The 8 Books I Finished in July

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  1. To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by: Evgeny Morozov
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by: Mark Fisher
  3. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by: Thomas Cahill
  4. The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History by: Alexander Mikaberidze
  5. Kidnapped by: Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. Weird of Hali: Providence by: John Michael Greer
  7. Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction by: Blaire Ostler
  8. The Ethics of Beauty by: Timothy G. Patitsas

I just returned from GenCon, that mecca of tabletop gaming in Indianapolis, which marks the end of Summer and the end of travel. The airlines had one last curveball to throw me, they canceled my flight out on Sunday and I had to spend yet another day in Indianapolis. Which is why my review post is later than it’s ever been. 

It was an extraordinarily busy summer, and while I had fun, I’m glad it’s over and I can settle into a routine. Of course I still need to unpack, since moving into our new house 34 days ago I’ve only spent 11 nights there. And most of that time was focused on getting ready for the next trip. 

I guess my point is that while I’m optimistic that my writing schedule will return to normal, I still have a lot of digging out to do, so I appreciate your continued patience.


I- Eschatological Reviews

To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by: Evgeny Morozov

Published: 2014

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way technology companies focus on manufacturing problems to fit solutions they’ve already created rather than solving problems that actually exist, or what Morozov terms, “solutionism”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Morozov is a technology critic who has built his entire career on pointing out how building technology just because you can is misguided.

Who should read this book?

If you feel that technology is not all it’s cracked up to be and has started to create more problems than it solves.

General Thoughts

I may not be the most objective person when it comes to reviewing this book, since it was very much preaching to the choir, but boy did he preach! This is a long and comprehensive examination of all of the ways people have used recent technology, particularly the vague agglomeration we call the internet, to solve problems. At first glance this activity should be unobjectionable, haven’t humans been using technology to solve problems for thousands of years? Indeed they have, but many things are different this time around:

The breadth of change: The internet is essentially ubiquitous. 63% of people worldwide have internet and almost as many are on social media. That’s a long way away from everyone, but when you compare it to other technologies which have been around for far longer it’s quite impressive, for example: the automobile. China only has 219 vehicles per 1000 people and they’re above average. Even if you assume that each vehicle is used by two people you’re still looking at only 44%, and India is far worse with only 55 vehicles per 1000, which would be 11% using the same reasoning. But 73% of Chinese have internet access and 47% of Indians, despite it being a much more recent technology. 

The reach of the change: Morozov mostly takes the breadth of the change for granted. He spends much more space discussing the question of reach, pointing out how “the internet” has burrowed into every aspect of our life. Controlling what we see, who we communicate with, and how we exercise. Of course in some areas this control has been around for a while particularly in the area of what we see. (Think TV networks.) But previous to the internet it was a very crude form of control. Now companies are collecting data that allows them to be very specific and very invasive in their control. There’s good reason to believe that this invasiveness is already harmful, and the goal of nearly all companies is to become even more invasive. (Though inevitably they call it something else.) The book lays out some truly dystopian scenarios in areas like law enforcement, marketing and insurance. 

The underlying ideology of the change: All new technology ends up having an effect on ideology, often engendering entirely new forms. Henry Ford, in addition to revolutionizing the world with his Model T, proposed changes to healthcare, politics, and the way people worked. All of these changes were closely tied to his advances in automation. Accordingly it’s unsurprising that the internet would also come with ideological baggage. Morozov also spends a lot of time on this subject as well. One might imagine that internet startups would want people to adopt their solution because if they do the startup will make a lot of money and be successful. But Morozov claims that it goes well beyond that, that there is an overarching ideology behind most startups that animates and informs it. This is solutionism. In its more benign form it imagines that technological solutions are better than non technological solutions. But there’s a more aggressive form which holds that there are problems we don’t even recognize which technology can uncover and solve. Morozov spends much of the book talking about these latter “problems”. Which takes us to:

They’re attempting to solve problems which don’t actually exist: Perhaps the biggest problem with our recent attempts at using technology to solve problems is that many of the problems we’re attempting to solve might not be problems at all. The book is full of examples, but one that really stuck with me was the argument over openness. Quoting from the book:

Our Internet debates, in contrast, tend to be dominated by a form of openness fundamentalism, whereby “openness” is seen as a fail-safe solution to virtually any problem. Instead of debating how openness may be fostering or harming innovation, promoting or demoting justice, facilitating or complicating deliberation—the kinds of debates we are likely to have about the uses of openness in the messy world that we live in—“openness” in networks and technological systems is presumed to be always good and its opposite—it’s quite telling that we can’t quite define what that is—always bad.

Openness is not merely solving a problem no one is complaining about, it’s solving a problem no one can even concretely name. Such is the misguided nature of solutionism.

Eschatological Implications

Depending on how you look at things we’ve been expecting technology to save us since at least the 50s. Unfortunately, as the famous Peter Thiel quote goes, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” A discussion of why it turned out this way would take up far more space than we have, but this book explores one of the major factors behind that divergence. Essentially it turned out that creating problems which could be solved by the technology you already had was easy. Creating technology that could solve the problems you already had was very difficult.

Of course no one wants to admit that this is what’s happening. Everyone wants to imagine that they’re doing important work. Beyond ignoring difficult problems this leads to two additional biases (and probably several others):

  1. They only consider technology’s good qualities without considering its downsides. 
  2. They ignore other better ways of solving a problem in favor of potential technological solutions.

Taken together, technology, rather than proving to be humanity’s salvation, has proven to be an expensive distraction, where people create things for the sake of creation, rather than having any long term plans, and when their creations end up having downsides, they’re extraordinary slow to recognize those downsides because their so enamored by these creations. 

As a result rather than bringing out a utopian future we end up slouching towards a vague dystopia never sure why things aren’t actually improving despite the thousands of promises we’ve been made.


II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?

by: Mark Fisher

Published: 2009

80 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek or perhaps both, said “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This book discusses how capitalism grew to encompass the whole of our imagination, and the brief glimpses one receives of potential alternatives. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Fisher has been described as a Marxist pop-culture theorist, a description I would agree with after reading the book.

Who should read this book?

People looking to steelman communism. In particular the author does a good job of showing how the Marxist concept of ‘Late Capitalism’ foretold much of the craziness we’re currently experiencing.

General Thoughts

You may recognize the initial sections. I already reviewed this book a few months ago and I just copied them over from that review. But having finished the book in audio form I thought I needed to go back and do an old-fashioned read through. You know the kind where you can make highlights and re-read passages that you didn’t quite get the first time.

As part of this process I convinced my Slate Star Codex book club to re-read it with me. I’m not sure what I expected but when it came time to discuss it, most of them hated it. (You should certainly keep that in mind if you decide to read it.) For my part, I countered by arguing that they were missing the point, not necessarily the point of the book, but the point of reading a book like this. 

If I had to characterize their overarching complaint it was that Fisher didn’t put forth arguments, ones which proceeded step by step to a conclusion. Rather, they contended, he aired grievances, which, first off, probably weren’t as grievous as he claimed, and secondly, most likely not caused in the manner he claimed (to the extent that he even bothered to put forth a cause and effect). The thing is, I’m mostly on board with this characterization, my argument was that it’s a mistake to use these points to summarily dismiss Fisher, because there’s something deeper going on here, and we need to understand it.

As you may have already guessed, as a Slate Star Codex book club, they’re very familiar with rationalism. And while only a few of them self-identify as rationalists, given the choice they would prefer that people be Alexandrian Rationalists over Fisherian Marxists. Taking this as my starting point, I supported my side of the argument with the following example:

A young man of my acquaintance has read all the canonical texts of rationality. He’s read the Less Wrong Sequences, and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. And yet, when it comes to his political ideology, he’s basically a Fisherian Marxist. He hasn’t read Capitalist Realism, but he’s read several books that are adjacent to it, and the podcasts he listens to (where he gets most of his political information) are definitely also inspired by Fisher. In other words he’s done all the things one might recommend for turning someone into a rationalist, and yet he found people like Fisher more appealing. Why is that?

I think the power of Fisher lies in the fact that the world he describes ends up being a better match for the world this young man experiences than the sterile and esoteric discussions of the rationalists. Is the rationalist worldview truer in some objective sense? Probably. But as it turns out, that’s not the deciding factor. The deciding factor is whether it’s more compelling. And on that count I think there’s a lot that can be learned from this book. 


How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

by: Thomas Cahill

Published: 2003

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conversion of the Irish to Christianity by St. Patrick and their subsequent importance in post Roman Europe.

What’s the author’s angle?

Cahill wants to emphasize the mostly unsung contribution of the Irish in the history of the “Dark Ages”.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for yet another reason why Ireland is awesome, this book is perfect, and covers a history that isn’t very well known.

General Thoughts

This was another book I read in preparation for my trip to Ireland, and in that respect it was perfect. My favorite part of the trip was encountering the deep history of the country: its castles, churches and other ruins. Much of this history was a direct consequence of Ireland’s deep religiousness, which wouldn’t have happened without St. Patrick. Or at least it would have been very different. The book covers a fair amount of territory, so here are the high points:

  1. St. Patrick is an amazing figure. I had no idea how wide reaching his influence was or how much respect his contemporaries held him in.
  2. The Irish did a huge amount to preserve literature after the collapse of Rome. See, for example, the Book of Kells, which is one of the can’t miss attractions of Dublin.
  3. St. Patrick was the first to establish a non-Roman version of Christianity (not counting the very early church). This was instrumental in its spread into Germany and Scandinavia. 
  4. Ireland exported monasteries. Many people from Ireland left the country to found monasteries on the continent.

Claiming that the Irish saved civilization or even western civilization may be an exaggeration. But they did a lot more for it than I realized.


The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History 

by: Alexander Mikaberidze

Published: 2020

864 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The global impact of the Napoleonic Wars. With a deep look at the politics and not merely the battles.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mikaberidze wants to remind people that the Napoleonic Wars should really hold the position of the first world war. He backs this up with a wide-ranging examination of battles, revolutions and political machinations taking place all over the globe.

Who should read this book?

There are history books which read better, and there are history books that go deeper, but there are not many books with the breadth of this one. It’s long, so it probably isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested at all in this period it should definitely be on your list.

General Thoughts

I was reading recently about the lack of quality leadership. Whatever your opinion of Napoleon, they don’t make people like that anymore. Mikaberidze describes him thusly:

Combining the authority of head of state and supreme commander had clear advantages: Napoleon could set objectives and pursue diplomacy and strategy more effectively than his opponents, whose hands were often tied by military councils or royal sovereigns—not to mention the complications of coalition warfare. The advantages of having a single person firmly in charge of all aspects of the war effort were magnified by the fact that the one person at the helm was arguably the most capable human being who ever lived. (Emphasis mine)

For all that he made a lot of mistakes, and his time in power was short, and his record is mixed. And I’m sure living through that period of history, particularly if you were part of the 99%, was fairly hellish. But at the remove of 200 years the whole thing makes for some amazing history. 


Kidnapped

by: Robert Louis Stevenson

Published: 1886

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The adventures of David Balfour, whose evil uncle arranges for him to be kidnapped, and sent to the Americas. His escape and entanglement with the Appin Murder, when Colin Roy Campbell was assassinated, presumably by the Jacobites

Who should read this book?

I think everybody should listen to the book. It’s simply delightful as an audiobook.

General Thoughts

Stevenson is one of those author’s who’s still known, but not as well as he should be. Kidnapped was a ripping good adventure yarn (as they used to say) and it reminds me that I should read more old books. As I said, you should actually make sure to listen to it, it’s a book that really lends itself to good narration.


Weird of Hali: Providence

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fifth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, here, and here.) This one draws heavily on Lovecraft’s story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. 

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s read the previous four books. They’re all pretty good, but this one is above average for the series. 

General Thoughts

There are many things that Greer does well. I continue to enjoy his world building, and the way he has flipped the Cthulhu Mythos on its head. The characters are interesting as well, but there are a lot of them and he could do better at helping the reader keep them straight. And while, as I said, his world building is great, he could do a better job of explaining that as well. There’s a lot going on.

But in general this is another series that reads easily and is always interesting (if you like Lovecraftian stuff.)


III- Religious Reviews

Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction 

By: Blaire Ostler

Published: 2021

152 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The author’s claim that, doctrinally and foundationally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormonism) is a queer religion, where queer is “an umbrella term to describe those in the LGBTQIA+ community” (among other things).

What’s the author’s angle?

Ostler is trying to convince the LDS Church to change its policies so that queer individuals have all the privileges that “cisgender”, heterosexual people have within the Church, and she advocates for privileges beyond those as well. 

Who should read this book?

Given that I absolutely and entirely disagree with her interpretation of LDS doctrine, I guess I would say no one. But I’m not particularly worried about people reading it. Her position is so extreme that only the already converted will find it at all persuasive. I suppose if you wanted to know what Mormonism would look like if you turned its wokeism to 11, then this is the book for you. 

General Thoughts

If you want an exhaustive review (and refutation) of the book I would direct you to this article on The Interpreter. I’m going to approach the book from a somewhat different angle. I first encountered Ostler and her unique theological views at the Mormon Transhumanist Conference, and in my after action report I ended up pointing to her talk as being among three that were particularly schismatic. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not sure why the MTA can’t just admit that it’s schismatic. Their insistence that their views are 100% orthodox continue to baffle me, but as baffling as the MTA’s assertions of orthodoxy are, Ostler’s assertion of orthodoxy is an order of magnitude more incomprehensible.

Ostler’s suggestions and opinions are so extreme that I actually found myself entertaining the possibility that she’s trolling any Church member who takes her seriously. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but I’m not ready to entirely dismiss it either. 

If she is in fact serious then I think understanding her belief and background in transhumanism is critical to understanding how she arrived at this position. Which is to say it’s very difficult to go straight from orthodox Mormon theology to the Queer Mormon Theology of Ostler’s book, but if you imagine Mormon Transhumanism as a stepping stone, someplace that’s halfway up the wall, then reaching the radical theology of the book becomes a lot easier.

