Tetlock, the Taliban, and Taleb

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I.

There have been many essays written in the aftermath of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. One of the more interesting was penned by Richard Hanania, and titled “Tetlock and the Taliban”. Everyone reading this has heard of the Taliban, but there might be a few of you who are unfamiliar with Tetlock. And even if that name rings a bell you might not be clear on what his relation is to the Taliban. Hanania himself apologizes to Tetlock for the association, but “couldn’t resist the alliteration”, which is understandable. Neither could I. 

Tetlock is known for a lot of things, but he got his start by pointing out that “experts” often weren’t. To borrow from Hanania:

Phil Tetlock’s work on experts is one of those things that gets a lot of attention, but still manages to be underrated. In his 2005 Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, he found that the forecasting abilities of subject-matter experts were no better than educated laymen when it came to predicting geopolitical events and economic outcomes.

From this summary the connection to the Taliban is probably obvious. This is an arena where the subject matter experts got things very wrong. Hanania’s opening analogy is too good not to quote:

Imagine that the US was competing in a space race with some third world country, say Zambia, for whatever reason. Americans of course would have orders of magnitude more money to throw at the problem, and the most respected aerospace engineers in the world, with degrees from the best universities and publications in the top journals. Zambia would have none of this. What should our reaction be if, after a decade, Zambia had made more progress?

Obviously, it would call into question the entire field of aerospace engineering. What good were all those Google Scholar pages filled with thousands of citations, all the knowledge gained from our labs and universities, if Western science gets outcompeted by the third world?

For all that has been said about Afghanistan, no one has noticed that this is precisely what just happened to political science.

Of course Hanania’s point is more devastating than Tetlock’s. The experts weren’t just “no better” than the Taliban’s “educated laymen”. The “experts” were decisively outcompeted despite having vastly more money and in theory, all the expertise. Certainly they had all the credentialed expertise…

In some ways Hanania’s point is just a restatement of Antonio García Martínez’s point, which I used to end my last post on Afghanistan—the idea we are an unserious people. That we enjoy “an imperium so broad and blinding” we’ve never been “made to suffer the limits of [our] understanding or re-assess [our] assumptions about [the] world”

So the Taliban needed no introduction, and we’ve introduced Tetlock, but what about Taleb? Longtime readers of this blog should be very familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but if not I have a whole post introducing his ideas. For this post we’re interested in two things, his relationship to Tetlock and his work describing black swans: rare, consequential and unpredictable events. 

Taleb and Tetlock are on the same page when it comes to experts, and in fact for a time they were collaborators, co-authoring papers on the fallibility of expert predictions and the general difficulty of making predictions—particularly when it came to fat-tail risks. But then, according to Taleb, Tetlock was seduced by government money and went from pointing out the weaknesses of experts to trying to supplant them, by creating the Good Judgement project, and the whole project of superforecasting.

The key problem with expert prediction, from Tetlock’s point of view, is that experts are unaccountable. No one tracks whether they were eventually right or wrong. Beyond that, their “predictions” are made in such a way that even making a determination of accuracy is impossible. Additionally experts are not any better at prediction than educated laypeople. Tetlock’s solution is to offer the chance for anyone to make predictions, but in the process ensure that the predictions can be tracked, and assessed for accuracy. From there you can promote those people with the best track record. A sample prediction might be “I am 90% confident that Joe Biden will win the 2020 presidential election.” 

Taleb agreed with the problem, but not with the solution. And this is where black swans come in. Black swans can’t be predicted, they can only be hedged against, and prepared for, but superforecasting, by giving the illusion of prediction, encourages people to be less prepared for black swans, and in the end worse off than they would have been without the prediction.

In the time since writing The Black Swan Taleb has come to hate the term, because people have twisted it into an excuse for precisely the kind of unpreparedness he was trying to prevent. 

“No one could have done anything about the 2007 financial crisis. It was a black swan!”

“We couldn’t have done anything about the pandemic in advance. It was a black swan!” 

“Who could have predicted that the Taliban would take over the country in nine days! It was a black swan!”

Accordingly, other terms have been suggested. In my last post I reviewed a book which introduced the term “gray rhino”, something people can see coming, but which they nevertheless ignore. 

Regardless of the label we decide to apply to what happened in Afghanistan, it feels like we were caught flat footed. We needed to be better prepared. Taleb says we can be better prepared if we expect black swans. Tetlock says we can be better prepared by predicting what to prepare for. Afghanistan seems like precisely the sort of thing superforecasting was designed for. Despite this I can find no evidence that Tetlock’s stable of superforecasters predicted how fast Afghanistan would fall, or any evidence that they even tried. 

As a final point before we move on. This last bit is one of the biggest problems with superforecasting. The idea that you should only be judged for what you got wrong, that if you were never asked to make a prediction about something that the endeavor “worked”. But reality doesn’t care about what you chose to make predictions on vs. what you didn’t. Reality does whatever it feels like. And the fact that you didn’t choose to make any predictions about the fall of Afghanistan doesn’t mean that thousands of interpreters didn’t end up being left behind. And the fact that you didn’t choose to make any predictions about pandemics doesn’t mean that millions of people didn’t die. This is the chief difference between Tetlock and Taleb.

II.

I first thought about this issue when I came across a poll on a forum I frequent, in which users were asked how long they thought the Afghan government would last. The options and results were:

(In the interest of full disclosure the bolded option indicates that I said one to two years.)

While it is true that a plurality of people said less than six months, six months was still much longer than the nine days it actually took (from capturing the first provincial capital to the fall of Kabul) and from the discussion that followed the poll, it seemed most of those 16 people were thinking that the government would fall at closer to six months or even three months than one week. In fact the best thing, prediction-wise, to come out of the discussion was when someone pointed out that 10 years previously The Onion had posted an article with the headline U.S. Quietly Slips Out Of Afghanistan In Dead Of Night, which is exactly what happened at Bagram. 

As it turns out this is not the first time The Onion has eerily predicted the future. There’s a whole subgenre of noticing all the times it’s happened. How do they do it? Well of course part of the answer is selection bias.  No one is expecting them to predict the future; nobody comments on all the articles that didn’t come true.  But when one does, it’s noteworthy. But I think there’s something else going on as well: I think they come up with the worst or most ridiculous thing that could happen, and because of the way the world works, some of the time that’s exactly what does happen. 

Between the poll answers being skewed from reality and the link to the Onion article, the thread led me to wonder: where were the superforecasters in all of this?

I don’t want to go through all of the problems I’ve brought up with superforecasting (I’ve easily written more than 10,000 words on the subject) but this event is another example of nearly all of my complaints. 

  • There is no methodology to account for the differing impact of being incorrect on some predictions vs. others. (Being wrong about whether the Tokyo Olympics will be held is a lot less consequential than being wrong about Brexit.)
  • Their attention is naturally drawn to obvious questions where tracking predictions is easy. 
  • Their rate of success is skewed both by only picking obvious questions, and by lumping together both the consequential and the inconsequential.
  • People use superforecasting as a way of more efficiently allocating resources, but efficiency is essentially equal to fragility, which leaves us less prepared when things go really bad. (It was pretty efficient to just leave Bagram all at once.)

Or course some of these don’t apply because as far as I can tell the Good Judgment project and it’s stable of superforecasters never tackled the question, but they easily could have. They could have had a series of questions about whether the Taliban would be in control of Kabul by a certain date. This seems specific enough to meet their criteria. But as I said, I could find no evidence that they had. Which means either they did make such predictions and were embarrassingly wrong, so it’s been buried, or despite its geopolitical importance it never occurred to them to make any predictions about when Afghanistan would fall. (But it did occur to a random poster on a fringe internet message board?) Both options are bad.

When people like me criticize superforecasting and Tetlock’s Good Judgment project in this manner, the common response is to point out all the things they did get right and further that superforecasting is not about getting everything right; it’s about improving the odds, and getting more things right than the old method of relying on the experts. This is a laudable goal. But as I point out it suffers from several blindspots. The blindspot of impact is particularly egregious and deserves more discussion. To quote from one of my previous posts where I reflected on their failure to predict the pandemic:

To put it another way, I’m sure that the Good Judgement project and other people following the Tetlockian methodology have made thousands of forecasts about the world. Let’s be incredibly charitable and assume that out of all these thousands of predictions, 99% were correct. That out of everything they made predictions about 99% of it came to pass. That sounds fantastic, but depending on what’s in the 1% of the things they didn’t predict, the world could still be a vastly different place than what they expected. And that assumes that their predictions encompass every possibility. In reality there are lots of very impactful things which they might never have considered assigning a probability to. That in fact they could actually be 100% correct about the stuff they predicted but still be caught entirely flat footed by the future because something happened they never even considered. 

As far as I can tell there were no advance predictions of the probability of a pandemic by anyone following the Tetlockian methodology, say in 2019 or earlier. Or any list where “pandemic” was #1 on the “list of things superforecasters think we’re unprepared for”, or really any indication at all that people who listened to superforecasters were more prepared for this than the average individual. But the Good Judgement Project did try their hand at both Brexit and Trump and got both wrong. This is what I mean by the impact of the stuff they were wrong about being greater than the stuff they were correct about. When future historians consider the last five years or even the last 10, I’m not sure what events they will rate as being the most important, but surely those three would have to be in the top 10. They correctly predicted a lot of stuff which didn’t amount to anything and missed predicting the few things that really mattered.

Once again we find ourselves in a similar position. When we imagine historians looking back on 2021, no one would find it surprising if they ranked the withdrawal of the US and subsequent capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban as the most impactful event of the year. And yet superforecasters did nothing to help us prepare for this event.

IV.

The natural next question is to ask how should we have prepared for what happened? Particularly since we can’t rely on the predictions of superforecasters to warn us. What methodology do I suggest instead of superforecasting? Here we return to the remarkable prescience of The Onion. They ended up accurately predicting what would happen in Afghanistan 10 years in advance, by just imagining the worst thing that could happen. And in the weeks since Kabul fell, my own criticism of Biden has settled around this theme. He deserves credit for realizing that the US mission in Afghanistan had failed, and that we needed to leave, that in fact we had needed to leave for a while. Bad things had happened, and bad things would continue to happen, but in accepting the failure and its consequences he didn’t go far enough. 

One can imagine Biden asserting that Afghanistan and Iraq were far worse than Bush and his “cronies” had predicted. But then somehow he overlooked the general wisdom that anything can end up being a lot worse than predicted, particularly in the arena of war (or disease). If Bush can be wrong about the cost and casualties associated with invading Afghanistan, is it possible that Biden might be wrong about the cost and casualties associated with leaving Afghanistan? To state things more generally, the potential for things to go wrong in an operation like this far exceeds the potential for things to go right. Biden, while accepting past failure, didn’t do enough to accept the possibility of future failure. 

As I mentioned, my answer to the poll question of how long the Afghanistan government was going to last was 1-2 years. And I clearly got it wrong (whatever my excuses). But I can tell you what questions I would have aced (and I think my previous 200+ blog posts back me up on this point): 

  • Is there a significant chance that the withdrawal will go really badly?
  • Is it likely to go worse than the government expects?

And to be clear I’m not looking to make predictions for the sake of predictions. I’m not trying to be more accurate, I’m looking for a methodology that gives us a better overall outcome. So is the answer to how we could have been better prepared, merely “More pessimism?” Well that’s certainly a good place to start, beyond that there’s things I’ve been talking about since the blog was started. But a good next step is to look at the impact of being wrong. Tetlock was correct when he pointed out that experts are wrong most of the time. But what he didn’t account for is it’s possible to be wrong most of the time, but still end up ahead. To illustrate this point I’d like to end by recycling an example I used the last time I talked about superforecasting:

The movie Molly’s Game is about a series of illegal poker games run by Molly Bloom. The first set of games she runs is dominated by Player X, who encourages Molly to bring in fishes, bad players with lots of money. Accordingly, Molly is confused when Player X brings in Harlan Eustice, who ends up being a very skillful player. That is until one night when Eustice loses a hand to the worst player at the table. This sets him off, changing him from a calm and skillful player, into a compulsive and horrible player, and by the end of the night he’s down $1.2 million.

Let’s put some numbers on things and say that 99% of the time Eustice is conservative and successful and he mostly wins. That on average, conservative Eustice ends the night up by $10k. But, 1% of the time, Eustice is compulsive and horrible, and during those times he loses $1.2 million. And so our question is should he play poker at all? (And should Player X want him at the same table he’s at?) The math is straightforward, his expected return over 100 games is -$210k. It would seem clear that the answer is “No, he shouldn’t play poker.”

But superforecasting doesn’t deal with the question of whether someone should “play poker” it works by considering a single question, answering that question and assigning a confidence level to the answer. So in this case they would be asked the question, “Will Harlan Eustice win money at poker tonight?” To which they would say, “Yes, he will, and my confidence level in that prediction is 99%.” 

This is what I mean by impact. When things depart from the status quo, when Eustice loses money, it’s so dramatic that it overwhelms all of the times when things went according to expectations.  

Biden was correct when he claimed we needed to withdraw from Afghanistan. He had no choice, he had to play poker. But once he decided to play poker he should have done it as skillfully as possible, because the stakes were huge. And as I have so frequently pointed out, when the stakes are big, as they almost always are when we’re talking about nations, wars, and pandemics, the skill of pessimism always ends up being more important than the skill of superforecasting.


I had a few people read a draft of this post. One of them complained that I was using a $100 word when a $1 word would have sufficed. (Any guesses on which word it was?) But don’t $100 words make my donors feel like they’re getting their money’s worth? If you too want to be able to bask in the comforting embrace of expensive vocabulary consider joining them.


The 8 Books, 2 Graphic Novels, & 1 Podcast Series I Finished in August

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  1. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by: Nicole Perlroth 
  2. Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope by: Mark Manson
  3. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by: Chris Voss
  4. Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore by: Michele Wucker
  5. Golden Son by: Pierce Brown
  6. Red Rising: Sons of Ares – Volume 1 and 2 (Graphic Novels) By: Pierce Brown
  7. The Bear by: Andrew Krivak
  8. The Phoenix Exultant by: John C. Wright
  9. A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View by: Stuart Parker
  10. Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology by: Adam S. Miller

In August my youngest child left for college, and my oldest child started her graduate work. Next month another one of my children is getting married, though he’s been moved out for quite a while. Out of all of this only one child remains at home. He’s recently graduated from college with a computer science degree and is looking for his first job. Once he gets it, he too will move out. And, in what seems a very short space of time, my wife and I will be empty nesters. I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for it.

One of the first things we’re going to do is move out of the house while it undergoes a long overdue remodel. I’m expecting it to start sometime in October. I’m obviously nervous about an undertaking of this size. Remodeling isn’t a huge gamble, but it is a costly one. It’s also asymmetric, the upside is essentially capped while the downside has a very fat tail. So lots of changes, but hopefully none of them will impact the mediocre logorrhea you’ve come to expect from me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race

by: Nicole Perlroth

528 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history, mechanics, and actors of a global and escalating cyberwar.

Who should read this book?

If you have enough worries about the future already I would avoid this book. If you’d like more or if you’re interested in cybersecurity this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

There are a lot of moving parts in this story, numerous actors, different incidents, and various technologies. One gets the sense that Perlroth is writing the history of something that hasn’t happened yet. Similar to someone writing the history of World War II at the end of August, 1939. Germany hasn’t invaded Poland, but they have annexed Austria, occupied the Sudetenland, and signed a nonaggression pact w/ Stalin (though no one knows that yet). Certain things are going to end up being very important and certain things are going to end up being entirely forgotten but none of that is clear yet.

Out of all the things Perlroth mentioned I’m going to make a few guesses as to which events and actors will end up actually being important when the war is finally over.

Stuxnet: This is the worm that was developed to take out Iranian centrifuges and slow down their uranium enrichment. It’s important for two reasons: It’s the first clear example of one nation attacking another using cyberweapons. Beyond that it undercut any moral high ground the US might have had. When the final history is written I think it will actually be less important than Perlroth claims, but it’s hard to imagine it not being included.

