Year: <span>2021</span>

Eschatologist #12: Predictions

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Many people use the occasion of the New Year to make predictions about the coming year. And frankly, while these sorts of predictions are amusing, and maybe even interesting, they’re less useful than you might think.

Some people try to get around this problem by tracking the accuracy of their predictions from year to year, and assigning confidence levels (i.e. I’m 80% sure X will happen vs. being 90% sure that Y will happen). This sort of thing is often referred to as Superforecasting. These tactics would appear to make predicting more useful, but I am not a fan

At this point you might be confused: how could tracking people’s predictions not ultimately improve those predictions? For the long and involved answer you can listen the 8,000 words I recorded on the subject back in April and May of 2020. The short answer is that it focuses all of the attention on making correct predictions rather than making useful predictions. A useful prediction would have been: there will eventually be a pandemic and we need to prepare for it. But if you want to be correct you avoid predictions like that because most years there won’t be a pandemic and you’ll be wrong. 

It leaves out things that are hard to predict. Things that have a very low chance of happening. Things like black swans. You may remember me saying in the last newsletter that:

Because of their impact, the future is almost entirely the product of black swans.

If this is the case what sorts of predictions are useful? How about a list of catastrophes that probably will happen, along with a list of miracles which probably won’t. Things we should worry about and also things we can’t look forward to. I first compiled this list back in 2017, with updates in 2018, 2019, and 2020. So if you’re really curious about the specifics of each prediction you can look there. But these are my black swan predictions for the next 100 years:

Artificial Intelligence

  1. General artificial intelligence, something duplicating all of the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.
  2. A complete functional reconstruction of the brain will turn out to be impossible. For example slicing and scanning a brain, or constructing an artificial brain.
  3. Artificial consciousness will never be created. (Difficult to define, but let’s say: We will never have an AI who makes a credible argument for its own free will.)

Transhumanism

  1. Immortality will never be achieved. 
  2. We will never be able to upload our consciousness into a computer. 
  3. No one will ever successfully be returned from the dead using cryonics. 

Outer Space

  1. We will never establish a viable human colony outside the solar system. 
  2. We will never have an extraterrestrial colony of greater than 35,000 people. 
  3. Either we have already made contact with intelligent exterrestrials or we never will

War (I hope I’m wrong about all of these)

  1. Two or more nukes will be exploded in anger within 30 days of one another. 
  2. There will be a war with more deaths than World War II (in absolute numbers, not as a percentage of population.) 
  3. The number of nations with nuclear weapons will never be fewer than it is right now.

Miscellaneous

  1. There will be a natural disaster somewhere in the world that kills at least a million people
  2. The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown.
  3. Five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. I definitely should have put a pandemic on it back in 2017. Certainly I was aware, even then, that it was only a matter of time. (I guess if you squint it could be considered a natural disaster…)

To return to the theme of my blog and this newsletter:

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

I don’t think we’re going to be saved by black swans, but we could be destroyed by them. If the summer is over, then as they say, “Winter is coming.” Perhaps when we look back, the pandemic will be considered the first snowstorm…


I think I’ve got COVID. I’m leaving immediately after posting this to go get tested. If this news inspires any mercy or pity, consider translating that into a donation.


What “The Expanse” Can Teach Us about Fermi’s Paradox

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This post is going to draw fairly extensively from The Expanse series. It contains definite spoilers for anyone who hasn’t made it through book 3 of the series or season 3 of the TV show. Also the post will have some vague allusions to what happens after that. (I have not personally had the chance to watch the TV show much past season 1, so the exact amount I’m spoiling there might be more than I think.) 

You have been warned.

I.

This blog has been fascinated by Fermi’s Paradox since its inception. As such I’m always interested in the explanations science fiction authors create in the course of tackling the paradox in their books. Some explanations are fascinating and thought provoking, some are implausible and lazy. The explanation given by the Expanse Series, by James S. A. Corey, is fortunately one of the former.

We get Corey’s answer at the end of Abaddon’s Gate, the third book in the series. As it turns out there was someone else out there, and they created a empire of over 1300 planets and knit them together with a network of gates. Earth was supposed to be one of those planets, but the device which would have created the gate (and dramatically hijacked all life on Earth in the process) was captured by Saturn’s gravity and never made it to its final destination.

Eventually people find this device and hilarity ensues. Okay not really, the device (what the series calls the protomolecule) actually turns people into horrible zombie-like creatures who eventually merge with each other into something even more horrible, which then eventually turns into the “Sol Gate” humanity’s very own connection to the ring network. You may have noticed earlier that I said that there was something out there. Well, when the humans travel through the ring they find out that the aliens who built the gates have vanished. Nor is the reason for their disappearance entirely mysterious. It is soon discovered that they were killed off by something even bigger and nastier. 

From the perspective of the series the creation of the gate is good and bad. It’s good because now humans have easy access to hundreds of new, habitable worlds. It’s bad because not only do they know that there exists some other awesomely powerful entity—an entity which is horribly, and seemingly blindly malevolent, something like Lovecraft’s description of the elder gods—but they also may have just brought themselves to the attention of this entity.

As I mentioned this all comes out at the end of book three. The series just barely concluded with book 9 (review coming soon!) So based on this mix of good and bad news what do you imagine the humans do in the subsequent books? Well, and I think Corey predicts this accurately, they spend all of their time on the bounty of the 1300+ systems they’ve just discovered, and almost none of it on the giant, horrible elder gods lurking in the shadows. Now to be fair, they’ve got a lot of problems to deal with other than the elder gods. The animosity between Earth, Mars and the Belters has not gone away just because there’s a bunch of new worlds, in fact if anything the discovery has inflamed tensions. But still one would hope that should we be confronted with this situation in actuality that we would spend more time on the giant, horrible alien problem than the people in the book do, but maybe not.

There is however one person in the books who’s different. One person who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of humanity. This is Winston Duarte. If you have read many books like this, you may have already guessed that he’s the bad guy. Whether this would be so in reality is not the point of this post, and to be clear, in the context of the books he does end up doing some very bad things. No, the point of this post is to imagine what we might do if we were Duarte. If we decided that the problem of the missing aliens was really the biggest problem humanity faces. 

Of course to a certain extent there are such people, people who are really interested in identifying and dealing with existential issues, because if we don’t we may not be around to deal with anything else. I’ve reviewed some of their books, for example: Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković and The Precipice by Toby Ord. And I will continue to review and read these books. I think they touch on one of the most important subjects people can be thinking about. But while reading the final book of The Expanse I was struck by the similarity between Duarte’s situation and our own. And I wanted to use it as a springboard to revisit the profound implications of Fermi’s Paradox, and how it’s easy to understand those implications when it’s fiction, but far harder when it’s reality.

II.

The insight which prompted me to write this post was the realization that there are a lot of similarities between our position and the position of the humans who have just discovered the gates. There were many, many years when neither was even aware of the problem, and then suddenly, in their case, and almost as suddenly, in our case, we both realized that we had a big problem. Both of us have every reason for believing that there should be aliens out there. And as it turns out (thus far) the rest of the universe is empty.

Of course there are obviously some differences. To begin with you may think that our situation is not as bad as the one Duarte is focused on, but I’m not sure that’s the case. He has the advantage of knowing exactly what the problem is: there is some sort of Lovecraftian elder god which eradicates any civilization above a certain level of technology. Of course this is a very big problem, possibly insoluble, but at least he knows where to direct his attention and his energy. And while it is true that nearly everyone else in the books seems to be ignoring the problem. At least they’re aware of it. And when the time comes it doesn’t take much to get them to throw enormous resources at it. On the other hand, most people today aren’t even aware that there is a problem, if they are aware of it they may wonder whether it’s appropriate to even call it a “problem”, and if they grant all of that, there’s still very little agreement on what sort of problem it might be.

To get more concrete, sitting on a shelf in front of me is a book which contains 75 explanations for Fermi’s paradox, and even this collection of 75 explanations doesn’t cover all of the possibilities. Duarte only has to concern himself with one of those explanations: malevolent aliens, and not even malevolent aliens as a general concept, but rather a specific malevolent alien whose existence has already been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. This is not to say that all of the questions posed by the paradox have been answered. For example, did the ring builders really wipe out all other life before being wiped out themselves? But as far as Duarte is concerned the part that matters has been solved, and now he just has to deal with the problems arising from the reality of that solution. And he has lots of options for doing just that. The elder gods might have left clues as to their motivations; there might also be precautions he could take; experiments he could run; or at least data he could collect. 

Duarte doesn’t have to worry about other possible solutions. He doesn’t have to worry that all intelligent aliens destroy themselves in a nuclear war so humans will as well. Or at least he doesn’t have to worry about this nearly as much as we do. Humans are now on hundreds of worlds, and have gone hundreds of years without such a war. He doesn’t have to worry about the difficulties intelligent species might encounter in making it off their home planet in the first place. Humans (in The Expanse) have already shown that can be done as well. Nor does he have to worry about interstellar distances, not only has the gates made this point moot, but even without the gates a major plot point of the first few books is that the Mormons (Go team!) are preparing to leave the solar system in a generational ship. And the list of things he no longer has to worry about goes on and on beyond these examples.

On the other hand, when we contemplate the silent universe we have to consider all 75 solutions, while also being aware of the fact that this list might not be exhaustive, we have probably overlooked some of the possibilities, perhaps even the correct one. 

Some of the potential solutions to the paradox are better for us than the elder gods of The Expanse. Some are worse. You might take issue with the idea that anything could be worse than implacably hostile, nearly omnipotent super aliens, but I disagree. There’s always some chance that we could avoid, placate, or defeat the other aliens. In fact, the chances of avoiding them seem particularly high, since we already managed to do so for tens of thousands of years. But if we consider the entire universe of possible solutions, there are explanations where our chances of survival are much, much lower. As an example, what if the answer to Fermi’s paradox is something inherent to intelligence, or technological progress, or biological evolution itself? Something that hasn’t merely defeated one set of aliens (as was the case with The Expanse) but has defeated all of the potential aliens. Something which because of this inherency will almost certainly defeat us as well.

Back in 1998 Robin Hanson gave a name to this idea of something that defeats all potential aliens, he called it the Great Filter. This is the idea that there is something which prevents intelligent life from developing and spreading across the galaxy in an obvious fashion. Some hurdle which makes it difficult for life to develop in the first place, or which makes it difficult for life, once developed, to achieve intelligence, or which makes it difficult for intelligent life to become multiplanetary. Since Hanson came up with the idea, people have obviously wondered what that hurdle or filter might be, but more importantly they’ve wondered, is it ahead of us or behind us? 

Pulling all of this together, I would say the idea that the Great Filter is ahead of us, and not merely ahead of us, but nearby—a built in consequence of technological progress—is a far scarier solution to the paradox than even the elder gods of The Expanse. The only thing that mitigates the scariness of this solution is the fact that it’s not certain. There is some probability that the true explanation for the paradox is something else. 

It is this uncertainty, and not the magnitude of the catastrophe which represents the key difference between Duarte’s situation and ours.

III.

This is not the first time this blog has covered potential catastrophes with uncertain probabilities. In fact it might be said to represent the primary theme of the blog. So how do you handle this sort of thing if you’re a real, modern day Duarte, rather than the fictional one a couple of centuries in the future? How do you proceed if the threat isn’t certain, if there’s no data to collect, no experiments to run, no motivations to probe? Are there at least precautions one could take?

There might be, but most people who do end up focusing on this sort of thing spend far more time trying to assess the probabilities of the various catastrophes, the various solutions to the paradox, than in trying to understand and mitigate those catastrophes. And frequently the conclusion they come to is that one can explain the paradox without resorting to catastrophic explanations. It can be explained entirely by the fact that we’re extraordinarily lucky. And I mean EXTRA-odinarily lucky. Since I’ve already alluded to Stephen Webb’s book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life we might as well look at the account he gives of our unbelievable luck.

I did a very detailed breakdown of it in a previous post, but in essence it assumes that there are 1 trillion planets in the galaxy and out of the trillion places where it could have happened Earth was the only place where life did happen.

That we were lucky enough to be on a planet in the galactic habitable zone.

…which also orbits a sun-like star

…in the habitable zone of that same star

…which turned that luck into life

…that this life was lucky enough to avoid being wiped out prematurely

…developing from single-celled to multicellular life

…and not merely multicellular life, but intelligent, tool-using, mathematical life.

In other words we won the lottery, but actually we did better than that. You actually have a 1 in 300 million chance of winning even a really big lottery, like the Mega Millions. 1 in a trillion is actually 3,000 times less likely even than that. 

This explanation and similar explanations for the paradox are given the label “Rare Earth”, and I’ll admit that I’m probably not the best person to talk about them because they strike me as being optimistic to the point of delusion. Similar to the people in The Expanse who look at the gates and only see the hundreds of inhabitable worlds, not the omnicide of the aliens who built the gates in the first place. Yes, it’s possible that Earth, alone out of the trillion planets in the galaxy, has managed to get past the Great Filter. That some species on some planet was going to get lucky, and it just happened to be us. That, now, as the beneficiaries of this luck, a glorious transhuman future stretches out in front of us, where everything just keeps getting better and better. Certainly this vision is attractive, the question is whether it’s true. Of course it’s impossible to know, but many people have decided to treat it as such. Is this because the body of evidence for this position is overwhelming? Or is it because it’s comforting? My money is on the latter. But we’re not looking for comfort. We’re not interested in the hundreds of habitable worlds. We’re Duarte and we’re focused on the danger. 

This is not to say, in our role as Duarte, that we entirely dismiss the possibility of a Rare Earth explanation. Only that such an explanation is being adequately handled by other people. Duarte doesn’t need to focus on how to speed up the colonization of the newly discovered worlds. Everybody else is doing that. He’s focused on the paradox, and the potential danger. He doesn’t care whether there are a trillion planets in the Milky Way or only 800 billion. He doesn’t worry about knowing the minutia of astrobiology. He’s just worried about preventing humanity’s extinction, and in that effort, spending all of your time debating probabilities is just a distraction. 

Why? Well to begin with, as we’ve seen with people making the Rare Earth argument, people will ignore probabilities when it suits them. And if they were really concerned about assigning probabilities to things, what probability would they assign to the ideas I’m worried about, the ideas I’ve talked about over the course of this blog? For example, the possibility that intelligence inevitably creates the means of its own destruction. Less than 1 in a billion? Less than 1 in a thousand? And yet for reasons of sophistry and comfort they will proudly claim that Fermi’s paradox has been dissolved because we happen to be the result of odds which are much longer than that. 

Second, and even more importantly, assigning such probabilities is difficult to the point of basically being worthless. We have no idea how hard it is for life to arise on an earth-like planet, and still less of an idea how hard it is for that life to progress from its basic form to human-level intelligence. And if, despite these difficulties, we decide that we’re going to persist in trying to assign probabilities, it would seem easier and more productive to try to assign probabilities to the potential catastrophes rather than buttressing our illusion of safety. It’s easier because while we have no other examples of complex life developing we have plenty of examples of complex civilizations collapsing (for examples see the Fall of Civilizations Podcast) And it’s more productive because even if everyone who believes in the rare earth explanation is absolutely correct, we could still be in trouble from our own creations. 

IV.

If the previous parts have been enough to make you sympathetic to the “Duarte viewpoint”, and you’re ready to move from a discussion of probabilities to a discussion of precautions, then the obvious question is what precautions should we be taking?

