union makes us strong

It is easy to get used to the absence of epidemics, computers that do more-or-less what we want them to, a sky that doesn’t light up with a mushroom cloud.

We can coordinate to solve problems. Game theory was developed during the Cold War and applied to the problem of nuclear war. By the logic of mutually assured destruction, if either participant pressed the button, both would perish. We came close to war, but ultimately both side cooperated in an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma with the highest possible stakes.

“What we do have the power to affect (to what extent depends on how we define “we”) is the rate of development of various technologies and potentially the sequence in which feasible technologies are developed and implemented. Our focus should be on what I want to call differential technological development: trying to retard the implementation of dangerous technologies and accelerate implementation of beneficial technologies, especially those that ameliorate the hazards posed by other technologies.” — Nick Bostrom (2002)

“An unFriendly AI with molecular nanotechnology (or other rapid infrastructure) need not bother with marching robot armies or blackmail or subtle economic coercion. The unFriendly AI has the ability to repattern all matter in the solar system according to its optimization target. This is fatal for us if the AI does not choose specifically according to the criterion of how this transformation affects existing patterns such as biology and people. The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else. The AI runs on a different timescale than you do; by the time your neurons finish thinking the words “I should do something” you have already lost.” — Eliezer Yudkowsky, Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk (2006)

“The biological threat carries with it the possibility of millions of fatalities and billions of dollars in economic losses. The federal government has acknowledged the seriousness of this threat and provided billions in funding for a wide spectrum of activities across many departments and agencies to meet it. These efforts demonstrate recognition of the problem and a distributed attempt to find solutions. Still, the Nation does not afford the biological threat the same level of attention as it does other threats: There is no centralized leader for biodefense. There is no comprehensive national strategic plan for biodefense. There is no all-inclusive dedicated budget for biodefense…

The biological threat has not abated. At some point, we will likely be attacked with a biological weapon, and will certainly be subjected to deadly naturally occurring infectious diseases and accidental exposures, for which our response will likely be insufficient.” — Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (2004)

“We might argue whether the probability of nuclear war per year was high or low. But it would make no real difference. If the probability is 10 percent per year, then we expect the holocaust to come in about 10 years. If it is 1 percent per year, then we expect it in about 100 years.

The lower probability per year changes the time frame until we expect civilization to be destroyed, but it does not change the inevitability of the ruin. In either scenario, nuclear war is [very nearly] 100 percent certain to occur.

This pair of examples brings out a critically important point. Our only survival strategy is to continuously reduce the probability, driving it ever closer to zero. In contrast, our current policies are like repeatedly playing Russian roulette with more and more bullets in the chambers.

We have pulled the trigger in this macabre game more often than is imagined. Each action on our current path has some chance of triggering the final global war. And if we keep pulling the trigger, the gun will inevitably go off. Each “small” war – in Iran, or Iraq, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan – is pulling the trigger; each threat of the use of violence – as in the Cuban missile crisis – is pulling the trigger; each day that goes by in which a missile or computer can fail is pulling the trigger.

The only way to survive Russian roulette is to stop playing. The only way to survive nuclear roulette is to move beyond war in the same sense that the civilized world has moved beyond human sacrifice and slavery.

When it was merely moral and desirable, it might have been impossible to beat swords into plowshares. Today, it is necessary for survival.” Hellman (1985)

Today, nuclear war has been joined by more black balls from the technological urn, and still more will be drawn.

The power of human coordination was just barely enough to allow civilization to survive the Cold War. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough for the next challenges we face.

Read three paragraphs, then pass to the next person.

There is a button. Bright red.

The button is on a phone.

There is a screen.

There are rules.

Everyone knows them.

You look at the screen again. It still shows one Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile bearing down on your country. You remember that American Minutemen ICBMs carry three warheads of up to 500 kilotons each. You think of your family.

You’re a just a lieutenant colonel. You’re a software engineer. This was supposed to be a boring post. It’s 12:30 am and this is just another night shift. Two minutes ago your biggest decision was whether to shave tonight or tomorrow. THIS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE.

Time refuses to stop.

You think about the software. The satellites. Could it be a glitch?

Three weeks ago your government shot down a Korean civilian airliner and no one knows why. The United States is in an anti-Soviet fervor. Maybe Reagan really is that crazy. Maybe one missile got launched early by accident. Maybe you only have a short window before they realize their mistake. Every second you wait, the opportunity to strike back and stop the missiles before they destroy your home slips further away.

But…one? How could there be only one? The Americans aren’t that incompetent. A real attack would be hundreds, thousands of missiles. Even if they accidentally fired one early, they wouldn’t wait this long to fire the rest.

You breathe. Oko is about ten years old now – there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later. There will be no war. Everything is fine.


Four more missiles appear on the screen, all heading towards your homeland. Fifteen warheads. Seven megatons. Are they launching in waves?

You think about your career. You think about duty. You know exactly what you are supposed to do in this situation.

The button waits.

Even if it is a glitch, disobeying orders will ruin any chance of promotion. You might need to leave the army. You don’t know where else you could go. You wouldn’t know what to do when you got up in the morning.

Five missiles. Still doesn’t make sense. Could be a glitch. Americans still aren’t that dumb, to make the same mistake twice.

You’re not sure. But you have your orders. Your job is not to make decisions. Your job is to press the button and let someone else make the decision.

You know that your government’s stated policy is “launch on warning”.

You look at the glowing warning on the screen again.

Not your decision – except you know what the decision will be.

You think about how to deal with life after the army. You think about your home in ruins. You think about your cousins, screaming. Why are these thoughts even in the same mind at the same time? No sane world would allow that.

You do not live in a sane world.

Five lights, glowing in the night.

One button.

Five billion people.

All your comrades know what the right thing to do here is. Everyone knows. It’s simple.

There are procedures in place.

There are children in bed.

The world balances on a stupid, cheap, red plastic button.

Could be a glitch.

Five missiles wouldn’t destroy the entire Soviet Union. In strategic terms, it would be barely a blip.

You imagine thousands of mothers crying. A blip.

You imagine the world screaming in its final hours, a cacophony of hopeless wishes echoing until they’re silenced. “If only…!”

You decide.

You will not play your assigned role in the end of the world. You will probably be scorned, laughed at, even if you’re right. If you’re wrong, you will be the hapless fool who let his countrymen burn out of cowardice.

