Effective Illegalism

There is a dimension of imagination beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. There’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop, SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD brings you a horrifying vision, of a future where CRIME is LAW.

You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future, not a future that will be but one that might be. This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. Witness a theoretical argument. A friendly debate around a simple issue: can a human being uphold society by breaking the law? It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen, it’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of good will that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.

Podcast Transcript

Transcript of the second half of the 19th episode of the effective illegalist podcast, Glory Glory Hallelujah

wellogro: Welcome back to Glory Glory Hallelujah, a podcast about doing great crimes.

This is part two of the transcript of my interview with Scarpia, dugong_narwhal, and the author of the blog AD Ancien Hal Unsung, three leaders of the effective illegalism movement, as much as it has leaders.

How do you Handle a Big Tent?

wellogro: Something I’ve always wondered about is, how do you keep your big coalition together? Effective illegalism attracts lots of liberals and conservatives and puts them in the same community together, how do you keep that from blowing up? 

dugong_narwhal: Well the nature or, the fact that we’re all coming here together to do the same thing really helps, and the thing we’re coming together to do is of course to find the best crimes, and then execute on them. That really helps people stay focused — we’re always starting from a place of, what laws do we all think are bad, bad for us and bad for society? And then we say, ok, what are the best, safest ways to break those laws? 

It’s definitely interesting how people who would have a hard time agreeing on what laws to pass have very little trouble agreeing on what laws to break

ADAHU: Plenty of subcultures have their own versions of illegalism, and it’s surprisingly easy to draw them together into a syncretic vision of civil resistance. A great example is the queer community, which has the slogan Be Gay, Do Crime. In the beginning this was more of a joke, but younger queer people who were raised with the slogan have come to see it as a totally natural idea, and are ready to commit crimes that they think are important. 

Scarpia: It’s kind of strange, I think most subcultures used to have more explicit norms about civil disobedience. Punks used to fight cops, stoners obviously are a subculture centered around an illegal hobby. Being gay was itself illegal in many parts of the US until quite recently, and is still illegal in some countries. Folk and country singer-songwriters recognize that it can be necessary to take justice into your own hands in response to domestic abuse — for example Carrie Underwood’s Church Bells or The Chicks’ Goodbye Earl

Modern subcultures for some reason tend to be much less explicit about their willingness to resist, but it’s still there, and you can get people to see eye-to-eye pretty quickly when you point out their shared beliefs.

ADAHU: Yeah, some people think that the law-and-order divide is inherently liberal versus conservative. These people have clearly never seen an episode of Dukes of Hazzard. The main characters drive a Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag on the top that is literally named the General Lee, and their constant foe is the sheriff and his officers. Almost every episode ends with the police cars crashing and the cops being embarrassed. Conservatives don’t have an inherent alignment with the law any more than liberals do.

dugong_narwhal: The fact that most people are pseudonymous really helps. You might be a socialist sitting across the table from a neoconservative, but because he goes by “Brass Trash” and you go by “Piranha1980”, you don’t know that you theoretically are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Both of you think that we should have good public infrastructure, so both of you are pretty happy with the idea of breaking into the subway system at night and doing illegal maintenance on the trains. 

Scarpia: And those pseudonyms may not be fixed to a particular political viewpoint. Lots of people outside the movement don’t understand this, but many pseudonyms are multiple different people. Some pseudonyms are four or five different people. We call this DPR’ing.

wellogro: DPR?

ADAHU: Dread Pirate Roberts.

wellogro: Oh! [laughs]

Scarpia: There are even some pseudonyms that were never attached to a single person in the first place. Like, I’m pretty sure Malus was never one guy, I think it’s a pseudonym that lots of people have picked up and used at one time or another.

dugong_narwhal: Yeah, at the conference in Chicago a few years ago I saw three different people whose nametag was “Unofficial Entire Society”. All of them claimed not to know that there were other people using that moniker at the conference. Well, two of them did, the third threw her drink at me and started running. 

wellogro: Don’t people get upset at other people using their pseudonym?

Scarpia: Not really? Most people figure that it’s added protection against anyone trying to find out who they are. If someone borrows your pseudonym, it makes you that much harder to track down, and it makes it harder to pin any specific crimes on you.

It’s also just considered bad practice to use someone’s pseudonym without permission. But if you do, it’s mostly seen as a complement. 

ADAHU: I’m more concerned about lack of accountability. One nice thing about using consistent pseudonyms is that you can develop a reputation, even though it’s not attached to your legal name. That helps us figure out who to trust, who’s a reliable thinker and planner, and who might be bad news. If people share pseudonyms, that can undermine the trust we’ve built.

Scarpia: This is something that concerns me too, but overall I have to say it hasn’t been much of a problem. Some pseudonyms are reliable and develop a positive reputation. Some pseudonyms are unreliable — maybe because they’re shared by a large group, maybe it’s one unreliable person, who knows — and develop a reputation of being unreliable. 

Roots of Effective Illegalism

wellogro: One thing I’m really curious to get from this group is the long-term perspective. I only became aware of effective illegalism a few years ago, but all of you were part of it from the beginning, or near the beginning. What was that like, and from your perspective, where did these ideas come from? 

ADAHU: The term illegalism comes from 1900s-era anarchist movements, but effective illegalism bears no more relation to these ideas than the Gates Foundation does to Rockefeller-era philanthropy. Effective illegalists don’t generally see theft and burglary as good crimes, and most of us don’t identify as anarchists. The average effective illegalist has never heard of Clément Duval and would be appalled by his actions. It’s more that there was already a name for organized law-breaking and it stuck. You could equally have called it effective civil disobedience but I guess that’s not as catchy.

I think it was a few things coming together at the right time. People trying and failing to work within the system. People becoming disillusioned with law and order approaches, either through seeing them fail, or things like becoming disillusioned with institutions like the Supreme Court.

And of course, better access to information and connection through the internet accelerates all of this.

Scarpia: I agree it was kind of a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back thing. In the beginning, so to speak, it seemed like you could do good by straightforward methods like curing disease and educating orphans. But over time people got disillusioned. There was a sense of frustration as people started coming up with more and more convoluted plans in the pursuit of doing good. It started feeling like it shouldn’t be this hard to make a positive impact on the world. 

One good example is charter cities. Frequently the idea with charter cities is that government regulation wherever you live sucks, so you need to start your own government somewhere else. You might want medical reciprocity, where you let doctors from developed nations like Japan and Britain practice medicine in other countries. Or you might want drug approval reciprocity, where any drug approved by the EU is also approved wherever you live. The US doesn’t have either of these very reasonable policies, so some people tried to make charter cities which did have these policies. But alternatively, you could just break the rules and not need to go through the trouble of building a whole new city in Honduras.

There are a lot of stories like this, not just charter cities and not just in medical policy. Eventually we were like, it would actually just be easier to break the law.

Thomas Kuhn thought of paradigm shifts as a process that kicks in as more and more junk piles up. Contradictions to the current paradigm come in, someone happens to be in the right place at the right time to notice, everyone agonizes over them for a while, and at some point the friction becomes unbearable and everything does some inversion deemed impossible by consensus wisdom and now you have a new paradigm. Something similar happened with efforts to make the world a better place. Enigmas related to government regulation piled up higher and higher, people gnashed their teeth for a bit, tried to make some new cities, and then someone (no idea who) was like, well why don’t we just break the law instead? And effective illegalism was born.

dugong_narwhal: There’s a certain kind of person who finds working within the system really seductive. These people are happy to toss around clever ideas and play within the rules, and get a real kick out of looking for loopholes and workarounds. This describes a lot of programmers and engineers, but also like academics, or even just people who did well in school.

It takes a certain kind of shock to break these people out of their, I dunno, law-addled haze or whatever. And I think it took time because we had to wait for many individual stories, individual cases of these people to have good ideas about how to work within the system, and see their clever ideas for workarounds and loopholes get crushed by mindless bureaucrats and inconsistently implemented regulations. Lots of us, myself included, had to get our faces pressed up against the pavement before we realized, oh, it doesn’t matter how clever I am, working within the system actually doesn’t work for some of these problems! And it just took some time for a critical mass of people to have that experience. 

ADAHU: Despite what we’ve said, and I agree with the others, it’s not all internal. There’s also an element of how it takes some time to realize that there are actually many laws that nobody cares about, that aren’t actually enforced that strictly, et cetera. 

It takes a few rounds of seeing someone do a crime, thinking “oh shit they’re gonna get busted”, and then watching how no one even shows up to pretend to enforce things, to realize how free you actually are. It lets you realize the degree to which no one else actually cares about that law, so why would you follow it?

dugong_narwhal: Yeah, being in trouble is a fake idea.

Scarpia: In the early days, before effective illegalism was really a thing, people were really concerned about immigration. And why not, the American immigration system is famously borked. You remember the effort to bring microchip manufacturing back to the US back in 2022? Everyone wanted it to happen, but the immigration red tape almost killed it, because foreign workers with the required skills almost weren’t allowed to stay. It almost didn’t happen.

Congress should fix this problem, and they could, but they don’t. I don’t even care why they don’t anymore. People started noticing that directly helping immigration can be a huge intervention, and that one way almost any American can help is by marrying a foreigner to give them a green card. Immigration officials do keep an eye out for this sort of thing, but security is tighter in some places than in others, and with some planning it’s not hard to convince them you’re a real couple. Or if you’re more scrupulous, Americans can go out of their way to date and actually marry foreigners, it ends up having the same effect.  

If you think immigration is important, it doesn’t take much math to see that you can have 100x the impact by marrying a foreigner than by donating to congress or lobbying. Then it’s just a question of the tradeoff against breaking the law, or bending it really, marriage isn’t illegal. Most of us decided the exchange rate was pretty good. 

Why Start with Crimes?

wellogro: This question might be too simple but I figured you all would have interesting thoughts on it, but why start with illegal actions? What would you say to someone who asked you why you don’t start with legal methods in your quest to make the world a better place?

Scarpia: There’s an element of, not to sound too cliché but I’m serious, there’s an element of freeing your mind. Once you let go of the block of breaking the law, all sorts of things become possible

In fact I think that we do the most good in places where it’s sort of ambiguously illegal, but most people wouldn’t, pardon my bluntness, most people wouldn’t have the guts to do this if they hadn’t already developed a stomach for doing things they know are against the law. Is it illegal to call a restaurant and tell them that the homeless guys out front are undercover cops on a stakeout, and the restaurant should give them free coffee? I don’t know, but I think it’s a good idea.

dugong_narwhal: Also funny.

Scarpia: I’m not even against laws in general. It’s an issue of, the dose makes the poison, right? A community with some laws is good, because they make for, you know they provide an agreed-upon standard. But too many laws is paralytic. There’s a dose where it stops being good for you, right? If I want to do medical research at home, that might be illegal. Or actually, worse, I may not know if it’s illegal or not. And how do I find out? You can pay a lawyer but often they tell you that no one knows — you just have to try it and see if you get sued or arrested. 

