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The $110 Billion Arms Deal to Saudi Arabia is Fake News


Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Markaz.


Last month, President Trump visited Saudi Arabia and his administration announced that he had concluded a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom. Only problem is that there is no deal. It’s fake news.

I’ve spoken to contacts in the defense business and on the Hill, and all of them say the same thing: There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts. Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them “intended sales.” None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.

An example is a proposal for sale of four frigates (called multi-mission surface combatant vessels) to the Royal Saudi navy. This proposal was first reported by the State Department in 2015. No contract has followed. The type of frigate is a derivative of a vessel that the U.S. Navy uses but the derivative doesn’t actually exist yet. Another piece is the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system (THAAD) which was recently deployed in South Korea. The Saudis have expressed interest in the system for several years but no contracts have been finalized. Obama approved the sale in principle at a summit at Camp David in 2015. Also on the wish list are 150 Black Hawk helicopters. Again, this is old news repackaged. What the Saudis and the administration did is put together a notional package of the Saudi wish list of possible deals and portray that as a deal. Even then the numbers don’t add up. It’s fake news.

Moreover, it’s unlikely that the Saudis could pay for a $110 billion deal any longer, due to low oil prices and the two-plus years old war in Yemen. President Obama sold the kingdom $112 billion in weapons over eight years, most of which was a single, huge deal in 2012 negotiated by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. To get that deal through Congressional approval, Gates also negotiated a deal with Israel to compensate the Israelis and preserve their qualitative edge over their Arab neighbors. With the fall in oil prices, the Saudis have struggled to meet their payments since.

You will know the Trump deal is real when Israel begins to ask for a package to keep the Israeli Defense Forces’ qualitative edge preserved. What is coming soon is a billion-dollars deal for more munitions for the war in Yemen. The Royal Saudi Air Force needs more munitions to continue the air bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country.

Finally, just as the arms deal is not what it was advertised, so is the much-hyped united Muslim campaign against terrorism. Instead, the Gulf states have turned on one of their own. Saudi Arabia has orchestrated a campaign to isolate Qatar. This weekend Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt broke relations with Qatar. Saudi allies like the Maldives and Yemen jumped on the bandwagon. Saudi Arabia has closed its land border with Qatar.

This is not the first such spat but it may be the most dangerous. The Saudis and their allies are eager to punish Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, for hosting Al-Jazeera, and keeping ties with Iran. Rather than a united front to contain Iran, the Riyadh summit’s outcome is exacerbating sectarian and political tensions in the region.

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51 days ago
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Book Review: The Hungry Brain

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[Content note: food, dieting, obesity]


The Hungry Brain gives off a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell vibe, with its cutesy name and pop-neuroscience style. But don’t be fooled. Stephan Guyenet is no Gladwell-style dilettante. He’s a neuroscientist studying nutrition, with a side job as a nutrition consultant, who spends his spare time blogging about nutrition, tweeting about nutrition, and speaking at nutrition-related conferences. He is very serious about what he does and his book is exactly as good as I would have hoped. Not only does it provide the best introduction to nutrition I’ve ever seen, but it incidentally explains other neuroscience topics better than the books directly about them do.

I first learned about Guyenet’s work from his various debates with Gary Taubes and his supporters, where he usually represents the “establishment” side. He is very careful to emphasize that the establishment doesn’t look anything like Taubes’ caricature of it. The establishment doesn’t believe that obesity is just about weak-willed people voluntarily choosing to eat too much, or that obese people would get thin if they just tried diet and exercise, or that all calories are the same. He writes

The [calories in, calories out] model is the idea that our body weight is determined by voluntary decisions about how much we eat and move, and in order to control our body weight, all we need is a little advice about how many calories to eat and burn, and a little willpower. The primary defining feature of this model is that it assumes that food intake and body fatness are not regulated. This model seems to exist mostly to make lean people feel smug, since it attributes their leanness entirely to wise voluntary decisions and a strong character. I think at this point, few people in the research world believe the CICO model.

[Debate opponent Dr. David] Ludwig and I both agree that it provides a poor fit for the evidence. As an alternative, Ludwig proposes the insulin model, which states that the primary cause of obesity is excessive insulin action on fat cells, which in turn is caused principally by rapidly-digesting carbohydrate. According to this model, too much insulin reduces blood levels of glucose and fatty acids (the two primary circulating metabolic fuels), simultaneously leading to hunger, fatigue, and fat gain. Overeating is caused by a kind of “internal starvation”. There are other versions of the insulin model, but this is the one advocated by Ludwig (and Taubes), so it will be my focus.

But there’s a third model, not mentioned by Ludwig or Taubes, which is the one that predominates in my field. It acknowledges the fact that body weight is regulated, but the regulation happens in the brain, in response to signals from the body that indicate its energy status. Chief among these signals is the hormone leptin, but many others play a role (insulin, ghrelin, glucagon, CCK, GLP-1, glucose, amino acids, etc.)

The Hungry Brain is part of Guyenet’s attempt to explain this third model, and it basically succeeds. But like many “third way” style proposals, it leaves a lot of ambiguity. With CICO, at least you know where you stand – confident that everything is based on willpower and that you can ignore biology completely. And again, with Taubes, you know where you stand – confident that willpower is useless and that low-carb diets will solve everything. The Hungry Brain is a little more complicated, a little harder to get a read on, and at times pretty wishy-washy.

But listening to people’s confidently-asserted simple and elegant ideas was how we got into this mess, so whatever, let’s keep reading.


The Hungry Brain begins with the typical ritual invocation of the obesity epidemic. Did you know there are entire premodern cultures where literally nobody is obese? That in the 1800s, only 5% of Americans were? That the prevalence of obesity has doubled since 1980?

Researchers have been keeping records of how much people eat for a long time, and increased food intake since 1980 perfectly explains increased obesity since 1980 – there is no need to bring in decreased exercise or any other factors. Exercise has decreased since the times when we were all tilling fields ten hours a day, but for most of history, as our exercise decreased, our food intake decreased as well. But for some reason, starting around 1980, the two factors uncoupled, and food intake started to rise despite exercise continuing to decrease.

Guyenet discusses many different reasons this might have happened, including stress-related overeating, poor sleep, and quick prepackaged food. But the ideas he keeps coming back to again and again are food reward and satiety.

In the 1970s, scientists wanted to develop new rat models of obesity. This was harder than it sounded; rats ate only as much as they needed and never got fat. Various groups tried to design various new forms of rat chow with extra fat, extra sugar, et cetera, with only moderate success – sometimes they could get the rats to eat a little too much and gradually become sort of obese, but it was a hard process. Then, almost by accident, someone tried feeding the rats human snack food, and they ballooned up to be as fat as, well, humans. The book:

Palatable human food is the most effective way to cause a normal rat to spontaneously overeat and become obese, and its fattening effect canot be attributed solely to its fat or sugar content.

So what does cause this fattening effect? I think the book’s answer is “no single factor, but that doesn’t matter, because capitalism is an optimization process that designs foods to be as rewarding as possible, so however many different factors there are, every single one of them will be present in your bag of Doritos”. But to be more scientific about it, the specific things involved are some combination of sweet/salty/umami tastes, certain ratios of fat and sugar, and reinforced preferences for certain flavors.

Modern food isn’t just unusually rewarding, it’s also unusually bad at making us full. The brain has some pretty sophisticated mechanisms to determine when we’ve eaten enough; these usually involve estimating food’s calorie load from its mass and fiber level. But modern food is calorically dense – it contains many more calories than predicted per unit mass – and fiber-poor. This fools the brain into thinking that we’re eating less than we really are, and shuts down the system that would normally make us feel full once we’ve had enough. Simultaneously, the extremely high level of food reward tricks the brain into thinking that this food is especially nutritionally valuable and that it should relax its normal constraints.

Adding to all of this is the so-called “buffet effect”, where people will eat more calories from a variety of foods presented together than they would from any single food alone. My mother likes to talk about her “extra dessert stomach”, ie the thing where you can gorge yourself on a burger and fries until you’re totally full and couldn’t eat another bite – but then mysteriously find room for an ice cream sundae afterwards. This is apparently a real thing that’s been confirmed in scientific experiments, and a major difference between us and our ancestors. The !Kung Bushmen, everyone’s go-to example of an all-natural hunter-gatherer tribe, apparently get 50% of their calories from a single food, the mongongo nut, and another 40% from meat. Meanwhile, we design our meals to include as many unlike foods as possible – for example, a burger with fries, soda, and a milkshake for dessert. This once again causes the brain to relax its usual strict constraints on appetite and let us eat more than we should.

The book sums all of these things up into the idea of “food reward” making some foods “hyperpalatable” and “seducing” the reward mechanism in order to produce a sort of “food addiction” that leads to “cravings”, the “obesity epidemic”, and a profusion of “scare quotes”.

I’m being a little bit harsh here, but only to highlight a fundamental question. Guyenet goes into brilliant detail about things like the exact way the ventral tegmental area of the brain responds to food-related signals, but in the end, it all sounds suspiciously like “food tastes good so we eat a lot of it”. It’s hard to see where exactly this differs from the paradigm that he dismisses as “attributing leanness to wise voluntary decisions and a strong character…to make lean people feel smug”. Yes, food tastes good so we eat a lot of it. And Reddit is fun to read, but if someone browses Reddit ten hours a day and doesn’t do any work then we start speculating about their character, and maybe even feeling smug. This part of the book, taken alone, doesn’t really explain why we shouldn’t be doing that about weight too.


The average person needs about 800,000 calories per year. And it takes about 3,500 extra calories to gain a pound of weight. So if somebody stays about the same weight for a year, it means they fulfilled their 800,000 calorie requirement to within a tolerance of 3,500 calories, ie they were able to match their food intake to their caloric needs with 99.5% accuracy.

By this measure, even people who gain five or ten pounds a year are doing remarkably well, falling short of perfection by only a few percent. It’s not quite true that someone who gains five pounds is ((5*3,500)/800,000) = 98% accurate, because each pound you gain increases caloric requirements in a negative feedback loop, but it’s somewhere along those lines.

Take a second to think about that. Can you, armed with your FitBit and nutritional labeling information, accurately calculate how many calories you burn in a given day, and decide what amount of food you need to eat to compensate for it, within 10%? I think even the most obsessive personal trainer would consider that a tall order. But even the worst overeaters are subconsciously managing that all the time. However many double bacon cheeseburgers they appear to be eating in a single sitting, over the long term their body is going to do some kind of magic to get them to within a few percent of the calorie intake they need.

It’s not surprising that people overeat, it’s surprising that people don’t overeat much more. Consider someone who just has bad impulse control and so eats whatever they see – wouldn’t we expect them to deviate from ideal calorie input by more than a few percent, given that this person probably has no idea what their ideal input even is and maybe has never heard of calories?

And as impressive as modern Westerners’ caloric balance is, everyone else’s is even better. Guyenet discusses the Melanesian island of Kitava, where there is literally only one fat person on the entire island – a businessman who spends most of his time in modern urbanized New Guinea, eating Western food. The Kitavans have enough food, and they live a relaxed tropical lifestyle that doesn’t demand excessive exercise. But their bodies aren’t making even the 10% error that ours do. They’re essentially perfect. So are the !Kung with their mongongo nuts, Inuit with their blubber, et cetera.

And so are Westerners who limit themselves to bland food. In 1965, some scientists locked people in a room where they could only eat nutrient sludge dispensed from a machine. Even though the volunteers had no idea how many calories the nutrient sludge was, they ate exactly enough to maintain their normal weight, proving the existence of a “sixth sense” for food caloric content. Next, they locked morbidly obese people in the same room. They ended up eating only tiny amounts of the nutrient sludge, one or two hundred calories a day, without feeling any hunger. This proved that their bodies “wanted” to lose the excess weight and preferred to simply live off stored fat once removed from the overly-rewarding food environment. After six months on the sludge, a man who weighed 400 lbs at the start of the experiment was down to 200, without consciously trying to reduce his weight.

