Books I Finished in March

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The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success By: Ross Douthat

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes By: Donald D. Hoffman

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World By: Laura Spinney

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy By: Francis Fukuyama

Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers By: Sophocles


It would be difficult to write about anything other than the coronavirus in a space dedicated to the events of the last month. Though this month we also had an earthquake, which I can assure you, as an eschatologist, is a bad omen. Though not one I would put much weight on. Mostly it was alarming right as it was happening, knowing nothing but that it was an earthquake (my first) and having no idea if it was a small one and I was on top of it, or a giant one far away. (Would I feel a 9 on the Richter Scale in Salt Lake if it happened in Portland?) In any event it’s been an interesting month, and things are likely to continue to be interesting for quite some time.

Returning to the coronavirus, what little I have in the way of unique advice I dispensed in my last post, and now all that remains are just a lot of questions:

  • What is the actual number of cases? How many undiagnosed cases are there?
  • What is the actual fatality rate? And why are rates so different between countries
  • The argument around the fatality rate mostly revolves around the argument over the number of undiagnosed cases, but what if there are undiagnosed deaths? Are there also people who died from it, but aren’t being counted in the official statistics?
  • Most of these questions derive from extreme conditions experienced by Italy. Why have they been hit so hard?
  • China claims they’re on top of things, and that for the last couple of weeks they’ve had almost no new cases can we trust their numbers?
  • Will this whole business dramatically worsen US/China relations? (Which weren’t great before this happened.)
  • Is it possible different populations will have significantly different fatality rates?*
  • What are the chances it mutates into something worse?*
  • Will there be multiple waves?*
  • If there are multiple waves will they happen over the course of a year or two or will social distancing spread them out? In other words how long are we going to be fighting this?
  • When will things return to “normal”?
  • Will things ever return to “normal”?

Finally and most pressingly…

  • Is my current reserve of 50 rolls of toilet paper going to be enough?

*These questions are based on one of the books I read this month, Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney, an examination of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and I’ll cover them in more depth when I get to my review.


I- Eschatological Review

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

I vacillated for quite a while between reviewing this with all the other books and giving it it’s own post. But in the end I decided I didn’t want book review posts overwhelming everything else, and thus I decided to stick it here. 

To start, any discussion of this book has to begin with Douthat’s definition of decadence:

In our culture, the word decadence is used promiscuously but rarely precisely—which, of course, is part of its cachet and charm. The dictionary associates it with “having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc.” which seems far too nonspecific—Ebenezer Scrooge was immoral and money loving, but nobody would call him decadent—and with cultures “marked by decay or decline,” which gets us a little closer, but also leaves a great deal undefined.

At the risk of being presumptuous, let me try to refine [the] definition a bit further. Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development. The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.

As it turns out, though Douthat is more focused on a discussion of our immediate problems and I tend to focus my discussion farther out, His definition of decadence is precisely the theme of this blog. Which, for those of you who might have forgotten it, is:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

It is precisely this sense, that civilization reached its pinnacle recently but that now we’ve drifted into stagnation that characterizes both my theme and Douthat’s discussion of decadence. In many respects, this is the book I wish I had written. 

Along with stagnation Douthat identifies three other elements of society, which, combined with stagnation comprise the Four Horsemen of Decadence. Together they are stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition.

Stagnation might best be characterized by this quote from economist Robert Gordan, included in the book:

A thought experiment… You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A, you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

The experiment is very illuminating because no one chooses option B. And you begin to realize how great stagnation has been when you start to imagine how far back would the technological cut off have to be before you would choose option B? What if we went back all the way to 1992? Or 1982? At what point would the amount of technology overwhelm just the single innovation of running water? 

You can also run the experiment in the opposite direction. That quote was from 2012, but here we are 8 years later, and I don’t imagine anyone’s choice switched from A to B in that time. How far into the future would we have to be, and what inventions would have to come along before the majority of people preferred option B?

Sterility is merely the actual, literal sterility of the modern world. We’re not having kids; families are shrinking; and populations are dwindling. Here Douthat’s argument is less about whether it’s happening than whether it’s a bad thing. (Spoiler: It is.) 

Sclerosis basically means resistance to change and Douthat primarily uses the term to cover modern, political dysfunction. And once again it’s not so much whether it’s happening, but why it’s happening. Why, as Douthat says:

[T]he same Washington that once won global wars and built the atom bomb and sent human beings moonward now can’t pass a normal budget; why a political system that used to produce reasonably durable governing coalitions now has wave elections constantly washing parties in and out of power. 

Repetition is the final quality and maybe the one most likely to be noticed by the average citizen, especially as they look around the media landscape. We have largely stopped creating new, innovative art. 

The easiest way, in Douthat’s opinion, to see this in action is to compare our era to one 20 years earlier. In the past such an exercise would have yielded dramatic architectural changes — compare the Empire State Building (30s) to Grand Central Station (10s) — or dramatic changes in the style of movies — compare A Clockwork Orange (70s) to On the Waterfront (50s) to It Happened One Night (30s) — or the changing styles of music — Nirvana (1992), Neil Young (1972), Patti Page (1952), Duke Ellington (1932). But what are the differences between music in 2012 (or even now) and music in 1992? Not many. It’s all a repetition and a form of stagnation, culturally our own day is virtually indistinguishable from the 90s and 2000s, and so on.

In laying this out I intend more to relay Douthat’s arguments than re-make them. If you feel inclined to disagree with any of the above, I would urge you to just read the book. I think he paints a very compelling picture of a nation and even a civilization which has essentially stalled out. But, before I move onto the next section, this idea of decadence brings an interesting ramification to the old debate between progressives and conservatives, one that Douthat himself seems unaware of.

Much of the debate between conservatives and progressive boils down to conservatives urging a respect of tradition and historical precedents, followed by the progressives saying, “Oh, you mean respect for things like slavery?” And that’s the end of that. But if progress has stalled, if civilization reached its peak several decades ago and has been stagnant ever since. Then it’s possible a conservative argument could be made that seeks not a return to the antebellum south, or a period before the institution of women’s suffrage, but just a return to a point before civilization stagnated. And indeed I think for many conservative pundits, Douthat included, this is precisely what they’re advocating.

To imagine the argument more generally. The same reasoning which says that conservatives are and have always been wrong. (Not my reasoning, but it is the reasoning of many.) Is valid only for so long as civilization is on an upward trajectory, but if things have changed recently such that civilization is stagnating or declining, then suddenly the same reasoning being used to conclude that they were wrong for so very long suddenly now makes them right. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Most eschatologies are imagined to be both sudden and apocalyptic, qualities which are lacking from the eschatology of decadence and stagnation. Though it’s not clear that this lack should make us take it less seriously. An argument might be made that, in fact, it should be precisely the reverse. Spectacular end of the world scenarios must attract at least some attention from their “cinematic” quality , irrespective of their likelihood. The best example of this must certainly be all the attention paid to the genre of the zombie apocalypse, but which, despite the attention, must be among the least likely of all catastrophes to actually happen. Or to state it all more simply, when it comes to end of the world scenarios, the attention it receives and the probability of it happening are not correlated.

While not the only form a stagnant apocalypse could take, one that’s very likely is the idea of a catabolic collapse, an idea I stole from John Michael Greer, and which I’ve discussed before, though it’s been awhile. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As a vast oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, while in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use as energy. Applied to civilization, when it’s in an anabolic state we’re adding programs, building infrastructure and going to the moon. In a catabolic state we’re cutting spending on less critical programs and using the money to prop up essential programs. New infrastructure gets built less frequently and when it does it’s at the expense of maintaining older infrastructure, and eventually everything’s falling apart. Finally, instead of going to the moon, we’re bailing out banks, and passing “stimulus” packages. 

If you expand the definition beyond things which have a dollar value, into drawing down accumulated reputational reserves, isn’t that precisely what’s happening with the massive amount of spending we just decided on? Isn’t this a drawing down of the sterling reputation of US government debt? Yes, we have a large reserve of that, and I doubt this latest crisis has drawn it down to zero, but it also seems like something that’s very hard to replenish, and where the actions required for that replenishment are ones we’re unlikely to take. 

For me, this all leads to the question of where in the process are we? Has the decadence only been going on for a little while and it’s easily reversed or is the decadence quite advanced and already terminal? Assuming we agree that things have stagnated, how would we then go on to determine how far it has progressed? It’s hard to imagine it starting before the moon landing, given how often the book, and others, bring that up as a high point, but it’s also hard to imagine it starting much after Vietnam, and of course those both happened at the same time, so perhaps 1970? Which would mean we’re 50 years into it, but I still don’t know if that’s so long as to indicate that the condition is terminal or short enough to suggest that we still have plenty of time. 

Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century is said to have lasted almost exactly 50 years. Until Diocletian came along, reunited the empire and fought off the barbarians and other nations which had, until that time, been threatening to swallow up the empire. It’s nice to imagine that we just need our own Diocletian to come along, and do the same. But the barbarians might be just as important to that story, and one of the fears is that in addition to lacking anyone resembling a Diocletian that we’re fresh out of barbarians as well. Which may be more important to breaking stagnation than we realize.

Douthat references a famous poem from 1904 called “Waiting for the Barbarians” by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. Which imagines an ancient city awaiting the arrival of the Barbarians, and it seems clear that their arrival will provide a focus for the city, something to do, and to unite around, and then something strange happens:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

I’m trying to remember the last time a non-fiction book genuinely made me angry. I say non-fiction because I get angry all the time when I’m reading fiction. I understand that you might expect it to be the other way around. But in my defense, if I’m reading a novel and something really dumb happens it’s easy to imagine a world in which it didn’t happen that way by just changing the actions of a single person, the author, who would just have had to write it differently. Change a few words, and the character doesn’t do that one ridiculous thing. But when it comes to a recounting of things which actually happened, generally lots of people would have to do lots of things differently for the outcome to be materially affected. As a consequence I’m generally far more sanquine about non-fiction. But that was not the case with this book. Reading it made me very angry. In fact I probably shouldn’t admit but I think this book made me angrier than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Probably because while I felt some distance from that book in time and space, the events Mattis describes in Call Sign Chaos feel very close. 

What was so upsetting you ask? Lot’s of things, but if I had to pick one, it would have been Mattis’ first hand account of how badly Iraq was bungled. I don’t want to get too deep into the details, but shortly after the occupation there were four security contractors who didn’t check in with the military first and as a result, ended up getting killed in Fallujah. They were hung and their bodies burned. Mattis was obviously upset, but he knew that this early into the occupation that he had to proceed cautiously. And that’s what his recommendation was. But the images had been broadcast all over CNN (more anger) and  Bush and Bremer overruled him and said they had to teach the Iraqis a lesson, and instructed him to invade and pacify Fallujah

Mattis disagreed with this decision, but he also asserts, over and over again, the importance of civilian military control, and the supremacy of the Commander in Chief. Accordingly he was absolutely fine following that order, despite thinking it was a bad idea. But if he was going to do that Mattis had a new plea. He told them, fine, but please, whatever you do, once we get started we really need to finish things. So he invaded Fallujah and then, just as victory was in sight, the government couldn’t handle any more negative press about civilian casualties (mostly coming from Al Jazeera) and they called things off. Skillfully managing to create the worst possible situation out of all the various options. Reaping neither the rewards of caution by holding off, nor the benefits of decisively invading.

This sort of bungling didn’t happen just this one time, it happens over and over again, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even once with Iran. Where somehow American military policy was to make the worst strategic level choice every time a choice was presented. You would expect that occasionally they might, even if it’s just by chance, make the right choice, but I got the impression that no, so deft and focused was their pursuit of short term gains that they adroitly avoided any decision with even the slightest hint of being a wise long term policy. 

This seems to have continued through all the presidents Mattis served under, including Trump. And while Mattis has been gone for awhile, it appeared to happen again while I was reading the book in the recent peace deal with the Taliban, and who knows, the approach of that deal may have been why Mattis left, though he gives very little detail in the book about his time in Trump’s cabinet. 

Mattis is an amazing individual, and you really should read the book, just because he’s so awesome, but I expect, like me, it will end up making you very mad. The only hope I was left with after reading the book is that perhaps Mattis might be convinced to run for President in 2020. Certainly he’s old, but he’s still younger than Trump and Biden.


The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

The Durants are famous historians, but it’s entirely possible you haven’t heard of them if you were born after 1970. This book is a distillation of the lessons of history from their numerous books on the subject. And while in places it hasn’t aged well, it’s short enough and so packed with insight (some of which you may disagree with) that I would definitely recommend it.

To be clear, I didn’t actually read it, I listened to it, and the audio version had short snippets of interviews with Will and Ariel in between chapters. These snippets added a lot of additional insight, and because of that I’d recommend listening to the book as well. To give you a taste of these snippets I transcribed one of them. Perhaps you can tell why I liked it:

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

It’s when they make broad pronouncements about the sweep of history that the Durrant’s are at their best. (Possibly because these broad pronouncements are harder to falsify?) When they turn from the general to the specific that’s when things get a little weird. After holding forth on all the things we can learn from history, they point out that many people’s next question is, “Well, what would you recommend.” They oblige by providing a list of 10 suggestions which is a weird mix of timeless wisdom with unusual policies, and other things that mostly haven’t aged well:

  1. Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.
  2. Government annuity to parents for their first and second child if they’re married. Birth control should be provided nearly for free to married couples
  3. Unity of family and authority of the parents should be strengthened by giving parents control over what their children earn.
  4. Education should be provided to fit every high school graduate for employment. Along with an education in the humanities. A wide variety of protections for universities including protection from violent protests. A version of the BBC for the US which is controlled by the universities.
  5. Every religious institution should preach morality instead of theology and welcome everyone who accepts the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.
  6. Morality, that is the cooperation of the individual with the group, should be taught every year from kindergarten through PhD. Including education on the effects of promiscuity, drugs, etc. For those who go astray significant prison reform in the direction of rehabilitation.
  7. Labor should be encouraged to organize as much as possible. Consumer protection made into a governmental agency.
  8. Be skeptical of revolution. It’s a monster that devours its fathers and children. Person’s over 30 should not listen to people under 30.
  9. A supervised election should be held to choose a government for South Vietnam which will be empowered to negotiate with the North. Recognize mainland China and admit it to the UN.
  10. A peaceful acceptance of death when it comes, no artificial prolongation of death.

Related to that last suggestion. Apparently Ariel and Will were so devoted to each other that when Will was admitted to the hospital, presumably to die (he was 96) Ariel stopped eating and actually died before him. Their daughter and grandkids tried to keep the news from Will, but he heard about it on the evening news and died shortly thereafter.


The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

This book was recommended to me by a reader. I’m not sure I will be forwarding that recommendation to the rest of my readers, mostly because the things I thought were useful I had heard elsewhere, and those things that I hadn’t heard generally felt far too speculative. To the point of being largely unbelievable.

An example that combines both of these attributes is his “Interface Theory of Perception”. Think of a computer interface where there’s an icon, for a file, but that icon has very little to do with the string of 1’s and 0’s which actually comprise the file at the lowest level. And more generally the idea that perceiving what’s real, and perceiving what assists you to survive are not necessarily the same thing, and any time they come into conflict, survival will win. That the brain has built an interface for survival, not an interface for reality. I had already heard this and it is indeed an important idea, but Hoffman:

[T]akes the well worn concept of our perceptual systems assembling only crude approximations of reality, and cranks it up to eleven. If you had assumed, like me, that, despite its approximate nature, our concepts of the world and the objects that inhabit it are at least somewhat veridical, think again! We are quickly disabused of the common sense notion that apprehending the truth of one’s environment is roughly compatible with maximizing genetic fitness. Instead, we are presented with the case that truth and fitness are mutually exclusive goals in our evolutionary trajectory.

That’s from a review I found on GoodReads that was too on the nose not to quote.

If anything, it gets worse when the book starts to dive into the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the controversial further extrapolation of that interpretation that things are constructed only when we perceive them. That, for example, when you’re not looking at it, the Moon isn’t there.

It’s not all bad, there is a lot of good stuff, it’s mostly that he’s just too ambitious. For example he definitely gets credit for bringing in supernormal stimuli, a long-time interest of this blog, and also a great example of survival warping perception. But this ends up being another example of overreach. I understand that supernormal stimuli makes certain things seem more attractive than they might be otherwise, and that I eat twinkies when I really should be eating low fat chicken breasts, but twinkies are still food. It’s not like I’m going to starve if I eat twinkies. In fact if anything it’s not our perception of reality that’s screwed up in this instance, it’s our perception of what will help us survive that’s screwed up. 

In the end the biggest problem is that the stuff that’s true and useful in this book is already well known, and the stuff that’s speculative has no practical application even if it could somehow be verified which mostly it can’t.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

It’s impossible when reviewing this book to avoid talking about the current crisis. And while the history of the Spanish Flu has been picked over pretty thoroughly for advice on how to handle things now, there are still a few items I haven’t seen brought up, or if they have been brought up they haven’t been emphasized. The first and biggest would be patience. The era of the Spanish flu lasted for three full years over three different waves. And when people talk about flattening the curve the whole point of that is to spread out this period. I’m not making any predictions, a lot depends on whether COVID-19 mutates into something significantly different or more deadly and fortunately, there’s evidence that it’s not mutating very fast. But even so, this is not going to be something that’s over by June or probably even over this year. But let’s all hope I’m wrong.

Speaking of mutating, I think more people are aware of it now, but I had always kind of assumed that the first wave of the Spanish Flu was the worst, but it was actually the middle wave, and then there was a further third wave that was not as bad as the second but worse than the first. As I said there’s evidence COVID-19 isn’t mutating very fast, so that’s obviously a good thing, but I also think we need to be prepared for multiple waves of it.

Something else that the book brought up is that the Spanish Flu had a significantly different fatality rate depending on the population. Native Americans were particularly hard hit, and the flu wiped out whole villages of Inuit. I’ve yet to see any evidence that the same thing is happening with C19, and I doubt it’s the explanation for things like the fatality disparity between Italy and Germany, and it’s probably too early to be able to tell, but we definitely could see some of that, and it might be really bad for whatever population ends up being the most susceptible. 

