Alexey Guzey    Blog    Feed    Blog Archive + Site Contents

Last Posts

11 Apr 2018 » Links for Jan-Mar 2018
17 Jan 2018 » Tinder Is Effectively Deanonymized in Russia
23 Dec 2017 » Polynomial Time Reductions
05 Dec 2017 » Why You Should Not Go on a Tinder Date with Me
09 Oct 2017 » Make Your Android Experience Better

Links for Jan-Mar 2018

Note: I do not endorse anything in links below.


On literature pollution and cottage-industry science: “but our lab only has resources for small studies” is not a good excuse to publish shit

Different Worlds: nothing makes sense, except in light of individual variation, part out of

Moore’s Law and AGI Timelines: AGI most likely by late 2050s

Open-endedness: The last grand challenge you’ve never heard of: ML on “open-ended” problems is underexplored

In Understanding Business Fluctuations Not all GDP is Equal: shocks to different industries have different impact on GDP, thus the structure of the production can’t be ignored in macro

Dwelling in Possibility: the ability to hold the belief that everything is horrible and it doesn’t matter we will still win simultaneously is pretty important

Longevity FAQ: A beginner’s guide to longevity research

Theory of Change: if you have a goal in mind, move backwards step by step from it to see how to reach it

20 of my [Spencer Greenberg’s] all time favorite life hacks

Re: How do species evolve different numbers of chromosomes?: by inbreeding

The Strangeness of the Modern Mind: modern habits of mind (Universalism, Abstraction, Commensurability) are recent and far from being universal

Poll: Do you have a life mission?: 34% Yes; 31% No; 12% Used to; 23% Hope to

New Evidence on the Impacts of Birth Order: later-born children have worse general outcomes

“I think you fail to understand who is actually in charge of large companies.”


The network nonsense of Albert-László Barabási: apparently a dude with h-index of 125 publishes mostly trivialities and nonsense (on networks)

What are the Laws of Biology?: “Most of what we do in biology and much of what we teach is describing what’s happening – not what a system is doing.”

Intelligent Lifespans: “As a rough rule of thumb, those of IQ 115 live 10 years longer than those of IQ 85.”

The importance of awareness for understanding language: “across 10 high-powered studies, we found no evidence that the meaning of a phrase or word could be understood without awareness”

“the unfortunate fuzziness of rape statistics”: nobody really knows the proportion of rape allegations that are sound

The Gender Earnings Gap in the Gig Economy: Evidence from over a Million Rideshare Drivers: Uber male drivers drive faster than female drivers, thus earn more

Heritability of Social Behavioral Phenotypes (picture): (publication)

Evolution doesn’t give a damn what you think a brain region is called

Will truckers be automated? (from the comments): not soon

Deep Reinforcement Learning Doesn’t Work Yet

“figuring out a trait is highly heritable does not imply much about how that heritability comes about - whether it’s through an interaction with a social environment, interaction with environments created by the genes of those related to us”

The Song Dynasty’s Surrender: finale of an extremely interesting series on the history of China


“I would like to also provide some excerpts from The black quota at Yale Law School”

Embryo Selection for Intelligence …works

The David Attenborough Style of Scientific Presentation: explicitly try to make any presentation as fun as possible

The emergence of the visual word form: Longitudinal evolution of category-specific ventral visual areas during reading acquisition: support for neuronal recycling

“What’s the most absurd/invasive thing that tech platforms do or have done that sounds made-up but is actually true?”

“At what point we can say that Britain has systemic problem with protection of poor white girls?”

Cells are very fast and crowded places: insides of cells work largely probabilistically, not deterministically

Persistence and resistance as complementary bacterial adaptations to antibiotics

Median income earned by cognitive class: longitudinal differences in income by IQ

Differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them

A Review of “The Case Against Education”: signaling theory of education is not trivially true; also, you should continue to heavily discount everything written by Bryan Caplan

Can Electrically Stimulating Your Brain Make You Too Happy?: humans, just like rats, will keep pressing the button

Humans Sleep (Way) Less Than Other Primates

Naked mole rats defy the biological law of aging: i.e. their death probability distribution is uniform over time

Somewhere Inside, a Path to Empathy: asperger’s and marriage

Tinbergen’s Four Questions: prerequisites for understanding any evolved behavior

Gender-segregated occupations in Norway and the U.S are correlated

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Thin-Skin In The Game

The relationship between sensory processing, childhood rituals and obsessive–compulsive symptoms …is positive

Tinder Is Effectively Deanonymized in Russia

Abstract: About 2/3s of tinder accounts in Moscow, Russia can be directly linked to a VK account with very little effort and based on tinder pictures alone.


Is tinder anonymous? It’s definitely not in Russia. is a site that claims to be able to “find anybody in” (VK being the Russian facebook), and it has been shown to work extremely well in a wide variety of cases [1, 2, 3].

I decided to test it on tinder profiles to see how easy it would be to identify people the only way to contact whom should’ve been to be reciprocally “liked” by them.


  1. I omitted profiles that did not contain at least one picture of a person
  2. I omitted profiles that used a fake name (e.g. foxy)
  3. I omitted profiles that contained fake pictures (i.e. FindFace found several VK accounts with the pictures used in the tinder profile or the profile contained pictures of different people)
  4. I omitted profiles of girls under 18 years old (if it was clear from their pictures or if they stated they were under 18 in the bio)
  5. I omitted profiles where a significant portion of the face was missing, hidden by the phone or by some overlay.