In a similar experiment going the opposite direction, Ethan Sims got normal-weight prison inmates to eat extraordinary amounts of food – yet most of them still had trouble gaining weight. He had to dial their caloric intake up to 10,000/day – four times more than a normal person – before he was able to successfully make them obese. And after the experiment, he noted that “most of them hardly had any appetite for weeks afterward, and the majority slimmed back down to their normal weight”.

What is going on here? Like so many questions, this one can best be solved by grotesque Frankenstein-style suturing together of the bodies of living creatures.

In the 1940s, scientists discovered that if they damaged the ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (VMN) of rats, the rats would basically never stop eating, becoming grotesquely obese. They theorized that the VMN was a “satiety center” that gave rats the ability to feel full; without it, they would feel hungry forever. Later on, a strain of mutant rats was discovered that seemed to naturally have the same sort of issue, despite seemingly intact hypothalami. Scientists wondered if there might be a hormonal problem, and so they artificially conjoined these rats to healthy normal rats, sewing together their circulatory systems into a single network. The result: when a VMN-lesioned rat was joined to a normal rat, the VMN-lesioned rat stayed the same, but the normal rat stopped eating and starved to death. When a mutant rat was joined to a normal rat, the normal rat stayed the same and the mutant rat recovered and became normal weight.

The theory they came up with to explain the results was this: fat must produce some kind of satiety hormone, saying “Look, you already have a lot of fat, you can feel full and stop eating now”. The VMN of the hypothalamus must detect this message and tell the brain to feel full and stop eating. So the VMN-lesioned rats, whose detector was mostly damaged, responded by never feeling full, eating more and more food, and secreting more and more (useless) satiety hormone. When they were joined to normal rats, their glut of satiety hormones flooded the normal rats – and their normal brain, suddenly bombarded with “YOU ALREADY HAVE WAY TOO MUCH FAT” messages, stopped eating entirely.

The mutant rats, on the other hand, had lost the ability to produce the satiety hormone. They, too, felt hungry all the time and ate everything. But when they were joined to a normal rat, the normal levels of satiety hormone flowed from the normal rat into the mutant rat, reached the fully-functional detector in their brains, and made them feel full, curing their obesity.

Skip over a lot of scientific infighting and unfortunate priority disputes and patent battles, and it turns out the satiety hormone is real, exists in humans as well, and is called leptin. A few scientists managed to track down some cases of genetic leptin deficiency in humans, our equivalent of the mutant rats, and, well…

Usually they are of normal birth weight and then they’re very, very hungry from the first weeks and months of life. By age one, they have obesity. By age two, they weigh 55-65 pounds, and their obesity only accelerates from there. While a normal child may be about 25% fat, and a typical child with obesity may be 40% fat, leptin-deficient children are up to 60% fat. Farooqi explains that the primary reason letpin-deficient children develop obesity is that they have “an incredible drive to eat”…leptin-deficient children are nearly always hungry, and they almost always want to eat, even shortly after meals. Their appetite is so exaggerated that it’s almost impossible to put them on a diet: if their food is restricted, they find some way to eat, including retrieving stale morsels from the trash can and gnawing on fish sticks directly from the freezer. This is the desperation of starvation […]

Unlike normal teenagers, those with leptin deficiency don’t have much interest in films, dating, or other teenage pursuits. They want to talk about food, about recipes. “Everything they do, think about, talk about, has to do with food” says [Dr.] Farooqi. This shows that the [leptin system] does much more than simply regulate appetite – it’s so deeply rooted in the brain that it has the ability to hijack a broad swath of brain functions, including emotions and cognition.

It’s the leptin-VNM-feedback system (dubbed the “lipostat”) that helps people match their caloric intake to their caloric requirements so impressively. The lipostat is what keeps hunter-gatherers eating exactly the right number of mongongo nuts, and what keeps modern Western overeaters at much closer to the right weight than they could otherwise expect.

The lipostat-brain interface doesn’t just control the raw feeling of hunger, it seems to have a wide range of food-related effects, including some on higher cognition. Ancel Keys (of getting-blamed-for-everything fame) ran the Minnesota Starvation Experiment on some unlucky conscientious objectors to World War II. He starved them until they lost 25% of their body weight, and found that:

Over the course of their weight loss, Keys’s subjects developed a remarkable obsession with food. In addition to their inescapable, gnawing hunger, their conversations, thoughts, fantasies, and dreams revolved around food and eating – part of a phenomenon Keys called “semistarvation neurosis”. They became fascinated by recipes and cookbooks, and some even began collecting cooking utensils. Like leptin-deficient adolescents, their lives revolved around food. Also like leptin-deficient adolescents, they had very low leptin levels due to their semi-starved state.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as the experiment ended, they gorged themselves until they were right back at their pre-experiment weights (but no higher), at which point they lost their weird food obsession.

Just as a well-functioning lipostat is very good at keeping people normal weight, a malfunctioning lipostat is very good at keeping people obese. Fat people seem to have “leptin resistance”, sort of like the VMN-lesioned rats, so that their bodies get confused about how much fat they have. Suppose a healthy person weighs 150 lbs, his body is on board with that, and his lipostat is set to defend a 150 lb set point. Then for some reason he becomes leptin-resistant, so that the brain is only half as good at detecting leptin as it should be. Now he will have to be 300 lbs before his brain “believes” he is the right weight and stops encouraging him to eat more. If he goes down to a “mere” 280 lbs, then he will go into the same semistarvation neurosis as Ancel Keys’ experimental subjects and become desperately obsessed with food until they get back up to 300 again. Or his body will just slow down metabolism until his diet brings him back up. Or any of a bunch of other ways the lipostat has to restore weight when it wants to.

(and I would be shocked if the opposite problem weren’t at least part of anorexia)

This explains the well-known phenomenon where contestants on The Biggest Loser who lose 200 or 300 pounds for the television camera pretty much always gain it back after the show ends. Even though they’re highly motivated and starting from a good place, their lipostat has seized on their previous weight as the set point it wants to defend, and resisting the lipostat is somewhere between hard and impossible. As far as I know, nobody has taken Amptoons up on their challenge to find a single peer-reviewed study showing any diet that can consistently bring fat people to normal weight and keep them there.

And alas, it doesn’t seem to work to just inject leptin directly. As per Guyenet

People with garden variety obesity already have high levels of leptin…while leptin therapy does cause some amount of fat loss, it requires enormous doses to be effective – up to forty times the normal circulating amount. Also troubling is the extremely variable response, with some people losing over thirty pounds and others losing little or no weight. This is a far cry from the powerful fat-busting effect of leptin in rodents. [Leptin as] the new miracle weight-loss drug never made it to market.

This disappointment forced the academic and pharmaceutical communities to confront a distressing possibility: the leptin system defends vigorously against weight loss, but not so vigorously against weight gain. “I have always thought, and continue to believe,” explained [leptin expert Rudy] Leibel, “that the leptin hormone is really a mechanism for detecting deficiency, not excess.” It’s not designed to constrain body fatness, perhaps because being too fat is rarely a problem in the wild. Many researchers now believe that while low leptin levels in humans engage a powerful starvation response that promotes fat gain, high leptin levels don’t engage an equally powerful response that promotes fat loss.

Yet something seems to oppose rapid fat gain, as Ethan Sims’ overfeeding studies (and others) have shown. Although leptin clearly defends the lower limit of adiposity, the upper limit may be defended by an additional, unidentified factor – in some people more than others.

This is the other half of the uncomfortable dichotomy that makes me characterize The Hungry Brain as “wishy-washy”. The lipostat is a powerful and essentially involuntary mechanism for getting weight exactly where the brain wants, whether individual dieters are cooperative or not. Here it looks like obesity is nobody’s fault, unrelated to voluntary decisions, and that the standard paradigm really is just an attempt by lean people to feel smug. Practical diet advice starts to look like “inject yourself with quantities of leptin so massive that they overcome your body’s resistance”. How do we connect this with the other half of the book, the half with food reward and satiety and all that?


With more rat studies!

Dr. Barry Levin fed rats either a healthy-rat-food diet or a hyperpalatable-human-food diet, then starved and overfed them in various ways. He found that the rats defended their obesity set points in the expected manner, but that the same rats defend different set points depending on their diets. Rats on healthy-rat-food defended a low, healthy-for-rats set point; rats on hyperpalatable-human-food defended a higher set point that kept them obese.

That is, suppose you give a rat as much Standardized Food Product as it can eat. It eats until it weighs 8 ounces, and stays that weight for a while. Then you starve it until it only weighs 6 ounces, and it’s pretty upset. Then you let it eat as much as it wants again, and it overeats until it gets back to 8 ounces, then eats normally and maintains that weight.

But suppose you get a rat as many Oreos as it can eat. It eats until it weighs 16 ounces, and stays that weight for a while. Then you starve it until it only weighs 6 ounces. Then you let it eat as much as it wants again, and this time it overeats until it gets back to 16 ounces, and eats normally to maintain that weight.

Something similar seems to happen with humans. A guy named Michel Cabanac ran an experiment in which he put overweight people on two diets. In the first diet, they ate Standardized Food Product, and naturally lost weight since it wasn’t very good and they didn’t eat very much of it. In the second diet, he urged people to eat less until they matched the first group’s weight loss, but to keep eating the same foods as normal – just less of them. The second group reported being hungry and having a lot of trouble dieting; the first group reported not being hungry and not having any trouble at all.

Guyenet concludes:

Calorie-dense, highly rewarding food may favor overeating and weight gain not just because we passively overeat it but also because it turns up the set point of the lipostat. This may be one reason why regularly eating junk food seems to be a fast track to obesity in both animals and humans…focusing the diet on less rewarding foods may make it easier to lose weight and maintain weight loss because the lipostat doesn’t fight it as vigorously. This may be part of the explanation for why all weight-loss diets seem to work to some extent – even those that are based on diametrically opposed principles, such as low-fat, low-carbohydrate, paleo, and vegan diets. Because each diet excludes major reward factors, they may all lower the adiposity set point somewhat.

(this reminds me of the Shangri-La Diet, where people would drink two tablespoons of olive oil in the morning, then find it was easy to diet without getting hungry during the day. People wondered whether maybe the tastelessness of the olive oil had something to do with it. Could it be that the olive oil is temporarily bringing the lipostat down to its “bland food” level?)

Why should some food make the lipostat work better than other food? Guyenet now gets to some of his own research, which is on a type of brain cell called a POMC neuron. These neurons produce various chemicals, including a sort of anti-leptin called Neuropeptide Y, and they seem to be a very fundamental part of the lipostat and hunger system. In fact, if you use superprecise chemical techniques to kill NPY neurons but nothing else, you can cure obesity in rats.

The area of the hypothalamus with POMC neurons seem to be damaged in overweight rats and overweight humans. Microglia and astrocytes, the brain’s damage-management and repair cells, proliferated in appetite-related centers, but nowhere else. Maybe this literal damage corresponds to the metaphorically “damaged” lipostat that’s failing to maintain weight normally, or the “damaged” leptin detector that seems to be misinterpreting the body’s obesity?

In any case, eating normal rat food for long enough appears to heal this damage:

Our results suggest that obese rodents suffer from a mild form of brain injury in an area of the brain that’s critical for regulating food intake and adiposity. Not only that, but the injury response and inflammation that developed when animals were placed on a fattening diet preceded the development of obesity, suggesting that this brain injury could have played a role in the fattening process.

