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.


The 10 Books I Finished in April

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  1. The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy by: Taylor Dotson
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by: Mark Fisher 
  3. The Age of AI and Our Human Future by: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher
  4. A Confederacy of Dunces by: John Kennedy Toole
  5. Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation by: Roosevelt Montás
  6. Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen by: Steve Sims
  7. The Thursday Murder Club by: Richard Osman
  8. The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands by: John Michael Greer
  9. Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) by: Craig Alanson
  10. Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9) by: Craig Alanson

The next few months are going to be pretty busy. As I mentioned in the epilogue of one of my essays in April, we’ve decided to move. My house is old, we’ve lived in it a very long time, and I like to collect things, particularly books. (At this point we’ve used 80+ boxes just on them.) So getting ready to show and sell the house has already been a pretty laborious process, and will continue to be so for the next couple of weeks. Once the house is sold, which hopefully will be the matter of a weekend since the market, while cooling, is still pretty hot (my timing for selling the house has not been perfect, but I’m hoping it’s close enough) then we need to find a new house, which will also be time consuming. Once a new house is acquired we’ll need to move, unpack, and reconstruct things. Hopefully this will all happen before July 10th, because that’s when I leave for Ireland for two and a half weeks. As I said, the next few months are going to be busy.

I bring all of this up because there’s obviously a chance it will affect the time I have available to write. (It already delayed the second half of my drug post so that it was almost on top of my end of month newsletter.) There’s a chance I just won’t put out two essays one of these months (the best candidate being July) but my plan is to focus on trying to write some shorter essays. These will hopefully take less time, and as my post lengths have been creeping up, it’s probably a good idea to try to exercise some restraint in any case. That said sometimes shorter pieces require just as much, if not more effort than longer pieces. All the way back in 1657 Pascal apologized for the length of one of his letters because he “had not the time to make it shorter”. The more I write the more true I realize this is. 

In any event we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure how much shorter I can make my reviews, but I guess we’re about to find out. Making things more difficult, I’m going to immediately undermine this effort by adding a new section for non-fiction books, and the occasional fictional book: “What’s the author’s angle?”


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy 

By: Taylor Dotson

Published: 2021

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another examination of political polarization. This one focused on pointing out that science is not nearly as prescriptive as people claim, but also neither is “common sense”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Dotson describes himself as a leftist, and his primary thrust seems to be urging other leftists to re-engage with pluralist, discursive democracy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone sick of people telling them that we just need to “follow the science” or anyone who suspects that the value of an epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) has been oversold.

General Thoughts

I found this book to be appealing but flawed. Let’s start with its appeal. I have noticed, particularly since the pandemic started, that the admonition to “follow the science” has gotten ever more insistent. These admonitions preceded the pandemic, but that was what really put the idea to the test and found it wanting. I have previously discussed why this is so. Why determining the correct action is not nearly so simple. But some people imagine that it is precisely that simple, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

Tyson and Nye are not generally at the top of anybody’s list of “people who are destroying the world”, but Dotson is pretty hard on them. This was definitely part of the book’s appeal for me. Not because Tyson or Nye are bad people, but precisely because they’re not. This allows us to clearly identify the bad idea as something separate, not part of other biases which might attach to the person, something which is impossible with people like Biden and Trump. 

So what is this bad idea? Let’s start with Nye:

“On his Netflix program, Bill Nye tackles controversial issues such as alternative medicine, antivaccination, and climate change primarily by presenting one side as in line with science and the other as beset by cognitive biases and ignorance. Yes, people are often misinformed about the issues they care about, but narratives like Nye’s and the others mentioned here portray disagreement as if it were always the result of cognitive deficiencies and conspiratorial thinking on one side or the other. The historian Ted Steinberg describes this tendency to blame political opponents’ opinions on an underlying psychological ailment as “the diagnostic style of politics.”

The problem with the diagnostic style of politics is not simply that it is rude and condescending but that it encourages a fanatical approach to political disagreements. Opponents are no longer people who see the world differently but instead heretics who refuse to think “rationally” or accept objective science.”

Tyson takes this “diagnosis” and runs with it:

In a recent viral YouTube video, for instance, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims that America’s problems stem from the increasing inability of those in power to recognize scientific fact. Only if people begin to see that policy choices must be based on established scientific truths, according to Tyson, can we move forward with necessary political decisions. 

… 

Tyson’s call for a world government called “Rationalia,” whose one-line constitution requires that policy decisions simply be settled by “the weight of the evidence,” went viral on Twitter. 

It’s hard to express how breathtakingly naive these ideas are. Particularly given Tyson’s reputation for intelligence. Which, bears repeating, is not the same as wisdom. But perhaps you think I’m being too hard on him and Nye. I don’t think so, and as I mentioned, that’s the appeal of the book. It points out all the ways these recommendations won’t work. 

  • Collecting evidence has proven to be far more difficult than people expected, leading to a vast replication crisis.
  • Different scientists weigh evidence differently. An ecologist may be concerned about evidence that genetically modified crops are more fragile. While a geneticist may be entirely concerned with evidence of pest resistance. 
  • “Scientizing policy privileges the dimensions of life that are easily quantifiable and renders less visible the ones that are not.”
  • Science as it is conducted is not apolitical. Scientists not only have biases in how they weigh the evidence, they are biased in which studies they conduct, and the recommendations they make. 

I could go on, but perhaps at this point it’s more useful to apply it to an actual problem we’re currently grappling with. I’m sure everyone’s excited that the controversy over abortion is once again dominating the news. What does science say about how to decide that problem? 

Back in 2018 The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost”. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. I’m sure there is some other science, that weighs in on the opposite side (though I expect it would mostly apply to very early abortions). But my point is not to get into the actual debate, my point is that there is a debate. A debate where there’s significant evidence for the pro-life side. The side Nye and Tyson are almost certainly opposed to. 

To put it another way, forget about the morality of the situation. Forget about bodily autonomy or choice, or anything like that. And just consider, what the “weight of evidence” says about abortion, what science says about it. Using nothing but science would every person arrive at the same conclusion? Obviously not. Of course this gets into the is-ought problem which I’ve mentioned before.  And Dotson’s whole point is that when Tyson advocates for Rationalia and other people advocate for an epistocracy, they have no idea how to overcome this problem. The question we’re left with is, does Dotson?

Eschatological Implications

In any discussion of this topic almost no one questions Dotson’s premise. Everyone agrees that there’s a divide. Furthermore, most people, even Tyson and Nye, would go on to agree that  there’s too much fanatical certitude. (Though they would point to the other side as the one where this is a problem.) Which is to say everyone grants the title/thesis of the book. What they want to know is: what do we do about it? What does it mean for the future of civil society? How will America survive this widening divide? Or will it not survive it? If “following the science” isn’t the solution, what is?

As I mentioned the book is appealing but flawed, and it’s when we get to Dotson’s solutions that the flaws emerge, but as I pointed out at some length in a past post, solutions are oftentimes where great thinkers stumble. I’m not sure that I would classify Dotson as a great thinker, but his proposed solutions are better than most. He doesn’t put together a list, but he seems to offer up three solutions:

1- Better, and more civil discourse: This is something of a free speech argument. That we need more speech, not less. That this is the problem with the left, they use appeals to “science” to shut down discussion, and while I haven’t focused on his criticisms of the right as much, he claims they use appeals to “common sense” in a similar fashion. Dotson is not a free speech absolutist, but he believes we have abandoned the “pluralist process of negotiation at the heart of democracy”.

This all sounds great, but it’s easy to make the case that social media has made “pluralist negotiation” basically impossible. Dotson doesn’t ignore the problems of social media, but he doesn’t have any innovative suggestions for fixing the problem either. Here’s as close as he comes:

It is difficult to imagine exactly what a better net might look like, but a reasonable first step would be to hold information distributors to the same standards we would want information producers to abide by. News aggregators and social media sites should be forced to protect against outright fraudulent claims and libelous speech and perhaps be incentivized or encouraged to prioritize material from multipartisan public media.

2- Demarchy: Dotson spends much of the book advocating for democracy over epistocracy, but when it comes down to what most people think of as democratic he’s against it. He doesn’t like representative democracy because politicians are entrenched and oligarchic. He doesn’t like direct democracy, like California’s ballot proposition system, because it leads to bad outcomes. instead he proposes the creation of a demarchical system. Demarchy is “randomly selecting a representative sample of citizens to serve as legislators.” This is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea, and it was used in Ancient Athens, so that’s something. And in many ways it’s interesting, but it’s a very big jump from where we are to there, and I expect that there are lots of ways it might go wrong that we haven’t even imagined.

As one example, he mentions that demarchy can be thought of as similar to how juries are selected. And they seem to work out okay. That may be true, but other than the random selection part, everything else is very different. They are impaneled to consider a single issue. It’s expected that they frequently won’t reach a decision. And there’s a whole additional process of jury selection after the random selection. Will we have something similar where given sufficient grounds potential legislators could be dismissed or not seated? If so, that puts us back in the same position we’re already in. My favorite version of demarchy imagined that the people selected would remain anonymous. In conclusion this proposal is interesting, but embryonic.

3- Civic religion: I bow to no one in my appreciation for the benefits of civic religion, and you would think that appreciation would extend to anyone else who also chooses to extol it’s virtues, but Dotson’s advocacy is the strangest I’ve come across. Most people who think civic religion is important will pine for a return to the civic religion of patriotism, with its veneration of the founding fathers, the constitution, and the Revolution. Even though our former civic religion did all the things Dotson says he wants, he not only doesn’t wish to revive it, he doesn’t even acknowledge its existence!

It would be one thing if he had a different definition of civic religion, but when he says things like, “For pluralism to blossom, the next generation may need to be brought up within a democratic civic religion.” That sure sounds like the kind of thing I experienced in the 70’s and 80’s, but he never once draws that connection…

I’m not saying that returning to the old civic religion of patriotism, 4th of July parades, and secular saints like Washington and Lincoln will be easy, but if civic religion is going to save the country it will be a heck of a lot easier to return to what we already have, than to invent some new civic religion out of whole cloth.


II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 

By: Mark Fisher 

Published: 2009

81 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

I have many thoughts about this book, but I’d rather not go off half-cocked, which is to say, my plan is to re-read this book on my Kindle where it’s easy to highlight things and only then do I intend to opine deeply on what it’s saying. 

As I have mentioned in the past, I’m part of a book club, and one part of my plan to re-read this book is hoping to use my substantial influence (that’s a joke) to convince them to read it along with me. If I’m successful I will return here and report on not only what I thought, but what others thought as well. 

I realize that this is something of a cop-out, so I’ll leave you with a quote. This is from the section of the book where I first was prompted to sit up and think, “Wow, this is powerful stuff!”

In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, [Kurt] Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that [Fredric] Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.


The Age of AI and Our Human Future

By: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher

Published: 2021

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The changes that are likely be wrought by increasingly advanced AI, with a particular focus on near term changes.

What’s the author’s angle?

They’re hoping to bring greater awareness to the geopolitical changes which will be brought by AI and to urge the US to take the lead with AI.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in AI, but all your attention has been dominated what’s happening now (i.e. GPT-3, DALL-E, AlphaGo, etc.) or what may eventually happen (AI risk, Superintelligence, Age of Em, etc.) then this is a great book for covering the territory in between. 

General Thoughts

Yes, the lead author is that Henry Kissinger, who is apparently still writing (or at least contributing to books) at the age of 98. We should all be so lucky.

While Kissinger is well known for foreign affairs in general, his initial interest was “nuclear weapons and foreign policy”, which ended up being the name of his first book. His experience with nuclear weapons is one of several interesting things about this book, because it contends that national AI programs pose similar threats to world peace, and require similar thinking. But in all other respects they are vastly more difficult to manage. They are more difficult to create international agreements around, to defend against, to collect intelligence on—more difficult along just about any measurement you can imagine.

As I already alluded to, another interesting thing about the book was its focus on the near-term. The vast majority of the people working on AI are either fixating on developing or improving something which currently exists, or on being ready for the Singularity. As an example of the latter, my sense is that Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that we’re already too late. This book spends a lot of time looking at what’s going to happen on a 10-20 year horizon. One byproduct of this, is that the authors seem to largely dismiss the idea that the singularity is going to arrive unexpectedly sometime in that period.

As a follow-up to reading the book I listened to Schmidt being interviewed by Sam Harris, and as you can imagine the question of AI Risk came up. Schmidt confidently predicted that the next generation of AI researchers would be able to come up with a “run amuck” button, as in if an AI starts to “run amuck” you just press that button and it stops them. You could forgive a blasé answer about the future if it came from Kissinger, what does he care, he’s 98, but I expected better from Schmidt.

According to my notes, which are never as good as they should be, Schmidt said he wasn’t worried about AI running amuck, he was worried about them changing what it means to be human. They spend a lot of time talking about this aspect of things, and I think the authors believe that this is really their main contribution to the discussion. Enough so that they included it in the title. Their approach to this question mostly seems curious and neutral, avoiding conclusions of doom and utopia that seem so common in other books of this sort. But I think doom might be warranted. AI can’t really change what it means to be human, too much of that meaning is encoded in our genes, but it can manipulate those built in attributes, and sow an enormous amount of confusion. Which is not only something to worry about happening in the near term, it’s something we should be worried about right now.


A Confederacy of Dunces 

By: John Kennedy Toole

Published: 1980

405 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The misadventures of the overweight, overeducated and overwrought Ignatius J. Reilly, and fleshed out with similar misadventures from other eccentric personalities of 1960’s New Orleans.

Who should read this book?

This is rightly judged to be a modern classic, and you should probably read it just for that reason, but as Ignatius is the original geek who spends most of his time in his bedroom declaiming his superiority into the ether, I think it has a lot to say about our present moment as well. 

General Thoughts

I enjoyed this book. The plot was nothing to write home about, but the characters, dialogue, writing and setting were all fantastic. Also for a book written in the late 60’s it seemed unusually prophetic. But of course there’s an argument to be made that we’re replaying the 60’s only with the addition of the internet, so perhaps that’s why it feels so timely. 

I can’t emphasize enough how eccentric the characters are in this book, but again that’s another way in which it somehow nails the current moment.


Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By: Roosevelt Montás

Published: 2021

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Montás’ journey from poor kid in the Dominican Republic to undergraduate at Columbia, to Director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the pivotal and empowering role “Great Books” played at every stage of that journey.

What’s the author’s angle?

Montás’ has been the head of Columbia’s “Great Books” effort for many years, so in part he’s defending his job.

Who should read this book?

Anyone looking for a defense of including great books as one of the foundations of a liberal education, in particular a first person defense. 

General Thoughts

I remember a time when the “Great Books” still had a lot of cachet. I’m sure it was already fading by the time I came along, but it was still there. In the decades since then they’ve taken a beating. The most common accusation is that they were all or mostly written by old white guys, and that privileging them crowds out minority authors and academics. So I was very interested in reading the story of one of those minority academics who claimed that a traditional “Great Books” course dramatically, profoundly, and positively altered his life. 

Of course these days we have expanded the Great Books canon to include books by Gandhi and other non-european authors, but as Montás points out, these new books have not replaced the old books, they are an addition to the canon. All of the books that were great in 1920 are still great today. Montás covers four authors in particular: Augustine, Aristotle, Freud, and the aforementioned Gandhi. He spends one chapter on each of them detailing how they impacted his life in positive ways. I liked the first person aspect of the book, but as this was a book giving a defense of the Great Books as a general tool for educating everyone, it would have been nice if he had included more examples of people benefiting from them beyond just his own story.

Still as someone who is engaged in his own laborious path through the Great Books, it was nice to read someone urging me to continue.


Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen

by: Steve Sims

Published: 2018

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A self-help/business book written by a guy who specializes in making seemingly impossible dreams into realities. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I assume he has enough money, and that he genuinely wants to help people turn their dreams into reality, but I assume the money from the book is a nice bonus.

Who should read this book?

This does not break any new ground in the self-help/business book genre. If you haven’t read the 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, I would read that first, but after a certain point these books are more about motivation than knowledge and this book provides plenty of motivation.

General Thoughts

Sims has an inspiring rags to riches story. He started out as a bricklayer in East London, having dropped out of school at age 15. After landing a job in Hong Kong and getting fired five days later he got a job as a doorman, and kind of stumbled into being a concierge as part of that job. As part of that he kept pushing the limits of what a concierge could do, eventually pulling off some truly amazing requests, like arranging for six people to have dinner at the feet of Michaelangelo’s David. My favorite story from the book is how he had a client who wanted to meet the band Journey, and Sims took that request, ran with it, and in the end the guy was able to get on stage with them and be lead singer on four of their songs at a charity concert. 

As far as how to do stuff like that, as I said I’m not sure that Sims gives away any big secrets in this book. His recommendations are the same as the recommendations from a dozen other books like this. But at a certain point it’s not knowing what to do, it’s being motivated to do what you already know you should be doing, and on that count Sims is a very motivational guy.