Heartbleed: This was a huge open source bug in the OpenSSL library that the NSA and others took advantage of for a long time. It illustrated that open source was not necessarily any more secure than the alternative (despite what some have claimed). Unsurprising given that the budget for the OpenSSL foundation was $2000/month. 

Ukraine: The Russian cyber attacks against Ukraine are a huge part of the story, big enough that I’ll cover it in the next section.

China: As is the case with so many things these days, China also conducts extensive cyberwarfare operations. And the story is similar to all the other China stories. China does something completely ridiculous, but in the end there’s too much money at stake so we overlook it. The key story from the book was Google, which exited China in 2010 after a gigantic hack, but then by 2018 they were working on getting back in. Currently the situation is complicated, but it’s obvious that Google is trying to get back into China’s good graces.

Of course I could be wrong as well about what will end up being important, but I don’t think I’m wrong about this being only the beginning.

Eschatological Implications

Historically wars have been the most common way that one sort of world changed into another sort of world, what we might consider eschatology lite. But it was only with the advent of nuclear weapons that people started to seriously consider the possibility that we could have wars which ended the world. With the book’s title Perlroth is making the claim that we should add cyberwar to that category. I don’t think she makes a convincing case that it should be added to the list with other x-risks, still she does make the case for significant worry. 

The book opens with the stories of Russia’s cyber attacks on Ukraine. The first, in 2015, took down their power grid, the second, in 2017, took down nearly every company in the country (though to the best of my knowledge the power stayed on this time). The second used the Petya malware, and apparently the Urkainians divide their lives into before Petya and and after Petya, in part because so much information was lost in the attack. From Pelroth’s description these attacks were obviously bad, but she claims that they could have been a lot worse. That this was just a test, not a real attempt to do as much damage as possible. That we should assume that if a big enough player, like Russia or China, really wanted to cause as much damage as possible, it would be far far worse. 

This example of Ukraine and the other discussions of cyberwarfare remind me of discussions about strategic bombing during the interwar period. World War I had given people a taste of what might be possible, and the advancement of technology only served to make those possibilities more terrifying—possibilities which would certainly play out in future wars.

These discussions were not universally bleak. Many thought it would lead to war more terrible than any which had come before, but some thought it would actually lead to fewer deaths because it would end wars so quickly. People would just give up once you had air superiority and could bomb them at will. In particular it was widely believed that aerial bombardment would cause uncontrollable panic among civilians. As you can see some people got it right and others didn’t. But amidst all the theorizing, one thing was definitely clear, industrial capacity would be a hugely important factor. You had to be able to build both the bombers and the bombs and the more you could build the better. 

We’re having the same discussions with respect to cyberwarfare. Some, like Perlroth, judging by the title of her book, think it has the potential to be apocalyptic, while others think that the danger is severe but manageable. (I assume Pinker is in this category, but this is another danger from progress/technology which doesn’t appear in Enlightenment Now.) I think I’m somewhere in the middle of those two positions. What I’m more interested in thinking about is which factors are going to end up ultimately determining success in cyberwarfare. If industrial capacity is what eventually allowed the US to win World War II, what factors will eventually allow which actors to achieve victory in a cyberwar?

From the book it’s clear that currently warfare revolves around highly talented individuals finding security holes in important software. From this you can imagine lots of ways this could go:

  • Is it a numbers game where the larger your country’s population the more talented individuals you possess and thus the more security holes your country has access to?
  • How does culture play into things? Are Chinese and Russian hackers more dedicated or less? If you’re a talented programmer in the US you’re working for six figures in silicon valley. If you’re a talented Russian hacker you’re building ransomware. The latter skill set would appear to be more useful if a cyberwar starts. 
  • Related, our government seems to suffer from more leaks than the Chinese and Russian governments. See for example Edward Snowden. Does our expectation of openness work against us?
  • China seems to have a pretty tight clamp on its software companies. For example it’s widely believed that they can have them include whatever backdoors and spyware they want. While we do see some cooperation between our government and our companies, it’s not nearly so extensive, and there’s been enormous pushback. Who has the advantage here? 
  • There’s a market for security holes and exploits. Given that you can buy your way into being competitive, but doing so is viewed as immoral, to whose benefit is that?

As I said, it’s impossible to predict which factors are going to be important and how things will play out in this arena, but reviewing the factors I just listed most of them seem to work to our disadvantage and to the advantage of our enemies. In particular this book has made me very worried about cyberterrorism. Thus far most terrorist organizations are fairly low tech, but that can’t last forever. In the old days it was assumed that the holy grail for a terrorist organization would be a nuke. With security vulnerabilities you have thousands of potential nukes wandering around. How long before a terrorist organization gets its hands on one? 

Consider, what would cause more chaos? A terrorist nuke in a major city (probably closer to Hiroshima than an ICBM) or 20% of the country being without power for a month because terrorists managed to blow out a couple of critical transformers? Okay, now which is easier to pull off? My hunch would be that the power disruption causes more chaos and is easier to pull off. And if the terrorists can’t quite pull that off, there are thousands of security holes out there—some more damaging, some less damaging—but all with the potential to cause a lot of chaos.


Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope 

by: Mark Manson

288 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

I’m honestly not sure. It was kind of all over the place. I think it’s primary theme was an admonition to accept the world as it is, and that hope and the search for happiness is the opposite of that.

Who should read this book?

If you loved Manson’s other books, you will probably like this one, beyond that. I’m not sure I would recommend it. There are good parts, but nothing you couldn’t get from reading Ryan Holiday or some other stoic. 

General Thoughts

I’m not entirely clear on how this book came to my attention, but I had read Manson’s previous book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, and I enjoyed it, so that’s probably why I decided to read this book, plus it was short. The book is strange. It’s got a fair amount of philosophy in it, and most of that is pretty good. In fact Manson seemed to be making exactly the same connection I did between Nietzche and AI. It also had a lot of stories which I also enjoyed. The story of Antonio Damasio and “Elliot”, a man who couldn’t do anything because he felt no emotion is one I’ve heard, and even referenced on a couple of occasions, but Manson presents it with far more detail than any of the previous retellings I’ve encountered, so that was certainly useful. 

One thing I hadn’t encountered, at least that I can remember, was the blue-dot experiment. In this experiment researchers ask participants to decide if a dot is blue, and initially they show them a set of dots where half are blue and half are purple. Then they gradually reduce the number of blue dots until all they’re showing is purple. As it turns out the number of dots identified as blue remains fairly constant, even as the actual number of blue dots goes to zero. As the occurrence of blue dots decreased, their definition of blue expanded. Thus far it’s interesting, but not particularly earth-shattering, but then they did some follow-up experiments:

In one follow-up experiment, the researchers showed the participants 800 computer-generated faces that varied on a continuum of “threatening” to “nonthreatening.” When the number of malevolent mug shots the researchers showed the participants decreased after 200 trials, the participants started labeling nonthreatening portraits as threatening.

From this, people (including Manson) concluded that even if things are improving humans are wired such that they will always see a constant level of danger and disorder. That if we’re not feeling sufficiently threatened by external foes that we’ll make up the difference by perceived internal threats

The things I’ve just mentioned along with other human biases are what lead him to conclude that Everything is F*cked. It’s when he provides his solution, in a chapter titled “The Final Religion” that things get interesting.

Eschatological Implications

So what is the FINAL religion? In Nick Bostrom’s foundational work on AI Risk, Superintelligence he proposes something he calls “The principle of epistemic deference”:

A future superintelligence occupies an epistemically superior vantage point: its beliefs are (probably, on most topics) more likely than ours to be true. We should therefore defer to the superintelligence’s opinion whenever feasible. 

Manson takes this principle and turns it up to 11. I have never seen anyone lean into it as much as Manson does. He doesn’t suggest we defer to them “whenever feasible”. He suggests we worship them as gods:

AI will reach a point where its intelligence outstrips ours by so much that we will no longer comprehend what it’s doing. Cars will pick us up for reasons we don’t understand and take us to locations we didn’t know existed. We will unexpectedly receive medications for health issues we didn’t know we suffered from…

Then, we will end up right back where we began: worshipping impossible and unknowable forces that seeming control our fates, Just as primitive humans prayed to their gods for rain and flame—the same way they made sacrifices, offered gifts, devised rituals, and altered their behavior and appearance to curry favor with the naturalistic gods—so will we. But instead of the primitive gods, we will offer ourselves up to the AI gods.

We will develop superstitions about the algorithms. If you wear this, the algorithms will favor you. If you wake at a certain hour and say the right thing and show up at the right place, the machines will bless you with great fortune. If you are honest and you don’t hurt others and you take care of yourself and your family, the AI gods will protect you. 

[A]llow me to say that I, for one, welcome our AI overlords.

Needless to say there is a lot wrong with this. First it completely ignores the AI alignment problem. Do we care what location we’re taken to by the car that “pick[s] us up for reasons we don’t understand”? What if it’s an assisted suicide facility because the AI has decided we’re old, sad and lonely and all of those conditions are only going to get worse? What if it’s a eugenics facility? And these are the very mildest examples.

All of the foregoing might be forgivable if this conclusion was supported by a foundation built over the course of the previous 200 pages, or if it was foreshadowed at all. But instead it seems to come out of left field. A strange eschatology emerging, unheralded from a rambling mix of self-help, neuroscience, and Nietzsche. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It 

by: Chris Voss

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A method of negotiation which involves open ended questions designed to get the other side to solve your problems for you.

Who should read this book?

Someone, I forget who, pointed out that you’re never making more money, or losing more money in a given period of time than when you’re negotiating. If this book can improve your negotiating power by 1%, say by netting you $101k vs. $100K and you do this sort of negotiation a lot, then it’s value should be obvious.

General Thoughts

One would think based on what I just wrote that I have read every book on negotiation I can get my hands on. This is not the case, I mostly only read ones that have been recommended to me, and out of those I think this one, Influence by Robert Cialdini and Secrets of Power Negotiating by Roger Dawson have been the best. If you’re trying to decide between them it might be useful to point out that Influence has 365 ratings on Amazon with an average of 4.7 stars. Power Negotiating has 428 ratings also with a 4.7 average. Don’t Split the Difference on the other hand has 20,000 ratings with an average of 4.8. I’m not sure if these numbers should reflect on the author’s negotiating prowess or not. 

Beyond that, as I’ve already said, I believe this is a useful book. Voss has lots of great stories from his time as the FBI’s chief international hostage negotiator. And lots of good advice beyond that. With that in mind, my sense of things is that these sorts of books are best read right before a big negotiation. They’re useful in general, but they kind of recommend a different mindset, one you’re unlikely to practice enough (unless you’re in a position like Voss’s) to be able to recall at will. 

So if you’ve got a big negotiation coming up, I would definitely recommend this book, and probably the other two as well.


Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore

by: Michele Wucker

284 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Catastrophes which have been predicted but not prepared against.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in risk management, though, if you haven’t read The Black Swan you should read that first.

General Thoughts

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused the levees to fail in New Orleans. The resulting flood killed approximately 1500 people and inflicted $70 billion dollars in damages. This was a catastrophe, but it wasn’t a black swan, the potential for catastrophe had been foreseen well in advance of Katrina, and yet the necessary preventative steps were not taken.

Shortly after reading this book Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana and New Orleans, and while the levees fortunately held this time, the 911 system once again collapsed. Despite the 16 years that had elapsed since Katrina, New Orleans was only now putting in a new system and it wasn’t ready, and the old system collapsed in the same way it had the last time around.

All of the foregoing are examples of Grey Rhinos. Disasters which can be foreseen, even if the actual timing can’t be pin-pointed. Wucker uses the analogy of someone out on safari who wants a picture of a rhino. In their quest they get too close, ignoring all the rules given by their guide, and as a result they spook the rhino and next thing they know it’s charging in their direction, whereupon they freeze. Everything about the “grey rhino” crisis is predictable and obvious, but because people are more focused on short term incentives they ignore the giant, and possibly fatal risk, which is now barreling down on them. 

Grey rhinos are obviously more common than black swans, and far easier to see, but as Wucker points out this doesn’t mean we’re great at dealing with them. If this book can help even a little bit it’s utility will be unquestionable. Despite that potential, reading the book was depressing rather than hopeful as it goes through example after example of people who got too close to the rhino, found themselves facing down possible catastrophe, freezing up and getting trampled. And yes, Wucker does provide plenty of advice for avoiding that fate, but people have been giving such advice for thousands of years and it hasn’t seemed to make much of an impact, it’s hard to imagine that this book is going to finally be the one that takes. 


Golden Son

by: Pierce Brown

464 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is book two of the Red Rising Trilogy. The continued saga of Darrow, a low caste Red who becomes a Gold and must navigate the various treacheries and machinations of their society while attempting to bring the whole thing crashing down. 

Who should read this book?

Every series has its peak, if you’re lucky it comes at the end, but that’s actually fairly rare. I think this series peaks in book one. Book two is still enjoyable, but if you didn’t love book one this book isn’t going to improve things for you.

General Thoughts

I’ve decided this series is a combination of Dune, Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games. This is not necessarily a good thing. In particular it out paces all of them in the amount of deaths and duplicitous double dealing. (Yes, it even out paces Game of Thrones.) At a certain point I started to find this tiresome. My plan is still to read the third book, but I’m worried. The friend who recommended them said that each book is worse than the one before. Of course he told me this after I finished book two…


Red Rising: Sons of Ares – Volume 1 and 2 (Graphic Novels)

by: Pierce Brown

152 Pages and 132 pages respectively

Briefly, what was this series about?

This is a prequel to the main trilogy, in graphic novel form. 

Who should read it?

First off you shouldn’t read this series before you read book two of the actual trilogy because it contains major spoilers. Second, unless you’re a Red Rising completist you probably shouldn’t read it at all.

General Thoughts

The back story provided by these graphic novels is somewhat interesting, though it doesn’t break any new ground. Also it’s incoherent in places, and I didn’t really like the art, which was kind of the whole reason I decided to check them out. (In this case, literally, I checked them out from the library.)


The Bear

by: Andrew Krivak

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A man and his daughter making their living in the wilderness long after the rest of humanity has disappeared.

Who should read this book?

This is another instance where I think viewing something as a long podcast is very clarifying. The audio book is four hours, so if a great four hour podcast episode sounds appealing then this should as well.

General Thoughts

If you were to view this as a happy version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road you wouldn’t be far off. It also has hints of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Finally it reminds me of some of the Native American mythology I’ve read over the years. Krivak does a great job of combining all of these elements together into something great. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about the book: the setting, the plot, the characters and the writing. It was great.


The Phoenix Exultant 

by: John C. Wright

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A story set in the far future, full of AI’s and humans in every variety you can imagine (from base neuroforms, to warlocks, composites and invariants). A story about one man’s quest to explore beyond the solar system and the forces trying to stop him.

Who should read this book?

This is also the second book in a series. It was also not as good as the first, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. I expect this series might peak at the end, and thus if you’ve read the first one, read this one too.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in my review of book one Wright is great at creating an interesting setting. That mostly continues to be the case, though this book takes place at a smaller scale than the last one, which is somewhat to its detriment. Also one thing I didn’t mention is that Wright himself is a conservative catholic. It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a book with an underlying ideology that doesn’t appear heavy handed, but I think Wright pulls it off. As you might imagine this gives the book a bit of an old school science fiction feel which I also enjoyed. 


A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View (Podcast Series)

by: Stuart Parker

15 hours

Briefly, what is this podcast about?

The history of North America environmentalism and the creation of the Green Party, which have not always been as closely aligned as you might think. 

Who should listen to it?

From the outside looking in I always assumed that the environmental movement was well organized and monolithic. Parker shows that it was anything but. If you’re interested in a detailed story about how the narcissism of small differences plays out in politics, this is the series for you.

