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In July I took what passes for a vacation during these unusual times. I was gone for a week and a half, and I ended up stringing two vacations together. (This is the big reason this post is a little bit late.) The first was a family trip down to Georgia. It was an interesting trip, essentially 116 years ago my Great-Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandmother were buried on a small family plot near Augusta but their graves were never marked, for reasons too complicated to get into. And over the years we even lost track of where the family plot was, once again for reasons too complicated to get into. Finally, to make things even more difficult, the land was purchased and incorporated into a nearby military base. But after a lot of hard work by my Aunt, and one of my cousins, the graves were finally located, and July 24th (a day of special importance to Mormons) was designated as the day when the graves would finally receive a monument. 

Of course all of that was decided at Thanksgiving of last year, and when the day finally arrived the pandemic had made things considerably more complicated, and it required a special dispensation from a general for us to even get on the base, but that dispensation was granted, and the whole thing was pretty awesome. 

While in Georgia I stopped by Stone Mountain to get a look at the giant bas-relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson before it’s inevitably dynamited, or something similar. I actually predicted all the way back in 2017 that it was no longer a question of if the Confederate monuments would come down, but when, so I’m not surprised that Stone Mountain is in the crosshairs, but I did think it was worth making an effort to see it before that happened. As part of it’s inevitable destruction they already seem to avoid any mention of who’s depicted in the carvings. The tram guide didn’t bring it up, and I saw no plaques with that information either.

The second half of the vacation was what passed for GenCon this year. It consisted of spending a week at my friend’s house, and doing a mix of in-person and virtual gaming. I hope things are back to normal by next year, but that’s by no means certain. 

Finally, a bit of meta commentary, someone mentioned that they liked the “Who should read this book?” Section of my reviews, which I had actually discontinued, but since it isn’t something that would be hard resurrect, I thought I’d go ahead and give the people what they want.

I- Eschatological Review

Super Cooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behavior (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) 

By: Martin Nowak

330 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the game theoretical case for cooperation, then this is a very comprehensive book, covering the research of one of the major figures in the field, but if that doesn’t describe you, you can probably skip it.

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned my interest in cooperation from an evolutionary/game theory perspective. I have a great deal of respect for this friend’s opinion and so when he recommended it, I ordered it and began reading it without bothering to do much research on either the book or Nowak, so I was completely surprised when I came across this:

The phone rang one day, when I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Within a minute or two I found myself explaining my research to a stranger who had introduced himself as Jeffrey Epstein.

Nowak goes on to describe how he and Epstein immediately hit it off and from there it goes on to talk about how he visited Epstein’s “tropical island” and how Epstein was the “perfect host”. In fact everything he says about Epstein is laudatory. Of course, once I read about all of that, I did start looking into things, and discovered that I was not the only one concerned by this connection. That Harvard had placed Nowak on academic leave in May of this year because of his association with Epstein. In bringing all of this up, I’m not looking to discredit Nowak’s work, or even saying that Nowak is a bad guy, there’s always the possibility that he’s just incredibly naive. No, the reason I bring it up, besides it being newsworthy, is that it’s an interesting real world example of what Nowak is talking about.

This book is about how a naive assessment of Darwinian evolution would lead one to believe that organisms should never cooperate because cooperation imposes an expense on the fitness of the organism choosing to cooperate while giving another, competing organism a benefit. And yet we see cooperation in nature all the time. This presents something of a paradox and Nowak’s life work has been creating mathematical models which illustrate how this cooperation actually makes sense. 

The ur-model/example in this field is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two “prisoners” are presented with a choice of either staying silent (i.e. cooperating with the other prisoner) or turning on the other prisoner and blaming the crime on him (i.e. defecting). If both defect, both are punished. If one defects and the other stays silent the former is rewarded and the latter is punished, but if both cooperate (stay silent), both get rewarded. Though the reward for being a sole defector is greater. Civilization is based on creating systems that encourage people to cooperate, not only because that’s what works best for society as a whole but because even for the individuals it’s better than the possibility that both end up defecting. But despite this there’s always going to be a temptation to defect, particularly if you can count on the other party to cooperate.

Bringing it back to Nowak’s relationship with Epstein. I imagine that after studying the benefits of cooperation for years and years that Nowak has a strong impulse to do just that, whereas I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Epstein a defector, someone who preyed upon the strong desire to cooperate in society to get away with some absolutely horrible crimes.