I included all other profiles in the statistics. For example, if a tinder profile contained only one low-quality photo but the person was intelligible, I included it.

I did not check pictures from the connected instagram and I did not use VK’s search function by using the age and university info from the tinder bio.

A sample of included profiles:

A sample of non-included profiles:

An example of search results for a real profile:

An example of search results for a fake profile:


I searched for 100 people from tinder on FindFace and found 63 matching VK accounts.

Note: I saw around 120 profiles, which resulted in exactly 100 included in the analysis, and used about 160 photos in total.


How is this result possible? The main reason is that VK’s default privacy settings are such that the vast majority of personal information and photos is accessible to anyone on the internet, including search engines. For example, my page, along with several high-quality photos of me, is stored in google cache. Or you could just go to my page directly, and, even not being logged in, see all of the photos I uploaded or was tagged on.

VK privacy settings

So one way to index VK’s users would be to simply check id1, id2, id3, id4, …, change ip address every once in a while when VK starts blocking you, and continue on.


I interpret the original number 63/100 as basically “if you have good quality pictures on tinder and your VK privacy settings are set to default ones, you will be found”, from which I conclude that tinder is effectively deanonymized in Russia.

Polynomial Time Reductions

Abstract: this post gives a quick overview of polynomial time reductions – a method for computationally cheap transformations of problems into different problems. Chiefly, it’s used to prove that some problems are at least as hard as the other ones, which taps into the discussion of P vs NP problem.

Simple problems and hard problems

Let’s divide all computational problems into two sets: the simple problems and the hard ones. The simple problems are those for which there exists (at least hypothetically) an algorithm that solves them in time polynomial from the size of the input. The hard problems are those for which there does not (and cannot) exist such an algorithm.

An example of a simple problem is the following:

You are given a sequence of numbers. Is the sequence increasing?

One algorithm for this problem is to go along the sequence and compare neighboring numbers. If in all comparisons the number to the left is smaller than the number to the right, then the sequence is indeed increasing. In total, there are comparisons.

An example of a hard problem is the following:

You are given a program. Does it halt within steps?

encoded in binary uses bits, yet a trivial simulation of the program takes steps. This means that for an input of length the simulation will take steps and that this problem can only be solved in exponential time.

The clique problem

Now, suppose we have the following problem:

Does there exist a clique (a set of vertices in a graph such that its every vertex is connected to its every other vertex) of size in a given graph?

We’ll call this problem and we want to know if it’s simple or hard, i.e. we need to prove that is either simple or hard.

If is simple, then, by definition of a simple problem, there exists a polynomial time algorithm for it. And by finding such an algorithm we would prove that is simple.

But if is hard, then to prove this fact we would have to prove that there cannot possibly exist a polynomial time algorithm, which is intuitively a much more difficult task.

Polynomial time reductions

There exists a walkaround for the second case, though.

Let us have a problem that we already know is hard. We’ll call it . Suppose, we found a way to “reduce” to and the reduction takes polynomial time.

Then, if is simple, can be solved by first transforming it into and then solving . The first step takes polynomial time (because the transformation is polynomial time) and the second step takes polynomial time (by definition of a simple problem), thus the entire solution of takes polynomial time. But this contradicts the fact that is hard! It follows that is not in fact simple.

So, to reduce to means “to solve the problem through the problem ”. It’s absurdly easy to confuse which way the reductions work and to try to reduce to when you need to reduce to . This happens because the terminology is dumb as shit. In everyday life we reduce something big to something small; here, it’s the opposite. The way to intuitively remember it is to keep in mind that a simple problem can be solved through a hard problem–doing it would simply be inefficient. But a hard problem cannot be solved through an easy problem–because this would imply that that problem is not hard after all. Thus, we always reduce a simpler problem to a more difficult one.

Let us return to now. Again, the problem statement is:

Does there exist a clique (a set of vertices in a graph that are all connected between each other) of size in a given graph?

And we suspect that this is indeed a hard problem. In this case, we have to find some problem that we know for sure is hard, and then reduce it to . A hard problem we will use here is 3-SAT problem, the formulation of which is the following:

Given a boolean expression that

(1) consists of clauses joined by ANDs

(2) each clause consists of exactly 3 variables (or their negations), joined by ORs

(for example: )

are there such values that the expression is TRUE?

To prove that is hard we need to reduce 3-SAT to . The reduction is elegant but it’s not super straightforward. Moreover it’s explained clearly and beautifully over here, so I invite to check it out and will omit the reduction in this post.

Now, there’s several things to clear up here.

First, I lied when I wrote that we know that 3-SAT is hard. 3-SAT belongs to a large class of problems all of which can be polynomially reduced to one another. This class is called NP-complete (NPC). NPC consists of the hardest problems that can be verified in polynomial time. However, we don’t know whether there exists an algorithm that solves NPC problems in polynomial time. In fact, if we call simple problems P, then finding out whether NPC P would solve the question whether P=NP.

