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

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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.


Predictions: Looking Back to 2019 and Forward to 2020

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At the beginning of 2017 I made some predictions. These were not predictions just for the coming year, but rather predictions for the next 100 years. A list of black swans that I thought either would or would not come to pass. (War? Yes. AI Singularity? No.) Two years later I haven’t been wrong or right yet about any of them, but that’s what I expected, they are black swans after all. But I still feel the need, on the occasion of the new year, to comment on the future, which means that in the absence of anything new to say about my 100 year predictions, I’ve had to turn to more specific predictions. Which is what I did last year. And like everyone else (myself included) you’re probably wondering how I did. 

I started off by predicting: All of my long-standing predictions continue to hold up, with some getting a little more likely and some a little less, but none in serious danger.

After doing my annual review of them (something I would recommend, particularly if you weren’t around when I initially made those predictions) this continues to be true. As one example, I predicted that immortality would never be achieved. My impression has always been that transhumanists considered this one of the easier goals to accomplish, and yet we’ve actually been going the opposite direction for several years, with life expectancy falling year after year, including the most recent numbers.

As I was writing this, the news about GPT-2s ability to play chess came out. Which, I’ll have to admit, does appear to be a major step towards falsifying my long term prediction that we will never have a general AI that can do everything a human can do, but I still think we’ve got a long way to go, farther than most people think.

I went on to predict: Populism will be the dominant force in the West for the foreseeable future. Globalism is on the decline if not effectively dead already.

I will confess that I’m not entirely sure why I limited it to “the West”. Surely this was and is true. The historic general election win by the Tories to finally push Brexit through, the not quite dead Yellow Vests Movement in France and the popularity of Sanders, Warren and Trump in the run up to the election are all examples of this. But it’s really outside of the West where populism made itself felt in 2019. One example of that, of course, are the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, as well as protests in such diverse places as Columbia, Sudan and Iran. But it’s the protests in Chile and India that I want to focus on. 

The fascinating thing about the Chilean protests is that Chile was one of the wealthiest countries in South America, and seemed to be doing great, at least from a globalist perspective. But then, because of a 4% rate increase in public transportation fees in the capital of Santiago, mass protests broke out, encompassing over a million people and involving demands for a new constitution. I used the term “globalist perspective” just now, which felt kind of clunky, but it also gets at what I mean. From the perspective of the free flow of capital and metrics like GDP and trade, Chile was doing great. Beyond that Chile was ranked 28th out of 162 countries on the freedom index, so it had good institutions as well. But for some reason, even with all that, there was another level on which it’s citizens felt things were going horribly. It’s an interesting question to consider if things are actually going horribly, or if the modern world has created unrealistic expectations, but neither is particularly encouraging, and of the two, unrealistic expectations may be worse.

Turning to India, I ended last year’s post by quoting from Tyler Cowen, “Hindu nationalism [is] on the rise, [but] India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicity of directions, few of them familiar to most Americans.” I think he was correct, but also “Hindu nationalism” is a very close cousin, or even a sibling to Hindu populism, and, as is so often the case, an increase in one kind of populism has led to increases in other sorts of populism. In India’s case to increased expressions of Muslim populism. Which has resulted in huge rallies taking place in the major cities over the last few weeks in protest of an immigration law.

Speaking more generally, my sense is that these populist uprisings come in waves. There was the Arab Spring. (Apparently Chile is part of the Latin America Spring.) There was the whole wave of governments changing immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, which included Tiananmen Square. (Which unfortunately did not result in a change of government.) In 1968 there were worldwide protests and if you want to go really far back there were the revolutions of 1848. It seems clear that we’re currently seeing another wave. (Are they coming more frequently?) And the big question is whether or not this wave has crested yet. My prediction is that it hasn’t, that 2020 will see a spreading and intensification of such protests. 

My next prediction concerned the fight against global warming, and I predicted: Carbon taxes are going to be difficult to implement, and will not see widespread adoption.

Like many of my predictions this is more long term, but still accurate. To the best of my knowledge while there was lots of sturm und drang about climate change, mostly involving Greta Thunberg, I don’t recall major climate change related policies being implemented by any government, and certainly not by the US and China, the two biggest emitters. Of course, looking back this prediction once again relates back to populism, in particular the Yellow Vest Movement, who demanded that the government not go ahead with the scheduled 2019 increase to the carbon tax, which is in fact exactly what happened. Also Alberta repealed its carbon tax in 2019. On further reflection, this particular prediction seems too specific to be something I add to the list of things I continue to track, but it does seem largely correct.

From there I went on to predict: Social media will continue to change politics rapidly and in unforeseen ways.

When people talk about the protests mentioned above social media always comes into play. And in fact it’s difficult to imagine that the Hong Kong protests could have lasted as long as they have without the presence of social platforms like Telegram and the like. And it’s difficult to imagine how the Chilean protests could have formed so quickly and over something which otherwise seems so minor in the absence of social media.

But of course the true test will be the 2020 election. And this is where I continue to maintain that we can’t yet predict how social media will impact things. I would be surprised if some of the avenues for abuse which existed in 2016 hadn’t been closed down, but I would be equally surprised if new avenues of abuse don’t open up.

My next prediction was perhaps my most specific: There will be a US recession before the next election. It will make things worse.

Despite its specificity, I could have done better. What I was getting at is that a softening economy will be a factor in the next election. This might take the form of a formal recession (that is negative GDP growth for two successive quarters) or it might be a more general loss of consumer confidence without being a formal recession. In particular I could see a recession starting before the election, but not having the time to wrack up the full two quarters of negative growth before the election actually takes place. 

In any event I stand by this prediction, though I continue to be surprised by the growth of the economy. As you may have heard the US is currently in the longest economic expansion in history. And if I’m wrong, and the economy continues to grow up through the election, then I’ll make a further prediction, Trump will be re-elected. The Economist agrees with me, in their capsule review of the coming year:

Having survived the impeachment process, Donald Trump will be re-elected president if the American economy remains strong and the opposition Democrats nominate a candidate who is perceived to be too far to the left. The economy is, however, weakening, and a slump of some kind in 2020 is all but certain, lengthening Mr Trump’s odds.

As long as we’re on the subject of the economy, I came across something else that was very alarming the other day. 

Waves of debt accumulation have been a recurrent feature of the global economy over the past fifty years. In emerging and developing countries, there have been four major debt waves since 1970. The first three waves ended in financial crises—the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Asia financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.

A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four. While debt financing can help meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms. Low-income countries are increasingly borrowing from creditors outside the traditional Paris Club lenders, notably from China. Some of these lenders impose non-disclosure clauses and collateral requirements that obscure the scale and nature of debt loads. There are concerns that governments are not as effective as they need to be in investing the loans in physical and human capital. In fact, in many developing countries, public investment has been falling even as debt burdens rise. 

That’s from a World Bank Report. Make of it what you will, but the current conditions certainly sounds like previous conditions which ended in crisis and catastrophe, and if the report is to be believed conditions are much worse now than on the previous three occasions. I understand that if it does happen there’s some chance it won’t affect the US, but given how interconnected the world economy is, that doesn’t seem particularly likely. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I should mention that one of my long term predictions is that: The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown. And while the debt mentioned in the report is mostly in countries outside of the US, it is in the same ballpark.

Moving on, my next prediction was: Authoritarianism is on the rise elsewhere, particularly in Russia and China.

I would think that the Hong Kong protests are definitive proof of rising authoritarianism in China or at least continuing authoritarianism. But on top of that 2019 saw an increase in the repression of the Uyghurs, most notably their internment in re-education camps, and this in spite of the greater visibility and condemnation these camps have collected. But what about Russia? Here things seem to have been quieter than I expected, and I will admit that I was too pessimistic when it came to Russia. Though they are still plenty authoritarian, and it will be interesting to see what happens as it gets closer to the end of Putin’s term in 2024.

Those two countries aside, I actually argued that authoritarianism is on the rise generally, and this seems to be confirmed by Freedom House, which said that in 2018 that freedom declined in 68 countries while only increasing in 50, and that this continues 13 consecutive years of decline. You did read that correctly, I gave the numbers for 2018, because those are the most recent numbers available, but I’m predicting that when the 2019 numbers come in, that they’ll also show a net decline in freedom.

My final specific prediction from last year was: The jockeying for regional power in the Middle East will intensify.

Well, if this didn’t happen in 2019 (and I think it did) then it certainly happened in 2020 when the US killed Qasem Soleimani. Though to be fair, while the killing definitely checks the “intensify” box, it’s not quite as good at checking the “regional power” box. Though any move that knocks Iran down a peg has to be good news for at least one of the other powers in the region, which creates a strong suspicion that the US’s increasing aggressiveness towards Iran might be on behalf of one or more of those other powers.

Still, it was the US who did it, and it’s really in that context that it’s the most interesting. What does the Soleimani killing say about ongoing American hegemony? First, it’s hard, but not impossible to imagine any president other than Trump ordering the strike. (Apparently the Pentagon was “stunned” when he chose that option.) Second and more speculatively, I would argue this illustrates that, while the ability of the US military to project force wherever it wants is still alive and well, such force projection is going to become increasingly complicated and precarious.

At this point it’s tempting to go on a tangent and discuss the wisdom or foolishness of killing Soleimani, though I don’t know that it’s really clearly one or the other. He was clearly a bad guy, and the type of warfare he specialized in was particularly loathsome. That said does killing any one person, regardless of how important, really do much to slow things down? 

Perhaps the biggest argument for it being foolish would have to be the precedent it sets. Adding the option of using drones to surgically kill foreign leaders you don’t like, seems both dangerous and destabilizing, but is it also inevitable? Probably, though I am sympathetic to the idea that Trump set the precedent and opened the gates earlier than Clinton (or any of a hundred other presidential candidates you might imagine.)

That covers all of my previous predictions to one degree or another, along with adding a few more and now you probably want some new predictions. In particular, everyone wants to know who’s going to win the 2020 presidential election, so I guess I’ll start with that. To begin with I’m predicting that the Democrats are going to end up having a brokered convention. Okay, not actually, but I really hope it happens, I have long thought that it would be the most interesting thing that could happen for a political junkie like me. But it hasn’t happened since 1952, and since then both parties have put a lot of things in place to keep them from happening, because brokered conventions look bad for the party. That said, some of these things, like superdelegates, have been recently been weakened. Also Democrats allocate delegates proportionally rather than winner take all like the Republicans. Finally, it does seem that recently we’ve been getting closer. Certainly there was talk of it when Obama secured the nomination in 2008, and then again in 2016 when they were trying to figure out how to stop Trump.. So fingers crossed for 2020.

If it’s not going to be a brokered convention, then the candidate will have to come out of the primaries, which may be even harder to predict than who would emerge from a convention fight. Which is to say I honestly have no idea who’s going to end up as the Democratic candidate. Which makes it difficult to predict the winner in November. Since I basically agree with The Economist quote above, there is a real danger of Trump winning if they nominate Sanders or Warren. I know the last election felt chaotic, but I think 2020 will be more chaotic by a significant margin. 

All that said, gun to my head, I think Biden will squeak into being the Democratic nominee and then beat Trump when the economy softens just before the election. And I hope that this will bring a measure of calm to the country, but also I have serious doubts about Biden (my favorite recent description of him is confused old man) and I know that a lot of people really think he’s going to collapse during the election and hand it to Trump. Which, if you’re one of the Democrats voting in the primary, would be a bad thing. 

A lot hinges on whether Bloomberg is going to make a dent in the race. I kind of like Bloomberg. I think technocrats are overrated in general, but given the alternative, a competent technocrat could be very refreshing, and I can see why he entered the race. With Biden’s many gaffes there does seem to be a definite dearth of candidates in that category. Unfortunately, despite dropping a truly staggering amount of money he’s still polling fifth. In any case, there’s a lot of moving parts, and any number of things can happen, still, on top of my prediction that Biden will squeak in as the Democratic nominee, I’m predicting that even if he doesn’t a Democrat will win the 2020 election. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see. 