General Thoughts

Parker has been heavily involved in politics and environmentalism essentially his entire adult life. He was leader of the British Columbia Greens from the age of 21 to 28. So this really is an insider view of things. Parker is also a gifted academic and lecturer with a deep and eclectic knowledge of the history of environmentalism, the relationship between various factions (farm workers, rich elites, native americans, etc.) and how it all came to be manifested or ignored in the form of the Green Party. 

As the series progresses it comes to events where Parker really was an insider. He is able to give more of a first hand account of how things played out and we get to really see how the sausage was made. Which is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and I don’t even have a dog in the fight. I really enjoyed the series, much more than I expected.


III- Religious Reviews

Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology

by: Adam S. Miller

132 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of essays with a particular focus on what Mormonism has to say about grace and the atonement.

Who should read this book?

If you only dabble in Mormon theology, then there are easier books to read, but if you’re serious about the subject the essays in this book are deep and thought-provoking.

General Thoughts

I found Miller’s writing to be somewhat opaque, in my opinion more opaque than was actually necessary. Miller has some brilliant insights, but at times I felt like I was having to work too hard for them. My favorite essay from the book was “Notes on Life, Grace and Atonement.” Grace is going through something of revival in current Mormon dialogue and Miller’s contribution is fascinating, and almost Buddhist in nature:

With respect to grace, the legitimacy of my preferences for pleasant or productive things is a secondary issue at best. Grace is not concerned with preferences, legitimate or not. Grace, in its prodigality, is relentlessly and single-mindedly concerned with just one thing: the givenness of whatever is given, regardless of how such things may or may not comport with my preferences.

This definition of grace is all part of what he calls a non-sequential theology. We are not interested in cause and effect. We shouldn’t be focused on doing this in order for this to happen, but rather we should be focused on the totality of our lives at any given moment. I am certain I am not doing it justice, but perhaps I’m giving you enough of an idea to determine whether or not the book would appeal to you. And isn’t that the whole point of a review?


September looks to be the month when I finally finish reading Plato. So you’ve got more dilettantish commentary on ancient classics to look forward to. If that’s precisely what’s been missing from your life all this time, consider donating. If, inexplicably, you’ve already got enough of that sort of commentary, consider donating to support all the non-classical dilettantish commentary I do.


Eschatologist #8: If You’re Worried About the Future, Religion is Playing on Easy Mode

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 has frequently been the case with these newsletters, last time I left things on something of a cliff hanger. I had demonstrated the potential for technology to cause harm—up to and including the end of all humanity. And then, having painted this terrifying picture of doom, I ended without providing any suggestions for how to deal with this terror. Only the vague promise that such suggestions would be forthcoming. 

This newsletter is the beginning of those suggestions, but only the beginning. Protecting humanity from itself is a big topic, and I expect we’ll be grappling with it for several months, such are its difficulties. But before exploring this task on hard mode, it’s worthwhile to examine whether there might be an easy mode. I think there is. I would argue that faith in God with an accompanying religion is “easy mode”, not just at an individual level, but especially at a community level.

Despite being religious it has been my general intention to not make any arguments from an explicitly religious perspective, but in this case I’m making an exception. With that exception in mind, how does being religious equal a difficulty setting of easy?

To begin with, if one assumes there is a God, it’s natural to proceed from this assumption to the further assumption that He has a plan—one that does not involve us destroying ourselves. (Though, frequently, religions maintain that we will come very close.) Furthermore the existence of God explains the silence of the universe mentioned in the last newsletter without needing to consider the possibility that such silence is a natural consequence of intelligence being unavoidably self-destructive. 

As comforting as I might find such thoughts, most people do not spend much time thinking about God as a solution to Fermi’s Paradox, about x-risks and the death of civilizations. The future they worry about is their own, especially their eventual death. Religions solve this worry by promising that existence continues beyond death, and that this posthumous existence will be better. Or it at least promises that it can be better contingent on a wide variety of things far too lengthy to go into here.

All of this is just at the individual level. If we move up the scale, religions make communities more resilient. Not only do they provide meaning and purpose, and relationships with other believers, they also make communities better able to recover from natural disasters. Further examples of resilience will be a big part of the discussion going forward, but for now I will merely point out that there are two ways to deal with the future: prediction and resilience. Religion increases the latter.  

For those of you who continue to be skeptical, I urge you to view religion from the standpoint of cultural evolution: cultural practices that developed over time to increase the survivability of a society. This survivability is exactly what we’re trying to increase, and this is one of the reasons why I think religion is playing on easy mode. Rejecting all of the cultural practices which have been developed over the centuries and inventing new culture from scratch certainly seems like a harder way to go about things.

Despite all of the foregoing, some will argue that religion distorts incentives, especially in its promise of an afterlife. How can a religious perspective truly be as good at identifying and mitigating risks as a secular perspective, particularly given that religion would entirely deny the existence of certain risks? This is a fair point, but I’ve always been one of those (and I think there are many of us) who believe that you should work as if everything depends on you while praying as if everything depends on God. This is perhaps a cliche, but no less true, even so.

If you are still bothered by the last statement’s triteness, allow me to restate: I am not a bystander in the fight against the chaos of the universe, I am a participant. And I will use every weapon at my disposal as I wage this battle.


Wars are expensive. They take time and attention. This war is mostly one of words (so far) but money never hurts. If you’d like to contribute to the war effort consider donating


Chemicals, Controversy, and the Precautionary Principle

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

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I- The Precautionary Principle

Wikipedia’s article on the precautionary principle opens by describing it as:

…a broad epistemological, philosophical and legal approach to innovations with potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous. 

On its face this sounds like an ideal approach to new technologies and other forms of progress. As I have continually said in this space we’ve decided to do a lot of things which haven’t been done before. And these endeavors carry with them the potential for significant risk.

There’s a related metaphor from Nick Bostrom I’ve used a couple of times in this space, that technological progress is like a game of blindly drawing balls from a bag. Each new technology is a different ball, some are white and represent technology which is obviously beneficial, and some end up being dark grey—technology which has the potential for great harm. If we ever draw a pure black technology then the harm is so great it ends the game, and humanity has lost. With this metaphor in mind it would seem only prudent to pause before we draw these balls, and, once drawn, to exercise caution while we’re figuring out what color the ball is.

Certainly Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has also appeared a lot in this space, is a big fan of the precautionary principle. Among other places, he has referenced it in his fight against genetically modified crops, with his primary concern being the fragility introduced by monocultures. His definition is even more extreme than Wikipedia’s:

The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety.

“Scientific near-certainty” is a pretty high bar. Would that be 90% certain? 95%? 99%? That seems like it would be pretty onerous. Though to be fair he couples this extreme requirement for certainty with a presumed scale of harm in a way the Wikipedia definition doesn’t. He speaks of general health and the environment globally. But what are we to make of the phrase “suspected risk”. Certainly there has to be some threshold there, probably most innovations are suspected of being risky by someone somewhere. So I’m not sure that’s very limiting, and if it is limiting I’m not sure it should be. How many people suspected that social media would be dangerous. Lots of people suspect it now, but who looked at “TheFacebook” when it was still only accepting college students and said “This site will eventually swing presidential elections and result in the worst polarization since the Civil War.” My guess is nobody.

Beyond the questions I’ve brought up, there are more significant objections to the precautionary principle. The Wikipedia intro goes on to say:

Critics argue that it is vague, self-cancelling, unscientific and an obstacle to progress.

The idea of it impeding progress is especially relevant because I have also talked extensively in this space, particularly recently, about the smothering effects of regulation on things like nuclear power. I also had a whole post on how the safety knob has been turned to 11, where I discussed how vaccines were being taken out of circulation out of an “abundance of caution”, caution that, on net, was almost certainly killing more people than it was saving. But Taleb’s definition of the precautionary principle would appear to recommend the same caution I was decrying, that before doing anything potentially risky we should have “near-certainty about its safety”. 

(This is not to imply that Taleb was one of those who advocated for vaccine suspension, or felt the vaccines were released prematurely. I don’t think he did either, but I haven’t looked into it deeply.)

If you don’t like the vaccine example, I’ve also spent a lot of time talking about the regulations slowing down adoption of carbon-free nuclear power. But if you asked someone for the reason behind those regulations they might also reference the precautionary principle. So am I just a hypocrite, in favor of the precautionary principle when it’s applied to things I don’t like and not in favor of it when it slows down the things I do like? Or is there some way to thread this needle? What methodology can we use, what standard can we apply, to know when to be careful and when to be bold? 

II- Chemicals

As I mentioned in my book review post at the beginning of the month I recently finished Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Shanna H. Swan, which made the case that we are suffering from a crisis of chemically induced infertility. At the same time I became very engrossed in a series of posts over at Slime Mold Time Mold (SMTM), which made essentially the same case, except with respect to obesity rather than infertility.

I understand that there is a type of person who spends a lot of time being worried about “Toxins!” And in many cases this worry comes across less as a specific complaint…against a particular chemical…backed by science, and more of a generalized inchoate condemnation of modernity. But when you have two groups independently making claims about the negative effects of increased levels of specific chemicals in the environment, with evidence tied to those chemicals, that seems like something else. Something that deserves a closer look. The question is: what part deserves a closer look?

Most people want a closer look at the evidence. From my perspective there seems to be a lot of it. SMTM has come up with several candidate “chemicals”: livestock antibiotics, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), lithium, and glyphosate so far. The series is still ongoing and there is at least one more candidate to come, perhaps more. Swan’s list is somewhat less structured, but it includes, at a minimum, phthalates, BPA, flame retardants, and pesticides. In particular she’s looking for anything that might disrupt endocrine function. Having identified the culprits your next step would be taking a closer look at the evidence connecting them to the supposed harm. 

Starting with SMTM, they have individual posts dedicated to each of their candidates. In these posts they do a great job of walking through what evidence there is and pointing out where they wish there was better evidence. And even pointing out when they think a particular chemical is unlikely to be associated with the obesity epidemic, as was the case with glyphosate. For what it might look like when they believe there is a connection, let’s take lithium as an example. They would love to be able to tell you how much lithium is in the groundwater, and how much lithium we’re exposed to, but neither thing has been tracked. They can however point to a huge increase in lithium production, going from essentially zero in 1950 to 25,000 metric tons in 2007 (when the graph ends). They can also provide data showing that people who take lithium therapeutically nearly always gain weight, with about 70% gaining significant weight. Finally they point out that places which are known to have lots of obesity, for example Chile and Argentina, which are the most obese countries in South America (each has an obesity rate of 28%), are also two of the biggest exporters of lithium in the world.

In Count Down the evidence is a bit more scattered, and Swan is not as good at pointing out where she wishes there were more evidence, but there are numerous sections like the following:

Studies have shown that young men with higher levels of phthalate metabolites…have poorer sperm motility and morphology. This is bad news, since higher levels of phthalate metabolites also are associated with increased sperm apoptosis—a term for what is essentially cellular suicide. It’s safe to assume that no man wants to hear that his sperm are self-destructing.

Phthalates are bad news for women’s ovaries, too. High levels of phthalate exposure have been linked with anovulation (when ovaries don’t release an egg during a menstrual cycle) and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder involving abnormal ovarian function and elevated levels of androgens.

The sort of things I just went through are where and how most people would take a closer look. Such an approach is designed as a way to increase certainty, in one direction or another but for nearly everyone engaged in this approach, it’s entirely academic. One person could look at the evidence and decide that it’s compelling, another could look at it and decide they still prefer the supernormal stimuli explanation for the obesity epidemic. But in both cases neither person is very likely to have the ability to change the entire course of capitalism and mitigate these harms at a national or global level. In fact, regardless of the conclusion someone reaches in their investigation, it could even be difficult to change these things at the personal level, given how ubiquitous the problems are.

I too “took” that same “look”. I found both the SMTM and the Count Down arguments to be compelling, but to move the debate from the academic to the practical we have to discuss what I would do if I was somehow made dictator of the world (truly a scary thought). Do I find the arguments compelling enough that in this position I would immediately ban all of these chemicals using my dictatorial powers? Probably not, and the reasons would presumably be obvious. Reading one book and one blog post series is definitely not enough information for me to truly understand the harms and even if it was, I have no sense of the benefits provided by these chemicals. What kind of trade-offs would I be making if I banned these chemicals? In attempting to rectify the infertility and obesity problems, what other problems might I introduce? Beyond this there are issues of logistics, public opinion, potential backlash, and of course the general problems associated with exercising power in a dictatorial fashion.

Conversely doing nothing doesn’t seem appropriate either, at a minimum these issues would appear to deserve more study. But is that all we should do? Increase our data collection, so that in 10 years when SMTM does an update they can tell you how much lithium is in the groundwater? But otherwise report that nothing else has been done? That also seems insufficient.

There is a lot of space between data collection and a complete dictatorial ban, and somewhere in there is the ideal set of actions. This is the part I want to take a closer look at, not the evidence. The evidence is never going to be such that we can declare that these chemicals have no potential to cause harm and we’re definitely not going to get to Taleb’s standard of “near-certainty”. In fact at this point I would argue that fighting over the evidence is a distraction. That if the precautionary principle is to have any utility, this is a situation where it should be useful. But what that might be is not entirely clear. There is still the trade-off I mentioned in the beginning, between the problems we fear we will cause with technology and the problems we hope to solve with technology. 

This is a difficult problem, and I’m just a lowly blogger. Also despite the fact that this is an “essay”, I’m still mostly thinking out loud (see my last post for a deeper discussion of what I mean.) But I’ve found that one of the best ways to think through a problem is to look at examples, so let’s try that.

III- Silent Spring

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, was published in 1962 and while it’s debatable whether it started the environmental movement, it definitely turbocharged it. For those who might somehow be unfamiliar with the book, its main focus was a claim that pesticides were causing widespread environmental damage. Carson took particular aim at DDT which was largely used for mosquito abatement, this abatement was very important because of the mosquitos role in transmitting malaria. Her best known claim is that DDT thinned the shells of eggs. This resulted in birds being unable to incubate those eggs. And this led to a massive decline in the population of these birds. As I recall she singled out bald eagles as a species that was especially endangered.

Viewed from the standpoint of the precautionary principle, Silent Spring could be seen as a notice, or perhaps it was just a strong reminder. We have never had any way of knowing in advance what the environmental effects of widespread chemical use would be. Nor is it unreasonable to default to the assumption that they would be harmful. These chemicals could decimate bird populations. They could cause obesity and infertility. They could cause a host of other things we’ve yet to detect. And they could cause none of those things. But again it’s impossible to know in advance, and it’s even difficult to know that now.

As I said Silent Spring put the world on notice. Before that perhaps we shouldn’t blame people for not being concerned about man made chemicals being dumped into the environment. But after it was published, such lack of concern is less excusable. Rather it seems more reasonable to assume, based on the attention it received, that some form of the precautionary principle should have kicked in. But what form should that have taken? Certainly now that we’re also seeing evidence that chemicals cause obesity and infertility, we imagine that it should have taken a fairly broad form. If nothing else it would be nice to have more data about these things than we currently have. 

Beyond that, what should the invocation of the precautionary principle have entailed? We have a “when” for that invocation, and a sense that it should have been broader, but what else? It’s easy to say we should have banned DDT immediately as soon as Carson brought it to our attention, but, as mentioned, it was mostly being used to fight malaria. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, mostly in Africa, mostly below the age of 5. Since large-scale use of DDT was restricted in 2004, at least 11 million people have died of malaria. I couldn’t find numbers going all the way back to 1962, but even a very conservative estimate of DDT’s impact on the spread and transmission of malaria gives us an impact of millions of lives. Despite this number I feel confident in saying that on balance restricting the use of DDT in 2004 was a good thing, mosquitos were developing resistance, and at this point it’s hard to find anyone defending widespread use of DDT. Though to be clear, in 2004 the debate still raged. Back then even the New York Times was publishing articles titled, “What the World Needs Now is DDT”. 

