Are Modern Deviances Innovative or Catastrophic?

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The last couple of posts (not counting my monthly book review post) have covered the evolution of systems over time, though, as I’m sure you’re aware, the word “systems” covers a lot of territory. Over the last several decades and perhaps longer, there’s been a lot of attention paid to small interpersonal systems. This has led to whole industries devoted to ensuring safety in the workplace, or productivity in the office, and my first post drew on that side of things. But while I’m interested in these sorts of systems, I’m worried (like most of the rest of the country) about much larger systems. Particularly our system of government. 

Certainly we can hope and maybe even expect that improving our system of government should be similar to improving any other system. That the same tactics which work to improve airplane safety might also work to improve government effectiveness as well. But despite whatever optimism we might bring to the process it’s clear that improving a system of government is going to be vastly more difficult than improving any other system. Let’s start with a simple example:

In both of my past posts I used the example of a checklist. A checklist is one of the simplest ways for preventing deviance in a system and it requires a few things to be effective.

First, you have to have some idea of actions which need to be taken or items which need to be reviewed. And ideally, these are things where the answer is a definite “yes” or definite “no”. Either the gust-lock has been removed or it hasn’t. Either the oil is above the fill line or it isn’t. And if the answer is “no” the process for rectifying it should be straightforward. For example removing the gust-lock or adding oil, respectively. 

Second, the process for creating and updating the checklist has to be straightforward, and not prone to disagreement or ambiguity. Everyone should basically agree what goes on the list and what doesn’t and it shouldn’t take large amounts of time to reach agreement or to add the item.

Third, checklists should rectify the mistakes of the past. If a plane crashed because a cargo door was incorrectly secured, then a checklist item saying “Ensure cargo doors are correctly secured” should be added. This way at least you’re not making the same mistake again.

Looking over this list it’s obvious that each of these things becomes much more difficult when you’re talking about a government. If we go back through the list:

First we need a list of actions and the actions need to be definitive. There’s problems on both sides of that mandate. You can imagine an action item “Is there a healthy debate about the issues affecting the nation?” Probably most people agree that that item should be on the list, but even if that’s the case answering the question with a straight yes or no becomes very difficult. If by some miracle there is a consensus, for example if we can definitively answer “no”, as increasingly appears to be the case at the moment. At that point, we still have a problem with the other side of the mandate. Adding “healthy debate” is not as straightforward as adding oil. It doesn’t come in convenient containers at any gas station.

Second on the list was the process of adding to our checklist. Once again this is (understandably) difficult when you’re talking about a system of government. For example, some people feel very strongly that giving women an absolute right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy should definitely be on our checklist. But there are a lot of people who think it’s equally important for that item not to be on the list or for it to be on the list, but in a limited fashion. As we have seen coming to any certain conclusion has been very difficult. And this difficulty pervades everything about systems of governments, from making necessary changes to recovering from deviations, as we will soon see.

Third on our list was rectifying the mistakes of the past. Here we have at least two problems. To begin with, there’s a real lack of data. Nations and systems of governments don’t fail nearly as often as planes crash, and even if we’re talking about minor failures like financial crises they’re still relatively rare events. And when failures do occur the causes of an economic crash are much more difficult to pinpoint than the causes of a plane crash, which is the other problem. Take the Great Depression as an example. Despite decades of study, there’s still considerable disagreement about what caused it, and whether FDR’s policies helped or hurt. It would certainly be nice if there was some “secure cargo door” equivalent we could add to our economic checklist that would prevent the economy from crashing in the same way it did in 1929, but I don’t think there is, or there are many items, and not everyone can agree on them.

The point in going into such depth on this one example is that it’s the simplest example, the one most easily understood and implemented, and yet even this most basic method for preventing  deviance in a system of government ends up being riddled with potential problems. But perhaps having a governmental checklist seems silly to you or perhaps it’s hard to imagine how it would work, so let’s turn to something more concrete, the Amendments to the US Constitution. 

In essence the amendments are a checklist, or at least as close as we’re likely to get when you consider a governmental system in its entirety. And if you consider them in this fashion then the failures I listed above are immediately obvious. To start with, while the amendments are admirably clear, particularly when compared with previous attempts at this sort of thing, they’re not unambiguously clear. What does “freedom of the press” mean in an age of social media. What precisely constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment? 

Moving on, perhaps the most obvious issue is that we have largely lost the ability to add to this checklist, at least when it comes to anything important or anything which is the tiniest bit controversial. Instead of adding amendments, the current method for changing the constitution mostly involves the Supreme Court broadening the interpretation of what’s already there. I would assume that we can all agree that this is happening, but once you get beyond the mere fact of its existence, deciding whether or not it’s a deviance or how things were always supposed to work, and further, if it is a deviance, whether it’s been normalized, and whether that might actually be a good thing, probably depends a lot on your political ideology. A subject we’ll return to momentarily

Finally there’s the issue of using the amendments to rectify mistakes. Anyone looking at the list of amendments, will quickly realize that while some of them are incredibly farsighted, others, for example the Third Amendment, are targeted towards rectifying very specific mistakes from the time just before the Revolution. And of course the 21st amendment is the greatest example ever of this process, and when combined with the 19th amendment represent the ideal of how this whole thing should probably work. But, if, as I argued above, the process of adding amendments is beyond repair, how do we go about rectifying mistakes which have only been uncovered more recently? Here again the Supreme Court comes into play but to an arguably even greater extent because now the ideology of the court becomes a factor, with some things viewed as unassailable rights or fantastically awful mistakes depending on which judge is speaking. A situation which goes a long way towards explaining why the last few nominations have been so contentious. And also, in my opinion at least, further evidence that this state of affairs is a deviation from how things were originally intended to operate.

As I have argued all of this represents a deviance in the system, particularly if we use the most neutral meaning of the word, i.e. doing things differently from how they have been done in the past. Given this, what are our options for dealing with a given deviance? Broadly speaking there are two we can correct it or we can normalize it. Unfortunately, as I’ve just spent several hundred words demonstrating, correcting it appears to no longer be an option, absent some fairly sweeping changes (for example a constitutional convention.) Which leaves normalizing it. 

This is where we connect the first post in this series with the last one. If you’ll recall in the first one I argued that the normalization of deviance is generally a bad thing, and something you need to continually guard against because, unless checked, it will gradually creep into whatever system you’re using and fatally undermine it. On the other hand, in the second post I showed that, occasionally, normalization of deviance leads to an altogether better system. Certainly you could imagine that as the English parliament grew stronger in the years before the revolution and things inched towards greater democracy, that this could have also been labeled a deviance from how the monarchy was supposed to work. And that further each time one of parliament’s new powers was solidified through usage that it could have been viewed as normalization of that deviance.

Several points jump immediately to mind. The first and perhaps the most petty, is that based on the events of the last few weeks and months I don’t think the UK parliament is the thing that comes to mind for anyone when asked to summon forth examples of well functioning systems of government.

Next, when you get into the history of these deviations to the English system of government you immediately realize how gradual they all were. I don’t think the same can be said of the deviations we’re currently experiencing. Not only are they comparatively rapid, but they’re numerous. A point I’ll return to.

For most people of a conservative bent it’s the rapidity of the change rather than change itself that raises concerns. It is possible to change a system of government suddenly, but it rarely works and it’s always bloody. Some of my readers have questioned where I expect the blood to come from; who I expect to take up arms. And it is a subject which deserves a deeper dive, and one where they probably have something of a point. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember how civilized everyone thought things were before World War I…

Still, there are many people who are probably not comfortable in using deviance, even in its most neutral sense, to describe what’s happening. Everything is just progress, and the faster we progress the better. That most of our attempts to metaphorically keep planes from crashing is better understood as being equivalent to refusing to move from propellor driven engines to jets. This is a valid point, how do we distinguish between harmful deviance and innovative deviance? How can we tell whether our current course will lead to civilizational catastrophe or a communal utopia?

As I alluded to previously, introducing numerous deviances all at once seems particularly fraught if you’re trying to make this evaluation. As has been pointed out, the modern world is fantastic by most measures, but which recent deviation accounts for the innovations we see? Does science or women’s suffrage explain the current technological bounty? I lean towards the first, but it could easily be both, or neither. And if the modern world has problems, which it clearly does, even if these problems don’t pose an existential risk it would be nice to know their source. Is the current increase in suicide cultural? Entirely the fault of the opioid epidemic? Or something else?

The argument people are making is that we’re now smart enough to only deviate in ways that make sense. We’re not doing the equivalent of going into an upside down loop in order to lock our wheels, we’re only doing things that are clearly good ideas. Well, as both I and the original author pointed out, all deviations seem sensible initially, until you’re 300 feet off the ground and about to crash. And frankly even if we are going to go by that standard, do our current deviations actually meet this criteria? Does having completely open borders make sense? Does the increasing number of transgender people make sense? Does Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) make sense? (Probably not, if even Krugman thinks it’s ridiculous.)

It seems worth spending some time on that last one, since it would appear to be something of the platonic example of normalizing deviance. Under any normal financial system one of the checkboxes would be “Do you spend less than you make?” Now I can certainly see an argument that for the government the standard might be somewhat different, perhaps “Is the budget deficit percentage less than the rate of inflation?” But MMT goes way beyond that to “Is inflation at a reasonable level? This would appear to be both a gross deviation from how things have normally been done, and also, by wrapping it in the MMT ideology, one of the more bald faced attempts at normalizing a deviance I’ve ever seen as well. All that said, as I pointed out in the previous episode, there is some chance (I would argue a very small one) that they’re right, that it will in fact work better. That this is one time when we’re not headed for destruction, but when we’re actually pushing through to a new and better system on the other side. But how likely do you actually think that is? And not just with MMT, with any of the things I’ve mentioned?

Still you may have noticed that while I’ve danced around things, I still haven’t answered the fundamental question of how can you tell? How can you know whether the deviance you’re normalizing will lead to civilizational catastrophe or a communal utopia? And I’ve avoided answering it largely because it’s very difficult to tell. However, in closing I will offer some pointers for some things you might want to consider:

  1. Generally, it’s probably not going to lead to catastrophe, but on the other side, it’s NEVER going to lead to a utopia.
  2. Trying numerous radical changes all at once never seems to work. For example, we seem to be combining radically different immigration norms, with extreme changes in culture and extreme government spending all at the same time.
  3. The best deviations are one’s where the benefits are massive and straightforward. For example ending slavery. 
  4. Related to that, it’s also great if they’re easy to understand. In particular I think MMT, whatever its brilliance absolutely fails this test.
  5. Is there an asymmetry between failure and success? Is failure catastrophic, even if it’s unlikely? Is success only marginally better even if it’s nearly certain?

Should you have any other points you feel I should add to this list, or any considerations you think I’m missing I’d be happy to hear about them. But if we take just this list, I don’t see any reason to consider current deviance as anything other than dangerous.

To end where I began, we’ve got an old broken down aircraft. There’s a checklist for keeping it running, but people can’t agree on what the items on the checklist mean. We can’t change the items on the checklist even if we could agree. And there’s a huge debate on what things constitute mistakes and what things constitute progress. The plane is still flying but increasingly the pilots are focused less on flying and more on debating the condition of the plane, and whether the duct tape on the rudder is a bad thing or the latest in aircraft technology. And as one of the passengers, I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty nervous.


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Books I Finished in August

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I lied when I said the next post would be the wrap up to the discussion of systems. I forgot that since it was the beginning of the month that I needed to do the post where I review all of the books I read last month. Though “need” is probably too strong of a word, as I mentioned the last time I did my monthly review post, I’m still experimenting with the format, and the option of not doing it at all is still very much on the table. This time around, I’m going to try only including the sections of my review where I have something genuinely interesting to say. So some books may just get the one section. While others will get the whole enchilada as they say. We’ll see how it goes:

Extremes 

By: Various

186 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re the kind of person who might enjoy a collection of academic presentations, and you’re interested in the idea of “Extremes” you’ll probably like this book.

Thoughts

I forget why I picked this up, or where I heard about it, but it had an essay from Taleb, and that might have been enough all by itself, but also I’m interested in the topic of “extremes” anyway. The Taleb essay was good, though I don’t recall him bringing forth anything I hadn’t already come across in his books. Beyond that there were essays on extreme rowing and extreme weather, which were pretty good (though the rowing one seemed kind of out of place). But the essays I enjoyed the most were on political extremism. Definitely the extreme that seems most likely to cause problems in the short term.

The first was titled “Dealing with Extremism” by David Runciman, and dealt with the rising disaffection which has lead to extremism, as well as the difference between an extremist and a conspiracy theorist. I both cases I think he presented a balanced and interesting view of things. In particular I think conspiracy theorists are becoming, to everyone’s bafflement, a bigger deal, and this was the first really serious examination I’ve seen of how they might fit into the political landscape as something other than a weird fringe.

The second was titled “Extreme Politics: The Four Waves of National Populism in the West” and it covered three separate historical waves of western populism, before arriving at the fourth wave which is what we’re seeing now. Given how powerful this most recent wave has been, from the election of Trump to Brexit to Alternative for Germany receiving their largest number of votes ever just on Sunday, identifying how it’s different is incredibly useful. As you might imagine the current wave has put quite a bit more emphasis on the issue of Islam, but this has also led to some populists to voicing strong support for LGBT communities. Truly it’s an interesting mismash.

The Lazy Dungeon Master

By: Michael Shea

123 pages

Who should read this book?

No one should read this book. Which is not to say it wasn’t good, just that I would say Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by the same author (see my review farther down) will give you everything you would have gotten in this book and a lot more

Blood Song (A Raven’s Shadow Novel, Book 1) 

By: Anthony Ryan

592 pages

Thoughts

Somehow I ended up starting another fantasy series. At some point I’m going to have to stop starting new series and finish all the series I have already begun. However this came highly recommended and as they say there’s no time like the present. In particular this is one of those fantasy books that mostly takes place at a school, and as readers of J.K. Rowling can attest, there’s something about fantasy schools. They never fail to be interesting. 

Who should read this book?

If fantasy trilogies are your thing, then this is probably worth checking out. As I said I’ve only ready the first one, but so far it was quite good.

The Last American Man

By: Elizabeth Gilbert

288 pages

Thoughts

A friend of mine said that my review of Wild at Heart reminded him of this book, so I thought I’d check it out. It’s by the author of the book Eat, Pray, Love. (Which probably doesn’t tell you as much as you might think about The Last American Man, but it does tell you something.) 

The Last American Man is essentially a biography of Eustace Conway, and truly if you have to do everything Conway does to be considered a man, then he is indeed probably the last one. Conway lives almost exclusively off what he can grow, kill, or forage (which includes dumpster diving). He has a thousand acres in North Carolina, where he runs courses on getting back to nature, and by all accounts he works his staff so hard that people rarely last longer than a year.

As a biography it’s reasonably entertaining, but as a question for society it’s fascinating; the question of what do we make of Conway? Is he crazy? Or if he’s not crazy is he just a man who was born 100 years too late? Both of those answers are possible, but it’s also possible that he demonstrates what’s been lost, that even if we can’t all be exactly like him that most people, especially men should try to be living a lot closer to Conway’s example than they currently are. In other words, does Conway represent some kind of masculine ideal that all men should be doing their best to emulate, even if that emulation is partial at best

Certainly, and this is a topic that comes up in another book I read in August, we can’t all live as Conway does. There’s not enough space, there’s not enough wildlife and perhaps most tellingly if we all lived that way who would fill dumpsters with discarded food for us to retrieve? Nevertheless as you can imagine I’m sympathetic to the idea that we’d be a lot better off moving in Conway’s direction than in the direction of narcissistic materialism, which seems to be the other choice. Unfortunately there’s not a heck of a lot of advice on how to do that in this book. Or at least how to do it in a less extreme fashion than Conway.

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

By: Michael Shea

96 pages

Who should read this book

This is the book you should read instead of the aforementioned Lazy Dungeon Master. If you’re running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, or any role-playing game this has some great advice.

Once upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs and the Greatest Wealth in History

By: Ben Mezrich

288 pages

Criticisms

I picked up this book really hoping to get a deep dive into the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, as I mentioned in my last post, I wanted to know why the market reforms Yeltsin and his people implemented in the immediate aftermath of the collapse worked so poorly. And how did these reforms actually work to permit the oligarchs to snatch everything up. Or rather that’s what I heard had happened and I was looking for confirmation and more detail. Unfortunately, this book did not provide that. It did tell the very interesting story of the rise and fall of one particular oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, along with the tragic death of Alexander Litvinenko from polonium poisoning, which you may have heard of. 

In any case, as the story of a certain period in Russian history as told through the eyes of a handful of individuals, it was pretty good, but as documentation for how not to change systems of government (which you may have noticed is a recent interest of mine) it falls woefully short.

