Month: July 2019

Leaving the Earth: 50 Years After Apollo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


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


Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Or download the MP3


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


Then It Fell Apart

By: Moby

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

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

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

Representative passage:

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

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

Criticisms

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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


Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel

By: Neal Stephenson

880 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B-

Who should read this book?

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

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

Representative passage:

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and criticisms free of spoilers

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

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

Thoughts and criticisms with mild spoilers

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

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

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

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

Books I would read before this one:

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


To Live and Die in LA (Podcast)

Hosted By: Neil Strauss

9 hours

Format: Podcast

Rating: B

Who should listen to this podcast?

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

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

Representative passage:

CHRIS SPOTZ: I’m not recording any more.

Adea: You’ve beat me

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: You have beat me up.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: Beaten me up, you toke my Rolex-

CHRIS SPOTZ: I have the video.

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

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get outta my truck.

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Criticisms

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

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

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

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


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

By: Nick Ward and Sinead O’Brien

296 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

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

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

Representative passage:

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Criticisms

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

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

If you’re going through hell, keep going.


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

By: Michael Korda

544 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

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

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

Representative passage:

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

Criticisms

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

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

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


How Will You Measure Your Life?

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

240 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

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

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

Representative passage:

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

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

Criticisms

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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


Bloodchild and Other Stories

By: Octavia E. Butler

224 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

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

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

Representative passage:

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

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

Thoughts 

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

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

Criticisms

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

Books I would read before this one:

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


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