Here I must confess that I don’t actually know. Certainly there’s the general admonition to gradualism. Also I think we should be attempting to reduce fragility in general. And to the extent I have advice to give on those topics, I have mostly already given it in other posts. What I was hoping to do in this post was to make the whole situation easier to understand by way of analogizing it to the situation in The Expanse and in that effort there are a couple of points I would still like to draw your attention to.

As I said I’m not sure what precautions we should be taking. But I am sure we have more than enough people focused on “colonizing new worlds” and not nearly enough focused on “scary elder gods”. Additionally we seem unwilling to make many tradeoffs in this area. Lots of people give lip service to the terrible power of the elder gods, but almost no one is willing to divert resources from the colonization project in order to better fight, or even just understand their awful power.

Finally there’s the objection I think most people will have, particularly those who’ve read the books, or who are otherwise familiar with totalitarianism. If we do manage to get more Duartes isn’t it possible or even likely that they will go too far? That the neo-neo-luddites will throw the baby out with the bathwater? If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that reasonable people can disagree about how threatening something is, and whether a given response is appropriate for that threat.

Obviously such an extreme outcome is possible, but thus far it isn’t even clear that we’re going to ban gain of function research despite there being at least some chance that it was responsible for the pandemic. If that’s where we’re currently at on managing the unexpected harms of technological progress I don’t think we’re in much danger of going too far anytime soon. 

I suppose the big takeaway from this post is that we need more Duarte’s. I suspect that there are a lot of people who read The Expanse and think: Those foolish individuals! They’re so focused on colonizing the habitable planets, when really they should be focused on the huge malevolent aliens that wiped out the last civilization. If you are one of the people that comes away with this impression then you should come away with precisely the same impression when viewing our own situation


It’s possible that someone out there is wondering what they could get me for Christmas. Well mostly I want the ability to ruthlessly crush my enemies, just like everyone. But if that seems too difficult to arrange, consider donating


The 8 Books I Finished in November (And the One Series I Decided Not to Finish)

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  1. The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery by: Ross Douthat
  2. Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damien Paletta
  3. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by: Michael Lewis
  4. Morning Star by: Pierce Brown
  5. Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever Teleplay by: Harlan Ellison
  6. The Economics of Violence by: Gary M. M. Shiffman
  7. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by: J. R. R. Tolkien
  8. Chorazin: (The Weird of Hali #1) by: John Michael Greer
  9. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by: Peter Hopkirk

I’ve always been a big fan of November. I’m a big fan of fall in general, and November has the start of the holidays going for it as well. Along the way, at some point in the month, one nearly always gets a spell of Indian summer, where the temperature is perfect and the leaves are still pretty. 

It was particularly nice to be somewhat back to normal in terms of family gatherings. Last Thanksgiving our big family gathering was cancelled and so I took my immediate family to a restaurant. (I’m not saying that option was necessarily safer, it’s just the option we took.) 

Writing wise I’m trying to prioritize working on my book as the first writing I do every day, which made the essays drag out a little bit, so I’m still trying to strike a balance there. But hopefully I’m dialing it in. 

Finally, since by the next time this section rolls around it will already have passed. I guess this is the time to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery 

by: Ross Douthat

224 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

Epistemology in an age of unlimited information and experimentation. 

I suppose, if you want to split hairs, the story of Douthat’s battle with chronic lyme disease (CLD) also features prominently, but mostly it’s about epistemology.

Who should read this book?

It’s possible that over the two and a half years I’ve been publishing my reviews, that I have been too liberal with my “everyone” designation. As in:

“Who should read this book?”

“Everyone.”

I will be more parsimonious going forward, because I want “everyone” to mean something. Particularly now, because I really do think that everyone should read this book.

General Thoughts

After that intro the first question you might have is “Why?” “Why should everyone read this book?” Well to begin with Douthat is a great writer, and even Freddie deBoer, who was critical of the book, acknowledges that:

The Deep Places tasks us with becoming intimately familiar with Douthat’s body and mind, and succeeds in that way that is unique to reading. The book depends on that willingness to inhabit Douthat’s life, including its most private spaces, a profound change of pace even from his memoiristic first book. If he had failed to draw his readers in, if he hadn’t successfully opened up his self to be picked over by strangers, the book would have failed completely. At that first prerequisite task he’s succeeded, to the degree that it’s hard for me to imagine someone reading this book and not wanting desperately to alleviate Douthat’s pain. This is all the more impressive given the degree of difficult[y] here; it’s a book that requires a leap of faith. The size of that leap will depend on your priors.

If even someone critical of the book describes it as immersive and impressive, then hopefully you can start to see why I’m saying that everyone should read it. But it’s that last part, the “leap of faith”, the part that deBoer takes issue with, which is where the book goes from immersive and impressive to important

As you may, or may not have already guessed, it’s in the existence of CLD where deBoer and much of the medical world argue that faith is required. Faith, because there’s no proof. Or as Wikipedia says:

Chronic Lyme disease is the name used by some people with “a broad array of illnesses or symptom complexes for which there is no reproducible or convincing scientific evidence of any relationship to Borrelia burgdorferi infection” to describe their condition and their beliefs about its cause. Both the label and the belief that these people’s symptoms are caused by this particular infection are generally rejected by medical professionals, and the promotion of chronic Lyme disease is an example of health fraud… 

Despite numerous studies, there is no evidence that symptoms associated with CLD are caused by any persistent infection…

A number of alternative health products are promoted for chronic Lyme disease, of which possibly the most controversial and harmful is long-term antibiotic therapy, particularly intravenous antibiotics. Recognised authorities advise against long-term antibiotic treatment for Lyme disease, even where some symptoms persist post-treatment. Following disciplinary proceedings by state medical licensing boards in the United States, a subculture of “Lyme literate” physicians has successfully lobbied for specific legal protections, exempting them from the standard of care and Infectious Diseases Society of America treatment guidelines. Such legislation has been criticised as an example of “legislative alchemy”, the process whereby pseudomedicine is legislated into practice.

In the book Douthat argues against all of that. That he did have CLD and it was because he was still infected. That the studies are wrong, and that it was only after massive experimentation with antibiotics, intravenous and otherwise, that he finally started feeling better. And all of this was only possible because of the existence of “Lyme literate” physicians. 

(I’m not sure if Douthat still thinks he’s infected, or if he thinks his CLD has moved on to being “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome”.)

So who do we believe, the “recognized authorities” or Douthat? Well even Douthat initially wanted to believe the “recognized authorities” and that’s part of what makes the book so compelling. The way it demonstrates the journey of someone who desperately wants to believe the recognized authorities, but the longer things go the worse their advice gets and the more attractive the fringe becomes.

He starts off in the exact opposite position as someone who actively rejects fringe thinking and really wants to “follow the science”. So when the doctors in DC tell him he doesn’t have Lyme disease, he believes them, and really tries to come to terms with a world where his bizarre array of incredibly serious symptoms are all just psychological. But treating it from this angle is singularly ineffective, and things continue to get worse. But then, he moves to the Northeast where Lyme disease is endemic, even “by the book” doctors tell him, “Oh, you obviously have Lyme disease.” At this point should he follow the DC science or the Northeastern science? Presumably the latter because they have more data, right? Does this trend continue towards believing people on the internet who’ve actually cured CLD? No? Why not? Where do we draw the line?

Answering this question of how to conduct science when you’re the subject, is the entire point of the book, and why I think it’s a book about epistemology. Douthat’s process is important enough and interesting enough that I’m going to include a very long quote from the man himself.

The first, an infectious disease specialist in New York City, had an avuncular, reassuring manner. Yes, he said, I probably had Lyme — my symptoms fit, the blood tests missed lots of cases, he saw people like me all the time. But no, I didn’t need to worry that much about the disastrous chronic cases I was now reading about on the internet. Yes, some Lyme cases took more than a few weeks to clear, and he usually prescribed antibiotics for a little longer than the official guidelines. But that would be enough, he promised: I would be much, much better by the holidays, and well within a year.

The second doctor had a wood-paneled office one town over from our new Connecticut house, more like a den than a clinic, and books and pamphlets littering the waiting room, each seeming to offer a different theory on how one might treat an entrenched case of Lyme. He talked to me for 90 minutes, took copious notes, asked a thousand questions, and informed me that chronic Lyme was an epidemic, wildly underdiagnosed and totally mistreated. Could he get me better? Probably, but I was obviously very sick, and it would take a while. Most of his patients took high doses of antibiotics for around a year; I might need more; some needed years and years of treatment.

The first doctor reassured me; the second doctor frightened me. So I chose to believe the first one, to trust his version of the science, and for months I followed his prescriptions — while also seeing doctors who told me that even his approach was too aggressive, that if I had Lyme disease at one point I no longer did, and that I should stop the antibiotics altogether and wait for my body to recover on its own.

But the body’s experiences are their own form of empirical reality, and as a patient you can’t follow a scientific theory that doesn’t succeed in practice. And in the end the reassuring doctor’s theories didn’t work — I didn’t get better on his steady dose of antibiotics, the constant pain didn’t go away — while the advice to go off antibiotics entirely led to disasters, where I stopped the drugs and disintegrated quickly.

So I went back to the doctor who frightened me, feeling that otherwise I could be sick forever, sick until I died. And the rest of the story unfolded, over a very long period of time, roughly as the dissenting faction of Lyme doctors would have predicted.

…after about a year of trying different combinations of antibiotics and extremely high doses, I finally found a cocktail that first made my symptoms more predictable, and then enabled me to begin slowly gaining ground, month upon month and year upon year — in a process that has taken me from almost-constant pain to something approaching normal life and health.

So that dissenting doctor — and others like him, and many researchers doing work on Lyme disease treatments outside the official line — saved my life. But I also saved my own life, because I was the only one who could actually tell what treatments made a difference.

So what is one to make of all this? DeBoer reads the whole book (which is full of much more stuff than could be included in the quote) and ends his review by pointing out the ways in which the book “triumphs”, but then immediately follows that declaration with this final paragraph:

But I still don’t believe in chronic Lyme. And I wish I could say I was sorry.

I ended up reading deBoer’s review before I read the actual book, and after reading the actual book I was stunned by this assertion. And it raises a host of questions in my mind:

  • When he says he doesn’t believe, what’s his certainty level? 51%? 100%? Did reading the book move the needle at all? If so, by how much?
  • How does deBoer feel about other diseases on the fringes? Does he just have a beef with CLD? What about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)? How does he feel about people who think CLD may be misdiagnosed CFS? 
  • How much of his dismissal is tied into Douthat’s Catholicism? Which is to say his belief in other non-scientific phenomena? (I’ll have just a little bit more to say about this in the religious section at the end.)
  • Finally, and most importantly, what does deBoer imagine he would do if he were in Douthat’s shoes? If he had the same symptoms and those symptoms all responded in the same way to the same things? Would he still not believe in CLD? Or does he imagine that it couldn’t happen to him? (Perhaps because of the aforementioned religiosity?)

The problem with that, is it’s already happening to all of us. Which takes me to:

Eschatological Implications

I don’t have the space to go into why it happened, and in any case I’ve touched on those subjects elsewhere—the history of the internet, and conspiracy theories and the various ideological camps, each seemingly possessed of their own fringe ideas. But somehow we’ve all ended up suffering from the same epistemological chaos as Douthat. Most (though not all) are fortunate enough that it doesn’t affect their health and doesn’t leave them in constant pain. For most people it’s ideological and evidentiary chaos. A million voices screaming at them all the time that this thing is important, no this other thing is important. With very little way to make sense of it except by doing their own crude experiments, following their gut, and choosing which flavor of the fringe they find most palatable.

Yes, there are still authorities, but beyond the obvious fact that their authority has been diminishing for years, it’s also much harder to be an authority, as knowledge, opinions and innuendo have proliferated, seemingly exponentially. And so, like Douthat we are left to construct our own authority on those issues we care most deeply about. In this effort, it’s clear that we’re not all that good at it, but that also it doesn’t take much to be better than the experts. Or, to put it another way, is there really any greater authority on Douthat’s condition than Douthat? Before the internet, sure? Afterwards, no way.

I don’t know what this atomization of authority means for the future of our society. But I do know that it’s happening, and that Douthat’s is the best book I’ve seen for describing what that atomization feels like from the inside.


II- Capsule Reviews

Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History 

by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damien Paletta

496 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who should read this book?

I read two books about the pandemic last month. Of those two I would recommend reading Michael Lewis’ (see my next review) before reading this one. But if you have already decided that Trump is THE bad guy and you just want that decision to be confirmed, you will probably really enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

It is my eventual intention to take this book and the next book, plus a third book which I have yet to read and pull all of them together into a post mortem on the initial handling of the pandemic, along with what I believe are some long term lessons we should take from things.

Until that point, the key thing to know about this book is that it’s not a book about the pandemic, it’s a book about what Trump did during the pandemic. As an example of what I mean, when the book gets to the point in the narrative when BLM protests erupt in the wake of George Floyd’s killing the authors spend three pages talking about Trumps march to St. John’s Church and only a paragraph discussing whether the large gatherings might contribute to the spread of the virus. The former had nothing to do with the pandemic while the latter represented one of the biggest questions of the whole period. 

Not only is the book focused on Trump, it has clearly taken sides as well. The very first thing it does is introduce Trump as the bad guy while introducing Fauci as the good guy. 

Despite what I feel are its evident biases, I do think that the insider account of how the pandemic was handled at the highest levels is very interesting and useful, but unfortunately the biases mean that it’s also very narrow.


The Premonition: A Pandemic Story 

by: Michael Lewis

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Modern attempts to prepare for pandemics going back to George W. Bush, and how this preparation played out when we actually had a pandemic. 

Who should read this book?

At this point I’ve only read one other book about that pandemic, which is not surprising, the story is still ongoing. But out of those two I would definitely recommend this one. But it’s also entirely possible that the real definitive work is yet to be published. 

General Thoughts

Lewis is a great writer, and this is a very enjoyable book. As I already said I’m going to wait to really dig into it in a separate post. But I guess it’s worth comparing this book to the previous book. In this book the Trump administration is something of a villain, but it’s not the villain, nor is it all directed at Trump either. Also one gets the impression from Lewis’ book that there were a lot of moving parts, and that it’s really difficult to isolate which ones could have saved us and which ones really hurt us. Which is to say Lewis’ is definitely the more nuanced of the two.

Perhaps the best way to compare the two books, though certainly not 100% accurate, is that Lewis is promoting the Mistake Theory version of the story. While Abutaleb and Paletta seem to be promoting more of the Conflict Theory version.


Morning Star

by: Pierce Brown

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The concluding events of the initial Red Rising trilogy, where the Gold’s finally get what’s coming to them, or something, I got about 20% of the way through it and couldn’t stomach it anymore.

Who should read this book?

After reading book 2 of the series I decided that it was a combination of Dune, Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games, but bloodier and more duplicitous than all of them. If that sounds appealing maybe you should read this book. For myself I can’t recommend the series and I probably can’t even recommend just reading the first book.

General Thoughts

Imagine if someone experienced the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones and said, “I’m going to write a book that is nothing but Red Weddings!” That’s how book 3 felt to me. Before abandoning it, I decided to read the plot summary on Wikipedia, I was not wrong. 


Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever

Originally by: Harlan Ellison

Adapted by: Scott & David Tipton

128 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A graphic novelization of Harlan Ellison’s original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever”. One of the best regarded of the episodes from Star Trek’s original series.

Who should read this book?