The Iliad

By: Homer Translated by Richmond Lattimore

528 pages

Notes on this translation

I am not an expert on different translations of the Iliad. This one was recommended by Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon. It seemed good, perhaps accurate to a fault. The big annoyance was that he used a different spelling than what you commonly see, so it’s Aias, instead of Ajax and Achilleus rather than Achilles, which bothered me more than it should have. I’ve read the Iliad at least once before, but it was a long, long time ago and I don’t remember much about that translation. I hope to read other translations in the future and maybe then I’ll have something more to say about this one.

Representative passage

Indeed, Hippothoös, glorious son of Pelasgian Lethos,

was trying to drag him by the foot through the strong encounter

by fastening, the sling of his shield round the ankle tendons

for the favour of Hektor and the Trojans, but the sudden evil

came to him, and none for all their desire could defend him

The son of Telamon, sweeping in through the mass of the fighters,

struck him at close quarters through the brazen cheeks of his helmet

and the helm crested with horse-hair was riven about the spearhead

to the impact of the huge spear and the weight of the hand behind it

and the brain ran from the wound along the spear by the eye-hole,

bleeding. There his strength was washed away, and from his hands

he let fall to the ground the foot of great-hearted Patroklos

to lie there, and himself collapsed prone over the dead man

far away from generous Larisa, and he could not

render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived,

beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias.

Thoughts

I’m not sure what thoughts one should have on completing a classic like the Iliad. One of the reasons I selected the passage I did was to illustrate how gory it was. That’s probably the part that surprised me the most, and which I didn’t remember from the last time I read it. 

Other than that, knowing that it was the foundational myth of Greek Civilization, and therefore, by extension something of a foundational myth for Western Civilization in general, I came into it hoping for some insight into what made the two civilizations different from the other great civilizations of the world. I know it’s not considered polite, or even correct, to point out that Western Civilization is special, but I still think it is, and if you can’t grant me that it’s special, then you should at least be able to grant that it’s different, and I came into the Iliad hoping to uncover the source of that difference, and I don’t know that I did. I have a few ideas, but they’re not very concrete.

1- My sense is that the Greeks viewed their gods very differently from other civilizations. Yes, there were lots of civilizations whose gods had many human-like qualities. As just one example, out of many, there are the stories passed down about the Norse gods, but is there any other civilization where the gods are right in the middle of things to quite the same extent as the Iliad? 

2- Following from the above did the proximity of their gods make the Greeks more attentive to their actions, particularly their actions against co-religionists? Mostly the sense I got from the Iliad was that it was very biased towards the Greeks. Achilles and Ajax (or if you prefer Aias and Achilleus) were unstoppable, and dominant, while Hector was definitely a step below, and yet it wasn’t as biased as it could have been. And of course there’s the classic ending where Priam and Achilles share a meal and Achilles returns Hector’s body. A noble gesture which you don’t see in other ancient works. (That I’m aware of.)

3- From all of this I wonder if their mythology and legends led to a greater interest in investigating what it might mean to be virtuous. If the gods are right there and ready to step in at a moments notice if you did something bad, there’s an incentive to figure out what sort of things are bad and what sort of things aren’t. An attitude that may have come to fruition much later when the actual philosophers came along?

These are just half-formed ideas. As I said, I feel like there should be something distinctly “Western” in the Iliad, I’m just not entirely sure what it is.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle 

By: Daniel L. Everett

320 pages

Criticisms

This book recounts the author’s time living in the Amazon as a Christian missionary among the Pirahã tribe. And I’m not alone in finding it a difficult book to categorize. Just now I came across the review of the book in The Guardian, which opened thusly:

There is no easy way to categorise this story of a Christian missionary’s linguistic adventures in the Amazon forest. It’s a little as if Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast had been rewritten by Steve Pinker, but only a little.

That’s not a bad way of describing, but as the review says, it still doesn’t do it justice. The book is part travel log, part a challenge to Chomskian linguistics, part an extensive ethnographic examination, and part the story of someone losing their religion.

The travel log part was interesting enough, though far too short to be gripping in the way you expect out of this sort of thing

The linguistics part might have been the part I found the most novel. But it seemed to assume a certain familiarity with the subject that lessened the overall impact, since the time spent trying to get up to speed on the uniqueness of his linguistic discoveries detracted from the time and energy available to appreciate the subtleties of those same discoveries.

The ethnographic angle took up the bulk of the book, but, in my opinion, Everett idolized the Pirahã to such an extent that it fatally undermined his objectivity. As an example I offer up the following story:

One of the women of the tribe had died in childbirth, leaving a very sickly child behind. Everett and his wife adopt the child and manage to nurse it back to health, finally reaching a point where it was clear that the baby would survive. Having worked non-stop to get to this point they decide to take a short break and go for a jog. While they are gone they leave the baby with its (I don’t think Everett ever specifies the gender) father, who promptly kills it.

Everett goes to great length explaining why the father killed the baby. And yes, I understand, there might be reasons, if you’re on the cusp of survival, for doing something like that. And. normally, the father would have been correct in his assessment that a baby born under such circumstances wasn’t going to survive, but in this particular case the father was wrong. He made a mistake, he may have done it for reasons which are normally understandable, but in this case it was still clearly a mistake, yet Everett goes to great length defending the act.

Which takes us to Everett’s loss of faith. Part of the reason he defended the infanticide is that he claims that the Pirahã are the happiest tribe on Earth. To begin with, there’s the problem I mentioned above with The Last American Man. It appears that a great part of the Pirahãs happiness is tied up in their traditional foraging lifestyle. Even if we did decide that this was the ultimate way to live, how many people can this lifestyle actually support? (Estimates of Pirahã population range from 400 to 800.) Even if it could support 1,000 times the current number that only gets us to 600,000 people or about the population of Luxembourg…

Further, I think this is a large bit of evidence in favor of my argument that he’s not particularly objective, but even if it were the case that the Pirahãs were objectively the happiest people on Earth, does that necessarily mean that they have the best culture? (This is the big reason Everett abandoned Christianity.) As I have repeatedly pointed out, choosing happiness as your ultimate value is not the same as choosing survival as your ultimate value. And on this count, with, best case scenario, 800 total Pirahã, they are unlikely to survive for much longer. To say that they’re in a cultural dead end is an understatement. Does it matter how happy they are if 100 years from now they no longer exist as an independent tribe?

Do people ever think through these things?

American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump

By: Tim Alberta

688 pages

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

I think anyone interested in the current state of politics should read this book. 

Representative passage

Suddenly, Priebus [the chairman of the Republican National Committee] was reminded of his nightmare scenario. Ever since Romney’s loss to Obama, he had labored to get the Republican party out of it’s own way—not just on policy, but on process. The 2012 primary had stretched on nearly five months and featured upwards of twenty debates and forums, an atmosphere of anarchy that took a brutal toll on the party’s general election readiness. Priebus had affected sweeping changes to the primary structure, most notably a condensed nominating calendar and half the number of debates. It was all in the service of producing a quality nominee as quickly as possible with minimal intraparty damage done.

And then along came Trump.

Thoughts

I have lots of thoughts on this book. In fact, it led me to a realization/epiphany, which I’ll be writing a whole other post about. But outside of that one narrow realization, at 688 pages, there is a lot of other stuff going on. Just to hit a few high points. 

  • As you can tell from the subject it covers the Republican Civil War, but when I look at what’s going on in the primaries and between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez I feel like basically the same thing is happening on the Democractic side of things.
  • Obama was a good president, and he did a pretty good job, but it’s clear that if he had been just a little bit more conciliatory to the Republicans and a little more moderate that we could have avoided a lot of what has happened since then. I don’t blame him for it, it would have been tough to pull off, but I do regret how close we were.
  • Republicans gaining control of the Senate in 2014 was huge, it allowed the Supreme Court to be in play, and if you think the Supreme Court question didn’t play into Trump’s victory, you may be part of the problem.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms. Perhaps he could have done a better job distinguishing amongst the various actors. Maybe include the non-fiction version of the Dramatis Personae list. (What ever happened to those anyway? I really found them useful.) Also, while this book was pretty objective, it did seem a little bit harder on Trump than the Democrats, and maybe that’s precisely how it should be, but some of the criticisms seemed less substantial and more juvenile, which again is probably understandable.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Members of congress are less evil than you think. But things are still really messed up.


Once again, I’m trying something different with reviews. Let me know what you liked and what you missed. And as always slipping a couple of bucks into my palm when you make a request ensures the promptest service.


Is There a Utopia out There After All?

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For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the time you have to squint quite a bit to see it. Last week I said I was going to talk about how communism might be implemented, which makes this a weird time to remind people I’m a Mormon, since, at first glance, Mormonism and communism would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, if anything, the recent past is full of well known Mormons who were extremely anti-communist. Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church had a particularly strong reputation for being opposed to communism, penning such books as An Enemy Hath Done This as well as being (for awhile) a big supporter of the John Birch Society. But once you go farther back in Church history, the picture looks different.

In the early days of the Church, on and off starting in 1830, but reaching a peak between 1874 and 1877, Brigham Young (the second president of the Church after Joseph Smith) implemented something called the United Order. Now, since that time, the Church has taken great pains to clarify that this was not Marxist communism, and indeed there are many differences, some subtle, some less so. But it was a collectivist arrangement as well as an attempt to practice Christian communalism (the Christian part is one of those less subtle differences), so it had lots of elements in common with communism. But all that aside, it was nevertheless an attempt at creating a society which worked better than the one they already had in place. Of moving from one system to a better system, but whatever its aspirations and whatever its differences, similar to communism, it failed. 

Based on these failures and other similar failures it’s easy to assume that communalism/socialism/communism will never work. Indeed there’s a meme going around, where they take the list of 7 things every kid needs to hear, initially created by Josh Shipp, which is full of advice like telling your kid you love them and you forgive them, and replacing one of the items with “Communism has failed every time it was tried.” And to be fair, perhaps every kid does need to hear that. I’m certainly no fan of Communism. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s worse even than most people realize, but as I have previously pointed out, this fact wasn’t apparent at the beginning. Nor was it apparent at the beginning of our own republic that it was going to be a success, and yet in the intervening years it clearly was.

In all these cases (and there are many more) people were trying to move to a new system, one which fixed some of the weaknesses of the old system. And most of the time when people make this attempt, it fails, somewhat unusually the American Revolution succeeded. A group of people did move to a different system, and whatever your complaints about the founding and the founders it was definitely a better system as well. You might label this system democratic capitalism, and while the United States was the first to try it on a large scale (a point we’ll get to) many nations, though not all, have gone on to adopt it. When one sees how successful it’s been, it’s worth asking why no one did it sooner and why some nations still haven’t done it.

Starting with the first question, people had tried democracies and republics before, but the conventional wisdom at the time of the revolution was that democracy could only work on a small scale, in places like Switzerland or Ancient Athens. This thinking explains why we ended up with a republic and not a democracy and is one of the reasons why the battle between Jefferson and Hamilton was so fierce, but regardless of the measures they took to mitigate the perceived failures of democracy or the passion they brought to the task of ensuring the success of the new country, it was still a huge risk. So why did it work in North America, but not in Afghanistan, or Venezuela, or for that matter Russia in the 90s?

Speaking of that time period in Russia, I just got done reading the book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. (I’m still playing around with how I’m going to do book reviews, so I may or may not end up doing a full review later.) The book discusses the chaotic time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and what came out of that chaos. In a very real sense, the Russians were trying to accomplish the same thing that the early Americans did. They were attempting to transition from one, obviously broken system to a presumably new and better system. In this effort they had lots of people willing to help, and the citizens really wanted to make the transition. Beyond that, there were lots of successful countries to copy from. And despite all of these factors very few people would look at Russia today and consider it a fully functioning constitutional democracy. What happened? Why did they fail?

On one level the failure to successfully transition came from numerous sources:

  • Yeltsin tried to reform the economy too quickly. 
  • The West offered a lot of useless advice, but not much actual help
  • Rather than creating prosperity for everyone the reforms made most people poorer while creating vast wealth for a few oligarchs. 

And if the economic problems weren’t bad enough, there was also:

  • Corruption
  • Terrible infrastructure
  • Weak respect for the law
  • And the general hangover of 70+ years of Soviet dysfunction. 

But considered from another angle the failure was caused by just one problem: Transitioning to a new system requires more than just ideology, it requires an enormous web of systems to support the ideology.

If we consider Russia and Eastern Europe, based on the things I read both at the time and since then, they would have liked nothing more than to have transitioned to mature capitalism, with public corporations, investors and a stock market. Instead they ended up with oligarchs and Ponzi schemes. Why? Because, among other things, they didn’t have a robust legal system, with things like contract enforcement, or a justice system free of corruption. And even if they had possessed all those things the actual logistics of a fully operational stock market are not trivial either. And this takes us to the answer to the second question I posed above, if democratic capitalism is so successful why hasn’t every country transitioned to it?

Certainly there are some countries where it’s not in the leader’s best interest to make the transition. (See my review of The Dictator’s Handbook.) And accordingly they prevent it from happening, but by all accounts Yeltsin and Gorbachev desperately wanted to make this transition yet were unable to because they didn’t have the necessary institutions, customs and attitudes in place. 

Thus far most of what I’ve said is not particularly original, though given how much blood and treasure we’ve spent failing in exactly this fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps these ideas are more obscure than one would think. Or perhaps those people trying to move from one system to the next recognize that supporting institutions are necessary, but feel that they should be easy to create. In any case at some level people have dramatically misjudged things, and as a consequence caused all kinds of problems. But, while that is definitely an interesting subject, it is not the subject of this post. No, in this post I want to approach things not from the perspective of what’s possible now, but from the perspective of what might be possible in the future.

I started off talking about communism and communalism, and asserting that attempts to implement them had repeatedly and spectacularly failed. But couldn’t the same thing be said about large scale democratic capitalism before the creation of the Constitution? What was different in 1788? The argument I’ve presented thus far is that the necessary framework of supporting institutions, cultural systems and laws finally existed which would allow it to succeed. From this it follows that it’s possible that there is a similar combination out there, waiting to be implemented which would allow communism or communalism to actually succeed as a system of government. 

I stole this idea from friend of the blog Mark over at Pasteur’s Blend. Here’s the paragraph where he explains the core idea

But what if there’s another way to look at it?  If it’s true that any system of government requires specific institutions to be successful, we should apply this same understanding to communism.  Certainly the Russian experience demonstrated that capitalism requires certain institutions or it won’t work well. We might look back to attempts at establishing communism through this lens and say, “Of course it didn’t work, they didn’t have the institutions required for making it work.”

To be clear, I’m not asserting that there are definitely institutions out there which would make communism/communalism work. (And specifically work better than democratic capitalism.) Only that there might be. There are still several reasons that such a system of government might be impossible.

For one, while this is an interesting possibility, it’s not even clear that this is how it normally works. The founding of the United States may be a unique exception. As I said above, we have lots of examples of failed attempts to dramatically transition from one system to another and very few examples of where it succeeded. Most of the time when we look through history it seems clear that most systems “evolved gradually” rather than “changed suddenly”. And I see very little evidence that this is the way things are evolving.

Speaking of which it should be pointed out, additionally, that there is no reason to limit this to communism/communalism, if progress and technology are going to create the culture, institutions and systems necessary for a dramatic shift to a new system of government it would seem that libertarianism is at least as likely as communalism, if not more so. 

Finally, you’ll notice that when I talk about the “web of support” required to make a certain system work, that I go farther than Mark’s original idea and toss in culture as well. Certainly culture played a huge part in the successful formation of the United States, and equally it has always been the biggest problem with the successful implementation of any form of communalism. Or as Madison put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

All this said, it is possible that a communist utopia will arrive as soon as we have the appropriate institutions and the right attitude. But, more broadly, it has to be acknowledged that even if we’re unlikely to transition to some dramatically better system of government after the fashion of the American Revolution, technological innovation is continually providing us with lots of tools to make our current system better. And this is the point where, finally, as promised, this post ties into the last post. This post is an argument against my last post. On one hand, as we saw in that last post, if system goes on long enough, it starts to accumulate deviations and those deviations end up being normalized. This leads to cycles where greater deviations eventually lead to catastrophe followed by retrenchment around improved norms. On the other hand technology gives us ways to mitigate system deviations, and may in fact provide a completely new and better system which will replace the old system before it fails catastrophically. Which would have the effect of breaking the cycle.

As a brief example, the last post spent quite a bit of time talking about plane crashes. One of the key methods for preventing these crashes is the checklist, and while the core technology for maintaining a checklist has been around since the invention of writing, it’s clear that even in the case of a simple system like this that technology has made things easier to implement and maintain. Consequently, there is less incentive for deviation because not-deviating requires only minimal additional effort. All of this then presumably pushes back potential catastrophes.

As is so often the case, all of the above takes us back to the same question we return to again and again, “Will technology save us?” And as usual, my answer (and I believe the safest way to bet) is, “We are not saved.” Nevertheless, as I repeatedly point out, I could be wrong. (That’s why I mention betting.) 