Specifically, Mormon Transhumanism is big on personal revelation, body modification, and the inevitability of progress, while being dismissive of the Church hierarchy, broader Christian traditions, and Christ’s unique role. All of these ideas are necessary precursors to Ostler’s theology. Which is not to say Ostler’s ideas are unique, most exist in an independent form in the broader world, but wedding them to Mormonism was only accomplished through the intermediary of religiously themed transhumanism.


The Ethics of Beauty

by: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Patitsas starts from a Platonic perspective, asserting that there are three transcendental virtues: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. To this he adds a strong dose of Eastern Orthodox theology. From the combination of the two he arrives at a unique critique of modernity, asserting that we have largely sidelined the virtue of Beauty while placing all of our attention on the virtue of Truth.

What’s the author’s angle?

Patitsas is Director of the Religious Studies Program at Hellenic College, and this book represents both his religious outlook and his academic interest. Despite this, the book is not particularly academic, but I’m sure having something to add to his CV was part of his motivation.

Who should read this book?

If the idea of an incredibly deep dive on the idea of beauty—heavily informed by religion—appeals to you, then this is the book for you! 

General Thoughts

A friend of mine is starting an actual print magazine, and he asked me to read and review this book for inclusion in the first issue. I’m still polishing that review, and I’m sure I’ll post it here when it’s done. Or at least make an announcement about it. But for now I don’t want to spoil the premier issue of my friend’s awesome magazine!


Voltaire (quoting a “wise Italian”) said, the “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” In more recent times it’s become common to say that the perfect is the enemy of the done. I have no idea why those phrases came to me right now, but if you appreciate things being done consider donating


Eschatologist #19: The Non-linearity of Baggage Systems

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I ended the last newsletter by suggesting that we needed to make things less fragile, but without giving any concrete suggestions for how we might accomplish that.

Unfortunately reducing fragility is neither easy, quick, nor straightforward. It is an exceptionally complicated endeavor. Fragilities only become obvious after they’ve caused something to break, before then they’re easy to overlook. Also many things we’ve come to value, like efficiency and low cost, work to increase fragility. So it’s an uphill struggle.

Considering both the non-obvious and counterintuitive nature of the problem, the first step in eliminating fragility is to identify it. Unfortunately I’ve just had an experience with a fragile system which broke spectacularly, so let’s start there.

I took a big trip to Ireland in July. (I returned just a few days ago.) After arriving in Dublin, I went through customs, and headed to baggage claim. Once there I was greeted by a discouraging sight. There were bags everywhere. Not only were there bags on the carousel (which was to be expected) there were small piles of bags all around them. Beyond that there was a veritable sea of bags (I’d estimate at least a thousand) arranged behind some rope on one side of the room. It was apparent that something about the baggage handling process had broken. 

I got a small taste of that breakage. The display showed the wrong carousel, my bag was on carousel 3, not 6. So when there was an overhead announcement about a “wee mixup” I headed over there and luckily my bag was waiting for me. The rest of my family, who arrived a few days after me, got a large taste of that breakage.

I connected in Atlanta, they connected in Schiphol (Amsterdam). You probably haven’t been following the baggage chaos as closely as we have, but Schiphol has been having serious problems with baggage. At one point, KLM stopped allowing checked luggage altogether. When the flight from SLC to Amsterdam got in late, they made the connection to Dublin, but their baggage didn’t. 

In the past when your luggage missed a connection there was an 85% chance it would be delivered within 36 hours. It took eight days for their luggage to be delivered and that was only after the manager of the delivery company took it upon himself to spend a couple of hours finding it in the sea of bags I mentioned earlier. 

This is one of the hallmarks of fragility, small disruptions can lead to huge catastrophes.

More technically the system is non-linear. In this case the problems at Schiphol appear to be due to staffing shortages, directly due to a shortage of baggage handlers, and indirectly because a shortage of pilots is causing flights to be delayed. I couldn’t find statistics on Schiphol baggage handlers, but the number of pilots is down only 4% from its pre-pandemic peak. That was all it took to cause the delays and cancellations you’ve been hearing about.

I’m guessing the percentage decrease among baggage handlers is also surprisingly low, but let’s assume they have been hit even harder and that there’s been a 25% reduction in their numbers. This does not mean that 25% more baggage gets lost or it takes 25% longer to deliver. It means the amount of lost luggage increases a thousandfold, and you may never get your bags.

As I mentioned, my family got lucky. I sat next to a couple on the flight home whose luggage never showed up in the 10 days they were there. They told me that just recently the airlines have set up warehouses for lost luggage in Dublin where people can actually look through the luggage. (Previously all the luggage was behind security.) They visited the one for Delta/KLM and said there were probably five thousand bags in just that warehouse. (After seeing the picture they took I agreed.) While they were there they talked to people who’d been waiting for their bags for over a month.

This is what fragility looks like in the modern world: complicated systems where minor problems on the backend lead to total disasters on the front end. And the problem is, there are always going to be minor problems, which will lead to more and more disasters. Let’s just hope that when those disasters happen, you’re not in the middle of your vacation to Ireland.


The picture at the top of the newsletter is Kilmacduagh Monastery, or at least the ruins thereof. The tower is the largest pre-modern structure in Ireland. And it’s still standing. That’s the kind of robustness we should be looking for. If you think what I’m doing is helping with that, or if you just like the picture, consider donating.


The 10 Books I Finished in June Along With Two I Didn’t

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  1. Liberalism and Its Discontents by: Francis Fukuyama
  2. Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World by: Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
  3. Creative Evolution by: Henri Bergson (didn’t finish)
  4. An Introduction to Metaphysics by: Henri Bergson
  5. The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by: Cecil Woodham-Smith  (didn’t finish)
  6. The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery by: Richard Osman
  7. Rising From The Rubble: Buried for hours, changed for life, saved for something greater. By: Williamson Sintyl
  8. The Wind in the Willows by: Kenneth Grahame
  9. Breakaway: Expeditionary Force, Book 12 by: Craig Alanson
  10. Fallout: Expeditionary Force, Book 13 by: Craig Alanson
  11. Match Game: Expeditionary Force, Book 14 by: Craig Alanson
  12. Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives by: Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford

I’m posting this on a Saturday, and the day before I leave for Ireland. Last weekend I moved into a new house. (Actually we weren’t completely done with that until Wednesday.) The combination of the two (mostly the latter) has put me in crunch time and behind on everything. I had ambitions of posting something while I was in Ireland, but at this point I think they were more delusions than ambitions. I am going to try and get some writing done while I’m there, partially because I have some posts I’ve started working on and I’d like to try finishing them before the inspiration dissipates.  And partially because I worry that if I miss too many days of writing I’ll get out of the habit and have to start over, which sounds really bad. Though there is a worse outcome, I could lose the desire to write altogether

I have a friend who never takes more than a week of vacation at a time, because he’s sure in his heart of hearts that if he’s ever gone for longer than that he’ll never go back. That once he’s gone for longer than a week he’ll be enjoying his leisure too much and he won’t be able to bear the thought of returning. All the habits that serve to get him out the door every morning to drive 40 minutes to a job he doesn’t like, will be broken. I like writing, and I don’t have to drive 40 minutes to do it, but I nevertheless worry that something similar will happen. Perhaps needlessly, but everybody has their quirks, and I probably have more than average.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Liberalism and Its Discontents

By: Francis Fukuyama

Published: 2022

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The problems currently plaguing western democracies, particularly the US, and how a return to the moderate, classical liberalism of the past will fix those problems.

What’s the author’s angle?

Fukuyama is one of the heavy hitters in this space, particularly known for his book End of History and the Last Man (which I discussed here). In that book he claims that liberalism is the end point of political development, so its growing weakness is a threat to his theory, a threat he attempts to address in this book.

Who should read this book?

No one. Despite my many disagreements with him, I like Fukuyama, but he’s best when he’s taking his time and going really deep (see for example his two volume Political Order series reviewed here and here). This book is too shallow, and feels rushed.

General Thoughts

As I just mentioned, Fukuyama’s longer stuff is better, you can actually see him working through all the nooks and crannies and really thinking about a subject. I did not get that impression with this book. No, the impression I got was completely different.

Have you ever been playing with a child, and they invent a game or some other imaginary scenario? And as you attempt to participate with them in their invention, you do something that doesn’t match what they had in mind? If this situation sounds familiar, then perhaps you already know what happens next.  They get frustrated and exclaim, “You’re not doing it right!” This was the feeling I got from this book. Fukuyama is the child and liberalism is his invented game.

Obviously Fukuyama did not invent the “game” of liberalism, but he does seem to have his own version of liberalism, where moderation plays a central role. Contending that we could solve all of the current problems liberalism is experiencing if we just just exercise more moderation, ends up being the dominant theme of the book. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by drawing your attention to the book’s final sentence: 

Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival—indeed, to the survival—of liberalism itself.

Despite reading the whole book (technically listening to it) I’m indebted to N.S. Lyons and his Upheaval newsletter for drawing my attention to this final sentence. I had not realized that Fukuyama provided such a convenient summation of how, “You’re not doing it right!”

According to him, none of the three sides is exercising moderation. (Yeah, there are at least three players in this game.) Trump and his followers have gutted institutions and ignored laws. Neoliberals allowed businesses and banks to run amuck, and then bailed them out while shafting the little guy. And the cultural left has elevated individualism to a pathological degree, turning words into violence and inverting the original meaning of tolerance. And in his estimation the answer to all of this is more moderation. The problem is, as Lyons goes on to point out in his excellent review, there’s nothing inherently moderate about liberalism. 

Maybe Fukuyama could argue that moderation is itself the epitome of true liberalism as a political philosophy. I happen to think moderation is one of the greatest of the classical virtues, so would be open to being biased in this direction. However, there is already a system of political thought that emphasizes the risks of extremes and prioritizes moderation, as a principle, over any specific rationalist theory of how to govern – it’s typically called conservatism.

I agree with Lyons (and by extension Fukuyama) about the greatness of moderation. The problem, as he points out, is that liberalism has never prioritized moderation, in fact if anything it’s been the opposite. It was William F. Buckley, the Father of American Conservatism, who pointed out that conservatism is that force which “stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” A statement clearly made as a reaction to liberalism.

Now, to be clear, there’s a separate argument to be had about the state of modern conservatism, and the role Trump does or does not play in it, but that’s not Fukuyama’s point. His point is to heal classical liberalism by the application of greater moderation. But this is definitely not something that liberalism does automatically. It has no built in instinct for moderation. If something is going to heal liberalism via moderation, it has to be something external. 

Fukuyama claims that we need more moderation on both an individual and communal level, but other than being a good idea (which it is) how does following the ideology of liberalism—an ideology of revolution, and social change; an ideology that has always been about acquiring new freedoms for the individual and the markets; an ideology where continual progress has long occupied center stage—suddenly decide to set all that aside in favor of moderation?

Eschatological Implications

In 1992 when Fukuyama published the End of History and proclaimed that liberal, western democracies represented the best form of government, everyone was basically inclined to agree with him. I’m not sure if they realized how profoundly eschatological his claim was. Yes, it’s true that “cure all diseases”, “eliminate poverty”, and “switch to renewable energy” were all still on our to-do list, but being able to check off “discover best form of government” was still a monumental end point to have reached. Of course these days people are starting to think that we may have marked it off prematurely, and in this book Fukuyama expresses some of the same pessimism, but he also reiterates the point he made in End of History, if western liberalism isn’t the best form of government what other contenders are there? 

The problem, both now and then, is that the liberalism Fukuyama is defending is a direction, not a destination. It’s fine for Fukuyama to point at some spot and say we should stop here, but he can’t call that spot liberalism. Liberalism is how we got to the spot, it’s not the spot itself. And it’s unclear from the book what standard he would apply to mark that spot. 

Many people seem to think that liberalism or the progress enabled by liberalism will eventually reach some obvious stopping place. That we’ll eventually reach the top of the mountain, and it will be clear that this was our destination all along. And perhaps Fukuyama is saying something to that effect, but if we are at the top (or if we were in 1992) it’s definitely not self-evident. And given that there are multiple visions for what our destination looks like we could just as easily be about to go off a cliff as reach a summit. Particularly since everyone is fighting over the steering wheel. 

Going over a cliff would also be an end, but one very different from what Fukuyama imagined in 1992, but which he appears more worried about in 2022.


Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World

By: Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross

Published: 2022

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

You would think I could just point you at the subtitle, but it’s appallingly misleading. The word “energizer” is never mentioned once within the book. The word “winner” is basically never used in that same sense, and the book doesn’t spend much time on how to acquire talent “around the world”. It is about identifying talent, just not any of those other things.

What’s the author’s angle?

Tyler Cowen has one of the most successful blogs in the world, and Daniel Gross runs a startup accelerator. I’m sure in part they want to pass on their wisdom, but I’m also sure they want to prove that they possess wisdom in the first place.

Who should read this book?

In many respects this works better as a self-help book than as an HR book. There are countless suggestions for activities that will broaden your talents. But as far as finding talented people I don’t think many people are going to have the time, resources, or pool of applicants necessary to implement the book’s recommendations.

General Thoughts

My sense as I was reading this book was one of narrowness. That yes, Cowen and Gross are trying to cast a wide net in an effort to find hidden talent, but the sort of talent they’re interested in finding is very, very specific. Mostly they’re interested in finding people like themselves. People who are smart, creative, self-directed, autodidactic, ambitious, optimistic, and driven. There are not a lot of these people.

Beyond that, everyone wants to hire them. I don’t think that smart, creative, self-directed, autodidactic, ambitious, optimistic, driven people are really having a hard time finding a job. So the key question is: given the extreme level of effort we’re already expending to find and hire these people, what kind of marginal utility are Cowen and Gross actually creating? I’m sure that it’s not zero, but I don’t think it’s huge either. You might think that these people are so useful, and so impactful that any improvement in finding them would be beneficial. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

Inevitably as we put more effort into reducing Type 2 errors, we inevitably create more Type 1 errors. Which is to say the more effort we put into identifying overlooked talent (people who previously would have been rejected, i.e. false negatives) the more likely we are to mis-identify talent, and subsequently give them a lot of money and power (false positives). Examples of this phenomenon include Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes, along with a host of other people you’ve never heard of. (A couple of whom I’ve worked with.)

