Year: 2020

Don’t Don’t Fear the Filter

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I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About that…” says Darwin

.

“Well at least our galaxy is unique…”

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Predictions: Looking Back to 2019 and Forward to 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary, I’m predicting:

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

     

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

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

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

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

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


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


Books I Finished in December

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

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

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


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

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

By: Bear F. Braumoeller
344 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

What It Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2)

By: Anthony Ryan
602 Pages

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

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


Oath of Swords (War God #1)

By: David Weber
576 Pages

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

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


The War God’s Own (War God #2)

By: David Weber
374 Pages

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


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

By: Aeschylus
178 Pages

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

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

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

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


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

Translated by: Thomas A. Wayment 
512 Pages

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

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


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

Annotated by: Grant Hardy
600 Pages

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


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

By: David Cole
320 Pages

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

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

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

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


Utterly Dwarfed (The Order of the Stick #6)

By: Rich Burlew
352 Pages

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

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


Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus

By: Wizards RPG Team
256 Pages

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

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


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

By: Leo Tolstoy
384 Pages

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

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

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

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


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

By: Ryan Holiday
416 Pages

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

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


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

By: William Manchester
992 Pages

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

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

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


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