There is no way to know how the future will turn out, but I think it is safe to say, as I did in my very first post, that we’re in a race between technological salvation and technological catastrophe. Meaning that, at least at first glance, there’s nothing particularly new about the topic of this post. I’ve been talking about this exact issue since the very beginning. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what this latest twist adds to the discussion. To begin with, I spend a lot of time in this space discussing different ways for catastrophe to occur, but not very much time on how it might be avoided. How the cycles of civilization, which have been present throughout all of recorded history, might be broken. Part of the reason is that there are always more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But part of it is also probably a genuine bias on my part. Thus, when I encountered this idea I thought it was worth investigating as a counterweight to that bias. 

Beyond that, the key difference between this discussion and what I’ve written before, is that lots of people imagine that technology alone might save us. Particularly something like fusion, or superintelligence. I think there were a lot of people who thought the internet might even fill this roll. In contrast, the current discussion involves things which are helped by, but don’t require technology. Just institutional and cultural changes which might be brought about by sufficiently motivated individuals, allowing us to imagine “salvation” in a form which doesn’t hinge on one dramatic technological development. Technology is still very important, perhaps the most important element of the modern world, but many of the most impactful systems, as we saw with the checklist example (but also democratic capitalism) don’t necessarily require any specific technology. And, with technology appearing ever more destructive to systems, particularly political systems (think the polarization brought on by social media) this sort of salvation starts to appear more and more like our best hope.

However, in order to take this hope seriously you have to assume that we’re going to break out of the cycles and patterns that have defined human existence for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, that this time really is different. That, despite recent evidence to the contrary, technology will assist rather than hinder setting up the institutions and culture required to finally make the leap to a dramatically better system, a communist or a libertarian or a “something else” utopia. Or that, at a minimum, we’ll create something less earth shattering, but which nevertheless manages to save humanity from itself. Because that’s looking like an increasingly difficult task.

In my next post I’m going to finish out the series by examining that challenge, in particular the practical difficulties of implementing new systems, the historical cycles such systems would have to contend with, and the conflict between the new and better ways we’ve developed for managing those systems and the inevitable temptation to deviate from them, and to call those deviations “normal”.


Perhaps we will push through to a communist utopia where money is meaningless, but until that time we’re stuck with the next best system, democratic capitalism, which requires exchanging money for things you want to see more of. On the off chance this blog is in that category consider donating.


Normalization of Deviance and the Modern World

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I recently read an article titled How I Almost Destroyed a £50 million War Plane and The Normalisation of Deviance. The article opens with the story of a multinational military exercise, which the author, Tim Davies, participated in back in the mid 2000s. As part of this exercise, everyone was assigned to a specific jet, and if your jet was having problems you couldn’t switch. This is, unfortunately, exactly what happened to the Davies.

Our jet had a problem with the undercarriage or landing gear – it wouldn’t lock up under normal flight conditions; the wheels couldn’t be stowed away.

The engineers had found significant and unfixable wear to the mechanical uplock. It would only lock up under 0g and this would mean that I would have to bunt the aircraft, nose down, towards the ground whilst selecting the gear ‘up’.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, a bunt is half an outside loop, meaning you start out straight and level, then dive in a curve, eventually ending upside down.)

With this “solution” in hand and not wanting to be grounded for the remainder of the exercise Davies (and his Weapons Systems Officer) decided to try it out. And lo and behold, it worked. They’d have to do it every time they wanted to fly, right after takeoff, at the point when they had the maximum amount of fuel (five tons), but they had figured out a way to keep flying. So that’s what they decided to do. And this, if you haven’t guessed, was a deviation from the normal guidelines for safely flying a £50 million war plane.

Despite comments from other pilots, and the concerns of their Programme Director, who Davies managed to avoid, they continued performing this maneuver, and everything went great until the last day of the exercise when the weather was worse than expected. It was then, while performing the maneuver, that they entered a cloud, and when they finally emerged from that cloud Davies realized he was in a very bad place.

We were low on energy and the nose was rising too slowly to recover the aircraft before we would hit the ground.

The Ground Proximity Warning System sounded.

‘WOOP, WOOP – PULL UP, PULL UP!’

‘7, 6, 5 – that’s 400 ft Tim!’, called my WSO.

The jet was shuddering against my demands, it just didn’t have the performance to pull out of the dive.

The cockpit was silent. To make things worse, due to our high rate of descent, we were well outside of any ejection option.

I quickly selected full flap and slats to increase the lift over the wing.

The sudden increase in lift meant that the nose started to pitch faster towards the horizon.

A bad picture was starting to look better.

Eventually I levelled the jet at around 2-300 ft above the ground and gradually I climbed us back up into cloud.

The gear had never locked up. It was going to be a long, and a very quiet, journey home.

Why had all this happened? How had it come to pass that in addition to almost destroying a £50 million war plane, he had almost killed himself and his Weapons Systems Officer? It happened because they had taken that initial deviance and normalized it.

I was an experienced pilot but in the bracket where my over-confidence could well have been my downfall. The longer we’d continued performing the manoeuvre the more confident we’d become at doing it.

We had convinced ourselves that the rule breaking was for the benefit of the exercise and that what we were doing was essential.

But I’d almost destroyed a £50 million aircraft.

My actions in performing a zero ‘g’ bunt after take-off, in order to secure the gear, as outside of the rules as it was, had become the normal way to get airborne – I thought that what I was doing was right.

But I was wrong.

Knowing what happens it’s obvious he was wrong, but it’s also easy to see where it might not have been quite that obvious the first time he tried it. And it’s equally obvious where this problem might not be limited to flying. Life is full of very important rules for how things should be done, but it is also full of situations where it would be convenient and seemingly harmless to violate those rules. The initial violation almost always appears to be minor and in any event it will obviously be only temporary, but once we’ve done it the first time it becomes even easier to do it again and again and again… Until, before you know it, we’ve “normalized the deviance”. 

That article offers this formal definition for the normalization of deviance, from Diane Vaughan:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.

Vaughan coined the term “normalization of deviance” in the course of reviewing the organizational and management failures which lead to the Challenger and Columbia disasters. This is yet another example where it’s easy to identify which choices were wrong in hindsight, but apparently more difficult to avoid making those ultimately fatal decisions in the absence of such foreknowledge. And while there is some utility to identifying the problem after it’s happened it’s vastly preferable to identify it before the disaster. With that in mind I’m going to attempt some identification in advance. Also while the examples I’ve offered thus far, and most of the examples you’ll find, deal with small scale “deviance normalization”, as you might imagine I’m far more interested in whether we have any deviance normalization going on at a societal level.

Let’s take the last point first, what would it look like to normalize deviance at the level of a whole society? 

Let’s start by dipping back into the article. One of the things Davies mentions is how it can be very difficult to define what deviant behavior is at the extreme ends of things. While he admits that his take off maneuver was very obviously deviant, what if you’re trying to perform that evaluation on one of the military’s flight demonstration squadrons? In America we have the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, in the UK they have the Red Arrows, and Davies was involved in an inquiry after two of his friends were killed. As part of that he spoke to other people tasked with assessing the standards of the Red Arrows, one of them:

…told me that, when assessing a Red Arrows pilot, he found himself upside down at 100 ft over RAF Scampton’s runway in formation with two other jets only a couple of feet away.

How on earth was he supposed to know if this was normal?

How indeed? Davies doesn’t say except to point out that no organization is ever so specialized that it’s beyond needing external assessment. But the question of evaluation at the extremes is an interesting one, since that appears to be where modern society has ended up. In the same way that there’s not a lot of flight data for going hundreds of miles an hour, 100 ft off the ground with other aircraft only a couple of feet away, there’s not a lot of historical data about being able to form ideological echo chambers with anyone on Earth, with the ability to instantly communicate to any of those people, all while having less and less ability to know if that communication is actually truthful. That seems kind of abnormal or deviant, but how do we know?

To take another more recent, and perhaps more concrete example. News recently broke that Facebook paid contractors to transcribe it’s user’s audio chats. (Most of the other tech companies have been similarly accused.) Is this just a cool thing we can now do which well help Facebook deliver content people will appreciate more? Or is it a horrible invasion of privacy? Regardless of your answer to that question, it shouldn’t change when we get to the point where the transcription doesn’t require contractors; when there’s an AI that can do it. But I think it will. Perhaps more importantly, to get back to Davies’ point about needing external assessment, what do you think Facebook’s answer would be to these questions? (Spoiler: They think it’s awesome, particularly if they could get an AI to do it.) Pulling all this together, my first stab at spotting a normalization of deviance before it happens it to point out that technology is going to create a lot of “deviance” and that it’s going to be difficult to recognize, particularly if we don’t demand external assessment.

From there let’s move on to politics. To start, one imagines that deviations from the norm accumulate the longer an organization is around, and that this would apply at least as much to governments as it would to corporations, and probably much more so. As I have pointed out in the past, the United States and its government is older, relative to other nations, than most people think. All of this means that there should be plenty of examples of accumulated political deviations which have been normalized, and indeed I can think of several. I intend to provide a couple of examples of what I mean, but before I do, it’s important to point out that each could easily be the subject of its own post, and that by necessity, I am going to be leaving a lot of things out. Also, I’m sure that whether you view something as a deviation which has been normalized depends on your core political leanings.

With those caveats aside let’s start by talking about criminal justice. There are lots of things I could talk about in that space, but I’m going to focus on plea bargaining. Currently over 95% percent of federal cases end in a plea deal rather than a trial, and it’s not much better at local level. My sense, when I first thought of this as a potential deviation that has been normalized, is that it had only gotten this high recently, but when I looked into it I discovered that as long ago as 1945 it stood at 70%, and that it actually dipped to 63% in 1982 before starting a steady rise to where it is now. 

(I just gave two links to what appear to be the same statistic from the same governmental report, but while they agree on the general trend there’s a lot of variation in the statistics. For example, the Washington Post has it at 85% in 2000 while Albany University has it at 95% in 2000. Strange, but it doesn’t matter very much to the point I’m trying to make.)

Despite the fact that I was wrong about the increase in plea bargaining being a recent phenomenon, it was nevertheless definitely not a part of normal jurisprudence at the time of the Constitution. Once you start to dig into the history of it, it turns out that it wasn’t practiced with any frequency until “well into the nineteenth century“ and it didn’t come to the “attention of the public” until the 1920s. When “the general reaction-of scholars, of the press, and of the crime commissions themselves [which had publicized the practice]-was disapproval.” On top of this, apparently as late as 1958 it looked like the Supreme Court might declare the practice to be illegal, and while it didn’t, it didn’t formally sanction the practice until 1970. And while it seems normal now, this is all a deviation. The original guidelines for “safe jurisprudence” (similar to the rules for safe flying) included lots of rules about trial by jury, how the jury should work, the rights of the accused, what was and wasn’t permissible evidence, etc. But, at some point, after the system had been working well for possibly as long as a century, someone came along and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we skipped the trial and you just agreed to plead guilty to X, and in exchange we’ll make sure that your punishment is only Y?” And it was easier that once. In fact it was probably eminently sensible. But now, a century or more later, the original concept of trial by jury is used, at most 5% of the time (here’s yet another set of numbers from the NYT saying it’s 3% of federal cases and 6% of state cases) and the deviation has been made into the norm.

Why hasn’t this deviation been corrected? Probably because it only harms (or is perceived to harm) the powerless. Insofar as plea deals (and the associated practice of charge stacking) are bad they’re only bad for potential criminals. Not necessarily a coalition which is essential to anyone staying in power (see my review of The Dictator’s Handbook) and possibly a coalition whose support you would actively avoid.

The question of who the deviation harms is an important one, and comes up again when discussing my other example, though in a more complicated way. What is this example, you ask? It’s the current and growing practice of ignoring immigration laws. As with plea bargaining it’s somewhat difficult to tell exactly when or how this deviation started, but it’s easy enough to imagine why. Immigration enforcement is difficult, with lots of areas of questionable morality, and hard choices that have to be made. Still the current state has not existed for all that long. While the first sanctuary city was Berkeley in 1971, and a few other cities adopted that designation in the 1980s, most cities and states didn’t get serious about it until the 2010s. Meanwhile in the 90s there was serious concern about the state of US immigration policy. From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, ran from 1990 to 1997. The Commission covered many facets of immigration policy, but started from the perception that the “credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in, are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave”. From there, in a series of four reports, the commission looked at all aspects of immigration policy. In the first, it found that enforcement was lax and needed improvement on the border and internally. For internal enforcement, it recommended that an automated employment verification system be created to enable employers to distinguish between legal and illegal workers. The second report discussed legal immigration issues and suggested that immediate family members and skilled workers receive priority. The third report covered refugee and asylum issues. Finally, the fourth report reiterated the major points of the previous reports and the need for a new immigration policy. Few of these suggestions were implemented.

The yardstick mentioned in the article could be used in a Trump campaign ad, and indeed last year Trump put out a presidential message honoring Barbara Jordan, which upset numerous people since Jordan was a black female Democrat. It would certainly be hard to imagine someone similarly situated today being a Trump supporter, or even making similar recommendations. Indeed these days, many people consider it inappropriate to even use the word illegal. But, beyond what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it’s worth going into a deep dive on how this is a deviation which has been normalized, since I suspect you either already entirely agree with me or are never going to agree, but I would like to look at who it harms.

I said earlier that the harms of this normalization are more complicated. In particular there are a lot of fairly powerless people who are helped, and indeed that’s a good argument for the continuance of the practice. But beyond that there are also a lot of powerful people who benefit as well, and that, more than the powerless people it helps, is why it continues. As I pointed out in a previous post, other than Trump and a handful of other politicians, the lax enforcement of immigration is something which is supported by nearly every member in congress despite a majority of actual voters being against it.  The harm, or perceived harm, all falls, once again, on a group of people who have largely been without power, that is until Trump came along. Which is to say even if you don’t see any other harms from this particular normalization of deviance, it probably pushed Trump over the top in the last election…

Finally when we’re talking about deviations being normalized it’s hard not to turn our minds towards behaviors formerly classified as deviant. The entire culture war revolves around this process, and obviously there are quite a few people who believe that quite a few activities should not have been normalized. That “progress” is just another word for the greatest “normalization of deviance” of all. There are of course an equal if not larger number of people (depending on the country) who think this is ridiculous. It would be nice if sheer numbers could decide the issue, but I don’t think they can. All of these issues remain contentious, but, for the moment, let’s assume that in addition to being (at one point) labeled as deviations, that they are actual deviations. What would this mean? In the story I started with, that deviation almost led to a fatal crash. Is that also what we should be worried about here? Perhaps, perhaps not. The modern world is very different from the world of even 50 years ago, accordingly I would never claim that the normalization of these particular deviations will inevitably result in a “crash”. They may in fact be desirable in our current situation. Still, as I have repeatedly pointed out, there just might have been a reason for declaring these behaviors “deviant” beyond just massive historical bigotry. 

If we were to systematize all of this, you could imagine that things might operate in a cycle. Some “bad thing” happens, and as a result rules are put into place to ensure that particular “bad thing” doesn’t happen again. Initially, when the memory of the “bad thing” is still very fresh, those preventative rules would carry a great deal of weight, people would be eager to follow them, and they certainly wouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Gradually, however, the connection between the rules and the “bad thing” would fade in the minds of those forced to follow the rules. These rules would start to appear more onerous and less necessary. As this process continues, eventually rules start being broken. Initially this rule breaking wouldn’t cause any harm, and the longer things went without any harm the more the process of rule-breaking accelerates. All of this would continue until eventually, the “bad thing” the rules were trying to prevent, happened again. Naturally the rules would be reimplemented (and perhaps strengthened) and the cycle would begin anew. 

I’m obviously not the first nor the last to suggest that history, behaviors, and events might be cyclical, but my particular suggestion would be that while this is certainly true, it is also horribly complicated. Yes, history does move in cycles, many, many cycles which overlap, feed on one another and are weak or strong at various times and places. For the next couple of posts I’m going to examine a couple of other cycles and look at which might be strong or weak in our own day and age. As a teaser, in my next post I’m going to talk about how a nation would successfully implement communism. 


There might be some who argue this entire blog is a normalization of deviance! 

*Something*

*Something* 

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The Rise of a Civic Religion

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I.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you know that I live in Utah, a state which has a number of interesting qualities, particularly when it comes to politics. To begin with, as you’re all probably aware, Utah is not a swing state, its electoral votes have gone to the Republican Presidential candidate in every election since 1968. Now, Trump may change all of that (though based on the current crop of democractic nominees I’m guessing that he won’t) but Trump’s standing in Utah is a topic for another time. As an additional peculiarity, and something that most people don’t know, Utah is the only state where Clinton came in third place to Perot in 1992. But of all the political oddities peculiar to Utah, the one I want to focus on is lawn signs.

