Year: <span>2022</span>

The Bifurcation Created by Technology

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I.

I’ve tried to start tweeting more consistently, though not because I like to tweet. As you may be able to tell from the length of my essays, tweeting is the exact opposite of my preferred style of communication. Unfortunately Twitter is where all the action happens, so if I want to be a public intellectual, I have to tweet. I don’t know that I want to be a public intellectual, nor have I ever claimed to be such. But I haven’t found any better label for what I’m trying to do, so I guess that’s the direction I hope to go in however silly and conceited that may sound at this point. 

Of course the consensus is that Twitter is a dumpster fire encased in high level nuclear waste, and that anyone who has the least interest in maintaining their mental health should avoid it like the plague. Though I mostly see that sentiment expressed by people who are already well known enough that their audience will find them regardless, giving them the option of avoiding the radioactive inferno. That does not describe me, though so far the greatest difficulty I’ve encountered is remembering that it’s there. Apparently the deep red of the uranium fire does not hold the same appeal for me as it does for others.  

In any case I digress, I mention the tweeting in case there are readers out there who might be interested in following my infrequent tweets (I’ve gotten pretty good at tweeting at least once a day.) I also mention it because the idea for this post started as a tweet. (I guess I need to figure out how to embed tweets, but until then, I’ll just quote it.)

Technology bifurcates problems. 99% of problems go away, but the 1% that are left are awful. Case in point customer service: 99% of the time you don’t even need customer service from Amazon, etc. but the 1% of the time you do you’re suddenly in a story by Kafka.

I mentioned Amazon in my tweet, completely missing that, contextually it would have been better to mention Twitter, since it basically has the same problem. We probably all know someone who has been temporarily banned from twitter for tweeting something objectionable. The initial choice (as I understand it, remember I’m not a power user) is to delete the offending tweet or to appeal. Nearly everyone deletes the offending tweet because they know that appealing puts them in the aforementioned story by Kafka. And should it happen a second time then appealing switches from Kafka to Dante: “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. All of which is to emphasis my initial point: 99%, probably even 99.9% of Twitter users never need customer service, the platform just runs on it’s own without the users ever running into problems which need special intervention, but in the edge cases where it doesn’t run smoothly the process is completely opaque, unresponsive, and ineffective.

Despite how bad it is, as far as I can tell Twitter does much better than Amazon and Google. The internet is full of stories of people who had their Amazon seller account closed—frequently for things the person never did. (This reddit story represents a typical example.) And you may have caught the New York Times story from last month about the father who took pictures of his toddler’s genitals to send to the child’s pediatrician, who ended up losing everything he had with Google (Contacts, email, photos, etc.) because the pictures he sent were flagged as child pornography by the Google algorithms. And not only that Google also referred him to the police. All of this is bad but from a societal perspective the worst was yet to come. 

Google, despite being contacted by the NYT and having the situation explained to them, refused to budge. You might imagine that this is just a principled stand on their part. That they have zero tolerance for stuff like this. Or you might imagine the inverse, they’re worried that if they did reverse their opinion they would appear soft on the issue. I don’t think it’s either of those things. I think that they’re incredibly invested in the idea that their algorithms can handle content moderation, and that’s the position they don’t want to undermine. Because if algorithms are shown to have holes and flaws then they might have to spend a lot of time and money getting humans to do customer service, which is the exact opposite of the direction they’ve been trying to go since their founding. 

Before moving on, as I was re-reading this story, I came across yet another consequence of Google’s villainy. This one, out of all of the consequences this man suffered, really hit home for me. “He now uses a Hotmail address for email, which people mock him for…” I’ll admit that made me laugh. But also, yeah, I totally get it.

In any case I think the customer service angle is pretty straight forward, the question is how broadly can we apply this observation, where else might it be happening? What other harms might it be causing? In order to answer that I think we need to start by examining the process which brings it into existence in the first place.

II.

Initially everything is hard and time consuming. I own a small custom software company, that’s a million times smaller than Amazon. (Okay, not literally, but pretty close.) But my company also solves problems with software. At this point if one of my customers has a problem then they come directly to me and I fix it (or more likely my younger, more talented, better looking partner does.) There’s a lot of friction and a lot of overhead to that process. Gradually we hope to be able to smooth all of that out. The first step in doing that is to hope that whatever we fix stays fixed. We also hope to be able to nip problems in the bud by reusing proven solutions. Finally, we automate solutions for the most common problems. (Think of the “forgot password” button.) While this represents only a small portion of our efforts, it’s a large part of what the big dawgs are doing.

Through all of these tactics, gradually we move things from the “hard and time consuming” column to the “never have to worry about it” column. Or at least we hope we never have to worry about them but “never” is a very long time, and it’s difficult to implement a solution that covers every possible eventuality. There are always going to be edge cases, unique situations and circumstances which combine in ways we didn’t expect. For problems like these you have to get a human involved, ideally a human with the authority to fix things, who’s also smart enough to understand why the situation is unique. (That’s often the problem I run into with customer service. If I’m calling you it’s not something I could fix just by Googling, and telling me to restart my router again is not helpful, it’s infuriating.) But I’m going to argue that for really difficult problems, it goes beyond even all of these things. You actually need a human who’s wise

It’s unclear whether the gentleman who had such difficulties with Google was even able to talk to an actual human, let alone a wise one. Certainly I don’t know how to reach a live person at Google, though I confess I’ve never tried. (Which is probably exactly the behavior they like to encourage.) The NYT obviously talked to someone, but again, even though they definitely had an actual conversation, there doesn’t appear to have been an abundance of wisdom involved. But to be fair, the amount of intelligence and wisdom required to solve these problems just keeps increasing. Because the problems left over after the implementation of all this technology are worse than they would have been if the technology never existed. To be clear I’m not arguing that the overall situation is worse (at least not yet). I’m pointing out that the top 1% of all problems are way worse when the other 99% is automated than when it’s not. 

How does this happen? Well let’s move on to a different example, one where the stakes are higher than being forced to switch to hotmail.

III.

That initial tweet was followed up with one more. (I was on fire that day!)

Additional thoughts/example: Self driving cars. Tech can take care of easiest 99%. Tosses most difficult 1% back to driver. Driver has no context, just suddenly in deep end, therefore much worse at hardest 1% than if they had just dealt with the full 100% from start.

Let me expand that from its abbreviated, staccato form. If not now, then soon, self driving cars will be able to take care of all the easy bits of driving. All the way back in 2015 my Subaru came with adaptive cruise control, which appears to be the lowest of all the low hanging fruit, and I’m sure many of you have Tesla’s which are several generations further advanced still, but no car can take care of 100% of driving and that driving which they can’t take care of is the most difficult driving of all.

The difficult 1% falls into two categories. First there are the sudden calamities: the car on a cross street running a red light, or debris falling off the pickup truck driving just in front of you, etc. 

The second category is bad weather. It’s my understanding that self-driving cars are not great at handling heavy rain, and are completely stymied by heavy snow. Luckily, unlike the examples from the first category, weather is not generally something that gets sprung on you suddenly. Nevertheless, it requires a whole suite of skills which rely on doing a lot of moderately difficult driving, not all of it in bad weather. In the same fashion that speaking academic English is helped by being able to speak conversational English, it’s clear that lots of normal driving helps one develop the skills necessary to tackle bad weather driving. Which is not to say that driving in snow does not have its own unique challenges. This is why in some municipalities, where snow is rare, when it does come they shut things down entirely. Is this same situation what we have to look forward to? A future where neither humans nor auto-pilots can handle inclement weather, and so when it happens everything shuts down? Perhaps, but that’s not really an option in many places. What’s more likely is that of all the driving humans do, a greater and greater percentage of it will only be done during times of extreme weather, with very little experience outside of that. Should this be the case self-driving cars will have made all the driving that does get done significantly more difficult.

Returning to the first category, those situations where conditions suddenly change are more what I was referring to in my tweet. Times where the self-driving car has lulled you into a state of inattentiveness (something that happens to me just using adaptive cruise control) but whatever the car is doing it’s understood that as part of the deal that it can’t handle everything. So when the light turns green it’s your responsibility to notice the Mustang coming from the left whose driver decided, incorrectly, that they could beat the light if they punched it up to 60. Of course you might not notice it regardless of the level of auto-pilot your car has, but also the chance of you missing it if you’ve been relying on auto-pilot for everything else goes way up. 

Having a car run a red light at high speed is presumably something outside the ability of most auto-pilots to detect, on the other hand there are some things the autopilot has no problem detecting, they just don’t know what to do with them. I mentioned debris falling out of a pickup truck. The car can probably detect that, but is this a situation where it’s better to slam on the breaks or swerve? I don’t claim to be an expert on exactly how every current auto-pilot functions, but I think most of them are not equipped to swerve. And it’s not clear how much you want to trust even those cars that are equipped to swerve. This means that it’s up to the person to immediately seize control, and make the decision. Fortunately the car should sound a collision alarm, but if that’s the first point at which you become aware of the debris you’ve already lost valuable time. 

Ideally in order to know whether to swerve or whether to break, you’d want to have a pretty good sense of where the other cars are on the road, particularly if there’s anyone currently hanging out in your blind spot. All of this is unlikely if you haven’t really been paying attention. Deciding whether to break, or swerve when suddenly confronted with road debris is in the top 1% of difficulty. And of course the decision is more complicated than that, there are some situations where the very best thing to do is run over the debris. The point is that for the foreseeable future, using autopilot would almost certainly make this very difficult decision even more difficult. 

IV.

Thus far we’ve covered the two examples that are the most straightforward (though perhaps you’ve already thought of other, equally obvious examples.) Now I want to move into examples where it’s not quite as obvious, but where I think this idea might still have some explanatory utility. I’m just going to touch on each example briefly, just long enough for you to get a sense of the area I’m talking about. I’m more going for a “what are your thoughts about that?” rather than a “here’s why this is also an example of the bifurcation I’ve been talking about”

Was it a factor with the pandemic? We have used technology to routinize numerous aspects of healthcare, such that with 99% of problems we have a system. There’s a specialist you can go to, a medicine you can take, or an operation which can be performed. But when the most difficult health problem of the last 100 years came along in the form of COVID, and it didn’t fit into any of our routines, we seemed pretty bad at dealing with it. Worse than we had been historically, particularly if you factor in the tools available then, vs. the tools available now. Additionally the bureaucracy we had created to deal with the lower 99% of problems ended up really getting in the way when it came to dealing with the top 1%, i.e. a global pandemic. 

Then there are societal problems like homelessness and drug addiction. We also have implemented significant civic technology in this area. Employment is pretty easy to find. Signing up for social programs is straightforward. Just about anybody who wants to go to college can. We’ve taken care of a lot of things which used to be dealt with at the level of the individual, the family, or the community. But, there was a lot of variability in the service offered by these entities, and oftentimes they failed, spectacularly. This is the reason for the various civic technologies that have emerged, and as a result of these technologies we’ve gotten pretty good at the 99%, but what’s happened to the 1%? As I’ve talked about frequently, drug overdose deaths are through the roof. The systems we’ve created are great at dealing with normal problems like just not having enough food, but with the really knotty problems like opioid addiction we seem to have gotten worse.