The Thursday Murder Club

by: Richard Osman

Published: 2020

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four people in a retirement community who meet every Thursday to work over old unsolved murders who are suddenly confronted with an actual murder.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. If you like all those things and you’re starting to feel the melancholia of being old then this book is especially for you.

General Thoughts

Every good novel ideally has great characters, witty dialogue, and a good plot. The latter is particularly important for a mystery novel because it’s a genre that not merely demands good plots, they have to be intricate and surprising. Osman manages to pull off all of those features. The characters are delightful, the dialogue is fantastic, and beyond that he manages to pull off not just one intricate plot, but multiple interlocking, intricate plots. I thought it was especially brilliant to set it in a retirement community. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

249 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fourth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, and here.) This one is set at Miskatonic University, and the titular Dreamlands.

Who should read this book?

As with all series, whether you read this book depends a lot on what you thought of the books which preceded this one. I thought this was the strongest entry in the series since the first one. So if you’re thinking of continuing I would.

General Thoughts

Greer mostly writes non-fiction, he recently described his career as follows:

Over the years… I watched (and joined in) the peak oil movement as it rose and fell, watched (and kept my distance from) the parallel movement of climate change activism as it rose and fell, watched (and dealt in my own life with some of the consequences of) the slow twilight of America’s global empire and the vaster twilight of Western civilization as a whole.

I bring this up because, for Greer, in both the novel and in the real world, the bad guys are those who think that technology and progress are the solutions to everything. That the modern world with its institutions and ideology is somehow special and different. Of all the books in the series I think this one illustrates the bad guys the best, particularly as they appear in academia. Despite the obvious moral of the story, it’s never preachy or heavy handed, it’s just a very interesting, very different view of how the world works, and of course, as always with this series, how Lovecraftian horror is conceived.


Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

6 Hours (Only available on audio)

Briefly, what is this audio drama special about?

As you can tell from the title this is an interstitial piece between books 7 and 8 in the main series. It concerns an unforeseen alien threat which suddenly arrives at Earth, which as I think about it, is the plot of the very first book in the series as well.

Who should listen to this audio drama special?

I’m not sure. It is referenced at the start of book 8, and it’s kind of annoying to not know the story, and it’s also kind of annoying to have to go out and spend an audible credit to get the story. They attempt to compensate for these annoyances by bringing in some big names and doing a full cast production, but I found the full cast recording with sound effects to be more annoying than just having the single narrator, so your annoyance is tripled. If you want my advice, you can skip it. 

General Thoughts

This is basically an attempt to turn Expeditionary Force into an old-timey radio drama. Having only listened to a few old-timey radio dramas I can’t say whether they succeeded or not. But as a general rule every full-cast recording I’ve listened to has been disappointing. If someone has one they particularly enjoy let me know. I’d like to find a good one, but so far, in my limited experience, they have all been mediocre.


Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9)

By: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

398 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As I mentioned in my review of book 8, the Merry Band of Pirates have finally leveled up, this book is about what they do with their new “powers”. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve come this far you should probably continue. By now you will have either given up in annoyance at Alanson’s quirks or come to accept them. I think this book is better than some of the previous books, and ends on a very interesting cliffhanger.

General Thoughts

I’m writing this having already read book 10. And I will say that up until about halfway through book 9 things were getting pretty formulaic. Now it was a good formula, one I mostly enjoyed, but it was still getting old, but about halfway through this book and continuing into the next book, things have been very interesting. I’m hoping they stay that way. 


I also hope my blog stays interesting, which can be tough, since I’ve written at least as many words as 10 novels. This post I started pointing out people’s angles. I have many angles, but certainly one of them is precisely this, to keep things interesting. And obviously another is to try to make you guilty enough to donate


Eschatologist #16: The Right Amount of Danger

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


When I was a kid, I had never heard of someone with a peanut allergy. The first time I encountered the condition I was in college, and it wasn’t someone I knew. It was the friend of a friend of a friend. Enough removed that these days you’d wonder, upon first hearing of it, if the condition was made up. But those were more credulous times, and I never doubted that someone could be so allergic to something that if they ate it they would die. But it did seem fantastic. These days I’m sure you know someone with a peanut allergy. My daughter isn’t allergic to peanuts, she’s allergic to tree nuts, and carries an epipen with her wherever she goes.

The primary theory for this change, how we went from no allergies of this sort to lots of them, is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty to keep it occupied, but now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, overreacts to things like peanuts. (Obviously this is a vast oversimplification.)

As the parent of someone who suffers from a dangerous allergy, I feel guilty. I don’t think we went overboard on cleanliness. Certainly we weren’t constantly spraying down surfaces with disinfectant, or repeatedly washing with antibacterial soap. Nevertheless, it appears that we failed to stress her immune system in the way it needed to be—that somewhere in the course of trying to make her safer we actually made her life more dangerous.

Does this idea—that certain amounts of stress are necessary for healthy development—need to be applied more broadly? Do we need to add a psychological hygiene hypothesis to the physical one? I would argue that we do. That it’s not just children’s immune systems which are designed around certain stressors, but that everything involved in their development needs a certain amount of risk to mature properly. 

We see a dawning acknowledgement of this idea in things like the Free-Range Parenting movement, which, among other things, wants to make sure kids can walk, unaccompanied, to and from school, and the local park, without having child protective services called. The free-range argument is that kids need to get out and experience the world. Which presumably means experiencing some danger. If you want to get more technical, the theory underlying all of these efforts is that kids are antifragile and they get stronger when exposed to stress, up to a point. But is having them walk alone to school enough “stress”? When I was 8 I wasn’t just walking to school alone I was wandering for hours in the foothills, and climbing cliffs. These days I’m not sure that would be labeled “free-range parenting”, I think it might still be labeled neglect. It wasn’t, but where do you draw the line? 

In the past a parent could do everything in their power to protect their kids, and they would still experience an abundance of suffering, danger, and stress, enough that no one ever worried whether they might be getting “enough”. But after centuries of progress we’ve finally reached the point where it’s reasonable to ask if we’ve gone too far. Particularly when we have young adults who, historically, would have been raising families or fighting in wars instead declaring that certain ideas are so harmful that they should not be uttered.

For those parenting in a modern, developed country, this problem is one of the central paradoxes of parenting, perhaps THE central paradox. And it’s not just parents that face this paradox, educators and even employers are facing it as well. Unfortunately I don’t have any easy solutions to offer. 

As I mentioned I was wandering in the foothills of Utah when I was 8, but it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still at best only half the man my father is, and he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if this is indeed the trend, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. 

This would leave us with a very difficult problem: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we have the wisdom to bring it back?


The punchline of me wandering in the foothills when I was 8, is that I was nearly always accompanied by my cousin who would have been 5 or 6. So if stories of brave kindergartners is your thing, consider donating, I might have more of them. 


The Drug Crisis (Part 2): Wrapping Up and Maybe Some Solutions?

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- Why Don’t Other Western, Developed Countries Have the Same Problem?

I generally don’t like breaking posts up into parts, though I’m frequently glad when I do because it often produces the best comments. If I’m in the middle of saying something then it’s more productive to interject a point or a question because it’s easier to incorporate it into what I’m already working on than it is for me to reopen a subject. 

The most interesting comment was left by Zach who pointed me at a tweet, from Max Roser, the founder of Our World in Data, which claimed that the dramatic increase in overdose deaths I talked about in the last post is strictly a US phenomenon. I confess to being embarrassed that I didn’t come across this assertion before starting my examination of the drug crisis. In particular I’m surprised that it was not mentioned in any of the books I read. I think it’s pretty easy to fall into a US centric view of events and issues, which is probably what happened to the authors of the books I read, and it’s definitely what happened to me. Regardless, now that it’s been brought to my attention it deserves a deeper discussion. 

I went to the Our World in Data page the tweet was referencing, and I can’t seem to find the exact chart Roser was using, the one that allows you to compare total overdose deaths by country. If someone else can, let me know. But I can pull a breakdown of the type of overdose deaths (opioids, meth, cocaine, other) by country, and I think the situation is a little bit more complicated than Roser claims. First off when I compare Canada and the US on this website, the percentage increase is pretty similar. Taking the period from 1999 to 2019 (the last year on the site) Canada’s opioid overdoses increased three-fold as compared to a five-fold increase in the US. The US is still worse but it appears more a matter of degree than of kind. 

Roser does include Australia on his chart, which is something, since Australia, unlike the other countries he included for comparison, had a bulge around the turn of the century, but then overdose deaths went down till around 2010 when they started to climb again. But once you look at the breakdown of deaths, Australia appears to have its own unique story to tell, because it’s the only country (as far as I can see) where overdose deaths from “other” drugs are higher than deaths from opioids. I’m not sure what the unique story is behind this phenomenon, but in five minutes of searching it looks like they might have a particularly bad problem with benzodiazepine and antidepressant overdose deaths. 

There are other countries which have seen the same steady upward trend as the US and Australia, but which do not appear on Roser’s chart, these include Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Also all the Latin American countries I looked at had a steady upward trend of overdose deaths. I don’t want to accuse him of cherry picking countries, but I think he has definitely left out some elements which complicate his narrative. This is of course the whole problem with Twitter. But, despite all of this, his central point stands, some countries are doing much better than other countries. Though I would say that the US is not quite as unique as he claims. 

The next step in this process is to determine why some countries are doing better than others and why all countries are doing better than the US. Roser offers up a Vox article which claims that the reason the US is uniquely bad is that drug programs in the US eschew medications like methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone in favor of the 12 step program and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. I’m sure this is part of it, but does this same aversion also exist in Canada and the other countries I mentioned? I don’t have the time to research the various drug treatment regimens in all the different countries, but I’d be surprised if all these countries with their different cultures and medical setups just happened to all have the same aversion to these drugs. That Sweden and Finland have a policy similar to the US, but that Norway, sitting between them, does not. 

One answer a lot of people would give is that it has to do with the US healthcare system, which makes drugs uniquely profitable. While presumably Perdue Pharma could sell Oxycontin everywhere, the incentive to set up pill mills only existed in the United States. But then you still have to explain Canada, which has a single payer system. Certainly proximity to the US was a factor, but part of my point in the last post is that technology and progress have made every every location proximate.

This brings up the possibility that the US is on the leading edge of this trend, Canada is close behind and other countries will soon follow. While we just talked about distribution, “marketing” (for lack of a better term) is also a big factor in this upward trend. We can see it play out within the US, where for a very long time opioids were primarily a problem of white America. But recently black Americans have overtaken white Americans in opioid death rates. With the “white” opioid market effectively being saturated, it was predictable that dealers and distributors would turn to marketing to black Americans. Something similar may be coming for those countries that have thus far escaped the drug epidemic. 

Pulling all of this together, my theory at this point would be that once you’ve lost control of opioids it’s difficult to regain that control. That this is what happened in the US, and in other countries where deaths are rising. Perhaps a related thing happened in Australia, they lost control of benzos and that’s how more people are dying from benzo overdoses than from opioid overdoses. (Of course it could also be an artifact of how they collect statistics.)

I’d like to end this section by talking about China. There are actually two things worth mentioning. The first is their role in the US’s fentanyl problem, which, despite the increase in deaths from all the other drugs, is clearly the drug causing the single biggest problem. And according to the DEA, who’s the primary provider of that drug? China, at least as of January of 2020. This is obviously important for a lot of reasons, but while I was in Vegas hanging out with a friend of mine, he brought up one that I had inexplicably missed. It’s hard to overstate the role the Century of Humiliation plays in Chinese thinking, and of course one of the biggest humiliations during that period was the Opium Wars, when the UK forced China to import opium. For a country that is trying to shake off those humiliations, a reversal of that flow, pushing opioids into the US, is too perfect to resist. I am not claiming that this was a grand conspiracy, more that it was a fortuitous opportunity which was too lucrative to pass up, and is now too symbolic to do anything substantial to stop. And, as we’re seeing, China has significant power to stop things. Which takes us to the next point.

In looking through the charts it does appear that China had their own significant problem with opioid overdose deaths in the late 90’s. Deaths started falling precipitously in 2000 and leveled out at about one-fourth their peak. To get the US death total back to where it was before the epidemic we’d have to decrease the total by an even greater percentage. Do you think the Chinese did it through the use of methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone If not, which seems likely, do you think the methods they did use would work here? I suspect just like Chinese COVID mitigation policies, that we would also be unable to duplicate their opioid mitigation policies.

Speaking of COVID…

II- The Pandemic Made Things Way Worse

Even if the problem is mostly just a US problem it’s still a problem which needs to be solved, and we’ll get to that, but first I want to look at what happened to the problem during the pandemic, because I think it gives us clues to what kind of problem it is.

If you look at graphs of overdose deaths it’s possible to make the case that by 2017 things were plateauing. Roser’s charts conveniently end in 2017, since those were the most recent numbers available to him when he tweeted in December of 2019, which was also conveniently right before the pandemic. As I mentioned in the last post, 2018 was the first year since 1990 when deaths were down from the previous year. And if you adjust for population, 2019 also had a slightly lower death rate than 2017.

Of course, even if deaths were plateauing in 2018 and 2019, it was still a very high plateau, but even a high plateau would be better than having it continue to go up, year after year, which is what it had been doing. And of course one hopes that after it plateaus that it starts gradually coming down. But then 2020 comes along and deaths jump 30%, presumably because of the pandemic. This is the highest increase on record other than the 71%(!) jump from 1998 to 1999. And preliminary numbers for 2021 indicate that it kept going up, though the rate of increase appears to have dropped all the way to 28.5%… I made this point in a previous post, but at growth rates like that everyone in the country will be dead of a drug overdose by 2057, or 35 years from now.  Obviously this rate of increase can’t continue for long, and it’s amazing that it continued for two years.

I bring all of this up for several reasons. First, to give you a sense of the scale of the problem. Obviously it’s bad, but it’s the rate at which it’s getting worse that’s truly alarming. Second, though this is tangential to my primary subject, it’s an interesting but also stark reminder that pandemic precautions were not cost free. I was in favor of most of the precautions that were taken, particularly at the beginning when uncertainty was at its highest, but no one should be under the impression that there are no trade-offs, and some of those tradeoffs consist of people dying, many from drug overdoses, but not all. Third, and most importantly, studying the manner and timing of overdose deaths, particularly when they’re increasing, might help us isolate the cause of those deaths and give us better tools for mitigation. 

Furthermore, as long as we’re talking about the current state of the crisis, I came across one other point that was worth mentioning. A recent paper suggested that up to a quarter of the drop in labor force participation might be due to “increased substance abuse”. So the great resignation might be 25% due to people being addicted to drugs. I don’t have the time to go down that rabbit hole, but it seems like a very big deal. 

I pointed out a lot of reasons in the last section for believing that the problem was not one that was unique to the US, but this is my biggest reason for being cautious. All the numbers I quoted above were from charts that ended in 2019. As I already pointed out all of Roser’s numbers were from charts that ended in 2017. I don’t think we’ll know the true scale of the problem either here or abroad until we have a full accounting of what happened over the last two years. And probably what happened this year as well. Do the pandemic overdose numbers represent a new plateau? Or are they a temporary peak, and we’ll fall back to the numbers of the late 20-teens. Or is it just going to keep getting worse as it has basically every year since 1990? I’d love to be optimistic, but so far the arc of the epidemic has always been worse than I predicted.  

Of course the pandemic was awful, but why did it make overdose deaths so much worse? As in the worst year over year increase since the epidemic started. I assume that there are various possible theories, but I prefer the simple explanation: it was the loneliness. If one could associate any emotion with the pandemic, more than fear, more than frustration, more than anger at the idiots on the other side, the dominant emotion was loneliness. I’ve seen people call these overdoses “deaths of despair”. I’ve also seen people mock this idea, but when deaths go up by 30% one year, and then almost 30% the next year, and those years happen to coincide with a pandemic, I think calling them deaths of despair is probably pretty accurate. I would also accept deaths of loneliness, but I will not accept any explanation which doesn’t include some connection to the pandemic, and I haven’t seen any better ones on offer.

Pinpointing loneliness as the cause of the increase in deaths gives us our starting point for talking about how best to reduce those deaths. 

III- The Best Way to Deal With the Problem 

As I said, all of the information I collected in preparation for this post is from a US perspective. So to the extent that this is or isn’t a problem elsewhere, it isn’t going to enter much into the discussion, though I’m sure there will be some amount of overlap even so. But even should the problem be completely unique to the United States it would still merit serious discussion. Far more than it’s getting now.

To begin with we should talk about what doesn’t work. And it’s clear that top down governmental action is one of those things. Perhaps there was a time when it might have worked, but at this point I think it’s too late. The problem is too big and the addicts are too numerous. In the course of reading several books on the subject it became clear that the federal government, and specifically the FDA, is just too far easy to hack, and beyond that, because the US is the richest country in the world, not to mention the 3rd most populous, the rewards for doing so are enormous. This is similar to the situation that existed in the early days of the internet when there were numerous viruses for Windows machines, but very few for Macs. It wasn’t that Apple machines were significantly more secure, they weren’t. It was the fact that Windows machines were far more numerous. 

