Month: <span>April 2021</span>

Eschatologist #4: Turning the Knob of Safety to 11

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In the previous newsletter we told of how we discovered the Temple of Technology, with wall after wall of knobs that give us control over society. At least that’s what we, in our hubris, assume the knobs of technology will do. 

Mostly that assumption is correct. Though on occasion an overager grad student will sneak out under cover of darkness and turn one knob all the way to the right. And, as there are so many knobs, it can be a long time before we realize what has happened.

But we are not all over-eager graduate students. Mostly we are careful, wise professors, and we soberly consider which knobs should be turned. We have translated many of the symbols, but not all. Still, out of those we have translated one seems very clear. It’s the symbol for “Safety”.

Unlike some of the knobs, everyone agrees that we should turn this knob all the way to the right. Someone interjects that we should turn it up to 11. The younger members of the group laugh. The old, wise professors don’t get the joke, but that’s okay because even if the joke isn’t clear, the consensus is. Everyone agrees that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to choose any setting other than maximum safety. 

The knob is duly “turned up to 11” and things seem to be going well. Society is moving in the right direction. Unsafe products are held accountable for deaths and injuries. Standards are implemented to prevent unsafe things from happening again. Deaths from accidents go down. Industrial deaths plummet. Everyone is pleased with themselves. 

Though as things progress there is some weirdness. The knob doesn’t work quite the way people expect. The effects can be inconsistent.

  • Children are safer than ever, but that’s not what anyone thinks. Parents are increasingly filled with dread. Unaccompanied children become almost extinct. 
  • Car accidents remain persistently high. Numerous additional safety features are implemented, but people engage in risk compensation, meaning that the effect of these features is never as great as expected.
  • Antibiotics are overprescribed, and rather than making us safer from disease they create antibiotic resistant strains which are far more deadly. 

Still despite these unexpected outcomes no one suggests adjusting the safety knob.

Then one day, in the midst of vaccinating the world against a terrible pandemic it’s discovered that some of the vaccines cause blood clots. That out of every million people who receive the vaccine one will die from these clots. Immediately restrictions are placed on the vaccines. In some places they’re paused, in other places they’re discontinued entirely. The wise old professors protest that this will actually cause more people to die from the pandemic then would ever die from the clots, but by this point no one is listening to them. 

In our hubris we thought that turning the knob “up to 11” would result in safe technology. But no technology is completely safe, such a thing is impossible. No, this wasn’t the knob for safety, it was for increasing the importance of our perception of safety.

  • When the government announces that a vaccine can cause blood clots we perceive it as being unsafe. Even though vaccines prevent a far greater danger.
  • We may understand antibiotic resistance, but wouldn’t it be safer for us if we got antibiotics just in case?
  • Nuclear power is perceived as obviously unsafe because it’s the same process that goes into making nuclear weapons. 
  • And is any level of safety too great for our children? 

Safety is obviously good, but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward. While we were protecting our children from the vanishingly small chance that they would be abducted by a stranger the danger of social media crept in virtually undetected. While we agonize over a handful of deaths from the vaccine thousands die because they lack the vaccine. The perception of safety is not safety. Turning the knobs of technology have unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences. Even the knob labelled safety.


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Dragging History Into the Present Moment vs. Dragging the Present Moment Into History

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One of the earliest podcasts to gain widespread attention, and still one of the best podcasts even now is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I’ve always been interested in history, but I think listening to Carlin really changed something for me, and made me connect to it in a way that had been rare previously.

At the time I started listening Carlin was in the middle of his series on the Mongols, Wrath of the Khans. If you haven’t listened to that series, and especially if you haven’t listened to any Hardcore History I would definitely recommend that podcast and that series in particular. Wrath of the Khans was easily the equal of the best history books I’ve read.

As everyone presumably knows, the Mongol conquests were kicked off by Genghis Khan, who became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1206 when he united the tribes. Having accomplished that, he wasted no time in proceeding to ravage Eurasia. I imagine nearly everyone has at least heard the name Genghis Khan, but that beyond that most people don’t know very much. Though, if the average person was pressed for some fact about the Khan, I imagine the most common one they would come up with is his staggering number of descendants. And it is truly staggering, it has been estimated that out of all the males currently living, half a percent are direct patrilineal descendents of the Khan. (They have his y-chromosome.) Using current figures for world population that translates into just shy of 20 million men, which is about the same as the number of males in California. 

Another bit of trivia, one which is significantly less well known, is that the conquests carried out by Genghis and his immediate successors killed an estimated 11% of the world’s total population. At the time that amounted to somewhere between 37 and 60 million people, but today that figure would be 844 million people. If even the low estimate is accurate the Mongol Conquests would represent the largest act of mass killing ever perpetrated. So how is it that, at least as far as I can tell, (and google auto-complete bears this out) there is far more interest in his staggering number of descendents than there is in the staggering scale of his destruction?

I assume that most people would answer that it’s because those killings happened a long time ago. This is a perfectly reasonable answer, and it’s the answer that first occurs to me as well, but just because it’s the first answer that comes up doesn’t mean it’s the whole answer. I think the history that gets emphasized and the history that gets ignored is a complicated and interesting topic, one that’s worth digging into deeper. For example, while historical distance may be a great answer for people’s ignorance of the Mongol destruction, it’s less applicable to something that’s happening as we speak. To illustrate I’d like to pull a quote from my review of Age of Entitlement by Christopher Caldwell:

[I’ll] start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that [the opioid crisis has] gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises.

I am not arguing that opioids have been ignored, but as Caldwell points out it took a long time before they were getting emphasis equal to their fatality level. And while Caldwell was reduced to comparing the attention given to opioids to the attention given to crack and post-Vietnam heroin abuse, we’re now able to compare it to the emphasis placed on COVID, to compare overdose deaths to COVID deaths. West Virginia’s opioid death rate of 50 per 100,000 is greater than the COVID death rates in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont, and it’s within shouting distance of the 68 per 100,000 rate of my home state of Utah. Since 1999 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose, while only 571,000 have died from COVID. And while there’s reason to believe that COVID deaths will soon bottom out, opioid deaths just keep increasing. The most recent CDC press release on the subject:

Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

I’m not trying to argue that the opioid crisis is worse than COVID, but it appears that the magnitude of the deaths is very similar. On the other hand the magnitude of the response has been miles apart. People are already talking about how to prevent the next disease pandemic, but very little on preventing the ongoing epidemic of opioids. It seems clear that the pandemic has made it onto the list of “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” that we expect every citizen to be aware of. Has the opioid crisis? I joke about such a list, but it seems like a very useful list to have around. What sort of things would we put on it? What standards would we apply before we include things? And is there a standard that includes COVID, but not opioids? And the overarching question of the post, why has the one been emphasized while the other has been comparatively ignored?

Another short historical example. In the course of this blog I’ve been a big proponent of making sure we pay attention to big risks. For example: 75,000 years ago the Toba Supervolcano erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption ever, with an eruptive volume of 2800 cubic kilometers. (Measured using dense-rock equivalent standard.) Of which 800 cubic kilometers was deposited as ash fall. The enormous amount of material which was ejected into the air led to a dramatic climatic shift. The Toba Catastrophe theory holds that following the eruption the number of humans on the Earth dropped as low as 1,000 breeding pairs. Obviously it’s hard to confirm something that happened so long ago, but if it is true this is probably the closest we’ve ever come to extinction. So my question is, how much emphasis should this event get? Does it deserve a place on “the list”?

