Month: <span>April 2020</span>

Review: Sex and Culture, or Greatness Through Sexual Frustration

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When people consider what’s wrong with the world there are three schools of thought. The first, which I’ve mentioned frequently, and the one championed by Steven Pinker in his books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, is that there’s nothing wrong with the world, that things are as great as they’ve ever been and almost certainly just going to keep getting better. The other two schools of thought are not quite so optimistic, some people feel that there certainly might be problems with the world but mostly it’s things we’re aware of and if we could just get our act together, nothing we can’t solve. Other people don’t think that there might be something wrong with the world, they think that there is definitely something wrong. And furthermore that we might not even be aware of how bad those problems are, and those we do have a handle on are proving to be largely intractable. 

From what I can observe the vast majority of people fall into one of the latter two camps. And I sincerely hope that all of them turn out to be wrong and Pinker turns out to be right, but as you may have gathered I don’t think he is, and I don’t think they are.

If you’re like me and in the something is definitely wrong camp, the next obvious step is to figure out what that something is. This is the whole point of the discipline of eschatology, at least as I practice it, and there are of course numerous candidates, everything from runaway environmental damage, to the looming threat of an eventual nuclear war, to a breakdown of culture and morality. And it seems only prudent to examine each and every candidate in as much detail as possible, in order that the true illness at the heart of modernity (assuming there’s only one, there could easily be more than one) might be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Before the condition is terminal. I understand that this is a profound oversimplification of what this process looks like, if it’s even possible, but regardless of the difficulties involved in correcting the ills of the world, the process can’t even begin without identifying the problem in the first place.

The book Sex and Culture by J. D. Unwin, written in 1934 while Unwin was a professor at Cambridge, is one theory of what the problem might be, and one that, so far as I can tell, has not gotten a lot of attention. This is almost certainly because Unwin’s claim is entirely at odds with modern thinking, what is that claim you ask? 

That a culture is successful to the extent that it restricts pre-nuptial sex. 

I assume that most people can immediately grasp why such a claim has been almost entirely ignored. If not, imagine any current professor getting up and attempting to present this as a topic up for debate at any university or college. And yet, as I pointed out, if we care about the health of society, and we’re not convinced that everything is going smoothly, we really should examine all possible threats, even the ones most people find horribly old-fashioned and retrograde. (In fact, I would argue, especially those threats.)

I said the claim was almost entirely ignored, fortunately Kirk Durston wrote a post about it, which brought Sex and Culture to my attention and convinced me to read it. Though, on doing so, I discovered another reason why the book was largely forgotten. It is not an easy read, and I don’t think I would recommend that you try. The majority of the book is an exacting and detailed examination of the traditions and behavior of 80 different “uncivilized” cultures. So detailed that even I skimmed some of the chapters.

Given all of this, I imagine you’re unlikely to read it, so it’s up to me to tell you what it’s about. Though I would also strongly recommend Durston’s post in addition to mine. 

For my part, I’m going to start by asking, “Why do nearly all cultures have traditions and taboos around sex?” From a straight evolutionary perspective you might imagine that other than some incest prohibitions to prevent genetic issues, that more sex would equal more babies and that greater reproduction confers an obvious benefit to survival. And yet over and over again, regardless of the society we find taboos around sex. With, historically, the strictest taboos being found in the largest civilizations.  Why is that? Unwin wondered the same thing, and Sex and Culture is his answer. It’s obvious from the book that the first step he took was to make an exhaustive study of all the anthropological reports he could get his hands on. I’m sure that quite a bit of newer information has come out since then, but based on what was included in the book it’s hard for me to imagine that he overlooked much of anything that was known at the time.

(As a side note, I didn’t realize until I linked to Unwin’s entry on Wikipedia for this post, but the book was published only two years before his death at the age of 41. One wonders what he might have done with the idea if he’d had several more decades.)

In any event after engaging in a massive survey of the anthropolocial data his conclusion was that more energetic and advanced societies are characterized by greater restrictions on pre-nuptial sex. From that conclusion you might imagine that the book is written primarily from a religious perspective, or as a commentary on modern sexual mores, but that’s not the case at all. In fact one of the reasons for the book’s length is that he goes to great effort explaining what measures he has taken to make his cultural survey as scientific as possible. He throws out a lot of cultures because he doesn’t think there’s enough information.  He also spends quite a bit of time examining the various ways in which the information could have been corrupted by issues of translation and data collection. Furthermore he simplifies his criteria to things that are easy to observe, meaning both that such behavior is more likely to have been accurately reported, and that comparisons between cultures should be relatively accurate.

As I said, out of all of this he is mostly interested in information on a culture’s sexual taboos, but if he merely categorizes cultures according to this single measure all he has shown is that different cultures have different taboos, what he needs is a second measurement to set against a culture’s sexual behavior as an independent guide for how advanced a culture is. The methodology he arrives at is actually pretty clever. He observes that every culture has to deal with two questions:

  1. What powers manifest themselves in the universe?
  2. What steps are taken to maintain the right relationship with these powers?

From these questions he derives four “cultural conditions”, the first three are:

  1. Deistic: Cultures which build temples.
  2. Manistic: Cultures which do not build temples but which do engage in some form of post funeral attention to their dead. (i.e. ancestor worship).
  3. Zoistic: Cultures which do neither of the above.

It might be obvious how those questions about universal powers are answered at each cultural level, but in short, Zoistic cultures don’t really attempt to answer them. Manistic cultures answer it by assuming that the “powers” which were present recently, that is to say other people, are probably still around. And Diestic cultures are those who come to understand that there’s too much going on for it to just be explained by the dead, leading them to conclude that there are even more powerful forces, i.e. deities which need temples and worship. (All of this seems to point to a natural progression where monotheism would be at the very top, but Unwin doesn’t seem to go that far.)

You might notice that I said there were four cultural conditions. The fourth is Rationalistic, which is when a culture finally starts answering the two questions with the scientific method. Once he comes up with these four levels the next step is to see if they bear any relationship to that same culture’s restrictions on pre-nuptial sex, and out of the 86 cultures he studied he discovers that:

  1. All the zoistic societies permitted pre-marital sexual freedom; conversely, all societies which permitted that freedom were in the zoistic condition.
  2. All the manistic societies had adopted such regulations as compelled an irregular or occasional continence; conversely, all the societies which had adopted such regulations were in the manistic condition.
  3. All the deistic societies insisted on pre-nuptial chastity; conversely, all the societies which insisted on pre-nuptial chastity were in the deistic condition. 

Giving evidence to support this correlation takes up the vast majority of the book, but of course you’re probably not that interested in zoistic and manistic societies, and even your interest in deistic societies is probably not all that significant either, what you’re really wondering is what Unwin has to say about the sexual restrictions of societies in a rationalistic condition. Unfortunately, compared to all the other cultural conditions he spends the least amount of time discussing the rationalistic. Perhaps because he assumes that his readers would be the most familiar with it. However the book is long enough that there’s still quite a bit of discussion it’s just more scattered, and in particular Unwin never presents a bright dividing line between sexual restrictions in a diestic society and a rationalist one in the same way he does with the other conditions. Rather he explains the transition as follows (I’m paraphrasing):

The enormous energy available to a deistic society practicing strict monogamy manifests first as a dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by their geographic environment. This leads to an initial, expansionary phase. The sort of behavior we saw from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, etc. And, for many societies, this is where things end, as sexual taboos are loosened and things like polygamy begin to florish. If, on the other hand, they’re able to maintain the initial sexual restrictions and taboos they pass from this expansionary phase into a phase where, “The great mental energy of such a society is directed to every detail of its environment, to every item of human activity, and to every problem of human life.” This is when they pass into the rationalist condition. 