Perhaps here we have stumbled on US uniqueness, not that we are uniquely bad at treating addiction, but that we were just the juiciest target for the three factors mentioned in the last post. Pharmaceutical companies were presented with a unique opportunity when the ideology of pain management changed, but where should they pursue this opportunity? Clearly if you were going to start making something like Oxycontin and begin marketing it, the only logical place was the US, and once you had a bunch of addicts, it was also the obvious target for Mexican heroin smugglers (in addition to being next door) and later for distributors of Chinese fentanyl. To reuse our analogy, the change in the terrain of pain management was the internet, and the US is Windows, the biggest attack surface. And as late as 2018 there were still more threats per Windows machine than there were for an individual Mac, but by 2019 that had flipped and there were twice as many threats for each Mac as opposed to each PC. Perhaps eventually something similar will happen, but for now, the US is still the best market for opioids the world has ever known. 

The futility of expecting the federal government and FDA to do anything was brought home most starkly by the story of Insys, told in the book The Hard Sell. As I mentioned in my review, this was a company that started marketing a fentanyl spray in 2012, and did it for five years in the most egregious fashion imaginable before they were finally stopped. If the FDA wasn’t going to pay special attention to fentanyl in 2012, then it kind of feels like they are never going to be the solution to the crisis, nor do other arms of the federal government seem to be doing much better. I’m largely with people who believe that the War on Drugs has been a pretty massive failure. Of course most of these people conclude from this that we should legalize all drugs. 

I had initially planned to spend a fair amount of time talking about legalization, but that time got taken up by dealing with the subject of differential death rates between the US and other western democracies, and given that this post is already late, I don’t have any additional time I can draw on. I will say that when I was young I was a really big fan of legalization. I remember a particular Bloom County comic strip (for those old enough to remember that strip) where drugs were legalized and all the associated drug violence stopped. The punch line was that a drug dealer was out on the lawn wondering what had happened to government price fixing, or something like that (I was unable to find the actual comic). 

I am no longer so idealistic. The problem is how do we keep bad actors from abusing the system in the fashion of Insys and Perdue? One of the arguments has always been that with a legal market at least the drugs won’t be mislabeled or cut with some other, more dangerous drug, but Insys and Perdue produced completely pure product, and that didn’t prevent it from being a gigantic problem. Also the experience we’ve had with marijuana legalization is not encouraging. To take one example California legalized weed in 2016, but five years later 80-90 percent of the market is still underground. The same thing happened in the transition from Oxycontin to heroin, people were addicted to oxy which was available and legal, but expensive, so as a result they turned to heroin which was illegal, but cheap. I would love to hear a credible framework for legalization, even if it were politically infeasible, but I haven’t come across one. Now of course decriminalization is another matter, and I do think that has some real possibilities, which I’ll touch on in just a second.

Okay I’ve talked about all the things that don’t work, it’s finally time to talk about things which might work. Let’s start at the beginning. 

While in Vietnam a significant percentage of soldiers ended up addicted to heroin, and there was widespread belief that upon their return that society would have to grapple with a massive addiction problem, but as it turned out once the soldiers were home the vast majority transitioned back to civilian life and their normal jobs without much fuss. While this was surprising, on a certain level it makes sense. You could imagine that, when faced by the horrors of war, someone might have no other option than to seek to dull things with an opioid, but that once they were home and away from those horrors that they would no longer be dependent on that stuff. 

Despite this, and it’s not clear from the numbers how much of the problem was returning soldiers and how much of the problem was other things, from 1968 to 1969 overdose deaths went up by 19%, and from 1969 to 1970 they went up by 18%. 1971 is when Nixon started the War on Drugs and whether because of this or because of the ongoing drawdown of troops from Vietnam, or because something else, the number of overdose deaths stabilized and even dropped a little bit for the rest of the decade, until 1979 when deaths suddenly more than halved and stayed at that level for several years. (The per capita death rate didn’t surpass the 1978 level until 1993. I have no idea why this happened, and perhaps it’s an artifact of the reporting methodology being changed, but it is interesting to note that when Nancy Reagen was unveiling her “Just Say No” campaign that drug overdose deaths were about as low as they’ve ever been.

The foregoing history of overdose deaths in the 70’s and 80’s was mostly included because it seemed interesting. I’m not sure there are any morals to be drawn, particularly for the sudden drop in 1979, since I have no idea why it happened. Though one might draw the weak conclusion that the initial War on Drugs was not quite the abject failure people claim. No, what I’m mostly interested in, is the lesson of the soldiers returning from Vietnam and the vast increase in deaths during the pandemic, because both phenomena, though directionally opposite, touch on the only thing that seems to be working: being part of an involved community. Soldiers who were addicts in Vietnam were able to shake that addiction when they returned home (clearly not all, but the vast majority did). When people were deprived of community during the pandemic, overdose deaths which were already stratospheric went up even more.

This is a point Sam Quinones returns to again and again in The Least of Us, that what seems to work is when a town, or occasionally something larger decides to really engage with treating the problem rather than locking people up. When they establish special drug courts, de facto decriminalization through suspending sentencing while the defendant seeks treatment, of helping them with jobs, and giving them places to sleep. It’s when an individual addict can draw on the help of several engaged individuals. When, for lack of a better term they have a tribe to draw on. It was when these things were happening that Quinones saw people successfully recovering from their addictions. As he says in the final paragraph of his introduction:

That is what fueled this book—two stories that I set out to tell here. One is the story of an ominous die-off amid a global economy producing catastrophic supplies of dope cheaper and more potent than ever. The other is of Americans’ quiet attempts to recover community through simple acts, guided by the belief—the message of our addiction crisis to those who would notice—that the least of us lies within us all.”

Now I’m not saying this is easy, or straightforward. In particular, I don’t think I can boil it down to something easily digestible in the closing paragraphs of this post. If you’re curious you should probably read the book. Nor am I saying that this is the only possible way to do it. I’d be very interested in trying methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone as part of a treatment plan. But if you have a bunch of different communities experimenting with stuff then presumably some community will try these drugs and if they work as well as has been claimed then they’ll keep using them and more communities will follow. 

IV- Miscellaneous Points I Wanted to Cover but Didn’t Have Time For

This discussion of the failures at the lowest and highest levels, i.e. the failure of the federal government and numerous individuals reminded me of the central assertion of Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen: that we have hollowed out the middle of society. Certainly one could make the argument that that’s exactly what has happened with drugs. The federal government midwifed the problem into existence, individuals operating mostly alone acquire the problem and can’t shake it, and only communities acting in the middle can resolve the problems created by both ends. Problems that would not be nearly so bad if communities had maintained their historic strength.

They screwed up so badly with Oxycontin that, perhaps understandably, the entire medical establishment is now overreacting in the other direction—underprescribing opioids. While I do think that our primary focus needs to be on the harms of these substances, particularly while those harms still appear to be increasing, it’s important not to entirely lose sight of the benefits of opioids. One of my readers pointed me at a presentation made by a libertarian city councilor pointing out how difficult it is even for terminal patients in extreme pain to get Oxycontin and similar drugs now. That now everyone is assumed to be an addict. He also reminded me of Scott Alexander’s piece Against Against Pseudoaddiction which makes some related and very valid points. But, to go back to my argument, you could imagine that this also might be something that a strong middle is better at. It’s much easier to prescribe Oxycontin to someone that has the support of a whole community, a community you might very well belong to, that to prescribe them to someone you just met.

A big part of this whole discussion is the idea of hedonic calculus. You can imagine that people feel much happier when they are pain free, but if that comes at the cost of dying early from an overdose how are we to balance those two things? This is why the question of giving opioids to those who are dying is easy “yes”, and the question of whether we should have given opioids to people who ended up dying prematurely an easy “no”. But what about all the space in between? To illustrate I’ll end with a story.

One of my college friends, actually my roommate, had pretty bad back problems and was put on Lortab, which is ​​hydrocodone and acetaminophen. I don’t know if he was overprescribed Lortab, or if he had problems getting it, but he ended up taking a lot of it. Even today doctor’s are less worried about prescribing it because the acetaminophen is supposed to make it difficult to abuse. Because it will destroy your liver. Well that’s what happened to my friend, he died of what the doctor’s said was alcoholic hepatitis, and while I’m sure alcohol contributed, I think it was mostly the acetaminophen. And as a result he died when he was 40. If he had been taking heroin he might have actually lived longer, and one wonders if, in the final analysis, whether it would have been a better life.

I still think about him, a lot.


That ended on a sad note, and of course the whole subject is sad. But sometimes being sad is good; it spurs you to reflection or even action. I kind of doubt that action will be donating to this blog, but on the off chance that is precisely the action it inspires, here’s a link.


The Drug Crisis (Part 1): The Role of Progress and Technology in Creating the Crisis

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I- COVID Deaths vs. Overdose Deaths

According to Our World in Data, essentially a million people have died from COVID in the United States. Depending on your political persuasion you may think that this is an undercount or an overcount, but as we don’t have the time to get into all of that, this is the number we’re going to use. Not only is it probably about as accurate as one is likely to get without massive effort, particularly if you just want to compare the US with other western democracies, it also happens to be nearly identical to the number I’m going to use to start my discussion of drugs. As it turns out, about a million people have also died from overdosing on drugs in the US since 1999, which is generally when the current crisis is said to have started. Though again you can quibble about that number as well, but I’m going to assume that all different quibbles basically balance out.

So we’re left with 1 million people who died of COVID and 1 million people who died from overdosing, that’s our similarity, but what are the differences?

  • Our overdose statistics go back to 1999, while COVID has only been around since the beginning of 2020. Obviously on a day to day basis COVID is far more deadly.
  • On the other hand, with the exception of a small dip in 2018, overdose deaths just get higher and higher every year, while with COVID we expect the opposite, fewer and fewer deaths as time goes on. 
  • It’s nice to imagine that the United States could have locked down as hard as China and prevented nearly all deaths—though if you’ve seen the news, even China is having problems with that strategy now. But in reality everyone knew that, regardless of what we did, some COVID deaths could not be prevented. On the other hand, in theory, nearly all overdose deaths should be preventable. It’s extremely difficult to avoid getting Omicron. It seems significantly easier to just take fewer drugs.
  • Obviously the previous point is an oversimplification, but we assume at some point (nowish?) that COVID will just be treated like the flu. What is the analogy for overdosing? What is the minimum number of overdose deaths we should expect if things worked as they should? The 17,000 overdose deaths we had in 1999? The 10,000 we had in 1998? The 2,500 we had in 1980?
  • Finally, the biggest difference. COVID has gotten, and probably will continue to get, vastly more money and attention. This is the case even if we compare money and attention for COVID since 2000 with money and attention for overdoses since 1999. Which is not to say we haven’t spent a lot of money on the War on Drugs, much of it misspent, but even critics of the war only put it around a trillion dollars, and this is the cost going all the way back to 1971. While COVID spending is already closing in on $4 trillion

This post is dedicated to considering the drug crisis, and while we have been dealing with this crisis for several decades, I think the pandemic has definitely thrown many of the key issues into sharper relief. People would be very angry if COVID deaths just got worse despite everything we were doing, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening with overdose deaths. With COVID everyone is currently engaged in the exercise of deciding what level of danger is acceptable, are we trying to get it to the same level of the flu? Or is that too ambitious? Or perhaps not ambitious enough? And yet people don’t seem to be doing this with overdose deaths. No one can even imagine that we should be able to drive these deaths back down to their 1998 level or even their 1980 level. But 2022 does not seem all that different from 1998, and yet 10x as many people are overdosing, where does that order of magnitude increase come from? Is it entirely the fault of Purdue Pharma and Oxycontin? Or are there other factors? 

Most of all I want to consider, where do we go from here?

II- How “Technology” Contributed to the Increase 

When considering how the number of overdose deaths increased ten-fold in less than 25 years, I’d like to start by looking at the role of “progress” and “technology” in that increase. You may have noticed that both words are in scare quotes. This is an acknowledgement that I am using them in a more expansive fashion than most people. I nevertheless think that the designation and the grouping is accurate. As the “technology” case is easier to make, let’s start there.

The smoking gun here is fentanyl. To begin with it was first synthesized in a lab in 1960. Using technology which had only been invented in the 50s. Fentanyl is a product of modern technology, which not only didn’t exist, but was impossible to imagine more than 100 years ago. Of course, I understand why it was synthesized. The article I just linked to raves about its utility. Having a super potent opioid is perfect for all sorts of entirely legitimate ends, like anesthesia, and pain relief for terminal patients. But this potency, combined with its ability to be synthesized in a lab, make it perfect for the illegal drug trade as well. The potency makes it easy to smuggle and its ability to be artificially synthesized makes it hard to target the source. 

I’ve been careful to talk about overdose deaths in general, but when most people think about the drug crisis and overdosing on drugs they’re largely thinking of drugs in the opioid class, like heroin and prescription opioids like Oxycontin, or synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. And it is true that deaths from synthetic opioids (mostly fentanyl but excluding methadone) have increased 50 fold(!!) since 1999, with most of that increase coming since 2013. But deaths from cocaine have increased by 4 fold, while deaths from psychostimulants, which mostly refers to meth, have increased 30 fold in that period with most of that increase also coming since 2013. 

Though these latter two categories are less obviously stories of something created by technology getting out of hand, technology has still played a major role. 

If we start by looking at cocaine, it’s not immediately obvious why it’s gotten so much worse. Of course deaths from overdosing on cocaine have not increased at nearly the rate that deaths from meth and opioids have, but a 4x increase is still very significant. I murders or suicides or something similar had quadrupled recently then that’s all anyone would be talking about. And yet you probably haven’t heard anything about this increase. Even the books I read don’t spend any time on it. In part that’s probably because everything is going up. Even deaths from benzodiazepines are rising (a point we’ll return to) and in part it’s because the cocaine crisis started a long time ago, but as it turns out it also involved technology.

In the early 80s there was a glut of cocaine and in order to get rid of it dealers started turning it into crack. From Wikipedia:

Faced with dropping prices for their illegal product, drug dealers made a decision to convert the powder to “crack”, a solid smokeable form of cocaine, that could be sold in smaller quantities, to more people. It was cheap, simple to produce, ready to use, and highly profitable for dealers to develop.

The farthest back I’ve been able to find numbers is starting in 1968, and from then till now the low point of drug overdose deaths was 1980, just before this glut occured. As I’ve said I haven’t read much about the way that crisis unfolded. But what’s interesting is although there was a lot of attention on the “Crack Epidemic” it eventually dissipated, but the actual deaths from cocaine didn’t really go down, and the 90s were worse than the 80’s. In fact in 1999, when all the graphs start, it’s cocaine that’s the leading cause of death, not any of the various opioid categories. 

The important point is that it does appear to be an example of this same process of dealers discovering a new drug, or a new form of an old drug and coming up with innovative ways to sell and distribute it. A story that’s going to get repeated again and again. Which takes us to meth.

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few months I mentioned that I’ve been reading some books in preparation for this post, and The Least of Us by Sam Quinones makes some very interesting claims about meth and technology. The story goes something like this:

Back in the very beginning meth was made using what’s called the P2P method, and it gave off a “smell so rank” it could only be done far away from civilization by biker gangs like the Hells Angels, but sometime in the 1980’s the ephedrine recipe for meth was rediscovered, which was not only less smelly, but also an easier recipe to follow. At the time ephedrine was unregulated, so meth took off. One DEA agent said that between 2000 and 2004 he didn’t remember a single pot or heroin case, it was all meth. (To be clear he was stationed in California, not Appalachia.)

As you might imagine this only lasted for a while before the government responded and started cracking down on the availability of ephedrine. Initially production just moved to Mexico, but in 2008 Mexico banned it outright as well. In a perfect world this would have stopped the meth problem, but we live in a fallen world, and the War on Drugs, though not quite the unmitigated disaster many claim, has nevertheless proven to be an amazingly effective generator of negative second order effects. In this case rather than stop producing meth Mexican producers moved back to the P2P method. Given, by this point, the industrial scale of production, the smell was less of a concern then it had been back in the day, but it turned out that there was a different problem: P2P meth, unlike ephedrine based meth, basically causes people to go insane, or at least that’s what Quinones claims in his book. 

Here’s how one user described it: 

In 2009, out in Los Angeles, a man named Eric Barrera was a long-time user of crystal meth when one night he felt the dope change.