I initially titled the list “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” but of course the Toba Supervolcano wasn’t a mistake, it was just something that happened. Should the list instead be called “Humanity’s Close Calls”? From a certain perspective the supervolcano is the scariest thing that has ever happened to humanity, but from another perspective, i.e. the distance of 75,000 years, it’s just a curiosity, something to whip out at a dinner party to make some point about x-risks or nuclear war or something like that. Regardless of what list it belongs on, the more general question is how should we relate to events like this? It seems obvious we shouldn’t ignore them, but how much emphasis should they receive? It would seem equally misguided to obsess over them. What is the happy medium?

To take something closer to our modern day, something more firmly in the category of history than the opioid crisis, let’s talk about Napoleon. I find Napoleon particularly interesting because for the longest time I couldn’t really get a handle on him. He seemed clearly to be the bad guy (based on what I was reading at the time). But if so why didn’t the British just outright execute him? Particularly after he had already escaped from exile the first time? Why did the French continue to revere him? These days I understand things a lot better, particularly when I imagine that the French were operating under the ideology of national greatness. Further, while Napoleon was best known for his military conquests, he also instituted a lot of worthwhile reforms. Accordingly when I heard back in 2016 that the French had voted him the second most important Frenchman in history after Charles de Gualle, this felt like an example of that happy medium I was talking about.  He wasn’t being ignored, but he wasn’t being obsessed over. No one is currently worried about the Bonapartists seizing control, nor are people worried about the French trying to conquer the European continent.

Unfortunately I recently discovered from reading an article in The Economist that this happy medium, if it ever existed, exists no longer. Just a few days from now is the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death and apparently his role and the history that surrounds it is, like so much else, being reexamined. Things that were once ignored are now being emphasized and things that were once emphasized are now being ignored. And interestingly enough this change is coming from all sides. We read in the article that:

Alexis Corbière, a deputy from Unsubmissive France, a left-wing party, declared: “It is not for the republic to celebrate its gravedigger.” On the right Jean-Louis Debré, formerly head of the constitutional council, said that “overdoing it” would be “a provocation”. The Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened those who reject any celebration of a leader who reintroduced slavery to the French West Indies in 1802. Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the Socialist mayor of Rouen, says he wants to replace the imposing bronze statue of the emperor on horseback that stands outside his Normandy town hall.

Now, as I pointed out, Napoleon did do a lot of bad things, though all of the bad things he did happened 200 years ago. More recently than that, we had the Civil War, during which the Confederacy did a lot of bad things. More recently still, Hitler and the Germans did unimaginably bad things. But all of these bad things are over and done with, so why have we suddenly decided to go from ignoring them to emphasizing them?

On the other hand the opioid crisis is ongoing and worsening, and yet it arguably gets less attention than either the crimes of pre-Civil War America or the ongoing danger from Nazis. (Hopefully in the US at least this crisis edges out Napoleon, but even here it’s closer than it should be.) Why is that? Why are we spending more time and attention on what happened in the past than what’s happening right now? You may argue that the opioid crisis is not “history” in the same way that the Civil War and World War II are, but what about the COVID pandemic? On most measures it seems very similar to the opioid epidemic, and yet it garners a far greater share of our attention. Nor does anyone doubt it will end up making it into the history books. Why does it receive so much more attention than the opioid crisis? Is it the same reason that World War II is more noteworthy than the Mongol Conquests? Is it strictly an issue of how recent they are?

Perhaps it is. As the Caldwell quote points out, we’ve been dealing with drug problems and overdosing since at least the Vietnam war. So perhaps in some sense the pandemic and the Nazis are recent in a way that drug overdosing and the Mongols aren’t. And I agree that recency should play some role in what we choose to emphasize, but should it always factor in? Should we treat an event that happened 25,000 years ago differently than an identical event that happened 75,000 years ago? Probably not. At that remove I don’t think anyone cares that one event is closer even if it’s three times more recent. If this is the case then at what point does recency cease to play a role? At what point does the degree to which we emphasize something not depend on how long ago it happened? Are the Mongol conquests past that point? If so it might explain why we still care how many people the Khan fathered, but not how many he killed. 

Whatever that line is between deciding whether something should be ignored or emphasized, lately it seems to be moving backward in time. In 2016 Napoleon was on the other side of the line. Safely ensconced as a historical figure and the 2nd greatest Frenchman. In 2021 he’s the man who reintroduced slavery in the West Indies. In those last five years certain acts of Napoleon went from being ignored to being important. This is not to say he didn’t have baggage in 2016, but he appears to have accumulated more baggage in the last five years. Closer to home there were many decades when people didn’t think much about the Confederacy. Now there’s an ongoing project to remove statues, change displays and close down monuments. Finally, anti-nazi fervor is as intense as it’s been in quite some time. Many things that happened before most people were born are suddenly very important. 

So how should we determine importance? How should we decide what gets emphasized and what gets ignored. I’ve talked a fair amount about the difference between recent events (Nazis and the Civil War) and more ancient events (Mongols and Toba). It’s clear that nearness in time impacts importance, but after considering these events from several different angles I think recency is not important by itself, but only as a proxy for our ability to mitigate the negative effects of these events. We don’t pay much attention to the Mongol Conquests because there’s nothing we can do about them. We have a sense that there are many things we can do about the pandemic, but as far as overdose deaths we have the opposite sense, that despite significant effort at reducing those deaths they haven’t budged very much. Whether we have in fact expended significant effort is a different question, but there’s a sense that it’s somewhat hopeless. 

So far so reasonable, but if it’s actually our “mitigation line” that’s been moving back in time, then our question turns into a discussion of why we suddenly feel that our powers of mitigation have increased? Why do we suddenly feel that going from ignoring certain past events and people to emphasizing them will yield a positive outcome? How are we sure that this new focus is the ideal way to treat history instead of the view of Napoleon which prevailed in 2016, or the view of the Confederacy which prevailed during the six year run of the Dukes of Hazzard? (Back when I was 12 I was a pretty big fan). Have our powers of mitigation actually increased? Will not celebrating the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s death actually mitigate the harm he did in 1802, will tearing down Confederate statues help heal the damage caused by slavery? If they will, why didn’t we do these sorts of things sooner? If they won’t why are we doing them now?

I think many people would argue that it’s not mitigation we’re after, but accuracy. That remembering Napoleon’s reintroduction of the slavery results in a more complete picture than just remembering his victory at Austerlitz, or appreciating the modern administrative state he ushered in. But as I look at how this is playing out I don’t see a mania for accuracy. I don’t see an emotionless search for the facts. I see people protesting in the streets over one thing while largely ignoring things that seem objectively just as bad. This new focus doesn’t fit very well into either a quest for mitigation or for accuracy, but it fits perfectly into support for a particular narrative of history. This is not to say that people don’t hope for mitigation or accuracy as by-products, but the main objective is the narrative.

Understanding this illuminates one of the major reasons why the opioid crisis remains largely overlooked despite the huge number of people who have died. It’s a situation that would benefit both from mitigation and accuracy, but narratively it’s not very interesting at all. We can’t blame it on racism, or Democrats, or Trump. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t easily fit into the narrative of Social Justice. It’s ongoing and worsening, but it’s been ongoing for awhile, and there’s no sound bite solution. 

On the opposite side of things we have the most visible recent example of historical changes in emphasis: the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s the perfect fit for the narrative of Social Justice, and it has the perfect sound bite solution, “Defund the Police”. From a historical perspective it has given us the 1619 Project, which put forward a huge change in interpreting the founding of the country, but which was also widely criticized for its ahistorical claims. It has also given us the “Hands up, don’t shoot.” slogan, which emphasizes a very specific modern event, which didn’t actually happen. These two examples should be blows to people pushing the accuracy argument. But beyond these examples there’s the larger shuffling of history which involves tearing down statues, renaming schools, and scattered instances of reparations, along with calls for universal reparations. 