Does this bifurcation apply in the arena of war? Since WWII we’ve managed to keep 99% of international conflicts below the level of the Great Powers. This has rightly been called the long peace. And it’s been pretty nice. But as the situation in Ukraine gets ever more perilous are we about to find out what the really difficult 1% looks like? The type of war our international system was unable to tame? Essentially what I’m arguing here is that our diplomatic muscles have atrophied. We’re not used to negotiating with powerful countries who truly have their backs against the wall. Which was fine 99% of the time, but the 1% of the time we need it, we’ve lost the ability to engage in it. 

What about energy generation? We are fantastic at generating power. The international infrastructure we’ve built for getting oil out of the ground and then transporting it anywhere in the world is amazing. We’ve also gotten really good at erecting windmills and putting up solar panels. But somehow we just can’t seem to build nuclear power plants in a cost-effective way. It clearly is in that top 1% of difficulty, and as near as I can tell by getting really good at the other 99% we’ve essentially decided to just give up on that remaining 1%. But of course that 1% ends up being really important.

I think I may have stretched this idea to its breaking point, and maybe even past that, but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss how this idea relates to my last post. Because at first glance they seem to be contradictory. In the last post I said we put too much attention on the tails, and in this post I seem to be saying we’re not putting enough attention there. To be honest this contradiction didn’t occur to me until I was well into things, and for a moment it puzzled me as well. Clearly one explanation would be that I’m wrong now, or that I was wrong then, or that I’m wrong both times. But (for possibly selfish reasons) I think I was right both times, though the interplay between the two phenomena was subtle. 

In our current land grab for status people are racing towards the edges, but that doesn’t mean that the extreme edge, the 1%, gets more attention. In fact the exact opposite, it gets buried by the newcomers. Freddie deBoer has done a lot of great work here and I could pick any of a dozen articles he’s written, but perhaps his newsletter from this morning will suffice. As usual his titles don’t leave much to the imagination: “We Can’t Constructively Address Online Mental Health Culture Without Acknowledging That Some People Think They Have Disorders They Don’t”. As a result of people misdiagnosing themselves you end up in a situation where out of all the people who claim to have a particular disorder a significant percentage, let’s say 80%, don’t have it at all, or if they do it’s subclinical. Then figure an additional 15% of people have very mild cases. And the remaining 5% have a serious affliction. This 5% ends up basically being the 1% I’ve mentioned above, who don’t get the level of help they need because they’re competing for resources with the 95% of people who have mild or non-existent cases. Which takes us back to the same bifurcation I’ve been talking about.

V.

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve neglected a very significant counter argument. Possibly, some of you may be impotently yelling at me through your screen at this very moment. I’ve never discussed the ROI of this arrangement. In other words, this bifurcation could leave all of us better off. To take the example of the self-driving car. Around 40,000 people die every year in automobile accidents. Let’s say that 20% of those deaths come in situations auto-pilots are ill-equipped to deal with. But the other 80% of deaths would be completely eliminated if all cars were self-driving. Unless the extreme 1% ends up being five times more deadly because of overreliance on auto-pilot, we would be better off entirely switching to self-driving cars. Far fewer people would die.

Beyond this most people imagine that eventually we’ll get to 100%. That someday, perhaps sooner than we think, self-driving cars will be better than human drivers in all conditions. And at that point there really won’t be anything left to discuss. While the first point is valid, this second point partakes more of hubris than practicality. Truly getting to 100% would be the equivalent to creating better than human level AI, i.e. superintelligence. And if you follow the debates around the risk of that you know that the top 1% of bad outcomes are existential. 

Still, what about the first point? It is a good one, but I think we still need to keep three things in mind:

1- The systems we create to automate the 99% end up shifting complexity. Complex systems are fragile. We should never underestimate the calamities that can be created when complex systems blow up. I’m not prepared to say that CDOs are an example of this phenomenon, but they very well could be, and their existence took the 2007-2008 financial crisis to a whole new level. Despite the fact that most people had never even heard of them.

2- By focusing on technology we may be overlooking the truly worrisome aspect of this phenomenon. In theory we can turn technology off, or reprogram it. But to the extent we’re seeing this with softer systems (healthcare, diplomacy, energy generation) things could be much worse. The consequences take longer to manifest and are more subtle when they do. It’s far less clear that the ROI will eventually be positive.

3- Even if it’s absolutely true that we have improved the ROI it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep the 1% in mind and attempt to mitigate it. We have a tendency to want to stretch our systems as far as we think they will go. But perhaps we don’t need to stretch them quite so far. It might turn out that the sweet spot is not always maximum automation. That Amazon could afford to hire a few more actual humans. That self-driving systems might work in concert with humans rather than trying to replace them. That rather than ignoring the 1% because we’ve solved the 99% that we can once again decide to do hard things.

This post may or may not have been inspired by an actual experience with Amazon. Though I will say that if you ship something back for a refund be sure to keep the shipping receipt with the tracking number. This experience, which may or may not have happened is why I deal with everything related to this podcast personally. If you appreciate this lack of automation consider donating.


The Tails of the Cultural Bell Curve

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

Or download the MP3


I.

As you probably all know, a significant number of inborn human traits, when plotted, turn out to form a bell curve, or something very close to that. This distribution is so common that it’s just called the “normal” distribution. Height is often used as the classic example, but it goes well beyond that to things like strength, shoe size and blood pressure. Nor is it limited to physical attributes. IQ and the big five personality traits can also be graphed as a bell curve. This list is by no means exhaustive, and in addition to things which are easy to plot, like height, there are probably things which are less amenable to measurement which are nevertheless normally distributed.

We’ve been talking a fair amount recently about culture, is there some sense in which it might also follow a normal distribution? Perhaps, but if so what would that mean? Or if it doesn’t follow a normal distribution, what sort of distribution does it follow? The reason I’m curious doesn’t have much to do with the peak (or peaks) of the distribution. The tails of a distribution is generally where all the action is, and you can see the beginnings of this idea scattered among my last few posts: What do these cultural “tails” look like for a culture that’s deep into involution? What does it look like if tail behavior is forbidden by super strong taboos? Finally, which behavior is in the middle of a distribution and which is tail behavior, dads or cads? Or are they on opposite ends? 

But of course, unlike the genetic traits we mentioned at the beginning, where the graphs move very slowly, culture can evolve quite quickly. What would that movement look like if you graphed it? Should we want it to move in some directions rather than others? If there is a peak how is it determined? Furthermore, inward behavioral preferences would seem to have different graphs and peaks than outward behavioral reality. The broader society would seem to have a reasonable chance of changing outward behavior through incentives, but a more difficult time altering preferences. Though, as a further complication, much of the focus on modernity has been on eliminating the differences between preferences and reality. Is that bad or good?

In order to get our head around these questions and the topic more generally let’s move on to an example:

II.

I’ve already alluded to my review of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, by Louise Perry, so let’s start there. In 1970, when the sexual revolution was just getting started, 80% of people aged 25-50 were married. Now it’s around 50%. I couldn’t find any post-pandemic figures, but the consensus appears to be that the pandemic would have driven it even lower. Clearly in 1970 if you drew a graph depicting the culture of marriage, you would have a large peak which represented monogamous marriage. But that’s a map of outward behavior. It’s unclear what a graph of inward preferences would look like, though one assumes it would be different from their outward behaviors, but that societal expectations and incentives caused people to act in ways that weren’t directly aligned with their individual preferences.

As we can already see, it’s obvious that some graphs are easy to draw because we have the data, while some are far more difficult to plot because all we have are anecdotes. Unfortunately those are the one’s we’re most interested in, and one of the goals of this post is to try to infer what those graphs might look like and how they might have changed. Perhaps gaining some insight in the process. Such an endeavor is necessarily very speculative, but in spite of this I hope it will be useful. 

In any case, while it’s straightforward to chart how many people were married, what’s less straightforward is charting inward preferences. And then there’s the question of whose preferences are we talking about? One of the central claims of Perry’s book is that men and women have different preferences. So when the sexual revolution came along and started eliminating the gap between behaviors and preferences, was it eliminating the gap between male behaviors and male preferences or between female behaviors and female preferences? Sex positive feminists argue that it was the latter, while Perry argues that it was the former. That in fact the 1970’s graph was closer to the preference of the majority of females than the current graph. 

There’s obviously a huge debate to be had there, and rather than go back down that rabbit hole, let’s examine something which is hopefully more straightforward: marital contentment. Yes, there are going to be some marriages where one spouse is far more or less content than the other. But my assumption is that it’s hard for one spouse to remain happy if the other is miserable and vice versa (though to a lesser extent), and as such we can meaningfully talk about the contentment of the couple rather than just the individuals. I’m going to make the further assumption that historically marital contentment was normally distributed, that most marriages clustered around the middle, with a few that were much less happy and a few that were much more happy than normal. In other words that previous to the sexual revolution, and indeed for most of history, marital contentment resembled a bell curve. 

So far, my assumptions have been unremarkable, and my conclusions ordinary. But as I said at the beginning all the action is at the tails. What effect did the sexual revolution have on the tails of the contentment distribution? Well, the divorce rate skyrocketed, and given that marriages which end in divorce are almost exclusively located at the bottom of the distribution, it seems fair to say that the sexual revolution put more attention on the lower tail of the distribution. But why? I intend to argue that this shift in focus is one of the attributes of modernity, and it’s not limited to marital contentment.

(I actually think it put more attention on both ends of the distribution. That when more focus was placed on bad marriages, that it automatically generated more focus on trying to create really good marriages as well, articles, books, and behavioral changes. But in this post I’m going to restrict things to the lower tail of the distribution.)

This focus on the lower tail was a big change, I would argue that historically most of the attention was given to the middle of the marital contentment distribution. People expected marriages to be average (as indeed most of them were). If you had an average marriage you talked about it, if you had an unhappy marriage you didn’t. Average marriage was the assumed default. Average marriages were generally what got depicted in fiction. Beyond this societal forces pushed people towards the middle. For much of history people didn’t even consider getting a divorce. Men were expected to be dads not cads, regardless of their preference. Taboos existed against caddish behavior and against other behavior at the lower end of the distribution. If your marriage was unhappy you nevertheless pretended that it was normal or average. And as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, in his under-rated novel Mother Night. “We are what we pretend to be.” 

III. 

You may think that the Vonnegut quote is a weird tangent, but in reality it represents the crux of the issue. There’s every reason to believe that the graphs of inner preferences and outward behavior do not match, so for hundreds of years we decided to pretend to be something we’re not. In the “land of pretend” 80% of us are married. The divorce rate is 1 per 1,000 (or 0.3 per 1,000 if you go back far enough). And everyone pretends that their marriage is problem free. And as Vonnegut observed, if you pretend hard enough it becomes difficult to distinguish the pretense from the reality.

But at some point in our journey toward enlightenment and rationality we decided that it was wrong to pretend. That our outward behavior should match our inner preferences. And now we’re in the real world where only 50% of us are married. The divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000 (down from a peak of over 5, but that doesn’t mean much if the marriage rate doesn’t stay constant.) And no one has to pretend anything about their marriage anymore. Yes, people still do pretend, but it’s not expected. As a concrete example of what I mean, prefacing something with “I’m going to stop pretending,” justifies almost any statement. 

If pretending is so bad. If we’re well rid of it, why did we pretend in the first place? Here we return to the graph. Most of our pretenses, and our taboos, and our obfuscations were designed to push the distribution towards the middle, towards the average. And what was so special about this average? Presumably it was a point of stability; a point that the culture had arrived at after a great degree of trial and error, a point of safety. But even if this average represented a point of stability in an ocean of chaos. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bell curve also resembles an island.) And something that was beneficial to the society as a whole, it wasn’t something that all members of that society benefited from. All this pretending in order to coalesce around a mean masked a bunch of unhappiness, shame and guilt. 