On the whole I’m not sure if I’d recommend the book right now. I think most of the useful insights it contains are already in the wild, and the rest of it will probably just depress you.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

This was a collection of short stories about the afterlife. Short vignettes, each with a different twist. It was enjoyable enough in the manner of most collections of speculative short stories, though there was nothing that knocked my socks off. There as an afterlife were Mary Shelley basically ran things because she was the only person who understood the fraught emotional relationship a creator has with their creation, and god spent all of his time brooding over her novel Frankenstein. Another story depicted an afterlife where you live out the eternities as characters in the dreams of those who haven’t died. And, yet another, where you died in the normal way, but eventually the universe reversed itself and you lived your life again,only in reverse and everything was much better. An idea he clearly stole from the Red Dwarf novels. (Though they may in turn have stolen it from somewhere else.)

You get the idea. And while they were all clever none of them seemed better or more logically constructed than the typical religious doctrine of the afterlife. In a sense this would be surprising, if some fiction writer managed to best the collective imagination of billions of people over thousands of years. But in another sense isn’t that the whole argument of people like transhumanists, that they can in fact come up with something better? I understand I’m probably putting too much weight on this book if I use it as evidence in that debate, but neither should it fill anyone with optimism either.


Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

First off I owe Francis Fukuyama an apology. On more than one occasion I brought up his idea of the “end of history” as something which had been proven so obviously wrong that neither I nor anyone else needed to take it seriously.

What’s worse is that this is a well known failure mode, you should always try to understand an argument before dismissing it. (Though I understand there’s only so much time in a day.) Additionally this might also be an example of a failure of oversimplification, where a phrase is simplified so much in people’s perception that it’s connotation is not very close and may in fact be the exact opposite of the true meaning the author was going for. (Other examples include Taleb’s idea of Black Swans, and Nietzsche’s contention that “God is dead”.) 

For myself, and I assume most people, the phrase “end of history”, invoked the idea that humanity had won. That we had banished wars, come up with the best system of government, and passed into a new age where big dramatic catastrophes (the kind of stuff you learn about when you study history) would no longer occur. But Douthat claims in his book The Decadent Society that Fukuyama was arguing something very similar to Douthat’s own thesis, that liberal market-based democracy had banished it’s ideological rivals. But rather than this being a glorious triumph, it was more likely a stagnant plateau. Now I feel like I need to read Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man and see what he’s really arguing, but, as you might have noticed, that is not the Fukuyama book I read, so I should really move on.

Coincidentally, this book seems to tie in to many of the other books I read this month, and books I’ve read in the last few months as well. I already mentioned the tie in to The Decadent Society, but of all the connections, the greatest is to the previous book in the series Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution which I finished in November and just as in that book his big emphasis is how difficult the formation of a stable well functioning state really is, or as he calls it “getting to Denmark”. This brings in another connection to the Mattis book with all of the difficulties he describes in both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. 

Beyond that Fukuyama seems very much in the camp of people who feel that war is an important component in the creation of states, and particularly in the creation of nations, those superpowered states that can call on nationalistic unity (i.e. patriotism) in the event of a threat. A process I talked about in a previous post when I discussed War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

Finally it’s connected to the book by the Durant’s in that it covers much the same territory. In fact if you were going to either read Lessons of History or The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay I would definitely encourage you to read the latter. The caveat being of course that those two books together are over 1300 pages, while Lessons of History is a tenth of that. Also the styles are very different. The Durant’s are far more narrative, while Fukuyama is more comprehensive jumping from one example to the next in service of a particular point.

There’s obviously a lot more to the book, but this post is already really long, so I’ll just leave you with just one final take away from the book. Fukuyama argues fairly persuasively, that it’s better to start with an effective state, and then add democracy than to attempt things in the reverse order. 


Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

As I may have mentioned, I read all of the Greek tragedies when I was young during my initial attempt to make it through the great books of the Western World. I may have also mentioned that I didn’t end up retaining much from that first read through, though that’s not to say I don’t remember anything, and one of the things I definitely remembered was the play Philoctetes, because it was around this time that I started to realize that Odysseus, far from being a heroic role-model was actually sort of a horrible individual. The details of why are too complicated to get into, and it’s more than just this play, but trust me, Odysseus was a jerk.


The pandemic continues, and I hear that people stuck at home are reading a lot more books. If you come across something great let me know. And if my reviews help you find something to pass the time with, consider donating, mostly I’ve always dreamed of getting paid to read, and donations make it seem like that’s what’s actually happening.


The Fragility of Efficiency and the Coronavirus

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I heard a story recently about 3M (h/t: frequent commenter Boonton). Supposedly, back during the SARS outbreak they decided they should build in some “surge capacity” around the construction of N95 masks. Enough additional capacity that they could double their production at a moment’s notice. It was unclear if they actually did that or if they were just thinking about it. And even if they had, it appears that the scope of the current crisis is great enough that it’s not as if this one decision would have dramatically altered the outcome. Still it’s hard to dispute that it would have helped. 

The question which immediately suggests itself is how would the market have treated this development? In fact imagine that there were two companies, one who took some portion of their profits and plowed them back into various measures which would help in the event of a crisis and one that didn’t. How do you imagine that the stock market and investors would price these two companies? I’m reasonably certain that the latter, the one who took the profits and disbursed them as dividends, or found some other use for them, would end up with a higher valuation, all else being equal. In other words I would very much expect Wall Street to have punished 3M for this foresight, particularly over a sufficiently long time horizon where there were no additional epidemics, but even in the few years between doing it and needing it.

What this story illustrates is that attempts to maximize the efficiency of an economic system also have the effect of increasing and possibly maximizing the fragility as well. And while, in general, I don’t have much to say about the Coronavirus which hasn’t been said already and better by someone else. I do think that this may be one of the few areas where not enough has been said already and where I might, in fact, have something useful to add to the discussion. 

To begin, I want to turn from examining the world we have to looking at the world we wished we had, at least with respect to the virus. And as long as we’re already on the subject of masks we might as well continue in this vein. 

As the pandemic progresses one of the big things people are noticing is the difference in the number of infections between the various countries. In particular South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have done much better than places like Italy and Spain. There are of course a number of reasons for why this might be, but there’s increasing anecdotal evidence indicating that the availability of masks might be one part of the equation. 

For example, Taiwan is very closely connected to China, and one might expect that they would have gotten the virus quite early. Probably before people really understood what was going on, but definitely well before the recent policies of social distancing really started to be implemented to say nothing of a full on quarantine, and yet somehow, they only have 235 infections, which as of this writing puts them below Utah!

There are of course numerous reasons for why this might be, but I’m more and more inclined to believe that one big factor is that Taiwan is a mask producing juggernaut. In fact as recently as a few days ago they pledged to send 100,000 masks a week to us. They can make this gesture (and I know 100k is actually just a drop in the bucket) because they’re currently producing 10 million masks a day! For a country that only has 24 million people. Meaning that while that won’t quite cover one mask per day per person it’s enough that if people avoid leaving the house unnecessarily and if some masks can be reused they have enough for everyone to be wearing one at all times when they’re out of doors.

South Korea is similar and the big challenge there was not that they weren’t producing enough masks, but to stop exporting the masks they were already making. Finally reports out of Japan indicate that about 95% of people are wearing masks. But more importantly reports were that even before the pandemic around 30-40% were wearing masks just as a matter of habit. Is it possible that this slowed things down enough to allow them to get on top of it once the true scale of the crisis was apparent?

As I was writing this post I did some research on the topic, but before the post was finished Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex came along, as he frequently does, and released Face Masks: Much More Than You Wanted to Know which is a very thorough examination of the mask question. What he found mostly supports my point, and in particular this story was fascinating:

Some people with swine flu travelled on a plane from New York to China, and many fellow passengers got infected. Some researchers looked at whether passengers who wore masks throughout the flight stayed healthier. The answer was very much yes. They were able to track down 9 people who got sick on the flight and 32 who didn’t. 0% of the sick passengers wore masks, compared to 47% of the healthy passengers. Another way to look at that is that 0% of mask-wearers got sick, but 35% of non-wearers did. This was a significant difference, and of obvious applicability to the current question.

On the other hand, when we turn to the US and Europe, in contrast to Southeast Asia, there is definitely not a culture of mask-wearing and even if there had been, most of those countries apparently imported masks from places like Taiwan and China (a point I’ll return to) meaning that when those countries stopped exporting masks there were even fewer available here, enough that people started worrying about not having even enough for the healthcare providers. Once this problem became apparent various authorities started telling people that masks were ineffective. A policy which has since been called out for not merely being wrong, but contradictory, counterproductive and undermining trust in the authorities at a time when they needed it most. 

For most people, myself included, it’s just common sense that wearing a mask helps, the only question is how much? Based on evidence out of the countries just mentioned, and the SSC post I would venture to say that they help quite a bit. Also they’re cheap. Particularly when weighed against the eventual cost of this pandemic.

We’ve all learned many new things since the pandemic began, one of the things I didn’t realize was how bad the SARS epidemic was and how much the current precautions and behavior of the Southeast Asian countries is based on lessons learned during that epidemic. And while it’s understandable that I might have missed that (particularly since I didn’t start blogging until 2016) the CDC and the federal government on the other hand should have been paying very close attention. In fact, you would have expected that they might have taken some precautions in case something like that happened again or worse, started in the US. (Though to be fair, we don’t have wet markets, if that is where it started. As if we didn’t already have enough conspiracy theories.) Instead the US Government’s response has been borderline criminal. (Other people have done a much better job of talking about this than I could, but if you’re interested in a fairly short podcast just about the delay of testing that avoids sensational accusations, check out this Planet Money episode.)

To continue using the example of masks, I think it’s worth asking what it would have taken for the government to have a one month supply for every single person in the country. Stockpiled against a potential pandemic. According to this Wired article, before the pandemic 100 disposable masks were going for $3.75, let’s be conservative and round up and say that masks cost 4 cents a piece. From there the math is straightforward: 330 million people X 30 days X $0.04, is ~$400 million dollars, or 3% of the CDCs budget, or less than what the federal government spends in an hour. Still, I’ll agree, that’s a fair amount of money. But remember that’s the absolute maximum it would cost. I’d actually be surprised if once you factored in the huge economy of scale that we couldn’t do it for a 10th of that or even a 20th of that. And it would presumably have been cheaper still to just buy the necessary machinery for making masks and then mothball it, with a “break in case of emergency” sign on the door. Once you factor in all the potential cost savings, it’s hard to imagine that this would have cost more than $25 million (in fact if the government wants to offer me a $25 million contract to make it happen for next time I would be happy to take it.) And when you consider that it’s probably going to end up costing the US over a trillion dollars, plus the expected odds of something like this happening, you start to wonder why on earth they didn’t do this and countless other things that might have come in handy. (A strategic toilet paper reserve? I’m just saying.)

When you consider all of the budgetary cuts that were proposed for the CDC, which have emerged in the wake of the pandemic, and which generally involved only tens of millions of dollars, it seems unlikely that even $25 million would be allocated just for masks, but why is that? With a federal budget of $3.8 trillion why are we so concerned about $25 million? (It’s the equivalent of worrying about $25 when you make $3.8 million a year.) I understand people who are opposed to government spending, heck I’m one of them, but this also seems like one of those classic cases where people balk at spending anything to prevent a crisis, while somehow simultaneously being willing to bury the problem in a giant mountain of money once the crisis actually hits. It would be one thing if we refused to spend the money regardless of the circumstances, but if recent financial news is any indication we’re obviously willing to spend whatever it takes, just not in any precautionary way. (Somewhat related, my post from very early in the history of the blog about the Sack of Baghdad. Whatever the federal government and the CDC were doing in the months leading up to this, it was the wrong thing.)

One assumes that this desire to cut funds from even an agency like the CDC, where budgets are tiny to begin with, and where, additionally, the cost of failure is so large, must also come from the drive for efficiency we already mentioned or it’s modern bureaucratic equivalent. Which I understand, and to an extent agree with. We shouldn’t waste money, whether it’s taxpayer money or not. But given the massive potential cost of a pandemic, even if one never emerged, it seems clear that this spending wouldn’t have been a waste. But how do we get to there from here? How do we make sure this drive to save money and increase efficiency doesn’t create priorities which are so lean that they can’t spare any thought for the future. How do we avoid punishing companies who exercise foresight, like the example of 3M? Or how do we ensure that governmental agencies are making reasonable cost benefit calculations which take into account the enormous expense of future calamities, and then taking straightforward precautions to prevent or at least mitigate those calamities?

One of the most obvious potential solutions, but the one that seems to generate the greatest amount of opposition, is the idea of increasing the price of items like masks during periods of increased demands. Or what most people call “price gouging”. Let’s return to the story of 3M and imagine that instead of price gouging being universally frowned on, that instead it was widely understood and accepted that if there was an emergency 3M was not only allowed, but expected to charge 10 times as much for masks. In that case they’re not just hoping to help people out when the calamity comes, they’re also hoping to make a profit. This is in line with the generally accepted function of business, and presumably stockholders might reward them for their foresight, rather than punish them for not being “efficient” enough. In any case maintaining a surge capacity for mask production would be a gamble they’d be more willing to take. 

Notice I said 3M, which is different from people buying up thousands of masks and then reselling them on Amazon. As a generalizable principle, if we were going to do this, I would say that people should be able to raise prices for goods they control as soon as they think they see a spike in demand. So if someone had started stocking up on masks at the first of the year before anyone realized what was going to happen then they ought to be able to sell them later for whatever they think the market would bear. This early buying would have been a valuable signal of what was about to happen. But once the demand is obvious to everyone then 3M should raise their prices (and profit from the foresight of building a second production line) and Costco (or whoever) should raise their prices. I understand that this is not what happens, and that it’s not likely to happen, but if you want a market based approach to this particular problem, this is it.

A governmental solution mostly involves doing the things I already mentioned, like relying on the government to stockpile masks, or to proactively spend money to prevent large calamities. Though you may be wondering how subsidiarity, the principle that issues should be handled at the lowest possible level, factors into things. Clearly state or even local governments could also stockpile masks, or give tax incentives to people for maintaining spare capacity in the manufacture of certain emergency supplies. But as far as I can tell subsidiarity was long ago sacrificed to the very efficiency we’ve been talking about, and thus far I’ve seen no evidence of one state being more prepared than another. Though speaking of tax subsidies, it’s easy to imagine a hybrid solution that involves both the public and private sectors. 3M would have faced a different choice if the government had offered a tax credit for building and maintaining surge capacity in mask construction.

You could also imagine that greater exercise of anti-monopolistic powers might have helped. If you have ten companies in a given sector, rather than one or two you’re more likely to have one company that bets differently, and maybe that bet will be the one that pays off. Additionally globalization has also been a big topic of conversation, and was one of the first effects people noticed about the pandemic. Hardware companies were announcing delays for all of their products because they are all built in China. But we also saw this in our discussion of masks. Most of the mask production also appeared to be in Southeast Asia, and once they decided they needed the masks locally the rest of the world was caught flat-footed. Of course, economists hate the sort of tariffs which would be required to rectify this situation, or even improve it much, and they also mostly hate the idea of breaking up monopolies, but that’s because their primary metric is efficiency and as I’ve been saying from the beginning, efficiency is fragile. 

Before moving on, two other things that don’t quite fit anywhere else. First, doesn’t it feel like there should be a lot of “surge capacity” or room to take precautions, or just slack in the modern world? Somehow we’ve contrived a system where there’s basically a car and television for every man, woman and child in America (276.1 and 285 million respectively vs. a population of 327.2 million) but somehow when a real crisis comes we don’t have enough spare capacity to do even as much as nations like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea? As I’ve already suggested, there are obvious difficulties, but doesn’t it feel like we should be wiser and better prepared than we have been in spite of all that?

Second, am I the only one who would have felt a lot better about the huge stimulus package if we weren’t already running a deficit of $984 billion dollars in 2019? This, despite supposedly having a great economy for the last few years? In any rational system you build up reserves during the good years that you can then draw on during the bad years. That does not appear to be what we’re doing at all. I hope the MMT advocates are right and the size of the US government debt doesn’t matter, because if it matters even a little bit then at some point we’re in a huge amount of trouble.

Which brings us back to our topic. If, as I’m claiming, all of the modern methods are unworkable, we might ask what have people done traditionally, and the answer for most of human history would involve families, and to a lesser extent tribes, along with religious groups. And I suspect that there are quite a few people who are gaining a greater appreciation for family at this very moment. In my own case, I have deep stocks of many things, but toilet paper was not one of them (an obvious oversight on my part). As it turns out my mother-in-law has a ton (not from hoarding) and so rather than show up at Costco at 7 am, or buy it on the black market I can just get it from her. And if she hadn’t been able to help me I’m sure that my religious community would have. (Just to be clear I still haven’t burned through the TP I had on stock at the beginning of things, I’m just laying the groundwork to make sure I don’t get caught flat footed.) This whole story is an account of surge capacity. Though it may not look like it at first glance. But think of it this way, when you need help, having a single child that lives on the other side of the country doesn’t do you much good, but when you have five kids, three of whom live close by, you have four times as many resources to draw on in a crisis, and potentially six times as many depending on what you need.

Going even deeper, friend of the blog Mark wrote a post over on his blog which I keep thinking about, particularly in relation to the current topic. He talks about redundancy, fragility and efficiency as it relates to biological processes. In other words, how does life solve this problem? He gives the example of building a bridge and compares how an engineer would do it versus how a biological process would. While the engineer definitely wants to make sure that his bridge can bear a significantly greater load than whatever they judge to be the maximum, beyond that his primary goal is the same as everyone else in the modern world: efficiency. The biological process, on the other hand, would probably build a bridge made up of dozens of overlapping bridges, and it might cover the entire river rather than just one stretch of it. In other words from an engineering perspective it would be massively overbuilt. Why is that? Because life has been around for an awfully long time, and over the long run efficiency is the opposite of what you’re striving for. Efficiency equals fragility which, as we’re finding to our great sorrow, equals death. 


I suspect that some of you are either already suffering financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic or that you will be soon, so rather than ask for donations, let me rather make an offer of communication. If anyone needs someone to chat with feel free to email me. It’s “we are not saved at gmail”. I promise I’ll respond.