This is not to say that there haven’t been horrible abuses by police and killings that literally make you sick. But it’s important to compare the numbers. Which takes us into the subject of mitigation. According to the Washington Post’s database on police shootings, 985 people were shot and killed by police over the past year. This is a tragedy but as I mentioned previously 81,000 people in the most recent year from drug overdoses. That’s nearly 100x as many. Now not all of those 985 people were unarmed. NPR reports that “Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide”. This is obviously still unacceptable, but in that time 400,000 people died from drug overdose. So about 3000x as many.

Now at this point there are various disclaimers which could be offered. The NPR quote said, “at least 135” it could be more. Of the 400,000 people who overdosed only around 2/3rds overdosed on opioids. Police shootings are in a different category than opioids, they should be more preventable, and state violence is particularly reprehensible. One imagines that police violence can be reduced to fewer causes than opioid overdosing. Furthermore there is evidence of racial bias in police violence whereas overdose deaths are more diverse.

On the other side we could add that while overdosing kills vastly more people, police shootings garner vastly more attention. Even if the opioid epidemic and police shootings got equal amounts of attention, each police shooting of an unarmed Black individual would garner 3000x as much attention per fatality. But given that the problem of police shootings gets at least 10x or maybe 100x as much attention, in this particular case, the shift in emphasis I’ve been talking about, results in an attention rate per fatality ten to a hundred thousand times as great.

You may think, so what? Yes, police violence has been dramatically emphasized recently, but this follows a long period during which it was almost entirely ignored. We’re just balancing the scales. We used to lionize the Confederacy and minimize the issue of slavery. We used to think of Napoleon as a military genius, not a historical arsonist (A fantastic term from Dan Carlin.) We used to give police the benefit of the doubt now we understand the numerous abuses they’re capable of. The problem is that by engaging in such extreme changes in emphasis you end up  weaponizing history. And when you turn something into a weapon people are bound to get hurt. 

As just one example, recently Vox, of all places, drew attention to a study which basically showed that for every police killing that was prevented by BLM protests that city ended up with 10 additional murders. Perhaps that’s a price people are willing to pay, perhaps the math on that works out in the long run somehow. But it’s also important to note that these numbers are probably low. They do not include the surge in murders that happened after George Floyd was killed, so the trade-off could be a lot worse than 10 to 1 which already seems too much. 

Emphasis doesn’t appear to bring greater accuracy, nor does it appear to do much in terms of mitigation, and may in fact have made it worse (depending on how you view the trade off just mentioned). Additionally emphasis is almost always subject to diminishing returns. At some point everyone knows everything there is to know about police violence, and we’ve done everything practical to prevent it. (And I understand definitions of practicality vary.) Whereas those things which have been ignored can often be dramatically improved with just a little bit of attention. To give a more concrete example, if we could reduce the number of opioid overdoses by just 2% then we would have saved more lives than reducing the number of police shootings to zero. 

When I started this post I had not intended to get so far into the weeds of the opioid epidemic and Black Lives Matter. Mostly I wanted to talk about how the trend of emphasizing, and at its most extreme weaponizing, history is a bad trend with bad effects. That it has a negative impact on nearly all of our current discourse and policy making. But how do we deweaponize history? If viewing history through a lens of ideological bias is clearly the wrong way to do things, what is the correct way? How should we view Toba, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, the Confederacy, the pandemic, the opioid crisis and Black Lives Matter? Well to begin with two of the items on that list have not been weaponized. No one is using Toba to decide what should happen on a specific day in May. No one is using the Mongol Hordes to support privileging one group over another. 

I would suggest that instead of bringing history into the arguments of the present that we take the arguments of the present and look at them as if they were history. That we in fact look at them with as much distance as possible. That we try to imagine that we’re historians studying the early 21st century from the vantage of the early 31st century. What would be salient then? And is it salient now? Is their view of what was important more likely to be correct than your view? If that’s the case then that’s the view we should adopt. 

I think this paradigm has several advantages. First off, the past is harder to change than we think. Yes we should attempt to mitigate the murder of George Floyd by trying Derek Chauvin. But when people talk about police evolving from slave patrols, not only is that inaccurate but even if it weren’t what does it contribute to the current debate over policing? I understand that the Nazi’s were scary and did bad things, but does labeling the people who stormed the capitol on January 6th as Nazis really clarify anything about the present moment? Does it lead us to come up with better solutions or worse? It’s unquestionably beneficial for a certain narrative, but that’s precisely the problem I’m talking about.  

If somehow there was widespread defunding of the police would a historian 1,000 years from now view it as the dawn of a truly just society, never before achieved? Or would they view it as another experiment in a long line of historical experiments which all ultimately failed? In other words what we emphasize they might ignore. But in addition, what we ignore, they might emphasize. If the opioid epidemic continues for much longer or gets much worse I could imagine it eclipsing both BLM and the pandemic. What about stuff like falling birth rates? Most people yawn when something like that comes up, but you could easily see how that’s a trend that could define our era for hundreds of years.

In this post I have asked a lot of questions, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to have a longer term view. To understand that dredging up the sins of the past for the arguments of today is neither healthy nor productive. That someday we’re all going to be food for the worms, and everything we’re so concerned about right now will matter not at all. And some of the things we’re not concerned about will matter more than we can imagine.


I often imagine how this blog will age. Will I be one of those writers who was ignored while they were alive but famous after death? Or will I be one of those writers that has his 15 minutes but then is quickly forgotten. Given the choice I’d prefer a third option, just having a few people think my stuff is worth a few bucks once in a while. If that sounds good to you consider donating.


Vanquished Vaccines and Vetocracies

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I.

A friend of mine spent some time as a consultant for the Utah Department of Human Services. Which included things like foster care and child protective services. And he tells the story of a sign which had been put up outside one of the cubicle farms which said, “If we can save just one child it will all be worth it.” Or something to that effect. Upon seeing that sign he thought to himself, “No, if this department, which employs dozens of people, and costs millions of dollars to operate, can only save one child, it will not all have been worth it, it will have been an enormous misallocation of resources. To save only one child would be a failure of epic proportions.” 

We’re seeing another example of strangely mis-aligned government goals playing out in Europe. (By the way, for those who read my last post, just as I finished it I got an email saying that my European river cruise this summer had indeed been cancelled.) This second example concerns the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, which has run into all kinds of problems in Europe and still hasn’t been approved in America which has left tens of millions of doses sitting around, unused. 

Just in the last week the European Medical Agency concluded that there was a link between the AZ vaccine and blood clots. But went on to say that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite this many countries have suspended the AZ vaccine for people under 60, and suggest they should take a different vaccine. This suspension might seem only prudent, but before making that decision let’s look at the actual risk. I grabbed some applicable quotes from an article in Business Insider (which is a weird mix of horrible ads and decent information)

“The risk of dying in an air crash is just astronomically higher than the risk of clotting after the vaccine dose, and yet we all get on a plane without a second thought,” Johan Bester, director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine, told Insider.

Wednesday’s announcement came after European medical officials reviewed fewer than 100 blood-clotting cases reported among more than 25 million people in the EU who’ve gotten AstraZeneca’s shot. That’s a rate of roughly 4.6 clot cases per 1 million shots — higher than expected, the review found, but still extraordinarily rare. 

Although even a minuscule chance of a fatal blood clot sounds scary, no medicine carries zero risk. After a year of taking birth-control pills, about one in 1,000 women will develop blood clots. (The risk is about 1 in 10,000 for all young women, so it’s elevated nearly 10-fold in birth-control takers.)

