Month: <span>May 2021</span>

Eschatologist #5: A Trillion Here, a Trillion There, and Pretty Soon You’re Talking Real Money

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I’ve spent the last couple of newsletters talking about the knobs of society, the way technology allows us to “turn them up” in the pursuit of knowledge and progress. While I could continue to put things in terms of that metaphor, possibly forever, at some point we have to move from the realm of parable to the realm of policy. Policy is many things, but behind all those things is the government deciding how much money to spend on something, and more controversially how much to go into debt for something. 

You’ve almost certainly heard of the trillions of dollars the government spent attempting to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic. And you’ve probably also heard of the trillions more Biden proposes to spend between the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. In mentioning Biden I do not intend to lay specific blame for anything on the Democrats. During the Trump Presidency the national debt increased by nearly $8.3 trillion dollars. This is enough money, in today’s dollars, to refight World War II twice over.

It’s not just Biden, we’re all big spenders now.

One would think that this is a problem, that the debt can’t keep going up forever, that eventually something bad will happen. And mostly, people don’t think that it can go up forever, but short of “forever” there’s huge disagreement over how long the debt can go up for and how high it can go to.

Part of the problem is that historically there has been a lot of worry about the debt. Republicans mostly didn’t bat an eye when Trump proposed a $2 trillion stimulus package at the beginning of the pandemic, but when Obama was trying to pass an $800 billion stimulus package at the beginning of his presidency, not a single Republican voted for it, and there were many predictions of doom and financial ruin. Those predictions appear to have been wrong. 

Going farther back in time I’m old enough to remember Ross Perot’s charts and their warnings of out of control spending during his run for president in 1992. He lost and Bill Clinton became president, and by the end of that presidency we were actually running a small budget surplus. All of which is to say, that people have been worried about this issue for a long time, and since then the debt has gotten astronomically worse, but yet the sky hasn’t fallen. (Astronomically and sky, get it?)

No one believes that the sky will never fall, but there are a lot of people who still think such an event is a long way off. Some believe that as long as interest rates are low that it borders on the criminal to not borrow money as long as there are people still in need of it. Others believe that it doesn’t matter if the government takes in less than it spends, all that matters is inflation, and that if inflation starts going up then you just raise taxes, which takes money back out of the economy and reduces inflation.

These people seem to imagine that the knobs of society can be set to whatever they want. That when necessary they can easily turn down the spending knob and turn up the taxes knob and we can go about our merry way. But as it turns out the spending knob is much easier to turn up than to turn down, particularly when that’s the only direction we’ve been turning it for decades. And it’s the exact opposite for the taxes knob.

If we’re agreed that the spending knob can’t be turned up forever, then what happens when we run out of time? Do we default on our debt, sending the world into chaos? Do we end up with runaway inflation like in the 70s or worse like in Germany before World War II? I suspect it will be along the lines of the latter, and I suspect it’s already started. 

I suspect a lot of things, but a couple of things I know. I know that everytime we turn the spending knob up, the harder it becomes to turn it down, and that this level of spending really can not last forever.


I said “we’re all big spenders now” and by “all” I mean everyone, even you. The kind of big spender who donates to blogs because he likes the content, or just because I asked.


In Defense of Prophets

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A few weeks ago I came across a book review for The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but it seemingly presents an interesting way of categorizing our two broad approaches to preparing for the future, and harnessing new technology.

According to the instructions on the tin, The Wizard and the Prophet is meant to outline the origin of two opposing attitudes toward the relationship between humans and nature through their genesis in the work and thought of two men: William Vogt, the “Prophet” polemicist who founded modern-day environmentalism, and Norman Borlaug, the “Wizard” agronomist who spearheaded the Green Revolution. Roughly speaking, Wizards want continual growth in human numbers and quality of life, and to use science and technology to get there: think Gene Roddenbury’s wildest dreams, full of replicators and quantum flux-harnessing doodads that untether us from our eons-long project of survival on limited resources and allow us to expand limitlessly. “Prophets” believe that we can’t keep growing our population or impact on the world without eventually destroying it, and ourselves along with it. Their ideal future is like one of those planets the Federation ships would Prime-Directive right over, where humankind scales back and lives in harmony with the land, taking just enough to sustain our (smaller) numbers and allowing the intricate web of human and non-human creatures to flourish.

This idea of dividing people into “Prophets” and “Wizards” intrigued me, particularly since it’s a distinction I’ve been making since my very first post in this space, though of course I didn’t use those terms. But I did point out that the modern world is racing towards one of two destinations, on the one hand, a technological singularity that changes everything for the better and, on the other hand, a catastrophe. Both are possible outcomes of our increasing mastery of technology. And one of the most important questions humanity faces is which destination will we arrive at first?

From the review it appears Mann approaches this question mostly from the perspective of the environment, with particular attention on carrying capacity, but I think the two concepts are useful enough that we should broaden things, using the label of Wizard for those who think the race will be won by a singularity, and the label of Prophet for those who think it will be won by catastrophe. Not only does broadening the terms make them more useful, but I also think it’s in keeping with the general theme of the book.

Of course, in that first post and in most of the posts following it, I have been on the side of the Prophets. The review takes the side of the Wizards. And indeed the Wizard side is pretty impressive. The quote mentioned the Green Revolution which probably saved the lives of a billion people. To this we could add the billion people saved by synthetic fertilizers, the billion people saved by blood transfusions, and the billion people saved by toilets. If we wanted to further run up the score we could add the millions saved by antibiotics, vaccines and water chlorination. With numbers like these, what possible reason could anyone have for not being on the side of the Wizards?

It gets even worse for the Prophets. I was recently listening to a podcast and the host was interviewing Niall Ferguson. Ferguson was on to promote his new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. In the course of the interview he pointed out that when it comes to the most extreme claims of the Prophets, namely a total apocalypse, they have been wrong 100% of the time. That essentially in every age and among every people there have been predictions of apocalypse and armageddon, and no matter the time or the person they’ve all been wrong. So given all of the foregoing why on earth would I choose to defend the Prophets?

In order to answer that question we’re going to need to break things down a little bit. There’s a lot of things tied up in the labels “Wizard” and “Prophet”, and it’s easy to declare one the victor if if you only consider what has happened already and don’t consider what might happen, but once you start looking into the future (which is precisely what Prophets are doing) then the situation becomes far less clear. To illustrate, let me turn to another one of my past posts, and the metaphor of technological progress as an urn full of balls.

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence… [He also came up with the simulation hypothesis.]