This might be fine if startups existed in a vacuum, but—as evidenced by all the mini series which have recently been produced—dramatic failures and undeserving founders are part of the culture, and their failures, along with their hubris are having a corrosive effect on people’s faith in the fundamental justice of society. I’m not saying that we should ignore the book’s recommendations, or that we should stop looking for these people. It would just be nice if the book spent more time acknowledging the trade-off; gave more advice on how to separate gifted con-artists from founders of spectacular start-ups. And unfortunately the difference between the two is very subtle.

Eschatological Implications

It may seem strange to place a book on talent in the eschatological section, but, beyond just being a book of HR advice, the book gives one the sense that if we can solve the problem of recognizing and encouraging talent, that this talent will go on to solve all of the problems we’re currently wrestling with. Cowen’s Emergent Ventures is basically an attempt to save the world. 

But before talented people can save the whole world they would probably start by saving part of the world. Perhaps the western liberal part? In other words I thought this book provided an interesting contrast with the last book. Fundamentally, Fukuyama wants people to act more intelligently, and you could certainly imagine that if we had the right sort of talented oligarchy running things that our problems would be solved. 

You could imagine it, though I’m not sure it would actually be true in practice. As I said western governments and businesses are already engaged in a huge talent search, and while I think Cowen and Gross’s ideas could definitely help improve the efficacy of that search, I don’t think those ideas are sufficient to transform the current chaos into a smoothly running utopia. To put it in starker terms, what would an Adam Neumann or Elizabeth Holmes presidency look like? 


II- Capsule Reviews

Creative Evolution (didn’t finish)

By: Henri Bergson

Published: 1907

470 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The idea that there is an underlying force, an élan vital pushing evolution in a particular direction. That things don’t evolve randomly but in a positive direction.

What’s the author’s angle?

A desire to unveil the truth about evolution and philosophy.

Who should read this book?

Possibly people doing graduate work in philosophy or maybe theology. Otherwise, no one.

General Thoughts

Almost exactly a year ago I went to a theology conference. While I was there I spent a lot of time explaining my idea that Fermi’s paradox was best explained by the existence of God along with my thoughts on how methods for dealing with AI Risk resembled LDS Cosmology. One of the attendees, who also happened to be LDS, told me that I had to read Bergson, and that I should start with Creative Evolution. Nearly a year later I finally got around to it, and while I can sort of see what he’s saying, I gave up about halfway through.

Much of what Bergson claims relies on an early 20th century understanding of evolution, and consequently the vast majority of his “evidence” is out-dated, if not outright refuted by our current understanding. Additionally French Philosophy just gets more dense the closer you get to the present day, so while Bergson is no Lacan or Derrida, reading the book was kind of a slog. I was putting in a lot of effort for not much insight, so about a third of the way through I gave up. 

However, in the process I did learn some things. First, while I had heard the term élan vital I did not realize that it originated with Bergson, nor did I make the connection between this idea and the concept of élan which so dominated French military thinking prior to WWI, and which ended up being so disastrous in the first few weeks of the war. 

Also I had no idea how big of a deal Bergson once was. Apparently the first traffic jam to happen on Broadway, in New York, was caused by people clamoring to attend his lecture, despite the fact that it was delivered in French. I looked around a little bit to see if this might be the first traffic jam ever, and it just might be. When I searched for “world’s first traffic jam” I ended up on a site claiming it happened in Washington DC on Armistice day, 1921. Bergson’s lecture was in 1913. Another site mentioned 1895 in San Francisco, but that clearly had to be horse drawn carriages. 

In any case, given how popular he once was I figured I should at least read something by Bergson, so…


Introduction to Metaphysics

By: Henri Bergson

Published: 1903

99 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are two ways you can view something: there’s the exterior view and the interior view. Simplified, the exterior view is science, the interior view is metaphysics.

What’s the author’s angle?

Advocacy for his definition of metaphysics.

Who should read this book?

It’s still French philosophy, and it’s still pretty dense, but I quite enjoyed it. Also it’s more of an essay than a book, and only a couple of hours on Audible. 

General Thoughts

Bergson describes the exterior view as a bunch of snapshots. As an example he asks you to imagine a sketch of the tower of Notre Dame in Paris. 

…the artist does not concern himself with [the stones which make up the wall], he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organi­zation of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation. 

He argues that this sketch is a poor and misleading substitute for going to Paris and entering the cathedral itself. But yet when it comes to science and psychology we’re mostly making crude sketches of some aspect of reality, and we need to get into the interior of what we’re studying. We need to visit the cathedral not merely look at sketches, or pictures or other snapshots of a thing. I think we’re increasingly aware of these limitations, so it’s impressive that Bergson was making this point in 1903.

Of course, we have to grapple with the prospect that such an interior view might be impossible. That we don’t even have an interior view of ourselves. Bergson claims that it is possible and falls in the domain of philosophy and metaphysics and comes about through inspiration. Others (including myself) would say that it’s the domain of religion, and that there is such a thing as divine inspiration. Perhaps we’re both right, perhaps neither of us is, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the limitations he brings up. Limitations which are only getting worse as the things we study get more and more complex.


The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 (didn’t finish)

by: Cecil Woodham-Smith

Published: 1962

528 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Irish Potato Famine. The actions taken by the government. The deaths of at least a million Irish, and the subsequent migration of possibly twice that many.

What’s the author’s angle?

To set out the first comprehensive account of the famine and the wholly inadequate effort to provide relief.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the potato famine this is still regarded as one of the best books on the subject. 

General Thoughts

I already mentioned this book in my last newsletter, as a result I only have a few more things to add:

My father was the one who recommended that I not finish the book. That the visit of Queen Victoria and the 1848 rebellion were handled better elsewhere. (Of course now I need to find that elsewhere and complete my study of things.) 

One has to wonder how many similar famines and tragedies happened historically that never made it into the historical record. The potato famine could be said to have taken place at the intersection of history and modernity. History in that widespread famines still happened despite people’s best efforts to deal with them, and modernity, in that we have a record of those efforts, and the deaths, and the suffering. Of course there have been massive famines since then, but the really big ones were all in communist countries and I think those belong in a separate category. 

Speaking of the efforts, there was certainly plenty of apathy, mistakes, and outright misrule to go around. But there were actually people who were doing their best. There were too few of these people, and they were hampered by bad ideas (laissez-faire being the big one) but they didn’t ignore the problem. A million people ended up dying, so I’m not sure how much credit we should give them. But it’s a good example that even in the worst tragedies, everyone is the hero of their own story.


The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery

By: Richard Osman

Published: 2021

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of the Thursday Murder Club, a group of four English pensioners, who solve old and new murders. In this one Elizabeth, a former agent for MI5 must deal with her scoundrel of an ex-husband.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. And if you liked the first book, then I have no doubt that you’ll also like this one as well. 

General Thoughts

This was another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series. As with most mystery novels, there are plot holes, and people sometimes do things merely because that’s what the plot requires, but the same could be said for all modern media. If I had to highlight one aspect of the book for special recognition, it would be the characters. Anyone who doesn’t love these four old retirees, particularly Joyce, has no soul. If you enjoy murder mysteries at all I would pick up this series. Start with the first book


Rising From The Rubble: Buried for hours, changed for life, saved for something greater. 

By: Williamson Sintyl

Published: 2022

202 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An autobiographical/self-help book about the author’s experience surviving 28 hours trapped in the rubble caused by the Haitian earthquake, and his journey since then.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sintyl is the head of a non-profit which is focused on providing mentors for Haitian children. This book wants to convince you that you should contribute to this non-profit, and you should. I do.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes inspiring stories, or feels like they should pay more attention to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

General Thoughts

Sintyl attended the same church as me for several years, so I know him pretty well. He’s basically the nicest guy you will ever meet and his story really is incredible. It’s not merely that he survived for 28 hours buried under rubble in excruciating pain with no water, that’s really only the beginning. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happened afterwards is just as incredible as surviving the earthquake.


The Wind in the Willows 

By: Kenneth Grahame

Published: 1908

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. The calm and idyllic lives of the first three contrasted with the automobile mania of Toad. 

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes Tolkein, Lewis or Milne.

General Thoughts

This is one of those books that somehow slipped past me when I was younger. But recently my aunt recommended that I check it out, and I’m glad that I did. It’s one of those books that is endlessly enchanting and delightful. All the characters are marvelous and all the stories are charming.


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 12: Breakaway

393 Pages

Book 13: Fallout

556 Pages

Book 14: Match Game

593 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

Supposedly there’s only one book left in the series after these ones. If you’ve made it to book 12 you’re definitely in the home stretch, and I would say that these books are better than the one’s in the middle. 

General Thoughts

I’m a little bit worried that with only one book left that I’m not going to get the payoff I’ve been hoping for on all of the mysteries he’s introduced. Though he has been gradually resolving many of them, so I’m cautiously optimistic. 

Also there is a tendency as series progress for things to get increasingly ridiculous (think the Simpsons). I definitely noticed this happening with XForce, but there’s a large amount of ridiculousness embedded in things from the very beginning, so that makes it easier to swallow. I’ll repeat again, this is a very pulpy series, and you should approach it accordingly. 

The final book should be out by the end of the year, and if you wanted to wait for my review of the whole series I wouldn’t blame you.


III- Religious Reviews

Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives 

By: Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford

Published: 2009

218 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you might gather, different ways of viewing the world, but more than that, different ways of succeeding.

What’s the author’s angle?

Both of the authors are Christian, and they want to show that out of all of the worldviews, Christianity is the best, that it doesn’t have the weaknesses of the other eight purely cultural approaches.

Who should read this book?

Even if you’re not Christian the fact that these worldviews are hidden still makes for an interesting discussion of unseen motivations and unstated assumptions.

General Thoughts

The authors profile nine worldviews:

  1. Individualism
  2. Consumerism
  3. Nationalism
  4. Moral Relativism
  5. Scientific Naturalism
  6. New Ageism
  7. Postmodern tribalism
  8. Salvation by Therapy
  9. Christianity

Obviously I don’t have the time to go through the strengths and weaknesses of all nine. Nor to justify, for those inclined to doubt, why Christianity lacks the weaknesses of the other eight. But I would like to touch on the idea of salvation, because in the end that’s what each of these worldviews offers: salvation, albeit in very different flavors and at very different scales. 

Several of the worldviews operate at the scale of the individual. Individualism obviously, but also consumerism, and salvation by therapy. (Also, depending on how you operationalize them, New Ageism and moral relativism are also pretty small scale.) These approaches could, conceivably, save everyone, but there’s no economy of scale, and in fact individualism and consumerism become more expensive as they scale. Either way, each person, independently, has to go through the process. And even if we managed to pull such a thing off, such salvation is temporary. You have to start over every time someone new is born. 

Nationalism and postmodern tribalism both possess the advantage of operating at larger scales. Which is very useful from a pragmatic standpoint, but still insufficient if you’re looking for ultimate salvation. 

Only Christianity (or more accurately religion in general) and scientific naturalism offer the potential of salvation for everybody. And many people, when given a choice between the two, will immediately choose science. Nor is that a bad choice, but it does seem like the bloom is off the rose. There was a time when there was every reason to be optimistic about science’s ability to save, but these days science gets far more attention for its destructive possibilities than for its salvific power.


This week rather than appealing for donations for my work, I would ask you to donate to Arise: Project for Humanity. The Haitian mentoring program I mentioned in my review of Rising from the Rubble. It’s a great cause and I would even say that it should be considered effective altruism. The address to do that is: Ariseprojects.org


Eschatologist #18: Famines and Fragility

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

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I’m leaving for Ireland in just over a week. The trip is about half touristy stuff and half genealogical. I have many Irish ancestors, but two in particular are worthy of note:

First, there’s John Richey. As best as we can tell, he was a member of the Hearts of Steel, a militant group of tenant farmers. In 1770 the “Steelboys” marched on Belfast to demand the release of a prisoner. After setting fire to a house they were successful in that endeavor, but this made them all wanted men. John immigrated to America in 1772, in some haste, we assume in order to avoid the hangman’s noose.

Second, Charles Conner, who came to America during the Irish Potato Famine. We suspect in 1847. Presumably he traveled in what’s come to be known as a coffin ship, because so many people died aboard them, mostly from typhus.

One of the goals of my trip to Ireland is to understand these ancestors better. Though in fact I do feel that I can understand John Richey fairly well. While they’re not always accurate, and most are not set in 1772, we have plenty of modern representations of people who are one step ahead of the law. What the modern developed world doesn’t have much of is representations of starvation and suffering on the scale experienced during the Potato Famine. Accordingly, as an additional preparation for the trip, I read The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith. And yes, it recounts suffering on a scale that I can hardly imagine. The book is one horrific scene after another.

Any sane person, upon reading this book, will be moved to consider how we can stop something like it from ever happening again. Of course in order to do so you have to have some idea of how it came about in the first place. 

In a previous newsletter I talked about the ways in which progress and technology have allowed us to turn the knobs of society. One commonality between John Richey and Charles Conner is that they were both tenant farmers, and in both cases they were suffering under British landlords who had turned the knob of efficiency as high as it would go. At the time of the famine Ireland was as densely populated as it was possible to be. The rents placed on Irish tenants by the English landlords were so high that everything had to go perfectly for tenants to avoid defaulting and being kicked off the land. The land that remained to them after paying their rents was only enough to cultivate the world’s most efficient crop, the potato, which along with some buttermilk, represented the exclusive diet of the majority of the Irish peasants. As such, when the potato blight struck, there was nothing to be done, everything depending on generating a large amount of calories on a small amount of land, a role which could only be filled by the potato, and there were no potatoes.