Or if I see someone getting mugged, or I’m in a restaurant and someone is having a heart attack and I could step in and perform CPR. I don’t know if it’s legal or not to step in. So we go from having these brave pro-social impulses of, I should help, I should get involved — the sort of thing I think we should praise and encourage — to a system where we’re always second-guessing ourselves. Will there be consequences if I save this person’s life? 

Sometimes there are specific carveouts, like Good Samaritan laws for administering naloxone to someone who overdosed on opioids, but these laws vary between states and have limited scope. Regular people aren’t necessarily going to know exactly what the law says most of the time. The average American is at a 7th or 8th grade reading level, so even if they do look up the exact language of the relevant statutes, there’s a good chance they’ll have a hard time interpreting something that was written by a committee of lawyers who spent 19+ years in formal schooling.

So the negative effects on society are much larger than they appear, because living in a society with too many laws makes everyone anxious and cautious, instead of being bold problem-solvers who are willing to take risks to improve the world. 

dugong_narwhal: I agree with all that, and also, who says we didn’t start with legal methods? You’re not seeing where we started out, you’re seeing where we ended up. And for my own part I’ll say I still do a lot of things on the legal side to improve my community. I just reached a point where I realized that if I wanted to do the MOST good I could, I would have to start committing some crimes.

Scarpia also makes a great point about how difficult it can be to figure out whether an action is “legal” or not to begin with. I’d add that there are also many cases where something isn’t exactly a crime, it’s more of a loophole. In some states where you’re allowed to grow weed for personal use, you can’t sell what you grow but you can give it away. If you sold, say, an overpriced sticker or charged for your time as a “consultant” and then include some weed or a clone as a gift with purchase, that’s not really illegal. So the attitude of effective illegalism isn’t just saying here’s a clear line in the sand and I’m choosing to cross it, it’s also about recognizing the extent to which the law is not only selectively enforced but also just not that clear to begin with. 

ADAHU: I find questions about “working within the law” really frustrating. The crimes effective illegalists commit are much less extreme than the crimes committed by folk heroes like Zorro or Robin Hood. If you think robbing from the rich to feed the poor is a good idea, you should be on board with a lot of even less harmful crimes. For the most part we want to do things that people really strongly approve of, things the average person wants to see, and the only thing in our way is that they’re technically illegal, though often in a way where the police can’t be bothered to stop us even if they find out.

Biggest Criticisms

wellogro: Illegalism gets a lot of criticism from outside, but I feel like I don’t hear a lot of criticism from within. But you’re all in a good position to criticize, what do you think effective illegalism could do better? 

ADAHU: Our focus on American laws and the Anglosphere in general is, I think, pretty embarrassing. Countries like Saudi Arabia, just as an example, have some very bad laws that should be resisted. I understand the benefit of doing praxis in your backyard but I think we could also do more to fight unjust laws worldwide, by supporting illegalist movements in countries that are more oppressive.

dugong_narwhal: We need to try more things and take more risks. We found a few good crimes in the beginning and now we tend to just milk those same ideas over and over. But there are lots of audacious crimes out there that we haven’t cottoned on to and it’s worth taking on some extra risk to find out what they are. There are also a lot of ideas that most people in the movement think of as duds, but I think lots of them could be viable if we figure out better approaches. So yeah even for a movement that sees itself as audacious, I think we could be a lot more audacious.

Scarpia: Call me crazy but I don’t think we could be doing anything any better. This was a risky project from the start and the fact that we have had any success at all is enormously encouraging. If we can keep on at this pace for another decade, or even half this pace, I think that will be very impressive.

Favorite EI Sources

wellogro: Do you have any particular favorite effective illegalism sources — you know, blogs and podcasts?

Scarpia: Well, Honest Fiction is a long-time favorite, that should come as no surprise. I love The Wind and Stars, do you know that one? 

wellogro: No? Is it new?

Scarpia: I don’t think so. I guess it’s kind of niche. It appeals to my interest in the logistical side of illegalism. Fort Wroth is pretty new, and while the proposals they make are on the extreme side, they’re at least totally committed to nonviolence and it’s thought-provoking. I have mixed feelings about Bungle Bungle Bungle and Dark Mind of Murderous Courage

dugong_narwhal: I mostly follow longer-form blogs like Cayenne Halt Fils and Deep Gallon Oliver, also sometimes Breaking New Ground.

There’s one podcast I follow, If It’s Not Love, which is unusual for illegalism in that it is kind of a doomer podcast, but it tempers that with a focus on building community. So I guess it’s like optimistic doomer. I also liked the recent coverage from Crime 299 but I have to admit I haven’t listened to any of their back catalog.

ADAHU: Roses for Rats is a new blog a lot of people are following. Everyone thinks it’s a Flowers for Algernon reference but I think it’s actually a play on the White Rose Society. 

I also really like Fell Chaya Tennis, which takes a kind of weird tack — she doesn’t write at all about the present, I’ve noticed, only about illegalism’s past or visions for its future. I think that’s really interesting, though I don’t know why she does that or even if it’s intentional. 

I don’t know if Katya Mykula’s writing counts but I find it hugely influential. Some people have speculated that I might be Katya, which is flattering but I’m sorry to admit is untrue.

Favorite Kind of Illegalism

wellogro: Ok, to end, I want to ask you all, what is your favorite kind of illegalism?

Scarpia: I’m really happy with what illegalism has done for healthcare. This is something we mostly don’t talk about, and there are strategic reasons for that. Healthcare illegalism involves a lot of doctors and pharmacists breaking the law in ways that risk their medical licenses and other credentials, and so we don’t want to draw too much attention to the details of this success. But in the abstract I can say, we give out a lot of low-cost illegal medical care, we prescribe important drugs that people might otherwise be unable to get, and we illegally train people to treat illness and injury so that they can go out and practice medicine without a license on their own, so they don’t have to rely on us. 

But all of this is kind of palliative. It helps individual people but the rest of the healthcare system still sucks, and thousands of people die because of muck-ups at the FDA. I want to see us do even more, and I think we’re on track to actually revolutionize healthcare in the next decade. 

Here’s one example I’m very into. Biohackers with diabetes have been making their own insulin since 2015, and now illegalists are supporting similar efforts at a larger scale. The procedures to make insulin, and many other drugs and treatments, are not a mystery. Many of the patents are expired. Anyone with the right knowledge and equipment can sit down at a lab bench and make it happen. 

This country could have factories pumping out high-quality generics, except that these factories are so hard to start, that they are de facto illegal. So we say, sure, we’ll just make illegal factories then.

It’s not like there is some special juice that makes Novo Nordisk drugs safe and reliable. They’re made in a lab, with equipment you can buy on the open market, by people with specific training. We buy and use the exact same equipment they use. Our labs are set up in exactly the same ways. Our technicians are educated at the same ivy-league universities; sometimes the technicians are people we’ve poached from the pharma companies, doing the same work they did there, making the same drugs! Our safety protocols are the same, sometimes better. The only difference is we don’t have the “right” papers from the FDA. We don’t wait for approval from an authority figure before doing good. 

ADAHU: This is still a long shot but I’m optimistic that illegalism can help with the energy and climate crisis. Nuclear power is clean and safe, and while the legal side of things is perpetually tied up in red tape, there are a lot of borderline illegal and straight-up illegal things we can do to help.

Legal approaches to promoting nuclear power have not been very effective so far. People should definitely keep trying, but in the near-term we need something more direct. So a lot of us are looking for things we can do to make it easier to use nuclear power and harder to use other forms of power.

On the promotion side, we can do things to grease the skids, even things as simple as bribing officials to fast-track approvals on new nuclear plants. Can we build our own, illegal nuclear power plants and plug them into the grid? Can we fund research teams to invent new kinds of reactors? Hard to say right now, but I can tell you, people are looking into it. 

On the prevention side, we can do things to make it more costly to use other forms of power. Any time a new coal or natural gas plant is getting built, we should get in the way as much as possible. 

Blowing up existing power plants and pipelines is a bad idea. We don’t want to cause that kind of damage, and keeping thousands of people without power would be really bad for public support. But if we manage to shut down a coal power plant for a few hours every month, if we increase their repair bill by enough, we can make it so expensive to run these power plants that other forms of power look much more attractive. And there are lots of ways to increase repair costs without blowing anything up. 

This is definitely one of the hardest forms of illegalism, and I understand why many people are hesitant to support an approach that sometimes borders on ecoterrorism. But energy is really important and I think there’s a lot we can do here if we’re willing to bend the law even a little. 

dugong_narwhal: I’m oldschool, I still think intellectual property illegalism is the most exciting part of the movement. I don’t just mean pirating. It’s definitely fun to torrent a blockbuster movie but it’s probably not actually all that good for the economy. But a movement to make the de facto copyright period 20 years or so seems like a great idea. 

People should be able to profit off of their creations, so I do support copyright law in general. But I don’t think anything from before 2000 should still be under copyright.

This is one of the easiest forms of illegalism, one where we might be able to achieve complete victory, even in the face of government interference. Most people already support it. Many people have even helped do it. Anyone who has pirated movies or music has already broken these laws. 

You could make a strong argument that people behind projects like The Pirate Bay are real early heroes of the modern illegalist movement. The most effective illegalist of the 21st century is probably Alexandra Elbakyan, who founded Sci-Hub. There’s an even stronger case for sharing research papers than there is for pirating movies — research, especially publicly-funded research, should be free immediately. 

And the roots are probably even deeper — all this is kind of a modern form of samizdat, the dissident at-home publication of censored materials.  

wellogro: Thank you all so much. As usual, I’d like to end the podcast with a short poetry reading. For today, ADAHU has selected the first stanza of Lowell’s The Present Crisis.


When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast  
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,          
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb  
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime         
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.   

Post from the blog Deep Gallon Oliver, August 16, 20XX 

Effective illegalism is the movement devoted to finding the highest-impact criminal methods to help other people and the world. Philosopher Katya Mykula described it as “doing for the pursuit of civil disobedience what the Scientific Revolution did for the pursuit of truth”. 

The illegalists have a global conference about once a year to touch base and discuss strategy. In the early years of the movement, this was fine and normal and no one gave us much trouble. But in recent years effective illegalism has gotten more attention and now local law enforcement and similar groups often try to, uh, interfere with the conference.

After the fiasco a few years ago in Nashville, the conference organizers have coordinated a campaign of misinformation to keep us from all getting arrested. So apologies to those of you who ended up in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Stockton, or Tempe. The actual conference this year was in Spokane, WA. Unless I’m lying to you as part of the misinformation campaign. Which I might be. 

Look at this wonderful photo I took at the conference!

The official conference theme was “Doing Crime Together”. The official conference interaction style was “pseudonymous”. The official conference illegalism level was “very”.