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think of the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net, they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

This metaphor allows us to more accurately define what distinguishes Wizards and Prophets. Wizards are those who are in favor of continuing to draw balls from the urn, confident that we will never draw a black ball. Prophets, on the other hand, are people who think that we will eventually draw a black ball, or that, on balance, the effect of continuing to draw balls from the urn is negative i.e. we will draw more dark gray balls than white balls. Viewed from this perspective whether you have any sympathy for Prophets depends in large part on whether you think the urn contains any black balls. Accordingly, stories about the amazing white balls which have been drawn, like the green revolution and vaccines and all the other stuff already mentioned, are something of a distraction because it doesn’t matter how many white balls you draw out of the urn, that can never be proof that there are no black balls. And of course Prophets are not opposed to white balls, they just know that if we ever draw a black ball the game is over.

To be fair there is one other possibility. More recently some of the Wizards have started to argue that it’s also possible for the urn to contain a ball of such surpassing whiteness that it also ends the game, but with a win, instead of a loss. That rather than permanently destroying us it permanently saves us. This permanent salvation would, by definition, be a singularity, though not all singularities ensure permanent salvation. But put in terms of the metaphor, my point from the very beginning is that we have been playing the ball drawing game for quite a while and eventually we’re probably going to draw one or the other, and I not only do I think drawing a pure black ball is more likely than drawing a pure white ball. I think that even a small chance of drawing a pure black outweighs even a large chance of drawing the pure white ball. To show why takes us into the realm of something else that’s been part of the blog from the beginning. The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Most of the balls we draw from the urn, particularly those that are very dark or very white, are black swans. I’ve already linked to the whole framework of Taleb’s philosophy but for those that don’t want to follow the link but still need a refresher: black swans are rare events with three qualities:

  1. They lie outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. They have an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterward to show how they should have been expected.

Technological progress allows us to draw more balls, which means there are more black swans. More things that “lie outside the realm of regular expectations”. The word “regular” is key here. Regular is the world as it was, the world we’re adapted for, the world we were built to survive in. This “regular” world also had positive and negative black swans and in fact may have had even more negative black swans, but since it didn’t involve the ball-drawing game, this regular world didn’t have to worry about black balls. We may not have been thriving, but there was no chance of us causing our own extinction either. Another way of saying this is that we already had the pure white ball. We had developed sufficient technology to assure our permanent salvation.

Part of the reason for this is that whatever the frequency of black swans, they were less extreme. The big thing capping this extremity is that they were localized. Until recently there was no way for there to be a global pandemic or a global war. This takes us to the second attribute of black swans: their extreme impact. Technology has served to increase the extremity of black swans. When the black swans are positive, this is a very good thing. No previous agricultural black swan ever came close to the green revolution, because a change of that magnitude was impossible without technology. It’s the same for all of the other Wizardly inventions. In their hands technology can do amazing things. But the magnitude of change possible with technology is not limited only to positive changes. Technology can make negative changes of extreme magnitude as well. In allowing us to draw all these fantastic white balls, it also introduced the possibility of the pure black ball. A negative black swan so bad we don’t survive it. A point we’ll return to in just a moment, but before we do that let’s finish out our discussion of black swans.

The third quality of a black swan is that in retrospect they seem obvious. When it comes to technology this quality is particularly pernicious. Our desire to explain the obviousness of past breakthroughs leads us to believe that future breakthroughs are equally obvious. That because there was one green revolution, and in retrospect its arrival seems obvious, that the arrival of future green revolutions whenever we need them are equally obvious. Somewhat related to this having demonstrated that we should have expected all previous advancements, because someone somewhere imagined they would come to pass, Wizards end up confusing correlation with causation and assume that anything we can imagine will come to pass. And in doing so they generally imagine that it will come to pass soon. You might be inclined to argue that I’m strawmanning Wizards, when in actuality I’m doing something different. I’m using this as part of my definition of what makes someone a Wizard as opposed to just, say, a futurist. They have a built in optimism and faith about technology.

A large part of the Wizard’s optimism derives from the terrible track record of the Prophets, which I already mentioned. Out of the thousands of times they’ve predicted the actual, literal end of the world, they’ve never been right. However when it comes to their record for predicting catastrophes short of the end of the world, they’ve done much better. Particularly if we’re more concerned with the how, than the when. Which is to say while it’s true that Prophets are often quite premature in their predictions of doom, they have a very good record of being right eventually.

This point about eventually is an important one because above and beyond all the other qualities possessed by black swans the biggest is that they’re rare. So the role of a Prophet is to keep you from forgetting about them, which because of their rarity is easy to do. And while most of the warnings issued by Prophets end up being meaningless, or even counterproductive, such is the extreme impact of black swans that these warnings end up being worth it on balance because the one time they do work it makes up for all the times they didn’t. I think I may have said it best in a post back in 2017:

Finally, because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. For example, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions [just] to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

As I pointed out, technology has served to increase the extremity of black swans, and the mention of nuclear war in that quote is a good illustration of that. Which is to say the game continues to change. At the start of the scientific revolution we were only drawing a few balls, and most of them were white, and the effects of those that weren’t were often mitigated by balls which were drawn later. (Think heating your house with coal vs. heating it with natural gas.) But as time goes on we’re drawing more and more balls, which results in more extreme black swans both positive and negative.

You might say that the game is getting more difficult. If that’s the case how should we deal with this difficulty? What’s the best strategy for playing the game? It’s been my ongoing contention that the reason we have Prophets is that they were an important part of the strategy for playing the old game. They were terrible at predicting the literal end of the world but great at helping make sure people were prepared for the numerous disasters which were all too frequent. The question is, as the game becomes more difficult, does the role of Prophet continue to be useful? My argument is, if anything, the role of Prophet has become more important, because for the first time when a Prophet says the world is going to end, they might actually be right. 

One such prophet is Toby Ord whose book Precipice I reviewed almost exactly a year ago. I think what I said at the time has enormous relevance to the current discussion:

I’m sure that other people have said this elsewhere, but Oord’s biggest contribution to eschatology is his unambiguous assertion that we have much more to worry from risks we create for ourselves than any natural risks. Which is a point I’ve been making since my very first post and which bears repeating. The future either leads towards some form of singularity, some event that removes all risks brought about by progress and technology (examples might include a benevolent AI, brain uploading, massive interstellar colonization, a post-scarcity utopia, etc.) or it leads to catastrophe, there is no a third option. And we should be a lot more worried about this than we are.

In the past it didn’t really matter how bad a war or a revolution got, or how angry people were, there was a fundamental cap on the level of damage which humans could inflict on one another. However insane the French Revolution got, it was never going to kill every French citizen, or do much damage to nearby states, and it certainly was going to have next to no effect on China. But now any group with enough rage and a sufficient disregard for humanity could cripple the power grid, engineer a disease or figure out how to launch a nuke. For the first time in history technology has provided the means necessary for any madness you can imagine.

In the same vein, one of the inspirations for this post was the appearance in Foreign Affairs of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Moore’s Law for Mad Science”, which states that, “Every 18 months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.” If you give any credence at all to either Yudkowsky, Ord, or myself, it would appear impossible to argue that we have passed beyond the need for Prophets, and beyond that hard to argue that the role of Prophet has not actually increased in importance. But that’s precisely what some Wizards have argued.