Of course it’s possible I’m wrong and that Nowak was just as much of a defector as Epstein, which wouldn’t surprise me either, defectors are always going to be with us. But the more important point made by the book is that the stronger the expectation of cooperation, and the larger the number of cooperators, the better defection is as a strategy, and the greater the temptation for an individual to defect. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I said that prisoner’s dilemma was the model everyone starts with, but a single game doesn’t tell you much, so when someone like Nowak wants to model things they generally run iterated games of the dilemma where every agent has a particular strategy and they see what strategy dominates over the long run. This better models a population over time, and in this case, if the agents play a sufficient number of games cooperation comes to dominate, which is the point of the book, but it’s precisely when the population has reached this height of cooperation that a strategy to always defect works the best, and if allowed to crop up via a simulated mutation it promptly becomes the most successful strategy, e.g. defectors cause the most harm when cooperation is at its highest.

Combining this observation with our own situation creates a host of questions. Was Epstein able to get away with so much because he was operating in a society where cooperation is the norm? Are his crimes a modern phenomenon or the sort of thing that’s been happening forever? Have we reached some peak in cooperation which makes defection more successful? Is that what civilization is, peak cooperation? If so, should we be expecting widespread defections? Is that what Epstein was doing? Is that what Trump supporters are doing currently? Is that what the protests are? Is this baseless speculation or am I on to something here? 

Going down this path opens up a whole can of worms. Obviously society is more complicated than a game of prisoner’s dilemma, for one thing the benefits of cooperation could be asymmetrical. Poor people could get less out of it than rich people, making it understandable that they might want to defect. But that doesn’t change the fact that defection on a massive scale would be very bad, and according to the models, it’s exactly the sort of thing which should eventually happen. Is it? Is modern politics a massive shift from a policy of default cooperation to default defection? Maybe? I think all that can be said conclusively is that this possibility deserves a deeper discussion than what I was able to provide here.

II- Capsule Reviews

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

By: Satya Nadella

304 Pages

Who should read this book?

I guess if you were the CEO of a mid-tier company looking to mimic Microsoft’s culture, this might be a good book for you, otherwise, unless you’re some sort of CEO-book completist, I don’t think I would recommend it.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I’m not entirely sure who recommended it, or why I decided to add it to my Audible library. It is short, which probably had a lot to do with it. 

In my reviews from last month I mentioned that White Fragility was an interesting snapshot into a certain moment in time, but that I doubt that it would be remembered at all 10 years from now. I could say the same about this book. It’s a very optimistic book, sort of Enlightenment Now if it was written by a tech CEO, and of course this book was written by a tech CEO, nor is it the first such book. In fact if we expand things to include all books written by CEOs there end up being so many they’re almost a genre unto themselves. And the question is always how much is a book by a CEO marketing for his company, and how much is it an instruction manual you can follow to duplicate their success?

Looking back on previous entries in this genre I would say that they certainly want you to think that it’s the latter. That they’re giving you the formula to run a successful company, but that it’s always at best an exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie. How much of whatever success Nadella has achieved is contained in his unique management style which he explains in the book, and how much is a pivot any reasonably competent CEO could have made if they had $22 billion in annual profits to throw around? 

That’s a really hard question to answer. I don’t deny that there are great CEOs. I just also know that there’s an awful lot of luck involved and even for those that have real skill I don’t know how much can be passed along. Look at Jack Welch and GE. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and now 20 years later GE has been delisted from the Dow, and most people think it’s all but dead. To be blunt one assumes that everyone that followed Welch as CEO read all of his books, to say nothing of being personally mentored by him. And yet…

Also, I’m not convinced there’s much unique to Nadella’s book. If Sundar Pichai had written a book about Google, I’m guessing it would read pretty much the same. There seems to be ideology that technology is the eventual answer to all of our problems common to these companies, and I’m not entirely sure how well that belief is going to survive 2020. 

The Chronicles of Prydain

By: Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three 

190 Pages

The Black Cauldron

208 Pages

The Castle of Llyr

208 Pages

Taran Wanderer

256 Pages

The High King

272 Pages

Who should read these books?

If you like YA fantasy novels, or fantasy in general, or coming of age stories, or Wales, or just literature in general, you will like these books.