In the past, when survival was more tenuous, the advantages of having a strong cultural center were probably so great that no one cared about the tails of the distribution. But as abundance of all sorts increased, and cohesion no longer spelled the difference between success and ruin, those on the bottom end, who had to pretend the most of all, demanded that they should no longer have to. At the same time as demands were flowing from the edges to the center, charitable impulses were flowing from the center to the edges. As the need to marry and reproduce lessened (say in order to have kids to work the farms)  then being unmarried becomes a harmless choice, not a matter for societal scorn. And surely everyone has friends and family who never managed to get married providing first hand knowledge which further inclines them to be charitable.

The combination of all these factors led to the focus moving from the center to the edges. And this applied to nearly all aspects of culture. Rather than worrying about whether the society was still centered on longstanding cultural practices it became more important to ensure that people weren’t excluded. That if someone would prefer not to get married, or prefer to only get married should everything go perfectly. Then they shouldn’t have to. 

At first glance this sounds like a good and charitable change. Why would we not want to allow people to express their preferences? Why would we want to make people pretend to be something they’re not? Also if our abundance allows us to accommodate all sorts of behavior why shouldn’t we let people behave in whatever fashion they choose.

The whole endeavor promises a better, happier world, but was that promise fulfilled? As time goes on, and we focus more and more on those who were previously shunned and looked down on, what happens? To return to Perry. She admits that in the beginning the sexual revolution and the introduction of the Pill, and all the rest of the changes did go a long way towards making people on the tails happier and more content, but these sorts of situations are never static, there are always trade-offs.

We can see this play out in the cads vs. dads situation. Historically there was always an oversupply of cads, such that we had to pretend that the demand was basically zero to just keep the supply manageable. Since we’ve opened up the floodgates to cads the supply has gotten so great that now women (according to Perry and others) are in the opposite situation. They have to pretend to demand cads (or at least tolerate them) just because the supply of dads is so low. We have clobbered the peak of the distribution and moved a huge amount of behavior to the tails. 

As I have already alluded to, this is not just taking place in the marriage market. This focus on the tail is taking place nearly everywhere:

  • We see it with depression and mental health. This is another area that used to look like a normal distribution with the bulk of people mentally healthy (or pretending to be so) and unmedicated. The situation has flipped, and now rather than hiding illnesses and pretending to be healthy we lean into them. As a result, the number of people in the lower tail of the distribution has skyrocketed. Now to be clear I am not saying that it’s all a matter of societal attitudes. Depression could be increasing for any number of reasons, modernity has brought with it a lot of strangeness. My argument would be that this change in focus from the center to the tail is one of these strange things.
  • In addition to mental illness we see it with physical illness. We have expanded the number of people who are sick and disabled, and significantly reduced the people who are considered to be healthy. Again I’m not claiming that all the new sick people are pretending. (Though some clearly are, for some definitions of the word “pretend”.) Rather, I’m saying that in the past these people would have pretended to be well. And that the distinction between being well and pretending to be well is not as clear as one would think.
  • Perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon is found in the area of gender identification. Up until very recently it’s hard to imagine something more normal, more in the center of the distribution than being cisgender. So much that the word didn’t even exist until 1994 and didn’t appear in any dictionaries until 2015. And yet now a staggering amount of attention is being paid to what was previously an invisible tail in the gender distribution.

If we allow ourselves to get more speculative there are a few other areas which are also worth considering:

  • Ideology and beliefs are becoming increasingly dominated by the tails. In times past the idea that a presidential election had been stolen would have been out there, but only the outermost fringes would have gotten really worked up about it. Now it’s practically a plank in the Republican platform. On the left I already mentioned gender identification, but things like defunding the police also fall into this category.
  • Closely related you can also see this in the area of practical politics. And here we actually have a graph. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It always has two peaks, but in 1994 the two parties were so close together that it just about looked like a classic bell curve. It was much the same in 2004, but by 2014 there were clearly two graphs and they were racing to the right and left. I can only imagine what it looks like now. (What’s interesting is that during times of crisis, the graph gets pushed back together, think back to my argument about safety.)
  • Gambling, and other addictions may initially seem like the opposite of what we’ve been talking about, but I think the dynamic is very similar. The vast majority of people do not develop a gambling addiction, so you might think that up until now we would have allowed everyone to gamble and written off the minority at the tails who ended up harmfully addicted. But recall that the center of the distribution got to be that way because it was an island of safety. A spot of low fragility. To do that societal norms create behaviors which are different from natural preferences. People like to gamble, but at some point we decided it was harmful enough that we placed it under significant restriction. Most people barely even cared, but some people decided that it was an unacceptable restriction on their freedoms. Perhaps in this case the focus is on the other tail of the distribution, those who really wanted to be able to gamble. In any case, there’s been an enormous expansion in the availability of gambling recently, particularly sports gambling. 

Having reached the end of this post, I’m not sure how convincing I was. I expect that some people are going to come away thinking. “Well that was a tortured path to saying something that was already entirely obvious.” While others may be thinking the exact opposite, that all I ended up doing was spouting a lot of nonsense. Ideally these reactions represent the two tails of the distribution. That actually most of you form a peak in the middle. The people who think that the idea was both novel and useful.


There’s a lot you could take from this post, but if you were only going to take one thing it should be this. We should all be reading more Vonnegut. So in lieu of a donation check out some Vonnegut from the library. And if you don’t like Vonnegut then you should definitely donate, as penance for your poor taste. 


Excerpt: Book Review- The Ethics of Beauty

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If you’ve been following along you’ll know I had a book review published in a brand new magazine. With the permission of the publisher I decided to put out the intro and the first part of the review. If you like it, and want to see the rest, consider subscribing to the magazine or at least purchasing the first issue. You can use the coupon code ‘RW’ to get 10% off a subscription or $1 off the price of a single issue (which would make it $3 for the PDF or $5 for print). 

That address to do that is: https://americanhombre.gumroad.com/

The Ethics of Beauty

By: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Beauty will save the world.

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. 

And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?

This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.

But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)

I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The Cliffs of Moher, showing as well the Harry Potter Cave

As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise. 

But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values. 

Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.

Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.

But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. 

To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not. 

Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?

First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general. 

Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example

II- War and the Associated Trauma

For the rest, you’ll have to buy the magazine…


As a committed and believing Christian myself, I often wonder whether a given thought is divinely inspired or whether it’s just a random thought that happens to sound good. Patitsas provides a helpful rule of thumb: “You should never assume that it’s not and you should never assume that it is.” That you should treat it as provisional inspiration, and begin to act on it. And through acting it’s true nature will be revealed. That essentially a certain amount of faith is required. I think the idea is similar to that expressed in John 7:17. Perhaps at this very moment you’re thinking of donating and wondering if it’s inspired or just a pavlovian response from reading my usual end of post appeal. Well, there’s only one way to find out…


The 8 Books I Finished in August

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  1. The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail by: Ray Dalio
  2. The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century by: Louise Perry
  3. The War on the West by: Douglas Murray
  4. The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: Woke, Entitled, and Drunk with Power by: Mark Bauerlein
  5. Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by: Luke Burgis
  6. The Giver by: Lois Lowry
  7. The End of Eternity by: Isaac Asimov
  8. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by: Ross Douthat

At the beginning of July, in this space, I worried that with all the traveling I had coming up that I would get out of the habit of writing. I don’t know that that’s precisely what happened, it was more that I transitioned into a different mode of fitting in my writing, and then had difficulty, upon my return, in transitioning back. Accordingly, you have my apologies that I only got one essay out last month, and none the month before. I hope to make it up to my loyal readers at some point. 

Additionally I was working on a very long book review for a magazine. (Ethics of Beauty, you may recall me mentioning it last month.) The magazine is called American Hombre, and the first issue is coming out this month. It’s being done by Erik Taylor, who’s a good friend of mine. You can pre-order it now. (The actual physical magazine will be available in a couple of weeks.)

I’m quite excited about it, and not just because I’ve got a book review in it. I miss the days of the glossy magazines with great pictures and solid content, and this is very much what American Hombre is. It’s a visual magazine, and a throwback to a simpler, and dare I say, better time. 

It would mean a lot to me if some of you would check it out, as in purchase a copy of the first issue or better yet subscribe. 

The address do that is: https://americanhombre.gumroad.com/ and readers of my blog get a dollar off the price of an issue or 10% off the cost of a subscription, just use the coupon code ‘RW’. 

And seriously, go do it, you won’t regret it.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail 

By: Ray Dalio

Published: 2021

576 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another cyclical theory of history and nations. Dalio is particularly focused on the role debt plays in that cycle. Given our own massive national debt, Dalio thinks our best days are definitely behind us.

What’s the author’s angle?

Dalio runs Bridgewater, an investment management firm, and his interest in history initially stemmed from a desire to not lose money. That still informs much of his analysis, but over the years it has broadened into adjacent areas like politics, war, and social unrest.

Who should read this book?

I have issues with Dalio’s optimism, but if you also think America’s best days are behind us, and you want to understand why, this is a fantastic book. It reads well, and some of the charts he includes would make the book worthwhile all by themselves. Also his commentary on China (Chapter 12) seems particularly perceptive.

General Thoughts

The problem with any kind of cyclical analysis whether it be from Dalio or Turchin or Spengler is that your data set is so small. Even if we assume that cycles are a thing there haven’t been very many of them. Plus it’s difficult to imagine that steadily advancing technology wouldn’t alter whatever pattern we did detect. But even without the advance of technology it’s hard to imagine that different nations in different places wouldn’t end up with different behavior. As such it’s difficult to use previous cycles to predict future cycles. Nevertheless, to the extent that it is possible to work within these limitations, Dalio does so in superb fashion. 

His book is built around three big forces:

  1. Long-term debt and capital markets cycle
  2. Internal order and disorder cycle
  3. External order and disorder Cycle

As you might imagine from his background Dalio is the strongest and most novel when it comes to the first cycle. But he’s got interesting things to say, and interesting charts, about the other two as well, which he often connects to the financial side of things. Here are a few examples:

  • He has a list of economic red flags which generally precede revolutions and civil wars. When over 80% of the items on the list are present then the chances of such an internal disturbance in the next 5 years are 1 in 3. When 60-80% of them are red then the chances are 1 in 6. The US is currently in the 60-80% bucket.
  • Similar to Taleb he points out the historical blindness of most investors. Specifically mentioning that in the 35 years before WWII “virtually all wealth was destroyed or confiscated in most countries, and in some countries many capitalists were killed or imprisoned”. That was not that long ago nor were the circumstances all that different.
  • He spends quite a bit of time talking about the Dutch Empire of the 17th and 18th Century. As someone who spent two years in the Netherlands on a religious mission, I really appreciated these parts, but it’s a fascinating story that most people are completely unfamiliar with. 
  • As I said I really like his charts, and the charts for China are scary. Not only do all the lines go up for China, while mostly going down for the US, the steepness of those lines is also amazing. The beginning of the cycle for other nations was always pretty gradual. China’s rise looks exponential.