One of the most notable people making this argument is Steven Pinker, and it formed the basis for his books Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. His arguments are backed by lots of evidence, evidence of all the things I’ve already mentioned, that over the last hundred some odd years while Prophets were busy being wrong, Wizards were busy saving billions of lives. But this is why I brought up the idea that the game has changed—growing more difficult. When you combine that with the time horizon we’re talking about—a century, give or take a few decades—it’s apparent that the Wizards are claiming to have mastered a game they’ve only barely started playing. A game which is just going to continue to get more difficult. 

Yes, we’ve drawn a lot of fantastic white balls, but what we should really be worried about are the black balls, and we don’t merely need to avoid drawing one for the next few years, we need to avoid drawing a one forever, or at least until we draw the mythical pure white ball that ensures our eternal salvation. And if I were to distill out my criticism of Wizards it would be that they somehow imagine drawing that pure white ball of guaranteed salvation will happen any day now, while refusing to even consider the existence of a pure black ball. 

If you’ve been following recent news you may have heard that there has been a shift in opinion on the origins of the pandemic. More and more people have started to seriously consider the idea that it was accidentally released from the Wuhan lab, and that it was created as part of the coronavirus gain-of-function research the lab was conducting. Research which was intentionally designed to make viruses more virulent. One might hope that this causes those of a wizardly bent to at least pause and consider the existence of harmful technology, and the care we need to exercise. But I worry that instead the pandemic created something of a “no true science fallacy”, akin to the “no true scotsman fallacy” where true science never has the potential to cause harm, but only to cure it. That the pandemic was caused by a failure of science rather than possibly being exactly what we might expect from the pursuit of science over a long enough time horizon. 

As I conclude I want to make it clear, Wizards have created some true miracles, and I’m grateful every day for the billions and billions of lives they’ve saved. And I have no doubt they will continue to create miracles, but every time they draw from the urn to create those miracles they risk drawing the black ball and ending the game. So what do we do about that? Well, could we start by not conducting gain-of-function research in labs operating at biosafety level 2 (out of 4), regardless of whether that oversight was involved in the origin of COVID-19? In fact could we ban gain-of-function research period? 

I am aware that once you’ve plucked the low hanging fruit, like the stuff I’ve just mentioned, this question becomes enormously more difficult. And while I don’t have the space to go into detail on any of these possible solutions, here are some things we should be considering:

  1. Talebian antifragility: In my opinion Taleb’s chief contribution is his method for dealing with black swans. This basically amounts to increasing your exposure to positive black swans while lessening your exposure to negative black swans. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a way of maximizing the miracles of the Wizards while avoiding the catastrophes of the Prophets.
  2. Make better use of the miracles we do have: This is another way of getting the best of both worlds. While I have mostly emphasized the disdain Wizards have for Prophets it goes both ways, and many of the things Prophets are most worried about, like global warming, get blamed on the Wizards and as such people are reluctant to use Wizardly tools like nuclear power and geo-engineering to fix them. This is a mistake.
  3. Longer time horizons: Yes, maybe Wizards like Ray Kurzweil are correct and a salvific  singularity is just around the corner, but I doubt it. In fact I’m on record as saying that it won’t happen this century, which is to say it may never happen. Which means we’ve got a long time where black balls are a possibility, but white balls aren’t. Perhaps each year there’s only a 1% chance of drawing a black ball, but over the timespan of a century a 1% chance of something happening goes from “unthinkable” to “this will almost certainly happen”.

And finally, whatever other solutions we come up with, it’s clear that one of the most important is and will always be, give heed to the Prophets!


This post ended up being kind of a clip show. If it reminded you of past posts you enjoyed, and that lengthened your time horizon, consider donating. I’d like to keep doing this for a long time.


Revisiting China: Inflection Points, Semiconductors and Fascism

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As we, hopefully, emerge out the other side of the pandemic, it’s obvious that the U.S. still faces numerous challenges. Most of the immediate focus has been on the challenge of a citizenry that’s increasingly divided by culture and ideology. But this is certainly not the only challenge the U.S. faces, and it may not even be the most pressing. For many people that award would go to the challenge posed by an increasingly aggressive China. The cover of the May 1st edition of The Economist had the phrase “The most dangerous place on Earth” over a picture of Taiwan. And somewhat to my surprise Biden appears to largely be continuing Trump’s policies towards China. Additionally many of the podcasts I’ve been listening to have also been discussing this challenge and not only China’s aggression, but their potential desperation. (More on that in a bit.) Finally I just finished another book about China, Stein Ringen’s, The Perfect Dictatorship. Taken together it seemed like it might be time for another post on China.

The last time I talked about China, I ended up posting a link to it in a Whatsapp group populated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb acolytes. Someone read it and praised it, and in response one of Taleb’s closest associates came along and basically said that you couldn’t listen to what anyone in the West said about China. For several reasons I took umbrage at this. First I wasn’t dogmatically putting forward what I claimed to be the one true gospel of China. I actually took pains to include a broad array of opinions about its current state and future path — some pro and some con. Second, I certainly appreciate that cultural differences can lead external observers to misjudge China, while at the same time making it difficult for internal observers to explain things in a way that’s easy to understand. However, despite these obstacles I don’t think that China knowledge is so impossible to acquire that we shouldn’t even try, particularly given how important such knowledge is.

I agree that the country is complicated both politically and culturally, but can we not even take stabs identifying important bits of the China path? A general sense of the course it’s taking? Some inflection points we might look for? Some guidance for how best to deal with the problem even if it’s only at a very high level? I would assert not only that we can, but that we must. 

My goal in taking on this task is not to divine when and how they’re going to invade Taiwan, or whether they will be able to continue to maintain an annual growth rate of 6% or higher, or even whether the economic statistics underlying that growth rate are themselves hopelessly flawed and unreliable. My focus, which was illustrated at some length in that last post, has always been to determine whether China, at its core, is fundamentally strong or fundamentally weak. And I’m still not sure I know the answer to that question, but I think that makes the pursuit of it more important rather than less.

Being able to pin down the fundamentals would be immensely valuable. There is a huge difference between a powerful and globally aggressive China initiating another proxy driven Cold War (perhaps in partnership with Russia) and a China who only wants control of nearby territory (the South China Sea and Taiwan) but who otherwise finds it necessary to spend most of their attention on internal stability. Between it becoming a hyper-power supplanting Pax Americana with Pax Sinica or it only desiring the legitimacy, position and territory it once had. There are also large differences between a productive Chinese population unified under a strong sense of nationalism and supportive of a strong central government on the one hand, or on the other a population that is undermined by demographic, ideological or geographic factors, and other factors as yet unforeseen.