While I do have some concerns that the big push towards GMO crops has lowered the genetic diversity, making these crops more vulnerable to diseases. I don’t think we have to worry about widespread famine from crop failures. But that does not mean that we are not also busy turning knobs as high as they will go. We have been engaged in our own quest for efficiency with just-in-time delivery and outsourcing things to be made at the cheapest possible price with the cheapest possible labor. The fragility of these systems was illustrated when we faced our own crisis in the form of the pandemic. Supply chains still have not recovered.

This takes us to one of the other lessons from the famine: for a variety of reasons crises often feed on one another. During the Potato Famine, not only did the potato fail, but the winter of 1846-47 was particularly harsh, and on top of all that, relief for the famine involved repealing the Corn Laws, the single most contentious issue in English politics at the time. In our own time, we have the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, high inflation, political turmoil, and technological disruption. And each crisis makes every other crisis harder to deal with.

So far we’re handling things, but maybe, while we still have time, we should consider turning the efficiency knob down just a little bit. Maybe we should consider making things a bit less fragile.


To the extent we know anything about John Richey and Charles Conner it was the result of a lot of hard work. But genealogical work, despite its difficulty, is very rewarding. This time around, rather than ask you for a donation, might I suggest you try some genealogy? Familysearch.org is a good place to start.


Eschatological Frameworks

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I just finished reading the book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. It’s an explicitly Christian book, and it sets out to discuss eight different modern belief systems—things like individualism, scientific naturalism, or consumerism—and then to demonstrate why these other worldviews are inferior to Christianity. I’ll have a review of it in my monthly round-up, but I found the structure to be very interesting: this idea of explicitly breaking down the different ways one might see the world. It gave me the idea of explicitly breaking down and examining the different ways people have come up with for envisioning the future, of exploring the various eschatological frameworks, some religious, but most of them secular.

As I mentioned in my very first post (which, coincidently, went up almost exactly six years ago) the future can really go in only one of two ways. We could achieve some sort of technological singularity, a development so radical that the world is unrecognizable. This term is most commonly used with AI, but there are other possibilities, for example the internet was a soft singularity. Alternatively, modern civilization could take a sharp downward turn into collapse and catastrophe. There is no middle ground. The world of 2122, or 2100, or even 2060  is going to be very, very different from the world of 2022. I am not the only one making this claim. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWall, has said that this is the most important century ever for humanity. Ian Morris, professor of Classics and author of such books as, War! What is it Good For? (see my discussion here) goes even further and says the same thing but claims it will all be taking place within the next 40 years

To be fair, basically everyone thinks the world of 2060 will be different than the world of 2020, the question is how different? Will it be surprisingly similar to today, just better? Or will it be unrecognizable? If so, will it be unrecognizable in a good way or in a bad way? Will it be an undreamt of utopia or a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’m not sure, I have made some predictions, but revisiting those is not the point of this post. No, in this post I want to look at various frameworks people might use to make such predictions, examine the fundamental embedded assumptions within those frameworks and, most of all, discuss where each framework thinks salvation, or potential destruction, lies. Let’s start with the framework where the least is expected to happen:

Pinkerism/Neoliberalism/Fukuyama’s End of History  

Embedded assumptions: All of the statistics show that things are going great. Poverty is down and living standards are up. Everyone has more rights. Violence has dropped across the board, including that most important category: war, which hasn’t happened between Great Powers for 75 years. Beyond that, as long as we don’t sabotage ourselves, progress and technology will take care of problems like climate change and political discord as well.

What is the source of our salvation: We basically already are saved; people just don’t realize it because the process has been so gradual. But by any objective measure, the violence and want of the past have been left behind.

When Fukuyama declared an end to history in his book of the same name, he was making an eschatological claim. If you’re just going off the title, he appears to be declaring that we have already and permanently been saved. If his critics bothered to read the book they would discover that he is far more nuanced about how permanent things actually are. What he’s more arguing is that we have discovered all the tools necessary for salvation. Tools like science, market economies, free flow of migrants, etc. And there don’t appear to be any better tools out there. This is the end he’s talking about.

Steven Pinker goes even farther and claims in his book Enlightenment Now, that not only do we have the tools for salvation, but that they’re working great. We just need to keep using them, and not toss them away because they’re not working fast enough. That to the extent we have a problem it’s that we don’t have enough faith in these tools, and the minute they don’t work perfectly we immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t work at all. 

Of course, speaking of faith, Pinker has been accused of having too much faith that these tools will continue to work in the future, despite whatever new problems arise. This is why this framework ends up with the least dramatic view of the future, because it asserts that even if something changes, and we have to transition to a new reality, that our current tools are more than capable of smoothing that transition. There will be no hard takeoff due to AI, nor a global catastrophe due to climate change. The scientific method and progress more broadly has everything necessary for success and salvation, we just need to not abandon them.

Transhumanism

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This allows us to change what it means to be human, making them better or develop powerful artificial intelligence, or other amazing things we can scarcely imagine.

What is the source of our salvation: Technology is going to allow us to get rid of all the bad parts of humanity, things like death, scarcity, and stupidity, but also violence and want. Once we’ve gotten rid of all of those things, and added lots of cool things besides, we will have essentially achieved a secular version of heaven.

Once again this framework is based on the tools of technology and progress, only in this case it’s focused not on the tools we already have, but on the tools that are being worked on. It is, of course, always possible that these tools won’t be able to do everything transhumanists imagine. As an example, some people still think that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will prove to be far more difficult to create than people imagine, but to be fair these people are rarely transhumanists. Rather transhumanists are those who believe that such developments are right around the corner. 

Robin Hanson, who doesn’t consider himself to be a transhumanist, and who also believes that AGI will be difficult to create, nevertheless wrote an entire book (see my discussion here) on uploading our brains to computers called The Age of Em. (Em is short for emulated person.) I bring this up both to demonstrate some of the debates within this ideology, but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of transhumanism’s eschatological bent. It combines immortality, a postmortal utopia, and a single salvific event. Hanson doesn’t imagine a day of judgment, the Age of Em will actually last two years in his opinion (the book is remarkably specific in its predictions) but during that time Em’s will experience a thousand years of subjective time. My religious readers may see a parallel between this and the concept of millennialism.

A few people, like our old friends the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), who have not made an appearance in this space for a long time, but who have been on my mind a lot recently, explicitly link religion and transhumanism. Similar to Pinker they believe that technology has reduced violence and want, but they go beyond that to imagine that it will completely eliminate it, and allow resurrection and eternal life as well—that most of the things promised by Christianity (and specifically the Mormon version of it) will be brought to pass by technology.

Despite the foregoing, I don’t want to play up the religious angle of transhumanism too much, but it does rely on two kinds of faith. Faith that the miraculous technology envisioned will actually materialize, and faith that when it does it will be a good thing. For a group that doesn’t have that second form of faith we turn to a discussion of:

Existential Risk

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This acceleration will shortly outstrip our ability to manage the risks that inevitably accompany new technology. Not only will we be unable to keep ahead of the risks, but the more technology advances the bigger the risks get.

What is the source of our destruction: While the possibility exists that we might be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid. It’s far more likely we will be destroyed by the tools we’ve created, whether it be nukes, or bioweapons, or an aggressive AI. 

As you might be able to tell there is broad overlap between transhumanists and people who worry about existential risk. You might say that the former are technological optimists while the latter are technological pessimists. From my limited perspective, I think most of these people have been drifting towards the pessimistic side of things.

For an illustration of why people are pessimistic, and this eschatological framework in general, it’s best to turn to an analogy from Nick Bostrom, which has appeared a couple of times in this space:

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

Bostrom puts forward this analogy as a way of describing the potential benefits and harms of new technologies. Many, perhaps most will be beneficial, but some will be harmful, and it’s possible that one will end up causing the end of humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably impossible to stop the development of new technology, to stop drawing balls from the urn, but we can try and imagine what sorts of technology might be dangerous and take steps to mitigate it in advance.

For most people in this space the thing they worry about the most is AI Risk. The idea that we will develop AGI but be unable to control it. That we will create gods and they will turn out to be malevolent.

Speaking of God…

Christian Eschatology

Embedded assumptions: Christian eschatology comes in lots of flavors, but at the moment the discussion is dominated by the aforementioned millennialism, which assumes that things like the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are right around the corner. 

What is the source of our salvation: God. 

It might seem strange to discuss Christian eschatology alongside things like transhumanism and neoliberalism. On the other hand, as it’s the OG eschatology, it would seem strange not to discuss it.

As the original eschatology, Christian beliefs and language are woven all through this discussion. This is what allows me to discuss Robin Hanson’s version of “heaven”. This is what enables the MTA to imagine that technology will be the means of bringing about the end of the world, but in a good way. This cross-pollination has also gone the other way.

To be a modern eschatological framework, you have to have something to say about progress and technology. For many, perhaps even most Christians the modern world is evidence that the end must be close, that we are essentially building the Tower of Babel. (As you might imagine the MTA disagrees with this.) In this sense Christians are somewhat related to the people who worry about existential risk, though in this case they have faith that while things are going to get bad, that eventually Jesus will return and everything will turn out okay. As I’ve said before, when considering the alternatives, I think this view has a lot to recommend it.

New Age Spiritualism

Embedded assumptions: That the world has passed into a new, more enlightened era. As a consequence, we have left behind much of the evil and selfishness that used to afflict humanity, and we are on our way to embracing universal acceptance, tolerance and love.

What is the source of our salvation: An underlying spirit of progress, paired with a greater awareness of the higher morality brought about by this spirit of progress. 

It is my impression that almost no one uses the term “New Age” any more, so if you have a better term for this framework let me know. However, if you followed the link in the section heading you’ll see that “New Age” beliefs are still very common, as such it seemed worth including.

Whatever you want to call it and whatever its current influence, this framework is far less “in your face” than preceding ones. In part this is because its adherents generally feel that it’s going to be eventually successful regardless of how people act. That love, tolerance, and kindness will eventually triumph. That the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice”.

That said, there does appear to be a lot of frustration—by people who have a vision of what progress entails and where we’re headed—with those who don’t share their vision. It might be too much to declare that “woke ideology” overlaps with modern New Age eschatology, but it does seem to borrow a lot of the same principles, albeit with a more militant twist. But both imagine that we’re progressing towards a utopia of tolerance and kindness, and that some people are dragging their feet. 

I confess that this is the framework I understand the least, but it does seem like the foundation of much that is happening currently. And overall it translates into an eschatology that doesn’t revolve around technology, but around human attitudes and behavior.

Catabolic Collapse

Embedded assumptions: That civilization is reaching the point of diminishing productivity, growth and innovation. As a consequence of this we can’t build new things, and shortly we won’t even be able to maintain what we already have. 

What is the source of our destruction: A slow cannibalism of existing infrastructure, government programs, and social capital. 

Here we have come full circle. This is yet another slow moving eschatology, similar to Pinkerism, but in this case we’re not already saved, we’re already damned. This particular eschatological framework was first suggested by John Michael Greer, who got his start as part of the peak oil movement and has gradually shifted to commenting on late capitalism from kind of an ecosocialist perspective. Which is to say he’s very concerned about the environment and he talks a lot about the discontent of the average blue collar worker.

As a formal framework, it’s pretty obscure, but as a generalized sense of where the country is, with gas at $5/gallon, inflation, all the after effects of the pandemic, and a divided country. I think there are a lot of people who believe this is what’s happening even if they don’t have a name for it. 

The point, as I have mentioned before, is that the apocalypse will not be as cool or as deadly as you hope. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation and it’s going to take a long time for that ruin to manifest. Even if there’s a huge worldwide pandemic, even if there’s a nuclear war. Humans are tenacious. But absent divine intervention I don’t think permanent salvation is in the cards. And I think destruction is going to end up being long and painful. 

Conclusion

In 1939, Charles Kettering, a truly amazing inventor (He held 186 patents!), said:

I am not disturbed about the future. I think it is going to be a wonderful place. I don’t like people to talk about how bad it is going to be, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in the future.

You may have heard the shortened version, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” But what form should that concern take? And will it be a “wonderful place”? These are incredibly important questions, and it is my hope that by going through the various frameworks I’ve helped you develop some answers. 

As to my own answers to these questions, first we should note that the years immediately following Kettering’s pronouncement ended up being anything but wonderful. Instead war broke out on a scale never before seen and never since equaled. And yet I strongly suspect that Ian Morris is right, that the next forty years will be more impactful than the forty years leading up to the end of World War II. Even though those years contained World War I. And more impactful than the 40 years which started at the beginning of World War II, even though we landed on the Moon.

Because of this I think we should have an enormous amount of concern for the future because there’s a significant chance that it won’t be a wonderful place. We’ve never before been in a situation where things are changing so fast on so many fronts. And the faster things change the harder it is for us to adapt and the less likely a “wonderful” future becomes. 

I certainly hope that Pinker’s right, and we have been saved, or we will soon be saved. And certainly that idea deserves a seat at the table, but as you can see there are several other ideologies also seated at the eschatological table. Some are scary, some are interesting, but they’re all dramatic. Which is to say hang on, the next few decades are going to be bumpy.


I considered putting in Marxism as a framework, but is that really still a going concern? If it is let me know. The best way to do that is to send me money, which is both a great idea anyway, but also, if I’m not mistaken, ideologically appropriate. 


Nassar, Uvalde, and the Decline of Responsibility

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As part of my summer of experimentation (really just the summer when I’m super busy) I thought I’d try a more meditative post. Which is to say a post where I’m thinking out loud and I’m not exactly sure where things are going to end up. 

Even more than three weeks out it’s hard to not still be thinking of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And similar to what I said in my recent newsletter where I mentioned abortion. I don’t think I have any particular insight into what we should be doing that we’re not. Fortunately or unfortunately—I’m not exactly sure which—it appears that the debate over solutions for these sorts of shootings has been eclipsed by horror at how long the police took to storm the room. And each time we receive additional details, the behavior of the police, or at least the commander on the scene, just looks worse and worse. 