Eric is a stocky ex-marine who’d grown up in Oxnard, not far from Los Angeles. The meth he had been using for several years by then made him euphoric, made his scalp tingle; he grew talkative, wanting to party. But that night, in 2009, he was gripped with a fierce paranoia. His girlfriend, he was now sure, had a man in her apartment. No one was in the apartment, she insisted. Eric took a kitchen knife and began stabbing a sofa, certain the man was hiding there. Then he stabbed a mattress to tatters, and finally he began stabbing the walls, gripped by manic paranoia and looking for this man he imagined hiding inside. “That had never happened before,” he said, when I met him years later.

Eric was hardly alone. The new meth that had just begun to circulate in 2009 was different. Something had changed. Gang-member friends from his old neighborhood took to calling the new stuff “weirdo dope.” “Every bag of dope that I picked up after that,” he told me, “I hoped it would be euphoric like it was before. But the euphoria never came back. Instead I’d be up for days paranoid, wondering, Are they gonna raid the house?”

Obviously the question of what makes this meth different is a big one. And Quinones didn’t have a definitive answer. There seem to be three potential explanations. The first is that the P2P method is prone to contamination from the industrial chemicals used in the process and this contamination is what causes the paranoia. The second possible explanation is that meth comes in two different forms d-methamphetamine and l-methamphetamine. The P2P method produces both in equal quantities. Separating the two is difficult, but according to Quinones, Mexican producers have figured out how to do it. But what if they’re sloppy? It’s possible that if you’re taking a significant amount of l-meth, at the level of an addict, that it might bring paranoia as a side effect. And the third possibility is just some other difference in the P2P process, something we haven’t figured out yet. 

For my part neither of the first two explanations seems particularly compelling. The old ephedrine based meth was made under all sorts of conditions by all sorts of people and yet it reliably produced euphoria? While the P2P meth, now being made on basically an industrial scale, uniformly produces paranoia? Still this is the explanation Quinones seems to lean towards. The other explanation, that the change comes down to an inclusion of the other isomer, makes somewhat more sense to me, given that it’s specific to the new process, but l-meth has been studied a fair amount, and is used as in a variety of medicine and there’s nothing to indicate that it causes paranoia. Though as I pointed out addicts are probably taking a lot more than what any study has used, and there is that old saying that the dose makes the poison. But if I had to make a prediction I think I would assign the highest probability to it being some third thing we haven’t figured out yet, though it would get just a plurality of the probability, not a majority. 

This whole business of meth going from somewhat manageable to causing insanity is not something I’ve seen mentioned anywhere else. So perhaps Quinones is exaggerating the problem. But then again, as I pointed out in the very beginning, lots of things about the drug crisis don’t get nearly the attention they deserve, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that this is a thing and Quinones was the only one dedicated enough to document it. If it is a real thing, it seems like a thing we really ought to get to the bottom of. 

As you can see, technology has done a lot to create and sustain the drug crisis. So much of the story of the crisis is a story of improving technology and distribution methods. Both of Quinones’ books, The Least of Us, and before that Dreamland have large sections that are all about logistics, and improving those logistics, sometimes through better personnel management, sometimes through improved distribution, and sometimes through technology. Though of course in a broad sense improved HR, and improved distribution are also technological advances, ones they’ve borrowed from business. At this point, of course. Mexican drug operations are basically big businesses, ones that are built around taking some chemicals as input and using them to create a profitable output. Businesses that are largely agnostic about which chemicals go in, and which drugs come out. Under this model it made perfect sense to switch to the P2P method for meth. And it made even more sense to replace heroin production and distribution with fentanyl production and distribution. If you were in business and you could replace hundreds of farmers and truckers with a few chemists and just a couple of truckers, you would count that as progress. And indeed it is, which takes us to:

III- How “Progress” contributed to the Increase  

In Quinones’ book Dreamland (see my original discussion here) he puts forth three developments which combined, in perfect storm fashion, to create the opioid crisis. The first, and best known was the introduction of Oxycontin by Purdue Pharma, the second was the development of a sophisticated heroin distribution system running from Northwest Mexico into the US. And the third was an ideological shift in the way the medical profession viewed pain.

As you may have noticed from the title I decided to split this post into two parts, and we’ll discuss Oxycontin and Purdue in the second part. I’ve already discussed the Mexican logistical revolution as much as I’m going to (which is not to say that my coverage has been comprehensive or even adequate, more just that I ran out of time and space.) Accordingly the only thing remaining is to discuss the way the treatment of pain changed. But in doing so I don’t want to just discuss changes in the treatment of pain. I want to look at changes in the way we do everything.

While I won’t be discussing Purdue Pharma, just yet, I do want to spend a small amount of time talking about Arthur Sackler. As I mentioned in my review of Empire of Pain Arthur Sackler was not one of the Sacklers who owned Purdue—those were his brothers—but this fact does not absolve him of all guilt for our current situation, because while Arthur didn’t have any part in the creation of Oxycontin he created the playbook his brothers used to market it. Arthur’s own fortune was made through the marketing of Valium, a benzodiazepine. And what do you know, if we look at our chart of overdose deaths benzos have a category all of their own, and somehow, despite not benefiting from Mexican innovations in logistics, or being involved in pain management, deaths in this category have also increased a staggering amount since 1999: 10 fold, so more than cocaine, but less than meth and fentanyl. Now many of these deaths, particularly since 2014 have involved people who combined fentanyl and benzos, but eyeballing the chart, it looks like benzos went from around 1200 to around 6000 in the years from 1999 to 2011 before combining it with an opioid really took off. Why would that be? We think we know why opioid overdoses increased so dramatically but why did all other categories of overdosing also increase at the same time? I would opine that it all goes back to Arthur Sackler and Valium, and then just a little bit farther still, back to an idea.

Early on Arthur and his brothers worked in an asylum, where the insane languished in appalling conditions. Being reform minded they looked for some way to help these unfortunate people. The story of their various experiments is too long to go into here, but eventually they discovered that, to quote from The Empire of Pain: 

When they injected forty patients who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic with histamine, nearly a third of them improved to a degree where they could be sent home. Some patients who had not responded to any other course of treatment did respond to histamine.

“There was a sense, in their press clippings, that this trio of brothers at a mental hospital in Queens might have stumbled upon a solution to a medical riddle that had bedeviled societies for thousands of years. If the problem of mental illness originated in brain chemistry, then perhaps chemistry could provide the solution. What if, in the future, the cure for insanity was as simple as taking a pill?”

The fact that schizophrenics improved when given histamine was obviously wonderful news. On the other hand, the idea that all mental issues, large or small, could be fixed with a pill, was a dangerous overreach. Nevertheless they took this idea and ran with it. While the Sacklers didn’t do much to discover new cures, like the one they’d stumbled on with histamine, their zeal, and in particular Arthur’s, led them to become experts at marketing chemicals. A strategy which relied on this idea that just taking a pill was all it took to cure what ailed you.

You might imagine that the next step in this story was applying the strategy to Oxycontin. But actually the next step was applying the idea to pain management in general. Oxycontin didn’t create a revolution in the ideology of pain management, a revolution in the ideology of pain management created the conditions necessary for Oxycontin. The revolution in the treatment of pain management is a long story, and this post is already long, but I came across this comment over on Marginal Revolution from a doctor which sums up the situation pretty well:

I’m an anesthesiologist, so I do all my narcotic “prescribing” via syringe these days. Before that, I was an internist, writing lots of prescriptions. I was doing this up til the mid-90’s, when we started hearing about the supposed “epidemic” of untreated, severe pain. Lots of actors involved in that little drama: pharma; Big Nursing looking to demonize “uncaring” physicians for their own ends; inter alia. Anyone remember “pain is the 5th vital sign”? I sure do. There was relentless pressure to make sure that no one, ever, faced a quantum of untreated pain. Suddenly, pain surveys and other forms of government coercion became part of the water we swam in. Getting a reputation as an “undertreater” of pain could have serious professional consequences.

Is anyone surprised that the pharmaceutical industry responded to this milieu? And that government piled on through its enforcement arms in HHS? If you tell the public for a couple of decades that everyone is entitled to a pain-free existence (not the actual message sent, but often the message received), then don’t be surprised at the disaster that results.

Presumably the connection between that original assertion of the Sacklers (and to be fair I’m sure it wasn’t just them) and this situation should be obvious: If you can cure something as obviously bad as pain with a single pill why wouldn’t you? But once you start thinking along these lines, why would you limit it to only things which are legal? If you can take some drug and it makes all your problems go away why wouldn’t you?

I understand there are other factors involved. Drugs are addictive. Wicked companies have marketed them with lies and distortions. There are all the advancements in distribution and logistics I mentioned previously. But along side all of that, and perhaps preceding it, is the idea that we can use progress to solve all of the old problems. Anxious? Take a Valium. In pain? Take Oxycontin. Not enjoying life as much as you think you should be? Take meth. 

Because the thing is, that as much as we might want to blame Oxycontin for creating a drug crisis, which came out of nowhere in 1999, deaths from drug overdosing have gone up every year since 1990. In the last 30 years no matter what drug you look at, and no matter when you decide to start looking, everything is going up. My argument is that this phenomenon is yet another unforeseen side effect of progress, one that’s going to keep getting worse. Can anything be done? We’ll answer that question next time.


I didn’t want to split this in two, but things have been extraordinarily crazy, and to add to the craziness, we’ve decided to move. If you want to help with the expense of that consider donating


The 9 Books I Finished in March-2022

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  1. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by: Roger Lowenstein
  2. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by: Arnold Bennet
  3. Burning Chrome by: William Gibson
  4. Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy by:  Richard Hanania
  5. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class by: Catherine Liu
  6. Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by: Stephen Fry
  7. Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures by: Stephen Fry
  8. If You Absolutely Must…: a brief guide to writing and selling short-form argumentative nonfiction from a somewhat reluctant professional writer by: Fredrik deBoer
  9. Expeditionary Force Book 8: Armageddon by: Craig Alanson

Somehow, without really planning to, I’ve ended up traveling a lot. As I write this I’m actually in a car headed to Albuquerque (my wife is currently driving). A week ago I was in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at Gary Con. And later this month I’m going to Vegas. I’m feeling stressed out and frivolous at the same time. 

I mention the traveling to both prepare the ground for the possibility that I might once again not produce as much writing as I want to this month, and because it leads into a story, a story about masks. As I mentioned I just got back from Gary Con and as the convention approached they made it clear that they wanted a total mask mandate. They were so serious about this that they canceled the option for table-side service, which, as I understand, is a major source of revenue for them, because they didn’t want to give people the excuse that they didn’t have their mask on because they were eating. They didn’t say that you couldn’t eat or drink at the table, but they wanted you to quickly pull down your mask, take a bite or a drink and quickly put it back on.

I was not looking forward to the mandate because I think it makes it super hard to communicate in a noisy gaming hall, and, though it might be psychosomatic prolonged mask wearing always gives me a headache, plus with three shots and a verified positive for Omicron I think I’m about as safe as one can be in this day and age. So imagine my delight when I show up and not only are about half the people in the registration line unmasked, but the guy next to me in line says that the mask mandate was removed at the 11th hour, because the hotel itself doesn’t have a mandate, and indeed 90% of them aren’t wearing masks, so the point seemed kind of moot. And indeed when I get up to the window and get my badge no one mentions that I need to put a mask on. The first room I’m in eventually ends up about 50/50 masked vs. unmasked, and it does seem like it’s being left to personal preference.

But then there’s a pushback. Certain areas seem to get very draconian with the masks, arguments erupt on the facebook page. One of the guys in charge of the con posts something very extreme about the requirement for masks and it gets deleted, even as another guy posts something else reminding people of the mask requirement, but in slightly less extreme language. But it was clear that the number of people who were just sick of masks had reached a critical mass, and it didn’t matter how much people begged and cajoled a universal mask mandate just was no longer in the cards. It really felt like being on the front lines of a front that’s collapsing, with people trying to make an orderly retreat, but on the verge of a route.

As one final point, I’m always amazed that the people loudly proclaiming the need for a mask mandate because they personally can’t attend an event otherwise because of their health, never seem to be wearing an N95. My understanding is that you personally wearing an N95, while everyone else is unmasked, is better than everyone wearing a cloth or a surgical mask. So if you’re that worried, why wouldn’t you take the one step that’s completely under your control?

Anyway I’ve gone on too long about this as it is. On to the reviews!


I- Eschatological Reviews

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management

by: Roger Lowenstein

Published: 2001

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The story of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), a very exclusive hedge fund full of arrogant people that blew up in spectacular fashion.

Who should read this book?

If you enjoyed The Big Short and have a general fondness for stories of financial blow-ups brought on by hubris this is a book about exactly that.

General Thoughts

I remember hearing about the spectacular blow-up of LTCM when it happened in 1998, and my recollection is that it was pretty big news, at least for a week or so. I’m sure that the appeal of the story was helped along by its obvious moral: the arrogant brought low in spectacular fashion by their hubris. Like so many before the principals of LTCM thought that they had outsmarted the market, they were wrong.

The next time I remember encountering the story was while reading Fooled by Randomness by Taleb where he described LTCM as a hedge fund set up by a couple of Nobel Prize winning economists. He scornfully described their delusional belief that they could precisely measure and therefore manage risk. He went on to say that the hedge fund had blown up after four years in what these economists had called a “ten sigma event”, which is to say an event ten standard deviations from the norm—an event which is so improbable that you’re unlikely to see even one such event in the entire history of the universe.

This “ten sigma” claim fascinated me, I was staggered that a Nobel Prize winner could be so wrong. (And yes I know the Nobel in economics is not an actual Nobel Prize.) Ever since then I’ve wanted to hear the whole story about how someone so smart could be wrong on a scale that beggars the imagination. Finally, after many years, I got around to looking into it. To start with I should probably include the section of the book Taleb referenced in making his claim: 

According to these same models, the odds against the firm’s suffering a sustained run of bad luck—say, losing 40 percent of its capital in a single month—were unthinkably high. (So far, in their worst month, they had lost a mere 2.9 percent.) Indeed, the figures implied that it would take a so-called ten-sigma event—that is, a statistical freak occurring one in every ten to the twenty-fourth power times—for the firm to lose all of its capital within one year.

There it is. Of course with all such claims the truth is a little bit more complicated, though it’s also depressingly similar to other stories of financial collapse. (A point which I’ll take up in the next section.)

The fund collapsed through a combination of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the 1998 Russian Currency Crisis, but I didn’t see any evidence that the LTCM principals described this combination as a “ten sigma event” after those things happened. It’s merely that before the events happened their models said that such events were spectacularly rare. If I’m going to be charitable, I don’t think the LTCM guys assumed their model was a perfect representation of reality. But I do get the impression that they thought it was directionally accurate. That it could be used for a baseline. I imagine them reasoning something like this, “At the tails of the model things are probably not completely accurate, so it might only take an seven sigma event rather than a ten sigma event, but that still should only happen once every 2 million years, which is still basically impossible.” I understand that’s still not being particularly charitable, but after reading the book it’s the best I can do. It’s clear that whatever place the models had in their decision making process that their confidence in those models was delusional to the point of insanity.

Before we entirely leave the charitable portion of this review, I need to defend the Nobel Prize winning economists, they didn’t set up the fund, nor did they have a lot of control over how it was run. They were mostly brought on to bolster its reputation. So accusing them of being arrogant and dumb is to overlook the real cocky idiots at the center of the story.

If you’re looking for the person who possessed the plurality of the fund’s hubris that would be Lawrence Hilibrand. I don’t have time to go into all the instances of Hilibrand’s arrogance. It is far easier to list the things he did that weren’t arrogant, because as near as I can tell (and one presumes that Lowenstein might have an axe to grind) there really aren’t any.

He was punished for his arrogance. All of the principals had just about the entirety of their wealth in LTCM, so when it went bust, they went bust as well. Well, not really, not bust in the way you or I would understand it, but they did go from being half-billionaires to merely multi-millionaires, who live in palatial comfort and went on to found yet another hedge fund, JWM Partners.

Unsurprisingly, their arrogance was unabated. The second fund used basically the same models and managed to last all of 10 years before it was killed by the 2007-2008 financial crisis. (Yet another ten sigma event, what are the odds!) You would think this would be the end of things, but they’re actually on their third hedge fund. Though to be fair rather than the billions invested into LTCM they were only able to get tens of millions on this third go around.

Eschatological Implications

If LTCM were an isolated story, then we wouldn’t need this section, but the hubris and collapse of LTCM appear more to be the rule of modern finance than the exception. Despite the lesson of LTCM, the 2007-2008 financial crisis was basically exactly the same story, only this time played out over the entire world rather than over a single hedge fund.

For LTCM it was the Black-Scholes model and the underlying riskless asset was government bonds. In the leadup to 2007 it was the Gaussian copula function and the underlying “riskless” asset was mortgages. We even have the same language being used to declare how improbable it is. In the middle of the crisis David Viniar, the CFO of Goldman Sachs, declared, “We were seeing things that were 25 standard deviation moves, several days in a row” I’m running out of ways to describe how idiotic this is. A 25 standard deviation move should happen once every 10135 years and he’s claiming he saw this sort of thing several days in a row!?!? Furthermore, consider that this is after LTCM, when someone like the CFO of Goldman should know that they can’t use a normal distribution when considering risk. Accordingly, what they thought was so risk free that it should never happen in the lifetime of trillions of universes, happened several days in a row. “Riskless” was anything but.