If I’ve done my job right, you are now overcome with curiosity and wondering what possible peculiarity there might be when it comes to Utah and lawn signs. Well to begin with, after considering everything I’ve already said, one would naturally assume that if there was any place where you would expect to see lawn signs for the Republican Presidential Candidate it would be in Utah. And yet, at least in Salt Lake, I not only don’t remember any signs for Trump in 2016. I very clearly remember there being no signs for McCain in 2008 when he was running against Obama. Why, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, would there be no lawn signs for the Republican Nominee? 

One possibility is that I’m just wrong, there were lawn signs and I just didn’t see them or don’t remember them.

Or perhaps, knowing how solidly Republican Utah was, the campaign didn’t bother to send any lawn signs to Utah. But if that’s the case why were there plenty of Obama and Clinton lawn signs? Wouldn’t the same not-worth-fighting-over logic apply?

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in Salt Lake, which is actually pretty blue. Sure, the state is pretty Republican, but perhaps Salt Lake City might as well be San Francisco. Well, if we look at the actual numbers we find that Obama did in fact win Salt Lake County, by the massive margin of 0.1%, 49.2% to 49.1%. In 2016 the margin was greater, 41.99% to 32.96% but that’s still a fair amount of Trump supporters, for there to not be a single yard sign.

As you can tell, none of these three theories seems very compelling, at least to me, but there is another theory that I like better. A theory which combines signalling, with what it’s acceptable to signal. If we start from a very naive view of things, we might expect that the number of yard signs would be proportional to the percentage of eventual voters, but this is obviously not the case. In San Francisco, of those who voted for either Clinton or Trump, one in ten voted for Trump, but I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money that one in ten election signs in San Francisco were not similarly in support of Trump.

If visible signs of support are not proportional to eventual vote totals what does determine people’s desire to signal and the acceptability of such signalling? You might think that if each candidate will eventually get a roughly equal number of votes, that the visible signs of support would also be equal, and that from this point of rough equilibrium, visible support would drop off faster than actual support as one candidate ended up in the minority. That basically, as one candidate’s majority becomes greater and greater, signalling support for the minority candidate has less and less utility. But in the example I just gave from Salt Lake City, McCain and Obama’s eventual support was as close to even as you can get, and yet I would swear that I didn’t see a single McCain campaign sign. Is it possible that it’s disproportionately beneficial to signal support for a Democratic candidate and disproportionately harmful to signal support for a Republican candidate? 

I’m well aware that this is mostly based on a single observation, so one point of this post is to see if anyone else has a similar experience to mine, where you live in a city with lots of Republican voters, but very little visible evidence of these voters? I suspect there are a lot of examples of this. I would even go so far as to say that I’d be surprised if anyone’s experiences didn’t match my own. That is, the percentage of visible support being less than the percentage of actual support given as votes. Beyond the reluctance of people on the right to visibly signal, even while in the majority, as I described above, I have also noticed the opposite situation with those on the left, actual eagerness to signal, even while in the minority, and I would be curious to hear about other people’s experiences. Assuming that all of the foregoing is correct, why might this be?

II.

As part of my answer I’d like to start by relating yet another observation, this one much more recent. As I mentioned in the post just before this one I spent the first few days of August at a gaming convention. (Which convention is probably easy enough to figure out, but I shall leave it unnamed for a variety of reasons.) I’ve been attending the same convention for many years, and for as long as I can remember people have been attaching ribbons to the bottoms of their badges. Generally these ribbons represented one or the other niches at the convention. As an example, a fan of Settlers of Catan might have a ribbon each for brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. Last year I noticed some new, rainbow colored ribbons. (You can probably already guess the nature of the ribbons.) One said “Gaymer”, and for those who weren’t actually gay, there was an “Ally” ribbon. Somewhat subconsciously I added these as another niche. There were fans of Settlers of Catan and there were people who wanted to combine LGBT advocacy with their gaming. 

When I attended this year, I quickly realized that I had been wrong. Last year, I saw just a few people wearing these ribbons and while I hesitate to put forth any hard numbers, my guess would be that, at most, 5% of badges had one of these ribbons last year. And, as I said, I subconsciously added it as another niche.

This year, the number was much higher, again I’m reluctant to put forth a hard number, but it could have easily been 25%, and perhaps higher. Also this year a new variety of ribbon had been added which allowed people to announce their preferred pronouns. (I was surprised by the number of They/Them ribbons I saw.) Once again I’m dealing with only a small amount of data, but at a minimum I’m already curious about what this percentage is going to look like next year. 

All of this is to say that it seems unlikely that the actual number of gay gamers and their allies has quintipled since last year. No it’s more likely that the phenomenon of rainbow ribbon badges and republican candidate lawn signs are actually similar, that both come down to signalling, and what it’s acceptable to signal, or more accurately what it’s unacceptable to signal. As an example of what I mean, imagine that I printed up some ribbons that said “Straight” or “Not an Ally” or “Gamers opposed to Same Sex Marriage”. (That last one wouldn’t fit on a badge, and I think the difficulty of signalling opposition illustrates my point.) But to return to my point can you imagine how unacceptable it would be to signal opposition to LGBT tolerance? And, in fact, I think this leads to the point I’ve already noted, that not only would it be entirely unacceptable to wear any of the ribbons just mentioned, that it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable to not have an “Ally” ribbon showing your support. 

It’s not hard to imagine that this might happen at a gaming convention which mostly skews younger and “woker”, but I believe it’s happening more widely, and that’s why I started out by talking about the lawn signs. This is not only, I would submit, an example of the same thing, but furthermore an example illustrating how long this has been going on for and in places you wouldn’t expect. To be clear, what I’m arguing is that just as it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to not signal support for LGBT issues, that it was already unacceptable for many years, even in very conservative states to visibly signal support for Republican Presidential Candidates. Once again, why might this be?

III.

On one level the answer to this question is that both stories are just examples of the ongoing social progress that has been happening for decades if not centuries, but I find that particular answer lacking. In the first example, it’s not that people are changing how they vote it’s that they’re changing what they’re willing to visibly signal. In the second example, we see a trend (which to be fair, may or may not continue) where once again people expect certain signalling above and beyond someone’s actual behavior. In other words, in both cases, we’re not seeing “progress” in behaviors or progress in what’s allowed, in part because both of these have just about topped out, we’re seeing “progress” through an increasingly unified idea of what attitudes and beliefs it’s acceptable to display openly. That most individuals have moved beyond expecting to be allowed to do and believe certain things, to fashioning a set of attitudes and beliefs which they expect everyone to adopt.

Thus far none of this is particularly new or surprising. Conservatives and other people worried about overactive political correctness have long warned about this transition from allowing people to do certain, previously taboo, things to demanding that everyone enthusiastically support people doing these certain things. But I want to go beyond just identifying the trend, or expressing short-term alarm to categorizing the trend as something specific, consequential and long-term.

A few posts ago I touched on Scott Alexander’s idea that social justice might be a new civic religion. For this to be the case, if social justice is going to supplant the old civic religion of patriotism, it has to be growing. It has to be vibrant and powerful. It has to be able to sweep the old civic religion away. It has to be able to dominate the “signaling space”. In both of the examples I provided this is what appears to be happening. That what people support has decoupled from what people decide to signal. That these examples illustrate not a change in inner beliefs or behavior, but the rise of a different public dogma or in other words a new civic religion.

Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, and certainly there’s a lot of discussion about what makes something a religion, and wading into that is way beyond the scope of this post, but the expectation that everyone will outwardly display specific beliefs has to be a big part of it, particularly in the case of civic religions.

Pulling everything together, I increasingly agree with Alexander that social justice is a nascent civil religion, that the lawn signs and the badge ribbons should be considered as evidence that something new is dominating the signalling space and that these are examples of the presence and growth of this religion, a different, more extreme, and more cohesive phenomenon than the generic social progress we’ve seen previously. 

Before moving on, I should mention that I’m fully aware that just as one swallow does not a summer make, neither does two examples a civic religion make. But my guess is that at this point you’re in one of two categories. Either you can think of a dozen other examples of this and you’re nodding along in agreement, or you’ve completely dismissed my point as conservative paranoia. And in neither case will providing more examples move the needle very much. Assuming that you’re one of the people who’s nodding along, the next question, once we’ve figured out why it’s happening, is to ask what happens next?

IV.

If you are in the “conservative paranoia” camp, and you’ve made it this far. I’ll start off with the possibility you might actually like. It’s possible that what happens next is that, by degrees, we enter a social justice utopia. That all the things people hope for come to pass as people “join” the new religion. That systemic racism is done away with, along with all other forms of bigotry. That gaps in pay and education between minorities and genders vanish. That when everyone is an “Ally” there are no LGBT issues because that distinction no longer makes any sense. That everyone is treated with fairness and kindness and as a result global peace and prosperity will reign. That, in essence, I end up being wrong about everything. This would be great. I could stop writing, buy a nice recliner and finally catch up on all the TV shows people keep recommending to me. Unfortunately, despite my desire to finally watch all six seasons of the Sopranos, nothing about how events are playing out leads me to believe that this possibility has any chance of happening.

Another possibility would be some kind of fusion between the new civic religion and the old, that patriotism and the 4th of July meld with social justice and gay pride to form some hybrid civic religion, better than the old civic religion, or maybe just able to thread whatever needle we’re going through now, and get us to something resembling normality after Trump, but if anything this seems less likely than the previous possibility, given how irreconcilable the differences between the two sides appear to be. Also while I’m not an expert on the rise of new civic religions, I don’t get the sense that “peaceful fusion with the old religion” is something that ever happens. Part of the problem is a relative paucity of examples. I think historically actual religions were the norm and that replacing an actual religion with a civic religion is a relatively new innovation, but insofar as we have examples, most of them have been bloody. Which takes us to the next possibility.

Having talked a lot about possibilities which are unlikely, let’s turn to a possibility that seems more and more likely. Widespread and perhaps even bloody conflict between the two civic religions, old and new. Obviously on some level this is bad, but an argument could be made, that on net, the outcome in its totality might be good. I was having a discussion with a friend recently on this very topic where he made just such an argument. In the course of the discussion, I had brought up previous upheavals which occurred as countries switched civic religions. In particular the decades of revolution that France went through as it, arguably, switched from the civil religion of the monarchy (or the empire) to the civil religion of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Revolutions in which hundreds of thousands of people died (millions if you include the Napoleonic Wars). My friend argued that as bad as all this was that in the long run the French were better off going through all of it than remaining under the monarchy as it stood in 1788. Perhaps this is true, though I’m not the best person to ask. I have a tendency to give fewer points for historical wrongs than other individuals. Also this imagines that there were only those two options, but in reality there were lots of options, and among all the various options I suspect that there were several which would have given them the same amount of liberté, égalité, fraternité with less violence. 

Which is to say, even if conflict is inevitable, it would be nice if we could minimize the actual bloodshed and violence. Given that conflict seems to have already begun this is the course I’m continually advocating for, pointing out that this may require us to end up with two civic religions, which are separated in some fashion. To me this seems markedly better than re-enacting any of the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But in order to do this, I think it’s necessary, first of all, to slow down the pace of change, something the adherents of social justice seem disinclined to consider.

Of course, as I alluded to just now, all conflicts eventually end, and usually (though not always) one side is victorious. What happens if the religion of social justice is eventually victorious? It is certainly possible that conflict, even very violent conflict, could end up being a roundabout way to arrive at the first possibility, the social justice utopia. That in the end, just like the French (if my friend is to be believed) we’ll be better off, despite whatever blood that gets spilt. But we should also consider the possibility that if social justice is triumphant we will end up with something closer to a dystopia instead. Recall that both facism and communism were essentially civic religions. And that communism, at least (but perhaps facism also) promised justice. It wasn’t social justice, it was economic justice, but how sure are we that if the civic religion of social justice ends up triumphing (with or without conflict) that it won’t fail in a similar fashion? In other words, one possibility is that the new religion does wipe out the old one, but that this ends up being a very bad thing.

V.

In the end, the question of whether we’re witnessing the rise of a new civic religion is an important one. Because if we are then the best historical evidence would indicate that such transitions are rarely accomplished without extreme upheaval. Looking back, I probably should have spent more time discussing historical examples of religious transitions, rather than spending so much time on a couple of marginal examples of the current evidence. (Though I find both examples fascinating.) And perhaps I will dive more into the historical record in some future post. Though I can already tell that it will offer very little comfort.

As one final possibility, there is, as always, a very good chance that I’m wrong, that we aren’t currently in the beginnings of a conflict between the old civic religion of patriotism and a new one of social justice. But if I am wrong about things, my guess is that it’s because I’ve vastly undercounted the number of new civic religions, that rather than one new civic religion we might actually end up with dozens, all in competition. Certainly we’ve seen evidence of that happening in the past when the previous civic religion began to run out of steam. Toss in the internet and social media this time around and we might end up with a lot more of it. And while I personally think that one in particular deserves most of the attention, it’s hard to say what will happen.

I guess the one thing I didn’t spend a lot of time was the weakness of the old civic religion, so let me share one brief, final anecdote. On Sunday I happened to be rewatching The Avengers. (Yes, I know I could be watching the Sopranos instead, but I can rewatch The Avengers while doing something else.) And there’s a scene where Agent Coulson mentions to Steve Rogers that they have a new uniform for him, and Rogers responds by asking, “Isn’t the Stars and Stripes a little old fashioned?” I remember being struck by this question, since it gets to the root of the problem. When even Captain America is questioning the power of the flag you know that the current civic religion is getting near the end of its lifespan. And it’s imminent death leaves us with some very important questions to consider, perhaps the most important facing our country right now:

  • How will it die?
  • Is that death going to be violent?
  • And, what comes after? Will it be a utopia or a dystopia?

As you can probably guess, going to gaming conventions to make sweeping predictions about colored ribbons is not cheap. If you’d care to assist me in that endeavor consider donating.


Books I Finished in July (With One Podcast Series)

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

Or download the MP3


I was off at a gaming convention all of last week, so I’m somewhat behind on things, but here are reviews of all the books I finished in July (with one podcast series). I started the month with:


The Blade Itself (1 of 3 First Law Trilogy)

By: Joe Abercrombie

560 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If fantasy novels are your thing you should check out this series.

If you like George R. R. Martin’s a Song of Ice and Fire, and despair of it ever being completed this is a pretty good substitute.

Representative passage:

I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once. I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.

He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. “There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.

Thoughts

I quite enjoyed this book, it reminded me of all the reasons why I continue to read fiction, despite the fact that it doesn’t help me with my writing at all. In other words, most of my reasons for reading fiction are selfish, things like escapism and enjoyment, that said, I fancy there are some noble or at least productive reasons in there as well, they just escape me at the moment.

This novel inevitably gets compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, or more likely Game of Thrones, since that’s how most people refer to the series these days. I can entirely see why that is. It has a similar feel, though, at least in the first book, there is significantly less sex, and the violence is probably tamer as well. Outside of that though, it has the same great characterization of very flawed individuals set in a gritty fantasy world. I particularly like the character of Sand dan Glokta, the former dashing swordsman, who was captured and subsequently tortured during a previous war and is now crippled, and, perhaps ironically, a torturer himself.

It’s been quite a while since I read Game of Thrones (which is actually just the first book in George R. R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire series) so it’s hard to say which book I actually enjoyed more, probably Game of Thrones, but given that Martin is probably never going to finish his series and Abercrombie is already done with this one, I think I’d be more likely to recommend Abercrombie over Martin to someone who had read neither, even without having finished the second and third books.

And I guess as long as we’re on the subject I should stick in my George R. R. Martin rant…

Since time immemorial, when a book was being turned into a movie, or a tv show. You could read the book and be ahead of the game. Not only would you get to the end faster, but you almost certainly knew about things that would never get included in the screen translation. To be frank, by reading the book you were better than all those poor schlubs who only watched the TV show. And Martin, by allowing the TV show to get ahead of the books, has broken this sacred pact, a pact that has existed since the dawn of time. Now I’m sure HBO bears some responsibility for starting the show before the series was done (much to the detriment of the final season as I understand it) but mostly I blame Martin.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms, what I mostly have are worries. He introduces quite a few mysteries and hints at a far deeper world than what gets shown in this first book. Whenever you encounter something like this you hope that these mysteries are eventually explained, and that when that happens the explanation is satisfactory. While it’s pretty rare for there to be no attempt at an explanation, it’s very common for the explanation to be unsatisfactory. Star Wars is a great example of what I’m talking about, where an amazing and mysterious universe is hinted at in “A New Hope” only to be revealed as kind of lame and boring in the prequels. As far as this series, I guess we’ll have to see. 

Books I would read before this one:

I’m always going to say that, if you haven’t already, you should read Tolkien before reading anything else in the fantasy genre. But beyond that this is a pretty good place to start if you’re interested in seeing what an epic fantasy series looks like.


Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War

By: Wilfred Reilly

256 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the people who should read this book won’t. In particular I think college administrators should read definitely read this book.