In summary, I’m predicting:

  • Everything I predicted in 2017.
  • A continuation of my predictions from last year with some pivots:
    • More populism, less globalism. Specifically that protests will get worse in 2020.
    • No significant reduction in global CO2 emissions (a drop of greater than 5%)
    • Social media will continue to have an unpredictable effect on politics, but the effect will be negative.
    • That the US economy will soften enough to cause Trump to lose.
    • That the newest wave of debt accumulation will cause enormous problems (at least as bad as the other three waves) by the end of the decade.
    • Authoritarianism will continue to increase and liberal democracy will continue its retreat.
    • The Middle East will get worse.

     

  • Biden will squeak into the Democractic nomination.
  • The Democrats will win in 2020.

As long as we’re talking about the election and conditions this time next year, I should interject a quick tangent. I was out to lunch with a friend of mine the other day and he predicted that Trump will lose the election, but that in between the election and the inauguration Russia will convince North Korea to use one of their nukes to create a high altitude EMP which will take out most of the electronics in the US, resulting in a nationwide descent into chaos. This will allow Trump to declare martial law, suspending the results of the election and the inauguration of the new president. And then, to cap it all off, Trump will use the crisis as an excuse to invite in Russian troops as peacekeepers. After hearing this I offered him 1000-1 odds that this specific scenario would not happen. He decided to put down $10, so at this point next year, I’ll either be $10 richer, or I’ll have to scrounge up the equivalent of $10,000 in gold while dealing with the collapse of America and a very weird real-life version of Red Dawn.

I will say though, as someone with a passion for catastrophe, I give his prediction for 2020 full marks for effort. It is certainly far and away the most vivid scenario for the 2020 election that I have heard. And, speaking of vivid catastrophes. With my new focus on eschatology, one imagines that I should make some eschatological predictions as well. But of course I can’t. And that’s kind of the whole point. If I was able to predict massive catastrophes in advance then presumably lots of people could do it, and some of those people would be in a position to stop those catastrophes. Meaning that true catastrophes are only what can’t be predicted, or what can’t be stopped even if someone could predict them. That may in fact be fundamental to the definition of eschatology no matter how you slice it, going all the way back to the New Testament

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. 

This injunction applies not only to the Son of Man but also to giant asteroids, terrorist nukes and even the election of Donald Trump, and it’s going to be the subject of my next post.


I have one final prediction, that my monthly patreon donations will be higher at the end of 2020 than at the start. I know what you’re thinking, why that snarky, arrogant… In fact saying it makes you not want to donate, but then everyone has to feel the same way, which ends up being a large coordination problem. On the other hand it just takes one person to make the prediction true, and that person could be you! 


Books I Finished in December

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  1. Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age By: Bear F. Braumoeller
  2. Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2) By: Anthony Ryan
  3. Oath of Swords (War God #1) By: David Weber
  4. The War God’s Own (War God #2) By: David Weber
  5. Aeschylus II: The Oresteia- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, Proteus (Fragments) By: Aeschylus
  6. The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints (Religious) Translated By: Thomas A. Wayment
  7. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Religious) Annotated by: Grant Hardy
  8. Republican Party Animal: The “Bad Boy of Holocaust History” Blows the Lid Off Hollywood’s Secret Right-Wing Underground By: David Cole
  9. Utterly Dwarfed (The Order of the Stick #6) By: Rich Burlew
  10. Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus By: Wizards RPG Team
  11. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul By: Leo Tolstoy
  12. The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity By: Ryan Holiday
  13. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (The Last Lion #1) By: William Manchester

As part of my new focus (both on eschatology and on writing a book) I’m going to change things up on my reviews again. I’m going to begin my monthly round-up of books I’ve read with lengthier reviews of the books that might have something to say about the end of the world/nation/culture/long peace/good times, i.e. eschatology. After that I’ll wrap up with short reviews of all the other books I’ve read in the “Capsule Reviews” Section. 

I know. I can sense your excitement even as I write this. It crosses space and time and I can hear it as a frenzied whisper, right at the edge of my consciousness, “Eschatological Book Reviews!?! Capsule Reviews?!? Everything I’ve ever dreamed of is coming to pass all in one blog post!”


I- Eschatological Reviews (it just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)

Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age

By: Bear F. Braumoeller
344 pages

General Thoughts

In both Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker complains that things are better now than ever, but that this news gets very little attention because people are naturally drawn to negative news. So that’s what media outlets focus on. (e.g. if it bleeds it leads.) I take issue with this complaint for a couple of reasons. First, as I’ve argued in the past, there might be some very good reasons for people to fixate on negative news. And second, while his assertion is probably true in general, in the specific case of Pinker, he, at least, seems to have no problem getting attention. While people making the opposite argument appear to have a much tougher road. 

Only the Dead is a direct response to and refutation of Better Angels. The former has a single review on Amazon. (That will probably be at two by the time you read this because I intend to adapt this and post it on Amazon.) While the latter has 1,069 reviews. So at least on that metric I don’t think Pinker has anything to complain about. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding any book of modern pessimism that beats him on this metric of attention. To be fair, Taleb’s, The Black Swan has 1,793 reviews but it was published four years before Better Angels. Also, I don’t know if it should actually count as modern pessimism.

Of course, none of this speaks to the quality of Only the Dead. As to that, I would say that it’s definitely drier than Pinker’s work. Braumoeller is not as good a writer. But if we turn from style to substance, I would have to give the award to Braumoeller. It’s always hard to judge the evidentiary and methodological basis of a book without redoing the math, reading all (or many) of the sources, and knowing a lot about the subject already, but my sense, from the standpoint of evidence, is that Only the Dead is the equal of both of Pinker’s books, and may surpass them, and that from a methodological standpoint it’s definitely better. In particular Braumoeller’s definition of what constitutes war is more sophisticated than Pinker’s. Also, for me at least, Only the Dead does a much better at passing the smell test

I imagine other people might feel differently. That’s certainly their right, but I think this is one of those books that’s particularly important to read before dismissing. Especially for people using Pinker’s books as their primary support for one or the other political platform or policy proposal.

What It Says About Eschatology

War, particularly in the age of nuclear weapons, has to take up a large amount of any eschatologist’s time and attention. Obviously everyone, myself and Braumoeller included, hope that war is no longer something we have to worry about. Unfortunately, despite his hopes, that is not the conclusion Braumoeller reaches when he actually looks at the data.

As I mentioned this book was written as a direct response to Better Angels and it might be easiest to look at some of the places Braumoeller disagrees with Pinker.

First off, Pinker argues that war has been declining for centuries. Braumoeller disagrees, and actually finds the opposite:

The story told…is pretty grim. [The data] shows a significant drop [in the use of force] around the end of the Cold War. The overall trend over the course of the past two centuries, however, has been an increase in the rate of conflict initiation between countries. In fact, if we leave out the two World Wars, we can see that the COld War was the most conflictual peacetime period to have occurred since the Napoleonic Wars, and the end of the Cold War was the first instance of a decrease in the rate of conflict initiation in nearly two centuries. 

This is obviously not the story that Pinker is telling. War has not been declining for centuries, though the fact that it declined after the Cold War has to count for something, right? Well to begin with, that time period is not really long enough for us to draw any conclusions. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t fit Pinker’s idea that the reduction of war is due to the long arc of progress which has been ongoing since at least the Enlightenment.

This takes us to another area of disagreement. Braumoeller found that in periods and areas where war did decrease that it had very little to do with the rise and spread of enlightened humanism, and almost everything to do with international orders, like the Concert of Europe, the Bismarckian System and, more recently, things like NATO and the United Nations. This is exactly the same conclusion put forward by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I talked about back in November. According to both Braumoeller and Morris, the decline of war which started at the end of the Cold War, was all about American hegemony, and unrelated to any surge in enlightened liberal values. As I pointed out in that post, there’s every reason to believe that international orders work in exactly the way Morris describes, but also several reasons to believe that we can’t create an international order bigger than what we already have. 

All of this means that war is likely to continue, and it illustrates one final point of disagreement between Pinker and Braumoeller. Braumoeller points out that this has already been happening, wars have continued in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pinker, on the other hand, prefers to limit his focus to wars between Great Powers. And while I agree that this is a useful distinction, it’s also a distinction that can easily be breached. As Braumoeller points out, every war no matter how small has a chance of exploding into something far larger. 

 If chance events are the main drivers of escalation, anyone who starts a war today is running a small but nontrivial risk that the war will snowball to nightmarish proportions.

The impression one gets from all of this is not that we are living through the Long Peace, a peace that is likely to continue forever, but that we were exceptionally lucky during the Cold War that none of the many conflicts ended up “snowball[ing] to nightmarish proportions.” And as much as I hope that our luck holds, the “small but nontrivial risk[s]” are going to continue to accumulate, and one of these days our luck is going to run out.


II- Capsule Reviews

Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2)

By: Anthony Ryan
602 Pages

Yes, you heard that right! It’s book two in a series… I have finally moved deeper into a series I already started, rather than starting something new. I had heard that the first book was the best, and that the series got progressively worse as it continued. I can believe that, and depending on how much time you have to read, I might recommend just stopping at the first book. Still this book was pretty good. The action was great, and it all built to a satisfying climax where everything came together, somewhat along the lines of what Brandon Sanderson is always doing, though not as skillfully. 

If there was a weakness it was the characters and the overall plot. There was a lot of character growth, but it seemed to happen off screen and without much drama. Also I think it’s hard to overstate how much it helps to set something in a school (just ask J.K. Rowling) an advantage the first book had and the second book lacked.


Oath of Swords (War God #1)

By: David Weber
576 Pages

A pulp fantasy novel, and a quick and enjoyable read, but not to be mistaken at any stretch for a great work of art. It was basically a novelization of what I would have considered the ideal D&D campaign, when I was 14.

Though I will say that his world creation was quite good, particularly with the Hradani, his version of the fantasy orc/ogre. Though I’m still not sure about his decision to make them Irish (but maybe if Dwarves are Scottish it all makes sense?)


The War God’s Own (War God #2)

By: David Weber
374 Pages

It’s a Christmas miracle, book two in yet another series! I have a couple of friends who are huge David Weber fans, and they both agree that even though there are five books in the series that I should stop at book two. Which I think I will. Also, everything I said about the first book applies here as well. 


Aeschylus II: The Oresteia- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, Proteus (Fragments)

By: Aeschylus
178 Pages

My quest to read the great works of Western Literature in chronological order continues. This book contained The Oresteia a trilogy of plays about a very dysfunctional family. While the dysfunction is interesting, and perhaps the key point of the whole thing, I was struck by how it ended up being an origin story for Athens and a certain idea of justice. The climax of the third play takes place after Orestes shows up in Athens to throw himself at the mercy of the city. Which takes the form of the goddess Athena literally showing up to judge him for the murder of his mother Clytemestra. And rather than dispense divine justice, which would have been what you’d expect, she calls a jury and then casts a vote as just one more member of that jury!

I do think that people often exaggerate how ancient the roots of Western Civilization are, or whether things are actually distinctly Western, or part of some universal culture of things which have out competed everything else. But neither of those criticisms apply to trial by jury, which is both something very ancient (the play was written in ~458 BC) and distinctly Western. (In as much as Greece is considered the beginning of Western Civ, which is another discussion.)

Also, it’s not just that they had stumbled upon juries as some sort of eccentric local custom. In the play Athena gives a whole speech about how Athens will forevermore be defined by the idea of impartial justice, laying out a whole ideology, even if ends up being a relatively narrow one.

Oh, and as far as whether the jury acquits or convicts Orestes? You’ll have to read it to find out (or use wikipedia, or countless other sources).


The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints (Religious)

Translated by: Thomas A. Wayment 
512 Pages

Last year I had four books which I started at the beginning of the year with the plan to read a few pages each day, and finish them over the course of the entire year. This was one of those books, and it seemed particularly appropriate, since within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) last year we were studying the New Testament. And four years from now when we are once again studying it, I would definitely recommend this book, though less for the translation than for the footnotes. 

I could imagine that for someone who has difficulty with the English of the King James Version that this translation might be useful, but there were only a few spots where I think I discovered a deeper meaning in the text because of this translation. That was not the case with the footnotes, there was all sorts of valuable insight there. And for that alone I would recommend it, even for people who aren’t LDS.


