Two theories about the Silmarillion

First Theory: Breath of the Wild.

There’s something beautiful about how Tolkein’s worlds are mostly full of empty lands. Even “settled” lands are often sparesely populated areas like Rohan or Bree, with the occasional town or village.

This vibe reminded me of something, and then I realized: This is what the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild feels like. Then I realized something else: Breath of the Wild is clearly a thinly-veiled reskin of the Silmarillion. Consider:

The story takes place in a generation after a great battle (originally, Nirnaeth Arnoediad), in which the dark power won. The land is now mostly empty, and overrun with monsters. The North/Centre is dominated by a tall, dark castle full of sleepless, dark vigilance. There are still a few safe places. The lost woods are Doriath – protected by a guardian who spread a veil of shadows and confusion to protect the borders of the land. Classically, Link was adopted and raised by the Deku tree, like Turin was by Thingol.  Zora’s domain is Gondolin: A carved, beautiful city, hidden on a flat plain/lake surrounded by cliffs and mountains.

Before we do the rest of the geography, let’s talk about history: a generation ago, we had the great battle in which evil overran the land. But long before that, in ancient times, the good people came from a faraway, magical civilization with untold wonders of craft and magic. This obviously represents Valinor. However, in the last battle, their craft was turned against them, and they were defeated by treachery. This clearly represents the silmarils’ captured by Morgoth (evil captures source of ancient wonder), causing the oath of Feanor to turn against and destroy the Noldor.

Back to geography: On the shores of the great sea, there is a lighthouse laboratory, inhabited by the eldest hylian, which is Link’s strongest connection to the ancient magic. This represents the havens of Cirdan (oldest elf in middle-Earth), and their connection to Valinor. The Gorons represent Nargothrond (Mountain stronghold under the shadow of a fire dragon, source of many gems, dwarvish elements). The Gerudo represent the lands of the sons of Feanor – theoretically good guys but untrusting of strangers and outsiders. The treacherous Yiga clan lives in Gerudo lands, representing the treachery of the oath of Feanor (in particular, Celegorm and Curufin).
The icy mountains of the northwest represent Dor-Lomin, and are occupied by monsters (much like how Dor-Lomin was occupied by Easterlings).

Now to the characters:

Link is Turin: A deadly warrior wandering the occupied lands, defeating monsters wherever he goes but never ultimately conquering them. Like Turin (and unlike most storied warriors), he uses a variety of different weapons at different times. However, two items are strongly associated with him: A piece of armour inherited by his house since ancient times (for Turin, the dragon-helm of Dor-Lomin. For Link, the Hero’s tunic), and a cursed sword. The master sword, like Gurthang, comes from the vaults of Doriath/The Lost Woods. Like Gurthang, the master sword saps the life of its users (Gurthang ended up killing both of its wielders. The Master Sword requires a blood sacrifice to pick up).

Zelda represents Hurin: A hero and leader taken prisoner in the last great battle, who is now kept prisoner in the highest tower of Thangorodrim/Hyrule Castle. Despite her long imprisonment and curse, she defies Gannon/Morgoth still.

The one thing they did change was the end: Turin’s story has a downer ending, and the obviously couldn’t have that. So they grafted in the story of Earandil: Using the ancient power’s light (i.e. the light of Valinor, the silmaril), given to him by the female lead (Zelda now represents Elwing), the hero manages to summon the power of the ancients in order to defeat the great demon (although the land is still broken, and must be healed).

Second Theory: There should be a Feanor/Boromir buddy cop show.

Okay, this one isn’t so much a theory as a fanfic outline.

The concept is this: Feanor and Boromir, magically healed and sent through time to modern-day Detroit (Feanor through his body turning to Ash, Boromir by falling through a waterfall in a magic boat), end up becoming vitroilic BFF buddy cops.

Feanor is the smart, arrogant, genius cop who’s always figuring things up, tinkering around with crazy inventions and making bizarre (and illegal) modifications to their cruiser (“For the last time Feanor, flying cars violate FAA safety regulations!”). He used to think of mortals as beneath him, and is inclined to view criminals (and often his fellow officers) with instinctive contempt (of course, he often gets hit by this and has to learn better).

Boromir is the amusing opposite: Big, buff, boisterous bruiser, but all-around charismatic and a natural leader of men. While he’s definitely not the smart one of the pair, his natural charm and ability to befriend the working people of the city (both honest and criminal) make him a good counterpart to Feanor. He often defends men from Feanor’s criticism, while privately worried that Feanor may be right (and remembering all too well how he yielded to the temptation of the ring).