One of the breakout rooms had all-day career coaching sessions with Careers for Crimes (motto: “You can develop important criminal skills at your day job.”). A steady stream of college students went in, chatted with a group of coaches, and came out knowing that the latest analyses show that becoming a doctor or a pharmacist is a useful path to build crime-relevant skills, but gaining a law degree is probably less useful than previously believed. They also put out a report on their progress this year, but I got a copy and all it says is “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE US ALIVE” in 120 point font.

The theater hosted a “fireside chat” with violetfjeschl, who wore an oni mask and an oversized puffy winter jacket and never took either of them off. She’s director of the economic-growth-maximialist “Carson Wolves” group. I went in with some stereotypes but violetfjeschl started by admitting that while health codes and permits can be good, in many places the cost of starting a restaurant, grocery story, coffeeshop, or even just a barbershop are entirely beyond the means of most people. This is bad because most people need restaurants and grocery stores and would like to see more of them. She had some persuasive arguments for why overpermitting was slowing down economic growth, and how this explains why we see exceptional growth in software and other tech small businesses, which aren’t as location-limited as other small businesses and (so far) don’t face the same kinds of stifling regulations.

Her tactic is to coach local entrepreneurs in how to avoid getting noticed by regulators (turns out this is not very hard, the regulators are not driving around knocking down doors and the police usually can’t be bothered to shut down your illegal coffeeshop as long as they’re not getting tons of complaints), and give them small business loans that they wouldn’t be able to get through legal channels, since their businesses don’t officially exist.

She handled questions from the audience about whether the Carson Wolves were a gang with typical good humor, pointing out that the small businesses don’t have to pay them protection and insurance money if they don’t want to, but that most choose to, since they can’t get normal insurance or go to the police in a crisis. Personally I favor the creation of multiple extralegal insurance companies so that there can be normal market competition, and so that we don’t see these kinds of conflicts of interest.

Afterwards a bunch of us walked to an illegal restaurant a few blocks down the street, the vanguard of this brave new future, and none of us got food poisoning.

But walk a little bit outside of the talks, or linger in the common areas a little bit after you finish your box lunch (stolen from the offices of a Fortune 500 company), and you run into the shadow side of all of this. You might think that doing organized crime, even for good, is the underbelly of civilized society. Well, I’m here to tell you about the hidden underbelly of the underbelly.

Effective illegalism started with “I wonder if some things that are illegal would be good for society”. But even at this early stage, it’s gotten to some pretty weird places.

One thing I was surprised to learn is that many of effective illegalism’s most prominent public critics are themselves effective illegalists. Some reporters, an author, a major YouTuber, and a college professor whose name you would definitely recognize — all of them are big public critics of the movement, but all of them are secretly illegalists, all as part of a strategy to define the conversation. Unless I’m lying to you as part of a strategy to undermine our critics. Which I might be. 

Double agents for crime were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.

You’re probably not surprised to hear that there were sessions on how to avoid getting arrested, how to talk with the police, and how to get police to support the movement. But you might be surprised to learn that most of these sessions were led by cops. In fact, one of the sessions was a police officer lecturing on all the laws that the police would never bother to enforce, and another guy gave a talk about all the great, prosocial crimes he was able to do as a police officer. 

Crimes for Cops was nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global.

I got to talk to a number of people who teach their niche skills to others for illegalism purposes. Some of these are the kinds of skills you would expect, though some of them are kind of strange, like the large number of graphic designers who use their professional skills to forge documents in support of various high-impact crimes. And some are very strange, like the makeup and FX artists leading a disguise class on how to impersonate elected officials, or the voice actors leading a class on how to impersonate people over the phone. 

Even the FX artists were nowhere near the weirdest people at Effective Illegalism Global. But I can’t tell you about the weirdest people, they are too illegal. 

But maybe the weirdest part was no one group of people, it was the synergy. Running the conference were a bunch of (no offense) pretty boring operations and logistics people who probably do this same sort of thing for their day jobs. These people support the movement but most of them don’t commit any actual crimes for it. Next to them are conference halls full of FX artists, electrical engineers, USPS employees, and actual police officers, all leading classes on how to commit crimes related to their areas of expertise. And next to them are people like violetfjeschl, in her puffer coat and oni mask, running a crime ring that’s something between a small business grants program and an extortion racket. And somehow all of these people are happy to sit down and work together and solve problems as if they are all no different from one another. And I think that’s beautiful. 

I got in a chat with one of the volunteers running the conference, and told him that despite finding the conference inspiring, and being excited to see so many different kinds of people working together, I also felt kind of guilty for being something of a bystander to the movement, and not doing more crimes.

He responded with the official line, that effective illegalism is a movement of ordinary people, that anyone can contribute, and that resistance to unjust laws starts in the mind and the heart. That not everyone has to be a saboteur or a career criminal. That a commitment could be something more like just helping people out at your job by showing them all the loopholes, pirating music, or even just by not being a narc. 

In fact, his philosophy was that you should do exactly what you feel like all the time, and not worry about the crime aspect at all, because if you look hard enough at the things you think are unjust in the world, and figure yourself out and commit to resisting evil where you, personally, see it, you’ll just naturally become an effective illegalist.

And then he knocked me down and stole my wallet. Just kidding. Then he invited me to help out with [CRIME PLAN REDACTED] which they were planning for that afternoon. And I realized I could either sit around and feel sad and cynical and depressed about the suffering in the world. Or I could go out, break some laws, and make the world a better place.  

Post from the illegalist blog High Potential

When Parks refused to give up her seat, a police officer arrested her. As the officer took her away, she recalled that she asked, “Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.”

Why hasn’t effective illegalism had our Rosa Parks moment yet?

You first heard about Rosa Parks in public school (sorry, homeschoolers). Back in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, got arrested for it, and her act of defiance became a symbol of the civil rights movement.

What you may not know is that her act of civil disobedience and the legal battle around it were somewhat strategic, and the civil rights movement rallied around Parks because they felt she was the ideal defendant to attract public sympathy. Per Wikipedia

Parks was not the first person to resist bus segregation, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws, and she helped inspire the Black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year. The case became bogged down in the state courts, but the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle resulted in a November 1956 decision that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Parks was considered the ideal plaintiff for a test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was seen as a responsible, mature woman with a good reputation. She was securely married and employed, was regarded as possessing a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy. King said that Parks was regarded as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”.

This was a huge success in favor of civil rights, I mean clearly, since we are still talking about it today. So for effective illegalism, a movement that in theory should not be afraid of breaking a few laws, why have we not had our Rosa Parks moment yet?

I think there are a couple of reasons.

Effective illegalism tends to fight against problems, not against laws. Obviously we are happy to break or bend laws, but we target problems like the housing shortage or prescription drug costs, and the laws that we break are often not the laws that cause these problems. In comparison, Rosa Parks broke a specific law (Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City code), and eventually (indirectly) got the law declared unconstitutional. 

Part of this is a sign of the times. In 1955, there were big, specific laws that were clearly unjust. Today, we live in a web of many small laws that are all kind of nebulous, which are often harmless-looking on their own, but which collectively are unjust. So I accept that it’s gotten harder, but we can still find laws to fight. 

If effective illegalists want to see this kind of success, we may want to consider more targeted acts of civil disobedience, where we break specific laws we think are wrong in the hopes of either showing how foolish they are, or creating court cases to challenge them directly. This is different from our normal approach of ignoring the laws to do good directly; but probably we should do some of both. We should fight unjust laws and should be ready to do that forever, but it would also be great if those unjust laws went away.

There’s also the issue of, well, effective illegalists are not a naturally sympathetic group. Most of us have real disdain for authority and would not make ideal plaintiffs. And we are not facing down laws as comically and obviously unjust as bus segregation, where black riders were required to pay at the front of the bus, then get off the bus so that they could go around and board at the back, and where drivers would often pull away and leave riders behind even though they had paid their fares. This is some real obvious kick-the-dog nonsense I would feel embarrassed to include as a fiction writer, but it really happened.

Even so, some of us are more sympathetic than others, and there are certainly many laws out there that are comically evil, even if they’re not quite on the level with bus segregation. I think we can do more to focus our efforts on these high-leverage issues and put sympathetic faces to the costs of these horrible laws.

Charities make good use of putting specific faces to mass tragedies

But ultimately I think the main reason we haven’t had a Rosa Parks moment comes from the fact that effective illegalism, at least so far, has focused on crimes that are “safe”. What I mean by “safe” is crimes where it is unlikely for us to end up arrested. We mostly commit crimes that are only technically criminal, crimes that no one ever bothers to enforce, or crimes where we’re very hard to catch. This does make a lot of intuitive sense, because most of us do not want to get arrested. It makes sense to want to get away with these crimes. 

Because of this focus on safe crimes, very few of us have been arrested. Most people see this as good, as success for effective illegalism. They think this is a design criterion, that our progress can be measured by not only how many great crimes we do, but how many great crimes we can get away with. 

But some things can only happen if we take bigger risks, and are open to sometimes getting arrested. I’m glad that few of us have gotten pinched or gone to jail. But we’re hamstringing ourselves if we keep playing things totally safe. 

And SOME things can only happen if we get arrested intentionally. 

Parks moved, but toward the window seat; she did not get up to move to the redesignated colored section. Parks later said about being asked to move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till – a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a White woman in her family’s grocery store, whose killers were tried and acquitted – and I just couldn’t go back.” Blake said, “Why don’t you stand up?” Parks responded, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” Blake called the police to arrest Parks. When recalling the incident for Eyes on the Prize, a 1987 public television series on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks said, “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested.’ I said, ‘You may do that.'”

I wonder if some people misunderstand the Rosa Parks story. 

Some people would say that in today’s media environment, more outrage is bad. People are outraged enough, and even if we come up with a cloyingly sympathetic story, more outrage will be lost in the noise. There’s a new scandal every week. 

But I don’t actually think Rosa Parks’ example sparked people to outrage. I think it sparked them to change their mind, and it sparked things like a bus boycott. It shifted people from emotional outrage to something people could actually do about it. 

One thing we should aim to do as illegalists is change people’s minds about specific laws, and about the law in general. Think about a potentially sympathetic white person in 1955 Alabama hearing about Rosa Parks. If a black teenager had refused to give up her seat, they would say, that kid needs to learn respect for authority. If a black man with a criminal record had refused to give up his seat, they would say, these criminals will flaunt any law. But Rosa Parks defied any excuse the mind would naturally reach for. A white voter with an ounce of sympathy in their heart will have to look at this case and say, well she did break the law, but she didn’t deserve to get arrested for it. Maybe that law is wrong.  

It’s also worth noticing what the movement did to change black people’s minds, about how much to fear and respect the law. Martin Luther King Jr. had this to say about his eventual arrest in the course of the boycott: 

At the jail, an almost holiday atmosphere prevailed. On the way Ralph Abernathy told me how people had rushed down to get arrested the day before. No one, it seems, had been frightened. No one had tried to evade arrest. Many Negroes had gone voluntarily to the sheriff ’s office to see if their names were on the list, and were even disappointed when they were not. A once fear-ridden people had been transformed. Those who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom. With this feeling of solidarity around me, I walked with firm steps toward the rear of the jail. After I had received a number and had been photographed and fingerprinted, one of my church members paid my bond and I left for home. 