In general the book seems like bad news for the US and good news for China. It makes the case that the US is nearing the end of the cycle and on its way down, while China is at the beginning of the cycle and on its way up. That said, the the US is still #1. The question is how long does it remain in that position and what does transitioning to #2 look like? (Assuming Dalio is correct.) Dalio seems to think that it’d be dumb to go to war over Taiwan, a place most people can’t find on a map. But also acknowledges that the US can’t back down either without completely losing credibility with all of our allies. We have ended up in a no win situation. So that’s our position in the short term, what about the long term?

Eschatological Implications

You might think from my description of the book thus far that Dalio is a pessimist, that it’s all doom and gloom. And in the short term that’s a reasonably accurate description of things, but over the long run he’s an optimist. While he thinks that the US is on its way down, overall he views history as moving in a corkscrew pattern. It loops up and down, but the overall slope is positive—that because of human innovation there is an arc of history and it points upward.

He also mentions that while bad periods are bad (by definition) that they’re not as bad as people imagine:

What are these destruction/reconstruction periods like for the people who experience them? Since you haven’t been through one of these and the stories about them are very scary, the prospect of being in one is very scary to most people. It is true that these destruction/reconstruction periods have produced tremendous human suffering both financially and, more importantly, in lost or damaged human lives. Like the coronavirus experience, what each of these destruction/reconstruction periods has meant and will mean for each person depends on each person’s own experiences, with the broader deep destruction periods damaging the most people. While the consequences are worse for some people, virtually no one escapes the damage. Still, history has shown us that typically the majority of people stay employed in the depressions, are unharmed in the shooting wars, and survive the natural disasters.

As you might have noticed he labels these times as destruction/reconstruction periods. Pointing out that while bad things happen good things later emerge. This doesn’t merely include times like the Great Depression it also includes all of the wars which have been fought as well. 

But of course we haven’t had any wars recently, and the economic troubles we’ve had have been pretty mild as well (largely due to government intervention). We seem to be pushing the destructive period out as far as we can, which inclines one to believe that when it finally arrives it will be particularly bad. 

And this is the big problem with his rosy view of the future. He spends a lot of time considering how this cycle will be the same as past cycles but almost no time considering how it will be different. Let’s review his three cycles:

1- Long-term debt and capital markets cycle:

Has any country’s debt reached the size of the US’s? Or been as critical to the world economy? What about the centrality of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency? Or the size of US financial markets as a percentage of all economic activity? Dalio compares the ascendent US to similar periods for the Netherlands and the UK. How central do you think the guilder, and the Amsterdam stock market were to the entire world at the height of the Dutch Empire, in 1700? I’m sure they were important, but there’s no way they were important on the scale of the dollar and the US financial markets in 2000. What about the UK in 1850? Here we come a little bit closer, but even so I think we’re still talking about a much smaller scale, with far less interdependence. And when things did start to collapse for the UK after WWII, the US did a lot to soften things. Do you imagine China will provide the same courtesy to us when our turn arrives?

2- Internal order and disorder cycle

Not only is the US a lot bigger than the Netherlands and the UK, as I pointed out in a previous post: American problems have ended up being problems for the entire Western world. Additionally, out of all the elements Dalio discusses I feel like internal disorder is the one most subject to variation, not necessarily happening at the same point in the cycle or in the same way. Consequently it’s difficult to say if the internal disorder happening in the US will end up being relatively mild or if it will devolve into full on civil war. But it already feels like it’s going to be worse than what was experienced by the Dutch and English at their decline.

3- External order and disorder Cycle

This last item is where the biggest differences lie in my opinion. For one thing the last two transitions were relatively smooth—far smoother than we can expect the transition from the US to China to be. The accession of William of Orange to the throne of England created an obvious link between the UK and the Netherlands, and made it easy for the financial happenings in Amsterdam to move to London. Yes, later the two nations did fight a war, but it was so inconsequential you’ve probably never heard of it. As to the next transition it’s hard to imagine that moving from the UK to the US could have been made any smoother. Yes, obviously the World Wars have to be included as part of that transition, but the two countries were allies for crying out loud. The wars took place because Germany was also a contender for the next great power, and in essence the UK decided it would rather pass the baton to the US than have it forcibly taken by the Germans. But this time around there isn’t going to be any peaceful baton passing, it will have to be taken by force. And force has taken on an entirely new character since then. In other words we have nukes. 

 

I think Dalio makes a pretty convincing case that the US’s time in the sun is coming to an end, I am less convinced that this end will be similar to previous declines and ascents. I think the ways in which it is different and potentially worse are far greater than the ways in which it’s similar.  


The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century 

by: Louise Perry

Published: 2022

200 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That men and women have very different preferences when it comes to sexual behaviors, and that the sexual revolution, and sex positive feminism, rather than prioritizing the preferences of women, have instead entirely surrendered to male desires and inclinations on subjects like what sex should be like, when it should happen, what commitments it entails, etc. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Perry is heavily involved in a group over in the UK called We Can’t Consent To This, which works to eliminate “rough sex” as a defense option for men who have murdered their female partners. The deaths of at least 60 UK women have been excused in this fashion, which represents the tip of the spear for problems of “consent” enabled sexual violence.

Who should read this book?

I really enjoyed this book. But if you’re familiar with my biases that should hardly be surprising. Still if you’re someone who’s had doubts about whether “consent” can act as the entire foundation for which sex is good and which sex is bad, then you should definitely read this book.

General Thoughts

For those of you who caught my last post, you might remember that I mentioned this book in conjunction with previous taboos against premarital sex. Obviously I was referencing her in support of a fairly conservative position, and lest you mistake my position for her position she does state, fairly early on in the book, that: 

…although I am writing against a conservative narrative of the post-1960s era, and in particular those conservatives who are silly enough to think that returning to the 1950s is either possible or desirable, I am writing in a more deliberate and focused way against a liberal narrative of sexual liberation which I think is not only wrong but also harmful.

Though lest you think I distorted her position, this is what she had to say about marriage:

The task for practically minded feminists, then, is to deter men from cad mode. Our current sexual culture does not do that, but it could. In order to change the incentive structure, we would need a technology that discourages short-termism in male sexual behaviour, protects the economic interests of mothers, and creates a stable environment for the raising of children. And we do already have such a technology, even if it is old, clunky and prone to periodic failure. It’s called monogamous marriage.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, but what is this idea of “cad mode”?

Perry says that men have two modes: cad mode and dad mode. Now of course this is a continuum, not every man is either a perfect dad or a perfect cad. And more importantly incentives can change someone into more of a dad or more of a cad. There are still men that will respond to their partner’s pregnancy by dispensing with all of their caddishness and fully becoming a dad. But of course there are also men who, in a previous age, would have married their partner and become dad’s who now, because of modern incentives, abandon her and move on. 

While Perry’s book ends with a full throated defense of monogamous marriage, the bulk of the book is taken up by an examination of these incentives, and how sex positive feminists have participated in enabling maximum caddishness, or as Perry puts it:

a long, sorry history of feminists prioritising their own intellectual masturbation over their obligation to defend the interests of women and girls.

Of course what you’re looking for now are specific examples. There are many. Perry covers a lot of ground and I ended up with 94 highlights. I can’t possibly cover even a fraction of the excellent points she made. So I’ll just focus on one extreme example: choking. Be warned this gets graphic. 

Sexual liberation has advanced far enough in the decades since it began that very few things are off limits, if there’s consent. One of those things that consent has made possible is sadism. (Perry has a whole section where she discusses the Marquis de Sade.) Consent is the magic spell that changes, pain, humiliation, degradation, and domination from bad things into good things. Specific examples of these “good things” include slapping women, strangling them with belts, and scarring their back with razor blades.

The most fashionable thing at the moment is strangulation, which is not only ubiquitous when it comes to pornography, but extremely common outside of it as well. Perry provides statistics showing that over half of 18-24 year old women in the UK report being strangled by their partners during sex. Many said that it was unwelcome and frightening, while others reported they had consented, and a few said they had invited it. 

Herein lies the crux of the problem of consent. There’s the outer circle of women who consented to sex, but once it’s going on it was impractical to try to consent to everything that happened. Then there’s a smaller circle of women who did consent, but once again consent in the moment when things are already moving quickly is different from fully informed consent without any expectations or pressure. And then there’s finally the smallest circle which is women who invited it. 

Even if we take this smallest circle at their word, and assume they really enjoy it, they seem to be enabling the strangulation of all the people who don’t really enjoy it and the people who think it’s frightening. To put it another way, in order to make it available to the 5% of women who really enjoy it, do we inevitably end up with it happening as well to another 45% who have to suffer through it?

And is it actually 5%? Could it be 1%? Could it actually be 0%? If we assume that women enjoy this sort of thing then one would imagine that they would enjoy it even with no man present, and yet, as Perry reports:

But a fetish for strangling oneself is vanishingly rare among women, so much so that I have not been able to find a single case in the UK of a woman accidentally killing herself during an auto-erotic asphyxiation attempt gone wrong, with the notable exception of 21-year-old Hope Barden, who died in 2019, having been paid to hang herself on webcam by Jerome Danger, a sexual sadist obsessed with extreme porn.

So how many women are really, truly consenting to this inherently dangerous practice? (Perry includes studies that say that there is no safe amount of strangulation.) On top of all the foregoing the bit about truly consenting is troublesome as well. Perry provides plenty of examples of porn stars who, while deep in the business, will go on and on about how they not only consent to everything, but that it’s an expression of their deepest desires. Only to later, once they’re out, vociferously claim that it was horrible, degrading, and except for the fact that they needed the money they wouldn’t have consented to any of it.

On that note we’ll wrap up with a final selection from the book.

Taking a woman at her word when she says ‘of course I’m consenting’ is appealing because it’s easy. It doesn’t require us to look too closely at the reality of the porn industry or to think too deeply about the extent to which we are all – whether as a consequence of youth, or trauma, or credulousness, or some murky combination of all three – capable of hurting or even destroying ourselves. You can do terrible and lasting harm to a ‘consenting adult’ who is begging you for more.

And the liberal feminist appeal to consent isn’t good enough. It cannot account for the ways in which the sexuality of impressionable young people can be warped by porn or other forms of cultural influence. It cannot convincingly explain why a woman who hurts herself should be understood as mentally ill, but a woman who asks her partner to hurt her is apparently exercising her sexual agency. Above all, the liberal feminist faith in consent relies on a fundamentally false premise: that who we are in the bedroom is different from who we are outside of it.

Eschatological Implications

This review is already running long, so I don’t want to spend too much more time on things. But as eschatology (at least in the expanded way I use the word) is all about endings, it’s interesting to reflect on things that have already ended, and consider what the consequences have been. 

Perry spends quite a bit of time considering the impact of the Pill, and how it ended thousands of years of sex having consequences.

In Sophocles’ Antigone – a play particularly attentive to the duty and suffering of women – the chorus sing that ‘nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse.’ The societal impact of the Pill was vast and, two generations on, we haven’t yet fully understood both its blessing and its curse. 

But the sexual revolution of the 1960s stuck, and its ideology is now the ideological sea we swim in – so normalised that we can hardly see it for what it is. It was able to persist because of the arrival, for the first time in the history of the world, of reliable contraception and, in particular, forms of contraception that women could take charge of themselves, such as the Pill, the diaphragm, and subsequent improvements on the technology, such as the intrauterine device (IUD). Thus, at the end of the 1960s, an entirely new creature arrived in the world: the apparently fertile young woman whose fertility had in fact been put on hold. She changed everything

The question this and the rest of the book raises, whether we’re talking about the Pill, or the collapse of traditional marriage, or pornography, is how do we put the genie back in the bottle?