So, for example, while we can reduce the problem of ordering numbers to e.g. clique problem, we don’t know if a reduction from clique to ordering exists. Finding such a reduction or proving that it doesn’t exist would actually constitute the solution of P versus NP.

Ok, one last time: if we suspect that is at least as hard as , then we reduce to to prove it.

A bit more about P, NP, etc.

I find most of the descriptions of the terms P, NP, NPC, and NP-hard to be far from clear. Even the best stackoverflow answer is not as clear as it could possibly be. The way I understand it is that there’s a very natural hierarchy:

  1. P – the problems that can be solved in polynomial time.
  2. NP – the problems answer to which is “yes” or “no”, and if we are presented with a solution that answers “yes”, this solution can be verified in polynomial time (for example, if we’re given a solution for that claims to find a clique of size , we will need to verify that each vertex is connected to other vertices in the clique, for a total of steps.
  3. NPC – the hardest problems in NP. Alternatively, the problems to which we can reduce all problems in NP.
  4. NP-hard – the problems that are at least as hard as NPC.

So, if PNP, then P=NP=NPC. If P NP, then P NP and NP NPC.

Further reading

OpenDSA, Limits to Computing. A more in-depth look a the topic with several reductions presented (the same site I linked to for 3-SAT reduction).

Introduction to the Theory of Computation by Michael Sipser. My fav computation theory textbook.

Thanks to Sergei Obiedkov for reading early drafts of this post and helping me to wrap my head around all of this stuff.

Why You Should Not Go on a Tinder Date with Me

This summer I had been feeling that I had lost my sense of purpose. So, I got really depressed. Then, I started to read a lot.

One of the books I read was an investigation into the appearance of consciousness in humans by Julian Jaynes, called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The book was a curious one. In fact, it was so curious I decided I had to write a review of it. Part-review, part-critique, in the form of an essay slash blog post.

I write the first draft in under a week. I adore it. it exemplifies my wit, my writing talent, and my insightfulness, in a cocktail, which should probably be named “Sex on the Beach with Alexey”. So, I send it over to a friend.

He tells me that he got lost in the first paragraph and he’s not going to read any further. I think he must just be too dull to see its beauty. So, I send the essay to two more friends. The first one tells me that she’s read the first half and she feels that it’s “enough” for her. The other one tells me that she’s finished it and that it’s “ok”.

This is the point where I start to suspect that just maybe I will need to adjust a thing or two. This is also the point where you may start to wonder what the hell does this story have to do with tinder at all.

Coincidentally, I have a tinder date with a girl named L. coming up just a day after I finished the first draft and realized that I have three less friends. L. sports large glasses and flawless carré, and studies economics at my university. She’s also freakishly smart and absurdly hot. I’m just trying my best to look adequate next to her.

Somehow, our chat turns to books and this is where a revelation strikes me. The moment I see an opening, I start to recite the entire blog post I wrote yesterday to her. I can see that she’s trying her best to look interested. I can also see the strain on her face. But. By the variation in that strain I figure out exactly the parts of the post that need the most work.

After the date L. tells me that she’s sorry but she has no further romantic interest.

I chop up the post in pieces and rewrite it almost from the scratch.

Later that week I have agreed to meet up for drinks with another girl: M. She’s athletic and buzzing with energy. M. studies at a medical school and is planning to go on to get a PhD in molecular biology. While waiting for me in metro she was reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Of course, we move on to discuss The Glass Bead Game (which you should totally read if you haven’t yet, by the way). Another few moments later I see the opportunity and I strike: we spend the next half an hour talking about Jaynes. Most of the time her face vacillates between boredom and slight annoyance. But every now and then I see a spark of interest lighting up in her eyes.

After the date she tells me that she loved my sense of humor, but that I’m “not her type”.

I throw out about a third of the post and completely rewrite its intro.

Next week, another unsuspecting girl, V., steps right into my trap. Her jawline tells me about her assertiveness and her light blue eyes speak of the northern coast of France she recently returned from. We’ve been walking around and about the city center for the last 2 hours and eventually we end up discussing Gabriel García Márquez and Latin American magic realism. She found One Hundred Years of Solitude to be remarkable in its picturesqueness; I found it to be remarkable in its obsession with incest. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Slowly but surely, I start to retell her the latest iteration of my essay. She’s definitely immersed. Her eyes start to live up to their promise of la Manche’s excitability and I manage to make her engaged throughout the entire narrative. I realize that it has finally coalesced into something worthwhile.

A few days later she writes me that she wants to hang out some more.

I make few minor edits and finally publish the post.

Thanks to Ann Taranina for reading early drafts of this post and offering helpful suggestions and to my twitter friend Anna for pointing out some typos.

A special thanks to all the girls from tinder who were forced to endure my ramblings on topics, including, but not limited to, Julian Jaynes, modern art, and general concerns about the aesthetics of the modern world.

On a related note–I do free tinder consulting (no this is not a joke; I’m just sad that people are so bad at it and you should write me if you want to improve your tinder profile / general experience).

Make Your Android Experience Better

This post is a collection of unobvious tricks that make using my Android phone so much more pleasant.

Note: instructions here are based on pure Android, Pixel’s launcher, specifically; they may be different if your manufacturer is not Google.