You don’t press the button.

The world doesn’t end that night.

It turns out to have been a false alarm – sunlight glinting off clouds. The sunlight that almost ended the world.

The questioning and interrogations go on for weeks. Endless paperwork, and you’re reprimanded whenever you miss a single slip. You receive no reward. The failure of the early warning system is embarrassing, and to recognize that you were right to distrust it is to invite scrutiny and blame. You are quietly reassigned to a post of absolutely no importance where you can’t make any trouble. With no hope of advancing your career, you retire from the army.

Sometimes you still think about that night. You can’t talk about it with anyone. No one knows that you…did nothing.

You suffer a nervous breakdown for a while, but you get better.

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to save up to buy a vacuum cleaner.

The world keeps going. For now.

— Jai Dhyani, There Is A Button

Intellectual Turing Test Questionnaire

I have decided to do another Intellectual Turing Test, by popular demand, and because observably I am really bad at keeping this blog updated and I think other people should produce some content for it for a change.

The Intellectual Turing Test is an idea invented by Bryan Caplan. The regular Turing test is a test for programmers: can you write a computer program which a human being cannot tell apart from another human being? The Intellectual Turing Test is a test for people who believe things: can you explain your opponent’s viewpoints in such a way that your opponent cannot tell it apart from someone who legitimately believes the opinion? If you can, it shows you understand your opponent’s positions on a deep level.

How it’s going to work: once the final topic is chosen, I will write one to three questions and leave registration for the ITT open for a week. I will give everyone (on both sides) two weeks to write answers to the questions from both the pro side and the anti side. I will run first the pro submissions and then the anti submissions, and the audience will vote on whether they think it’s real or a fake. At the end, I’ll reveal who wrote what and give special recognition to the people who did the best job of impersonating the other side. You may read previous ITTs in this blog here.

Unfortunately, in the past there has been difficulty finding a topic where half the participants are on one side and half of them are on the other. Therefore, I have decided to do a questionnaire first.

The questionnaire contains a series of statements and the option to say whether you are on the “pro” or “anti” side, or wouldn’t participate. (If you have a complex special-snowflake opinion that doesn’t fall neatly into pro or anti, please check “wouldn’t participate.” If you find the topic boring and would not want to participate, please check “wouldn’t participate.”) There are a variety of topics, so even if you find the first couple suggestions unappealing, please keep going.

There is also an option to give me your email, so I can email you when I have chosen the final topic.

Please share as widely as you can! The more diverse a set of participants we have, the more interesting the Intellectual Turing Test is for everyone.

Letter #26: Pedophiliac Attractions to Children


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[I have posted this letter from my advice column over here, because Medium doesn’t let me hold new commenters’ comments for moderation, and I would rather not subject the letter writer to the unfiltered vitriol of the entire Internet on this subject. Comments will be moderated closely and misbehavior will be particularly likely to result in a ban. Please be compassionate to the real person who is in a very bad situation.]
[content warning for description of attraction to children]

I’m a trans woman and started HRT three months ago. For the most part the experience has been immensely positive, and has rescued me from bad depression, but there’s one (possible) big downside: it might be causing me to be (non-exclusively) sexually attracted to pre-teen girls; the feelings seem to correlate in intensity with level of estrogenisation. I expect this to go away and not stay (it’s only been a couple of weeks I’ve been fully feeling it), but I’m still anxious about the possibility.

What should I do if this turns out to be real? Is it responsible for me to continue HRT knowing it has this effect? Should I seek out therapy for this, and if so how? Do you know any healthy ways of managing such desires, or deal with stigma? How will I be able to find adult partners who won’t hate me? I am very anti-contact/anti-csem and don’t think I’m at serious risk of offending; I have been badly hurt multiple times by previous interactions with the mental health profession as a child and as an adult, which makes me nervous about seeing a therapist for this, but am open to the idea.

(Also, to forestall the question: I don’t think this is pOCD. I do have other distressing intrusive thoughts, but I don’t feel panicky now at the thought I might commit/have committed/be committing sexual violation, and I don’t think pOCD makes you moan and roll your eyes back in ecstasy at the thought of making out with a kid.)

This is definitely not an effect I’ve ever heard of anyone having with estrogen, and it seems unusual. However, it doesn’t seem implausible to me that this is an effect for you: testosterone and estrogen both typically lead to changes in people’s experience of their sexuality, and you drew the worst fucking hand. 

I am not a doctor and am not qualified to diagnose anyone with POCD, especially through a letter; I encourage you to consider the possibility that you have it carefully, but will proceed under the assumption that you are attracted to preteen girls.

You mention that you don’t think you’re at risk of harming a child. In fact, the same thing is true of many people in your situation! The research suggests that pedophilia and child molestation are, while linked, distinct. (Wikipedia has a good summary.) Somewhere between a quarter and half of all child molesters are pedophiliac. It is difficult to know how many pedophiles molest children, because non-offending pedophiles are typically closeted, but most experts believe a large proportion of pedophiles never hurt a child. 

You mention seeking out therapy, and that’s a lot of people’s first piece of advice for people struggling with pedophilia. Unfortunately, despite years of research, no one has to my knowledge come up with a reliable way of treating paraphilias. In fact, sex offender treatment programs sometimes increase recidivism rates. Our best treatment strategy is medication that reduces libido.

What is worse, seeking therapy is going to be very difficult. All therapists are mandated reporters, which means that if they suspect you are abusing a child they must report it to the authorities. Therapists typically vary wildly in their interpretation of these rules, and it’s difficult to know how a therapist will interpret it until you open up to them — and potentially face serious consequences. I don’t mean this to discourage you from seeking therapy, but simply as a note of caution. 

However, you don’t actually need a therapist. You will need someone who can listen to you, a source of nonjudgmental support, affirmation, and acceptance and of advice and even criticism when necessary. A therapist can provide that, but so can a friend or family member or (if you’re religious) a religious leader. (You can check the list of mandated reporters in your state here.)

I would suggest talking to at most two or three people: you don’t want your secret getting out any further than you need for support. Choose people who are trustworthy and keep secrets. Select someone you feel comfortable around. Find someone who is calm, doesn’t freak out, and is willing to hear you out about things. 