Guyenet isn’t exactly sure what aspect of modern diets cause the injury:

Many researchers have tried to narrow down the mechanisms by which this food causes changes in the hypothalamus and obesity, and they have come up with a number of hypotheses with varying amounts of evidence to support them. Some researchers believe the low fiber content of the diet precipitates inflammation and obesity by its adverse effects on bacterial populations in the gut (the gut microbiota). Others propose that saturated fat is behind the effect, and unsaturated fats like olive oil are less fattening. Still others believe the harmful effects of overeating itself, including the inflammation caused by excess fat and sugar in the bloodstream and in cells, may affect the hypothalamus and gradually increase the set point. In the end, these mechanisms could all be working together to promote obesity. We don’t know all the details yet, but we do know that easy access to refined, calorie-dense, highly rewarding food leads to fat gain and insidious changes in the lipostat in a variety of species, including humans. This is particularly true when the diet offers a wife variety of sensory experiences, such as the hyperfattening “cafeteria diet” we encountered in chapter 1.

Personally, I believe overeating itself probably plays an important role in the process that increases the adiposity set point. In other words, repeated bouts of overeating don’t just make us fat; they make our bodies want to stay fat. This is consistent with the simple observation that in the United States, most of our annual weight gain occurs during the six-week holiday feasting period between Thanksgiving and the new year, and that this extra weight tends to stick with us after the holidays are over…because of some combination of food quantity and quality, holiday feasting ratchets up the adiposity set point of susceptible people a little bit each year, leading us to gradually accumulate and defend a substantial amount of fat. Since we also tend to gain weight at a slower rate during the rest of the year, intermittent periods of overeating outside of the holidays probably contribute as well.

How might this happen? We aren’t entirely sure, but researchers, including Jeff Friedman, have a possible explanation: excess leptin itself may contribute to leptin resistance. To understand how this works, I need to give you an additional piece of information: Leptin doesn’t just correlate with body fat levels; it also responds to short-term changes in calorie intake. So if you overeat for a few days, your leptin level can increase substantially, even if your adiposity has scarcely changed (and after your calorie intake goes back to normal, so does your leptin). As an analogy for how this can cause leptin resistance, imagine listening to music that’s too loud. At first, it’s thunderous, but eventually, you damage your hearing, and the volume drops. Likewise, when we eat too much food over the course of a few days, letpin levels increase sharply, and this may begin to desensitize the brain circuits that respond to leptin. Yet Rudy Leibel’s group has also shown that high leptin levels alone aren’t enough – the hypothalamus also seems to require a second “hit” for high leptin to increase the set point of the lipostat. This second hit could be the brain injury we, and others, have identified in obese rodents and humans.

And he isn’t sure exactly what aspect of the normal rodent diet promotes the healing:

I did do some research in mice suggesting that unrefined, simple food does reverse the brain changes and the obesity. I don’t claim that it’s all attributable to the blandness though– the two diets differed in many respects (palatability, calorie density, fiber content, macronutrient profile, fatty acid profile, content of nonessential nutrients like polyphenols). Also, we don’t know how well the finding applies to humans yet. One of the problems is that it’s very hard to get a group of humans to adhere strictly to a whole food diet for long enough to study its long-term effects on appetite and body fatness. People are very attached to the pleasures of the palate!

But all of this together seems to point to a potential synthesis between the hyperpalatability and lipostat models. Modern society has been incentivized to produce hyperpalatable, low-satiety food as superstimuli. Overeating this modern food in the short term raises the lipostat’s set point (for some reason, possibly involving brain damage and leptin resistance), causing us to gain weight in the long term, in a way that is very difficult to reverse.


But I still have trouble reconciling these two points of view.

A couple of days ago, I walked by an ice cream store. I’d just finished lunch, and I wasn’t very hungry at the time, but it looked like really good ice cream, and it was hot out, so I gave in to temptation and ate a 700 calories sundae. Does this mean:

1. Based on the one pound = 3500 calories heuristic, I have now gained 0.2 lbs. That extra weight will stay with me my whole life, or at least until some day when I diet and eat 700 calories less than my requirement. If I were to eat ice cream like this a hundred times, I would gain twenty pounds.

2. My lipostat adjusts for the 700 extra calories, and causes me to exercise more, or ramp up my metabolism, or burn more brown fat, or eat less later on, or something. I don’t gain any weight, and eating the ice cream was that rarest of all human experiences, a completely guiltless pleasure. I should eat ice cream whenever I feel like it, or else I am committing the sin of denying myself a lawful pleasure.

3. My lipostat will more or less take care of the ice cream today, and I won’t notice the 0.2 pounds on the scale, but it is very gradually doing hard-to-measure damage to my hypothalamus, and if I keep eating ice cream like this, then one day when I’m in my forties I’m going to wake up weighing three hundred pounds, and no diet will ever be able to help me.

4. The above scenario is impossible. Even if I think I just ate ice cream because it looked good, in reality I was driven to do it by my lipostat’s quest for caloric balance. Any feeling of choice in the matter is an illusion.

I think the reason this is so confusing is because the real answer is “it could be any one of these, depending on genetics.”

Note the position of the grey squares representing BMI

Right now, within this culture, variation in BMI is mostly genetic. This isn’t to say that non-genetic factors aren’t involved – the difference between 1800s America and 2017 America is non-genetic, and so is the difference between the perfectly-healthy Kitavans on Kitava and the one Kitavan guy who moved to New Guinea. But once everyone alike is exposed to the 2017-American food environment, differences between the people in that environment seem to be really hereditary and not-at-all-related to learned behavior. Guyenet acknowledges this:

Genes explain that friend of yours who seems to eat a lot of food, never exercises, and yet remains lean. Claude Bouchard, a genetics researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has shown that some people are intrinsically resistant to gaining weight even when they overeat, and that this trait is genetically influenced. Bouchard’s team recruited twelve pairs of identical twins and overfed each person by 1,000 calories per day above his caloric needs, for one hundred days. In other words, each person overate the same food by the same amount, under controlled conditions, for the duration of the study.

If overeating affects everyone the same, then they should all have gained the same amount of weight. Yet Bouchard observed that weight gain ranged from nine to twenty-nine pounds! Identical twins tended to gain the same amount of weight and fat as each other, while unrelated subjects had more divergent responses…Not only do some people have more of a tendency to overeat than others, but some people are intrinsically more resistant to gaining fat even if they do overeat.

The research of James Levine, an endocrinologist who works with the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, explains this puzzling phenomenon. In a carefully controlled overfeeding study, his team showed that the primary reason some people readily burn off excess calories is that they ramp up a form of calorie-burning called “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (NEAT). NEAT is basically a fancy term for fidgeting. When certain people overeat, their brains boost calorie expenditure by making them fidget, change posture frequently, and make other small movements throughout the day. It’s an involuntary process, and Levine’s data show that it can incinerate nearly 700 calories per day. The “most gifted” of Levine’s subjects gained less than a pound of body fat from eating 1,000 extra calories per day for eight weeks. Yet the strength of the response was highly variable, and the “least gifted” of Levine’s subjects didn’t increase NEAT at all, shunting all the excess calories into fat tissue and gaining over nine pounds of body fat…

Together, these studies offer indisputable evidence that genetics plays a central role in obesity and dispatch the idea that obesity is primarily due to acquired psychological traits.

These studies suggest that one way genetics affects obesity is by altering the tolerance level of the lipostat. Genetically privileged people may have very finicky lipostats that immediately burn off any extra calories they eat, and which never become dysregulated. Genetically unlucky people may have weak lipostats which fail to defend against weight gain, or which are too willing to adjust their set point up in the presence of an unhealthy food environment.

So, given how many people seem to have completely different weight-gain-related experiences to each other, the wishy-washyness here might be a feature rather than a bug.

One reason I’ve always found genetics so exciting is that there are all these fields – nutrition is a great example, but this applies at least as much to psychiatry – where everyone has wildly different personal experiences, and where there’s a large and vocal population of people who say that the research is exactly the opposite of their lived experiences. People have tried to shoehorn the experiences to fit the research, with various levels of plausibility versus condescendingness. And for some reason, it’s always really hard to generate the hypothesis “people’s different experiences aren’t an illusion; people are genuinely really different”. Once you start looking at genetics, everything sort of falls into place, and ideas which seemed wishy-washy or self-contradictory before are revealed as just reflecting the diversity of nature. People who were previously at each other’s throats disputing different interpretations of the human condition are able to peacefully agree that there are many different human conditions, and that maybe we can all just get along. The Hungry Brain and other good books in its vein offer a vision for how we might one day be able to do that in nutrition science.


Lest I end on too positive a note, let me reiterate the part where happiness is inherently bad and a sort of neo-Puritan asceticism is the only way to avoid an early grave.

There’s an underlying fatalism to the discourse around “food reward”. If the enemy were saturated fat, we could just stick with the sugary sweetness Coca-Cola. If the enemy were carbohydrates, we could go out for steak every night. But what do we do if the enemy is deliciousness itself?

A few weeks ago Guyenet announced The Bland Food Cookbook, a collection of tasteless recipes guaranteed to be low food-reward and so discourage overeating. It was such a natural extension of his philosophy that it took me a whole ten seconds to realize it was an April Fools joke. But why should it be? Shouldn’t this be exactly the sort of thing we’re going for?

I asked him, and he responded that:

If I thought enough people would actually be capable of following the diet, I would consider making such a cookbook non-ironically. The second point I want to make here is that there are many ways to lose weight, and deliberately reducing food reward is only one of them. You could also exercise, eat a low-calorie-density diet, eat a high-protein diet, restrict a macronutrient, restrict animal foods, restrict plant foods, eat nothing but potatoes. Most approaches overlap with a low-reward diet to varying degrees, but I don’t think the low reward value encapsulates everything about why every weight loss strategy works. BTW, low-carb folks often have a knee-jerk reaction to the low-reward thing that goes something like this: “I eat food that’s delicious, such as steaks, bacon, butter, etc. It’s not low in reward.” But it is low reward in the sense that you’re cutting out a broad swath of foods, and an entire macronutrient, that the brain very much wants you to eat. Eating more of a particular category of rewarding food doesn’t completely make up for the fact that you’re cutting out a whole other category of rewarding food that you would avidly consume if you weren’t restricting yourself.

So things aren’t maximally bad. And hunter-gatherers enjoy their healthy diets just fine. And certainly there are things like steak and wine and so on which are traditionally “good food” without being hyperprocessed hyperpalatable junk food. But if you really enjoy a glass of Chardonnay, is that “food reward” in the sense that’s potentially dangerous? Is anything safe? What about mongongo nuts? Is there anywhere we can get them?

Overall I strongly recommend The Hungry Brain for everything I talk about here and for some other good topics I didn’t even get to (stress, sleep, a list of practical real-world diet advice). I would also recommend Guyenet’s other writing, especially his debate with Dr. David Ludwig on the causes of obesity (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. I also recommend the list of diet tips that Guyenet gives at the end of the book. I won’t give them all away here – he’s been nice enough to me that maybe I should repay him by not reprinting the entire text of his book online for free. But it’s similar to a lot of standard advice for healthy living, albeit with more interesting reasoning behind it. Did you know that exercise might help stabilize the lipostat? Or that protein might do the same? Also, one piece of advice you might not hear anywhere else – potatoes are apparently off-the-charts in terms of satiety factor and may be one of the single best things to diet on.

And speaking of good things to diet on…

(note that this next part is my own opinion, not taken from The Hungry Brain or endorsed by Stephan Guyenet)

Slate Star Codex’s first and most loyal sponsor is MealSquares, a “nutritionally complete” food product sort of like a solid whole-foods-based version of Soylent. I’m having some trouble writing this paragraph, because I want to recommend them as potentially dovetailing with The Hungry Brain‘s philosophy of nutrition without using phrases that might make MealSquares Inc angry at me like “bland”, “low food reward”, or “not hyperpalatable”. I think the best I can come up with is “unlikely to injure your hypothalamus”. So, if you’re looking for an easy way to quit the junk food and try a low-variety diet that’s unlikely to injure your hypothalamus, I recommend MealSquares as worth a look.