In other words my initial ambition in discussing China was to get some sense of which way the trends are pointed. Are they mostly going up? Or have they already plateaued and are starting to head back down? Bringing up the possibility of a change in direction opens up the possibility that there has been or will be an inflection point. And while I’m still interested in getting a sense of the strength of the Chinese foundation, and which way the arrows are pointing, I wonder if a discussion of potential inflection points might yield even greater insight into the questions we’re concerned about. 

Inflection Point #1 – Technological Audacity

The initial impetus to revisit China came while I was reading Where Is My Flying Car? By: J. Storrs Hall. Hall describes a future of abundance and plenty if we can just get rid of the entrenched interests protecting the status quo, and with it our unreasonable fixation on safety. His key example (after the titular flying car) is nuclear power. As I was reading the book, and since then as I’ve discussed it with other people, China is continually offered up as a counter example. If safety concerns are the key impediment, what’s keeping China from pursuing this “flying car”, nuclear powered future? While, as I said, there is a lot of disagreement about what’s actually going on with China, all the experts agree that China cares far less about safety than we do. Accordingly if nuclear power is clearly the superior option in the absence of safety regulations then China should be building lots of reactors. If they’re not then perhaps they really are just too expensive.

The first result on google, a report from the World Nuclear Association seemed to basically have all the answers I was looking for. With the normal caveats to beware the man of one study, the report indicates that China is building a lot of reactors and that the energy available from nuclear is growing in what looks a lot like an exponential curve. While it is true that currently only 4% of Chinese power is coming from nuclear, looking at the graph of power generation it appears they really only started bringing reactors online in earnest around 2010. And in the 10 years from 2010 to 2019 (the last year data is available) generation grew at 19% per year, for a total increase of over 500%. Additionally while new plant construction has stalled in the west, according to the report China has 17 plants under construction which will increase their power generation by an additional 33%. Any bets on whether those plants will be constructed more quickly and cheaply than the few plants currently under construction in the West?

The question then is not whether China has embraced nuclear, clearly they have. The question is why did it take them so long? Why did they only really start in 2010? Is it reasonable to make inferences on their dedication based on only a decade of data? The U.S. had a couple of decades when nuclear power also grew swiftly. Might renewables like wind and solar still eventually turn out to be the more attractive options in China just like here? With most of these questions I can only guess, but to the more general question of why they didn’t start sooner, the answer there doesn’t require any guessing. They couldn’t. These days we have become so used to thinking of China as this technological powerhouse that we forget how recently they were essentially a 3rd world country. One of the points that The Perfect Dictatorship makes repeatedly is that Mao caused so much damage, that when he finally died their progress and technology had essentially been reset to zero. And recall that he didn’t die until 1976.

All of this takes us to our first potential inflection point: China passing us technologically. I think most assessments of potential conflict are based on the idea of us being even or slightly ahead of them technologically, but what if China’s technological velocity is both pointed in the right direction, and greater than ours? What if the only reason it looks like we’re staying ahead of them is that they didn’t even start the race until 7 years after we had already landed on the moon? Most importantly, what if Hall is correct and the only thing preventing technological utopia is audacity, which China has?

If all these things are true then China won’t merely pass us, they might do so in a fairly spectacular fashion. If transhumanists and futurists like Hall are to be believed there is a huge technological harvest just waiting for the country that masters things like modular nuclear power and nanotechnology. It certainly couldn’t help but change the dynamic in China’s favor if they pass us and get to this harvest first.

In its most benign form this might involve things like China constructing nuclear powered jets and convincing the rest of the world to allow them to land at their airports. In its most malevolent it could mean China doing to us what Britain did to them during the First Opium War: imposing terms on us from a position of vastly greater technological strength. Of course, we’ll still have plenty of nuclear weapons, but if you’re considering that, you’ve already lost.

Inflection Point #2 – Peak China

The technological arms race between China and the West takes us directly into our next inflection point. But in order to understand it some historical background might be helpful. 

One of the reasons that World War II (and for that matter World War I) happened the way it did is that certain countries felt that if they let any more time pass that their odds of winning a war would just continue to decrease. That, though they hadn’t reached the peak of their strength, they were as strong as they were ever going to be relative to their enemies. While this applies to Germany in both wars, the example of Japan in World War II is the one I want to draw your attention to.

On August 1, 1941 the U.S. instituted an oil embargo against Japan. This had the effect of eliminating over 80% of Japan’s oil supply. Given that oil was the lifeblood of the world in 1941 and certainly the lifeblood of Japan’s navy, the Japanese leaders decided they had no other recourse than to go to war. There were lots of reasons to declare war, but one of the biggest was seizing the oil of Borneo. And the first step in that process happened to be attacking Pearl Harbor. 

Turning to our own day, in the same fashion that oil was the lifeblood of the 1940’s, semiconductors are the lifeblood of our current world. They’re involved in every aspect of the modern world. Now as you might imagine China does have a domestic semiconductor industry, it’s just 10 years behind the current state of the art, and it can only supply about 8% of China’s current needs. 

This would all be okay if they could import technology, but as it turns out, under Trump, and continuing under Biden, the U.S. has effectively clamped down on Chinese importation of semiconductors along with the technology and machines necessary to build semiconductors. This not only includes stuff that was built in the U.S. but anything that was built using U.S. derived technology, which is just about everything. So pre-Pearl Harbor the U.S. put an embargo on oil wiping out 80% of Japan’s supply. This time around we’re putting an embargo on something equally important which affects up to 92% of the supply. Obviously it’s important to not take this parallel too far. Japan in late 1941 looked a lot different than China in early 2021, but not all of the differences are positive.

For example, in one of those coincidences you might dismiss as being too convenient or implausible if it happened in a movie or a book, the most advanced semiconductors in the world are made in Taiwan. Yep! We’ve drastically restricted Chinese supply of one the most important modern commodities and in the process given them even more incentive to invade Taiwan. 

This situation was brought to my attention by an episode of the podcast Hexapodia (and Hexapodia was brought to my attention by frequent commenter Boonton).  Having only listened to a single podcast episode on the topic means my knowledge is not as deep as it would be if I had read a book on the topic, but I think it’s important to include because the situation would appear to contribute to at least three possible inflection points.

First, desperation could easily create an inflection point. People do things when they’re desperate that they wouldn’t do otherwise, and the same goes for countries. It’s possible, even likely that if China can just be patient that the chip technology imbalance will eventually rectify itself, but if there’s one other thing all the experts can agree on, it’s China’s impatience. In this situation it’s evidenced by China throwing money at anyone with the words business plan and semiconductor on the same sheet of paper. But as the podcast points out industrial policy is hard and prone to inefficiencies, particularly as that policy gets closer to resembling a command economy. It’s not inconceivable that Chinese desperation around domestic chip manufacturing will make the problem worse. History is full of stories where the unfettered market out-competed government-backed endeavors, and as the Chinese government backs more and more companies the unfettered market becomes smaller and smaller. Should this result in China falling even farther behind in semiconductor technology it will only increase their desperation.