Unfortunately, many people do not have a friend that trustworthy and have to seek other options. I don’t know anyone with experience in these groups, but this website seems to link to a lot of support groups for non-offending minor-attracted people; perhaps one of them will help you?

Seeking support is an important first step for anyone in your shoes. The other steps you should take depend a lot on your personal experience of your attraction to preteens. Whether or not to continue taking estrogen is a personal decision. You can continue to take estrogen and manage your feelings on your own. You can choose to go off estrogen (and explain to those who ask that you can’t take estrogen for medical reasons), if you find yourself struggling with temptation or if the costs of experiencing this attraction aren’t worth it for you. 

You can also choose to remain on estrogen and add a libido-lowering medication: the easiest ones to obtain, which have the fewest side effects, are SSRIs. You can get SSRIs by telling your primary care physician that you have depression; the screening is usually minimal, although it may help to look up the symptoms of depression ahead of time. The website Roman sells sertraline (an SSRI) legally, online, and with minimal fuss as a treatment for premature ejaculation, if making a doctor’s visit is too difficult. Even if your first choice of SSRI doesn’t work, you can keep trying. Different SSRIs have different effects, and an increased dose or a different SSRI may be exactly what you need to make your sexuality more manageable. (As a second-line option for people assigned male at birth, the research suggests antiandrogens, but presumably you are already on those.)  

Some people suggest that pedophiles avoid all contact with children or being alone with children. Again, I think this is a personal decision. It is important to remain scrupulously nonsexual in your interactions with preteen girls, and if you can’t do this you must avoid them. But people attracted to adults are often attracted to people that they must remain scrupulously nonsexual with, and most of the time we do not implement the Pence Rule. You will have to talk with your support people and figure out what a reasonable set of boundaries is for you.  

However, if you have a crush on a preteen girl — and particularly if you’re starting to think she has a crush on you, or she’s flirting with you — it is important to distance yourself. Avoid being alone together, giving gifts, cuddling, and other “plausibly deniable” flirtatious or romantic behavior. Make a list of the many reasons to avoid feeding your crush (suitably redacted if you’re afraid of snoops). Consider drawing your attention to the flaws of your crush and making a deliberate effort to notice all the things that would be bad about it. 

Because you can’t distance yourself from your own child, I would advise against having children if you have not already; if you do have children, this is a strong point in favor of SSRIs or going off estrogen. 

Think carefully about whether you use written or drawn pornography involving preteen girls. (Of course, you should not use child porn created through raping actual children.) For some people, porn is an outlet for desires they cannot ethically put into practice. For others, it reinforces and strengthens their paraphilia. Reflect on which of these is truest for you. Similarly, consider whether ageplay is a satisfying expression of your fantasies for you, strengthens them, or simply does nothing. 

Finding a romantic partner may be difficult. You do not have to disclose your attractions and, in a more casual/secondary relationship, I wouldn’t; the stigma is too harsh. When looking for a primary partner, you might consider bringing up the topic of pedophilia early on in the relationship, perhaps on the third or fourth date (or equivalent). You can ask in a sort of general way how they feel about sex offender registries, treatment for pedophiles, or lolicon; you can also discuss how they feel about keeping secrets. If there’s a positive result, you can come out to them. This will be risky, particularly if they decide to tell your friends! But it’s best not to have a long relationship with someone who, while personally tolerant, does not want to commit to someone with attractions like yours — that way just leads to heartbreak.

In having pedophiliac attractions, you are in one of the unluckiest positions a person can be in. It seems like you’re taking a good approach to it: you need to accept your sexuality as it is — unchangeable — while taking steps to avoid harming children. I want to say that this is an unfair burden which has been placed on you, and that it is a brave and admirable thing to exist with this stigmatized trait without harming others. 

Good luck!

On Banning Things From RPGs

I’ve recently gotten into tabletop RPGs, and as such I’ve been reading more GMing blogs. One thing I noticed is that a lot of GMing blogs are very eager to suggest that various tropes and character types have no place at the table.

Evil PCs. Chaotic neutral PCs. Mixed-alignment parties. Gnomes. Kender. Bards. Comic relief characters in general. Characters who are blatantly a ripoff of the player’s favorite book series. Player vs. player combat. Intraparty conflict in general. Sex and romance. Total party kills. Tomb of Horrors. Even, in some cases, homophobia, racism, and oppression.

Of course, when you list out all of the tropes that someone somewhere thinks should be banned from tabletop, you realize that that sharply limits the stories you can tell. Star Wars: Han’s chaotic neutral at the beginning, Han and Leia fall in love, the Empire is suspiciously fascist, and isn’t this all a little reminiscent of Kurosawa? Lord of the Rings: Boromir literally stabs another party member and Gollum is evil. You can’t even draw on your favorite D&D comics for inspiration: Order of the Stick has an evil party member, a bard, and themes of anti-goblin oppression.

And I think “all of this is banned” is actually extreme overkill for the problem that it’s trying to solve.

There are basically two issues that come up with these sort of problem tropes.

First, there are characters run by problem players. The comic relief character whose player is… just… not funny. The chaotic neutral character who’s as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it. The mentally ill character who randomly slaps people in the face with fish. The evil character played by someone who thinks “evil” means “Mason Verger without the subtlety.” The player whose oppressed minority character is played like an after-school special.

And, unfortunately, there are more serious problem players. The sexual harasser, for example. The player who brings out-of-character conflict into the game. The racist or homophobe who uses “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for vile bigotry.

But I am concerned that a one-size-fits-all “ban the evil PCs and everything will be fine” approach is inappropriate. It unfairly punishes the non-problem players for what the problem players are doing. If I have an interesting idea for a thoughtful portrayal of a neurodivergent character, it is not fair to not let me play it just because that guy keeps slapping people in the face with fish. I have no control over whether he slaps people in the face with fish, if I could I would get him to stop, but whether some random other person can handle a neurodivergent character responsibly has no bearing on whether I can.

Of course, in some situations like pick-up play with strangers, you’re not going to have a better option for dealing with problem players than the blunt instrument of banning tropes and characters that tend to create problems. But when you’re playing with friends, often you can have an open conversation with the player. Think about their track record with similar characters in the past. Ask them questions about how they intend to play the character. Listen to their description. Bring up your concerns. It’s usually pretty easy to tell apart someone who has thought through why their Lawful Evil character would go on heroic adventures from someone who thinks “evil” means “steals things from party members for no reason.” If you still have concerns, you can approve the character provisionally (making it clear to the player that you will replace the character if there are problems) or play through a one shot with the character.