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90 days ago
Boil 'em, mash 'em...

Lipstick for your other lips: Meet the man who wants you to glue your vagina shut

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Alex Casey interviews Doctor Dan Dopps, creator of a new vaginal adhesive that hopes to seal the menstrual product deal … literally. 

Bleeders, palm off your pads, trash your tampons and shoot your mooncup straight to the moon. There’s a brand new innovation in time-of-the-month technology called Mensez, a lipstick for your other set of lips that seals everything up down there like an Action Man when you are on your period, until you wee and all the blood evacuates somehow. Sorry, not sorry for the details – and a brief warning that things are going to get a lot more gnarly from here.

This menstruation innovation has been patented by Doctor Dan Dopps, a chiropractor in Wichita, Kansas. When someone first posted the Mensez website on our On the Rag Facebook page, I screamed and screamed and screamed until someone had to seal my mouth shut. Was it a joke? Would it actually work? Why a lipstick? Why us? Why anything?! I had to know more. I had to know everything. I had to … get on Skype with Dr Dan the Period Man himself.

I hope this isn’t too brash to begin, but is Mensez real or is this a Nathan For You hoax?

No, I am for real. Serious. I have a patent on this product and it is definitely for real.

As a woman who has the potential to use this product, can you give me the Shark Tank pitch?

It’s definitely serious and it’s about women. It’s not about me, it’s not about men, it’s about women and the issues that they have with their periods. It’s a tough subject to talk about, it’s taboo and a lot of women feel like men shouldn’t even be talking about it. It’s also an area in the modern world where there’s been no innovation in the last 80 years, you know? Nothing has changed.

[Editor’s note: Hello Mooncups in 2002, Hello Thinx Period Panties in 2008]

I am an innovator, a doctor and I like inventing. I came up with this idea and I think it’s very elegant. It’s going to work and it’s going to be so good for women. It’s not a glue, like so many have been saying. The labia is covered with a mucus membrane and they normally stick together a little bit. All we’re doing is enhancing that attraction so they cling together tight enough to retain the menstrual fluid inside the vagina, in the same place in a vagina that a tampon would be.

Obviously, you are a man of medicine so I feel like I can say this… I just feel like I would want the STRONGEST of glues if I am just going to just freestyle with nothing in there on my period.

Right. Well, it’s strong enough to do what we need but it’s not a superglue many women are afraid of that concept. Like you are saying you want to be secure, and I know that’s a big issue, but it’s not a superglue. The unique thing is that this glue does not react with blood, or sweat or perspiration, it only reacts with urine. When it gets wet with urine, it dissolves.

What if I do a little wee by accident? Am I going to be in big trouble?

You could be. On certain days, it may be a bad thing and it may not be an answer, just like tampons aren’t an answer for all women either. A girl will just have to test it and see if it works for her. Hopefully it will, I’m sure there will be lighter days where it will work just fine.

mfw do a little wee whilst wearing mensez

How are you so confident that this is going work?

Because of my background in chemistry, I’ve tested a lot of things not on women, because we’re not in clinical trials of any kind  I am confident the concept is there. It will take some product development beyond this point, but I was confident enough that the chemistry was going to work that I spent five years and a lot of money to get it patented.

Five years is no joke.

No joke, the patent office wasn’t going to give it to me because they were sure that it had been done before. They searched the world over for five years and found absolutely nothing like this. It is a unique idea. It’s really hard for women, being so used to the status quo, to even take this seriously because of the implications for them. The implications will be very good.

Some inspiration courtesy of the Mensez official website

How does a chiropractor get into the realms of menstrual innovation?

In my college education, I had OBGYN courses and I passed the national board exams. Even though I don’t practice, I know the anatomy and the physiology of female reproduction. I also have a next door neighbour who got Toxic Shock Syndrome from tampons and lost both her legs and seven of her fingers. Knowing her over the years, it’s always been in the back of my mind: why doesn’t someone innovate something new for women? To people who would say that this isn’t part of my specialty everyone knows that innovation comes from thinking outside of the box.

Or inside the box, as it were.

That truly is one of the reasons I believe that nothing has been done. Doctors have been taught to stay in their little corner and so they aren’t doing anything about it. It’s like you, you are a reporter but you might be a really good cook too.

I’m not, but I appreciate the thought.

Everyone has other talents outside of their job, you know?

Very true. Where did you get the idea to put the product inside a lovely lipstick for a lady?

Well, my patent covers different methods of application. It could be a spray or a cream, but I think a lipstick is familiar to women. They know how to use it, they know what it is and it’s about the right consistency of the compound we are proposing to use. It could be in a powder or it could be applied by a mini-panty liner where it would transfer on. But the idea of a lipstick just fits perfectly: it’s just sticking the lips together.

we women love lippy + elegance

I have read that you think women waste 25% of their productivity on periods. That seems like a lot.

I didn’t really mean to say it that way. I just meant that it’s a distraction for women about 25% of the time. Their life just isn’t normal. I use the analogy of playing a football game, and in the fourth quarter of every game the woman is distracted and not playing as well as she could. You aren’t going to win all the games that way.

Let’s say this lipstick idea takes off and women use it and get our 25% focus back, what would you hope we do with the extra time?

Have fun. Be women. Don’t we all just want more time to do the things we love? I don’t mean this in a misogynistic way do you know I didn’t even know what that word meant until about a month ago when someone called me that? I am certainly doing this with women in mind, I won’t ever use it but I think I can help a lot of women.

Do you have volunteers lining up to test the product? How confident are you that they could wear white pants when they test this out?

Oh I’m totally confident. I would suggest when a woman first tries this that she wears some kind of liner for extra security. There are variations in anatomy that may not work for some women, and I’m sure it won’t work for everyone. You’ll just have to build your confidence with it. It’s a very small, concentrated amount of blood, it just looks like a whole bunch. I’ve had thousands of women emailing me saying they want to try it out. 

Where does Mensez go from here?

We’ve had a number of companies contact us, and we are trying to find a good fit. We want someone with the ability to produce it and bring it to market, someone with a good research and development lab. It’s probably going to take a few years from this point to get into consumer’s hands, but I think it will happen.

when mensez hits the shelves…

I read an interview where you mentioned this was just the latest in many patents you own. What else have you invented?

I have an invisible UV paint company, that’s kind of fun. It’s a paint that you spray on anything and it’s invisible until you shine a UV light on it. It’s a fun thing for kids and college students and Hollywood and Governments. I have a patent on a water bottle cap, and a patent on a resealable snack bag. Those are some of the recent ones. I just like innovating, that’s just what I do.

Have you thought about merging the resealable snack bag, the invisible UV paint and the vagina lipstick into one product?

No, I’ll think I’ll leave that one to you.

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116 days ago
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Dissecting Trump’s Most Rabid Online Following

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Editor’s note: The story below contains two slurs that appear in the names of subreddits. Links to Reddit may also contain offensive material.

President Donald Trump’s administration, in its turbulent first months, has drawn fire from both the left and the right, including the ACLU, government ethics accountability groups and former Bush administration officials. But one group has shown nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for the president’s actions thus far: the over 380,000 members of r/The_Donald, one of the thousands of comment boards on Reddit, the fifth-most-popular website in the U.S.

The subreddit, where posters refer to President Trump as the “God Emperor” and “daddy,” is arguably the epicenter of Trump fervor on the internet. Its membership has grown steadily since the 2016 presidential election, though its members were especially active during the campaign. They mobilized to comb through the hacked Democratic National Committee emails published on WikiLeaks and played a large role in spreading information and theories about those emails. More broadly, they waged the “Great Meme War”: an effort to get Trump elected by bombarding the internet with social-media-ready content promoting Trump or bashing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Some of those memes played on Clinton’s campaign gaffes, such as her use of the phrase “basket of deplorables,” while others involved an emerging pro-Trump iconography centered around images of Pepe the Frog — a cartoon character with a convoluted history that gained especial prominence after it was co-opted by white nationalists as a sort of unofficial mascot. Members of r/The_Donald like to say they “shitposted” Donald Trump into office; regardless of whether the flood of memes swung the election, it did overwhelm the front page of Reddit to such an extent that the site’s CEO rushed to deploy a change in Reddit’s algorithm that limits the influence of any single subreddit.

What can we say about the animating force behind r/The_Donald? For one, it’s not universal among Trump supporters; nearly 63 million Americans voted for Trump, and the 382,000 members of r/The_Donald represent less than 1 percent of that. But in the subreddit’s vocal and dedicated membership, you can find an influential strain of Trump boosterism. According to former staffers, the Trump campaign team monitored the subreddit for messages that resonated, and Trump himself participated in an “Ask Me Anything” on r/The_Donald in July. Since the election, the subreddit has continued to serve as a conduit through which fringe conspiracy theories — often started on sites like 4chan.org, a freewheeling image-based message board best known for creating memes, posting stolen celebrity nudes and birthing the hacker collective Anonymous — enter a larger online discourse. The most striking example has been “Pizzagate,” the false idea that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., is the center of a child-trafficking ring involving Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, which prompted a man from North Carolina to “self-investigate” the shop, where he fired a rifle several times and threatened an employee.

r/The_Donald has repeatedly been accused of offering a safe harbor where racists and white nationalists can congregate and express their views, much the same way that Trump’s campaign is said to have mobilized and emboldened those same groups. And indeed, r/The_Donald is home to some pretty vile comment threads. The subreddit’s moderators declined to talk to us about their community and accused FiveThirtyEight of being “fake news.” Regardless, we think there’s a way to get at the nature of r/The_Donald that is more rigorous than doing a quick scan of its comments (and certainly more objective than simply soliciting the opinions of the group’s fans and detractors).

We’ve adapted a technique that’s used in machine learning research — called latent semantic analysis — to characterize 50,323 active subreddits based on 1.4 billion comments posted from Jan. 1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2016, in a way that allows us to quantify how similar in essence one subreddit is to another. At its heart, the analysis is based on commenter overlap: Two subreddits are deemed more similar if many commenters have posted often to both. This also makes it possible to do what we call “subreddit algebra”: adding one subreddit to another and seeing if the result resembles some third subreddit, or subtracting out a component of one subreddit’s character and seeing what’s left. (There’s a detailed explanation of how this analysis works at the bottom of the article).

Here’s a simple example: Using our technique, you can add the primary subreddit for talking about the NBA (r/nba) to the main subreddit for the state of Minnesota (r/minnesota) and the closest result is r/timberwolves, the subreddit dedicated to Minnesota’s pro basketball team. Similarly, you can take r/nba and subtract r/sports, and the result is r/Sneakers, a subreddit dedicated to the sneaker culture that is a prominent non-sport component of NBA fandom.

This may all seem pretty abstract, but that same algebra can be applied to r/The_Donald. What happens when you break r/The_Donald up into subgroups using subreddit subtraction? What happens when you add unrelated subreddits to r/The_Donald? Before we get into those questions, let’s take a look at the subreddits that are most similar to r/The_Donald, according to our analysis:

r/Conservative and r/AskTrumpSupporters top the list, followed by r/HillaryForPrison, a subreddit that refers to Hillary Clinton by the pronoun “it” and notes in bold on the sidebar that “Putting It behind bars is fun!” After that it’s r/uncensorednews, a subreddit started by white nationalist moderators who found the existing, extremely popular r/news subreddit to be too liberal.

