Month: <span>May 2020</span>

My Final Case Against Superforecasting (with criticisms considered, objections noted, and assumptions buttressed)

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I.

One of my recent posts, Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting, generated quite a bit of pushback. And given that in-depth debate is always valuable and that this subject, at least for me, is a particularly important one. I thought I’d revisit it, and attempt to further answer some of the objections that were raised the first time around. While also clarifying some points that people misinterpreted or gave insufficient weight to. 

To begin with, you might wonder how anybody could be opposed to superforecasting, and what that opposition would be based on. Isn’t any effort to improve forecasting obviously a good thing? Well for me it’s an issue of survival and existential risk. And while questions of survival are muddier in the modern world than they were historically, I would hope that everyone would at least agree that it’s an area that requires extreme care and significant vigilance. That even if you are inclined to disagree with me, that questions of survival call for maximum scrutiny. Given that we’ve already survived the past, most of our potential difficulties lie in the future, and it would be easy to assume that being able to predict that future would go a long way towards helping us survive it, but that is where I and the superforecasters part company, and the crux of the argument.

Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, we are at this very moment undergoing a catastrophe, a catastrophe which at one point lay in the future, but not any more. A catastrophe we now wish our past selves and governments had done a better job preparing for. And here we come to the first issue: preparedness is different than prediction. An eventual pandemic was predicted about as well as anything could have been, prediction was not the problem. A point Alex Tabarrok made recently on Marginal Revolution:

The Coronavirus Pandemic may be the most warned about event in human history. Surprisingly, we even did something about it. President George W. Bush started a pandemic preparation plan and so did Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in CA but in both cases when a pandemic didn’t happen in the next several years those plans withered away. We ignored the important in favor of the urgent.

It is evident that the US government finds it difficult to invest in long-term projects, perhaps especially in preparing for small probability events with very large costs. Pandemic preparation is exactly one such project. How can we improve the chances that we are better prepared next time?

My argument is that we need to be looking for the methodology that best addresses this question, and not merely how we can be better prepared for pandemics, but better prepared for all rare, high impact events.

Another term for such events is “black swans”, after the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Which is the term I’ll be using going forward. (Though, Taleb himself would say that, at best, this is a grey swan, given how inevitable it was.) Tabarrok’s point, and mine, is that we need a methodology that best prepares us for black swans, and I would submit that superforecasting, despite its many successes, is not that method. And in fact it may play directly into some of the weaknesses of modernity that encourage black swans, and rather than helping to prepare for such events, superforecasting may in fact discourage such preparedness.

What are these weaknesses I’m talking about? Tabarrok touched on them when he noted that, “It is evident that the US government finds it difficult to invest in long-term projects, perhaps especially in preparing for small probability events with very large costs.” Why is this? Why were the US and California plans abandoned after only a few years? Because the modern world is built around the idea of continually increasing efficiency. And the problem is that there is a significant correlation between efficiency and fragility. A fragility which is manifested by this very lack of preparedness.

One of the posts leading up to the one where I criticized superforecasting was built around exactly this point, and related the story of how 3M considered maintaining a surge capacity for masks in the wake of SARS, but it was quickly apparent that such a move would be less efficient, and consequently worse for them and their stock price. The drive for efficiency led to them being less prepared, and I would submit that it’s this same drive that led to the “withering away” of the US and California pandemic plans. 

So how does superforecasting play into this? Well, how does anyone decide where gains in efficiency can be realized or conversely where they need to be more cautious? By forecasting. And if a company or a state hires the Good Judgement Project to tell them what the chances are of a pandemic in the next five years and GJP comes back with the number 5% (i.e. an essentially accurate prediction) are those states and companies going to use that small percentage to justify continuing their pandemic preparedness or are they going to use it to justify cutting it? I would assume the answer to that question is obvious, but if you disagree then I would ask you to recall that companies almost always have a significantly greater focus on maximizing efficiency/profit, than on preparing for “small probability events with very large costs”.

Accordingly the first issue I have with superforecasting is that it can be (and almost certainly is) used as a tool for increasing efficiency, which is basically the same as increasing fragility. That rather than being used as a tool for determining which things we should prepare for it’s used as an excuse to avoid preparing for black swans, including the one we’re in the middle of. It is by no means the only tool being used to avoid such preparedness, but that doesn’t let it off the hook.

Now I understand that the link between fragility and efficiency is not going to be as obvious to everyone as it is to me, and if you’re having trouble making the connection I would urge you to read Antifragile by Taleb, or at least the post I already mentioned. Also, even if you find the link tenuous I would hope that you would keep reading because not only are there more issues but some of them may serve to make the connection clearer. 

II.

If my previous objection represented my only problem with superforecasting then I would probably agree with people who say that as a discipline it is still, on net, beneficial. But beyond providing a tool that states and companies can use to justify ignoring potential black swans superforecasting is also less likely to consider the probability of such events in the first place. 

When I mentioned this point in my previous post, the people who disagreed with me had two responses. First they pointed out that the people making the forecasts had no input on the questions they were being asked to make forecasts on and consequently no ability to be selective about the predictions they were making. Second, and more broadly they claimed that I needed to do more research and that my assertions were not founded in a true understanding of how superforecasting worked.

In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, since that last post I have read Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Which I have to assume comes as close to being the bible of superforecasting as anything. Obviously, like anyone, I’m going to suffer from confirmation bias, and I would urge you to take that into account when I offer my opinion on the book. With that caveat in place, here, from the book, is the first commandment of superforecasting:

1) Triage

Focus on questions where your hard work is likely to pay off. Don’t waste time either on easy “clocklike” questions (where simple rules of thumb can get you close to the right answer) or on impenetrable “cloud-like” questions (where even fancy statistical models can’t beat the dart-throwing chimp). Concentrate on questions in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty, where effort pays off the most.

For instance, “Who will win the presidential election twelve years out, in 2028?” is impossible to forecast now. Don’t even try. Could you have predicted in 1940 the winner of the election, twelve years out, in 1952? If you think you could have known it would be a then-unknown colonel in the United States Army, Dwight Eisenhower, you may be afflicted by one of the worst cases of hindsight bias ever documented by psychologists. 

The question which should immediately occur to everyone: are black swans more likely to be in or out the Goldilocks zone? It would seem that, almost by definition, they’re going to be outside of this zone. Also, just based on the book’s description of the zone and all the questions I’ve seen both in the book and elsewhere, it would seem clear they’re outside of the zone. Which is to say that even if such predictions are not misused, they’re unlikely to be made in the first place. 