Representative passage:

Probably the most famous Trump-related “hate crime” took place on December 1, 2016, when a young Muslim student claimed that she was attacked on a New York City subway train by “drunken, hate-spewing white men shouting, “Donald Trump!” As we have already seen, she made the whole thing up.

Thoughts

Interestingly enough this book was evidently written and sent to the publisher before that most famous of all hate crime hoaxes, the Jussie Smollett hoax, but it does a great job of showing that Smollett is just the most famous of recent hoaxes, but not even close to being the first. In fact the list of hoaxes and their description is kind of insane, and you come away with two somewhat conflicting thoughts. First, that the perpetrators of these hoaxes should be punished more harshly, and second, that a significant number of them probably have severe mental problems.

For those who hang around certain corners of the internet the fact that there are hate hoaxes is not news (though if you get your news exclusively from the New York Times, it might be) but still the sheer number of hoaxes Reilly ended up covering was impressive. As you might imagine many of these hoaxes took place on college campuses, and one of the chief morals of the book would be that if some dramatic act of hate is reported on a college campus, you can be almost certain it’s a hoax, and that the perpetrator is either the person reporting it, or that it will turn out to be some kind of art installation. (That’s not a joke several of the hoaxes fall into that category.)

Looking at all reported hate crimes, Reilly estimates that probably 15-50% will turn out to be hoaxes. That’s a pretty big deal, and even at 15% it would make sense to start out skeptical anytime you hear about a reported hate crime. Particularly since it would seem (though there was no data on this specifically) that hate crimes you hear about are more likely to be hoaxes than the set of all reported hate crimes.

As I already said, I was familiar with the fact that many reported hate crimes end up being hoaxes. I was not familiar with how high the percentage was, or much variety there was, indeed the most interesting thing Reilly brought to my attention was that individuals on the right end of the political spectrum are getting in on the action as well. That despite the books subtitle, “How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War” increasingly both sides are selling a fake war. If anything this makes the subject more alarming. If it’s just one side then you would think it would be more easy to identify and counteract. If both sides are doing it, then it begins to appear that this is just the way the game is now being played. Which is not a good development

Criticisms

Reilly has kind of a snarky writing style, and that began to wear after a while. Additionally given that the subject is likely to be controversial, I feel like being snarky is going to give people an easy excuse to dismiss it out of hand as being unserious. This would be unfortunate, because it appears clear that it’s a very serious subject and a very serious trend.

Also, this is probably one of those books that could be a long article without losing very much. So much of the content is reciting the details of the individual hoaxes, and while these are titillating, after the first 10 or so, the utility of each additional description starts to go down. But perhaps it takes a mountain of evidence to overcome the default assumption that hate hoaxes are rare to non-existent. 

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

When you hear of some dramatic hate crime, with no witnesses other than the victim, it’s understandable, even rational to be suspicious that it might be a hoax.


The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

352 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in political science, you’ll definitely enjoy this deep dive into the mechanisms of power.

Moreover, if you’re just cynical in general this book is right up your alley.

Representative passage:

The czar fell once there was no one to stop the revolution. Louis XVI suffered much the same fate in the French Revolution. Successful leaders must learn the lesson of these examples and put raising revenue and paying supporters above all else. Consider Robert Mugabe’s success in staying on as Zimbabwe’s president. The economy has collapsed in Zimbabwe thanks to Mugabe’s terrible policies. Starvation is common and epidemics of cholera regularly sweep the country. Mugabe “succeeds” because he understands that it does not matter what happens to the people provided that he makes sure to pay the army. And despite regular media speculation, so far he has always managed to do so and to keep himself in office well into his eighties. He has reduced a once thriving agricultural exporting nation into one that depends on foreign aid. Mugabe is certainly horrible for what he’s done to the people he rules, but he is a master of the rules to rule by. Where policy matters most, when it comes to paying off cronies, he has delivered. That is why no one has deposed him. 

Thoughts

This book is basically a modern day version of Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli holds up Cesare Borgia as an excellent example of someone who embodies the principles he’s espousing. In The Dictator’s Handbook, as you can see from the passage I just quoted, they appear to offer up Robert Mugabe as one of the best examples of someone who understands their principles. Which is tragic, but no less an accurate description of the world, for all its tragedy. The question which follows from all this and which the book attempts to answer and also its subtitle: Why is bad behavior almost always good politics?

The framework which underpins their answer, and most of the book, consists of dividing people into three categories:

The nominal selectorate, or interchangeables: These are the people who in theory have some say in choosing the leader of a country. In the US it’s every person of voting age. And it ends up being a fairly large group in most countries, given that even fairly extreme dictators generally cloak things with an air of popular legitimacy. But this group only selects leaders in theory, in practice they’re mostly powerless.

The real selectorate, or influentials: In the US this is the people who actually vote rather than just being eligible to vote. In China it’s all the voting members of the Communist party. In some countries it’s more fuzzy and frequently shifts.

The winning coalition, or the essentials: This is the minimum number of people the leader needs to stay in power. In the US it’s pretty big, though as we’ve seen it often ends up being less than a majority. In dictatorships where the only thing required to maintain power is to keep a few high level military leaders happy, the essentials may consist of only a small handful of people.

This is a fairly simple framework but from it, all sorts of bad behavior can be described. I can only scratch the surface, but one of the most common examples is the bad behavior enabled by a large supply of natural resources. The Handbook points out that if you have abundant natural resources, it’s easy to extract the money necessary to keep your essentials happy, and you can therefore keep the number of truly essential people small. On the other hand, if you don’t have a source of money that you can easily control you still need money to keep the essentials happy, but in this case you have to resort to taxation, which means you have to have a productive populace, and this is best accomplished by giving them a certain amount of freedom. Accordingly market reforms often happen not because a dictator is particularly enlightened, but because there’s no other way for him to get the money necessary to keep the essentials happy.

This framework is pretty powerful, and as I said, it’s only possible to scratch the surface, particularly in a blog post, but I would argue that, despite writing a whole book about the model, the authors ignore some of its implications, particularly as it applies to modern democracies. Which takes me to the next section.

Criticisms

Having a framework for understanding why dictators behave badly was useful, but mostly in an academic sense, given that you already know they’re going to behave badly even without understanding why. It’s when the framework is applied to our current situation that I think it becomes interesting. As one example, Democrats and liberals are adamant in claiming that they support immigration and oppose voter ID laws for entirely moral reasons, but after reading Dictator’s Handbook it seems more likely that they’re doing it to shift the percentage of “influentials” in a way that favors them. Republicans are fighting these things for exactly the same reason, only they’re trying to protect the percentage of influentials currently in their camp.

Despite that fact that the underlying motivation for both parties is to say in power, the Democrats have, cleverly, made their motives seem pure and altruistic while the Republicans have ended up being labeled as horrible racists.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

People in power don’t care about ruling well they care about staying in power.


Fall of Civilizations (Podcast)

Hosted By: I’m actually not sure

8 hours (so far)

Format: Podcast

Rating: A

Who should listen to this podcast?

Given the importance of the subject material I honestly think everyone should listen to it. Plus it’s fascinating. 

Beyond that if you like tales of disaster and collapse, and imagining the end of civilizations, this is a great podcast.

Representative passage:

A cascading failure can occur in any system of interconnected parts when one part of the system fails. Other pieces of the system must compensate and this in turn overloads them. Nodes throughout the system fail one after another. Until the whole infrastructure grinds to a halt. One bridge leading into the temple complex of Angkor Thom tells a chilling story of what must have happened during that time. The first thing we notice is that this bridge appears to have been hastily constructed. With none of the refinement of the nearby constructions and when we look closer we see that it was built out of building material, recycled from nearby temples. Some of its stones show the intricate carvings of a temple wall, but mismatched and jumbled in this new structure. The fact that the Khmer people had to hastily build this bridge shows that something had gone terribly wrong with their water control system and the fact that they had to reuse stones from their most sacred and revered buildings shows that the situation was desperate.

Thoughts

Thus far the podcast has covered six civilizations. I’ll just briefly talk about the first two:

Roman Britain: I think a lot of people are familiar with the basic outline of this collapse, but it’s a story with a fair amount of surprises. Perhaps the biggest thing people are unaware of is how gradual the collapse was, but then how deep it went before things started turning around. My question is, at what point did people realize that they were on a downward trend, one that was going to last for hundreds of years? I assume that at some point they did, but that it was well after the collapse had started. 

The Late Bronze Age Collapse: This happened around 1100 BC, and if you haven’t heard about it, it’s one of the great mysteries of the ancient world. If you were only going to listen to one episode it should probably be this one. The historical record is tantalizingly thin, we know there was a massive invasion by the “sea people” but why they invaded, and from where continues to prove elusive. But at the time these invasions caused the complete collapse of every nation existing at the time except for two, Assyria and Egypt, and Egypt was badly weakened.

Beyond these first two the podcast has so far covered:

  • The Mayan Collapse
  • The Greenland Vikings
  • The Khmer Empire
  • Easter Island (here he says there was no collapse they were just devastated by European contact.)

Criticisms

This is one of those rare cases where I kind of wish it was longer. Also he seems to mostly be going for an overarching theme that civilizations collapse because of climate change, I would prefer that he either make it less a morality fable about modern problems or that he go in the other direction and make as many connections between the past and now as possible.

If you were going to take only one thing from the podcast:

As civilizations advance they accumulate complexity, and eventually that complexity is their undoing.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By: Mario Kondō

224 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’ve heard of Mario Kondō or the Konmari method, and wanted to try it, but need an inspirational speech before you do, this is that speech.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about you should also read this book.

Representative passage:

One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongs. For example, I urge them to try saying, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, “Thank you for making me beautiful,” and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, “It’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” Express your appreciation to every item that supported you during the day. If you find this hard to do daily, then at least do it whenever you can.

Thoughts

I’d be a little bit surprised if you hadn’t heard of this book. It’s been quite the phenomenon, and I’m not sure what I can add to the discussion at this point. Personally I enjoyed the book, but for me reading it was less about learning how the system worked and more about being talked into trying the system out. And indeed the system itself is pretty simple. 1) Gather everything you have in a particular category. 2) examine each item in turn, if the item doesn’t give you a feeling of joy, get rid of it. The rest of the book consists of cheerleading for the system. Which takes me to…

Criticisms

This is another book which probably could have been shorter. As I pointed out the actual system is pretty simple, and the rest of the book is taken up with long passages of minutiae, interspersed with bits that essentially describe Kondo’s spirituality. The top review on Amazon describes it pretty well:

Here’s what the book says: touch every item in your home and if you “love it” then keep it. If you don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling of love, throw it away. There. Now you don’t have to read it. Seriously, de-cluttering and organizing can have a huge positive impact on life. But the way this book approaches the topic is so silly and juvenile that I don’t understand why it’s a best seller. People: use your common sense and toss the things you don’t use that are cluttering up your life. Ok?

I wouldn’t be that harsh, and I would replace the word “silly” with “simple” and the word “juvenile” with the word “spiritualistic” but beyond that, it’s a decent summary.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Organization and tidying work best when you do everything in a category all at once.


Wild at Heart Revised and Updated: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Religious)

By: John Eldredge 

272 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If people frequently describe you as a nice guy, and you think that might be a bad thing, but you’re not sure what to do instead, then this would probably be a good book for you.

If you’re a Christian male, looking for advice on being a better man, this is a pretty good place to get that advice.

Representative passage:

One more thing, don’t even think about going into battle alone. Don’t even try to take the masculine journey without at least one man by your side. Yes, there are times a man must face the battle alone in the wee hours of the morn, and fight with all he’s got, but don’t make that a lifestyle of isolation. This may be our weakest point. As David Smith points out in the Friendless American Male, “One serious problem is the friendless condition of the average American male. Men find it hard to accept that they need the fellowship of other men.” Thanks to the men’s movement the church understands now that a man needs other men, but what we’ve offered is another two dimensional solution: accountability groups, or partners. Uh! That sounds so old covenant, you’re really a fool and you’re just waiting to rush into sin so we’d better post a guard by you to keep you in line.

We don’t need accountability groups. We need fellow warriors, someone to fight alongside, someone to watch our back! A young man just stopped me on the street to say, “I feel surrounded by enemies and I’m all alone.” The whole crisis in masculinity today, has come because we no longer have a warrior culture, a place for men to learn to fight, like men. We don’t need a meeting a really nice guys. We need a gathering of really dangerous men! 

Thoughts

It seems like everyone agrees that men have a problem. But beyond that the two diagnoses seem to end up drawing exactly opposite conclusions: One side thinks there’s too much masculinity in the world and one side thinks there’s too little. This book is firmly on the side of there being too little, and if you’re not ready to at least entertain the idea that this is in fact the case, you should definitely not read this book. For myself I am not only willing to entertain the idea, I actually embrace it, particularly when it comes to the importance of fathers. 

Beyond that the book says that men need three things:

  1. A battle to fight
  2. An adventure to live
  3. A beauty to rescue

Toss in a strong dose of Christianity, and that’s pretty much the whole book. I imagine most people are either going to love it or hate it.

Criticisms

As you may or may not have gathered, I’m fairly Christian myself, though of a different denomination (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints vs. evangelical) than the author, and despite that I came away feeling that the book may have benefitted from fewer overt references to theology and the devil, but some of that may be because of the differences between my theology and the author’s. 

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

The modern world is at war with masculinity, and that’s a bad thing.


A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

By: Nicholas Wade

288 pages

Format: Audio w/ physical book for reference

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you genuinely have an open mind, I think you would benefit from reading this book. 

Representative passage:

…On the basis of Pinker’s vast compilation of evidence, natural selection seems to have acted incessantly to soften the human temperament, from the earliest times until the most recent date for which there is meaningful data.

This is the conclusion that Pinker signals strongly to his readers. He notes that mice can be bread to be more aggressive in just five generations, evidence that the reverse process could occur just as speedily. He describes the human genes, such as the violence-promiting MAO-A mutation mentioned in chapter 3, that could easily be modulated so as to reduce aggressiveness. He mentions that violence is quite heritable, on the evidence from studies of twins, and so must have a genetic basis. He states that “nothing rules out the possibility that human populations have undergone some degree of biological evolution in recent millennia, or even centuries, long after races, ethnic groups, and nations diverged.”

But at the last moment, Pinker veers away from the conclusion… since many other traits have evolved more recently than that, why should human behavior be any exception? Well, says Pinker, it would be terribly inconvenient politically if this were so… 

Thoughts

This is one of those books that you can get in trouble for reading, and definitely get in trouble for writing. (Just ask Charles Murray.) Accordingly, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. Briefly, this is one of those books that posits a genetic component to racial differences in intelligence. It’s a book that is very critical of the idea that race is a social construct. Beyond that Wade goes even farther to theorize that much of culture is genetically based. Which is not that crazy of an idea if you also accept his assertion that evolution has been recent, copious and regional. But this leads to the distressing conclusion (among many distressing conclusions) that it’s possible that some ethnic groups may be genetically better at things like democracy and the rule of law than other ethnic groups. In just a few sentences I’ve assembled a whole bucket of fairly incendiary claims, so I’ll leave it at that.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms of this book, I’m glad it was written. It was, perhaps, a little dry, but also it’s yet one more work, where I felt it actually could have benefited from being longer, particularly given how controversial the subject is. But for those inclined to criticize it, I doubt even a thousand more pages would make much of a difference.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Evolution has been recent, copious and regional. Also race is real.


The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs

By: Ryan Holiday

224 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for an introduction to Stoicism, you could do a lot worse. 

If you believe in the power of books to change your attitude and you need a better attitude, this book might do exactly that.

Representative passage:

Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph?

Thoughts

From where I stand these days stoicism seems to be very much back in vogue, and Ryan Holiday has managed to maneuver himself into a position of being its chief evangelist. There’s a reason for this, he writes very compellingly on the subject. Also, while I imagine that Holiday, himself, might recommend going to the original sources first, like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Holiday is probably nearly as effective, and a whole lot more accessible. 

Criticisms

All of the above aside, you get the feeling that most of the things Holiday talks about have been well known for quite a while, and appeared in a lot of past self-help books. I think you’d be hard pressed to find something Holiday talks about which wasn’t also touched on in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It just wasn’t specifically labeled as stoicism. All of which is to say that I think what’s going through a surge in popularity is the stoic label, but that stoic philosophy has never really been out of fashion. And that most of the stuff Holiday advocates is less revolutionary than people might think.

Also while the numerous anecdotes are nice, and a good way of imparting principles, I think the book leaned a little too much on the anecdotes, and could have done more to illustrate how someone today would apply stoic principles. I’m a big advocate of the position that ancient philosophy is still useful, but it may not always be immediately apparent how to make use of it in a modern context.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Life is full of difficulties and we can only learn how to overcome those difficulties if we confront them and master them. Avoiding difficulties is the worst way to solve them.


