Month: <span>June 2021</span>

Theories for the 1971 Inflection

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Many months ago I came across the website wtfhappenedin1971.com. The website is a collection of around 60 charts. All of the charts show some aspect of the modern world going haywire in 1971.

Some of the charts show that certain things were tightly connected for many decades before suddenly decoupling in 1971, with one thing continuing to go up while something else flatlined. An example of this would be compensation and productivity. Productivity continued to rise while compensation flattened off. Other charts show a single line that was trending more and more positive, up until 1971 when suddenly the trend flattened out. An example of this would be black income as a percentage of white income. Still other charts just show that things worked one way before 1971 and afterwards they started working another way. Examples in this category include global currency crashes but also incarceration, obesity and divorce rates.

As the last set of examples illustrates, while most of the charts deal with economic concerns, with particular emphasis on inequality and inflation, 1971 is also the inflection point for many of the other things we worry about, like political extremism. The two parties had been in pretty tight agreement for several decades, but in 1971 you see both start to veer off towards the extremes. After seeing dozens of inflection points, all occurring at the same point in time, one has no choice but to join the website in asking WTF happened in 1971?!?! 

Unfortunately rather than just coming out and offering an explanation the website prefers to use something of a socratic method. They hope that the graphs will generate questions which will lead people to reach the correct conclusion on their own, and that the conclusion will have a better foundation because they arrived at it independently. However, if you make it all the way through the graphs there’s a link to a “Discussions” page which features some videos and podcast appearances by the guys behind the site. If you follow one of these links you’ll find that they blame it all on the end of the Bretton Woods system under Nixon. The biggest effect of this change was to end the gold standard. The 1971 guys think we should go back to a non-fiat currency system and in place of the gold standard we should have the bitcoin standard. I’m not sure what all or even most of the effects would be if the U.S. switched to backing their currency with bitcoin, but I can guarantee at least one effect. It would be very lucrative for early bitcoin investors, which is to say I’m not entirely sure we can count on these guys to be objective.

As I mentioned I came across the website several months ago, and at the time I made it the subject of one of my rare tweets (or perhaps I retweeted it, I forget which). In response some of my readers asked me to take a stab at answering the question. Of explaining what exactly did happen in 1971. Was it the end of the gold standard/Bretton Woods or was it something else? My curiosity had been piqued, and it seemed like something that might be in my wheelhouse. Accordingly in the months that followed I’ve been keeping my eyes open, on the lookout for evidence of big changes in the late 60’s early 70’s. Some grand explanation for WTF happened in 1971? Since that time here are the potential explanations I’ve come across:

1. I Was Born

It would be irresponsible of me to write a whole post on what happened in 1971, and not disclose that I was born in 1971. Perhaps the answer to: “WTF happened in 1971?” Is: “Jeremiah was born.” And of course if you’re going to have a Jeremiah he needs subjects for his jeremiads, so everything started going wrong the moment I was born.

Consider also that from a position of extreme solipsism I can’t even be sure that anyone other than me exists. Perhaps this reality is just my simulation and when I was born the creator of the simulation changed a bunch of the settings in order to craft the precise reality he wanted me to experience. 

I’m not sure of a lot, but I am sure that we can’t rule out the possibility that it’s entirely my fault.

2. Nixon Ended the Bretton Woods System and the Ability to Convert Dollars to Gold 

Next we might as well get the preferred explanation of the 1971 guys out of the way. For those that still aren’t sure exactly what happened, I don’t have the space to get into all the implications (and believe me, depending on who you listen to there are thousands of interpretations). But here’s the short description from Wikipedia:

On 15 August 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated convertibility of the US dollar to gold, effectively bringing the Bretton Woods system to an end and rendering the dollar a fiat currency. At the same time, many fixed currencies (such as the pound sterling) also became free-floating.

Certainly this is a big change to the way both the U.S. and the world economy operated. Also the timing does seem suspicious. Finally this is the explanation the website wants you to arrive at, which has to carry some weight.

While I only recently dived into the discussion section of the website and uncovered their fascination with bitcoin, the Bretton Woods angle was obvious just by looking at their charts, and one of the reasons I delayed writing about it is I wanted to better understand the linkage between going off of the gold standard and all of the things that had happened since then. And while I came across many other explanations for what happened in 1971 the “leaving Bretton Woods” explanation didn’t really get any clearer to me. And yes I understand that when you allow your currency to float freely ungrounded from any hard reality that it seems only logical that it would be easier to spend (government debt has exploded since 1971) and hard to keep the value stable (inflation has also skyrocketed). But despite this it’s rare to find even defenders of the gold standard claiming that we could ever go back to it. (Though such advocacy is becoming more common.)

I certainly understand the argument that the answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is, “We went off the gold standard”, but it feels too pat. It doesn’t explain everything else that inflected in 1971. It’s hard to find anyone arguing we should go back to the gold standard and even harder to find people saying we shouldn’t have left it in 1971. (Though if you have come across any great arguments please forward them.) 

As far as moving to a bitcoin standard, tackling that would be a separate post, one I’m in no position to write just yet.

3. Nothing, there Was No Inflection Point in 1971

One of the big problems with the previous explanation and indeed all of the explanations is that there exists a reasonable possibility that despite all the charts nothing really changed in 1971. One of the points I’ve made before in this space is that anytime we talk about modern trends, we’re almost always dealing with very limited data. We didn’t really come up with the idea of tracking societal statistics until pretty recently. So when you’re looking at a graph charting the rise of real GDP per capita compared against median male income, the data for that graph was only collected starting after World War II. We don’t know what the comparison looks like before then.