The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Religious)

Annotated by: Grant Hardy
600 Pages

The second of the four all-year books. This one was also all about the footnotes, and given that the LDS course of study for this year is the Book of Mormon I would definitely recommend this edition, particularly for people who’ve read the Book of Mormon many times already. 


Republican Party Animal: The “Bad Boy of Holocaust History” Blows the Lid Off Hollywood’s Secret Right-Wing Underground

By: David Cole
320 Pages

Well, first off, as I was pulling the link for this book, I discovered that, since it’s out of print, it’s going for $100 online. (And there’s only one copy at that price. The next lowest price is $950..) Guess I should take better care of my copy… (Hmm… when I went back it was down to $10, Amazon is weird.)

Beyond it being apparently a rare and very valuable book, this is also a book that acts as a test of rationality and objectivity. Are there some things that are off limits for rational discussion? Are there things which are so awful, that to question whether their awfulness might have been exaggerated (while still being unimaginably awful) should entirely keep people out of polite society? If there is such a thing, then the Holocaust would certainly qualify. And that’s what David Cole is, a Holocaust Revisionist. An idea so toxic to polite society that I’m even a little nervous reviewing the book.

To be clear that is not the primary focus of the book. It’s an autobiography, describing Cole’s long strange journey, a journey I can’t possibly do justice to, but which involved him faking his death more than once, a lot of strange and damaged people, and the inner secrets of conservative Hollywood. But, since the whole thing started with Holocaust revision, it ends up providing the backdrop to everything else in the book. And… in fact it’s what makes the book great.

The story of his girlfriend’s betrayal, and his absolute shunning by conservatives is interesting (though, if I had one complaint, it might be that he described it with too much detail). But having a real life example of the limits of discourse seems very timely even if a lot of it happened decades ago. And to be clear (this is where the nervousness comes from) he includes his thoughts on what’s wrong about the standard Holocaust story, and they don’t appear to be crazy, and would seem to me to be well within the limits of what can be discussed calmly, without death threats (another recurring feature of the book). 


Utterly Dwarfed (The Order of the Stick #6)

By: Rich Burlew
352 Pages

This is the latest collection of Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick webcomic. Which follows a party of D&D adventurers on their quest to save the world. I’ve felt for a long time that Burlew is one of the best fantasy writers currently working, and although there’s only the tiniest amount of additional material in this book beyond what you get for free on his website, I’m more than happy to support things by buying a copy. It’s great stuff.

Also, it’s a series I’m completely current on! 


Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus

By: Wizards RPG Team
256 Pages

This book is the latest D&D adventure from Wizards of the Coast. If that means anything to you, you’ve probably already heard of the book, and there’s not a lot for me to add. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you should skip ahead to the next review. 

For those in the former category I will say that the adventure gets off to a good start, and overall the setting and plot is great, but it feels a little rushed and somewhat thin the closer it gets to the end. Also it’s a lot of travelling from one location to another, with each location having a single encounter before the party moves on. I would have liked at least one more big dungeon style location near or at the end. Still the adventure has a lot of potential for someone who wants to customize it as they run it, which may include me.


A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul (Religious)

By: Leo Tolstoy
384 Pages

This is the third book I read over the course of the entire year, and the first of two “page a day” books. I have read Tolstoy’s novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, or rather I should say I have listened to both as an audiobook, which for my money is the only way to tackle really huge old novels. I thoroughly enjoyed both. This book, however, is something different. I’m no expert on Tolstoy, but as I understand it, later in life he had a spiritual awakening and became what could best be described as a Christian anarchist, advocating for radical non-violence, and inspiring people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Indeed his name came up quite often in the Gandhi book I just read. This book, unlike his famous novels, is from this later period of his life.

Obviously I’m not bothered by the Christianity, or the non-violence, and there were some great quotes on both of those subjects. But I was somewhat dismayed by the utopianism, which seemed at least as important to Tolstoy as the other two ideas. Tolstoy really felt that progress equaled Christianity and that both would spread inexorably until violence and other sins had been eradicated. I’ve gone into this before but I think that this version of Christianity seriously diminishes the role of Jesus’ Atonement. To the point where one might actually call it a heresy. 

Speaking of Gandhi, while his non-violence gets most of the press, I think his embrace of Tolstoy’s Christian utopianism (which he converted to Hindu utopianism) was at least as important, and shows up in his fixation on the spinning wheel and building communes. 

In summary, the book was interesting as a snapshot of a certain ideology and moment in history, but I don’t think I got much useful advice out of it.


The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

By: Ryan Holiday
416 Pages

The last of the four books I read over the entire year, and the second of the “page a day” books. If you’re into stoicism, then this book is a nice daily reminder of those principles, with a quote from one of the ancient stoics for every day of the year. That said, I’m not sure I’m the intended audience. I think I know the principles of stoicism well enough that nothing was surprising, or particularly inspiring. Which is to say, I don’t think I acted any differently in 2019, in the presence of this book than I would have acted in its absence. On the other hand, I think this book would have been enormously helpful the year I got sued and had to rebuild my business from scratch. Also I think if my identity were more tied up in stoicism, I would definitely appreciate the book more. 

It was a good book. I’m just not sure how much nuance you can really add to stoic philosophy. It’s pretty straightforward, and like most philosophies the difficulty is in doing it, not understanding it. And a daily reminder probably helps a lot of people, it just didn’t do much for me in 2019.


The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (The Last Lion #1)

By: William Manchester
992 Pages

The last book I finished in 2019. I mentioned previously that I thought I already knew quite a bit about Churchill, but there’s always more to learn. And this 3000 page, three volume biography is certainly the place for that. Least there be any confusion, I have only finished the first volume, but at 992 pages there’s still lots of things I could say, so I’ll just pick out a few:

  • I understand that it’s unwise to compare levels of suffering between someone growing up in the top ranks of the most powerful nation in the world, with anyone growing up anywhere else. But Churchill did have a pretty lousy childhood. I’d known it was rough, but it was rougher than I thought.
  • Churchill reminds me of Alexander Hamilton. (I read Ron Chernow’s biography a while ago.) Hamilton’s superpower was his ability to write enormous quantities of very polished content. Churchill was similarly gifted as a writer, though politically, his strength was more his speeches, while Hamilton was more of an essayist.
  • Churchill is attacked these days for his policies towards India, in particular the 1943 Bengal Famine. I’m not in a position to defend his policy. (For one thing, I haven’t reached that part of the biography). But the feeling I got from this, and other books I’ve read about him, but particularly this one, is that Churchill really did pay attention to the suffering of people at the bottom of the heap. That he possessed a large amount of empathy.

Beyond that Churchill is a very impressive individual, full of flaws just like everyone, but something special for all that. I’d be happy for just a fraction of that in my own life.


Well 2019 is over and things continue much the same as they always have, if perhaps a little more chaotic. It would be nice if things calmed down a bit in 2020, but given that it’s an election year, I doubt it. As for me, I’ll definitely still be around, commenting in the same idiosyncratic fashion I always do, if you’d like to help with that, consider donating


Pornography and the End of the World

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It may seem strange to declare that going forward this blog is going to be entirely focused on eschatology, and then to choose pornography as the very next subject. Most people scoff at the idea that pornography could lead to the end of the world all on it’s own. And I mostly agree with that, but as I said, part of what I want to do is expand the discussion of eschatology vertically to encompass things that aren’t commonly considered, but may represent more subtle threats, and I would argue that pornography might be just such a threat. 

In part this is precisely because very few people take it seriously. Everyone understands that if we get hit by a comet, or if the ice caps melt, or if there’s a nuclear war, that even if humanity survives, things will be pretty grim, whereas with pornography, we have the exact opposite situation. There’s a substantial segment of the population who feels that it’s entirely benign, and some who even feel that it’s healthy. As you may have guessed I’m not in either camp, and I’ll explain why.

To start with, if people were certain that some aspect of society was definitely going to end in catastrophe, or worse, end up causing the destruction of that very society. Then they would definitely do something about it. When there’s a clear and present danger, like being invaded by a foreign army, people are pretty good about doing whatever it takes. Unfortunately most dangers are not so obvious, nor so inevitable. Many dangers are subtle, and those which aren’t, are generally improbable. And yet it is from the universe of these subtle and improbable dangers, that catastrophe often emerges. I think we can safely say that no one foresaw that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand would lead to 40 million deaths (more if you count World War II). And even if we move the causation down a few steps, there were hardly any people who thought war between the Great Powers would cause 40 million deaths. But if we’re going to have any chance of preventing catastrophes, then identifying all the many potential dangers beforehand is a necessary first step.

All of this means that a large part of any study of eschatology has to involve a discussion of catastrophes with a very low probability. As I said, I think it’s extremely unlikely that pornography is going to lead to the end of the world all on it’s own, but I do find it fascinating that numerous people don’t even view it as a danger. This was illustrated by a recent Twitter debate between cultural conservatives and more libertarian conservatives on the topic. I’m sure it doesn’t take much to imagine what that debate was about. The cultural conservatives think that pornography is a huge danger and the government should do more to keep it out of people’s home’s, and the libertarian’s think the pornography is not that big of a deal, and that if you’re worried about it you just need to “parent better”. As you might imagine I’m firmly on the cultural conservatives side. I think that pornography is dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted. 

As part of that debate someone linked to an article in the The Dallas Morning News that illustrates all of these attributes, particularly the idea that you just need to “parent better”. The author describes how something was obviously weighing on her daughter. It took some coaxing, but the daughter eventually revealed what it was:

At a friend’s birthday party, they were playing on the little girl’s phone. The girl handed it to my daughter and said, “Boys are disgusting.” My daughter clicked on a male classmate’s Snapchat story to find a video of him and a few other boys from her class laughing as they watched “rape porn”. She said the woman was bound up, saying “no” as a masked man approached her.

[She] went on to describe a group of boys in her sixth grade class frequently joking about assaulting the girls in the parking lot. She said if any of the girls aren’t sitting with their legs closed, the boys will ask if they want to get pregnant. And if the girls’ legs are crossed, boys from this group often walk by and say, “Spread ‘em.”

To begin with we need to ask if the story is true. I see no reason do doubt that, it doesn’t strike me as being implausible. The behavior described in the last paragraph seems a little over the top and caricatured, but not so much that it seems unrealistic. Perhaps some parts of it are exaggerated, maybe the boys only joked about assault once or twice. Or maybe if we’re really skeptical, it didn’t happen to the author’s daughter it happened to the daughter of a friend, and she was 15. But does anyone doubt that at some point a child was exposed to “rape porn” through some, supposedly benign portal, like Google?

After considering whether the story is true, we have to ask if it’s representative. Again this is hard to say, but every statistic I’ve seen indicates that pornography is ubiqitious, and I’d be very much suprised if most statistics don’t understate the true percentages of teenagers who’ve been exposed to it. Asking a kid if they’ve viewed pornography has the same declaration against interest problem that asking about drugs has. Which is to say, you can definitely trust that everyone who says they have viewed it is telling the truth, but you should definitely carry some doubt about everyone who says that they haven’t.  But regardless of whether it’s 28% of 11-12 year olds, or closer to 50% or 80%, does anyone doubt that children are being inadvertently exposed to really upsetting pornography all the time?

Many people, even those who defend pornography, would basically agree with the first two points (if not the exact details of the example I provided). Which is that children, even those as young as 11, are consuming pornography, and that this consumption is not isolated. But after granting this, many people don’t see any particular harm, and they certainly don’t think that the government needs to do anything about it. Rather, as I mentioned at the beginning, they think that if I or people like me have a problem with it, that we just need to “parent better”. This is a great example of how difficult that is.

This girl wasn’t exposed to “rape porn” because she ended up on Pornhub on the home computer, and it’s the mother’s own fault because she didn’t install content filtering software. She was exposed to it on Instagram. I have no direct knowledge of how common that is on Instagram specifically, but I do know that there are numerous mainstream sites that also host an awful lot of porn (not extreme stuff like in the example, but still) for example Reddit and Imgur. Meaning that a parent can install ironclad content filtering software in their home, but what happens the minute your child goes over to a friends house, or ends up in the presence of a smartphone that doesn’t have filtering software. Or if it ends up on a site like Instagram that isn’t filtered. And of course, no kid has ever figured out how to get around content blocking. The key point being that “rape porn” is easily available on any internet connection unless special, even extraordinary care is taken. 