Maglor son of Feanor (played by Samuel L Jackson, reprising his role from Pulp Fiction) occasionally shows up, still chasing the last silmaril. While he’s happy to see his father again, Boromir (who knows all too well what it’s like to fall to temptation) convinces him not to tell his father about it, to help him avoid downfall. This charade is, of course, doomed to fail eventually, but hopefully Feanor will have learned enough about being a better person and the perils of seeking power by then that he won’t start another world war.

The Population of American River Basins

For years, I’ve been annoyed that there’s no comprehensive list of the populations of each river’s drainage basin. I finally decided to get up and make one myself. Turns out, it’s harder to do a good estimate than I thought.

I’m putting the bottom-line list list at the top,  the explanations/caveats are too long:

Please Click on the Region Imagemap


HUC basin population
01 New England 13988006
02 Mid Atlantic 47825839
03 South Atlantic-Gulf 48569018
04 Great Lakes 23462518
05 Ohio 29372527
06 Tennessee 4954982
07 Upper Mississippi 24342047
08 Lower Mississippi 84256748
09 Souris-Red-Rainy 730472
10 Missouri 12536425
11 Arkansas-White-Red 10144832
12 Texas-Gulf 22922589
13 Rio Grande 2996251
14 Upper Colorado 958969
15 Lower Colorado 9464407
16 Great Basin 15712893
17 Pacific Northwest 12418538
18 California 37214041

Data for the subdivisions, as well as the full zip code/river basin/coordinates table, can be found here, under river_pops. (Note: the csv only counts population within a unit, so e.g. lower Mississippi doesn’t include the upper Mississippi’s population in it. Also, the entries for non-continental US are missing population data. Despite this, Alaska did in fact have people in 2010).

Longer description:

I had to join three different databases – one for population by zip code, one for zip code locations, and one for zip code by river basin. There’s some mismatch because, as it turns out, zip codes can change over time.

A map where you see the rivers more clearly


– Only really found data for the continental US, most of which dates back to 2010 (the last census).

– the USGS splits america into Hydrologic Units, but these don’t precisely correspond to drainage basing – For example, New England mostly drains right into the Atlantic, but includes some subcomponents that drain into the St Lawrence river instead

– There’s no list of where each river drains. I mostly got around this by assuming each subunit drains into the unit containing it, but this means some error on some of the lower-ranked units that have other lower-ranked units draining into them. For top-level units I did this by hand (e.g. the upper Mississippi drains into the lower Mississippi), but this leads to some error because a few of the units are split (like New England, as mentioned above), and there doesn’t seem to be a good way around it.

– The tables for the population and hydrologic unit data are both from 2010 though, so they matched pretty closely (but not, for some reason, exactly).  I don’t expect this to be a significant cause of errors.

If anyone has a good data source on other countries, or ideas on how to make this more accurate, please tell me.

Song Translation : stubborn love (english to hebrew)

Original song, Lyrics.

היא תבגוד ותשקר,
תכרע ותתנצל,
תאמר לך הפעם זה אמיתי,
תקרע לך חור בלב
שאי אפשר לתקן
ולא אכפת לי, אותה אני אוהב

היינו שם,
או או עשינו די,
כשהיה קר,
או או
שמנו שמיכה
ואל תאמרי,
אה אה, אי אפשר

עדיף לחוש כאב,
מלא לחוש בכלל
ההפך מלאהוב זה שלא אכפת
אז שימי לב עכשיו
אני עומד על המפתן ולך קורא
ולא עוזב עד שאת לא תרדי

אז תרימי ראש, קחי את הלב שלך
תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, קחי את הלב שלך

ואני לא מאשים,
על איך שאת ברחת, כל השנים
הייתי גם בורח במקומך
והשלטים אומרים שזה קרוב
אבל אני כבר לא קורא אותם
ולא סומך על העיניים שלי

היינו שם,
או או עשינו די,
כשהיה קר,
או או
שמנו שמיכה
ואל תאמרי,
אה אה, אי אפשר

אז תרימי ראש, קחי את הלב שלך
תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, קחי את הלב שלך

תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, אהובה
תרימי ראש, אהובה

Song Translation: Your Brow is Crowned in Shining Dark

Original song, lyrics.