This turns out to be a big issue. If we review the charts on the website, nearly half of them (27) only show data after World War II (with many not starting until 1960, and a few actually starting in 1970). If we were to divide the time since 1945 into two parts, the part before 1971 and the part after, two-thirds of that time has come after 1971. This makes it difficult to argue that the time before 1971 should act as some sort of “normal”, or control on our experiment, while the post 1971 period is the aberration. It seems just as, if not more likely, that the immediate postwar period — when the US stood alone as the only nation unscathed by the war, and furthermore at the peak of its power — was the aberration, and that the post 1971 period represents a return to normal. 

Of course there is the other half of the graphs, the ones that go back farther than World War II, what about those? 

Well the rest of the graphs are a mixed bag. There’s a fair amount of duplication particularly in the graphs showing the growth of federal spending and the debt. Of those that do go back farther back than World War II, most only go back as far as 1900 or maybe 1880. And some of those, particularly the ones dealing with inequality show that World War II and its immediate aftermath really did represent an aberration, that from 1900 to 1940 inequality was similar to what we’re seeing now. That 1971 wasn’t when things broke, it’s when things were “restored”. When inequality returned back to its usual level.

Related to the foregoing I should include a comment made in response to a post over at Astral Codex Ten. The post asserted, “Around 1970, something went wrong.” In response the commenter said: 

This is semimythology. The richer the region within the U.S. you look at, the less growth there was between 1930 and 1970. The 1930s-early 1970s was mostly a process of poor regions catching up with the rich, not faster growth in the richest regions, which is what matters.

Combining these two explanations together I think we’ve gone a long way towards explaining what happened in 1971. But I don’t think they explain everything, and even if the postwar period was an aberration, it was apparently a particularly nice one, and it’s entirely reasonable to ask how we could return to those conditions, now that we know that it’s possible. Nevertheless I think it’s clear that at least in some respects the answer to the question of “WTF happened in 1971?” is that the auspicious conditions the U.S. had been enjoying since the end of the war finally came to an end.

4. The Long Peace Happened

As I mentioned many of the charts on wtfhappenedin1971.com concern rising inequality. This reminded me of the book The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel, which I read and reviewed several years ago. Scheidel’s contention is that in normal times inequality is constantly increasing, that it’s only during times of great disruption that we get drops in inequality. Quoting from the book:

Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality but did little if anything to bring it under control. Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks.

Scheidel then goes on to say:

State collapse served as a more reliable means of leveling, destroying disparities as hierarchies of wealth and power were swept away. Just as with mass mobilization wars and transformative revolutions, equalization was accompanied by great human misery and devastation, and the same applies to the most catastrophic epidemics: although the biggest pandemics leveled mightily, it is hard to think of a remedy to inequality that was dramatically worse than the disease. To a great extent, the scale of leveling used to be a function of the scale of violence: the more force was expended, the more leveling occured. Even though this is not an iron law—not all communist revolutions were particularly violent, for example, and not all mass warfare leveled—it may be as close as we can hope to get to a general premise. This is without any doubt an exceedingly bleak conclusion. (Emphasis mine)

This conclusion fits the data that shows that inequality was bad up until World War II and then started to get bad again a few decades later. But what about the rest of the charts? What about the other things that changed starting in 1971? To answer that, let’s turn to another book, The Worth of War by Benjamin Ginsberg, which I also reviewed several years ago. In this book Ginsberg points out that war is the ultimate test of rationality. When you’re experiencing a time of peace and prosperity, as we obviously are, then you can get away with doing things which are suboptimal. This is not the case when you’re involved in a fight to the death. In that case every dumb thing you do has a chance of opening you to the punishment of it being the last dumb thing you do. To put it in a milder form, we’re more tolerant of inefficiencies during times of peace than we are during times of war, and we have accumulated a lot of inefficiencies since 1971. 

At best this would represent a partial explanation, and I know a lot of people would be inclined to deny that it should be extended even that far. Also the cure of re-engaging in existential warfare is almost guaranteed to be worse than whatever our post 1971 disease happens to be. Nevertheless this all touches on a larger point. One that I’ve made repeatedly in the past and which will come up again in this post. We’re in historically uncharted territory. 

5. It’s All Part of a Historical Cycle

Peter Turchin, the leading proponent of historical cycles has gotten a lot of attention for predicting the unrest we’re currently seeing. His cycles have a period of 50 years, meaning the last period of unrest was in the late 60’s early 70’s but as I understand it spikes of unrest and violence bookend the different periods of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression. 

I am not a Turchin expert. I’ve read one book of his so far and it was entirely concerned with identifying historical cycles. It had nothing to say about what period we’re currently in, but if 2020 marks the transition between the stagflation period and the crisis period, and 1970 marked the transition from the period of expansion to the period of stagflation that would certainly seem to explain WTF happened in 1971. As I mentioned when I reviewed the last book, I do intend to read more Turchin. Perhaps I should start by following his blog? If anyone out there has been following it and can recommend any posts which bear on this as a potential explanation I’d be grateful.

6. We Broke The Country

As I’ve already alluded to, the late 60’s early 70’s certainly represented a political inflection point. Among the things that happened we have:

Extreme Violence: I’ve used this quote from FBI agent Max Noel before, “People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” This is also suspicious timing, and while the violence itself might not have inaugurated the long standing trends we’re still seeing today, you could certainly imagine that in the face of that violence you might be willing to implement all sorts of changes. And while they might be in response to something which later goes away, the changes could prove harder to reverse. 

Watergate: While Nixon didn’t resign until 1974 the actual break-in and the ensuing political circus happened in 1972. And since that time the ability of the government to get things done, particularly across party lines has steadily decreased. In particular while it’s easy to continue to spend money and kick the can down the road, it’s much harder and requires more coordination to exercise fiscal discipline. It’s hard to keep the train from driving off the cliff if you’re still fighting over the controls.

Roe v. Wade: Closely related to the above, this is when many people feel like the Supreme Court broke. And when I say many people I’m including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who felt the decision represented judicial overreach and subsequently caused a lot of problems further down the road. Roe wasn’t decided until 1973, but it was argued in 1971.