Another thing we should aim to do is to inspire people to take action. Three days after Parks’ arrest, local leaders started planning a bus boycott, and four days after Parks’ arrest, the boycott started. It ended up lasting 382 days. Black riders made up something like 70% of the bus company’s ridership, so the transit system’s revenue fell overnight. Was this illegalism? Sort of — the city used various methods to try to quash the boycott. They eventually got to the point where they treated it as illegal:

[Martin Luther King Jr.] and 88 other boycott leaders and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a business under a 1921 ordinance. Rather than wait to be arrested, they turned themselves in as an act of defiance.

King was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending two weeks in jail. The move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest. King commented on the arrest by saying: “I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.”

So when I talk about finding or creating sympathetic examples, I don’t just mean examples to stoke the fires of outrage. We certainly don’t need more of that. I mean examples that will change people’s minds about what is right and what is wrong, even if only a little. And I mean examples that will motivate people to actions, things like boycotts, or maybe to becoming illegalists themselves.

Or maybe the truth is that effective illegalism doesn’t need a Rosa Parks moment. We’ve been pretty successful so far flying under the radar, maybe that’s the right approach for people like us. I tried to explore what a Rosa Parks moment would look like for us, but it’s also possible that this is just a different kind of movement than civil rights.

The Crime Accelerator, a Washington Post interview with Jan Gold

WaPo: Today I’m speaking with Jan Gold, a prominent podcaster and spokesman for the movement that calls themselves effective illegalism, a movement whose unofficial slogan is, “Do the Best Crimes”.

Gold: I wouldn’t really call myself a spokesman. I’m not an effective illegalist. Most of them don’t really like me, in part because I do things like talk to the press, which they don’t love. But they do tolerate me. I’m more like an anthropologist.

WaPo: How would you describe the movement?

Gold: Effective illegalism is a group of people from all walks of life who have come together to find ways to improve society. Their logic is that all the legal ways to improve society have already been tried, so the remaining options for making a real difference in the world will all be things that are technically illegal, but morally good, even righteous. So they spend a lot of time figuring out which kinds of illegal acts would do the most good, and then if those acts are feasible, they go out and commit those crimes.

WaPo: Many people have called this approach misguided. After all, the crimes you commit are illegal for a reason.

Gold: Of course these actions are all illegal for a reason, but that reason isn’t always that they’re morally wrong. Sometimes they’re illegal because of a technicality. Sometimes they’re illegal to protect a corporation’s financial interests. Most often, I think, good ideas are illegal because our legislators are not very good at writing laws. 

I don’t think breaking the law is wrong — I care a lot more about whether my actions are smart, just, and responsible, and whether they avoid being treacherous, destructive, and evil. 

WaPo: What do you say to people who are concerned that effective illegalism is a breeding ground for anarchists who want to destroy the government? 

Gold: Effective illegalism does attract a lot of anarchists and libertarians, but that’s mostly because anarchists and libertarians are already coming from a place where they understand that the government sometimes passes laws that are not in the best interests of the public. But anarchists are still a minority, since there are so few of them to begin with. We attract progressives, conservatives, evangelical Christians, environmentalists… we even attract a decent number of LEOs.

WaPo: LEOs?

Gold: Sorry, law enforcement officers.

WaPo: Why would police support a movement to break the law? 

Gold: The police have a better understanding of how the law is actually enforced than most people do. They know that enforcement is often arbitrary, that laws can contradict other laws, or even contradict themselves. They routinely come face to face with choices where they can either choose to enforce the law as it’s written, or do the right thing. For many of them, this is a huge part of their job. Different police officers take this differently, but most of them tend to develop, let’s call it, a practical approach to the law.

All that, but also, police officers are regular people and have the same problems regular people do, so they support effective illegalism for the same reasons that regular people do. 

If you find a police officer with diabetes — or if you find a police officer whose parent or, even more, whose child has diabetes — and give them low-cost, illegally-produced insulin, you end up with an ally for life. They look after that illegal insulin-production operation like their life depends on it, because sometimes it does. 

And not just police, mind, lots of government workers are effective illegalists. Partially because seeing the functioning of government radicalizes them; partially because being on the inside of the government gives them more opportunity to bend the law. You’d be surprised how many IRS workers end up seeing the injustices in tax law and coming to effective illegalism to find a way to make a difference. 

WaPo: The effective illegalism movement is dominated by people who go by monikers like shaman_ist and mariopoker6969. Why are effective illegalists so afraid to use their real names? 

Gold: Well, first off, many of them do use their real names, especially people who intentionally get arrested to draw attention to certain causes, as part of their illegalism. People like Shaune Bowman, Ben Jones, Leopold Lee, and Layla Steen Finch all publicly admit to being illegalists, though I suspect most or all of them also use pseudonyms. But the obvious answer as to why many of them don’t use their legal name is that they don’t want to be arrested. 

We also find it kind of facile to describe this as “real names”. Just because it’s the name the state knows you by doesn’t make it your real name, it just makes it your legal name. And you know how we feel about laws. 

WaPo: But the use of publicly-known names encourages accountability. Shouldn’t people face the consequences for their actions? 

Gold: Again this seems pretty facile. I’m glad that that Adolf Eichmann faced the consequences for his actions, but what he did was legal, at least in the country he did it in at the time. I don’t think Harriet Tubman should have “faced the consequences” of her actions, even though what she did was illegal in the United States at the time.

We can have a more sophisticated moral compass than just “is it currently legal or not” — you know, the kind of moral compass that lets us condemn genocide and applaud the abolition of slavery. That seems like a good idea to me. 

WaPo: Isn’t this a movement that glorifies and encourages young people to become criminals? 

Gold: One of the things that most people don’t realize about living in a legalist society like ours is that, whether or not you realize it, you are already a criminal, even if you’re not prosecuted. 

Ayn Rand wasn’t right about everything, but she was right when she said that when there aren’t enough criminals, the government makes them. So many things are declared to be a crime that it becomes impossible for us to live without breaking laws. 

We’re not even just talking jaywalking. Transport your guns wrong? That’s a felony. Transport your legal, prescription drugs wrong? That’s a felony. Share your prescription drugs with your wife? That’s a felony.

I would say that effective illegalism glorifies some criminals, people like Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t think it glorifies muggers or arsonists.

WaPo: Many people find the idea of any organized crime to be very unsettling. Won’t your movement eventually descend into violence?

Gold: Most people conflate crime and violence, but of course not all crime is violent crime, and in general effective illegalists think that violent approaches are a bad idea. It’s not like violent crime is generally committed by strangers, either, most violent crime is committed by people you know

We don’t totally rule out violence because there are some historical cases we can point to where we think violence was justified. The American Revolution was an armed uprising. The Civil War was fought in part to abolish slavery. Even Ghandi said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”

But we also don’t think violence is a good strategy in most cases, in part for the reason you say. People don’t like violence and for the most part don’t see it as justified, outside of cases like self-defense. 

Part of what will make effective illegalism work in the long term is the fact that the public is naturally sympathetic to our cause. Solving problems with nonviolent approaches tends to get us even more support. And outside of some rare extreme cases, violence would turn people off. So we almost always try to avoid violent crimes. 

WaPo: You think the public is sympathetic?

Gold: Sure. If you talk to most people, they care about whether or not their neighborhood is safe, whether they can get affordable healthcare when they need it, whether they have access to things like food and water and reliable housing and transportation, stuff like that. 

They don’t really care if the things that get them these things are technically legal or illegal. In fact, almost all of them have experience with pointless governmental red tape, and most of them share the intuition that poorly-made laws are keeping them from having the kind of health, security, and opportunity that they need. This is a feeling that cuts across class, across income brackets, and across the political spectrum. Most people are afraid of the law, but when they see you breaking a specific law in a way they think is moral and that clearly is a benefit to them and their neighbors, they like it.

WaPo: Why commit crimes instead of working within the system?

Gold: This is a false dichotomy. We can and should do both. In the civil rights movement, people broke unjust laws to demonstrate how unjust they were. They also tried to overturn those laws through the normal, legal channels. So today, when we see a law we think is immoral, we both break it, and try to get it repealed. If we’ve had less success repealing unjust laws than they did in the 1960s, I think that says more about how legal reform has changed than about our practices. 

But sorry, that doesn’t really answer your question. The real answer is that sometimes there needs to be action right away, and working within the system is too slow for things where the consequences of waiting are serious. If Congress passes an unjust law, you can get arrested and make appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court, and maybe get it ruled unconstitutional. But that can take years, or even decades. In the meantime, everyone either suffers under the unjust law, or they go to jail. If you go to jail for breaking a law that’s later ruled to be unconstitutional, it’s not like they just let you out. If the unjust law is about medical care, for example, many people will die, because the system’s gears move too slowly. Many of these issues are too important to wait for the system to sort itself out, even if it eventually would.

WaPo: But won’t all this illegalism lead to a breakdown in law and order? 

Gold: Well, it depends what you mean by “breakdown in law and order”. 

If you mean total chaos, cannibalism, people murdering each other in the street, I don’t think that will happen, because we don’t think murder and cannibalism are good crimes. 

If you mean a world where people get the healthcare they need, where cities are safe and clean, where individual citizens work together to maintain our infrastructure — yes, I think if we’re lucky we might see that kind of breakdown in law and order, because these are all crimes that we think are good ideas. 

Excerpt from a post from the blog Half Scale Ninety

No one really knows how effective illegalism began, but I like to imagine that it started in the basement of a house in San Francisco. 

Some effective altruists were drinking and commiserating over the fact that even though effective altruism had gained worldwide recognition and was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, there were still all sorts of important problems they weren’t able to make any progress on. 

They got to talking, as effective altruists do, about the things that were getting in their way. They kept running into a lot of great ideas for progress that they couldn’t act on because some part of the idea was illegal — to do the idea and make the progress, they would have to break the law. One of them jokingly suggested that they should start a NEW movement, all about doing the best crimes, and I guess the idea stuck. 

Or you know, that’s what I like to think happened.

Predictions for 1950

[Previously in this series: Predictions for 2050, A Few More Predictions for 2050]

Happy New Year to all! Welcome to 1922, and welcome back to our column, Slime of the Times.

Last year Professor Erik Hoel of Tufts University wrote in his column about all the things that will change between now and the far-distant future year of 1950. But this is no pulp-magazine tall tale; Professor Hoel says that the best way to predict the future of tomorrow is to extend the burgeoning trends of today.

While it sounds impossibly far off, the truth is that 1950 is a mere 28 years away. Making predictions for 1950 based on what we see to-day is just like sitting in the Gay Nineties and predicting what the world would look like in 1920 — no mean task, but not impossible either.

To us this seemed like jolly good fun. So without further ado, here is our set of predictions for the distant future that is 1950.