So does this mean that users who comment on r/The_Donald comment on r/Conservative more than any other subreddit? No. Eight percent of r/The_Donald’s users have also commented on r/Conservative, which is about one-fifth the size of r/The_Donald, and conversely, 51 percent of commenters on r/Conservative have commented on r/The_Donald. But the raw number of shared commenters isn’t very informative on its own because, for example, almost every subreddit will have a lot of overlap with big, really popular subreddits such as r/AskReddit, which has over 16 million members. Our analysis is a bit more subtle: We weight the overlaps in commenters according to, in essence, how surprising those overlaps are — that is, how much more two subreddits’ user bases overlap than we would expect them to based on chance alone. Since essentially every subreddit overlaps heavily with super popular groups like r/AskReddit, that result is no longer surprising and gets a lower weight. What rises to the top, then, are the more unlikely results that are characteristic of a specific subreddit rather than those that are common to Reddit as a whole. And by looking at these weighted commenter overlap rankings across thousands of subreddits, we built a profile for each subreddit that helps capture what defines the average commenter on each specific subreddit.

There’s nothing too revealing in that list above — all of those subreddits are explicitly pro-Trump, anti-Clinton or politically conservative. So let’s use subreddit algebra to dissect r/The_Donald into its constituent parts. What happens when you filter out commenters’ general interest in politics? To figure that out, we can subtract r/politics from r/The_Donald. The result most closely matches r/fatpeoplehate, a now-banned subreddit that was dedicated to ridiculing and bullying overweight people.

r/The_Donald r/politics =

1.r/fatpeoplehate0.275For sharing insults aimed at overweight people (now banned)

2.r/TheRedPill0.274Virulently misogynistic subreddit, nominally devoted to “sexual strategy”

3.r/Mr_Trump0.266Now-dormant subreddit formed during a moderator schism at r/The_Donald

4.r/coontown0.266Open and enthusiastic racism against black people (now banned)

5.r/4chan0.253Screenshots of 4chan.org posts

Subreddit algebra isn’t quite as simple as A – B = C. It’s more like A – B is closer to C than anything else, but it’s also pretty similar to D and not far off from E. So when you subtract r/politics from r/The_Donald, you actually get a list of every subreddit in our analysis, ranked in order of their similarity to the result of that subtraction. We’re showing just the top five.

And that top five isn’t exactly pretty, though it does support the theory that at least a subset of Trump’s supporters are motivated by racism. The presence of r/fatpeoplehate at the top of the list echoes some of President Trump’s own behavior, including his referring to 1996 Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Piggy” and insulting Rosie O’Donnell about her weight. The second-closest result, r/TheRedPill, describes itself in its sidebar as a place for “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men”; named after a scene from the “The Matrix,” the group believes that women run the world and men are an oppressed class, and from that belief springs an ideology that has been described as “the heart of modern misogyny.” r/Mr_Trump self-describes as “the #1 Alt-Right, most uncucked subreddit” — referring to a populist white-nationalist movement and an increasingly all-purpose insult meant to denigrate others’ masculinity — and the appallingly named r/coontown is the now-banned but previously central home to unrepentant racism on Reddit. Finally, coming in at No. 5 is r/4chan, a subreddit dedicated to posting screenshots of threads found on 4chan, where many users supported Trump for president and where the /pol/ board in particular has a strongly racist bent.

We dissected r/The_Donald in a bunch of other ways using subreddit algebra. Here are some of the more interesting results:

r/The_Donald r/conspiracy =

1.r/CFB0.269For college football discussion

2.r/nfl0.255For NFL discussion

3.r/TrumpMinnesota0.244Small subreddit for Trump supporters in Minnesota

r/The_Donald + r/europe =

1.r/european0.781Now-private subreddit that hosted racist and anti-Semitic commentary on European affairs

2.r/worldnews0.768Main subreddit for discussion of world affairs

3.r/syriancivilwar0.688For discussion of the conflict in Syria

r/The_Donald + r/Games =

1.r/KotakuInAction0.676Main hub of Gamergate discussion on Reddit

2.r/gaming0.619Largest general gaming subreddit

3.r/Cynicalbrit0.586Unofficial fanpage for the internet personality TotalBiscuit

So even adding innocuous subreddits, such as r/europe and r/Games, to r/The_Donald can result in something ugly or hate-based — r/european frequently hosts anti-Semitism and racism, while r/KotakuInAction is Reddit’s main home for the misogynistic Gamergate movement. Which raises a question: Are these hateful communities linked specifically to Trump’s supporters on Reddit, or are they common to politically active Reddit users in general? To get at that question, let’s try subtracting r/politics from r/conservative:

r/Conservative r/politics =

1.r/Mary0.265Subreddit for devotees of the biblical Mary

2.r/RCIA0.264For those considering converting to Catholicism (RCIA means “rite of Christian initiation for adults”)

3.r/ak470.241For discussing the AK-47 rifle

4.r/TelaIgne0.240A space where Catholic redditors pray for other redditors (the name is Latin for “web on fire”)

5.r/ChristianJewishRoots0.240For discussion of the relationship between Christian and Jewish theology

When we do this, we find that the top result is a subreddit dedicated to the glorification of a biblical Mary, and the other related subreddits are similarly focused on Christianity, except for r/ak47, which is dedicated to the famous rifle.

So what about the other 2016 presidential candidates? How does Trump’s Reddit following compare to that of Hillary Clinton or Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders (whose r/SandersForPresident subreddit still has over 215,000 members)? This analysis lets us take any subreddit and say how “Trump-ish” it is vs. how “Clinton-ish” or “Sanders-ish” it is. Here’s a selection of subreddits plotted on a three-way spectrum from r/The_Donald to r/SandersForPresident to r/hillaryclinton.

Subreddits dedicated to politics and news are smack in the middle. r/Feminism is on the Sanders/Clinton side of the spectrum, though slightly closer to Clinton, as is r/TheBluePill, a feminist parody of r/TheRedPill; r/BasicIncome (a subreddit advocating for a universal basic income) is also on the liberal side, though slightly closer to Sanders.

And all of those hate-based subreddits? They’re decidedly in r/The_Donald’s corner.

How does this work?

Latent semantic analysis (LSA) — the technique from natural language processing that we’ve adapted for this analysis — is often used to determine how related one book, article or speech is to another. The basic idea is that documents using similar words with similar frequency are probably closely related. But what about the words themselves? LSA also allows you to assess how similar words are by looking at the other words that show up around them. So, for example, two words that might rarely show up together (say “dog” and “cat”) but often have the same words nearby (such as “pet” and “vet”) are deemed closely related. The way this works is that every word in, say, a book is assigned a value based on its co-occurrence with every other word in that book, and the result is a set of vectors — one for each word — that can be compared numerically. On a very technical level, the way you determine how similar two words like “dog” and “cat” are is by looking at the angle between their two vectors (there’s a visual guide to understanding these concepts below).

Vectors are interesting because they can be enormous, multidimensional things that contain a huge amount of information — but you can still use them to do grade-school arithmetic. When machine-learning researchers at Google tried adding word vectors together or subtracting one from another, they discovered semantically meaningful relationships. For example, if you take the vector for “king,” subtract the vector for “man” and add the vector for “woman,” the closest result is the vector for “queen.” Slightly more subtle relationships were also exposed: e.g. “Rome” plus “Germany” equals “Berlin.” It turned out to be a very powerful way of analyzing language. Here, we are also using co-occurrence to try to uncover the nature of different subreddits and their relationships to one another.

The idea of co-occurrence is clear when we’re talking about words, but what does it mean for subreddits? We found relationships by looking at how many commenters various subreddits have in common — that’s our measure of co-occurrence. Here’s a simplified example of how this works:

Let’s say we want to see how subreddits in the world of health and exercise are related to one another. To do that, we can plot every subreddit in terms of two key subreddits — r/nutrition and r/Outdoors

Let’s start with r/running. That subreddit has, let’s say, one commenter who has also commented in r/nutrition and three who have also commented in r/Outdoors. So we give it a vector of [1,3]

Now let’s add two more subreddits: r/weightlifting and r/Fitness. r/weightlifting has three commenters in common with r/nutrition and one with r/Outdoors, and r/Fitness has four and three, respectively.

Now we can do some addition by combining the vectors. If we add r/weightlifting to r/running, we get a third vector that looks similar to r/Fitness. The angle between the two gives us a measure of just how similar.

So instead of (King – Man) + Woman = Queen, you get Running + Weightlifting = Fitness.

For over 50,000 subreddits that span a huge range of topics, it gets a bit more complicated. Instead of characterizing all of them in terms of just two subreddits — like r/Outdoors and r/nutrition above — we ranked all of the subreddits by the number of unique commenters and then pulled out the 2,133 subreddits whose unique commenter rank was between 200 and 2,201 (there are some ties). We used this subset of subreddits to characterize all active subreddits. We then combined all the resulting subreddit vectors into a big matrix with 50,323 rows and 2,133 columns and converted the raw co-occurrences to positive pointwise mutual information values. Similarity between subreddits is based on the cosine similarity of their vectors — a measure of the angle between them. To perform subreddit algebra, subreddit vectors are added and subtracted using standard linear algebra, and then the cosine similarities are calculated to rank subreddits by their similarity to the combination.

Are we sure this is meaningful?

To test our analysis, we looked at some cases of subreddit algebra where the results should be obvious — like the example above where adding r/nba to r/minnesota should (and does) yield r/timberwolves as the best fit. Other combinations of a sport and a location similarly result in location-specific discussions of that sport.

We also looked at a test case involving a harder-to-see relationship. If you take the subreddit for managing money and investing, r/personalfinance, and subtract the subreddit for frugality, r/Frugal, the resulting most similar subreddit is r/wallstreetbets, a subreddit about taking extreme risks in the stock market.

The data and code behind this analysis

The Reddit comments data is from a collection hosted on Google’s BigQuery of 1.4 billion comments from January 2015 to December 2016. The analysis itself was done in R. You can find the code here.

Development by Justin McCraw

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125 days ago
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Perineal agriculture?

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Jack Maloney sent in a link to a talk at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute about "Plant Soil Microbiomes in Perineal Agriculture":

Switching from an annual agriculture system to a perineal agriculture system that most closely resembles natural prairies will include changes to the way we manage soil, the lifespan of the plants, and the diversity of the crops there. KU Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ben Sikes will talk about how each of these changes will influence diseases and the beneficial partners that live in the soil.

Presumably "perineal" in this context is a Cupertino for "perennial". Jack's comment:

'Perineal agriculture': not a subject I even want to think about, much less attend a lecture about!

The obligatory screenshot:

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171 days ago
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Book Review: Eichmann In Jerusalem

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[Content warning: Holocaust. This is a complicated and emotional subject and I make no claims to know much more than what I read in the book, which I may not even be getting right.]


For Holocaust Remembrance Day last week I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem (h/t Ben Hoffman).

Adolf Eichmann organized the logistics of the Holocaust – helped get Jews into trains, helped get the trains to the right concentration camps. When Germany lost the war, he escaped to Argentina and lived under a fake name. The newly-formed state of Israel hunted him down, and in 1960 they kidnapped him and put him on trial in Jerusalem.

The Nuremberg Trials were led by an Allied force that wanted to stress that the Nazis committed crimes against humanity. Eichmann’s trial was the first time Jews themselves tried a high-ranking Nazi for his crimes against Jews in particular. Israeli PM David Ben-Gurion wanted (and got) a show trial. Not in the sense of justice not being done (everyone agreed Eichmann was guilty), but in the sense of highlighting the horrors of the Holocaust to the world.

He also wanted to make sure everyone learned the right political lessons:

The Jews in the Diaspora were to remember how Judaism, “four thousand years old and with its spiritual creations and its ethical strivings, its Messianic aspirations,” had always faced “a hostile world”, how the Jews had degenerated until they went to their death like sheep, and how only the establishment of a Jewish state had enabled Jews to hit back, as Israelis had done in the War of Independence, in the Suez adventure, and in the almost daily incidents on Israel’s unhappy borders…[The] Jews outside Israel had to be shown the difference between Israeli heroism and Jewish submissive meekness.