  1. Clock with seconds in the status bar
  2. Better fingerprint unlock
  3. Faster everything by turning off animations
  4. Less distraction by turning off Google Now Feed
  5. Always on “OK Google”
  6. Finger trace
Continue reading...

My Favorite Textbooks

I find most textbooks to be basically unreadable. Worse still, when I google “best X textbook”, I frequently land on a “classic” textbook that feels like it was written by a fucking reptiloid for people with an entirely different from mine intelligence architecture. I hate formalism. I hate long mechanical derivations. I love thinking in pictures. I love intuitive, explainlikeim5 explanations. I believe that examples should precede definitions, not follow them.

Thus, a list of my favorite textbooks/educational materials; all of them are either free or available on libgen.

List so far: linear algebra, calculus, multivariable calculus, topology, computation theory, microeconomics, macroeconomics, econometrics, biology

(if you feel that your learning style is similar to mine, do share your own favorite texts/materials not on this list!)

Linear algebra

Lecture notes by Vipul Naik. Note: these notes are targeted at social science majors; all Vipul’s course materials, including quizzes and answers to them are here.


Calculus by Michael Spivak. Note: you absolutely need somebody to guide you/help with the problems from the book. The Correct™ way to self-study books like this is to email a professor at a local college and ask them if they could help you with stuff you don’t understand and problems (hint: they will be happy to help).

Multivariable calculus

Matec Notes by Alexey Guzey. Note: once I was so angry at the course’s main textbook that I wrote my own set of lecture notes for it; naturally, it has an econ taste to it.

Lecture notes by Vipul Naik. Note: these notes are targeted at social science majors; all Vipul’s course materials, including quizzes and answers to them are here.


Topology Without Tears by Sidney A. Morris.


Algorithms by Tim Roughgarden. Note: this is a MOOC, not a textbook. But too good not to be included

Computation Theory

Introduction to the Theory of Computation by Michael Sipser. Note: this book was the basis for the Algorithms-2 course I took at the university.


Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach by Hal Varian.


Macroeconomics by Olivier Blanchard.


Introduction to Econometrics by Christopher Dougherty. Note: lmk if you need solutions for it.


Campbell Biology by Urry et al.

Never Update Your Priors

Having ambition is hard.

You want to be famous but you realize that the closest thing you have to a talent is the ability to come up with 4-level-deep-meta-jokes.

You want to become unimaginably rich but you realize that to achieve that you either need 420 iq or utter unscrupulousness and lots and lots of luck.

You want to create great art but you realize that God probably isn’t using your mind and body to communicate with our benighted world.

You want to change the world but you realize that the chances of this happening are about the same of God finally deciding to use your body to communicate with our benighted world.

So you stop trying. Why bother when there’s twitter and videogames. You didn’t want much anyways.

Here’s how not to give up: don’t update on evidence. The problem is the word realize in each of the sentences above.

Every one of them is true and yet it shouldn’t matter. The instinct to update is almost irresistible and any appeal to faith is taken as a personal offence. The problem with not updating on evidence is the possibility for your model of the world to become completely decoupled from the actual world. The benefit is a sort of a soft wireheading.

In fact, this is why epistemic rationality is not just useless but is actively harmful. If you’re a depressive type, you will systematically update too much on negative information, too little on positive and will give up too early.

There are two ways to avoid this: (1) recursively change the most fundamental patterns of your cognition to either avoid or properly discount the biases, or (2) to believe that you’re special. As in believe in magick. As in believe in God.

Updating on evidence will make you depressed and useless. Having blind faith will probably make you just as useless, but at least you will have a chance.

Three Questions for Russia

This my translation (from Russian) of Andrei Movchan’s facebook post, written in the aftermath of the major opposition protests on June 12, 2017.

Not aiming for an exhaustive list, I’ll ask three, in my opinion, “right” questions:

(1) How is the activity of youth on the streets related to substantive changes in the country? The question is not an idle one; there are ample examples of youth activity in recent history, take 1968, for example.

Only in France, where hundreds of thousands of students took to protests (we—only have thousands for four times the population), who were supported by trade unions (that we do not have) and parliamentary opposition (that in our case supports the authorities), in France, where by that time the opposition leader had been to the second tour of the presidential elections, and the democracy had more than one hundred year long history, protests only resulted in the change of the president during the next election.

While in Mexico, which is much more similar to us, the protesters were shot and the next elections were won by the person who was universally blamed for the shootings. The scenario was repeated in China in 1989—there protest only lead to the toughening of the regime.

Could it be that we often witness the protests on the breaking point of the system not because they caused it, but because they are a side-effect of the circumstances that lead to the change of the political regime, and for the same reason—frequently witness “blank” protests that lead to nothing? If so, then the initiation of the protests is the “cargo-cult” of the revolution—a senseless hope that one consequence (protests) would lead to another consequence (change of power) without a common cause.

I should note that the reasons for changes of power are rather well studied and include a massive crisis of the elites (most often), significant economic changes, the fall in the approval ratings of those in power greatly below 50%, catastrophic changes due to, for example, large military failures, and so on; nothing of this sort is happening in Russia at present or will happen anytime soon.