I said that the story would illustrate that pornography is “dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted” and I think it does, but now that we’re through discussing the provence and how difficult it is for even good parents to restrict, it’s time to get into a specific discussion of the subtle and multifaceted danger of porn. For myself, I have a hard time imagining that sixth graders consuming “rape porn” could be viewed as anything other than dangerous, and even if we assume that most childhood consumption of pornography is not so extreme, they’re still viewing stuff which is almost entirely composed of unhealthy examples of sexual relationships, and it would be difficult to argue that they’re not learning from these examples and translating that into expectations. Indeed, there’s broad evidence for that, and it’s also what happened to the boys in the story I provided as an example. 

Even if you are making the argument that pornography is harmless for most people, (which I don’t agree with) the same could be said of alcohol and yet we universally restrict that to people over 21. Can we at least agree that pornography requires a certain amount of maturity to handle? More maturity than that possessed by the average 11 year old?

Thus far we have only discussed the obvious dangers, but as I said there are more subtle dangers as well. Many people want to focus on the ways in which pornography degrades women. And indeed there was some of that present in the example I provided. But what about the effect it has on men? I know that there are arguments that it warps their expectations of sex (indeed I already made that argument) but let’s set that aside for the moment. You could imagine that pornography could be an entirely healthy outlet (again I don’t think it is) but if it replaced the need for actual sex with real people that would still be bad.

Back in May of 2018 I did a post about incels, (people, especially men, who are celibate, but not by choice) and at the time I posted a graph showing a large upswing in the men aged 22-35 who reported having no sex in the previous year, and speculated that it was probably connected to pornography. And indeed, in terms of the effort required for gratification, you can hardly compare the two. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, finding someone to actually have sex with requires leaving the house, spending some amount of time at a bar, displaying a certain level of charm while at the bar, and whatever additional logistics might end up being required. And normally a lot more than that. While achieving gratification with pornography doesn’t even require someone to get up out of their chair. This asymmetry is hard to ignore, and it’s equally hard to imagine that it doesn’t carry any additional consequences. 

Finally I claimed that the danger from pornography was multi faceted. Which it is. There’s the danger it poses to children, there’s the danger it poses to those who are married (studies indicate it increases the risk of divorce), there’s the danger it poses to people trying to start a relationship, and the danger to those people who will never have a relationship because pornography is easier. But all of those dangers are really only about what is happening right now. Another facet to the potential danger is where things are headed. As I pointed out the last time we were on this subject, we’re only about a dozen years into the era of streaming video, which means that it’s reasonable to assume that the full effects of that innovation are yet to be felt. And I would argue that this is particularly true when it comes to pornographic videos. On top of that there are probably second order and downstream effects. Some of which I’ve already touched on and some of which have yet to be uncovered. 

This is where we get to the other reason for bringing up this subject now, so far what I’ve covered is fairly typical of the debate between cultural conservatives and basically everyone else. But in addition to the twitter debates which define every subject these days, including pornography, there are other, deeper, historical reasons for concern, as laid out in the recent article, Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought by Kirk Durston. I would urge you to read the entire article, but if you don’t have time it’s a discussion of the book Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin, which was published in 1934. At the time Unwin had engaged in an exhaustive survey of past cultures, and as part of that he came to a somewhat startling conclusion:

If total sexual freedom was embraced by a culture, that culture collapsed within three generations…

Obviously this is an extraordinary claim? What are we to do with it? 

To begin with we can examine it in the light of the subject we were already discussing, pornography. None of the civilizations Unwin studied had anywhere close to the level of pornography that ours does, for technological reasons if nothing else. Does this mean that ours will collapse faster? Maybe it won’t make any difference. Or, I could actually see some people arguing that it will somehow slow the collapse, but honestly, I can’t take either of the final two arguments seriously. Pornography allows people to engage with their depravities to an extent never before possible. And to return to where I began, while I still don’t think it will cause the end of the world all on it’s own, if we take the Unwin’s conclusion seriously, it certainly might contribute. And indeed a civilization of men (and I use that term loosely) who spend more time closeted in their room in the onanistic enjoyment of pornography than out there getting married, having offspring and working to make the world better for their offspring, doesn’t seem like a healthy civilization by any measurement.

Of course most people aren’t asking whether pornography speeds up the collapse of civilization predicted by Unwin, because they reject his prediction all together.  I have a few friends that I can use to take the temperature of the modern world. Friends who are essentially archetypical, intelligent, secular liberals, and all of them considered this prediction to be ludicrous. I’m not surprised by this, but neither do I agree with it, and I think it illustrates one of the key divides in society, one which doesn’t get a lot of airplay.

Many people, including myself, recognize that civilizations do collapse, catastrophe’s do occur, and that to a first approximation certain cultures are present when nations are ascendent and other cultures are generally present when nations are in decline. And while three generations does seem fast. (Unwin’s generations appear to be approximately 33 years, so around 100 total.) The kind of culture where pornography is ubiquitious and sexual restraint lacking does seem to be one of the cultures more often present when a nation is declining than when a nation is ascendent. 

On the other side of that divide, we have the people who think that this time it’s different. That progress and technology have allowed us to create a civilization immune from the problems that plagued past civilizations. Or, perhaps more charitably, that, “Yes, this civilization is fragile just like every other civilization, but it’s not going to be brought down by ‘total sexual freedom’. That’s not a problem with our civilization, that’s what makes it awesome!” 

After considering all of the foregoing we’re left with a host of questions

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? 

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction?

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? 

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have purchased Sex and Culture, and I will read it and let you know (it is massive), but questions like these are at the core of any study of eschatology. And, as I have said, identifying all of the potential dangers is a necessary first step but it’s not sufficient. And most of the time the potential that any given danger will actually come to pass is going to be difficult if not impossible to assess. So what do we do once we think we’ve identified a danger? Well, as I’ve mentioned before it’s far easier to identify the danger than to know what to do about it, though just awareness can be palliative, but if we’re looking to go beyond that, this is also where the precautionary principle kicks in. Another thing that’s going to come up a lot in any discussion of eschatology. 

I think I’ll save a full discussion of this principle for another time, but I would think that if there are things which could be easily done to minimize future danger, even if that danger has a very low probability, that we should do them. As one example, the Supreme Court has definitely ruled that you can segregate adult content without running into any free speech issues. One way of doing that would be to create a top level domain, say .xxx and require that all pornography be hosted on one of those domains. I understand that there are some technical challenges here, but it’s still a reasonably straightforward low cost solution to the problem of pornography. Whether you think it’s all bad or whether you would just like to keep 11 year old girls from inadvertently viewing “rape porn”. And yet somehow, to my continued bafflement, there is enormous resistance towards any kind of regulation. 

I guess I shouldn’t be baffled. Most people view the current availability of pornography as a minor change in the way the world works. And I understand, that’s an easy position to fall into, progress brings new innovations, society adapts, the world continues. But there’s no guarantee that the world, as we know it, will continue, and lots of reasons to believe that when we’re messing with sex and reproduction, even if it’s just through the avenue of pornography, that we’re messing with something deep rooted and fundamental, possibly in ways we don’t understand. (I didn’t even bring in the idea that pornography is a supernormal stimuli.)

Also, I think people underestimate how much has changed. I remember a time when having HBO in the home was a big deal, and the “Playboy Channel” was the stuff of legends, but just a few decades later and now a large number of people see no problem with giving their kid a smartphone that can access stuff that makes the Playboy Channel look like Barney the Dinosaur.

As I’ve said countless times, predicting the future is impossible. And when I say that people often accuse me of hypocritically doing just that by, for example, entertaining the idea that total sexual freedom, and particularly pornography, will bring down civilization within three generations, but isn’t the opposite true as well? That on the other side they’re predicting that total access, at all ages, to the hardest of the hardcore will have no negative effects? Which is really the more implausible position? 

I agree that there are lots of open questions and that we don’t know what is going to happen, but lets review the questions I posed above one more time, and add a little bit more thought to each.

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? Speaking just of pornography if the choices are “eventual contributor to catastrophe” and “things which make modern civilization immune to catastrophe”. It seems far more at home in the first bucket than in the second.

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I intend to take every prediction of civilizational collapse seriously.

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? Durston certainly thinks it does and his entire article was written in support of that idea. For myself I think three generations seems remarkably specific, but when I look around I don’t see much that would convince me Durston and Unwin are wrong either.

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology? We don’t.


It’s Christmas Eve as I publish this, and I know all of you are wondering, what do I get the eschatologist who has everything?  Well how about a recurring donation? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.


I Finally Figure out What I Want to Be When I Grow Up: An Eschatologist

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

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Eschatology- is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. This concept is commonly referred to as the “end of the world” or “end times“.


It should go without saying that it’s difficult to get noticed on the Internet. Sure, occasionally the Eye of Sauron falls on some hapless individual like Justine Sacco (the young lady who made an ill-considered tweet about AIDS just before departing on an 11 hour flight to South Africa) who ends up with far more negative attention than they ever wanted. But I’m talking about attracting the kind of attention people actually want. Doing that is enormously difficult, and involves a large amount of luck.

That aside, there are things that can be done to increase one’s chances. Long lists of activities designed to attract new people to your material while also retaining the audience you already have. If one were to examine one of these lists, you would find that I do almost none of those things (though I have recently started being active on Twitter). Mostly because they all involve some degree of self-promotion, which generally makes my skin crawl. Though out of all the ways that people promote themselves, there’s one in particular that I find especially annoying. What is this singularly annoying example of self-promotion you ask? To answer that we have to journey back into the beginnings of this blog. 

When I was first thinking of creating a blog, my primary goal was to write about the connection between LDS theology, AI Risk and Fermi’s Paradox (topics I have continued to cover). And when I told people about these topics, several of them pointed me in the direction of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). (It’s been awhile. I bet they thought I forgot about them.)  As I investigated the MTA I started noticing a pattern, nearly everyone involved was a self-proclaimed “philosopher”. (I could link to some examples, but it’s not my intention to single out anyone.) This seemed insufferably pretentious, almost a distillation of all the things I find so annoying about self promotion. “Hi I’m <Insert name>. I’ve noticed a (largely unsupported) connection between Mormon Doctrine and Transhumanism. And I can spare the $11 a month necessary for a Bluehost account, this makes me a ‘philosopher’ (you should be imagining Aristotle or Kant at this point) who’s going to unveil the secrets of the future to you.”

Of course, admittedly, it’s also possible I was jealous. They were certainly getting more attention than I was. Also, I would like to be considered a philosopher as well, though, unlike them, I’m far too neurotic to ever think I deserve it. (See: distaste of self promotion.) On top of that, it feels like the sort of thing you have to earn, and if I didn’t feel they had earned it then certainly I hadn’t either. 

Beyond my reluctance to do anything resembling self promotion, another thing on the list I refused to do was to pick something to really focus on. Long time readers may have heard me declare several times that I write only for me. This is still true and the only way to write anything good, but it’s also a false dichotomy. Which is to say being passionate about the things I write doesn’t preclude having a focus. And as I said having a tighter focus was another thing that various people who wished me success (or at least claimed to) advised me to do repeatedly. That while what I write is interesting (these are their words not mine), it’s too scattered to attract a dedicated audience. 

I mention all of the foregoing because the time has finally come to do both of these things. I’ve decided on a focus and that focus comes with a new occupation. That occupation is not “philosopher”. Which still strikes me as both arrogant and nebulous, no, the occupation I’ve decided to pursue is eschatologist. Yep, after nearly five decades I’ve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up. Also, I think most of the time I’m going to preface it with the word “aspiring”. And then, of course, there’s this entire post offering a long winded back story,  leavened with numerous caveats, in case anyone feels I’m being too prideful. Though, there is the slim possibility that I’m erring too much the other way. That I’m being too self-effacing, I have written an awful lot on the subject. 

At this point some of you may be screaming, “What subject?!? I don’t actually know what the word “eschatologist” means!” Ahh, yes that’s probably important. An eschatologist is someone who studies eschatology. But you probably already guessed that, and what you’re really interested in is the definition of eschatology. From Wikipedia:

Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. This concept is commonly referred to as the “end of the world” or “end times“.