Of course this horror also comes down to a list of recommendations for what we should do differently in the future. Though in this case all of the experts had already recommended something, and it was even a recommendation that “both sides” agreed to. The police just failed to follow through on that recommendation.

Ever since Columbine the recommendation/doctrine has been for police to engage quickly, even at the risk of their own lives. This did not happen at Uvalde, and it’s clear that there were children and at least one teacher who died from their wounds who would have lived if they had gotten prompt medical attention. The teacher died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and three kids died after arriving at the hospital. In trauma care there’s the concept of the golden hour, that your chances of saving someone’s life are significantly higher if you can get them care within 60 minutes of the trauma occurring. This is particularly true for blood loss. I’m sure you see the connection given that the golden hour was also the same hour the police spent waiting outside the room. Once you take this into account, I’m guessing that four preventable deaths is the bare minimum, that it could have easily been two or three times that number. 

As shocked as I am by this unforgivable delay, it was another story that really inspired me to write this post. This is also a story of law enforcement behaving exactly the opposite from how we would expect, and while arguably the damage was not as great, the officials in this story had far longer to consider their actions. I came across the story in the June 10th daily news roundup put out by The Dispatch

In 2015, the FBI received reports that Larry Nassar was sexually abusing gymnasts in his role as team physician for USA Gymnastics and elsewhere. Instead of sharing this information with local law enforcement, FBI agents delayed victim interviews, fabricated witness statements, and later lied to investigators—one even tried to get a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee during his investigation, according to an inspector general report.

Between the 2015 reports and Nassar’s arrest more than a year later, he abused at least 70 girls and women, the inspector general investigation concluded. “People at the FBI had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year. “I’m deeply and profoundly sorry.”

But the Department of Justice has declined three times to pursue charges against agents involved in bungling the investigation, noting the third time that its decision did not “in any way reflect a view that the investigation of Nassar was handled as it should have been.”

Both of these stories make me sick to my stomach, and similar to the story of Uvalde, the Nassar story also has the quality that the more you know the worse it looks. This is the opposite of most stories, where the deeper you dig the more sympathy you develop for both sides. Here, the more I dig the less defensible the actions of the Uvalde police and the FBI agents appear.

I’ve uncovered many disturbing details in both stories—for example, while the lawsuit by the gymnasts focuses on the period starting in 2015, there’s evidence that Nassar started abusing Gymnasts as early as 1994! But amidst all these details, the bit that jumped out at me about both stories and the commonality I wanted to discuss in this post is both the lack of responsibility—No one is saying “I screwed up” emphasis on the “I”—and the lack of consequences.

What consequences should there be? Well, with Uvalde, I prefer to let the various investigations conclude before making any definitive statements. And it’s certainly too early to say that consequences have been lacking, though I strongly suspect that that will be how it ends up. However it’s not too early to talk about the Nassar situation.  I dug pretty deep and the only consequence I could uncover was that one FBI agent, Michael Langeman, had been fired over things, but not until September of 2021! The other agent who had been involved in things and who was, in fact, more senior, W. Jay Abbott, retired in 2018 (at 57, we should all be so lucky) and is apparently doing great on his government pension

Of course if I’m going to claim that all of the foregoing was bad, I should be prepared to put forth some alternatives, some suggestions for how things should have gone instead. And yes, I do have some ideas, but as I mentioned at the beginning I’m still thinking through this problem, I’m not ready to make any concrete recommendations. But let’s start the process by considering two things:

First, how is it that someone can say something dumb on social media and the whole world will rush to condemn them—for example, as I write this everyone is piling on James Patterson because he said that white men struggling to find writing jobs is “just another form of racism”—but do something awful like stand by as kids bleed out, or ignore a serial sexual predator, and you can largely remain entirely anonymous and continue with your life as if nothing happened. I’m sure that, from here on out, anytime someone talks about Patterson this assertion will get mentioned, up to and including his obituary, while the police officers and FBI agents will soon be forgotten.

I’m not advocating that everyone involved with Nassar and Uvalde should be tried and condemned on social media. In fact I’m reasonably certain that no one should be tried on social media. No, I’m more pointing out the strangeness of our priorities. To provide a different example consider the story of Justine Sacco. Sacco made an unfortunate joke about AIDS on Twitter just before boarding a flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” I’m sure most of my readers have heard this story and that many of you had heard the name, Justine Sacco, how many of you were familiar with the details of the FBI agents incompetence with Nassar? How many of you had heard the names of those agents? I assume far more of you are in the former camp than the latter.

Sacco’s life was ruined by that tweet. She was subjected to brutal online harassment, she lost her job, and for years afterwards she was unemployable. It was so bad that books have been written about it.  Hopefully it’s gotten better, but compare that to W. Jay Abbott, who’s comfortably retired, and even Michael Langeman kept his job for six years before finally being fired for his gross dereliction of duty. The disparity between these two crimes, (if Sacco’s tweet even rises to that level) and their punishments is so egregious that one feels they’re looking at two different realities, or perhaps reading two different novels, written by different authors and in completely different genres. 

To be fair, disparities in punishments were very common historically, but they generally involved wealth and class. The Uvalde police, and the FBI agents—despite Abbot’s comfortable retirement—are not wealthy, so then what class do they belong to that makes them largely immune from consequences?

I’ll get to that in a bit, but before I do, discussing the historical norms takes me to the second point I wanted to examine: How were these sorts of disasters handled in the past?

I have strong feelings about how they should be handled. I think the people in question should accept responsibility, admit that they failed, and resign. In addition to my strong feelings I also have a strong impression that this is how it used to work, but I haven’t been able to find a lot of hard data to back me up. (Perhaps because I’m not entirely clear what sort of data set would cover those events.) Despite this, my sense is that it used to be far more common, when something like Uvalde or Nassar happened, for people to resign, sometimes in disgrace but more often out of a sense of duty. In the latter case the idea was that preventing just this sort of event was so fundamental to their job that the fact that it happened meant that they were clearly unqualified to continue performing that job, and as such they resigned. Here, after spending a lot of time talking about consequences, we return to the question of responsibility. Resigning was an assumption of responsibility. Resigning didn’t mean that you were 100% responsible. As frustrating as the actions of the Uvalde police were, and as incompetent and craven as the FBI agents were, the shooter and Nassar still bear the vast majority of the responsibility. But surely there is some small percentage that should be assumed by law enforcement in these cases, given what we now know.

So then the question is, why don’t we do that anymore? Or if I’m wrong and such resignations never happened, even in the past (which I doubt, though perhaps I have an exaggerated impression of how common they were) we still have to answer the question: why couldn’t it happen now? Why doesn’t Pete Arredondo, (Are-re-don-doe) the commander on the scene at Uvalde resign? (Instead he was quietly sworn in to a position on the City Council.) Why didn’t anyone in the FBI resign? And to be clear, I’m not saying that if they did that it would make it all better. It might be appropriate for there to be additional consequences, but accepting responsibility and resigning would be a very good start.

But it doesn’t happen, and once again we’re reminded of the disproportionate nature of things. Currently, it seems comparatively easy to get people to resign over an ill chosen statement, but somehow it’s inconceivable that someone might resign because they have completely failed at their job. But job failure would seem to be precisely the kind of thing where resignation from that same job would be appropriate. So why doesn’t it happen? And does it give us any insight into the larger problem of law enforcement failure? As you might imagine I have some theories, so let’s go through them:

One obvious factor has to be legal liability. If you admit to any percentage of the overall responsibility then presumably that’s the percent of the damages you’re liable for. If the gymnasts suffered, collectively, $1 billion dollars in harm (which is actually what they’re seeking from the FBI) and by resigning you essentially admit to 1% of the responsibility, then that’s $10 million dollars. And it’s certainly possible that this is the whole of the explanation, that as claims for damages have increased both in frequency and amount that there is a vast disincentive towards anything that might appear to be an admission of guilt. Perhaps that’s all it is, and I should just end here. But I think there’s more going on, and it’s possible that increased litigiousness isn’t the disease, it’s just one more symptom of something deeper.

Obviously one of the great achievements of western democracy has been the concept and gradual solidification of “rule of law”. But of course as I just mentioned, it’s possible that we have gone too far, that we rely too much on defining what exactly is lawful and what exactly isn’t, which often involves lawsuits. One place where this over-reliance is most pronounced, to the point of it being a cliche, is within government bureaucracies, which is precisely where law enforcement sits. Now, you may argue that in both of the examples, the people in question weren’t following the law, but I don’t think that’s the case. The failure in Uvalde didn’t involve rule breaking, they ignored a guideline, but they were scrupulous about following rules, particularly the rule about obeying the chain of command. No officer decided to disobey Arredondo and go in regardless, and officers were equally rigorous about keeping parents away from the school. As far as the FBI situation, given the fact that the FBI has three times refused to prosecute the agents, presumably they didn’t break any obvious laws either, as far as rules, that seems less clear, but my guess is that the agents in question were exquisitely aware of where the law actually drew the line and they were very careful to never cross it. 

This all takes us back to a discussion of responsibility, and I think both of the foregoing points can be traced back to a decline in personal responsibility. And I know that the minute someone complains about something like this they get put in the “grumpy old man” category (which is indeed precisely what I am) but clearly this post has given two examples that are clear demonstrations of a deficit of personal responsibility, the question is whether this deficit is broader than that—if it’s something that’s endemic. I would claim that it is, though I don’t have the time to back up that claim. So, I’m kind of just tossing it out there, but before you dismiss it ask yourselves what incentives are currently in place to encourage responsibility? And what about the opposite, what incentives are there that have the effect of discouraging the acceptance of responsibility? I’ve already provided two examples in the latter category: litigiousness and bureaucracies.

To wrap things up I have two more thoughts, each of which is even more speculative, but despite that (or more likely because of it) I find them to be the most interesting of the factors I’ve discussed.

I have commented before about the current overemphasis on safety, nor am I the first to do so. It certainly was and continues to be a huge factor in our response to COVID, but was it also a factor in the two examples we’ve been discussing? I’m not sure it played a factor in the investigation (or lack thereof) of Nassar, though I could certainly imagine that one of the reasons the agents didn’t try very hard is that they were getting pushback from “entrenched interests” as they’re euphemistically known. And they tried to “play it safe”. This would go a long way to explaining Abbott’s attempt to secure a job with the Olympics. On the other hand, safetyism seems to have clearly played a role in Uvalde. Officer safety was the main reason given for the delay, and while I don’t want to discount that, I am once again of the strong opinion that it would not have been such a large concern had this happened in the past. I am convinced that there was a time, not that long ago, when there would have been officers who would have rather died trying to save those children, then lived with the guilt of standing outside the door for an hour while those children bled to death. Perhaps they still exist and were there, but decided to defer to Arredondo or other officers. If so I have a lot of sympathy for them, I can only imagine what sort of guilt they may be experiencing now.

Finally, there’s the closely related idea of heroes. There were no heroes in either of these stories, nor can I remember that last time someone doing something truly heroic ended up being big news. I assume that this dearth is related to a lot of things I’ve already discussed, but I wonder if it’s also related to the attention one receives for being heroic. There’s a theory that school shootings are all about the notoriety given to the shooter. That’s the reason troubled people commit these horrible acts, it will make them important even if it’s posthumously. Does that work the other way as well? Probably. I assume that someone might decide to do something heroic in a similar bid to feel important. So why did it not happen in my two examples? Why didn’t someone from the FBI, or heck why didn’t someone in all the time since 1994 stand up and make sure Nassar was arrested? And why, out of all the cops on the scene in Uvalde, didn’t one or a dozen step up and decide that they couldn’t wait any longer.

One would think that we would want the world to be set up in such a way that we encourage heroism. But clearly that’s not the case. I think all the things I’ve mentioned thus far serve to dissuade heroes, the chance of a lawsuit, the bureaucratic nature of the world, etc. And it’s possible that it’s even worse, that we have somehow twisted things so that the modern world is excellent at creating villains and awful at creating heroes. It’s easy to imagine this happening as a side effect of social media. If you’re interested in being infamous, then that’s easy to accomplish through social media, but being heroic on social media is a lot harder. If nothing else you have invited people to examine the rest of your life, and somewhere during all the time you spent not being a hero will be something people find objectionable, and you’ll go from being a hero to an object of scorn and ridicule at least for half the country. Beyond all the other things I’ve mentioned this system has to create a powerful disincentive for the average person who stumbles into a chance to be heroic.

I started this post, and the discussion of Nassar and Uvalde with the vague idea that there needed to be more consequences for members of law enforcement who dramatically failed in their duty, But is it possible the problem is the inverse of that? That the problem is not that villains don’t get punished, but rather that heroes don’t get rewarded.


From my perspective this is another late post. I don’t know if you’re keeping track or if you even care. But I do really try to get out four pieces a month. If you appreciate the guilt I feel when I’m not publishing as often as I think I should, or even if you’re just amused by it, consider donating


The 9 Books I Finished in May

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  1. The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society by: Azeem Azhar
  2. Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by: Leonard Sax
  3. The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by: Sohrab Ahmari
  4. The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era by: Liu Mingfu 
  5. Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left by: Ben Burgis
  6. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 
  7. Paper Heroes by: Steven Heumann
  8. Critical Mass (Expeditionary Force, #10) by: Craig Alanson
  9. Brushfire (Expeditionary Force, #11) by: Craig Alanson

Our house went under contract in mid-May. As I mentioned in previous posts, it was a devil of a time getting it ready, but once we listed it everything else went off without a hitch. We had an offer within four days, and then all the subsequent inspections, along with the appraisal and financing went off smoothly as well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for finding a new house. Which is not to say that things have been disastrous, merely that we are still looking. The rise in interest rates have slowed down the buying frenzy, so there’s actually a reasonable amount of inventory which has been nice. But looking at this inventory has been time consuming. By my count we’ve seen 50 houses so far, and I’m hoping that we’re getting close, but as of the end of May we had not made an offer on anything. 