You Can’t Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm 

By now you all know the 1919 hit song of wild acclaim, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Probably you have heard the recording by legendary vaudeville darling Nora Bayes. And maybe you know the single from last year, “In a Cozy Kitchenette Apartment” from Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue, rhapsodizing about urban living. 

Well, Miss Nora and all the other songbirds are right. The rural problem is here and it’s here to stay — city drift is the trend of the next 30 years and beyond. Already more than half of all Americans live in cities, and that is not stopping any time soon. The agrarian America we know and love is coming to an end. 

Metropolitan apartment living will soon be normal and even, in time, respectable. The home as you know it will soon be out of date, and instead of living in a pleasant frame dwelling with a front yard and crimson rambler roses over the porch, your son or daughter will live in a huge apartment building, where among hundreds of cell-like cubicles, they will be known to their neighbors not by name, but as “50A” or “32B”.

Young people in the cities will eat from “delicatessens” and “cafeterias” rather than from the kitchen. Already there are more than fifty delicatessens in Baltimore, and they are spreading in most every major city. Meanwhile the so-called cafeterias bring Chicago ideas of mechanical efficiency to the American dinner service, resembling nothing so much as a factory assembly line.

Some of you may think that delicatessens are the emblems of a declining civilization, the source of all our ills, and the destroyer of the home. But to our children and our children’s children even this scourge will become unremarkable, whatever the consequences may be to the American family.

Yes, our great-grandchildren will eat sandwiches, a natural by-product of modern machine civilization, and never know what they are missing of their heritage.

The Servant Problem

The movement to these “efficiency apartments” will be spurred by many things, but one is the gradual but ever-increasing decline in the role of the domestic servant. The servant problem comes and goes, and if you read tips on how to hire and clothe them in the magazines, you might be convinced it is simply a seasonal concern. But it gets harder to find servants every year, and it will get harder still, until the servant as we know her disappears.

The middle class will soon abandon servants almost entirely. The very well-to-do might employ a maid, but she will not attend the household day and night, and they will have no cooks and certainly no chauffeur. If they have a maid, they might even share her with other families. By 1950, only the very oldest, richest families will employ live-in servants. English butlers and Scotch maids, so common today in the households of your more fortunate relations, will be a thing almost entirely of the past.

Just imagine it. The silence of the once-great household. No more bustle on the streets every Sunday, when the maids and footmen take their weekly day off. No more fine, uniformed chauffeurs in front of estates. But where would you house them to begin with, in the tiny apartments of the far future? 

The Nation will be Powered over the Wires 

All of us can remember the time, not so long ago, when electric power was rare, even a novelty. But soon this wonder will be common-place in the homes of all. Indeed, it is already coming not only to private but to public buildings. President Benjamin Harrison was the first to benefit from electricity in the White House, all the way back in 1891. In 1906, Grand Central Terminal in New York City was electrified as well.

By the end of this year, almost four out of every ten US households will have electric wiring, and before 1930, more than half of households in the nation will be electrified. By 1950, every public building, and all but the meanest house, will have the full benefits of modern electrical systems. Even the most rural parts of our great nation will shine with electric light.

The posters might look something like this

The Finest Delicacies at Any Time of Year

Imagine a technology that captures freshness, abolishes the seasons, and erases the limitations of geography. Imagine food out of season; peaches from South Africa and strawberries picked green and shipped around the world. Imagine a midwestern housewife serving her family fresh filet of sole. 

These qualities represent the cutting edge of culinary modernity, and all will soon be made reality through the incredible power of refrigeration. Refrigerated railroad cars will bring delicacies long-distance from any locale. Refrigerated silos will store them year-round. Whatever regional delicacies you please, wherever you are.

Say good-bye to ice-harvesters and iceboxes! Forget about going down to the pond with a pair of tongs and bringing back a dribbling piece of ice. When foods and dishes reach your home, they will be stored in a fully electrified home refrigeration unit. You have probably heard of or even seen the clunky gas-powered household refrigeration unit produced by General Electric, or the more recent Kelvinator put on the market by General Motors. 

To be frank, these models are ugly and they are expensive — the Kelvinator will put you back as much as a new car! But everyone knows there is money in refrigeration. In the coming decade, dozens more models and companies will enter the fray. Some will be powered by gas, some by kerosine, but the ultimate winners will be those that run on electricity. Home refrigeration units will become more and more affordable. They will become compact and sleek, until they are admired as objects of modern beauty. These things will soon be so completely nifty to look at, that merely to see one will be to have a passionate desire for one.

Advances in freezing foods will revolutionize American cuisine. Modern frozen foods are invariably soggy and lifeless, but scientific control over temperature will soon give us frozen dishes that preserve each food at the very peak of freshness. Peas, asparagus, and spinach, each vegetable as delicious as if they had just been bought from the farmer down the road, ready from the moment they are drawn from the freezer, with no preparation required, not even washing. Farm-fresh broilers, tender calves liver, halibut, and even frozen goose — meats, poultry, vegetables, and fruit.

By 1950, futuristic markets equipped with refrigeration technology on a massive scale will be the norm. Enter any town market and choose from a huge variety of neatly stacked cartons of frozen fruits and vegetables, meats, and seafood, all of uniform quality, tastefully arranged in great refrigerated display cases that run the entire length of the store. 

There will be another Great War with the Hun

In Germany they are already concerned about the depreciation of the German mark. Each additional payment to France, England, and the United States brings a flood of paper currency and makes the depreciation of the marks greater. Yet the London ultimatum shall be held, Germany will be destabilized, invigorating unhealthy parasitical elements in Germany itself, and within a generation, there will be another great war.

This war will be, if it can be believed, even worse than the great war we just concluded. Already we have seen the evolution of aircraft, tools of peace, into first machines for reconnaissance, and then into “fighters” and bombers. In the next war, great flotillas of aircraft will level the jewels of Europe. New and terrible weapons will make even the mustard gas seem as quaint as a musket.

This time the war will be truly great — a world war. China and Japan both fought in the last war, and have gotten a taste for it. Japan in particular grows hungry, and bold after their victories over Russia. They desire nothing more to be a great power, and will take advantage of any chaos to rival not only Russia but Germany, Great Britain, and perhaps even the United States.

However, the Ottomans will be gone, and will no longer be a major power. We would frankly be surprised if the Ottoman Empire lasts the rest of the year.

There will be another Great Depression

We all remember the hard times of the past two years, what will surely come to be called the Depression of 1920–1921. Many of you also remember the Panic of 1907 or Knickerbocker Crisis, when the breadlines in New York City grew to incredible lengths.

Now things seem to have stabilized, and the 1920s show every sign of being another long economic boom. Businesses are growing and factories are running full tilt, churning out line after line of dazzling new goods.

But we warn you that even in the world of tomorrow, expansion is followed by contraction, and we will see another Great Depression within a generation. It may even be worse — maybe this next downturn will be so bad that it will come to be called the Great Depression, and everyone will forget that there ever was a Great Depression of 1873.

We don’t remember this part of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but we have to assume that the bears were part of a sound fiscal policy.

Business Girls

Many of us still carry in our minds psychological remnants of the age when the home and indeed the country was built upon masculine protection. But in reality, the world has already changed, and it is changing more rapidly all the time. A quarter of the American workforce is already staffed by women, working outside the home as typists, switchboard operators, stenographers, waitresses, store clerks, factory hands, and bookkeepers. 

Even now, there are some young couples where both the man and his bride hold down full-time jobs. (This is why they come to rely on the delicatessen.) When the next great war with the European powers comes — and come it will — more women will take on jobs left open by boys who are sent to the front. Old gentlemen may scoff, but the truth is that any woman who can use a kitchen mixer can learn to operate a drill. We will see women auxiliaries to our armed forces, women carpenters, perhaps even a woman riveter or some other such futuristic vision. 

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in effect for only two years now, will change the face of American politics as much as the wars change the face of American labor. Before 1930 we shall see a woman senator, a woman representative, women mayors, and even women governors. Gradually women will enter the White House and serve in presidential cabinets. There shall be women diplomats. By 1950 Americans will have come to think nothing about a woman for the highest post in the land.

You Will Hear the Latest from New York and Chicago in the Comfort of your Drawing Room

It sounds like something out of a pulp magazine, but by 1950 there will be a radio in every home. Turning on the radio receiver will be as normal to your children, as picking up a newspaper is to you. 

You may already have heard of some of the early success stories, like KDKA in Pittsburgh, which you might know by its old call sign, 8XK. They have aired religious services, a speech by the great humanitarian Herbert Hoover, the Dempsey – Carpentier heavyweight boxing match, and just a few months ago, the first major league professional baseball game, the Pirates-Phillies game at Forbes Field. This is not the future — this is the present! You simply have not caught up yet to the incredible pace of advancements in radio.

Everything newspapers can do, radio will do better. And not only coverage of baseball games and boxing matches. Syndicated radio shows, like syndicated columns, but with voice and music. Radio plays, almost as good as going to the theater. News coverage, live from any city in the nation, or from around the world. Don’t read about the president’s speech in the paper; hear it in his own voice as if you were in Washington. 

The Newsroom of Tomorrow

The Didactic Novel


James Clavell’s Shōgun is a historical novel about the English pilot John Blackthorne. The Dutch ship he’s piloting crashes in Japan in the year 1600, and Blackthorne has to learn how to survive in what to him is a mad and totally alien culture. 

All historical novels are somewhat educational, but Shōgun teaches you about more than just Japanese society at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. 

Blackthorne speaks a lot of different languages, and this is a big part of his identity. He speaks English natively and Dutch with his crew, but also Latin and Portuguese and even a little Spanish, which he uses to communicate with the few other Europeans he finds in Japan, mostly Catholic priests. This makes sense in the context of the novel — his ship is Dutch but their allies the English are the best pilots in the world, and they’re using stolen Portuguese documents to navigate strange waters, so he would need to speak that language too. 

So when Blackthorne finds himself stranded in Japan, he starts learning Japanese. At first this is hard because Blackthorne has only ever studied European languages before, and also because people keep trying to kill him. But he has a lot of experience learning foreign languages and little else to do, so he quickly starts picking it up.

What’s more surprising is that soon the reader is picking up some Japanese too. Linguistically, Clavell has put the reader in the very same situation as Blackthorne. The book starts out entirely in English, but suddenly you are confronted with words and phrases in a language you don’t understand. You end up learning many of these words and phrases just to follow along. 

Staged seppuku ritual, 1897

It seems like Clavell is doing this intentionally. The book is in English, but Blackthorne is the only English-speaking character in the novel. Except in the few cases where he’s talking to himself, all the dialogue is actually being carried on in other languages, but when the dialogue is in Dutch, or Portuguese, or even Latin, Clavell renders it all as English. When Japanese people are speaking Japanese to each other, he translates that into English too. But when Blackthorne encounters Japanese that he doesn’t understand, or just barely understands, it’s usually rendered as romanized Japanese. To follow these snippets you need to learn a little Japanese, so you do. And the interesting thing is, you learn this little bit of Japanese without any conscious effort.