It probably goes without saying that the rationalistic condition is where you want to be, or failing that, in the deistic condition, but either way, in order for that to happen, according to Unwin, you need to have serious restrictions on pre-marital sex. And yes, to be clear, Unwin’s whole model is based on the idea that some cultures are superior to others at least according to certain measurements. And if you’re not willing to grant that I’m surprised you made it this far. 

I imagine there are some out there who would assume that, having finally reached a “rationalistic condition”, a society could ease up on the restrictions. Unwin argues that this is not the case, that within a few generations of backing off a culture begins to slip back into the “lower” conditions. How many generations? Unwin claims, “It takes at least three generations for an extension or a limitation of sexual opportunity to have it’s full cultural effect” Unwin defines a generation as being around 33 years, so three generations is essentially a century.

Before we can begin commenting on this theory there’s one other aspect which needs to be considered. Beyond documenting the relationship between sexual taboos and a culture’s condition, he also goes on to propose a mechanism for that connection. At the time the book was written Freud’s psychoanalytic system was probably the most influential system for explaining human behavior, and Unwin based his own theory on that foundation. He hypothesized that a civilization has a certain amount of energy, but all if it ultimately sexual energy (this is a Freudian theory remember). In a culture with no limits on sex, all of that energy get’s used up. But once a culture starts putting limits on things, some energy ends up unused. This energy needs to be channeled somewhere, and it inevitably ends up getting channeled back into society, creating an energetic culture. One that can expand, or build temples, or eventually, develop science.

With Unwin’s theory stated more or less in its entirety, we can now put forth how it explains what’s wrong with the world:

When sexual restrictrictions of all kinds were eliminated or lessened during the sexual revolution the energy available to our civilization was similarly lessened. This began the 100 year process of leaving the rationalistic condition and heading towards the essentially zero energy zoistic condition. 

With this explanation in hand the next step is to ask what we should do with it? I assume many people would be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. Merely including words like Freudian, and manistic, may incline them to think the whole thing is ludicrous. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but even if you reject Unwin’s data for some reason, doesn’t it strike you as odd that so many large, expansive civilizations had such draconian taboos around sex outside of marriage? I mean we’re talking Romans, Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese. In fact, can you give me a historical example of a large culture that didn’t have such restrictions? Perhaps they’re  not quite as tightly correlated as Unwin would suggest, but could it really be that they are entirely uncorrelated? With any measure of civilizational and cultural success? 

If you were going to be scientific about it, the next step would be to examine Unwin’s data. One would imagine that information on the various customs and taboos of primitive cultures has only increased since 1934 (though perhaps not as much as you might think, proximity in time counts for a lot.) Not only should it be possible to attempt a replication, but Unwin’s claims are so strong that they should be easily falsifiable. Has anyone done this? (Some cursory Google searches didn’t reveal any promising leads.)

Alternatively, and this is what I’m inclined to do, you could broadly accept his conclusion (the data seems accurate to me) but question the mechanism. One could imagine lots of reasons why sexual continence correlates with civilizational success (on certain metrics). Certainly the discipline required to abstain from sex outside of marriage might also translate into the kind of discipline that makes a country energetic. There’s also a huge body of evidence on the importance of intact families, and in particular the presence of a father. It’s certainly possible that civilizations which prohibited pre-nuptial sex ended up with stronger families which translated into stronger, more energetic cultures. If everything else Unwin says is mostly true then discovering the exact mechanism doesn’t matter very much.

To be fair, even if someone is prepared to grant the connection, we still have to grapple with the question of how things play out in the modern world. It’s entirely possible that this is something which was very important a hundred or a thousand years ago, but because of recent advances (the social safety net? Birth control?) it doesn’t matter at all now. I certainly understand the appeal of that argument, but when evidence for such prohibitions are so ubiquitous, appearing in the earliest writings we possess (and no, not just the Bible, they also appear in the Code of Hammurabi) it certainly feels like the burden of proof should rest with the people arguing that after several thousand years, things have somehow changed in the last 50. 

Speaking of the modern world, and falsification, it could be argued that we’re halfway towards falsifying Unwin’s theories ourselves since it’s been around 50 years since the sexual revolution. That being the case it’s reasonable to ask where the evidence is pointing. When we look around does it appear the Unwin was wrong or right? If you read my reviews for March, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat was a book of nothing but evidence that Unwin was correct. Douthat makes the compelling case that the US has entered a period of stagnation, and not only does that sound precisely like the lack of energy Unwin predicted, but the timeline of the stagnation is eerily accurate as well. And, as long as we’re on the subject of last month’s book reviews, I’m also reminded of the quote I included from Will Durant: 

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

While this isn’t quite as on point as Douthat’s book, Durant nevertheless seems to be talking about much the same thing. Which takes us back to the original question, now that we have considered the candidacy of Unwin’s theory for the position of “What’s wrong with the world?” What should we do with it?

Given everything I read and everything I see, I would argue we should take it seriously. Yes, that would mean undoing the sexual revolution, which is both straightforward and also so difficult I don’t imagine that we have even one chance in a thousand of pulling it off. 


There’s not a lot of people willing to moralize about ancient and impenetrable books. So if that’s worth something to you consider donating to one of the few who do.


Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting

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I.

As near as I can reconstruct, sometime in the mid-80s Phillip Tetlock decided to conduct a study on the accuracy of people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends”. The study lasted for around twenty years and involved 284 people. If you’re reading this blog you probably already know what the outcome of that study was, but just in case you don’t or need a reminder here’s a summary.

  • Over the course of those twenty years Tetlock collected 82,361 forecasts, and after comparing those forecasts to what actually happened he found:
  • The better known the expert the less reliable they were likely to be.
  • Their accuracy was inversely related to their self-confidence, and after a certain point their knowledge as well. (More actual knowledge about, say, Iran led them to make worse predictions about Iran than people who had less knowledge.)
  • Experts did no better at predicting than the average newspaper reader.
  • When asked to guess between three possible outcomes for a situation, status quo, getting better on some dimension, or getting worse, the actual expert predictions were less accurate than just naively assigning a ⅓ chance to each possibility.
  • Experts were largely rewarded for making bold and sensational predictions, rather than making predictions which later turned out to be true.

For those who had given any thought to the matter, Tetlock’s discovery that experts are frequently, or even usually wrong was not all that surprising. Certainly he wasn’t the first to point it out, though the rigor of his study was impressive, and he definitely helped spread the idea with his book Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Which was published in 2005. Had he stopped there we might be forever in his debt, but from pointing out that the experts were frequently wrong, he went on to wonder, is there anyone out there who might do better? And thus began the superforecaster/Good Judgement project.