Needless to say, “went to their death like sheep” is not a phrase I remember hearing at the National Holocaust Museum in DC. Actually, there were a lot of weird, surprising, and disturbing things that Arendt recorded in her study of Eichmann’s trial. I found five particularly interesting: Eichmann’s psychological profile, the Nazis’ early pre-war plans for the Jews, the wide German-occupied nations did or didn’t resist genocide demands, the politics around the “degenerate sheep” claim, and the discussion of why more Germans didn’t protest. I want to discuss all of these, then finish with whether this has any relevance for today’s political climate.


Arendt’s psychological profile of Eichmann is most famous for coining the phrase “banality of evil”. Eichmann was neither a charming psychopath nor a blustering villain. As per Arendt:

Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain, in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused so many millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed. What could you do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath (“Today no man, no judge could ever persuade me to make a sworn statement. I refuse it; I refuse it for moral reasons. Since my experience tells me that if one is loyal to his oath, one day he has to take the consequences, I have made up my mind once and for all that no judge in the world or other authority will ever be capable of making me swear an oath, to give sworn testimony. I won’t do it voluntarily and no one will be able to force me”), and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he might “do so under oath or without an oath,” declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath?

Eichmann’s attorney, a somewhat incompetent German man named Dr. Servatius, instructed him to plead innocent. Eichmann could have taken this advice and tried to save his skin. Or he could have taken the high road and confessed his guilt. He chose to do neither:

To each count Eichmann pleaded: “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” In what sense then did he think he was guilty?…”With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew for that matter – I never killed any human being…I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non-Jew”…or, as he was later to qualify this statement, “It so happened…that I had not once to do it” – for he left no doubt that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect. Hence he repeated over and over…that he could only be accused of “aiding and abetting” the annhilation of the Jews, which he declared in Jerusalem to have been “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity” […]

Would he then have pleaded guilty if he had been indicted as an accessory to murder? Perhaps, but he would have made important qualifications…He did not want to be one of those who now pretended that “they had always been against it”, whereas in fact they had been very eager to do what they were told to do. However, times change, and he, like Professor Maunz, had “arived at different insights”. What he had done he had done, he did not want to deny it; rather, he proposed “to hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth”. By this he did not mean to say that he regretted anything: “Repentance is for little children.” (sic) […]

Throughout the trial, Eichmann tried to clarify, mostly without success, this second point in his plea of “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” The indictment implied not only that he had acted on purpose, which he did not deny, but out of base motives and in full knowledge of the criminal nature of his deeds. As for the base motives, he was perfectly sure that he was not what he called an innerer Schweinehund, a dirty bastard in the depths of his heart; and as for his conscience, he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to to – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care. This, admittedly, was hard to take. Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal” – “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed.

Go ahead and try to parse all of that into a coherent worldview. Was he regretful? Was he proud? Was he anti-Semitic? Was he just following orders? I don’t think anyone at the trial ever got a good feel for this. I certainly didn’t. Arendt isn’t sure there’s anything there to figure out:

The judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” – except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

But if she has any thesis at all, it’s that Eichmann believed in something larger than himself. We usually encourage this sort of thing, but I think the prosocial version involves having a specific larger-than-yourself thing in mind. Eichmann (says Arendt) just liked larger-than-himself things in general, and the Nazi vision of eternal struggle for racial supremacy was the largest thing he could find. We’ll later see that he had a strange respect for Zionists, and this was because they too believed in something larger than themselves. Eichmann’s infamous cliches were the cliches of pomp and circumstance and glory and high words, the ones which made him feel like he was engaged in a great enterprise whether or not there was anything behind them. The reason he admitted neither to “just following orders” nor to a deep personal belief in anti-Semitism was that his loyalty to Hitler came from neither. When Hitler said to kill all the Jews, he gladly complied; if Hitler had said to kill all the Christians, he would have done that too. Not because he was a drone following orders to save his skin, but because he believed. Not in anti-Semitism, not even in Hitler, but in whatever was going on at the time.

And so when Eichmann’s direct superior Himmler betrayed Hitler (more on this later) and ordered Eichmann to stop the exterminations, Eichmann – finally – refused an order. Himmler’s betrayal seemed petty; Hitler’s vision seemed grand. And so:

The sad and very uncomfortable truth of the matter probably was that it was not his fanaticism but his very conscience that prompted Eichmann to adopt his uncompromising attitude during the last year of the war…Eichmann’s position, therefore, showed a most unpleasant resemblance to that of the often-cited soldier who, acting in a normal legal framework, refuses to carry out orders that run counter to his
ordinary experience of lawfulness and hence can be recognized by him as criminal.

But with Hitler dead and the war lost, the grandest gesture Eichmann can think of is to try to become a public martyr to edify future generations. So he tried that too.

Even understanding this, there’s another set of mysteries. Eichmann would get so many facts wrong in his testimonies that everyone would figure he was lying; then, without even being asked, he would confess to much worse sins than any of the ones he had denied (a big part of the prosecution’s case rested on Eichmann volunteering the information that he went into concentration camps a few times and saw exactly what happened there, something which otherwise would have been hard to prove and might have left space for an “I didn’t know how bad it was” defense). And he would talk obsessively about his failure to get promoted quickly enough through the Nazi hierarchy, clearly expecting his Israeli audience to sympathize with him:

What makes these pages of the examination so funny is that all this was told in the tone of someone who was sure of finding “normal, human” sympathy for a hard-luck story. “Whatever I prepared and planned, everything went wrong, my personal affairs as well as my years-long efforts to obtain land and soil for the Jews. I don’t know, everything was as if under an evil spell; whatever I desired and wanted and planned to do, fate prevented it somehow. I was frustrated in everything, no matter what.” When Captain Less asked his opinion on some damning and possibly lying evidence given by a former colonel of the S.S., he exclaimed, suddenly stuttering with rage: “I am very much surprised that this man could ever have been an S.S. Standartenführer, that surprises me very much indeed. It is altogether, altogether unthinkable. I don’t know what to say.” He never said these things in a spirit of defiance, as though he wanted, even now, to defend the standards by which he had lived in the past. The very words “S.S.,” or “career,” or “Himmler” (whom he always called by his long official title: Reichsführer S.S. and Chief of the German Police, although he by no means admired him) triggered in him a mechanism that had become completely unalterable. The presence of Captain Less, a Jew from Germany and unlikely in any case to think that members of the S.S. advanced in their careers through the exercise of high moral qualities, did not for a moment throw this mechanism out of gear

What should we make of this? Arendt described Eichmann as having an “almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view”, and this seems right. For him, self-absorbed as he was, the story of World War II was the story of him doing a pretty competent job of Jew-killing but not getting the recognition he deserved from his superiors. He was unable to understand that other people might have a different perspective, or that Israeli Holocaust survivors wouldn’t find his story about unfairness in Himmler’s HR department as moving as he did.

This might explain his pattern of omissions and confessions. He was omitting things that seemed bad to him – tied into his obsessions or made him look like a worse bureaucrat. But he didn’t have enough ability to model his Israeli interlocutors to know that “knew what happened at concentration camps” would seem bad to them, or else he didn’t even realize that “seems bad to the Israelis” was a thing.

This reminds me of my theory that some people are just born without certain cogs in their brain, and especially without theory of mind. Eichmann’s theory of mind was just totally absent. He expected the Jews he deported to be thankful to him for all the hard work he was putting in! The only way I can imagine that working is if Eichmann found his 9-5 job tiring and was so fantastically self-centered that he expected the Jews to see it exactly the same way he did (“Oh, look at that poor Eichmann working so hard to deal with us”). There are interesting implications here – that some level of theory of mind is necessary for basic consistency (ie realizing that other people will stop liking you if you’re inconsistent) and possibly for basic humanity (in order to not want to send people to concentration camps, you have to realize that they have their own thoughts and feelings about it separate from yours).

I should emphasize that some more recent scholars have dissented from Arendt at this point, saying that Eichmann’s apparent dullness and inconsistency was a careful ruse put on to fool his jailers. I don’t know nearly enough history to comment on this one way or the other. But in his last moments on Earth, he died as he lived – saying some faux-profound stock phrases without realizing how weird he sounded:

Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity…He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself. Nothing could have demonstrated this more convincingly than the grotesque silliness of his last words. He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläubiger, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.” In the face of death, he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows, his memory played him the last trick; he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us-the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.


I had always interpreted “the Final Solution” to mean “the solution that will last forever”. Arendt (and I don’t know if she’s right about this) interprets it to mean “the last of many solutions to be tried”. She discusses the failed First Solution and Second Solution as preludes for the eventual genocide.

The First Solution was emigration. In the early days of the movement, the Nazis seemed to sincerely believe that they could deal with the Jews just by expelling them from Germany and letting other countries take care of them, no killing necessary. I don’t want to let this sound like the Nazis started out okay – Hitler had supported killing the Jews in principle as early as the publication of Mein Kampf in 1925. But for his first few years in power, he distanced himself from his previous positions and accepted emigration as a practical compromise.

When the Nazis first decided to expel the Jews, Eichmann was working as a low-level vacuum salesman in Vienna. He got his big break when he signed up for a job with the Party trying to get Jews to emigrate. This was tough work – many Jews didn’t want to emigrate, and the ones who did needed more paperwork than the German bureaucracy could easily provide. Eichmann displayed some early talent at cutting red tape and figuring out ways to connect Jews who wanted to leave with bureaucrats who wanted to let them, and he rose through the ranks until he was in charge of Jewish emigration from Vienna.

At this point a friend suggested he read Theodor Herzl’s book on Zionism, and Eichmann, bizarrely, fell in love. Arendt says, apparently in earnest, that it “seems to have been the first serious book he ever read” and that “it made a lasting impression on him”:

It may be worth mentioning that, as late as 1939, he seems to have protested against desecrators of Herzl’s grave in Vienna, and there are reports of his presence in civilian clothes at the commemoration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of Herzl’s death…he began spreading the gospel among his SS comrades, giving lectures and writing pamphlets. He acquired a smattering of Hebrew, which enabled him to read haltingly a Yiddish newspaper – not a very difficult accomplishment, since Yiddish, basically an old German dialect written in Hebrew letters, can be understood by any German-speaking person who has mastered a few dozen Hebrew words. He even read one more book, Adolf Bohm’s History of Zionism, and this was perhaps a considerable achievement for a man who by his own account had always been utterly reluctant to read anything except newspapers.

Eichmann seemed weirdly in earnest about all of this, but it was also good for his job – he met with Zionist Jews and even went to Palestine once to meet with the Zionist movement there. As he never tired of pointing out at his trial, Austrian Jewish immigration to Israel was a win-win – it made the Jews happy because they were going to their homeland, and it made the Nazis happy because the Jews were leaving Austria. When he related his self-perception as a basically decent person, he always stressed that this was his idea, and he was a win-win sort of person who had been unfairly transferred to the sending-people-in-boxcars-to-concentration-camps department against his will.

The work was not nearly as win-win as Eichmann liked to think; for example, the Nazis confiscated all of the Jews’ property as the “price” of providing them with the necessary documents. When poor Jews without any property showed up to emigrate, they started shaking down the rich Jews and making them pay extra to help their poorer co-religionists. Finally this turned into outright blackmail, telling Jews in the Diaspora to give the Nazi bureaucracy blood money, or else. In any case, it worked on a tremendous scale – a hundred fifty thousand Jews left Austria during his eighteen months in the business.