If you like Harlan Ellison, Star Trek, or graphic novels, you will probably enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

Wikipedia asserts that “The City on the Edge of Forever” is frequently named as the best Star Trek episode of the entire Star Trek franchise. Harlan Ellison always maintained that they butchered his original script and that what you saw was just a pale imitation of the majesty of the original. Having heard this accusation for years, when I saw that there was a graphic novelization of his original I bought it immediately, so that I could finally decide for myself. 

It was great, and thoroughly enjoyable, but having read it I would say Ellison oversold things, and was probably insufficiently appreciative of what they had managed to do with the actual episode. But if you’re familiar at all with Ellison that probably won’t surprise you. Still the man could write.


The Economics of Violence

by: Gary M. M. Shiffman

244 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

That the conventional wisdom that cartel violence is different from mob violence, is different from terrorism, is wrong. That really all violence can be explained using economic incentives. 

Who should read this book?

Previously we had an “everybody”? Well this one is “nobody”. Shiffman is so taken by his one idea, that he pushes it past the point of utility into being less useful than the idea he’s trying to replace. Plus he spends way too much time getting into the minutia with his various examples.

General Thoughts

Answering the question of, “Why should everyone read this book?” is difficult. For this one I have to answer the opposite question, which of course is far easier. Given how many books are out there, to a first approximation the vast majority of books are read by nobody. Why should this book be any different? I suppose the next question is, if the book shouldn’t be read, is there a point in reviewing it either? Particularly as one of the highly selective reviews of the world renowned We Are Not Saved blog?

Perhaps not, but given that I read it for a book club I ended up with some fairly extensive notes, and it would be a shame to let all that go to waste.

Shiffman’s one big idea is to note the similarities between the actions of violent organizations and the actions of normal businesses. Pointing out how both are responding to market forces and financial incentives. This is useful and interesting, but Shiffman is so taken by the idea that he tries to squeeze everything into that framework. I think this could have been a far more useful book if he had also used this model to draw a contrast between violent organizations and businesses. A couple of examples:

First, I have a friend who feels that a disproportionate number of people at the highest levels of business and government are psychopaths. If you also believe that, and also believe Shiffman, then it’s not surprising that you would also find psychopaths at the head of violent organizations. But clearly rising to be the head of the Medellín Cartel, or the Lord’s Resistance Army, or Al Qaeda selects for psychopathy to a far greater degree than being the head of a Fortune 500 company. And I would be inclined to argue that it is this quality that is more predictive of success in a violent organization than being a savvy businessman. Shiffman talks about sadism, but dismisses it as being only a tiny part of the story. I would argue that it’s one of the key differentiators between a normal business and a violent organization. But since Shiffman’s project is to minimize these differences, he also minimizes its role.

Second, Shiffman talks extensively about how important ties of family and ideology are to the cohesion and success of violent organizations. That: 

People face scarcity, and so have almost constant need for others: need to know the “us” and the “them” so we know who to look out for and who will look out for us when matters of survival and growth arise. Issues such as “radical Islam” matter only in the way that branding and marketing matter for a firm.

But family and ideology generally aren’t that big of a deal in a normal business, and comparing “radical Islam” to branding and marketing, is a gross exaggeration of the power of marketing and a gross understatement of the appeal of radical Islam. 

In both of these cases leaning into the contrast between the two would have been more informative than what Shiffman did, which was to lean into the similarities.

Yes, there are similarities between violent organizations and business, but this is neither as groundbreaking nor as widespread an insight as Shiffman thinks.


The Hobbit, or There and Back Again 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

320 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

I assume everyone knows what this book is about.

Who should read to this book?

Actually, as with the majority of the books, though I’m coy about it, I listened to this book. Specifically I wanted to listen to The Hobbit as narrated by Andy Serkis (the guy who did the voice and motion capture for Gollum in the movies.)

General Thoughts

The book is even better than I remembered. And I remembered it as being very good. Serkis’ narration was also a delight, as expected. If you need some “comfort” listening over the holidays, it would be hard to do better than this.


Chorazin: (The Weird of Hali #3) 

by: John Michael Greer

255 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

It’s the next book in the “What if the elder gods were the good guys?” series.

Who should read this book?

If for some reason you’ve started this series (perhaps on my recommendation) then there’s nothing in this book that should make you stop.

General Thoughts

This book spent a fair amount of time on world building, which was nice, though that did make the first part drag a little bit. But I thought the action and reveal at the end were satisfying enough to make up for it. As I have said in my past reviews, the chief appeal of this series is its premise. If the premise sounds appealing to you then you’ll probably like the book. If you have no idea what an elder god is, and the name Cthulhu means nothing to you then I would avoid these books.


The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia 

by: Peter Hopkirk

564 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The Central Asian rivalry between the United Kingdom and Russia which played out during the 19th Century.

Who should read this book?

If you like good history, then you’ll appreciate this book. Though make sure to read it with a map handy because you won’t have heard of most of the places where the action takes place.

General Thoughts

In some of my previous posts on Afghanistan I mentioned Mohammad Najibullah, the last president of Afghanistan while it was controlled/supported by the Soviets. In between Najibullah’s capture by the mujahideen and his execution by the Taliban he spent his time translating this book into Pashtun so that the Afghans could better understand how they got to where they are. To the best of my understanding the translation was unfinished when he died. But I can see why he undertook the project, if I hadn’t read about the history of things I’m not sure I would have believed it myself. 

The book is worth reading just for the story of the First Anglo-Afghan War, or as the British call it the Disaster in Afghanistan. Take the biggest military fiasco you can imagine, multiply it by 10 and then imagine the most cinematic ending possible, and that’s the story. Essentially of the 16,500 British citizens, soldiers and camp followers who started the retreat from Kabul, only one nearly dead assistant surgeon made it to safety.

I’m something of a collector of horrible, preventable tragedies and this is one of the most terrible ones I’ve encountered. It makes me wonder if anyone associated with the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan had read this book, because beyond all of the interesting historical events, the book is obviously still relevant today. Up until a few months ago we were still fighting over Afghanistan. We’re still trying to figure out what to do in Central Asia. And we’re still suffering massive, preventable tragedies.

III- Religious Observation

The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery 

Before leaving the book entirely I wanted to briefly include a comment about Douthat’s religion. Obviously Douthat’s faith is a big part of who he is and how he went about recovering. And there was one story in particular which really struck me, because Douthat describes an interaction with God which is almost an exact parallel to some of my own experiences with God:

On the last morning, I was up early as always and I carried my son, now six months old and heavy, down the long, low-tide strip of sand. The pain was mostly in one shoulder, though I knew it would be somewhere else soon enough. There was a spot where the sand gave way to barnacled rocks bewigged with seaweed, where the tide met the stones; sometimes in her youth, my mother had found sand dollars there. I had never found one in decades of looking, and over time it had become a game I played – If I find one today, it means that God exists. If I find one today, it means that the girl I have a crush on has a crush on me. If I find one today, it means I’ll get into the college I want. If I find one today, it means…

Inevitably, I had been playing the game all that vacation week, casually glancing in the shallows as I waded with my kids.

If I find one it means I will get better.

If I find one it means I will get better.

If I find one it means I will get better.

On that last day, though, I was in too much pain to play. I held my son in my right arm, watching the seagulls sweep above, feeling the fire spread down my left arm and side. At a certain point, the combination of beauty and agony broke me, and I began to sob there, on the empty sandbar beside the flat, blue bay, while my son cooed curiously, and from somewhere in the depths I came out with a desperate, rasping croak.

“Help me, God. Why won’t you help me?”

My eyes dropped to the water. There between my feet, as tiny as a nickel and as pale as a wedding dress, was the only sand dollar I have ever found.


I don’t think that everyone should read my blog, but neither do I think nobody should read it either. Rather I think you should read it if you think the next 20 years are going to be particularly difficult to navigate. And you should donate to it if you think I might in some sense be helping to navigate it better. 


Eschatologist #11: Black Swans

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February 2020, the last month of normalcy, probably feels like a long time ago. I spent the last week of it in New York City. Which was already ground zero for the pandemic—though no one knew that yet. I was there to attend the Real World Risk Institute. A week-long course put on by Nassim Taleb, who’s best known as the author of The Black Swan. The coincidence of learning more about black swans while a very large one was already in process is not lost on me.

(Curiously enough, this is not the first time I was in New York right before a black swan. I also happened to be there a couple of weeks before 9/11.)

Before we go any further, for any who might be unfamiliar with the term, a black swan is an unpredictable, rare event with extreme consequences. And, one of the things I was surprised to learn while at the institute is that Taleb, despite inventing the term, has grown to dislike it. There are a couple of reasons for this. First people apply it to things which aren’t really black swans, to things which can be foreseen. The pandemic is actually a pretty good example of this. Experts had been warning about the inevitability of one for decades. We had one in 1918, and beyond that several recent near misses with SARS, MERS, and Ebola. And that was just in the last couple of decades. If all this is the case, why am I still calling it a black swan?

First off, even if the danger of a pandemic was fairly well known, the second order effects have given us a whole flock of black swans. Things like supply chain shocks, teleworking, housing craziness, inflation, labor shortages, and widespread civil unrest, to name just a few. This is the primary reason, but on top of that I think Taleb is being a little bit dogmatic with this objection. (I.e. it’s hard to think of what phrase other than “black swan” better describes the pandemic.)

However, when it comes to his second objection I am entirely in agreement with him. People use the term as an excuse. “It was a black swan. How could we possibly have prepared?!?” And herein lies the problem, and the culmination of everything I’ve been saying since the beginning, but particularly over the last four months.

Accordingly saying “How could we possibly have prepared?” is not only a massive abdication of responsibility, it’s also an equally massive misunderstanding of the moment. Because preparedness has no meaning if it’s not directed towards preparing for black swans. There is nothing else worth preparing for.

You may be wondering, particularly if black swans are unpredictable, how is one supposed to do that? The answer is less fragility, and ideally antifragility, but a full exploration of what that means will have to wait for another time. Though I’ve already touched on how religion helps create both of these at the level of individuals and families. But what about levels above that? 

This is where I am the most concerned. And where the excuse, “It was a black swan! Nothing could be done!” has caused the greatest damage. In a society driven by markets, corporations have great ability to both help and harm by the risks they take. We’re seeing some of these harms right now. We saw even more during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. When these harms occur, it’s becoming more common to use this excuse. That it could not be foreseen. It could not be prevented.

If corporations suffered the effects of their lack of foresight that would be one thing. But increasingly governments provide a backstop against such calamities. In the process they absorb at least some of the risk. Making the government itself more susceptible to future, bigger black swans. And if that happens, we have no backstop.

Someday a black swan will either end the world, or save it. Let’s hope it’s the latter.


One thing you might not realize is that donations happen to also be black swans. They’re rare (but becoming more common) and enormously consequential. If you want to feel what it’s like to have that sort of power, consider trying it out. 


The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

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I.

A search of my blog reveals that I’ve never had occasion to mention Gwern, of gwern.net. This is the post where I rectify that omission.

Gwern is a prolific and talented essayist who’s, deservedly, famous across maybe 0.1% of the internet and, tragically, completely unknown in the other 99.9%. Not only is Gwern prolific but his essays are obviously well-researched, carefully crafted and extensively footnoted. So one would expect that the first time I mention him it would be to agree and expand on something he said. But no, I’m doing the opposite of that. In an act of apparent madness, I’m going to come out swinging. I intend to criticize one of his essays. The particular essay I’m taking aim at is titled, My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

The essay is mostly a list of such post 1990s improvements or as Gwern introduces things:

When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats⁠.

In essence the list is an effort in the same vein with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (which I did a post on back in 2018.) Though Gwern’s effort is more modest and more focused. In particular he worries that we suffer from a sort of blindness because these post 1990’s improvements:

[R]arely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life

After that intro Gwern proceeds to detail around 60 improvements, some of which are very broad (e.g. smartphones) and some of which are comparatively narrow (e.g. movie theater seats), but mostly these improvements are the kind of things you expect from someone who wants to defend progress and modernity. And to be clear I basically agree with him about all the items on the list, they are improvements. Still, despite this agreement I’m left with two observations:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?
  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Before tackling these observations directly, I’m going to start by approaching them obliquely in the form of a story. 

II.

My great-grandmother, Zena, had great difficulty bearing children. Over the course of 6 years she gave birth to five children, and all of them were either stillborn or lived only a few hours. Despite this she wanted to try again. My great-grandfather tried to talk her out of it, but eventually Zena prevailed upon him to try one more time. His condition was that it would be the last time. She was determined that this child would live and so as soon as she found out she was pregnant she went on bed-rest.

In later years my grandfather talked to a woman who lived in the same small Idaho town as his mother-in-law and who attended her during this time. The person said that Zena knew that the baby would live, but that she would die. And indeed that’s exactly what happened, my grandmother was born, but three weeks later her mother died. She was only 31.

My grandmother went on to have 10 kids, and those 10 kids produced 55 grandkids and those grandkids have produced, thus far, over a 100 great grandkids, and there are even a few great-great grandkids.

As you might have already suspected this story has a religious element to it. Obviously there was no way for Zena to be sure that she would die and her baby would live, but I also have no doubt that she had faith that this is what was going to happen. Whether this belief came to her before she got pregnant or while she was on bedrest, at some point she clearly made the decision that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make. 

Why was she willing to make this sacrifice? Here again religion enters the picture. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons) we have people set apart as patriarchs, and their chief task is to give people what’s called a patriarchal blessing. This blessing is only given once, generally in someone’s late teens, and it is a blessing that lays out the future path someone’s life will take. In Zena’s blessing she was promised that she would have a “numerous posterity”. As you might imagine this promise was critical to the decision she made, and from my perspective, as one of her “numerous posterity”, the promise was very much fulfilled. 

It is not my intention to get into theological debate over the reality of faith, premonitions and blessings. I presented the story of Zena because I want you to imagine what would happen if she was given a choice, perhaps presented by a colleague of Clarence in a different version of It’s a Wonderful Life. She can choose that, rather than going through with her sixth and final pregnancy, she will instead be whisked forward exactly 100 years to 2012 where she will enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, all the things on Gwern’s list, but she will never have any children. 

Even without it being a condition of “the deal”, the idea that 2012 Zena would end up being childless is not hard to imagine, an increasing number of women are. Also as I pointed out in a previous post, fertility issues, which Zena was already grappling with, have only gotten worse. 

I admit that there are certainly a lot of factors to consider when deciding to journey to 2012 from 1912 and one might imagine that Zena would refuse just based on her unfamiliarity and the strangeness of it all. But as part of this hypothetical I want you to imagine that “Clarence” imparts information or reassurances, such that this unfamiliarity is not a factor. Zena still has the attitudes of someone born in 1881 but in whatever fashion 2012 has been robbed of its weirdness. I want Zena’s choice to be simple, have a child secure in the faith that this is the realization of the blessing she was given, or remain childless but have access to all the benefits of the modern world.

We know the choice she made in 1912. Knowing the dangers she chose to have my grandmother anyway. But would 1912 Zena have traded that child for all of the wonders of 2012 and beyond? My sense is that, if she had been given this choice, between having the child she so desperately longed for, but also dying in the process, and having no children, but all the conveniences of the modern world, that she would have still chosen as she did.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with me for the rest of my argument to make sense. I brought up the story of my great-grandmother, because it’s a stark example of what I want to talk about. Not because it’s the only example. But what exactly is it an example of? 

III.

Having told my story let’s return to the observations I was left with after reading Gwern’s list, and particularly the questions it evoked. As you’ll recall the first one was:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?