Your brow is crowned in shining dark
(I’ve forgotten if those are the words to a song)
Your forehead can rhyme with your eyes with a spark
(I’ve forgotten if those are the words to a song)
But whoever you’re with
Has a life full of song

Your warm cotton robe is all fluffy and blue
You wrap yourself in it at night when you’re cold
I would not want to be as a brother to you
Not a monk praying for an angelic view
And viewing grim dreams full of piety and sand
and before him you stand…

You, you love to, to be
Sorrowful and so quiet
And to listen to stories of near and of far
And here I,
who not twice have looked silently at you,
no voice and no words
Forget everything about everyone else

And dwelleth
My soul
In the halls of your castle
And is trapped in your walls,
and is parted from me
While my self in my body is walking away

My dreams are spread out as a rug for your shoe
On its flowers my love, may your step carry you
When evening arrives wear your warm robe of blue
And soon will I come there to you

Your brow is crowned with shining dark
It comes to my lips like a rhyme to a song
So I’ll whisper to you, till the morning, till dawn,
like a drunk…
Your brow is crowned with shining dark

Your brow is crowned in shining dark
(I’ve forgotten if those are the words to a song)
Your forehead can rhyme with your eyes with a spark
(I’ve forgotten if those are the words to a song)
But whoever you’re with
Has a life full of song

Song Translation: Seeing Far and Clear

Original song, Hebrew Lyrics.

It was narrow there,
I had to go somewhere,
I had to spread my wings and fly
To a mountainside,
Where like where Moses died
You see the edges of the sky

Man is like a tree planted on water,
Rootless and untied
Man is like a story with no author,
with a fire inside

Then I lost my way,
my life was led astray
I thirsted like a desert thing
For a guiding word
that like a wandering bird
would bring tomorrow on its wing

Man is like…

Fire burned inside
and I went out to ride
I let the storm winds be my guide
When I came back home,
I would no longer roam,
I’d find you waiting there inside.

In Defence of Suicide

Content Warning: Arguments for suicide. No catch.

There’s a lot of arguments against suicide.

This is a good example. On the surface, it looks like everything an argument against suicide should be. It’s well-written, and it actually raises the reasons suicidal people have for it before making the counterarguments against them. I still think it’s wrong. For one thing, it has motivated reasoning (nobody wants suicidal people to be right). But from inside the argument, there’s something off about it. It reasons backwards: It assumes people shouldn’t commit suicide, comes up with scenarios where that’s the case (a guy who’s a useless burden now might have been useful as a dockworker a hundred years ago), then kind of implicitly assumes the change in circumstances shouldn’t matter.

If we don’t have any motivated reasoning, the case for suicide seems pretty clear: Some people feel like burdens. They’re net negative drains on the world, draining resources that could better be used for someone else. Are they wrong?

Scott brings up Robin Williams as a counterexample, and some guy who designed safety mechanisms for cars. Alan Krueger’s another potential counterexample that’s come up since. But how sure are we that they really are counterexamples? You’d expect them to know more than us about the situation. Maybe the car safety guy knows his designs aren’t really effective or useful, or maybe he doesn’t really do much and only got to keep his job because of office politics. We found out Robin Williams had Dementia. I don’t know why Alan Krueger died, but nobody else seems to either. He probably had his reasons.

In general, every bias we know should push people away from suicide. People tend to believe they’re more important than they are, that they’re more useful, that they know more. People tend to be unreasonably optimistic. People have status-quo bias. If we’ve reached the point where even the person in question thinks suicide is a good idea, it probably is.

There’s a counterargument to suicide, saying that suicidal people often get better, even grow to regret it. That’s not inconsistent with suicide being the right choice. We’d expect people to become suicidal at their worst point, so we should expect some reversion to the mean for most. But if suicidal people are reasonable about it, they’d leave some buffer – they price in the possibility of mean-reversion, so they don’t jump to being suicidal as soon as they can. They wait until they’re thoroughly convinced. And sure, if they don’t commit suicide, they’ll probably go back into the uncertainty band  – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t kill themselves. And in general, we trust people to make their own decisions. Not because they’re always right, but because we don’t have a better method, and people’s judgement in the moment is generally the most accurate way to judge things.

The common sentiment is to treat each suicide as an unbearable catastrophe. This seems wrong. We have a lot of humans, and most of them are pretty easily replaceable. If anything it seems like it would be helpful for humans to be a little more k-selected, rather than keep everyone we possibly can alive.

Alternatively, we can think of internal experience as inherently valuable. But suicidal people are generally pretty miserable and probably have net negative internal experience anyway. Unless there’s some reason to assume things will suddenly get better for them (say if they’re in an abusive situation they can get out of soon), this doesn’t really change the calculation.

I’m not actively suicidal, but I’m increasingly convinced that I should be. In theory I have a lot of talents, but in practice I don’t seem to contribute much, and I seem to be a net drain on the people around me. There’s a limit on how much I can blame other people for this.