In the past eschatology has been almost exclusively a religious term, but as people are starting to realize that there are a lot of ways for the world to end that would have nothing to do with religion, the study of eschatology (even if it’s not labeled as such) has vastly expanded. Now you have things like the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at Cambridge, and books like Our Final Hour and Global Catastrophic Risks, and figures like Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković (both of whom I quite admire and have mentioned frequently in this space.) Also, despite this modern expansion, I still think religion should be part of the discussion, and as you may have noticed it’s not something I shy away from. 

So, I’ve decided on a focus, does this mean there’s going to be a radical shift in the kinds of subjects I cover going forward? Probably not. I don’t think this decision is going to have all that noticeable of an impact. In fact, if I were to say that this blog has always been about eschatology, I don’t think there would be all that much in what I’ve already written to contradict me. Still, I am hoping for additional clarity, a straighter path going forward, and tighter writing in general.  Also, as I announced last week, I’m going to spend 2020 focused on writing a book, and this clarification will definitely drive that endeavor as well. 

Part of the reason that not much will change, is that I intend to broaden the definition of eschatology both horizontally (to include secular concerns) and vertically (to include not merely the end of the world, but the end of the nation, and beyond that everything which might contribute to either of the foregoing even if that contribution is small.) In other words, this change in focus may seem like a small thing from the perspective of my audience, but I’m hoping that it’s a small thing that compounds, and that five or ten or even twenty years from now a slightly tighter focus will allow me to make a significantly larger impact. Because, while I don’t take the title particularly seriously, I do take the potential threats very seriously, and there are a lot of them. I expect that I’m too worried about most of them, and I hope I’m too worried about all of them, but I doubt it. There are just too many ways for things to go wrong, and only a handful of ways for things to go right.

A final request: I do genuinely want to be as educated and as thoughtful about the study of eschatology (in the very broad sense I’m using the term) as possible. So if you have books you think I should read or education you think I should acquire (I have considered going back to college, but I’m not sure in what) then please pass those suggestions along.

Meanwhile, the jeremiads will continue to flow and I’ll keep sounding the warning about Babylon, whatever form Babylon takes. 


This post invites, nay begs people to dismissively respond to everything I write with, “Ok, Doomer” and you have my permission to do so. However, if you’d like to respond more substantially there’s always the comments, also there’s one other thing…. What was it… Oh yeah, donations.


Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why By: Amanda Ripley
  2. The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7) By: Jacqueline Winspear
  3. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution By: Francis Fukuyama
  4. The Odyssey By: Homer
  5. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
  6. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life By: Jen Sincero
  7. Ayoade on Top By: Richard Ayoade
  8. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business By: Neil Postman
  9. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology By: Neil Postman
  10. Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1) By: Ben Aaronovitch
  11. Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound By: Aeschylus

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

By: Amanda Ripley
288 pages

Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers after I published the reviews of the books I read in September, which included quite a few survival books. As is usual with these books the content is basically evenly divided between survival stories and commentary on those stories. 

On the story side of things this one focused a lot on plane crashes and 9/11, and she had some great interviews with survivors. In both cases people froze up a lot more than you would have expected. Apparently playing dead is not an old wives tale, and most of these disasters are so huge that it’s not uncommon for that response to trigger. There were also a surprising number of people who would essentially act as if nothing had happened. Executives who stayed on their phone on 9/11 or more commonly people who stopped to shut down their computers. Other people would grab their carry-on luggage before getting off a plane that was already on fire.

As far as practical lessons there were a few good ones. She urged people to pay attention to the high probability/low visibility catastrophes like house fires and car accidents. Also, she mentioned the reluctance of people to evacuate. In particular, people who are old and settled are less likely to want to leave or do anything dramatic. As a consequence they were particularly likely to die during something like Katrina. Finally, if you’re interested in surviving, visualization and practice helps a lot before the catastrophe happens, and apparently yelling helps a lot during it. 


The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)

By: Jacqueline Winspear
352 pages

Thoughts

The first weekend in November my wife, my youngest daughter, my mother and I all went on a road trip. For me a road trip is a great chance to catch up on my reading by listening to an audiobook. For my wife it’s a great chance to talk. On this trip we decided to split the difference somewhat. We would start by talking and when the conversation flagged we would switch to an audiobook, and not just any audiobook, the book she was supposed to be reading for her upcoming bookclub. And so it was that I ended up listening to the seventh book in the Maisie Dobbs series. (Once again I’ve started a new series of books without finishing any of my previous series.) 

The book was a reasonably good murder mystery. Not quite as good as the best stuff, but done very well with lots of atmosphere, and some pretty good characters. But the real revelation of this experience was how much fun it can be to listen to a murder mystery with other people. Everytime some hint was dropped we’d stop the book and discuss it. Was it a red herring or a legitimate clue? My wife was pointing out stuff that I missed and vice versa. As a tactic for amusing oneself during a road trip, it worked marvelously. I will definitely be trying it again on future road trips.


The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

By: Francis Fukuyama
608 pages

Thoughts

I’ve been critical of Fukuyama in the past, particularly his End of History theory, but I’ll say up front that whatever else I may have said, this was a great book. I believe I came across it on one of those lists of “books that everyone should read”, and, having followed that advice, I would have to agree.

The book is massive, and sprawling, and almost certainly deserves its own post. Also, as is so often the case with me, it’s actually part of a two book series, so rather than finishing any of the 20 series I’ve already started, I once again began a new one. It would therefore seem obvious that I should do a full post once I’ve finished the second book. Which is what I intend to do. Until that time here are a few, brief thoughts:

Fukuyama claims three things are required to have a modern state:

  1. A Strong State
  2. Rule of Law
  3. Accountability

As an example of the first, he directs our attention to China. They’ve had strong states going all the way back to the Qin Dynasty. But just because they had strong states did not mean they had stable states. There were frequent coups, rebellions and other violent transfers of power as one government or another lost the Mandate of Heaven (a fascinating subject all on it’s own, which I wish I had more time to explore.) And while everyone in China agreed that a strong state was important, they never went on to recognize the need for accountability or the Rule of Law, both of which remain problems down to the present day.

Similar to China, England was also an early example of one of the elements required for a modern state, in this case it was the Rule of Law. Common law and property rights were in place well before the Norman Conquest, and everyone has heard of the Magna Carta. You might imagine that Rule of Law would be sufficient all by itself to eventually lead to a modern state. But it turns out that Rule of Law can actually retard the development of a strong state. For example, Hungary had the Golden Bull, a document very similar to the Magna Carta and which similarly granted significant rights to the nobility, but it turned out too grant them too many rights, leaving the Hungarian King relatively powerless.

Finally, there’s accountability. To achieve this in the modern sense it seems that it was easiest if it emerged organically from the Rule of Law. But, accountability also manifested in other ways as well. Historically, the biggest challenge was to make the people who ran the nation accountable to the nation as a whole rather than their families. Many nations were able to develop a strong state, but as these states developed they needed a larger and larger bureaucracy, and the minute someone ended up with any power they were naturally inclined to use it to benefit their tribe or family, which then undermines the state they’re supposedly working in service to. Accordingly, several states came up with methods for eliminating these attachments. China had eunuchs and to a lesser extent, their system of examinations. While the Ottoman Empire had the devshirme system, whereby Christian slaves acted as the bureaucracy. This sat alongside the system of Janissaries, which was the same thing but for the military. Additionally, to a certain extent this idea also ends up describing clerical celibacy in Catholicism. 

I’ve considered the tension between the state and the family before, but never quite from this angle. And as someone belonging to a religion that puts a lot of emphasis on the family, the dichotomy brings up a lot of interesting issues:

  • To begin with, it’s obvious that loyalty to family is probably at an all time low. Is this because loyalty to the state is at an all time high? If not what has replaced loyalty to the family?
  • Even if loyalty to the family is low, it does seem like there’s been a recent increase in tribal loyalty, if we consider the rise in identity politics to be essentially a tribal thing.
  • It’s been centuries since the modern state has had to deal with strong tribal affiliations, are they still capable of doing so? I’m not sure they are, and if Fukuyama is to be believed that could be very bad.
  • Finally, I mentioned Catholic celibacy, and it turns out that this, plus rules against marrying first cousins did a lot to loosen familial linkage in early Europe and many people, including Fukuyama, believe that this is a large part of what set Europe apart from the rest of the world.

All this stuff is fascinating, but most people are looking for more than the mere satisfaction of their curiosity from observations like these. Ideally, they want wisdom applicable to the current situation, and even better, some guidance for the future. And regardless of whether we grant that some nations have permanently and irrevocably implemented Fukuyama’s three elements, there are still many nations which haven’t. I assume that Fukuyama might cover this more in the second book in the series, but I was left wondering what to do about these nations. I got the distinct feeling that none of the three elements were the sort of thing that was easily transmissible. And, consequently, their lack will not be a simple thing to rectify.


The Odyssey

By: Homer Translated by Emily Wilson
582 pages

Notes on this translation

As I recall, I first heard about this translation though Marginal Revolution. But after that I started seeing it mentioned everywhere. For a long time I’ve had the goal of reading the great works of Western Literature starting at the beginning, and hearing people rave about this particular translation was a large part of the catalyst for taking another run at it. Comparing this translation, which was very modern, with the more traditional Lattimore translation of the Iliad, which I finished back in August, was very illuminating. I wouldn’t have expected it going in, but I think I preferred the more modern approach. Certainly it went down easier, but that could, in part, be due to differences in the original works. I think it’s widely agreed that the Iliad is the weighter of the two.

Representative passage:

Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,

he leapt upon the threshold with his bow

and quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped

out in a rush before his feet, and spoke.

“Playtime is over. I will shoot again,

towards another mark no man has hit.

Apollo, may I manage it!”

He aimed

his deadly arrow at Antinous.

The young man sat there, just about to lift

his golden goblet, swirling wine around,

ready to drink. He had no thought of death.

How could he? Who would think a single man,

among so many banqueters, would dare

to risk dark death, however strong he was?

Thoughts

Once again I’m not sure how to review a work of literature that’s nearly 3000 years old. In addition to giving a feel for Wilson’s translation I selected the passage above mostly because of the phrase, “Playtime is over.” I can even imagine it on a list of quotes:

Playtime is over.

—Homer

But also I choose it to illustrate the realism with which combat is handled. I know I’ve seen a movie version of the Odyssey where Odysseus, after shooting an arrow through all the axes, turns and proceeds to immediately kill everyone with one rapid shot after another, before any of the suitors can react. 

In the actual story, he has to hide all the weapons, arm his son and two of his servants, lock the doors and engage in some very tense hand to hand combat after running out of arrows. To add further to the realism there’s a whole scene where he has to deal with the angry relatives of all the suitors he killed. As the book says, “Who would think a single man, among so many banqueters, would dare to risk dark death, however strong he was?”

It’s interesting that the Iliad is considered the more dramatic of the two works, and also the more realistic. There is no Scylla and Charybdis, no sirens, no lotus eaters, and no one is turned into a pig, so in many senses that’s true. And yet, when it comes to the actual fighting I think the Iliad was less realistic. 

I realize that’s a pretty slim observation to take out of a 3000 year old classic, but it’s what I’ve got.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
176 Pages

AND

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

By: Jen Sincero
244 Pages

Thoughts

I’m going to try something different. I’m going to review two seemingly unrelated books at the same time. We’ll start with Incidents in the Life.

I mentioned to my daughter in college that I was behind on my reading goal for the year (104 books, or two a week) and she suggested that I read Incidents. Not only did she think it was a great book that should be read by everyone, but it was also short. I have to agree with her, it was great. It was also pretty depressing and awful, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should that be a reason not to read it, in fact I should probably read more books like this. That said I was initially not sure what to do with it. My normal shtick is to engage in some light commentary or criticism, but this is not the sort of book you criticize and even commentary of it could be fraught in this day and age. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Jen Sincero.