I am also concerned that “ban the things problem players misuse” often winds up a Band-Aid solution for deeper problems. Sometimes players act out to express boredom or dissatisfaction with the game: for example, a lolrandom chaotic neutral character who shoots the king in the head might be the player’s way of expressing frustration that they are being carried from plot hook to plot hook and they don’t feel like they get to make meaningful choices within the game. If you simply ban chaotic neutral characters, you’re going to miss that the player isn’t having a good time.

More seriously, some problem players can’t be fixed by banning the things they use to make trouble. Think about the serious problem players I listed above: do you really think the homophobe is going to stop being homophobic if you declare that your game world treats gay and straight couples the same? That the sexual harasser is going to stop sexually harassing people if you ban romance? That the person who brings out-of-character conflict into the game is going to magically stop doing that if you say you can’t attack other party members?

Look, I’ve been there too. It’s easy to think that your serious problem player will be fine if you create enough rules about their behavior– especially if they’re a talented writer or a close friend or otherwise someone you really want in your game. But it doesn’t work. If someone is a serious problem player, they do not belong in your game. This is a matter of basic emotional safety and comfort for everyone at the table.

I’ve been mostly writing about this from the GM side, but I think problem GMs are actually a more serious concern. Banning sex/romance, oppression, and total party kills (for example) are often all attempts to control the behavior of a problem GM: one who sexually harasses their players, has an offensively inaccurate understanding of how racism works, or views tabletop as a competitive game they win by making their players suffer.

The problem is that GMs have a lot of power over the game world, and it’s difficult to create a set of rules that will prevent a bad GM from abusing it. A GM who takes gleeful delight in slaughtering an entire party will continue to be a bad GM even if you ban total party kills. A GM who sexually harasses their players can simply ignore your limits about romance. And even a GM who incorrectly thinks they’re funny can fill their world with puns to a degree Piers Anthony would find excessive. The ultimate solution is not to ban certain content but to avoid games with shitty GMs.

Second, there is disagreement about expectations and what players want out of the game. Everything I listed above– antisocial PCs, intraparty conflict, comic relief, sex/romance, total party kills, oppression– is a totally reasonable thing to ban from some games. The key word there is some.

As a player and as a GM, combat bores me. I am willing to tolerate up to three or four dice rolls of it to advance the story, but much beyond that and I’ll be playing solitaire and waiting for it to be over. I typically don’t play systems which allow for much combat. When I do, I set expectations that this will be a combat-light game; I would strongly consider banning character builds designed primarily for fighting.

That isn’t because combat is inherently bad or because people who like combat are problem players. It is just that I personally do not like combat.

If you don’t like romance in your games, or want to feel like a team with your fellow party members, or don’t want your PC to die without your say-so, that is a completely okay way to play tabletop. No game is for everyone. People like different things in their games. But by the same token people who like romance or intraparty conflict or kill-em-all games are also okay. They are not trying to play the games you want to play and then mysteriously failing because they’re just terrible at RPGs. That’s like reading Pride and Prejudice and going “this book is a terrible sequel to the Hunger Games! We should just ban the Regency setting from novels. It makes problem authors write entire books where no poor people get murdered in a reality show to appease the jaded and decadent elite.”

I see people say “you shouldn’t put homophobia or sexism or racism in your tabletop games because they’re supposed to be fun escapism.” If that’s what you want out of games, that’s perfectly okay. But for some people (including people oppressed on various axes!) settings with homophobia and sexism and racism are how they have fun escapism. It can be validating of the suffering you face; it can feel empowering to have your characters overcome oppression in a way that you can’t; it can be a way to process and work through the shit that happens to you over the course of a day; it can be comforting to experience bad things in a safe environment where you can always call red and the bad things get put away at the end of the session; and there’s always that immortal and popular reason I Don’t Know Why I Like It I Just Do.

Some people, when they’ve had a bad day, relax with a Disney movie or a romance novel; some people relax with a Stephen King book or true crime; some people like both. It’s a natural axis of human variation.

I think the big problems happen when people don’t communicate their desires and expectations ahead of time and wind up in a game that isn’t suited for them. Much of the time, the solution is for the GM to be firm: while there’s no need to ban comic relief characters from every table, it’s going to be tonally wrong for your horror game, and the GM should make that clear to the player who has this great idea for a Malkavian.

But often it is hard to articulate what the problem is before it shows up. I myself was a problem player in a couple of games before I realized that I hated combat. Most people don’t think to themselves “it’s important to me in an RPG to feel like my character is part of a team all working together for a common cause without a lot of conflict” or “I really like arguing with other players about hard moral dilemmas” before the paladin and the rogue start arguing about whether to give the treasure away or keep it for themselves. It can take a couple of failed games before you learn what your preferences are.

As a GM, I think it makes sense to keep an extra eye on the much-banned content. Things people think don’t belong in RPGs are on the list for a reason: they’re preferences people very often have, but might have trouble articulating to themselves. If you’re starting a new game, you might want to treat it as a checklist: make sure all your players are on the same page about romance/sex, party morality, party unity, oppression and other content potentially upsetting to many people, character death, and the tone of the game. If you’re running a game and some of that content comes up unexpectedly, pause and make sure everyone at the table (not just the direct participants) is okay with it before proceeding. Through making intentional choices about the genre and tone of your game, you can have a fun experience whatever your preferences are about gnomes.

(One final note: if your players want to play someone who is Obviously Just Tyrion Lannister or Obviously Just Han Solo or whatever, who cares. Let them. Originality is overrated and it’s often easier for people to play a character they already understand than to make up a character from scratch. Chill.)

April Fools Post #5


I am not, I see, the first dimensional traveler to exist in this body. But how can I make you understand the strangeness of your world to me?

Imagine, if you will, a world where everyone is illiterate. There are no books to read; TV shows do not have subtitles; if you want people to know the rules at your local pool, you have to hire a person to stand near the door and explain it to each of them individually. There are a few simple signs– a red octagon means STOP, a yellow triangle means YIELD– but it has never progressed beyond that stage.