(2) If we suppose (for a moment) that the youth (and older people, who joined them) will be able to significantly change the political situation in Russia with street action (well, suppose Navalny succeeds in taking millions to the streets; suppose OMON [riot police] refuses to disperse them; suppose the students take the Mayor’s office or even the Kremlin), then in which direction will this political situation change?

That is not an idle question either—the experience of the Revolution of 1917 indicates that it is being prepared by one group of people, carried out by another, and the power is taken by the third. Most of the countries that have experienced a “social” revolution, including the modern Ukraine, share an analogous experience. What is the probability that the result will be

a. the rise to power of a military regime, which will violently quell the unrest? There are good reasons to consider this scenario—Russia’s security agencies’ elites are very well developed and consolidated; there are quite a few proponents of a “firm hand” among the military, and adjacent to them civil leaders; Russia’s population is absolutely not ready for the armed resistance, while the regional disunity and high level of aggression in the society allow to suppress foci of discontent with the help of other regions’ military units; and so on.

b. the rise to power of ultra-left, pro-communist, and quasi-nationalistic forces that de facto enjoy the greatest support of the population today, with the consequent “Chávezian” scenario? This is quite likely as well—Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998 in Venezuela under three slogans: “Victory over Corruption”; “Equal Opportunity for All Political Forces”; “Significant Growth in the Living Standards of the Poor” (compare this to the political program of Alexei Navalny). Communists, LDPR [a nationalist/populist party], Navalny, and the ultra-left are supported by more than 50% of the Russian population, so it’s not clear why during the change of power it’s not the left populists that will get it and then dominate the Duma after the elections.

(3) As we have seen from the numerous examples—1825 in Saint-Petersburg, 1989 in Beijing, and 2012 in Moscow—are the best-known to us, if the protests don’t lead to the change of power, they lead to the toughening of the regime.

So, suppose, magically, the street action did result in the change of power. Suppose that neither communists, nor nationalists, nor the military (or FSB) got the power and that no palace coups happened but the supporters of all the good came to power—liberal democrats, westernizers, humanists, advocating peace, progress, and prosperity, based on the European model.

And so—against the backdrop of the general euphoria, a question—what are they going to do? That’s true—not much money is left in the treasury. There is nobody to pay taxes, and it’s not like anybody was going to pay them anyway—it’s our tradition not to pay, unless you are going to be put in jail for this.

People are aggressively awaiting universal and weighty handouts—while, in fact, there nothing to hand out at all. By custom, the previous authorities have taken all their assets out of the country, and their example was followed by ten thousand major officials and state and private businessmen—just in case; the state banks have discovered a hole of the size of half the budget in their accounts, people are storming the branches, dollar exchange rate is 200 [currently it’s 60], because the Russians know for sure—only dollars in cash can save one from the revolution.

Enterprises that depend on imported components are halted due to the devaluation; this includes the agriculture as well, since we import seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection.

The army and the security forces are disoriented and demand financial guarantees; lower ranks are already starting to disband and create gangs, with active support from the upper ranks; showdowns and racket are spreading like storm throughout the country.

Republics where authorities are stronger vehemently demand sovereignty up to independence, since they can’t plunder the region and receive subsidies from the center anymore. Some republics simultaneously lament that, unless they receive immediate financial support, they will be swept by Islamic terrorists, and threaten that their own terrorists will come to Moscow to sort everything out. Other declare that if the former ones receive any money, then they will refuse to transfer any money to Moscow.

The foreign ambassadors (the ones from the West), declare courteously that they’re extremely sorry for new Russia, but that the money can only be given “after …”, which is followed by a long list, starting, of course, with Crimea, continuing with an offer for that unjustly privatized to be renationalized and subsequently privatized by the right global corporations, and ending with the demand to give up the seat at UN’s Security Council and for nuclear disarmament (no complaints here–they’re not idiots to step on the same rake twice). Absent that, they can only deliver humanitarian aid—they don’t know what to do with their food, anyway. On attempts to bargain the ambassadors from the West will say “Guarantee that you’ll be able to hold the power at least for several years”.

The ambassadors from the East will even be ready to give some money, but on conditions that will make those posed by the ambassadors from the West look favorable.

All of this—during the raging pursuit of power by the security forces, communists, half a dozen teams of officials, several governors, several barely distinguishable from them bandits, the church, several prominent businessmen (including those who returned from exile), during the seething demonstrations and small revolts (and we did allow demonstrations, didn’t we?), assets capture by people and by bandits, capture of houses by those with equity in them, capture of markets by the those primordially Russian, capture of banks by depositors, etc.

All against the background of our narcotic television completely falling apart, and every part of which now violently campaigning for their own, or for the one who payed last, or even just slinging mud at everyone, because it’s more dramatic this way.

So—this is the power. And what are we going to do now?

Julian Jaynes and the Ancient Tablets

1. Hallucination?

Achilles is furious at Agamemnon for threatening to take from him the fruits of war that Achilles justly earned with his sword. He is so furious, in fact, that before he knows it, his hand is already on the hilt of his sword and he is ready to kill the King. Then, something very special happens: Athena herself comes down from Olympus and, seen only by Achilles, tells him (Homer, 1974):

Here is my promise, and it will be kept:
winnings three times as rich, in due season,
you shall have in requital for his arrogance.
But hold your hand. Obey.”