This brings up the legitimate question, would it have been possible to ban DDT any sooner? And when we consider the millions of deaths would it have been wise to do it any sooner? If we agree that the 2004 ban was a good thing would it have been a good thing in 1994 or 1984, or if we had banned it worldwide in 1974 shortly after it was banned in the U.S.? Given the number of malaria deaths I suspect not, but as you can see it’s a difficult question. Also we have thus far only been talking about malaria, what about other chemicals we’ve been pumping into the environment? We have a sense that we should have taken more precautions, but as we see from the example it’s still not entirely clear what those precautions should have been. 

As something of an aside before we move on, looking into this topic not only involved a lot of research about malaria, but also the history of environmentalism, green parties, and antiwar activism. Some of which seems worth including.

As far as malaria goes, I thought this article from the Yale School of the Environment was a pretty good summation. It sets out to answer two questions:

[W]hat actually happened with DDT? And why is malaria, which seemed to be en route to eradication in the 1950s, still killing 584,000 people a year?

The answer to the latter question is the more interesting one, and it seems to boil down to “less-developed countries don’t have sufficiently non-corrupt governments which can successfully execute on public health initiatives.” 

As to the rest of it, environmentalism and everything adjacent, I quickly realized that I was well outside even my pretended areas of expertise. As such I am indebted to my friend Stuart Parker and his podcast series, A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View. I have mentioned him before in this space, but never by name. I didn’t want him to be tarred by association with me, on top of all the other tarring that he’s had to endure. But I really enjoyed that series, there is some great stuff in there. Also in this case I’m particularly indebted because my ignorance was so deep. Accordingly I wanted to at least make sure he gets credit. And to the extent I have any influence with you, I would recommend that you give it a listen.

I can’t really do it justice, but the history of environmentalism, like so many other things, is horribly complex, and it brought home to me again how complicated it is to get anything done. Everything you might want to do gets tied up in the larger and more narrow political narrative. (Environmentalism frequently succeeded or failed based on how it could be deployed as a weapon in the cold war.) On top of that people have a limited ability to focus, even if you’re working in an area they care about. Add to that infighting, tactics, personalities, and priorities and you can see it’s difficult to even get agreement as to what should be done. But if by some miracle you can get a broad agreement internally you still have to contend with external opposition. Environmentalism has always had a whole host of enemies. Even if these enemies merely thought that the trade-offs went the other way. 

Out of all of this we can see that in addition to the questions of “When?” and “What?” we need to add the question of “How?” We can decide it’s time to be cautious, we can decide what that caution should entail, but we still have to enact that caution in some concrete fashion. 

This example seems to have given us more questions than answers. I don’t think the second example is going to be any better, but let’s proceed anyway.

IV- Gender Dysphoria and Same Sex Attraction

I debated making this section into its own post, so I could cordon it off, given how controversial the topic is. But if you’re going to examine an issue you really need to consider it from every angle and at every level of difficulty. I would say that the DDT example would be considered easy mode. We’ve known about it for a long time. We took steps. We can imagine that the steps we took should have been more extreme and sooner, but it’s also possible to argue that it went as well as it could have given the competing interests, the various tradeoffs in human lives and environmental damage, and of course the political reality.

Chemically induced infertility and obesity might be this subject at a medium level of difficulty. It’s only now entering mainstream awareness, even though it might have been going on for decades. (Swan makes the claim that chemically induced infertility is where global warming was 40 years ago.) Those who profit from these chemicals are deeply entrenched and the public have long ago been persuaded to other explanations for the phenomenon, making them particularly difficult to persuade. This means that there is a significant contingent already dedicated to defending the status quo, with only a very small contingent in favor of overturning it, or at least examining it. Furthermore the evidence you might use to change that imbalance is interesting, but certainly not ironclad. On the other hand the issue does have a few things going for it. For one thing it hasn’t yet become horribly partisan. Nearly everyone agrees that infertility and obesity are bad things. You could imagine that a narrowly crafted bill banning or restricting certain chemicals might even receive bipartisan support. Of course as battle lines are drawn things would certainly change, but that’s the case with everything at this point.

The idea that chemicals may be causing an increase in gender dysphoria and same sex attraction (SSA) is definitely hard mode. The subject is already a political and cultural minefield where reasonable discussion is impossible. And while I don’t think the evidence for this connection is any weaker than the connection between chemicals and infertility, it’s hard to imagine it not being scrutinized a hundred times more closely. And the biggest factor of all, those afflicted by infertility or obesity largely desire to be rid of the condition and consider it an affliction, while many who experience gender dysphoria and SSA consider it part of their identity, and violently reject any attempts to pathologize it. It’s hard to tell whether this contingent is the more numerous, but they are certainly the loudest.

Of course, the argument that some amount of SSA and gender dysphoria can be explained by environmental chemicals definitely counts as pathologizing the condition. Once again I think arguing about the evidence can end up being a distraction, because there’s no amount that is going to be convincing to all parties. And if we’re working on the basis of the precautionary principle, we’re really just looking for enough evidence to suspect risk, or (in the case of Taleb’s definition) rule out a “near-certainty” of safety. To that end I will spend some space laying out the case, but of course if you want to go deeper you should read the book:

In a 2019 article in Psychology Today, Robert Hedaya, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, wrote, “It is nothing short of astounding that after hundreds of thousands of years of human history, the fundamental facts of human gender are becoming blurry. There are many reasons for this, but one, which I have not seen discussed as a likely cause, is the influence of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”

Many other clinicians and researchers are wondering about this, too. The question of whether chemicals in our midst are affecting gender identity is a bit like the metaphorical elephant in the room—obvious and significant but uncomfortable and difficult to address. 

Swan goes on to list several mechanisms through which this might happen, and studies that show correlations between chemical exposure and gender development. She also has a section on rapid onset gender dysphoria, which covers much the same territory as Irreversible Damage. (Which I talked about in a previous post.) Also, I should mention that I put forth the theory that environmental chemicals might be causing the rise in gender dysphoria all the way back in 2018, as one of seven possibilities for the increase. So in some sense I was ahead of the curve.

As far as SSA, Swan spends less time on this, though she does make mention of the usual evidence from animals. 

Meanwhile, some environmental contaminants have been found to alter the mating and reproductive behavior of certain species. We’ve seen alterations in courtship and pairing behavior in white ibises that were exposed to methylmercury, in Florida. One study found a significant increase in homosexuality in male ibises that were exposed to methylmercury, a result the researchers attribute to a demasculinizing pattern of estrogen and testosterone expression in the males; sexual behavior in birds (as in humans) is strongly influenced by circulating levels of steroid hormones including testosterone.

Again the evidence is suggestive, but inconclusive, but to repeat my point I’m not trying to reach a conclusion. What I want to know is what precautions do we take when there’s suspicion of harm and the evidence is incomplete? It’s difficult enough to act when the evidence is overwhelming (see the global warming issue, and also all previous discussions about nuclear power.) But what possible precautions can we take on an issue like gender dysphoria where the harms are hotly disputed, it’s right in the middle of a culture war, and the evidence is never going to be ironclad? 

V- Solutions

This post has gone on longer than I intended, so it might be worthwhile to briefly review what we’re trying to do here. One of the best ways to look at the situation is using the analogy offered by Nick Bostrom. We’re drawing balls from the bag of technology. Some are white and beneficial, some are gray and harmful. If we ever draw a black ball the game is over and we’ve lost. 

As to the last point, I am not claiming that any of the things we’ve discussed represents a black ball. Rather I think something else is going on, something which Bostrom doesn’t consider in his original analogy, rather it’s something I came up with as an addition to his analogy: some of the balls will get darker after being drawn. Initially DDT’s effect on malaria transmitting mosquitoes seemed nothing short of miraculous. And plastics and other chemicals have been put to millions of uses in nearly everything. It’s only in the intervening years that DDT was shown to cause deep ecological harm, and plastics and other chemicals are now suspected to be causing infertility and obesity. 

So, how are we supposed to handle the possibility that the “balls” of technology may change color? That something which initially seemed entirely beneficial will end up having profound, but unpredicted harms? Obviously this is a difficult topic, made more difficult by the fact that nearly any solution you can imagine would impact beneficial technologies at least as much as the harmful ones. That said, I think there are some principles that could be useful as we move forward. Clearly there is no simple solution which can be applied in all cases—something obvious and straightforward. We can’t suddenly stop introducing new technologies, nor can we unwind the last few decades of technology. (Which is what would be required to be certain of reversing the effects I’ve mentioned above.) But rather each technology requires precautions carefully crafted to the specific nature of the technology.

The first and most obvious principle is that of trade-offs. None of the things we’re considering have zero benefits and neither do any of them have zero harms. Whether it’s chemicals or nuclear power or vaccines everything has advantages and disadvantages. I have argued that the downsides of vaccines are vastly outweighed by its benefits, and I maintain a similar position when it comes to nuclear power, though the case is not quite so clear. When it comes to chemicals, the situation is even more complicated, but to have any chance of making a decision we need to know what sort of decision we’re making, and which benefits we’re foregoing in order to prevent which harms.

This takes us to the second principle. We need to have the data necessary to make these decisions. The SMTM guys would have had a much easier time making their case (or being refuted) if data collection had been better. As one example of many from their posts:

Glyphosate was patented in 1971 and first sold in 1974, but the FDA didn’t test for glyphosate in food until 2016, which seems pretty weird.

I am not an expert on which sorts of data are already being collected, who’s collecting them, what sort of costs are associated with the collection etc. But I have a hard time imagining that any reasonable level of data collection would be more expensive than trying to rip a harmful technology out of society after it’s spent decades putting down roots.

Of course this is yet another principle: Earlier is better. The sooner we can detect possible harms the easier and less complicated it is to deal with them. Lithium extraction has been going on for decades, but the oldest paper I could find linking it to obesity is from 2018. Presumably we might have been able to take more effective precautions if we had known about this link before lithium took on it’s critical role in the modern world, most notably in the form of lithium ion batteries. 

It should be pointed out that the only way we can do all of these things is if we establish awareness of suspected harms in the first place. We’re unlikely to collect data on something when there’s no suspicion of risk. Or if the suspicion of risk has not risen to become part of the awareness of those empowered to collect data. That, more than anything else, is the point of this post, and of my blogging in general. Convincing people of some particular harm is secondary to making people aware of its potential for harm in the first place.

I am well aware that awareness can easily morph from familiarity into fear. To a degree that’s what I think happened with nuclear power. Preventing this from happening presents one of the greatest difficulties to the whole endeavor. One where I don’t think there’s a good answer. But I will offer up the somewhat counterintuitive opinion that the more potential harms we identify the better it will be. I think if people understand that nearly everything has the potential for harm, that this knowledge might help them not to overreact when some new harm is added to their already long list.

Thus far what we have mostly described is a process of observation not of intervention. While one assumes that intervention will ultimately be necessary, our usual tactic for such interventions is to enact them at the highest level possible. International treaties, federal regulations, etc. This results in interventions which are both crude, and ineffective, if not outright harmful. A great example of this would be environmental impact statements, which seem to be hated by just about everyone.

Here we arrive at what I consider the most important principle of all. The principle of scale. I’ve talked about scale before, and in a similar context, but in the limited space I have remaining I’d like to approach it from a different angle.

One of the things that jumped out to me as I was reading both Count Down and the SMTM stuff was how useful it was for their endeavors to have groups which provided natural experiments. Groups which had a greater than average exposure to the chemicals in question, or happened to have entirely avoided it either through chance, some system of belief, or a different regulatory system. It’s helpful to have lots of different people trying lots of different things.

This idea, depending on its context, can be labeled federalism, subsidiarity, or libertarianism. But in another sense it’s also a religious issue, nor is it certain that the two don’t bleed together. People offer religious objections to vaccines, could they go the opposite way and assert that their religion demands that they use nuclear power? As another example, what if there was a religion which demanded that their food be free of certain chemicals? Considering the wide availability of kosher and halal food, this tactic seems worth pursuing. I understand that some people already do this with organic food, and to an extent there is an associated ideology. Is there any reason not to lean into this?

The point I’m trying to make is not that we should encourage religions to do such things but rather we shouldn’t discourage them. If someone wants to try something, like intentionally infecting themselves with COVID as part of a human challenge trial. Whatever they want to label it—and it’s possible the most effective label would be the religious label—we should allow it. 

In this way we can do all the things I mentioned—assess trade-offs, gather data, raise awareness—at a scale that limits the harm. Of course this is not to say that there is no harm. I realize this opens the door to having even more people refuse to get vaccinated. I disagree with people who are opposed to getting vaccinated and I understand how having such unvaccinated people endangers the rest of the population. And I realize this proposal might make it easier to refuse a vaccine. I also understand people who are opposed to nuclear power, despite my strong advocacy of it. They believe they will suffer the harmful effects of radiation despite not being part of the community that uses nuclear power just as vaccinated people think they are more likely to get breakthrough COVID despite not being part of the anti-vax community. Unfortunately one of the few ways available to us to figure out whether a technology is dangerous or not is for some people to use it and for some people not to use it. 

It would be nice if we could instantly discern whether a technology was going to be beneficial or harmful, on net, but we can’t. And I think our record of deciding such a thing in one fell swoop for all time and all people shows that we’re wrong at least as often as we’re right, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re actually wrong more often.

If you take nothing else from this very long post, it should be this. The precautionary principle is important, and as new technologies come along and as the harms of old technologies become more apparent we need to figure out some way of being more cautious—to neither blindly embrace nor impulsively reject technology. We need to be brave and careful. We need to gather data, but also act on hunches. The dangers are subtle and if we’re going to survive them we need cleverness equal to this subtlety. Put simply we need to look before we leap.


I’m not sure if this is my longest post, I’m too lazy to check. If it’s not it’s close. If you made it this far let me know. I’ll randomly select one of you for a $20 Amazon gift card. Let’s be honest you earned it. If alternatively you want to fund the gift card consider donating


Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window

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I- A Brief Meta-Aside

I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:

A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]

The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction. 

I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)

Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news. 

II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?

I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.

It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.

Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor. 

I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar.  It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable. 

All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq. 

III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?

Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.

Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March.

And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020? 

There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”

If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban. 

As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.

Those caveats aside, what would success look like?

IV- Getting people out of there

I feel bad reading things like this:

Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”

This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens. 

But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”

But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”

The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend…

I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.

I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?

(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)

We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.

V- Enforcing some kind of standard

It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.

 

Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle. 

VI-Politics

Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.

Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.

First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.

Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America. 

Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! 

First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?

VI- I’ve seen this movie before

The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.

I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid. 

Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:

This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.

It’s a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki ‘circling back’, until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It’s like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.


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The 10 Books I Finished in July

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  1. Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by: Shanna H. Swan
  2. End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) by: Katie Mack
  3. Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America by: Charles Murray
  4. Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness by: Tim Grover
  5. Streaking: The Simple Practice of Conscious, Consistent Actions That Create Life-Changing Results by: Jeffrey J. Downs and Jami L. Downs
  6. Red Rising by: Pierce Brown
  7. Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas by: Spike Walker
  8. Freedom by: Sebastian Junger
  9. Faust by: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  10. Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas by: Thomas Jay Oord

I’m back. Hopefully my absence was not too distressing… 

The older I get the more I hate the heat, and as July is the hottest month of the year, lately I’ve been trying to get out of Utah, or at least up into the mountains. This July I went to the Open and Relational Theology Conference which was at a ski resort near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Shortly after getting back from that I took a trip with my wife to a condo in the mountains. Both trips were nice, and I will talk more about the theology conference when I get to the associated review.

These two trips meant that I didn’t get as much done as I had hoped but I did quite a bit done with the time freed up by not writing two essays last month. I’m hoping some of my efforts will bear fruit, but only time will tell. As you can tell whatever else I may have been doing in July I did get quite a bit of reading done, so I’m going to try to keep things tight. Thus, without further ado:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race

by: Shanna H. Swan

292 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

That modern world is suffering from a severe chemically induced fertility crisis.

Who should read this book?

If news about decreased sperm counts fills you with curiosity or dread, this is the book for you. 