All of this would appear to heavily incline superforecasting towards the streetlight effect, where the old drunk looks for his keys under the streetlight, not because that’s where he lost them, but because that’s where the light is the best. Now to be fair, it’s not a perfect analogy. With respect to superforecasting there are actually lots of useful keys under the streetlight, and the superforecasters are very good at finding them. But based on everything I have already said, it would appear that all of the really important keys are out there in the dark, and as long as superforecasters are finding keys under the streetlight what inducement do they have to venture out into the shadows looking for keys? No one is arguing that the superforecasters aren’t good, but this is one of those cases where the good is the enemy of the best. Or more precisely it makes the uncommon the enemy of the rare.

It would be appropriate to ask at this point, if superforecasting is good, then what is “best”, and I intend to dedicate a whole section to that topic before this post is over, but for the moment I’d like to direct your attention to Toby Ord, and his recent book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, which I recently finished. (I’ll have a review of it in my month end round up.) Ord is primarily concerned with existential risks, risks which could wipe out all of humanity. Or to put it another way the biggest and blackest swans. A comparison of his methodology with the methodology of superforecasting might be instructive.  

Oord spends a significant portion of the book talking about pandemics. On his list of eight anthropogenic risks, pandemics take up 25% of the spots (natural pandemics get one spot and artificial pandemics get the other). On the other hand, if one were to compile all of the forecasts made by the Good Judgement Project since the beginning, what percentage of them would be related to potential pandemics? I’d be very much surprised if it wasn’t significantly less than 1%. While such measures are crude, one method pays a lot more attention than the other, and in any accounting of why we weren’t prepared for the pandemic, a lack of attention would certainly have to be high on the list.

Then there are Oord’s numbers. He provides odds that various existential risks will wipe us all out in the next 100 years. The odds he gives for that happening with a naturally arising pandemic are 1 in 10,000, the odds for an engineered pandemic are 1 in 30. The foundation of superforecasting is the idea that we should grade people’s predictions. How does one grade predictions of existential risk? Clearly compiling a track record would be impossible, they’re essentially unfalsifiable, and beyond all that they’re well outside the Goldilocks zone. Personally I’d almost rather that Oord didn’t give odds and just spent his time screaming, “BE VERY, VERY AFRAID!” But he doesn’t, he provides odds and hopes that by providing numbers people will take him more seriously than if he just yells. 

From all this you might still be unclear why Oord is better than the superforecasters. It’s because our world is defined by black swan events, and we are currently living out an example of that: our current world is overwhelmingly defined by the pandemic. If you were to selectively remove knowledge of just it from someone trying to understand the world absolutely nothing would make sense. Everyone understands this when we’re talking about the present, but it also applies to all past forecasting we engaged in. 99% of all superforecasting predictions lent nothing to our understanding of this moment, but 25% of Oord’s did. Which is more important: getting our 80% predictions about uncommon events to 95% or gaining any awareness, no matter how small, of a rare event which will end up dominating the entire world?

III.

At their core all of the foregoing complaints boil down to the idea that the methodology of superforecasting fails to take into account impact. The impact of not having extra mask capacity if a pandemic arrives. The impact of keeping to the Goldilocks zone and overlooking black swans. The impact of being wrong vs. the impact of being right.

When I made this claim in the previous post, once again several people accused me of not doing my research. As I mentioned, since then I have read the canonical book on the subject, and I still didn’t come across anything that really spoke to this complaint. To be clear, Tetlock does mention Taleb’s objections, and I’ll get to that momentarily, but I’m actually starting to get the feeling that neither the people who had issues with the last point, nor Tetlock himself really grasp this point, though there’s a decent chance I’m the one who’s missing something. Which is another point I’ll get to before the end. But first I recently encountered an example I think might be useful. 

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

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

But superforecasting doesn’t deal with the question of whether someone should “play poker” it works by considering a single question, answering that question and assigning a confidence level to the answer. So in this case they would be asked the question, “Will Harlan Eustice win money at poker tonight?” To which they would say, “Yes, he will, and my confidence level in that prediction is 99%.” That prediction is in fact accurate, and would result in a fantastic Brier score (the grading system for superforecasters), but by repeatedly following that advice Eustice eventually ends up destitute.

This is what I mean by impact, and why I’m concerned about the potential black swan blindness of superforecasting. When things depart from the status quo, when Eustice loses money, it’s often so dramatic that it overwhelms all of the times when things went according to expectations.  That the smartest behavior for Eustice, the recommended behavior, should be to never play poker regardless of the fact that 99% of the time he makes thousands of dollars an hour. Furthermore this example illustrates some subtleties of forecasting which often get overlooked:

  • If it’s a weekly poker game you might expect the 1% outcome to pop up every two years, but it could easily take five years, even if you keep the probability the same. And if the probability is off by even a little bit (small probabilities are notoriously hard to assess) it could take even longer to see. Which is to say that forecasting during that time would result in continually increasing confidence, and greater and greater black swan blindness.
  • The benefits of wins are straightforward and easy to quantify. But the damage associated with the one big loss is a lot more complicated and may carry all manner of second order effects. Harlan may go bankrupt, get divorced, or even have his legs broken by the mafia. All of which is to say that the -$210k expected reward is the best outcome. Bad things are generally worse than expected. (For example it’s been noted that even though people foresaw a potential pandemic, plans almost never touched on the economic disruption which would attend it, which ended up being the biggest factor of all.)

Unless you’re Eustice, you may not care about the above example, or you may think that it’s contrived, but in the realm of politics this sort of bet is fairly common. As an example cast your mind back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Imagine that in addition to his advisors, that at that time Kennedy also could draw on the Good Judgement Project and superforecasting. Further imagine that the GJP comes back with the prediction that if we blockade Cuba that the Russians will back down, a prediction they’re 95% confident of.  Let’s further imagine that they called the odds perfectly. In that case, should the US have proceeded with the blockade? Or should we have backed down and let the USSR base missiles in Cuba? When you just look at that 95% the answer seems obvious. But shouldn’t some allowance be made for the fact that the remaining 5% contains the possibility of all out nuclear war?

As near as I can tell, that part isn’t explored very well by superforecasting. Generally they get a question, they provide the answer and assign a confidence level to that answer. There’s no methodology for saying that despite the 95% probability that such gambles are bad ideas because if we make enough of them eventually we’ll “go bust”. None of this is to say that we should have given up and submitted to Soviet domination because it’s better than a full on nuclear exchange. (Though there were certainly people who felt that way.) More that it was a complicated question with no great answer (though it might have been a good idea for the US to not to put missiles in Turkey.) But by providing a simple answer with a confidence level of 95% superforecasting gives decision makers every incentive to substitute the true, and very difficult questions of nuclear diplomacy with the easy question of whether to blockade. That rather than considering the difficult and long term question of whether Eustice should gamble at all, we’re substituting the easier question of just whether he should play poker tonight. 