Thus, Achilles begins a tirade denouncing Agamemnon in the strongest possible words, although returning the sword into the scabbard—however angry he may be, he can’t disobey the Godess.

We could interpret this scene as a sort of a poetic instrument, where the need for Athena signifies the scale of emotions felt by Achilles; in his classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Julian Jaynes rejects this trivial explanation and offers an another hypothesis: Athena was, in a sense, present there, seen, indeed, only by Achilles, by the virtue of being hallucinated by him. Without her voice, commanding him not to act on the impulse, he would have killed Agamemnon with no remorse.

This sequence offers us an insight into the working of the mind of people of ancient civilizations, for according to Jaynes they experienced reality in an extremely different fashion than we do—well, or didn’t experience it: he tells us that they “did not have subjectivity as do we; [they] had no awareness of [their] awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon”: their mind—the Bicameral Mind—was split between the automaton part—incapable of adequately engaging in any novel or complex situation, and the “god” part—auditory and visual hallucinations that were obeyed immediately and did allow people to engage in novel and complex situations. In the scene above it was of course Athena taking the role of the god part.

At first, this theory seems downright outrageous and you may wonder why on Earth did I call this book “classic”. But it does have more than three thousand citations; and reading on, seeing the evidence not only from ancient Greece, but also from ancient Egypt, Babylon, and even the Inca, one starts to vacillate.

I will be honest with you: by the end of the seventh chapter I was utterly convinced that Jaynes was basically right.

I love n+1's profile of Jaynes and his theory: There Is Only Awe [2k words].

2. Or is it?

Thinking a bit more about this, though, the Bicameral Mind theory is almost trivially, comically false. For example, while even some animals can engage in short-term deception, based on the immediate behavioral reward, the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes, fundamentally lacks the faculty for long-term deception (Jaynes, 2000, p. 219):

[Treachery] is impossible for an animal or for a bicameral man. Long-term deceit requires the invention of an analog self [i.e. a model of self] that can ‘do’ or ‘be’ something quite different from what the person actually does or is, as seen by his associates.

In light of this, coups d’état seem to be strongly incompatible with the bicameral mind, since they usually require gaining the trust of the ruler before conspiring against him and trying to overthrow him. This intuition is explicitly confirmed by Jaynes just a few pages later (pp. 227-228).

The moment I realized this, I tried to figure out when did coups d’état started occurring: if I found that they began during the time Jaynes claims to be Bicameral, this would be a strong evidence either against his timing or against his whole theory.

The earliest coup d’état I could find was that against Yahdun-Lim—king of Mari (an ancient Mesopotamian city), who was killed around 1796 BC, apparently, by his own son, who succeeded him and was himself assassinated two years later (Pitard, 2001, p. 39; Liverani, 2013, p. 226).

But Jaynes writes that the first evidence of modern consciousness dates around 1300 BC (p. 250) and calls Hammurabi, who lived in 18th century BC, “bicameral Hammurabi” (p. 214).

With timings this off, it’s doubtful we can seriously consider Jaynes’ disquisitions on consciousness of ancients seriously: he writes with complete conviction about bicamirality of people living prior 1300 BC, while presenting abundant evidence for his theory dating 1800 - 1300 BC specifically.

Although, I’m not being totally fair here: the facts I presented come from Mari, a civilization Jaynes mentions twice in the entire book. So, let’s make a little diversion to Babylon, where Hammurabi ruled; or to be more precise, to

3. Crime in Babylon

Some kinds of crime can certainly be carried out by the bicameral mind: robbery, murder, DUI—these are the infractions that are light on one’s mind; but a lot of crime hinges on planned deception. For example, breach of contract.

Curiously enough, Hammurabi’s Code, written 1750 BC, contains the following paragraph:

106. If the agent accept money from the merchant, but have a quarrel with the merchant (denying the receipt), then shall the merchant swear before God and witnesses that he has given this money to the agent, and the agent shall pay him three times the sum.

Jaynes acknowledges the fact that Hammurabi’s Code is unnecessarily sophisticated for the bicameral mind, but offers, what seems to me, an exceptionally unconvincing defense (pp. 200-201):

It is very difficult to imagine doing the things that these laws say men did in the eighteenth century B.C. without having a subjective consciousness in which to plan and devise, deceive and hope. […] The word that is incorrectly translated as “money” or even as “loan” is simply kaspu, meaning silver. It cannot mean money in our sense since no coins have ever been found. […] Wine was not so much purchased as exchanged, one measure of wine for one measure of grain. And the use of some modern banking terms in some translations is downright inaccurate. […] there is the constant attempt on the part of scholars to impose modern categories of thought on these ancient cultures in order to make them more familiar and therefore supposedly more interesting to modern readers.

Some more situations that definitely do not feature deception and/or got into Hammurabi's Code by a total accident

9. If any one lose an article, and it in the possession of another: if the person in whose possession the thing is found say "A merchant sold it to me, I paid for it before witnesses," and if the owner of the thing say, "I will bring witnesses who know my property," then shall the purchaser bring the merchant who sold it to him, and the witnesses before whom he bought it, and the owner shall bring witnesses who can identify his property. The judge shall examine their testimony--both of the witnesses before whom the price was paid, and of the witnesses who identify the lost article on oath. The merchant is then proved to be a thief and shall be put to death. The owner of the lost article receives his property, and he who bought it receives the money he paid from the estate of the merchant.