General Thoughts

Growing up my experience was that kids were everywhere and they arrived fairly effortlessly. I’m the oldest of seven kids. In the house across the street was another family with seven kids and one of my best friends had 11 brothers and sisters. Now admittedly Mormons have always been at the higher end of the total fertility rate (TFR) curve, but the larger point I’m trying to get at is that when I was a child I saw no evidence of any fertility problems. 

These days it seems like we’re in exactly the opposite situation. It feels harder to come up with couples who don’t have any fertility problems than those which do. If I’m trying to be objective I don’t think this is literally the case, nor do I put much stock in my childhood impressions, but I know an awful lot of couples who are having a devil of a time conceiving. 

I hadn’t really given that much thought to this dichotomy until I started reading this book. Certainly I had heard that male sperm counts had been falling, but even with my focus on technologically induced crises, it only dimly registered. If someone had asked me for my opinion on the subject before reading this book, I probably would have said that the science on the phenomenon was still unclear. I would have been wrong.

Perhaps this subject was just a blind spot for me and everyone else knew it was a crisis, but my sense is that we’ve spent so much time focusing on why people might have fewer children, that the crisis of being unable to have kids has slipped under the radar. But make no mistake, it is a crisis. Here are just a handful of the statistics Swan provides in the book:

  • Miscarriages are increasing by 1% per year
  • Between 1973 and 2011 sperm concentration dropped 52% in western countries. This study involved 42,935 men.
  • The average twenty something woman is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35. 
  • In China eligible sperm donors dropped from 56 percent to 18 percent. (So it’s not just the west.)
  • Standards for infertility have been lowered. In the 40s it was 60 million sperm/mL, now the standard is 15.
  • 26% of men who present with some degree of erectile dysfunction are under 40.
  • Impaired Fecundity is actually worse among young women, relatively speaking. There was a 42% increase in impairment among women aged 14-24. While there was only a 6% increase in impairment among women aged 35-44.

About half the book is composed of statistics and a general overview of chemically induced infertility and about half is advice for what individuals can do to increase their personal fertility. I find the advice for individuals less interesting, but I was curious how efficacious it was. Swan gave lots of pointers but not much guidance on how much impact each, or even all of these changes would make. For example, with age having such an effect, which cohort has greater fertility: 20 year olds who follow none of Swan’s advice or 35 year olds who follow all of it? I suspect the former. If that’s the case, which is easier? Convincing people to have children earlier or completely eliminating harmful chemicals from every corner of the environment, and from everyone’s bodies? 

We might hope that there’s some simple fix, that perhaps we can fight chemicals with chemicals. That if these chemicals mess with fertility, perhaps by throwing off the proper function of estrogen or testosterone we can just add more. Unfortunately the body is more complicated that, as one example, testosterone replacement therapy causes 90% of men to drop to a sperm count of zero!

Eschatological Implications

Shortly after finishing Count Down I came across another piece claiming that chemicals were also causing the obesity epidemic. So I intend to do a separate post looking at both claims, and the ways in which they interact. Instead I’m going to use this space to have a higher level discussion.

There are many people who wish to claim that everything is going great, and that the future is going to be awesome. In order to do this they have to explain how the dangers people currently fixate on are overblown or soluble. I am most familiar with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and while he talked directly about climate change and AI risk, as well speaking about pollution generally, he did not cover chemically induced infertility. This was not a danger that was on his radar, not a problem of modernity he considered.

As I said I am not familiar with every work in this genre, and perhaps some of them have a compelling answer for why this potential catastrophe should not trouble us, but Pinker entirely ignores it. In drawing attention to this, my point is not that it’s unanswerable, my point is that it illustrates just how many potential technological catastrophes there are. 

It’s not as if this problem is difficult to foresee or get a handle on. It’s easy to measure, it’s central to human flourishing, and the evidence has been available for decades. It didn’t make my list, or Pinker’s list, or really any list because there are just so many things for us to worry about. (Pinker also completely missed the corrosive effects of social media, because his book was written in 2018 rather than 2020.) There are just so many things that can go wrong. So many unintended consequences to our large-scale tampering. If we can’t even adequately deal with problems which should be obvious, how are we going to deal with the subtle problems, the ones that sneak up on us?


End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) 

by: Katie Mack

240 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

An exploration of theories on how the universe will end.

Who should read this book?

People who like astrophysics, or thinking in time horizons of trillions of years.

General Thoughts

I remember reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time back in the day. This book has a similar feel, though it was more irreverent and humorous than Hawking’s. (Though, to be clear, Hawking could be quite funny.) Labelling this book “A Brief History of the End of Time” would not have been misleading.

In the book Mack covers six possibilities for the end of everything: Heat Death, Big Crunch, Big Rip, Vacuum Decay or Bouncing Branes. Two of these explanations (crunch and bounce) posit a universe that cycles with the death of one universe leading to the birth of the next. The rest of the explanations posit a universe that dead ends. Cycles have always made more sense to me, otherwise you need a whole separate endeavor for explaining how universes begin. That said, dead end explanations currently seem to be favored by astrophysicists. And if that’s the way the data points, that’s the way it points. But my bet is on cycles, or some other stable state (And my personal bet is that God will reveal this to me in the hereafter. Should we run into each other in the next life I want you to remember this prediction and give me credit accordingly.)

Eschatological Implications

This book is primarily about eschatology, so obviously I had to include it in this section. Though it is an eschatology much different than what I normally write about, and much different than what most people care about. Mack largely writes about things that will happen long after we are gone, and by long I mean, for example, 10^1000 years from now. And while it’s good that some people are thinking about it, I will still contend that my eschatological focus is more useful than Mack’s. 

This is not to say the book wasn’t useful or interesting. It was fascinating. I particularly liked the Vacuum Decay possibility. This holds that the Higgs Field/Potential is at a local minimum, but not a global minimum. Some incredibly energetic event could locally knock it out of its current minimum and into the global minimum, when that happened the nearby space would follow suit and a bubble of this new universe would expand out at the speed of light. Since it’s expanding as fast as information can travel we wouldn’t know about it until it hit us. One day everything’s fine and the next day the universe is unrecognizable. If you’ve ever read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut this is similar to what happens with ice-9.

Finally, this book was also a great reminder about how little we know about things. Mack points out that of the four things that determine how the universe behaves—matter, dark matter, dark energy, and time—we really only understand matter and it’s the smallest contributor to that behavior.


II- Capsule Reviews

Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America

by: Charles Murray

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The two truths that there are racial differences in cognitive ability and criminality. 

Who should read this book?

Possibly no one. I think Murray’s arguments are important, but the issue is so polarized that there is no one left who does not already have a position which is unalterable.

General Thoughts

Murray is best known as the co-author, along with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve which makes the case that intelligence is important and partially heritable. As a result of this heritability they go on to say that intelligence has different means and distributions among the various racial groups. In this book Murray again makes the case for racial differences in cognitive ability, and to that he adds data making the case for racial differences in criminality. He doesn’t speculate on a root cause for these differences, but he does assert that they will be with us “indefinitely”. And indeed, according to his data the difference was shrinking until the late 80’s, but since then it’s been remarkably stable. 

As you might imagine we’re already in dangerous territory. The Bell Curve is still taboo, and Murray, despite being unfailingly civil, is also basically taboo. And while Murray avoids mentioning genetic racial differences in this book, it’s impossible for the mind not to go there, so perhaps you want me to offer some opinion.

This reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets a couple of women to agree to a ménage à trois, but in the end decides that he can’t go through with it because he’s not an orgy guy. If he were going to do that he would have to get new clothes, new decor, new friends—he’d have to grow a mustache. Which is to say diving into racial differences in IQ is a whole lifestyle, really on both sides of the argument. And I’m not going to do it. 

However I will say this, and I’ll probably end up regretting it. In the rationalist community, which I am adjacent to in a very vague sense, these sorts of ideas are generally viewed as having some truth to them. And I don’t think it’s because rationalists are just unforgivably hateful and racist, I think it’s because that’s what the data seems to say. If you’re interested in a brief overview of that data you could do worse than read Murray’s book.


Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness 

by: Tim Grover

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the true pursuit of winning requires an absolute single-minded devotion.

Who should read this book?

If you want to be inspired to try harder and to be tougher this is your book.

General Thoughts

Grover trained Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (among others) two of the most relentless competitors who have ever walked the Earth. This is a book about how if you really want to win, there is no work/life balance, there is no pausing to rest. That all the cliches we tell ourselves are wrong. Showing up is NOT half the battle. Winning is selfish, there is an “I” in team. And you don’t need to make time for yourself or others. The only thing you should be making time for are things that take you closer to victory.

I found this book a useful wake-up call, and something of a corrective to so much of the current self-help landscape. I think I had mostly slid into a certain routine which was more focused on the perfecting of the routine than getting to a certain outcome. If it never gets me the outcome I want, what use was the routine? 

However, while I think the world in general needs more focus on “Winning!” and less focus on small incremental improvements. I would argue that the absolute fixation Grover advocates for is dangerous. I do think balance is important, but more than that I’m worried that Grover doesn’t draw any lines. As an example consider Lance Armstrong. Grover didn’t coach Armstrong, but Armstrong is another example of a relentless competitor, so relentless that he didn’t give a second thought to doping (i.e. performance enhancing drugs). Grover doesn’t ever mention doping but the impression one gets is that he would be in favor of it. Particularly given that all of Armstrong’s competitors were doping. How else would Armstrong win if he didn’t do the same?

If Grover is against doping, this book gives no hint of it, and nothing in the book could be used to derive that conclusion. But of course the real question is: did Jordan or Bryant ever use performance enhancing drugs while Grover was training them?


Streaking: The Simple Practice of Conscious, Consistent Actions That Create Life-Changing Results

by: Jeffrey J. Downs and Jami L. Downs

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Creating “streaks”, i.e. doing an activity every day in an uninterrupted fashion as a way of self improvement.

Who should read this book?

If the previous book didn’t appeal to you, maybe this one will. This is self-improvement at its easiest and most basic.

General Thoughts

This book is basically the inverse of the previous book. Rather than looking at improvement or winning as a total endeavor, this book puts forth the smallest and easiest possible methodology for improvement. The “streaks” methodology involves picking some activity that would be a part of your ideal life, and then making sure that you do that activity every day, keeping track of your “streak” of days. This activity should not be big, in fact they recommend the criteria of “laughably easy” when deciding what the activity should be. They also don’t recommend starting several streaks all at once, but rather suggest that you should go 100 days with your first streak before adding another one.

As you can see this is basically the opposite of what Grover is recommending, and I think both points of view are valuable, but my guess is that Downs’ recommendation will be more useful for more people. Still, you should never forget the need to actually win on occasion.


Red Rising 

by: Pierce Brown

382 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the first book of a dystopian science fiction series set ~700 years in the future where humanity has been divided into colors, each color has a specific role. Golds are on top and Reds are on the bottom.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a good sci fi series, I’ve heard good things about this one, and the first book was very enjoyable.

General Thoughts

There are lots of elements that go into a good science fiction book. Plot, characters, setting, world building, etc. Pierce is pretty strong with nearly all of them. In part this is because he uses the increasingly common technique, one which I’ve kind of decided is cheating, of setting his book in a school. It’s a very strange school, and I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense, but it is a school, and with that setting comes all sorts of things you don’t have to worry about. You only have to deal with basically one location. The plot is naturally driven by the pedagogy of the school. And, If you only focus on a few characters that feels entirely natural. 

However, as I said, I’m not sure it makes sense. *Incredibly mild spoiler* The school is composed entirely of Golds, the very highest caste, and they die like flies. Which is a world very different from ours, and I don’t know that his world-building is deep enough to make it believable. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t entirely cohere. But as criticism goes, that’s a pretty mild one. It’d be pretty hard to find a book that doesn’t have some flaw at least as egregious. 

As I write this I’m a third of the way done with the second book, and it occurs to me that the part Red Rising does poorly is what Dune does so masterfully. And there are definitely echos of Dune in the book, but that’s a very hard act to follow.

In the final analysis, Red Rising is not a classic, but it’s still quite good.


Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas 

by: Spike Walker

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Amazing Coast Guard rescues off the coast of Alaska.

Who should read this book?

People who appreciate shows like “Deadliest Catch” or general stories of man against nature.

General Thoughts

I’ve read a lot of these stories and this collection is as good as any of them, in particular the story of the most prominent rescue has a horrible twist that makes it all the more dramatic. 


Freedom

by: Sebastian Junger

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A meditative book that’s half autobiographical narrative of a walking trip Junger took and half narrative of the way freedom was understood during the early history of the country. 

Who should read this book?

People who enjoy long, discursive podcasts, or Junger’s other stuff.

General Thoughts

Freedom was not as good as Tribe (few books are), though it is probably more personal. After getting divorced Junger decided to start walking the rails with three companions. Walking the rails is illegal, and as such it provides the setting for numerous anecdotes on freedom. About half the anecdotes come from his trip and about half the anecdotes are historical.

I listened to the audiobook, which is only three hours long, and I think if you approach the book as just a long episode of a good podcast it’s amazing.


Faust 

by: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

158 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The original Faustian bargain.

Who should read this book?

It’s a classic and it’s short, so maybe everyone?

General Thoughts

Sometimes when you read an acknowledged classic you immediately recognize why it’s a classic, sometimes you kind of have to take it on faith. Faust is split into two parts and I think the first part fell into the “immediate recognition” bucket, while the second part was in the “take it on faith” bucket.

Though Faust isn’t just an acknowledged classic, it’s frequently named as the greatest work of German literature, which would appear to be a level beyond that. I definitely didn’t get that sense, even out of Part 1, but perhaps I should try reading it in the original German. I mostly know Dutch and it feels like with a moderate amount of effort I could pick up German literacy. Though it kind of feels like I’m at a point in my life when I should be cutting back on things rather than being ambitious. 

As a final note I should mention that in the past I have found full cast audiobooks to be less enjoyable than those with a single great narrator. I listened to a full cast version of this book and it was quite good. So perhaps I just had a few bad experiences. I’ll keep you posted.


III- Religious Reviews

Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas

by: Thomas Jay Oord

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A new take on how God operates, very different from traditional religious ideas.

Who should read this book?

If you like plumbing the depths of theology, but find some of it far too dry, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I went to a conference on open and relational theology (ORT) last month, but this was not because I subscribe to it. My biggest reason was that I was acquainted with Oord, who organized the conference. Also, it didn’t appear any more expensive than taking a vacation of similar duration, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone. 

ORT does have a lot of overlap with LDS theology, in particular they’re very big on the idea of free will and agency. Something that’s also pretty foundational for Mormons. ORT uses it to answer the questions of evil and suffering.  Basically God can’t do anything which interferes with our free will. More broadly, God has only a limited ability to interfere with anything.

As I said this is not my theology and so I don’t want to get too deep into things lest I misrepresent it, but one of the interesting outgrowths of this focus on free will is that God can’t know the future. If he knows with absolute certainty what’s going to happen then we don’t really have free will. This is the “open” part of ORT, it describes the idea that the future is open, that both we and God move through time in the same way at the same rate. So God doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow anymore than we do. (One assumes his predictions are better, but they are still just predictions, there is no certainty.)

As a result of this God experiences things, again much the same way we do, and he experiences our actions while we experience his. This is the “relational” part. God is not a fixed unmovable being unchanging through all the eternities, in ORT God develops in harmony with the rest of creation. His essence is unchanging, but what he has experienced is constantly being added to.

It’s a very interesting idea, and I met a lot of very cool people. As a theology I think it’s something of a statement on the ongoing developments in Christianity and religion, but I’m still not 100% sure what that statement is.

Winning for me is getting people to pay me to write. I have an ongoing “streak” where I ask for money at the end of every post. But perhaps I’ve been looking at it all wrong, and if I really want to “Win!” I need to pass the bank teller a note demanding all the money. Wouldn’t that count as getting paid for my writing? And the rate per word would be huge! Perhaps that should be my plan B. If you want to help me with plan A, consider donating.