Having told my story and introduced my hypothetical, are we any closer to answering these questions? What sort of improvements are offered to 1912 Zena by 2012? Do any of them amount to anything other than improved comfort? You may review Gwern’s list yourself but I don’t really see anything on it that doesn’t belong in the comfort bucket. But that doesn’t mean that things other than comfort aren’t part of the 2012 package, just that they aren’t on this particular list.

As I cast around for things which might qualify as non-comfort related improvements it occurs to me that most people would consider the Zena of 2012 to be far more liberated, for one thing she could vote! Also, she would have a much better chance at pursuing some sort of fulfilling profession. But I think even if these things were given special emphasis when our hypothetical Zena made her choice, I still think she would choose having a child vs. not having one and being an attorney or doctor. Obviously this choice would be informed by turn of the century attitudes which are much scarcer these days, on top of her deep religious faith, which has also gotten scarcer. But setting aside whether those attitudes are good or bad for the moment. I think the discussion as a whole has revealed another area where 2012 might be an improvement over 1912. In addition to improving Zena’s comfort, the world of 2012 might also increase her influence and impact.

As I said it might, but right off the bat I’m doubtful. The question which confronts us is whether it’s possible that a childless Zena in 2012 would end up being more influential than the real Zena with her nearly 200 descendents (and counting)? Your answer to this question probably hinges a lot on the value you ascribe to my grandmother, and her numerous descendents. For my part I place a lot of value on those descendents, seeing how I’m one of them. And I think anyone who’s not an antinatalist would have to agree with me. To be sure it’s not inconceivable that 2012 Zena might have more influence. For instance she could end up marrying and then divorcing Jeff Bezos leaving her with billions of dollars with which to make an impact. But absent such improbable circumstances, I think it’s clear that the real Zena ended up being more influential. Particularly since her influence has had so long to operate.

If we decide that 2012 does not offer Zena more influence in the world, then once again we’re back to the idea that the difference between 2012 and 1912 is strictly one of comfort. Which is not to say that comfort is meaningless, but I for one have always believed there had to be more to life than that. And yes, there are all the things religion considers to be important, and certainly that’s a big part of this story. But even if we ignore that in deference to all the irreligious people out there, I believe there is one last measurement we should examine: From the cold and clinical calculus of evolution and genetic fitness, the actual Zena was an enormous success. 

From this standpoint if you survive long enough to reproduce, then you’ve won, and if you don’t reproduce, then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done, you’ve lost. Now, to be clear this metric isn’t necessarily any more important than the previous metrics we examined of comfort or influence, but it’s yet another area where the actual Zena did much better than the hypothetical 2012 Zena. 

IV.

It may be argued that I’m putting too much weight on this one, somewhat unique example. And I agree, we will be broadening things out shortly, but first I want to extract as much wisdom as possible from Zena’s story, before we broaden our investigation. In particular now it’s time to examine our second observation/set of questions. 

  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Gwern brings up a very valid point: we have mostly forgotten (or in my kids’ cases never known) the inconvenience of looking up something in an encyclopedia, of having to tie up the phone line to use the internet, or of not having GPS when traveling to an unfamiliar location. And because we’ve forgotten about them they are unseen. But presumably the idea that something might be unseen doesn’t just apply to gadgets? If we’re really worried about overlooking something then those worries should mostly focus on things which are more distant in time and more immaterial in nature—things like the emotions, and mental health, and the drives and religious beliefs of people in the past. Yes, many people no longer remember not having wikipedia, but far more people not only can’t remember, but can’t even imagine having the kind of faith Zena did when she decided to get pregnant for a sixth time. Is the fact that they can’t, a sign of one of these unseen improvements Gwern should add to his list? Or is it an unseen setback? A way in which the modern world is worse than the world of the past?

At this point we will start to broaden things. But let’s start very slowly, with Zena’s husband. In the course of his life he lost his first wife and their first five kids. On top of that he lost his oldest son from his second marriage in a tragic accident when the boy was only three. My other paternal great-grandfather also experienced significant tragedy. Two wives, and eight of his children preceded him in death (out of a total of three wives and eighteen children). All of these events are clearly awful, and the fact that such things mostly no longer happen is a major selling point for many of the people who declare the superiority of the modern world. Which is as it should be. 

Given the tragedies I just mentioned, surely even if Zena wouldn’t come to 2012, her husband, and my other great-grandfather would, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. To begin with, I think there’s a similar chance that they might end up childless, and possibly unmarried. But beyond the tangible trades like kids vs. no-kids, there are almost certainly less tangible things that would be part of the deal as well. I think if they were presented with this choice, they would want to know about these less tangible things as well.

In my initial hypothetical I said that I wanted Zena’s choice to be simple, a choice between having a child in 1912, or remaining childless but getting all the benefits of the modern world. I didn’t mention all of the disadvantages of the modern world. My guess is that you didn’t notice that omission, because most people imagine the story of the future as one of beneficial progress, not one of uneven progress. But clearly there are some disadvantages, and anyone choosing the present over the past would want to know about those as well. But what are they? Is there some list, similar to Gwern’s, which discusses all of the unseen disadvantages of modernity? 

Before moving on to discuss these disadvantages, let me be clear, I am not blind to the problems of the past. I have put a lot of weight on having children in 1912 vs. not having them in 2012, but of course there were millions of people in 1912 (and earlier) who died without ever having children, or who died while they were children themselves; millions of people killed by tuberculosis, smallpox, or the plague; and finally, there were all the people killed by the wars we have hopefully abandoned. I’m not saying that the past wasn’t full of tragedies, rather my point is that by vanquishing the visible tragedies we have been lulled into the false belief that we have vanquished all tragedies. Not only have we failed to vanquish all tragedies, but with our focus on dealing with what can be seen and measured we have created tragedies in areas that are harder to see and measure. What might those tragedies be?

V.

In some sense the whole point of the blog is to explore the unseen tragedies of modernity, so I’m not going to spend very much time rehashing all of the various candidates. Rather I want to examine things in light of Gwern’s list.

The list provides a useful contrast because it’s basically the opposite of my efforts, it’s a list of the unseen benefits. But what’s interesting about it, what sparked me to write this post in response, is that the vast majority of the list is composed of material benefits. Benefits that are actually very tangible even if people have a tendency to discount them. 

There’s the stuff I’ve already mentioned like smartphones, movie seats, and always on broadband. On top of that there are dozens of other things which boil down to the idea of “Yay! Better technology!” But the thing is, no one disagrees with this, with the idea that we’ve recently gotten some really cool gadgets. They may not realize how fast these gadgets have arrived, in just the last few decades, and for that reason Gwern’s post is still useful. But when people talk about the unseen effects of the modern world they’re not talking about the fact that they no longer have to rewind VHS tapes (another item on the list). They talk about unseen societal problems. But never fear, Gwern does have a section for societal improvements. Though perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t included it. 

Without this section it would have been a perfectly interesting list covering a very narrow, but still interesting topic. But by including it, and I guess if you’ve made it this far I can be blunt, the whole thing comes across as hopelessly naive. Technology’s effect on society is the whole debate, the thing everyone worries about. It’s where the battle is being fought and where casualties are happening. Some of these casualties, perhaps the majority, are unseen. They’re casualties of mental health, of functional sterility, of loneliness and despair. Though not all of the casualties are intangible, even if it may be argued that they’re still unseen. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, what does Gwern have to say about such things in his “Society” section?

As I mentioned, it’s underwhelming, and it probably would have been better if he’d left it out entirely. About half the word count concerns stuff that seemingly didn’t fit neatly anywhere else. Things like better board games, faster shipping, and IP law. That leaves just five items which are:

  1. Lower Dysfunctionality
  2. War on Drugs Lost
  3. War On Smoking Won
  4. Nicotine gum & patches 
  5. Environment

Whether the environment has, on net, improved since the 1990s I will leave to others. I have no problem granting that we did win the war on smoking, though one could make the case that the modern world made smoking a problem in the first place. (Sales of cigarettes in 1912 averaged ½ a cigarette per adult per day, which rose to 11 in 1963 before falling to 3.5 in 2012. Which is still well above the 1912 rate.) Also, as Gwern himself admits, there has been some retrogression in the form of vaping. If we put nicotine products in with smoking that just leaves “Lower Dysfunctionality” and the “War on Drugs Lost”. 

Let’s take the second one first, and since we’ve narrowed things down to a single point we can afford to include the entire text:

  • War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance; other drugs are increasingly treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.

I don’t really have strong feelings on the issue of marijuana and psychedelics. I think it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, from the idea that they’re horribly dangerous to the idea that they’re the cure for everything. But as I said, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. Which just leaves us with the bit about “other drugs” being “treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.” So I guess the entirety of the opioid crisis is covered in this one phrase?

If you ever read my previous posts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones, you may recall that the medicalization and normalization of opioids sort of kicked off the whole crisis. In fact there was just a paper released that tied the crisis to the introduction of OxyContin in 1996. (Should it have been on Gwern’s list?) Unfortunately that wasn’t the biggest recent news on this subject. That belonged to the news that overdose deaths from May 2020 through April of 2021 reached 100,000 which was a 30% increase over that same period the year before. Anyone want to place a bet on whether more people will die from overdoses than COVID in 2022 or 2023? What about whether it will get more coverage in the press? As I alluded to earlier, even tangible casualties sometimes get less attention than they should. 

Before I leave the subject of drugs I need to include a statistic I came across recently in The Economist:

There are 50% more injection drug-users in San Francisco than there are students enrolled at its public high schools.

I thought that was a particularly trenchant summation of a lot of our current “unseen” problems.

VI.

This just leaves us with “Lower Dysfunctionality”. Again I’ll quote Gwern in full:

  • Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
    • URBAN LIFE: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and annual summer urban riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).

To begin with he’s trying to cover an enormous amount of ground with this one point. Furthermore it’s interesting that Gwern, who’s the king of links and footnotes, would have none for this point. Perhaps you can start to see why I think he should have just left it out. It’s both insanely ambitious and woefully inadequate. The point acknowledges the many intangibles of modernity but leaves most of them off of the list (both the list within the point and the larger list) and those it does mention it dismisses in four words, that they: “in general kept falling”.

As you can imagine, I would have really liked to have seen links or footnotes, because while the data on property crime looks pretty good, the data on violence shows a huge spike over the last two years. The abusive drug use I mostly already covered, which just leaves us with teen pregnancy and the larger issue of sex in general. This is a huge topic, and this post has already run long, so let me just toss something out there. Why is porn not on his list? 

Recall that it’s a list of the improvements brought about by technology since the 1990s. It’s hard to think of anything technology has done more to “improve” than the availability of pornograpy. And yet, it’s not on the list. Not only does it match well with the technology criteria, I think it matches well with the theme of “unseen” improvements as well. (It’s not as if it doesn’t get any attention, but it doesn’t get much.) So why did Gwern leave it off his list? Is it because it isn’t clear yet if it’s an improvement or not? Or maybe he decided it was one of the few places where technology didn’t improve things, it made them worse. Or perhaps it’s too contentious. Or maybe, he just didn’t think of it. Certainly all of these are possibilities. And while I’m interested in whether Gwern thinks it belongs on his list, in the end one man’s opinion doesn’t make much of a difference. In reality we all need to have an opinion on it, because everyone is walking around with a smartphone or working on a computer where, unless they do have an opinion and have acted on it, it’s never more than five seconds away. 

This is a great example of my point, it is the intangibles of the modern world and our opinion of them where everything of consequence is being decided. Everyone agrees that smartphones are a cool technology. What they can’t agree on is whether the alchemy of that technology and the technology of social media is awful or awesome. Or whether it’s awesome for adults, but awful for kids. Or whether it’s okay if used in moderation but terrible if used to excess. Or whether it’s possible to become addicted to it. Which is to say no one is arguing that there haven’t been improvements in material conditions since the 1990s. And certainly since 1912. What people haven’t been able to figure out is if it also comes with unseen setbacks. And if it does, whether the setbacks outweigh the improvements or vice versa.

In the end Gwern was right about one thing, there is the seen and the unseen. The problems of 1912 are easy to see. People, like Zena, died in childbirth, and other people died while they were still children. Then there were those who went hungry.  Disease was rampant. But I don’t think they had many unseen problems. On the other hand these days any problem we can see has someone working on it, and on many of them, particularly the problems of the past, we’ve made great progress. But I fear that we have accumulated intangible harms, while also losing many of the intangible benefits as well. There’s more to life than the comforts we’ve created and the toys we’ve built. More to appraising whether the present is better than the past than creating a list of material improvements. More to the world than what we can see.

You may think that it’s a tragedy that anyone would want a child so badly that they would be willing to die in the attempt. I think it’s a tragedy that no one can even imagine that level of devotion and faith any longer. 


I should apologize to my relatives for appropriating the story of Zena for my third rate blog. As penance rather than following my usual strategy of asking for money I will instead ask that you do some genealogy. Work on finding and collecting the stories of your own ancestors. Start with FamilySearch.org


Shallow Seriousness Is Crowding Out Deep Seriousness

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I.

With the exception of my newsletters every one of my posts is thousands of words, and yet despite that length I am always left with the impression that I haven’t hit all the points I wanted to or explained things as well as could have. That in some sense I still haven’t quite gotten to the essence of a subject. Normally I just shrug this off as something that comes with the territory. A skill I’ll hopefully get better at, but also a feeling I’ll probably never get rid of because I will always have a certain amount of built in anxiety which is forever intractable. I will also remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you have to hit publish at some point.

This was certainly the case with my posts on Afghanistan, and initially it just seemed like the standard second guessing that happens after every post. But it didn’t fade, and I found my mind continually drawn back to some of the ideas from those posts, in particular the idea that one of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan is that we are “no longer a serious people”.  

II.

As a brief reminder here’s where I left things:

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah [The president backed by Russia] was an expert in such conversations. Ghani [The president backed by the US] apparently avoided them. 

As you can see I was already hinting at the idea that people mean different things when they talk about being serious. And that perhaps if we’re going to say that we failed in Afghanistan for not being serious we need to unpack that word. What does it mean to be serious, particularly in this context?

As the word is used day to day it generally comes as an injunction to dispense with frivolity, to set aside extraneous matters and focus on what’s important. The word also carries a connotation of consequential, as in a serious heart attack vs. a mild attack. 

If we look around at what’s currently happening, on certain measures we are very serious. Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed over a week ago, and it would seem to meet all of the above criteria. We have set aside the extraneous concerns of politics and the back and forth accusations of one party vs. another to focus on something truly important. Additionally it’s consequential, even in an age where deficits don’t seem to matter, $1.2 trillion is, as Biden would say, a big f’ing deal. 

This would seem to be an example of serious people doing serious things, and yet on the other hand it’s exactly the thing I complained of when talking about Afghanistan. President Ghani was obsessed with digitizing the economy, which is essentially also an infrastructure initiative, albeit a virtual one. But if he really cared about the country as a whole (and there’s reason to suspect he didn’t) what he really should have been obsessed with was the defense of his country.

As I sat down to grapple with this issue again, I was reminded of one of my very earliest blog posts, as a matter of fact, it was only the sixth thing I’d posted. The post was titled Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election. In particular I was reminded of this passage:

As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.

The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later.  Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?

As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.

I’m surprised I never thought to reference this in the previous posts on Afghanistan, because, more or less, Kabul ended up being a mirror of Baghdad. To be clear, we have to adjust things for modern sensibilities. But in both cases the most critical task was making sure the capital wasn’t conquered, and in both cases the rulers failed. The only reason the rulers weren’t killed this time is because of the existence of air travel. (Though I would also argue it was an issue of courage as well.) Also, and unfortunately for the Taliban, there wasn’t much treasure to be carried off. (Which I guess is one good reason to digitize the economy.) Apparently Ghani carried off quite a bit of the treasure before they got there. Finally I suspect that many women were raped when Kabul fell, and we know for sure that many were given to Taliban fighters in forced marriage

III.