We have two examples of breathtaking financial incompetence at the highest levels within 10 years of each other. I strongly suspect that if my knowledge of financial history went even deeper that I could come up with a third example. But even if there isn’t, what do you want to bet that it won’t happen a third time? In fact I strongly suspect that the third example is already in motion, and that in 10 years we’ll be able to point to another financial crisis caused by another complicated financial instrument that is already in existence.

If you disagree, then please tell me what we have done since 2008 to keep that from happening. Honestly, I’d like to know how to solve this problem. The LTCM partners went on to found not one, but two different hedge funds after their spectacular collapse, and Lord knows the mountains of bad behavior that led to 2007-2008 crisis went almost entirely unpunished. (In the US only one guy went to jail, though 25 people did end up in jail in Iceland.)

I’m not necessarily saying that the LTCM guys shouldn’t have been able to set up a new hedge fund—I am amazed that people gave them money—I’m saying that exotic financial strategies and the instruments which empower them appear to inevitably blow up in spectacular fashion. And as things increasingly centralize these financial catastrophes just get worse. On top of all this, because of this centralization only governments are in a position to do anything about the problem, and they appear woefully unequal to that task.

It’s possible that none of this will matter, that the invasion of Ukraine will lead to World War III and the last thing on our minds will be complicated financial instruments. But if we do manage to preserve the liberal order, then we’re still going to have to deal with financial crises, because they’re deeply embedded in markets which are a fundamental feature of that order. And I think people underestimate how much the 2007-2008 crisis led to the populism we’re currently seeing, and the attendant political disorder. There are an awful lot of people who remember that while they were getting kicked in the nuts, bankers were making millions of dollars off a crisis they caused. As you can imagine this might lead to them losing faith in the system that allows that, particularly if that system just keeps allowing it to happen. 


II- Capsule Reviews

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day 

by: Arnold Bennet

Published: 1908

92 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a very short, very early self-help book.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a fan of self-help books I think you should check out this one. As I said it’s super short, and reading the earliest examples of any genre always ends up being particularly illuminating. 

General Thoughts

This book put me in mind of Parkinson’s Law, by C. Northcote Parkinson. It’s one of the first, and for my money still the greatest business book. How to Live on 24 Hours is not the greatest self-help book, but it is surprising how many of the themes that are now common in self-help books existed basically from the genre’s inception. Things like prioritization, using your mornings effectively, the power of habits and ongoing effort, etc. And of course we’re still struggling with all those things, in fact, it might be getting worse. I suppose this is more evidence that some problems will always be with us, but even if that’s the case, it’s still useful to read about one of the first people to identify those problems and attempt to fix them.


Burning Chrome 

by: William Gibson

Published: 1982

223 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of Gibson’s cyberpunk stories, something of a prequel to his famous book, Neuromancer

Who should read this book?

If you like Gibson, or cyberpunk, or science fiction short stories as a genre, you should definitely read this book.

General Thoughts

I read this as part of Freddie deBoer’s book club. In particular he wanted to talk about the story New Rose Hotel. I’ve read quite a bit of Gibson, but I’d never read this collection, so it seemed like a great excuse to do so. New Rose Hotel, was the standout story, but possibly just because deBoer drew extra attention to it. But really all the stories were quite good. Gibson is a very literary author, and his prose is always fantastic. Cyperpunk is a close cousin to noir and as such it’s really all about the atmosphere and a certain understated panache, and Gibson, as the designated father of the genre, is the master of both. 


Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy

by:  Richard Hanania

Published: December, 2021

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A comprehensive debunking of the idea that American foriegn policy is driven by a grand, overarching strategy.

Who should read this book?

I would probably just subscribe to Hanania’s substack. I think you’ll get most of the important bits, plus the book itself, as an academic publication, is horribly expensive ($160 hardback, $40 kindle).

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned that I’m part of a local Slate Star Codex meetup group. In addition to meetups we also do a book club, and this was the book we did in February. As part of that we managed to get Hanania to attend our discussion, virtually. So whatever else you might say about Hanania he’s generous with his time. 

His central point essentially boils down to the idea that American foreign policy is incoherent, that it has no overarching goal. Of course people imagine we have an overarching goal, and are quick to offer up suggestions for what that goal is, but Hanania shoots all of them down. As one example many people assume we are trying to maintain our position as the global hegemon. But the only reason that position is under threat is because we gave both Russia and China the necessary help to be competitive. You have to look pretty far back in time to see the help the US gave Russia, but even while outwardly opposed to Stalin, pre-WWII, the US government still allowed US businesses to jump start their heavy industry. Our assistance to China happened more recently when we let them into the WTO and gave them most favored nation status. In other words, the only reason we’re worried about them today is because of the economic help we gave them decades ago. And it wasn’t if they suddenly became our enemy, we have always had a pretty antagonistic relationship. Obviously we did this because we hoped it would provide a long term benefit to us, but this expected benefit was always at cross-purposes with maintaining hegemony. 

On the other side of things even when we’re clearly not hoping to benefit ourselves, when we’re definitely doing things for the sole reason of harming our enemies, our tactics are still incoherent. The best example of this is our habit of imposing sanctions. Hanania points out that sanctions almost never accomplish their intended goal, and generally end up being humanitarian disasters on top of that. Certainly they haven’t really affected Putin, on the contrary they seem to have made him more popular than ever inside Russia. Strengthening the perception that the West will always be implacable enemies of the Russian people and that Putin is the only one who can stand up to them. 

I could go on and cover other suggestions for potential US grand strategies, like the maintenance of international laws and norms. (If that’s our strategy why do we continually break those laws?) But I’m interested in high level questions. Is true grand strategy more common in a multipolar world? As the lone hyperpower is the US trying to be all things to all people? Are monarchies and autocracies better at grand strategy because decision making power is more centralized? Or is it worse because they end up surrounded by “yes men”? Do liberal values make it harder to engage in grand strategy, because there’s an irreconcilable tension between national interests and humanitarian concerns? Is it possible that nations have always fumbled through history, sometimes doing the right thing, sometimes the wrong thing, mostly by chance, but in the age of nuclear weapons, we’re suddenly in a place where these mistakes, which have always happened, might be catastrophic?

As you can imagine the invasion of Ukraine has the possibility of answering many of these questions, and we might not like what those answers turn out to be.


Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class

by: Catherine Liu

Published: December, 2020

90 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There is a war within the left between those who want to prioritize identity (being black, or gay) and those who want to prioritize class. This is a book in favor of the latter and opposed to the former.

Who should read this book?

The book is short, which is why I picked it up, but it’s pretty dense, still if you’re interested in the conflict I just mentioned it’s probably worth reading. Certainly, as someone who’s never really been on the left, it helped me understand things better.

General Thoughts

One of my friends turned me on to Tara Henley who’s kind of the Canadian version of Bari Weiss. And Henley raved about this book, which is how I came to find out about it. Also I’ve long been fascinated by the subject of the book, what Liu calls the professional managerial class (PMC), what others call woke capital, and what still others have labeled “the cathedral”

I have yet to decide which term is best, it’s a little like the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each term emerges from a different point of view of what is clearly a massive phenomenon. As far as the PMC, Liu ends up defining it more by its relationship to the working class than by any elements inherent to the PMC itself. The PMC is the academic who can’t imagine why the working class doesn’t just go to college, surely it must be clear to them that such attendance is the answer to all of the problems they might be experiencing. It’s the bureaucrat, who enforces laws for the working class’ “own good”, and feels all the more smug when the working class chaffs against these laws.  And to take a quote directly from the book:

PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families and deplorable child-rearing habits.

As you might have gathered this is a book about the conflict between the professional managerial class and the working class, and in a larger sense it’s a book about the conflict between those who prioritize identity and those who prioritize class. In order to understand how this conflict emerged you have to go back a few decades. This is a vast oversimplification, but Liu and people like her would probably point to a long standing unity between advocates for minority rights and advocates for economic justice. Certainly Martin Luther King Jr. still embodied both strands, and this was fairly mainstream Marxism as well, but in the years after his death these two strands started to subtly drift apart.

These advocates for broad spectrum justice had clearly seized the moral high ground, and as a consequence of this they were growing more powerful. Those already in power, who had gotten there by way of their wealth and status, needed some way to keep their power—it’s hard for people to take you seriously as an advocate for economic justice and the working class if you’re rich. So partially by design, but mostly just because of the way the incentives were structured, those in power started emphasizing the identity side of things and deemphasizing the economic side of things. It became more about minorities who were poor and less about poor people in general. In other words, identity was easier to subvert than class and so that’s what they did. Given that such subversion was second nature for those who already had power and wealth this was fairly easy to do. Basically they adopted the culture of the 60’s and used it as a proxy for virtue of the 60’s, narrowing the definition of virtue in the process, and hoarding what remained. Thus, the title of the book. Here’s how Liu puts it:

The culture war was always a proxy economic war, but the 1960’s divided the country into the allegedly enlightened and the allegedly benighted, with the PMC able to separate itself from its economic inferiors in a way that seemed morally justifiable.

The post -1968 PMC elite has become ideologically convinced of its own unassailable position as comprising the most advanced people the earth has ever seen. They have, in fact, made a virtue of their vanguardism. Drawing on the legacy of the counterculture and its commitment to technological and spiritual innovations, PMC elites try to tell the rest of us how to live…as the fortunes of the PMC elites rose, the class insisted on it’s ability to do ordinary things in extraordinary, fundamentally superior and more virtuous ways: as a class, it was reading books, raising children, eating food, staying healthy, and having sex as the most culturally and affectively[sic] advanced people in human history.

All of this hopefully gives you enough to understand the outlines of the conflict. You can probably simplify it into the Marxists vs. the Woke. Though that might be too simple. The borders of the conflict can seem a little bit messy when you first encounter them, and this book’s primary utility is to clearly delineate those borders. In any case, I am on neither side of the conflict, and although I never thought I would say this, I clearly prefer the Marxists. In part because of things I’ve read elsewhere, but in part because of this book. Though only in this very narrow sphere, everywhere else I prefer just about anything else to Marxism.

Liu does a good job of making the case that the PMC is on the side of the Woke, and that this alignment isn’t bringing us closer to justice, it’s perverting it. Above all she makes the case that the PMC, which she admits she’s a part of (and for that matter, so am I) are mostly a bunch of sanctimonious assholes. 


Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Retold Series

By: Stephen Fry

Book 1: Mythos

Published: 2019

352 Pages

Book 2: Heroes

Published: 2020

352 Pages

Briefly, what are these books about?

Stephen Fry retells the stories of Greek Mythology.

Who should read these books?

If you like Stephen Fry or Greek Mythology you should read these books, actually you should listen to Stephen Fry narrating these books.

General Thoughts

I was a big fan of Bulfinch’s Mythology when I was a kid. And it’d been a long time since I had revisited the myths, outside of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Greek Dramas, which is not nothing, but it was nice to engage in a comprehensive review of all the myths. 

Fry’s retelling is different from Bulfinch’s (to the extent I remember it) in three respects. First off Bulfinch’s left out the more salacious details, for example I don’t remember reading that when Kronos overthrew Ouranos it involved cutting off his genitals and hurling them across Greece and out into the ocean.

The second point is closely related to the first, as part of this bowdlerization Bulfinch’s left out all of the homosexuality, Fry, for obvious reasons, not only includes it, but really leans into all the LGBT elements of the mythology. For my money a little too much. Which is not to say I think he exaggerates any of the details but rather he can’t resist using these elements as ammo in the current culture war. For example when telling the story of someone who these days would be identified as transgender he offers one of his very few footnotes. Where he not only says that this is proof of current transgender orthodoxy, but goes on to reference an academic paper in support of this point. 

I’m not opposed to such arguments, but for a moment it’s an entirely different book. Rather than being a playful retelling of myths it’s modern cultural pontification. And it’s possible that this point, out of all the points he could have pontificated on, was worth the digression. But it draws unusual attention to the issue which often has the opposite of (what I presume is) the author’s intended goal. “There is no lack of people telling me how natural it is to be transgender, I was reading a book about classic mythology to get away from the grubbiness of the current culture wars. Instead I’m even more annoyed by such statements!”

I don’t want to exaggerate the issue, mostly the books are quite good. Which takes me to the third difference from Bulfinch’s. Fry frequently takes the opportunity to inject humorous asides. You kind of get the sense that these are the Greek myths as told by Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) though Fry’s humor is not quite so dense. 

In the end these are classic stories, told in a humorous fashion, by a great narrator. I just wish he could have done a slightly better job of keeping his politics out of things. 


If You Absolutely Must…: a brief guide to writing and selling short-form argumentative nonfiction from a somewhat reluctant professional writer

by: Fredrik deBoer

Published: January, 2022

50 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The title pretty much sums it up.

Who should read this book?

If you are genuinely trying to make a living as a blogger, newsletter writer, or even a podcaster then I would definitely read this book.

General Thoughts

Obviously I write argumentative nonfiction, so I was hoping to get a lot of great pointers from this book. There were several, you need a niche/schtick, you need to be honest and fearless, you need to actually write, etc. Mostly stuff I’ve heard before, and it was good to be reminded of these things, but there was also nothing revelatory or earth-shattering. Where the book really excelled was in an area I’m not looking for advice, at least not yet. This was the area of actually, really and truly making a living as a writer, as in it’s your primary source of income. DeBoer gets into the nuts and bolts there, going so far as to include his actual book pitch. But of course making a living as a writer is very difficult, and thus the title, you should do it only “If You Absolutely Must”. 


Expeditionary Force Book 8: Armageddon

by: Craig Alanson

456 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The continued adventures of the merry band of pirates, keeping the Earth safe from the horrors of the galaxy.

Who should read this book?

I guess if you’ve already read the previous seven books you should read this one. But I think if you were on the fence about continuing I might stop at book seven or maybe even earlier. Or at least, if I were you, I would wait until some blogger you trust finishes the series and reports back to you. Because I probably will end up being just such a blogger.

General Thoughts

Increasingly this series is 80% stuff that was interesting the first time, but has been done to death by book 8 and 20% stuff I’m intensely curious and interested in and I can hardly wait to see how it turns out. As an example I was in the middle of the book, and there was a setback, and it was basically the same kind of setback that had happened in nearly all of the previous books, and I honestly just about stopped listening right there. But then just a few minutes later Alanson did some world building (technically galaxy building) and expanded on one of the big mysteries of the book and I was all the way back in, at least for a bit. 

Another element that hasn’t gone quite the way I expected: When you start a series and discover it’s already been mapped out to be 15 books long, you expect that in the course of those books that the characters are going to level up in some fashion, and mostly this hasn’t happened. Though again just as I was about to reach the point of despair here as well, they did substantially level up in this book. So I will continue reading, but I wouldn’t blame anyone else for stopping.


If you were paying attention to page numbers you may have noticed a theme. There were a lot of short books this month. But short books need love just as much as massive classics. And tiny blogs need love just as much as giant newsletters. If this saying I just barely made up for completely selfish reasons resonates at all with you, consider donating.


Eschatologist #15: COVID and Ukraine (The Return of Messiness)

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These days everyone worries about the dangers of technology. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine these worries have become very focused on one specific technology: nuclear weapons. Despite this danger and the other dangers technology has introduced, there are still many people who expect the exact opposite, that technology will be our salvation. I brought this dichotomy up in my very first newsletter. Looking back I might have given the mistaken impression that whichever it ends up being, salvation or destruction, that it will be simple. We will either be permanently saved or permanently destroyed.

This is not just my mistake, most people make this mistake, particularly when it comes to our current worry, nuclear war. They take a horribly complicated event and simplify it down to a single phrase: “The end of the world.” And nuclear war is not the only technological danger where this simplification happens. People often use similar language when talking about climate change.

On the other side of things, the imagined salvation is perhaps not as dramatic or as sudden, but it is imagined as being just as straightforward. Last week I attended a lecture by Steven Pinker, who made the argument that progress is continuing and things will just keep getting better, a subject he has written several books about. In support of this argument he offered numerous graphs showing that trends in everything from violence to wealth have been steadily improving for decades if not centuries. From this he asserted that there is no need to worry, just as we solved all of our past problems we will solve all of our future problems as well.

The belief in humanity’s unstoppable progress and the fear that we will annihilate ourselves in a nuclear war represent the extremes of optimism and pessimism. On the one hand is the claim that science and progress have solved or will solve all of our problems, on the other hand is the claim that if the situation in Ukraine escalates 7.9 billion people will die. Neither of these claims are true, but we have a tendency to think in extremes because they’re easier to understand.