In the end I don’t see any bright line between a superforecaster saying there’s a 95% chance the Cuban Missile Crisis will end peacefully if we blockade, or a 99% chance Eustice will win money if he plays poker tonight, and those statements being turned into a recommendation for taking those actions, when in reality both may turn out to be very bad ideas.

IV.

All of the foregoing is an essentially Talebian critique of superforecasting, and as I mentioned earlier, Tetlock is aware of this critique. In fact he calls it, “the strongest challenge to the notion of superforecasting.” And in the final analysis it may be that we differ merely in whether that challenge can be overcome or not. Tetlock thinks it can, I have serious doubts, particularly if the people using the forecasts are unaware of the issues I’ve raised. 

Frequently people confronted with Taleb’s ideas of extreme events and black swans end up countering that we can’t possibly prepare for all potential catastrophes. Tetlock is one of those people and he goes on to say that even if we can’t prepare for everything that we should still prepare for a lot of things, but that means we need to establish priorities, which takes us back to making forecasts in order to inform those priorities. I have a couple of responses to this. 

  1. It is not at all clear that the forecasts one would make about which black swans to be most worried about follow naturally from superforecasting. It’s likely that superforecasting with its emphasis on accuracy and making predictions in the Goldilocks zone systematically draws attention away from rare impactful events.  Oord makes forecasts, but his emphasis is on identifying these events rather making sure the odds he provides are accurate. 
  2. I think that people overestimate the cost of preparedness and how much preparing for one thing, makes you prepared for lots of things. One of my favorite quotes from Taleb illustrates the point:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy. 

As Taleb points out stockpiling reserves of necessities blunts the impact of most crises. Not only that, but even preparation for rare events ends up being pretty cheap when compared to what we’re willing to spend once the crisis hits. As I pointed out in a previous post, we seem to be willing to spend trillions of dollars once the crisis hits, but we won’t spend a few million to prepare for crises in advance.  

Of course as I pointed at at the beginning having reserves is not something the modern world is great at. Because reserves are not efficient. Which is why the modern world is generally on the other side of Taleb’s statement, in debt and trying to ensure/increase the accuracy of their predictions. Does this last part not exactly describe the goal of superforecasting? I’m not saying it can’t be used in service of identifying what things to hold in reserve or what rare events to prepare for I’m saying that it will be used far more often in the opposite way, in a quest for additional efficiencies and as a consequence greater fragility.

Another criticism people had about the last episode was that it lacked recommendations for what to do instead. I’m not sure that lack was as great as some people said, but still, I could have done better. And the foregoing illustrates what I would do differently. As Tabarrok said at the beginning, “The Coronavirus Pandemic may be the most warned about event in human history.” And yet if we just consider masks our preparedness in terms of supplies and even knowledge was abysmal. We need more reserves, we need to select areas to be more robust and less efficient in, we need to identify black swans, and once we have, we should have credible long term plans for dealing with them which aren’t scrapped every couple of years. Perhaps there is some place for superforecasting in there, but that certainly doesn’t seem like where you would start.

Beyond that, there are always proposals for market based solutions. In fact the top comment on the reddit discussion of the previous article was, “Most of these criticisms are valid, but are solved by having markets.” I am definitely also in favor of this solution as well, but there’s a lot of things to consider in order for it to actually work. A few examples off the top of my head:

  1. What’s the market based solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis? How would we have used markets to navigate the Cold War with less risk? Perhaps a system where we offer prizes for people predicting crises in advance. So maybe if someone took the time to extensively research the “Russia puts missiles in Cuba” scenario, when that actually happens they gets a big reward?
  2. Of course there are prediction markets, which seems to be exactly what this situation calls for, but personally I’m not clear how they capture impact problem mentioned above, also they’re still missing more big calls than they should. Obviously part of the problem is that overregulation has rendered them far less useful than they could be, and I would certainly be in favor of getting rid of most if not all of those regulations.
  3. If you want the markets to reward someone for predicting a rare event, the easiest way to do that is to let them realize extreme profits when the event happens. Unfortunately we call that price gouging and most people are against it. 

The final solution I’ll offer is the solution we already had. The solution superforecasting starts off by criticizing. Loud pundits making improbable and extreme predictions. This solution was included in the last post, but people may not have thought I was serious. I am. There were a lot of individuals who freaked out every time there was a new disease outbreak, whether it was Ebola, SARS or Swine Flu. And not only were they some of the best people to listen to when the current crisis started, we should have been listening to them even before that about the kind of things to prepare for. And yes we get back to the idea that you can’t act on the recommendations of every pundit making extreme predictions, but they nevertheless provide a valuable signal about the kind of things we should prepare for, a signal which superforecasting rather than boosting actively works to suppress.

None of the above directly replaces superforecasting, but all of them end up in tension with it, and that’s the problem.

V.

It is my hope that I did a better job of pointing out the issues with superforecasting on this second go around. Which is not to say the first post was terrible, but I could have done some things better. And if you’ll indulge me a bit longer (and I realize if you’ve made it this far you have already indulged me a lot) a behind the scenes discussion might be interesting. 

It’s difficult to produce content for any length of time without wanting someone to see it, and so while ideally I would focus on writing things that pleased me, with no regard for any other audience, one can’t help but try the occasional experiment in increasing eyeballs. The previous superforecasting post was just such an experiment, in fact it was two experiments. 

The first experiment was one of title selection. Should you bother to do any research into internet marketing they will tell you that choosing your title is key. Accordingly, while it has since been changed to “limitations” the original title of the post was “Pandemic Uncovers the Ridiculousness of Superforecasting”. I was not entirely comfortable with the word “ridiculousness” but I decided to experiment with a more provocative word to see if it made any difference. And I’d have to say that it did. In their criticism of it, a lot of people mentioned that world or the attitude implied in the title in general. But it also seemed that more people read it in the first place because of the title. Leading to the perpetual conundrum: saying superforecasting is ridiculous was obviously going too far, but would the post have attracted fewer readers without that word? If we assume that the body of the post was worthwhile (which I do, or I wouldn’t have written it) is it acceptable to use a provocative title to get people to read something? Obviously the answer for the vast majority of the internet is a resounding yes, but I’m still not sure, and in any case I ended up changing it later.