Most people, when considering the quality of a prediction, only care about whether it was right or wrong, but in the initial study, and in the subsequent Good Judgement project, Tetlock also asks people to assign a confidence level to each prediction. Thus someone might say that they’re 90% sure that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon in 2020 or that they’re 99% sure that the Korean Peninsula will not be reunited. When these predictions are graded, the ideal is for 90% of the 90% predictions to turn out to be true, not 95% or 85%, in the former case they were under confident and in the latter case they were overconfident. (For obvious reasons the latter is far more common). Having thus defined a good forecast Tetlock set out to see if he could find such people, people who were better than average at making predictions. He did. And it became the subject of his next book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

The book’s primary purpose is to explain what makes a good forecaster and what makes a good forecast. As it turns out one of the key features of that was that superforecasters are far more likely to predict that things will continue as they have. While those forecasters who appear on TV and who were the subject of Tetlock’s initial study are far more likely to predict some spectacular new development. The reason for this should be obvious, that’s how you get noticed. That’s what gets the ratings. But if you’re more interested in being correct (at least more often than not) then you predict that things will basically be the same next year as they were this year. And I am not disparaging that, we should all want to be more correct than not, but trying to maximize your correctness does have one major weakness. And that is why, despite Tetlock’s decades long effort to improve forecasting, I am going to argue that Tetlock’s ideas and methodology have actually been a source of significant harm, and have made the world less prepared for future calamities rather than more.

II.

To illustrate what I mean, I need an example. This is not the first time I’ve written on this topic, I actually did a post on it back in January of 2017, and I’ll probably be borrowing from it fairly extensively, including re-using my example of a Tetlockian forecaster: Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex

Now before I get into it, I want to make it clear that I like and respect Alexander A LOT, so much so that up until recently, and largely for free (there was a small Patreon) I read and recorded every post from his blog and distributed it as a podcast. The reason Alexander can be used as an example is that he’s so punctilious about trying to adhere to the “best practices” of rationality, which is precisely the position Tetlock’s methods hold at the moment. This post is an argument against that position, but at the moment they’re firmly ensconced.

Accordingly, Alexander does a near perfect job of not only making predictions but assigning a confidence level to each of them. Also, as is so often the case he beat me to the punch on making a post about this topic, and while his post touches on some of the things I’m going to bring up, I don’t think it goes far enough, or offers its conclusion quite as distinctly as I intend to do. 

As you might imagine, his post and mine were motivated by the pandemic, in particular the fact that traditional methods of prediction appeared to have been caught entirely flat footed, including the Superforecasters. Alexander mentions in his post that “On February 20th, Tetlock’s superforecasters predicted only a 3% chance that there would be 200,000+ coronavirus cases a month later (there were).” So by that metric the superforecasters failed, something both Alexander and I agree on, but I think it goes beyond just missing a single prediction. I think the pandemic illustrates a problem with this entire methodology. 

What is that methodology? Well, the goal of the Good Judgement project and similar efforts is to improve forecasting and predictions specifically by increasing the proportion of accurate predictions. This is their incentive structure, it’s how they’re graded, it’s how Alexander grades himself every year. This encourages two secondary behaviors, the first is the one I already mentioned, the easiest way to be correct is to predict that the status quo will continue, this is fine as far as it goes, the status quo largely does continue, but the flip side of that is a bias against extreme events. These events are extreme in large part because they’re improbable, thus if you want to be correct more often than not, such events are not going to get any attention. Meaning their skill set and their incentive structure are ill suited to extreme events (as evidenced by the 3% who correctly predicted the magnitude of the pandemic I mentioned above). 

The second incentive is to increase the number of their predictions. This might seem unobjectionable, why wouldn’t we want more data to evaluate them by? The problem is not all predictions are equally difficult. To give an example from Alexander’s list of predictions (and again it’s not my intention to pick on him, I’m using him as an example more for the things he does right than the things he does wrong) from his most recent list of predictions, out of 118, 80 were about things in his personal life, and only 38 were about issues the larger world might be interested in.

Indisputably it’s easier for someone to predict what their weight will be or whether they will lease the same car when their current lease is up, than it is to predict whether the Dow will end the year above 25,000. And even predicting whether one of his friends will still be in a relationship is probably easier as well, but more than that, the consequences of his personal predictions being incorrect are much less than the consequences of his (or other superforecasters) predictions about the world as a whole being wrong. 

III.

The first problem to emerge from all of this is that Alexander and the Superforecasters rate their accuracy by considering all of their predictions regardless of their importance or difficulty. Thus, if they completely miss the prediction mentioned above about the number of COVID-19 cases on March 20th, but are successful in predicting when British Airways will resume service to Mainland China their success will be judged to be 50%. Even though for nearly everyone the impact of the former event is far greater than the impact of the latter! And it’s worse than that, in reality there are a lot more “British Airways” predictions being made than predictions about the number of cases. Meaning they can be judged as largely successful despite missing nearly all of the really impactful events. 

This leads us to the biggest problem of all, the methodology of superforecasting has no system for determining impact. To put it another way, I’m sure that the Good Judgement project and other people following the Tetlockian methodology have made thousands of forecasts about the world. Let’s be incredibly charitable and assume that out of all these thousands of predictions, 99% were correct. That out of everything they made predictions about 99% of it came to pass. That sounds fantastic, but depending on what’s in the 1% of the things they didn’t predict, the world could still be a vastly different place than what they expected. And that assumes that their predictions encompass every possibility. In reality there are lots of very impactful things which they might never have considered assigning a probability to. That in fact they could actually be 100% correct about the stuff they predicted but still be caught entirely flat footed by the future because something happened they never even considered. 

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

That is the weakness of trying to maximize being correct. While being more right than wrong is certainly desirable. In general the few things the superforecasters end up being wrong about are far more consequential than all things they’re right about. Also, I suspect this feeds into the classic cognitive bias, where it’s easy to ascribe everything they correctly predicted to skill while every time they were wrong gets put down to bad luck. Which is precisely what happens when something bad occurs.

Both now and during the financial crisis when experts are asked why they didn’t see it coming or why they weren’t better prepared they are prone to retort that these events are “black swans”. “Who could have known they would happen?” And as such, “There was nothing that could have been done!” This is the ridiculousness of superforecasting, of course pandemics and financial crises are going to happen, any review of history would reveal that few things are more certain. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who came up with the term, has come to hate it for exactly this reason, people use it to excuse a lack of preparedness and inaction in general, when the concept is both more subtle and more useful. These people who throw up their hands and say “It was a black swan!” are making an essentially Tetlockian claim: “Mostly we can predict the future, except on a few rare occasions where we can’t, and those are impossible to do anything about.” The point of the Taleb’s black swan theory and to a greater extent his idea of being antifragile is to point out that you can’t predict the future at all, and when you convince yourself that you can it distracts you from hedging/lessening your exposure to/preparing for the really impactful events which are definitely coming.

From a historical perspective financial crashes and pandemics have happened a lot, business and governments really had no excuse for not making some preparation for the possibility that one or the other, or as we’re discovering, both, would happen. And yet they didn’t. I’m not claiming that this is entirely the fault of superforecasting. But superforecasting is part of the larger movement of convincing ourselves that we have tamed randomness, and banished the unexpected. And if there’s one lesson from the pandemic greater than all others it should be that we have not.

Superforecasting and the blindness to randomness are also closely related to the drive for efficiency I mentioned recently.  “There are people out there spouting extreme predictions of things which largely aren’t going to happen! People spend time worrying about these things when they could be spending that time bringing to pass the neoliberal utopia foretold by Steven Pinker!” Okay, I’m guessing that no one said that exact thing, but boiled down this is their essential message. 