Second, the united front we’re seeing with respect to semiconductors could be an inflection point in the attitudes of the rest of the world towards China. Whereas once most of the nations of the world were neutral towards China, increasingly it appears that the majority of countries, particularly in the West, are taking a harder and more unified stand. At a minimum numerous countries are assisting the U.S. with their export restrictions. But I’m also seeing things like trade deals stalling over human rights concerns, pushback on exploitative practices, and of course the recent attention being given to the lab-release theory of COVID. This attitudinal inflection probably translates into a greater willingness to confront China militarily. In which case we’re back to looking at parallels between now and the World Wars, with China in the position of seeing the number and power of its enemies increasing faster than it’s own power. 

Moving into the realm of military might takes us to the third inflection point touched on by the semiconductor situation, but it’s also a big enough issue to get it’s own section.

Inflection Point #3 – Taiwan

Whatever else may be said about the situation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that China won’t eventually invade Taiwan. There was a time when you could imagine reunification without shedding any blood, but I think the Taiwanese have decisively rejected that possibility after seeing what happened to Hong Kong.

Even as the Taiwanese are rejecting peaceful reunification, the Chinese leadership have become ever more insistent that reunification will happen one way or the other, and it seems clear that they have painted themselves into a corner. They have been so insistent that Taiwan is part of China that backing down now would entail possibly fatal damage to their reputation and by extension the reputation of the Communist Party. Now I don’t think that the Chinese people expect the attack to come tomorrow, but the leadership has done everything they can to ensure that they expect it to come eventually. Furthermore “eventually” is increasingly turning into “soon”. (See the discussion of the semiconductor situation above.)

In other words a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is increasingly not a question of if, but when. And it should go without saying that when it does happen it will represent perhaps the biggest inflection point of all.

I opened this post by talking about the difficulties of commenting on China and predicting what they were going to do. But in addition to the small things I mentioned: disregard for safety and impatience, this is another big thing that nearly everyone agrees on. China will not rest until they have reabsorbed Taiwan. But despite what appears to be the virtual certainty of this happening neither the U.S. nor Taiwan seems as worried as one might expect. I understand that because of the nature of our government we often end up taking positions which end up being compromises combining the worst of both worlds. In this case we neither get the benefits of not being entangled with Taiwan, but nor is it clear that we’re committed enough to prevent China from taking Taiwan, and thereby reap those benefits. We may end up failing while maximizing the money we’ve spent to do so.

That’s the U.S. excuse, but what about Taiwan? This is an existential issue and yet their defense spending continues to hover around 2% of GDP. One would expect, given how obvious the threat is, that their military spending would be among the highest in the world and certainly higher than the U.S.’s but that’s not the case. 

Perhaps China will suffer some internal catastrophe which will remove its fixation with Taiwan, but absent that it appears that Taiwan’s doom is sealed, and we’re merely waiting for it to play out.

Inflection Point #4 – Moving From a Trivial State to a Power State

In The Perfect Dictatorship Ringen has a lot to say about China, and some of it will have to wait for my review, but he does make a very interesting case for yet another potential inflection point, the transition of China from a trivial state to a power state. What’s a trivial state? From the book:

Some facts are given. The Chinese state is constituted as a party-state. It is dedicated to two absolute priorities: the perpetuation of the regime itself and the protection of the country’s territorial integrity.

The question then is: what more is there to it? My first hypothesis is that there is nothing more. The Chinese state is strong but does not possess any purpose beyond itself for the use of its strength. There is no ideology, no socialism, no vision for the well-being of the Chinese people, no idea about quality or glory…The leaders always speak about ‘stability’, and this hypothesis says that is all they finally have in mind.

I call this hypothesis trivial not because it would make the Chinese state insignificant or unimpressive. It is and will be a powerful state. But it would be trivial in the sense that it would have nothing to its name but force and nothing to present itself to others with than bigness.

Ringen asserts that up until Xi Jinping, this was the state of China. They were powerful and big, but had no animating ideology. That mostly they were trying to recover from the destruction wrought by Mao, while also avoiding collapsing, like the Soviet Union. But now that it appears both have been accomplished, they are transitioning from a trivial state to a power state.  Once again from the book:

Power states are strong states in which the state and its strength are for a higher purpose. They are different from strong trivial states where the state is its own purpose and there is nothing more to it… In power states the purpose is given by an official ideology, and citizens are subordinate to the advancement of the ideologically defined purpose.

…The state is the instrument of the party, and state institutions have a duty to serve the party by force of the ideology that is embodied in it, and citizens by the same logic have a duty of obedience and service to state and party. This is what generates and justifies the ruthlessness which is endemic in power states: when ideology rules any action that is ideologically correct or productive is justified. It is not strength alone that makes a state a power state but the way strength is constituted and used.

While trivial…states may or may not be aggressive in international relations, power states are likely to be aggressive. 

One way of looking at this is to examine the way the Soviet Union behaved. By Ringen’s definition it was clearly a power state, and it used that power in an ostensibly ideological fashion. One would think that this is the obvious connection the book would make, since China is still nominally communist, but Ringen predicts that China is more likely to become the perfect fascist state. 

[A] power state needs ideological in addition to administrative grounding. Totalitarian use of state power needs more than the excuse of stability; it needs the justification that comes from higher ideas and principles. A resurrection of classical communist ideology would not be credible. A new power state in China would need a new ideology. That ideology may be in the making in Xi Jinping’s China Dream.

It is possible that the China Dream will turn out to be a hot air of little substance as have previous ideology-like signals. Perhaps that is all it is—but it could also become the new narrative for a revived China, a narrative that draws on Chinese history more than on Marxist theory and that goes to nation, nationalism, strength, unity and patriotism. When Mao declared the People’s Republic in 1949, his message was that China had risen again. He slotted the revolution into a tradition of nation and greatness. He got himself lost in a fantasy of revolution, but those who have followed him have reverted to nation building. The unifying idea has been China the great. This may now be in the process of finding its ideological articulation.

The narrative of national greatness has the resonance in Chinese imagination and tradition to make that possible, the resonance that ‘harmonious society’ failed to find. 

If things stopped there, China would be a power state, but not necessarily a fascist one, but Ringer goes on to claim that the party wants to go even farther with the idea. In support of this he quotes from the April 5, 2013 cover story of the Beijing Daily:

Extensively promulgate that patriotism is the nucleus of the national spirit… Promote patriotism as the soul of a powerful and invigorated country which joins minds and gathers strength, and as the spiritual force which strengthens and unites the Chineses people… Extensively promulgate that realizing the China Dream requires the consolidation of Chinese power. Extensively promulgate that the China Dream is the dream of the nation, and is also the dream of every Chinese person.