I don’t recall who recommended it, but someone said I should read YAAB. (I really should keep better track of recommendations going forward.) I do recall that whoever it was, they were very effusive in their praise. Now by and large I’m aware that most self-help books are a waste of time. In general they either repeat things you’ve already heard, or they’re so vague you don’t really end up with any actionable suggestions. Occasionally, however, spending a few hours reading a self-help book can boost your productivity by a couple of percentage points (and maybe more in the short term) and if it does, then that easily makes up for the time you spent reading it, and even makes up for the time you spent reading other self-help books which didn’t have that payoff.

But, as I said, this process is hit or miss, and the misses out number the hits. As a general rule, any self help book will make you feel good while reading it, but if you were to do an experiment where half of your subjects read the book and half didn’t, in a year there would be no discernible difference between the two groups. Fortunately YAAB, is not such a book. I am convinced that the group which read the book would be measurably worse off.

I say this because at its core YAAB is a repackaging of The Secret, or if you’re lucky enough to never have heard of that book, it advocates for the Law of Attraction, the idea that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative consequences. That by thinking about what you want in a positive fashion, it will automatically manifest in your life. Perhaps now, you can see where I’m going with this: I’m going to juxtapose quotes from these two books, which, coincidently, I read within a few days of one another.

First YAAB:

When I’m connected with Source Energy and in the flow, I am so much more powerful, so much more in tune to my physical world and the world beyond, and just so much happier in general. And the more I meditate and the more attention I give to this relationship with my invisible superpower, the more effortlessly I can manifest the things I want into my life, and I do it with such specificity and at such a rapid rate that it makes my hair stand up. It’s like I’ve finally figured out how to make my magic wand work. 

Now from Incidents a partial description of the torments Jabobs suffered during the seven years she hid in tiny attic in her grandmother’s shed. An attic with a 3 foot high ceiling at its peak!

I suffered much more during the second winter than I did during the first. My limbs were benumbed by inaction, and the cold filled them with cramp. I had a very painful sensation of coldness in my head; even my face and tongue stiffened and I lost the power of speech… I was restored to consciousness by the dashing of cold water in my face…[My brother] afterwards told me he thought I was dying, for I had been in an unconscious state sixteen hours.

YAAB again:

In order to create wealth, you must bring yourself into energetic alignment with the money you desire to manifest.

And Incidents:

My children grew up finely; and Dr. Flint would often say to me, with an exulting smile. “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”

I thought to myself that, God being my helper, they should never pass into his hands. It seemed to me I would rather see them killed then have them given up to his power. 

It seems clear to me that if Jacobs had just had a copy of YAAB to teach her how to bring herself into “energetic alignment with the money [she desired] to manifest”. I’m sure that she could have specifically and rapidly attracted the money necessary to make an offer for her children that was so extravagant that Dr. Flint couldn’t possibly refuse! If only Jen Sincero had been born 200 years ago! I’m positive she could have ended slavery without the civil war!


Ayoade on Top

By: Richard Ayoade
256 Pages

Thoughts

Richard Ayoade played Maurice Moss on the British workplace comedy The IT Crowd. Which if you haven’t watched it you should, it’s one of the best comedies of this or any decade. Apparently, in real life Ayoade is fairly similar to his IT Crowd character, or which is to say a very eccentric nerd. He has turned his eccentricities to things other than acting, including writing. On Top is his most recent book and it’s difficult to describe. Running the length of the book is a blow by blow critique and commentary on the 2003 Gwenyth Paltrow movie View from the Top. An obscure movie which you might have never even heard of let alone watched. It’s hard to know how much of his affection for this little known film is sarcastic and how much is sincere, but it’s definitely some of both. On top of commenting on the movie he tosses in personal stories, weird asides, and frequent meta-commentary on how strange it is to write a book about a little known Gwenyth Paltrow movie…

I listened to the audio version, which he narrated, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it’s weird enough that other than my wife, I’m not sure who else I would recommend it to.


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By: Neil Postman
208 Pages

AND

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

By: Neil Postman
240 Pages

Thoughts

I mostly reviewed these books in my last post, so I didn’t intend to spend much additional time on them, but I did want to spend a small amount discussing Postman’s suggested solutions to the problems he identified, which he included at the end of Technopoly. Though, as he accurately points out, it’s far easier to identify a problem then it is to offer solutions for solving it, which is why he spends most of his time on the former. A crime I’m also guilty of. However, since invariably the first thing people want to know after hearing about a problem are ideas for solving it, he decides to take a crack at it, and his proposal is a doozy.

I say that because it’s crazy, not crazy insane, just crazy ambitious. He starts out by quite reasonably suggesting that a solution should involve changing the way we educate our children. This is where a lot of people choose to intervene, and so it makes sense that Postman would propose it as well, but that’s where the reasonableness ends. 

When I was young I came across the Great Books of the Western World series which had been put out by the Encyclopædia Britannica. This is where I first got the idea to read all the major works of western literature (see my previous review of The Odyssey and my upcoming review of Aeschylus.) It’s also where I first encountered the idea of The Great Conversation, the idea that writers and thinkers are listening to, and building on, all of the works which came before them. I bring all this up because that’s the educational model Postman proposes for solving the problem of cultural degradation brought on by TV and technology. And It’s a great idea, but it’s also, as I said, crazy ambitious. A few selections to give you a sense of what I mean:

Let us consider history first, for it is in some ways the central discipline in all this…history is not merely one subject among many…every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher. To teach what we know about biology today without also teaching we we once knew, or thought we knew…is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what, and how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli…is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. 

I would propose that every school—elementary through college—offer and require a course in the philosophy of science. Such a course should consider the language of science, the nature of scientific proof, the source of scientific hypotheses, the role of imagination, the conditions of experimentation, and especially the value of error and disproof.

On the subject of the disciplined use of language, I should like to propose that, in addition to courses in the philosophy of science, every school—again from elementary school through college—offer a course in semantics—in the process by which people make meaning…Every teacher ought to be a semantics teacher, since it is not possible to separate language from what we call knowledge. Like history, semantics is an interdisciplinary subject: it is necessary to know something about it in order to understand any subject. But it would be extremely useful to the growth of their intelligence if our youth had available a special course in which fundamental principles of language were identified and explained. 

I think the foregoing should be more than sufficient to illustrate my point. I totally agree that if we could reconstruct our educational system along these lines that it would be far better than the system we have, I just don’t think that 1 child in 1000 could keep up with and absorb everything he’s suggesting. (Also, my selections didn’t cover anywhere close to all of his proposals.)

Perhaps this is why people like Postman (and myself) are loathe to suggestion solutions…

Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1)


By: Ben Aaronovitch
320 Pages

Yes, once again, I’ve started another series without making further progress on any of the series I’ve already begun. I’m starting to think there’s something legitimately wrong with me. In any event this is an urban fantasy series, and if you’ve heard of the Dresden Files this one aspires for a similar feel. The main character is one Peter Grant, who becomes the first English apprentice wizard in over seventy years, and from there you get the typical, “everything is the same except some of the weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic which has existed all along”.

I say “aspires” because it definitely wasn’t as good as Dresden. In particular it could have done two things better. It could have taken longer to ease the reader and the main character into the world of magic. (Something J.K. Rowling did extraordinarily well.) And it could have done better at the whole “weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic” angle. 

All that said, I am a sucker for Urban Fantasy (probably why I picked this book up, rather than continuing one of the other series I’ve left languishing) so I suspect that someday, despite my criticisms, I’ll continue the series. 


Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound

By: Aeschylus
243 Pages

As mentioned, this is part of my ongoing project to read all the great works of Western Literature, in chronological order. This is not the first time I have made it this far, I actually read all of the extant greek plays when I was 18, I don’t think I got much out of them, which is why I started over. 

As with my previous reviews of the great works. It’s not entirely clear what one can say about something that was written nearly 2500 years ago. Or what the point of reviewing it would be. But I guess I do have a few remarks to make:

  • I didn’t realize that the reason there were Seven Samurai (and later the The Magnificent Seven) was that there were Seven Against Thebes, or so the book claims.
  • If you were going to read one of these plays I would read Prometheus Bound
  • It’s strange to me how all Greek literature is concentrated around retelling just a handful of stories. I’m not sure if that represents a paucity of imagination, a paucity of stories, survivorship bias, or whether it’s all religious in some way.

Also, as far as the whole great books project, I would recommend it. It is going much slower than I would have thought (particularly since I first had the idea sometime in the late 80s) but it’s enriching in a way that I can’t entirely put into words. Which may be something that could be said about all reading. Well, except You Are a Badass. That was just crap.


Speaking of books, my plan for 2020 is to focus on writing one. I’m hoping that this won’t affect my posting schedule that much. That, rather, posts will just be shorter and pithier. On the other hand shorter posts may actually be harder. To paraphrase Pascal, “I have only made my posts longer because I have not had the time to make them shorter.” But I’d be willing to see if money would help. If you’d also be willing to experiment with that consider donating.


If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now?

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When I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day. 

(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)

An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.) 

Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.

I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak

All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.

McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:

I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]

From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”

The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:

With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.

When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? 

For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. 

All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.

I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:

…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.

Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?

Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.

That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation. 

Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.

As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.

Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.

Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.

There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant. 

In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth. 

So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:

Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!


I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.


Immigration, Caplan and Buckets

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One of the books I read and reviewed in October was Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan. In that review I asserted that it was possible completely open borders is a great idea, when you consider the world as a whole. But that you’ll never get people to agree to it because, like Communism, it requires a level of selflessness which most humans simply don’t possess. There are actually lots of reasons for this, but I paid particular attention to the idea that almost no one would vote for unlimited immigration if they thought it was going to reduce what they got paid. And that further, this wasn’t just some irrational fear (although that would probably be sufficient by itself), but that even using Caplan’s own numbers, this was likely to happen.

When I posted that review in various places, including to Caplan’s Twitter account everyone accused me of being an idiot (okay maybe the language wasn’t that strong) and ignoring the Arithmetic Fallacy. In the interest of full disclosure I did understand the Arithmetic Fallacy, but I admit to not fully understanding the totality of their argument. Now that I do, I’d like to revisit things. 

To begin with one thing that no one seems to argue about is that the average GDP of the US would drop. Most scenarios have it being cut in half. The Arithmetic Fallacy comes into play when you assume that this means that the average salary of current workers would also be cut, though perhaps not by half. In reality the salary of current workers could go up. Here’s the example Caplan uses in the book:

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

I never questioned this math. I always understand how the fallacy works. But this is a fairly simplistic version of it. For example it assumes an equal number of current workers and immigrant workers, but it could be a lot more or a lot less. Caplan seems to imagine that the more the merrier, because the secret of mass consumption is mass production, but it’s not clear how those numbers affect things in practice, particularly if they increase very rapidly. But that’s a minor quibble, my big issue is with the way that he sticks current workers and new workers into two entirely separate buckets. Because, while the Arithmetic Fallacy illustrates that the incomes can go up for everyone, while having the average go down at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. Caplan argues that we don’t have to worry about that possibility because current workers will always be ahead of the new immigrants. That’s the part I didn’t fully absorb when I read it through the first time. 

Let’s take his example of NBA players and preschoolers. He starts the example by asking us to imagine a room full of NBA players with an average height of 6’7”, and then asks us to imagine that a class of preschoolers enter. The average height of the room drops, (say to 4’10) but the pre-schoolers aren’t making the NBA players shorter.

This is obviously true, but if the NBA players represent current US workers, (which they do) and the preschoolers represent immigrant workers (which they also do) and height is a proxy for GDP (again, that seems to be what he’s going for) then while the preschoolers don’t make the NBA players shorter, he is claiming that the presence of the preschoolers metaphorically makes the NBA players taller, and vice versa, just by being in the same room. I understand his argument for saying that this is the case for GDP even if it’s not the case for height, but you can already see where the analogy breaks down pretty quickly. But it is useful because it illustrates one of his central assumptions, that under open borders there will be two buckets of workers: the original workers and the new workers or the NBA players and the preschoolers. 

NBA players aren’t threatened by preschoolers, that would be ridiculous. Even if we’re just talking about height and not ability with basketball, the preschoolers are never going to be called on in place of an NBA player, the very thought is risible. And certainly an NBA player is never going to be mistaken for a preschooler. Accordingly it would be just as ridiculous for the current workers to be worried about being interchangeable with the new workers. Just as NBA players will always be in a separate category as far as height, current workers will always be in a separate category as far as income. Current workers will definitely be in the bucket with the average income of $60k, not the bucket with the average income of $20k.