10. If the purchaser does not bring the merchant and the witnesses before whom he bought the article, but its owner bring witnesses who identify it, then the buyer is the thief and shall be put to death, and the owner receives the lost article.

11. If the owner do not bring witnesses to identify the lost article, he is an evil-doer, he has traduced, and shall be put to death.

12. If the witnesses be not at hand, then shall the judge set a limit, at the expiration of six months. If his witnesses have not appeared within the six months, he is an evildoer, and shall bear the fine of the pending case.

But enough of Hammurabi. With the correctness of Bicameral Mind now out of the way, we can make a yet another diversion: this time to the

4. Ancient Tablets

A curious fact about the ancient Middle East is the preponderance of clay tablets from the first writing civilizations that were saved through the millennia for us to read. Jaynes uses clay tablets freely to bolster his argument and he prompted me to read the number of ancient letters much larger than I’m willing to admit; some of them were rather fun (Heimpel, 2003, p. 251):

[In the quotation below, curly braces enclose damaged sections and all emphasis is mine]

To My Star speak! Inibšina (says), “Some time ago, the pederast Šelebum gave me a directive, and I wrote you. Now one shock-head of {Dagan} of Terqa {came} and spoke to me {as} follows: She (said), ‘The peace offers of the {Ešnunakean} are deceit. Water runs below chaff. And I will collect him (the Ešnunakean) in the net that I knot. I will erase his city. And his wealth, which is from old, I will cause to be utterly defiled.’ This she said to me. Now guard yourself! Do not enter inside the city without extispicy! I heard the following: ‘He scintillates all by himself.’ Do not scintillate all by yourself!”

That tablet was addressed to Zimri-Lim—another king of Mari, who ruled from about 1775 to 1761 BC, and who was the grandson of Yahdun-Lim we are already familiar with, by his sister.

Or take this letter (Oppenheim, 1967, p. 92):

Tell the Lady Zinû: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:

May the gods Šamaš, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in good health for my sake.

From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me!

I love these two tablets in particular for the metaphors used. The first one reads:

Water runs below chaff. And I will collect him (the Ešnunakean) in the net that I knot.

and the second one:

in our house wool is used up like bread.

Jaynes is captivated by metaphors (p. 48):

Let us speak of metaphor. The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an understatement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language.

and by the ways metaphors operate at every level of our description of consciousness (p. 55):

Subjective conscious mind is an analog [i.e. a map] of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

Consider the language we use to describe conscious processes. The most prominent group of words used to describe mental events are visual. We ‘see’ solutions to problems, the best of which may be ‘brilliant’, and the person ‘brighter’ and ’clearheaded’ as opposed to ‘dull’, ‘fuzzy-minded’, or ‘obscure’ solutions. These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space. In it we can ‘approach’ a problem, perhaps from some ‘viewpoint’, and ‘grapple’ with its difficulties, or seize together or ‘com-prehend’ parts of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space.

It is mighty curious how Jaynes, so meticulously collecting the evidence and even citing Oppenheim’s other publications (!) missed these letters, which, by their beauty and complexity of thought would have probably alarmed him of the possible deficiency in his theory, even when Hammurabi failed to.

Or maybe it’s for the best: there are some people who are just wrong. There are other people who are wrong in interesting ways and who in their wrongness educate and direct us, and there’s no question to which category Jaynes belongs.

4. In conclusion,

Even though Jaynes’ main bicameralism claim does not hold up to scrutiny (but it could probably be reformulated as a claim about the proportion of people who had hallucinations being large in the past and small today), the book is worth reading just for the chapter on the interrelation between metaphor and consciousness, for the original reading of Iliad, and for the narrative that Jaynes maintains throughout. The Breakdown may be wrong, but it’s definitely good aesthetic: 7 clay tablets out of 10.

Thanks to Ann Taranina and Chris Beiser for reading early drafts of this post.


Heimpel, Wolfgang. Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Eisenbrauns, 2003.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Anchor Press, 1974.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Liverani, Mario. The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy. Routledge, 2013.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Pitard, Wayne T. “Before Israel: Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age”. In Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World (revised ed.). Oxford University Press, 2001.

Philosophers for Sale

This play was written by Lucian. I felt that all its existing English translations are boring as hell, so I translated the Russian version by Mikhail Gasparov, as presented in his book Занимательная Греция (not translated into English, unfortunately), which itself is quite a liberal translation of the original play.

Zeus is short of money. He takes famous philosophers from the afterlife and puts them up for sale as slaves:
“Great teachers of life are sold!”, Hermes is shouting, “If you want a good life, come forward and choose one for yourself!”, the buyers approach the slaves and start to examine them.