As it turns out, even a war involving all of the nukes will not kill everyone. Recently a Reddit user put together a simulation which predicted that around 550 million people would die from the war, and the ensuing fallout and nuclear winter. That’s about 7% of everyone. Obviously the simulation could be wildly inaccurate, though it does claim to be based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN and CIA, but even if it was off by an order of magnitude that would still only be 70% or 5.5 billion people, leaving 2.4 billion people alive. An inconceivable tragedy, but not the end of the world. Also, these people might wish they were dead, because living after a nuclear war would be exceedingly difficult.

However, historically life has always been exceedingly difficult, not to mention messy. The Native Americans survived the loss of 90% of their total population. During the Black Death, Europeans survived death rates of up to 50%, with some people suggesting it was as high as 60%, very close to the extreme estimate of 70% above. 

Despite this sort of messy middle being the historical default, we don’t like it. We want either the steady and implacable march of progress, or a quick end that absolves us of hard work. Even when we imagine surviving “the end”, we cut out most of the messy stuff, like raising crops, and making tools in favor of more simple apocalyptic stories, where there’s always plenty of canned food and lots of guns and ammo—even when we imagine a gigantic mess, we cut out all the truly difficult bits.

The modern world has made a lot of things easy that used to be incredibly complicated. It has made a lot of things possible that were previously impossible. In the process it has weakened our ability to deal with complicated and messy situations. We want the pandemic to go away if everyone just wears a mask, or if everyone gets vaccinated, or if we just ignore it. We want the invasion of Ukraine to stop if we implement the right level of sanctions, or institute a no fly zone, or, again, if we just ignore it. But the truth is that simplicity and ease are temporary aberrations, messiness has returned and we’d better get used to it.


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Nukes and Stability

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Back when Russia first invaded Ukraine, I made the decision to not write a post about it. First off, everyone was writing about it, and it wasn’t clear that I had anything unique to say. Secondly, while I knew the invasion was going to be bad, I didn’t think it would be apocalyptic. Though I knew that if it started to head in an apocalyptic direction, I would have to write about it. That’s my whole beat. Me not writing about an apocalyptic war would be like The Bark (tagline: “Dog is my co-pilot”) not covering the Westminster Dog Show. 

Fortunately since I made that decision I have come up with an angle on things that I haven’t seen other people cover. Unfortunately the chances of the Ukrainian invasion turning into the start of World War III have also gone up. So I apologize to those of you who came here expecting a post on the drug crisis. I will be getting to that next time.

I- Why an Apocalyptic Outcome Is Becoming Increasingly Likely 

I didn’t spend any time or effort on predicting whether Putin would invade, nor did I spend any on predicting how things would go if he did invade. I certainly wasn’t surprised when it happened—expecting black and gray swans is another thing where my record is pretty clear. But beyond a lack of surprise, my opinions and reactions generally followed the conventional wisdom, which was that Russia was going to have a pretty easy time of it. Having read Kill Chain by Christian Brose, where he describes the superb effectiveness of the Russian “little green men” in the Crimean Annexation, I was, if anything, biased towards a high assessment of Russian competence. As a result, like most people, including Putin himself, I expected a relatively quick victory. That before we had time to debate arming Ukraine, or imposing a no-fly zone, things would be over. 

As horrible as this would be for the Ukrainians. If Putin was going to invade regardless, a quick victory was really the best outcome we could hope for. Low casualties, minimal economic disruption, and most of all only a very small window during which escalations could happen

Instead what we have kind of reminds me of the start of World War I. One of the first things you discover when you start studying WWI is how quick everyone thought it would be. Of course everyone was wrong and the war turned into a brutal slog which ground through 4 years and 20 million lives, 40 million if you add in the wounded. In making this comparison between Ukraine and WWI there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there is almost no way it will last 4 years, the bad news is that’s because someone will use nukes long before it comes to that. 

The longer it takes for Russia to conquer Ukraine, the more likely it will end up being the start of World War III. This is because there will be more opportunities for it to escalate, more opportunities for mistakes to happen, and more opportunity for passions to become inflamed. And of course we’re not just talking about passions on the Russian side of things, passions in the West are being inflamed as well. Increasingly the public is agitating for the establishment of a no-fly zone. Of course the biggest advocates for a no fly zone are the Ukrainians, but the Estonians have also recently called for one as well. Initially all sober-minded people declared a no-fly zone to be a horrible idea, but my central point is that the longer things go, the less sober-minded people become, and we’re already seeing that trend play out as people look for ways to eat their cake and have it. We have gone from everyone recognizing that a no-fly zone is a horrible idea to the idea that we could impose a limited no-fly zone, and this is not just uninformed members of the public, recently 27 experts signing a letter urging just that. These are generals, senior fellows and ambassadors.

In other worrisome news I just saw a poll from Pew Research where 35% of people were in favor of taking military action even if it risks war with Russia. That still leaves 62% who were not in favor (3% did not answer) but if the Russians stay the course and grind their way into a bloody occupation of Kiev, do you think the number of people in favor will go down or up? I’m betting the longer it goes the more bellicose people will become, and damn the consequences.

Obviously this worry about escalation is not unique to me, and of all the takes I’ve read I thought Ross Douthat’s was the best. In particular I like the way he structured things, so I’m just going to steal it:

II- Drawing Clear Lines (Plus NATO Expansion)

Clear commitments — we will fight here, we won’t fight there — are the coin of the nuclear realm, since the goal is to give the enemy the responsibility for escalation, to make it feel its apocalyptic weight, while also feeling that it can always choose another path. Whereas unpredictable escalations and maximalist objectives, often useful in conventional warfare, are the enemy of nuclear peace, insofar as they threaten the enemy with the no-win scenario that Petrov almost found himself in that day in 1983.

These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry, and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.

He covers a lot of territory in these paragraphs. For those who are curious Petrov was the Soviet officer in charge of the early warning system one night in 1983 when it showed 5 inbound American ICBMs. Petrov decided to wait for corroborating evidence rather than sound the alarm. He was a hero and more than that a good man, and a lot of the scenarios people are discussing assume that nearly all men are that good. Which I’m not sure is the case. But we’ll get to that.

Douthat also brings up the difference between conventional war and nuclear peace. While I see WWI in much of what’s happening I think many people have defaulted to using WWII as an analogy. A European bad guy with nationalist ambitions starts his aggressions by claiming that some territory is legitimately part of his country, and he is just uniting a group of people who should never have been separated. The first time this happened we appeased the guy which was a horrible mistake, so we should never do it again. In addition to this lesson of “never appease the bad guy”, WWII taught us that the way to beat bad guys is through uniting the entire world in opposition. And this was a great plan in 1941. The Allies won because Germany could never keep up with the industrial might of the United States. Most people forget the millions and millions of Russians who died as part of this process. But regardless, this was true in 1941. It is not true today. It doesn’t matter how much greater our industrial might is, we can still lose, that doesn’t mean Russia wins, it means we both lose. 

Douthat goes on to make the critical recommendation that we have to stick to “the lines we drew in advance”. He’s not the only one making this point, Scott Alexander also mentions it in his post on Ukraine. He starts with the point I’ve already harped on:

If you only get one thing from this essay, let it be: unless you know something I don’t, establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine might be the worst decision in history. It would be a good way to get everyone in the world killed.

I’ve already written a post on how it won’t kill everyone, but it would be very, very bad. Alexander moves on from this to discussing the lines, the international norms that keep nuclear war from breaking out:

…those arbitrary lines are what save us from global annihilation.

Any sane person wants to avoid nuclear war. But this makes it easy to exploit sane people. If Russia said “Please give us the Aleutian Islands, or we will nuke you”, what should the US do? They can threaten mutually assured destruction, but if Russia says “Yes, we have received your threat, we stick to our demand, give us the Aleutians or the nukes start flying”, then what?

No sane person thinks it’s worth risking nuclear war just to protect something as minor as the Aleutian Islands. But then the US gives Russia the Aleutians, and next year they ask for all of Alaska. And even Alaska isn’t really worth risking nuclear war over, so you give it to them, and then the next year…

So people who don’t want to be exploited occasionally set lines in the sand, where they refuse to make trivial concessions even to prevent global apocalypse. This is good, insofar as it prevents them from being exploited, but bad, insofar as sometimes it causes global apocalypse. So far the solution everyone has settled on are lots of very finicky rules about which lines you’re allowed to draw and which ones you aren’t…

If there was ever a point at which two nuclear powers disagreed about who was in the wrong, one of them could threaten nuclear war to get that wrong redressed, the other could say they had drawn a line in the sand there to prevent being exploited, and then they’d have to either back down (difficult, humiliating) or start a nuclear war (unpleasant, fatal). So there are a lot of diplomats who have put a lot of effort into establishing international norms on which things are wrong and which things aren’t, so that nobody crosses anyone else’s lines by accident.

I think this is the way to understand the whole NATO expansion idea. We’re so focused on our own side, that we imagine it’s us who’s drawing the lines, but Russia can also draw lines. NATO expansion was their line, and they are also worried about a cascade of exploitation. Now what they call exploitation we call self-determination, but if someone has hundreds of ICBMs we should allow them wide latitude with definitions.

And this isn’t some line that’s only being discussed now, as a pretext for invasion. When Alexander talks about diplomats defining these lines we have dozens of US diplomats pointing out that NATO expansion was just such a line. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the issue of NATO expansion, since it’s been discussed a lot elsewhere, but I have noticed that most of the discussion seems very facile, it rarely mentions how nuclear weapons might change the calculus of expansion and it definitely doesn’t mention the lingering national dread Russia has be experiencing from losing 20 million people in WW2. But as I already pointed out, we have a very US-centric view of that war. I was also amazed that Alexander, who’s an incredibly smart guy, didn’t make the connection between his Alaskan example and the way NATO expansion appears to the Russians. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think Putin is a good guy, or that he’s justified in the slightest, or that the Ukrainians aren’t both brave and righteous. No, my whole point is that when you’re dealing with a nuclear power the rules have to be different. And the Ukrainian invasion is proof that we haven’t quite absorbed that lesson, and maybe we won’t until it’s too late. 

One final scenario before moving on. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone mentioned that if Russia used a tactical nuke that we would have to respond militarily. Obviously we should all hope and pray that this does not happen, but if it does, then this person thinks we should initiate World War III? That we should be prepared to trade US cities for Ukrainian ones? This is the central problem. Yes, we should definitely draw lines, but unfortunately we can’t draw a line anywhere we feel like it. There are consequences to where we draw our line, consequences we may shortly experience.

III- Getting Rid of Putin

Second, [these insights] mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.

Speaking of podcasts, it’s not just Graham that is being reckless. Garry Kasparov was on Sam Harris’ podcast vociferously advocating the same thing, that the only solution was regime change, that Putin is a psychopath, and either we win or he does, that he will not stop at Ukraine. 

To begin with, as I have already pointed out, it’s not inevitable that one side will win, what’s more likely is that we both lose. In response, when Harris brought up the point that Douthat, and many others have made, that if we leave Putin no other option—if it’s a choice between his death and using nukes—then he’s going to use nukes. Kasparov makes the point that he’s going to try to use nukes, but that the actual people in charge of those nukes will refuse his order, particularly if we make it clear that we will immediately respond in kind, by taking them out with a retaliatory nuke. He appears to be advocating that we resurrect the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) but in a limited sense. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will remain limited. Also extending MAD to include Ukraine, feels like both a dangerous extension of the doctrine, and a dangerous precedent. 

For all of this, Kasparov may be correct, perhaps if we make it clear that we will immediately retaliate in kind if nukes are used, then if Putin issues an order to use nukes the commanders will disobey that order. But those are a couple of very big ifs. I think I would like to have more certainty when you’re talking about potentially starting World War III. Are you really that sure that no one will follow Putin’s order? You can imagine a scenario like the one I mentioned where a single tactical nuke gets used, and we respond with one of our own nukes. Well at that point the world is a very different place. Is the US still viewed as the good guy or would using a nuke mark the end of US soft power? What does China do? Are they able to take advantage of things to draw more nations into their orbit? I don’t have the space to really delve into the China angle, but obviously they’re the huge wildcard in this conflict.

Even if we avoided responding with nukes of our own and just went all-in on a conventional war, that’s still an enormous escalation, and Russian commanders who initially refused Putin’s order when it was just about Ukraine, might suddenly feel differently when Russian soldiers are being killed by US soldiers.

Even if we’re going to temporarily set aside the question of nukes, we still have to come up with a method of removing Putin from power (or killing him outright). There would appear to be three:

First, we could invade, march all the way to Moscow, or wherever he ends up, and do it in a manner similar to how we removed Sadaam. I can’t even begin to imagine us doing this, certainly I can’t imagine that nukes wouldn’t get used long before we got anywhere close to Putin.

Second, we could assassinate him. I refer you to this opinion piece on Politico (interestingly the same outlet that published the limited no-fly zone letter) for a discussion of why that won’t work and why it has never worked (despite being tried a lot). If nothing else  it would definitely make things very weird with China.

Finally, the option seemingly favored by most people: we can hope that, as Senator Graham said, a Brutus or a Stauffenberg will remove Putin, or perhaps the Russian military could overthrow him in a coup. This is nice to imagine, though as Douthat mentions, dangerous to advocate (particularly if you’re a senator), but how realistic is it? My sense is that overthrowing an autocrat is far more difficult than people imagine. Yes, there have been protests. Yes, the current sanctions will hurt. Yes, there is enormous international pressure. Yes, Putin is hated by lots of Russian citizens. But look at Kim Jong-un and Nicholas Maduro, and before them, Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, and Joseph Stalin. You don’t think all of them dealt with protests, sanctions, international pressure, and the hatred of their own people? 

But let’s say that it does happen, that some Brutus rises up and kills Putin. Well if you know your Roman history you know that Caesar’s assassination was not followed by a peaceful restoration of the Republic, rather it was followed by years and years of war. Perhaps we’ll get lucky, on this count and the assassination or coup will be immediately followed by Alexei Navalny taking power, the oligarchs all getting arrested and the flowering of western-style democracy, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet. 

IV- What Does Stability Look Like over the Long Term?

I’m hoping that the previous sections had bits here and there that you hadn’t encountered before in all of the ink that has been spilled on the Ukrainian situation, but this section is where we finally get to the point of the post. This is the part where I’m arrogant enough to think that I’m covering things from an angle lacking from all of the other articles written about the invasion. To kick things off let’s turn to Douthat’s final point:

Third, [these insights] imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker. The Soviet Union simply had more ground to give up in a conventional war before defeat appeared existential than does Putin’s smaller empire — which may be a reason why current Russian strategy increasingly prioritizes tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional-war retreat.

Everyone, even Douthat, is worried about the situation as it stands now. A weakening Russia being led by a psychopath (if you believe Kasparov). But of course this is an obvious thing to worry about, what’s not so obvious is where things are headed. Should we get past this crisis, what does the future hold? Is Russia likely to be weaker or stronger in 20 years? What about 50 years? Which Russia is less likely to use nukes? Is the leader at that point going to be more psychopathic or less? One hopes less, but there’s plenty of room for them to be even worse. Perhaps you’ve heard of Stalin? And remember we allied with him because he was better than Hitler.

Beyond just the state of Russia there are of course numerous other concerning trends. What direction is US power headed? In 20 years will we be weaker or stronger? What about China? How does culture and ideology play out during that time? What about trends in proliferation? If you’re the leader of a country without nukes, does this war make you more or less likely to try and acquire them? I’m guessing that for a lot of people in positions of power, the number one lesson of the invasion will be that Ukraine should have never relinquished its nukes, and that if they don’t want their country to suffer a similar fate they need to acquire some of their own as soon as possible. 

Lots of people are of the opinion that the invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the Long Peace. Less discussed at the moment is why we had the Long Peace in the first place. One popular theory is that we had peace because nukes made war too awful to contemplate. That more specifically the threat of MAD kept the US and USSR from turning the Cold War hot. An equilibrium prevailed, and while it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was an equilibrium in which nukes were not used. This was a bipolar world with two relatively equal sides. As such the game theory was pretty simple, and for a while at least, stability reigned.  

A different form of stability exists on the other side of things. A stability of complete, or nearly complete destruction. A stability where people don’t worry about whether their enemies are going to use nukes because all of them have already been used, and we no longer have the ability to make more of them. I am not an expert on game theory, so I’m not 100% sure that both of these points of stability qualify as true Schelling points, but I do know that Thomas Schelling was obsessed with trying to find points of stability where nukes would not be used. (Which is why it seems particularly dicey to call the use of all the nukes a Schelling point.) Perhaps it’s better to say that in the graph of nuclear weapon usage we know of two points where the graph is at zero: a bipolar world with sides of relatively equal strength, and a world where war has raged so completely and ferociously that there are no nukes left. And the core question, the one I’ve been building up to this whole time, is are there any others? 