From all of this we are left to consider our own situation: Are there any Mongols or Taliban fighters on the verge of sacking our capital?  I think it’s clear that we have neither steppe horseman nor Islamic fundamentalists outside our gates. But it’s a mistake to take things too literally, what we’re really looking for is patterns. Who are our enemies? Are we focused enough on the dangers they pose? Or have we perhaps been distracted by something else? All of which is to say, are we paying attention to the right thing?

The genesis of this post and the beginning of me revisiting things, came early last month when one of my loyal patreon subscribers pointed me at a story which had run in the New York Times.

Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants…being captured or killed…

The message, in an unusual top secret cable…highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

While we don’t have Mongols outside our walls we do have other countries who would like nothing more than to destroy us and carry away our treasures. Espionage is the field on which the battle is taking place, and if the NYT is to be believed, we’re not doing very well in this battle.

Perhaps our situation is not as dire as that of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 or of the Afghan government in August. But when it becomes that dire it will probably already be too late. So is this an issue of seriousness? One requiring serious people? Are we failing because we lack such people?

There’s a lot to unpack in the Times article, and I obviously only quoted a portion. One of the explanations given for the problems the CIA has been encountering is technological: 

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources. 

This part is certainly interesting, and it relates to themes I’ve touched on a lot in this space. But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Rather my eye was drawn to point about the deterioration of the craft, particularly the drive to “quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks”.

Apparently:

Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the C.I.A.’s case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.

In other words the CIA has turned recruiting spies into a numbers game. And as you may recall from my last post, when I reviewed The Tyranny of Merit. There are a couple of adages about this, one of which asserts that: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

But how does all of this relate to whether or not we’re serious people? Do I mean to suggest that if we stopped tracking the number of new informants a case officer recruited that the whole situation would be reversed? Or, to draw on another concept from my last post, do we just need to implement a few nudges? Perhaps we can give the “Add New Informant” screen a red background to remind them of the blood that will be spilled if they don’t consider the quality of their informants in addition to the quantities? Or maybe we should conduct a follow-up survey, with questions like, “Did the informant turn out to be a double agent?”, followed by: “How many Americans did they end up getting killed?”

I assume that these suggestions seem ridiculous or flippant, but why? Certainly many governments are enamoured by the idea of nudges, perhaps the red background nudge wouldn’t work, but how do you know? Have you tried an A/B split test? And if in the past we based promotion on job performance metrics, why is it bad to refine those metrics and add additional ones to plug the gap? Are these not the sort of things which serious companies do? 

But it would seem once again that there is a level of seriousness beyond this when we consider matters of national security—matters of life and death. And that even things which are normally plenty serious, something which wouldn’t feel out of place in a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, becomes downright frivolous when applied to things that are truly serious. 

This gets us quite a bit of the way to what we’re looking for when we describe the qualities of a nation of “serious people”. Those who are familiar with life and death situations and who also perform well in them. The reason we are no longer a serious people is that by and large we don’t deal with life or death situations—certainly not with the same frequency or intensity as our forebearers. And when we are called to do so, as in the case with CIA case officers, we bring in tools from our unserious existence, and wonder why they don’t work.

But why? What’s the difference? What differentiates  a serious tool from an unserious one? 

IV.

A little over a year ago I published what many have declared to be my best post. (Though one reader declared it to be the closest I’ve come to insanity.) It was an extended meditation on the book The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which itself is an extended look at the way modernity leans into a left-brained view of the world, resulting in the perpetuation of various damaging distortions. 

After I published that post I expected to reference it frequently, but mostly I haven’t returned to the subject. I think largely the reason can be boiled down to the idea that if you’re a fish it’s difficult to comment on water. That said, I think this is finally a subject where the connection seems obvious.

As I have pointed out there seem to be two levels of seriousness. The more shallow form of seriousness is the one that tracks the number of informants recruited, but overlooks the fact that most of them are killed or turned. The shallow form spawns leaders who are obsessed with digitizing the economy of their country, but have no desire to make any plans for the defense of that same country. And then there is a deeper level of seriousness which considers not only the quantity of the informants being recruited but their quality, and indeed the way in which this recruitment effort contributes to the struggle between nations in its entirety. A seriousness which empowers someone to hang on as the President of Afghanistan for years rather than days.

When considering these two levels, I would argue that the more shallow form corresponds to a predominantly left-brained way of thinking, while the deeper form is predominantly right-brained. 

It is not my intent, nor do I have the space to go into all of the attributes of right vs. left brained modalities. But whatever your preconceptions about the difference you should probably cast them aside as pop science oversimplifications. The difference of left vs. right is not a matter of logic vs. emotions or facts vs. imagination. It’s best described as a difference between trying to turn the whole into parts vs. binding parts into a whole. And yes, this is also another oversimplification. But I think it’s good enough to give us a basis for the point I want to make. Particularly if we include a couple of examples. 

Coincidentally, speaking of espionage and Afghanistan, at this moment, I’m reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. This is the story of the British efforts to secure the northern approaches into India against the expanding influence of Russia. These efforts involved a lot of spying, and the story of these spies provides an interesting contrast to the NYT story. To give but one example, consider the story of Arthur Conolly. I don’t have the space to give a full account of his exploits and life, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Was the person who coined the term “The Great Game”
  • Went undercover into Muslim Central Asia for years at a time
  • Was eventually captured and later beheaded while on a daring solo mission trying to rescue another British officer.
  • One of six brothers, three of whom, himself included, suffered violent deaths while “playing” in the Great Game.
  • Finally, Conolly was motivated in all of these efforts by his Christian beliefs and his patriotism.

Now let us contrast this list with a list of presumed qualities possessed by one of the CIA officers mentioned in the NYT article:

  • Has very little concept of the struggle they’re engaged in right now. Not only have they not labeled it, no one has labeled it yet.
  • They expect to have a mostly normal life.
  • Would never set out on a solo mission to rescue a fellow agent, nor even need to.
  • Setting aside how weird it would be for one of these officers to even have five brothers, it’s inconceivable that half of them would die because they all passionately believed in the importance of American interests in Central Asia.
  • Primarily motivated in their efforts by what will get them promoted.

It’s the contrast between the last points of both lists where we really get to the heart of the matter. It’s impossible to imagine a modern CIA officer being motivated by Christianity. And really being motivated by any ideology, even patriotism, would get him funny looks. No, he’s motivated by considerations that are largely material, and individualistic. Calculations of what actions are required to get the numbers necessary for promotion. His perspective is essentially a left-brained one.

Now I’m probably overstating the individualism of our hypothetical CIA officer a little bit. I mean to begin with he’s in the CIA, he could probably have chosen a profession that was both safer and more lucrative. But I would argue that, at a minimum, there is a trendline and it’s pointing in a left-brained direction. In part this is illustrated by the fact that even if he wanted an overarching ideology on which to base his efforts there isn’t one available, certainly not one which would be shared by his fellow officers, not one that could animate the entire enterprise.

On the other hand Conolly understood the problem from a right-brained perspective. As evidence of this more holistic perspective, he was able to give the entire conflict a label which was so on point that we continue to use it down to the present day. Still just because he approached things from a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better perspective. Most educated Westerners would be horrified if modern spies talked about the civilizing mission of Christianity and the benefits of British rule in the same fashion as Conolly.

It’s possible that the two different levels of seriousness are useful, but in different contexts. I’m happy to grant that the shallow form of seriousness is great if you’re in a mature and stable democracy. While the deep form of seriousness is useful if you’re in a desperate struggle for existence.

(This all reminds me of Scott Alexander’s Thrive/Survive Theory of politics, which I expanded on in a post of my own.) 

However, even if the shallow level of seriousness is more useful, most of the time, it should be clear that it’s less important than the deep level of seriousness, because as I have pointed out on numerous occasions: if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else either. This means it’s a problem if the shallow form of seriousness starts to crowd out the deep form, such that it can’t be called on even when needed, as appears to be the case with the CIA and Afghanistan. 

To close out I’d like to offer up a second example I came across recently, this one from the Vietnam War. From a left-brained perspective this was a war we should have easily won. We had the numbers. We had overwhelming might. The math was entirely in our favor. We even had computers which told us we were going to win. But as you may recall, we didn’t. Why? Well I would opine that one of the reasons was we had different levels of seriousness. We were mostly conducting the war from a shallow level while for the North Vietnamese it was deeply serious. 

I encountered the example in an episode of the Radiolab Podcast. This particular episode told how, at some point during the war, partially in response to fears of Communist brain-washing, the Army decided to look into psychological operations or what came to be known as psyops. As a first step, they decided that the best people to consult for such an operation were advertisers from Madison Ave. There’s even a quote from the episode along the lines of “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective, maybe you can teach us how to get someone to lay down their weapons.” If that isn’t an example of using shallow methods on a deep problem I don’t know what is.

In any case, the idea they came up with was to drop coupons on the North Vietnamese troops. (Perhaps you can see the advertising connection?) These coupons were good for safe passage across US lines, where they were promised a warm cup of coffee, safety, and an end to all their privations. Unfortunately for the military, these coupons ended up having very little effect. I imagine that most of my readers are probably not too surprised to discover this. But why not? Here you have a country that’s slightly smaller than the average US state, and we end up dropping twice as much ordnance on it as all of the ordnance dropped in all theaters during the entirety of WW2. Why wouldn’t you be grasping for any excuse to get out of there, no matter how flimsy. During the episode they play an interview with a North Vietnamese soldier and they ask him about this, and as I recall, after explaining how awful things were, and how impoverished he was, he still declares that the “coupons” never even tempted him. That he felt like he was participating in something larger than himself. That it was his country, and he didn’t care how bad it got; he wasn’t going to stop fighting until the invaders had been driven out. 

That’s someone who’s serious. 

V.

Perhaps when I talk about US seriousness with respect to the CIA, and Afghanistan and Vietnam, I have selected too narrow of a focus. Perhaps if our country was truly threatened we would discover that we’re a deeply serious people after all. Certainly there was something of that feeling after 9/11, but it’s been in short supply since then. Also it should be pointed out that I’ve focused entirely on the seriousness we’ve displayed when dealing with other nations. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about seriousness as it relates to the culture war. But here again many of the proposed solutions involve breaking things down into parts that we can understand and measure, when we should really be trying to unite the various parts into a larger whole.

Once upon a time we were “one nation”, perhaps that next phrase, “under God”, or at least under some unifying ideology, was more important than we realized.


My uncle was in the CIA. He generally doesn’t talk about it all that much. But at one point he said that the reason he left was that his next job was going to be in a foreign country, presumably recruiting informants. If you want to hear the rest of that story, consider donating. I’ll use it to buy him lunch and see if I can’t pull some details out of him.


The 8.5 Books I Finished in October

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

Or download the MP3


  1. Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by: Michael J. Sandel
  2. Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by: Jesse Singal
  3. Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) by: John Michael Greer
  4. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by: H. W. Brands
  5. Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by: Norm Macdonald
  6. The Silmarillion by: J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by: Carlo M. Cipolla
  8. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by: Roland Huntford
  9. How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion by: David DeSteno

Over the last few months I’ve been enjoying Holden Karnofsky’s newsletter “Cold Takes”. One of his central arguments is that this is the most important century. 

In this opinion we are basically aligned, but whereas I am largely pessimistic about our ability to handle the ramifications of this moment, Karnofsky is more of an optimist. Perhaps I’ll go into his assertions more on some other occasion, but for now I merely wanted to provide some context around Karnofsky before I introduce his deplorable advice on how one should read books. Which, since I’m about to review a bunch of books I’ve read, would appear to be germane

He starts off with the idea that we overestimate how much we retain from reading a book. Which is almost certainly true. Though I think his assertion suffers from never going to the trouble of rigorously defining the word “retain”. Is retention measured by telling someone to write down everything they remembered from the book, and comparing it to the actual book? Or is it measured by being able to summon forth a point from the book when it’s relevant? Or could someone be said to retain something if they can call it to mind after being prompted:

Do you remember that part in Dune when Paul chooses his name?

Oh, yeah. He asks the name of the mouse shadow in the second moon. And they tell him that they call it Muad’dib. And that’s the name he chooses.

Additionally his measurement of retention is just a percentage—what portion of the book was retained using the various methods (skimming, reading slowly, re-reading, etc.) And beyond the fact that his percentages are ridiculous, which I’ll get to, certain parts of a book are far more valuable to retain than other parts. The first 10%, the stuff that everyone knows about the book, is likely to be in such common circulation that any interesting insights will similarly be widely available. Whereas the 10% you extract after reading the whole thing, or reading it multiple times is likely to be the most valuable, or at least the rarest.

But I’m sure you want to know why I think his percentages are ridiculous. You should check out his post if you want to see his entire table but to give you a couple of examples. He asserts that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but I’m particularly flabbergasted by his contention that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title. 

Beyond his exaggeration of the importance of reading titles, he contends that in general it’s a far better use of your time to read what other people are saying about the book then it is to read the book itself. And this is where we return to the idea of the varying quality of retaining some parts of the book vs. retaining other parts of the book. As an example if you were to compare my book reviews to the reviews found on Amazon you would find that I’m frequently talking about the book in a way that no one else is. Which means my insights can only come from reading the actual book, not reading what other people say about the book, because no one is saying what I am. Now this still leaves unaddressed the question of whether my insights have any value, I could just be insane. I’ll let you be the judge of that:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

by: Michael J. Sandel

342 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

As meritocracy has become more deeply entrenched it has begun to take the form of a system of morality, where being successful equals having moral worth.

Who should read this book?

At any given moment some books are part of the larger conversation. This is one of those books, and if you want a better understanding of the conversation around meritocracy you should read it. 

General Thoughts

The book opens with by recounting the admissions scandal which ensnared people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Sandel chooses this story because it’s a clear example of merit-seeking corruption. But beyond this it illustrates that it’s not actual merit the parents were seeking—I haven’t come across anything indicating these parents were “tiger moms” obsessed with making their children practice various skills—no, what they were buying was the appearance of merit. While he didn’t reference it, Sandel essentially wrote a book length treatment of Campbell’s law (and also the closely related, Goodhart’s law) as it applied to merit:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

This is also closely related to the discussion from a few years ago when Bryan Caplan published his book, The Case Against Education, which argued that college was not about knowledge and increasing human capital, it was about signalling intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. The book also reminded me a lot of Freddie deBoer’s book, Cult of Smart, which I read back in April. As I mentioned already there is definitely a robust conversation around this topic. 

If I were to try to distill out Sandel’s contribution to the topic, I would say he really leans into the moral angle of the whole phenomenon. The idea that if we assume this is a meritocracy, then we further have to assume that positions are earned. That the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. And gradually the definition of deserve creeps from an evaluation of economic worth in a capitalist system to moral worth in a more transcendent system.

In large part this happens because those in charge are incentivized to move the definition in this direction. Not only that, but it only takes a little bit of bias to believe this narrative. Meritocracy has made it so that at least some hard work is required to succeed, people are no longer born to positions. Therefore those at the top of the meritocracy will emphasize their hard work while overlooking outside help and luck.