Now I haven’t exhaustively looked into all the numbers I just quoted, so I don’t know if the “fewer than 100” cases (it looks like it was actually 86) they looked at represented most if not all of the cases or if there could be a lot more out there. On the other hand, out of those 86 cases only 18 people died, so the actual confirmed death rate would be less than 1 in a million. Even with this number in hand it can be difficult to compare it to the other numbers they mentioned

One clotting death for every one million shots is certainly less than 1 in 10,000. Which would initially seem to indicate that the risk of blood clots from the AZ vaccine is less than the default risk of clots mentioned in connection with young women. But I’m assuming that the 1 in 10,000 number is over a woman’s entire lifetime or since they say “young women” perhaps it’s over a span of 10-20 years, while the AZ numbers are compressed into the space of a few months. 

Regardless of the default rate what is clear is that taking birth-control pills for a year is probably more dangerous than getting vaccinated. And yes, I understand that the vaccine risks must be balanced against the risks of not getting vaccinated, which for young people is pretty low, so let’s look at another statistic: On a 500-mile road trip, the risk of dying is about 1.2 in 200,000. And yet which young adult would balk at a 500 mile road trip? Or to put it in economic terms, how much additional would they pay to avoid the risk of the road trip and fly instead? Based on my experience with young people and road trips, the answer is, not very much.

I spent so much time on the AZ vaccine both because it’s so interesting but also because we have a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine can prevent, and a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine might cause and it’s clear that the number of deaths it could have prevented is vastly higher than the number of deaths it causes. Nowhere is this more true than in America which has been sitting on at least 30 million doses of the vaccine since at least early March, and almost certainly longer than that. But for some reason the AZ vaccine still has yet to be approved. And here’s where we circle back to that sign. In the case of the Utah Department of Human Services success was saving even one kid. In the case of the AZ vaccine it appears that failure is causing even one death (or more accurately 1 death in a million doses, but you get the idea). 

At first glance it may seem like the two standards are precisely the opposite of one another, the one is about saving a single life while the other is about causing a single death, but they both stem from the same impulse. The impulse I mentioned in my last newsletter, of turning the knobs as far as they can to one side or the other. On the one hand we have the bureaucrats who believe that their job is so important and the value of saving children is so superlative, that even if they can only do it once, it will all have been worth it. On the other hand bureaucrats who believe that causing even one death due to something they authorized is so bad, that even if it only happens once, none of it will have been worth it. But in both cases they’ve turned the dial of individual importance as high as it will go.

Now of course this is something of a strawman for what they actually believe. I’m sure that the Utah Department of Human Services knows that it’s not enough to only save one child, even if that sign did hang in their offices. And the Europeans are still administering the AZ vaccine, even if they have attached restrictions and warnings to it. But the US still hasn’t started, and given what we know now about the blood clots, what’s your bet on whether they ever will? Mine is that they won’t. That best case scenario those doses will be shipped off to some country in need (some already have been) and worst case scenario they’ll languish in a warehouse, before eventually being tossed out. And what sort of trajectory would you project for the administration of the AZ vaccine in Europe? Would you predict that concerns over blood clots will fade, and the restrictions will be lifted? Or would you predict that each instance of someone dying from blood clots will be major news? That people will grow increasingly reluctant to take it and that eventually European governments will stop distributing it? I’m predicting the latter. As usual I hope I’m wrong, but I guess we’ll see. (In between writing this paragraph and finishing the post Denmark banned the AZ vaccine entirely, and the US paused Johnson and Johnson.)

II.

These examples and others tell us something important about the way western governments work these days. And moreover that they are not working as they should. Western governments should not be restricting the distribution of the AZ vaccine based on a handful of deaths, or consider saving only one child a metric for success. I say western governments because we’re not seeing the same thing happening in China or Russia. And I say “these days” because we didn’t see this sort of thing historically. Can anyone imagine a similar fuss over blood clots happening in Russia, China or 1930? 

What is this quality that separates us from these other countries and our past selves? Would you define it as a form of government? Is this what I was talking about in all those posts when I was criticizing technocracies? Perhaps a little bit, but here’s where I pull in the book Where’s My Flying Car by J. Storrs Hall (which I promised to expand on in my last post) because the book convinced me that I had perhaps been too hasty in using the term technocracy to describe what’s going on. I’m not sure technocracy is the right term for the form of government which obsesses over saving children and preventing blood clots. But nor do I think people use it to describe the opposite of that, a government which clears away safety regulations around flying cars and nuclear power, which is what Hall proposes. Which is to say in arriving at this point I may have made some mistakes in terminology, but that’s how these sorts of things work, and at no point in this journey did I claim to have all the answers. So let’s pull back a little bit, and rather than trying to say what a technocracy is let’s look at various problem solving approaches. Since we’re already talking about vaccines let’s continue to use that as an example..

Of course, with vaccines there are several countries that can afford to be as cautious as they want. Countries which stopped the spread of COVID and therefore don’t need to engage in a massive vaccination effort. The most notable of these success stories is China, which suffered the disadvantage of not only having a huge population and giant land borders, but worst of all, it was where the virus started. If their numbers can be believed they have suffered just 4,636 deaths from COVID, which is only about twice the number of my home state of Utah, at 2,159, despite having a population 400 times smaller. The US, as a whole, is currently at 564k deaths. Now I’m guessing that China’s number is low, that far more than 4k people died from COVID. But it’d have to be off by two orders of magnitude for their deaths to be as bad as the US’s and it’d have to be off by a factor of 500 for the per capita rate to be as bad. 

How did China do it? They did it by taking a different approach than we did, one enabled by having a different form of government. They did it through a draconian authoritarianism which allowed them to put into place a comprehensive lockdown of a breadth which was unimaginable nearly anywhere else. This is an authoritarian approach and it’s the first one we’ll put on our list.

The second approach takes us in the opposite direction, but before we can get into the details of the approach, we need to get into the details of the Moderna vaccine. (I got my second shot yesterday.) And the most important of these details is that it was developed in two days. Once this was known people started wondering, what would have happened if we had immediately started using the vaccine as soon as it had been developed? Well obviously inventing something is a long way from producing it in quantity, and presumably, given the nature of the crisis Moderna didn’t wait too long before they started ramping up production. They were presumably building out factories, and putting logistics into place long before FDA approval. But even in the unlikely event that we couldn’t have gotten doses any faster than we did, we still could have started administering those doses a lot sooner. And clearly many people who died between January 13, 2020 when the vaccine was developed and December 18, 2020 when the vaccine was approved could have been saved. And even if you want to argue about how much faster the Moderna vaccine could have been deployed, you can’t argue with the 30 million or more AZ doses which haven’t been used. 

This approach, this system, this world — the one where we started administering doses of Moderna as soon as it had been developed — this is the world of Where’s My Flying Car. It’s a world where we put our faith in technology and plunge boldly forward, not necessarily heedless of the dangers, but convinced that what technology breaks, technology is best at fixing. Now to a certain extent this is also a strawman. I doubt Hall was a proponent of administering the Moderna vaccine on the day it was developed, but I’m sure he was a proponent of going a lot faster than we did, and of doing things we mostly avoided like human challenge trials. And even if he wasn’t there were people who were. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is Alex Tabarrok, who has been a perpetual advocate of all sorts of tactics for speeding up vaccination (e.g. having the US approve the AZ vaccine as soon as Europe did, first doses first, rapid at home tests, and human challenge trials). Essentially pushing for our approach to be closer to the world as described by Hall. We will call this second approach, which mostly doesn’t exist in the wild, technolibertarianism.

The third approach I want to consider might be called the historical. It’s the system we had in place during the last pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and the system we continued to operate under in the decades which followed. Under this system there were masks, and things closed down, but neither intervention was nearly so widespread as it is today. Beyond that the authoritarianism on display by the Chinese was inconceivable back then. Though I know some imagine that things were more authoritarian back then, but at least in this case, no 1918 government had the wherewithal to lock things down to the extent China did in 2020. Nor did they probably ever even consider it.