The Age of Entitlement: In his book of the same name, which I reviewed last year, Christopher Caldwell makes the argument that the U.S. has two constitutions. The first, created in 1787, is the one we all think of when someone mentions the US Constitution. The second, created in 1964, and commonly called the Civil Rights Act, is not generally viewed as a constitution, but one of Caldwell’s central arguments is that it is, and that from this much of the current political landscape follows as a conflict between the original, de jure constitution, and the new de facto constitution. That, rather than being a natural extension of the original constitution, the Civil Rights Act is in fact a rival constitution, not complementary but actually opposed in most respects to the values of the original. 

You may wonder how something which seems primarily cultural works to explain a phenomenon that’s largely financial, and moreover how something which happened in 1964 didn’t actually break things until 1971, but for Caldwell this is largely a financial argument. His claim is that passage of the Civil Rights Act opened up the floodgates of entitlement spending. While this spending was still in its infancy it was possible to imagine that things could be stopped or reversed, and indeed, that appeared to be the way things might be headed under Johnson, and even more so under Nixon, but Nixon ended up getting impeached. (I’m only now noticing the parallels between this description and the arc of Obamacare.)

This basically put the issue in the hands of Carter. Who actually tried to cut entitlements, and furthermore proposed lean and tight budgets. Whether his efforts contributed to the stagflation of the 70s or not, the timing of that was against him. All of this meant that by the time it got to Reagan entitlements were too entrenched to do anything about, and there was really only one thing he could do: Spend like crazy, cut taxes, and shift the burden of entitlements to future generations. 

One could argue that 1971 comes into play because that’s basically the point at which entitlement spending passes from being contentious to part of the landscape. Which seems kind of a stretch, but at the same time it’s easy to imagine that a sense of entitlement combined with massive spending on entitlements could lead to many of the trends documented on the website. Similarly it’s also clear that we have been entirely unable to slow spending on entitlements, (indeed recently such spending has skyrocketed, see my last newsletter) which is why these trends have continued for so long.

Taken together these four political inflection points seem at least as much a symptom of an underlying disease rather than the disease itself, but it is interesting how many such inflection points were clustered right around 1971.

7. Decadence and the Twilight of America

Closely related to the previous point is the idea of decadence. This argument was recently put into book length form by Ross Douthat in his book The Decadent Society. I did a review of it back in March of last year, and I would direct you there for the full discussion. In this space I just want to see how well his arguments map to our 1971 timeline.

As is the case nearly every time someone makes an argument for modern decadence Douthat begins his tale with the moon landing. This is his very first paragraph:

The peak of human accomplishment and daring, the greatest single triumph of modern science and government and industry, the most extraordinary endeavor of the American age in modern history, occurred in late July in the year 1969, when a trio of human beings were catapulted up from the earth’s surface, where their fragile, sinful species had spent all its long millennia of conscious history, to stand and walk and leap upon the moon.

After that first historic landing we did it five more times. The last of those was December of 1972. If the moon landing represents peak America, then there’s a credible argument that 1971 was the summit of that peak. By 1973 we had withdrawn from Vietnam in embarrassing fashion. Which was also the year OPEC announced their oil embargo. Oil prices didn’t make it onto wtfhappenedin1971.com, but I found another site which pointed out that the early 70s was also when oil prices went from “stable to unstable and never looked back”. We also suffered blows to our prestige in areas like car manufacturing. By 1970 foreign car makers had started to flood the U.S. market with cheaper, more reliable cars. The big three responded by introducing more compact models, but none of them was very well regarded and to the extent people remember Gremlins, Pintos and Vegas it’s as punchlines to jokes. Compounding their problems they had to deal with numerous union/labor issues.

To put things in more general terms Douthat argues that decadence can be broken down into four different components:

The first is stagnation. In the book Douthat borrows a thought experiment from economist Robert Gordon. Where he asks people to choose between having no technology invented since 2002 or all current technology except indoor plumbing and toilets. Everyone always chooses the former. When I reviewed the book I speculated you could go back farther than 2002, and I wonder at what point you’d get 50 percent of the people saying I’d give up indoor plumbing rather than give up all the technology after year X. Is that year 1971? Almost certainly not, but I would bet that it’s in that general neighborhood if not actually earlier than 1971.

The second component of decadence according to Douthat is sterility. As in the fact that we’re literally not having kids. You want to take any guesses as to the last year the USA’s birthrate was above the replacement level of 2.1? Did you guess 1971? If so you get a gold star, because in yet another example of the 1971 inflection that is precisely the case. And it’s an inflection point I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else. 

The third component is sclerosis which Douthat mostly uses to cover political inaction. For most of us the filibuster has become emblematic of this inaction and indeed we see an inflection point in the early 70’s there as well. It got so bad so fast that in 1975 it was reduced from a 2/3rds majority to the current 60 votes we see today. 

Finally there’s repetition, the stagnation of art and culture. Where, for example, a 2010’s movie looks like a 2000’s movie looks like a 1990’s movie. I think it would be very hard to pin the beginning of this to a specific year, and perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Once again we may be describing the symptom more than the disease, but taken in its entirety you can certainly see a narrative where around 1971 the US went from being vibrant and expansive to tentative and self-absorbed. Where we accomplished one final amazing thing — landing a man on the moon — and then there were no other frontiers left. Probably because I just read that book, it puts me in mind of Shackleton and the great British explorers, which of course coincided with the heights of the British Empire. I think to be vibrant a country needs a frontier or an enemy or something to strive for and perhaps in the early 70s after the moon landing and our defeat in Vietnam we had run out of both. 