Ringer goes on to point out that:

This is not just a celebration of national greatness. It is in addition an idea that national greatness and individual happiness are one and the same and inseparable, and conversely that there is no individual happiness without national greatness.

At its core, the idea of unity between nation and person is a fascist idea, the fascist idea.

Asserting that China is transitioning into a fascist state is a huge claim, and deserves far more discussion than I’ve been able to give it. But if this is in fact what’s happening, if China is transitioning from a country mostly worried about survival into an aggressive, ideological state, then this would be the biggest inflection point of all, even bigger than an invasion of Taiwan.

It would turn China from a nation which can be negotiated with or managed into a nation which can only be destroyed.


It might be worth pointing out that at the same time China is experiencing one or more inflection points so is the U.S. Obviously it would take someone of masterful intellect and understanding to explore the interaction between the changes both countries are experiencing. If you don’t think that’s me, consider reading someone else, but if you do, or at least think it might be worth me taking a stab at it, consider donating.


The 9 Books I Finished in April (and something Extra!)

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. “Engineering the Apocalypse” Podcast Episode by Sam Harris and Rob Reid
  2. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World by: Yancey Strickler
  3. The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life by: Boyd Varty
  4. Babylon’s Ashes by: James S. E. Corey
  5. Peter the Great: His Life and World by: Robert K. Massie
  6. Exhalation: Stories by: Ted Chiang
  7. What’s Wrong With the World by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by: Margaret Heffernan
  9. Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice by: Fredrik deBoer
  10. Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical Questions by: Brittney Hartley

In my last essay I was critical of the way Black Lives Matter emphasized some things while ignoring others. Which might have led some to conclude that I’m pro-police. I am not, I am pro what works. And there is clearly a lot about the justice system which does not work. And I got a couple of tastes of it in April. They were small, even tiny tastes nowhere near what some people have been through, but indicative of the perverse incentives we’re currently grappling with. 

The first taste I got was the tinier of the two, but it did impact me directly. I have a friend in prison. This friend is trying to get some education while he’s in there so that when they finally let him out, sometime in his late 50’s/early 60’s, he might be able to get a job. The chief difficulty in this endeavor is getting the books he needs for the classes he’s taking. The prison is very restrictive on books, allowing them from only a single vendor and sometimes not even then. I once tried to send him Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War because it was available through the approved vendor and it was rejected for encouraging violence. (It’s far more a self help book than a manual for gang warfare.)  The approved vendor has a very limited selection and you’d be amazed at the kind of stuff they don’t carry. They don’t even have things like Harry Potter, so as you might guess they’re never going to carry the textbooks he needs. You can get specific books approved but the process is laborious, and ultimately dependent on the whim of the guards.

In an effort to get the required textbooks to him I’ve frequently had to disassemble the books, photocopy them and then gradually mail them to him intermixed with other stuff. As you can imagine this process is also laborious and subject to the whims of the prison mail room. So he decided to actually try getting the most recent required textbook approved. Fortunately it was. So I dutifully sent it down still in the shrink wrap with the approval slip, and this time it was rejected for not being in a white envelope! See that’s another rule they implemented a year or so ago. You can’t use manila folders to send stuff. Why? I have no idea. They obviously open up everything before it gets to the prisoner. Why do they care what color the envelope is? 

The other justice system abuse happened to the friend of a friend. Apparently she was arrested as part of some long running investigation into a drug distribution network. At this point my friend isn’t exactly sure what she may or may not have done. But he expected that she would be released on bail as long as she had a place to go which conformed to the demands of the prosecutors. With no other options my friend had gone to great lengths to make his house that place, which included getting rid of all the alcohol (this is Utah after all). All of this effort was for naught because the federal prosecutors convinced the judge that she had access to a lot of “cryptocurrency” (how much the prosecutor couldn’t say, but “a lot”) and that a sufficient amount of “cryptocurrency” acted like a genie granting wishes and that she could use one of these wishes to disappear. I’m sure he also threw in a reference to the Dark Web for good measure.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Engineering the Apocalypse

An episode of Sam HarrisMaking Sense podcast, Featuring Rob Reid

4 hours

Briefly, what was this episode about?

Bioterrorism by means of artificial pathogens, which Reid considers to be the greatest current danger to civilization.

Who should listen to this episode?

If the pandemic has gotten you interested in pandemics in general and artificial pandemics in particular, and if you want to know what that danger looks like and the best strategy for mitigating it, this is a fantastic resource.

General Thoughts

Lots of people listen to Sam Harris’ podcast, but I have never been one of them. So I’m grateful to friend of the blog Nick deWilde for pointing this episode out to me. (If you’re at all in the tech or entrepreneurial space you should subscribe to his newsletter, The Jungle Gym.) And it should be noted that this episode has far more content from Rob Reid than Sam Harris. Reid has thought deeply about how easy it would be to create an artificial pandemic, but in fairness, lots of people have done that. Where Reid’s analysis shines are in his thoughts on how to mitigate the risk. And there are indeed lots of ways this risk could be mitigated. Hearing them gave me hope, but it also created a little bit of despair as well. Can the techniques he described actually work? Is preventing a version of COVID that’s ten times as lethal and ten times as contagious doable? Even if it’s not easy? The answer to that question presents profound…

Eschatological Implications

I don’t have the space to get into everything Reid talked about so I’m just going to make quick comments on a handful of the points he brought up.

He spent a fair amount of time talking about ways in which RNA strands could be screened and potential harmful strands rejected before being created. Currently the best place to do that is with the companies who create such strands, but eventually someone will be able to buy an RNA printer, at which point Reid suggests that the screening happen at the level of the printer. He indicated that this would force anyone wanting to make an artificial pathogen to use the older more complicated methodology and most would-be bioterrorists wouldn’t know how to do that. What he didn’t speak to is whether these printers could be hacked in such a way to override this screening. I assume Reid is aware of this possibility, and he may not have had the time to cover it. Also maybe such hacking is impossible. Though that seems unlikely. I could imagine it being difficult, but impossible? Given sufficient motivation just about anything can be hacked, and I have hard imagining that these RNA printers would be any different.

As you might imagine the measures Reid wants to introduce cost money. That money is a small fraction of the cost of any potential pandemic, but the amounts in question are still significant. Reid suggests that the military might be a good organization for spearheading these efforts since they have long experience getting money out of the government. This is an excellent point, but just because the military is good at getting money doesn’t mean that they’re good at using it, or at really getting anything done quickly and effectively. It’s interesting that we’re talking about this in the context of future pandemics because their performance during the current pandemic was abysmal. It took the military nine months to develop and approve a face mask. Nine months! For a facemask! And this was an expedited request! This doesn’t inspire me with much confidence that they’re the organization to head up the complicated measures envisioned by Reid for preventing the next pandemic.