On the vaccine side of things, would they have waited 11 months between developing a vaccine and trying it out? That’s harder to know. When the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796 he just immediately tested it out on the 9 year-old son of the gardener. On the other hand by 1935 when John Kolmer was experimenting with the smallpox vaccination the fact that five out of 10,000 children died and 10 were paralyzed led to a pretty severe pushback, so severe that it was another 20 years before a smallpox vaccine was approved by the government. (Side note: these numbers are orders of magnitude higher than the AZ blood clot numbers.) Would it have been different 17 years earlier at the time of the Spanish Flu? If the years wouldn’t have made a difference would the speed and the severity of the disease have made a difference? Particularly as compared to the slower more chronic progression of polio? That’s also tough to say, but there is one thing we can confidently say, and it’s something I’ve wondered about before in this space: Whatever the disruption and the deaths caused by the Spanish Flu, in the decades that followed it was largely forgotten. It had almost no impact on the psyche of the nation. It’s hard to imagine the same thing being said of COVID.

An Aside

Why is this? Why did the 1918 Pandemic, which by any measure was far more horrible than what we’re going through now, have such little impact? In the course of writing this post a thought occurred to me. WWI is far better remembered and studied than the Spanish Flu despite fewer people dying (particularly in America). But war is always an existential threat, there is always the chance that the nation itself might perish, and as a result it’s important to the nation that it learn from those times in which it almost died. The Spanish Flu, despite its lethality, was never existential. There was never a chance that it would end nations. WWI might have, it never had the potential to end the US, but it could have been the effective end of France, with whom we have quite a bit of civilizational overlap. This was part of the reason we entered the war. (“Lafayette, we are here!”)

Given that the current pandemic has made far more of an impact on our national psyche, and will be a far greater part of our history, does this mean we view it as an existential threat? That’s a good question, and this whole idea is somewhat embryonic, but if I was going to push it just a little bit farther, historically, people felt the existence of a nation was ensured by subsequent generations, that if they were having children and raising them to carry on their and their nation’s ideals that the existence of that nation was not threatened, but increasingly existence is not about subsequent generations or our children, it’s about ourselves, and while even a bad pandemic has a hard time eradicating subsequent generations, there’s always a chance of it eradicating any given individual. All of which is to pose the question, is COVID more existential because we’re more selfish?

End Aside

All we’re left with is whatever approach we actually did take. The thing I’ve spent so much effort over the last few essays trying to get at. How did we do at fighting COVID?

Now that we can look back on things it seems clear that our approach wasn’t as successful as the authoritarian approach taken by China and it wasn’t as successful as a “caution to the wind” technolibertarian approach would have been. Was it more successful than the historical approach? The one taken by the US of 1918 when they were faced by the Spanish Flu? That’s a tougher question, and it’s going to be awhile before that’s clear. At this point it does seem safe to assert that it has been more damaging to our confidence. Beyond that things are still up in the air. Will the enormous amount of government spending cause any problems down the road? Will we have a tranche of kids who are permanently behind academically? Will we be quicker to draw on our “COVID toolkit” in the future? That is, quicker to throw trillions of dollars at our problems or even more likely to shut things down in whole or in part. We’ll have to see, but from where I’m sitting the early signs aren’t encouraging.

If on an even longer time horizon it becomes apparent that the historical approach would have also been better, then we will be in the unenviable position of having ended up with the worst approach of all. And if so how did that happen? It certainly seemed like we really wanted to do whatever it took to beat COVID, and yet, it’s already clear that we could have done a lot better. It’s understandable that we don’t want to mimic the authoritarianism of China. And it would have probably been impossible for the government to make us. And in a similar fashion I understand why it would have been hard to use the same approach we used in 1918, though I think there were elements there that we should have been paying attention to, but this is not the time to get into that, as I have spent enough time arguing that point, both here and in other posts. The big question I have after reading Where’s My Flying Car is why was it so difficult to take the technolibertarian approach? And is that approach a true technocracy? If not what is? 

Before proceeding to the next section we should give this final approach, the one we actually took, a label. Based on what’s happening with the vaccines, and elsewhere, vetocracy seems appropriate, but I acknowledge that this doesn’t quite cover all of the complexities. Because it’s not like everything gets vetoed. Some things still happen, some laws still get passed. What can we learn from an examination of what does get done vs. what doesn’t.

III.

One of the reasons this discussion has wandered quite a bit is that there’s a lot of ambiguity in defining what a technocracy is. I actually don’t think most people use it to describe Hall’s vision of flying cars, nanotechnology and nuclear power. I think it’s proponents make the claim that it’s the system which “follows the science”. Certainly the proponents of the current administration made that claim — whether or not they label themselves technocrats — and yet this is the administration which hasn’t released the AZ vaccine and just barely “paused” the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. (It’s amazing how things have changed just in the time it took me to write this post.) 

The most consistent definition of technocracy, at least from my perspective, is the idea not of following the science, but of following the macroeconomists. And here I assume that some of my hardcore socialist friends would say that technocracy is just the latest euphemism for the way entrenched capitalist interests always manage to remain entrenched. Or put more simply it’s just the latest way for the rich to get richer. And this point is not without merit, whatever the success of our COVID fighting efforts we have definitely succeeded in adding a lot of wealth to those who already had it.

Socialist critiques aside, it does seem that the term technocracy as it is commonly used is far more likely to concern money and monetary policy than technology. You hear it used to explain the explosive growth of South Korea and the rise of the chaebol’s (which literally means rich family). You heard the term used during the Greek financial crisis to refer to those most committed to doing what the IMF stipulated. Moving forward to our own time and place, even though we never got around to distributing the AZ vaccine (and probably never will) our own politicians had very little problem passing two huge COVID stimulus bills. And nothing is more technocratic than stimulus bills. 

As another example I think people like Matt Ygelsias and Ezra Klein are viewed as current day technocrats, and while they are interested in the Hall/Tabarrok form of technocracy, their primary focus has always been on economic policy — scolding deficit hawks, and pushing for large stimulus bills. But this gets to one of the key questions of the post: 

How is it that we’re so bold when it comes to spending trillions and trillions of dollars, but so timid when it comes to vaccine safety? Or the safety of other technologies?

Here it’s useful to bring in some of these other technologies, since up until this point I’ve mostly been talking about vaccines, but Hall describes essentially the same thing happening with nuclear power. Vaccines are being banned despite clear evidence that fewer people will die if we use them than if we don’t use them, and this is precisely what happened with nuclear power. It’s very easy to show that it’s the power source which causes the lowest number of deaths per unit of energy produced. And that, already low statistic, is based on reactors which were almost entirely built in the 70’s and 80’s. When it comes to next gen nuclear that number will certainly be even lower. So here you have a source of power that’s safer than even wind and solar, doesn’t emit any carbon, and uses as its power source elements which are all but inexhaustible (estimates are that uranium and thorium could power the world for 100,000 years) and yet, according to Where’s My Flying Car:

The startup company NuScale is intent on developing modular reactors, small enough to be built in a factory and thus cutting costs, construction times, and so forth significantly. NuScale has to date spent $505 million dollars just to produce the 12,000 pages of paperwork the NRC requires simply for an application. The company estimates that the regulatory process will delay actual production until 2026.

If that isn’t a vetocracy I don’t know what is.