It’s hard to read Shōgun all the way through and not learn at least a few words in Japanese. By the end of the first volume, most readers will know words like onna, kinjiru, wakarimasu, hai, ima, ikimasho, anjin, domo, isogi, and of course the omnipresent neh.

This isn’t a perfect language-learning tool. Shōgun is over 300,000 words long (and the original draft was considerably longer), but most of that is devoted to being a historical novel, an adventure story, and a romance, not teaching you Japanese. We love that there are lots of reasons to read it. But given the limited amount of space devoted to these basic Japanese lessons, it’s a very effective introduction.


Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is a dense novel that alternates between historical fiction and near-future sci-fi. 

There are two storylines. The first is set during World War II, and follows a group of characters pioneering cryptography in an effort to win the war, and inventing the computer — among the characters are a fictionalized version of Alan Turing and his even-more-fictional German boyfriend, Rudolf “Rudy” von Hacklheber. 

The second storyline focuses on the grandchildren of some of the WWII characters in the modern day, several of whom are putting together a startup in southeast Asia in an attempt to create an anonymous banking system using magic internet money. The novel was published in 1999 so yes, this seemed like an ambitiously futuristic scheme at the time. It also maybe helped create that future — Cryptonomicon was required reading during the early days of PayPal.

Unironically the best ad ever created

But implicitly, and at times explicitly, Cryptonomicon is a textbook on something like information theory. Chapter One includes a long discussion where Alan Turing and Rudy von Hacklheber teach Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse (sort of the viewpoint character) about Russell and Whitehead, Gödel, the distinctions between mathematics and physics, how logic can be reduced to symbols, etc. If this sounds dry, it isn’t — you’ll probably learn more about philosophy of math in these 4000 words than you did during 4 years of college. Then Alan and Rudy give Lawrence a problem to go off and solve so the two of them can fuck. Sex comes up a lot in Cryptonomicon, possibly because sex itself is about the exchange of deeply encrypted source code, or possibly because Stephenson is just horny.

All that just in Chapter One. This is a book about cryptography, and so pretty much every other chapter has some lesson, implicit or explicit, about topics like symbols, languages, systems, inference, even actual algorithms or code snippets. Chapter 25 ends by walking you through the process of doing encryption and decryption with a one-time pad. There’s even information theory disguised (?) as small-business advice. It’s kind of Gödel, Escher, Bach in novel format, to the point that there are references to GEB hidden in a few places around the book. 

For the most part these lessons are subtle and deeply embedded:

One night, Benjamin received a message and spent some time deciphering it. He announced the news to Shaftoe: “The Germans know we’re here.”

“What do you mean, they know we’re here?”

“They know that for at least six months we have had an observation post overlooking the Bay of Naples,” Benjamin said.

“We’ve been here less than two weeks.”

’’They’re going to begin searching this area tomorrow.”

“Well, then let’s get the fuck out of here,” Shaftoe said.

“Colonel Chattan orders you to wait,” Benjamin said, “until you know that the Germans know that we are here.”

“But I do know that the Germans know that we are here,” Shaftoe said, “you just told me.”

“No, no no no no,” Benjamin said, “wait until you would know that the Germans knew even if you didn’t know from being told by Colonel Chattan over the radio.”

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Orders,” Benjamin said, and handed Shaftoe the deciphered message as proof.

But in a few places he does come out and state the idea plainly:

It all comes to him, explosively, during the Battle of Midway, while he and his comrades are spending twenty-four hours a day down among those ETC machines, decrypting Yamamoto’s messages, telling Nimitz exactly where to find the Nip fleet.

What are the chances of Nimitz finding that fleet by accident? That’s what Yamamoto must be asking himself.

It is all a question (oddly enough!) of information theory.

If the action is one that could never have happened unless the Americans were breaking Indigo, then it will constitute proof, to the Nipponese, that the Americans have broken it. The existence of the source—the machine that Commander Schoen built—will be revealed.

Waterhouse trusts that no Americans will be that stupid. But what if it isn’t that clear-cut? What if the action is one that would merely be really improbable unless the Americans were breaking the code? What if the Americans, in the long run, are just too damn lucky?

And how closely can you play that game? A pair of loaded dice that comes up sevens every time is detected in a few throws. A pair that comes up sevens only one percent more frequently than a straight pair is harder to detect—you have to throw the dice many more times in order for your opponent to prove anything.

If the Nips keep getting ambushed—if they keep finding their own ambushes spoiled—if their merchant ships happen to cross paths with American subs more often than pure probability would suggest—how long until they figure it out?

The whole book is backwards and out-of-order — not only because the chapters set in 1942 are intermixed with the chapters set in 1997, but because internal storylines are intentionally disjointed. Effects come before causes, explanations come many chapters before or after the thing they are meant to explain, critical hints are brief and easily missed. But this is intentional. The whole book is a giant combination lock, the final exercise left for the reader, and deciphering it is part of the reading experience and part of the lesson.

In any case, it’s hard to read Cryptonomicon all the way through and not learn something about information theory. You won’t be an expert, but it’s a damn fine introductory textbook. And because Stephenson is such a master, the book is designed to give up more mysteries every time you re-read it. Each time you revisit, you’re struck with stuff you missed the last time around. 

Writing novels that are secretly textbooks kind of seems to be Stephenson’s MO. Cryptonomicon has a prequel series called The Baroque Cycle. Just like Cryptonomicon deals with the invention of computing and information theory, these books deal with the invention of the scientific method, following historical characters like Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz. It’s also about the invention of banking/modern currency, and it’s heavily implied that the two are connected — a true historical fact is that in addition to his work in physics, Isaac Newton was the Master of the Mint, in charge of all English currency, for thirty years. He even went out to taverns in disguise to personally catch counterfeiters. 

The perfect disguise

Stephenson also seems to be aware that this is what he’s doing. Maybe this is not surprising given his other novel The Diamond Age, a book about a book that teaches you things. The Diamond Age follows a similar model and tries to implicitly teach the reader about the basics of computer science and macroeconomics.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMoR) is a 660,000-word Harry Potter fanfic by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Explicitly, HPMoR asks the question: what if Harry Potter were raised by an Oxford professor and was intensively homeschooled, instead of being raised in a closet by the Dursleys? Also explicitly, HPMoR is Yudkowsky’s attempt to teach the scientific method and “the methods of rationality” to a general audience.

Clavell and Stephenson seem somewhat aware that their novels are educational, but Yudkowsky is the only one of the three who comes right out and talks about how this is his goal, at least that we’ve seen. In a post on why he wrote the fanfic, he says:

But to answer your question, nonfiction writing conveys facts; fiction writing conveys *experiences*. I’m worried that my previous two years of nonfiction blogging haven’t produced nearly enough transfer of real cognitive skills. The hope is that writing about the inner experience of someone trying to be rational will convey things that I can’t easily convey with nonfiction blog posts.

Yudkowsky is referring to his other attempt to teach these skills as “The Sequences” on LessWrong. Elsewhere he says that these two attempts, fiction and nonfiction, don’t even communicate the same thought. But to editorialize a bit, it seems like HPMoR was more successful than the Sequences. It’s certainly reached a broad audience — among other things, it’s been reviewed in venues like Vice, Who Magazine, and The Hindustan Times.

(To editorialize a bit more, Yudkowsky’s writing on writing might be more interesting than either the Sequences or HPMoR. But of course we’re very interested in writing so we’re kind of biased.)

Yudkowsky describes his goal as teaching “real cognitive skills”, and he’s on the money with this one. Many skills are better taught through experience than presented as a block of facts — you’ll learn more Japanese from getting lost in Tokyo than you will from skimming a Japanese grammar. So for skills like these, a didactic novel is better than an explicit textbook, or at least a good complement.

HPMoR is spread a little thin — unlike Japanese or information theory, “rationality” is not really a single subject, so it’s a little less cohesive. But Yudkowsky does still have a lot of specific points he’s trying to make, and it’s hard to read HPMoR all the way through and not learn something about genetics, psychology, heuristics, game theory, tactics, and the scientific method.

The Didactic Novel

All three of these novels were extremely successful. All of them try to teach you something more concrete than the average novel tries to teach you. And all of them are at least somewhat successful.

Some skills, like oil painting or bicycle repair, are hard to learn from just reading about them — you actually have to go out and try it for yourself. But in many skills, the basics can be picked up vicariously. You won’t be a great codebreaker after reading Cryptonomicon, but it gives you a very firm foundation to start from.

Novels are powerful teaching tools because they’re more fun than textbooks, and fun is good. Educational and entertaining are treated like foils, but they’re actually complimentary. If something is entertaining, it holds your attention; if it holds your attention, you will be able to engage; if you engage you can learn something. If something is boring or tedious you will go look at twitter or pick your nose instead. Shōgun doesn’t teach you quite as much Japanese as you would get from a Japanese 101 course at the local university, but we guarantee it’s twice as fun and two hundred times easier to read Shōgun than it is to take all those quizzes. Japanese for Busy People is a pretty good textbook, but you don’t want to cuddle in with it on a snowy afternoon.

And frankly, fun sticks in your brain easier. 

Fiction is great. It engages. It inspires. Fiction led thousands of people to develop an intricate understanding of the history and politics of Westeros, including hundreds of characters and thousands of events and relationships. It led people to create detailed models of fictional castles in SketchUp. Fiction inspires people to scholarly discourse on the details of medieval sieges, or painstaking minecraft replicas of entire continents. Fiction leads people to totally overthink why an empire might destroy a province in a show of military might, or speculate in-depth about the project management that it would require. And yes, the power of fiction led to millions of words worth of Harry Potter fanfic from literally thousands of authors. Imagine if we harnessed even a little of that power.

Do you have strong opinions about which of these people you would invite to your birthday party? Which of them you would have an ale with? Which of them you would let look after your child? You do? FICTION

Language Learning

We think there should be lots more didactic novels — novels that try to teach you something concrete, like a skill. And we actually think that James Clavell got it right with Shōgun, that the best subject for a didactic novel is language learning. 

Shōgun is distracted by having many other priorities, but a novel that put language-learning first could be an engine of unimaginable education. Much like Clavell, you would start the story entirely in English, and introduce words in the new language one by one. Eventually you would start introducing basic grammar. The bits in the target language would start out on the level of “see spot run”, but would gradually become as complicated as the sections in English. As you move through the novel, the text would transition slowly from all-English to all-target-language. By the end, you would just be reading a novel in Swedish or Arabic or Cantonese or whatever.

This transition would have to be very slow for this to work, so the novel would have to be really long. But if you do it slowly enough, it won’t feel difficult for the reader at any point.

You might be worried that people won’t be willing to read such a massive story, but we don’t think it’s a problem. People already spend a lot of time on language-learning apps. Language-learning is a big market, and people are plenty happy to invest their time and money. As just one example, Duolingo is now worth more than $6 billion. And Duolingo isn’t even that great — it’s kind of bad. 