8. Less Likely but still Interesting contenders
So what’s my favorite explanation? It’s actually none of the above. And because it’s my favorite, it won’t appear here. I’m going to devote the whole of my next post to it. But before I end this post here are a few miscellaneous contenders:

Healthcare: Another area that looks more like a symptom than a disease, but it’s easy enough to find graphs that show not only that we spent next to nothing on healthcare in 1971, but that we spent the same amount as other developed countries. That 1971 is when spending started to go up and to diverge from other developed nations.

Sexual Revolution: The timing is more or less right, and there are books that have made this case like Sex and Culture and Primal Screams. I doubt that it’s at the top of anyone’s list, but I suspect that the sexual revolution and other cultural changes have had a much greater impact than most people suspect. 

Science broke: With the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis getting lots of attention, along with all of the things science did right and wrong over the last 18 months, added on top of the replication crisis, and the fight over climate change. Lots of people are asking if science is broken. If for the moment we assume that it is, then the next question would be when did it break? I haven’t dug into this as much as some other stuff, but one potential answer is 1971. That’s when peer review really took off, and it couldn’t have been too long after that that “publish or perish” became the law of professorship. 

End of the Malthusian Cycle: If birthrates flatten and agriculture becomes more productive then we have reached a state in human development we very rarely see, a state where population is not limited by the food supply. This is not the first time this has happened, but previously it’s always been because of horrible catastrophes like the Black Death. The reason I didn’t give more space to the explanation is that it appears to have happened closer to 1960 than 1971, and other people have already spent quite a bit of time on it. But in essence one possible answer to the question of what happened is that after thousands and thousands of years humanity finally escaped the Malthusian trap.

Tune back next week when I cover my favorite explanation (hint: I’ll once again be talking about nuclear power.) There’s very little chance I won’t be back next week, but if you’re concerned at all, the best thing to do is to donate.


The 10 Books I Finished in May

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

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

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. A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by: Jeff Hawkins
  2. One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by: Matthew Yglesias
  3. Persepolis Rising by: James S. E. Corey
  4. Project Hail Mary by: Andy Weir
  5. The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century by: Stein Ringen
  6. The Ethics of Authenticity by: Charles Taylor
  7. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours by: David D. Friedman
  8. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by: Alfred Lansing
  9. The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel) by: Neil Gaiman Adapted by: P. Craig Russell Illustrated by: Various
  10. Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020 by: Seth Masket

It’s the end of the school year, and this one has been particularly dramatic. My two oldest both graduated from college, and my youngest graduated from high school. Beyond that my wife is a school teacher and this year has easily been her most difficult. She was required to do her normal in person teaching, while on top of that to prepare everything again for a separate virtual track. Which more than doubled her workload. My two oldest didn’t have a normal graduation ceremony, and spent much of their final year in virtual classes, which I don’t think they enjoyed. But the person who really suffered was my youngest. The pandemic clobbered the end of her junior year and most of her senior year. At a time when kids should be spending time with their friends and going to games and dances, she did far less of that than normal. Fortunately though they cancelled prom last year, they didn’t this year, which I was overjoyed to hear. She ended up missing the majority of her high school dances, I was glad she got to go to prom.

We did a lot during the pandemic to save the lives of old people. And it was easy to know if we were succeeding or not by looking at how many of them died. Of course in order to protect these lives we made sacrifices, we sacrificed the lives of the young for the lives of the old. Not literally of course, their sacrifice was less dramatic, but they did make sacrifices. In the end, perhaps whatever sacrifice the young needed to make was entirely worth it. It will probably end up being only a minor disruption, and quickly forgotten. Kids are pretty resilient after all. But when I consider everything my daughter was looking forward to that she ended up missing out on, and then beyond that to consider the millions of other kids who missed out on stuff I can’t help but be sad. Also it’s clearly a perversion of the natural order to have the very young make sacrifices for the very old, and I suspect that these days we do it far too often. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence

By: Jeff Hawkins

288 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

How the brain works, and what implications that has for artificial intelligence.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in artificial intelligence or neurology you should probably read this book. 

General Thoughts

This is a follow-up to Hawkins’ previous book, On Intelligence, which introduced the predictive processing model of the brain. I loved On Intelligence so I was eager to read Hawkins’ follow-up. I also enjoyed this book, but it was not nearly so revelatory as his first one, though it was more ambitious. However, I’m not sure this ambition was a good thing.

In this book Hawkins fleshes out the predictive processing model introduced in On Intelligence. For those unfamiliar with the idea, the predictive processing model holds that the brain works by creating predictions for what it will see and hear and then uses those predictions in essence to meet sensory input half way. That’s a simplistic explanation for a fascinating topic, and if it’s still unclear I would recommend the wikipedia article I linked to. In this book Hawkins adds two new ideas:

First off he presents the idea of reference frames. If the brain is going to make predictions it has to have a framework around which to base its predictions. Thus, according to Hawkins, intelligence relies on a large collection of models. It models objects, rooms, ideas, etc. Once these models are in place it can compare them against what it encounters in reality and use them to identify objects, catalog things which are new, and make judgements based on how closely things correspond or deviate from these models. 

His second idea, embodiment, is closely related to reference frames. A brain has to be attached to a source of sensory input to something in order to make and use these models. Perhaps not in theory, but in practice when all the food and the predators were physical, reference frames ended up being very closely tied to the actual environment. This means our intelligence is intimately connected to our bodies, and that creating an intelligence without giving it a body to control as it goes about collecting data and turning it into models is to miss the entire definition of intelligence. In more concrete terms Hawkins asserts that robotics will end up being critical to AI, that thinking is inseparable from moving. The natural question is whether we could simulate a physical environment. I think Hawkins could have spent more space on this question, but his answer appears to be that we cannot, not in a way that leads to actual intelligence.