Of course when it comes to nuclear power people immediately jump to the problem of waste, that we are creating waste which will still be around thousands of years from now. And in a similar fashion people who object to vaccines will often concede that it saves more lives in the short term, but you can never be sure what harms it might cause in a few months, a few years, or a few decades. And this is true, you can never be sure what harms the future holds. (BTW the historical response was straightforward, have as many children as possible.) But what approach or framework or system of knowledge causes us to be so unsure about the future harms and benefits of the AZ vaccine, but yet so confident about the beneficial effects and lack of any harm from massive government spending? It seems very possible that we are bold when we should be cautious and cautious when we should be bold. That in more areas than just vaccination we have ended up with the worst approach of all.

When I originally conceived of this post I thought I would spend most of my time talking about why we are so cautious, and also a lot more space on Where’s My Flying Car, but here we are 4300 words in and the references to the book have been sparse, and the examination of our caution has been almost non-existent. I think some of that discussion will take place in an abbreviated form in my next end of month newsletter, because it was my last newsletter that gave us a framework for understanding it. In that space I talked about the knobs technology had given us for controlling society, and how the temptation is to turn them all the way to one side or the other. And thinking of it this way is very clarifying. Let’s look at some potential knobs and their settings.

One of the first things you might try to get to the bottom of is the enormous disparity between how careful we are with vaccines vs. how careful we are with cars (see the statistics from earlier in the post). Or in a similar fashion why so little effort is being spent to reduce the amount of coal (100 deaths/terawatt hour) and how much effort is spent blocking nuclear (0.09 deaths/terawatt hour). And here we might say that with older technologies that the knob is stuck. Cars and coal are too entrenched for anything to be done.

Similarly you might try to get at the disparity between deaths caused by COVID and deaths caused by the vaccine. Between the deaths we might have caused and deaths nature might have caused. In essence this is the Trolley Problem. Is it better to let some external force kill five people or is it better to save those five people but to directly kill one person? Of course here we’re dealing with thousands if not tens of thousands of people saved for every one who dies. Also I think it’s very easy to count the one, but harder to count the thousands.

Thus every potential blood clot caused by a vaccine is rigorously documented, but how many people have any sense of how many people die from natural blood clots (or blood clots from birth control pills)? We rigorously dissect and document and mythologize every nuclear accident, but how many people die from coal mining or pollution? We are obsessed with every child we can save (“if we can save just one it will all have been worth it”) but relatively unconcerned with the millions we can’t save. 

You might say that our knob for counting harms we’ve caused is turned all the way up. And why wouldn’t it be? And our knob for safety is turned all the way up. Again, why wouldn’t it be? But in consequence, the minute we become aware of one death we’re responsible for we turn that knob, the one that caused it, (say the AZ vaccine) all the way to zero. Unless it’s stuck of course. This is the nature of our vetocracy.

I’m aware that this is not caused by a handful of bureaucrats imposing these regulations and restrictions and bans on an unwilling population, that this is a decision society as a whole has taken. That we don’t want the kind of authoritarianism that locks us down so tight COVID has no chance to spread, but we do want the kind of authoritarianism that makes new nuclear plants require a 12,000 page application. That we don’t want a technocracy that actually gives us new cool technology, but we’re fine with a technocracy that gives out lots of money. That we can’t imagine living like we did in the past because that’s terrifying, but we’re fine with a host of new, trivial terrors. That if we can prevent even a single death or save even a single child it will all have been worth it. Even if it has led us to a world entirely geared around avoiding risks rather than taking them.


Of course I often say that if my blog is read and appreciated by even one person it will all have been worth it. If you find that declaration to be similarly asinine and you would like me to read and appreciated by all people in need consider donating


The 9 Books I Finished in March

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  1. Secular Cycles by: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov
  2. Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past by: J. Storrs Hall
  3. A Short Stay in Hell by: Steven L. Peck
  4. Cibola Burns by: James S. A. Corey
  5. Nemesis Games by: James S. A. Corey
  6. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1 by: Peter Adamson
  7. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games by: Jon Peterson
  8. Earth Abides by: George R. Stewart
  9. The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel by: Eliyah Goldratt

I keep a daily journal, as many writers do. In addition to that habit, every day I am also in the habit of re-reading the entries from a year ago, and five years ago, etc. Which means I spent this month re-reading my journal entries from March of 2020, when everything was shutting down.

As always the exercise was both thought-provoking and cautionary. Reading the March 2020 entries was an experience rich in dramatic irony. But really that’s the case when I read nearly any past journal entry. I know what’s going to happen, the person writing the entry doesn’t. The person writing is frequently wrong. I am that person. It gives one a certain humility. 

There were lots of things I didn’t suspect a year ago. I didn’t imagine that the pandemic and wearing masks would become so politicized. I should have. I didn’t think we’d have vaccines so quickly, that mistake was probably more forgivable.

In other areas I was more prescient. I could already sense in my gut by the end of last March that the Rhine River Cruise my wife and I had booked for July (in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary) was going to get cancelled. We have rebooked it for June of this year, and my gut is once again telling me (as I look at the climbing numbers in Europe) that it’s not going to happen. On the other hand my head is telling me that there’s no way Europe is going to miss another tourist season. Let’s hope my head is right.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Secular Cycles 

By: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov

350 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The repeated historical cycles of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression experienced by all nations, with two examples each from England, France, Rome and Russia.

Who should read this book?

I’ve wanted to dive into Turchin for a while, and I couldn’t get any clear sense on where to start. Of all his books I already owned this one, so eventually I decided to start with it. So far I think that may have been a mistake. Not that it’s a bad book, I just get the sense that it’s not a good starting point. But I’ll know more once I read some of his other books. Which I intend to do. All of which is to say at the moment I’m not sure who should read this book.

General Thoughts

The idea of historical cycles has been around for a long time. I’m no expert on this particular area (nor really any particular area) but as far back as the Greeks there was the idea of Kyklos, which I think just literally means cycle. Though they seemed to mostly use this term to describe the transition between the various systems of government, not quite using it so expansively as to describe the broad sweep of societal boom and bust we’re interested in.

In more modern times, my sense is that Oswald Spengler is the person most associated with applying the idea of cycles to Europe and the West. Asserting not merely that the West was caught in the same historical cycles which affected all civilizations, but that we were also nearing the end of that cycle. That our best days were behind us. The idea of cycles was also a big part of Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12 volume, A Study of History, which was enormously popular in the 40’s and 50s. But after this surge of popularity, Toynbee’s books and the idea of cycles fell out of favor, particularly once the Cold War ended. At least that’s how it appears to me.

As you might imagine, with the increasing unrest we’ve been seeing since at least 2016 interest in the subject of cycles has been rekindled. And Turchin is clearly at the head of the pack here, particularly since he started talking about it long before 2016. He’s been predicting worldwide civil unrest during the 2020’s since at least 2010. Which may not seem like much, but for a prediction that’s pretty good.

This book is not about the current day, or even the United States, it’s about him laying out, in meticulous detail, the historical case for cycles. This is not precisely what I was looking for and it’s probably not what you’re looking for either, but building out the foundation of his theory might be a good place to start. But as I already said in the previous section the jury’s out on that for now. 

The key problem with any theory like Turchin’s which attempts to predict the future by drawing on what happened in the past — deriving trends or cycles or general rules — is that it’s very difficult to make it even approach science. You have no control group to compare against. There’s no way to account for the effects of new technology. And your sample size is tiny. Turchin’s sample size is eight, or four if you only count the nations, and it was the work of hundreds of people and decades of research to compile the information necessary for even this small sample. So you’re faced with a situation where making a case is fantastically difficult and the case you can make isn’t very scientific even if you do go to the effort. 