Reid’s plans rely on a certain amount of consensus between scientists, businesses and especially countries. Reid goes to great lengths to explain how much easier bioterrorism is than creating a nuclear weapon. And yet despite the best efforts of basically the entire world North Korea was able to acquire nukes. How are we going to prevent them from making a bioweapon? I understand that pathogens are indiscriminate, that the bioweapon you create may end up killing your citizens as well. But playing with nuclear weapons when your opponents have thousands more than you is not especially safe either. And there are various ways to mitigate its effects like releasing it on the other side of the world or having a vaccine already ready to go. I’m not saying this means international consensus is impossible, just that it may not be as obvious an outcome as Reid hopes.

Speaking of spreading it far away, many of Reid’s plans rely on isolating an outbreak quickly, which keeps it from spreading and leaves the rest of the world free to combat it. But there’s no reason why a bioterrorist wouldn’t simultaneously release their pathogen in as many locations as possible. It’s one thing for the US to respond to a single outbreak in New York, it’s another for the US to respond to multiple outbreaks in New York, and yet another for it to respond to multiple outbreaks in multiple cities.

Finally I understand that we should be able to do all or most of the things Reid is recommending, but there’s not a lot of evidence that we will. It’s one thing to talk about what the government is doing right now, when the pandemic is front and center, it’s another to imagine what the government will be doing 10 years from now when the pandemic has faded from memory and other priorities seem far more pressing. As an example of my doubt over government effectiveness, while I was listening to the podcast in my car it was interrupted by a call. Despite not recognizing the number, I was expecting a call from a potential new client so I answered it. It was a recorded voice telling me that my Social Security number had been suspended, an obvious scam. If the government, despite how much people hate them, despite the fact that only a few companies are involved, and despite the fact that all the vectors of the attack are totally controlled by these few companies, can’t stop robocalls, what hope is there for stopping a virus?

To be clear I support everything Reid is calling for (though I hope we can find an organization more efficient than the military to run it) and I’m glad someone has come up with a semi-feasible plan for dealing with this threat, but I think it’s important to realize how difficult the problem is, and that even a straightforward plan is going to face numerous challenges and Reid’s is anything but.


This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World

By: Yancey Strickler

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the ideology of financial maximization warps business and society. 

Who should read this book?

People who agree that financial maximization has a corrosive effect, and are looking for support and evidence.

General Thoughts

Strickler was one of the founders and the CEO of Kickstarter. Which makes this another book by a CEO (see my review of Satya Nadella’s book) talking about why their company is different and how every company would be better if they were more like (insert company name here).

Unlike many such books however this goes into significant detail about how overwhelmed Strickler felt, how stressed and unprepared he felt and how much pressure it is to be the CEO of a successful startup. Having been involved in a couple of unsuccessful startups, and having been an entrepreneur/self-employed since 2007 in any time I wasn’t involved in an unsuccessful startup, I think I have some sense of what he means. And it is pretty bad.

But most of the book is dedicated to diagnosing what is wrong with society, and what needs to be fixed if we don’t want things to get worse and end badly, which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

There are books which posit a general societal and civilizational malaise. A great example is Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, which puts forth the idea that our country is afflicted by a multifaceted decadence which manifests in all sorts of ways, and in nearly all areas. Strickler makes some of the same points, but in his view the problem with society is very narrow, and it all starts with one man. In fact he nails all of the problems of the modern world to one op-ed written by this one man in 1970. That man is Milton Friedman and the op-ed was titled: A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits. And according to Strickler it introduced the concept of financial maximization and this is when it all went south. That the problem with the modern world is business greed, and all other problems flow from that.

Now it is true that something did happen in the early 70’s, there’s a whole website dedicated to it, and I’m getting really close to writing a post of my own about it. But it seems unlikely that Friedman played much of a role in this pivot, let alone was the primary actor. And to be clear, Stickler does not claim that this is the root of all the problems, that’s something of a strawman, but less of one than you might think.

Regardless of the force with which Strickler makes the claim I think it has several problems. To begin with I don’t think the companies were just waiting for permission to maximize profits, or that CEOs had previously kept their salaries reasonable, but then they read Freidman’s op-ed and came away thinking, “Pay myself more? That never would have occurred to me.”

What seems far more likely to me is that the post-war period was an aberration. That America, as really the only country left standing after the war, was able to create a peculiarly nice business environment. That there was enough demand from rebuilding world that everyone could have a nice job and businesses could afford to be generous. And that what started in the 1970’s was more a reversion to the mean, than some unique evil brought on by a specific economic philosophy.

None of this is to say that the problems he talks about aren’t real. I do think, based on the data, that CEO salaries are excessive, that they generally have less of an impact on the company’s profitability than people imagine.  I do think Wall Street is kind of out of control, but I also think their sins are hard to disentangle from the enormous amount of money the government has injected into the system and the perverse aftermath of the 2007-2008 crisis.  And I’m becoming increasingly convinced that technology and network effects have allowed some companies to become monopolies in ways which are pernicious in new and subtle ways. But when all is said and done I don’t think financial maximization is the disease, I think it’s just one of the many symptoms of a far more widespread malise. 


II- Capsule Reviews

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

By: Boyd Varty

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How getting back to nature is the cure for much (perhaps even all?) of what ails us.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s into anything paleo, or paleo adjacent will probably love this book. It draws a direct contrast between what humanity is doing now and an activity which is literally thousands of years old.

General Thoughts

Varty’s family owns a wildlife preserve in South Africa, as part of that it’s necessary to find lions so that the guides have something impressive to show people on safari. Finding these lions involves tracking them. The book is the story of a morning Varty spent tracking with his two older, more experienced companions. The events of the morning are intermixed with observations about life and the world. 

The last book offered a candidate for the one thing that was wrong with society, this offers up an idea for the one thing that will fix all the problems. Both are pretty unreasonable. In the case of this book we can’t send all 7.7 billion people to South Africa to track lions, but I nevertheless found this book far more compelling.  


Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6)

By: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The war which follows after the events of Book 5.

Who should read this book?

The events of book 5 and 6 are tied together so closely that I can’t imagine reading the one without reading the other.

General Thoughts

Lot’s of science fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief. This suspension is expected and generally not particularly onerous. These suspensions can be wide but not particularly deep — it’s something a little bit unbelievable but it permeates everything about the story. They can be deep, but not particularly wide — the book asks you to accept something truly extraordinary, but it’s effect on the story is limited. And then of course the suspension can be both wide and deep in which case it might make the book unreadable. Babylon’s Ashes required me to suspend my disbelief in a way that was reasonably narrow, at least narrow enough that I enjoyed the book as a whole and am eager for the rest of the series, but at a depth that may have exceeded anything I’ve previously encountered in a fiction novel. 

**Begin Mild Spoiler**

Basically in the books there is an oppressed minority with legitimate grievances. And so, as sometimes happens, this minority resorts to violence, but it’s violence on a scale that beggars the imagination. Despite the truly unprecedented scale of the violence, it’s treated in the book as more of a mild overreaction which is mostly justified by the way in which the minority had been treated.