Meditations on Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

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It may seem odd to spend an entire post on a book that was published 25 years ago, but after re-reading The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson recently I just can’t help myself, the book is just that good. Or, at least the first 99% of it is, I’ve always felt that the ending was too abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course any discussion of how something ends means that there’s definitely going to be spoilers, but that’s another reason for talking about something published 25 years ago, the time limit on spoilers has long since expired. 

Diamond Age is set in a future where nanotechnology has revolutionized the world, nearly everyone has a matter compiler, and for those that don’t public matter compilers provide the necessities of life (food, blankets, etc.) for free to anyone who requests them.

In parallel with this development the world has been divided into globe spanning tribes, or phyles, as the book refers to them. Phyles are groups of people sharing a tighter cultural bond than individuals in a modern nation state (though perhaps not a historical nation state?) while being more geographically dispersed. (All cites contain multiple phyle enclaves.) Phyles include groups like Mormons, communists (the Senderos), secret cryptographically oriented phyles (this is Stephenson after all) and finally there are the three great phyles:

The Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of the Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan is a fourth Great Phyle, or a “riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don’t get.” (h/t: Wikipedia)

It should also be noted that not everyone belongs to a phyle, and those who don’t are second class citizens. 

As you might imagine, given how phyles are constructed, culture plays a very large role in the world of Diamond Age, and discussing how Stephenson treats the various cultures, but particularly the Neo-Victorians (or Vickys as they’re often called) is how I’m going to be spending most of my time. 

If you read my book review round up from a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I included a quote from Diamond Age on the subject of hypocrisy. The character who was offering his opinion on how hypocrisy had been elevated to “the mother of all vices” was Lord Finkle-Mcgraw, a member of the Neo-Victorian phyle, and in most respects the main driver of events in the novel (though not the main character). As I mentioned the Vickys were one of the “great phyles” and this phyle took the form of a weird corporate oligarchy that owed its allegiance to the British monarchy. Finkle-Mcgraw is an equity lord, meaning that he had a share in the profits of the phyle. This whole construct seems like the kind of thing that would be completely unworkable in reality, but in the book, the Vickys are portrayed as being the phyle you definitely want to be in. 

Stephenson’s portrayal of the Neo-Victorians, is definitely what struck me the most on my first read through of Diamond Age, however many years ago. In particular this idea that the tribe holding to traditional values and historical norms would end up being clearly the best tribe. This was in stark contrast to most of the science fiction I had read before, or since in which traditional values either don’t make an appearance or are brought on the stage solely for the purpose of demonstrating how much better future values are, and if the author can throw in some mockery of traditional values, so much the better. But in Diamond Age these values were not only present, they provided a competitive advantage! 

It’s tempting to take the next step and hold this up as a broader vindication of tradition, but I’m sure if I did people would hasten to point out that this is fiction, and there are no rules that because something happened in a novel that the chances of it happening in reality are thereby increased. Still, if they’re going to be engaging, the best novels have to reflect at least some reality, and I think that’s precisely what Stephenson has done. 

Speaking of reality, and as something of a tangent, one question that occurs after reading Diamond Age, and other Stephenson novels, is where do his political sympathies lie? After his latest novel, Fall (which I reviewed here) featured a whole subplot about internet extremism among (very) fundamental Christians I saw several people asserting that he was obviously very liberal, and if not, then at least very disgusted with Trump. That may be so, but I find it hard to believe that someone could write so eloquently on the subject of traditional norms and customs without having some recognition of their power.

Also to tie it back into the discussion here’s what Finkle-McGraw thinks about culture. 

[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgement, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how much overlap Finkle-McGraw’s view of culture has with Stephenson’s. Also it should be noted that when he’s speaking of “those days” he’s basically talking about our own time (or at least the 1990’s when the book was written). It would be hard to read that section without immediately following it up with the question of what, exactly, makes one culture better than another? And by making the Vickys the most enviable phyle, Stephenson appears to answer that at least part of it is due to their embrace of traditional norms and customs. 

In the novel (and in reality?) it’s because of the unity such an embrace provides. A unity that is greater because membership in a phyle is clearly something people have to work for. Not something which happens automatically as an accident of birth (though clearly that has some influence). This makes the phyles of Diamond Age much closer to religions than would be typical for a modern nation. Though as Samual Huntington argues in his work on civilizations you can’t have a civilization without a religion, and that historically the two have been tied together much more closely than they are now. Beyond the specific appeal of the Neo-Victorians, I also find the idea of nations with much tighter ideological bonds very appealing, particularly these days. (And it strongly resembles the proposal of an ideological archipelago proposed by Scott Alexander.)

As you might imagine unity is not the only thing the Vickys have going for them. They’ve combined this unity with immense scientific and engineering prowess as well. It should be obvious that this is a powerful combination, but Stephenson doesn’t handwave it into existence, rather he makes the difficulty of maintaining both of these qualities at the same time one of the central themes of the book, going so far as to have one character, the delightful Miss Matheson, point out that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together…” (A point I also made in a previous post.) If this is the case how is it done? I’ll allow Miss Matheson to once again provide the answer:

It is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation—we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things. 

I can imagine many people disagreeing with this statement, particularly coming from the mouth of a fictional character, in a book written 25 years, ago, but if so perhaps you will find less to object to in another statement from Miss Matheson:

Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all that they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.

If you disagree with a foundation of morality I hope you can at least be persuaded that most people would like to preserve what they have built and the things that they have learned. Certainly binding together into a culture is one way of trying to ensure that, but how do you then go on to preserve the subsequent cultural repository? If you’re the Vicky’s how do you maintain unity and technological progress? And more broadly how do you maintain anything at all?

A large part of the problem comes from the fact that the people creating the culture are different from the people living within the culture. It’s made clear in the book that many of the most ardent Neo-Victorians embraced the phyle as a rescue or a correction (or a reaction?) to the licentiousness that surrounded them when they were growing up. But having rejected promiscuity, the last thing they’re going to do is expose their children to it, meaning that people born into the culture won’t have the opportunity to replicate the conditions which lead to the creation of the culture in the first place. The book is initially driven by Finkle-McGraw’s attempt to overcome that problem. Which he does by engaging a young engineer, named Hackworth. Despite its length their initial conversation is worth repeating:

Finkle-McGraw: Tell me, were your parents subjects, or did you take the Oath?

Hackworth: As soon as I turned twenty-one, sir. Her Majesty—at that time, actually, she was still Her Royal Highness—was touring North America, prior to her enrollment at Stanford, and I took the Oath at Trinity Church in Boston.

Finkle-McGraw: Why?

Hackworth: I knew two kinds of discipline as a child: none at all, and too much. The former leads to degenerate behavior… My life was [also] not without periods of excessive, unreasoning discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for the laxity in the first place. That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.”

Finkle-McGraw: Well done, Hackworth! But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

Hackworth: We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised that era.

Finkle-McGraw: Have we then? How reassuring. And have we resolved them in a way that all of those children down there live interesting lives?

Finkle-McGraw somewhat euphemistically uses the term “interesting” as a catch-all for the many things which drove him and Hackworth to be Neo-Victorians, and which create success and character in general. But regardless of the culture or in the case of the book, the phyle, maintaining the culture that got you to where you are is a constant problem and nowhere more so than right now.

These days, there are many people who view progress as something of an unstoppable force, or at least an inevitability, and if that’s the case then nothing I say will matter in the slightest. And it would be nice if this were so, but I would hope that something like the coronavirus at least engenders some doubt that things will be quite so smooth. If lines at Costco and the price of gold are any indication it certainly appears that way. (If you’re interested in my take on things, I’m not sure I have much to add, but I’m sure it will form the subject for my personal life section when I do the next book review post.)

As I have repeatedly indicated I am not so sanguine about the future. I think that getting to where we are was a massive effort that built on centuries of trial and error, and yes also a significant amount of morality. That we seem to be abandoning many of the things which got us here without really considering whether they might have been important (i.e. Chesterton’s Fence). That not only are we not making life “interesting” for our kids but that many of us are declining to have kids at all. 

Ultimately as Miss Matheson says, it’s a question of survival and propagation. We’ve reached a point where there are no barbarians at the gate and where the idea that there might ever be barbarians is scoffed at. And maybe there won’t be, maybe the barbarians are all gone, and no effort is required to keep civilization going or make the lives of children interesting. But even in the absence of barbarians, I feel positive that some effort is nevertheless required to maintain civilization. That in the end certain traditional standards, standards which got us to where we are will also end up being critical to keeping us where we are.


Somewhat unconnected to the topic, while I was writing this I experienced my first earthquake (magnitude 5.7). I try to neither overreact or underreact, but I’ll tell from an eschatological perspective having an earthquake in the middle of a plague is a bad omen. If you were thinking of donating, then this might be the time to do it, after all you never know when the world might end.


All Eschatologies Are Both Secular and Religious

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As I look back over my posts, I notice that some of them are less about being interesting in and of themselves, and more part of building the foundation for this crazy house I’m trying to erect. Some posts are less paintings on a wall than the wall itself. Having recognized this tendency, I’m giving you advance warning that this looks to be one of those foundational posts. I do this in order that you might make an informed decision as to whether to continue. That said, I’m hoping that there will be some who find the process of wall construction interesting in and of itself, and will continue to stick around in hopes of seeing something well made. Though I offer no guarantee that such will be the case. Quality is always somewhat elusive.

With the insufficiently committed having been dispensed with, we can proceed to the meat of things.  

In 1999 the Matrix was released in theaters. Beyond being generally regarded as one of the better sci fi action movies of all time it was also most people’s introduction to the idea that, by using sufficiently advanced technology, we might be able to simulate reality with such a high degree of fidelity that an individual need not ever be aware they were in a simulation.

A few years later, In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom put forward the Simulation Hypothesis which took things even farther, going from being able to imagine we might be in a simulation to asserting that we almost certainly are in a simulation. As this is something of a bold claim, let’s walk through his logic.

  1. Assume that if computer power keeps improving, that computers will eventually be able to run simulations of reality indistinguishable from actual reality.
  2. Further assume that one sort of simulation that might get run on these superpowered computers are simulations of the past.
  3. If we assume that one simulation could be run, it seems further safe to assume that many simulations could and would be run. Meaning that the ratio of simulations to reality will always be much much greater than 1. 
  4. Given that simulations are indistinguishable from reality and outnumber reality, it’s highly probable that we are in a simulation, but unaware of it.

As you can see The Matrix only deals with step 1, it’s steps 2-4 that take it from a possibility to a near certainty, according to Bostrom. Also for those of you who read my last post you may be curious to know that Bostrom also offers up a trilemma:

  1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or
  2. “The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running simulations of their evolutionary history, or variations thereof, is very close to zero”, or
  3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one”

Regardless of whether you think the probability that you live in a simulation is close to 100% or not, it’s almost certainly not 0%. But, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with eschatology? As it turns out everything. It means that there is some probability that the end of the world depends not merely on events outside of our control, but on events outside of our reality. And if Bostrom is correct that probability is nearly 100%. Furthermore, this is similar, if not nearly identical to how most religions imagine the end of the world as well. Making a strong connection between religion and the simulation hypothesis is probably an even harder pill to swallow than the idea that we’re in a simulation, so let’s walk through it.

To begin with, a simulation immediately admits the existence of the supernatural. If the simulation encompasses the whole of our perceived reality, and if we equate that reality with what’s considered “natural”, then the fact that there’s something outside of the simulation means there’s something outside of nature, and that something would be, by definition, supernatural. 

It would also mean that god(s) exists. It would not necessarily say anything about the sort of gods that exist, but someone or something would need to create and design the simulation, and whatever that someone or something is, they would be gods to us in most of the ways that mattered. 

Less certain, but worth mentioning, these designers would probably have some sort of plan for us, perhaps only at the level of the simulation, but possibly at the level of each individual. 

When you combine the supernatural with a supreme being and an overarching plan, qualities that all simulations must possess just by their very nature, you end up with something that has to be considered a theology. The fact that simulations have a theology doesn’t demand that there is also an associated religion, but it also doesn’t preclude it either. If you’re willing to accept the possibility that we’re living in a simulation, then it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that one or more of the religions within that simulation might espouse beliefs which happen to match up with some or all of the theology of that same simulation. In fact I would even venture to argue that it would be more surprising if they didn’t. Even if you want to argue that it might be strictly by chance.

To be clear, yes, I am saying that if you’re willing to grant the possibility that we are currently in a simulation, then you should also be willing to grant that some religion, be it Muslims, Mormons or Methodists, might have elements within their doctrine which map to the theology of the designers, either by chance or by supernatural inspiration. And one of those elements, possibly even the most likely element to have in common, is how things are going to end. If anything was going to “leak through”, how it all ends would be a very strong candidate.

I know some people are going to be tempted to dismiss this idea because when one imagines a simulation they imagine something involving silicon and electricity, something from a movie, or a video game. And when one imagines the supernatural and God they imagine clouds, angels, robed individuals and musty books of hidden lore. But in the end most religions come down to the idea of a body-spirit dualism, which asserts that there are things beyond what we can see and detect. As opposed to materialism which asserts that everything comes from interactions between things we can see and measure. A simulation is obviously dualistic, and definitionally, what criteria can we use to draw a sharp line between the dualism of religion and that of a simulation? Particularly when you consider that both must involve supernatural elements and gods? 

I understand that the religious view of the world is entirely traditional, and seems old and stuffy. While the idea that we’re in a simulation encompasses futurism and transhumanist philosophy. But that’s all at the surface. Underneath, they’re essentially identical.

To put it another way, if a Catholic were to say that they believe we live in a simulation and that furthermore Catholicism is the way that the designers of the simulation reveal their preferences for our behavior, what arguments could you marshall against this assertion? I’m sure you could come up with a lot of arguments, but how many of them would boil down to: “well, I don’t think that’s the way someone would run a simulation”? Some of them might even sound reasonably convincing, but is there any argument you could make that would indisputably separate Catholicism from Simulationism? Where knowledge about the character of the simulation couldn’t end up filtering into the simulation in the form of a religion?

For those who might still be unconvinced, allow me to offer one final way of envisioning things. Imagine everything I just said as the plot of a science fiction novel. Suppose the main character is a maverick researcher who has become convinced that we live in a simulation. Imagine that the novel opens with him puttering around, publishing the occasional paper, but largely being ignored by the mainstream until he discovers that designers of the simulation are about to end it. Fortunately, he also discovers that they have been dropping hints about how to prevent the end in the form of obscure religious prophecies. Is that plot solid enough to sustain a book? Or would you toss it aside for being completely impossible? (I think it’s a great plot, I may even have to write that book…)

If you happen to be one of those people who worries about x-risks, and other end of the world type scenarios. What I, at least, would call secular eschatologies. Then unless you’re also willing to completely rule out the idea that we might be in a simulation, it would seem obvious that as part of your studies you would want to pay at least some attention to religious eschatology. That, as I suggest in the title, all eschatologies might end up being both secular and religious.

You might think that this is the only reason for someone worried about x-risks to pay attention to religion, and it may seem a fairly tenuous reason at that, but as I’ve argued in the past there are other reasons as well. In particular religion is almost certainly a repository for antifragility. Or to put it another way religion is a storehouse of methods for avoiding risks below the level of actual x-risks. And even if we’re speaking of more dramatic, extinction threatening risks, I think religion has a role to play there as well. First, we might ask why is it that most religions have an eschatology? That is, why do most explicitly describe, through stories or doctrine, how the world will end? Why is this feature of religions nearly ubiquitous?

Additionally there’s a good argument to be made that as part of religion people preserve the memory of past calamities. You may have seen recently that scientists are saying some of the aboriginal Australians might have passed down a tale that’s 37,000 years old. And then of course there’s the ongoing speculation that Noah’s flood, which also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, also preserves the memory of some ancient calamity.

Having made a connection from the religious to the secular, you might ask whether things go in the other direction as well. Indeed they do, and the connection is even easier to make. Imagine that you’re reading the Bible and you come across a passage like this one in Isaiah:

For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.

For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.

If you believe that this sort of thing is going to come to pass, then it would appear that there are modern weapons (including nukes) that would fit this description nicely. More broadly while it’s somewhat more difficult to imagine how:

…the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

-Revelation 6:14

Such descriptions are the exception, rather than the rule. Most eschatological calamities included in the doctrines of the various religions, like plagues and wars, are likely to have secular causes, and the potential to be made worse by technology. (Note the rapid global spread of COVID-19/coronavirus.) And while I think many people overfit religious doctrine onto global trends, I certainly can’t imagine that it would be tenable to do the opposite. How someone interested in religious eschatology could ignore what’s going on in the larger world. 

In the end, as I said during my previous post on the topic, I’m very interested in expanding the definition and scope of the discipline of eschatology. And even if you don’t agree with everything I’ve done in service of that expansion, I think bringing in Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis opens up vast new areas for theorizing and discussion. Yes, the hypothesis itself is very speculative, but the most compelling argument against it is that there will never be humans capable of making such simulations, which argument, itself, represents a very strong eschatological position. One way or another you have to take a position on how the world is going to turn out. And given the enormous stakes represented by such a discussion, I think it’s best if we explore every possible nook and cranny. Because in the end there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know, and I for one don’t feel confident dismissing any possibility when it comes to saving the world.


If we are in a simulation I wonder how the designers feel about those people who are “on to them”? Do they react with pleasure at our cleverness? Or do they unleash all the plagues of Egypt? If it’s the latter I might soon find myself in need of some monetary assistance.


Books I Finished in February (Plus a Conference I Attended)

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For the last several years Nassim Nicholas Taleb, along with a few associates, has conducted a week long course on risk, the Real World Risk Institute. As anyone who has followed the blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Taleb, going so far, on occasion, to call myself a disciple of Taleb. As such it was always my goal/dream/plan to attend the institute at some point. However, if you had asked me at the beginning of the year if 2020 was the year for that, I would have laughed, but I had a recurring item on my to do list to at least consider it every year and late in January that reminder popped up. This year, after reviewing my calendar for the week it was being held, and finding it was completely open, while also considering whether any other year would necessarily be better (assuming they even hold it in the future which is never a guarantee). I realized that perhaps this year was as good as it was going to get. Which is a very round about way of saying: I spent the last week of February at the Real World Risk Institute.