The reason it took me so long to get to my core question is that I wanted to illustrate that whatever sort of Schelling point we occupied, Putin has pushed us out of it. And damn him to Hell for doing so, but unfortunately, as the world transitions to a multipolar one, with nuclear nations of varying strength, it was going to happen eventually. If not when Russia invaded Ukraine, it would have happened when China invaded Taiwan. The question which confronts us is can we find a new Schelling point, a new zero spot on the graph? I see a few options, but one last point before we get to them. Remember that we can’t uninvent nukes. Whatever “point” we come up with has to last basically forever. As you can imagine this is a daunting prospect.

The preferred option would be something along the lines of what Kasparov is hinting at, and before him, what Steven Pinker argued for in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. (See my review here.) That liberal and enlightenment ideology has spread to the point where using nukes is inconceivable. That even if you have a psychopath at the top desperately clinging to power who gives an order to use nukes that the individuals below him won’t follow that order. Of course Kasparov was advocating for some additional inducements in the form of threatening horrible retaliation, so I’m not sure that his view is truly pinker-esque. But in this scenario you can imagine that through a combination of using liberal values as the carrot and massive retaliation as the stick we might have collectively already reached a new Schelling point as a natural result of progress.

As you can imagine I have my doubts about this option. We’d have to be exceptionally good at avoiding escalation (which based on what I said in part I does not appear to be the case). This sort of progress would also have to be exceptionally comprehensive. It would have to include individuals in all nations regardless of the provocation. It has to assume that mentally unstable people, or fanatical terrorists will never have direct access to nukes, that even if nations naturally end up with megalomaniacs as leaders that this megalomania will never infect the people actually in charge of firing nukes. Which is not to say I don’t hope it’s true, merely that it seems unlikely to be so. 

A variation on this option which seems more likely is that we might have grown out of aggressive war. Of all the issues Russia has encountered in their invasion of Ukraine, the issue of Russian troop morale has to be near the top. Russian soldiers do not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of invading another country, and even in a society as repressive as Russia’s it’s difficult for Putin to force them to be effective in the presence of poor morale. All of which is to say that it’s the reaction of the Russian people to the invasion that gives me the most hope. I still think that an assassination or a coup would be difficult to pull off, but I’m heartened by how “low-energy” the invasion has been. 

Of course the problem here is that if a leader can’t rely on a conventional invasion then that may make them more rather than less likely to go directly to nukes as a way of getting what they want. Aggressive conventional war may no longer be “fashionable” but this may only serve to put all of the focus on the ways in which nuclear weapons can be used to underpin aggression. 

Another possibility for achieving a stable point of zero usage is what might be called the historical option, the one liberal and enlightened people have largely rejected. This is the idea of allowing great powers to have spheres of influence, spheres where, by convention, other great powers do not intervene. To the extent that this option might offer a “zero nuke usage spot” on the graph I don’t think it’s a particularly stable one, but it does make the process of drawing lines (previously mentioned by Alexander and Douthat) easier. For example, in the current situation, Ukraine obviously falls in the Russian sphere of influence, Russia is a great power and accordingly we should stay out of things—no sanctions, no supply of missiles, no drones. Of course even when the doctrine of great power spheres prevailed those powers were always messing with each other in subtle ways, and not only that, the spheres were not fixed and immutable. The great powers were constantly trying to expand their spheres at the expense of someone else’s, and not only that, but lesser powers continually aspired to become great powers and great powers spent their existence in fear that the reverse would happen, thus the lack of long term stability.

Still, as chaotic as these situations could become, it worked out better than you might imagine. Take the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the US involvement in Vietnam. The two superpowers were clearly messing with one another as much as they could get away with, but the idea that either might resort to nukes was pretty much off the table. But now that’s all anyone can talk about, because Putin has clearly put it on the table. Obviously a large part of the current dilemma is that other aspect of great power spheres: what happens to them when a great power is in decline? And I understand that for various reasons both good and bad that Ukraine is viewed differently than Afghanistan and Vietnam, but I think we may have cast aside the idea of spheres of influence prematurely. 

My personal prediction for how things will evolve going forward involves a lot more nukes. I don’t necessarily put this forward as a stable spot where nukes are never used, though it could nevertheless be more stable than the current situation. This prediction derives from the opinion I mentioned earlier, the idea that a lot of people in power view the invasion of Ukraine as primarily a lesson about not giving up nukes if you have them and attempting to acquire them if you don’t. This lesson derives not merely from the current invasion, and the fact that Ukraine had nukes and gave them up, but also North Korea’s continued existence, as well as the fate of Muammar Gaddafi after he foreswore his nuclear program. 

I don’t know if it will turn out that two nuclear nations will never end up going to war. I do know that it brought a significant degree of calm to the India-Pakistan conflict. As I said this is my prediction for where things are headed, and I would guess that it’s more stable than what we’re currently experiencing right at this moment, but I very much doubt such an arrangement would end up being perpetually stable. 

The final equilibrium point we could end up in is not particularly stable at all, but neither does it represent the end of the world as people commonly imagine. Nukes, particularly low-yield tactical ones, could just become a common feature of war. Obviously this would be a pretty bad outcome, but it’s also hard to imagine that at some point in the next 50 years that someone somewhere isn’t going to use nukes. At which point we should be praying that it’s a low yield tactical nuke and that it doesn’t cause an immediate escalation to a full on exchange of all the nukes—a true World War III. But even if we should be that lucky, the use of one tactical nuke without the world ending would surely encourage the use of additional nukes. As I said this might lead to a new, temporary point of stability where it’s understood that people are allowed to use low yield tactical nukes because it’s better than using all the ICBMs. But as I’ve said this is not a great outcome, it is however one of the many depressing possibilities.

V- Final Recommendations and Observations

In the midst of all the coverage of the invasion, you may have come across the famous quote from Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It’s a depressing statement, but it’s also a true one. A large part of everyone’s faith in progress has been tied up in the idea that as part of that progress strength was increasing connected to goodness. That yes, the strong are able to do whatever they want, but what they want happens to be good for people and the world. In a sense this was Francis Fukuyama’s central claim when he declared the End of History. Not that history had stopped, but that liberal democracy, a government which encourages good outcomes, also happened to be the strongest form of government as well. Of course the current climate is raising questions about both sides of that statement, and their long-term truth remains to be seen. 

Whether Fukuyama was correct or not, the central theme of this very long post is that nukes undermine traditional ways of testing national strength—they mess with the traditional conduct of war. While it appears true that liberal democracies are better at fighting conventional wars, as we saw in World War II, they don’t appear to have any particular advantage when it comes to acquiring nukes, as the example of North Korea makes clear, since they are essentially the exact opposite of a liberal democracy. Of course, once a country has nukes any war it might engage in has the potential to go from a conventional war to a nuclear war. And there doesn’t appear to be any great options for dealing with this eventuality. 

Just because there aren’t any great options doesn’t mean that there are no options. The obvious thing to hope for is that Pinker and Kasparov are right. While nations will still have nukes there will be no one who will actually follow the order to use them. That this is one of the dividends of progress. If that’s the case I think we should be careful about spending down the principal of progress. This sort of forbearance only comes into play if liberal democracies still have a credible claim of being the good guys. And while I think some of the anti-western sentiment that’s come up recently—the “whataboutism” that excuses Russia’s crimes by pointing out our many crimes—is overblown, it does exist, and there are a lot of people who support Putin because he stands up against “The West”. And we need to be careful not to come across as a monolithic, self-righteous, and uncaring force. That is any more than we already do, which is to say we should actually be trying to dial down our monolithic self-righteousness even now. This project is made more difficult by the fact that we live in the era of the informational echo chamber. Where people who hate the West are likely to encounter other people who hate the West, and it’s possible this hatred has already metastasized.  

I also think that we need to be particularly careful when we’re going through a transitional period. Which we certainly are, both with respect to Russia and China. I understand that the general admonition to “be careful” is not particularly actionable. But I do think that if we look back to the way we treated Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union that we didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory. And the assumption that by bringing China into the global market that they would automatically turn liberal, also appears to be horribly mistaken, and instead it just created a peer competitor.

Of course the whole theme of my blog is that transitions are happening with ever greater frequency. We’re not just going through a transition where Russia is weakening and China is strengthening, we’re also dealing with multiple overlapping transitions related to technology. For example the invasion of Ukraine would be very different if social media did not exist. On top of that cyberwarfare is obviously happening, and apparently drones are wreaking havoc as well.

It also seems to me that attitudes are weird. There’s a certain bifurcation. On the one hand I see people, particularly when the war first started, claiming that Putin was going kill millions of people. And to be fair he still might, but so far, particularly when you’re talking about wars happening in Eastern Europe, casualties have been surprisingly low. But in any case you have people who, when they think about war, imagine it at its most terrible. Millions dead, Putin marching across Europe spreading famine and disease. And then on the other hand you have people who seem excited by the idea of war, who want to go over to Ukraine and fight. Who love the idea of the scrappy underdog Ukrainians. 

In both cases I think we have gone too long without war. It seems both a solution to civilizational malaise and also potentially the worst thing that could possibly happen. The first case is somewhat borne out by perhaps the biggest surprise of the war: the firmness and determination of Western Europe! Many people predicted that Germany would tacitly go along with the invasion because Russia supplies more than half their fossil fuel. No one predicted they would double their defense budget. Clearly the international unity in support of Ukraine is something to celebrate, It would just be nice if it didn’t take a war to get us there. Though a couple of years ago I predicted this very phenomenon.

The invasion of Ukraine is changing a lot of things. A lot more will change before it’s all over, let us hope that we can keep those changes from being apocalyptic. And then keep doing it for the next hundred years, and unless something dramatic changes, additional hundreds of years beyond that.


First off am I the only one who is having a hard time breaking the habit of saying “The Ukraine”? Second, this post ended up being and taking a lot longer than I thought, and as I am leaving tomorrow for GaryCon to pour one out for the father of RPGs, I don’t think there’s going to be a second essay this month. My apologies. If you appreciated the post despite this revelation of the frivolousness of its author and his subsequent dereliction of duty, consider donating.


The 13 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
  2. Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by: Helen Joyce
  3. The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup by: Evan Hughes
  4. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by: Adam M. Grant
  5. The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible by: Various
  6. Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by: Robert K. Massie
  7. Greenlights by: Matthew McConaughey 
  8. The Midnight Library by: Matt Haig
  9. Trouble on Paradise: Expeditionary Force, Book 3.5 by: Craig Alanson
  10. Black Ops: Expeditionary Force, Book 4 by: Craig Alanson
  11. Zero Hour: Expeditionary Force, Book 5 by: Craig Alanson
  12. Mavericks: Expeditionary Force, Book 6 by: Craig Alanson
  13. Renegades: Expeditionary Force, Book 7 by: Craig Alanson

As you can see I read even more books in February than I did in January. I took a trip to Alaska, where I mostly did stuff like driving, walking and snowshoeing and those all combine well with audiobook listening. So I did a lot of it.

If you’re interested in more pictures you can email me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth 

By: Jonathan Rauch

280 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

How both right and left have abandoned the reality-based community, with its constitution of knowledge, and how returning to, and strengthening that community is the solution to all our problems.

Who should read this book?

If you think the vast epistemological crisis we’re suffering is purely a feature of the right or the left, then it might be worth reading this book, though even in that case you should probably just skip to the chapters in question. (Chapter 6 is about the sins of the right and Chapter 7 is about the sins of the left.) Beyond that the book is a rehash of classical liberal arguments that have been made better elsewhere.

General Thoughts

In some of the press for his novel Termination Shock (see my review here), Neal Stephenson recommended this book, along with five others. I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and I’d heard good things about it from other sources as well, so I was surprised to find it to be unimpressive. Though perhaps calling it unimpressive is both too harsh and too kind. The amount of work that obviously went into it was definitely impressive. Rauch’s obvious passion was also impressive. Accordingly, calling it unimpressive is being too harsh. But on the other hand, to merely say that it’s unimpressive is to be far too kind to the book—to overlook its central and glaring flaw. To cut to the chase: the book is hopelessly naive. 

Despite “constitution of knowledge” being the book’s title, the book’s premise actually hinges on the idea that there is a “reality-based community” (RBC) that follows and maintains that constitution. It would be one thing if Rauch was claiming a constitution of knowledge is something we need, but have never had. Under those circumstances we might usefully aspire to acquire one, and furthermore optimistically assume that it will fix the problems he describes. But if we already have such a constitution and a group that reveres it, then our task becomes determining whether it ever fixed the problem, and if so what caused it to stop. Under the first scenario it’s permissible to imagine that the constitution will fix the problem, under the second scenario we know that it didn’t, and our whole task is to determine why.

This is where Rauch’s naiveté comes into play. We know the RBC failed, so arguing that we just need to strengthen it without understanding why it failed is just to double down on that failure. 

To be clear he spends a lot of time on what has happened, but it’s always happening outside of the RBC. I would almost say that this creates a book length version of the no true Scotsman fallacy but Rauch doesn’t even make it that far, because that would require him to concretely define the RBC and then to offer explanations for times when it failed. Instead Rauch’s RBC is an amorphous designation, something described in anecdotes, but also somehow concrete enough to provide the answers to all of our questions, and if this were not enough, the RBC is so flawless that it is the originator of none of our problems.

To the extent that Rauch does define the RBC it probably includes scientists and journalists. But already you can see where we have the beginnings of no true Scotsman, because he’s pretty selective in the scientists he profiles, and as you might imagine huge swaths of right-wing media have been excluded from being designated as journalists. But if scientists and journalists are part of the RBC, upon which Rauch pins all his hopes, then one would think it would be very important to examine instances where they failed. When discussing science it’s remarkable that he never mentions the replication crisis. And the journalistic profession, no matter how narrowly you want to define it, contains even more examples of times the constitution of knowledge was violated. One presumes that Rauch includes the NYT in his RBC designation, and yet he makes no mention of the egregious twisting of the historical record perpetrated by the 1619 Project, nor the changes made to its assertions without an accompanying formal retraction, a violation of one of the ironclad rules of the constitution of knowledge.

Rauch does mention the NYT, but only to illustrate the problems of left-wing cancel culture. For his example he uses the Tom Cotton editorial, where the younger members of the editorial staff freaked out because they disagreed with Tom Cotton’s viewpoint, but rather than rebutting it they tried to cancel it. 

To cut to the chase (and recall I still have 12 more books to review) Rauch’s criticism of the right is comprehensive and deep, while his criticism of the left is narrow and perfunctory. One gets the impression that to the extent the RBC can be identified, Rauch believes it resides with the left. And that if young people could just be weaned off their desire to cancel opinions they disagree with and learn to engage with them, the left could re-assume the role of the RBC and everything would turn out okay.

Even if I agreed with this narrow diagnosis I still think Rauch would be understating the difficulties involved in recovery. He points out that the underlying reason for canceling instead of engaging is the phenomenon of safetyism. In making this point he draws a lot on Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s Coddling of the American Mind (see my discussion of that here). I think there are other things that contributed to the creation of cancel culture, but even if safetyism was the only disease the left was grappling with, it still represents a huge and deeply embedded behavioral trend that goes back decades and has penetrated nearly everything. 

But of course I don’t agree with Rauch’s narrow diagnosis, I think the problems created by the left are just as consequential as the problems which originated on the right. Rauch makes much of the importance institutions play in maintaining the constitution of knowledge, and of all those institutions none is more critical than the university. There’s also no institution which is more heavily tilted to the left, and if we snapped our fingers and got rid of safetyism, the university would still be left with an enormous array of problems.

Eschatological Implications

What are these problems of which I speak? There are many, and one of the many purposes of my blog is to document them in all their variety, but for the moment let’s just focus on one:

The acquisition of truth and knowledge, regardless of how well designed your “constitution”, is neither as easy nor as certain as it once was. I know I say this a lot, but we have picked the low-hanging fruit.

Rauch mentions Newton and positions him as one of the very first members of the RBC, as he should. And while I would not say that Newton’s discovery was easy, it is very easy to replicate and beyond that ironclad in it’s predictions. Since his time science has only gotten more difficult and less ironclad, to the point where these days most findings can’t be replicated and even if they can, they mostly just suggest probabilities rather than laying down the law in the fashion of Newton. All of this means that those parts of “reality” people are inclined to fight about are hard to pin down. Science is unable to swoop in and grant either side a decisive victory, and so the war continues.

This is why the book is, at its core, hopelessly naive. Science is not powerful enough to provide a reality on which to base a community, and that is particularly the case when it comes to the issues that divide us. 

Of course everyone wants science to be able to decide such issues, and at the risk of overgeneralizing, the two sides have come at it from opposite directions. The left has adopted the tactic of weaponizing scientific authority, and in response the right has weaponized doubt. Rauch is definitely lined up on the left side of things and his book is replete with appeals to scientific authority rather than appeals to actual science. The difference can be subtle. But if you assert that the authority of institutions which conduct science is the same as science, as Rauch does, that only works if they have no other motivations, and no ideological biases, but these days everyone has both of those. 