 

**End Mild Spoiler**

What’s unfortunate is that in the current environment this suspension immediately gets translated in my head into a political statement. And to be clear this says more about me than the authors, but this dash of politics, even if unintentional, diminished my enjoyment somewhat.


Peter the Great: His Life and World

By: Robert K. Massie

910 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The frankly incredible story of Peter the Great.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves a good history book.

General Thoughts

Massie might be my favorite author of history, and while I don’t think this quite reaches the level of Dreadnought, it’s nevertheless a fascinating book about an amazing individual. Rather than trying to go deep on any individual event, I thought I’d just list some things I found interesting:

  • The Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia takes up a large part of the book. I didn’t know basically anything about it going in, but it was crazy, particularly from a modern perspective. Everyone expected Sweden to win.
  • Related, the Swedish King, Charles the XII, Peter’s antagonist during the war, is almost as fascinating a character as Peter. Young and impetuous but also a brilliant and effective general.
  • Peter’s second wife also had an incredible story. She was born a Latvian commoner, taken as a spoil of war by one of Peter’s generals, then passed to Peter’s best friend who eventually passed her to Peter. It’s unclear how sexual these first two relationships were, but she married Peter, saved his army from the Ottoman’s and was Tsaress after his death.
  • Unlike the vast majority of Russians Peter loved ships and the sea. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was his journey to Europe. First off he was trying to journey incognito which was impossible, not only because he was the Tsar, but also because he was 6’7” which is conspicuous even now, but back then he would have stuck out like Andre the Giant. Second, the whole point of the trip was that he wanted to learn shipbuilding in Holland. Consequently he spent four months training as a carpenter in the private shipyards of the Dutch East India Company. In the end they gave him a certificate declaring him to be a shipwright, which Peter was immensely proud of.
  • It’s hard to describe how curious Peter was. It wasn’t just shipbuilding he was interested in, it was nearly everything. In many respects this curiosity was what led Peter to be the ultimate modernizing technocrat, building his capitol, St.  Petersburg, from nothing. Reforming Russian money, the Russian army, and of course the Russian fleet. Constantly looking to every detail of the realm. But in all of his affection and admiration towards Europe, it never occurred to him that Russia should be anything other than an absolute autocracy, led by him. 

Exhalation: Stories

By: Ted Chiang

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of fantastic science fiction short stories.

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Or at least anyone who’s ever enjoyed short science fiction.

General Thoughts

This was an excellent recommendation to me by one of my regular readers, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to get to it. Every single story was good and some were fantastic. My favorite might be the very first, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, but perhaps it was just nice to be reading something so atmospheric, it’s been awhile since I’ve done that. I definitely need to go back and read his other collections (there aren’t many).


What’s Wrong With the World

By: G. K. Chesterton

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Chesterton diagnoses the ills of turn of the century England.

Who should read this book?

To me it felt somewhat dated, so probably only if you are already a fan of Chesterton.

General Thoughts

I’ve talked in the past about how people can have an excellent grasp of how the world got to this point, but when they attempt to turn that into a prescription for what we should do in the future their ideas end up being horrible. There is something of that in this book, though I would argue that by preceding from a traditional foundation that Chesterton comes much closer to an accurate view of the future than people taking a more academic approach. And of course say what you will about Chesterton’s opposition to female suffrage, I think it’s more than made up for by his early and quite vocal opposition to eugenics. And in this respect his warnings were incredibly prescient. This book mentions eugenics in only a few places, but it’s clear that he could see the danger of that path when everyone else was hugely in favor of it and several decades before the rest of the world acknowledged the horror of it.

This book also contains some of his best quotes:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

…washing is a virtue in the rich  and therefore a duty in the poor. For a duty is a virtue that one can’t do. And a virtue is generally a duty that one can do quite easily.

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with the little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.


Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

By: Margaret Heffernan

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that recognizing the ambiguous nature of the future helps, paradoxically, to navigate it better. 

Who should read this book?

No one. I came really close to not finishing it. It’s not so much that it’s a bad book, it’s that there are so many better books. 

General Thoughts

In this reviewer’s humble opinion Uncharted is a poor collection of ideas from so many better books. It lays out the idea of black swans like Taleb, but without actually naming them as such or offering any advice for dealing with them. It’s littered with business advice like Good to Great, but with far fewer anecdotes or evidence. It seems to aspire to offer personal advice as well, with the long story of an Irish Catholic priest who fell in love and left the church, and advice about aging as well. For good measure Heffernan mentions stuff like Superforecasting, Aubrey de Grey, (an anti-aging guru) and the frequently told anecdote of how London Cab Drivers have larger hippocampuses. This would all be useful and interesting if it was used to construct some larger philosophical foundation. But at best it was loosely woven into an extended meditation on ambiguity, but it wasn’t a particularly coherent meditation, and even if it was, one doesn’t build a path to the future on extended meditations. 

Out of it all, I did come across one interesting point. She claimed that businesses with a strong culture weather crises better. Perhaps that’s applicable to nations as well?


Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

By: Fredrik deBoer

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A refutation of blank slate ideology, focusing on education, from a marxist perspective. 

Who should read this book?

If you think the idea that “any person can grow up to do anything they want” is one of the most pernicious lies ever told, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

Some people are talented, and smart, and some people are not. Some people can learn long division in an afternoon, some people, such as one young man deBoer mentions, can spend weeks being privately tutored on the subject and still not get it. The book makes three points with respect to this talent gap:

  1. It’s largely genetic (but only on an individual level, deBoer emphatically rejects racial differences).
  2. It’s not fair to condemn people to crappy lives of poverty based on something they have no control over, i.e. their talent. 
  3. This is exactly what both parties are doing by espousing the idea that children are blank slates, and that given the right education system anyone can succeed, and if they don’t it’s on them.

I enjoyed the book, it was well written, and deBoer is passionate and informed. I disagree with a lot of what he says but not his central point, that blank-slateism is a society wide delusion that is warping the nation in profound ways. In particular it’s made the job of teacher virtually impossible. Being married to one teacher and the son of another teacher I can see this playing out. They’re somehow expected to solve all of our nation’s problems by ensuring that everyone learns algebra. And no one dares question whether everyone, in fact, can learn algebra.


III- Religious Reviews

Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical 

By: Brittney Hartley

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Connecting Mormon theology to classical philosophy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants to get into the philosophically unique theology of Mormonism without trying to tackle someone like Sterling McMurrin

General Thoughts

The world “simplified” is right there in the title and Hartley does a great job of exactly that. The book is an easy read but still manages to hit all of the important points. I would say that at times it seems too simple, and there is the occasional foray into current culture war territory (the book is more aspirational than apologetic) but if you’re looking for an easy entry point into the subject this is a great place to start.


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