It’s the dash of hard work with the ratcheting effect of the bias that, in Sandel’s account, differentiates meritocracy from previous social systems. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

Meritocracy is a relatively new invention. Previous to it’s introduction religion and nobility were the primary systems for deciding who was in charge. In both cases people quite obviously ended up in positions of power without any hard work. One might think that this is a bad thing, and it almost certainly was for the people who were subject to this power, but it was a good thing for the system as a whole because it forced a certain amount of humility to be present. It didn’t force every individual to be humble, but the system as a whole necessarily created some humility. 

As Sandel points out:

[T]he more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.

The meritocratic concept of being self-made is also something which wasn’t present in the past systems. Under a system of nobility you were always answerable to some higher noble. Unless you were the King, and indeed that was also generally the failure point in the system. Under a system of religion you were always answerable to God. Or rather the actions of people in power would be circumscribed by the perception of their righteousness. You could only ratchet your own importance so much.

Now I understand that this overview of past systems has overlooked all kinds of nuance and exceptions, and been largely written from a Western, Christian perspective. But I think Sandel is right in pointing out that the incentives of meritocracy have produced some weird, and pernicious outcomes. None of which is to say that Sandel is advocating for a return to earlier systems. And, while I think the world needs more religion, neither am I.

For all the harms caused by meritocracy, I’m still glad that doctors, pilots, and politicians (mostly) are selected by merit. And it may be that meritocracy is similar to democracy. The worst system except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time. Let us hope that this continues to be the case. But there is an argument to be made that the harms of meritocracy are multiplying at the same time that its benefits are diminishing.


Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills

by: Jesse Singal

334 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the popularization of psychology has incentivized scientists to produce “quick fixes”, even if they have to ignore the scientific process in order to do so. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve noticed the parade of techniques that are supposed to be the solution to everything, from improving self esteem, to positive psychology and emphasizing grit. Techniques that flare in a blinding fashion before fading into irrelevance, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

For anyone who’s been following the replication crisis this book will not be surprising. Though I’m sure you’ll still come across stuff that you hadn’t heard. For myself I had forgotten about the panic over super predators and I had no idea that positive psychology had essentially taken over the military. 

But of course this latter example illustrates the point, these concepts have, when ascendent, penetrated nearly everywhere. Even power posing, which always seemed a little bit silly, ended up being prominently featured in the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg which spawned a whole movement around women in the workplace. Nor has power posing been entirely abandoned, it still has it’s defenders.

But eventually after this moment in the spotlight the principles fade, the results don’t match the hype, and (hopefully) the science eventually catches up Though, rather than being abashed that they fell for yet another fad, people immediately start looking for the next fad, the next golden bullet to solve all the problems.

Interestingly, though Singal approaches with caution, his book ends by speaking approvingly of nudges. Targeted, and limited interventions designed to accomplish very narrow aims. The classic example is the idea that people donate more to their 401k if you make them have to opt out of it, rather than opting into it. I get this, but whatever his caution I think Singal may be falling for some of the same faddish adulation he’s decrying everywhere else. 

I think the nudges that work best are just people exercising a little more intelligence when they design systems, like the 401k example. I think other nudges will appear to work initially, but then the effectiveness will fade with time. My power company tries one of the classic nudges with me every month. They show my power usage with respect to my neighbors. And initially, when I saw that I used more power I tried various things to use less, as intended, but then when it kept coming in high I realized that there were (at the time) six people in my house. And two retirees in most of the houses I was being compared against. And now even though there are fewer people in my house I haven’t looked at those comparisons in months, nor do I care much what they show. 

All of which is to say that individual nudges may have a small effect but the concept of nudges as a new tool that will change everything (particularly divorced from any larger concepts, a point I’ll get to it a bit) is yet another fad that will fade. Which Singal allows for, but maybe not enough.

Eschatological Implications

I think most of the implications here are one’s I’ve already spent a lot of time covering in this space. For the last few centuries progress and science have given people a reason to be optimistic about the future. But it’s been apparent for a while that we were running out of things for science to revolutionize. However there was always one thing left on the list, and it’s been on the list of things to improve for at least the last century and probably longer than that. Of course I’m talking about humanity. Quick Fix is both valuable and depressing. Valuable for the truths it points out, depressing in that one of those truths is that humanity is becoming more intractable rather than less. Meaning that if you want to be optimistic about the future, science no longer provides that. If you want optimism you have to find it in the perfectibility of humanity which every day seems more impossible.


II- Capsule Reviews

Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) 

by: John Michael Greer

247 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young girl who reconnects with her extended family who are worshippers of the Elder Gods. Only unlike most novels of this sort, such worshippers are the good guys.

Who should read this book?

Greer mostly writes non-fiction and I think his fiction writing somewhat reflects that, thus you should read the book only if you feel intrigued by its unique premise.

General Thoughts

After reading the first book in this series I was kind of underwhelmed. I had enjoyed it, but I felt it hadn’t crossed the line into being exceptional. I intended to finish the series, just because that’s what I always intend, even if it never happens, but I wasn’t particularly excited for the next book. 

But, as the months went by I found myself unable to stop thinking about it, and more and more eager to find out where Greer was going to go with this unique “worshipers of the elder gods are the good guys” premise. So I picked up the second book, and once again the writing was a little dry, and the characters were a little bit flat, but the premise continues to be endlessly fascinating, and I’m really interested to see what happens in the rest of the books.


The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

by: H. W. Brands

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The post World War II career of General MacArther, and in particular his conflict with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. 

Who should read this book?

If you like history and biography at all this is one of the better examples I’ve come across. Also if you feel like you have a blindspot when it comes to the Korean War this is a great entry point.

General Thoughts

The book starts out by talking about how much the Japanese revered General MacArthur. I’m curious to know if that’s still the case. (I have a friend in Japan I’ve been meaning to ask but I haven’t gotten around to it.) It’s nice that it starts out that way because the remainder of the book is increasingly hard on him, and by the end he doesn’t come out looking very good. Which I think is the impression I absorbed of him growing up in the 70s and 80s. (Certainly the show M.A.S.H. didn’t help.) Obviously I had heard about Truman firing him, but it always felt more like a piece of trivia than a national scandal. This book definitely made me feel the magnitude of the act. And the magnitude of the Korean War, which is another thing which doesn’t carry the weight it deserves, stuck as it is between Vietnam and World War II.

If you’ll forgive me for going on a brief eschatological tangent, one of the really interesting things about the Korean War is how pivotal it was when it came to the question of nuclear weapons. At this point it was still an open question whether nukes were going to be just another weapon in a countries arsenal or whether they were going to be treated as being on a whole, separate, almost unthinkable level. It’s a credit to Truman that it was the latter not the former.

One of the things I did in October, which didn’t get mentioned in the intro, was I took a trip to Albuquerque to visit family. While there I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. I highly recommend it, particularly for those who have any doubts about the unclear status of nuclear weapons in the 50’s. You’ll see all manner of things including nuclear artillery and the infamous nuclear bazooka

To the extent I have a criticism and it’s a very small one, this book, despite its subtitle, might have been even better if Brands had spent more time examining this inflection point in the use of nuclear weapons.


Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir

by: Norm Macdonald

242 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A somewhat surreal pseudo-memoir of Norm Macdonald. About 99% untrue, but 100% of his essence. Perhaps if Vonnegut had written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is what would have come out.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who REALLY liked Norm Macdonald already has. But if, like me, you only truly recognized his genius once it was gone, this is a great way to both bask in it and pay homage to it.

General Thoughts

I was not a hardcore Norm Macdonald fan. He was rather someone I wanted to hear more from, but never got around to it. When he died, that snapped me into action and I picked up his book. It was the audio version and he did the narration which was great. 

I think the comment I made about Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson sums it up pretty well. This book is not for everyone, and it’s pretty crass to boot. But if you felt like Macdonald was taken too soon this is a great way to celebrate his comedic genius. 


The Silmarillion 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

If the Lord of the Rings is the New Testament, The Silmarillion is the Old. It’s a record of all the things that happened beforehand which were only alluded to in the trilogy. It’s also far more tragic.

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone who likes The Silmarillion, who doesn’t already like the Lord of the Rings, but liking LotR is no guarantee that you’ll like this book. I only know a few people who love it. 

General Thoughts

I am one of those who love The Silmarillion. My favorite scene from the trilogy is when Gandalf confronts the Lord of the Nazguls at the gates of Minas Tirith. The Silmarillion is full of scenes like that. It can do this because it covers thousands of years, and it basically only includes these scenes. As a consequence of this there is very little in the way of character development. And while there is something of an overarching plot the book is not a novel, it’s a collection of myths. And as such it’s not for everyone. But after reading it this time, I think I actually like it better than the original trilogy. 

On this read through one scene in particular really moved me. It concerns Húrin, a mighty warrior, who ends up being imprisoned in the dungeons of the dark lord for 28 years before he is finally released. Wandering about, old and bowed down he comes across his wife, sitting at the graves of his children:

But Húrin did not look at the stone, for he knew what was written there; and his eyes had seen that he was not alone. Sitting in the shadow of the stone there was a woman, bent over her knees; and as Húrin stood there silent she cast back her tattered hood and lifted her face. Grey she was and old, but suddenly her eyes looked into his, and he knew her; for though they were wild and full of fear, that light still gleamed in them that long ago had earned for her the name [Morwen], proudest and most beautiful of mortal women in the days of old.

‘You come at last,’ she said. ‘I have waited too long.’

‘It was a dark road. I have come as I could,’ he answered.

‘But you are too late,’ said Morwen. ‘They are lost.’

‘I know it,’ he said. ‘But you are not.’

But Morwen said: ‘Almost. I am spent. I shall go with the sun…

…and they sat beside the stone, and did not speak again; and when the sun went down Morwen sighed and clasped his hand, and was still; and Húrin knew that she had died. 


The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by: Carlo M. Cipolla

64 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The 5 Laws of human stupidity.

Who should read this book?

The introduction is by Nassim Taleb. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, you should read this book. Also it’s super short (this is my ½ book for the month.)

General Thoughts

Here are the five laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and Inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. Stupid people are the most dangerous kind of people. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The rules are interesting, but it’s the idea of the bandit that’s going to stick with me. Cipolla divides people into four quadrants:

  1. The Intelligent: Those who act in such a way that it benefits themselves and others.
  2. The Bandits: Those who act to benefit themselves while causing harm to others.
  3. The Helpless: Those who harm themselves while benefiting others. (I feel like there should be a better term for this than helpless.)
  4. The Stupid: Those who cause harm to both themselves and others. 

He further divides the bandit in two. Bandits who help themselves more than they harm others— so on net they benefit society. And bandits who harm others more than they help themselves—someone who breaks a $500 car window to steal the $5 in change sitting in the center console. Obviously, just by the nature of banditry the latter type is far more common than the former. But I think the former has an interesting place in the capitalist structure. Particularly when you start to consider harms that are more diffuse.


The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

by: Roland Huntford

640 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The lives of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen and their race for the South Pole.  

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes stories of survival and exploration, but it also works as a business book.

General Thoughts

To start with I’m glad I read The Man Who Ate His Boots before reading this. The foundation it gave me on the previous era of arctic exploration was very helpful particularly at the beginning of this book.

As far as the book itself, my sense of Scott was developed in a similar fashion to my sense of MacArthur. I had evidently picked up some stuff by osmosis. Before reading this book I had a vague sense of Scott’s heroism and a vague annoyance with Amundsen, but if you had asked me to explain where I got those impressions I would have been unable to point to anything specific. Having read the book I’m not surprised by those opinions, they’re basically the opinions which suffuse the anglosphere. Though the fact that I was unaware of this osmosis might bear further examination. Particularly since the impressions I had were entirely wrong. Everyone should strive to emulate Amundsen, while Scott should be a cautionary tale for anyone engaged in any high risk endeavor.

So how is it that the conventional wisdom is lukewarm towards Amundsen, while Scott is still thought of with reverence? There are three factors: first, whatever other faults Scott may have had he was a gifted writer, and when his journal was published posthumously (and also after some extensive editing) it gave the whole enterprise a heroic narrative, which bore only a passing resemblance to reality. Second, Scott died. Objectively this can’t help but count against him, but emotionally it ends up providing a huge boost to someone’s reputation to die young. Also there’s this sense that Amundsen, by being close and winning the race, somehow contributed to it. Third, Scott’s journey was more exciting.

It’s this last bit that I want to focus on in particular, and what makes this something of a business book. How often do we judge people’s efforts by how many near death experiences come out of it, rather than how safe and effective it was. Certainly the near death stories are more exciting and get retold more often. In this case Scott was heroic because he died, while Amundsen was not because his expedition was meticulously planned and executed. Of course what we should want is not excitement and heroism, we should want things to be meticulously planned and executed. But that’s often not the way people think. 

I wonder if movies have made this problem worse? Something to chew on.


III- Religious Reviews

How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

by: David DeSteno

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How most of the stuff scientists think of for improving humanity is already being done by religion and in a more effective fashion.

Who should read this book?

People who want their support of religion confirmed or people who think that religion is entirely valueless.

General Thoughts

This book makes the argument I’ve long made. That religion isn’t a harmful batch of superstitions that idiots waste their time with, but rather a rigorously evolved package of beneficial behaviors. So in a very broad sense it’s supportive of one of the core missions of the blog. But as I’ve spent a lot of time already on that subject I’d like to talk about the interesting addendum it provides to one of the previous books I reviewed, Quick Fix.

To begin with, DeSteno’s point is very similar to Singal’s. There are no quick fixes. If you want to change human behavior it takes something massive and integrated; something that has been developed over centuries. Nor are these changes massive, mostly they are small improvements, but there are improvements which last, they’re not transitory. 

But then interestingly DeSteno ends up in the same place as Singal, talking about nudges. And there’s this sense that for DeSteno that’s all religion is. (DeSteno himself is not a believer.) That it’s a collection of nudges. For example, we know meditation is good, religion tells you to pray which is a nudge to meditate. And indeed that’s probably all that DeSteno’s data can tell him, but I think he’s only scratching the surface on the benefits of religion. That nudges are just what can quickly be measured, that the benefits of religion are mostly felt over the span of decades. This is also the scope for the harms of its absence to be felt as well. Harms which every day seem more and more apparent.


I guess this end bit that I always do is also a nudge. Let’s hope it’s one that is bundled up into a larger system of value rather than one of those nudges that fade with time. Either way if you have felt the nudge to donate, give into that impulse, it’s what science would want you to do. 


Eschatologist #10: Mediocristan and Extremistan

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Last time we talked about mistakenly finding patterns in randomness—patterns that are then erroneously extrapolated into predictions. This time we’re going to talk about yet another mistake people make when dealing with randomness, confusing the extreme with the normal.

When I use the term “normal” you may be thinking I’m using it in a general sense, but in the realm of randomness, “normal” has a very specific meaning, i.e. a normal distribution. This is the classic bell curve: a large hump in the center and thin tails to either side. In general occurrences in the natural world fall on this curve. The classic example is height, people cluster around the average (5’9” for men and 5’4” for women, at least in the US) and as you get farther away from average—say men who are either 6’7” or 4’11”—you find far fewer examples. 

Up until relatively recently, most of the things humans encountered followed this distribution. If your herd of cows normally produced 20 calves in a year, then on a good year the herd might produce 30 and on a bad year they might produce 10. The same might be said of the bushels of grain that were harvested or the amount of rain that fell. 

These limits were particularly relevant when talking about the upper end of the distribution. Disaster might cause you to end up with no calves, or no harvest or not enough rain. But there was no scenario where you would go from 20 calves one year to 2000 the next. And on an annualized basis even rainfall is unlikely to change very much. Phoenix is not going to suddenly become Portland even if they do get the occasional flash flood. 