I recognize that I’ve been pretty harsh here, and I also recognize that it might be possible to have the best of both worlds. To get the antifragility of Taleb with the rigor of Tetlock, indeed in Alexander’s recent post, that is basically what he suggests. That rather than take superforecasting predictions as some sort of gold standard that we should use them to do “cost benefit analysis and reason under uncertainty.” That, as the title of his post suggests, this was not a failure of prediction, but a failure of being prepared, suggesting that predicting the future can be different from preparing for the future. And I suppose they can be, the problem with this is that people are idiots, and they won’t disentangle these two ideas. For the vast majority of people and corporations and governments predicting the future and preparing for the future are the same thing. And when combined with a reward structure which emphasizes efficiency/fragility, the only thing they’re going to pay attention to is the rosy predictions of continued growth, not preparing for dire catastrophes which are surely coming.

To reiterate, superforecasting, by focusing on the number of correct predictions, without considering the greater impact of the predictions they get wrong, only that such missed predictions be few in number, has disentangled prediction from preparedness. What’s interesting is that while I understand the many issues with the system they’re trying to replace, of bloviating pundits making predictions which mostly didn’t come true, that system did not suffer from this same problem.

IV.

In the leadup to the pandemic there were many people predicting that it could end up being a huge catastrophe (including Taleb, who said it to my face) and that we should take draconian precautions. These were generally the same people who issued the same warnings about all previous new diseases, most of which ended up fizzling out before causing significant harm, for example Ebola. Most people are now saying we should have listened to them. At least with respect to COVID-19, but these are also generally the same people who dismissed previous worries as being pessimistic, or of panicking, or of straight up being crazy. It’s easy to see they were not, and this illustrates a very important point. Because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once for your caution to be worth it, but if you’re not prepared then in order for that to be a wise decision it has to NEVER happen. 

The financial crash of 2007-2008 represents an interesting example of this phenomenon. An enormous number of financial models was based on this premise that the US had never had a nationwide decline in housing prices. And it was a true and accurate position for decades, but the one year it wasn’t true made the dozens of years when it was true almost entirely inconsequential.

To take a more extreme example imagine that I’m one of these crazy people you’re always hearing about. I’m so crazy I don’t even get invited on TV. Because all I can talk about is the imminent nuclear war. As a consequence of these beliefs I’ve moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I confidently predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy with a bunker in Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

The “crazy” people who freaked out about all the previous potential pandemics are in much the same camp. Assuming they actually took their own predictions seriously and were prepared, they got all the benefits of being right this one time despite many years of being wrong, and we got all the consequences of being wrong, in spite of years and years, of not only forecasts, but SUPER forecasts telling us there was no need to worry.


I’m predicting, with 90% confidence that you will not find this closing message to be clever. This is an easy prediction to make because once again I’m just using the methodology of predicting that the status quo will continue. Predicting that you’ll donate is the high impact rare event, and I hope that even if I’ve been wrong every other time, that this time I’m right.


Worries for a Post COVID-19 World

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It’s hard to imagine that the world will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic without undergoing significant changes, and given that it’s hard to focus on anything else at the moment, I thought I’d write about some of those potential changes, as a way of talking about the thing we’re all focused on, but in a manner that’s less obsessed with the minutiae of what’s happening right this minute

To begin with there’s the issue of patience I mentioned in my last post. My first prediction is that special COVID-19 measures will still be in force two years from now, though not necessarily continuously. Meaning I’m not predicting that the current social distancing rules will still be in place two years from now, the prediction is more that two years from now you’ll still be able to read about an area that has reinstituted them after a local outbreak. Or to put it another way, COVID-19 will provoke significantly more worry than the flu even two years from now.

My next prediction is that some industries will never recover to their previous levels. In order of most damaged to least damaged these would be:

  1. Commercial Realty: From where I sit this seems like the perfect storm for commercial realty. You’ve got a generalized downturn that’s affecting all businesses. Then you have the demise of WeWork (the largest office tenant in places like NYC) which was already in trouble and now has stopped paying many of it’s leases. But, on top of all of that you have numerous businesses who have just been forced into letting people work from home and some percentage of those individuals and companies are going to realize it works better and for less money. I’m predicting a greater than 20% decrease in the value of commercial real estate by the time it’s all over.
  2. Movie theaters: I’m predicting 15% of movie theaters will never come back. More movies will have a digital only release, and such releases will get more marketing.
  3. Cruises: The golden age of cruises is over. I’m predicting whatever the cruise industry made in 2019 that it will be a long time before we see that amount again. (I’m figuring around a decade.)
  4. Conventions: I do think they will fully recover, but I predict that for the big conventions it will be 2023 before they regain their 2019 attendance numbers.
  5. Sports: I’m not a huge sports fan, so I’m less confident about a specific prediction, but I am predicting that sports will look different in some significant way. For example lower attendance, drop in value of sports franchises, leagues which never recover, etc. At a minimum I’m predicting that IF the NFL season starts on time it will do it without people in attendance at the stadiums

As you can tell most of these industries are ones that pack a large number of people together for a significant period of time, and regardless of whether I’m correct on every specific prediction, I see no way around the conclusion that large gatherings of people will be the last thing to return to a pre-pandemic normal

One thing that would help speed up this return to normalcy is if there’s a push to eventually test everyone, which is another prediction I made a while back, though I think it was on Twitter. (I’m dipping my toe in that lake, but it’s definitely not my preferred medium, however if you want to follow me I’m @Jeremiah820) When I say test everyone, I’m not saying 100%, or even 95%, but I’m talking about mass testing, where we’re doing orders of magnitude more than we’re doing right now. Along the lines of what’s proposed in this Manhattan Program for Testing article.

Of course one problem with doing that is coming up with the necessary reagents, and while this prediction is somewhat at odds with the last prediction, it seems to be ever more clear that when it comes down to it, the pandemic is a logistical problem. And that long term harm is going to mostly come from the delay in getting or being able to produce what we need. For example the fact that our mask supply was outsourced to Southeast Asian, and most of our drug manufacturing has been outsourced to there and India, and most of our antibiotics are made in China and Lombardy Italy (yeah the area that was hit the hardest). The biggest problem with testing everyone appears to be getting the necessary reagents, I’m not sure where the bottleneck is there, but that’s obviously one of the biggest ones of all. In theory you should be seeing an exponential increase in the amount of testing similar to the exponential growth of the number of diagnosis (since ever diagnosis needs a test) but instead the testing statistics are pretty lumpy, and in my own state, after an initial surge the number of tests being done has slipped back to the level they were two weeks ago.

Thus far we mostly talked about the immediate impact of the pandemic with its associated lockdown, but I’m also very interested in what the world looks like after things have calmed down. (I hesitate to use the phrase “returned to normal” because it’s going to be a long time before that happens.) I already mentioned in my last post that I think this is going to have a significant impact on US-China relations, and in case it wasn’t clear I’m predicting that they’ll get worse. As to how exactly they will get worse, I predict that on the US side the narrative that it’s all China’s fault will become more and more entrenched, with greater calls to move manufacturing out of China, and more support for Trump’s tariffs. On the Chinese side, I expect they’re going to try and take advantage of the weakness (perceived or real, it’s hard to say) of the US and Europe to sew up their control of the South China Sea, and maybe make more significant moves towards re-incorporating Taiwan. 