Underlying all of this is the neocortex, the most recent addition to the brain and the seat of intelligence. The fundamental unit of the neocortex is the cortical column, which makes it also the fundamental unit of intelligence. If we assume (as Hawkins does) that each cortical column takes up one square millimeter at the surface of the brain and has a depth of 2.5 millimeters (the thickness of the neocortex) then humans have 150,000 of them. (Thus the title of the book.) And each one can contain parts of thousands of different models. But the key fact, according to Hawkins, is that they all have essentially the same architecture, and as such if we can just duplicate a cortical column we can attach it to a “body” and we’ll have intelligence, and consciousness. 

I will leave a full discussion of the book’s implications for AI and the “hard problem of consciousness” to the experts. Though I do find his contention that AI will need to learn through movement fascinating for religious reasons which I’ll get into at the very end of the post. And as far as consciousness, according to Hawkins it will be easy to replicate and should carry no particular moral weight, meaning it’s not a big deal to shut off such machines even if they are conscious, and getting into why takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

A big part of Hawkins’ book is making a division between the neocortex and the “old brain” and while he doesn’t go as far as some people I’ve seen (Tim Urban over at Wait but Why makes the same distinction and claims that “the Higher Mind [i.e. the neocortex] values truth above all else” and yes it was bold in the original.) Hawkins basically claims that all of the problems we’re currently grappling with as humans, the biases, the divisions, the violence, etc. originates in the old brain. Thus when we build an artificial neocortex it won’t have any of that bad stuff because we won’t have built an old brain along with it. Apparently caring about survival and consciousness is one of those bad things, which is why shutting off AIs which lack old brains will not carry any moral weight. Moreover, an AI built in such a fashion will be perfectly subservient and docile. From all this Hawkins concludes that all those people who are worried about AI risk are worried about nothing.

At a bare minimum such a blanket rejection seems hasty, but there’s a case to be made that it’s worse than that, that it’s actually staggeringly naive. I can think of at least 4 reasons why this might be the case:

  1. As I’ve pointed out over and over again civilization is the accumulation of cultural evolution. Out of this we’ve gotten things like rule of law, expectations of reciprocity, positive systems of belief, etc. Let’s assume, as Hawkings appears to, that none of this is built in, that we’re born as a blank slate with respect to these issues. This would mean that a blank neocortex would have none of this very important cultural evolution either. Nevertheless it seems important that they acquire it. How is that to be accomplished? This seems like a reasonably important and difficult issue, and I’m just talking about the technical aspects, forget the arguments which would arise over deciding which “culture” to embed in our AI.
  2. More importantly there are studies that indicate you actually can’t make even routine decisions without emotions, and further that emotion is tied to perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. But emotions are all part of the bad old brain, so we’d have to come up with some other way of providing the AI with emotions or at least something which directs the neocortex. But wouldn’t this just take us back to the AI alignment problem?
  3. Another reason Hawkins has for dismissing AI risk is if we take it as given that intelligence needs to be embodied in order to learn, this inevitably puts a cap on how fast the AIs can develop. A computer may be able to play a million games of virtual chess in only a moment or two, but if it tries to play physical chess that fast the robot arm won’t be able to keep up. This is an important point, but I think Hawkins dismisses the potential of virtual worlds too easily. Also I think he underestimates the advantage of being able to clone experts and mass produce bodies. Which is to say there’s a good chance that if one robot spends the time necessary to become an expert in a given domain, we can copy that robot as often as we want, or even add that expertise to other robots. 
  4. The impression I got from the book is that if we can figure out how to create a cortical column then the problem of intelligence would be solved beyond a few trivial issues that are barely worth mentioning. One of these issues that was apparently too trivial to mention is the specialization between the left and right hemispheres, something I went into great detail on in a previous post. (Left brain obsesses over details, right brain is the one that assembles them into coherent wholes.) This oversight is just one example, I suspect there is vast complexity in the cortex that would not be captured by just duplicating cortical columns.

These are all significant problems, despite that it seems clear that if you think understanding natural intelligence is an important step in creating artificial intelligence, you’re going to have to grapple with Hawkins’ ideas. If we are as close to AI as Hawkins claims, it would carry profound implications for the future of humanity and our eventual destiny. This endeavor touches on most of the hot topics in the trans/posthumanist space, and in the last part of the book he also grapples with these.  He vigorously disagrees with the idea that anyone is ever going to want to have their brain uploaded, and he’s also fairly dismissive of the idea of integrating brains and computers cybernetically. He knows that part of this desire is connected with a desire for immortality which leads him to a discussion of ways to achieve immortality for humanity and Fermi’s Paradox. Here he summarily dismisses worries about announcing our existence (i.e. the Dark Forest explanation) and offers some ideas for creating a civilizational archive.

I agree with most of his predictions, though often for very different reasons, but I wonder if it would be a better book if he had leaned in more to these additional topics or ignored them entirely. His tactic of touching on them briefly gave the appearance of arrogance, and leads to the accusation that Hawkins feels that because he has solved one problem, how the brain works, that he can use that methodology to solve all problems.

I don’t think Hawkins has solved all the problems of the future, and I don’t even think he’s solved all of the problems of intelligence as comprehensively as he imagines. Nevertheless I think this book represents a significant step forward in our understanding of natural intelligence, which is why, despite my numerous criticisms, you should still probably read this book. 


One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger

By: Matthew Yglesias

268 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is less about dramatically increasing the population than the title suggests. That is in there, but it is at least as much about ambitious technocratic solutions to our current problems.

Who should read this book?

If you like Yglesias then subscribe to his substack. (I do.) If you think his problem solving approach is so important that you should read everything you can about it, then also read this book, but I think from the standpoint of information density and utility the substack is better.

General Thoughts

As I said this book is less about the mechanics of getting “One Billion Americans” than the title would suggest, and at least as much about the subtitle “The Case for Thinking Bigger”. This disconnect violates one of Yglesias’ own rules, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. (I really like this rule, I did a whole post on it.) As an example of this lack, nowhere in the book does he lay out a timeline for how long he expects this population increase to take — 20 years? By the end of the century? He never even hints at this answer which seems like the bare minimum one should expect for a proposal like this. I suspect he leaves it out because it would point out some obvious difficulties with the idea. But clearly if we’re going to evaluate his idea we need to know what those difficulties might be, so let’s see if we can infer them based on what he does say. 