Is this evidence for or against the above argument? It’s at least consistent with it – it makes sense that I’d be in the uncertainty band, at least (I can come up with reasonable-sounding arguments for why I actually contribute more than I drain, or might in the future). I’ve only been convinced I shouldn’t exist for a few months now, maybe I just haven’t reached the tipping point yet.

There is one good counterargument: I have friends who are suicidal, and there are people I know who the world would probably be better off without. As far as I can tell, the two groups are entirely distinct (although, of course, plenty of suicidal people probably haven’t told me about it). My suicidal friends are some of the kindest, smartest, most helpful people I know. They’ve done a lot for the world. And they’ve done a lot for me.

But then, my judgement about worth might be suspect (remember, I’m one of the people who shouldn’t exist). But if my judgement’s that far off I can’t trust anything I say anyway, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The libertarian case against Nimbyism

Epistemic status: Only considering the libertarian arguments for and against Nimbyism. In practice there are a lot of consequentialist arguments that could apply. For example, urban concentration increases economic productivity and reduces pollution and rents, but may be more vulnerable in case of an unexpected disaster.

Next Door in Nodrumia raises an interesting question: Is local government libertarian?

The obvious answer is no. Libertarianism is about having less government, and local government is, well, government. So libertarians should be against local government.

The obvious answer is also yes: Local government is just towns deciding about their own community, and the real meddlesome government intervention is the state stepping in to our nice wholesome local community forcing us to change our laws.

So how do we resolve this? The solution to confusion, as always, is to try to derive everything from first principles.

There’s no universally agreed-on definition of libertarianism1, but let’s assume that the core libertarian principle is to maximize individual freedom, as defined by the number of choices each individual has. This seems like a good fit for most of what libertarians want – it fits with less government intervention over individual choices, or the idea that people should be free to decide what’s best for themselves and have government as uninvolved as possible.

Under this definition, the higher-level principles – less government good, taxes/laws bad – are heuristics rather than core principles. There’s good arguments for them – governments and laws almost always restrict individuals’ decision spaces – so we can think of them as theorems that follow from the core axiom.

The question of local vs state government, like Feynman’s sprinkler riddle, can’t easily be solved from heuristics, because they seem to prove two different things. But we can look at empirical results to see which one gives more total individual freedom.

In the case of Scott’s Nodrumia, local government gives better results2: Some towns have all-night drums, and some towns don’t. For someone living in the area, this is great, since he can just decide if he’d rather live in a town with or without all-night drumming3.

But the original debate was about zoning regulations. I’ll admit there are some ways town zoning regulations can be pretty great. Santa Fe mandates that all the buildings have to be stuccoed, and Jerusalem has a law that all buildings have to be covered in stone. They are, noncoincidentally, two of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to.

Image result for santa fe downtown

Image result for ‫קריית יובל‬‎
I lived in Jerusalem most of my life, and I still sometimes stop and look.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t like Santa Fe. And, well, most towns aren’t Santa Fe, and don’t have any particular aesthetic. But for the sake of variety, it’s nice that these towns exist. And in libertarian terms, letting towns vote on their preferred aesthetic seems to work pretty well in giving people their choice of preferred aesthetic.

But on density zoning, this is a colossal failure. Tennessee Williams said: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” I’ve never been to New Orleans. But in terms of density and a preference towards detached Single-Family homes and a car-based lifestyle, it seems like everywhere outside of Manhattan is Cleveland, San Francisco very much included. This varies a little bit – Boston and Chicago have at least some density and character – but due to whatever confounding variables, pretty much every town in America has “locally” decided on euclidean zoning.

And this isn’t a matter of there being no demand for denser cities – the denser cities we do have see skyrocketing demand and housing costs. But this demand isn’t being answered, because in practice there are misaligned incentives and local control means everyone wants to shove density somewhere else.

Compare Japan, which mostly sets zoning at the federal level. From an individual-freedom perspective, they get ideal results. Not only do they have a mix of low-density, multifamily, and high-rises, they get them within reasonable distance of each other – so you can make your choice for your preferred living style without even having to pay the costs of moving across the country.

Multifamily and Single-Family housing living in harmony

Japan tends to plan density around transit. This is obviously great from a utilitarian perspective. But from a libertarian perspective, it means you get a variety of neighborhood types, in reasonably close proximity to each other. And it also ends up meaning you pay less, whatever housing type you prefer.

1.This holds in any universe with at least two libertarians.

2.Unsurprisingly, given that Scott’s trying to argue for local government.

3.This isn’t a completely free choice – location and social network effects matter a lot to people, who usually can’t costlessly move somewhere with their preferred policies – but as diehard libertarians we are dedicated to ignoring this issue.