Turning to more domestic concerns, I expect that we’ll spend at least a little more money on preparedness, though it will still be entirely overwhelmed (by several orders of magnitude) by the money we’re spending trying to cure the problem after it’s happened rather than preventing it before it does. Also I fear that we’ll fall into the traditional trap where we’re well prepared for the last crisis, but then actually end up spending less money on other potential crises. As a concrete prediction I think the budget for the CDC will go up, but that budgets for things like nuclear non-proliferation and infrastructure hardening against EMPs, etc. will remain flat or actually go down. 

Also on the domestic front, this is more of a hope than a prediction, but I would expect that there will be a push towards having more redundancy. That we will see greater domestic production of certain critical emergency supplies, perhaps tax credits for maintaining surge capacity (as I mentioned in a previous post), and possibly even an antitrust philosophy which is less about predatory monopolies, and more about making industries robust. That we will work to make things a little less efficient in exchange for making them less fragile

From here we move on to more fringe issues, though in spite of their fringe character these next couple of predictions are actually the ones I feel the most confident about. To start with I have some predictions to make concerning the types of conspiracy theories this crisis will spawn. Now obviously, because of the time in which we live, there are already a whole host of conspiracy theories about COVID-19. But my prediction is that when things finally calm down that there will be one theory in particular which will end up claiming the bulk of the attention. The theory that COVID-19 was a conspiracy to allow the government to significantly increase its power and in particular its ability to conduct surveillance. As far as specifics the number of people who currently identify as “truthers” (9/11 conspiracy theorists) currently stands at 20% I predict that the number of COVID conspiracy theorists will be at least 30%

But civil libertarians are not the only ones who see more danger in the response to the pandemic than in the pandemic itself. I’m also noticing that a surprising number of Christians view it as a huge threat to religion as well. With many of them feeling that the declaration of churches as “non-essential” is very troubling just on it’s face, and that furthermore it’s a violation of the First Amendment. This mostly doesn’t include Mormons, and we were in fact one of the first denominations to shut everything down. But despite this I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the position, particularly if the worst accusations turn out to be true. Despite my sympathies I am in total agreement that megachurches should not continue conducting meetings, that in fact meetings in general over a few people are a bad idea. But consider this claim:

Christian churches worldwide have suffered the greatest, most catastrophic blow in their entire history, and – such is the feebleness of modern faith – have barely noticed (and barely even protested). 

There are many enforced closures and lock-downs of many institutions and buildings in England now; but there are none, I think, so severe and so absolute as the lock-down of Church of England churches.

Take a look for yourself – browse around. 

The instructions make clear that nobody should enter a church building, not even the vicar (even the church yard is supposed to be locked) – except in the case of some kind of material emergency like a gas leak. And, of course: all Christian activities must cease.

This is specifically directed at the church’s Christian activities. As a telling example, a funeral can be conducted in secular buildings, but the use of church buildings for a religious funeral is explicitly forbidden.

Except, wait for it… Church buildings can be used for non-Christian activities – such as blood donation, food banks or as night shelters… 

English churches are therefore – by official decree – now deconsecrated shells.

Church buildings are specifically closed for all religious activities – because these are allegedly too dangerous to allow; but at the same time churches are declared to be safe-enough, and allowed to remain open, for various ‘essential’ secular activities.

What could be clearer than that? 

I’ve looked at the link, and the claims seem largely true, though sensationalized, and in some cases it looks like the things banned by the Church of England were banned by the state a few days later. But you can see where it might seem like churches are being especially singled out for additional restrictions. And, while I’m sympathetic. I do not think this means that there’s some sort of wide-ranging conspiracy. But this doesn’t mean that other people won’t, and conspiracy theories have been created from evidence more slender than this. (Also stuff like this PVP Comic doesn’t help.) Which leads to another prediction, the pandemic will worsen relations between Christians (especially evangelicals) and mainstream governmental agencies (the bureaucracy and more middle of the road candidates). 

A metric for whether this comes to pass is somewhat difficult to specify, but insofar as Trump is seen as out of the mainstream, and as bucking consensus as far as the pandemic, one measure might be if his share of the evangelical vote goes up. Though I agree there could be lots of reasons for that. Which is to say I feel pretty confident in this prediction, but I wouldn’t blame you if you questioned whether I had given you enough for it to truly be graded.

Finally, in a frightening combination of fringe concerns, eschatology, things with low probability, and apocalyptic pandemics, we arrive at my last prediction. But first an observation, have you noticed how many stories there have been about the reduction in pollution and greenhouse gases as a result of the pandemic? If you have, does it give you any ideas? Was one of those ideas, “Man, if I was a radical environmentalist, I think I’d seriously consider engineering a pandemic just like this one as a way of saving the planet!”? No? Maybe it’s just me that had this idea, but let’s assume that in a world of seven billion people more than one person would have had this idea.

Certainly, even before the pandemic, there was a chance that someone would intentionally engineer a pandemic, and I don’t think I’m stretching things too much to imagine that a radical environmentalist might be the one inclined to do it, though you could also imagine someone from the voluntary human extinction movement deciding to start an involuntary human extinction movement via this method. My speculation would be that seeing COVID-19 with its associated effects on pollution and greenhouse gases has made this scenario more likely

How likely? Still unlikely, but more likely than we’re probably comfortable with. A recent book by Toby Ord, titled The Precipice (which I have yet to read but plan to soon) is entirely devoted to existential risks. And Ord gives an engineered pandemic a 1 in 30 chance of wiping out all of humanity in the next 100 years. From this conclusion two questions follow, the first, closely related to my prediction: These odds were assigned before the pandemic, have they gone up since then? And the second question: if there’s a 1 in 30 chance of an engineered pandemic killing EVERYONE, what are the chances of a pandemic which is 10x worse than COVID-19, but doesn’t kill everyone. Less than 1 in 30 just by the nature of compound probability. But is it 1 in 10? 1 in 5?

My prediction doesn’t concern those odds. My prediction is about whether someone will make an attempt. This attempt might end up being stopped by the authorities, or it might be equivalent to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subway, or it might be worse than COVID-19. My final prediction is that in the next 20 years there is a 20% chance that someone will attempt to engineer a disease with the intention of dramatically reducing the number of humans. Let’s hope that I’m mistaken.


For those who care about such things I would assign a confidence level of 75% for all of the other predictions except the two about conspiracy theories, my confidence level there is 90%. My confidence level that someone will become a donor based on this message is 10%, so less than the chances of an artificial plague, and once again, I hope I’m wrong. 


Books I Finished in March

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


Or download the MP3


The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success By: Ross Douthat

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes By: Donald D. Hoffman

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World By: Laura Spinney

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy By: Francis Fukuyama

Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers By: Sophocles


It would be difficult to write about anything other than the coronavirus in a space dedicated to the events of the last month. Though this month we also had an earthquake, which I can assure you, as an eschatologist, is a bad omen. Though not one I would put much weight on. Mostly it was alarming right as it was happening, knowing nothing but that it was an earthquake (my first) and having no idea if it was a small one and I was on top of it, or a giant one far away. (Would I feel a 9 on the Richter Scale in Salt Lake if it happened in Portland?) In any event it’s been an interesting month, and things are likely to continue to be interesting for quite some time.