Going in I really had no idea what to expect. I had read all of his books of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of the material would be an expansion on that, how much of it would be entirely different, or really what the course work would look like. (I was also really worried about staying awake all day during five days of coursework. Particularly given that my last personal update was all about how I like to take naps.)

It ended up being awesome. As far as Taleb himself, I had always heard that despite a reputation for being savage to public figures and on Twitter in general that he was delightful in person. And that was indeed the case, He basically asked me how I was doing every time I was anywhere near him. He was a genial and humorous lecturer, and I (mostly) had no problem staying awake because the material was so engaging. It was largely stuff from his books, but deeper and more discursive. We spent a surprising amount of time in Mathematica with him showing the formulas behind his various assertions and graphs.

Beyond the actual coursework, I met a lot of great people as well. I ended up sitting next to an admiral, talking to people from all over the world including places like India, Iran, and Switzerland, and overall making some great connections. It was genuinely a fantastic experience. Though as you can see it left me a little light on the number of books I finished:


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties

By: Christopher Caldwell

352 pages

General Thoughts

First, because I couldn’t figure out where else to put it, I’d like to start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that they’ve gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises. I bow to no one in my concern of the opioid crisis and related deaths of despair, but even I was shocked by the disparity.

I hadn’t seen anyone else mention that comparison, so I thought I’d get it out there. Where most of the people who review this book end up going is to Caldwell’s contention that America really has two constitutions. The first, created in 1787, is the one we all think of when someone mentions the US Constitution. The second, created in 1964, and commonly called the Civil Rights Act, is not generally viewed as a constitution, but one of Caldwell’s central arguments is that it is, and that from this much of the current political landscape follows as a conflict between the original, de jure constitution, and the new de facto constitution. That, rather than being a natural extension of the original constitution, the Civil Rights Act is in fact a rival constitution, not complementary but actually opposed in most respects to the values of the original. 

Having read the book and considered the evidence I see no reason to doubt that this is exactly what’s happening, and that furthermore a reckoning is coming. But it’s not immediately clear what that reckoning will be, one assumes Trump (and Sanders?) is part of that reckoning, and on the very last page of the book there’s the briefest reference to his 2016 candidacy, but that’s it. The lack of any other reference to Trump’s presidency almost makes one wonder if Caldwell is teeing up a sequel. Rather, instead of spending time on Trump, and the various recent discontents, he spends a surprising amount of time on the financial side of things. Which I think has been less remarked on by other people reviewing this book. (At least from what I’ve seen.)

In addition to his “two constitutions” thesis, he puts forth another thesis, which is in some respects more interesting. It goes something like this. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 it essentially opened up the gates of entitlement spending. But, while this spending was still in its infancy it was possible to imagine that things could be stopped or reversed, and indeed, that appeared to be the way things might be headed under Johnson, and even more so under Nixon, but Nixon ended up getting impeached. Which basically put the issue in the hands of Carter. Who actually tried to cut entitlements, and furthermore proposed lean and tight budgets. Whether his efforts contributed to the stagflation of the 70s or not, the timing of that was against him. All of this meant that by the time it got to Reagan entitlements were too entrenched to do anything about, and there was really only one thing he could do: Spend like crazy, cut taxes, and shift the burden of entitlements to future generations. 

Certainly Reagan wanted to cut entitlements. He campaigned on getting rid of the Department of Education, and promised to end affirmative action with “the stroke of a pen”. But by the time he came along it was too late, entitlements had already become so embedded that there was nothing he could do, and instead, backed by massive increases in government spending and persistent deficits, the number of people who view entitlements as their birthright has just continued to grow. 

I mostly agree with this, but I also think he’s probably conflating two separate things, and not doing a great job of connecting the two. (What percentage of the debt can actually be attributed to the Civil Rights Act?) Additionally I wonder how much of what he’s talking about is genuinely unique to the US and how much is just what Lord Woodhouselee observed in 1791, namely:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.

Is it possible that the only thing which has been added in the modern version of this equation is the ability of people to vote themselves special treatment as well? Perhaps, though it should be noted that most additional rights were granted by the judiciary rather than through a vote. But perhaps in this day and age agitation is more powerful than voting. Perhaps the quote should be changed to:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the people discover they can agitate for largess and special benefits at the expense of the nation as a whole.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Having covered all of this, what we might call the domestic eschatological implications of the book should be obvious. It used to be taken for granted that while there might be severe crises from time to time in the US, the country’s core foundation was unshakeable. Particularly after passing through the crucible of the Civil War. Increasingly this is no longer the case, the foundation is definitely starting to appear “shakeable” and people are wondering if their confidence might be misplaced. If, perhaps, our system of government might be more fragile than we think. 

The book posits two possible avenues for catastrophe, the first and seemingly more immediate problem in Caldwell’s opinion is spending, and much of what Caldwell warns us about is dependent on the assumption that the deficit and the debt are going to turn out to be big problems. I’m obviously on record as saying they are, but there is an increasing minority who argues that the dangers posed by debt are overblown, and maybe spending on entitlements won’t single-handedly blow things up, or at least if it does it will take longer than I think. (It certainly has taken longer than Ross Perot thought it would.) And if that’s the case, perhaps Reagan was unintentionally brilliant when he opened the floodgates of federal spending. But if ongoing spending and entitlement growth are going to kill the country then all that matters is whether it’s going to continue or not. It seems safe to bet that it will.

Even if spending isn’t going to end up being catastrophic all by itself. The book puts forth another possible avenue for catastrophe.  One that’s more vague, but in the end probably less tractable. This is the conflict between the two constitutions. As they say, a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, but I think Caldwell has done something very valuable by pointing out the fundamental irreconcilability between the two visions. That they cannot coexist for very long, one or the other is going to eventually triumph. What will that triumph look like? Will it end up shattering the nation? At a minimum it’s already created some bizarre contradictions, and it’s safe to say these contradictions are only going to get harder to manage, and the conflicts surrounding them more difficult to resolve.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

By: Doris Kearns Goodwin

928 Pages

This book is what you would get if a biography of Teddy Roosevelt and a biography of Taft loved each other very much, and the offspring of that union was then adopted by a history of turn of the century muck-racking/investigative journalism, and then allowed to grow until it was nearly 1000 pages. And what a book it is. 

As usual with books of this breadth I’m not going to be able to cover even a fraction of what I read, but I will offer up a few things I thought were particularly interesting.

  • It’s hard to overstate how close Roosevelt and Taft were before Taft became president, and how excited Roosevelt was to have Taft succeed him and how much he did to make it happen.
  • Taft never wanted to be president, his true dream was always to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and he was, eventually). It was really his wife, Nellie, that had all of the ambition. Taft was fine with that as long as she was in a position to support him, but a couple of months after he was inaugurated, she had a pretty severe stroke, and things instantly flipped from her being able to support him, to him spending a lot of time supporting her. It’s one of those things that doesn’t get much attention, but you can imagine an alternate universe where she didn’t have a stroke and things were very different.
  • Roosevelt’s wife was the opposite. She hated the limelight and was a very private person. Also, she was his second wife. His first wife died of Bright’s Disease (kidney failure) two days after the birth of their first child. And just eleven hours earlier, upstairs from where his wife would die, Roosevelt’s mother died at the age of 48 from typhoid fever. (His father had died six years previously.) Roosevelt would never talk about his first wife, even going so far as to leave any mention of his first marriage out of his autobiography.
  • Roosevelt only became president because McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. That much everyone knows, but he was only vice president because conservative New York “Machine” Republicans, opposed to the progressive agenda he was pushing as the state’s governor, wanted him out of that office, and contrived to offer him a role where he would be essentially powerless. Roosevelt knew what they were up to, but the trap was so cleverly constructed he couldn’t get out of it. But when McKinley ended up dying in office it backfired spectacularly.
  • As part of Roosevelt’s platform for president, when running against Taft, he wanted to subject judicial decisions to being reviewed and overturned by plebiscites, where a simple majority of the people could annual any judicial decision. A proposal so radical that even with the enormous fights over the Supreme Court currently taking place, I’ve never heard of it being suggested again. (Figuring out why that is would make an interesting post of its own.)
  • Taft and Roosevelt did eventually reconcile, and had a few more years of being close friends before Roosevelt died at 60. You may be wondering why he died comparatively young. If so make sure to check out the next review.

Beyond those brief takeaways, I was particularly struck by one very distinct parallel between that time and ours: both now and then people and politicians found themselves in the middle of a media revolution. In Roosevelt’s time it was the revolution of investigative journalism, and he managed to partner with these journalists in a masterly fashion in his pursuit of progressivism. This partnership is the primary reason Goodwin titled the book “The Bully Pulpit”. But even as Roosevelt took advantage of the muckrakers, he also warned that they could go too far. That at some point journalism would reach a point where it would be so dominated by the search for scandal that, in response, the government would be able to do very little other than respond to those accusations, leaving hardly any time for the actual business of government to take place. 

This is interesting given how much scandal there actually was at the time. Corruption was endemic in a way that’s hard for us to imagine (I know people will disagree with me on this, but I don’t think Trump comes even close) and at the time nearly every politician of a certain age had engaged in it to one extent or another. As a result uncovering scandals was easy and productive, particularly at the beginning, but as all the “low-hanging fruit” was uncovered, the muckrakers had to dig deeper and deeper to uncover new scandals to satisfy the appetites of their readers, which is precisely how they got their name. And Roosevelt worried that as things continued the government would be spending so much time on scandals that it wouldn’t have any time left to govern. 

I understand that our own situation is not identical, and that there certainly still are active scandals that should be uncovered, but when you look at the kind of things that have happened historically, most of what counts as a scandal today is almost laughably minor by comparison. And the situation gets even worse when we compare the size of the scandal to the level of outrage it generates. And yes, this is a complicated topic, coming as it does, shortly after Trump’s impeachment. (FYI, I think I would have voted the same way Romney did.) But considering the topic more generally, I do think that pointing out wrong-doing (much of it imagined) is easier than ever, the outrage generated by it greater than ever and that both have contributed more than we think to the dysfunction of government, in much the way that Roosevelt imagined.


The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

By: Candice Millard

416 Pages

This was in my audible library, and having finished the one book about Roosevelt it seemed only natural to immediately move onto another book about him while everything was still fresh in my mind. Though in most respects, despite it largely being about the same person, this book reminded me more of the survival books I’ve read recently than any presidential biography. 

Like many true stories where people barely survive, this book starts with heavy foreshadowing, mentioning all the bad choices that get made before the journey even starts, all of the decisions that will come back to haunt people, and all of the past events which, while seemingly inconsequential at the time, nevertheless manage to have profound effects on the journey.

After reading River of Doubt I’m actually surprised that Roosevelt’s story wasn’t featured in any of the survival books I’ve previously read. Because as far as coming close to death, I think Roosevelt and the rest of them came as close to death as anyone I read about in those other books. For example, at one point Roosevelt had decided to take a lethal dose of morphine because he’s been badly injured and the injury is infected, leaving him unable to continue. The only reason he didn’t is that his son, Kermit, is on the trip, and he not only manages to talk Roosevelt out of it, but manages to convince the rest of the party to try this insane scheme for getting their canoes past some particularly difficult set of rapids. As it was, even though he survived, the journey clearly shortened TR’s life, by possibly 10-20 years. 

As you can imagine from all this, it was a truly epic story, with death, suffering, courage, stupidity and betrayal. I think it’s possible to disagree and argue about Roosevelt the politician, but when it came to his philosophy of the strenuous life he definitely practiced what he preached.


The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

By: Neal Stephenson

499 Pages

Late last year I decided that I was going to start doing deep re-reads of selected books. This is the first book I chose. Having finished it, I realize it deserves a full post, because there’s so many great things going on (along with a few head scratchers). But I would like to include one of my favorite quotes from the book, to give you a taste of why I like the book so much:

“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others–after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour–you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception–he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.” “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved–the missteps we make along the way–are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.


God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (Religious)

By: Thomas Jay Oord

214 Pages

Late last year Oord emailed me and said he liked my podcast, which was enough to convince me to read one of his books and see what his philosophy consisted of. Which eventually led me to this book…

As I’ve blogged about extensively, the theological problems of suffering and evil have been around for a very long time, at least since the time of Epicurus who is said to have come up with this the initial trilemma around the topic: 

  1. If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
  2. If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
  3. If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?

As you might have guessed from the title of the book Oord’s answer, is that it’s the first option, “God is unable” or in pithier terms, “God Can’t”. But he adds a very large caveat to this assertion: It’s not that he is not omnipotent, rather he refuses to control us. From the jacket:

God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. God loves everyone and everything, so God can’t control anyone or anything.

As explanations go, this one has a fair bit going for it. It allows God to be every bit as loving as you can conceivably imagine. A being who would entirely remove evil and suffering, but just can’t without diminishing some of his love through unrighteous control. It definitely fulfills the primary requirements of allowing God to be loving and omnipotent while still explaining suffering. And on top of that it’s straightforward, it doesn’t rely on mystery, i.e. saying things like “God’s ways are not our ways.” All that said, I think it ends up generating its own trilemma:

  1. If God can’t control “anyone or anything” then why do we do things like pray?
  2. But clearly, to the extent Jesus is God, he certainly controlled at least some things. For example controlling diseases by healing them.
  3. If God can control some things, like diseases, and those things cause suffering, why do they still exist? 

I admit it’s not quite as pithy as the original trilemma (or even a true trilemma) and I’m equally certain that Oord has an answer. But if he did I’m still a little fuzzy on what that answer is. Also I have my own theory for why God permits evil and suffering (and which has backing from recent work on AI Risk) and for obvious reasons that’s the one I’m going to stick with. But it was intellectually stimulating to read someone else’s explanation.


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“The Good Place”, Brain-uploading, and Eschatology

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***Warning: Massive spoilers for The Good Place ahead. If you don’t want to be spoiled don’t read this post.***

The Good Place recently ended after four seasons. The show was praised for its various twists, and it’s “exploration and creative use of ethics and philosophy”. But of course it was also a show about eschatology, in fact it may be argued that this was it’s primary subject matter. Given this focus it’s reasonable and even important to examine the nature of the eschatology it espoused. There are of course a wide variety of imagined eschatologies out there, and numerous definitions of the word itself beyond that. So what was The Good Place’s contribution to this topic?

Before answering that question we first need to set some parameters for the discussion. To begin with, I want to discuss this subject in a very practical fashion. Obviously, despite my argument that the show’s primary theme was eschatology, that wasn’t the show’s purpose. It’s purpose was to entertain, and as such it was far more interested in taking a humorous look at a potential afterlife than it was in taking a serious and consistent approach to things. On the other hand, I would like to set aside the humorous bits and strip away things which are present only for their entertainment value, but in order to accomplish this I need to do two things:

First, while a large part of this post will be dedicated to pointing out the various flaws I noticed in the show’s handling of how an afterlife might work. I need to make it clear that this should not be construed as an attack on the show, or any indication that I didn’t enjoy it or that you won’t enjoy it. In particular I don’t want people to be distracted by defending the show, as I said the show’s purpose was to be entertaining, not philosophically rigorous. And as a sitcom it was one of the best, but it did propose an eschatology, and it’s worth examining whether that eschatology hangs together.

Second, in order for those flaws to have any resonance, we have to be willing to imagine that we’re critiquing something which might actually exist, that there might, in fact, be an afterlife, and additionally that there might be god-like beings in charge of that afterlife, or at least something supernatural about how it’s put together. Otherwise any discussion of how it should work, and how that might be different than how it worked on the show, will be, at best superficial, and at worst, entirely pointless. For anyone who’s religious, imagining an afterlife and the supernatural qualities which would have to attend such a place, is easy. But I don’t want to rely too much on religion (though I can’t avoid it entirely) because it will inevitably be off-putting for those who are not religious, or who belong to a different denomination than those I ended up using in my examples.

Fortunately, this is an ideal place to bring in my extensive work imagining how certain religious ideas (including the afterlife) resemble ideas for dealing with AI risk. Meaning, that for those who aren’t religious, rather than imagining what happens or should happen to the souls of the departed, we can imagine the eschatology associated with AIs or, their close cousins, individuals who have had their brain uploaded into a virtual environment where the natural rules don’t apply (an environment which is supernatural by definition.) Obviously, I’m not going to want to type out that entire explanation every time I refer to these individuals, so instead I’ll just use Robin Hanson’s shorthand and call them Ems. Presumably even those who are not religious can imagine that someday we might develop the ability to construct (or reconstruct) a person in a virtual environment, and thereby realize a technological eschatology. And considering how that environment should work gets us to an afterlife or at least a “heaven” very similar to one imagined by many religions and by The Good Place itself.

Having hopefully given everyone a little more skin in the game on this topic, let’s proceed to our examination of what The Good Place got right, but probably more importantly what it got wrong about eschatology and potential afterlifes. 

Let’s start with one of the very first things I noticed, and one of the elements the show mangled the most. To repeat, I’m sure they made things this way for entirely understandable reasons, it was both comedic and necessary for the character arcs of nearly all the people on the show.  But, their representation of the “Good Place Committee” (GPC) represented a fundamental and almost insulting misunderstanding of the nature of good. I am assuming that most of those reading this had a chance to see the show, but if not, in the show, after people die, they can go either to the “Good Place” or the “Bad Place” and there isn’t much to distinguish these two places from common conceptions of heaven and hell, so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably.

Heaven is run by a committee, and apparently in this version of the world being good (or at least qualified to run the Good Place) comprises a combination of fawning politeness with absolute and total ineffectiveness. This seems clearly to be one of those things that was done the way it was for both the humor value and as a way to give the main characters something to do because certainly this bears no resemblance to the theology of any of the world’s religions, and even if we imagine that the “souls” in question are Ems and that humans are running the show rather than an omniscient creator it’s still impossible to imagine that the best governing structure they could come up with is the committee from the show (or any committee for that matter.)

Of course this leads to the question of what sort of people we should expect to be running or even just inhabiting heaven. And here I will allow that it’s a difficult question. One of the chief lessons to come out of recent philosophical work on AI risk has been the realization that coming up with a fool proof standard for morality is both enormously important and enormously difficult. That defining an objective, and it should be added, secular standard for what’s good and what’s not is a challenging task. But even with those difficulties in mind I think we should at least expect that any morality worthy of the name has to have some backbone to it, that this is in fact almost the definition of morality. And while, as I said, there were probably several good reasons for portraying it the way they did, I also wonder if they could have portrayed it in any other way, and if equating being obsequious for being good was the only way to not get overly political. 