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned my recent goal to do more re-reading, and in a moment of nostalgia I decided to re-read this series. I first read them in the 5th grade, and while that wasn’t the last time I revisited Prydain, the last time I read them was probably 15 years ago. As is usually the case with stuff like this, you forget how delightful it is. I believe that these books are the equal of anything J. K. Rowling has put out and deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

This is not to say that these books are the equal of the Harry Potter series in every respect. In some ways they are worse, but in many they are better. For example, I would say that some of the supporting characters are kind of one note (for example Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam), but, on the other hand, Taran (the protagonist of these books) is miles ahead of Harry Potter as a character. In particular his growth, experiences, and overall arc are both more serious and more satisfying. I will admit that the movie adaptation of Harry Potter was handled much better than Disney’s adaptation of The Black Cauldron, which I’m sure has probably harmed the series in the long run, or at least not helped.

Speaking of The Black Cauldron, I think that book offers a good comparison between Taran and some of the other bildungsroman heroes in fantasy novels (including Harry Potter). Taran does some decidedly dumb things, like all of such heroes, but the growth from these mistakes is both obvious, and believable. In so many of these books the hero’s character is mentioned but they’re either inherently good or their growth is done in a kind of hand wavy fashion. Also in other books so much of the hero’s status comes not from their character, but from powers or a destiny inherent to them. Taran is not destined, and not special, and in the Black Cauldron, he actually acquires some powers, but by the end of the book he chooses to give them up for something more important. 

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed these books. And I would definitely recommend them, particularly if you’re looking for something to give your child to read.

Euripides IV: Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes 

by: Euripides

290 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re desperately trying to recreate the classical education you missed as a youth (or from being born in the 20th or 21st century) like me, then you should read Euripides, and frankly all of the Greek tragedies. But if you’re content to continue your vulgar plebeian lifestyle, I suppose you can skip them.

General Thoughts

What struck me while reading this latest collection of Greek tragedies was how focused the Greeks were on the stories of just a few families and events. Out of curiosity I decided to go back through all the books (and forward into the final book) and count it up. Here are the numbers I came up with:

Trojan War: 8 plays

The Family of Oedipus: 6 plays

Agamemnon’s Family: 8 plays

Hercules: 4 plays

None of the above: 8 plays

Does it seem interesting or remarkable to anyone other than me that over 75% of the extant plays are about four subjects? (And it might even be worse than that, the Trojan War looms pretty large in all of the plays about Agamemnon’s Family.) Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this, but I don’t recall coming across any in-depth discussion of this quirk. Of course, I did use the word “extant” just then, and it’s possible that what I’m actually noticing is a selection bias present among the people preserving the plays, but that doesn’t change the strangeness it just moves it to a different location. Someone thought these few events and families were particularly important or story worthy, why was that? 

I don’t expect to offer any sort of satisfactory answer to that question in the space of a few paragraphs, but is it possible that we’re the outlier, not them? That most cultures and civilizations latch on to just a few defining events and stories, and that by having thousands of stories, we’re the weird ones? In support of that it would appear that this situation is relatively new historically. That before the advent of the TV, Americans were similar Greeks. Most of our stories were about the Founding or perhaps the Civil War. And before that stories from the Bible dominated things. 

As is so often the case in this blog we’re led to ask, has modernity made us better off or worse? What are the pros and cons? When there are only a few stories it’s easy to see how that might translate into a more unified culture, or even a religion. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods, and Christianity generally acted as a unifying force in the history of Western Europe. Finally the stories of the founding were unquestionably a large part of American civic religion. What happens if we don’t have stories to unify us? Does it indicate an inevitable fracturing of culture? If so is it a cause of the fracturing or a symptom?

A Secular Age

By: Charles Taylor

896 Pages

Who should read this book?

Someone who has many, many hours to spare and is deeply interested in modern secular behavior as compared to historical religious behavior, and how the latter led to the former.

General Thoughts

I mentioned this book in my last post, and it’s going to be impossible to do it justice in the space I have, not only is it long, but there are great insights on nearly every page, something illustrated by that last post when the whole thing derived from a single page of content.

Moving from the specific to the general, the book starts with the question, how did we go from a world in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which it’s just one choice among many, and not even a particularly high status one. The most common story told about this transition, particularly among unbelievers, is the story of subtraction. The idea that long ago the world was full of irrational ideas and behavior, but that progress and science gradually swept those things away, leaving only knowledge and morality until eventually all that was left was the enlightened state we’re in now. 