Returning to the coronavirus, what little I have in the way of unique advice I dispensed in my last post, and now all that remains are just a lot of questions:

  • What is the actual number of cases? How many undiagnosed cases are there?
  • What is the actual fatality rate? And why are rates so different between countries
  • The argument around the fatality rate mostly revolves around the argument over the number of undiagnosed cases, but what if there are undiagnosed deaths? Are there also people who died from it, but aren’t being counted in the official statistics?
  • Most of these questions derive from extreme conditions experienced by Italy. Why have they been hit so hard?
  • China claims they’re on top of things, and that for the last couple of weeks they’ve had almost no new cases can we trust their numbers?
  • Will this whole business dramatically worsen US/China relations? (Which weren’t great before this happened.)
  • Is it possible different populations will have significantly different fatality rates?*
  • What are the chances it mutates into something worse?*
  • Will there be multiple waves?*
  • If there are multiple waves will they happen over the course of a year or two or will social distancing spread them out? In other words how long are we going to be fighting this?
  • When will things return to “normal”?
  • Will things ever return to “normal”?

Finally and most pressingly…

  • Is my current reserve of 50 rolls of toilet paper going to be enough?

*These questions are based on one of the books I read this month, Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney, an examination of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and I’ll cover them in more depth when I get to my review.


I- Eschatological Review

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

I vacillated for quite a while between reviewing this with all the other books and giving it it’s own post. But in the end I decided I didn’t want book review posts overwhelming everything else, and thus I decided to stick it here. 

To start, any discussion of this book has to begin with Douthat’s definition of decadence:

In our culture, the word decadence is used promiscuously but rarely precisely—which, of course, is part of its cachet and charm. The dictionary associates it with “having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc.” which seems far too nonspecific—Ebenezer Scrooge was immoral and money loving, but nobody would call him decadent—and with cultures “marked by decay or decline,” which gets us a little closer, but also leaves a great deal undefined.

At the risk of being presumptuous, let me try to refine [the] definition a bit further. Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development. The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.

As it turns out, though Douthat is more focused on a discussion of our immediate problems and I tend to focus my discussion farther out, His definition of decadence is precisely the theme of this blog. Which, for those of you who might have forgotten it, is:

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

It is precisely this sense, that civilization reached its pinnacle recently but that now we’ve drifted into stagnation that characterizes both my theme and Douthat’s discussion of decadence. In many respects, this is the book I wish I had written. 

Along with stagnation Douthat identifies three other elements of society, which, combined with stagnation comprise the Four Horsemen of Decadence. Together they are stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition.

Stagnation might best be characterized by this quote from economist Robert Gordan, included in the book:

A thought experiment… You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A, you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

The experiment is very illuminating because no one chooses option B. And you begin to realize how great stagnation has been when you start to imagine how far back would the technological cut off have to be before you would choose option B? What if we went back all the way to 1992? Or 1982? At what point would the amount of technology overwhelm just the single innovation of running water? 

You can also run the experiment in the opposite direction. That quote was from 2012, but here we are 8 years later, and I don’t imagine anyone’s choice switched from A to B in that time. How far into the future would we have to be, and what inventions would have to come along before the majority of people preferred option B?

Sterility is merely the actual, literal sterility of the modern world. We’re not having kids; families are shrinking; and populations are dwindling. Here Douthat’s argument is less about whether it’s happening than whether it’s a bad thing. (Spoiler: It is.) 

Sclerosis basically means resistance to change and Douthat primarily uses the term to cover modern, political dysfunction. And once again it’s not so much whether it’s happening, but why it’s happening. Why, as Douthat says:

[T]he same Washington that once won global wars and built the atom bomb and sent human beings moonward now can’t pass a normal budget; why a political system that used to produce reasonably durable governing coalitions now has wave elections constantly washing parties in and out of power. 

Repetition is the final quality and maybe the one most likely to be noticed by the average citizen, especially as they look around the media landscape. We have largely stopped creating new, innovative art. 

The easiest way, in Douthat’s opinion, to see this in action is to compare our era to one 20 years earlier. In the past such an exercise would have yielded dramatic architectural changes — compare the Empire State Building (30s) to Grand Central Station (10s) — or dramatic changes in the style of movies — compare A Clockwork Orange (70s) to On the Waterfront (50s) to It Happened One Night (30s) — or the changing styles of music — Nirvana (1992), Neil Young (1972), Patti Page (1952), Duke Ellington (1932). But what are the differences between music in 2012 (or even now) and music in 1992? Not many. It’s all a repetition and a form of stagnation, culturally our own day is virtually indistinguishable from the 90s and 2000s, and so on.

In laying this out I intend more to relay Douthat’s arguments than re-make them. If you feel inclined to disagree with any of the above, I would urge you to just read the book. I think he paints a very compelling picture of a nation and even a civilization which has essentially stalled out. But, before I move onto the next section, this idea of decadence brings an interesting ramification to the old debate between progressives and conservatives, one that Douthat himself seems unaware of.

Much of the debate between conservatives and progressive boils down to conservatives urging a respect of tradition and historical precedents, followed by the progressives saying, “Oh, you mean respect for things like slavery?” And that’s the end of that. But if progress has stalled, if civilization reached its peak several decades ago and has been stagnant ever since. Then it’s possible a conservative argument could be made that seeks not a return to the antebellum south, or a period before the institution of women’s suffrage, but just a return to a point before civilization stagnated. And indeed I think for many conservative pundits, Douthat included, this is precisely what they’re advocating.

To imagine the argument more generally. The same reasoning which says that conservatives are and have always been wrong. (Not my reasoning, but it is the reasoning of many.) Is valid only for so long as civilization is on an upward trajectory, but if things have changed recently such that civilization is stagnating or declining, then suddenly the same reasoning being used to conclude that they were wrong for so very long suddenly now makes them right. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Most eschatologies are imagined to be both sudden and apocalyptic, qualities which are lacking from the eschatology of decadence and stagnation. Though it’s not clear that this lack should make us take it less seriously. An argument might be made that, in fact, it should be precisely the reverse. Spectacular end of the world scenarios must attract at least some attention from their “cinematic” quality , irrespective of their likelihood. The best example of this must certainly be all the attention paid to the genre of the zombie apocalypse, but which, despite the attention, must be among the least likely of all catastrophes to actually happen. Or to state it all more simply, when it comes to end of the world scenarios, the attention it receives and the probability of it happening are not correlated.

While not the only form a stagnant apocalypse could take, one that’s very likely is the idea of a catabolic collapse, an idea I stole from John Michael Greer, and which I’ve discussed before, though it’s been awhile. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As a vast oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, while in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use as energy. Applied to civilization, when it’s in an anabolic state we’re adding programs, building infrastructure and going to the moon. In a catabolic state we’re cutting spending on less critical programs and using the money to prop up essential programs. New infrastructure gets built less frequently and when it does it’s at the expense of maintaining older infrastructure, and eventually everything’s falling apart. Finally, instead of going to the moon, we’re bailing out banks, and passing “stimulus” packages. 

If you expand the definition beyond things which have a dollar value, into drawing down accumulated reputational reserves, isn’t that precisely what’s happening with the massive amount of spending we just decided on? Isn’t this a drawing down of the sterling reputation of US government debt? Yes, we have a large reserve of that, and I doubt this latest crisis has drawn it down to zero, but it also seems like something that’s very hard to replenish, and where the actions required for that replenishment are ones we’re unlikely to take. 