(It should be noted it’s not just the GPC, in the show the paragon of “virtue” on the earth, Doug Forcett is also a gigantic pushover.)

I feel like this was not always the case, that there was a time when you could have pointed to a society-wide morality, and that being able to draw on a more robust morality would have allowed them to construct a far more convincing heaven (can you imagine what the Good Place would have looked like in the 1920’s?) but that such universality is no longer present. All that said, perhaps I’m reading too much into things, but at its most essential when anyone imagines heaven and hell you always imagine a war existing between the two. In the show it’s clear that the Bad Place is waging such a war against the Good Place, which the Good Place has been losing for centuries, apparently without even noticing it, or having the ability to fight back if they had. And it’s hard to imagine that any functional organization, much less one designed to be the ultimate ideal, could ever be that inept. But it makes you wonder, is there any chance that this is a reflection of our own failings in this area? Because it gets worse.

In the final few episodes we find out that not only have the effective “rulers of heaven” been too polite and willing to compromise and that they are losing a war with Hell they don’t even seem to be aware of, but on top of all this they’re actually terrible at running heaven. Somehow they have managed to create another version of hell, which is so bad that when it’s announced to those souls who’ve made it to heaven that they will be allowed to effectively commit suicide in order to leave, they cheer, and it’s implied that it’s the first cheer that’s been heard there in hundreds if not thousands of years. 

Here is where we turn to the things The Good Place did well. To begin with they tackle head-on the question of whether immortality would be a blessing or a curse. This idea that immortality might get old (pun intended) is one of the more interesting philosophical topics the show tackles, and a serious subject for debate among actual philosophers. One of the reasons to favor the idea that it’s a curse (which ends up being the show’s position) is illustrated by the pseudo-hell of boredom the characters find when they arrive in the Good Place. A boredom so soul-crushing that even with access to anything they could possibly imagine suicide seems preferable. Certainly claiming that regardless of how good it was, that one would eventually tire of life is not an unreasonable position to take, but neither does it feel particularly creative either. Regardless, one assumes that the GPC still could have done a better job of dealing with that boredom than they did, but if we keep our same basic emotions and appetites, even after having our brain uploaded into a virtual heaven, then boredom would still probably be a real concern. It should be mentioned that Hanson cleverly solves this problem for Ems by running them at a lower speed. As I said the “immortality is a curse” option is reasonable, but surely we can imagine ways to change that.

To flip it around and look at what people might want rather than what they’re trying to avoid, any system like this would, in theory, be trying to maximize human flourishing. One of my readers recently pointed me to an article where the Royal Society suggested that future technological systems should have “promote human flourishing” as their primary imperative. And The Good Place does a great job of illustrating how this is much easier said than done. 

For all of the characters in the show it quickly becomes obvious that even in heaven in order to be happy, that is to flourish, they need to have a work to do, something to occupy their attention. It’s not clear if this is an innovation introduced by the main characters or if all the previous inhabitants of the Good Place have exhausted this avenue before they arrive, but you get the impression it’s the former. And it illustrates another failure mode of heaven and immortality, the hedonic treadmill. If you give people everything they’ve ever wanted, the increased happiness is temporary. (The classic example is lottery winners.) That along with rewards there has to be continual challenges. And it occurs to me that beyond being interesting dilemmas, boredom and a hedonic set point are problems we’re already facing without having to imagine a heaven, virtual or otherwise.

It’s something of a cliche to talk about how in a developed country even relatively poor people live better than the kings of old. And while the situation is more complicated than that, it’s remarkable how much the modern world already resembles the Good Place of the show. One of the characters, Jason, apparently wants to play Madden forever. Well it’s my understanding that you can already do that. It probably helps if your parents let you live in their basement, or if you’ve got some other minimal level of support (I don’t think it takes that much. UBI or disability might be sufficient.) But that is something that’s already within reach and is probably just going to get easier. But is it flourishing? Are we sure we know what flourishing is? One of the whole points of the show is that no one, even in the afterlife, actually does. 

Hovering in the background of the show, but never mentioned, is the question of a designer. And while this part ends up being the most metaphysical, it’s also the part I find the most interesting. In most mythologies, or theologies, or even most systems in general, there’s a very prominent creation story. In Greek mythology there’s Gaia and Uranus. For the Abrahamic religions there’s Adam and Eve. For Facebook there’s Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room. But The Good Place pays almost no attention to any sort of “origin story”.

The closest we come is to find out that the Judge can destroy creation, and then reset it, but the “demons” running the Bad Place are not affected by this destruction so they exist outside of creation? But beyond this, the list of things we don’t know is staggering. Who created the point system? Why is there a point system? Who’s the judge? Where do the GPC and the Demons come from? And those are just questions directly relating to the show. There are still all the normal questions of why suffering and evil exist. What is the point of having a hell? And what is the source of morality?

In the end it definitely feels that there had to be a designer, whatever else you may say about things they definitely don’t feel organic. It seems clear from the show that someone came along and set all of this up, the point system, the existence of a Bad Place and a Good Place. The angels and the demons had to come from somewhere as well. But apparently whoever this person was, despite being effectively omnipotent, they don’t appear to have been omniscient, or even particularly wise. I’ve already talked about the various issues with the committee that runs the Good Place, but more than that the central premise of the show is revealing how poorly designed the afterlife actually is.

This is yet another similarity with our own condition. Being omnipotent without being omniscient or even very wise is not that far off from describing our own situation. Particularly if we’re ever able to upload our consciousness into a rules free virtual environment. How concerned should we be by this mismatch? If there’s one actual lesson to be taken from the show, it might be that we should be very concerned. And it actually works from both directions, in addition to showing a heaven where no one is actually happy, the show begins with the premise that, despite having infinite power to inflict torture on humans, they’re apparently looking for better ways of making them suffer as well. And part of the genius of the show is that both ring true, both happiness and misery end up being more complicated than expected, and being omnipotent is not the same as being omnicompetent. 

Obviously drawing a direct connection between a TV show and hypothetical future technology is of very limited utility, but I would argue that the utility is not zero. We’ve had the ability to satisfy our appetites beyond anything our ancestors imagined for quite some time (see my episodes on supernormal stimuli) and thus far the best we can say is that results have been mixed. And while we’re definitely going to get better at satisfying our appetites, it’s not clear that we’re going to get any better at managing the outcome of that.

We’re quick to imagine that if we ever get to the point where we can upload our brains into a virtual world of our own devising, crafted in such a way that our wildest dreams become reality, that all our problems will be solved. And if it’s not exactly this scenario there are still a lot of people with the same basic eschatology as the show: There’s a Good Place out there and we need to get to it. But just like the characters, there’s some chance that when we get there, it will turn out that it’s not as straightforward as we thought. And to the extent that we’re already there this is becoming increasingly obvious.


As those of you who have watched the show know. There’s also a Medium Place, inhabited by exactly one individual. And despite being only one person out of billions and despite being deeply flawed, this person exercised disproportionate influence on the rest of “creation”. I’m guessing there’s some lesson in there about the power we all have, but mostly I’m just making the connection that there was one person in the Medium Place and there’s one person writing this blog, so donate, I guess? 


Churchills, Hitlers, and Hedonists

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I.

In August of 1941, near the beginning of World War II, before the US had even entered the war and during one of its bleakest periods, George Orwell penned an essay. This was an essay written in response to some things being said by another famous author, H.G. Wells:

Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and [yet] Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood…What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the “sacred soil of the Fatherland”, etc etc), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered form. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions–racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war–which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

(h/t: Bruce G. Charlton)

Wells was a science fiction writer who spent his days imagining a better or at least a different future, and Hitler and the Nazi’s represented neither. Instead they were depressingly primitive and retrograde. Because of this Wells imagines that the German war machine is going to fizzle out any minute now. Orwell strenuously disagrees. In hindsight, we can see that Wells was not merely mistaken, but very mistaken. 

In this day and age, people like Wells still exist, and though they are no longer so quick to underestimate the appeal of powerful national emotions, or suffer from any difficulty imagining another Hitler (in fact if anything they may be too quick to apply that label to their ideological opponents) they still underestimate the power of those emotions and the dangers of abandoning them. Because I would submit that Orwell was correct about those who’ve settled into an “essentially hedonistic worldview” I think they would “hardly [be] willing to shed a pint of blood” or make many other sacrifices either, in defense of their ideology. 

Recall, it wasn’t just Hitler and the Nazis harnessing those emotions, as Orwell points out nationalist fervor and patriotism was just as necessary to the British and the Russians in beating off the Nazis as it was to the Nazis in the first place. The two went somewhat hand in hand. So what’s the situation now? There seems to be four possibilities:

  1. Nothing has changed. Hitler’s are still possible and if someone like him arose again, and stoked the patriotic fervor of a nation then, in response, we would see the same nationalistic unity among his opponents. That it is still possible for there to be all out war.
  2. Hitlers are possible, but the will to oppose them is not. For example perhaps you could imagine Putin or Xi Jinping mobilizing their country in the same way Hitler did, but you can’t imagine a Churchill ever again arising in Europe or the US.
  3. The reverse of the previous option. Churchills are possible, but Hitlers aren’t. 
  4. We have progressed to the point where Hitlers are no longer possible, but neither is the sort of patriotic sacrifice we saw on the other side either. That these days Churchills are just as impossible as Hitlers. Nowhere in the world will any nation ever again summon the massive and coordinated effort we saw during the World Wars. 

Let’s take those possibilities in order. As the option with the best prima facie backing the first option has to be assigned some likelihood. In other words, unless you have good reasons to believe that something has changed it’s best to assume that it hasn’t. Of course, this wouldn’t be good news. The idea that we might once again see the great powers engaged in total war, only this time with the additional excitement of nuclear weapons, should terrify anyone. But perhaps there are good reasons to believe that something has changed. I think I, along with most people, have a hard time imagining a Hitler or a Churchill emerging out of the modern West. For all his strange popularity among a certain segment of the population, Trump is no Hitler, and finding a Churchill analogy is even harder. Which is not to say that it couldn’t happen, though if it does, it would seem more likely that these individuals would unify only a segment of a particular nation. Currently there seems to be very little evidence that anyone could unite an entire western nation as Hitler and Churchill once did. 

Which takes us to the possibility that Hitlers are possible but Churchills aren’t. This seems the most awful possibility of all, and unfortunately not all that difficult to imagine. Certainly it’s not hard to construct a scenario, where 30 years from now a confident China, united by some charismatic leader, faces off against a disunited and fragmented USA. One unable to pull together as a nation, even assuming that our system could produce someone we could unite around, which it can’t. Or to put it another way, it’s possible that the developed Western countries might be uniquely skilled at producing martially impotent hedonists, unwilling or unable to be roused by national pride, while the rest of the world still maintains that ability, or at least enough of it to come out on top in a fight. 

The third possibility, Churchills without Hitlers, seems the least likely of all. For one I have a strong suspicion that Churchills only arise in the presence of a Hitler. Certainly, if we abandon our use of them as shorthand for a moment and look to the actual individuals, Churchill never would have been chosen as prime minister without the threat of Hitler. And all the other Churchillian figures I can think also only came to the fore in response to a great crisis, even if that crisis lacked an opposing villain (think Lincoln and the Civil War). If a Churchill-esque figure were to arise independent of a crisis, and attempt to enforce their vision on an unwilling populace then I think that flips them into the Hitler column regardless of the initial purity of their motives. 

II.

The final possibility is perhaps the most interesting, but also the one with the greatest number of unknowns. To be clear there are certainly upsides to dispensing with the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” but there are also downsides as well, and the question we have to confront is whether Orwell was right about the rest of his statement. Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world? And have we lost all power of action without them?

Before we proceed to answer these questions it’s important to take a deeper look at where things stand in the world at the moment. To begin with, I’m not familiar enough with Russian and Chinese attitudes to know if there’s enough nationalism still remaining in those countries for a Hitler style figure to emerge, though as I mentioned above, I think it would be foolish to rule out that possibility. But for a clear example of where these sorts of emotions are still present, we need merely turn to the Middle East, with the prime example being ISIS. (Which, it should be noted, is primarily a religious phenomenon.) And it’s worth spending some time on that, because clearly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a modern Hitler-esque figure. Which would seem to be strong evidence in favor of the argument that Hitlers are still possible (possibilities one and two).

The only saving grace in this instance was the vast disparity in technology between ISIS and its enemies, which allowed a strange pseudo-coalition of US backed Kurds, combined with Russian backed Syrians to eventually defeat them. But it’s worth pointing out that neither the US nor the Russians defeated them directly, they had to use “emotional” proxies like the Kurds and Assad supporting Syrians to actually eliminate ISIS as a nation with territory. This would also be the time to point out that the US has been unable to defeat the Taliban. Taken together these two conflicts would appear to provide strong evidence that the emotions Orwell mentioned are still important. And leading us to answer with a provisional “yes” to his first question: “Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world.” Well, at a minimum they have certainly shaped Afghanistan.

Looking at the world as a whole is interesting, but I think it’s instructive to look at just the US. When asked whether our nation still contains people with the sort of emotional energy found elsewhere most people might offer up the example of the ongoing protests against Trump. Or perhaps they might point out stories of street battles between Antifa and the Proud Boys or something similar. And while these may or may not be the sort of thing Orwell was talking about, they lack another characteristic which removes them from consideration even if they are. These individuals represent factions within a nation and not the nation itself. For Churchill to rally the English, it was not enough for him to rally only the football hooligans, or the Londoners, or even all the members of his own party he had to rally the nation as a whole. Now of course he didn’t have to rally every last individual citizen, but he (and Hitler) rallied enough people that the resources of the entire nation were bent towards a single goal. Looking at the factions currently roaming the streets, do you imagine any of them will ever have enough support to unite the entire nation? I don’t.

We should, at this point, consider the possibility that there are plenty of Hitlers, and perhaps even an equal number of Churchills but that the modern world is too fragmented for one of them to ever again rally an entire nation. The causes of this fragmentation have been amply examined elsewhere. (Indeed it seems the media can talk about little else.) And, for the purposes of this post, we’re not concerned with how we got here, but only with what we do now that we are. As to that, it seems obvious that we can have hundreds of mini-Churchills and Hitlers running around, but it doesn’t matter how much power they are able to bring to bear, because when speaking of a nation the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The effectiveness of an entire nation is vastly greater than the effectiveness of any faction within that nation, even adjusted for size, and even if the various factions aren’t actively working against each other, which they generally are.

Does this therefore mean that the answer to Orwell’s second question is also yes? That in the absence of these unifying emotions that we have lost “all power of action”? As you’ll recall he mentioned two groups of people in his essay, those who were susceptible to nationalism and those who thought it a relic of the past. If the first group, those who are still given to emotion, are hopelessly divided, perhaps a new breed of rational individuals will step in and take their place. But of course, Orwell also claimed, speaking of this second group, “for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.” Is this claim true? I’m not sure how to test it, or what evidence to provide for its truthfulness, but perhaps if we consider one of the chief examples and advocates for this second group as an example, it will help give us a sense of things. For this purpose I’d like to consider Steven Pinker, who I admittedly pick on a lot, but he is also probably the foremost example of a public intellectual who rejects “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” while also embracing a “commonsense essentially hedonistic worldview.” 

Given our framework, the first question we might ask is whether Pinker is a Churchill. (Or, I suppose, a Hitler, though that’s not a term to be thrown around lightly.) If he were then the discussion would be over, but I think we can safely say that he is not, at least not in the classic sense of being the charismatic leader of a popular movement. You could make the argument that while he does not have broad popular appeal, that he has had some influence on the rich and powerful. Certainly Bill Gates appears to have been influenced by his ideas. And that’s not nothing to be sure, but we’re not asking if Pinker and people like him can have any influence, clearly they can, we’re asking whether they can take the place of a Churchill and unite a nation when a Hitler shows up with his millions of men and tens of thousands of tanks. And here Pinker’s prospects don’t seem very promising. 

For there to be any hope of someone like Pinker pulling off this sort of charismatic unification you would expect to see some indications of that power already. At least one or two political parties somewhere in the world of non-trivial size dedicated to him (not merely his ideology, remember we’re talking charismatic not ideological unification) or some nation where “Pinkerism” has already triumphed, and posters of the professor are displayed prominently. Unless I’m woefully misinformed, I don’t think any of that has happened. Frankly, it’d be a nice change of pace if bands of rabid Pinkernarians (Pinkertonians?) roamed the streets violently enforcing enlightenment ideals, but as far as I can tell insofar as there are Pinkernarians in the world they are entirely unorganized, and exactly as docile as Orwell predicted they would be.

To be clear, from Pinker’s perspective this lack of rabid followers is more of a feature than a bug. Popular movements are not known for their rationality, nor are the charismatic leaders of such movements known for their restraint. I think what he’s arguing is that you can be effective, that you can generate the energy necessary to shape the world, without such things, without the fiery emotions Orwell mentioned. That you can do it based entirely on rational self interest. Perhaps, but the evidence appears to be against it. 

Previously, I discussed the difficulties of sustaining political unity in the absence of credible threats, and remarked that it seemed a better explanation than most for the current level of political vitriol. And the big question we should have after all of this, is can it be done? In a world without Hitlers and Churchills can nations still unify to get big important things done? We’ve seen Pinker’s argument for how this will happen, what does everyone else think?

III.

As you’ll recall this all started with a discussion of the possibility that the modern West, and in particular the US contains neither Churchills nor Hitlers. And, if that is indeed the case what it might mean. Orwell argues (and I think with some justification) that such a society is going to be incapable of doing anything particularly grand. He specifically mentions shedding a pint of blood, but I think that could be extended to anything which requires significant sacrifice of their “essentially hedonistic worldview” for the “greater good”. If they’re not willing to hazard the shedding of blood (theirs or others) they might also be unwilling to pay higher taxes, receive fewer benefits or put up with small amounts of inequality. 