The second experiment was less dramatic, and one that I conduct with most of my posts. While writing them I imagine an intended audience. In this case the intended audience was fans of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in particular people I had met while at his Real World Risk Institute back in February. (By the way, they loved it.) It was only afterwards, when I posted it as a link in a comment on the Slate Star Codex reddit that it got significant attention from other people, who came to the post without some of the background values and assumptions of the audience I’d intended for. This meant that some of the things I could gloss over when talking to Taleb fans were major points of contention with SSC readers. This issue is less binary than the last one, and other than writing really long posts it’s not clear what to do about it, but it is an area that I hope I’ve improved on in this post, and which I’ll definitely focus on in the future.

In any event the back and forth was useful, and I hope that I’ve made some impact on people’s opinions on this topic. Certainly my own position has become more nuanced. That said if you still think there’s something I’m missing, some post I should read or video I should watch please leave it in the comments. I promise I will read/listen/watch it and report back. 


Things like this remind me of the importance of debate, of the grand conversation we’re all involved in. Thanks for letting me be part of it. If you would go so far as to say that I’m an important part of it consider donating. Even $1/month is surprisingly inspirational.


COVID: What Does Victory Look Like?

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I experienced a certain amount of reluctance when I decided to do another post on COVID-19. For starters not only is everyone kind of sick of hearing about it, but there is also a credible argument to be made that the biggest problem right now is just how many different opinions there are when it comes to the crisis. That what we might need are fewer opinions, not more. If this is the case then adding my opinion to the hundreds that are already out there just makes the problem worse, not better. Of course, as you can see I overcame that reluctance, and decided to go ahead with it. I hope that doesn’t end up being a mistake.I suppose you’ll have to read it and decide for yourself. 

Part of the impetus for this post came from reading Ross Douthat’s latest, and an excerpt from that article might help set the stage.

“Americans play to win all the time,” George Patton told the Third Army in the spring of 1944. “That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”

That was in another time, another country. When Patton spoke the United States was still ascending, a superpower in the making. But once our ascent was complete, our war making became managerial, lumbering, oriented toward stalemate. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan to all our lesser conflicts, the current American way of warfare rarely has a plan to win.

Maybe the America of mass mobilization belongs as much to the past as Patton, MacArthur, Ike. But nothing that’s happened so far in this crisis proves, definitively, that we the people lack the will to win — especially when the alternative is just enduring, and dying, for months and months to come.

So as we look for a post-lockdown strategy, maybe what we’re actually looking for are leaders — be they governors or legislators, Trump and his appointees or the Democratic nominee for president — willing to embrace the old-fashioned idea that in this struggle, as in the wars our country used to wage, there is no substitute for victory.

That was the first two and last two paragraphs from his article, and I hope you (and he) will forgive the length of the excerpt, but his point was an important one. There is no substitute for victory and we should be doing whatever it takes to get there. The problem, at least for me, and I assume a lot of people, is that it’s not clear how to get there with the America we have, and it’s even a little unclear how to get there period. 

In answer to this last statement a lot of people will retort, “Well what about South Korea, Taiwan and China?” Haven’t they been victorious? So let’s start there. First, we need to be clear that we can’t trust all of the information coming out of China, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. But that issue aside, these countries are fantastic examples of what to do and I think the US should be emulating their example as much as possible. And that when Douthat talks about a lack of leadership it’s the failure of our leaders to aggressively follow these countries’ examples, particularly in the case of masks which I blogged about previously. But also in areas like testing and tracing. So the solution is just “copy Taiwan”? End of story? Unfortunately there are two reasons why it’s not that simple. First, there’s the idea I already alluded to, America is a very different place than Taiwan or South Korea. But beyond that, and important to mention, the final tally of deaths is not in yet, and until it is, the possibility remains that we should be emulating Sweden not South Korea.

Before people start accusing me of wanting old people to die, let me offer some clarifications. First, if I was given absolute control over the US pandemic response I would definitely be trying to emulate Taiwan (for those who didn’t follow the link, they’ve had 440 cases with 7 fatalities so 1/10,000th as many deaths with 1/15th the population of the US). Second, it’s important to remember that it’s not today’s death toll that matters, it’s the final death toll. And it’s not even the final death toll from COVID-19, it’s the final death toll from all the things we do. If suicides go up, our numbers should do their best to reflect that, and ditto if traffic fatalities go down. And it’s not even the final death toll from all causes, what really matters is the final toll period, what did that path cost us when all is said and done. This is the hardest thing of all to quantify, particularly since as much as people hate to put a dollar value on human life, in some fashion, at least, economics has to be part of that calculation.

For the moment imagine that the window for containing the virus is past, that it’s too widespread and too deeply entrenched and there are too many asymptomatic carriers. That a vaccine ends up taking years or being outright impossible. That despite our best efforts (and recall we’re a long way even from that) the virus can only eventually be stopped through worldwide “herd immunity”. That as great as Taiwan’s measures are, they eventually fail and when the final tally is made, their death rate ends up being essentially the same as Sweden’s. If that’s how it plays out, one would expect Sweden to reach this immunity much sooner than Taiwan. What will that mean for them? If the death rate ends up being essentially the same for both countries won’t people end up envying Sweden rather than Taiwan? Because they didn’t have to deal with years of heightened precautions which ended up being pointless?

I suspect that this last point is not one people think about a lot. When you consider what it takes to maintain a system like the ones these countries have in place, it’s neither cheap nor unobtrusive. There’s definitely got to be some downside, some drag, consequences to the perpetual uncertainty, where years go by with lockdowns imposed and then lifted, continual monitoring and screening, closed borders, no really large gatherings, etc. And to reiterate if these methods work, then that’s great, and that’s the path I would prefer to take, but what if ultimately they don’t? What if Taiwan and South Korea end up with the same basic death rate as Sweden, but had to suffer through years of ultimately futile precautions as well?

The point being that, while I would definitely prefer to implement the South Korean or Taiwan approach, there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty, and a lot we don’t know. Consequently I’m grateful that both Taiwan and Sweden are out there and that they’re trying different approaches, because ideally we’d learn from both in constructing our own response. Which takes us from the “how do we get to victory” problem (answer: it’s complicated, and a lot of questions remain) to the question of how do we get there with the America we have? How do we turn the current quagmire into victory? 

One of the things that characterized all of our past victories, to one degree or another, is sacrifice. But what does sacrifice look like in the current crisis? Are the Swedes sacrificing? Are the Koreans? I’m not sure. What about the US? I can certainly think of one example of sacrifice, which got a lot of press, both because people love stories of sacrifice, and also because so far I don’t think there’s been a lot of them. (i.e. demand far outstrips supply) It’s the story of the workers who lived in the factory for 28 days making polypropylene to get turned into PPE.