But it is not that this world has not invented literacy. Indeed, there are many written languages. However, these are essentially only known by the mute, and those who work with them. Perhaps a child will learn to spell a few words as part of the disability acceptance unit at their school: their name, maybe “mother” and “father,” maybe their favorite color. But if you have the capacity to use speech, in this world, you do not read.

I speak, of course, of the fact that your world does not have sign.

“But we don’t need sign,” you might say. “We can speak.” Certainly! As long as you never go to a concert. Or want to talk during a movie. Or have dinner at a crowded restaurant. Or take care of a newborn who sleeps lightly and wakes up often. Or want to send a message to someone without other people overhearing. Or want to talk at the same time that another person is talking. Or have a migraine, or autism, or any of dozens of conditions that lead to a sensitivity to sound.

Since none of those things are true, in fact, you would benefit a good deal from sign. But inexplicably instead of learning it you all choose to yell at each other at bars. Why.

I can’t believe how rude people in this world are in public spaces. In my world, if you’re in a restaurant or coffeeshop or on a train or an airplane, you automatically switch to signing. That way, everyone can understand what other people are saying, and no one has to overhear random scraps of other people’s conversations, and if you prefer to focus on your book you can.

In my world, half of all people are deaf. There is an pandemic childhood disease– unfortunately, we have had no luck in developing a vaccine– that nearly everyone catches. It is quite harmless and mostly just gives you a few days off school, but a little more than half of all sufferers wind up losing their hearing.

We would never consider the deaf to be disabled. Deafness is an advantage in so many ways. You’d never hire a hearing person to work construction, or in a factory, or at a stadium in any position other than sound engineer: hearing people can’t focus when there are loud noises, and it can lead to hearing damage such as unpleasant ringing sounds. Deaf people have a huge advantage in focusing: they can simply turn off their cochlear implants and zone out. And deaf people can live in cities, where you can hear sounds of construction and cars and your neighbors upstairs. Hearing people find cities very stressful.

And even if there’s not a specific advantage to being deaf, deafness is just… normal. Sure, deaf people have to go to different concerts than hearing people. (At deaf concerts, the music is loud enough to make a hearing person go deaf, because they usually like the vibrations.) Sure, they have to buy TTY devices if they want to use the phone. I have to spend ten minutes looking for my glasses every morning and you wouldn’t call me disabled about it. Some things are genuinely disabling, like chronic pain or using a wheelchair. But you people take an ordinary part of human variation– one that, as many variations do, has both advantages and disadvantages– refuse to accommodate it, and consider it a disability.

In your world, deaf children are often deprived of language in their critical period, because their parents don’t sign. In my world, this never happens. Is the problem deafness, or is the problem the fact that no one uses sign for no reason I can understand?

It’s a petty example, but think about video games. In my world, many first-person shooters include extra information through sound, but also include loud, distracting or unpleasant noises. (You know, the way that it actually happens during wars?) That way, the experience is fair for both deaf and hearing gamers. Your world refuses to make games that deaf players can play on an even field, and then claims that it’s their fault for not being able to hear!

Or think about movies. You CAN put subtitles in movie theaters. I have seen it. Why don’t you put subtitles routinely? Or cars honking. Why do cars honk? You can hear! It is unpleasant for you too! Replacing it with a flashing bright light, as we do, minimizes the effect on innocent bystanders.

Of course, not everything in our society accommodates deaf and hearing people equally. For example, our world’s musicals are traditionally signed and sung at the same time: the singing is what the characters are saying to each other, while the sign conveys their underlying emotions and thoughts. Of course all musicals have subtitles, but the experience is not at all the same.

In general, dance for us is much closer to song than to the abstract artform of your world. The distinction between dance and poetry, in particular, is often not clear: much poetry is intended to be signed, as poetry in your world is often intended to be read aloud. And this reminds me of the complexities of written sign! The way even fiction in written speech uses written sign to talk about what gestures people make, the various ways people have come up with to indicate a shaky hand or an abortive movement, the meaning of whether you use written sign or written speech or switching between them…

This is a tangent and I intend primarily to complain about your universe’s poor design. I have complained about subtitles and video game design, but above all you need to learn sign. I propose an intensive program of education in the nation’s elementary schools: full immersion in ASL from the moment they step into kindergarten. After a generation’s investment, all hearing people will be able to use both speech and sign, and your world will be tremendously improved.

Please ask me any questions you have and I’ll be sure to answer them over the course of today! I hope I will be able to convince you all of the necessity of learning sign and depathologizing deafness.

Sex-Positive, Porn-Critical?


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In the past, I have had a bunch of pretty positive things to say about porn.

Mea culpa.

To be clear, I have pretty positive things to say about some porn. I have nothing but positive feelings about AO3, pictures of hot naked people, the Best Women’s Erotica series, the Erogamer, porn comics, caption porn Tumblrs (RIP), the work produced by many independent camgirls, and the noble person who put every sex scene from Call Me By Your Name on Pornhub. But man, guys, mainstream video porn– the thing you get if you open up the tube sites and start scrolling– that stuff is actually pretty bad!

Now, in my defense, everyone else is entirely wrong about why it is bad. Criticism of mainstream video porn usually involves listing a bunch of sex acts I’ve done and then explaining that no real human being would ever do them. It is then explained that these acts are inherently degrading and objectifying and it is impossible to do them in a way that is respectful of other people’s personhood. The statistic that 88% of porn films include violence against women is thrown around, along with the fact that the women typically respond with pleasure. Finally, the explanation is wrapped up by explaining that all of this will lead to an epidemic of violence against women and porn-induced erectile dysfunction.

Taking it from last to first: It is difficult to know how common erectile dysfunction is. One review suggests a prevalence of somewhere between 3% and 76.5%. Therefore, it is very difficult to know whether erectile dysfunction is increasing beyond the expected rate of increase due to aging. More young men may be going to their doctors complaining of erectile dysfunction, but this might simply be because the treatment for ED now is a pill instead of months of therapy. Of course, there have been some positive anecdotes of people who stopped using pornography and their erectile dysfunction went away; if you struggle with ED and want to try it, there doesn’t seem to be any harm. But it is very far from certain that there is any link between erectile dysfunction and porn use in the general population.