Space-wise he spends about the same amount of time on increasing population through increasing the birthrate as he does on increasing it through immigration, and he frequently talks about one billion as a tripling of the population. Obviously the first part of the three parts is the current population, so let’s say the second is babies born to current Americans and the third part is immigration. If we can decide a reasonable rate for adding the second part we can come up with a timeline for the whole endeavor. Currently the US Population is growing at 0.3% per year. At that rate it would take until 2256 for the population to double, and I’m assuming that much of that 0.3% is already due to immigration, but let’s be optimistic and assume it’s all births to current Americans, obviously we’re going to have to increase that rate, but how much is reasonable?

Let’s say we got it all the way to 1% in this case it would take until 2092. This would require that government incentives triple the population growth, something no government has even come close to doing, and we’re still looking at 2092. Israel has the highest population growth of any developed country at 1.44%, and they achieve that mostly through their huge population of orthodox Jews, so as it turns out religion is more powerful than policy. (A point I think I make all the time.) Even if we were to manage to get to that rate of growth it would still take until 2070 to double the population. This starts out as around five million new people per year and by 2070 it’s around 9 million people, since we’re assuming equal contribution from immigration this means that we’re also admitting that many immigrants. Currently we have around 46 million 1st generation immigrants, so we’d be doubling that number in 10 years, and eventually adding that many more immigrants every five years. And recall that these huge numbers get even huger if we can’t vastly increase the birthrate. So under the most optimistic scenario we’d need Israeli birthrates, 330 million immigrants and it wouldn’t happen until 2070.

One of the reasons Ygelsias gives for needing this massive population growth is to enable us to stay ahead of China. This is a big part of his book, it first comes up in the second paragraph of the introduction. As I’ve pointed out, getting to a billion Americans by 2070 would be a staggering achievement. Does anyone think it’s going to take 50 years before things come to a head with China? All of which is to say Yglesias is either encouraging politically inconceivable amounts of immigration, or he assumes that we will have many, many decades of runway before it will be a problem.

I focus on the unreality of Yglesias’ logistics first because if he’s actually serious then the minimum he can do is put together a timeline and some numbers. He has positioned himself as a pragmatist and I would think a timeline would be the bare minimum required for something to be considered a pragmatic solution. But the second thing I want to bring up is probably more serious, though at least he has an ideological excuse for ignoring it: 

It’s the problem of assimilating this massive influx of immigrants. My memory is that the topic of assimilation never appears in the book, certainly it’s never seriously grappled with. I bought the book expecting to be able to confirm this using the index, but it doesn’t have an index! (I would have bought the kindle version so I could search, but the hardback was actually less expensive.) I understand that some people believe assimilation to be unnecessary or even harmful, but I think they’re mistaken, particularly when dealing with an influx as massive as the one being discussed in this book..

Eschatological Implications

In some respects what this book has is an anti-eschatology. It contends that we can continue to avoid history and the catastrophes that accompany it if we just have a billion Americans, and perhaps more importantly if we implement his ambitious technocratic proposals, which cover areas like energy (way more nuclear), infrastructure (figure out and eliminate cost disease), and immigration (way more, but with some filtering). 

In this latter respect this book somewhat resembles Where Is My Flying Car, by J. Storrs Hall which I reviewed back in March. Hall claims all our problems can be solved by scientists and engineers if the government would just get out of the way. Yglesias claims that all our problems can be solved by government bureaucrats, though it’s not entirely clear who needs to get out of their way, perhaps the bureaucrats need to get out of their own way? This is the charitable interpretation of the book. But I don’t think it quite captures the book’s essence. No, for that we need to turn to Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

In one of the strips from this classic comic we see a man trapped in a box full of snakes hanging from the side of a tall building. The caption reads: “Professor Gallagher and his controversial technique of simultaneously confronting the fear of heights, snakes and the dark.” This appears to be the same technique Yglesias is advocating, that if America just had a billion people we would be forced to figure out a solution to transportation, infrastructure spending, and NIMBYism. And Yglesias has some decent ideas for how to do these things. Of course we would presumably also have to figure out racism, education (in particular racial achievement gaps), climate change and border control (Yglesias doesn’t want to admit just anyone). And here his ideas are far more vague, though I appreciated his advocacy of nuclear power. 

On one level you think, that might just be crazy enough to work! But on another level I think I would have been more interested in hearing the one thing he would focus on first, rather than his vague and crazy plan to solve everything all at once.


II- Capsule Reviews

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7)

By: James S. A. Corey

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book jumps 30 years into the future and finally reveals what’s been happening with the renegade Martians who’ve been hiding out all this time in the Laconian system.

Who should read this book?

It’s book 7 of a series, presumably by this point you should know whether or not you’re the audience for this book.

General Thoughts

The improbable centrality of James Holden and his associates to everything that happens everywhere continues in this next book of the Expanse series. But that’s okay. Since I came to the realization that the Expanse is just the campaign log for a particularly well run science fiction themed role-playing game that particular conceit has been a lot easier to stomach.

This book continues the interesting and capably written science fiction of the previous books with one notable exception. Singh, the viewpoint character for nearly a quarter of the chapters and the primary antagonist, did not gel for me. He was a bundle of attributes that never cohered. And out of all the attributes in that bundle he lacked the one you most expected him to have. So great was this lack that the book acknowledged its peculiarity and provided a perfunctory explanation. (I believe the cool kids call this lampshade hanging.) But as you might be able to tell I found the explanation entirely inadequate. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the Expanse series has actually done a reasonably good job of constructing interesting antagonists, and the Laconians have the potential to be the most interesting of all, but by making Singh the Laconian who gets the most screen time they fatally undermine this endeavor.