At first glance it seems impossible, and perhaps it is, but Perry suggests that it’s worth a shot, and I agree. At a minimum it’s worth digging into what the genie has been up to, which I think is a useful way of describing Perry’s book. And as she points out, it hasn’t been good.


II- Capsule Reviews

The War on the West 

By: Douglas Murray

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Examples of recent and extreme animosity exhibited against historical western culture.

What’s the author’s angle?

Douglas Murray has been on this beat for awhile. The numerous accusations which have been leveled against him by his enemies are too numerous to mention here. (Check out his Wikipedia page if you’re curious.) Which is to say if you’re looking for a reason to dismiss him you probably won’t have to look very far. I don’t think it’s appropriate to dismiss him, I’m just saying it’s easy.

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m hoping that this book will be looked back on as a chronicle of peak involution. If it truly represents the peak then perhaps you don’t need to read it, but if things haven’t peaked then you definitely should read it in order that you might be informed enough to play some small part in making sure that peak comes soon.

General Thoughts

I’ve already spent a lot of time talking about this book in the post I just mentioned, so it’s not my intent to go deeper, but I would like to relate one story. Yes, it’s an anecdote, and not data, and, yes, this is a book full of anecdotes, but light on data, but there’s a visceral component to this problem that can only be illustrated by looking at specific instances of cancellation/censorship/removal. With that in mind I’d like to tell you the story of Rex Whistler and the mural he painted.

Rex was enormously talented and only 21 when he was chosen to paint a gigantic mural in the refreshment room (later restaurant) of London’s Tate Gallery. The job took him 18 months of exceptionally difficult labor. The mural was a fantasy piece depicting an imaginary land. Everyone loved it. George Bernard Shaw spoke at the opening. It was a triumph. 

That very winter the Thames flooded and the painting was essentially destroyed to a height of eight feet above the floor. Whistler once again set to work, and repainted everything that had been destroyed, which was most of it. 

Turning it over to Murray for the moment:

I have always found there to be something deeply touching about the character as well as the work of Rex Whistler. He was astoundingly talented, had more technical ability than almost anyone of his generation, and possessed an invention and ease that made everything he painted instantly recognizable. He was also loved by everyone who knew him or even just met him—men and women alike. He worked exceptionally hard at his vocation, had a number of unreciprocated passions for women from a different social class than his own, and was just beginning to master the art of oil painting when World War II broke out.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next. He immediately signed up, spent the rest of his short life in the army and died in Normandy.

For nearly 80 years no one remarked on the mural except to compliment it, but then in 2018 a single Instagram account started complaining about some parts of the mural, claiming that they were racially insensitive. Two scenes were identified, each a couple of inches high, and because of them the restaurant containing the mural has yet to reopen from the pandemic. Thankfully it looks like the mural will not be removed (at least not yet) but a new piece of art needs to be commissioned to be put next to it. 

Murray describes worse crimes, but I’m not sure he described anything else that was quite so moronic.  


The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: Woke, Entitled, and Drunk with Power

by: Mark Bauerlein

Published: 2022

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

All the ways in which we have abjectly failed the Millenials and Gen Z.

What’s the author’s angle?

Bauerlein is an English professor who presumably has witnessed much of what he describes first hand. This role also explains his diagnosis…

Who should read this book?

This is another in the “Everything’s going to Hell” genre, and I’m not sure it has much to add to the subject. There were several points where I considered abandoning it, but I have a soft spot for people who think that reading will solve all of our problems. 

General Thoughts

In a sense Bauerlein is a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, though he never mentions him by name. His argument is that now that kids have gone from reading great works of literature to media that is shallow and superficial, that they have, themselves, become shallow and superficial. They lack the complex understanding and sympathies that people derive from great literature and are instead completely at the mercy of simplistic and memetically driven emotions. Speaking of which… 


Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

By: Luke Burgis

Published: 2021

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A popular, non-academic examination of the ideas of René Girard. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Apparently understanding “mimetic desire” turned Burgis’ life around and saved him from unhappiness as a startup slave. Also apparently he’s tight with Peter Thiel the best known disciple of Girardism. 

Who should read this book?

I wasn’t particularly impressed by the book. I read it for a book club, and might not have finished it otherwise. I didn’t find it to be particularly revelatory, and rather than making me excited to read one of Girard’s actual books (something that has been on my list for a long time) it actually made me less eager. 

General Thoughts

For me the book had two main failings:

First, the whole concept of mimetic desire seemed to be a restatement of Jeff Hawkins Memory-predicton framework. The former seems to be saying that we are constantly examining our surroundings for models of how to behave, while the latter claims that the brain largely operates by building predictive models and then testing those models via observation. There’s not a lot of daylight between those two ideas. Though to the extent that Girard was first I guess he deserves some credit, but the same cannot be said for Burgis. 

Second, to the extent that Girard does have a unique insight it revolves around the mechanism of scapegoating. Burgis talks about this phenomenon, but it’s never clear what we’re supposed to take from his discussion. Perhaps I’m being too demanding, but it seems that, at a minimum, a book like this needs to do one of three things:

  • Explain how the modern world is broken because modernity has perverted or ignored the principle. For example: “Nietzsche was correct, we have flipped the scapegoating mechanism on its head and brought chaos out of order, and that’s why things are falling apart.”
  • Show how the modern world is better than the past, perhaps because we have finally internalized scapegoating: “At last we have reached the full flowerings of what Christianity started two thousand years ago where we honor the scapegoat/victim rather than stone them.”
  • Or explain how the modern world is no different than the past. “We still scapegoat, in the same fashion as our ancestors and if we understand more why they did it we can understand why we do it.”

Burgis does none of these things, and as a result, while he provides some interesting ideas, he doesn’t do anything to explain how those ideas should fit in with what’s already going on.

All of which is to say that the book was fine, perhaps even good, but it wasn’t groundbreaking.


The Giver

by: Lois Lowry

Published: 1993

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Jonas, upon turning 12, is selected to take a special role in his community, one which will rip apart all his comfortable assumptions to reveal the horrible dystopia they all inhabit.

Who should read this book?

I get the impression that people younger than me probably already have read this book, probably in high school. If you have I don’t know that I would recommend revisiting it, and if you haven’t it’s okay, but there are lots better YA books. And even YA dystopias. 

General Thoughts

There are two ways to write dystopias. The first is to imagine and present a fully realized world, where, ideally, all the parts make sense. Perhaps you’re not entirely sure how we would ever get there from here, but once the society is established, it’s not obviously impossible. The second way is to work in allegory. The first is common enough that I doubt you need examples, the second is rarer, and can be found most often in shorter works. TV shows like Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, or stories like Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, or The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin. I mention the latter because The Giver essentially duplicates the plot, which is not to say that Lowry is a plagiarist. I bring it up because I want to compare the allegorical approach to the fully realized approach. 

If you’re working in allegory you don’t have to explain how the dystopia persists, you don’t need to explain the mechanisms of how it works, or what the broader world is like. To compensate for these advantages there are obvious disadvantages to using allegories. They’re easier to dismiss, they overlook what Hannah Arendt described as the banality of evil in favor of flashy sin. 

But if you just want to pass along a moral lesson an allegory would seem to be the way to go. Unfortunately Lowry seems to want to have it both ways. She puts a lot of effort in creating a fully realized world, but then when the climax of the story arrives she largely abandons this reality in order to dispense her message. It’s an okay message, but I was so distracted by the sudden ridiculousness of the world that I kind of didn’t care about the message.

It is possible it’s just me. I have a long standing obsession with fragility, and the world of the Giver is obviously incredibly fragile. You see no reason why the society has continued as long as it has. Jonas doesn’t rebel because of some special circumstances, or some unique situation. In fact you’re left with the impression that it would be almost impossible not to rebel and screw up the system if you just assume that the society is operating normally. 

In other words while the ending was entirely believable, the fact that the same thing hadn’t happened already a hundred times previously wasn’t.


The End of Eternity 

by: Isaac Asimov

Published: 1955

191 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Eternals, a group of time travelers who keep bad things from happening anywhen in the universe.

Who should read this book?

Everyone, including me, should read more old science fiction. And this is a pretty good example of it.

General Thoughts

I’ve never been particularly impressed with Asimov’s characters, and while he might be doing a little bit better than average in this book, none of them are going to knock your socks off. Where he excels is his plots, and this is a great one. You might end up thinking it’s derivative, but only because you’ve read and seen lots of stuff that was actually copied from this book, rather than the other way around.


III- Religious Reviews

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretic

by: Ross Douthat

Published: 2012

337 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A history of religion from the end of WWII down to the present day (or at least 2012 when the book was written).

What’s the author’s angle?

Douthat is a devout Catholic, so he definitely has a dog in the fight. 

Who should read this book?

I can’t get enough of Douthat. I’ve never read anything of his that I didn’t enjoy. I was particularly interested in how amazingly religious the country was in the immediate aftermath of the war. It’s always interesting how blind we can be about even time periods relatively close to our own.

General Thoughts

This post is already huge, and I’m hoping to publish it shortly. So I will just say that Douthat does a great job of appearing to be a disinterested observer despite being devoutly religious. As such I think his history of modern American Christianity is particularly useful and compelling, and that is the case whether or not you yourself believe.


I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that five of the eight books were published this year or last. I guess as my readers you might want to know about the latest stuff. But it’s also true that the “latest stuff” will be completely forgotten 10 years from now. If you like getting the lowdown on recent books, or if you have no opinion, or if you hate it, but appreciate my candor, consider donating


Eschatologist #20: The Antifragility of Taboos

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We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better.

You might imagine that since taboos are also human creations that they would suffer from the same fragility I described in my last newsletter. But there is a difference between systems which were invented and systems which have evolved. The process of evolution separates the antifragile from the fragile. 

Antifragile things are made stronger by disorder, chaos and other shocks (up to a point). Fragile things are made weaker. Invented things, by nature of their novelty have not been subjected to ongoing shocks or chaos, while evolved things have undergone that evolution in the presence of and in response to such shocks and chaos.

All of this is to say that for something to become a taboo, it must have survived. It must not have broken. Which means, it’s antifragile. More specifically it made the culture as a whole antifragile. 

At this point some of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah. Chesterton’s Fence. I get it.” But I would argue that this is a stronger argument than the one Chesterton was making. Chesterton pointed out that you shouldn’t remove a fence unless you understood the reason it was constructed. But this assumed that if you put in some effort, you could uncover that reason. Probably just by asking around. The fence is an invention, and it’s assumed you could find the reason for its invention.

Evolutions leave fewer clues, but despite that they end up being even more important. You might be familiar with the famous example of how the preparation of manioc evolved in order to eliminate the cyanide. The indigenous people who undertook such preparations had no idea what cyanide was, nor would the connection between chronic cyanide poisoning and the processes of manioc preparation have been easy to discern. Now that we can test for cyanide the reason for the extensive preparations is obvious. But just because we can uncover the underlying reason for one taboo, doesn’t mean we can uncover the underlying reason for all taboos. 

To take an example that’s closer to home, let’s consider the longstanding and very widespread taboo against premarital sex. (Consider for a moment: Why should China and the West, historically so different in most other respects, have this exact same taboo?)