What eventually happened we all know too well. Other countries started closing their doors and refusing to accept Jewish refugees. Despite hearing this story a hundred times, the version in Eichmann in Jerusalem was new to me. I had always thought of countries as closing their gates to a few prescient people trying to flee Nazi Germany on their own, or to a few stragglers who managed to escape. The truth is much greater in scale: the Nazis were perfectly willing to let every single Jew in Europe leave, they even had entire bureaucracies pushing for it and trying to make it as easy as possible – and the rest of the world wouldn’t let it happen. The blood on the hands of the people who wouldn’t let them in is not just that of a few escapees, but the entire six million.

When emigration stopped working, the Nazis turned to the Second Solution – resettlement. Arendt doesn’t think the plan to move all the Jews to Madagascar was ever taken seriously at the highest level, but for a while it was something like official policy. The only problems were that the Nazis didn’t technically own Madagascar, that they didn’t have nearly enough ships to transport six million people, and that all the water in between was controlled by British warships intent on sinking any Germans they could find. The send-the-Jews-to-Madagascar plan seemed to be a loose alliance of high-level leadership looking for a cover story while they prepared for genocide, with very stupid people who liked bad ideas. No guessing which group Eichmann was in.

(Actually, Eichmann got super-confused and apparently thought Madagascar was the same place as Uganda, which Herzl had mentioned as a possible Jewish homeland if Israel was unavailable. He announced the good news to some of his Jewish contacts, who gave him a remedial lesson in African geography.)

There was a slightly more serious proposal to create a Jewish homeland in Radom District, Poland (note that “Jewish homeland” meant basically a country-sized prison, not a self-governing Jewish state.) This had the advantages of the Nazis actually controlling Poland and of decent transportation that meant they probably could have brought all the Jews there if they had wanted. It failed because some overly enthusiastic Nazis just sent a trainload of thousands of Jews there without informing the Governor of Poland, and he got confused and angry, plus a lot of the Jews escaped.

Then some people briefly tried to turn the Czech city of Theresienstadt into a Jewish territory, but it was really small and eventually it just ended up as a slightly-less-murderous-than-usual concentration camp.


Arendt interrupts the story of Eichmann for a long and fascinating digression about which European nations did or didn’t protect their Jews.

Remember that most nations of Central and Eastern Europe were occupied by or allied with Germany during this period. The Nazis made it clear that deporting their Jews to the concentration camps in Nazi territory was a condition for continued good relations; a serious threat, when bad relations could turn a protectorate-type situation into an outright invasion and occupation.

Pride of place goes to Denmark and Bulgaria, both of which resisted all Nazi demands despite the Germans having almost complete power over them. Most people have heard the legend of how, when the Germans ordered that all Jews must wear gold stars, the King of Denmark said he would wear one too. These kinds of actions weren’t just symbolic; without cooperation from the Gentile population and common knowledge of who was or wasn’t Jewish, the Nazis had no good way to round people up for concentration camps. Nothing happened until 1943, when Himmler became so annoyed that he sent his personal agent Rolf Gunther to clean things up. Gunther tried hard but found the going impossible. Danish police refused to go door-to-door rounding up Jews, and when Gunther imported police from Germany, the Danes told them that they couldn’t break into apartments or else they would arrest them for breaking and entering. Then the Danish police tipped off Danish Jews not to open their doors to knocks since those might be German police. When it became clear that the Nazis weren’t going to accept any more delays, Danish fishermen offered to ferry Jews to neutral Sweden for free. In the end the Nazis only got a few hundred Danish Jews, and the Danish government made such a “fuss” (Arendt’s word) about them that the Nazis agreed to send them all to Theresienstadt, their less-murderous-than-usual camp, and let Red Cross observers in to make sure they were treated well. In the end, only 48 Danish Jews died in the entire Holocaust.

Bulgaria’s resistance was less immediately heroic, and looked less like the king proudly proclaiming his identity with oppressed people everywhere than with the whole government just dragging their feet so long that nothing got done. Eichmann sent an agent named Theodor Dannecker to get them moving, but as per Arendt:

not until about six months later did they take the first step in the direction of “radical” measures – the introduction of the Jewish badge. For the Nazis, even this turned out to be a great disappointment. In the first place, as they dutifully reported, the badge was only a “very little star”; second, most Jews simply did not wear it; and, third, those who did wear it received “so many manifestations of sympathy from the misled population that they actually are proud of their sign” – as Walter Schellenberg, Chief of Counterintelligence in the R.S.H.A., wrote in an S.D. report transmitted to the Foreign Office in November, 1942. Whereupon the Bulgarian government revoked the decree. Under great German pressure, the Bulgarian government finally decided to expel all Jews from Sofia to rural areas, but this measure was definitely not what the Germans demanded, since it dispersed the Jews instead of concentrating them.

The Bulgarians continued their policy of vaguely agreeing in principle to Nazi demands and then doing nothing, all the way until the Russians invaded and the time of danger was over. The result was that not a single Bulgarian Jew died in the Holocaust.

Surprisingly given the bad associations I have with the word “fascist”, Mussolini’s Italy may win third prize in the Righteous Among The Nations stakes. Arendt describes it as “sabotaging” the Final Solution within its borders despite nominal alliance with Germany:

The gentlemen of the Foreign Office could not do much about it, because they always met the same subtly veiled resistance, the same promises and the same failures to fulfill them. The sabotage was all the more infuriating as it was carried out openly, in an almost mocking manner. The promises were given by Mussolini himself or other high-ranking officials, and if the generals simply failed to fulfill them, Mussolini would make excuses for them on the ground of their “different intellectual formation”. Only occasionally would the Nazis be met with a flat refusal, as when General Roatta declared that it was “incompatible with the honor of the Italian Army” to deliver the Jews from Italian-occupied territory in Yugoslavia to the appropriate German authorities.

An element of farce had never been lacking even in Italy’s most serious efforts to adjust to its powerful friend and ally. When Mussolini, under German pressure, introduced anti-Jewish legislation in the late thirties he stipulated the usual exemptions – war veterans, Jews with high decorations, and the like – but he added one more category, namely, former members of the Fascist Party, together with their parents and grandparents, their wives and children and grandchildren. I know of no statistics relating to this matter, but the result must have been that the great majority of Italian Jews were exempted. There can hardly have been a Jewish family without at least one member in the Fascist Party, for this happened at a time when Jews, like other Italians, had been flocking for almost twenty years into the Fascist movement, since positions in the Civil Service were open only to members. And the few Jews who had objected to Fascism on principle, Socialists and Communists chiefly, were no longer in the country. Even convinced Italian anti-Semites seemed unable to take the thing seriously, and Roberto Farinacci, head of the Italian anti-Semitic movement, had a Jewish secretary in his employ…

What in Denmark was the result of an authentically political sense, an inbred comprehension of the requirements and responsibilities of citizenship and independence – “for the Danes . . . the Jewish question was a political and not a humanitarian question” (Leni Yahil) – was in Italy the outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.

Less happy is the story of France. The Germans realized that the Vichy French were attached to assimilated French Jews, so they started by demanding only those foreign Jews who had come to France as refugees. There were a hundred thousand of these, and Marshal Petain of France said that they had “always been a problem” and he was glad to have “an opportunity to get rid of them” (in his defense, he was under the impression that Jews sent to Germany would be “resettled in the East”). After this had been going on for a while, Eichmann figured that the French were on his side, and asked for permission to take the native French Jews as well. The French, having sent tens of thousands of stateless Jews to the concentration camps, were suddenly outraged that the Nazis would dare lift a finger against French Jews, and shut down the entire deportation program. I am sure the French count this as a moral victory nowadays, though it’s a very selective sort of morality.

Last place goes to Romania, which had been anti-Semitic since the beginning of time and was genuinely excited to have Nazi orders as an excuse to carry out their own worse impulses:

In Rumania even the S.S. were taken aback, and occasionally frightened, by the horrors of oldfashioned, spontaneous pogroms on a gigantic scale; they often intervened to save Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.

The Romanians started their own concentration camps to supplement the Nazi’s, “more elaborate and atrocious affairs than anything we know of in Germany”, but they didn’t always need them – “deportation Rumanian style consisted in herding five thousand people into freight cars and letting them die there of suffocation while the train traveled through the countryside without plan or aim for days on end; a favorite followup to these killing operations was to expose the corpses in Jewish butcher shops.” Things became so bad that Nazi emissary Manfred von Killinger, intervened and asked them to stop and defer to German efforts. I feel like when a Nazi named Commander von Killinger is horrified by your brutality, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether you may have crossed a line.

Other interesting profiles include Greece (hopelessly depressing), Slovakia (very Catholic, in favor of killing Jews but got in a bunch of fights with the Nazis about ethnic Jews who had been baptized into Catholicism), Hungary (ruled by an Admiral despite being landlocked; otherwise hopelessly depressing), Belgium (deliberately left the trains unlocked so the Jews could escape!), Holland (kind of like France; the local Gentiles tried to help, but the assimilated Jews sold out the refugee Jews in the hope of placating the Nazis; the Nazis were not placated; three-quarters of Jews died), and Poland (I don’t even want to talk about how hopelessly depressing this one is).


The Israeli authorities conducting the trial had an uncomfortable tendency to return to the idea of the European Jews as complicit in their own destruction.

The Nazis ordered Jewish communities to organize into Judenrate (“Jewish councils”) which could tabulate the number of Jews in their community, help confiscate property, and choose who would go first to the camps. Cooperation was ensured by a combination of special treatment for community leaders and threats of collective punishment if they didn’t comply. The special treatment turned out to be a sham (if the leaders were lucky, they were killed last); the collective punishment was all too real.

The community leaders thought they were negotiating themselves into a position where they would be better organized and could help delay the Nazis and steer them away from the most vulnerable parts of their community, mitigating the damage. This almost never happened; in the rare cases where it did, it was almost never worth it. Thousands of people were subjected to the sorts of heart-wrenching ethical dilemmas usually found only in philosophy lectures involving trolleys.

The greatest “idealist” Eichmann ever encountered among the Jews was Dr. Rudolf Kastner, with whom he negotiated during the Jewish deportations from Hungary and with whom he came to an agreement that he, Eichmann, would permit the “illegal” departure of a few thousand Jews to Palestine (the trains were in fact guarded by German police) in exchange for “quiet and order” in the camps from which hundreds of thousands were shipped to Auschwitz….Dr. Kastner saved exactly 1,684 people with approximately 476,000 victims.

By Arendt’s telling, sometimes the councils went beyond merely doing what was necessary for survival:

In Amsterdam as in Warsaw, in Berlin as in Budapest, Jewish officials could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination, to keep track of vacated apartments, to supply police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains, until, as a last gesture, they handed over the assets of the Jewish community in good order for final confiscation. They distributed the Yellow Star badges, and sometimes, as in Warsaw, “the sale of the armbands became a regular business; there were ordinary armbands of cloth and fancy plastic armbands which were washable.” In the Nazi-inspired, but not Nazi-dictated, manifestoes they issued, we still can sense how they enjoyed their new power – “The Central Jewish Council has been granted the right of absolute disposal over all Jewish spiritual and material wealth and over all Jewish manpower,” as the first announcement of the Budapest Council phrased it. We know how the Jewish officials felt when they became instruments of murder – like captains “whose ships were about to sink and who succeeded in bringing them safe to port by casting overboard a great part of their precious cargo”; like saviors who “with a hundred victims save a thousand people, with a thousand ten thousand.

This turned out to be important. Arendt gives the case of Belgium, where most of the Jews were a hodgepodge of refugees and most of the elders fled early. The Belgian Jews’ lack of organization didn’t hurt them; it just made them impossible to organize for deportation and extermination, and so more of them survived than in other comparable areas. And:

Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The
whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people. According to Freudiger’s calculations about half of them could have saved themselves if they had not followed the instructions of the Jewish Councils.