Pinker seems to be arguing that ongoing progress will mean that they mostly won’t have to, and that whatever inconveniences remain can be calmly and rationally addressed by an enlightened populace full of calm and rational individuals. But Pinker is also one of those rare individuals who believes the only thing we have to fear about the future is fear itself. (Specifically that such fear will cause us to abandon the enlightenment values which got us here.) A far greater percentage of people think that there are lots of things to worry about in the future, and furthermore lots of problems in the present, and being able to bring together millions of people to solve these problems would sure come in handy. The question is how to get those people to bring with them homeless shelters in their thousands, and solar panels in their tens of thousands rather than aeroplanes and tanks.

Most individuals, when confronted with this question, while still opposed to actual war, do not also go on to deny its power. There’s even a phrase that gets used: “The Moral Equivalent of War”. Wikipedia has a pretty good description of its origins:

…this phrase [comes] from the classic essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” derived from the speech given by the American psychologist and philosopher William James, delivered at Stanford University in 1906, and subsequent book, published in 1910, in which “James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat…” and “…sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation.”

(As far as I can tell Pinker is not a fan of this idea, arguing in his book Better Angels that people shouldn’t be lionizing war even metaphorically.)

This description comes from the entry about President Carter’s use of that term in a famous speech about the energy crisis. (It also resulted in people realizing that the acronym for Moral Equivalent of War is MEOW… ) Carter contended that not only was this crisis large and serious, but that it was potentially catastrophic, and accordingly, it would require the united action of all citizens to solve. His solution was to engage in something that was the “Moral Equivalent of War”. An undertaking which marshalled the resources and devotion of the entire nation without the necessity of the usual external threat. He tried to rally the American People to warlike unity and effort without an actual war. He tried to be a Churchill without there being a Hitler.

Carter was president a long time ago, and if your knowledge of that time is a little fuzzy, let me assure you that Carter was no Churchill. Even if he was, by all accounts, a good man in most other respects. On top of that, as it turned out (and this might be part of Pinker’s argument) the energy crisis turned out to be both temporary and somewhat artificial. the part which wasn’t artificial was mostly solved through gradual gains in efficiency. Not through the use of MEOW. 

These days we have people in a similar position to the one Carter faced, they see large problems on the horizon and they want to rally the US and the Western democracies in general to unify and put forth the same level of effort towards these problems that they put forth to win World War II (or start it in Germany’s case). But how do they do that without a war? How does someone become a Churchill in the absence of a Hitler? You see attempts at this sort of thing with Andrea Ocasio Cortez, and the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg and her numerous exhortations, and Bernie Sanders and his crusade against inequality. And while these people have numerous very impassioned followers it’s clear that they’re just very successful politicians and public figures, that they’re FDR before the war, not FDR after Pearl Harbor. 

One would have to argue that someone can’t marshal the resources of an entire nation in a fashion similar to what happened during World War II without appealing to the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war”, as was the case with Hitler. Or without appealing to a close analog, say national pride, inspiring leadership, religious belief and love of country, along with being under an immediate and clear existential threat, as was the case with Churchill.

If this is the case where does it leave us? Let’s return to the four possibilities I mentioned above, but with a more specific focus on the US.

  1. Nothing has changed. It is still possible to unite the entire country using something very similar to patriotism, but there needs to be a credible, and immediate threat. Something on the level of the Cold War might work or it might not. (It did get us to the Moon.)
  2. The US and it’s citizens have forever lost the ability to unite against a common enemy. We can no longer produce Churchills, but our (potential) enemies are still capable of producing Hitlers. 
  3. That we have passed into some new world where war is a thing of the past, there are no more Hitlers to force us to unify, but we figure out some other way of accomplishing grand things. Perhaps people are able to unify around mini-Churchills, like Elon Musk and his vision for a Mars colony.
  4. That all people everywhere are gradually giving way to the “essentially hedonistic world-view”, some nations (for example the US) are just farther along than others. But as we all gradually become lotus eaters it will turn out that there’s very little we’re willing to sacrifice, not a pint of blood, not our material comforts, in fact pretty much nothing at all.

Obviously three, Churchills without Hitlers is the one we’re all hoping for, but as I pointed out, there’s very little evidence that we’ve been able to make that pivot. I mentioned Musk, and he is an interesting figure, but having recently read the biography of Henry Ford the parallels are actually pretty striking. Which is to say I don’t think Musk is another Churchill, I think he’s just another Ford, and also as I’ve said repeatedly establishing a Mars colony is ridiculously difficult.

What I suspect and fear is that the US falls in category two or four. And I’m not sure which is more depressing. At least with possibility two, there’s always hope that in face of an aggressive China, or a resurgent Russia that though things will initially look fairly hopeless, eventually we’ll regrow our spine and summon another Churchill. Though even then it’s still difficult to imagine how things would play out, and should another world war break out the presence of nuclear weapons complicates things enormously. (Ground I’ve also covered.) But even if things went against us, I think most people would prefer if we went down fighting. 

In the end while all of these scenarios remain possibilities, as I look around I’m more and more convinced that it is just as Orwell predicted. That in abandoning nationalism and religious belief, along with other, similar emotions, that we have descended into hedonism and narcissism and thereby also given up the only things that were ever capable of unifying people around monumental tasks and grand visions. That the finale of western civilization will be just as the poet predicted:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.


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Books I Finished in January

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In general my posts don’t mention much in the way of personal details, but by revealing the entirety of what I finished reading in a given month, these book review posts are about as personal as it gets. And after realizing that it’s jarring too jump right into a review (particularly on audio). I thought I’d take the briefest moment at the beginning of each of these monthly round-ups to engage in some narcissistic navel-gazing. Which is what I just did… So I guess I’m done for the month!

Okay, I will say that I recently discovered the beauty of caffeine naps. In its canonical form you drink a cup of coffee then take a 20 minute nap. The caffeine kicks in right at the end of the optimal nap, and you’re doubly alert. I had heard of these before and even tried them, but since I don’t drink coffee, my caffeine intake was too slow (sipping coke) to make it work, but I got some super concentrated caffeine, and now I take a shot of that before my nap and the overall effect of the nap plus the caffeine is amazing. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

By: David Brooks

348 pages

General Thoughts

This book is a defense of community, religion, and civic interdependence and a denunciation of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the cult of authenticity. Given that I am largely for and against the same things as the book, it has a lot to recommend it. And because of this overlap, in general I’d say it’s a necessary book with a good message. That said I have a few criticisms of it, two minor and one major. Let’s start with the minor ones:

His advice on finding a vocation fits into the mold of telling people to follow their passions, to dig deep into themselves until they have found their calling. Brooks’ version of this ends up looking more like selfless charity and less like stand-up comedy, but even so, I’m not sure it’s the advice that most people need. Also it’s very easy to overestimate how successful that endeavor is likely to be when you’re a celebrated columnist with lots of disposable income. Or even if you’re just middle class or higher. Beyond that he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how people selflessly pursuing their special and unique vocation is different from people selfishly pursuing authenticity and fulfillment.

My other minor criticism concerns the timing of the book. Brooks divorced his first wife in 2013 and entered a second marriage with someone 23 years younger than him, and who also used to be his research assistant. He talks about his second wife at some length, and for him it makes up a big part of his “second mountain”. Now, I’m not trying to imply that there’s anything skeezy going on there. Brooks goes into great detail about how chaste the courtship was and how slowly and carefully they proceeded. And I’m convinced it was exactly as he described, also what he’s saying about community and religion continues to be true and worthwhile. My criticism would be that his overarching credibility suffers from the timing of things, and the prima facie appearance of it all. It’s hard not to come away with a subtext of “You too can start climbing the second mountain by trading in your boring wife of 28 years for a second hotter wife!”

What This Book Says About Eschatology

You may have initially suspected that this book would have nothing to do with eschatology, but it both does and doesn’t, which is my major complaint with the book. By calling this my “major” complaint I do not mean to imply that it was the place where Brooks made the biggest mistake, or said the most untrue thing, but rather that he made a major assumption along with a major omission. But most people writing in this space make the same assumption followed by the same omission, so it’s an error shared by a lot of people. His assumption is that the decline in religion and community and civic interdependence can be solved by small measures, books like the one he just wrote, community programs that duplicate families governmental interventions. And perhaps such measures can eventually reduce the decline. But that’s far from guaranteed, and Brooks’ omission is to ignore that discussion. Because, in the end, figuring out how to solve the problem will be what matters.

The decline of family, religion, and community that Brooks speaks of has been going on for a very long time, and the causes of that decline are deeply entrenched trends which seem largely resistant to simple fixes (like books from New York Times columnists.) Of course like most of these books, it’s full of examples and anecdotes of people rebuilding communities, creating replacement families, and crafting effective substitutes for religion, and all of these people have my profoundest respect, but it’s essentially impossible to imagine that such programs can scale up to the point where they fill the gaping abyss which has opened up over the last several decades. Brooks’ and others like him seem reluctant to confront the disparity between the modest size of the programs and the enormity of the problem they’re trying to solve, preferring, instead, to assume that if it can be done for 300 people it can be done for 300 million. We just need more people and more programs.

An example might help, one of the programs he mentions is Thread, which connects students in Baltimore to mentors and a network of other supporters. It’s clearly a great program. According to the website, in 15 years they’ve helped 527 students. That’s fantastic, and great for those 527 individuals, but it’s also just a drop in the bucket. Because on the other hand, starting in 2015, Baltimore has seen a spike in homicides, with between 100-200 additional homicides over the 2014 rate. Thread has helped an average of 35 people a year, meaning that Thread is losing the race. Even if we assume the number of people helped is greater than average recently, we still have a situation where for every person they’ve helped since 2014 at least two additional people have been murdered by the recent deterioration of the community.

The point being, one program cannot change the direction of an entire culture. Nor can a dozen. The culture itself has to change, and while the book provides lots of anecdotes about individuals changing, it presents very little evidence that indicates the entire culture is changing. And this is what’s lacking in this book, a discussion of whether incremental change is going to be enough. Because from my perspective it’s starting to seem like it won’t be. That if you want to return to the kind of community Brooks says we need, then it’s going to require something revolutionary. The question of how literally we should take the word “revolution” brings me to my next review.


The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason

By: Chapo Trap House

310 pages

General Thoughts

I first became aware of this book when my son received it for Christmas from my parents. He thinks it’s hilarious that they bought him this book, I think it shows that he’s less oppressed than he thinks. As you might imagine, I’m curious about what my son reads, particularly when it’s something political like this. After looking it up on Audible and discovering it was only 7 hours in length I decided to read it myself.

The Chapo Trap House phenomenon is largely centered on their podcast, and this book appears to be more supplementary material than the core curriculum. Since I’ve never listened to the podcast take everything I say as the view of an interested bystander, rather than someone who’s deeply informed, but, from where I stand, CTH is a group of hardcore socialists who communicate heavily through the use of satire and absurdity, but who are light on prescriptive injunctions. But if you were going to pin them down, they’re Sanders supporters, who think that capitalism has failed. When you combine political advocacy, humor, history, political science and satire you end up with a lot going on, but this snippet from a review I found on Amazon, is a pretty good encapsulation:

All I can say is that after reading this I at least have a better understanding of those who seek socialism in order to be able to work less and game more…

The book is funny, and that seemed to be their main goal, so I guess they deserve credit for that. In particular I thought their critique of how Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing had mislead people, particularly liberals, into believing that politics is the realm of reasonable debate and compromise between well meaning individuals, was particularly trenchant as well as being hilarious. Where their viewpoint and mine diverges is not in their assessment of the symptoms (I think we largely agree there) but their assessment of the underlying disease. I think the disease is complicated (see my previous 178 posts) they think the disease is capitalism.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

If we mostly agree that things are messed up, then the next question is can we fix things with incremental changes or do we just need to burn the place down and start over? It’s hard to get a read on what the CTH opinion is through all the jokes, but it feels like they’re on the “burn it all down” side of things. In particular you never got the impression that there was a point in history where socialism could have triumphed peacefully if just one or two things had been different. Rather if feels like no matter how far back you go they feel betrayed at every turn and by everybody. Perhaps William Jennings Bryan would have been the exception? I don’t know, they don’t mention him, the first president they mention is FDR, who they appear to kind of hate. In fact the only people they hate more is every other Democract president who came after him. They loathe Kennedy, they despise Johnson, they scorn Carter, and they absolutely abominate Clinton. The only president they go somewhat easy on is Obama, but you get the feeling that it’s more because of how popular he is among their audience, then because they actually think he did anything worthwhile (and in fact they have a whole list of bad things that he did.)

All of which leads to the question, if they’ve never been happy with an actual president, what is going to be different about this upcoming election? It’s all fine and dandy to imagine how your preferred candidate would have done things differently had he won, but he didn’t. In the real world the whole bit about actually getting elected ends up being pretty important. Perhaps the answer is that Sanders finally appears to have a chance, and one supposes that their hope is that Sanders will get elected and finally bring about the massive wealth redistribution they’ve been longing for, but if so I think they’re being horribly naive. Unless Sanders is part of some giant blue wave that sees the defeat of over half the Republican Senators standing for election in 2020, he’s going to have a hard time doing anything particularly radical. And of course this assumes he actually gets the nomination and from there wins the presidency. 

As of this writing it seems like he has a decent chance at the nomination, at a minimum he’s pulling away in Iowa, so I guess we’ll see what happens. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to see him as the democractic candidate, because it will be a great test of something that people on the far left and the far right have been saying for years. Because getting the nomination is just the first step, after that you have to win the general. Sanders will have to beat Trump and this is where things get interesting. People like the CTH guys feel that it’s a myth that far left candidates can’t win. That Sanders actually has a better chance of beating Trump than a moderate like Biden. And further, that moderate Democrats do all the things moderates are supposed to do and they still get slaughtered when the election comes. (See Clinton and the 1994 midterms.) There’s a lot that can be said about that, but it’s mostly speculation. (Though with Corbyn getting slaughtered in the last UK election I feel like there’s more evidence they’re wrong than that they’re right.) But it will be interesting to “run the experiment” and see what happens if Sanders does get the nomination. The CTH guys better hope he wins, because if a far left candidate gets nominated and loses to Trump, then we’ll never see another one.

Which brings us to the idea that they may have given up on an electoral solution, and are already moving on to a revolutionary solution (thus the title). Or that this is what they intend to do if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination or if he does and then loses, and if that’s the case, then that’s an entirely different matter, and a very different form of advocacy. One I’d want to see coming from as far away as possible, and this may be my primary reason for reading the book, I wanted to see if I was first up against the wall when the revolution comes. My son assured me that I won’t be, and he also promised he wouldn’t turn me in for a struggle session either. I guess that’s the best I can expect during the inevitable proletarian rebellion.


Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

By: Deirdre Barrett

216 Pages

General Thoughts

I’m fascinated by the idea of supernormal stimuli, and when I discovered there was an entire book written on the subject, it seemed an obvious decision to pick it up and read it. Well it may have been an obvious decision, but it wasn’t the correct one. I can not recommend this book to anyone. 

I can imagine certain of my readers jumping to the conclusion that the reason I didn’t like the book is that Barrett doesn’t agree with me that pornography is a supernormal stimuli. That is not the case, but to be honest I would have preferred that flaw to the many flaws the book actually possessed. It would have been fine had she disagreed with me about pornography (though I’ve yet to hear of anyone talking about supernormal stimuli who doesn’t identify pornography in that category) if the book had otherwise been an interesting and in-depth discussion of how supernormal stimuli affects the modern world, but the book was strangely superficial, disorganized and most of all preachy. 

I’m not interested in spending a lot of time on a book I didn’t like, but I will provide a couple of quick examples of what I mean. First there was her chapter on food. Which spent about 5% of it’s time on the supernormal stimulus angle and the other 95% of it castigating people for their poor eating choices and making dietary recommendations (including hypnotism). The castigation seems particularly odd if the whole point of her book is that humans have a built in evolutionary/genetic weakness for bad food. 

As a second example, there was a chapter on war. Here the breakdown was even worse, she spent 99% of her time on an anti war screed, and barely mentioned how it tied into supernormal stimuli at all. Basically there were a couple of sentences about how propaganda might be supercharged in the modern world, but nothing beyond that. Also she seemed to be declaring that modern wars were especially bad, a point belied by Steven Pinker, and his Better Angels argument. Which would not be worth remarking on if there wasn’t a blurb from Pinker on the dust jacket.

In general the book seemed less about supernormal stimuli and more about things the author personally found annoying with a nod towards supernormal stimuli to lend a veneer of science to her rants about fat people and war mongers. These rants were further undermined by entirely lacking any sense of scale. Barrett seemed just as incensed by the fact that youth soccer games involve more logistics and less exercise than they used to, as she was about spikes in violence from increased territoriality. 

I had high hopes for the book, but I was mostly disappointed, though only mostly, not entirely, which brings me to the next section

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I almost didn’t put this book in the eschatology section, even though I think supernormal stimuli pose a unique and subtle danger to civilization and society. But there is one point Barrett brought up that I thought bore further examination. She went into the idea of neoteny, when a creature carries adolescent qualities into adulthood. And in particular the process whereby species gradually become infantilized. Which is connected to the process of domestication. She related the well-known experiment of Dmitry Belyaev’s domestication of the Siberian foxes. Where it became obvious that neotenous attributes are shared across species, which led to the conclusion that Humans are neotenous versions of other primates. That we have self domesticated over thousands of years. 

I take two points from this, the first is one more criticism. If this particular supernormal stimuli has been going on for thousands of years, where does Barrett get off on singling out the modern world? Where’s the inflection point? I can think of many, but Barrett seems curiously uninterested in drawing a line between what’s new and potentially fixable and what’s been going on for so long that we probably just have to accept it. And curiously when she does call out an inflection point, it’s generally in the latter category. For example pointing out Jared Diamond’s claim that agriculture is the worst mistake humans ever made. Well possibly, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.

The second point, if we are self-domesticating, can we take it to far? And can we hasten this domestication through technology? I assume that dogs are easier to train with leashes and fences, to say nothing of shock collars. And does a well trained and well domesticated dog run after cars, disappear into the woods for days, or land on the moon? No. And it seems possible that our own domestication has taken all of those things off the table as well, particularly landing on the Moon again.