I will admit to personally loving that story, and I’d love to expand the example into some broad lesson, but I’m not sure if it scales up. Are there other critical factories that could do the same thing or something similar? Perhaps, and I’ll get to that later, but I think this issue of sacrifice is at the root of the leadership problem Douthat mentioned in the article I quoted from originally. That good leaders inspire sacrifice, and sacrifice is how you win. 

This is certainly not all a leader does, but in a crisis like this I’d be willing to bet that it’s a big part of it, and to the extent that it is we’re still left with two problems. Finding a leader who can inspire the entire nation to sacrifice and figuring out what sort of sacrifice this leader should be advocating. 

As to the first, Trump is clearly not that leader. I will admit, in the past, to being something of a Trump apologist, which is to say, I think he’s an awful person, and an awful president, but I didn’t think he was Satan incarnate, and, also, like many people, I thought labeling him as such made it more difficult to call out actual Satans. I still basically feel that way, but it’s apparent that his failings, which are many, have been magnified by this crisis and that if, as Douthat claims, victory requires some amount of leadership, say a Patton or a MacAuther, a Roosevelt or a Kennedy (which is not to say that those people didn’t have their own failings) that we have been saddled with basically the opposite. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Biden is such a leader either. But as I said it’s still not clear what the ideal leader should be doing. Even if we assume that we had the required leadership, what sacrifices would this leader ask of us? 

The largest crises of the past were all wars and the sacrifice people were asked to make was death, or at least the risk of death. And people volunteered in their thousands and tens of thousands, to personally risk death. Today no one is being asked to do that (there are some proposals asking for healthy people to volunteer to be infected, but they’ve gone nowhere) and it’s impossible to imagine any leader suggesting it even obliquely. And to be clear I’m not arguing that they should, I’m just pointing out how off limits it is. Is it so off limits because when it comes down to it there’s really not that much similarity between a war and a pandemic? Or is it off limits because this is 2020, not 1918?

Those are interesting questions, in particular what did happen in 1918? Was leadership an important part of things? Was there a Churchill equivalent who rallied an entire nation? As far as I can tell the answer no. And what’s even more interesting is that despite all of the current sturm and drang, the 1918 pandemic, which was vastly worse on every measure, ended up mostly being forgotten. Up until possibly the last few months, if you had asked people to name the greatest disaster of the 20th century almost no one would have said the Spanish Flu, and most wouldn’t have said it even if you’d asked them to list the top ten disasters. 

(If you want hard numbers as of 2017 there were 80,000 books on World War I, and 400 on the Spanish flu, and most of those had been written since 2000. Alternatively just do a Google search for: spanish flu forgotten.) 

What are we to make of that fact? Why didn’t the Spanish Flu loom larger in the collective imagination? Is it because it came and went so fast? (The majority of deaths took place in a 13 week period at the end of 1918.) Is it because it was largely a solitary crisis? Should the level at which something is remembered be used as a proxy for how bad it was? Apparently not, because the Spanish Flu was really bad. Should it be used as a proxy for how impactful it was? One would think that this is almost the definition of memory. Does that mean the Spanish Flu didn’t have that much of an impact? Maybe?

Frankly I’m not sure what to make of this, nor do I intend to use it in service of some sweeping recommendation or conclusion. But it’s something I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, and it feels important. 

In the course of writing this post I was more thinking through things than holding forth on some pre-formed opinion. And in the course of that, I think what I’m inclined to do is offer a caveat to Douthat’s call for leadership. I don’t think we need leadership in the traditional, “rally the country”, “call for sacrifice” sense. What I think we need is smart and effective leadership (man did we end up with the wrong president in this crisis). Which is easy to say and hard to do, so allow me to explain. 

Vox.com recently published a list of recommendations on how to beat COVID. It included the things you might expect, universal mask wearing, more testing, contact tracing, etc. But it also included things like removing restrictions on outdoor spaces and spending a lot of money. And these latter two in particular begin to touch on what I mean by being smart. But before we fully switch to that topic, it also illustrates one last thing about sacrifice.

You can imagine that it’s a sacrifice to wear masks, or to stay at home. We might also have to make sacrifices to ramp up testing and tracing. But none of these things really fit in with how sacrifice has worked historically. For one thing they’re not particularly demanding, nor are they particularly… flashy. But more than that, most of the time when we imagine sacrifice we imagine shared sacrifice. A band of brothers, or living in the factory for 28 days to produce material, or even a group of founders working crazy hours on their startup. All of the things we’re being asked to do, in addition to being fairly low effort, are also pretty solitary as well. You would think that if the measures being recommended required less effort that this would be a good thing, but I get the feeling that it’s not. That we’re actually having a harder time unifying because less is being asked of us and what’s being asked of us doesn’t require us to come together.

So if having a charismatic leader inspiring us all towards victory through the medium of shared sacrifice is out, then we have to be smart. We can imagine achieving victory through enormous effort, lockdowns that lasted months, 99% mask and handwashing compliance, quarantining people centrally, and everything else we could think of. In other words a plan where we’re not sure which measures are the most effective, but we do them all just to be sure. The problem is that this has a high social and emotional cost. A charismatic leader, and a lot of unity might allow us to pull it off anyway, but we don’t have those. This being the case it suddenly becomes a lot more important to pick our battles, figure out what really works and emphasize those things. It becomes far more important to be smart.

Above I mentioned Vox’s recommendation that we allow people outside, and this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Despite very little evidence of transmission out of doors (a study of over a 1000 transmissions in China found only one case where it happened outside) numerous jurisdictions have closed outdoor spaces, and we’ve probably all seen alarmed stories about packed beaches, which to begin with, aren’t that dangerous, and also aren’t that packed, they just look that way because of what amounts to photographic trickery (i.e. a telephoto lens). 

If we had unlimited reserves of patience, then it might not matter if we did some things that are dumb, but we don’t. Accordingly we should be picking our battles, and from what I can tell the battle over outdoor spaces is not one I would pick. It’s not smart, and unfortunately since the beginning of the crisis it would seem that most of what the government has been doing is not particularly smart. 

I’m not going to spend any time revisiting the testing failures, or the ridiculous regulatory hoops people have to jump through, or really the massive failure at all levels. But the story of the only domestic mask manufacturer is interesting. Because it combines a little bit of everything. This is a company who ramped up production and staff and made huge sacrifices in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic. But the minute it was over the company just about went out of business because all the people that had previously been desperate for masks at any price, all dropped the company in an instant once it was over. This meant the company had machines they still owed money on, and way more staff than was needed. After massive layoffs and other restructuring the company survived, but only just barely. 