If porn causes an epidemic of sexual violence, it is difficult to explain why rates of sexual violence continue to fall during the largest expansion of porn use in history. Of course, it is possible that some other cause, such as a decline in the acceptability of rape, is making rape rates fall, and they would have fallen even faster without porn. More careful work should be done. (It’s a pity no one convinced PornHub to roll out to a random selection of US counties for a few years first.) But I think this does put a hard cap on how large the problem could possibly be, and suggests that we should not come to overly firm conclusions from short-term laboratory studies of exactly the sort that have been falling victim to the replication crisis.

If the woman enjoys and consents to the violence against her, that is not violence, it is BDSM. Most porn videos depicting BDSM is an interesting fact but not in and of itself a sign that anything has gone wrong.

Sex acts are not inherently degrading or objectifying. Degradation and objectification are attitudes that people have to other people, and you cannot ward them off by sticking exclusively to PIV and oral. If you can’t understand how someone could facefuck someone they like, the problem is your failure of imagination, not the pornography.

I assure you that people who are not porn stars have deepthroated dick, taken it up the ass, had various body parts come on, been double-penetrated, been fisted, and nearly everything else you think real people don’t do. (I must admit, however, that as far as I can tell you are right about double anal. I too am suspicious that this sex act has only ever been performed with a camera in the room.)

So I feel I had a very reasonable conclusion here that mainstream video porn was probably fine, because all the arguments against it are terrible.

But I think, having watched more of it, actually I was quite wrong, and there are legitimate concerns I have about it.

Contrast mainstream video porn with, say, fanfiction. We make fun of Horrifying Fanfiction Lube, but the average fanfiction sex scene, in an ordinary ship, where everyone involved is human beings and not space aliens or elves or omegas, is a reasonably accurate depiction of 95th percentile sexy sex. The sex is somewhat kinkier than most sex is; communication is more seamless; no one ever farts or loses their erection at an inopportune time; people instinctively know the best ways to touch each other and no one has to figure out how to gently redirect someone else away from slobbering on their neck. And of course the sex usually has far more of a role in the narrative arc than sex in real life ever does. But overall, the acts people perform, the kinds of feelings they have, the relationships they have with other people, all seem like things real people would do.

Most of the time, to the extent that it is inaccurate, it’s inaccurate in a direction where, all things considered, you’d prefer it to be inaccurate. For example, fanfiction has an unrealistically high percentage of married gay couples who use condoms and typically depicts significantly more prep for anal sex than people usually do. But normalizing condom use is a good thing. And it’s good for people who are trying anal for the first time to be very cautious and go very slow; they can switch to a more reasonable amount of prep once they have more experience.

(One thing fanfiction is definitely inaccurate about, much to my eternal disappointment, is the percentage of men who are gay.)

And the things that are inaccurate are more clearly marked as inaccurate. No one is surprised when it turns out that human males do not typically go into heat or have self-lubricating asses. And it’s very rare to look in the Spike/Buffy ship tag for a depiction of loving, consensual sex in a healthy relationship. I know people who have gotten themselves in trouble because they’ve been misled by fanfiction, but you do have to work at it.

Mainstream video porn, on the other hand…

Most obviously, sex acts are often depicted in a way that is actively unsafe. The most obvious example is not using condoms, obviously, and I don’t need to belabor that. But think about the way mainstream porn depicts anal. Horrifying Fanfiction Lube is one thing, but at least they’re aware that you need lube. In mainstream video porn, you get guys with enormous dicks just banging away immediately without any sort of preparation or working up to it or even starting off slowly so she can relax. In real life, this is a recipe not just for painful, unpleasant sex but for anal fissures.

But even that criticism– as well as the criticisms I discussed above– miss the most important problem with mainstream video porn, which is that all of the films are apparently shot, directed, and starred in by bizarre sex aliens.

As far as I can tell, there’s very little foreplay, particularly if you require that your foreplay involve touching and caressing and exclude oral sex. There’s strikingly little kissing, and very little talking. Surprisingly often, sex begins by a woman stripping naked without a man touching her, dropping to her knees, and giving him a blowjob, without any sort of preliminaries. No one uses condoms or discusses birth control or testing. Strange and acrobatic sexual positions are depicted. At the end, he either pulls out and comes on her face, or comes inside her and then she squeezes the come out in a very unusual fashion. No one cuddles.

Now, I don’t mean to say that people don’t do those things. Obviously, people have unprotected sex without talking or kissing or touching, or where they strip naked instead of taking each other’s clothes off, engage in almost no non-genital sexual activities, use uncomfortable sex positions, and then end with a facial or the squeezy come thing and no cuddles. Some people even do all of those things. But I think the combination of all of those things is actually very very rare, while in porn it is a plurality of the videos available. It is not that any individual thing depicted is that strange, but collectively they give the impression that no one involved in creating porn has ever actually had sex with a human being.

What is worse, I think, is the absence of feelings or relationships. As far as I can tell, in video porn, sex typically consists solely of genitals being combined in various ways with orifices. It is quite difficult to work out what anyone’s opinion of the situation is, although you can extrapolate that presumably people think orgasms are nice. No one is unhappy and being comforted, or ecstatic about getting to have sex with someone so hot, or hopelessly in love, or trusting that their partner won’t hurt them when they try something new, or any of the other things that people sometimes feel about sex. In particular, it is quite hard to figure out what the people involved seem to think of each other. Rarely do the people involved seem to like each other, or dislike each other, or really have any sort of opinion of each other at all. In Bizarre Sex Alien Land, people typically have sex with people they’re completely neutral about.

This is even more appalling, in my opinion, than the first thing. Uncomfortable sex positions are a thing some people like, but it is actually extraordinarily rare to have sex where you have no emotions about the sex or the person whatsoever. Mainstream video porn leaves out a lot of what makes sex different from– and better than– masturbation. It’s a systematically inaccurate depiction of what sex is like.

Now, you might say that porn is intended as a masturbatory aid, not sex education, and sex education should be in schools. This is true as far as it goes. But I think proponents of this idea have failed to consider the sheer awkwardness of having education in middle-school health class about how most people typically kiss and touch each other extensively before they begin oral sex. This is really not the sort of lesson you want to have from your gym teacher. And while perhaps many people should read a good sex advice book before they begin having sex, most people won’t.