Throughout our history these normal distributions are so common that we often fall into the trap of assuming that everything follows this distribution, but randomness can definitely appear in other forms. The most common of these is the power law, and the most common example of a power law is a Pareto distribution, one example of which is called the 80/20 rule. This originally took the form of observing that 20% of the people have 80% of the wealth. But you can also see it in things like software, where 20% of the features often account for 80% of the usage. 

I’ve been drawing on the work of Nassim Taleb a lot in these newsletters, and in order to visualize the difference between these two distributions he came up with the terms mediocristan and extremistan. And he points out that while most people think they live in mediocristan, because that’s where humanity has spent most of its time, that the modern world has gradually been turning more and more into extremistan. This has numerous consequences, one of the biggest is when it comes to prediction.

In mediocristan one data point is never going to destroy the curve. If you end up at a party with a hundred people and you toss out the estimate that the average height of all the men is 5’9” you’re unlikely to be wrong by more than a couple of inches in either direction. And even if an NBA player walks through the door it’s only going to throw off things by a half an inch. But if you’re estimating the average wealth things get a lot more complicated. Even if you were to collect all the data necessary to have the exact number, the appearance of, the fashionably late, Bill Gates will completely blow that up. For instance an average wealth of $1 million pre-Bill Gates to $2.7 billion after he shows up.

Extreme outliers like this can either be very good or very bad. If Gates shows up and you’re trying to collect money to pay the caterers it’s good. If Gates shows up and it’s an auction where you’re both bidding on the same thing it’s bad. But where such outliers really screw things up is when you’re trying to prepare for future risk, particularly if you’re using the tools of mediocristan to prepare for the disasters of extremistan. Disasters which we’ll get to next time…


As it turns out blogging is definitely in extremistan. Only in this case you’re probably looking at 5% of the bloggers who get 95% of the traffic. As someone who’s in the 95% of the bloggers that gets 5% of the traffic I really appreciate each and every reader. If you want to help me get into that 5%, consider donating.


Government Spending and Skin in the Game

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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Last time I talked about some ideas from Nassim Taleb’s underrated book Skin in the Game. These were ideas which I believe had been overlooked by most of the people reading or reviewing the book, ideas which I kept coming back to. What I didn’t cover was his central idea, the one that gave the book it’s title. 

And I had not intended to talk about it this time either. In fact, If I’m completely honest I didn’t even notice the connection until I was most of the way through with writing this post. (And if it seems unusually delayed, that’s part of the reason, that plus travel and book writing.) I had initially organized the post around the idea of inflection points. But once I was nearly done I realized that all of the inflection points I had mentioned were unified by a single phenomena: people no longer have “skin in the game”. In some respects the meaning of this phrase and the effects of this lack probably seems self-evident. In other respects it’s a very subtle idea, and hopefully we will uncover some of these subtleties in the course of the post. 

As a first illustration of what I mean, let’s go back to 2012, when Mitt Romney said the following in the course of his campaign for President:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives… These are people who pay no income tax.

Romney did not intend this for public consumption. He was speaking at a private fund-raiser, but as is so often the case, video of the speech was leaked, and this particular statement came across as being especially inflammatory. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that it was singularly responsible for him losing the election, but it certainly didn’t help. However I’ve always thought that buried in this statement lies a very important point, a point about who has skin in the game and who doesn’t.

To begin with, everyone agrees with Romney’s numbers. In 2011 47 percent of people did not, in fact, pay any income taxes. And while it was unfair (not to mention unwise) for Romney to go on to say that these people “believe that they are victims” and also “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing”. Democracy nevertheless is a numbers game, and to a first approximation, what the majority wants the majority gets. Absent built in protections, like those contained in the Bill of Rights, which to the extent it talks about taxes, is against them, which is why we needed the 16th amendment.

I don’t think it’s outrageous to claim that people don’t like paying taxes, and they do like getting money. If we should therefore find ourselves in a situation where the majority of people don’t pay taxes, i.e. they don’t have skin in the game, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that they will use that majority to prolong that situation indefinitely. And beyond that it is within their power to compel the minority who do pay taxes to pay still more taxes and fund programs which benefit them. This all touches on one of the key things Taleb points out: once people no longer have skin in the game their motives become distorted. He mostly talks about Wall Street investors who don’t suffer the downsides of their bad decisions (see the 2007-2008 crisis) but the same thing applies to tax payers.

Now it is going too far to say that once 51% of people don’t pay income taxes that the system is instantly and irretrievably broken. First off there are other taxes beyond taxes on income. Most of the really big governmental benefits are (supposedly) funded by payroll taxes which are paid by a far greater percentage of people. Also this 51% will not immediately take on the form of a monolithic block with perfect coordination. Some people might vote in such a way to cause them to start paying income tax even if they previously hadn’t. Nor are people very good at accurately assessing and pursuing, to the exclusion of all else, their own self interest. Finally, it’s always possible that their income will rise to the point where they have to start paying taxes.

Nevertheless, in a democracy, whenever you get 51% of the people on one side of the fence something has changed, even if the consequences of that change are not immediately apparent. We have to consider that we might be looking at an inflection point. A democracy where even 47% of people are not paying taxes is potentially a very different one from one in which 51% of people aren’t. Even if, in terms of actual numbers, the difference is not all that great. We passed from a state where some people don’t have skin in the game to where a majority of people don’t have skin in the game.

Fortunately, despite Romney’s ill-considered words, at the time we were still in the 47% world and not the 51% world. We had not yet reached the inflection point. But that was nearly a decade ago. What does the situation look like now? When I started this post I honestly didn’t know, I was surprised to find out that we’re not just a little bit past the 51% mark, we’re a lot past it.

In 2020, 61% of people didn’t pay any income taxes. Which is getting really close to two thirds of everyone not paying taxes. This reminds me of the quote, erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And it graphically illustrates the point I’m trying to make. The wolves have no skin in the game, while the lamb has not merely skin but everything. Even without such stakes, if a minority has something the majority wants, i.e. their money. And they can get it without inconvenience to themselves. Why wouldn’t they? 

As I said I was surprised to find out that we were not only past the 50% mark, but well past it. I would have thought that it would be big news when we passed the 50% mark. Big enough I would have heard about it. But even after searching I couldn’t seem to find out when it had happened, perhaps it just happened in 2020. Maybe the deluge of cash dispensed in response to the pandemic added an additional 11+% to the amount of people who don’t pay taxes. Presumably it will be less that 61% in 2021, and perhaps lower still in 2022, but I’m willing to bet that regardless of what it was pre-pandemic (and if you can find out what that percentage was I’d be grateful) after the smoke clears it will be permanently above 50%. That we have crossed an inflection point and we’re not going back.

All of this might be less worrisome if there wasn’t still another inflection point we appear to have passed recently. The inflection point of worrying about government spending. We’re no longer even pretending to have skin in the game. And while this inflection point is more difficult to assign an exact number to, doesn’t it feel like, between Trump’s profligacy and the firehouse of pandemic money that something has definitely shifted here as well? If nothing else, the sums of money people have been suggesting since the start of the pandemic dwarf those of the pre-pandemic world. I still remember when the $700 billion allocated by TARP was a huge deal. And now the moderate position is to only spend $1.5 trillion rather than $3.5 trillion. (Bernie Sanders was suggesting $6 trillion.) And this is on top of the trillions already spent fighting the pandemic. 

Which is not to say we haven’t been on this path for a long time, but not only are the amounts different but lately politicians appear to have abandoned even the pretense that new spending has to be balanced by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere. Politicians used to at least pretend that there needed to be skin in the game, but now they hardly even mention it. Or if they do, they distort the idea so thoroughly that it ceases to have any meaning

I am not claiming that 51% of people think the government can spend as much as it wants. Nor do I think it’s 51% of the members of congress. In fact, in a recent survey 52% of people said that the national debt and deficit is the biggest economic problem, above inequality, wage stagnation and slow growth. If true, I think it’s fair to say that the average voter is more worried about things than the average member of congress. And while the debate between $1.5 vs. 3.5 trillion is only happening on the Democratic side of the aisle, it’s not as if the Republicans did any better under Trump.

So how do we reconcile the 51% of people who don’t pay taxes with the 52% of people who think that the debt and the deficit are the biggest economic problems? Or rather out of these two majorities which will get their way? On the surface neither of them have much skin in the game. But I think as we dig deeper it will become apparent which side will ultimately triumph.

To begin with we should look at which way the trends are pointed. As we’ve seen, the trend is for fewer people to pay income taxes. Which already puts us in a situation where it’s not the 51% of people who don’t pay taxes vs. the 52% of people who think government debt is a problem, it’s the 61% who don’t pay vs. the 52% who worry. One imagines that the trend would be for the 52% to increase as well, particularly as the debt grows and there’s more reason for worry. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Back in 2012, 69% of people said the budget deficit should be a top priority. Now these 69% of people were answering a somewhat different question, so it shouldn’t be used in a direct comparison with the 52%, but it does show that a lot of people have been worried about it for quite a while without anything really changing.

Why hasn’t anything changed? Why is the majority who worry about the debt so powerless to translate their preference into actual legislation? This is where it comes back to skin in the game, and specifically what economists call revealed preferences. Or to put it more bluntly: people SAY a lot of things. We’re interested in what they actually DO.

Just because people say they want something doesn’t tell us anything about what they’re willing to sacrifice to get that something. One assumes that there are a lot of people who are on Social Security who are also in that 52% who are worried about the debt. As many politicians have found out, regardless of what people say about government spending, you don’t touch Social Security. And numerous pundits have ascribed Trump’s victory in 2016 to his promise to protect that program. One can quibble about how serious he was, but it was a departure from the Republicanism of Paul Ryan and George W. Bush. The point being, people worry about government spending unless it’s government spending that benefits them, and then it’s off limits. And it’s in this fashion that the 51% (or 61%) people who don’t care about taxes will triumph over the 52% (or 69%) of people who worry about the debt.

You might be under the impression that this problem is limited to concerns about the actual money people receive, but as it turns out even asking people to just imagine that they have more skin in the game dramatically reduces their willingness to sacrifice. As an example I offer up this recent poll on climate change:

According to the poll, 69% of Americans – including 56% of Republicans and 71% of independents – believe the United States needs to take “aggressive” action to fight climate change.

Some 78% believe the government should invest more money to develop clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, including 69% of Republicans and 79% of independents…

More than half of Americans either strongly or somewhat support the idea of weaning the United States off fossil fuels entirely within 10 years – the central tenet of the Green New Deal – including a third of Republicans and 57% of independents…

Support for such changes dropped off dramatically, however, when poll respondents were asked whether they would be willing to assume certain costs to achieve them.

Only 34% said they would be very likely or somewhat likely to pay an extra $100 a year in taxes to help, including 25% of Republicans and 33% of independents, according to the poll. The results were similar for higher power bills.

This is an excellent example of the difference between having skin in the game and not having it. 69% believe that we need to take aggressive action to fight climate change. I’m not sure what they were imagining when they heard the word aggressive, but apparently for half of them that word meant something less than $100 a year. If I’m aggressively paying down my debt then I would hope that I’m doing it at a faster rate than $100 a year. But of course I have skin in the game with my debt. It’s obvious that when it comes to climate change and government debt that most people don’t feel like they have skin in those games

And, as I pointed out in the beginning, we’re just asking people to imagine that they have skin in the game, when you get to the actual skin they have in the game it’s presumably even less. Which is to say, out of the 34% of people who said they’d be okay paying $100 extra a year, how many of them are already sending that much to organizations dedicated to fighting climate change? I’m willing to bet the number is a lot closer to “none of them” than “all of them”.

Finally this isn’t an isolated result. Plenty of people have found similar results on a broad range of questions. But if we’re specifically considering replication. The Cato Institute conducted a nearly identical survey which found that 68% of people wouldn’t pay $10 a month more on their electricity bill in order to fight climate change. (The same survey found that 58% of people would pay an extra $1 a month, so that’s something I guess.)

But here we arrive at another mystery. Should the Democrats pass their $3.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill that would amount to $27,000 per household, which is significantly more than $10/month. And yet most Democrats and even many Republicans seem to be okay with that. Presumably somewhere in that group are people who both support the $3.5 trillion dollar bill and adamantly reject an additional $10/month. How could this be?

Once again the answer is skin in the game. There has always been something of a disconnect between government spending and personal spending, but lately it seems to have really gone off the rails. People can imagine their power bill going up by $10 a month. And having imagined it, decide they don’t want it to happen. They can’t imagine a bill for $27,000 arriving in the mail. People have become completely detached from the actual mechanisms of government. They have no skin in the game.

When you ask progressives what they’re hoping to achieve with this sort of spending, they will talk about a reduction in inequality. They will speak of the good the money might do. They may bring forth an anecdote about someone who had to declare bankruptcy because of medical bills, or who is now homeless after losing their job. On the other side they may speak of the unfairness of Bezos’ billions, and the increasing wealth being accumulated by the 1% as a whole. If you ask them to get more concrete they may mention a wealth tax, or the idea of duplicating conditions in one of the Scandinavian welfare states. 

Here we arrive at perhaps the most interesting place of all. As it turns out one of the features of the Scandinavian welfare state is that there’s a lot more skin in the game at all levels of wealth. The main inspiration for this post actually came from an article by a Swedish doctoral student in economics, and yet somehow despite this article providing the initial inspiration I’m only just getting to it. In this article he mentions several very interesting things:

Sweden doesn’t really tax the millionaires and billionaires—it taxes the poor. In Sweden, it is possible to avoid virtually all capital gains taxes through an investment savings account, which obviously mostly benefits the rich. What about wealth taxes? The Nordic countries have long since moved past them: Denmark abolished its wealth tax in 1997, Finland in 2005, and Sweden In 2007. It’s not about ideological opposition to taxing the rich.  It’s that the wealth tax was completely counterproductive and caused capital to flee these countries. In the U.S., the wealth tax is a novel idea. In the Nordics, it’s the 56k modem of taxation.

Instead, the big difference between the U.S. and Sweden, taxation-wise, is how the poor are taxed. Americans who make less than $12,000 per year pay no federal income taxes.  Many who make more than that still end up paying a net zero in taxes once deductions are accounted for. In Sweden, the equivalent is about $2,300. On any money you make above that threshold, you pay a tax rate of about 30 percent, plus payroll taxes. What about deductions? In the US, the average tax refund last year was $2,707. In Sweden, it was $821. On top of this, Sweden has a national sales tax of 25 percent on almost everything you buy. As the poor spend a greater share of their income, this tax disproportionally hurts them.

The kind of taxes that the poor are forced to pay in the Nordic countries would be completely unacceptable to the majority of the American public. It does not matter whether polls claim Americans support Nordic welfare programs—it’s utterly meaningless unless you also agree to pay them the only way they can be paid for: By taxing the average citizen. [all emphasis original]

To begin with the author rejects the idea of a wealth tax. (I particularly like the idea that it’s the 56k modem of taxation.) But more tellingly he points out that a far greater share of the tax burden is borne by “the average citizen”. This gives them skin in the game. In more concrete terms, to use the examples already given. You don’t have a situation where a majority of people don’t pay taxes and can therefore raise the taxes which do exist as a strictly democratic exercise. You also presumably have much more engagement with how the government spends the money, given that just about everyone is on the hook for it, not merely the top 39%. All of which is to say, if you’re looking to duplicate Scandinavian welfare states you’re essentially going in exactly the wrong direction. Even The Economist recently pointed out that America will never have a European style welfare state without a VAT. 