And while there’s a stereotype that people don’t like to read, or don’t like long books, the rumors of the death of our attention spans are greatly exaggerated. Shōgun itself is on Wikipedia’s list of the longest novels of all time, at over 300,000 words, and it sold six million copies in the first five years of publication. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, also about 300,000 words, was a smash hit and won a slate of awards. The entire Lord of the Rings series (minus The Hobbit), is about 500,000 words. Infinite Jest is about 550,000 words, all of them dense.

The entire Harry Potter series is more than 1,000,000 words long, and millions of pre-teens have wolfed it down without stopping for breath. If a school story with magic wands could inspire kids to do that, imagine how they would respond to a book that actually teaches them German, or any other language their parents don’t understand. Half the fun of any YA series is all the weird shibboleths you develop that adults can’t pierce. On this note, the web epic Homestuck was arguably even longer, and captured the minds of a generation, for good or for ill.

You really can engage 13-year-olds with 1,000,000+ words of arcane bullshit

Game of Thrones, the first book alone, is about 300,000 words long, and the whole A Song of Ice and Fire series is about 1,700,000 words so far. While most people have not read all the books, you can’t deny their impact. And it’s not like the sales have been lackluster or something, Martin is one of the highest-earning authors in the world.

You could make a pretty good case that Dune, almost 200,000 words long and with five sequels, is already a didactic novel about ecology, or maybe political science, or maybe the intersection of ecology and political science. I’m at the ecology. I’m at the political science. I’m at the intersection of ecology and political science. 

A Case Study

Since we think Clavell has done the best job so far, it’s worth taking a bit of a look at how he does it.

(Minor spoilers for Shōgun from here on.)

The prologue has no Japanese at all, since it’s set on a Dutch ship in immediate danger of going down with all hands. But in Chapter 1, things are immediately different. Blackthorne wakes up in a strange room. A woman comes in and says something to him in Japanese — “Goshujinsama, gokibun wa ikaga desu ka?” It’s the very first page, and already we get a full sentence in Japanese.

A few pages later, we learn our first word. Blackthorne points at the woman to ask her her name. She says, “Onna”. But this is a misunderstanding — “onna” is just the Japanese word for “woman”. This will come back to get Blackthorne in the ass, but not for a while.

A few pages later we learn the words “daimyo” (a type of Japanese noble) and “samurai” when Blackthorne talks to one of the local Catholic priests, who challenges him in Portuguese.

Then a samurai appears and says, “Nanigoto da,” a phrase we don’t understand, three times. Then we get our second full sentence. The samurai, whose name is Omi, asks Blackthorne, “Onushi ittai doko kara kitanoda? Doko no kuni no monoda?” which the Portuguese priest translates as ‘Where do you come from and what’s your nationality?’” He also explains that the Japanese use the suffix “-san” after a name as an honorific, like we use “Mr.” or “Dr.” before ours, so he should call the samurai Omi-san.

Clavell doesn’t give us the rest of the conversation in Japanese, but at the end Omi asks him, “Wakarimasu ka?” which the priest translates as “Do you understand?” Blackthorne is already itching to learn the language for himself, and asks how to say “yes” in Japanese. The priest tells him to say, “wakarimasu,” which is sort of correct. He also sees Omi behead a man and shout “Ikinasai!” twice. Most of what we hear at this point isn’t translated, but we’re already getting exposed to a lot of Japanese.

From the 1980 miniseries

Blackthorne talks to a few more samurai on his ship, and hears the phrases “Hotté oké!”, “Nan no yoda?”, and “Wakarimasen”, which astute readers might already notice is similar to “Wakarimasu ka?” and “wakarimasu” from before. When he uses signs to ask to go to his cabin, they say, “Ah, so desu! Kinjiru.” Based on how they threaten him when he tries to go inside, he correctly infers that “Kinjiru” means “forbidden”.

After spending a lot of time with his crew, he goes back to the house he woke up in. He hears “konbanwa” from the gardener, and while it’s not defined, context makes it clear that this is a greeting — in fact, it’s Japanese for “good evening”. 

Then he asks to see “Onna” and the joke set up at the start of the chapter comes full circle. He hears “hai” and “ikimasho” and “nanda”, not understanding, and then one of the women tries to get into bed with him, until the village headman, who speaks a little Portuguese, explains that “onna” means “woman”. We also see our first “neh”s.

And that’s all the Japanese in Chapter One. Blackthorne is taught the words onna, daimyo, and samurai, and is taught to use the suffix –san. He is sort of taught the word wakarimasu, and he correctly infers the meaning of kinjiru. He — along with the reader — is also exposed to several words that are not yet defined explicitly, and a few complete phrases, some of which get approximate translations. 

In Chapter 2, and forever onwards, daimyo and samurai are used as normal vocab, since these terms don’t have equivalents in English, and we see the suffix -san where appropriate. We also see one other full sentence in Japanese — “Ano mono wa nani o moshité oru?”, which isn’t translated — but that’s it. 

In Chapter 3, we learn the suffix -sama, meaning “lord”. We also learn that ronin are “landless or masterless peasant-soldiers or samurai.” But this chapter is also short, and we barely see Blackthorne at all, so both of these translations are provided by the narration.

In Chapter 4, we hear the word “isogi”, which is translated as “hurry up!” Then we hear it again. We also see “kinjiru” twice, with only the reminder that it’s “the word from the ship”, but context and the hint help recall the meaning. 

In Chapter 5, Blackthorne starts using Japanese himself, saying “kinjiru” twice to talk to a samurai.

In Chapter 6, the local priest tells him that the Japanese word for “yes” is “hai”. Blackthorne uses the word four times. We see the phrase, “wakarimasu ka” twice, which the priest translates the first time, but not the second time. We encounter the word “okiro” for the first time, translated as “you will get up.” We also learn the word “anjin”, which means “pilot”, when Omi tells Blackthorne that the Japanese can’t pronounce his name and will call him “Mr. Pilot”, or “Anjin-san”.

In Chapter 7, we learn the phrase “konnichi wa”, which they translate as “good day”. Blackthorne then uses the phrase six times to greet people, and we hear it once from someone else. We see the word “Anjin” at least a dozen times — Clavell wants us to get used to it, because it’s Blackthorne’s new name. We see “hai” twice, and “wakarimasu” and “wakarimasu ka” and “isogi” and “kinjiru” once each. 

During this chapter, Blackthorne also meets a Portuguese pilot (Rodrigues), who tells him that “ima” means “now”, and also uses the term “ikimasho”, a term we saw once in Chapter 1, but doesn’t define it. He also uses the term “ichi ban”, which he doesn’t explain, and throws around a bunch of “wakarimasu ka”, “kinjiru”, and “sama”. When he argues with some samurai, they say “gomen nasai”, which is translated as “so sorry”, and “iyé”, which isn’t translated but clearly means “no”. 

In Chapter 8, Blackthorne and the Portuguese pilot Rodrigues use “wakarimasu ka” and “hai” with one another, just as part of normal conversation. Blackthorne hears him use “isogi” again, asks what it means, and Rodrigues tells him it means “hurry up”. Blackthorne uses the word not long after when he takes control of the ship in a storm. We see “wakarimasu” twice and “hai” four times. We see a new term, “arigato goziemashita” (not the common spelling), which isn’t defined but is clearly in the context of someone thanking him. We also see “iyé” again, in a context where it clearly means “no”, confirming its meaning.

In Chapter 9, we see “hai” twice, and “isogi” once. We also see “iyé”, and again Clavell refuses to define it explicitly. But by now, the reader has seen it three times in contexts that all clearly mean “no”, and is probably starting to pick up on that. 

In Chapter 10, we see “konnichi wa”, “isogi”, and “wakarimasu ka” once each, and “hai” five times. None of them are translated, and the chapter doesn’t miss a beat. These are all just normal vocabulary in the novel at this point, the reader is expected to know what they mean. 

At this point the novel takes a break from language education to spend a few chapters mostly focusing on plot, so we’ll stop here too. But already, you can see the pattern. 

Clavell mixes it up a lot, but the general formula goes like this:

  1. The first time you encounter a word, it isn’t defined and no one explains what it means, but there are often context clues.
  2. Soon after that, the word is used again and someone either tells you what it means, or Blackthorne guesses. 
  3. The next time you see the word, you get a little reminder either of the definition, or of the last time you saw the word.
  4. After a few more uses with clear context, the word becomes part of the general vocabulary. From then on, you are expected to know what it means!

This is essentially how you learn words as a child, or how you would learn Japanese if you had to use it as part of your daily life. The first time you hear a word, you have no idea what it means. Eventually someone tells you what it means or it becomes clear from context. The next time you see or hear the word, you might need a reminder. But once you’ve used it a bit, it gets locked in. 


Let’s look at some examples. The word “hai” means “yes”. You hear it first in Chapter 1, with a little context that suggests what it might mean. We don’t see it again until Chapter 6, when the local priest tells us what it means. It’s then used a couple of times in Chapter 7. In Chapters 8-10, it’s just a normal word, fully integrated into the story, with no further reminders. 

The word “kinjiru” means “forbidden”. Blackthorne hears it first in Chapter 1, and guesses what it means from context. We see it again in Chapter 4 with a simple reminder (just “the word from the ship”), and Blackthorne uses it in Chapter 5, where context makes it clear what it means. From then on, it’s in the vocab.

We first encounter the word “isogi” in Chapter 4, where the narrator translates it for the reader as “Hurry up!” But Blackthorne doesn’t get the benefit of this translation. When it reappears in Chapter 7, he still doesn’t know what it means. It comes back in Chapter 8, Blackthorne asks what it means, and Rodrigues tells him. Later that chapter, Blackthorne is using the word himself. It’s the same principles, just slightly mixed up.

The approach Clavell is using is called spaced repetition, a memory technique that works by introducing new content and then bringing it back after a bit of a delay. This works because of something called the forgetting curve. When you’ve just learned something, it’s strong in your memory, but that trace gets weaker and weaker over time. If you’re asked to remember the thing right away, it’s still fresh in your mind and takes no effort — but if you wait too long, you’ve forgotten entirely. So the thing to do is wait until the memory has decayed just a bit, and then bring it back. This stresses the memory and reinforces it, sort of like how stressing a muscle builds strength.

Clavell is taking advantage of the fact that most people will not chug this 300,000-word novel in one sitting — most people will read it a few chapters at a time. This gives them time to partially forget many of these words between chapters, so that when they return to the book in a day or two and the words come up again, they are jostled out of memory, and the meaning of the word is reinforced. 

(Stephenson uses the same approach as a storytelling technique. Something called “Van Eck phreaking” is an important plot point near the end of Cryptonomicon, so Stephenson makes sure that it’s explained before it becomes important, and that it comes up a few times before it’s explained.)

This is how you should write your didactic novel too. Start with a character who doesn’t know the language at all, who is in the same position as the reader. Words and concepts are introduced in the background first, without any explanation. After the reader has seen the word a few times, a character comes out and tells the reader what it means, or else they guess what it means, or it’s used in a context that makes the meaning clear. Shortly afterwards, the word is used again, either in a context that helps reinforce the meaning, or with a gentle reminder. 