II- Capsule Reviews

My Life and Work

By: Henry Ford

140 Pages

I may or may not have mentioned the little old lady of my acquaintance who’s a voracious reader, and who provides me with a steady stream of recommendations. I almost always take her recommendations because they’re generally excellent. This time around she recommended the Autobiography Collection: Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, and Benjamin Franklin on Audible. It was a very interesting listen, though I might call it one of her rare misses. There’s a reason Ford and Tesla were famous for things other than writing, and Franklin left out most of the good stuff. Still reading primary source documents is an important exercise, and I’m glad I did it.

The first book was Ford’s autobiography, and it was probably the most interesting of the bunch. To begin with, you really come away from it feeling that Ford and Steve Jobs were formed from the same mold. Both were uncompromising industrialists who had a firm vision of what their product needed to be, and they didn’t pay any attention to those who criticized their vision. In Ford’s case, his vision was to work on a single car model until he had perfected it, both in terms of features, but even more importantly in terms of price. That was the Model T. And it revolutionized transportation and manufacturing, in ways that are probably difficult to imagine today. Of course, as you may have heard, he took this idea of focusing on perfecting a single model to such an extreme that he only allowed it to be manufactured in a single color, and one wonders what would have happened if, at the end of the day, he had been a tiny bit less draconian. Perhaps this was impossible, perhaps it was only his singular focus that allowed him to succeed, and if he was the kind of guy who would have allowed a red Model T, he would have been the kind of guy who could have never come up with the Model T in the first place.

His sense that he knew exactly how things should be done was not limited to cars. He was interested in politics, healthcare, antisemitism, economic theory, and the dangers of automation. These topics are too deep to get into, but it was interesting to hear him dismiss people’s worries that automation was going to cause unemployment using the same arguments people use today. Which either means such worries are groundless because they always turn out to be wrong, or that the arguments need to be updated to cover very different forms of automation. Forms that bear very little resemblance to the assembly line.


My Inventions

By: Nikola Tesla

88 Pages

I’m sure that Tesla was an amazing inventor. I’m sure that his genius is underappreciated even to this day, but I am equally sure based on his autobiography that he had some pretty serious psychological issues. For example:

During that period I contracted many strange likes, dislikes and habits, some of which I can trace to external impressions while others are unaccountable. I had a violent aversion against the earrings of women but other ornaments, as bracelets, pleased me more or less according to design. The sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit but I was fascinated with the glitter of crystals or objects with sharp edges and plane surfaces. I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever by looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house it caused me the keenest discomfort. Even now I am not insensible to some of these upsetting impulses. When I drop little squares of paper in a dish filled with liquid, I always sense a peculiar and awful taste in my mouth. I counted the steps in my walks and calculated the cubical contents of soup plates, coffee cups and pieces of food–otherwise my meal was unenjoyable. All repeated acts or operations I performed had to be divisible by three and if I missed I felt impelled to do it all over again, even if it took hours.


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

By: Benjamin Franklin

144 Pages

Franklin is definitely an interesting character, and this is a great book. I just felt like I’d already heard it all in one form or another. I imagine that most people already know about his program for developing virtues. (Franklin could very well be the first lifehacker.) We also read about his success as a writer, printer, creator of the first public library, etc. But what I really wanted to read about was his experiences during the Revolutionary War. I know he was in France for most of it, but he did help with the Declaration of Independence, and he had plenty to do in France. It seems pretty clear that if he hadn’t secured a military alliance with France that the Revolution would have failed. Unfortunately his autobiography contained next to nothing on these subjects.

It was a good book, even a great book. And Benjamin Franklin was truly amazing on top of all that, I suppose most of my disappointment was because I expected one thing and ended up with something else. If you go into the book with more modest expectations it’s probably well worth your time.


Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America

By: Scott Adams

256 Pages

I realize that Scott Adams is not everyone’s cup of tea. And I can sympathize with that. Every time he made a claim that starts, “As a trained hypnotist…” I had to resist the urge to stop the audiobook, ask for a refund, and take dilbert.com out of my bookmarks.  But if you can get past the self-promotion (and let’s be honest, is it even possible to have a platform these days without it?) Then Adams is actually a pretty objective, intellectually humble guy, who frequently not only  admits that he could be wrong, but identifies the bias he’s most likely suffering from. And out of this comes a fairly clear-eyed view of the modern world and its discontents. 

If you’re one of those who’s wondering what the heck is going on, and you want to hear from someone who makes a cogent case for Trump without being crazy. This is about as good as it gets. 


The Library Book

By: Susan Orleans

336 Pages

Susan Orleans wrote the Orchid Thief, which was turned into the movie Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman and Spike Jonze. I love Charlie Kaufmann movies, “Adaptation” included, so there was already a predisposition to look on this book favorably. Then hearing that it was a meditation on libraries in general sealed the deal. It does actually have a plot on top of all that. It concerns the horrible 1986 fire in the central Los Angeles library, and the man who was charged with causing it. 

In the end there are definitely better books that weave several stories into one (for example The Devil and the White City) and there are probably better meditations on libraries (though I’m not aware of any). But The Library Book does a pretty good job of combining the two, and it’s an easy, comfortable read on top of that. 


Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus

By: Sophocles

238 Pages

I’m sure there are other places to find the story of Oedipus, but these are the earliest stories which have survived and they may be the best. Which means they’re also basically the most tragic as well. The story of Oedipus and his family is pretty bleak stuff and Sophocles milks it for all it’s worth, so if you’re the kind of person who likes tragic tales these plays are for you. 

Beyond that, as was the case with the Eumenides by Aeschylus, the plays also form something of an origin story for Athens. This time around it wasn’t quite as explicit but the Athenians are once again the heroes, and they’re heroic because of their commitment to impartial justice. 

Finally, in Oedipus at Colonus it’s obvious that Oedipus has been sanctified and made wise by the enormity of his tragedy. And I’m not sure if that is a profoundly deep insight about the nature of Greek Civilization, or if it’s something that’s everywhere and I just never picked up on it, or if it only applies to Oedipus specifically, or if I’m actually completely wrong about this idea in the first place. Probably, I’m wrong about so many things.


The other day someone sent me a book out of the blue. I’m not even entirely sure who it was. But if you’d like me to review a book leave it in the comments. Though, I will say your chances are higher if you also toss in a buck or two as a donation.


Don’t Don’t Fear the Filter

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I.

On the occasion of the end of the old decade and the beginning of the new, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, wrote a post titled What Intellectual Progress Did I Make in the 2010s. I am generally a great admirer of Alexander, in fact, though I don’t mention it often in this space I have been turning every one of his blog posts into an episode in a podcast feed since late 2017. In particular, I am impressed by his objectivity, his discernment, and dispassionate analysis. But in this particular post he said something which I take strong exception to:

In terms of x-risk: I started out this decade concerned about The Great Filter. After thinking about it more, I advised readers Don’t Fear The Filter. I think that advice was later proven right in Sandler, Drexler, and Ord’s paper on the Fermi Paradox, to the point where now people protest to me that nobody ever really believed it was a problem.

I am not only one of those who once believed it was a problem, I’m one who still believes it’s a problem. And in particular it’s a problem for rationalists and transhumanists, which are exactly the kind of people Alexander most often associates with and therefore most likely to be the people who now protest that nobody ever really believed it was a problem. But before we get too deep into things, it would probably be good to make sure people understand what we’re talking about.

Hopefully, most people reading this post are familiar with Fermi’s Paradox, but for those who aren’t, it’s the apparent paradox between the enormous number of stars and the enormous amount of time they’ve existed, and the lack of any evidence for civilizations, other than our own, arising among those billions of stars over those billions of years. Even if you were already familiar with the paradox you may not be familiar with the closely related idea of the Great Filter which is an attempt to imagine the mechanism behind the paradox, and in particular when that mechanism might take effect. 

Asking what prevented anyone else from getting as far, technologically, as we’ve gotten, or most likely a lot father is to speculate about the Great Filter. It can also take an inverted form, when someone asks what makes us special. But either way, the Great Filter is that thing which is either required for a detectable interstellar presence or which prevents it. And what everyone wants to know is whether this filter is in front of us or behind us. There are many reasons to think it might be ahead of us. But most people who consider the question hope that it’s behind us, that we have passed the filter. That we have, one way or another, defeated whatever it is which prevents life from developing and being detectable over interstellar distances.

Having ensured we’re on the same page we can return to Alexander’s original quote above, where he mentions two sources for his lack of concern. First his own post on the subject: “Don’t Fear the Filter”, and second the Sandler, Drexler, Ord paper on the paradox.

II.

Let’s start with his post. It consists of him listing four broad categories of modern risks which people hypothesis might represent the filter. Which would indicate both that the filter is ahead of us, and that we should be particularly concerned about the risk in question. Alexander then proceeds to demonstrate that these risks as unlikely to be the Great Filter. As I said, I’m a great admirer of Alexander, but he makes several mistakes in this post.

To begin with, he makes the very mild mistake of dismissing anything at all. Obviously this is eminently forgivable, he’s entitled to his opinion and he does justify that opinion, but given how limited our knowledge is in this domain, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss anything. To return to my last post, if someone had come to Montezuma in 1502 when he took the throne and told him that strangers had arrived from another world and that within 20 years he would be dead and his empire destroyed, and that in less than 100 years 95% of everyone in the world (his world) would be dead, he would have been dismissed as a madman, and yet that’s exactly what happened.

Second, his core justification for arguing that we shouldn’t fear the filter is that it has to be absolutely effective at preventing all civilizations (other than our own) from interstellar communication. He then proceeds to list four things which are often mentioned as being potential filters, but which don’t fulfill this criteria of comprehensiveness, because these four things are straightforward enough to ameliorate that some civilization should be able to do it even if ours ends up being unable to. This is a reasonable argument for dismissing these four items, but in order to decisively claim that we shouldn’t “fear the filter”, he should at least make some attempt to identify where the filter actually is, if it’s not one of the things he lists. To be charitable, he seems to be arguing that the filter is behind us. But if so you have to look pretty hard to find that argument in his post.

This takes me to my third point. It would be understandable if he made a strong argument for the filter being behind us, but really, to credibly banish all fear, even that isn’t enough. You would have to make a comprehensive argument, bringing up all possible candidates for a future filter, not merely the ones that are currently popular. It’s not enough to bring up a few x-risk candidates and then dismiss them for being surmountable. The best books on the subject, like Stephen Webb’s If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (which I talked about here) and Milan M. Ćirković’s The Great Silence: Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox (which I talked about here and my personal favorite book on the topic) all do this. Which takes me to my final point.

People like Ćirković and Webb are not unaware of the objections raised by Alexander. Both spend quite a bit of time on the idea that whatever is acting as the filter would have to be exceptionally comprehensive, and based on that and other factors they rate the plausibility of each of the proposed explanations. Webb does it as part of each of his 75 entries, while Ćirković provides a letter grade for each. How does he grade Alexander’s four examples?

  1. Nuclear War: Alexander actually includes all “garden variety” x-risks, but I’ll stick to nuclear war in the interests of space. Ćirković gives this a D.
  2. Unfriendly AI: Ćirković places this in category of all potential self-destructive technologies and gives the entire category a D+.
  3. Transcendence: Ćirković gives this a C-/F. I can’t immediately remember why he gave it two grades, nor did a quick scan of the text reveal anything. But even a C- is still a pretty bad grade.
  4. The Dark Forest (Exterminator aliens): Ćirković gives this a B+, his second highest rating out of all candidates. I should say I disagree with this rating (see here) for much the same reasons as Alexander.

With the exception of the last one, Ćirković has the same low opinion of these options as Alexander. And if we grant that Alexander is right and Ćirković is wrong on #4 which I’m happy to do since I agree with Alexander. Then the narrow point Alexander makes is entirely correct, everyone agrees that these four things are probably not the Great Filter, but that still leaves 32 other potential filters if we use Ćirković’s list, and north of 60 if we use Webb’s list. And yes, some of them are behind us (I’m too lazy to separate them out) but the point is that Alexander’s list is not even close to being exhaustive.

(Also, any technologically advanced civilization would probably have to deal with all these problems at the same time, i.e. if you can create nukes you’re probably close to creating an AI, or exhausting a single planet’s resources. Perhaps individually they should each get a D grade, but what about the combination of all of them?)

If I was being uncharitable I might accuse Alexander of weak-manning arguments for the paradox and the filter, but I actually don’t think he was doing that, rather my sense is that like many people with many subjects, despite his breadth of knowledge elsewhere, he doesn’t realize how broad and deep the Fermi’s Paradox discussion can get, or how many potential future filters there are which he has never considered.

III.

Most people would say that the strongest backing for Alexander’s claim is not his 2014 post, but rather the Sandler, Drexler, and Ord study (SDO paper).

(Full disclosure: In discussing the SDO paper I’m re-using some stuff from an earlier post I did at the time the study was released.)

To begin with, one of Alexander’s best known posts is titled Beware the Man of One Study, where he cautions against using a single study to reach a conclusion or make a point. But isn’t that exactly what he’s doing here? Now to be fair, in that post he’s mostly cautioning against cherry picking one study out of dozens to prove your point. Which is not the case here, mostly because there really is only this one study, but I think the warning stands. Also if you were going to stake a claim based on a single study the SDO paper is a particularly bad study to choose. This is not to say that the results are fraudulent, or that the authors made obvious mistakes, or that the study shouldn’t have been published, only that the study involves throwing together numerous estimates (guesses?) across a wide range of disciplines, where, in most cases direct measurement is impossible. 

The SDO paper doesn’t actually center on the paradox. It takes as its focus Drake’s equation, which will hopefully be familiar to readers of this blog. If not, basically Drake’s equation attempts to come up with a guess for how many detectable extraterrestrial civilizations there might be by determining how many planets might get through all the filters required to produce such a civilization (e.g. How many planets are there? What percentage have life? What percentage of that life is intelligent? etc.). Once you’ve filled in all of these values the equation spits out an expected value for the number of detectable civilizations, which generally turns out to be reasonably high, and yet there aren’t any, which then brings in the paradox.

The key innovation the SDO paper brings to the debate is to map out the probability distribution one gets from incorporating the best current estimates for every parameter in the equation, and pointing out that this distribution is very asymmetrical. We’re used to normal distributions (i.e. bell curves) in which the average and the most likely outcome are basically the same thing, but the distribution of potential outcomes when running numbers through Drake’s equation are ridiculously wide and on top of that not normally distributed which means, according to the study, the most probable situation is that we’re alone, even though the average number of expected civilizations is greater than one. Or to borrow the same analogy Alexander does:

Imagine we knew God flipped a coin. If it came up heads, He made 10 billion alien civilization. If it came up tails, He made none besides Earth. Using our one parameter Drake Equation, we determine that on average there should be 5 billion alien civilizations. Since we see zero, that’s quite the paradox, isn’t it?

No. In this case the mean is meaningless. It’s not at all surprising that we see zero alien civilizations, it just means the coin must have landed tails.

As I said, it’s an innovative study, and a great addition to the discussion, but I worry people are putting too much weight on it, because the paper does some interesting and revealing math and it looks like science, when, as Michael Crichton pointed out in a famous speech at Stanford, Drake’s equation is most definitely not science. (Or if you want this same point without climate change denial you could check out this recent post from friend of the blog Mark.) The SDO paper is a series of seven (the number of terms in Drake’s equation) very uncertain estimates, run through a monte carlo simulator, and I think there’s a non-trivial danger of garbage in garbage out. But at a minimum I don’t think the SDO paper should generate the level of certainty Alexander claims for it. 

If this is right – and we can debate exact parameter values forever, but it’s hard to argue with their point-estimate-vs-distribution-logic – then there’s no Fermi Paradox. It’s done, solved, kaput. Their title, “Dissolving The Fermi Paradox”, is a strong claim, but as far as I can tell they totally deserve it.

His dismissal of parameter values is particularly hard to understand. (Unless he thinks current estimate ranges will basically continue to hold forever.) The range of values determines the range of the distribution. Clearly there are distributions where the SDO paper’s conclusion no longer holds. All it would take to change it from “mostly likely alone”, to “there should be several civilizations” would be a significant improvement in any of the seven terms or a minor improvement in several. Which seems to be precisely what’s been happening.

IV.

From 1961 when Drake’s equation was first proposed, until the present day, our estimates of the various terms has gotten better, and as our uncertainty decreased it almost always pointed to life being more common.

One great example of this, is the current boom in exoplanet discovery. This has vastly reduced the uncertainty in the number of stars with planets. (Which is the second term in the equation.) And the number of planets which might support life (the third term). The question is, as uncertainty continues to be reduced in the future, in which direction will things head? Towards a higher estimate of detectable civilizations or towards a lower estimate? The answer, so far as I can tell, is that every time our uncertainty gets less it updates the estimate in favor of detectable civilizations being more common. There are at least three examples of this:

  1. The one I just mentioned. According to Wikipedia when Frank Drake first proposed his equation, his guess for the fraction of stars with planets was ½. After looking at the data from Kepler, our current estimate is basically that nearly all stars have planets. Our uncertainty decreased and it moved in the direction of extraterrestrial life and civilizations being more probable.
  2. The number of rocky planets, which relates to the term in the equation for the fraction of total planets which could sustain life. We used to think that rocky planets could only appear seven billion years or so into the lifetime of the universe. Now we know that they appeared much earlier. Once again our uncertainty decreased, and it did so in the direction of life and civilizations being more probable.
  3. The existence of extremophiles. We used to think that there was a fairly narrow band of conditions where life could exist, and then we found life in underwater thermal vents, in areas of extreme cold and dryness, in environments of high salinity, high acidity, high pressure, etc. etc. Yet another case where as we learned more, life became more probable, not less.

But beyond all of this, being alone in the galaxy/universe reverses one of the major trends in science. The trend towards de-emphasizing humanity’s place in creation.

In the beginning if you were the ruler of a vast empire you must have thought that you were the center of creation. Alexander the Great is said to have conquered the known world. I’m sure Julius Caesar couldn’t have imagined an empire greater than Rome, but I think Emperor Yuan of Han would have disagreed.