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that this time around the company is not willing to do that. They want long term contracts. As an example of how this has played out. When the pandemic was first ramping up the company approached the government with an offer to use their mothballed machines (evidently left over from 2009) to make seven million N95 masks a month. And the government basically blew them off. And in fact as near as I can tell those machines are still sitting idle. 

If this was an isolated story, or if there were lots of problems at the beginning, but eventually we got our act together, it would be one thing, but each day brings a new story of how we’re not being smart. Like the story on Friday about the FDA shutting down a well-regarded COVID testing project in the Seattle area. This seems beyond merely not being smart and well into the territory of actively being stupid.

If this isn’t the kind of crisis we can get through with shared sacrifice; and if we don’t have the leadership to pull it off even if it was; and if we don’t have much in the way of leadership period; and if we’re not being smart, where does that leave us? For myself it leaves me reluctantly considering the Swedish approach. If nothing else at least it’s straight forward. And remember, no one is forced to do anything, people are free to take as many precautions as they want. And yes, I understand this does not entirely protect people from the actions of others, but recall that it’s not as if Sweden has zero restrictions, in fact I would hazard to say that if you compared what Sweden is doing now with what municipalities did in 1918 that they would look very similar. Recall that when people talk about the cities who had it the worst in 1918, they’re talking about cities which had parades in the middle of the pandemic, which I’m pretty sure even Sweden is avoiding.

Combine this with the point I made earlier about how little impact the Spanish Flu had on people’s memory of the 20th century, and I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic. What do I mean by that? Am I suddenly advocating for the Swedish approach? No, but I fear that after a lot of groping around doing stupid and counter productive things that we’ll end up there eventually anyway. It may never be the de jure policy, but I think it will increasingly become the de facto policy. (Also, people do what they want more than governments are willing to admit. People start taking precautions before lockdowns begin and stop taking them before the lockdowns end.) In other words, in contrast to my normal position, I’m offering up reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Of course I have to be alarmed about something, so if I’m not alarmed by how poorly we’re handling things, even now, what am I alarmed about?

Well, I’m out of space, so I’ll have to write more on this topic later (and it won’t be my next post, that’s already spoken for) but I’m becoming increasingly alarmed that in the process of fighting the pandemic we’re going to make an even bigger mistake. What might that mistake be? Well keep your eye on this space, but I’ll give you a hint: As you might imagine I’m not a fan of the colossal amounts of spending we’ve engaged in to fight the pandemic. A world with pandemics is well covered territory, a world where money has ceased to have any meaning. less so.


As sick as you probably are of hearing about COVID-19, you’re probably even more sick of hearing me try to come up with a clever request for donations. Too bad, just like the pandemic, it’s still a long way from running it’s course, lots of stupid choices are being made, and at some point I’m imagining you’ll just want to get it over with. 


Books I Finished in April

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

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Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control By: Stuart J. Russell

Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts By: Milton Vaughn Backman

The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism By: Greg Trimble 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President By: Candice Millard

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream By: Yuval Levin

The Worth of War By: Benjamin Ginsberg

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West By: David McCullough

Sex and Culture By: J. D. Unwin

Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus By: Euripides


It’s been another month where most of my thoughts have revolved around COVID-19. In particular, like most people, I’ve been thinking about the end game. It would seem to me that there are four ways out:

(Edit: In between writing this and publishing this I came across a spreadsheet that did a much better job of outlining the various options. You should probably just check it out and skip the rest of the intro.)

The one that everyone’s hoping for is the development of an effective vaccine. I’ve heard that Oxford is hoping to have something by September, which is faster than I would have expected, but I’m still not sure that gives us the “vaccine solution” much before the beginning of the year, and that assumes that there are no logistical difficulties in trying to get the vaccine to the billions who would need it. And regardless of all of that, even under this most optimistic of all scenarios, no one thinks we can maintain the current measures until then. 

The second possibility is that we get so much better at treating it that it becomes no worse than similar illnesses. I’m not sure how close we are to this, mostly what I hear is news about how treatments we thought would work aren’t. That 88% of people still die even on ventilators, and that even young people are suffering strokes. Despite this, I would assume that we can’t help but get better, and it is true that the longer it takes someone to get COVID the more likely they are to get treatment informed by all the knowledge accumulated up to that point. But I don’t think this does or should play a major role in deciding when to open things up in the same way hospital capacity does.

The third possibility is we control things so well that we completely stop the spread of the disease. China claims to have done this, but that claim comes with a lot of caveats, and even if it’s true, it seems clear that we won’t be able to duplicate their methodology in the US.

The final possibility is herd immunity, which seems the most likely outcome, particularly given the limitations mentioned above. To get there a significant percentage of everyone will have to get COVID-19, and the only knob we can turn is how fast or slow that happens. Initially it appeared that, since we were going to need to get there eventually, the primary reason for going slower was to make sure the hospitals didn’t get overwhelmed, not to keep people from getting sick. Especially since slowing down happens to be really hard on the economy. Having done that It appears that in most places the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed which is awesome, but would also suggest that maybe the dial needs moved to a higher speed of transmission. Which is kind of what states are doing by reopening (Utah re-opened on Friday.) So my point is less that we’re doing anything wrong and more that people seem to have lost sight of the fact that herd immunity is still the most probable ending, and that such immunity is going to require that a lot more people get infected…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

By: Stuart J. Russell

352 Pages

General Thoughts

This book came to my attention after I read a review of it on Slate Star Codex, and if you’re just looking for a general review I would direct you there. When it comes to the actual contents of the book, I don’t have much to add, and given that I have another 8 books to cover I don’t think it’s worth repeating anything Alexander already said. No, what I’m interested in are the books eschatological implications, so let’s move straight to there.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

As has been discussed extensively here and elsewhere many smart people have significant worries about the AI control problem. That is, how do you ensure that if and when we get around to creating an artificial intelligence that it doesn’t end up doing things we would rather it didn’t. Things that might conceivably include eliminating humanity entirely. 

Previous attempts to address this problem have notable weaknesses. The first challenge is getting the AI to obey our instructions in the first place, but even once you have mastered that issue, the AI might take your instructions too literally. The famous example being the so-called paperclip maximizer which takes a simple instruction to make paperclips and turns it into a drive to turn everything into paperclips, including us. This led to people imagining that the instructions needed to include a clause for making us happy, which led to other people imagining an AI which stuck an electrode directly into the pleasure center of our brain, which they labeled wireheading

As one of the key features of the book, Russell offers up a new system which is designed to solve these previous problems. It revolves around the idea of telling the AI it needs to keep us happy, but giving it very little information on what that means. This forces the AI to come up with guesses on how to make that happen with each guess getting a certain probability of being correct. Then it uses our behavior as a way to update that probability and narrow things down to the best guess. And, If our behavior is information, it’s not going to stop us from doing anything, because it wants the information encoded in our actions. Meaning it won’t stop us from shutting it off, because that’s potentially the most valuable information of all.