Within the context of these limitations, I don’t think it’s possible to do a better job of making a case than Turchin has. He has pulled in data from several different angles. It’s full of charts, statistics and comparisons. He’s applied his theory successfully to multiple nations, in multiple different settings and historical periods. So, If you’re willing to at least entertain the idea that it’s possible to predict the future by looking at the past, then Turchin has done everything that might be expected towards making such a prediction. I understand he still may be wrong, that he has “proved” nothing, but it’s hard to imagine a more serious attempt than Turchin’s.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, making this case, and assembling all of the data proves to be a very dry read. Which is another reason why I’m not sure who to recommend it to. It probably serves better as a work of reference than something you just sit down and read from cover to cover.

Eschatological Implications

At a high level the eschatological implications of Turchin’s theory of cycles should be reasonably obvious. Unfortunately this book doesn’t give much guidance on where we are at in our own cycle and how that might play out. Though even without being familiar with anything else he’s said this book would lead you to the conclusion that we’re on the downhill side of the cycle and more chaos should be expected. 

One draws this conclusion from the many similarities our situation shares with the situations Turchin documents. A few are worth discussing briefly.

First, his analysis and theory owe a lot to Malthusian thinking. Good times lead to an increase in population which eventually outstrips the carrying capacity of the land leading to a stagnant and eventually collapsing population. We don’t seem to be having any problems with food, at least not yet, but we are suffering from a collapsing population. Is this a new thing or is food only the most visible example of “carrying capacity”? Have we reached other less obvious limits to our capacities?

A more obvious commonality is Turchin’s idea of “elite overproduction”. Most people who study civil unrest agree that generally the lower classes don’t spontaneously organize and revolt on their own, they have to be harnessed to that end by disaffected elites who have been excluded from wielding power more directly. Diving into how elite overproduction is playing out currently is beyond the scope of this review, but there are few two word phrases that are more evocative of our current condition. 

Finally, plagues play a major role in most of his examples of civilizational crisis, but what’s strange is they aren’t the instigating factor. Generally the crisis and decline has already begun and then a plague comes along. Turchin doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why that might be. (Rural overpopulation leads to increasing urbanization, leads to ghettoization, leads to poor sanitation, leads to disease, maybe?) But reading this in light of the recent pandemic was frankly a little bit eerie.

It’s interesting to draw such parallels, but not particularly useful. What we really want is to be able to translate Turchin’s theory into a course of action for our country or our politicians or even just ourselves. Which is not to say I have no ideas, I actually have lots of advice on this subject, I just don’t think reading Turchin’s book has added much to my store of practical wisdom on this topic. It’s added a huge amount of data, and I think the idea of elite overproduction is worth a deeper dive, but beyond that it doesn’t offer much solace for someone observing the end times.


Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past 

By: J. Storrs Hall

627 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very detailed examination of why we don’t have flying cars, which ends up pulling in all of the technology we might have had but don’t. Beyond the subject of flying cars this book also includes in depth discussions of nanotechnology, nuclear energy and even cold fusion. 

Who should read this book?

In the last post before this one I talked about the metaphorical knobs of society. If you want someone to paint a picture of what it would look like if the knob of “technological progress” was turned up to 11, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

I should state up front that while I try to limit discussion of individual books to my review posts that this book deserves and is going to get it’s own post, which will be the next one after this one. Why is that? Because this book has enormous bearing on the discussion of technocracies, and the pandemic, and just about everything else I’ve been talking about. As such it deserves a deeper discussion than what I have room for here. 

That discussion will be both theoretical and hypothetical, so I’m going to use this space to make sure I cover the practical side of the book. In particular Hall leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the issue of flying cars, going so far as to get his pilot’s license so that he has first hand experience on the difficulties of flying. He also goes into detail about engineering challenges, the disadvantages of helicopters, the unfulfilled promise of the autogyro, and every attempt, no matter how small, at making a commercial flying car.

Obviously one of the big things people think of when they consider the flying car are the numerous times futurists and science fiction authors confidently predicted their imminent arrival, and how wrong all of these predictions were. Less discussed is why these predictions were wrong. Most of the time when I see them offered up, the assumption is just that prediction is hard and the people making these predictions were not as far-sighted as they thought. Storrs went into things with basically this attitude, but ended up concluding that we really should have had flying cars and on the timeline people predicted, but there are four reasons why we don’t:

  1. Flying is harder than driving.
  2. The transition from driving to flying (i.e. taking off and landing) is a difficult technical problem. Airplanes require lots of room, and don’t like flying low and slow. Helicopters are exceptionally difficult to fly and don’t go very fast once they are flying and autogyros never received widespread support.
  3. Flying is expensive, especially for what you get. The amount of additional travel one gets for each additional dollar spent goes down as costs rise. For example helicopters cost easily 10x what a car costs, but only travel at best 3x as fast.
  4. But sitting behind all of the previous points there is the legal and regulatory landscape. Which according to Hall was “insanely overdone”.

In other words the reason those predictions were wrong is only a tiny bit reasons 1-3, and mostly reason 4. And 1-3 would be straightforward to fix, without 4 looming over everything, disincentivizing investment and innovation. Thus, the biggest blindspot of futurists, was the evolution of the regulatory state, and the product liability revolution.

Eschatological Implications

I’ll use my next post to really get into the eschatological implications of this book, including a discussion of the regulatory state, but I thought it was important to point out that unlike most of the books I review in this section, this book puts forth a positive eschatology. It’s all about the wonderful things we can do with technology, and presumably will do with technology once we can get past our current period of stagnation.

This book paints a picture of Jetson like flying cars powered by small nuclear reactors, super abundant food grown with nearly unlimited energy in massive greenhouses, incredibly precise nanotechnology, and trivial control of global warming and the weather. In that last item you may recognize another link to my last post, and hints at interventions which scare a lot of people. Of course as Hall will point out we are already messing with global warming, we’re just doing it in a very unconstructive and damaging fashion.

My overall reception of this book reminds me of a scene from the New Testament. In the book of Acts, chapter 26, Paul is brought before King Agrippa and asked to defend Christianity. Agrippa is obviously hostile towards the faith, but Paul’s defense of it is so stirring that by the end Agrippa says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” As you may have noticed from the last few posts, I’m somewhat hostile to technocracy, but having read Hall’s defense, I’m inclined to say the same thing, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a technocrat.” 

Now to be fair to me, what Hall is describing bears very little resemblance to what we’re actually doing, and we’ll spend the next post disentangling that.


II- Capsule Reviews

A Short Stay in Hell 

By: Steven L. Peck

108 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Mormon, who upon dying, discovers that Zoroastrianism was the true religion. As penance for not holding the correct beliefs during his life he must spend the afterlife in a library with all possible books, searching for his life story.

Who should read this book?

There is a genre of science fiction novellas, which prioritize M. Night Shyamalan-esque plots over character development. Another apt comparison for such novellas might be the Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone.  If you’re familiar with novellas of this style or if this otherwise sounds appealing this book is just the thing to scratch that itch.

General Thoughts

One might almost think that I would put this in the religious reviews section given the subject matter. (And also I have nothing for that section this month.) Though, if it does have a religious message it seems like it would be ‘You better hope the Zoroastrians aren’t right!” Beyond that I liked what Peck did with his initial premise, in particular the book has an unflinching quality which I appreciated.

The book is based on the short story The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges which imagines a library containing all possible books. These have been divided into 410 page chunks. And by all possible books he means not that it collects books that have actually been written but that it contains all possible characters combined in all the possible ways they could be combined over the length of 410 pages. 

As is often the case with ideas like this, someone actually implemented it. If we go there and take an example book at random the first 20 characters are:

m.eygvh rbzefwss,ctj

This implementation only includes lowercase letters, periods, commas and spaces, but beyond that, somewhere in its vast virtual bowels there is any book which has ever been written and any book you could imagine being written. Soren Johansson, the main character of the book is tasked with finding the book that tells the story of his life, I don’t want to give anything away, but as you can imagine that is an essentially impossible task. And it’s this impossibility which makes the book strangely compelling.