Taylor spends 800 pages comprehensively disproving that idea, if you’re lucky I may spend 8 paragraphs covering the whole book, but to give you a taste of the argument here’s one brief selection:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal, nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

The key point Taylor is making is that our modern concept of human welfare isn’t what remains after we’ve eliminated religion, or even just once we’ve eliminated the “bad” parts, like superstitions and authoritarian tendencies. But rather religion is foundational and necessary. That even those parts people view as horribly backwards were important and necessary building blocks. That modern enlightened values would look very different if they didn’t start from a foundation of Western Christianty (and indeed such values are very different elsewhere in the world). 

I found this explanation interesting both for what it had to say about religion, but also what it had to say about progress in general. We see this same sense that subtraction is the answer in so much of the current social justice movement, for example the push to defund the police. With people claiming that if we just strip away the power of the police, that we’ll have less violence, but so far there’s good reason to believe that it’s the exact opposite. That modern policing has a lot of problems, but that it’s build on centuries of experimentation, that it’s not the last gasp of a racist past, but rather, as I said in another post, “it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

All of this ties into the deeper subject of human evil in a very interesting fashion. How do we deal with the fact that everyone is at least a little bit evil and some people are a lot evil. One answer, the one that people are protesting against, is that we set up a state, that state has a monopoly on the use of force and they grant that monopoly to the police, who then go around trying to prevent evil. But what Taylor points out is that the ideology of victimhood has a different answer for where evil resides and how to deal with it:

Then there is the victim scenario. This can colonize the Left. All evil is projected onto the others; they alone are the victimizers; we are pure victim. The liberal self feels relatively innocent, because (a) it sees the whole picture clearly, and (b) it is part of the solution. But this is compatible with recognizing some degree of one’s own fault in the disorder of the world. The victim scenario, on the other hand, a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them.

I, for one, feel like he gets at something deep and important there, something entirely overlooked by other commenters. And also something that deserves a much fuller treatment than what I’m able to provide. Particularly since I still want to talk about the book from a religious angle. But I’ll put that in it’s own section. 

III- Religious Reviews 

A Secular Age (Continued)

Any discussion of a decline of religion, must inevitably touch on the place of religion in society. Is it, as atheists claim, the barbaric relic of an uncivilized past, something that should be dispensed with as soon as possible? Or is it a useful social construct, a piece of what it means to be civilized? Or is it a manifestation of something actually transcendent, whether that be God or some more nebulous universal force? Taylor himself is a believer, though I was hundreds of pages into the book before I was sure of that because his discussion of things was so objective. (Or so it appeared to me, I imagine others may quibble.)  And it was only at the end of the book that he really started to discuss the place of religion in society. And given that I can’t cover everything he discussed I’m going to focus on just a little over one page from the book, which has the added advantage of demonstrating how dense the book is. 

He starts by contrasting our belief in God to leaving the house without an umbrella:

I may leave the house without an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable, and it predicted fair weather. But the difference between this kind of case and the issue we’re dealing with here, is first, that the weather, beyond the inconvenience of getting wet today, doesn’t matter to me in anything like the same way, and second that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s weather than the forecast.

These two considerations are quite different when it comes to the existence of God. First, the answer to this question matters quite a bit, it may even be argued that the answer is the most important detail of our existence. Second, the whole promise of religion is that faith and the practice of that religion allows us an alternative and independent means of getting at the answer. Taylor points out that if we ignore these other means, and rely entirely on “science” to provide us with the answer that we are much like Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. What makes Othello a tragedy, and not just a tale of misfortune, is that we hold its protagonist culpable in his too-ready belief of the evidence fabricated by Iago. He had an alternative mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself, if he could only have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. The fatal flaw in the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this…

The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted God”, without any supplement, as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is that we are on this issue like Othello, rather than the person listening to the forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. We can’t just explain what we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources, without seeing what we made of the internal ones.

[And so] the question remains: if the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive, why do they seem so convincing, where at other times and places God’s existence [seemed] just… [as] obvious? 

I latched on to this analogy because I have the same question as Taylor. I understand people who have queried these internal sources and in return have gotten nothing but silence. Who realize the importance of the question, just as Othello should have, and have done everything in their power to get information from Desdemona only to find her evasive or unavailable. It is the people who have never bothered to “question Desdemona” that I find so baffling. 

Let’s be honest I’m a pretty small fish, in a massive pond, but the advantage of that for you is that I’m actually very responsive to feedback. For example reinstituting one of my book review sections based on an off-handed remark on Twitter. But of course what I respond the best to are donations.