Eschatologist #7: Might Technology = Extinction?

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One of the great truths of the world is that the future is unpredictable. This isn’t a great truth because it’s true in every instance. It’s a great truth because it’s true about great things. We can’t predict the innovations that will end up blessing (or in any event changing) the lives of millions, but even more importantly we can’t predict the catastrophes that will end up destroying the lives of millions. We can’t predict wars or famines or plagues—as was clearly demonstrated with the recent pandemic. And yet on some level despite the impossibilities of foretelling the future we must still make an attempt.

It would be one thing if unpredicted catastrophes were always survivable. If they were tragic and terrible, but in the end civilization, and more importantly humanity, was guaranteed to continue. Obviously avoiding all tragedy and all terror would be ideal, but that would be asking too much of the world. The fact is even insisting on survivability is too much to ask of the world, because the world doesn’t care. 

Recognizing both the extreme dangers facing humanity, as well as the world’s insouciance, some have decided to make a study of these dangers, a study of extinction risks, or x-risks for short. But if these terminal catastrophes are unpredictable what does this study entail? For many it involves the calculation of extreme probabilities—is the chance of extinction via nuclear war 1 in 1,000 over the next 100 years or is it 1 in 500? Others choose to look for hints of danger, trends that appear to be plunging or rising in a dangerous direction or new technology which has clear benefits, but perhaps also, hidden risks. 

In my own efforts to understand these risks, I tend to be one of those who looks for hints, and for me the biggest hint of all is Fermi’s Paradox, the subject of my last newsletter. One of the hints provided by the paradox is that technological progress may inevitably carry with it the risk of extinction by that same technology

Why else is the galaxy not teeming with aliens

This is not to declare with certainty that technology inevitably destroys any intelligent species unlucky enough to develop it. But neither can we be certain that it won’t. Indeed we must consider such a possibility to be one of the stronger explanations for the paradox. The recent debate over the lab leak hypothesis should strengthen our assessment of this possibility. 

If we view any and all technology as a potential source of danger then we would appear to be trapped, unless we all agree to live like the Amish. Still, one would think there must be some way of identifying dangerous technology before it has a chance to cause widespread harm, and certainly before it can cause the extinction of all humanity! 

As I mentioned already there are people studying this problem and some have attempted to quantify this danger. For example here’s a partial list from The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord. The odds represent the chance of that item causing humanity’s extinction in the next 100 years.

  • Nuclear War                       ~1 in 1000
  • Climate Change                 ~1 in 1000
  • Engineered Pandemics     ~1 in 30
  • Out of control AI                ~1 in 10

You may be surprised to see nuclear war so low and AI so high, which perhaps is an illustration of the relative uncertainty of such assessments. As I said, the future is unpredictable. But such a list does provide some hope, maybe if we can just focus on a few items like these we’ll be okay? Perhaps, but I think most people (though not Ord) overlook a couple of things. First, people have a tendency to focus on these dangers in isolation, but in reality we’re dealing with them all at the same time, and probably dozens of others besides. Second it probably won’t be the obvious dangers that get us—how many people had heard of “gain of function research” before a couple of months ago?

What should we make of the hint given us by Fermi’s Paradox? How should we evaluate and prepare ourselves against the potential risks of technology? What technologies will end up being dangerous? And what technologies will have the power to save us? Obviously these are hard questions, but I believe there are steps we can take to lessen the fragility of humanity. Steps which we’ll start discussing next month…


If the future is unpredictable, how do I know that I’ll actually need your donation. I don’t, but money is one of those things that reduce fragility, which is to say it’s likely to be useful whatever the future holds. If you’d like to help me, or indeed all of humanity, prepare for the future, consider donating.


The 8 Books I Finished in June

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  1. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by: Steven E. Koonin
  2. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by: Peter Godfrey-Smith
  3. The Start 1904-30 by: William L. Shirer
  4. The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II by: Obmascik, Mark
  5. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by: Robert K. Massie
  6. Tiamat’s Wrath by: James S. A. Corey
  7. What I Saw in America by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Job: A New Translation by: Edward L. Greenstein

It was a little over five years ago that I started this blog. In that time I have written 240 posts, or an average of four a month, which is less than I hoped to write but still pretty impressive. Enough so that I feel like I’ve earned a break, as such other than this entry, and the end of the month newsletter, I’m not planning on posting anything else, though I have a vague idea about updating some of my past posts, so there’s some chance I’ll do that. This is not primarily about taking a vacation, it’s primarily about carving out time to get some momentum on the book I’ve been working on, which I still hope to have out this year. And which has been stalled at 30% for a while. 

Beyond that there’s not much to report, except that June has been super hot, which I hate, but I’ll talk more about that in my first review:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

By: Steven E. Koonin

240 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the media and climate activists distort the facts and science of climate change.

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in steelmanning the case for not being alarmed about the climate, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

As I just mentioned, June here in Utah has been hot. On June 15th, Salt Lake City hit 107, which tied the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded here. (In the time since I first wrote that Portland hit 115). This is bad enough, but the fact that it happened in June is even worse. July is generally hotter than June, so worse may be yet to come. 

When things like this happen it’s easy to take it as proof that the globe is warming, that record breaking heat is more common, and that super hot days are the new normal. Not so fast, says Koonin. He claims, regardless of how it appears, that we haven’t had more record breaking heat, that the increase in average temperature hasn’t come because it’s getting hotter, it’s come because it no longer gets quite so cold. That the daily low temperatures are not quite so low anymore, but that the daily highs are unchanged. In making this claim he walks you through all the data, almost all of it taken from the official IPCC reports.

Note: The last paragraph was written before Lytton, Canada beat the previous Canadian high temperature record by a full 8 degrees, and then, subsequently burned to the ground. I understand this is just one data point, but viscerally it’s pretty compelling. 

It’s hard to not come across as strident when you’re talking about global warming, if for no other reason than that there’s just so much background contention. Koonin is no exception to this stridency, but insofar as he has an axe to grind it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with politics. It seems to be the exact opposite. What sets him off is when people twist science for political ends. Koonin appears to have a mania for accuracy, for pointing out where things are uncertain. And when it comes to something as complicated as the climate and you’re trying to make predictions about exactly where it’s going to be in 100 years, you’ve got nothing but uncertainty.

You may find it hard to believe that he doesn’t have a partisan axe to grind, but that’s part of what drew me to the book. Koonin was 2nd Undersecretary for Science under Obama. He was also Provost of Caltech. These two together should be enough to convince you that he’s not some unhinged climate change denier, that he may in fact be exactly what he says he is, someone who’s just interested in making sure that the facts are reported objectively. In service of this goal, as I mentioned above, most of his contentions are based on data from the IPCC reports, or from studies by scientists who are part of the IPCC. And the book is full of examples of some media outlet or politician saying something, for example, hurricanes are getting worse, and Koonin showing that this claim is not supported by any of the official reports, nor by the data.

He’s got many suggestions for how to deal with this problem. The one that I found most interesting was the idea of treating climate change science like a war game. In war games you have a blue team and a red team. The blue team represents the friendlies, so if the US Army is conducting a war game the blue team represents the US. One portion of the army is assigned to the blue team, while another portion gets assigned to be the red team. They play the opponents and they’re trying to poke holes in the plan, to show where things have been missed, and where it might be vulnerable. Koonin suggests that we need a red team for climate change science. A group specifically tasked with showing where the science is weak or where the data is unclear. 

It’s an interesting idea, and insofar as Koonin is acting as a one man red team he does poke many holes in things. As one example, it turns out that our computer models are actually getting less accurate. This in spite of greater computing power and all of the insights into modeling we’ve presumably accumulated. Or at least Koonin claims models are getting less accurate… And that’s the problem. I have to mostly take his word for it. Yes, he gives citations and yes, I could look those up, but that’s a rabbit hole of essentially infinite depth.

I will point out that Tyler Cowen took particular issue with Koonin’s claim that “The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.” Saying:

That is presented as a big deal, and yes it would be.  But “minimal”?  The economist wishes to ask “how much.”  The more concrete discussion comes on pp.178-179, which looks at twenty studies (all or most of them bad), and reports they estimate that by 2100 global gdp is three percent less due to climate change, or perhaps the damages are smaller yet.  Those estimates are then graphed, and there is a bit of numerical analysis of what that means for growth rates working backwards.  There is not much more than that on the question, and no attempt to provide an independent estimate of the economic costs of global warming, or to tell us which might be the best study or what it might be missing.  Koonin seems more interested in discrediting the hypocritical or innumerate climate change researchers than finding out the best answer to the question of cost.

So, if I’m not going to spend my time going down the rabbit hole of verifying Koonin’s sources, what am I going to spend my time on? How about…

Eschatological Implications

Global warming is primarily viewed through an eschatological lens. Is it an existential crisis? Will it lead to vast upheaval? Does it represent the end of the modern world as we inevitably harvest the bitter fruits of progress?

Determining the answer to these questions is obviously of critical importance. Certainly when I talk to people, particularly of a more liberal bent, they answer all of these in the affirmative, and while the data I found on this subject is all over the place, anecdotally my impression is that global warming has become the default doomsday scenario, supplanting nuclear war—particularly among people of a certain age and ideology. So what sort of contribution does the book make to answering our questions?

First let’s start with a couple of things he doesn’t cover that I think he should have:

Climate refugees: When I talk to someone who’s actually informed about the issues the thing they’re the most worried about is not rising sea levels, it’s refugees fleeing areas that are no longer habitable because of severe heat and drought. More broadly they worry not that global warming will directly kill people, but that it will create discord between nations, in the form of wars over resources and refugees. And that it is these conflicts we really need to worry about.

Koonin discusses numerous potential harms, but not this one. The closest he comes is pointing out that warming is mostly occurring near the poles, rather than the equator. So while Siberia is getting much warmer (which could potentially be a good thing if you’re worried about food and refugees) the regions where most of the refugees are expected to come from are not experiencing much of an effect from warming. Perhaps Koonin assumes that people will be able to continue to live in these areas because their climate and the associated agriculture will be largely unaffected, if so that’s a pretty big assumption.

Loss of Biodiversity: Among my knowledgeable friends, this is the next big thing they worry about: a mass extinction of species caused by warming. (One of my friends calls it “The Omnicide”.) Here, I suppose Koonin might argue that warming is not the only thing causing the extinctions. Or perhaps he would argue that these extinctions will probably have little impact on us. I’m only speculating because he doesn’t make any arguments, so I have no way to judge whether he could make a persuasive argument along these lines. I suspect not. As to the former argument I’m not sure what the breakdown is between warming and things like habitat destruction, pollution, and other forms of exploitation. As to the latter, I do have some figures. From the latest issue of The Economist:

At least 9% of the 6,200 breeds of domesticated mammals that humans eat or use to produce food had become extinct by 2016, and at least 1,000 more are threatened. 

If you combine those and do the math that’s 25%. Now this is just domesticated mammals, I don’t know what the associated number is for plants, but that seems like a lot. 

Thus from my perspective Koonin completely ignores the two climatic impacts people are most concerned about. Even if you buy the rest of his arguments against climate alarmism, there’s plenty of potential alarmism left just in these two topics.

If we wanted to be more charitable we could just focus on Koonin’s criticism of science and reporting. And here my natural inclination is to be entirely on Koonin’s side. It seems obvious that we should do the best we can to uncover the true facts of the situation, and present them without embellishment. That if we can just nail down the science it will show us the path forward. 

This was obvious and this was my natural inclination — the idealism of my youth. These days I’m a little more pessimistic. First off, worldwide coordination problems, like the one presented by global warming, are extraordinarily difficult. And if you’re thinking that you’re not even sure whether it is a problem, then you’ve just illustrated my point. Agreement is the first layer of coordination and the most difficult. And while demanding additional rigor can produce more certainty, it also embeds inaction while waiting for that rigor, and tacitly opens the option to always demanding ever increasing amounts of rigor. And in a sense that’s what Koonin is doing. Yes, I understand the idea that if we can just nail down the science, the path forward will be clear. But as I’ve pointed out in a couple of previous posts this idea of “follow the science” is far more difficult than most people realize. A subject I’ll go into more in my next review.

I liked Koonin’s book. I’m glad I read it. It was particularly good as a corrective to certain forms of apocalyptic alarmism. That said I do think he missed some of the complexities inherent in the issue—complexities which shouldn’t be overlooked.

As far as the larger issue of global warming, I’ve written about it before and I’ll probably write about it again. In particular I keep coming back to nuclear power as a solution both to this issue and to many other issues. Now I know people disagree with me on this, and there is a nuanced debate to be had over what to do with the waste, and what sort of reactors we should build, and what regulations are overkill and which are not, etc. etc. But I am becoming increasingly intolerant of anyone who is worried about climate change but who refuses to entertain the idea of making it easier to increase the supply of carbon free nuclear power.


Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science

By: Peter Godfrey-Smith

272 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

It’s pretty much right there in the subtitle. The book has everything from Logical Positivism, to Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in the Philosophy of Science. Additionally I’ll say I was very impressed by how easy it was to read, unlike a lot of philosophy and a lot of textbooks.

General Thoughts

I probably hang out around rationalists too much because almost from page one I was thinking, “But what about Bayesianism? Bayesianism seems to solve this problem.” Godfrey-Smith did eventually cover Bayesianism, but when he finally got around to it, it felt like he didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked. Possibly this is just a reflection of my biases, probably because Bayesianism, particularly in 2003 when the book was written, was still a relatively new movement. Which brings me to one of the few criticisms I have of the book. I felt like Godfrey-Smith was weaker the closer he got to the present day. (The book covered the progression chronologically.) In particular when Godfrey-Smith was propounding his own philosophy, I found it less interesting and more dogmatic. Which is to say he was better at being a historian than at being a philosopher himself. 

The other criticism I want to bring up is part criticism and part confusion. I had always heard that Occam’s Razor and the principle of parsimony was a critical part of science, since there are thousands of potential explanations to choose from for any given phenomenon which all fit the evidence, and the only way to choose between them is using this principle. But Godfrey-Smith spends very little time on the idea, and when he does he’s very dismissive:

Scientists often support hypotheses via an appeal to simplicity or “parsimony.” …Given two possible explanations for the data, scientists often prefer the simpler one. Despite various elaborate attempts, I do not think we have made much progress on understanding the operation of, or justification for, this preference.  

I’m not sure what to make of this. I’m not sure when or where I heard that the principle of parsimony was a critical part of the philosophy of science, but whenever that was I remember thinking, “Well of course! It’d have to be. That’s obvious.” But when I finally read an actual book about the philosophy of science, the author speaks of it only in passing and dismissively. Have I stumbled into a fight I know nothing about? Is Godfrey-Smith part of some anti-parsimony faction? Is the principle just currently out of favor like some kind of fashion accessory? Or is its importance not nearly so obvious to everyone else as it was to me?

Beyond these two issues the book was enjoyable, easy to read, and a great examination of the essentials of scientific epistemology, but what about its…

Eschatological Implications

I recently went through some theories as to what might have happened in 1971. One of the minor ones I tossed into the mix was the idea that we broke science. This book confirmed that opinion. Which is not to say that it contained incontrovertible evidence of this happening, which I will now reveal to you in a dramatic flourish. No, it just further confirmed the difficulty of doing science, adding another layer of complexity. Before reading the book I was aware of how difficult it is to conduct good science. Having read the book, now I’m aware of all the difficulties involved in even defining what good science is. Which is not to say I had no awareness of these difficulties previously, but that Theory and Reality deepened that awareness.  

The question that confronts us as we move forward is whether these definitional difficulties are going to get worse or better. Whether the problems of science are going to get more complex or less. Well given that nearly everything in the modern world is getting more complex, I’d be surprised if the battleground of defining science ended up being one of the rare exceptions. So if the project of defining good science is getting more difficult, what do these difficulties look like? Well they look like a lot of things, but many of the greatest difficulties seem to be the same as everywhere else. They come down to identity politics.