Having tried this experiment for a few months I think going forward I’ll just review some of the books I read each month, rather than trying to review all of them. Also I may play with the formatting as well. If you disagree with this decision, let me know, And if you really disagree with the decision consider donating.


Leaving the Earth: 50 Years After Apollo

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Knowing that the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing was this month, I felt a strong compulsion to say something about it, but what exactly? There is definitely no shortage of commentary related to the occasion. Obviously the most interesting part of the anniversary is the fact that we haven’t been back since the end of the Apollo Program, nearly 47 years ago. Perhaps I should wait and say something when the 50th anniversary of the last man on the moon rolls around. (Does anyone think we’ll make it back before then?) But I’m definitely not the only one to have noticed this distressing fact, most of the commentary surrounding the anniversary mentions the fact that we haven’t been back. What can I say on this occasion that would be unique?

I do think there’s something interesting to be said about the connection between space travel and human salvation, but I’ve already covered that connection and however unique that observation is, I don’t want to just rehash what I’ve said previously. So what can I bring to the table that isn’t being served in dozens of different locations by hundreds of other commenters? Well, as I survey the commentary I think there’s a definite dearth of extrapolations. Sure, humans will probably make it back to the moon. (I assume that if no one else gets around to it China will, at least, if only for reasons of national prestige.) But if we extrapolate things out and look at the trends, when are we likely to be there permanently, and what about Mars? And, perhaps most important of all, if current trends continue when would humans actually leave the solar system? Obviously this exercise will produce only the crudest of numbers, but I expect that whatever comes out will be pretty depressing even if I end up off by a factor of 2 or more.

To start, though, for those who never read or can’t recall my post on the connection between space travel and salvation, and who don’t have the time or inclination to go back and read it, I should briefly explain my point, which is: If you want to ensure that humanity continues for as long as possible, and you don’t believe there’s any external force capable of helping with that (religion, aliens, vaguer forms of spirituality, etc.) then, ultimately, this is going to require getting off the planet in a sustainable and ongoing fashion. In that post, I further pointed out that most of the large scale goals we’re pursuing at any given moment have very little to do with this endeavor and in fact work against achieving it, if for no other reason than opportunity cost. 

It’s upon considering this last point that branching off into an extrapolation of trends starts to look like an important next step. Yes, occasionally when a technology becomes available, things can change dramatically, and trends before this change become meaningless, a great example of this is the internet. But in the case of space travel we’ve had all the relevant technology for at least 50 years (and yes, I’m aware of the EMDrive) but yet so far there’s been no dramatic upward spike in space travel, particularly if we view the Apollo Program as an outlier (as I am inclined to do, see my post about S-Curves). Accordingly if our salvation depends on getting off the planet, and we have 50 or more years of data on the rate at which that’s actually happening, and every expectation that this rate is unlikely to change very much, then, it would definitely appear to be worthwhile to extrapolate out these rates and see where they get us. 

None of this is to say that the rate of space exploration and colonization isn’t increasing in an exponential fashion. In fact, for all of my trend extrapolation, I’m going to assume that there’s some underlying law along the lines of Moore’s Law, where a given quantity doubles every X years. Meaning that we merely have to decide what a reasonable rate of doubling would be, using the last 50 years worth of data. I’m not actually saying that there is a parallel to Moore’s Law when talking about space, I’m more saying that there had better be, because the distances from one destination to the next are already exponential. Meaning that we’d better hope things are growing exponentially because otherwise space colonization is definitely doomed. Also something that doubles every two years is going to already assume significant ongoing technological advancements. Meaning that if you do think something like fusion or the EMDrive is going to come along and drastically change things, those advances are probably already built in to the model

For our first example, let’s start off by making the hugely optimistic assumption that the current trend is for the distance humans are capable of travelling to and returning from to double every 10 years. And if we then take 1970 and travelling to the Moon as our starting point, we wouldn’t make it to Mars until sometime in the 2040s, Jupiter would be about 2075, Neptune around 2100 and Alpha Centauri would not be reached until the year 2230. And If we, instead, made the more reasonable, but still fairly optimistic assumption that the distance only doubled every 15 years, then we’d get to Mars around 2075, Jupiter would slot in at  2120, Neptune would be 2180 and Alpha Centauri wouldn’t be until sometime around the year 2360…

That last one may not seem especially optimistic, but recall if we’ve decided that space travel is important for our long term salvation it’s not enough to get there once. Surely some nation can massively divert resources for a single moonshot, which is what the word came to mean, and possibly put people on Mars a half dozen times and bring them back, but in order for it to assist with our salvation we have to be able to do it on an ongoing, perpetual basis. And, of course, not only is all of the above optimistic, but based on a single data point: putting a man on the Moon. Not only have we not gotten any farther than that, we haven’t even been able to do it on the ongoing and perpetual basis I’m talking about. But before we leave this example, let’s conduct the exercise one more time, and assume that, as he has predicted, Elon Musk manages to put someone on Mars in 2024 (and by the way here we would appear to be in the realm of the insanely optimistic). This would finally give us a second data point and putting that into the crude model I’m using it would mean a doubling approximately every 7.5 years. Which gets us to Jupiter in 2045, Neptune in 2075 and Alpha Centauri in the year 2165. Not bad, but still a lot slower than most people imagined 50 years ago, and here we touch on one of the problems.

In many respects we’re living in a science fiction world more incredible than anything anyone imagined in 1969, and in other respects, particularly when one looks at space travel, someone reading Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov would be profoundly depressed by how little progress we’ve made. And yet the idea that any day now things will change and suddenly we will be living in that world is hard to shake. Certainly there could always be some dramatic new invention that would change whatever curve we’re currently on, but at the moment there’s good reason to think that, absent some massive space exploration/colonization inflection point in our future, the current rate of plodding along isn’t going to get us anywhere very fast. Now it may be that it doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as we get there eventually, but a lot can happen between now and even 2024, to say nothing of 2040, 2075 or 2360. Recall that there’s good black swans and bad black swans, and while the former may be exactly the positive inflection point we were hoping for, there are a lot more things which could happen that would make this whole project much more difficult rather than less.

Moving on, what other trends are there that we can extrapolate? Above I talked about something being continuous, and we have had continuous human presence in low earth orbit (with occasional gaps) since 1973 when Skylab was launched and occupied. All of this has occurred at around 250 miles from the surface, but I’ll be generous and round up to 300. With this as our new starting point we can once again imagine this distance doubling every so many years, only this time it gives us the distance from Earth where humans will be able to sustain a continuous presence. If we once again start with, what I feel, is an incredibly optimistic doubling time of 10 years, we will have a continuous human presence on Mars in 2140, Jupiter (or one of its moons) in 2175 and a continuous presence at Alpha Centauri around the year 2300. If we instead assume a more realistic trend of doubling every 15 years, then Mars is 2225, Jupiter is 2280 and Alpha Centauri is not until the year 2500. 

Now I understand that certain things might get easier, for example just getting out of the gravity well of the Earth is a major hurdle, and perhaps we should take that into account, but when you’re talking about a continuous presence, I would argue that getting out of the Earth’s gravity well, is perhaps the least of your worries. Also recall that to a certain extent productivity gains are built into the model of exponential growth we’re already using. Finally, these extrapolations are not meant to be especially precise, but rather to illustrate that even using some fairly generous assumptions space colonization is going to be a lot harder than I think most people realize. Particularly given how spectacularly unimpressive our manned efforts have been since the end of Apollo. But, perhaps that’s where I’m going astray, by so far only focusing on manned efforts. 

Unmanned exploration really is the easiest way to explore space. And while unmanned probes do not directly accomplish that “salvation of humanity” I keep coming back to, they are at least a reasonable potential stepping stone along the path to that. With that in mind, what kind of Moore’s Law might we extract if we turned our focus to unmanned exploration? Here, at least, we have multiple data points, one for each celestial body, and if you graph it, it looks like a pretty nice exponential curve:

 

There are a couple of things to note about this data. First given that Uranus and Neptune were both first visited by Voyager 2, I’m not sure if Neptune should count as a separate milestone from Uranus (or perhaps it’s the other way around). Also you’ll notice that I didn’t include Pluto, if I did you’d see that nice exponential curve flatten out into something that looks a lot more like a plateau, since, at the time New Horizons visited it, Pluto wasn’t that much farther out than Neptune and we didn’t get to it until 2015. 

Mapping this to our simple model of deciding on a doubling rate is messier with actual data, but after fiddling with it a little bit it looks like seven years fits fairly well. Taking that and anchoring it around Voyager 2, I came up with an arrival time for the first probe to Alpha Centauri of around 2110. Which is almost exactly NASA’s current estimate of a 2113 arrival for the probe they plan to launch in 2069. (You’ll have to take it on faith that I came up with my number before I found the number from NASA). These estimates might be pessimistic, given that Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire, is proposing to launch a probe by 2036, which might arrive as early as 2056. But when you get into the details of that proposal there’s reason to question whether it should necessarily be placed in the same category with all of the other probes. The probe proposed by Milner’s team weighs only a few grams and would enter the Alpha Centauri system at 20% the speed of light. Which means the probing part is going to end up being some infinitesimal fraction of the entire trip.

Of all these trends, the trend in unmanned probes is the only one that seems a little bit promising, and even there, it’s going to take quite a while to get anywhere we haven’t already been. 

Fifty years ago everything seemed so promising. What happened? What happened to the science fiction dreams I grew up on? Instead the best way to describe space exploration over the last 50 years, is vaguely depressing with occasional all to brief glimpses of triumph here and there. And perhaps even worse than that, there is no sign that the future is going to be any better. Instead most of our energy seems focused inward, and the Great Silence of the universe becomes less and less paradoxical.

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


Space: the final frontier. These are the writings of a slightly unhinged blogger. His five-year mission: to explore strange new topics. To seek out new controversies and new weirdness. To boldly go where no man should ever go period! If you’d like to help with this mission consider donating.


Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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A few posts ago I talked about memetic evolution. As a result of this post one of my readers, Mark, and I had an in depth discussion about what mechanism, exactly, I was trying to describe and whether there really is such a thing as memetic evolution. Mark is a scientist specializing in oncology research (he also has a blog, which you should check out) and he pointed out that evolution is exceptionally complicated and that many people use the term to describe lots of things that aren’t actually evolution by natural selection. Particularly when they’re trying to use it by way of analogy which I was. As part of our discussion a lot of things were clarified for me, and I think I’ve tightened up the analogy and hopefully gotten rid of most of the issues Mark pointed out. This post is about sharing the additional insights which came out of that discussion.

I.

Mark was, of course, correct, there are in fact lots of pitfalls involved in the discussion of evolution and selection, and even if you manage to avoid making any big mistakes there are still numerous specifics that can trip you up as well. For example, most people don’t realize that there are two competing theories regarding the rate at which evolution occurs. And the difference between these two theories turns out to be very important. Not only in general but also for the point I want to make.

The first theory, and the one initially put forward by Darwin, is phyletic gradualism. Under this theory the creation of new species happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly as small changes accumulate over tens of thousands of years. Because of how gradual this process is, you might not end up with a clear line where you can say that one species has changed into another, and, insofar as a layman thinks about evolution with any rigor, they probably envision it working something like this.

The second theory, which was proposed only in 1972, by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, is called punctuated equilibrium. This theory holds that species appear fairly suddenly in response to some rare and geologically rapid event (the punctuation) and that once a species appears that it ends up being relatively stable (the equilibrium). To reiterate, I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that this theory has the most support among scientists, particularly when you’re talking about the big evolutionary events, like speciation. To be clear both kinds of evolution, gradual and punctuated, appear to be taking place, but the latter is more impactful, and more important, particularly when the survival of a given species is really in question.

Having, hopefully, grounded our understanding and discussion of evolution on a somewhat firmer footing, we are still left with the question of how much of that understanding and discussion maps cleanly to the topic of cultural evolution, and beyond that to the more speculative topic of memetic evolution. For instance, insofar as cultural evolution is adaptive, is this adaptation gradual? Or does it operate more along the lines of the punctuated equilibrium model? I’m not entirely sure what would count as hard data when considering these questions, but at the level of anecdote, I’m inclined to believe that the situation is similar to genetic evolution, both forms occur, but that the cultural selection which occurs gradually ends up being less impactful than cultural selection which happens at times of rapid change and extreme crisis.

As I said this is mostly at the level of anecdote, but consider the example of Germany. It’s hard to argue that Germany didn’t have a long martial tradition, starting with their first appearance in the records of the Roman Empire and continuing down through the centuries to the two World Wars. Would you say they still have that culture today? I think most people would agree that they don’t, and that it all changed during the extreme crisis at the end of World War II. Sure there have been many gradual changes to German culture over the years, but the fact that there’s also numerous long-standing stereotypes about Germans would seem to indicate that a relatively stable equilibrium existed as well. From where I sit, this example has all the elements you’d expect if cultural evolution also happened according to the punctuated equilibrium model.  

Another example would be the creation of the United States of America. Evolution through natural selection concerns itself with the creation of new species. The parallel in cultural evolution would be the creation of a new culture or nation, and this is an example of exactly that. And, once again, it happened over the course of a few years where things were rapidly changing under crisis conditions. Additionally what resulted was not some incremental change in English culture (though there are obvious connections) but an entirely new culture forged in the fires of the Revolutionary War and the many debates over governments and rights

The more I consider the question the more I am convinced that there are numerous examples of punctuated equilibrium with respect to cultural evolution. I suspect all of the examples of nations in crisis given by Jared Diamond in his recent book Upheaval (see my review), would end up being examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of cultural evolution as well. And of course these are successful “mutations”, if cultural evolution is anything like biological evolution most mutations are going to end in failure. Is that perhaps the best way of describing communism and fascism?

Obviously not all cultural changes are so large, as I said, I’m sure that things also change gradually, but we would appear to have less to fear from those changes. Sure the vast majority will fail just like all “mutations”, but that failure should be much easier to recover from. Much less disastrous than the analogous “speciation” of adopting something like communism.

II.

If you’ve followed me this far and you accept (even if only for the sake of argument) that punctuated equilibrium applies not only to biological evolution, but to cultural evolution as well, then we’re finally ready to revisit memetic evolution, though right off the bat I’m going to dump the word “evolution”. One of Mark’s bigger contributions in the discussion we ended up having was to point out that once we’ve reached this point that things have been stretched so far that using the term evolution conceals more than it reveals, particularly if we’re more interested in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. So we need a new term, but before we get to that what exactly are we talking about? And, in what sense are we talking about something separate and interesting?  

When considering the punctuated equilibrium model most of the attention ends up on the punctuation part, but what’s happening during the equilibrium part? Here I’m going to quote liberally from Mark:

[The punctuated equilibrium model] posits [that] major selection events might be somewhat uncommon.  As such, we would expect to see accumulations of multiple different mutations, all present in a species’ gene pool simultaneously.  The longer the period of time free of selection, the greater the potential for diverse new mutations within the species. Since anything directly lethal is going to weed itself out fairly quickly, this enriches for potentially-beneficial mutations.  With all these mutations lying around, it’s possible for individuals to even have two or more traits that might not be adaptive on their own but that function very well together. This period of stability can be thought of as ‘good’ in that is allows for much greater variability to enter the population.

Along comes the selection event – the filter, removing anything that can’t pass through a particular challenge – and most of that diversity disappears.  However, since the population experienced a long period of growth and mutation without being subject to a filter, it’s possible that the adaptation that made it through the filter is more complex – is a bigger change – than the kind of single-mutation adaptation you would see from a series of rapid filters.  Populations that instead pass through serial filtering events will only be able to select based on single-mutation traits.

….We expect to have multiple possible pro-adaptive traits at any given time, waiting to pass through the next, unexpected, filter and join future generations.  Thus, memetic evolution is simply a sub-process of cultural evolution. It would be as meaningless to speak of it in isolation as it would be to talk about accumulating mutations prior to selection events (filters) when speaking of biological evolution.

…Memetic ‘evolution’ is simply another name for cultural evolution prior to selecting events. 

Some of this is obviously speculative, but on the whole Mark’s comments were fantastic, and really helped me to understand something that had previously eluded me, and I agree with everything he said, with one exception… I don’t think it’s “meaningless to speak of it in isolation”. I think “it” is very important to talk about. What is “it”? What is this thing that’s worth discussing, but which is not evolution? I’m going to call it “memetic accumulation”. 

III.

For most of history the rate of accumulation for genetic mutations has probably been fairly static. I assume that during periods of greater radiation (if any) that it might have increased, or perhaps the greater the variety of life the greater the space for mutations to occur and perhaps there are other factors as well, but I don’t see any evidence that there were periods where it was significantly faster or slower. There is the Cambrian Explosion, but remember we’re talking about the rate of accumulation, not the rate of evolution or of speciation, and while it was an “explosion” for many things, I don’t think it was an explosion in the accumulation of mutations. In other words I think the rate of mutation accumulation with natural evolution has been pretty constant. 