Cibola Burns (The Expanse #4)

By: James S. A. Corey

624 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the eternal story of poor squatters vs. an avaricious corporation. Only in this telling the squatters and the corporation are fighting over a planet which was once inhabited by a super advanced alien civilization, which adds all kinds of interesting chaos to the equation.

Who should read this book?

I have quite enjoyed the Expanse series. If you’re considering starting it I would. If you’re considering whether to continue past book 3, I would also do that. 

General Thoughts

This book somewhat reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Aurora which I brought up in a previous post, specifically the dangers of an alien biosphere, a theme which features prominently in both books. These dangers certainly add an exciting layer to an inflammatory human conflict that is already pretty exciting.

As with all of The Expanse books, this book also engages in the completely ridiculous conceit of having a small group of people end up in the center of all of the action. And the equally ridiculous conceit of that action always being of the super-exciting, nail biting, cinematic sort. The kind you’re lucky to survive once, but these guys have survived similar circumstances over and over and over again.

But if you can ignore how implausible that all is (and I think you should) they’re great books.


Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

By: James S. A. Corey

576 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four individual stories, one for each of the four main characters, which come together in spectacular fashion.

Who should read this book?

The same people who fit my recommendation for the last book.

General Thoughts

I mentioned the extreme implausibility of these books in my previous review, and it was during this book that I switched from treating them as an attempt to describe the future to viewing them as the log of a role-playing campaign. Unlike most campaigns this one isn’t set in a world of tolkien-esque fantasy, but in the near future, with the crew of the Rocinante obviously being the “player characters” or “party” as they say. You would think that splitting them up would be proof that this is not what’s happening (“Don’t Split the Party” as they say) but in actuality the opposite happened. It could not have been more clear that this book was the retelling of the four side quests created by the Gamemaster to flesh out the character’s back story, a common trope in role-playing games.

Yes I know that this comparison won’t make sense to some of you, but for those for whom it does make sense I think it’s the clearest way of describing the book. Though before I move on two other quick notes.

First other than the implausibility of all the characters being intimately involved in every exciting thing that’s ever happened, the series itself is pretty hard sci-fi. In fact it kind of has an old-school Heinlein vibe to it, particularly since AI and cybernetic enhancements are basically MIA in The Expanse.

Second, it’s tough to talk about this series without referencing the TV show. I watched the first season, and I might, some day, watch the rest. I found all of the actors to be spot on, with the exception of the guy they got to play James Holden, the main, main character. I’m sure he’s a fine person, but he’s not a great actor, IMHO. 


Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1

By: Peter Adamson

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Western philosophy from the very beginning (there are 12 chapters on the pre-socratics) up through Aristotle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a general overview of ancient greek philosophy, this provides that in an easily digestible form. I’m not sure if it’s worth reading on it’s own, and I’m about to discover if it’s useful for providing the background one needs before reading the actual works of those ancient greek philosophers. 

General Thoughts

This book went down easy. In fact I got the feeling that it went down too easy, and I’m not sure why. Possibly I have that feeling because I’ve been conditioned to expect that reading philosophy is supposed to be hard and if it’s not hard then you’re not doing it right. Possibly it’s because in covering such a large number of people and ideas Adamson doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and in consequence, the book is superficial. 

I’m expecting to be able to answer this question once I start actually reading Plato. He is up next in my “great books of the western world project”. If this book makes Plato easier to understand and particularly if it helps place him in context, then it will have been a success. I’ll make sure to report back.


Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games

By: Jon Peterson

698 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An encyclopedic history of tabletop strategy games as they evolved towards Dungeons and Dragons. 

Who should read this book?

The feeling I had while reading this is the same feeling I imagine a rabbi might have while reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. Most other people reading this book will probably have a very different feeling, that of anyone other than a Rabbi reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. 

General Thoughts

Earlier in this post I said that I’m not really an expert in any particular area. Well Dungeons and Dragons may be the exception to that statement. I’ve been playing it almost continuously since 1980. In fact in addition to the books I read in March I also attended a virtual D&D convention (GaryCon). Which was quite a bit of fun, though a pale imitation of attending in person. 

As I alluded to, this book is something of the Torah for role-playing nerds, and any details I could go into would be of limited interest to anyone outside of that group. In spite of that I will go into one part of the early history of D&D because I think I can extract a larger lesson from it.

D&D was initially created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Later Arneson was fired, written out of things and denied royalties. These actions have always been held against Gygax, and while opinions vary on how big of a role Arneson did play, the consensus seems to be that Gygax was selfish and greedy. Having read this book I’m much more on Gygax’s side. Yes, it’s possible it could have been handled better, but the key fact in my opinion is this. TSR, the company producing D&D, was a startup. This makes Arneson basically a co-founder with Gygax, and while Gygax was busting his ass putting out book after book, and tens of thousands of words beyond that in the form of magazine articles and correspondence, Arneson produced basically nothing

I know people think ideas are worth something, and they are, but not nearly as much as people think. But particularly when it comes to starting a business hard work is vastly more important. If you aren’t willing or able to do the work, then you don’t deserve the money. And to be clear Arneson sued and did get the money. So, after hearing all the details, from my perspective Arneson got more than he deserved out of things rather than less. 


Earth Abides

By: George R. Stewart

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The handful of people who survive a global pandemic, and what life is like in the ruins of civilization.

Who should read this book?

This book was published in 1949, before science fiction had really congealed, and it’s a great early example of the form. It’s particularly interesting in light of recent events. If you enjoy either disaster stories or old sci-fi, you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this came out before some of the tropes of science fiction had congealed and as such it’s a different take on how people would react to the apocalypse and the story also takes place over a longer period of time. These differences took a little bit of getting used to, but eventually I really came to appreciate them.

Also while it’s clear that there are lots of things he got wrong — for example he made the same mistake nearly everyone does, gas does not remain good for years — he mentioned a lot of things which I haven’t seen anywhere else, but which seem likely to happen in some form. Most of these involve a rebalancing of animal species after the disappearance of humans, with the additional factor of suddenly abundant food, i.e. human corpses, though Stewart mostly avoids the more morbid facts of the apocalypse. 

All of which is to say that if you want to know what the apocalypse will really look like I think Earth Abides has a lot to contribute. And it’s a great story beyond that.


The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel

By: Eliyah Goldratt

143 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a graphic novelization of The Goal, a business book originally published in 1984. Both are about the theory of constraints

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. This book was recommended to me, and these days my book buying is so reflexive that I had purchased the graphic novel version without really realizing it. But if you’re interested in learning more about the theory of constraints, doing it in graphic novel format is actually kind of cool.

General Thoughts

Having read the graphic novel version I’m not sure if I’m going to go on to read the actual book. In large part this is because I have already read the The Phoenix Project, which is basically the IT version of The Goal. The Goal deals with manufacturing, and if that’s what you’re doing then I would probably read the actual book rather than the graphic novel. But if you’re in software like me then I would just skip straight to The Phoenix Project. 

From a conceptual standpoint the theory of constraints is very interesting. And I can see it applied to a wide variety of undertakings (as demonstrated by The Phoenix Project) but within the confines of a graphic novel things have to be kept fairly focused. So I’ll probably look into these ideas some more but don’t expect a review of the full book anytime soon.

My average book length for the year is up 13% over last year. That may not seem like much but under the old average I would have read three additional books. If you like the fact that I read long books so you don’t have to (or more likely so you can know if they’re worth reading) consider donating.