Godfrey-Smith devotes a whole chapter to “Feminism and Science Studies”, and interestingly in my copy of the book, which I bought used, this is the only chapter to have been marked up. Make of that what you will… Some of you reading this will wonder what feminism has to do with good science, others will probably know exactly where this is headed. Here’s the description from the book:

Feminist thinking about science makes up a diverse movement. It is unified, perhaps, by the idea that science has been part of a structure that has perpetuated inequalities between men and women. Science itself, and mainstream theorizing about science and knowledge, have helped to keep women in a “second-class” position as thinkers, knowers, and intellectual citizens.

Setting aside for the moment whether science is a tool of oppression, you can see that such claims only increase the difficulties inherent in defining what good science is. This book was written in 2003, so before critical race theory and the BLM movement, but adding race to the mix only further complicates things. 

It would be one thing if the issues being raised were limited to certain minor aspects of the scientific endeavor—aspects which could be easily excised—but increasingly it appears that the entire scientific endeavor may be under attack.

Perhaps you remember the kerfuffle when the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture put up a graphic with various objectionable aspects of “whiteness” which included the item, “Emphasis on Scientific Method” as one of these aspects. Yes I understand it’s just one example, but it is a fairly prominent example. And even if you don’t agree that it’s evidence of an assault on the scientific endeavor it is indisputably evidence of an increasingly complicated conception of science. One that will only make it harder to agree on what separates good science from bad.

The long term impact of broken science is hard to overstate. It’s the tool that has powered all of our progress for the last 300+ years. If that tool can no longer be relied on, then we don’t have any other tools waiting to take its place. I was recently pointed at an article that sums up the situation very well, it was titled Silly people vs. serious people. The recent attacks on science risk turning us from the serious people who got us to this point into silly people who are unable to go any farther. This might be okay if everyone was becoming “silly” but they’re not. There are still plenty of serious people out there, and mostly they’re not our friends. 


II- Capsule Reviews

The Start 1904-30

by: William L. Shirer

590 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

William L. Shirer was a journalist best known for his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This is the first book in his three volume autobiography.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants an insider’s account of Paris in the 20’s with appearances by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Lindbergh, Woolf, etc.

General Thoughts

I have long intended to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but I have yet to get around to it. This book was recommended to me by the voraciously well-read little old lady of my acquaintance and it was only after I started reading it that I made the connection. Once I did, I decided, for probably biased reasons, that it was smart to read Shirer’s biography first and then read his history. At some point I’ll be able to provide a report on whether that was in fact a wise decision, but it will probably be awhile. 

This book reminded me of The World Until Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, which I talked about the last time I visited the interwar years. Of course Zweig’s book began before World War I, and it’s in this period that the parallels are the most apparent. Which is to say pre-World War I Vienna, kind of resembles pre-World War II America. Both had a sense of optimism. Though it could be said that they were travelling in different directions. Vienna was on it’s way down while the US was on it’s way up.

Of course Shirer himself was on the way up. And in his rise you get a sense of how small the world was for an American with a college degree, even if that person was from a small town in Iowa. Now of course as a foreign correspondent Shirer lucked into a lot of things (meeting all of the people I mentioned above). But he also grew up in the same town as the guy who painted American Gothic, and had numerous well known professors and other breaks before he even made it to France. So Shirer benefited from being an American, but he was also appalled by many aspects of America.

Similar to nearly all intellectuals of the time (I point I brought up in a previous post on the interwar years.) Shirer was deeply disturbed by the inequality of the 20s, and thought that socialism was the best solution. And indeed it’s hard to read of the way capitol treated labor during this period without having similar sympathies. But it leads to this weird contrast particularly in the life of Shirer. As part of his criticisms of these horrible conditions he criticizes the idea of there being a path from poverty to wealth. He basically doesn’t believe in the American dream. For example he calls out the Horatio Alger stories for being borderline propaganda, while never seeming to be aware of the fact that he’s basically living in one of those stories.


The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II 

by: Obmascik, Mark

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Japanese doctor who was educated in America but ended up as part of the Imperial Army that occupied Attu, and the American soldier on the other side.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in World War II, this is a minor story in the whole scheme of things but a fascinating one. And one of the better examinations I’ve encountered of the Japanese side of things.

General Thoughts

Paul Tatsuguchi was living happily in America, having come here to study medicine, and as Obmascik tells it he might have stayed here permanently if his wealthy older brother, hadn’t sold his sister into prostitution, forcing Tatsuguchi to move home and rescue her. This is not the most interesting part of the story, but it’s close, which is why I included it. Though just now I reviewed Tatsuguchi’s wikipedia page and this element of his story is not mentioned, so take it with a grain of salt. 

In any event while he was in Japan he was drafted into the Imperial Army. This posed two problems for Tatsuguchi. One he didn’t want to fight against America, he knew how hopeless it was, and two he was a devout Seventh-day Adventist and therefore a pacifist. But obviously he didn’t have a choice, and was eventually sent to Attu, the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain. When the Americans eventually decided to retake it, a horrible battle ensued, as was so often the case. Tatsuguchi recorded his experience of it in a diary. 

Eventually the Japanese forces decided on a final banzai attack, and during that attack Tatsuguchi was killed by Dick Laird. Laird is the other soldier mentioned in the title, and the book spends about half the time on him. He grew up poor, working from a very young age in the coal mines before finally joining the military. He ended up recovering the journal, and when it was translated and revealed that there had been an American trained doctor on the island it caused a sensation. The translation was extensively photocopied and passed around, becoming almost holy writ for some of the men.


Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by: Robert K. Massie

672 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A biography of Catherine the Great, absolute ruler of Russia from 1762 to 1796.

Who should read this book?

If you enjoy history at all Massie is one of the best. I wouldn’t say this was quite as interesting as Peter the Great, but it was still quite good.

General Thoughts

Catherine did a lot of amazing things, and I obviously don’t have space to cover them all, so I’d like to just focus on Catherine’s aspiration to be an enlightened monarch. These days no one questions the idea that some form of democracy is the best form of government, and that absolute autocracies are the worst. But that was far from clear back then (and I’m not sure it’s quite as clear as we think even now.) Back then many people thought that the only way for progress to occur was under the guidance of an absolute monarch who had adopted enlightenment ideals. 

At the beginning of her reign this is precisely what Catherine tried to be. She corresponded with Voltaire, she bought the library of Denis Diderot, but let him keep it, while paying him to be its caretaker when he ran into financial difficulties.  Diderot ended up living in St. Petersburg for five months, and he and Catherine talked nearly every day. One of her first projects as monarch was to standardize the complicated and confusing set of Russia laws left by Peter the Great. As part of this project she put together a book of instructions containing the underlying principles she wanted the legal code to reflect. This included things like equality before the law for all Russians, greater protection for serfs, and a prohibition on torture and capital punishment. In earlier drafts of her instructions Catherine even proposed entirely freeing the serfs. And keep in mind that she wrote all this stuff a decade before the Declaration of Independence. 

Having put these instructions together she called together people from all walks of life, from nobles to peasants and charged them to use her instructions to come up with a new, more enlightened Russian legal code. These people met for a year and a half. The meetings were rancorous and unproductive. In the end this assembly accomplished basically nothing and after being suspended because Russia had gone to war with the Ottoman’s it was never restarted. By the time the French revolution erupted near the end of her reign Catherine had turned decisively against anything resembling democracy and many of the enlightenment ideals she had previously embraced.

The point of all this being that there was an enormous amount of progress in Russia under Catherine. But as the practical difficulties of making this progress became apparent Catherine became more and more disaffected with actual progressive methodology. As an actual monarch ruling over actual people she soon discovered that the lofty ideals of Voltaire and Diderot were horribly impractical. And when people tried to implement them you ended up with the French Revolution. I’m not sure what the lesson for the present day is, but I’m sure there is one.


Tiamat’s Wrath 

by: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book mostly wraps up the Laconian plotline and sets everything up for the ninth and final book.

Who should read this book?

I will repeat, with a slight modification, what I said last time. It’s book 8 of a series, presumably by this point you should know whether or not you’re the audience for this book.

General Thoughts

I’ve quite enjoyed the Expanse series, and out of all the books, this one has to be near the top. That said I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some quibbles, and interestingly those quibbles relate to the last book. The bad guy in the book (more or less, I’m trying not to spoil things) is an absolute autocrat, similar to Catherine. And as absolute autocrats go, he’s pretty enlightened. Yet, the good guys are not only convinced that he’s going to have a negative impact on humanity’s chances, they’re also convinced that the whole endeavor will inexorably flame out in a couple of years. Beyond being historically illiterate this attitude is also hopelessly hypocritical, because the good guys are basically all autocrats themselves. We never read of one of the main characters being thrown out by an election. Or having to deal with a representative body, or changing course because of public opinion. They’re basically all autocrats, it’s just because they’ve been designated as the good guys that it all works out. While the other guy has been designated as the bad guy so we know it’s not going to work out for him.

Of course I understand that this is a novel, and certain things aren’t entertaining, so I’m not criticizing the writing. In fact I’m convinced that if they had included all those things I just mentioned that I would have enjoyed the series less. I just thought it was interesting to contrast the two books. The one dealing with an actual historical autocrat who was enormously successful, and the other dealing with fictional autocrats who find success entirely based on whether they have been designated as protagonists or antagonists.


What I Saw in America 

by: G. K. Chesterton

159 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Tocquevillian examination of America written while Chesterton was in the country on a speaking tour.

Who should read this book?

I have a 50 book Chesterton collection on my Kindle. I haven’t decided if I’m going to read them all, but I would say that unless you’re engaged in some endeavor similar to that, you can probably skip this one.

General Thoughts

This is another book (similar to The Start) which focuses on the interwar years. And just like with Shirer, wealth inequality was very much on Chesterton’s mind, though obviously he didn’t think socialism was the solution. He mostly thought that rich people should stop applying the law unequally. He was there during prohibition, and it provides a good example of the kind of thing he was talking about. Despite the ban, rich people basically drank in the same fashion as they did before the amendment. It was the poor people who were deprived of alcohol. Prohibition wasn’t designed to stop all drinking it was designed to stop the drinking those in power disapproved of—low class drinking if you will.

He provides other examples of these sorts of disparities, some involving wealth or living conditions, and in this respect he was very similar to Shirer and others, but whereas those advocating socialism felt that the government was the solution through passing new laws and enforcing them. Chesterton seemed to be advocating that rich people just needed to be more moral, that the right thing to do was clear and they just needed to work on being more righteous. Given his impression that the chief problem was rich people were ignoring the laws already in existence, I can see why he didn’t think more laws were the answer.


III- Religious Reviews

Job: A New Translation 

by: Edward L. Greenstein

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the Book of Job from the Bible, retranslated with extensive commentary. Also it’s about how all previous translations got it wrong.

Who should read this book?

If you like reading things that were written a very long time ago, or if you like the story of Job enough to really dig into it, or if reading about the ancients grappling with theodicy is one of your “love languages” this might be the book for you.

General Thoughts

I’ve read the entire Old Testament, once. And I confess that it was more to check off a box than an attempt to deeply engage with it, so it was nice to deeply engage with at least one book. 

Job reminds me a little bit of Gilgamesh, possibly just because of how old they both are. It also reminds me of Plato’s Dialogues (which I’m in the process of working through) because that’s what the book basically is, a series of dialogues.

Of course while these comparisons and observations are somewhat interesting, what you really want to know is what Greenstein thinks other translators got wrong. Well in the introduction to chapter 42 where in most translations Job acquiesces and all of his misery is undone, Greenstein claims that instead:

Job understands the deity to be exactly as he had feared: a purveyor of power who cares little for people. Parodying the divine discourse through mimicry, Job expresses disdain toward the deity and pity toward human kind (and not acquiescence, as has been generally thought;)

I’m always a little wary when someone comes along in the Year of our Lord 2019 and claims to have discovered a new interpretation of a text which was overlooked by everyone else for thousands of years. But I will give him credit for making things interesting, and he may even be correct, I just have an inbuilt bias against such efforts.

But I did enjoy learning about the fact that Job is essentially trying to bring a lawsuit against God, the exact details of how and under what customs he is doing so are not worth getting into, but in the end, as Greenstein summarizes:

…[T]he deity is able to dismiss Job’s testimony about him pro forma—Job lacks the firsthand knowledge of a witness that is required in order to make the claims in his lawsuit. God extricates himself from the lawsuit without having to explain Job’s suffering to him or to his companions.

In a sense this is the perpetual argument atheists have with theists. They feel that this life provides sufficient evidence to prove the truth of their claims, while theists claim that there is evidence outside of this life which needs to be considered. To this Mormons add yet another wrinkle by asserting that we existed before this life and may have made agreements we voluntarily choose to forget. Based on Greenstein’s summary he seems to fall into the atheist camp, and as such suffering presents an insuperable barrier to the existence of God. But I’m totally on God’s side here. Even if we were to assume God’s absence I still feel pretty comfortable assuming that humans don’t have enough knowledge to pass final judgement on reality however it’s constructed.


I keep trying to keep these book review posts short, but I keep failing. If you like them as they are or if you’d like them shorter and have suggestions on what I could cut out, or if you just want to yell at me and hope it makes you feel better please don’t hesitate. But I will mention that my love language is donations to my patreon.


Eschatologist #6: UFOs, Eschatology and Fermi’s Paradox

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UFOs have been in the news a lot recently. This is not the first time this has happened — the period immediately after World War II featured quite a bit of excitement about UFOs with some describing it as full on “mania”. But while this is not the first time UFOs have been in the news it is probably the first time reported sightings have been treated so sympathetically. The Washington Post recently announced, “UFOs exist and everyone needs to adjust to that fact”, and Vox.com declared “It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.

Of course, the existence of UFOs does not necessarily imply the existence of aliens, but that’s the connection everyone wants to make. In many respects this is a hopeful connection. It would mean that we’re not alone. As it becomes increasingly obvious how badly humanity bungled 2020, the idea that there are superior beings out there is no longer a source of dread but of comfort.

I’m very doubtful that the UFOs are aliens. First for reasons of natural skepticism, second, it isn’t too difficult to find reasonable, mundane explanations for the videos and finally for many subtle reasons I don’t have time to get into, but which boil down to the suspiciously convenient timing of the craft’s discovery and their all too human behavior. They’re not alien enough. 

Accordingly, I would contend that the videos are probably not evidence of aliens. They don’t answer the question of whether we’re alone or not. But that doesn’t mean the question is not tremendously important. But if the videos don’t answer the question is there some other way of approaching it?

In 1950, during the last big UFO mania, Enrico Fermi decided to approach it using the Copernican Principle. Copernicus showed that the Earth is not the center of the universe. That our position is not special. Later astronomers built on this and showed that nothing about the Earth is special. That it’s an average planet, orbiting an average star in an average galaxy. Fermi assumed this also applies to intelligent life. If the Earth is also average in this respect then there should not only be other intelligent life in the universe, i.e. aliens, but some of these aliens should be vastly more advanced than we are. The fact that we haven’t encountered any such aliens presents a paradox, Fermi’s Paradox.

In the decades since Fermi first formulated the paradox it has only become more paradoxical. We now know that practically all stars have planets. That there are billions of earthlike planets in our galaxy, some of which are billions of years older than Earth. And that life can survive even very extreme conditions. So why haven’t we encountered other intelligent life? Numerous explanations have been suggested, from a Star Trek-like Prime Directive which prevents aliens from contacting us, to the idea that advanced aliens never leave their planet because they can create perfect virtual worlds.