Project Hail Mary

by: Andy Weir

496 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the third book by the author of The Martian. (Now a major Hollywood motion picture starring Matt Damon!) This book is also the story of a scientist/engineer who finds himself alone and far away from home and must use his science/engineering chops to save the day.

Who should read this book?

If you liked The Martian I’m pretty confident you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this book is very similar to The Martian, but that’s okay. Lot’s of authors essentially write the same book over and over again (Fleming, Le Carre, Clancy, Crichton, Doyle, etc.) and if that’s where their talent is that’s what they should do. And clearly Weir has a talent for this sort of book, so he should probably write as many of them as he and we can stomach. That said, as is so often the case, I had a couple of problems with the book, one minor and one existential. 

Starting with the minor one, Weir, like so many science fiction authors who end up touching on Fermi’s Paradox, falls prey to the Mistake of Dramatic Timing, where despite the fact that something could have happened anytime in the last 100 million years (if not far longer) it happens at some point in the next 20, at a point where it’s occurrence creates the most drama. But as I said this is a failing common to many authors, not just Weir. 

The existential issue I have involves massive spoilers, so I have hidden it but if you select the space below you can see it. But, seriously think carefully before you do, I am spoiling the central mystery/reveal of the book, and if you don’t want that spoiled then come back after you’ve read it.

The main character has amnesia, and the central mystery of the book is how he ended up on the spaceship, since as his memories return it’s clear that he was not supposed to be on it, someone else was and on top of that, there was another person as a backup for the first  person. As you read you figure that something obviously happened to the primary crew member and their backup and indeed near the end you find out that they both end up dying in a freak accident. And Ryland Grace, the main character, ends up being the best person to take their place, in part because he’s been intimately involved in the project and already mostly has all the necessary knowledge, and in part because he’s got the rare gene which allows people to survive the artificial coma the crew is going to have to undergo in order to make the 13 light year trip. (Not 13 years for the crew because of relativity, but long enough that without the coma the mission planners are confident the crew will end up going crazy and killing on another.) 

So far so normal, authors create contrived situations all the time in order to end up with the story they want. It’s contrived that the other two crew members would die, leaving him alone. It’s contrived that the main character would have amnesia. And the whole book is a contrivance constructed to get a junior high science teacher on an interstellar ship. But all of these I can forgive, because they’re part of the story. But then there’s one contrivance which ends up being part of Grace’s character and I can’t believe that Grace would act this way, and furthermore I can’t believe that Weir thought it was acceptable to write the character this way.

Near the climax of the book Grace finally remembers the accident which kills the person who was supposed to go as the science officer and that person’s backup. When this happens the woman in charge (who I love) asks him to take their place. And when she makes this request, when she tells him that the only hope of the ENTIRE WORLD and EVERYONE ON IT depends on him, that they’re days away from launch and it would be impossible to train someone else, he refuses to go.

What sort of person would refuse this request?!?! (Honestly, and I know this is abjectly sexist according to conventional norms, but what kind of man would refuse this request?) More than that, what sort of author thinks this unbelievable level of cowardice is an acceptable trait for anyone let alone their main character? And most important of all, how did we reach this point as a society where we have no problem accepting the idea that it should be someone’s right to refuse to save the world? That even if someone is the only hope for saving the world, that they can just say they don’t feel like it and that’s an understandable and acceptable motivation? I’ve looked around some and no one else seems to have this problem. Now possibly it hasn’t come up because it’s a huge spoiler, but before you let society off the hook also remember that Weir not only had to come up with the idea and it had to get past numerous editors and first readers. As one final point, compare this to the heroic novels of just a few decades ago and try to imagine how people back then would have reacted. 

As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve been reading the archives of The Last Psychiatrist, and he frequently talks about the way narcissism has become the defining trait of modernity. Could there be a better example than this? Perhaps? But this is a doozy regardless. 

Now Weir has a reason. In establishing that Grace’s desire to live is so strong that he would refuse to save the world (the mission is one way). When, later in the book, he has to choose between living and doing something else noble (I could go into details, but I’m trying not to spoil everything) it makes this choice more noble because we already know how much he wanted to live, enough to choose it over saving the planet. But couldn’t Weir have accomplished the same thing by doing something similar to what Nolan did in Interstellar — give the guy a daughter? Yes he would have been copying Interstellar, and yes it would have introduced some other complexities, but that’s kind of the point. How did it come to seem that the best choice, and more importantly a believable choice was making Grace a coward with zero sense of duty?

Finally as perhaps a denouement to my rant. Even if we ignore what this choice says about our world, it’s still hard to argue that it wasn’t a dramatic choice, and one that received zero foreshadowing. To consider just one possibility overlooked by Weir, there’s the scene where Grace finds out he has this rare gene, and he doesn’t introspect at all about what it might mean with respect to this mission he’s deeply involved in. Weir could have foreshadowed his terror at the idea, making his eventual choice at least somewhat more believable.

Having read this spoiler you may wonder why I’m recommending the book. Well it comes at the end, the noble thing which follows it, somewhat redeems the choice, and the book up until this reveal is genuinely fantastic. 


The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century 

By: Stein Ringen

194 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Defining what sort of government China has and what we can expect out of it going forward. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re really trying to understand China this is a valuable addition to that quest. If not, the book is pretty technical and dry.

General Thoughts

I already talked at some length about this book in a post from a couple of weeks ago, though in that post I mostly focused on Ringen’s predictions. The book actually spends most of its time assessing how successful the Communist party has been at ruling China, and the conclusion is “mediocre”. Ringen points out that South Korea modernized far faster and far more successfully, and that most of China’s success is a natural byproduct of being so huge and from starting at basically zero after Mao comprehensively wrecked the country. 