This assumption of there being two buckets is what I have a problem with, because it seems entirely too neat and clean. “The average salary of the US is going to go down, but don’t worry because as a current worker you’re always going to be above average.” But why would this necessarily be so? Certainly it’s not a law of nature. Caplan offers a few reasons for why this would be. Current workers are more skilled, have a better grasp of the modern world, and above all they are native English speakers. To this I could also see adding a better network, and more beginning assets. But however great these advantages are it doesn’t feel like they’re unassailable or permanent. It would appear to me that the buckets are more permeable than Caplan lets on. 

One reason for thinking this is the book itself. While from an income perspective Caplan seems to regard the divisions as relatively unchanging and immutable. From every other perspective his argument seems to be the opposite, that immigrants aren’t that much different from the people who are already here. That within one generation their English is almost as good as the people who were born here, that culture takes centuries to “spread by persuasion, but only one generation to spread by immersion”, and that “the average immigrant is [only] microscopically more liberal than the average native.” So if they’re so similar on most of these metrics, why would the be so dissimilar in the salaries they can command? Why would the immigrant average be ⅓ that of the native worker? And how is that none of the natives, no matter how low-skilled, never end up in the lower paid bucket? Actually, I’m not suggesting that this is Caplan’s claim, but before I get to that discussion let me propose a different metaphor. 

Imagine that instead of talking about NBA players, preschoolers and their differing heights, that instead we use the example of adults and teenagers and their relative earning potential. Say we have a company that only hires people over 18, and after a policy change they’ll hire anyone 14 and older. And that after this change, the company can use teenagers to double its workforce.

 

This would appear to be a much better analogy than Caplan’s. To begin with I imagine that there are two very clearly defined buckets when you’re talking about teenager salary vs. adult salary. And it’s also possible to imagine that mostly Caplan is correct, that the teenagers make more by working in an adult workplace, and the adults are more productive if they have teenagers around to offload stuff to. But the gap between the two is far more permeable than the gap between NBA Players and preschoolers. You can imagine right out of the gate that at the lower end of the adult skill range that you might have lots of teenagers that also have that level of skill. That 17 year olds are pretty similar to people between 18 and 21. But, perhaps most importantly, teenagers grow up and with each passing year the difference between the teenager bucket and the adult bucket narrows.

I suspect there’s also issues of supply and demand at the lower level of skill. That if you have a janitor making 30k a year, that adding a bunch of teenagers, all fighting for the same low-skilled jobs, lowers that to maybe 15k a year, even if the teenagers increase the salary of the engineers at this company by quite a bit. 

I also suspect that it increases the salary issues at the upper end as well. If you have some high paid developer making twice as much as a younger developer, but who’s actually less productive (say more skills, but less willingness to work 60 hour weeks) the fact that you’ve now got a deluge of young people all looking to be developers has to factor into that.

Perhaps I’m wrong about the last two points, Caplan would seem to be arguing that I am, fair enough, but what he does argue, unmistakably, is that the average salary of the company will be cut in half. Is he also saying that despite this massive reduction in average salary that none of the adults currently working at the company will end up in the same bucket with the teenagers? Will end up with one of those salaries that caused the average to be cut in half? Even if we look ahead five years? Or ten? 

(One mechanism whereby this could happen is ageism. The parallel for immigration would be racism, which I assume Caplan is against.)

I assume that this is not Caplan’s claim, if it is, well then I guess the math works out, but I think he’s wrong. If it’s not his claim, then the question becomes how many adults end up in the “teenager bucket”, or rather how many current workers end up in the immigrant bucket. Let’s review his numbers. 

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

Is there a cohort of low-skilled American workers who were in the $50k bucket, but, after immigration, end up in the $20k bucket? Is there a cohort of current workers whose salary is going to drop in an open borders world? Caplan talks about how current workers are “normally going to be managing and training the new arrivals.” How many adults do you know that aren’t fit to train or manage anybody? Could that be the cohort I’m talking about? If we’re agreed that there are some people who are, unfortunately, going to be below average, and when the average salary drops their salary drops as well, then the next question is how many? 

The answer to that is unclear, but I’m willing to bet that the number would be significant, and more importantly, even if the number isn’t significant, that a huge number of people are worried about this very thing, and probably understandably so. If you doubt this latter assertion I direct your attention to the 2016 election.

Pulling all of this together, if someone is opposed to immigration because they think they might make less money, then it’s only reasonable to call them irrational if that never (or very rarely) happens. Otherwise I think it’s a rational fear. If a reduction in salary happens to some people, but is unlikely to happen to him you may call him a pessimist. But once again, he is not being irrational. In his own way, he’s hedging against the small chance of a very large harm. Particularly in light of the fact that we still live under capitalism where money is pretty central to everything.

None of this is to suggest that open borders isn’t a terrific, world changing idea for the vast majority of people. Or that it isn’t a fantastic moral good which all men aspiring to any degree righteousness should support. But I am suggesting that it would not be unreasonable for some people to conclude that they would be voting against their own interests by supporting it. 

This is where the selfishness I talked about in my original review comes into play. And the reason I connected it to communism. In both cases people are promised a world much better than the one they currently live in, if they can just abandon their baser emotions of greed and selfishness. Now it’s reasonable to ask whether communism failed because of these baser emotions or whether it failed because it lacked the means to effectively produce the right goods and services, or whether it failed because Stalin and Mao were particularly ruthless tyrants. But the fact that it expected people to abandon their baser emotions certainly didn’t help. 

It’s also reasonable to ask what degree of abandonment is required. In theory you might argue that communism requires a complete and total abandonment of the baser emotions of greed and selfishness, while open borders only requires a small abandonment of these emotions, which are in any case irrational. And perhaps this difference will be enough for Open Borders to succeed where communism didn’t, but I suspect that it won’t be, and I suspect that Caplan’s keyhole solutions (restricting benefits to citizens, delaying citizenship, charging people to enter) have a much better chance of changing people’s mind that telling them that they’ve fallen prey to the Arithmetic fallacy. But given that this is the territory we’re fighting over it is worth trying to get to the bottom of the question: how many people are legitimately entitled to that fear, and how many people are truly being irrational?

As far as I can tell from the book Caplan is arguing that all or very nearly all of these people are being irrational. That if everyone in the US knew the facts that they would embrace open borders, both on humanitarian grounds but also because it would add trillions of dollars to the economy and raise everybody’s wages.

My argument has been laid out in this post. Are there other people arguing that Caplan is wrong as well? As it turns out there are. 

Garett Jones, Caplan’s colleague at GMU, published a working paper arguing more or less the same thing I am.

How would Open Borders—a policy of unlimited immigration—change the wages of current residents of the United States? To answer this question, I begin by running the same quantitative experiment that Caplan runs on page 131 of his graphic novel Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. This experiment presumes that the only two drivers of national income per capita are national average IQ and an unexplained productivity residual.The unexplained productivity residual plays a key role in the case for Open Borders, and I critique that residual. I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities:because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I was going to essentially end with this but I just barely saw Caplan’s rebuttal. And here’s where it gets a little bit tricky. Wading into any long standing argument, let alone an argument between two colleagues, runs the risk of missing all manner of important points which by this point are part of the assumed and unspoken foundation of the argument. Nevertheless despite this risk I’m going to dip my toe into things, mostly because I think it reveals some very interesting things about Caplan’s argument and my problems with it, but first Jones’ argument.

As was mentioned in the quote I included, Jones wrote a book in 2015 called Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. (If you’re curious, here’s a review.POST) And as you can tell from the title of his book, his argument concerns the IQ of the entire nation, which, Caplan conceded, would probably be lowered under Open Borders. And since, according to Jones, the income of individuals depends almost entirely on the average IQ of the nation as a whole, this leads to his claim that the “per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%”. I’m sure I’m vastly over-simplifying his argument, but since I’m mostly interested in Caplan’s response to that argument, I don’t feel there’s much point in getting deeper into the complexities. 

Caplan’s has an interesting response. First he points out that Jones largely agrees with him about the overall increase to global output, pegging it at 80%, but that in order for this to happen, while still decreasing the income of current residents by 40%:

Garett argues that more than 100% of the gains will go to immigrants! So even though open borders nearly doubles the production of mankind, it reduces living standards of the current inhabitants of rich countries by a massive 40%. [Emphasis original]

First off, and maybe I’m missing something. Is there any possibility that the gains and losses are distributed unequally? That, as I argued above, some of the current workers will drop from 50k to 20k, a reduction of 60%, which is more than Jones’ 40%. While many or maybe even most will see their salaries actually go up? This seems like another example of Caplan having two very well defined buckets. With gains being distributed equally to each bucket. But gains could be unequally distributed to the buckets and within the buckets. But beyond all that, here the debate takes a surprising turn. Caplan continues:

How is this possible?  Drawing on earlier work, Garett insists that the personal payoff for IQ is modest.  1 IQ point raises earnings by about 1%. Since current U.S. IQ is about 11 points above the world average, the current citizens of rich countries will end up earning roughly 60% of what they now earn.  In other words, Garett’s concern is that under open borders, income will be too equal for current residents of high-IQ countries to maintain their standard of living.

The surprising bit, is that as a retort to Jones, Caplan starts arguing for the importance of individual IQ and that gains from it are probably significantly higher than 1%. If you think that the natural consequence of this is greater inequality across the board, then you’re not alone, that was also the thought that occurred to me and Caplan agrees:

Would IQ have a big effect on personal economic success under open borders?  Would there be high inequality under open borders? If you answered Yes to both questions, you should be on my side. [emphasis original]

I would answer yes to both of those questions, and as hard as it may be to believe I am largely on Caplan’s side, but having answered yes, I then have to wonder if there’s large amounts of inequality and IQ has a large effect on success then why does it not follow that some of the current workers with below average IQ would end up in the below average/immigrant/20k salary bucket rather than the 60k average salary bucket?

I realize that it’s really way too late to bring in the idea of a normal distribution, and that also salary isn’t a normal distribution. (Though it’s more of one at the low end than the high end.)  But to put it another way, if someone is three standard deviations below the mean, and the mean drops, it’s conceivable that their salary is going to drop as well.

To conclude what has ended up being a much longer and more rambling post than I initially intended. My argument was never with Caplan’s moral or economic claims, and I am personally in favor of revising immigration policy around the keyhole solutions Caplan advocates. It is probably politically impossible even so (and definitely impossible without such measures) and one of the things that makes it difficult is that, similar to communism, it’s advocates expect that people will be able to shed a host of baser emotions like greed and selfishness. The argument that such baser emotions are irrational, is going to be largely ineffective even if it were true, but I’m not sure it is. There’s certainly ample room for uncertainty.


Perhaps you’re also uncertain about whether to support this blog? Well may I suggest a keyhole solution? Start with a dollar a month. You know donation is the humanitarian thing to do.


The End of Productive War

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As I mentioned in my last post I just finished War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris. As I mentioned in the review he ends up combining a lot of other books I’ve read into another history of progress and at times it seemed like he wasn’t covering much in the way of new territory, but he did introduce me to one new idea, which I thought was pretty interesting: the idea of productive war. Though I should also mention here, at the beginning, that he also acknowledges the existence of destructive wars as well. He doesn’t think all wars are productive

In Morris’ view productive war is war which consolidates nations and people into larger units with greater scope for cooperation, and, according to the central claim of the book, less chance of violent death. Morris’ assertion is that the chances of someone dying violently is in large part based on the size of the community they belong to. And that it’s an inverse relationship, the bigger the community the smaller the chance. So, for a member of a small tribe of hunter-gatherers their chances of dying violently was between 10 and 20%. If, on the other hand, they were a citizen of the Roman Empire or Han China then their chances of dying violently were in the 2-5% range, and for someone living in a modern, developed nation their chances are around 1%. 