As comfortable as it would be to forget about all of this, the Israeli government had the opposite incentive. Their goal wasn’t just to broadcast the horrors of the Holocaust. It was to send the message that Jews who believed they were safe among Gentiles were fools, and Jews who wanted to negotiate and concede points in their conflicts with Gentiles were collaborators.

I was struck by Arendt’s psychological profile of the Israeli leadership. The year in 1960. David ben Gurion is seventy-four, near the end of a long life of military struggle. The Israeli leadership is still very much of the generation that survived World War II, the Israeli War of Independence, and the Holocaust. But they’re starting to realize that this will not always be true. The younger generation just attaining voting age doesn’t remember the Holocaust at all. Everyone knows their history, but not everybody knows it. And the people, maybe new immigrants from America, who didn’t go through the Holocaust, they start asking – do we really need a purely Jewish nation? Do we really have to be so hostile and suspicious of Gentiles all the time? Does the country have to be quite so heavily militarized? Maybe we should just be a normal peaceful friendly member of the community of nations a bit more?

And as Arendt tells it, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues felt like they had this driving duty to communicate the incommunicable truth that this was not going to work. They felt like this was an endlessly seductive position, that maybe they had been seduced by it themselves when they were younger, but that bitter experience had taught them that had to be rejected utterly. If they dwelt on the failures of the Jewish Councils of Europe a little too long, if maybe they were a little unfair to people who had lost in lose-lose ethical dilemmas, it was because they didn’t know how else to tell younger Jews not to let themselves be those people. I guess the active construction of a cultural payload of reflexive resistance bordering on paranoia, capable of being handed down to younger generations, helps explain a lot about Israeli history.


Arendt dwells on the obvious question: why didn’t people refuse?

She had already given part of the answer. Some people did refuse. The entire populations of Denmark and Bulgaria. Most of Italy. France, eventually, with prodding. Shouldn’t Germany have been filled with some of the same people?

She says no. At every point, she stressed how little genuine opposition Hitler had. It wasn’t just the Nazis’ 90+% approval rating. It was that even the people who hated the Nazis, loathed the Nazis, generally didn’t mention the Jewish genocide. Even the conspirators in the von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler were mostly angry that he was a bad commander and was probably going to lose. This opinion was at least within the Nazi Overton Window. That they should resist the Holocaust seems to barely have occurred to them.

One of the creepiest passages in the book described the Wahnsee Conference. Hitler and Himmler and a few other highers-up had decided on the Final Solution; a policy change from forced emigration to extermination. They wanted to inform the civil service of their decision, but they expected trouble:

The problem was much more acute, however, with respect to the higher career men in the Civil Service, directly under the Ministers, for these men, the backbone of every government administration, were not easily replaceable, and Hitler had tolerated them, just as Adenauer was to tolerate them, unless they were compromised beyond salvation. Hence the undersecretaries and the legal and other experts in the various Ministries were frequently not even Party members, and Heydrich’s apprehensions about whether he would be able to enlist the active help of these people in mass murder were quite comprehensible. As Eichmann put it, Heydrich “expected the greatest difficulties.” Well, he could not have been more wrong.

The aim of the conference was to coordinate all efforts toward the implementation of the Final Solution. The discussion turned first on “complicated legal questions,” such as the treatment of half- and quarter-Jews – should they be killed or only sterilized? This was followed by a frank discussion of the “various types of possible solutions to the problem,” which meant the various methods of killing, and here, too, there was more than “happy agreement on the part of the participants”; the Final Solution was greeted with “extraordinary enthusiasm” by all present, and particularly by Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, Undersecretary in the Ministry of the Interior, who was known to be rather reticent and hesitant in the face of “radical” Party measures, and was, according to Dr. Hans Globke’s testimony at Nuremberg, a staunch supporter of the Law. There were certain difficulties, however. Undersecretary Josef Bühler, second in command in the General Government in Poland, was dismayed at the prospect that Jews would be evacuated from the West to the East, because this meant more Jews in Poland, and he proposed that these evacuations be postponed and that “the Final Solution be started in the General Government, where no problems of transport existed.” The gentlemen from the Foreign Office appeared with their own carefully elaborated memorandum, expressing “the desires and ideas of the Foreign Office with respect to the total solution of the Jewish question in Europe,” to which nobody paid much attention. The main point, as Eichmann rightly noted, was that the members of the various branches of the Civil Service did not merely express opinions but made concrete propositions. The meeting lasted no more than an hour or an hour and a half, after which drinks were served and everybody had lunch – “a cozy little social gathering.”

There were occasional protests about killing Jews because it would get Germany in big trouble if they lost the war. This was discussed seriously, always with the point being made that the Allies would view it as a dire crime, never with anybody stopping to ask whether maybe the Allies were right.

By far the most successful movement in this direction, one I had never heard about before, was Musy’s meeting with Himmler. A few months before the war ended, some Jews in Switzerland happened to meet Jean-Marie Musy, one of Himmler’s childhood friends; they asked him to use his influence with the Nazi second-in-command to get him to stop killing Jews. Musy went to Germany and told Himmler that they both knew the Allies were winning the war, that he’d heard the Allies were really mad about the Holocaust, and that maybe if Himmler stopped the Holocaust he could get better treatment after the war. Himmler thought about it for a few minutes, and then he stopped the Holocaust. He ordered the gas chambers destroyed, he countermanded Hitler’s directive to kill as many Jews as possible before the Allies liberated the camps, and started transporting Jews out of Nazi territory by trains. Hitler heard about this and got enraged and ordered everybody to stop listening to Himmler. There was a brief period of confusion as the two highest-ranking Nazis gave opposite orders, and then the Allies liberated the concentration camps anyway and the point became moot. It wasn’t much. Himmler’s order probably saved a few tens of thousands of people, out of millions. But it was something. And there were countless smaller incidents like this. And they all shared one thing in common: they succeeded by appealing to Nazis’ self-interest, not to their conscience.

And so:

As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.

And where this wasn’t true, people started developing consciences again. Nazi commanders who had been in Denmark for long enough started to go native. When Himmler’s agents came to crack down on Danish resistance, they found the local German officials somewhere between hesitant and actively obstructionist:

Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role
played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.


The same thing happened in Bulgaria as was to happen in Denmark a few months later – the local German officials became unsure of themselves and were no longer reliable.


Are there any lessons to be learned from all of this horror?

First, the refugee aspect of all of this is even more important than I thought. I said it before, but I think it bears more emphasis. The Western nations’ failure to accept refugees from Nazi Germany didn’t just kill a couple of Jews who made it out before the killing started. Germany started off perfectly willing to let every single Jew in Europe emigrate to any country that would take them. Nowhere would. This obviously doesn’t absolve the Nazis of any blame, but it sure doesn’t make the rest of the world look very good either.

Second, it’s worth remembering that the Final Solution was the Nazis’ third or fourth plan, not their first. Eichmann argued that this ought to humanize him; sure, he wanted Germany Judenfrei, but at least he had the decency to try to do it humanely before moving on to genocide. But even if he’s right, humanizing Nazis is a two-way street. The more human and comprehensible the Nazis’ evil becomes, the closer it gets to the lesser evils of our own day. White separatists complain that they are misrepresented; that they have no intention of killing anybody, that they just want to help everybody get the right to live separately among their own people. I accept that they believe that and that it is unfair to misrepresent them. But having acknowledged their position, the next step is to acknowledge that the Nazis seem to have genuinely believed that too. For a while.

I have written before on how the current crop of demagogues, as bad as they are, aren’t Literally Hitler. But this should be understood in context of Mussolini not being Literally Hitler, or even of the Nazis themselves not being Literally Hitler at the beginning. The cause for concern isn’t that anyone you can see on TV is plotting a Fourth Reich right now. It’s that some common factor causes people who start out as only moderately objectionable to predictably become something much worse. And modern populists share a suspicious number of characteristics and policies with their WWII-era fascist analogues (though “fascist” is the wrong word here; remember that Mussolini’s Italy did a better job saving Jews than a lot of the supposed ‘good guys’), and one can rightly be afraid that they’re drawing from the same underlying natural kind.

This is exactly the sort of thing I should resist the urge to put here (source)

Third, at least during World War II conscience was a collective phenomenon. Why did some countries’ citizens cooperate almost universally with the Final Solution, while others resisted it at every turn? “Culture” is inadequate; there’s not much light between Danish and German culture, but the two countries acted in opposite ways. I’m tempted to credit single individuals; Hitler setting the tone for Germany vs. King Christian setting the tone for Denmark – but do people really respect their leaders that thoroughly? Or is this backwards causation; a country like Denmark would end up with a King like Christian, a country like Germany would elect a Fuhrer like Hitler? I don’t know. The alternative is to posit one of those chaotic networks where tiny differences in initial conditions can compound and lead to very different end states. Arendt herself offers little, beyond saying that Italy saved its Jews out of “the automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people”. Yeah, well, Japan was an old and civilized people too, so there goes that theory. But with what do we replace it? All I can think of is maybe looking into the pre-existing anti-Semitism level, but I don’t know if that just passes the explanatory buck.

Did you know the Intro Psych explanation of Asch’s conformity experiments gets them backwards? Although it’s true that in each experiment a few people would conform with majority opinion, the majority of subjects didn’t conform and stuck with the evidence of their own eyes. This is encouraging, but makes the international variation in behavior even more perplexing. Whatever the cause, despite some heroic individuals everywhere the between-country variance was more important than the within-country variance.

Fourth, resistance worked. Not for the Jews, who generally had no good options. But for the Gentile population of occupied countries, absolutely. It didn’t need heroic martyrs willing to stand in front of Panzers Tiananmen-style. It just took a general attitude of annoying obstructionism. The Germans said “Give us a list of all the Jews in your country by next week,” and the police said “Oh, yeah, sure”, and then the next week the Germans asked where their list was, and the police said, “Sorry, we must have forgot.” When the attitude was so universal that the Nazis didn’t know who to punish, or didn’t dare punish everyone for fear of rebellion, they generally gave up. This isn’t to trivialize anything. There were thousands of individuals who died horribly resisting the Nazis, often to no avail. But when whole countries and cultures decided to resist, it made a big difference.

Even more – and I think Arendt’s frequent repetition of this fact is entirely justified – it started to change the Nazis’ minds. The Nazi officials in Denmark and Bulgaria became just a little bit obstructionist themselves. Nothing spectacular. No throwing off their jackboots and joining the resistance. Just a very slight tendency to question what was going on and ask “Are we the baddies?”

Just as humanizing the Nazis is a two-way street, so pointing out the bizarre lack of dissent in Nazi Germany is both distressing and encouraging. Distressing because how could ordinary humans tolerate that? Encouraging because…well…it seems almost possible to imagine a world where something goes wrong and America ends up overtly fascist. But even in my worst nightmares I can’t imagine a world where America ends up overtly fascist and nobody is annoying and obstructionist about it. Arendt’s picture of Germany, where the ruling party has 90% approval and dissent is unthinkable – you can’t get there from here. We’re never unaninimous about anything.

I thank G-d for the annoying obstructionists, for the nitpickers, for the devil’s advocates, for the people who hear something that’s obviously true and strain to come up with an absurd thought experiment where it might not be, for the reflexive contrarians, for the people who think being banned on Twitter is a violation of their human rights, for the people who vote third party even though they know it’s wasting their vote, for the people who urge you to sign petitions on whitehouse.gov because “then the President has to respond”, for the people who have two hundred guns in their basement “just in case”, for the mayors of sanctuary cities and the clerks who refuse to perform gay weddings, for the people who say “well, actually”, and for the people who swear eternal hostility to the people who agree with them on 99% of everything. On the spectrum from “totally ungovernable” to “vulnerable to fascism”, I would like to think we are probably a lot closer to the left end of the scale.

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175 days ago
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177 days ago
Fantastic post. Three cheers for ungovernability.
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