Out of all of the many potential explanations, Robin Hanson, a polymath professor at George Mason University, noticed that many could be boiled down to something which prevents the development of intelligent life or which prevents it from surviving long enough to be noticable. He lumped all these together under the heading of Great Filter. One possibility for this filter is that intelligent life inevitably destroys itself. Certainly when we gaze at the modern world this idea doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Accordingly, Fermi’s Paradox has profound eschatological implications — ramifications for the final destiny of humanity. If the Great Filter is ahead of us, then our doom approaches, sometime between now and when we develop the technology to make our presence known to the rest of the galaxy. In other words, soon. On the other hand, if the Great Filter is behind us then we are alone, but also incredibly special and unique. The only intelligent life in the galaxy and possibly beyond. 

Consequently, whatever your own opinions on the recent videos, they touch on one of the most profound questions we face: does humanity have a future? Because when we look up into the night sky at its countless stars we’re seeing that future, in the billions of Earths far older than our own. And as long as they’re silent, then, after a brief moment of light and civilization, our own future is likely to be just as silent.


I think some people would like it if I were silent, but if you’re reading this I assume you’re not one of them. If your feelings go beyond that and you actually like what I say, consider donating.


1971 Continued – It’s Energy Stupid!

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I- The Historical Increase in the Amount of Energy Available

This is a continuation of my last post, where I examined different explanations for the way a bunch of things all seemed to simultaneously go off the rails in 1971. In simpler terms in the last post I attempted to answer, as the eponymous website asks, WTF happened in 1971? But I left one explanation out. I saved my favorite for this post. But before we can get to that I need to go much farther back, all the way to 1650.

It was in about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, that the United States (or what would become the United States) started growing and from then until (almost) now it grew at a steady average of 2.9% per year. Despite the passage of decades and centuries this growth was basically constant. Though recently there are signs that it’s started to slow. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.7%, 2% if we don’t include last year.) After hearing this one is immediately prompted to ask: What was the long term average growth rate before 1650? Or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was all but zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%? Based on this one might just as reasonably ask, WTF happened in 1650? 

It was presumably a combination of a lot of things. The mother country was at the tail end of 300 years of fighting the black death with the associated drop in population. (The last great outbreak, the Great Plague of London, ended in 1666.) Such plagues, while being vast, unimaginable tragedies, also end up being great for innovation. Additionally, the U.S. is a vast continent, full of resources, and in 1650 it had been emptied by its own set of plagues, the black death being only one of many. And then of course there was the scientific revolution, which got the ball rolling on all of the inventions that would come to define the later industrial revolution.

This last element was what really made the difference. There had been temporary surges in growth before. Rome experienced one every time they conquered a new territory. But the scientific revolution changed a short-term surge into a long term trend. Growth that continued decade after decade and year after year as the scientific revolution gave way to the industrial revolution. When people think of the industrial revolution they picture the associated inventions: the cotton gin, the telegraph and most of all the steam engine. And while these inventions were all important, what really enabled the ongoing growth was the additional energy our improved ingenuity allowed us to extract. First in the form of coal and then in the form of oil. 

In other words, lot’s of things may have gotten the growth going, but it was the extraction and use of millions of years worth of accumulated energy in the space of a few centuries, that really kept it going. The engine of growth has always been energy, and the big difference between the pre-1650 0.1% growth and the post-1650 2.9% growth was the amount of energy available. And between 1650 and 1950 or 1971 (depending on how you slice it) economic growth and the amount of energy available went up at basically the same rate. In some respects this connection is almost tautological. If you want to make more stuff you need more energy to do it. Economic growth implies a similar growth in the amount of available energy. 

To be fair, having more energy isn’t the only way to increase economic output. You could become more efficient in using the energy you already have. You could also increase output by increasing the number of people — though in essence this is just another form of energy, just not in the way we normally think of it.

II- The Henry Adams Curve

These three things, growth in population, efficiency and the amount of energy being produced in turn created the 2.9% economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the mid 1600s. By predictable I mean that we can fit it to a curve, in this case it’s the “Henry Adams Curve”, a concept introduced in Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall (which I reviewed here, and also reference here and here). From the book:

Henry Adams, scion of the house of the two eponymous presidents, wrote in his autobiography about a century ago: “The coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power…”

In other words, we have a had a very long term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. Let us call it the “Henry Adams Curve.” The optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries can quite readily be seen as predicated on it. To a first approximation, it can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate and a 2% growth in the actual energy consumed per capita. 

Here is the Henry Adams Curve, the centuries-long historical trend, as the smooth red line. Since the scale is power per capita, this is only the 2% component. The blue curve is the actual energy use in the US, which up to the 70s matched the trend quite well. But then energy consumption flatlined.

The 1970s were famously the time of the OPEC oil embargo and the “energy crisis.” But major shortages preceded the embargo by a year or two. They were caused by Nixon’s energy price controls, instituted in 1971. The embargo wasn’t until 1973. [emphasis mine]

III- What Happened in 1971? Energy Decoupled from Growth

In 1971 (or thereabouts) energy decoupled from economic growth. Okay, fair enough, but a lot of other things also happened in 1971. Why is this a better explanation than the end of Bretton Woods, or the peak of American power? Why do I think this is the true disease rather than just another symptom? Why is it my favorite explanation? 

First off, one of the points I brought up in the last post was the lack of data for so many of the phenomena that were being highlighted. Half of the graphs didn’t go back farther than World War II, making it impossible to know if 1971 was the beginning of something exceptional or a return to normality. But this is a trend that has been going on since before America was even a country. Making this change, potentially, far more consequential. This isn’t a reversion to the 1920s, as was the case with inequality, this is completely new territory: Modern technology without the associated growth in energy which made the world modern in the first place.

This gets us to the second reason I prefer this explanation. It illustrates the fact that this is completely uncharted territory. Modern society is built on the idea that the amount of energy available on a per capita basis will just keep growing. Perhaps you’ve seen the meme where there’s a picture of the Wright Brothers on one side and on the other side is a picture of Neil Armstrong, and the caption points out that only 66 years separate the Wright Brothers first flight from the moon landing. I don’t know about you, but that fact blows my mind. It’s also the perfect illustration of what it looks like for the amount of available energy to grow at a compounding rate. In the mid-1900s we had been experiencing this sort of growth in available energy for centuries, and in those years, when science fiction was at its height, it’s vision of the future was based on it continuing. Which is how they arrived at the idea of flying cars, moon bases and manned missions to Jupiter. But in 1971, shortly after the moon landing, per capita energy flatlined.

One of the biggest revelations to come out of Flying Car, for me at least, was the fact that had growth in energy continued at the pre-1971 rate we would have had flying cars and moon bases and probably much else besides. The science fiction writers would have been right. The reason they were wrong had nothing to do with their understanding the dangers, difficulties and desires of and for flying cars. They were wrong because they didn’t foresee that the growth in energy which had so dominated the previous two hundred and fifty years, going all the way back to Newcomen’s steam engine at least, was only a few years away from coming to an abrupt end. 

It’s now been 52 years since that legendary first walk on the moon and 50 since 1971. Not quite the 66 years between that and the Wright Brothers flight, but getting pretty close. Can we point to any comparable achievement? And does anyone imagine that waiting an additional 14 years will change that?

Despite all of the foregoing, the economy is still growing even if it’s doing so in a slightly slower fashion than it was for most of the country’s history (2% vs. 2.9% as mentioned previously). What does it mean for the economy to grow without a corresponding growth in the amount of energy? What does it mean to increase output in a way that doesn’t require any energy? What does that output look like? These questions take us to my third reason for preferring this explanation: energyless output is a credible cause for most of the things people have been complaining about. 

But before we get to that it is necessary to make sure we’re not barking up the wrong tree. There were three components to the curve, growth in available energy, growth in population and gains in efficiency. Before we focus on that first one we need to make sure it’s not one of the other two. As I pointed out in a recent book review, it’s definitely not growth in population. The US population is only growing at 0.3%. But might we be using the same amount of energy more efficiently? 

The math here gets a little complicated, but if we keep it simple, energy output and efficiency were both growing at 2% a year. If energy output stops growing then for efficiency to “take over”, for there not to be an increase in the amount of “energy-less output”, efficiency would have had to double from 2% to 4%. I have not come across anything that leads me to believe this is what happened, nor does it seem very plausible for something like that to suddenly double. Though given the timing — the 1970s was the first big energy crisis, and we’ve been emphasizing efficiency since then — it wouldn’t surprise me to find that it went from 2% to 2.5% or something like that. But it seems very implausible for it to have suddenly doubled, and if you look at the graph,energy per capita hasn’t just flatlined it’s gone down, so efficiency would really have to more than double, at the same time that the other factor, population growth, was also flatlining.

If you’re with me this far and you agree that there has been an increase in the amount of economic output that doesn’t require any energy, or at least far less energy, what would that look like? For me this whole process was put into stark relief in the process of writing my last newsletter. In particular this fact:

During the Trump Presidency the national debt increased by nearly $8.3 trillion dollars. This is enough money, in today’s dollars, to refight World War II twice over.

Here we can clearly see the difference between productivity which is tightly coupled to energy use, and productivity that is not. During World War II the money we spent went into ships and planes and tanks, and the salaries of the 16 million people in the armed forces plus all of the people working on the home front. I would imagine that World War II is as efficient as we’ve ever been at turning “energy” into “stuff”. But at the time of the Trump Presidency when he was increasing the debt by twice the cost of World War II, most of our economy had nothing to do with stuff. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. In 2007-2008 you had Wall Street investors moving around billions of dollars which had no connection to anything tangible. And as early as the 80s, the finances of Wall Street were only tenuously connected to tangible outputs, as illustrated by books like Liar’s Poker and movies like Wall Street. In more general terms the financial sector is growing to be an ever larger slice of GDP (output) but requires very little in the way of energy. And beyond that a huge slice of the economy has moved on to the internet. Which suffers from much the same problem of disconnecting the economy from energy. 

One of my readers pointed out that you probably couldn’t literally compare the $8.3 trillion increase in the national debt under Trump with the money spent fighting World War II. That you needed to do more than just adjust for inflation, you also had to account for the mass mobilization factor and the other extraordinary circumstances associated with World War II. I’m sure that he has a point. If nothing else, a peacetime economy is very different from a total war economy. But even so the difference is stark. We’re not talking about the same amount of money, we’re talking about twice the money, so even if a peacetime economy is only half as efficient we still should be able to point to some accomplishment as impressive as beating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, instead it was swallowed without much to show for.

As one example, look at employment. At the start of the pandemic there 6 million people unemployed, within two months that had surged to 23 million. So an additional 17 million, which is very close to the 16 million under arms during World War II to say nothing of all the civilian workers essentially being paid by the government. Back then we were able to use the money we spent to pay them for years plus provide them with everything necessary to fight a war. Today there’s still 10 million people unemployed and of the 13 million who re-entered the workforce very few were directly employed by the government. In fact if anything the consensus seems to be that government money is keeping people from seeking employment. Meanwhile the stock market has nearly doubled from it’s pandemic low-point. A lot of money has gone into financial instruments and very little into stuff. Near the beginning of the pandemic Marc Andreessen, the famous venture capitalist, made this same point in his much shared post, It’s Time to Build. But building is precisely what you’re not doing if your economy has become disentangled from energy usage.

IV- Nuclear Power

In the past I’ve mentioned the idea of a religion of progress, an almost mystical belief that progress will continue essentially forever — that humanity is on a permanent upward trajectory. Some people believe this is happening with morality, and offer up the ongoing decline of bigotry and racism as evidence of its continuing impact. Or as Dr. King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Some people believe that this is happening with technology, that scientific innovations have lifted people out of poverty, cured diseases and otherwise improved the lot of man. That if we just get out of the way human ingenuity will lead us to the promised land. Some people believe that both things are happening. Beyond the division between moral progress and technological progress, a further division can be made between those who have a primarily humanist interpretation of this progress, and those who think the process is primarily spiritual. With people like Steven Pinker on the first side of the divide and new age spiritualists on the other side. 

I don’t fall into either camp, at least not in any recognizable fashion. But reading about what happened with nuclear power almost changed my mind. Here we are, it’s the early 70s, OPEC has just imposed a petroleum embargo. Things in general are not going well in the Middle East (and will continue not going well down to the present day). Fracking, and the vast supplies of domestic oil and gas it will make available, is still 30 years in the future. We didn’t know it at the time but energy production per capita has already started to stagnate. But it’s at this exact moment, when it seems that we’ve run out of road, when it looks like progress has been derailed, that nuclear power is finally ready for prime time. The way that just as one door has closed that another one opens is almost mystical. 

But it was also at this moment, that for the first time since 1650, we hesitated. We had no problems moving from wood to coal, and from coal to oil, but when it came time to make the transition from oil to nuclear we dropped the baton. And nuclear power, which had been getting continually cheaper, suddenly started getting more expensive. The universe had provided us with the next step in the long march of progress and we refused to take it.

As we get near the end of things, I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming that the world fundamentally changed precisely in 1971. (I fundamentally changed in 1971, but the world didn’t.) But I do think things are different now than they have been. That the 52 years since the moon landing have been very different than the 52 years preceding it. And that the primary (though certainly not the only) cause of this difference was the stagnation in per capita energy availability. 

V- Final Thoughts

Many years ago one of my close friends (we had been roommates in college) died because his liver failed. The question was why did it fail? The doctor’s decided it was alcoholic hepatitis, but I had my doubts. Yes my friend did drink, but I didn’t think he was that heavy of a drinker. But what he did do, more than anybody I’ve known, is take lortab. For those unfamiliar with lortab it’s a pain reliever which is a combination of hydrocodone (an opioid) and acetaminophen. I don’t think the alcohol destroyed his liver, I think it was the acetaminophen. As I was preparing to wrap up I was reminded of this story. We’ve identified the underlying disease, the available energy has stopped going up, but just like with me and my friends doctors, we may not agree on the behavior that’s causing the disease. 

Alcohol is generally considered to be a bad thing, while medicine is generally considered to be  a good thing, so it was easy for the doctors to blame the former rather than the latter, regardless of what was actually at fault. And as we move from identifying our malady to identifying behavior causing that malady I think we need to be careful to consider all possibilities. Even things we thought were beneficial. And here I am reminded of my newsletter from April. I would argue that this disease stems from the entirely understandable desire to maximize safety. 

Clearly in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s understandable that people would be biased against a form of power that used the same mechanism as that used by the bombs. From this an understandable caution developed, but eventually some caution became an abundance of caution which became a super abundance. The chief example of this being the linear no-threshold doctrine of radiation, which holds that there is no safe level of radiation. That in tandem with trying to achieve perfect safety we decided to designate radiation as being perfectly dangerous. That zero is the only safe amount. 

But it turns out that, just like with my friend, it’s actually the medicine that’s killing us, because once this ideology is widespread it’s only natural that the cost of nuclear power would go up, and as the cost rises it becomes even more difficult to take this next step. Accordingly, the amount of available energy stagnated. And economic growth without a corresponding growth in energy is a strange thing — we have yet to appreciate all of the consequences. 

In pointing out the fact that available energy stopped growing, I am not going beyond that to claim that it’s a bad thing. In fact, in another post I pointed out that it was inevitable. Further, I am not convinced that if we had smoothly switched to nuclear we would now be living in a technological utopia. I am sure it would be a very different world, but I’m not sure it would be any better. And as available energy usage had to plateau eventually this is a transition that was coming one way or the other, but just because the transition was inevitable doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is in fact a massive shift from how things have worked for centuries — a shift that hasn’t received nearly enough attention.

Obviously this is a complicated problem, not only is there the disease itself, there’s also the matter of the behavior that got us there: our overwhelming timidity. Things are changing in ways we don’t understand and we’re not prepared for. We’re in a world that’s superficially similar to the one we’ve had since 1650, but under the surface it’s vastly different. Perhaps the best answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is that we  entered uncharted territory, and it’s going to take all of our skill and wisdom, and yes, our courage as well, to avoid catastrophe.

One of my readers thought that I spent too much time on my own connection to 1971 in the last post. But clearly blogging is inherently a narcissistic activity, so I’m not sure what they expected. Going beyond that to ask for money to engage in this activity may be the most narcissistic thing of all. And yet, here I am, once again asking you to consider donating