Unsurprisingly there is something along the lines of a project triangle present in the whole affair. The project triangle can be summed up as “Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.” Only in the case of houses it’s: “Big, close, affordable. Choose two.” I’ll keep you posted. I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seats.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society 

By: Azeem Azhar

Published: 2021

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle of the book pretty much covers it, though in the UK it has a different title: Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It

Which is probably even closer.

What’s the author’s angle?

Azhar has a whole “exponential” empire with a website, newsletter and podcast, so it was only a matter of time before he added a book to that.

Who should read this book?

People hoping to understand the accelerating pace of technological change outside of just the internet. This includes computing and artificial intelligence, renewable electricity and energy storage, along with biology and manufacturing.

General Thoughts

In the intro Azhar claims that there are two main problems with our “conversation about technology”. The first problem is the idea that technology is neutral, that by itself it’s neither good or evil it just is. That it exists “independent of humanity” in a fashion similar to gold—it’s already out there, we’re just digging it up. Or if there are aliens out there that they would end up with identical technology, despite, presumably, the vast differences which otherwise exist between us and them. 

Azhar rejects this idea, though his examples are not especially earth shattering:

…that means our technologies often recreate the systems of power that exist in the rest of society. Our phones are designed to fit in men’s hands rather than women’s. Many medicines are less effective on Black and Asian people, because the pharmaceutical industry often develops its treatments for white customers. When we build technology, we might make these systems of power more durable – by encoding them into infrastructure that is more inscrutable and less accountable than humans are

I also reject the idea that technology is neutral, but my primary example would be the phenomena of supernormal stimuli. This is the idea that historically it was difficult to get too much of some things—things which were beneficial in small amounts—and as such we have no built in protection against excessive consumption, because it’s not something that ever came up historically. In theory if technology was neutral it could just as easily be used to protect us against excessive consumption, as it could be to encourage such consumption, but as it turns out it’s far easier and more lucrative to do the latter. We see this play out in areas as diverse as junk food and Facebook algorithms, both of which are basically evil. Not EVIL, but certainly not neutral. 

The second problem Azhar points out is that most people make no effort to understand technology. Here he is mostly talking about politicians, but the point could also be expanded to the rest of us. 

Again, I would take issue with Azhar’s claim. Certainly some people make no effort to understand technology, but even for those that do make an effort the task is essentially impossible. To begin with there’s far too much technology for anyone to completely grasp all of it. And beyond that it’s changing so fast that even if one were to “get up to speed” on some aspect of it, by the time you have, it’s changed enough that the “speed” you’re at is no longer the speed it’s going. Even if you somehow avoid this strange version of Zeno’s Paradox there are still dozens of other areas you have fallen behind on while your focus was elsewhere.

Taken together, I think Azhar’s book is interesting, and enlightening. He definitely provides a lot of information about a real problem. I just don’t think he goes far enough in grappling with future disruption.

Eschatological Implications

I have my issues with how Azhar presents the problem and his proposals for dealing with it, and we use different terminology, but at the core we’re both talking about secular eschatology. We are accelerating towards a future we’re entirely unprepared for. 


Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men 

By: Leonard Sax

Published: Originally 2007, Revised 2016

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are problems unique to adolescent boys and young men that have been brought on by the modern world and other forms of supposed “progress”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sax is a psychologist, physician and speaker. One presumes that advocating for this thesis provides the majority of his income. 

Who should read this book?

Parents raising boys should absolutely read this book. And given that we’re talking about something that affects huge swaths of society, probably everyone should read this book. 

General Thoughts

As you might be able to tell from the title Sax’s book is built around five factors, each contributing to various problems being experienced by young men. These five factors are:

  1. The way school has changed: There is less time for physical activity, and things like learning to read have been moved to earlier and earlier in the child’s life. 
  2. Video games: Sax spends a lot of time talking about the violence angle, but I think the way it affects motivation is a bigger story.
  3. ADHD medications: The first factor leads to a greater diagnosis of ADHD, and then while medications solve the immediate problem of lack of focus, over the long term they actually undermine motivation.
  4. Endocrine disruptors: The way that certain plastics, in particular phthalates, have disrupted male puberty while accelerating female puberty.
  5. Abandoning traditional transitions to manhood: We no longer have formalized steps and achievements that mark the passage from boy to man.

I could spend a whole post talking about each one of these (as indeed I have with endocrine disruptors.) And while I think he goes too far in some respects (see my comment about video games above). I would say that he’s 90% correct about both the causes and the scope of the problem. And even if we were to be ultra conservative and say that Sax is only 50% correct he would still be describing a massive problem.

Eschatological Implications

I remember a time when there was enormous attention being paid to Sax’s concerns. When debates over whether boys were in crisis was a major part of the culture war, and single sex education (which Sax is a big advocate of) was gaining significant traction. But these days it’s almost entirely disappeared from the national conversation. Is that because Sax was an alarmist and there wasn’t actually a problem? I wish. No, I think the problem is far worse than that. This crisis has not gone away, it has merely been replaced by crises that are even worse.

The process of replacement was already well underway by the time the pandemic came around, but it was certainly the final nail in the coffin. Preceding that, I would place the crisis of young women identifying as young men as a result of social contagion, and of course closely related to that, is the fact that who even counts as a boy has gotten a little bit slippery with the increase in trans-identifying teens. But I think the biggest thing to overshadow the crisis Sax describes was the crisis brought on by social media. 

Despite the fact that the book was updated in 2016 Sax only mentions “social media” twice, and then it’s basically just to add it to the list of the ways computers can sap your motivation, placing it alongside video games. 

This is the eschatological implication, that we have been experiencing a series of escalating crises, such that the problem with young men, which still exists and is still massively important, now barely rates a mention. As near as I can tell from looking at the numbers and my own experience there are actually more boys adrift today than there were in 2007, it’s just that we don’t have any attention left to spend on them.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

By: Sohrab Ahmari

Published: 2021

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book Ahmari is writing to his two year old son Max. It’s constructed around 12 questions Max might ask as he grows up, questions about how to live a good life.

What’s the author’s angle?

Ahmari was raised Muslim in Iran, after spending quite a while as an atheist he was baptized into the Catholic Church at age 31 (in 2016). So his discussion of tradition has been said to be motivated by the zeal of a convert. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re not a fan of tradition I don’t think this book will change your mind. I think the book probably assumes too much to be persuasive to those who aren’t already favorably disposed towards tradition. But if you agree with Ahmari’s basic premise, then the biographic examples he gives are very interesting and impactful.

General Thoughts

Each of Ahmari’s twelve chapters (excepting an introduction and conclusion) are built around a title question and the biography of someone who grappled with that question. While I appreciated Ahmari’s reasoning (and in fact used it as the basis of a recent post) I really think the biographies were what drove the book. Consequently I thought it would be a good use of space to list the chapters with their subjects, along with a short blurb:

Part I: The Things of God

1- How Do You Justify Your Life? C. S. Lewis 

A discussion of his conversion interspersed with scenes from his Space Trilogy.

2- Is God Reasonable? Thomas Aquinas

The creation of Summa Theologica and Aquinas’ demonstration of God’s reason.

3- Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

How taking a day off is another example of virtuous freedom.

4- Can You Be Spiritual Without Being Religious? Victor and Edith Turner 

The story of how their studies of African Tribalism led them to realize the importance of religion and their eventual conversion to Catholicism. 

5- Does God Respect You? Howard Thurman

A civil rights leader who knew that even if whites didn’t respect him, God did. He went on to strongly influence Martin Luther King, Jr.

6- Does God Need Politics? Saint Augustine

The story of his role in defending Christianity against the backdrop of a disintegrating Roman Empire when Christianity was being blamed for that disintegration. 

Part II: The Things of Humankind

7- How Must You Serve Your Parents? Confucius 

How filial piety is the beginning of crafting a broader just and humane society.

8- Should You Think for Yourself? John Henry Newman

How “thinking for yourself,” in the modern, liberal sense, undermines the true conscience.

9- What Is Freedom For? Alexander Solzhenitsyn

His famous speech at Harvard, that true freedom is not unlimited license to do whatever feels good. 

10- Is Sex a Private Matter? Andrea Dworkin

Her battle against pornography and sex-positive feminism. 

11- What Do You Owe Your Body? Hans Jonas

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” 

12- What’s Good About Death? Maximilian Kolbe

The story of his sacrifice at Auschwitz, where he volunteered to be starved to death by the Nazis in place of another.

As I mentioned, if you want an even deeper dive, see this previous post. [POST – PUT IN TITLE OF EPISODE]


The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era 

by: Liu Mingfu 

Published: 2015

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The necessity for China to rise and become the champion nation of the world—which is different than being the hegemon—and how it will need to deal with the US in order to do that.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mingfu is a retired PLA colonel, and one of the leading America hawks within China. This is a book written for a Chinese audience.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’re on a quest to better understand China, you should definitely at least skim this book. I’ve read lots of books attempting to explain China from the outside. This is the first I’ve read that explains China’s goals from the inside.

General Thoughts

I highlighted 149 passages in this book. Most of them qualified because of how strange they sounded to my, presumably biased, American ears. He goes on and on about how the rise of China will be the most peaceful of all ascensions by “champion nations”. That China is super civilized and peaceful, that:

As China moves toward the world’s leading nation it will struggle to become a new kind of champion nation, the significance of which is that China will never seek to become a global hegemon, and will never seek hegemonic benefits, and will never consider holding hegemonic power as a core national interest. 

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps if we stand by when they eventually invade Taiwan. And if we stop caring about what they do internally, i.e. the Uighurs (who are never mentioned, as you might expect.) Then China will have no further ambitions. Our relationship with them will be similar to our relationship to Japan in the 80’s: significant economic competition and rivalry, but no real military concerns. 

In support of this possibility Mingfu offers up a theory that competition between nations has gradually softened. He calls it the “Track and Field Model”:

A New and Civilized Competition Model: A track and field competition model between China and America is significant on two levels. The first is that the 21st century will hinge on the competition between America and China, which will be history’s most civilized round of great power competition. It will not be a duel-style great war nor a boxing-match-style Cold War; it will be a track-and-field-style heat. The second is that the competition will be a century-long struggle, a track and field competition between the two nations. Not a hundred-meter or thousand-meter sprint, this will be a marathon that tests courage, will, and patience. The upcoming track and field event between China and America in the 21st century will be notable for two things: the civility and the length of the competition. 

I hope that the competition between the US and China ends up being as civilized as he claims. I guess only time will tell. I think a lot hinges on our different ways of seeing the world, and it was enlightening and a little bit strange to read a book about how China sees the world.


Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left

by: Ben Burgis

Published: 2021

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is another author attempting to get the left to be more strategic. To work on building a broader coalition and to focus less on being censorious and more on engaging and debating their ideological opponents.

What’s the author’s angle?

Burgis is a Bernie Sanders supporter who writes for Jacobin. He’s a philosophy professor and he hosts a podcast called Give Them an Argument

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. Perhaps people on the left who are sick of cancel culture and looking for an alternative. But I suspect that if they were actually looking for an alternative they would have encountered it already, and not need this book.

General Thoughts

Only the first chapter of the book talks about comedians, the rest is the kind of thing you might get from Matthew Ygelsias, or Freddie deBoer. To give you an example Burgis talks about when Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders and how the Sanders campaign embraced the endorsement only to get excoriated by people on the far left. Burgis points out that this is really dumb, and that the left does a lot of things like that. He is not the first, nor will he be the last.


The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe 

By: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 

Published: Originally in 1979, Abridged in 1983, 2nd Edition w/ Afterword 2005

336 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The contribution printing made to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and to the Scientific Revolution.

What’s the author’s angle?

Eisenstein was a historian, and in 1979 most people didn’t pay much attention to the role printing played in the huge changes which took place in Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. This book was Eisenstein’s attempt to change that.

Who should read this book?

It is a sign of how successful Eisenstein was, that her thesis has largely become conventional wisdom. As such, most people don’t need a book full of arguments in order to be convinced. But for those interested in the nitty-gritty of how printing impacted everything this is a great resource.

General Thoughts

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press upended religion, society, and knowledge. The invention of the internet appears to be having a similar effect. I picked up this book because I was hoping that it might have some wisdom to provide, that by reading about the last time we had a communication revolution I would get some insight into the current communication revolution. I was largely disappointed in this hope. Eisentstein did add an afterword in 2005, but it was largely a discussion of various criticisms of the original work; she did not offer much if any opinion on the parallels between then and now. 

Despite this it was nevertheless a fascinating book, though to be clear it was not written for a general audience. It was written to advance and refute very specific historical arguments and sometimes the specificity of those arguments can bog things down. For example: Can we use the memoirs of a Florentine manuscript book seller to estimate the number of books produced by scribes? Spoiler alert, we cannot, they are “entirely untrustworthy”.

In any case, the book did give me a greater appreciation for the insights of Marshall McLuhan, who Eisenstein cites as one of her inspirations. But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what Eisenstein and McLuhan would say about the modern world.  Mostly I’m guessing it wouldn’t be good. Eisenstein herself feels that there is good reason to suspect that the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t have happened without the printing press, and if that’s the case then you probably also don’t get the incredibly bloody 30 Years War, or the Troubles in Ireland which have only recently abated. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

What will be the modern version of the Protestant Reformation? And more frighteningly will there be a modern version of the 30 Years War? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but if you’re interested in a deep dive on all the things that happened the last time around, Eisenstein has you covered.


Paper Heroes

By: Steven Heumann

Published: 2018

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The main character is approached by his billionaire boss and offered the chance to be a literal superhero. He accepts and morality ensues.

Who should read this book?

People who like supporting small, independent authors. Or those who are fans of unconventional superhero tales.

General Thoughts

I bumped into Heumann at a local networking event. When he mentioned he was a science fiction author I asked him which book of his I should read (or, actually, listen to). And he pointed me at this book. I’ll be honest, I have not discovered the next Orson Scott Card or the next Heinlein, but it was an enjoyable book with a lot of heart and a great ending. 