Use the word a few more times in situations where context helps make the meaning clear. After that, add the word to your “approved vocabulary” list, and use it wherever it’s appropriate in the novel — the reader is now expected to know what it means. If you teach people a couple words each chapter, you can outstrip the average language 101 class in a decent-length novel.

All you need to do is go harder than Clavell, and make language-learning your secondary focus. We say secondary and not primary because your primary focus is to make sure it’s an enjoyable read. The book won’t teach anything if no one gets through it!

Naturally, you can use all the same techniques if you’re writing a didactic novel about calculus or music theory. All the same ideas still apply — language learning just offers an exceptionally clear-cut example. 

A Narrative Addition

Clavell’s technique is similar to the hero’s journey. This is a template for writing and describing stories, where a person starts out in their comfort zone, is forced out by circumstance, confronts trials, gains knowledge, and returns to their comfort zone, but stronger than they were before.

Clavell doesn’t exactly use this technique, but you could easily combine the hero’s journey with his approach.

The hero’s journey can be as epic as a series of fantasy novels, or as unassuming as a man changing a tire in the rain:

Fade in on a meek-looking man driving a car. It’s raining. Boom. Flat tire. He struggles to keep the car from ditching. He pulls it to the side of the road and stops. He’s got fear on his face. He looks out his car window at the pounding rain… It doesn’t matter how small or large the scope of your story is, what matters is the amount of contrast between these worlds. In our story about the man changing his tire in the rain, up until now, he wasn’t changing a tire. He was inside a dry car. Now, he opens his car door and steps into the pouring rain. … Our stranded, rain soaked driver has finished emptying the contents of his trunk on the side of the road. He sees the spare tire and he lets out a very slight, very fast sound of relief. That’s all. This is a story about a man changing a tire. … When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. … You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God. Depending on the scope of your story, a “living God” might be a guy that can finish changing a tire in the rain. 

This is such an engrossing story format because it mirrors the process of self-improvement in the real world, which the reader can enjoy vicariously. You learn something unfamiliar, use it, and master it. But in the didactic novel, we can put the reader in nearly the same situation as the character, and have them go through the journey together.

This approach would work well with genres like adventure novels, police procedurals, sitcoms, detective dramas, or Monster of the Week shows, which lend themselves well to stories with explicit cycles. Anything super-pulpy should fit the bill, anything episodic or serialized. 

The American spy stranded in Russia needs to get home, but to survive for the moment, he needs to learn some Russian. He finds an old run-down garage where two old farts, who speak a little English, let him hide out. Each cycle goes like this: During the intro, Spy encounters some Russian that he doesn’t know, on the radio or in the newspaper or something. This is foreshadowing, phrases that will come up later in the cycle, and this is just to embed them in the reader’s subconscious. Then he has a conversation with one of the old guys, who tells him some vocabulary or explains some part of Russian grammar to him. 

After this, the spy goes out on a mission or a job or something — get some supplies, meet a contact, follow up on a lead, normal spy shit. During the climax he is in a real pinch, but he remembers the words the old guy taught him that morning, and he manages to fix things. He uses those words a few more times to really embed them in the reader’s mind, and then he goes back to his hideout. The words he learned today go in the vocab box, and the author will use them freely from now on, maybe making sure to give them a guest appearance next episode so they stay in the reader’s memory.

For obvious reasons, novels that want to teach a language will have an easier time if the novel is set in the past, because there were more places you could go where you’d have to learn the language to get by. For similar reasons, setting your story in a time before cell phones and the internet will generally help a didactic novel on any subject, since it lets you isolate your characters from textbooks and dictionaries. Post-apocalyptic, fantasy, and far-future settings would also work.

So if you decide to write a didactic novel (or other didactic fiction), give us a holler.

Film Concept: Gangsters, Thugs, and Local Government


People who are decently well-off usually don’t appreciate how thin the line between “organized crime” and “local government” can be for the very poor.

In the Great Depression, notorious mobster Al Capone organized soup kitchens in Chicago. More recently, Brazilian gangs, in response to government failure to take action against the pandemic, declared a unilateral quarantine order in Rio de Janeiro, saying “If the government won’t do the right thing, organized crime will”. In some parts of Japan, the yakuza really are the de facto local government, and in the wake of natural disasters like earthquakes, they’re often faster to provide aid than the Japanese government is.

When you’re poor, the sad truth is that the de jure government probably doesn’t care about you much. There probably aren’t a lot of legitimate jobs in your area; you can’t afford to move away; even if you’re very talented, someone with better connections or a fancier-sounding degree will probably beat you out when competing for the few good jobs available.

This is especially true for marginalized groups, in particular when they’re targeted by law enforcement. In a legal system like ours, there are so many pointless and mutually contradictory laws that everyone is guilty of something. If the police watch you for long enough, they will eventually find something that they can arrest you for. (Obviously it’s even worse if they’re willing to lie or plant evidence, but the point is that it can happen even without this.) 

Even if they only put you away for a few weeks, a criminal record will probably kill your chances of getting a legitimate job in the future. If you want to serve your community, or even just put food on the table, your only choice may be an illegal job. 

But “criminal” doesn’t mean “evil”. Modern governments criminalize lots of things they really shouldn’t. If I couldn’t get a legal job, I would be pretty happy selling weed. I don’t think weed should be illegal, and there would be plenty of satisfied customers, so I would be open to sticking my thumb in the government’s eye over this issue if I didn’t have any other option. A similar argument can be made for other drugs, prescription medications, etc. — even giving medical care without a license. If none of these work for you, then remember that during prohibition, the government criminalized alcohol. Ask yourself how guilty you would feel selling booze in the 1920’s, if you had no other job prospects.

Since criminal activity is often the only way for the very poor to make their way in the world, criminal organizations are often the only local institutions around. And because the official government doesn’t really care about these neighborhoods (they may even be actively antagonistic), criminal organizations often end up being the only thing protecting the poor.

The affluent have a hard time understanding all of this, and for many people, a reasoned argument can’t shake the scary image of the criminal or gang member as an uncultured, unreasoning thug.

The good news is that this is what art is for. Fiction can give us, even if only distantly, the sense of what life is like for people who are different from us.


So let’s imagine what a movie to flip this script would look like. Our hero is a young black man who grew up in a poor but respectable suburb of a major American city. He’s talented, but there aren’t many opportunities in his hometown. Like many young men with few options, he joins the Army. He’s quickly recognized as a crack shot and natural leader, gets recruited to the Green Berets, and receives multiple commendations. He also makes some very close friends. Once he returns to civilian life, one of his best friends from the Army runs for mayor, wins, and the protagonist spends the next few years helping his friend try to make things better in their city. He makes some money, starts dating a woman from a well-respected family, and begins thinking of settling down.

But when war is declared in the Middle East, his friend the mayor returns to military service to serve his country, and our hero joins him. They’re shipped overseas, and see a few years of intense combat. His friend the mayor goes missing in battle, presumed captured; our hero is injured and, after recuperating, is honorably discharged from service.

He’s sent home, only to find that things are worse than ever. The new mayor neglects social services in favor of pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda popular with the middle class. The police are encouraged to make lots of high-profile arrests, and they quickly grow fat on civil forfeiture. Constant harassment by the police leads anyone with the means to try to leave the poor parts of town. As money flows out of the neighborhood, so do most businesses, taking with them the last few legitimate jobs.

Soon, almost no one can make a living without turning to some kind of crime. Often this is only opening a hairdresser’s without a license, or running a restaurant in your living room, but the cops crack down on these businesses just the same — and legally, they’re in the right.

The first thing our hero sees when he gets home is the police arresting a kid who tried to steal food from a gas station. He steps in to try to help, but the cops pull their guns on him. With his Special Forces training, he’s able to disarm the cops, free the kid, and make his escape, all without hurting anyone. What he doesn’t know is that he’s made a powerful enemy. One of the cops he embarrassed was the new sheriff, a close ally of the corrupt mayor, who recognizes him. The sheriff puts out an APB, and soon our hero finds that cops are crawling all over the city looking for him, and no one will take him in.

He eventually finds shelter with a preacher at a local church, who has seen enough of police brutality. He had shut down the church and begun to turn to drinking, but seeing someone stand up to the cops and get away with it has given him new hope for the future. 

It’s not just the preacher who takes note. Our hero starts attracting followers. First it’s his young cousin, a flashy dresser and accomplished boxer, hot-headed but idealistic. Next it’s a real beast of a man, a former bouncer who’s out of work and goes by “Lil’ Jon” or something, who impresses our hero by first beating him in a fight, and then throwing him off a bridge and into the river. Soon, more than a dozen people are hanging out in the basement of the abandoned church. 

Our hero can’t get legal work — in the eyes of the law, he’s a wanted criminal, who assisted the escape of a thief, resisted arrest, and assaulted officers. For one reason or another, neither can any of his followers. Even if he turned himself in, now that he knows he personally embarrassed the sheriff, he’s not confident he would survive to make it to trial.

But just because he can’t get legal work doesn’t mean he can’t make a difference for his community. The cops have been stealing property, cars, even cash from anyone they want, so he decides to steal it back. Under cover of night, the new band of friends break into the impound lot and take as many cars as they can drive away, leaving the guards hogtied but otherwise unharmed. 

With this success under their belt, the group grows bolder. They find the location of a multi-millionaire CEO’s summer home up in the hills, break in, and take everything of value. Next they knock over an armored car on its way to a bank, taking everything and even recruiting the driver to join their cause. With so much money on hand, the preacher helps them launder it, distributing the money to those in need and making it appear to come from the church.

Their fame, or maybe infamy, grows. When the cops try to arrest people on trumped-up charges, our hero intervenes, and many of the people he saves (now considered criminals, whether they like it or not) decide to join him. His fiancée escapes from her controlling parents and finds him hiding in the urban jungle. When bounty hunters are sent to track him down, more often than not, they end up being convinced by his cause and joining him instead. Even some of the cops on the force throw away their badges and turn outlaw. The sheriff and the mayor stop calling him a “violent wanted criminal” and start calling him a “notorious gang leader”.

The rest of the movie is dedicated to all of the tricks they pull. They place a call on an anonymous tip line, “revealing” that the gang headquarters is in an abandoned mall. Half of the cop cars in the city converge on the mall, leaving the gang to heist a shipment of insulin, which they distribute for free to the needy. Our hero disguises himself and poses as a bounty hunter, joining the hunt for his own gang. He crashes a fundraiser at the mayor’s house and tells the rich what he really thinks of them. He gets captured and the rest of the gang has to break him out of jail. Eventually, his friend the mayor is released in a prisoner-of-war exchange, comes back, wins election once again, and pardons them all. The wicked mayor and the sheriff are exposed for their crimes and held accountable, and our hero finally marries his sweetheart. And of course, you’d call it Hood Robin.

(This idea isn’t even quite as out there as it sounds.)