Adherence to this taboo has plummeted since the sexual revolution, and to the extent people think about why it existed in the first place they imagine that sex produces children who need to be cared for, but now that we have numerous methods of birth control we can dispense with it. They might admit that there used to be a reason for the taboo, but that technology has solved the problem—that our inventions have eliminated the need for our evolutions. 

I think this is sheer hubris, and I’m not alone. In her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry makes the case that the taboo solved numerous other problems like preventing sexual violence, which we’re only now grappling with. That “hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women”. 

But does this mean that all traditional taboos are antifragile evolutions that should be maintained absent ironclad evidence to the contrary? And what about traditional culture more broadly? 

I’m arguing that in both cases this should be the default. That we should be very careful anytime we think we’ve invented our way out of a problem previously solved by cultural evolution. And in particular we should never imagine that our ancestors were silly and superstitious and had no reason for a taboo. And yet both things are far too common. In so many areas we’ve abandoned thousands of years of wisdom because it seemed unnecessary, archaic, or just inconvenient. 

This has been and will continue to be a mistake.

Some might dismiss me as an old man yelling at the clouds, but if old men have been yelling at clouds for thousands of years, I’m asking you to assume that there’s a good reason for it. 


I’m always on the lookout for good band names and this newsletter had a surprising number: Material to Ephemeral, Evolved Taboos, Sheer Hubris, and of course Old Men Yelling at Clouds. To those I’d like to add, Donations Encouraged.  


The Involution of Everything

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I.

A couple of weeks ago, over on his Astral Codex Ten newsletter, Scott Alexander posted, A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures, which posits that movements go through four phases: precycle, growth, involution, and postcycle. 

In the precycle phase people join the movement out of love, and it’s probably inaccurate to label it a movement, it’s just something a few people do. But at some point the excitement felt by those initial people starts to spread to the wider world. And because it’s new it’s naturally exciting, there’s “a vast frontier, waiting to be explored”. As a consequence of this early entrants receive disproportionate payouts. To continue the territory metaphor, imagine buying a lot of land… in San Francisco… in the 70’s. But in the case of a movement, imagine the first few people to start a blog, or get hired by Amazon.

As the movement grows it takes on the characteristics of a “status Ponzi scheme”. As long as there’s new people joining the movement and territory still to be claimed there’s plenty of status for everyone, and no reason to compete. But like all Ponzi schemes eventually you run out of new people. All the people granting status expect to receive status and there are no new entrants to provide it. Accordingly, things start to collapse. This is when involution sets in. As Alexander describes it:

Thanks to the Chinese for teaching me this lovely word, which I think works better than Turchin’s term “stagflation” in this context.

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

And the movement already has most of the infrastructure it needs. Want to hold a conference? There are already five top-notch conferences about the movement; unless you’re a hard-working genius, yours will never be as good. Want to start a newsletter? Maybe instead you should beg for an internship at one of the ten newsletters that already compete for readers – too bad a thousand other people are begging equally hard for that same position.

In other situations, everyone would lower their expectations and be fine. But the subculture is used to being a status Ponzi scheme. This is the stage where the last tier joins the pyramid, realizes that there won’t be a tier below them, and feels betrayed.

Eventually, after all the status seekers get culled, the movement settles down into the postcycle, where people once again mostly join the movement out of genuine interest and not a desire for status, and so the cycle goes.

II.

My initial reaction is that this description applies to more than just subcultures. It also seems like a reasonable description of what’s happening to Western Culture as a whole. This conclusion seemed so obvious to me that I assumed it would dominate the comments on the post, or at least there’d be a thread where it was mentioned and masticated on. But as near as I can tell, after searching for various terms (I didn’t read all the comments, no one has time for that) only one person made this point, UKResident said:

This is a pretty perfect description of our current western ‘civilisation’.

Innovation ––> bureaucracy ––> dogmatism ––> anti-innovation

To which Erusian responded that it might describe our politics, but not the entire civilization. I’m not sure why UKResident felt it necessary to rename the steps. It doesn’t appear to have added any clarity. Nor am I sure why he was the only one to make the connection, or why the one person who did respond dismissed it as purely a political issue. If I was going to try to center it anywhere it would be at the level of the university, but I’ll get to that. Before doing so I need to consider the idea that if hardly anyone else is making this connection then perhaps the connection doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s only my numerous biases that lead me to a conclusion no one else seems to be arriving at. 

Certainly I have a bias for large, overarching narratives and explanations. Additionally, I have demonstrated repeatedly that I think there is something wrong with the world and I’m always on the hunt for what that might be. But perhaps the most salient admission of bias I could make is that I just barely finished reading The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason by Douglas Murray, which seems very clearly to describe a civilization in the middle of involution.

But I didn’t call out all of the foregoing biases for nothing. You should certainly take them into account, and if that means you stop reading here then I suppose that’s what I get for attempting to be intellectually honest. Though before you bail, I would pose one final question. If you accept that something like this happens with subcultures, what prevents it from operating at a larger scale? Certainly each phase in the cycle would take longer if you’re dealing with an entire culture rather than just a subculture (another point I’ll return to) but beyond that why wouldn’t we see a similar progression? 

If you’re still with me, and you’ve decided that there might be something worthy of discussion—some useful knowledge to be gained, both from the observation more generally, and from the specific application of it to Murray’s book—then we should move on to discussing what that knowledge might be.

Before coming across Alexander’s post, I had already decided that War on the West reminded me of the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an 1841 book by Charles Mackay. (I only just discovered that Douglas Murray has also written a book called Madness of Crowds, make of that what you will.) Mackay’s book is best known for his discussion of financial bubbles, but he also discusses various other episodes of crowd psychology including things like witch hunts and alchemy. Mackay’s book is basically a collection of episodes of peak mania. I had a similar sense when reading Murray. Or at least I hope what Murray is describing is the peak, that in 100 years when people want to understand just how crazy it got that they’ll be able to pick up War on the West, in the same way we now pick up Mackay’s book to understand how crazy the Mississippi Scheme got in France.

Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether Murray was describing maximum craziness—whether wokeness has peaked as some have predicted. Certainly I hope things are getting a little more sane, but that’s not what I’m claiming. My claim is that Murray is describing an involution. One that has all the same characteristics Alexander describes with respect to subcultures, but that it’s an involution involving the whole of Western culture. Also, you’ll see that as we dig further there appear to be reasons to doubt that we’re at the end of that involution.

III.

Let’s take another look at one of the paragraphs I quoted earlier:

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

Does this perhaps sound like the place Western culture is at the moment, that we have picked all the low-hanging fruit? Obviously when you’re talking about an entire culture, it’s going to play out over a longer time period, but perhaps you can see the progression. For example, let’s consider the subject of rights. Universal male suffrage was declared in 1870 with the 15th amendment (though just in theory, not in practice). Female suffrage came in 1920 with the 19th amendment. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and gay marriage was legalized in 2015. Now the big fight is over transgender rights. When that’s all you have left I think it’s safe to say you’ve picked all the low hanging fruit in the territory of expanding rights. The other things Alexander mentions seem equally applicable. At this point it seems nearly impossible to create art that’s not derivative, and philosophically, we’ve done it all as well. When was the last time there was a genuinely new ideology?

Moving deeper into Alexander’s post, this section seems even more on point:

During this phase, a talented status-hungry young person who joins the movement is likely to expect status but not get it. The frontier is closed; there’s no virgin territory to go homesteading in. The only source of status is to seize someone else’s – ie to start a fight.

I’ve talked about this more in other places, but we’ve turned up the knob on basically everything described in this paragraph. We’ve convinced every young person that they’re talented, vastly enlarging the pool of people who expect high status, and then gone on to place an even greater priority on status with the current trend towards self-promotion and “influence”. And if we dig a little bit deeper, historically the vast majority of people were too worried about survival to worry about status, these days it’s the exact opposite. And all of this is happening at the same time that the frontier, i.e. potential sources of status, is almost entirely exhausted. Leaving the young with no choice but to either start fights or check out entirely. Conveniently we’ve also made both of those activities a lot easier as well.

Continuing on:

Sometimes these fights are object-level: the movement’s art is ugly, its intellectual arguments are false, its politics are unjust. But along with the object level disagreements, there are always accusations that accurately reflect status-famine, ones like “the leaders of this movement are insular and undemocratic” or “the elites don’t listen to criticism”. These accusations may or may not be true. But during the Growth phase, nobody makes them, even when they are true; during the Involution phase, people always make them, even when they aren’t.

That last point is particularly critical: the truth of any accusation matters far less than its efficacy. The youth who are scrambling for scraps of status, who’ve been promised that they’re members of the elite, are going to say whatever works. As it turns out saying “The current elites are racist!” has worked remarkably well at moving status from one group to another, which is almost certainly a better explanation of its prevalence than any inherent veracity it might possess. 

As such, whatever else it might be describing Murray’s The War on the West is basically a chronicle of these fights for status. A description of the entire culture reaching the involution stage of the cycle. Now of course there are exceptions, such fights aren’t happening everywhere all the time, but it’s remarkable how comprehensive this phenomenon is.

I was discussing this idea with a group the other day and I offered up Medievalism as a disciple that was in the postcycle stage, because it was long past the time when there was any new territory to stake out. One of the people in the conversation laughed out loud at this, and proceeded to describe the cutthroat Twitter fight that was happening between medievalists at that very moment. This is presumably an example of the commonly noted modern phenomenon of everything becoming political. Which would appear to be another way of saying that the lack of new territory is not isolated to a few areas. It’s widespread and pervasive. Afflicting nearly every part of Western culture all at once. The medievalists realize there’s no point in writing the fifteen thousandth paper on Chaucer. Politicians know that the era of the grand bargain is over, that congress is mostly a performance space and not a legislative body. And millions of twenty-somethings have gone to college, only to realize that they’re the “last tier” of the pyramid. Yes, some areas of technology and science might still have some interesting territory left, but less than people like to imagine. 

Instead the medievalists fight over whether the term Anglo-Saxon is unforgivably racist. The politicians fight over everything and encourage their base to do the same thing. You might think that it’s impossible to have a fight more all-encompassing than “everything” but students have managed it. They’re having fights about epistemology and ontology, i.e. they’re fighting over what “everything” even means. 

A lot of ink has been spilled over the craziness taking place at modern universities. Many people have defended the craziness with the idea that the students will grow out of it. But if we’re looking at a large-scale involution of the entire culture, then academia is just the tip of the spear, and it’s probably not just a phase young people are going through. The fact that it has spread to businesses with the phenomena of woke capital would seem to be evidence for how broad this cycle really is. 

It would make sense that academia is the tip of the spear. One of their traditional roles has always been to distill culture and transmit it to the next generation. One very obvious example of this effort was the idea of designating certain books to be foundational. Establishing a list and a curriculum around the “Great Books of the Western World”. (As you may recall, if you’ve been following my book reviews, I’ve been quite taken by the idea myself.) Numerous universities required students to become familiar with this canon as part of their undergraduate experience. Some universities still do, though these days they inevitably include books from outside of the West. And even with that adjustment, the practice is controversial enough that Roosevelt Montás, the director for Columbia’s version of the program, wrote a whole book defending the endeavor: Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (reviewed here).