In a past post on China I wondered if, based on Fukuyama’s Hegelian analysis of history, if China represented the synthesis of a new and more successful form of government. Having read this book I think we can be reasonably confident that it’s not. And if Ringen is correct it’s swiftly moving to a form of government we already tried, and with disastrous results: facism. 


The Ethics of Authenticity

By: Charles Taylor

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which supporters and critics of the modern drive for authenticity end up missing the point.

Who should read this book?

This is a densely written book, similar to the other book I’ve read by Taylor, A Secular Age but not nearly so long, so it’s a great way to get both a sense of Taylor and a nuanced discussion of authenticity, but it is pretty academic.

General Thoughts

Arguments over authenticity generally fall into two camps. There are the people arguing that it’s acceptable to abandon everything, religion, family, and even spouses if it brings someone closer to their authentic self. And then there are people who think such abandonment is everything that’s wrong with the modern world, and an elaborate justification for the worst kind of selfish and destructive behavior. In this book Taylor attempts to strike a middle ground between these two views. He understands the importance of individual choice, of allowing people to choose what seems most authentic to them, but argues that in order for that choice to have any meaning there still has to be a background of external values. From the book:

Even the sense that the significance of my life comes from its being chosen — the case where authenticity is actually grounded on self-determining freedom — depends on the understanding that independent of my will there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life…unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others…Which issues are significant I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

By: David D. Friedman

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The collected descriptions of historical legal systems with very different ways of doing things.

Who should read this book?

If you have libertarian leanings, or a fascination with historical legal systems, or if the idea of the book sounds interesting, you should read it. 

General Thoughts

I read this book as part of a Slate Star Codex reading group. The book was selected because it was reviewed on SSC. I don’t think I can improve on, or even add much, to that review. I will say that the discussion of historical methods for dealing with a legal code which was literally handed down by God — as is the case with Jews and Muslims (and to a lesser extent Mormons) — was fascinating. In these situations there needs to be some flexibility in enforcing the law particularly as times change — to give a simple example enforcing Jewish law in a Jewish state is a lot easier than enforcing it when you’re ruled over by the Romans — but a system of law which came directly from the mouth of God doesn’t naturally lend itself to flexibility. The historical ways in which flexibility was justified in spite of this made for some very interesting reading.


Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

By: Alfred Lansing

357 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ernest Shackleton’s aborted attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914 and the amazing survival story which took place after his ship was destroyed by the ice.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. Certainly everyone who isn’t intimately familiar with this amazing story.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I watched a TV show about Shackleton and since then I’ve been enthralled by the story, but I hadn’t really come across a good book about it (which is not to say that I looked very hard) so I was grateful when one of my readers recommended this book. It was a quick read (10 hours on audio) but I don’t think it skimped on the details. And really the story, particularly the part where Shackleton sails a 20 foot open boat 800 miles across the worst seas in the world to get help, is just incredible.


The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel)

By: Neil Gaiman

Adapted by: P. Craig Russell

Illustrated by: Various

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a graphic novel adaptation of Gaiman’s novel of the same name, which itself is a re-imagining of Kipling’s Jungle Book, with a graveyard in place of a jungle.

Who should read this book?

Everyone should definitely read The Graveyard Book, the question is whether the graphic novel version is faithful enough to serve as a replacement for the original novel. I would say probably, but I really think you should probably just read both, in which case I would probably start with the novel.

General Thoughts

I’m a huge fan of graphic novels (and it’s a mystery why I don’t read more, they would definitely help pump up my numbers). And I’m a huge fan of Gaiman and in particular The Graveyard Book so the other day when I was browsing through a Barnes and Noble and saw this book I immediately bought it and read it. 

Obviously when talking about a graphic novel you need to discuss the artwork. I thought it was good, but not incredible. There were slightly more examples of the artwork being worse than what I had imagined than there were examples of it being better. But that’s probably more a comment on how great the novel was at stoking my imagination than any comment on the skill of the artists. The art was great, and I’m glad I bought the book.


Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020

By: Seth Masket

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A data driven examination of what lessons the Democrats took from their loss in 2016 as they considered who to nominate in 2020.

Who should read this book?

Hardcore political junkies who think anecdotes just slow things down.

General Thoughts

Over the last few years I’ve read two great books about the lead up to the 2016 election from the Republican perspective. One was The Wilderness by McKay Coppins, the other was American Carnage by Tim Alberta (you can find my review of it here.) I immensely enjoyed both books, and was looking for something that did the same thing but from the perspective of the Democrats, I thought this might be such a book, it was not. Wilderness and Carnage were full of amazing anecdotes and behind the scenes stories. Learning from Loss was a collection of data from numerous surveys asking high level Democrats why they thought they had lost in 2016, and then graphs and analysis of their responses. I suppose that this methodology is more generally useful than knowing what Mitt Romney’s reaction was when Jeb Bush preemptively hired all the people qualified to run a campaign, but the latter is way more engaging. All of which is to say I did learn some things — for example lots of people blamed the loss on too big of an emphasis on identity politics which is how we ended up with an old white guy — but overall it was a pretty dull book.

III- Religious Reviews

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence [Addendum]

I mentioned above that the contention that intelligence has to be embodied is very interesting from a religious perspective. In particular I’m thinking of my own religion. In Mormon cosmology there is not only life after death, but there was life before birth. In that state people are specifically referred to as “intelligences” and one of the primary reasons to be born is in order to get a body. That the next step if you want to progress as an intelligence is to be embodied. Obviously it would be very easy to make too much of the way this correlates with what Hawkins is saying, but I find it a fascinating correlation nonetheless.


I worry about these posts being too long, though I’m sure the anchor links at the top help. Is there any benefit to breaking them up into separate posts, maybe spreading them out over the month? Would it give the impression of more content and thus encourage more donations? Obviously anything that encourages someone to donate is a good thing.