Even when humans entered the scene and started the selective breeding of domesticated animals, this didn’t change the mutation rate, even for the animals in question. (CRISPR, however may be another matter.) We just introduced a lot more filters and selection events. So, if mutations are relatively constant in natural evolution, what about cultural evolution? Has that rate also been constant? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this, more than anything else, is why it’s worth discussing. I suppose, given the fact that humans can introduce new ideas, new potential memes into the space of culture whenever they feel like it, that there are a great many things which could affect the speed at which memetic accumulation occurs. But certainly technology and progress has to have a large impact on that speed, and almost exclusively in the direction of speeding it up. In fact, “something which speeds up the rate of memetic accumulation” is not a half bad definition of progress. But beyond that, might technology and progress have any other effect than generating ideas quickly?

With the advent of global communication and social media, we are moving ever more rapidly in the direction of creating a single ecosystem for ideas, and I don’t think we’ve fully come to terms with what that means or how it will play out. Certainly ideas propagate faster, and I would also say we end up with a handful of “apex ideas” similar to the idea of an apex predator. Which is to say that we’re in a space where a memetically fit idea is able to very quickly outcompete all the other ideas among people susceptible to that idea. (Notice the increase in the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.) Leading to a stratification at the level of ideas rather than at the level of a community or nation. Basically, social media and global communication have allowed invasive species/ideas to go everywhere.

On top of all this there’s one final thing which needs to be pointed out, humans are more removed from issues of actual survival than ever before. Toss all of this together and we have rapid memetic generation, but which results in a relatively barren collection of a few dominant memes/ideologies, none of which are likely to have anything to do with actual survival. Now I’m aware that this is something of an oversimplification, culture is still complex and varied, and people still worry about survival, but we have nevertheless lost an awful lot of both those qualities.

Finally, if I’ve convinced you that memetic accumulation is speeding up, then even if you disagree with me about everything else, you might at least want to examine what the potential consequences of that are with respect to cultural evolution.

IV.

Having examined what the modern state of memetic accumulation is within the equilibrium part of the model, what does all of this mean for the eventual “punctuation”? How does our rapid, barren and superficial method of memetic accumulation play out when we actually run into a selection event? Into rapidly changing crisis conditions? Well that’s hard to say, though none of those elements would appear to be positive.

Just by itself, the rapid part isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps if culture is moving rapidly, then, by the time the eventual crisis rolls around, we will be in some location uniquely well suited for surviving that crisis, a location we would not have reached had we not been moving so quickly. And certainly if there were a bunch of cultures all speeding off towards their own unique locations we might have some expectation that at least one of these locations would be exactly the spot they should be in, but this is where the lack of variety comes into play, we’re not all choosing different locations where we can survive the potential crisis, we seem to all be journeying as quickly as we can towards a small handful of locations, and the rapid bit means if it’s not the right place we will have gone an awfully long distance in the wrong direction. Furthermore, what do these locations look like? If we were really concerned about survival, they would hopefully be strongholds, but if we don’t factor in survival I would think they’re more likely to end up looking like expensive penthouses. Dwellings which look really nice and are great for entertaining, but also the last location you’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse starts. There’s obviously still a lot of variety in these dwellings, but can anyone honestly tell me we’re not building a lot more penthouses than strongholds these days?

There also seems to be significant effort being spent on getting people to abandon locations which proved to be strongholds in the past. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, there are essentially three ways to choose a “location” we can choose them randomly, which is essentially what natural evolution is doing. We can choose one based on whether it sounds good or not, but in this sense, as I already pointed out, we’re probably not choosing a stronghold so much as a nice place to live. Or we can choose one based on what’s worked in the past. Any option where we choose is going to be better than random (one would hope) but it’s not clear to me that “sounds good” is definitely better than “worked in the past” (in fact, I strongly suspect it’s worse) and in any event it’s probably best to have cultures in both types of locations.

To be clear, we don’t know which location will best withstand the eventual crisis, because we don’t know what that crisis will look like, but you could certainly see how changing the way in which memetic accumulation happens could change the likelihood of being in the right location. And I hope we can agree on this, even if you don’t agree with me on exactly how memetic accumulation has changed

But beyond all this, there’s probably more bad news, particularly if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention, that in addition to changing to speed of memetic accumulation, that progress and technology has also changed the nature of potential crises as well. That we have made them less frequent, but in the process we’ve also made them larger. As a real world example, lots of people feel that there is no safe location (both figuratively and literally) if the crisis ends up being full scale nuclear war or runaway climate change (I disagree, but I’ve already covered that in past posts). Both crises that have only been made possible recently.

I will freely admit that I’ve followed a long chain of assumptions to get to this point, but strip all that away and I would contend that the two initial ideas, 1) that cultural evolution also follows a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, and 2) that technology and progress can change the rate at which cultural mutations/memes accumulate, are both pretty solid. And both of those together should be enough to introduce serious uncertainty into any claims that conditions are following some long-term, unstoppable, positive trend.

A couple of final things to think about, which I leave as an exercise for the reader:

Are we at a point of “punctuation” right now? If so how’s it looking?

Could memetic accumulation get so out of whack that it actually causes the crisis?


With this post I’ve gone a long way down a pretty obscure road. It you like that sort of thing consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing you should also consider donating, but I think it will make less of a difference.


Worrying Too Much About the Last Thing and Not Enough About the Next Thing

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

Or download the MP3


As I mentioned in my last post one of the books I read last month was Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory, by Michael Korda which covers the beginnings of World War II from the surrender of the Sudetenland up through the retreat from Dunkirk. As I mentioned one of the things that struck me the most from reading the book was the assertion that before the war France had a reputation as the “world’s preeminent military power”. And that in large part the disaster which befell the allies was due to a severe underestimation of German military might (after all, hadn’t they lost the last war?) and a severe overestimation of the opposing might of the French. 

As someone who knows how that all turned out (France defeated in a stunning six weeks) the idea that pre-World War II France might ever have been considered the “world’s preeminent military power” seems ridiculous, and yet according to Korda that was precisely what most people thought. It’s difficult to ignore how it all turned out, but if you attempt it, you might be able to see where that reputation might have developed. Not only had they grimly held on for over four years in some of the worst combat conditions ever, and, as I said, eventually triumphed. But apparently the genius and success of Napoleon lingered on as well, even at a remove of 130 years.

Because of this reputation, at various points both the British and the Germans, though on opposite sides of things, made significant strategic decisions based on the French’s perceived martial prowess. The biggest effect of these decisions was wasting resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. In the British case they kept sending over more and more planes, convinced that, just as in World War I, the French line would eventually hold if they just had a little more help. This almost ended in disaster since, later, during the Battle of Britain, they needed every plane they could get their hands on. On the German side, and this is more speculative, it certainly seems possible that the ease with which the Germans defeated the French contributed to the disastrous decision to invade Russia. Particularly if the French had the better reputation militarily, which seems to have been the case. Closer to the events of the book, the Germans certainly prioritized dealing with the French over crushing the remnants of the British forces that were trapped at Dunkirk. Who knows how things would have gone had they reversed those priorities.

This shouldn’t be surprising, people frequently end up fighting the last war, and in fact the exact period the book describes contains one of the best examples of that, the Maginot Line. World War I had been a war of static defense, World War II, or at least the Battle of France, was all about mobility. Regular readers may remember that I recently mentioned that the Maginot line kind of got a bad rap, and indeed it does, and in particular I don’t think that it should be used as an example for why walls have never worked. But all of this is another example of the more general principle I want to illustrate. People’s attitudes are shaped by examples they can easily call to mind, rather than by considering all possibilities. And in particular people are bad at accounting for the fact that if something just happened, it’s possible that it is in fact the thing least likely to happen again. The name for this, is Availability Bias or the Availability Heuristic, and it was first uncovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Wikipedia explains it thusly:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, “if you can think of it, it must be important.” The availability of consequences associated with an action is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of the consequences of that action. In other words, the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater we perceive these consequences to be. Sometimes, this heuristic is beneficial, but the frequencies at which events come to mind are usually not accurate reflections of the probabilities of such events in real life.

As I was reading Alone, and mulling over the idea of France as the “world’s preeminent military power”, and realizing that it represented something of an availability bias, it also occurred to me that we might be doing something similar when it comes to ideology, in particular the ideologies we’re worried about. From where I sit there’s a lot of worry about nazis, and fascists more broadly. And to be fair I’m sure there are nazis out there, and their ideology is pretty repugnant, but how much of our worry is based on the horrors inflicted by the Nazis in World War II and how much of our worry is based on the power and influence they actually possess right now? In other words, how much of it is based on the reputation they built up in the past, and how much is based on 2019 reality? My argument would be that it’s far more the former than the latter.

In making this argument, I don’t imagine it’s going to take much to convince anyone reading this that the Nazis were uniquely horrible. And that further whatever reputation they have is deserved. But all of this should be a point in favor of my position. Yes they were scary, no one is arguing with that, but it doesn’t naturally follow that they are scary now. To begin with, we generally implement the best safeguards against terrifying things which have happened recently. Is there any reason to suspect that we haven’t done that with fascism? It’s hard to imagine how we could have more thoroughly crushed the countries from which it sprang. But, you may counter, “We’re not worried about Germany and Japan! We’re worried about fascists and nazis here!” Well allow me to borrow a couple of points from a previous post, where I also touched on this issue.

-Looking at the sub-reddits most associated with the far right the number of subscribers to the biggest (r/The_Donald) is 538,762 while r/aww a subreddit dedicated to cute animals sits at 16,360,969

-If we look at the two biggest far-right rallies, Charlottesville and a rally shortly after that, in Boston. The number of demonstrators was always completely overwhelmed by the number of counter demonstrators. The Charlottesville rally was answered by 130 counter rallies held all over the nation the very next day. And the Boston free speech rally had 25 “far right demonstrators in attendance” as compared to 40,000 counter-protestors.

Neither of these statistics makes it seem like we’re on the verge of tipping over into fascism anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’m guessing there are people who are going to continue to object, pointing out that whatever else you want to say about disparity and protests or historical fascism. Donald Trump got elected!

I agree this is a big data point, 62,984,828 people did vote for Trump, and whatever the numbers might be for Charlottesville and Boston, 63 million people is not a number we can ignore. Clearly Trump has a lot of support. But I think anyone who makes this point is skipping over one very critical question. Is Trump a nazi? Or a fascist? Or a white supremacist? Or even a white nationalist? I don’t think he is. And I think to whatever extent people apply those labels to him or his supporters they’re doing it precisely for the reason I just mentioned. All of those groups were recently very powerful and very scary. They are not doing it because those terms reflect the reality of 2019. They use those labels because they’re maximally impactful, not because they’re maximally accurate. 

Lots of people have pointed out that Trump isn’t Hitler and that the US is unlikely to descend into Facsism anytime soon (here’s Tyler Cowen making that argument.) Though fewer than you might think (which, once again, supports my point). But I’d like to point out five reasons for why it’s very unlikely which probably don’t get as much press as they should.

  1. Any path to long standing power requires some kind of unassailable base. In most cases this ends up being the military. What evidence is there that Trump is popular enough there (or really anywhere) to pull off some sort of fascist coup?
  2. As our prime example it’s useful to look at all the places that supported Hitler. In particular people don’t realize that he had huge support in academia. I think it’s fair to say that the exact opposite situation exists now.
  3. People look at Nazi Germany somewhat in isolation. You can’t understand Nazi Germany without understanding how bad things got in the Weimar Republic. No similar situation exists in America.
  4. Even though it probably goes without saying I haven’t seen very many people mentioning the fact that Trump isn’t anywhere close to being as effective a leader as Hitler was. In particular look at Trump’s lieutenants vs. Hitlers.
  5. Finally feet on the ground matter. The fact that there were 25 people on one side (the side people are worried about) and 40,000 on the other does matter. 

I’d like to expand on this last point a little bit. Recently over on Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander put forth the idea that LGBT rights represents the most visible manifestation of a new civic religion. That over the last few years the country has started replacing the old civic religion of reverence for the founders and the constitution with a new one reverencing the pursuit of social justice. He made this point mostly through the methodology of comparing the old “rite” of the 4th of July parade, with the new “rite” of the Gay Pride Parade. There’s a lot to be said about that comparison, most of which I’ll leave for another time, but this does bring up one question which is very germane to our current discussion: under what standard are the two examples Alexander offers up civic religions but not Nazism? I don’t think there is one, in fact I think Nazism was clearly a civic religion. To go farther is there anyone who has taken power, particularly through revolution or coup, without being able to draw on a religion of some sort, civic or otherwise? What civic religion would Trump draw on if he was going to bring fascism to the United States? I understand that an argument could be made that Trump took advantage of the old civic religion of patriotism in order to be elected, but it’s hard to see how he would go on to repurpose that same religion to underpin a descent into fascism, especially given how resilient this religion has been in the past to that exact threat.

Additionally, if any major change is going to require the backing of a civic religion why would we worry about patriotism which has been around for a long time without any noticeable fascist proclivities, and is, in any case, starting to lose much of its appeal, when there’s a bold and vibrant new civic religion with most of the points I mentioned above on it’s side. Let’s go through them again:

  1. An unassailable base: No, social justice warriors, despite the warrior part, do not have control over the military, but they’ve got a pretty rabid base, and as I’ve argued before, the courts are largely on their side as well.
  2. Broad support: It’s hard to imagine how academia could be more supportive. In fact it’s hard to find any place that’s not supportive. Certainly corporations have aligned themselves solidly on the side of social justice.
  3. Drawing strength from earlier set-backs and tragedy: Hitler was undoing the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles and the weakness of the Weimar Republic. Whatever you think about the grievances of poor white Trump supporters there are nothing compared to the (perceived) wrongs of those clamoring for social justice. 
  4. Effective leadership: This may in fact be the only thing holding them back, but there’s a field of 24 candidates out there, some of whom seem pretty galvanizing. 
  5. Feet on the ground: See my point above about the 130 counter rallies. 

To be clear, I am not arguing that social justice is headed for a future with as much death and destruction as World War II era Nazis. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, perhaps it will be just as all of its proponents claim, the dawn of a never ending age of peace, harmony and prosperity. I sure hope so. That said we do have plenty of examples of ideologies which started out with the best of intentions but which ended up committing untold atrocities. Obviously communism is a great example, but you could also toss just about every revolution ever into that bucket as well. 

Where does all of this leave us? First it seems unlikely that nazis and fascists are very well positioned to cause the kind of large scale problems we should really be worried about. Also, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that our biases would push us towards overstating the danger, on top of that. Beyond all that there is a least one ideology which appears better positioned for a dramatic rise in power, meaning that if we’re just interested in taking precautions at a minimum we should add them to the list alongside the fascists. Which is to say that I’m not trying to talk you out of worrying about fascists, I’m trying to talk you into being more broad minded when you consider where dangers might emerge. 

Yes this is only one, and probably reflects my own biases, but there are certainly others as well. At the turn of the last century everyone was worried about anarchists. As well they might be in 1901 they managed to assassinate President Mckinley (what have the American fascists done that’s as bad as that?) And there are people who say that even today we should worry more about anarchism than fascism. Other people seem unduly fascinated with the dangers and evils of libertarianism (sample headline, Rise of the techno-Libertarians: The 5 most socially destructive aspects of Silicon Valley). If there is a weaker major political movement than the libertarians I’m not aware of it, but fine, add them to the list too. But above all, whatever your list is and how ever you make it, spend less time worrying about the last thing and more time worrying about the next thing.


I will say that out of all the things to worry about bloggers carry the least potential danger of anything. Though maybe if one of us had a bunch of money? If you want to see how dangerous I can actually get, consider donating.


Books I Finished in June of 2019 (With One Podcast Series)

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

Or download the MP3


Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (Reviewed earlier in separate post.)


Then It Fell Apart

By: Moby

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you read Moby’s previous autobiography Porcelain and enjoyed it, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

If you have not read Porcelain, I would definitely recommend reading it first. It’s a better book and chronologically it comes first. 

Representative passage:

After the show I drank champagne and vodka in my dressing room with Ewan McGregor. After a few drinks I decided that he and I should go out and drink more, but that I should be naked. Sandy, my tour manager, urged me, “Moby, at least put on a towel.” So I went out in downtown Melbourne wearing a towel. No shoes. No clothes. Just a towel. Ewan and I stumbled from bar to bar, getting drunker and drunker. At the end of the night we ended up in a subterranean bar filled with Australian celebrities. I’d had ten or fifteen drinks, so I went to the bathroom to pee, and found myself standing at a urinal next to Russell Crowe. He zipped up his pants, and then pushed me against the wall of the bathroom and started screaming at me. “Uh, we’ve never met,” I tried to say. “Why are you yelling at me?” He never told me, but he kept me pinned against the wall while he shouted and screamed. After a minute he lost interest, cursed a few times, and stumbled out of the bathroom. I went back to the bar and told Ewan, “Russell Crowe just yelled at me.” 