Finally, a couple of very short points, points that I was going to expand on but ran out of space.

First, for all the problems I have with the rationalist community, and there are definitely more than a few, I think they are as close to an RBC as you’re likely to find these days. And of course the most common criticism I hear about this community is that it leans right. 

Second, I think Rauch’s definition of “reality” is fatally hampered by ignoring the is-ought problem. Science is at its most powerful when it’s telling us what is, it has no actual ability to tell us what ought to be. To the extent people try to use it in that fashion, bias enters into science. As an example of this bias, Rauch’s view of science-based reality ends up being a decidedly progressive one, even if he takes aim at some of its worst excesses.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if there’s any connection between the progressive “ought” bias and the many excesses Rauch takes aim at. Speaking of which: 


Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality

by: Helen Joyce

331 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

A comprehensive overview of the history of the transgender movement culminating with a discussion of it’s many manifestations in the present day, and their attendant overreach. 

Who should read this book?

Helen Joyce is one of the editors of The Economist. If you already think that magazine is horribly transphobic, then you’re probably not going to like this book, though it is also a book length defense of that position if you’re looking to steelman it. On the other hand, if you feel that The Economist is a moderate voice of reason when it comes to this controversy, then you’ll really appreciate this book, even as it horrifies you. 

General Thoughts

Let’s start with two personal observations:

One, I’ve never been much of a feminist. (I know you’re all very surprised.) I think that, particularly once you account for differences in interest, second wave feminism largely succeeded, and after that things get complicated. To the extent my feminism has a peak it was reached while reading this book. Joyce makes the claim that there are a lot of people who have been victimized by transgender ideology, the vast majority of these people are women. Reading their stories I have never felt more deeply the need for feminism, particular feminism centered on the needs of natal females.

Two, I am more and more convinced that, should we survive the next 50 years, that people will put transgenderism in the same category as eugenics. Something which seemed sensible, but actually caused enormous and numerous harms to some of the very most vulnerable people, all in the name of what, at the time, was considered the height of progressivism. I don’t expect to live 50 more years, but I’m confident enough in things that I’m willing to make this same bet with a 30 year time horizon.

As I’ve already repeatedly pointed out, I have a lot of books to cover this month, and I imagine that anyone reading this has already made up their mind one way or the other on the transgender issue, so I won’t spend much time in the weeds. Further complicating the discussion, much of the data is anecdotal, which is easy to be horrified by if that’s your inclination and alternatively easy to dismiss if you’re of the opposite inclination.

As an interesting side note, part of the reason why there isn’t better data (and this firmly relates to the previous book review) is that many institutions don’t track transwomen separately from women and transmen separately from men, hewing to the supposedly “reality” that there’s no reason to, they’re the same. 

In an attempt to tie all of these things together let’s talk briefly about Canadian prisons. Joyce points out that getting data from the relevant Canadian authorities on the number of transwomen housed in female prisons has proven to be exceptionally difficult. But it has happened that men who have done nothing to transition other than identifying as female have been transferred to women’s prisons. One of the best people working this beat is a female former inmate named Heather Mason. If you’re interested in what she has to say here’s one of her tweets:

We have Self-ID in Canada they started transferring males when I was still in. There have been sexual assaults, physical assaults, pregnancies, abortions, and HIV passed on. One of the males beat up the woman he impregnated and she miscarried his baby. Incarcerated women are silenced

And if you’re really interested in what she has to say my friend Stuart Parker interviewed her on his podcast. The anecdotes are horrifying, the question is how widespread is the problem. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

How you feel about the long term implications of this issue will depend on how you feel about the aforementioned anecdotes. The anecdotes are extensively sourced, so you can’t ignore them, but it’s certainly possible to argue that they are just inevitable speed bumps on the way to our glorious, completely authentic future. Alternatively you might argue that, yes, transgender identification and wokeism more generally has gone to far, but that it’s about to (or has already) peaked, so yes the pendulum has swung too far, but it’s about to swing back.

If you take either of those positions then you might be comfortable minimizing the anecdotes or at least delaying doing anything expansive or hasty based on them. But there are of course some who believe that these situations are not temporary, that they’re not going away, that in fact what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. 

I think as with so many things that we should hope that people are starting to realize things have gone too far, but act as if they’re not and it’s a crisis. Though with transgender issues there’s another problem: “people”, as in the majority, mostly aren’t aware of the excesses of gender self-id. As Joyce points out, transgender activists have mostly succeeded by flying under the radar. To the extent that gender self-id is the norm, it has mostly been accomplished through the courts, not national referendums. As a consequence, most voters have no idea that murderers and rapists are being transferred to women’s prisons based merely on self-id. Nor do they really understand what self-id entails, that merely declaring yourself to be a different gender makes it so, without any other efforts to transition.

To sum up here’s what I’m worried about:

  1. To reference the previous book: the surreality and Orwellian tactics of gender self-id is doing lasting and potentially irreversible harm to the RBC.
  2. Gender self-id is easy to abuse, and instances of it being abused are going to become more frequent.
  3. Transgender advocacy has not peaked and it will get worse before it gets better.
  4. Even if we do get rid of the craziness around the edges, it will still be mainstream to prescribe puberty blockers and practice unquestioned affirmation, which has a nearly a zero percent success rate, as opposed to waiting things out which has a 90% success rate. Success with what? Making people happy in the body they were born with.

It’s amazing how radical that last suggestion has become. The idea that the best option is not taking drugs or undergoing major, frequently sterilizing surgery.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup

by: Evan Hughes

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of Insys Therapeutics and in particular their drug Subsys, an under the tongue fentanyl spray, which was approved in 2012, when we were already well into the opioid crisis. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the opioid crisis this is a fascinating footnote. And the way Insys marketed Subsys is appalling, but if you’re familiar with the way Purdue marketed Oxycontin then you’ve already heard that story. 

General Thoughts

This was another book I read in preparation for my eventual post (maybe my next one?) on the drug crisis. I don’t think it added much to my understanding of the subject, which is why I would only weakly recommend it. 

What’s most interesting is how Insys was basically able to re-run the same playbook as Purdue after Purdue had already gotten in trouble for it. Recall that Purdue’s first settlement was in 2007, but despite that Insys was still able to come along and do basically the same thing in 2012. Now to be fair it was on a much smaller scale, and Insys was more brazen than Purdue, but on the other side of the equation you have to consider that we’re talking about fentanyl. If that drug doesn’t make people pay close attention I don’t know what would.

Of course people did eventually pay attention, but it took five years, and probably would have taken longer if Insys had been just a little bit more careful. And in those five years the owner of Insys, John Kapoor became a billionaire, and I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people died. One could say that the government eventually fixed things, but given that this all took place well into the crisis, why did it take so long? And perhaps the better question is why did they approve the drug in the first place?

If the government can’t be trusted to keep an eye on something with such a clear potential for abuse, perhaps we can turn to the market? Here again we’re going to be disappointed. In the two and a half years after the release of Subsys, Insys’s stock price increased by 1500% (which is how Kapoor became a billionaire). And it was still beating the performance of the S&P 500 even a couple of years after people started getting arrested.

If you can’t trust the government to manage this sort of thing, and you can’t trust the market, all that’s left is the individual and the community. Consider that a preview of my upcoming post.


Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

by: Adam M. Grant

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Questioning assumptions, deep thinking, examining the evidence, all the stuff recommended by the “constitution of knowledge”.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read Scout Mindset you probably don’t need to read this book as they cover very similar territory. But otherwise anyone interested in leveling up their critical thinking would probably benefit from this book.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case it feels like the books I read in a given month end up being connected. This one is definitely closely related to The Constitution of Knowledge and I might even argue that it gives a better description of what that constitution entails, particularly for the individual, than Rauch’s book. But as a consequence it also fails in similar ways. Though because Think Again is less ambitious its failures are both more subtle and more forgivable. 

The problem with both books is they promise if you dig deep enough that you will eventually strike bedrock, and unfortunately that’s just not the case. There is no bottom to the complexity of the modern world. It’s turtles all the way down. This is not to say that I think critical thinking is pointless. It’s tremendously important and Think Again is a great introduction to it. The problem comes when people assume/assert that critical thinking will solve our problems. That if we trained everyone to think critically that we would all end up on the same page and our disagreements would go away. That’s not what has happened, and despite the efforts of books like this it’s not what will happen. Critical thinking is not a method for achieving societal harmony. 


The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible

by: Various

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of stories originally told as part of The Moth Radio Hour, an NPR program featuring amazing stories.

Who should read this book?

If you’re already a fan of The Moth radio program you might like this handy “best off” collection. Otherwise if you like stories these are pretty good, though not as exceptional as I would have expected.

General Thoughts

I expected a truly extraordinary collection of stories, and in the end they were just good, with a couple that qualified as great. I think part of it is that (like many people) I’m weary of content where the primary point is to impart some lesson about social justice, and not to just be a good story. I didn’t keep track, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that 80% of the stories in the book had a very clear social justice message. Which is not to say the stories weren’t good, they were, it just made things repetitive, and ever so slightly preachy.


Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

by: Robert K. Massie

672 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The reign of Tsar Nicholas, in which he was strongly influenced by his wife Alexandra who in turn was strongly influenced by Rasputin. With particular emphasis on World War I and their tragic end.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves great history, particularly if you’re interested in the history of Russia.

General Thoughts

Massie is probably my favorite historian, and this is probably his masterpiece. I can’t possibly do a 672 page book justice in my short review, so I’ll just quickly list off a few things that stood out to me:

  • However bad you think Rasputin was, the truth is he was far worse.
  • Nicholas and Alexandra despite making nearly all the mistakes you could make as a leader were nevertheless good people who were basically doing their best.
  • This whole period is one of the most fertile for asking “What if?” What if Alexei hadn’t been a hemophiliac? What if Rasputin had never existed? What if World War I hadn’t happened or had happened two years later?
  • It was fascinating to hear about the immense difficulties they had in keeping Alexei from injuring himself by being rambunctious. You get the feeling that if anything he was less rambunctious than a normal boy of his age. But these days I can’t imagine there being any problem. Of all the things which have suffered over the last few decades I think the rambunctiousness of boys has to be very high on the list.

Greenlights 

by: Matthew McConaughey

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is both McConaughey’s memoir but also his book of life advice.

Who should read this book?

If you are a particular fan of McConaughey you will probably really enjoy this book. And in particular I would recommend listening to it as he also does the narration.

General Thoughts

I like McConaughey, and I liked the book. That said it wasn’t revelatory or anything like that. Also I think I had already heard the book’s best stories during his appearance on the Graham Norton show.

Also like so many memoirs written by successful people this book vastly understates the role of luck. McConaughey was lucky to be born fantastically good looking. And lucky to just happen to be around and looking for work when Dazed and Confused was being filmed. 

But as has often been said McConaughey is alright, and if you go in looking for some of that alright-ness you’ll find it. But it doesn’t break any new ground as either a memoir or as a self-help book.


The Midnight Library 

by: Matt Haig

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

After attempting suicide Nora Seed finds herself in a library where she can try out every possible life she might have lived, and choose the one that will actually make her happy.

Who should read this book?

Dolly Parton called this a “charming book”. If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for you’ll probably enjoy this book, and it’s short.

General Thoughts

One downside of reading books fast which I didn’t mention in my defense of the practice is that if a book is short enough there’s very little resistance to adding it to your library. So for a while there if I heard of a book that seemed interesting and it was less than 10 hours I would almost reflexively grab it. This book was from that period. Which is not to say it was a bad book, I quite enjoyed it, but it wasn’t so light as to be diversionary, and the areas in which it was serious were not areas in which I needed additional seriousness.

Beyond that a few rapid fire thoughts:

  • It reminded me of Short Stay in Hell which I read almost exactly a year ago, though where Stay was about as pessimistic as it’s possible to imagine, Library was pretty optimistic.
  • It’s always interesting for me that when people want to signal contentment and happiness it almost always involves being married and having children. I’m not sure if that’s because, on some deep level it’s true or if it’s just something that’s easy for people to grasp.
  • Minor spoiler: It kind of ends up in the same place as It’s a Wonderful Life. And to the extent that people criticize it, it’s for this, or more generally not being creative, but I find it hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.

I guess I also wonder how some 300 page books are 8 hours while some 300 page books are nearly 18 hours. Speaking of which:


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 3.5: Trouble on Paradise

98 Pages

Book 4: Black Ops

276 Pages

Book 5: Zero Hour

299 Pages

Book 6: Mavericks

289 Pages

Book 7: Renegades

314 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?

As I mentioned last month this is a quick diverting series that goes down super easy. If you’re looking for a fun diversion and you enjoyed previous books in the series it’s probably worth it to continue.

General Thoughts

One of the reasons why this series is so easy and quick to read is that the number of characters is very limited. However, by the time you get to book seven that strength can become a weakness, as the characters start to become caricatures. This happens with all long running sitcoms and maybe that’s the best way to describe this series, a military sci-fi sitcom. Another weakness of sitcoms is repetitive plots, which is also a weakness of these books. And I will admit that by book seven I was starting to get annoyed. I have various reasons for believing that he might turn a corner in book eight, so I’m going to keep reading. Also I continue to enjoy his world building and the mysteries he’s introduced and seeing how those mysteries resolve would be almost enough on it’s own to keep me reading, though probably not at quite the blistering pace I’ve maintained thus far. 


For all the criticisms I have of a reality based community, I hope that you consider me part of it. Even if or especially if my version of reality is uniquely eccentric. If it is, as they say, just crazy enough to work then consider donating. Craziness isn’t as cheap as it’s made out to be.


Eschatologist #14: The Fragility of Peace

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This newsletter is an exploration of how big things end, and just four days ago something very big came to an end. Depending on who you listen to, it was the end of “peace on the European continent for a long time to come”, or the end of the post cold-war era, and the reintroduction of force into foreign affairs, or the end of all hope that humans are capable of change. And it’s possible that the invasion of Ukraine may be the end of all three of those things. Only time will tell what this event ended, and what it began, but in my opinion people’s chief reaction has been an overreaction, and these quotes are great examples of that.

This is one of the reasons why I spent the last few newsletters talking about randomness, black swans, fragility and its opposite: antifragility. If you put it all together it’s a toolkit for knowing when things might break and then dealing with that breakage. This is not to say that it enabled me to know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine in February of 2022, but it does put one on the lookout for things that are fragile. And it’s been apparent for a while that the “Long Peace” was very fragile. I wish it wasn’t, but that and a dollar will get you a taco. 

Certainly, now that it’s broken, it’s easy to say that peace was fragile, that it would inevitably break and we shouldn’t lose our heads about it. But how do we identify fragile things before they break? And in particular how do we make them less fragile, even antifragile? In simple terms things that are fragile get weaker when subjected to shocks, with antifragility it’s the opposite, they get stronger, up to a point. A teacup is fragile: the more you jostle it, the more use it gets, the more likely it is to end up in pieces on the floor. The immune system is antifragile: when you expose it to a pathogen (or a vaccine) it gets stronger. 

So how does all of this help us deal with the invasion of Ukraine? That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is either simple or straightforward. But, as evidenced by the initial quotes, I think that we’ve had peace between the great powers for so long that we become unhinged at the idea of war. We’ll do anything to prevent it. Unfortunately prevention can turn out to be just postponement.

I’ve written a couple of essays where I used the analogy of fighting forest fires. The forest needs periodic fires to clean out the deadwood, but when you fight every fire the deadwood accumulates and eventually you end up with a fire that has so much fuel that it ends up wiping out the entire forest. You take an antifragile system and turn it into a fragile one. 

Obviously coming up with a clever metaphor for the situation doesn’t get us very far. But it does illustrate what I’m most worried about, that we’ve become so unused to fires (which used to happen all the time) that when the first one comes around we’re going to mishandle it and turn it into an inferno.

I see lots of people saying that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine, that this is the beginning of WW III. First off, it’s only been four days. Acting too hastily almost certainly has far more downside than upside, because if we’re not careful then, yes, this could be the beginning of WW III. Immediately losing our heads and declaring it to be so on day one could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is because of another topic I talk about a lot, and part of why it’s difficult to draw on what happened in the past: the modern world has changed all the rules. War is now very different. Hanging over any decision to intervene, in the background of every war room, haunting every discussion of force, is a fear of nuclear war. And Putin has already upped the ante, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert.

I hope the Ukrainians humiliate the Russians, and it’s nice to see that the war is already not going as smoothly as they expected. But in the end if this escalates into a full on nuclear war, it’s not going to matter who started it, or whose cause was just, because the inferno doesn’t care.


If peace is fragile, is war antifragile? That’s a scary assertion, though one I have toyed with in the past. Perhaps historically it was, but we’re at the end of history, and no one knows how it’s going to turn out. If that scares you as much as it scares me consider donating.