Month: <span>December 2021</span>

Eschatologist #12: Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artificial Intelligence

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

Transhumanism

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

Outer Space

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

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

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

Miscellaneous

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

You have been warned.

I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

…which also orbits a sun-like star

…in the habitable zone of that same star

…which turned that luck into life

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

…developing from single-celled to multicellular life

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery 

by: Ross Douthat

224 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

Epistemology in an age of unlimited information and experimentation. 

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

Who should read this book?

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

“Who should read this book?”

“Everyone.”

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

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

by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damien Paletta

496 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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


The Premonition: A Pandemic Story 

by: Michael Lewis

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


Morning Star

by: Pierce Brown

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


Star Trek: The City on the Edge of Forever

Originally by: Harlan Ellison

Adapted by: Scott & David Tipton

128 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


The Economics of Violence

by: Gary M. M. Shiffman

244 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Hobbit, or There and Back Again 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

320 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

I assume everyone knows what this book is about.

Who should read to this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


Chorazin: (The Weird of Hali #3) 

by: John Michael Greer

255 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia 

by: Peter Hopkirk

564 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

III- Religious Observation

The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery 

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

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

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

If I find one it means I will get better.

If I find one it means I will get better.

If I find one it means I will get better.

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

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

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


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