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 10: Critical Mass

Published: 2020

393 Pages

Book 11: Brushfire

Published: 2020

392 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

There was a point when this series was starting to feel repetitive. That point is mostly past. The plot of the series has definitely entered a new phase and so far I’m enjoying it. Also, the complications present in this new phase are more interesting and less likely to become repetitive. As such, I’m looking forward to seeing how Alanson wraps it up. (Supposedly book 15 will be the last one.)

General Thoughts

Before starting a new series one should carefully consider what they’re getting into. How many books are there in the series? Is the series complete or is the author still working on it? How many books are there expected to be when it is completed? Is there any chance the author won’t be able to finish the series? You really should carefully consider the answers to all those questions before you make the commitment implicit in starting the series. Of particular importance is that last question. Nothing is more annoying than starting a series and finding out once you’re halfway through that you may never find out how it ends. (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin!)

I confess I don’t always follow my own advice as well as I should. Perhaps if I’d really ruminated on the fact that Expeditionary Force was likely to be 15 books long I wouldn’t have started it, but I did and now that I’m up through book 11, it seems like I might as well see it to the end. And fortunately there does not appear to be any chance that Alanson will “pull a Martin”. He seems to have no problem putting out two books a year (as you can see from the publication dates above) and book 14 was just released which means book 15 should come out by the end of this year or early next year.

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I’m reading the books more because I’m a completionist than because I enjoy reading them. Mostly, that is not the case. I am enjoying the books, the characters, the plot and the gradually unfolding mysteries of the universe Alanson has built, but as I get near the end I would be remiss if I didn’t reemphasize how big of a commitment you’re taking on when starting this series. 


By the time I finished all the reviews we actually had made an offer on a house and that offer was accepted. I’m very happy with the house we ended up with. If you’re the kind of person that gives housewarming gifts, consider donating. I promise I’ll put a post-it note with your name on it on the wall of my new office.


Eschatologist #17: We’ve Solved All the Easy Problems, Only Hard Problems Remain

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With the release of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion is back in the news, so much so that anything I could add to the subject would seem wholly superfluous. And indeed spending a few hundred words advocating for one side or the other would be pointless. (Should you wish for a few thousand words of such advocacy I would direct you to a couple of posts I wrote the last time the abortion debate flared up.) 

No, I am not going to spend any time on whether one side of the debate is more or less moral, rather I am going to discuss moral debates in general—how they’ve played out in the past and how they’re likely to play out in the future. 

The Reformation ushered in the age of large-scale debates on public morality. These debates really took off during the Enlightenment as ideas about individual rights came to the fore. You end up with very different answers to certain questions if everyone gets a say, than if only the priests, kings, and nobles get a say. As these debates intensified, certain subjects, which no one had given much thought to previously, suddenly became grounds for intense conflict, often culminating in bloodshed. The best known of these debates is the one concerning slavery, which was finally decided in the US after the long and bloody Civil War. 

Other debates took even longer to resolve, but in the end they too were resolved no less decisively (and fortunately none with as much bloodshed). An example would be interracial marriage. In 1958 only 4% of people approved of it. These days it’s 94%. One could offer up other examples like child labor, public executions, and smoking—debates where if you just wait long enough the majority switches their opinion from one side to its exact opposite. However, abortion does not appear to be in this category:

As you can see the split was pretty wide in 1995, but since then rather than moving towards a majority being on one side or the other, it has instead just gotten tighter and tighter.

Tragically, guns and the Second Amendment are back in the news as well. Here again, while the graphs aren’t quite as stark, there is no evidence that a majority is solidifying around a particular position. 

Why is this? Who do some questions of public morality eventually resolve into an answer the majority of people agree with, and why do some questions harden into two opposing camps? There are probably many reasons, but I would like to consider two that seem particularly important currently:

First, the passage of time distills out the true weight of arguments. In the time since the Enlightenment, some of them have turned out to be rather shallow, while some have turned out to contain surprising depth. Where deep principles exist on both sides of a question it becomes much more difficult to get a majority to unite behind just one answer. In the centuries since we started examining these questions in earnest shallow positions have fallen by the wayside, meaning that now, only deep conflicts remain.

Second, the modern phenomenon of internet echo chambers would also seem to be hardening opinions, creating opposing camps of passionate believers, which further exacerbates the difficulty of achieving a majority consensus.  

I strongly suspect that abortion, gun control, and several other issues fall into that first category—debates where both sides rest on deep values—questions which are extremely difficult to reach consensus on even without the introduction of echo chambers and impossible now that they’re ubiquitous.

If I’m correct, if we have already reached agreement on all the “easy” stuff, and lost our ability to make progress on hard questions, just as those are the only ones remaining, then the future is bleak. It would mean that there is no end to our current political discord. It would also be a particular problem for our perceptions of progress, as it implies not only stagnation, but stagnation at a particularly contentious plateau. A future where consensus becomes more and more rare, where it doesn’t matter how long we debate the issue, unanimity will never be achieved. A future where the best case is fragmenting the nation into mutual hostile camps, and the worst case is violence and bloodshed.


Did you notice the alliteration there at the end? That’s the kind of craftsmanship I bring to discussions about the collapse of the nation. If you’re one of those people who has always claimed to support quality, made in America products, this is your chance. All you have to do is donate


Conscience, Authenticity, and True Freedom

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I.

I’m currently reading The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari. Ahmari opens the book by telling the stories of two different people named Maximilian. The first Maximilian, the one representing the “tradition” mentioned in the subtitle, is Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest, and one of the “greatest of modern Christian martyrs.” 

Kolbe’s story, and his martyrdom, took place in 1941. Kolbe had been imprisoned at Auschwitz for a few months when one of his fellow prisoners escaped. As punishment the deputy camp commandant picked out 10 men to starve to death as a way of deterring future escape attempts. 

[Kolbe] wasn’t selected. But when he heard one of the condemned cry out, “My wife, my children!,” [He] took off his cap and quietly stepped forward from the line.

“What does this Polish pig want?” the deputy commandant asked.

“I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place”—here, Kolbe pointed at his fellow prisoner—“because he has a wife and children.”

[The commandant] accepted Kolbe’s offer.

And so Kolbe went on to starve to death in the man’s place. It took two weeks, and Kolbe was calm and prayerful the whole time.

Obviously Kolbe was only able to take this man’s place by virtue of his strong Christian faith. One assumes that his faith in the existence of a hereafter, of Heaven and Hell played a role. Also John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” certainly played a role. And while people have no difficulty accepting that religious faith may motivate people to make extreme sacrifices, Ahmari wants to make sure we understand that his faith didn’t require him to do this thing, it didn’t constrict his choices, it opened them up. Kolbe’s faith gave him the freedom to make that choice.

What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once [The commandant] had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.

This form of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. Witness the heroism of physicians, nurses, and other front-line health in response to the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But the animating logic of the contemporary West, the intellectual thrust of our age, if taken to its logical end, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible.

What form of freedom “prevails in the West today”? If Kolbe is an example of the sort of freedom which emerges from tradition, what sort of freedom emerges from the “age of chaos”—that other part of the book’s subtitle? Or what sort of freedom causes an age to be chaotic?

Here we turn to the second Maximillian, Ahmari’s son. As you might have guessed he was named after the first Maximillian, and as Ahmari considers his son he wonders about these questions. Specifically he wonders what sort of freedom his son will experience:

What kind of a man will contemporary Western culture chisel out of my son? Which substantive ideals should I pass on to him, against the overwhelming cynicism of our age?

The book is Ahmari’s attempt to answer the second question, and if you’re interested in that answer I would urge you to read the book. (And I will of course do a review of it in my monthly round up.) But Ahmari considers the first question as well, and that’s the thread I am most interested in following. This thread of modern freedom vs. traditional freedom. 

As Ahmari considers the answers to these various questions he casts his mind forward and endeavors to imagine his son’s future if Ahmari does not intervene, if his son takes a path similar to other children of recent generations. At the time the book was written his son was two, but Ahmari tries to imagine what sort of person he’s likely to be when he’s in his 20s, or when he gets to be the same age as the first Maximillian.

Fast-forward my bad dream: Max is now forty-seven years old—the same age at which his patron saint laid down his life for a stranger at Auschwitz. Having retired early from his firm with a tidy sum in his investment account, my Max is now touring Europe with his girlfriend in a luxury electric RV. The two of them have been cohabiting on and off for nearly a decade now, yet they have no intention to marry, much less have children.

On the road, they seek out Michelin-starred restaurants for feasting—followed by nights browsing Tinder (theirs is an open relationship). And this is the relatively optimistic scenario. It assumes that Max hasn’t succumbed to opioids or high-end synthetic drugs. It assumes he hasn’t become one of those young men who spend months and years shut in their bedrooms, playing videogames and browsing the Web. The Japanese call them hikikomori, though the phenomenon sadly spans the whole developed world.

“Dad, I’m happy!” he insists, if and when he permits us to talk about his life. And the worst part of it is, he might be telling the truth, by his own lights. He may not even know what he has missed: the thrill of meditating on the Psalms and wondering if they were written just for him; the peace of mind that comes with regularly going to Confession and leaving the accumulated baggage of his guilt behind; the joy of binding himself to one other soul, and only that one, in marriage; that awesome instant when the nurses hand him a newborn baby, his own.

Having kept his “options open” his whole life, he hasn’t bound himself irrevocably to anything greater than himself and, therefore, hasn’t exercised human freedom as his namesake understood it. Maximilian Kolbe dreamt of acquiring the crowns of virtue and sacrifice. The dream—or rather, the nightmare—that haunts me is one in which my Maximilian spends a lifetime reaching for other crowns.

As Ahmari says, this is his nightmare, but why should it be so? Why would he rather that his son starve to death for a stranger at age 47 as opposed to having him childless and touring Europe with his girlfriend? Obviously as you can tell from the excerpts Ahmari is profoundly religious, and perhaps you’re inclined to dismiss his preference precisely because of this reason, as the biased zealotry of a true believer. But I think that would be a mistake. I believe there’s something to this distinction even if you don’t believe in a hereafter. 

You may also have a hard time wrapping your mind around this different definition of freedom, but as it turns out this isn’t the first book I’ve read which makes this point. Patrick Deneen makes it in Why Liberalism Failed. To reuse a quote from my review:

“Liberty” is a word of ancient lineage, yet liberalism has a more recent pedigree, being arguably only a few hundred years old. It arises from a redefinition of the nature of liberty to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. By ancient and Christian understandings, liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by the individual or by a political community. Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty— requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites—the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice.

Deneen uses the term liberty instead of freedom, but his point is the same as Ahmari’s, liberty is self-rule, and in this sense Kolbe was maximally liberated. His self-discipline was ironclad, and his command of his “base but insistent appetites”, in this case literally, was so great that even after two weeks without food he could remain calm and prayerful. 

But as Deneen points out now freedom and liberty have come to mean almost the exact opposite of what they used to mean. And this is why Ahmari is worried for his son. I don’t think Ahmari wants his son to end up in some modern day Auschwitz, nor does he want the world to end up as the kind of place where we have Auschwitzs for people to end up in. He wants his son to be virtuous and to have the self-discipline over his appetites that comes with that virtue. But instead of pursuing this freedom Ahmari is worried that his son will pursue the other kind of freedom, the one which says that being free is being unconstrained. And primarily unconstrained in the pursuit of one’s appetites.

As Ahmari points out, in the best case this pursuit might lead to someone becoming a rich, childless swinger. But there are far worse outcomes, his son could end up wanting nothing more than to spend his days engaging in his appetite for video games, or he could end up dead from an opioid overdose. Obviously this last outcome would be awful, and becoming a hikikomori isn’t great either, but what about the first option, is it really as bad as Ahmari fears/claims? What if Max has always wanted to tour Europe in an RV? That it’s the number one thing on his bucket list, and an expression of his authentic self. Isn’t authenticity an example of a good appetite? Isn’t it a form of virtue, perhaps one different from that espoused by his conservative father, but still important and worthy of pursuit? Is it possible that unlike the baser appetites his father worries about that this is a pure appetite?

II.

The genesis of this post goes all the way back to January when I got an email from a reader. He had read several of my book reviews which touched on the topic of authenticity (He mentioned three in particular, see here, here, and here.) and he wondered about the same conflict I just mentioned. Intellectually he wants to be traditional. He senses he will have a better life if he settles down, raises children and is a good member of a community. But if he searches inwardly for his authentic self, in the fashion of the day, that person would rather travel the world and never settle down. Which, coincidently, is precisely how Ahmari frames the choice that confronts his son Max. This reader figured I might have something useful to say on the subject (we’ll see if he was correct once he reads this post). So here we are.

The topic is obviously a complicated one, and as I’m currently experimenting with shorter posts, let me see if I can cut straight to the heart of the matter. To do so we’re once again going to lean heavily on Ahmari, and consider the story he relates of John Henry Newman

[Newman] was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825. [When he was 24.] Soon, he emerged as a leading light of what became known as the Oxford Movement, a circle of thinkers who wanted to position the Church of England as a middle way, a via media, between what they saw as a tradition-bereft Protestantism and Rome’s “excesses”

As things developed Newman became more and more interested in following traditions, and less and less worried about Rome’s excesses. Continuing with Ahmadi’s narrative:

[T]he most fateful incident of this period…was…the journey he took in 1832 to Sicily and the Italian mainland. The trip granted him a glimpse of religious devotion the likes of which he had never before witnessed.

In the years following this he became more and more critical of the creeping progressive tendencies in the Anglican communion, and at the same time more and more attracted to the Catholic communion. And yet his conscience would not allow him to switch:

Newman’s romance with Rome was heating up by the day, yet still he resisted converting. Why? Because he entertained serious doubts about some doctrines, high among them the Roman devotion to the Virgin Mary. So long as these doubts persisted, “I had no right, I had no leave, to act against my conscience. This was a higher rule than any argument.”