And, even setting that aside, I do think that watching a lot of mainstream video pornography is going to have an effect on your sexual script. How could it not? You have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours watching people do a thing. You may have few other sources of information of how it is done; you may never have done it yourself. Even if you know porn is inaccurate, where are you going to learn what sex is really like?

Of course, many people are sophisticated consumers of media, capable of separating reality from fiction. But mainstream video porn does not present itself as a ludicrous fantasy. It presents itself as a documentary of normal people having sex. And while viewers may be able to recognize that penises are not normally that large and women have pubic hair and you should use condoms, are they going to be able to recognize literally every way that porn is inaccurate?

I do not have hard data that suggests problems related to this. The generation that grew up with unlimited streaming video porn is still quite young. But I do not think it is at all unreasonable for sex-positive feminists to be concerned, and I wish that porn-critical discussions would move away from inaccurate statistics and slut-shaming and towards a more real discussion of the problems with pornography.

Don’t Goodhart Yourself



[content warning: some non-explicit discussion of self-harm]

Goodhart’s Law is a concept used in data science which goes like this:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Goodhart’s Law is usually applied to the behavior of other people. For example, attendance is a good way of measuring how diligent your employees are, but if you start firing people for missing days then you’ll get people coming in with colds, infecting everyone, and playing Candy Crush all day because they’re too tired to get any work done. How many papers a scientist publishes is a good way of measuring how much they work, but if you make tenure dependent on how many papers a scientist publishes they’ll start breaking everything up into the smallest units of paper possible. How many nails a factory produces is a good way of measuring its success as a factory, but if you are a Soviet planner who requires the factory to produce as many nails as possible it will make tiny nails that aren’t useful for anything.

(There are other ways that Goodhart’s Law can end up working– for example, ice cream sales are a good way of measuring how hot it is, but setting a goal of selling a large amount of ice cream each day will not make the weather nicer– but these are not relevant for my post.)

However, Goodhart’s Law can also be applied to yourself.

People often set self-improvement goals, and when they do they often think of some way to measure what they care about. For example, if you want to exercise more, you might set a goal to go to the gym three days a week. If you want to finish a novel, you might set a goal to write five hundred words a day. If you want to have a better relationship with your husband, you might set a goal to have less than four fights per month.

Sometimes, the thing you’re measuring is directly the thing you care about. For example, if you are chronically sleep-deprived and decide to track how tired you feel in the morning, you aren’t going to encounter Goodhart’s Law problems, because tiredness is actually the thing you care about.

Often, however, the thing you’re measuring is different from the thing you care about. If you want to exercise more, you don’t want to fuck around at the gym on your phone, you want to take a class or use the treadmill or lift up heavy things and put them down.

Some of the ways Goodhart’s Law operates with people’s goals can be really obvious. For example, some people finishing NaNoWriMo will name their characters things like “Lady Mary von Grackle the Fourth” and then use the entire thing every time she comes up, or include the entire lyrics of every song their character is listening to, or edit every line of dialogue to include “X said” even if it is perfectly obvious who’s talking. If you are doing this stuff, it’s pretty obvious that you’re Goodharting your goal of writing a 50,000-word novel.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s not obvious at all, and that’s where you run into real trouble. You might be really proud of yourself for not getting into fights with your husband anymore– but instead you’re walking on eggshells avoiding every topic that might upset him and failing to bring up topics which you really ought to bring up, which actually makes your relationship worse.

And sometimes things can be Goodharting for some people and not for others. Let’s say your goal is to stop self-harming. For some people, the goal is actually to stop self-harming: maybe they’re tired of getting scars or it frightens other people. For other people, the goal is to avoid getting into situations where you’re so emotionally fucked up that self-harming seems like a good idea. If your goal is that second thing, white-knuckling through your self-harm urges by drawing red lines on yourself is actually useless– it achieves your target but does nothing about your goal.

Similarly, let’s say you set a target to do three things off your to do list each day. For many people– perhaps most– the real goal would be to accomplish things, and the worries about Goodharting would mostly be related to putting unnecessary things on your to do list so you can check them off. But if you have depression, your goal might be to recover from depression. You might drag your brain over metaphorical rocks getting yourself to do some dishes and cook dinner and achieve your target, but you’re still depressed.

Goodharting can get you into trouble in two ways. First, as in the arguments case, your target might be so poorly specified that it gets you to do things that are actively counterproductive to your goal– like not bringing up problems in your relationship.

Second, as in the self-harm, depression, and NaNoWriMo cases, reaching your target won’t directly harm your goal. You can search-and-replace “Lady Mary von Grackle the Fourth” with “Mary” and get a readable book. Doing more things off your to do list might even make you less depressed, if you’re the sort of person who tends to get less depressed if you’re more active. (Or more depressed, if you’re drawing on emotional reserves that you really shouldn’t be drawing on. It can go either way.)

The problem is that Goodharting misleads you about whether you’ve met your goal. You think you’ve written a novel, but when you cut out all the padding it’s a novelette at best. You think you’ve fixed your depression, but actually you’re just willpowering your way through doing the dishes. You think you’ve learned how to regulate your emotions better, but actually you’ve learned that if you self-harm by holding ice instead of by cutting you can pass it off to your therapists as a healthy coping mechanism. You’re putting a lot of work in– but you’re not going to have the outcomes you want.

How do you avoid Goodharting? It can help to explicitly distinguish “goal” and “target”: your goal isn’t to go to the gym three times a week unless you’d be just as happy if you spent the entire time at the gym reading a nice novel. That way, you can notice when you’re meeting your targets but not your goals. If your relationship with your husband is getting worse, you can step back and reassess.

It can also help to deliberately avoid doing things that help you reach your targets but not your goals. This is one way that single-person Goodharting is much easier to solve than multi-person Goodharting: you can just decide that you’re not going to Goodhart, once you’re aware that this is an issue. For example, if you’re depressed, you might commit to never using willpower to get yourself to do things. If you’re writing a novel, you might decide not to use cheap tricks to pad your word count.

In other cases, that isn’t realistic. For example, you might not want to commit to self-harming every time you feel like self-harming, and if you’re depressed you might ever need to force yourself to do the dishes so you have something clean to eat off of. In those cases, you might want to count Goodharted things separately. For example, as a depressed person, you might want to separately track things you did without willpower and things you did with willpower; if you’re trying to recover from self-harming, you might want to track both self-harm instances and strong urges to self-harm.