However, as near as I can tell, there’s been hardly any discussion of a VAT, which is a major pillar of the Scandinavian welfare states, and quite a bit of discussion of a wealth tax, which is something they’ve tried and rejected. There’s also a big push to make the US tax system more progressive, when it’s already more progressive than the European tax codes and in fact according to the OECD it’s the most progessive system in use by any nation. (Something which also surprised me.)

Okay, apparently progressives are going the wrong way on all of these issues if their destination really is a Scandinavian-style welfare state. But despite this the goal isn’t an impossible one, right? Well setting aside the greater percentage we spend on defense, and our differing cultures. The author of the article makes one final point about the need for skin in the game.

Building a welfare state is a boom-time endeavor. The Nordic welfare states were built during the postwar expansion. In Sweden’s case, we got the best of both worlds: We avoided becoming involved in the war, and afterward, demand for our industries spiked. With that, so did salaries. This made building a welfare state easy for two reasons: First of all, as salaries boom, so do tax revenues, even if tax rates are unchanged. This revenue boost allowed the government to add additional safety nets and government programs without raising rates or having to cut any other budgets.

Secondly, it is politically much easier to raise taxes when salaries are rising quickly. Most people don’t pay close attention to their tax rates, but rather to how much they get paid. If taxes are increasing, but real wages are increasing at an even faster rate, then most people will be fine with it because their paychecks keep getting bigger over time and they are able to purchase more stuff. Relative change is king. 

Thus far we’ve mostly been talking about the “skin” part of having skin in the game. Here we’re talking about the “game” part. The Scandinavians were playing a much different game than we are. And while I think rising wages was a huge factor, I would argue that it’s something he didn’t mention that mattered even more. The nation was unified. This is easy to do if there’s plenty of money to go around. And I’m sure the fact that the war was over helped out as well.

But the key thing is that they were all playing the same game. I don’t think the various sides in the US are even playing the same sport.


The easiest way to have skin in the game is for there to be money at stake. I’m not entirely sure what game I’m playing, and I imagine neither are you, but if you want some skin in whatever this is, consider donating.


A Deeper Understanding of How Bad Things Happen

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As long time readers know I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is best known for his book The Black Swan, and the eponymous theory it puts forth regarding the singular importance of rare, high impact events. His second best known work/concept is Antifragile. And while these concepts come up a lot in both my thinking and my writing. It’s an idea buried in his last book, Skin in the Game, that my mind keeps coming back to. As I mentioned when I reviewed it, the mainstream press mostly dismissed it as being unequal to his previous books. As one example, the review in the Economist said that:

IN 2001 Nassim Taleb published “Fooled by Randomness”, an entertaining and provocative book on the misunderstood role of chance. He followed it with “The Black Swan”, which brought that term into widespread use to describe extreme, unexpected events. This was the first public incarnation of Mr Taleb—idiosyncratic and spiky, but with plenty of original things to say. As he became well-known, a second Mr Taleb emerged, a figure who indulged in bad-tempered spats with other thinkers. Unfortunately, judging by his latest book, this second Mr Taleb now predominates.

A list of the feuds and hobbyhorses he pursues in “Skin in the Game” would fill the rest of this review. (His targets include Steven Pinker, subject of the lead review.) The reader’s experience is rather like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over-opinionated driver. At one point, Mr Taleb posits that people who use foul language on Twitter are signalling that they are “free” and “competent”. Another interpretation is that they resort to bullying to conceal the poverty of their arguments.

This mainstream dismissal is unfortunate because I believe this book contains an idea of equal importance to black swans and antifragility, but which hasn’t received nearly as much attention. An idea the modern world needs to absorb if we’re going to prevent bad things from happening.

To understand why I say this, let’s take a step back. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, technology has increased the number of bad things that can happen. To take the recent pandemic as an example, international travel allowed it to spread much faster than it otherwise would have, and made quarantine, that old standby method for stopping the spread of diseases, very difficult to implement. Also these days it’s entirely possible for technology to have created such a pandemic. Very few people are arguing that this is what happened, but the argument over whether technology added to the problem in the form of “gain of function” research, and a subsequent lab leak is still being hotly debated

Given not only the increased risk of bad things brought on by modernity, but the risk of all possible bad things, people have sought to develop methods for managing this risk. For avoiding or minimizing the impact of these bad things. Unfortunately these methods have ended up largely being superficial attempts to measure the probability that something will happen. The best example of this is Superforecasting, where you make measurable predictions, assign confidence levels to those predictions and then you track how well you did. I’ve beaten up on Superforecasting a lot over the years, and it’s not my intent to beat up on it even more, or at least it’s not my primary intent. I bring it up now because it’s a great example of the superficiality of modern risk management. It’s focused on one small slice of preventing bad things from happening: improving our predictions on a very small slice of bad things. I think we need a much deeper understanding of how bad things happen.

Superforecasting is an example of a more shallow understanding of bad things. The process has several goals, but I think the two biggest are:

First, to increase the accuracy of the probabilities being assigned to the occurrence of various events and outcomes. There is a tendency among some to directly equate “risk” with this probability. Which leads to statements like, “The risk of nuclear war is 1% per year.” I would certainly argue that any study of risk goes well beyond probabilities, that what we’re really looking for is any and all methods for preventing bad things from happening. And while understanding the odds of those events is a good start, it’s only a start. And if not done carefully it can actually impair our preparedness

The second big goal of superforecasting is to identify those people who are particularly talented at assigning such probabilities in order that you might take advantage of those talents going forward. This hopefully leads to a future with a better understanding of risk, and consequent reduction in the number of bad things that happen. 

The key principle in all of this is our understanding of risk. When people end up equating risk with simply improving our assessment of the probability that an event will occur, they end up missing huge parts of that understanding. As I’ve pointed out in the past, their big oversight is the role of impact—some bad things are worse than others. But they are also missing a huge variety of other factors which contribute to our ability to avoid bad things, and this is where we get to the ideas from Skin in the Game.

To begin with, Taleb introduces two concepts: “ensemble probability” and “time probability”. To illustrate the difference between the two he uses the example of gambling in a casino. To understand ensemble probability you should imagine 100 people all gambling on the same day. Taleb asks, “How many of them go bust?” Assuming that they each have the same amount of initial money and make the same bets and taking into account standard casino probabilities, about 1% of people will end up completely out of money. So in a starting group of 100, one gambler will go completely bust. Let’s say this is gambler 28. Does the fact that gambler 28 went bust have any effect on the amount of money gambler 29 has left? No. The outcomes are completely independent. This is ensemble probability.

To understand time probability, imagine that instead of having 100 people gambling all on the same day, let’s have one person gamble 100 days in a row. If we use the same assumptions, then once again approximately 1% of the time the gambler will go bust, and be completely out of money. But on this occasion since it’s the same person once they go bust they’re done. If they go bust on day 28, then there is no day 29. This is time probability. And Taleb’s argument is that when experts (like superforecasters) talk about probability they generally treat things as ensembles, whereas reality mostly deals in time probability. They might also be labeled independent or dependent probabilities.

As Taleb is most interested in investing, the example he gives relates to individual investors, who are often given advice as if they have a completely diversified and independent portfolio where a dip in their emerging market holdings does not affect their silicon valley stocks. When in reality most individual investors exist in a situation where everything in their life is strongly linked and mostly not diversified. As an example, most of their net worth is probably in their home, a place with definite dependencies. So if 2007 comes along and their home tanks, not only might they be in danger of being on the street, it also might affect their job (say if they were in construction). Even if they do have stocks they may have to sell them off to pay the mortgage because having a place to live is far more important than maintaining their portfolio diversification. Or as Taleb describes it:

…no individual can get the same returns as the market unless he has infinite pockets…This is conflating ensemble probability and time probability. If the investor has to eventually reduce his exposure because of losses, or because of retirement, or because he got divorced to marry his neighbor’s wife, or because he suddenly developed a heroin addiction after his hospitalization for appendicitis, or because he changed his mind about life, his returns will be divorced from those of the market, period.

Most of the things Taleb lists there are black swans. For example one hopes that developing a heroin addiction would be a black swan for most people. In true ensemble probability black swans can largely be ignored. If you’re gambler 29, you don’t care if gambler 28 ends up addicted to gambling and permanently ruined. But in strict time probability any negative black swan which leads to ruin strictly dominates the entire sequence. If you’re knocked out of the game on day 28 then there is no day 29, or day 59 for that matter. It doesn’t matter how many other bad things you avoid, one bad thing, if bad enough destroys all your other efforts. Or as Taleb says, “in order to succeed, you must first survive.” 

Of course most situations are on a continuum between time probability and ensemble probability. Even absent some kind of broader crisis, there’s probably a slightly higher chance of you going bust if your neighbor goes bust—perhaps you’ve lent them money, or in their desperation they sue you over some petty slight. If you’re in a situation where one company employs a significant percentage of the community, that chance goes up even more. The chance gets higher if your nation is in crisis and it gets even higher if there’s a global crisis. This finally takes us to Taleb’s truly big idea, or at least the idea I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The one my mind kept returning to since reading the book in 2018. He introduces the idea with an example:

Let us return to the notion of “tribe.” One of the defects modern education and thinking introduces is the illusion that each one of us is a single unit. In fact, I’ve sampled ninety people in seminars and asked them: “what’s the worst thing that can happen to you?” Eighty-eight people answered “my death.”

This can only be the worst-case situation for a psychopath. For after that, I asked those who deemed that their worst-case outcome was their own death: “Is your death plus that of your children, nephews, cousins, cat, dogs, parakeet, and hamster (if you have any of the above) worse than just your death?” Invariably, yes. “Is your death plus your children, nephews, cousins (…) plus all of humanity worse than just your death?” Yes, of course. Then how can your death be the worst possible outcome?

You can probably see where I’m going here, but before we get to that. In defense of the Economist review, the quote I just included has the following footnote:

Actually, I usually joke that my death plus someone I don’t like surviving, such as the journalistic professor Steven Pinker, is worse than just my death.

I have never argued that Taleb wasn’t cantankerous. And I think being cantankerous given the current state of the world is probably appropriate. 

In any event, he follows up this discussion of asking people to name the worst thing that could happen to them with an illustration. The illustration is an inverted pyramid sliced into horizontal layers of increasing width as you rise from the tip of the pyramid to its “base”. The layers, from top to bottom are:

  • Ecosystem
  • Humanity
  • Self-defined extended tribe
  • Tribe
  • Family, friends, and pets
  • You

The higher up you are, the worse the risk. While no one likes to contemplate their own ruin, the ruin of all of their loved ones is even worse. And we should do everything in our power to ensure the survival of humanity and the ecosystem. Even if it means extreme risk to ourselves and our families (a point I’ll be returning to in a moment.) If we want to prevent really bad things from happening we need to focus less on risks to individuals and more on risks to everyone and everything.

By combining this inverted pyramid, with the concepts of time probability and ensemble probability we can start drawing some useful conclusions. To begin with not only are time probabilities more catastrophic at higher levels. They are more likely to be present at higher levels. A nation has a lot of interdependencies whereas an individual might have very few. To put it another way, if an individual dies, the consequences, while often tragic, are nevertheless well understood and straightforward to manage. There are entire industries devoted to smoothing out the way. While if a nation dies, it’s always calamitous with all manner of consequences which are poorly understood. And if all of humanity dies no mitigation is possible.

With that in mind, the next conclusion is that we should be trying to push risks down as low as possible—from the ecosystem to humanity, from humanity to nations, from nations to tribes, from tribes to families and from families to individuals. We are also forced to conclude that, where possible, we should make risks less interdependent. We should aim for ensemble probabilities rather than time probabilities. 

All of this calls to mind the principle of subsidiarity or federalism and certainly there is a lot of overlap. But whereas subsidiarity is mostly about increasing efficiency, here I’m specifically focused on reducing harm. Of making negative black swans less catastrophic—of understanding and mitigating bad things.

Of course when you hear this idea that we should push risks from tribes to families or from nations to families you immediately recoil. And indeed the modern world has spent a lot of energy moving risk in exactly the opposite direction. Pushing risks up the scale, moving risk off of individuals and accumulating it in communities, states and nations. And sometimes placing the risk with all of humanity. It used to be that individuals threatened each other with guns, and that was a horrible situation with widespread violence, but now nations threaten each other with nukes. The only way that’s better is if the nukes never get used. So far we’ve been lucky, let’s really hope that luck continues.

Some, presumably including superforecasters, will argue that by moving risk up the scale it’s easy to quantify and manage, and thereby reduce. I have seen no evidence that these people understand risk at different scales, nor any evidence that they make any distinction between time probabilities and ensemble probabilities, but for the moment let’s grant that they’re correct that by moving risk up the scale we lessen it. That the risk that any individual will get shot, in say the Wild West, is 5% per year. But the risk that any nation will get nuked is only 1% per year. Yes, the risk has been reduced. One is less than five. But should that 1% chance come to pass (and given enough years it certainly will, i.e. it’s a time probability) then far more than 5% of people will die. We’ve prevented one variety of bad things by creating the possibility (albeit a smaller one) that a far worse event will happen.

The pandemic has provided an interesting test of these ideas, and I’ll be honest it also illustrates how hard it can be to apply these ideas to real situations. But there wouldn’t be much point to this discussion if we didn’t try. 

First let’s consider the vaccine. I’ve long thought that vaccination is a straightforward example of antifragility. Of a system making gains from stress. Additionally it also seems pretty straightforward that this is an example of moving risk down the scale. Of moving risk from the community to the individual, and I know the modern world has taught us we should never have to do that, but as I’ve pointed out it’s a good thing. So vaccination is an example of moving risk down the inverted pyramid.

On the other hand the pandemic has given us examples of risk being moved up the scale. The starkest example is government spending, where we have spent enormous amounts of money to cushion individuals from the risk of unemployment and homelessness. Thereby moving the risk up to the level of the nation. We have certainly prevented a huge number of small bad things from happening, but have we increased the risk of a singular catastrophic event? I guess we’ll find out. Regardless it does seem to have moved things from an ensemble probability to a time probability. Perhaps this government intervention won’t blow up, but we can’t afford to have any of them blow up, because if intervention 28 blows up there is no intervention 29.

Of course the murky examples far outweigh the clear ones. Are mask mandates pushing things down to the level of the individual? Or is it better to not have a mandate? Thereby giving individuals the option of taking more risk because that’s the layer we want risk to operate at? And of course the current argument about vaccination is happening at the level of the state and community. Biden is pushing for a vaccination mandate on all companies that employ more than 100 people and the Texas governor just issued an executive order banning such a mandate. I agree it can be difficult to draw the line. But there is one final idea from Skin in the Game that might help.

Out of all of the foregoing Taleb comes up with a very specific definition of courage. 

Courage is when you sacrifice your own well being for the sake of the survival of a layer higher than yours. 

I do think the pandemic is a particularly complicated situation. But even here courage would have definitely helped. It would have allowed us to conduct human challenge trials, which would have shortened the vaccination approval process. It would have made the decision to reopen schools easier. And yes while it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t have moved some risk up the scale, it would have kept us from moving all of it up the scale.

I understand this is a fraught topic, for most people the ideal is to have no bad things happen, ever. But that’s not possible. Bad things are going to happen, and the best way to keep them from being catastrophic things is more courage. Something I fear the modern world is only getting worse at.


I talk a lot about bad things. And you may be thinking why doesn’t he ever talk about good things? Well here’s something good, donating. I mean I guess it’s mostly just good for me, but what are you going to do?