To use the example of an order to make paper clips, the AI might make two guesses it might assign odds of 30% that we want a big bar of metal to be made into paperclips and odds of 70% that we want the dog to be made into paperclips. This is obviously incorrect, and exactly the kind of thing we’re worried about, but under Russell’s proposal when we race across the room and snatch the dog out of it’s robot pincers it will use that information to change the distribution to 99% bar of metal, 1% Fido. 

This methodology is Indisputably superior to what came before, but I still think it has some problems. In particular I think there’s a danger that the AIs evaluations will end up converging around the same supernormal stimuli that we ourselves, and the market in general have converged on. One of the best arguments for capitalism is that it acts as a distributed intelligence for fulfilling people’s revealed desires, and I’m a fan of capitalism, particularly given the alternatives, but I’m not sure the best choice is to turn the dial on it to 11. 

All of which is to say, if you’re worried about the eschatology of AI Risk, the main effect of Russell’s proposal may be avoiding an artificial doom in favor of hastening the natural doom we were already headed for. 


A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

By: Yuval Levin

256 Pages

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in my last post, if you’re one of those people who feels like something is wrong with the modern world, then the next step is identifying what that something is. This book is Levin’s stab at that and from his perspective the problem is that all of our institutions have been gutted in the service of narcissist self promotion. 

To elaborate, in the past attending a venerable institution, say Harvard, was supposed to be about absorbing the lessons, traditions and values of that institution. And with that a certain responsibility to protect and maintain the dignity of the institution. This responsibility continued even after you departed. You were always a Harvard man, and that carried certain expectations. But these days attending Harvard is less about absorbing its history and ideals, and more about making sure Harvard reflects your ideals, and conforms to current social norms, with very little attention paid to institutional values. From this foundation Levin goes on to make arguments about collective action being healthier and more effective than individual action, and how institutions are repositories of virtue, and stuff like that.

I thought it was a pretty good book, and if my review is insufficient there are plenty more out there, but in the end it was another example of discussing symptoms rather than identifying the underlying disease. Which I hope to take a stab at.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Back in 2013 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex put forward a theory for the divide between left and right. He theorized that from an evolutionary perspective humans have two modes. Most of the time they’re in survival mode, but occasionally they get lucky and conditions are such that they can move into a thrive mode. To quote from the post:

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”. 

There’s much more to it than that, and if you want to dig deeper read his post, but as this is just a stepping stone, let’s grant that this might be happening and move on. My question, which I explored in a post I wrote back 2016, was if we assume that this is true, and further that the number of people in “thrive mode” is increasing, what consequences follow? There were a lot of them, but one I didn’t explore was institutional decline, but I think it slots in nicely.

If you’re in survival mode then institutions end up being very important. If you protect them they protect you. So much so that historically getting kicked out of an institution was one of the worst punishments that could be inflicted. This most commonly happened with the institution of a city and was called banishment, but being excommunicated from the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages worked very similarly. But now that more and more people are moving to thrive mode the protections an institution can offer mean next to nothing. Instead it’s all about how the institutions can be used as a platform for increasing the visibility of an individual. 

As long as this is the case, it seems unlikely that we’re going to ever rebuild institutions in the manner Levin hopes for, because the very nature of the people who make up those institutions has changed. The world is slowly and unalterably becoming a very different place, and I don’t think there’s a simple path back.


Sex and Culture

By: J. D. Unwin

721 Pages

I covered this in my last post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models

By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

354 Pages

In certain respects this is just one more self-help book, to sit on the shelf alongside all of the others which have been published over the years. But, having read quite a few of those books, I would say that this one is not only different, but better. To begin with, nearly all self-help books claim to introduce some new way of thinking or some clever system that will radically improve your productivity or at least change your life for the better. Most of these books do not in fact do this, frequently because the idea(s) they introduce aren’t truly new. (For an example see my review of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life which was just a repackaging of The Secret.) 

I understand that there are very few truly new things out there, and some of the better books take one principle and really dig into it, for example the value of habits (eg The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg) or the importance of focusing just on what’s essential (eg Essentialism by Greg McKeown), but this book doesn’t do that either, the approach this book takes is to assemble every single helpful mental model there is and pack it into a single book. 

It would be easy for such a book to feel rushed, or choppy, but somehow it was neither. Does this mean that the book never makes a mistake? No, when you’re including everything some of it is going to turn out to not work as well as initially advertised or end up a victim of the replication crisis (for example the growth mindset). That said I didn’t come across anything harmful, and while I was familiar with most of the models they included, I gained that familiarity after reading dozens of books. It probably would have been preferable to just read this one.

In the final analysis all self-help books can be divided into two categories, those where the knowledge gained was of more value than the time required to read them, and those that were a waste of time. And while this book isn’t the best ever, I would definitely put it in the first category. 


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

By: Candice Millard

432 Pages

This is the same author who wrote River of Doubt which I reviewed back in February. This time she tackled the assassination of James A. Garfield. It’s a fascinating story. To begin with Garfield is a lot more awesome than I imagined. I always had the feeling that he was a mediocre president, and perhaps he was, though if so, that was probably just because he wasn’t in office long enough to accomplish anything. But his life before the presidency was pretty incredible. He was born in a log cabin, fatherless before he turned two, horribly poor, but he managed to get a good education by working like a maniac. Eventually he was elected to the House of Representatives (after serving as a general in the Civil War) and then over his strenuous objections, he was nominated to be the Republican Presidential candidate in 1880 on the 36th ballot, after it was clear that no other candidate could secure a majority. 

This sounds pretty exciting all on its own, but then on top of all you have the awful story of how Garfield wasn’t killed by the bullet, but by the horrible treatment he received from doctors who didn’t believe in sterilization. And then, if that weren’t exciting enough, there’s the additional story of how Alexander Graham Bell worked 16 hour days for months creating a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet. The two stories collide when Bell succeeds in creating the detector, but fails to find the bullet because the doctors would only allow him to use it on one half of Garfield’s body and that wasn’t the half the bullet was in. I’ve read better history books, but this was up there, and it has the advantage of being about an event that I knew almost nothing about beforehand.