Beyond being an example of the way academia distills culture, I want to talk about the “Great Books” effort for another reason: I think it’s a useful marker if we’re going to try to determine where we are in the cycle. There are many questions worth trying to answer as part of this discussion, but perhaps the most important is: how long can we expect the involution to last? (if we’re ready to entertain the idea that that is indeed what’s happening.) While Alexander didn’t say anything about this in his original piece, you can imagine that somewhere along the growth curve, indeed probably near the top, the subculture would want to catalog and compile all of the progress they’ve made. We might even call this process canonization. I could also see an argument that this canonization process would represent the first signs that the movement was past its peak and beginning a descent into involution. If there’s no status to be gained for originality anymore then cataloging the originality which has already occurred would seem an obvious next step.

Even if the “Great Books” programs of the post war period give us some sense of when the cycle peaked, we still need at least one other point before we can have any chance of fitting things to a curve, and from there arriving at the durations of each of the four periods. Fortunately history gives us a pretty good idea of when the precycle period occurred and when things transferred from that, to “growth” and Western Culture really took off. Which is not to say that we can specify a precise year or anything like that, but what we can say with certainty is that it happened at least a couple of centuries ago. Personally I would nominate the American Revolution as a very conservative estimate for the transition from precycle to growth. As in, I definitely don’t think you can place the transition any later than that. 

For the sake of argument let’s run with these two data points. First off they give us a growth period of around two hundred years. Which we can use as an initial, depressing estimate, for the length of the involution. Though of course nothing says that each period has to be of equal duration. But as I said it’s a place to start. Can we make any guess as to the length of the precycle? If we assume that it was also two hundred years, and once again take the American Revolution as the end point then two hundred years before that puts us around the birth of Galileo and the end of the Renaissance. Three hundred years puts us in the middle of the Renaissance, right on top of Da Vinci. Again, precision is basically impossible, but if we were to say that each period lasts at least a couple of centuries, that feels like we’re in the right neighborhood.

Accordingly, unless the involution period is significantly shorter than the previous periods, this methodology would seem to indicate that it’s far from over. That it’s only just getting started. I would hope I’m wrong, but this methodology would seem at least as good as people who search their feelings or read the tea leaves in an attempt to determine whether wokeism has peaked or not. And it is possible that wokeism is just one of the initial phases of the involution, that there are other phases yet to come. If that’s the case I have no idea what these subsequent phases will look like. Perhaps something akin to a counter-reformation? But I’ve already engaged in enough crazy speculation today, so it’s probably best to step back from that cliff.

V.

Alexander mentions Peter Turchin, the current sage of historical cycles, in his original post, and gives him credit for inspiring the idea, but beyond that he doesn’t spend much time on him. However, if we expand the cycle to the whole culture, as I am attempting to do, I think it takes us to some interesting places vis-à-vis Turchin.

One of the central mechanisms for Turchin’s cycles is the process of elite overproduction. Obviously you can see exactly how that plays out in the subculture cycle. During the growth phase there’s plenty of room and status for all the potential elites, things transition to the involution phase when all the elites that were attracted to a movement that was growing arrive to find that all the easily acquired status has been claimed. The cycle naturally leads to elite overproduction. Once things tip over into involution some of the elites, or potential elites, will stick around and fight over the shrinking pool of status, but some will decide that it’s not worth it and either go looking for some other subculture which is still in the growth phase, or they’ll abandon their ambitions and accept some low status position. This is how it works for subcultures, but what happens if you’re talking about the entire culture?

If you’re talking about the entire culture then each of those three options plays out differently. Those who lack ambition have a more difficult time finding some arena that isn’t swept up in the, near-ubiquitous, involution. This means that comfortable, if boring, positions in postcycle subcultures are much rarer. Instead, if you lack ambition you frequently end up forced out of the culture entirely. Certainly we’re seeing an increase in this sort of disengagement. And whatever its charms there’s very little evidence that it’s beneficial for the people who end up choosing it. (Or perhaps more accurately, forced into it.) 

Transferring to some other culture that’s still in the growth phase is also not really an option. I suppose you could go to China, which is experiencing growth of a sort, but I’m unaware of any significant number of potential elites who have decided to take that option. Historically moving to a different culture was an option. I’ve only managed to read one of Turchin’s books, Secular Cycles, and in that book he covers eight historical examples of elite overproduction, but each one is limited to a specific country. Which means when England descended into involution people could leave and go to other countries, particularly if they were elites. To give you a specific example, in the days of Peter the Great, and later Catherine, there were an enormous number of British and Dutch expats that came to Russia seeking their fortune, precisely because their own country had a surfeit of elites. This is also the story of the early days of America and later the American West. 

Unfortunately these days there’s nowhere for elites to go. There is no Russia-equivilant that’s attempting to rapidly modernize, or frontier waiting to be tamed. There are places like Africa and South America I suppose, but again I am not aware of a large exodus of elites towards either of these places. Also one part of our strange cultural involution has been to place these locations off limits with the negative connotation of neocolonialism. 

Finally you can choose to stay and fight it out, and there would appear to be a lot of that going on, but when things are reduced to a single arena, and this arena encompasses nearly every aspect of life it’s inevitable that fights will become more vicious. Which is also, unfortunately, something we’re seeing more and more of.

VI.

The test of any model is its utility. Does it allow us to explain things we previously couldn’t, does it make useful predictions, and do those predictions come to pass?

It’s my hope that the preceding sections did some of that first bit, that you encountered a few ideas that explained or at least clarified things which were previously opaque. As to the second bit, I definitely made some predictions, and in the interest of clarity I’ll gather them here:

  1. The entire culture is going through a period of involution.
  2. This period of involution is a long way from ending.
  3. Wokeism has not peaked, but we should expect other methods of status subversion to emerge.
  4. The methodology we’re currently employing for raising teenagers, and children more generally is making the problem worse.
  5. Consequently the number of young adults who decide to disengage entirely will continue to increase. 
  6. Fights over what status remains will become ever more vicious.

I am aware that these predictions are not particularly amenable to being graded. But then again I’m not a particular fan of short term predictions with attached confidence levels. My goal is to help you prepare for black swans, and ultimately my claim is that during periods of growth we see an increase in positive black swans, and during periods of involution we see an increase in negative black swans. And if we have switched from one to the other on a culture wide basis, that’s something worth paying attention to.

That just leaves us with the question of whether these predictions will come to pass. Obviously we can’t know that yet. But I’ll add the list above to my annual prediction roundup, so I will continue to check in on things. 

Finally, while we’re doing a round-up of “the model”, it’s worth spending at least a little bit of time examining the last of the four periods of the cycle. If our entire culture is going through this process, what will the postcycle period of Western culture look like? 

Given that I’m predicting we’ve still got decades left in the involution period. I’m not sure there’s much utility in trying to envision the postcyle period. Will liberal democracy eventually end up with the same cultural cache as feudalism? Will we all end up trying to claim status in a new American monarchy? Will we all end up as Confucianists? Will the singularity make all of these questions moot? 

I know that some of my readers will immediately answer “Yes!” to that last question and wonder why I took so long to get to it. And perhaps that is the solution to everything we’ve been discussing. But as I am on record as doubting that the AI singularity is just around the corner, I don’t think we should punt on these questions. In particular I’m interested in how Fukuyama’s “End of History” plays into discussions of a postcycle. 

As you might recall Fukuyama claims that liberal democracy is the ultimate system of government (in both senses of the word ultimate) that there is no better system we can switch to. Meaning that if we expand our horizon back by a few thousand years we can imagine numerous previous cultures going through the precycle, growth, involution and postcycle stages, dimly iterating, via the proxy of status, towards the science and progress that finally reached it’s full flowering in the system of liberal democracy. But now that we’ve finally reached it, it’s a dead end. What do we do now? Is the obvious answer that we have to figure out some way of abandoning the pursuit of status all together? Perhaps, but if that’s the case, then out of all the things asked of us by modernity, that may be the most difficult request of all.


I like to think the sort of techno-pessimistic, religiously tinged, Taleb-adjacent, pseudo-eschatological blogging I do is still in its precycle phase, ready to break out as the next revelatory ideological trend. If you want to get on that rocket before it blasts off, consider donating


The 8 Books I Finished in July

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  1. To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by: Evgeny Morozov
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by: Mark Fisher
  3. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe by: Thomas Cahill
  4. The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History by: Alexander Mikaberidze
  5. Kidnapped by: Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. Weird of Hali: Providence by: John Michael Greer
  7. Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction by: Blaire Ostler
  8. The Ethics of Beauty by: Timothy G. Patitsas

I just returned from GenCon, that mecca of tabletop gaming in Indianapolis, which marks the end of Summer and the end of travel. The airlines had one last curveball to throw me, they canceled my flight out on Sunday and I had to spend yet another day in Indianapolis. Which is why my review post is later than it’s ever been. 

It was an extraordinarily busy summer, and while I had fun, I’m glad it’s over and I can settle into a routine. Of course I still need to unpack, since moving into our new house 34 days ago I’ve only spent 11 nights there. And most of that time was focused on getting ready for the next trip. 

I guess my point is that while I’m optimistic that my writing schedule will return to normal, I still have a lot of digging out to do, so I appreciate your continued patience.


I- Eschatological Reviews

To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by: Evgeny Morozov

Published: 2014

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way technology companies focus on manufacturing problems to fit solutions they’ve already created rather than solving problems that actually exist, or what Morozov terms, “solutionism”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Morozov is a technology critic who has built his entire career on pointing out how building technology just because you can is misguided.

Who should read this book?

If you feel that technology is not all it’s cracked up to be and has started to create more problems than it solves.

General Thoughts

I may not be the most objective person when it comes to reviewing this book, since it was very much preaching to the choir, but boy did he preach! This is a long and comprehensive examination of all of the ways people have used recent technology, particularly the vague agglomeration we call the internet, to solve problems. At first glance this activity should be unobjectionable, haven’t humans been using technology to solve problems for thousands of years? Indeed they have, but many things are different this time around:

The breadth of change: The internet is essentially ubiquitous. 63% of people worldwide have internet and almost as many are on social media. That’s a long way away from everyone, but when you compare it to other technologies which have been around for far longer it’s quite impressive, for example: the automobile. China only has 219 vehicles per 1000 people and they’re above average. Even if you assume that each vehicle is used by two people you’re still looking at only 44%, and India is far worse with only 55 vehicles per 1000, which would be 11% using the same reasoning. But 73% of Chinese have internet access and 47% of Indians, despite it being a much more recent technology. 

The reach of the change: Morozov mostly takes the breadth of the change for granted. He spends much more space discussing the question of reach, pointing out how “the internet” has burrowed into every aspect of our life. Controlling what we see, who we communicate with, and how we exercise. Of course in some areas this control has been around for a while particularly in the area of what we see. (Think TV networks.) But previous to the internet it was a very crude form of control. Now companies are collecting data that allows them to be very specific and very invasive in their control. There’s good reason to believe that this invasiveness is already harmful, and the goal of nearly all companies is to become even more invasive. (Though inevitably they call it something else.) The book lays out some truly dystopian scenarios in areas like law enforcement, marketing and insurance. 