Pythagoras is on the platform.
“Here’s a wonderful life, a heavenly life! Who wants to become a superhuman? Who wants to learn the harmony of the creation and come to life after death?”
“Can I question him?”
“Of course.”
“So, Pythagoras, if I buy you, what are you going to teach me?”
“To be silent.”
“Becoming a mute is not to my taste! What’s after this?”
“To count.”
“This I know already!”
“How do you count?”
“One, two, three, four.”
“See, but you don’t know that four is not just four but it’s also the body, the square, the perfection, and our oath.”
“Swear by your oath, I don’t know! What else can you say?”
“I will say that you consider yourself one, but in reality you are different.”
“How so? Is it somebody else and not me talking to you?”
“Well, now it is you, but before you were different and afterwards you’ll be different.”
“So, I don’t ever die? Not bad! Well, how should I feed you?”
“I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat beans.”
“Good enough! Hermes, I’ll take him.”

Diogenes is on the platform.
“Here’s a manly life, here’s a free life! Who will buy him?”
“Free? Will I not be taken to court for buying a free man?”
“Don’t be afraid, he says that he is free even as a slave.”
“Well, what crafts does he know?”
“Ask him!”
“I’m afraid he’ll bite me!”
“Don’t be afraid, he’s tame.”
“So, Diogenes, where are you from?”
“From everywhere!”
“What are you like?”
“I’m like Heracles!”
“I fight the pleasures, cleanse the life from excesses.”
“Well, how does one do that?”
“You throw the money into the sea, sleep on bare earth, eat garbage, cuss everyone, don’t be ashamed of anything, shake your beard, fight with your cane.”
“I already know how to cuss and fight, thank you very much. But you have strong hands, you’ll make a great digger; I’ll give two mites for you.”
“Take him!”

“And here’s two lives at once, one wiser than the other! Who wants them?”
“What is it with them? One is constantly laughing, the other one is constantly crying. Why are you laughing?”
“I’m laughing at you: you think you’re buying a slave, while actually you’re just buying atoms, void, and infinity.”
“That you’re full of void, I can see that alright. And why are you crying?”
“I’m crying, because everything comes and goes, because there’s grief in every joy, and joy in every grief, because there’s no eternity in the eternity, and the eternity is only a child playing dice.”
“I can’t make sense of anything that you say!”
“I’m not saying it for you to make sense of it.”
“No one’s going to buy you if you keep acting like this.”
“Everyone’s worthy of tears, anyway: buyers and nonbuyers.”
“They’re both mad: I don’t want them!”
“Ah, Zeus, these two will remain unsold!”

“Show the Athenian.”
“A wonderful life, a sensible life, a sacred life–who wants it?”
“How, Plato, are you being sold into slavery again? So, if I buy you, what am I going to get?”
“The whole world.”
“Well, where is it?”
“It’s right before my eyes. Since everything that you see–and earth, and sky, and sea–is, in fact, not at all here.”
“Well, where is it?”
“Nowhere: if it existed anywhere, that wouldn’t be an existence.”
“Then why don’t I see it?”
“Because the eye of your soul is blind. I, on the other hand, not only see you, but also see me, and the true you, and the second me, and everything else I also see twice.”
“Well, buying the whole world in a single slave sound goods to me! I’ll take him, Hermes.”

“A valiant life, an all-perfect life is sold! Who wants to know everything?”
“How is it: everything?”
“He is the only wise man, thus he is the only king, and rich man, and general, and navigator.”
“And he is the only cook, and the only carpenter, and the only cattleman?”
“Of course.”
“I’d be crazy not to buy such a slave. So, stoic, are you not offended that you’re a slave?”
“Not at all. This does not depend on me, thus I’m indifferent towards it.”
“What a nice fellow!”
“But be ware: if I wished, I could turn you into a stone.”
“How so? Are you Perseus with Medusa’s head?”
“Tell me: is a stone a body?”
“And is a man a body?”
“And are you a man?”
“Then you are a stone.”
“I’m getting cold! Please turn me back into a man!”
“Easy. Is a stone animate?”
“And is a man animate?”
“And are you man?”
“Then you are not a stone.”
“Oh, thanks for not killing me–I’ll take you.”

“We’re selling the most clever, the most skillful, the most adroit! Aristotle, come out!”
“And what does he know?”
“He knows how long the mosquito lives, how far the sun shines through the sea, and which kind of soul the oyster has.”
“And he also knows that a man is a laughing animal, while a donkey is not, and that a donkey does not know how to build houses and vessels.”
“Enough, enough, I’m buying him; take however much you want from me, Hermes.”

“So, who else do we have left? Skeptic? Come out skeptic, maybe someone’s going to buy you.”
“Tell me, skeptic, what can you do?”
“It seems to me that there isn’t anything at all.”
“And there’s no me?”
“I don’t know.”
“And there’s no you?”
“I don’t know, even more so.”
“Then what are you going to teach me?”
“This is indeed something one won’t learn anywhere else! How much do you want for him, Hermes?”
“For a knowledgeable slave we ask five minas, and for one like him, let’s say, one mina.”
“Here’s your mina. So, my dear, did I buy you?”
“That is not known.”
“How? I just paid for you!”
“Who knows?!”
“Hermes, money, and everybody who is present here.”
“Is there anybody here?”
“Once I send you to roll millstones, you’ll instantly feel who’s a slave here and who’s not!”
“Enough arguing!”, Hermes interrupts them, “You walk with your owner, and those who haven’t bought anything, come here tomorrow. Today we were selling philosophers, while tomorrow we’ll be selling artisans, peasants, and tradesmen. Maybe they’ll make better teachers of life?”