The Worth of War

By: Benjamin Ginsberg

256 Pages

Similar to War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris which I reviewed back in November this is another book that makes the case that war has been fundamental to the development of civilizations and nations, and that it’s absence might bring unforeseen harms. Overall I was less impressed with this book. It didn’t seem quite as tight, for example the chapter on “beating swords into malign plowshares” was a particular slog. 

That said I’m a fan of contrarians, and this is certainly a very contrarian book. And it’s possible that just by explaining how war is an instrument of rationality, that the book is worth the cover price. As an example of what that means, recall the optimism which preceded the second Iraq War. It’s safe to say that many people including those at the highest level of government, genuinely believed that we would quickly overthrow Saddam, easily establish a functioning and peaceful democracy, and do both with minimal cost in terms of time and money. As we know, the first part kind of happened. On everything else the expectations were tragically mistaken. 

The question then becomes how much damage would maintaining those mistake expectations have caused? Is it better that we learned our lesson through the crucible of war, or would it be better if we had never learned that lesson? Or is it possible we could have learned it in some other way? It is indisputable that war is an instrument of rationality, it’s just not clear that this is sufficient to make it necessary.


The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

By: David McCullough

352 Pages

I like McCullough, though I frequently get him confused with Ron Chernow, leading me to believe that I had read more of his books than I actually had, but this is actually just the second of his I’ve read, the first being John Adams of course. 

I’m not sure how best to review this book. Though I suppose I can at least keep you from making the same mistake I made. For some reason I expected the book to cover the entire westward expansion, and in reality most of the action is confined to a single town in Ohio, Marietta. But it is impressive how much mileage McCullough is able to get out of this limited geographic focus. He manages to wrap in the Revolutionary War, Washington and his veterans, slavery, the frankly amazing Northwest Ordinance, and the conspiracy by Aaron Burr to form a new nation in the middle of the continent. 

I expect you already know what kind of book this is, and if you like that sort of book you’ll like this.


Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus

By: Euripides

268 Pages

As I continue to read these ancient Greek tragedies, I become more aware of how frequently the playwright manages to point out, that, in addition to everything else that’s going on, isn’t Athens awesome! And when I remember that, comparatively at least, Athens really was awesome, I wonder how much of it was due to art and attitudes like this. 

Beyond that I don’t have much to add to the enormous amount of commentary and scholarship which has been devoted to these plays, except to say that from my perspective, if you only had time to read one play, and you wanted that play to be representative of the entire genre, Medea would be my current recommendation.

(She’s best known for murdering her children, but there’s a lot going on in addition to that.)


III- Religious Reviews 

Since I have some readers that are uninterested or less interested in my religious stuff I decided to create a separate section for my reviews of religious books. Though really, as long as you’re here you might as well read them.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts

By: Milton Vaughn Backman

228 Pages

At the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), President Nelson announced that the next conference, in April, would be dedicated to a celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s Theophany. My next door neighbor lent this book to me and suggested I read it in anticipation of the event. I ended up finishing it just before Conference, and I’m glad I did. For people steeped in LDS apologetics, There probably won’t be many surprises, but it is interesting how long people have been having the same debates over the same subjects. 

Also, despite the fact that standards of proof and citation have tightened up in the intervening decades, I think the book, written 40 years ago, and its research have aged well. 


The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism

By: Greg Trimble 

252 Pages

Once again I’m not sure who recommended this book to me. I should start writing it down. If I enjoyed a book (which I generally do) it doesn’t matter. In the future I can just continue to do what comes naturally, but if I didn’t like a book then I need to exercise caution before accepting another recommendation from the same source. Which is a roundabout way of saying that this was kind of a mediocre book. Perhaps it’s biggest problem was that it wasn’t a book, it was a collection of essays, but not billed as such. The chapters/essays had just enough of a connection that it made me wonder if there was a deeper connection that I was just missing, which tied the essays together into a book. But I don’t think there was.

Also even if you considered the chapters as essays rather than parts of a cohesive whole, some were pretty good, but a lot weren’t. As an example many of the essays had an apologetic theme, but were so superficial that they actually had the opposite effect on me, and I’m a committed member! (It’s possible that’s the point, that his presentation works best on people who aren’t already in the deep end, but I kind of doubt it.)

The title essay (though not labeled as such, just the first chapter) was directed at members within the Church, arguing that as a whole we need to be less dogmatic and more accepting. Trimble is not the first to suggest this, in fact I would argue that it’s almost a cliche. And it’s precisely for that reason that I think it needs to be examined more closely. I’m sure that improvements could be made in this area, but I worry that it obscures the true root problem. Allow me to provide an example of what I mean.

I was out to lunch with an old co-worker the other day (take-out which we ate while walking), and he told me about an incident that had happened in his congregation. He’s in the young men’s and they had a boy who wanted to stop attending church. In an effort to reach out to him they decided to let his father teach a lesson, hoping either the setting or the instructor would make a difference. But as soon as the lesson started the boy got up to leave. And the father and everyone else did exactly what Trimble and others like him would recommend, they asked him nicely (meekly) to stay. He blew them off and left.

Now I don’t know about anyone else who might be reading this blog, but I cannot imagine in a million years doing something like that to my father. Nor can I imagine what he or the other adults would have done. So what’s the difference? Is this a problem with the boy? Is he so hardened that he would have walked out even if it had been 30 years ago? I really doubt that. Was it the fault of the Dad? Based on the story I don’t think there’s any way he could have been nicer or more understanding, which people claim is the answer. Could he have been meaner? Sure, but is there any doubt that he would have been viewed as the bad guy?

So what’s the difference between when I was a boy and now? Who screwed up? Was it the Boy? The father? I would contend that it was society. That in our drive to be accepting that we have abandoned the principle that, if you’re part of a community, there are certain expectations. (This is closely related to what Levin was saying.) That essentially the center of gravity has shifted from the majority of people thinking that such behavior is totally unacceptable to the majority of people thinking that we have to treat our kids with infinite tolerance regardless of what they do. This is a cultural evolution, just as the title of Trimble’s book would suggest, but I would contend that this evolution is just as likely to be the problem as it is to be the solution. 

This review is already long, and no one’s saying that this is not a tough subject, but the key question is, in the end, if your goal is to keep this boy in the church, what method works better. The method I and my contemporaries experienced 30 years ago, or the method we’re using now of being super tolerant? Trimble strenuously argues for the latter, and I don’t think the evidence is as clear cut as he thinks. Kids are dumb, and having a community agreement that they are going to do certain things until a certain age, i.e. how it worked in all ages and societies up until about 10 years ago, might not be as awful as people claim. At a bare minimum is it possible the pendulum has swung too far?


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