But surely, had they know each other, they could agreed that between the two of them they more or less ruled the whole world? I’m sure the people of the Americas, would have argued with that. But surely all of them together could agree that the planet on which they all lived was at the center of the creation. But then Copernicus comes along, and says, “Not so fast.” (And yes I know about Aristarchus of Samos.)

“Okay, we get it. The Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. But at least we can take comfort in the fact that man is clearly different and better than the animals.”

“About that…” says Darwin

.

“Well at least our galaxy is unique…”

“I hate to keep bursting your bubble, but that’s not the case either,” chimes in Edwin Hubble.

At every step in the process when someone has thought that humanity was special in any way someone comes along and shows that they’re not. It happens often enough that they have a name for it, The Copernican Principle (after one of the biggest bubble poppers). Which, for our purposes, is interchangeable with the Mediocrity Principle. Together they say that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos, or us, or the development of life. Stephen Hawking put it as follows:

The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.

This is what scientists have believed, but if we are truly the only intelligent, technology using life form in the galaxy or more amazingly the visible universe, then suddenly we are very special indeed. 

V.

As I mentioned the SDO paper, despite its title, is only secondarily about Fermi’s Paradox. It’s actually entirely built around Drake’s Equation, which is one way of approaching the paradox, but one that has significant limitations. As Ćirković says, in The Great Silence:

In the SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] field, invocation of the Drake equation is nowadays largely an admission of failure. Not the failure to detect extraterrestrial signals—since it would be foolish to presuppose that the timescale for the search has any privileged range of values, especially with such meagre detection capacities—but of the failure to develop the real theoretical grounding for the search.

Ćirković goes on to complain that the equation is often used in a very unsophisticated fashion, and in reality it should be “explicated in terms of relevant probability distribution functions” and to be fair, that does appear to be what the SDO paper is attempting, whether they’re succeeding is a different matter. Ćirković seems to be suggesting a methodology significantly more complicated than that used by the study. But, this is far from the only problem with the equation. The biggest is that none of the terms accounts for interstellar travel by life and civilizations to planets beyond those where they arose in the first place. 

The idea of interstellar colonization by advanced civilizations is a staple of science fiction and easy enough to imagine, but most people have a more difficult time imagining that life itself might do the same. This idea is called panspermia, and from where I sit, it appears that the evidence for that is increasing as well. On the off chance that you’re unfamiliar with the term, panspermia is the idea that life, in its most basic form, started somewhere else and then arrived on Earth once things were already going. Of greater importance for us is the idea that if it could travel to Earth there’s a good chance it could travel anywhere (and everywhere). In fairness, there is some chance life started on say, Mars and travelled here, in which case maybe life isn’t “everywhere”. But if panspermia happened and it didn’t come from somewhere nearby, then that changes a lot.

Given the tenacity of life I’ve already mentioned above (see extremophiles) once it gets started, there’s good reason to believe that it would just keep going. This section is more speculative than the last section, but I don’t think we can rule out the idea, and it’s something Drake’s equation completely overlooks, and by extension, the SDO paper. That said, I’ll lay out some of the recent evidence and you can decide where it should fit in:

  1. Certain things double every so many years. The most famous example of this phenomenon is Moore’s Law, which says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. A while back some scientists wanted to see if biological complexity followed the same pattern. It did, doubling every 376 million years. With forms of life at the various epochs fitting neatly onto the graph. The really surprising thing was that if you extrapolate back to zero biological complexity you end up at a point ten billion years ago. Well before the Earth was even around (or Mars for that matter). Leaving Panspermia as the only option. Now the authors confess this is more of a “thought exercise” than hard science, but that puts it in a very similar category to Drake’s equation. And there’s an argument to be made that the data for the doubling argument is better.
  2. There’s a significant amount of material travelling between planets and even between star systems. I mentioned this in a previous post, but to remind you. Some scientists decided to run the numbers, on the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And they discovered that a significant amount of the material ejected would have ended elsewhere in the Solar System and even elsewhere in the galaxy. Their simulation showed that around 100 million rocks would have made it to Europa (a promising candidate for life) and that around a 1000 rocks would have made it to a potentially habitable planet in a nearby star system (Gliese 581). Now none of this is to say that any life would have survived on those rocks, rather the point that jumps out to me is how much material is being exchanged across those distances.
  3. Finally, and I put this last because it might seem striking only to me. Apparently the very first animal (as in the biological kingdom Animalia) had 55% of the DNA that humans have. They ascribe this to an “evolutionary burst of new genes”, but for me that looks an awful lot like support of the first point in this list. The idea that life has been churning along for a lot longer than we think, if the first animal had 55% of our DNA already half a billion years ago.

Now, of course, even if panspermia is happening, that doesn’t necessarily make the SDO paper wrong. You could have a situation where the filter is not life getting started in the first place, the filter is between any life and intelligent life. It could be that some kind of basic life is very common, but intelligence never evolves. Though before I move on to the next subject, in my opinion that doesn’t seem likely. You can imagine that if life itself has a hard time getting started, in any form, that out of the handful of planets with life, that only one develops intelligence. But if panspermia is happening, and you basically have life on every planet in the habitable zone, a number estimated at between 10 and 40 billion, then the idea that out of those billions of instances of life that somehow intelligence only arose this one time seems a lot less believable. (And yes I know about things like the difficulty of the prokaryote-eukaryote transition.)

VI.

The final reason I have for being skeptical of the conclusion of the SDO paper is that as far as I can tell they give zero weight to the fact that we do have one example of a planet with intelligent life, and capable of interstellar communication: Earth. In fact if I’m reading things correctly they appear to give a pretty low probability that even we should exist. My sense is that when it comes to Fermi’s paradox this is the one piece of evidence no one knows exactly how to handle. On the one hand, as I pointed out, the history of science has been inextricably linked to the Copernican principle. The idea that Earth and humanity are not unique, and yet on this one point the SDO paper make the claim that we are entirely unique, that there is probably not another example of detectable life anywhere in our galaxy of 250 billion stars. 

You might think there is no, “On the other hand”, but there is. It’s called the anthropic principle, which says there’s nothing remarkable about our uniqueness, because only our uniqueness allows it to be remarked upon. Or in other words, conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking. There’s a lot that could be said about the anthropic principle, and this post is already quite long. But there are three points I’d like to bring up:

  1. It is logically true, but logically true in the sense that a tautology is logically true. It basically amounts to saying I’m here because I’m here, or if things were different, they’d be different. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it discourages further exploration and a deeper understanding of why we’re here, or why things are different, rather than encouraging it.
  2. To be fair, it does get used, and by some pretty big names. Stephen Hawking included it in his book A Brief History of Time, but Hawkings and others generally use it as an answer to the question of why all the physical constants seemed fine tuned for life. To which people reply there could be an infinite number of universes, so we just happen to be in the one fine tuned for life. Okay fine, but there’s no evidence that the physical constants we experience don’t apply to the rest of the galaxy. The only way it makes sense for Fermi’s Paradox is to argue that our Solar System, or the Earth is fine-tuned for intelligent life. Or that we were just insanely, ridiculously lucky. 
  3. It’s an argument from lack of imagination. In other words, critics of the paradox assert that we are alone because there has not been any evidence to the contrary. But it is entirely possible that we have just not looked hard enough, that our investigation has not been thorough enough. On questioning they will of course admit this possibility, but it is not their preferred explanation. Their preferred explanation is that we’re alone and the filter is behind us, and they will provide a host of possibilities for what that filter might be, but we really know very little about any of them. 

As you might have gathered, I’m not a very big fan of the anthropic principle. I think it’s a cop out. Perhaps you don’t, perhaps, on top of that, you think the idea of panspermia is ridiculous. Fair enough, my project is not to convince you that the anthropic principle is fallacious, or that panspermia definitely happened. My project is merely to illustrate that it’s premature to say that the Great Filter is behind us, that the Fermi Paradox is “solved” or “kaput”. And all that requires is that any one of the foregoing pieces of evidence I’ve assembled ends up being persuasive. 

Beyond all this there is the question we must continually revisit, in which direction is the error worse? If the Great Filter is actually behind us but out of an abundance of caution we spend more effort than we would have otherwise on x-risks, that’s almost certainly a good thing. In particular since there are plenty of x-risks which could end our civilization which are nevertheless not the Great Filter. Accordingly, any additional effort is almost certainly a good thing. On the other hand, if the Great Filter is ahead of us, then the worst thing we could do is dismiss the possibility entirely, and dismissing it on the basis of a single study might be the saddest thing of all.


Much like with Fermi’s Paradox, everyone reading this assumes that if they’re intelligent enough to appreciate this post, then there must be other readers out there somewhere who share the same intelligent appreciation, but what if there’s not, what if you’re the only one? Given that this might be the case wouldn’t it be super important for you, as the only person with that degree of intelligence to donate


We’re All Montezuma, and the Europeans Are Always Just Around the Corner

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.

As I mentioned back in July, I’ve been listening to the Fall of Civilizations Podcast by Paul Cooper. In his latest episode he tells the tragic tale of the fall of the Aztecs. The tale of how Hernán Cortés, with just a few hundred men, and more importantly a combination of diplomacy and disease, toppled one of the world’s great civilizations in just three years. The tale of how Cortés was able to accomplish all this in such a short time, with so few men, is fascinating and appalling in equal measure.

On the other side, the doom of the Aztecs and Montezuma is both tragic, and unavoidable. Certainly they could have handled the invasion of Cortés better. By striking at the right moment they probably could have defeated him, but even if they had, the eventual outcome would not have changed. In any case, it’s hard to place much blame on either the Aztecs or Montezuma, they just had no idea what they were dealing with. And it’s really this aspect I want to focus on, how abruptly the world changed from one they largely understood to one that only existed in their nightmares. I want to focus on the more general category of sudden catastrophe. Those times when history turned on a dime. 

Interestingly, the podcast actually contained two examples of this phenomenon. There was, of course, the story of Cortés and Montezuma, but Cooper actually began the podcast by talking about the Chicxulub Asteroid, and the impact which ended the 180 million year reign of the dinosaurs, in a single moment of unimaginable destruction. He mentioned this, both because the asteroid impacted very near the empire of the Aztecs (albeit millions of years previously), and because it’s another example of things turning on a dime.

I understand that dinosaurs did not have the intelligence to appreciate or even notice the tiny light in the sky that would eventually end their existence, but it’s interesting to imagine what it might have been like if they had. If, say, they had possessed the intelligence of our hominid ancestors. They might have recognized that the light in the sky was something new. As it got closer and brighter they might have wondered what that meant. But would they have ever imagined that in a few short days or hours that their world would be completely and utterly destroyed? It’s only in the last century or two that we would have understood that. 

Montezuma was in a very similar position, though he had a few years as opposed to a few days, but there is still an enormous amount of dramatic irony to the story. Where we can see the impending and enormous catastrophe at the end of the story, but even at the moment of his death he still could probably only see a fraction of the oncoming calamity.

Montezuma was born in 1466, so 26 years before Columbus’ arrival, into a long string of Central American civilizations stretching back thousands of years. More consequentially, when he was born the two worlds, old and new, had been separated for more than ten thousand years beyond that. If we limit ourselves to considering just the Aztec Empire, it had been ascendent for at least a century, and reached its greatest size during Montezuma’s reign, where he ruled from the center of the largest city in the Americas. All of which is to say that things looked great for him in the years leading up to contact with the Europeans. He was the leader of his known world’s greatest empire. He had vanquished all of his rivals, and everyone treated him like a god, which absent the Spaniards he might as well have been. But in their presence it would all turn out to be meaningless.

Even though Columbus arrived in 1492, it actually wasn’t until 1517 that Montezuma first heard of the Europeans when Juan de Grijalva landed on San Juan de Ulúa. Montezuma ordered a watch to be kept, and I’m sure he was curious, but I don’t think he had an inkling that three years later, as a result of these new people, he would be dead. That one year after that his empire would be overthrown and that within 60 years 95% of his people would be dead from disease. If he had known, it’s unclear what he should have done. In many respects he was just as powerless as the dinosaurs had been 65 million years earlier. 

Certainly had Montezuma known what was coming he would have been very fatalistic, and many of the earlier historians blamed Aztec fatalism for contributing to the ease with which Cortés conquered them. This fatalism supposedly had nothing to do with the new arrivals, and was derived from the appearance of a comet, and the ending of an Aztec era. But not only has that theory been entirely abandoned by more recent scholars, it’s belied by the circumstances of the story. When Cortés first arrived at the Aztec capital Montezuma welcomed him in, thinking that he was engaging in wise diplomacy with representatives of a foreign state. Had he been fatalistic he would have attacked and destroyed them, regardless of the casualties. But he still thought that his empire was going to continue as it always had, and he was far more worried about his vassal states and what it might look like if he lost thousands of men to kill a few hundred, so he welcomed them in instead. Meaning that fatalism, which I am often accused of, probably wasn’t present and didn’t contribute to the Aztecs defeat, and if it had been present, it might have helped. 

II.

As we examine the story of Montezuma, and others like it we notice that there are three distinct stages. And that these stages are the same one’s described by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, in his famous quote:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Rumsfeld took some flack for that statement at the time, and that whole framework is based on the Johari Window. (Which I’ve referenced before.) But I’ve always thought it represents something very important. In this case it perfectly describes the distinct stages of sudden catastrophes. 

The first stage is the unknown unknowns stage. It’s Montezuma in 1516, thinking he ruled over the greatest empire in history, and never suspecting that amongst all the things he was ignorant about, were empires far greater than his own. Empires who not only possessed superior technology, but whose citizens were carriers for a host of horrible diseases against which his people lacked all immunity. 

The second stage is that brief period between the first evidence that something new is happening, but before it’s clear how bad it is. In Rumsfeld’s construction it’s the known unknown stage. In Montezuma’s case it’s 1517-1519, when he’s aware of the arrival of the Europeans, but he’s not sure what kind of threat they pose. When his power to respond is still at its maximum, but unfortunately his knowledge, while not as bad as the first stage, is still near the nadir. 

The final stage is when the new reality has finally set in, the known known stage. The empire has fallen, Montezuma is dead, the first of the epidemics have started and the Spanish are in charge. Montezuma himself wasn’t around for this, but lots of Aztecs were. And while they still didn’t know everything they knew enough to know that Europeans were bad news. 

On top of the above some catastrophes are easier to foresee and prevent than others. Returning to the dinosaurs, that catastrophe would have been impossible to prevent even if the dinosaurs could have understood what was going on. On the other end of the spectrum, as long as we’re on the subject of Rumsfeld, the catastrophe that was the Iraq War should have been relatively easy to foresee and prevent, particularly since it was a catastrophe of our own making. The tragedy of the Aztecs is somewhere in between, though certainly closer to the dinosaur end than the Iraq War end. 

III.

What is a person living in 2020 supposed to do with all of the above? To work backwards, first we should be doing everything we can to make future catastrophes easier to see and prevent. This is a huge topic all on its own, but perhaps one example will suffice. In 1998 both Deep Impact and Armageddon were released to theaters, and it was noted at the time, that the budget for either movie would be sufficient to find all of the asteroids over a certain size that might impact the Earth. In other words for the cost of producing the movie we could prevent the events in the movie from coming to pass. Instead we made two of them. The search for asteroids is ongoing, currently the goal is to identify 90% of all asteroids larger than 460 feet in diameter by 2020 (which probably won’t happen). But if an asteroid does smash into the earth and we could have found it, but spent the money instead on making a movie about it happening, we’re going to feel pretty silly.

From there we’re not doing as well as we could on those catastrophes in the known knowns category. The chief example here is the opioid epidemic. We’ve known that opium and its derivatives are addictive since at least 1750 and yet we somehow forgot that or choose to overlook it recently and started prescribing truly insane amounts of it to people. (See my previous post about that here.) And even once we recognized the scope of the problem I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been slow to act. Which is not to say the problem isn’t complicated with a lot of moving parts. More that it’s a catastrophe in the easiest stage to deal with, it’s a known known. And if we can’t deal with catastrophes at this stage what hope is there for dealing with them early enough to prevent the damage.

The next category, known unknowns is where most of the excitement is. This is where people fight over things which might be catastrophic. Whether it’s rising right-wing extremism, inequality, AI risk, pornography or nuclear weapons. This is important work, and I hope in my own small way to contribute to it. For those with more resources, philanthropists, foundations, government, etc. I would like to see even more money and time spent on it. But it’s really the next category that represents the primary focus of this post: the unknown unknowns.

As I said, this is precisely what Montezuma was facing when he was born in 1466, and when he ascended the throne in 1502. The forces that would desolate an entire continent’s worth of people were already in motion and he had no idea. I think it’s valuable to consider what Montezuma could have done. Particularly, without assuming any additional knowledge about future events.

As it turns out science and technology in general would have been extraordinarily helpful. The Aztecs did not know the Earth was round. They did not know how diseases were transmitted. (Many anthropologists have claimed that the way the Native Americans dealt with sick people helped to spread the many epidemics.) Their metallurgy was not particularly advanced, meaning both their weapons and armor suffered. Obviously I could go on, but you get the idea.

The foregoing becomes very important if we assume that we’re in the same position as Montezuma, that there’s some unknown unknown out there waiting to pounce and spread death on a scale never imagined. Perhaps you think we’re not in this position, I doubt it. In fact, I would say that we are in exactly the same position Montezuma was, we just aren’t sure if we’re in the equivalent of 1516, 1492, or 1300. Which is to say we don’t know if something is just around the corner, if it has already started, but is decades away from manifesting, or if it’s hundreds of years in the future. But I don’t think the various time horizons, make as much difference as you think, also to be honest, just like Montezuma, I think we’re going to be surprised how powerless we feel when the crisis point arises. 

If there is hope, then it lies in science and technology, and we have to do more than talk about how cool it is, we have to use it in a muscular and aggressive fashion. Facebook and Uber are not going to save us, but fusion and putting people on Mars might. And despite our best efforts unknown unknowns are still difficult to deal with and there is no sure path to success. But there’s many reasons to believe that our current path is less sure than most. We are all of us Aztecs, and sooner or later Cortés will arrive. 


One thing you can be certain of, at the end of each post I’m going to make a plea for donations. It’s a known known if you will. If you feel even the slightest twinge of guilt, that’s also a known known, and it can be defeated far easier than Cortés.