Accordingly as wars of conquest created larger communities, deaths went down, and beyond that as trade and commerce expanded, living standards got better as well. So while empires had to begin with a series of bloody wars in order to be created, in the end, through these productive wars they created zones of stability within the borders of the empire where everything was better. This has progressed on down through the ages until now we no longer have regional hegemons, we have global hegemons (Morris actually calls them globo-cops), first with the United Kingdom and then with the United States. Of course in between those two hegemonies there was the cold war where the Soviet Union and the US vied for dominance. And it is also in this period where we start to see the beginnings of the problem I want to talk about.

Historically, when two civilizations competed, eventually one of them triumphed over the other. When that happened the victorious empire absorbed the losing empire and created a new larger empire. Think of Rome and Carthage or even the United Kingdom and India. But lately such absorption, or it’s less brutal offspring, colonization, has fallen out of favor. When the US won the cold war we didn’t absorb Russia and create a new, expanded empire where cooperation, trade and lower violence flourished. Nope, we basically left them alone (though some would argue we wrecked their economy and then left them alone.) 

This is not how it has generally worked historically. Generally when the victors conquered, they Conquered! And we certainly could have done that, particularly at the end of the World War II. (Though I’m not saying it would have been easy.) But we didn’t. By not doing that was World War II less productive in the sense Morris describes than it could have been? Is it possible that over a long enough time horizon that we might actually put it in the destructive column? To come at things from another direction, if gobbling up vanquished foes is no longer an option, how do we expand the zone of cooperation?

Morris asserts that having a globo-cop/hegemon works much the same way, but does it? Sure, a US hegemony definitely contains some elements of the imperial cooperation of the past, but, first, no one would look at current events and say that things were going well with Pax Americana. And second there’s a big difference between ensuring the continuance of global trade or acting as a policeman when nations get out of line and entirely absorbing a nation and its culture. 

Modern morality has made this sort of absorption unthinkable. The US was the first empire to (mostly) eschew colonies. And since that time the idea of colonies and colonization has only become more taboo. Arguably there has been no shortage of American force projection, but it definitely doesn’t lead to colonies, nor is it practical in places much larger than a small failed state. It’s impossible to imagine the US invading and pacifying China or Russia in the same way that Rome pacified Gaul or the British pacified India. Meaning that, as the tide of US power flows out, it reveals entirely intact nations with more lingering animosity than lingering desire-to-compromise.

And, if some nation did want to go back to the “old way” of doing things and start absorbing other countries into a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, like the Japanese of World War II, then that becomes a lot more difficult in a world where nukes exist. There was a time when you might have imagined India conquering and reabsorbing Pakistan. It was unlikely but not inconceivable, but with nukes as part of the equation that will never happen. Or it will happen, which is even worse. Meaning the good guys won’t do it for moral reasons and the bad guys are welcome to try, but it’s likely to end in mushroom clouds. 

The way productive wars used to work is that there would be an initial, short-term spike in deaths, but that would be followed by eventual assimilation leading to integration and cooperation which raises the standard of living for everyone in the new empire. This sort of thing is no longer possible between two nuclear powers because there won’t be any assimilation after the initial spike of deaths because there won’t be anything after that initial spike.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I suppose it is possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange, where there is still something left of both the conqueror and the conquered, but if this is the best case scenario, we’re in a lot of trouble.

More likely the presence of nukes and the reluctance to colonize might lead to a situation where unity actually starts heading backwards. If a part of a nuclear armed nation manages to secede while hanging on to some of those nukes, is there any scenario where the mother country would go to war to reclaim its lost territory if it knows those nukes might be used? Meaning that if nukes continue to spread we may end up with more countries and less cooperation.

All of this is to say, that the historical process of unification through the means of productive wars which Morris mapped out in the book appears to have stalled. We may have run out of steam right before the final sprint to the finish (a unified world).

Thus far we’ve assumed that achieving unity and cooperation can only be accomplished by means of productive war. And that seems to be Morris’ thesis, but might there be another way?

Certainly most people hoped that international cooperation would grown through peaceful means. That was the goal of the original League of Nations and the current United Nations, but is there anyone who still thinks that the UN will eventually create the level of cooperation we’re talking about? A true world government? Certainly I don’t. From where I sit the UN appears to be getting weaker with each passing year. Indeed, this decline makes a certain amount of sense. In the aftermath of World War II even the most bellicose nations could see the need for an international body to resolve disputes in a less bloody manner. But after 70 years without a great power war, the need for something like the UN is less and less obvious.

In the absence of nations voluntarily unifying, you could imagine that US influence continues to grow until we have a de facto world government. Or at least you could have imagined that at the end of the Cold War. Lately the idea seems laughable. At a minimum we would need some sort of motivation. As I pointed out in a previous post, external threats seem to help. Would Rome have been Rome without Carthage? How much of what the US did was because of the USSR? (space race anyone?) But at this point it seems that regardless of how Russia and China behave our taste for empire is gone, and it’s not even clear that we can keep the “empire” we have, to say nothing of continuing to expand it in the way Morris imagines. 

Which leaves us with a couple of possibilities:

As I mentioned in my review of the book, the possibility Morris favors is that we’ll pass smoothly from an American hegemony to an AI singularity. That Pax Americana will become Pax Technologica. Here’s how Morris describes it:

Everything will hang on the relative timing of the shift from the Pax Americana to a Pax Technologica and the mounting difficulties that the globocop will face—if current economic trends continue—in doing its job. I suggested earlier that in the 2010s and probably the 2020s too, the United States will remain largely unchallenged, but as the 2030s, 2040s, and 2050s go on, it will find it harder and harder to overawe rivals. I also noted that the majority opinion among the futurists is that merging with the machines will reach the Singularity stage in the 2040s. If all of these guesses are right, we perhaps do not have too much to worry about. The world will become increasingly troubled, polarized, and tense as we head through the 2020s, but the globocop will remain strong enough to handle the stresses. As we enter the 2030s, the globocop will be feeling the strain, but it will by then be pulling back anyway as the Pax Technologica begins to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving; and in the 2040s and 50s, just at the point that the globocop ceases to be able to cope, the world will no longer need its services. All will be well.

It would be nice if “all” was truly “well” and things proceeded exactly as Morris describes, but I think he underestimates the number of things that need to go “right” in order for this to happen:

  1. America has to maintain the peace until an AI or something similar is ready to take over. Morris estimates they’ll be able to do that until sometime in the 2030s or maybe a little later. Given current events I’m not sure I’d agree with him that the US is “largely unchallenged” even now, and I’m even more doubtful that will be the case over the next decade.
  2. Pax Technologica, whatever it’s form, has to be ready to step in as soon as the US starts “pulling back”. Morris has said it will “[begin] to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving” in the 2030s. This also seems far too optimistic, particularly since we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. Thus far, our best guess is that machine learning and AI are actually making problem-solving of all strips harder.
  3. Perhaps technology will get better and it will switch to lessening rather than creating conflict. That’s still a long way away from replacing everything that goes into making America the lone superpower. Which includes, among other things, the $639 billion dollars we spend on defense. To replace that we not only need the singularity, we need a rather impressive singularity. 
  4. Morris says that the “majority opinion” is that we’ll reach the “Singularity stage” in the 2040s. This is by far the most optimistic of his predictions. Even Kurzweil, who’s optimistic to the point of being delusional, is saying it won’t happen till 2045. Perhaps in 2013, when the book was written, the majority opinion was the 2040s, but these days most experts are predicting later than that. And these are not predictions of “When will AI be able to take over as the world’s super power?” But more along the lines of, “When will AI be able to replace human surgeons?” (Average answer: 2053)
  5. Which takes me to my final point. What does it mean to “take over”? As I pointed out, Morris appears to have a very specific idea of what that means, and it’s very different from what most people imagine when they talk about AI. But even if we end up with an AI exactly as powerful as Morris hopes, and it happens soon enough to step in for Pax Americana before it collapses. He’s ignoring the whole field of AI risk, which makes the very salient point that we can’t be sure a superintelligent AI will be benevolent. 

If we reject the Pax Americana Pax Technologica transition for the reasons I just listed, and we accept Morris’ thesis. Then that tosses us back into the realm of war. We’ve currently got a globo-cop keeping that war at bay, but many people, including Morris, think we’re getting near the end of that. Meaning that the other possibility remaining to us is actual war. Actual war is bad enough in the short term, particularly since, for all the reasons I’ve laid out, this actual war is unlikely to be one of the ones that’s eventually productive. We’re much more likely to see destructive wars, similar to what followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Morris doesn’t spend much time on this second possibility. Probably because he thinks it’s unlikely to happen. In many senses despite his different outlook he’s still very much in the same school of thought as Steven Pinker. And both appear to believe that the arrow only points in one direction. In particular Morris claims that the 500 years of European colonial expansion from 1415 to 1914 were the most productive wars in the history of humanity. That Hitler was something of an aberration, and that in any case since that time we’ve had the long peace, which is further evidence that we’re in the final act and there will be no more destructive wars. And indeed, the finish line does seem really close, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to cross it. In fact for all of the reasons I mentioned above it feels like the very progress that has gotten us to this point won’t work for the final five yards.

One of the frightening things Morris points out is that a period of destructive wars often follows a period of constructive wars. That a particularly confident nation will conquer all of the surrounding territory unifying it into a larger area where trade and cooperation flourish, but that at some point the nation/empire(/ideology?) runs out of steam. Whether this is because of exhaustion, over-expansion, bureaucratic bloat or something else, the empire can no longer defend all of its territory. When that happens, whatever unity it achieved is lost to the destructive wars which inevitably follow as a consequence of this exhaustion. If Morris is accurate and we just finished 500 years of constructive wars, then even if we didn’t have nukes and an aversion to expansion through colonization it might be time for the pendulum to reverse itself in any case. Also, while it seems difficult if not impossible to have constructive wars if nukes are involved, they’re perfect for destructive wars.

All of this would mean that Pinker and Morris are wrong. (And indeed I’ve asserted that very thing.) And I’d rather not jam a second book in here, right at the end, but I just started reading Only the Dead by Bear F. Braumoeller which was written as a direct refutation of Pinker’s thesis, going so far as to say that it may end up having the opposite effect from what he intended. In support of this claim he includes an excellent quote from one of the reviews of Better Angels:

[T]here is something deeply unsettling about the argument of this book. While I began reading without either smug comfort in my own circumstances or indifference to the violence that remains, by Pinker’s final sentence on page 696 it was impossible to muster any other reaction. Indeed, I want to suggest that Pinker’s book produces the type of reaction that conceivably could stop this important trend dead in its tracks. A world of elites and foreign policy decision makers well-schooled by Pinker in the causes of the decline in violence would be a world unmotivated to work to sustain it.

The logic laid out in the quote seems straightforward enough, but Only the Dead goes on to cite studies which show that as nations become less willing to go to war they actually end up going to war more often. I’ll go into this more when I get around to reviewing it, but add everything together and we seem unlikely to have seen the end of war. And when it does return it appears unlikely to be productive war either, even if we can look past the terrible near term costs.

To be fair to Morris the book was written in 2013, and a lot has changed since then. The election of Trump has made a lot of things written beforehand seem quaint and even naive. Which is not to say that things are that much worse now then they were in 2013, just that we appear to have had significant movement on the catastrophe track without that much movement on the singularity track. This is important, because Morris, unlike Pinker, acknowledges that there will be war. He just thinks having a globo-cop can keep those wars productive. He’s also more realistic than Pinker about how long the US can serve in this role. Where his optimism is equal to or greater than Pinker’s is with what comes after. And it all hinges on the next couple of decades.

Morris hopes that the 2030s will be a decade where the US can still mostly “overawe” its opponents while at the same time “every year will see more [technological] change than happened in the whole period between the 1980s and the 2010s.” And that’s what brings us the Singularity. That rather than descending into destructive war, we’ll narrowly thread the needle between all the potential catastrophes. As I said this is what Morris hopes will happen. I hope it happens this way too, but I would bet a lot of money against it. Anyone want to take me up on that bet? We’ll know who’s right in just 10-20 years.


You have to wonder if there’s any similarity between war and blogging. Is there also a productive phase of blogging? Do bloggers eventually get exhausted? Perhaps running out of things to say? Does the blogging then become destructive? Was my blogging ever productive? If you think it was or still might be, consider donating.