For me, this all leads to the question of where in the process are we? Has the decadence only been going on for a little while and it’s easily reversed or is the decadence quite advanced and already terminal? Assuming we agree that things have stagnated, how would we then go on to determine how far it has progressed? It’s hard to imagine it starting before the moon landing, given how often the book, and others, bring that up as a high point, but it’s also hard to imagine it starting much after Vietnam, and of course those both happened at the same time, so perhaps 1970? Which would mean we’re 50 years into it, but I still don’t know if that’s so long as to indicate that the condition is terminal or short enough to suggest that we still have plenty of time. 

Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century is said to have lasted almost exactly 50 years. Until Diocletian came along, reunited the empire and fought off the barbarians and other nations which had, until that time, been threatening to swallow up the empire. It’s nice to imagine that we just need our own Diocletian to come along, and do the same. But the barbarians might be just as important to that story, and one of the fears is that in addition to lacking anyone resembling a Diocletian that we’re fresh out of barbarians as well. Which may be more important to breaking stagnation than we realize.

Douthat references a famous poem from 1904 called “Waiting for the Barbarians” by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. Which imagines an ancient city awaiting the arrival of the Barbarians, and it seems clear that their arrival will provide a focus for the city, something to do, and to unite around, and then something strange happens:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

I’m trying to remember the last time a non-fiction book genuinely made me angry. I say non-fiction because I get angry all the time when I’m reading fiction. I understand that you might expect it to be the other way around. But in my defense, if I’m reading a novel and something really dumb happens it’s easy to imagine a world in which it didn’t happen that way by just changing the actions of a single person, the author, who would just have had to write it differently. Change a few words, and the character doesn’t do that one ridiculous thing. But when it comes to a recounting of things which actually happened, generally lots of people would have to do lots of things differently for the outcome to be materially affected. As a consequence I’m generally far more sanquine about non-fiction. But that was not the case with this book. Reading it made me very angry. In fact I probably shouldn’t admit but I think this book made me angrier than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Probably because while I felt some distance from that book in time and space, the events Mattis describes in Call Sign Chaos feel very close. 

What was so upsetting you ask? Lot’s of things, but if I had to pick one, it would have been Mattis’ first hand account of how badly Iraq was bungled. I don’t want to get too deep into the details, but shortly after the occupation there were four security contractors who didn’t check in with the military first and as a result, ended up getting killed in Fallujah. They were hung and their bodies burned. Mattis was obviously upset, but he knew that this early into the occupation that he had to proceed cautiously. And that’s what his recommendation was. But the images had been broadcast all over CNN (more anger) and  Bush and Bremer overruled him and said they had to teach the Iraqis a lesson, and instructed him to invade and pacify Fallujah

Mattis disagreed with this decision, but he also asserts, over and over again, the importance of civilian military control, and the supremacy of the Commander in Chief. Accordingly he was absolutely fine following that order, despite thinking it was a bad idea. But if he was going to do that Mattis had a new plea. He told them, fine, but please, whatever you do, once we get started we really need to finish things. So he invaded Fallujah and then, just as victory was in sight, the government couldn’t handle any more negative press about civilian casualties (mostly coming from Al Jazeera) and they called things off. Skillfully managing to create the worst possible situation out of all the various options. Reaping neither the rewards of caution by holding off, nor the benefits of decisively invading.

This sort of bungling didn’t happen just this one time, it happens over and over again, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even once with Iran. Where somehow American military policy was to make the worst strategic level choice every time a choice was presented. You would expect that occasionally they might, even if it’s just by chance, make the right choice, but I got the impression that no, so deft and focused was their pursuit of short term gains that they adroitly avoided any decision with even the slightest hint of being a wise long term policy. 

This seems to have continued through all the presidents Mattis served under, including Trump. And while Mattis has been gone for awhile, it appeared to happen again while I was reading the book in the recent peace deal with the Taliban, and who knows, the approach of that deal may have been why Mattis left, though he gives very little detail in the book about his time in Trump’s cabinet. 

Mattis is an amazing individual, and you really should read the book, just because he’s so awesome, but I expect, like me, it will end up making you very mad. The only hope I was left with after reading the book is that perhaps Mattis might be convinced to run for President in 2020. Certainly he’s old, but he’s still younger than Trump and Biden.


The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

The Durants are famous historians, but it’s entirely possible you haven’t heard of them if you were born after 1970. This book is a distillation of the lessons of history from their numerous books on the subject. And while in places it hasn’t aged well, it’s short enough and so packed with insight (some of which you may disagree with) that I would definitely recommend it.

To be clear, I didn’t actually read it, I listened to it, and the audio version had short snippets of interviews with Will and Ariel in between chapters. These snippets added a lot of additional insight, and because of that I’d recommend listening to the book as well. To give you a taste of these snippets I transcribed one of them. Perhaps you can tell why I liked it:

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

It’s when they make broad pronouncements about the sweep of history that the Durrant’s are at their best. (Possibly because these broad pronouncements are harder to falsify?) When they turn from the general to the specific that’s when things get a little weird. After holding forth on all the things we can learn from history, they point out that many people’s next question is, “Well, what would you recommend.” They oblige by providing a list of 10 suggestions which is a weird mix of timeless wisdom with unusual policies, and other things that mostly haven’t aged well:

  1. Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.
  2. Government annuity to parents for their first and second child if they’re married. Birth control should be provided nearly for free to married couples
  3. Unity of family and authority of the parents should be strengthened by giving parents control over what their children earn.
  4. Education should be provided to fit every high school graduate for employment. Along with an education in the humanities. A wide variety of protections for universities including protection from violent protests. A version of the BBC for the US which is controlled by the universities.
  5. Every religious institution should preach morality instead of theology and welcome everyone who accepts the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.
  6. Morality, that is the cooperation of the individual with the group, should be taught every year from kindergarten through PhD. Including education on the effects of promiscuity, drugs, etc. For those who go astray significant prison reform in the direction of rehabilitation.
  7. Labor should be encouraged to organize as much as possible. Consumer protection made into a governmental agency.
  8. Be skeptical of revolution. It’s a monster that devours its fathers and children. Person’s over 30 should not listen to people under 30.
  9. A supervised election should be held to choose a government for South Vietnam which will be empowered to negotiate with the North. Recognize mainland China and admit it to the UN.
  10. A peaceful acceptance of death when it comes, no artificial prolongation of death.

Related to that last suggestion. Apparently Ariel and Will were so devoted to each other that when Will was admitted to the hospital, presumably to die (he was 96) Ariel stopped eating and actually died before him. Their daughter and grandkids tried to keep the news from Will, but he heard about it on the evening news and died shortly thereafter.


The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

This book was recommended to me by a reader. I’m not sure I will be forwarding that recommendation to the rest of my readers, mostly because the things I thought were useful I had heard elsewhere, and those things that I hadn’t heard generally felt far too speculative. To the point of being largely unbelievable.

An example that combines both of these attributes is his “Interface Theory of Perception”. Think of a computer interface where there’s an icon, for a file, but that icon has very little to do with the string of 1’s and 0’s which actually comprise the file at the lowest level. And more generally the idea that perceiving what’s real, and perceiving what assists you to survive are not necessarily the same thing, and any time they come into conflict, survival will win. That the brain has built an interface for survival, not an interface for reality. I had already heard this and it is indeed an important idea, but Hoffman:

[T]akes the well worn concept of our perceptual systems assembling only crude approximations of reality, and cranks it up to eleven. If you had assumed, like me, that, despite its approximate nature, our concepts of the world and the objects that inhabit it are at least somewhat veridical, think again! We are quickly disabused of the common sense notion that apprehending the truth of one’s environment is roughly compatible with maximizing genetic fitness. Instead, we are presented with the case that truth and fitness are mutually exclusive goals in our evolutionary trajectory.