“I wouldn’t worry about it. He yells at everyone.”

Criticisms

I read Porcelain last month, knowing that Then It Fell Apart was about to be released, and as you may or may not recall I quite enjoyed it. This book was not as good. And it was almost entirely due to the very depressing sameness of nearly every story. To set the scene, the last book ended just before the release of Play. Play ended up being a gigantic worldwide success, giving Moby all the money and fame anyone could possibly want, and of course, it wasn’t enough, and he spends the entire book desperately, suicidally unhappy. The book in fact opens with a suicide attempt.

He does just about every dumb thing you can imagine to try to fill the gaping, empty hole that is his soul, and everything he tries ends up being a disaster. The level of sex and drugs and alcohol in this book is beyond staggering, and it’s so obvious from the outside what he should stop doing, and equally so obvious what he should be doing instead. After hundreds of pages where he does neither, it starts to wear you down.

Lest you think the entire book is composed of these disasters, he does alternate stories of his debauchery with stories from his past. I enjoyed these parts more, though they were also mostly depressing.

Thoughts

This book was in the news above and beyond what might normally be expected because of Moby’s description of his relationship with Natalie Portman. Moby claimed they dated. Portman was in her teens at the time (18) and claims it was far more stalkerish. Moby profusely apologized and canceled his book tour. Having actually read the parts about Portman, and having read them before I saw that it had made the news I’m going to say that I feel like the whole thing was overblown. He didn’t claim he took her virginity, or something sensational like that. He claims he spent time with her (which appears to be the case), and certainly he characterized this time as dating, but I’m not even 100% sure he uses that actual word. The whole thing actually came across as very chaste. All of which is to say, I agree, Moby screwed up, but I think people made a lot more out of it than was really warranted.

There was one other incident from the book that struck me as particularly interesting. One of the reasons why he can’t get his life under control is that the merest hint of a romantic commitment causes him to experience intense panic attacks. This would be one thing if it had always been present, the source either genetic or buried in the mists of childhood, but as Moby tells it, it all started after a particularly bad LSD trip. As he describes it before then he had had several moderately successful long-term relationships, and was in fact involved in one that appeared headed for marriage at the time of the bad trip. In talking to people with more “domain experience” than me this seems either unbelievable or very uncommon, but it also seems like lots of drugs have a few rare but catastrophic side effects. Accordingly I’m not inclined to dismiss it out of hand, and if it did happen the way he describes, it’s pretty sad, since it’s entirely possible that without these panic attacks that he would have had a much easier time getting his life under control.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Even if you try really, really hard, money can’t buy you happiness. Particularly if you’re going to mistake hedonism for happiness.


Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel

By: Neal Stephenson

880 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B-

Who should read this book?

If you’ve liked everything else Stephenson has written you’ll probably like this, though it’s unlikely to be your favorite.

If you love mythology and devoured Bulfinch or something similar when you were a kid you’ll probably like the book.

Representative passage:

In the Garden lived a boy and a girl. Trees and flowers, herbs, vines, bees, birds, and beasts of various kinds lived there too. But there were no others like them. The Garden was circumscribed on three sides by a sheer wall of stone, and on the fourth side by the Palace. Above was sky, where clouds danced in the day and stars wheeled at night. Below was earth, where plants of many kinds spread their roots.

Special recognition of how horrible Stephenson is at writing sex scenes:

She took a step forward, leaving maybe a quarter of an inch clearance between her belly and the tip of his boxer-tented doodle. “It comes from thinking about mortality, right? Leads to a ‘life is short—let’s go’ mentality.”

He pulled her into him and mashed his doodle, bolt upright, against her stomach. She wrapped her arms around his neck for purchase and mashed back. They went on to perform sexual intercourse on the big pile of T-shirts on the rug.

Thoughts and criticisms free of spoilers

Stephenson is adept at creating rich, inviting worlds. Sometimes those worlds seem fairly realistic, the world of Fall is not one of them. I’m sure part of that is that Fall starts in the present day and then extends into the near future, making the problems of realism much easier to spot. This did bother me less than other people, (for example see Robin Hanson’s criticism) but it still detracted from the novel overall.

In previous Stephenson novels, my sense was that he was frequently going off on small tangents. Generally these were delightful. In his later works, particularly this one and Seveneves the tangents seem much longer, whole dramatic subplots that are aborted before they can really go anywhere interesting. Both Seveneves and Fall felt like they would have worked better as two separate books. And with Fall I could even see the argument for three.

Thoughts and criticisms with mild spoilers

Before reading Fall I saw several things saying that Stephenson tackles fake news and extremism on the internet, but that he doesn’t go nearly far enough. I think this says far more about the times we live in than about the book or Stephenson. My sense is that these days everyone wants all art to be a commentary on today’s problems, and what’s even more ideal is if it’s directly critical of Trump. That everything that has the potential to be a polemic should be a polemic. As I said in the last section I do think the extremism subplot felt tacked on, but I don’t think that’s what people are complaining about, I think they’re complaining that the identification of the righteous and the wicked needed to be clearer.

If the section on internet extremism is one book, than the other section is a book of modern mythology. The online consensus was to favor the section on extremism (even if it didn’t go far enough) over the mythology section. In my opinion that’s exactly backwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the mythology section, while the section on extremism was more bizarre than revelatory. 

In Stephenson’s last book, Seveneves, one of my greatest disappointments was that there was never a scene where someone unloaded on Julia Bliss Flaherty for how stupid she had been. In a remarkably similar fashion in Fall there’s a dramatic murder which then barely gets mentioned again, and where there’s never any reckoning. 

I didn’t get a strong sense of what the core philosophical differences were between Dodge and the main antagonist. Dodge was good seemingly merely by virtue of being the protagonist with the antagonist being the mirror image of that. 

Books I would read before this one:

I would read basically anything else by Stephenson before reading this. 


To Live and Die in LA (Podcast)

Hosted By: Neil Strauss

9 hours

Format: Podcast

Rating: B

Who should listen to this podcast?

If you really like blow-by-blow true crime stuff, this is a pretty good podcast.

If you want to see what goes on in a journalistic investigation this is a pretty good example of that.

Representative passage:

CHRIS SPOTZ: I’m not recording any more.

Adea: You’ve beat me

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: You have beat me up.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: Beaten me up, you toke my Rolex-

CHRIS SPOTZ: I have the video.

Adea: You took my Rolex. You took my Rolex. You beat me up. Everything hurts.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get outta my truck.

Adea: I’m not getting out ‘til I get my Rolex.

This very disturbing recording is of 25 year-old Adea Shabani, an aspiring actress who moved from Macedonia to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of becoming, as she put it, “A different kind of star.” But just three weeks before I’m recording this, Adea Shabani went missing. Vanished without a trace from outside her apartment on Hollywood Boulevard, right alongside the legendary Walk of Fame.

Thoughts

I wasn’t sure about including a podcast series in this list with everything else, but these days I think there are a lot of great podcast series out there which, when all is said and done, might as well be audiobooks. This was one of those series, and it was definitely well done. Certainly it had most of the things you’ve probably come to expect out of this format. The story was engaging and mysterious, the narrator was compelling, and the characters were all fascinating. 

In particular, while I don’t think this was their primary goal in telling the story, the process of actually getting to the truth, and the time and effort required was fascinating. Particularly since in the end the case didn’t end up being particularly complicated. Which seems like a better commentary on the present day than anything Stephenson may have written.

With that said, you may wonder why I gave it a B. Well…

Criticisms

They teased a lot of things in the beginning, which ended up not going anywhere, and which they exaggerated to boot in an obvious effort to make it sound like there were more twists than there actually ended up being.

By the time the podcast was over, the solution they arrive at feels pretty straightforward, and not particularly mysterious. All of which leads to this series being not quite as good as either of the first two seasons of Serial. 

If you were going to take only one thing from the podcast:

Even if you’re absolutely tenacious, with lots of time and resources, and even if the actual events are uncomplicated, it’s still really difficult to get at the truth.


Left For Dead: 30 Years On – The Race is Finally Over

By: Nick Ward and Sinead O’Brien

296 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you like man against nature stories of extreme survival than this is a great one. 

If you’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and sailing this is also a great book, but it might put off of ever going near either.

Representative passage:

The swell I had felt below in the cabin was escalating. Ceaseless seas like corrugated iron were stacked up behind us row upon row as if awaiting their turn. I picked one out. Choosing the most deformed monster from this cliff face of madness, I stared at it mad, enraged. I kept staring. I focused on this one huge moving mass, waiting for it. Grimalkin lifted sharply. The horizon was nearly vertical, but this time I made no effort to save myself. All instinct for survival had abandoned me. I stood in the cockpit with Gerry at my feet taunting the wave to get me. As the horizon disappeared I implored this malevolent beast to knock me out cold, kill me. “Come on you bastard! Come on!”

Thoughts

That’s always something magnificent about a great survival story, and when you combine that with sailing (which I’ve always had a soft spot for as well) you’re going to get a great book. This particular story took place during the 1979 Fastnet race. Fastnet is one of the classic offshore yacht races, but this particular edition of the race ended in disaster. From Wikipedia:

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaked havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race, resulting in 19 fatalities (15 yachtsmen and 4 spectators). Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were summoned to aid what became the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involved some 4,000 people including the entire Irish Naval Service‘s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, and helicopters.

Nick Ward was caught in the middle of it, and was the last person rescued. This book is his story, and it’s amazing.

Criticisms

I have only one criticism. A large part of the book is the question of why he was left on the boat by the other members of the crew. And while you get an answer it’s not as satisfactory as one would hope. Part of the book is the story of Ward, himself, finally coming to terms with the uncertainty that’s left, but I’m not there yet. (It took him many many years, I’ve only had a week or two.)

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

If you’re going through hell, keep going.


Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

By: Michael Korda

544 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you loved Nolan’s Dunkirk (or if you wanted to love it, but it was way too loud) and were looking for further information this would be a great book.

If you like history in general, then this is pretty good as history books go.

Representative passage:

In fact the most warlike decision that Chamberlain made—and the one that would have the most drastic effect on the war—was to invite Winston Churchill to join the War Cabinet, and also to serve once again, as he had from 1911 to 1915, as the first lord of the Admiralty (the civilian head of the Royal Navy, roughly equivalent to the American secretary of the navy). Chamberlain’s War Cabinet consisted of nine men, including the prime minister—probably too many, Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in World War One had only consisted of five—and placing Churchill in it was tantamount to putting a hawk in a cage full of doves.

Thoughts

I’ve read a fair amount of history, and getting it to flow well is always a problem. If you do find something that flows well, you often run into a different problem, the book isn’t comprehensive enough. Real history doesn’t come in neatly packaged narratives, there are lots of people doing lots of things all at the same time. Korda manages to do a pretty good job balancing both of these things, and ends up creating a very accessible book that nevertheless does a great job of capturing events at every level, from German strategy all the way down to how Dunkirk played out for an average family in London. Korda is assisted in this latter effort by having been a part of one of those families, even if he was only 7 at the time. 

Beyond that I definitely learned some new things about Dunkirk, particularly why the Germans were so ineffective at finishing things off there when they were so effective everywhere else. Probably the most surprising revelation was how well-regarded the French Military was, since these days it’s the exact opposite. But at the time the British thought that the French would launch some brilliant counter attack at any moment, and the Germans were sure that they would manage to hold the line at some point just as they had in World War I. This not only made the French the primary focus, but on top of that Hitler apparently still thought they might be able to strike a deal with Britain, which not only made the situation at Dunkirk less pressing, but may have inclined the Germans in the direction of avoiding a slaughter.

It’s unclear what would have needed to change for the British to have made a deal with Hitler. But clearly it would have been easier if Lord Halifax had been Prime Minister, and it does seem like that was avoided by the narrowest of margins. Something I had heard about but not in any detail. Korda did a great job of detailing not only this event but much of what was happening in British politics during the time of the invasion, and this may have been my favorite aspect of the book.

Criticisms

Korda mentions that during the invasion the mistresses of the French politicians exercised undue influence on them, and that if the British had been aware of how much influence they exercised that things might have turned out differently. I had never heard this and was eager to hear more, but he didn’t go into it nearly as much as detail as I would have liked on that aspect, which was unfortunate, since I would have loved to hear more. There were several examples like this, and it’s something of a minor complaint, obviously you can’t cover everything, but he shouldn’t have teased me like that.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

The mistakes made in war are at least as interesting and perhaps more interesting than the things that went according to plan.


How Will You Measure Your Life?

By: Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon

240 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you like other stuff by Clay Christensen, you’ll probably like this.

If you voraciously devour anything self-help related, this one should be on your list.

Representative passage:

To understand how all three work together, let’s continue the example of a child developing an iPad app. If your child has a computer on which to program, and knowledge of how to program an iPad app, he has resources. The way in which he pulls these resources together to create something novel, something that he hasn’t been taught explicitly how to do, to learn as he goes along—these are his processes. And the desire he has to spend his precious free time creating the app, the problem he cares about enough to create the app to solve, the idea of creating something unique, or the fact that he cares that his friends will be impressed—those are the priorities leading him to do it. Resources are what he uses to do it, processes are how he does it, and priorities are why he does it.

I worry a lot that many, many parents are doing to their children what Dell did to it’s personal-computing business—removing the circumstances in which they can develop processes.

Criticisms

Every self-help book has to have something of a special sauce. Something that makes that self-help book different than the thousands of self-help books which have come before, and I’m not sure this book has enough of that. First, I don’t think it has much to say what wasn’t said already and probably better in Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. So, if you haven’t already, I would read that book first. Second insofar as it does have a special sauce it’s kind of vague. Christensen and his co-authors take some lessons from how businesses succeed (or fail) and apply them to individuals and families. But beyond that there’s not much of a unifying theme, and maybe that’s fine. There is a lot of good stuff in there, but much of it wasn’t particularly actionable, and what things were actionable I’d already heard somewhere else. Which is to say after reading most self-help books I come away with at least one to-do item, something to look at more closely or a tactic I want to try out, but that was not the case with this book.

Thoughts

All those criticisms aside, for how short it was it packed a lot in, and on top of that these books are still clearly necessary. Despite the thousands of self-help books which have been published people still do a lot of dumb things, even if they should be very familiar with the principles of success. By way of illustration Christensen frames the book by talking about his own Harvard Business School (HBS) graduating class. One would think that if you have managed to do all the things necessary to get into HBS, that you’d have mastered most of the hard stuff. And certainly that you would have read lots of advice on how to succeed. Despite this Christensen discovers that many of these individuals, who seemed to have lives “destined to be fantastic on every level” show up at each successive reunion more and more unhappy. And this is if they show up at all, in the most extreme example, one of his classmates was Jeffrey Skilling who went to jail for his role in the Enron scandal

It is for people like Christensen’s fellow HBS graduates where this book probably works best. People who are doing great in business, but at the expense of marriages, families and other relationships. And, to be fair, that’s probably a pretty big group.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

It’s important to find meaning both at work and at home, and if you lose it in either that’s when the trouble starts.


Bloodchild and Other Stories

By: Octavia E. Butler

224 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you’re like me and you haven’t read anything by Octavia Butler then this seems like a decent place to start.

If you’re a fan of science fiction short stories as a form of art distinct from novels, these are some great examples.

Representative passage:

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I grew to be six feet tall. Boys in particular seemed to assume that I had done this growing deliberately and that I should be ridiculed for it as often as possible. 

I hid out in a big pink notebook—one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath.… There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.

Thoughts 

This book was recommended to me by one of my regular readers. I had been meaning to read some Butler for quite some time so this was a good excuse to jump in. As I said, it seems like a decent place to start, though Butler herself admits that her strengths lie more in novel writing than the short story. And I guess that means I should read some of her novels. If anyone has a recommendation on where to start let me know.

Considering things more generally, I liked the fact that this collection included a couple of essays as well. As you can probably tell I’m a fan of non-fiction essays, and I thought the ones in Bloodchild added to the experience. Speaking of non-fiction bits, Butler also did a brief afterword following each story which I appreciated. 

Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms, this is a solid collection of short stories, even if none of them rise to the level of being brilliant. I do, however, want to single out Butler’s final story, “The Book of Martha”. In this story a non-omniscient god (he/she got rid of that power because it made things too boring) asks Martha to make one change to the world that would help humans be less destructive. As a philosophical thought experiment it’s great, but neither Martha nor, seemingly, Butler treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Considered more broadly I don’t think this problem is limited to Butler, which is why this is only a minor quibble. Playing god is difficult.

Books I would read before this one:

I suppose if you have never read any science fiction short stories, then I’m not sure this is the place to start. There’s plenty of classic anthologies out there, and depending on the person, I might recommend starting with one of those to get a feel for the genre before reading this book.


As I just mentioned, one of the books I read was recommended by one of my readers. It’s actually pretty easy to get me to read a book, but if you really want to guarantee I’ll take you seriously, consider donating. I know it’s mercenary, but that’s kind of how the world works.