Month: <span>November 2021</span>

Eschatologist #11: Black Swans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

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I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Shallow Seriousness Is Crowding Out Deep Seriousness

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I.

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s someone who’s serious. 

V.

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

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


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


The 8.5 Books I Finished in October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

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

by: Michael J. Sandel

342 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

As Sandel points out:

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

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

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

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


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

by: Jesse Singal

334 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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


II- Capsule Reviews

Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) 

by: John Michael Greer

247 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


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

by: H. W. Brands

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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


Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir

by: Norm Macdonald

242 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


The Silmarillion 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by: Carlo M. Cipolla

64 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The 5 Laws of human stupidity.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

Here are the five laws of human stupidity:

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

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

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

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


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

by: Roland Huntford

640 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


III- Religious Reviews

How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

by: David DeSteno

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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


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