And yet, as we already mentioned he was steadfastly against the progressive liberalization of the Church of England. And what is liberalization but people deciding that their individual sense of right and wrong, their conscience, was more important than the traditional teachings of the church. 

“My battle,” he would insist, “was with liberalism; by liberalism, I mean the anti-dogmatic principle,” the “lawless” notion that every first principle, every dogma, every authority, and every hierarchy was up for questioning. Thus, Newman held in his mind two seemingly contradictory beliefs—first, that the conscience was sacred and inviolable; and second, that unlimited freedom of thought was not a good but rather a wellspring of error and chaos.

How did Newman solve this apparent contradiction? How can my reader solve his dilemma? To begin with Newman believed that behind everything there is an objective standard of truth. For Newman it’s the divine law, which originates from God, and the conscience is this law “as apprehended in the minds of individual men.” Other people dispense with God, but still assume that there are natural laws: rules of behavior that make human lives and civilization as a whole better, rules which have been distilled out over the centuries and embedded into tradition and religion. In both cases you mostly end up arriving at a similar destination. For example both seem to come down strongly in favor of having kids. Authenticity, or “self-will’ as Newman called it, is like a conscience, the difference being that it’s unmoored from either divine or natural law. 

This is not to say that authenticity is entirely unmoored from things. Humans have an intense need to justify whatever they’re doing: “I’m doing this because God commanded it” and “I’m doing this because this is what our people have always done” have been replaced by “I’m doing this because it’s who I am, it’s a reflection of my authentic self.” 

At first glance one would think that this would work extremely well for generating individual happiness and fulfillment, but as it turns out it doesn’t. I don’t have the time to get into all the reasons why, for that see the book reviews I linked to previously (Here, here, and here if you don’t want to scroll back up.) Nor do I have time to get into why modern technology, by expanding the scope of potentially fulfilling things, has made the problem much worse than it was in Newman’s day. We have gone to enormous lengths to allow people to delve as deeply as they want into their authentic selves, but I’m afraid to say that we have yet to reach bedrock. 

Still, at the margins, following your conscience and being authentic are easy to confuse. Are you traveling the world because you hope to learn about other cultures and pass that knowledge along to others? Is this sort of education the best way you can give back to the world? Or are you traveling the world because you have the money, and it’s fun? What about kids? Have you decided not to have kids because it makes vacations harder to take, more expensive when you do take them, and on top of all that you have to go to places they like rather than places you like? Or are you not having kids because you’ve decided to become a Catholic priest and devote your life to the service of others? 

It would seem that a key way to tell the difference is the position other people play in these decisions. If you’re doing something entirely for yourself, then it’s probably authentic, and not in a good way, but rather in a way that will ultimately lead to an unfulfilling dead end. On the other hand if you’re doing something for someone else then there’s a good chance you’re following your conscience. And of course, to tie it back to the story of Kolbe, following your conscience isn’t easy. Following your conscience and the true freedom it brings can only come when we overcome our appetites. Fake freedom, what people call authenticity, is about giving into those appetites. And what no one wants to hear is that in the end everything that’s good in this world is also damnably difficult to do.  


What does your conscience tell you about donating? I mean it’s obviously helping someone out, but the person you’re helping is long winded, full of bad ideas, and generally unpleasant. Clearly it would be more authentic to keep the money yourself and spend it on someone truly deserving. If despite this ironclad logic your conscience still compels you to donate, you can do so here.


Thoughts on Yard Care and the Modern World

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As I mentioned in my last post, we decided to move, but we don’t have a new house picked out yet. The advice we got was that, in this market, you have to sell the old house first so that you have a pile of cash to use when negotiating for the next house. Or in any case that was the advice as of four weeks ago when we made the decision. Now that interest rates are rising precipitously the housing market is changing pretty fast, so I’m not sure it’s quite as important, but it’s what we decided to do nonetheless. 

You may be wondering why we decided to move with interest rates going up and prices (particularly in Salt Lake) super high. Well a little over a year ago my wife told me that it was time for her mother to move in with us. At the same time it appeared that we would shortly be empty nesters, so this seemed to be an ideal time to remodel the house and put in an addition. So I secured the services of a general contractor and then waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could never get him to start the process. I couldn’t even get him to give me a bid. There was always one thing or the other that had to be done first, but he’d promise that next week he’d come out, and then he wouldn’t. 

Eventually after a year of this I decided it wasn’t going to happen and that while it was a terrible time to get the attention of general contractors it was a great time to sell old houses. So we pivoted to that. I never thought I’d sell our house (but I had dreamed of remodeling it for a very long time). As I mentioned in my last post, I have too much stuff. (I’m not a hoarder, but I may be on the spectrum.) But somehow that’s what we ended up deciding to do, and getting that old house full of 22 years of stuff ready to sell has been crazy, but as of posting, my house is under contract, and it was only on the market for four days so it looks like we pulled it off. Of course doing so required a lot of work, which is why this post, despite being short, took forever to put together, but I told you this might happen.

In any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that most of my efforts so far have been geared around selling our old house, the process of looking for a new house has barely begun. As part of that process we’ve obviously come up with some criteria. The two big ones are, my wife wants to have no more than a 15 minute commute to her job, and I don’t want a yard.

It’s not that I mind a yard per se. In my current house I’ve xeriscaped the front yard, and, particularly in the spring, which is right now of course, it looks amazing—if it’s been weeded. See it’s not the yard I mind, it’s all the work I have to do in order to keep it looking nice. Over the decades I’ve lived in the house I’ve tried various things to make that job easier. And while reducing water usage in a desert is nice, lower maintenance was the primary point of xeriscaping. You would think that putting down a weed barrier and then covering it with rocks would reduce that effort. You would be wrong. Somehow life finds a way, and I have spent considerable time weeding my xeriscaped front yard. 

I find this whole business of yard care to be kind of strange. When I’m out hiking I can stop at literally any point on that hike, look to the right or left, pick any spot, and without fail I would be happy if my yard looked like that. I assume most people would feel similarly if they conducted the same exercise, that I am not an outlier. And of course the punchline is, no one spends even a second of work to make that patch of ground look that way, that’s just how it is in a state of nature, in the complete absence of human intervention. Based on this I have long wondered why that isn’t an option for me. Why can’t I just sit back, do nothing, let nature take its course, and end up with a beautiful yard? 

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well that’s up in the mountains, where you go hiking. Sure that’s pretty, with wildflowers and trees, but would you really want the natural look of the dry desert valley with sagebrush and tumbleweed?” And honestly, I’d be fine with that as well, mostly because my primary goal is not how it looks, but how much work it requires, but even so I think that it would look good. And more importantly it would be natural.

Of course if I sit back and do nothing I don’t end up with a beautiful mountain slope, or a rugged and austere desert landscape, and believe me I’ve tried it. A couple times I’ve been in the middle of starting a business and consequently had no time, and even more frequently I’ve just been lazy. During those times I invariably got a lot of annoying, ugly weeds. I don’t get any beautiful native plants, I got thistles and morning glory, and other crap like that. Of course everyone is familiar with this phenomenon, my experience is not unique, you may have tried it yourself or passed by houses where such an experiment was being conducted, but it is worth asking why does it play out this way?

I witnessed a large-scale example of this phenomenon a few years ago. Near where I live there was an old high school. Since the area where I live was aging the school district decided it didn’t need that school any longer and they closed it down. There were a bunch of different ideas for what to do with it. The city wanted to make it into a community center, but that was voted down (by two votes, something I talked about in a previous post). Then supposedly they were going to turn it into a movie set for those times when filming a high school was required, but that also fell through. At some point it wasn’t clear what was going to happen and they stopped taking care of the property all together. This went on for several years. And the end result was not native vegetation, or yellow grass with scattered weeds, but rather a forest of milkweeds that were all about chest high. (If you’re curious they did eventually build a bunch of houses on the land along with a new county library.)

How many years would it have taken for that land to return to the way it looked 200 years ago, before the Mormon Pioneers arrived? And yes I know that they weren’t the first humans in the valley but at the time this area was a “buffer zone between the Shoshone and Ute peoples” so it was about as untouched as you could get. Would it have happened in 10 years? 20 years? Never? I suspect because of invasive species and other changes to soil composition from fertilization and cultivation that it’s the latter. It would never go back, but how long would it take for it to not look awful? 

Of course the high schools’ original lawn didn’t look awful, which is kind of the whole point of lawns, they look nice, and apparently they’re also great for games like golf and as the name suggests, lawn bowling.  But they also require a significant amount of work. Lawns have to be watered and cut and fertilized, with weed killer thrown in there as well, year in and year out, and if that ever stops… Boom! A forest of milkweeds, or something equally awful.

Once I had this realization I thought about it a lot as I was putting forth my own efforts to keep my yard looking nice, but my ruminations were limited to the context of the work I was doing at that moment. Only recently did it occur to me that my landscaping epiphany is also a cautionary tale about the efforts and works of man in general. 

Obviously having a nice green lawn was not human’s first attempt to change the natural world in artificial ways, making it conform to their needs and desires rather than leaving it unmolested. These efforts have been going on for millenia. Even groups that have traditionally been viewed as living in harmony with nature altered the world to make it better conform to their needs. The Plains Indians didn’t merely live on the Great Plains, they helped make them into plains and keep them that way by setting large fires. They wanted to create as much habitat as possible for the bison they relied on.

But as much as this has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, more recently it has accelerated, and the difficulty at this point is trying to find some area where it’s not happening.

When one considers changes we’ve made to the natural world the mind is drawn to the big changes, the massive cities with their skyscrapers, the millions of acres of farmland, or the billions of tons of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. And it’s understandable that people are focused on those changes, because they’re so huge, but it’s also interesting to look at it from the other side, at what happens when we make even very tiny changes. 

I mentioned hiking in the wilderness, and even the disturbance caused by a narrow trail can bring in weeds and other invasive species. I took this from a forest service document:

Most noxious weeds are early successional species that prefer highly disturbed sites such as areas along rivers and streams, trails, trailheads, roadsides, building sites, wildlife bedding grounds, overgrazed areas, and campgrounds… In Glacier National Park, exotic plant species showed a continuous distribution along road and trail corridors… Managing knapweed required preventing roadside infestations from spreading.

Road construction and maintenance activities mix soil layers, increasing soil microbial activity. Weeds exploit these newly available nutrients efficiently. This may be one reason that the density of weedy plants increases as intensity of disturbance increases. 

In other words, the minute we change something we alter the natural balance, bringing in short term opportunistic species rather than the long term sustainable stuff we prefer. So the sad truth is that my house couldn’t have the landscaping I see while I’m out hiking because the mere fact of building the house and living in it would make such a yard impossible. 

One could imagine that if I waited long enough, and if I was careful enough I could get pretty close, but generally that’s not what we do. Our solution to the problems caused by the initial intervention is to follow it up with still more interventions. If our activities create a fertile breeding ground for weeds we don’t wait for the natural species to claw their way back in, we introduce different plants we like better. We then water and fertilize the plants we prefer, while pulling or poisoning all the plants we don’t. Any “natural” plants that might still be hanging around are soon forgotten.

My point is not that this is bad, (though it very well might be) it’s that once we have started down this path there’s no easy off-ramp. The requirement to intervene becomes perpetual, and more often than not the amount of intervention that’s required just keeps increasing. And if for some reason we stop these interventions, or even if we just slacken our efforts somewhat because we’re distracted, or if we have to divert resources elsewhere, things don’t end up reverting to some harmonious natural state, rather we end up in the hellish situation where we have something that’s neither natural nor intentional. A forest of chest-high milkweeds.

Even if we never lose focus, and we always have the resources available to intervene as much or as little as we want, it’s not like intervention is an exact science, where we’re always able to get exactly the results we want. Sometimes we misjudge things and we push too much, sometimes we don’t push enough. Other times nature pushes back. 

The difficulties of intervention are legion, but here are just a few:

  • To start with there’s what I just talked about, nature pushing back. The best example of this is antibiotic resistance, but even closer to my analogy, weeds also develop herbicide resistance.
  • Determining the right level of intervention for a yard might be fairly straightforward, but what about more complex systems? Even hardcore government stimulus advocates agree that we pumped too much money into the economy as part of the pandemic response, and now we’re scrambling to undo the inflation that resulted. (Of course other things contributed to the problem as well, but that’s precisely my point.)
  • At the moment the Western US is suffering from a severe drought, which takes us to the next problem: At some point the resources being used for intervention will end up being insufficient, leaving people in the difficult position of deciding which interventions to continue and which to forgo. Do we use the limited water for hydroelectric power or irrigation?
  • Perhaps the most difficult part of all about intervening is the way in which interventions have unintended effects. In a manner similar to thinking that it would be nice to have green lawns, we also thought it would be nice to have cheap and abundant power. And it is very nice, unfortunately in the process we released billions of tons of CO2 into the air. This is another place where it would be nice to intervene, but the scope of the intervention exceeds our capabilities.

This last point is an important one. I fear that as the level of intervention required to solve our problems continues to scale up, both in size and in complexity, that more and more we lack the resources and the wisdom necessary to continue to intervene successfully. That eventually we won’t be able to maintain (some would say “prop up”) all of the various interventions which go into creating the modern world. And in those areas that we have been intervening it won’t smoothly revert to however it was before, but rather just like the lawn of that old high school, it will fail in ugly and unexpected ways.

As a final thought I find this idea that noxious weeds are the first on the scene when the natural order is disturbed to be a fascinating one. I haven’t had the time to fully process it because I just came across this idea as I was writing this post, but it does seem like new industries, changes in regulations, and even technological innovations have a tendency to attract the “noxious weeds”. But more importantly, beyond a discussion of any particular industry, as the pace of disruption increases, could we end up in a situation where so much of the long term order has been recently disturbed that the entire landscape is opportunistic weeds? Is it possible that this is already the state we find ourselves in?


Lots of tangential stuff at the beginning there, and then lots of wild speculation at the end. With nothing concrete in between, if you think paying for these nothing sandwiches is worth it consider donating.