Polyamory Survey: The Results, Part One


I collected 498 responses to my polyamory survey. Of these, 19 (3.8%) were deleted for being monogamous, leaving me with 479 respondents. The survey was promoted primarily on my blog, Thing of Things, and Slate Star Codex. For this reason, it is primarily representative of the rationalist community. 81% of respondents identified as rationalists.


Due to a miscommunication with Scott Alexander, the polyamory survey as posted on Slate Star Codex failed to clarify that single people who would be nonmonogamous if they were dating anyone should take the survey. This may lead to underrepresentation of single respondents.

Mid-survey, I added some clarifications, which included defining “assigned gender at birth” and informing people who don’t know what a rationalist is

At least one person failed to follow instructions and included platonic primary partners; I do not expect the number of people who both have platonic primary partners and are bad at following directions to be high enough to distort the data. While I attempted to create categories that would encompass many different ways of doing polyamory, some forms may not be accommodated; for example, one participant complained that he slept with dozens of new people every year but, as he does not have many relationships, was recorded in the survey as having no partners. I do not expect people this unusual to distort the results much.

Several people refused to take the survey because they felt uncomfortable classifying their gender, sexual orientation, or romantic orientation within the boxes given. This survey may underrepresent queer people with unusual genders or orientations. Some participants felt that “transgender” is a term which only includes binary-gendered people; thus, nonbinary people may either have been underrepresented or incorrectly included as cisgender.

The definition of “sex” was confusing to several respondents. In particular, some respondents included cybersex as sex, while some did not. Depending on whether you consider cybersex to be sex, my survey may either undercount or overcount how much sex people are having.

Do Cis Straight Poly People Exist?

Before we can determine whether polyamory works well for cisgender heterosexual people, it is first necessary to determine whether cis straight poly people exist at all.

The answer appears to be “yes”. The gender, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation breakdown of respondents is as follows:

7.1% asexual
42.7% bisexual
42.9% heterosexual
7.3% homosexual

1.5% aromantic*
45.5% biromantic
44.7% heteroromantic
8.4% homoromantic

54.4% cisgender male
24.9% cisgender female
7.5% transgender person assigned female at birth
13.2% transgender person assigned male at birth

(There was a high overlap between “heteroromantic” and “heterosexual”, “biromantic” and “bisexual”, etc.)

However, I live in Berkeley, so I am aware that cisgender straight poly people often do things that many monogamous people would not consider to be very heterosexual or cisgender. For this reason, I included two additional questions to test whether someone is paradigmatically cisgender and heterosexual.

I asked heterosexual people whether they had had sex with a person of the same gender, or with any transgender person. (After some consideration, I chose to include all transgender people, on the grounds that cis people seem to consider sex with any of us to be kinda gay.) I clarified that “sex” includes any activity two or more people are doing, at the same time, which is primarily intended to cause sexual arousal or orgasm in one or more participants, and that it still counts if a person of your preferred gender was also involved, you didn’t touch their genitals, one or both of you didn’t get naked, it was BDSM, it was exclusively over the Internet, etc. 40.5% of heterosexual respondents have had sex with a person of the same gender, or with any transgender person.

I asked cisgender people whether they have taken any steps conventionally considered to be part of a gender transition process, such as taking cross-sex hormones; asking people to refer to them with different pronouns or a name not associated with their assigned gender; binding, tucking, or wearing clothing or makeup conventionally associated with the other primary gender on a regular basis; or deliberately altering their presentation to cause people to read them as the gender they weren’t assigned at birth. 13.6% of cisgender respondents have taken a step conventionally considered to be part of a gender transition process.

It is now possible to calculate what percentage of poly people are paradigmatically straight and cisgender. 21.5% of poly people in my sample were paradigmatically cis and straight. Rationalists were more likely to be paradigmatically cis and straight than nonrationalists: 36% of rationalists were paradigmatically cis and straight. 33% of cisgender men were paradigmatically cis and straight, while only 8% of cisgender women were paradigmatically cis and straight. This reflects the common polyamorous wisdom that cisgender, heterosexual poly women are very rare.

*I used a narrow definition of aromantic, in which a person is uninterested in having any relationships described as “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” or “partner”, rather than a broader definition in which one might have partners that one is not romantically attracted to.

Are Poly People Cucks?

Many people accuse polyamorous people, particularly men, of being cucks: that is, they are sexually aroused by the idea of their partners having sex with other people. Unaccountably, no one has ever collected data on this claim.

At first blush, this generalization seems accurate: 78.7% of respondents reported that they found the prospect of a partner having sex with someone else arousing, even if only a little bit or only in particular situations. However, only 15.2% of respondents found it arousing in a submissive way, as implied by the word “cuck” (e.g. you are aroused by your partner having sex with other people because you find it humiliating). 29.4% found it arousing in a dominant way (e.g. the idea that you might “force” your partner to have sex with someone else). The majority of respondents, 76.8%, found it arousing in a non-kinky fashion (e.g. because it is hot when your partner has orgasms).

Further, this arousal is not a significant driver of people’s interest in polyamory: only 4.8% of respondents reported that this was a major reason for them to be poly.

I will now look at cisgender male respondents specifically, as this is a subject of particular interest. 79.3% of cisgender men found the prospect of a partner having sex with someone else arousing; 15.7% were aroused in a submissive way, 35.7% in a dominant way, and 73.4% in a non-kinky way. 7.2% said that this was a major reason for them to be polyamorous. Cisgender men appear to have approximately the same pattern as everyone else, although they are perhaps slightly more likely to be interested in a dominant fashion and less likely to be interested in a nonkinky fashion; cis men may also be more likely to have this as a primary reason for them to be poly.

Therefore, I have concluded that, while poly men are typically aroused by their partners having sex with other people, poly men are not in fact cucks, nor is this a major reason for them to be poly. I am unclear on whether it is a good idea to raise awareness of these results, however. If you must humiliate someone for their partner having sex with other people, you should at least humiliate the people who get off on it.

Tune in next post for answers to a variety of other exciting questions such as:

  • Are poly people satisfied in their relationships?
  • How many people are poly people dating?
  • Are poly cis men lonelier than poly trans people or poly cis women?
  • How much sex are poly people having really?
  • Are poly people more attracted to their primaries or their secondaries?
  • And more!