That’s from a review I found on GoodReads that was too on the nose not to quote.

If anything, it gets worse when the book starts to dive into the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the controversial further extrapolation of that interpretation that things are constructed only when we perceive them. That, for example, when you’re not looking at it, the Moon isn’t there.

It’s not all bad, there is a lot of good stuff, it’s mostly that he’s just too ambitious. For example he definitely gets credit for bringing in supernormal stimuli, a long-time interest of this blog, and also a great example of survival warping perception. But this ends up being another example of overreach. I understand that supernormal stimuli makes certain things seem more attractive than they might be otherwise, and that I eat twinkies when I really should be eating low fat chicken breasts, but twinkies are still food. It’s not like I’m going to starve if I eat twinkies. In fact if anything it’s not our perception of reality that’s screwed up in this instance, it’s our perception of what will help us survive that’s screwed up. 

In the end the biggest problem is that the stuff that’s true and useful in this book is already well known, and the stuff that’s speculative has no practical application even if it could somehow be verified which mostly it can’t.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

It’s impossible when reviewing this book to avoid talking about the current crisis. And while the history of the Spanish Flu has been picked over pretty thoroughly for advice on how to handle things now, there are still a few items I haven’t seen brought up, or if they have been brought up they haven’t been emphasized. The first and biggest would be patience. The era of the Spanish flu lasted for three full years over three different waves. And when people talk about flattening the curve the whole point of that is to spread out this period. I’m not making any predictions, a lot depends on whether COVID-19 mutates into something significantly different or more deadly and fortunately, there’s evidence that it’s not mutating very fast. But even so, this is not going to be something that’s over by June or probably even over this year. But let’s all hope I’m wrong.

Speaking of mutating, I think more people are aware of it now, but I had always kind of assumed that the first wave of the Spanish Flu was the worst, but it was actually the middle wave, and then there was a further third wave that was not as bad as the second but worse than the first. As I said there’s evidence COVID-19 isn’t mutating very fast, so that’s obviously a good thing, but I also think we need to be prepared for multiple waves of it.

Something else that the book brought up is that the Spanish Flu had a significantly different fatality rate depending on the population. Native Americans were particularly hard hit, and the flu wiped out whole villages of Inuit. I’ve yet to see any evidence that the same thing is happening with C19, and I doubt it’s the explanation for things like the fatality disparity between Italy and Germany, and it’s probably too early to be able to tell, but we definitely could see some of that, and it might be really bad for whatever population ends up being the most susceptible. 

On the whole I’m not sure if I’d recommend the book right now. I think most of the useful insights it contains are already in the wild, and the rest of it will probably just depress you.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

This was a collection of short stories about the afterlife. Short vignettes, each with a different twist. It was enjoyable enough in the manner of most collections of speculative short stories, though there was nothing that knocked my socks off. There as an afterlife were Mary Shelley basically ran things because she was the only person who understood the fraught emotional relationship a creator has with their creation, and god spent all of his time brooding over her novel Frankenstein. Another story depicted an afterlife where you live out the eternities as characters in the dreams of those who haven’t died. And, yet another, where you died in the normal way, but eventually the universe reversed itself and you lived your life again,only in reverse and everything was much better. An idea he clearly stole from the Red Dwarf novels. (Though they may in turn have stolen it from somewhere else.)

You get the idea. And while they were all clever none of them seemed better or more logically constructed than the typical religious doctrine of the afterlife. In a sense this would be surprising, if some fiction writer managed to best the collective imagination of billions of people over thousands of years. But in another sense isn’t that the whole argument of people like transhumanists, that they can in fact come up with something better? I understand I’m probably putting too much weight on this book if I use it as evidence in that debate, but neither should it fill anyone with optimism either.


Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

First off I owe Francis Fukuyama an apology. On more than one occasion I brought up his idea of the “end of history” as something which had been proven so obviously wrong that neither I nor anyone else needed to take it seriously.

What’s worse is that this is a well known failure mode, you should always try to understand an argument before dismissing it. (Though I understand there’s only so much time in a day.) Additionally this might also be an example of a failure of oversimplification, where a phrase is simplified so much in people’s perception that it’s connotation is not very close and may in fact be the exact opposite of the true meaning the author was going for. (Other examples include Taleb’s idea of Black Swans, and Nietzsche’s contention that “God is dead”.) 

For myself, and I assume most people, the phrase “end of history”, invoked the idea that humanity had won. That we had banished wars, come up with the best system of government, and passed into a new age where big dramatic catastrophes (the kind of stuff you learn about when you study history) would no longer occur. But Douthat claims in his book The Decadent Society that Fukuyama was arguing something very similar to Douthat’s own thesis, that liberal market-based democracy had banished it’s ideological rivals. But rather than this being a glorious triumph, it was more likely a stagnant plateau. Now I feel like I need to read Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man and see what he’s really arguing, but, as you might have noticed, that is not the Fukuyama book I read, so I should really move on.

Coincidentally, this book seems to tie in to many of the other books I read this month, and books I’ve read in the last few months as well. I already mentioned the tie in to The Decadent Society, but of all the connections, the greatest is to the previous book in the series Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution which I finished in November and just as in that book his big emphasis is how difficult the formation of a stable well functioning state really is, or as he calls it “getting to Denmark”. This brings in another connection to the Mattis book with all of the difficulties he describes in both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. 

Beyond that Fukuyama seems very much in the camp of people who feel that war is an important component in the creation of states, and particularly in the creation of nations, those superpowered states that can call on nationalistic unity (i.e. patriotism) in the event of a threat. A process I talked about in a previous post when I discussed War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

Finally it’s connected to the book by the Durant’s in that it covers much the same territory. In fact if you were going to either read Lessons of History or The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay I would definitely encourage you to read the latter. The caveat being of course that those two books together are over 1300 pages, while Lessons of History is a tenth of that. Also the styles are very different. The Durant’s are far more narrative, while Fukuyama is more comprehensive jumping from one example to the next in service of a particular point.

There’s obviously a lot more to the book, but this post is already really long, so I’ll just leave you with just one final take away from the book. Fukuyama argues fairly persuasively, that it’s better to start with an effective state, and then add democracy than to attempt things in the reverse order. 


Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

As I may have mentioned, I read all of the Greek tragedies when I was young during my initial attempt to make it through the great books of the Western World. I may have also mentioned that I didn’t end up retaining much from that first read through, though that’s not to say I don’t remember anything, and one of the things I definitely remembered was the play Philoctetes, because it was around this time that I started to realize that Odysseus, far from being a heroic role-model was actually sort of a horrible individual. The details of why are too complicated to get into, and it’s more than just this play, but trust me, Odysseus was a jerk.


The pandemic continues, and I hear that people stuck at home are reading a lot more books. If you come across something great let me know. And if my reviews help you find something to pass the time with, consider donating, mostly I’ve always dreamed of getting paid to read, and donations make it seem like that’s what’s actually happening.