The underlying ideology of the change: All new technology ends up having an effect on ideology, often engendering entirely new forms. Henry Ford, in addition to revolutionizing the world with his Model T, proposed changes to healthcare, politics, and the way people worked. All of these changes were closely tied to his advances in automation. Accordingly it’s unsurprising that the internet would also come with ideological baggage. Morozov also spends a lot of time on this subject as well. One might imagine that internet startups would want people to adopt their solution because if they do the startup will make a lot of money and be successful. But Morozov claims that it goes well beyond that, that there is an overarching ideology behind most startups that animates and informs it. This is solutionism. In its more benign form it imagines that technological solutions are better than non technological solutions. But there’s a more aggressive form which holds that there are problems we don’t even recognize which technology can uncover and solve. Morozov spends much of the book talking about these latter “problems”. Which takes us to:

They’re attempting to solve problems which don’t actually exist: Perhaps the biggest problem with our recent attempts at using technology to solve problems is that many of the problems we’re attempting to solve might not be problems at all. The book is full of examples, but one that really stuck with me was the argument over openness. Quoting from the book:

Our Internet debates, in contrast, tend to be dominated by a form of openness fundamentalism, whereby “openness” is seen as a fail-safe solution to virtually any problem. Instead of debating how openness may be fostering or harming innovation, promoting or demoting justice, facilitating or complicating deliberation—the kinds of debates we are likely to have about the uses of openness in the messy world that we live in—“openness” in networks and technological systems is presumed to be always good and its opposite—it’s quite telling that we can’t quite define what that is—always bad.

Openness is not merely solving a problem no one is complaining about, it’s solving a problem no one can even concretely name. Such is the misguided nature of solutionism.

Eschatological Implications

Depending on how you look at things we’ve been expecting technology to save us since at least the 50s. Unfortunately, as the famous Peter Thiel quote goes, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” A discussion of why it turned out this way would take up far more space than we have, but this book explores one of the major factors behind that divergence. Essentially it turned out that creating problems which could be solved by the technology you already had was easy. Creating technology that could solve the problems you already had was very difficult.

Of course no one wants to admit that this is what’s happening. Everyone wants to imagine that they’re doing important work. Beyond ignoring difficult problems this leads to two additional biases (and probably several others):

  1. They only consider technology’s good qualities without considering its downsides. 
  2. They ignore other better ways of solving a problem in favor of potential technological solutions.

Taken together, technology, rather than proving to be humanity’s salvation, has proven to be an expensive distraction, where people create things for the sake of creation, rather than having any long term plans, and when their creations end up having downsides, they’re extraordinary slow to recognize those downsides because their so enamored by these creations. 

As a result rather than bringing out a utopian future we end up slouching towards a vague dystopia never sure why things aren’t actually improving despite the thousands of promises we’ve been made.


II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?

by: Mark Fisher

Published: 2009

80 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek or perhaps both, said “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This book discusses how capitalism grew to encompass the whole of our imagination, and the brief glimpses one receives of potential alternatives. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Fisher has been described as a Marxist pop-culture theorist, a description I would agree with after reading the book.

Who should read this book?

People looking to steelman communism. In particular the author does a good job of showing how the Marxist concept of ‘Late Capitalism’ foretold much of the craziness we’re currently experiencing.

General Thoughts

You may recognize the initial sections. I already reviewed this book a few months ago and I just copied them over from that review. But having finished the book in audio form I thought I needed to go back and do an old-fashioned read through. You know the kind where you can make highlights and re-read passages that you didn’t quite get the first time.

As part of this process I convinced my Slate Star Codex book club to re-read it with me. I’m not sure what I expected but when it came time to discuss it, most of them hated it. (You should certainly keep that in mind if you decide to read it.) For my part, I countered by arguing that they were missing the point, not necessarily the point of the book, but the point of reading a book like this. 

If I had to characterize their overarching complaint it was that Fisher didn’t put forth arguments, ones which proceeded step by step to a conclusion. Rather, they contended, he aired grievances, which, first off, probably weren’t as grievous as he claimed, and secondly, most likely not caused in the manner he claimed (to the extent that he even bothered to put forth a cause and effect). The thing is, I’m mostly on board with this characterization, my argument was that it’s a mistake to use these points to summarily dismiss Fisher, because there’s something deeper going on here, and we need to understand it.

As you may have already guessed, as a Slate Star Codex book club, they’re very familiar with rationalism. And while only a few of them self-identify as rationalists, given the choice they would prefer that people be Alexandrian Rationalists over Fisherian Marxists. Taking this as my starting point, I supported my side of the argument with the following example:

A young man of my acquaintance has read all the canonical texts of rationality. He’s read the Less Wrong Sequences, and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. And yet, when it comes to his political ideology, he’s basically a Fisherian Marxist. He hasn’t read Capitalist Realism, but he’s read several books that are adjacent to it, and the podcasts he listens to (where he gets most of his political information) are definitely also inspired by Fisher. In other words he’s done all the things one might recommend for turning someone into a rationalist, and yet he found people like Fisher more appealing. Why is that?

I think the power of Fisher lies in the fact that the world he describes ends up being a better match for the world this young man experiences than the sterile and esoteric discussions of the rationalists. Is the rationalist worldview truer in some objective sense? Probably. But as it turns out, that’s not the deciding factor. The deciding factor is whether it’s more compelling. And on that count I think there’s a lot that can be learned from this book. 


How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

by: Thomas Cahill

Published: 2003

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conversion of the Irish to Christianity by St. Patrick and their subsequent importance in post Roman Europe.

What’s the author’s angle?

Cahill wants to emphasize the mostly unsung contribution of the Irish in the history of the “Dark Ages”.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for yet another reason why Ireland is awesome, this book is perfect, and covers a history that isn’t very well known.

General Thoughts

This was another book I read in preparation for my trip to Ireland, and in that respect it was perfect. My favorite part of the trip was encountering the deep history of the country: its castles, churches and other ruins. Much of this history was a direct consequence of Ireland’s deep religiousness, which wouldn’t have happened without St. Patrick. Or at least it would have been very different. The book covers a fair amount of territory, so here are the high points:

  1. St. Patrick is an amazing figure. I had no idea how wide reaching his influence was or how much respect his contemporaries held him in.
  2. The Irish did a huge amount to preserve literature after the collapse of Rome. See, for example, the Book of Kells, which is one of the can’t miss attractions of Dublin.
  3. St. Patrick was the first to establish a non-Roman version of Christianity (not counting the very early church). This was instrumental in its spread into Germany and Scandinavia. 
  4. Ireland exported monasteries. Many people from Ireland left the country to found monasteries on the continent.

Claiming that the Irish saved civilization or even western civilization may be an exaggeration. But they did a lot more for it than I realized.


The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History 

by: Alexander Mikaberidze

Published: 2020

864 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The global impact of the Napoleonic Wars. With a deep look at the politics and not merely the battles.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mikaberidze wants to remind people that the Napoleonic Wars should really hold the position of the first world war. He backs this up with a wide-ranging examination of battles, revolutions and political machinations taking place all over the globe.

Who should read this book?

There are history books which read better, and there are history books that go deeper, but there are not many books with the breadth of this one. It’s long, so it probably isn’t for everyone. But if you’re interested at all in this period it should definitely be on your list.

General Thoughts

I was reading recently about the lack of quality leadership. Whatever your opinion of Napoleon, they don’t make people like that anymore. Mikaberidze describes him thusly:

Combining the authority of head of state and supreme commander had clear advantages: Napoleon could set objectives and pursue diplomacy and strategy more effectively than his opponents, whose hands were often tied by military councils or royal sovereigns—not to mention the complications of coalition warfare. The advantages of having a single person firmly in charge of all aspects of the war effort were magnified by the fact that the one person at the helm was arguably the most capable human being who ever lived. (Emphasis mine)

For all that he made a lot of mistakes, and his time in power was short, and his record is mixed. And I’m sure living through that period of history, particularly if you were part of the 99%, was fairly hellish. But at the remove of 200 years the whole thing makes for some amazing history. 


Kidnapped

by: Robert Louis Stevenson

Published: 1886

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The adventures of David Balfour, whose evil uncle arranges for him to be kidnapped, and sent to the Americas. His escape and entanglement with the Appin Murder, when Colin Roy Campbell was assassinated, presumably by the Jacobites

Who should read this book?

I think everybody should listen to the book. It’s simply delightful as an audiobook.

General Thoughts

Stevenson is one of those author’s who’s still known, but not as well as he should be. Kidnapped was a ripping good adventure yarn (as they used to say) and it reminds me that I should read more old books. As I said, you should actually make sure to listen to it, it’s a book that really lends itself to good narration.


Weird of Hali: Providence

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fifth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, here, and here.) This one draws heavily on Lovecraft’s story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. 

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s read the previous four books. They’re all pretty good, but this one is above average for the series. 

General Thoughts

There are many things that Greer does well. I continue to enjoy his world building, and the way he has flipped the Cthulhu Mythos on its head. The characters are interesting as well, but there are a lot of them and he could do better at helping the reader keep them straight. And while, as I said, his world building is great, he could do a better job of explaining that as well. There’s a lot going on.

But in general this is another series that reads easily and is always interesting (if you like Lovecraftian stuff.)


III- Religious Reviews

Queer Mormon Theology: An Introduction 

By: Blaire Ostler

Published: 2021

152 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The author’s claim that, doctrinally and foundationally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormonism) is a queer religion, where queer is “an umbrella term to describe those in the LGBTQIA+ community” (among other things).

What’s the author’s angle?

Ostler is trying to convince the LDS Church to change its policies so that queer individuals have all the privileges that “cisgender”, heterosexual people have within the Church, and she advocates for privileges beyond those as well. 

Who should read this book?

Given that I absolutely and entirely disagree with her interpretation of LDS doctrine, I guess I would say no one. But I’m not particularly worried about people reading it. Her position is so extreme that only the already converted will find it at all persuasive. I suppose if you wanted to know what Mormonism would look like if you turned its wokeism to 11, then this is the book for you. 

General Thoughts

If you want an exhaustive review (and refutation) of the book I would direct you to this article on The Interpreter. I’m going to approach the book from a somewhat different angle. I first encountered Ostler and her unique theological views at the Mormon Transhumanist Conference, and in my after action report I ended up pointing to her talk as being among three that were particularly schismatic. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not sure why the MTA can’t just admit that it’s schismatic. Their insistence that their views are 100% orthodox continue to baffle me, but as baffling as the MTA’s assertions of orthodoxy are, Ostler’s assertion of orthodoxy is an order of magnitude more incomprehensible.

Ostler’s suggestions and opinions are so extreme that I actually found myself entertaining the possibility that she’s trolling any Church member who takes her seriously. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, but I’m not ready to entirely dismiss it either. 

If she is in fact serious then I think understanding her belief and background in transhumanism is critical to understanding how she arrived at this position. Which is to say it’s very difficult to go straight from orthodox Mormon theology to the Queer Mormon Theology of Ostler’s book, but if you imagine Mormon Transhumanism as a stepping stone, someplace that’s halfway up the wall, then reaching the radical theology of the book becomes a lot easier.

Specifically, Mormon Transhumanism is big on personal revelation, body modification, and the inevitability of progress, while being dismissive of the Church hierarchy, broader Christian traditions, and Christ’s unique role. All of these ideas are necessary precursors to Ostler’s theology. Which is not to say Ostler’s ideas are unique, most exist in an independent form in the broader world, but wedding them to Mormonism was only accomplished through the intermediary of religiously themed transhumanism.


The Ethics of Beauty

by: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Patitsas starts from a Platonic perspective, asserting that there are three transcendental virtues: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. To this he adds a strong dose of Eastern Orthodox theology. From the combination of the two he arrives at a unique critique of modernity, asserting that we have largely sidelined the virtue of Beauty while placing all of our attention on the virtue of Truth.

What’s the author’s angle?

Patitsas is Director of the Religious Studies Program at Hellenic College, and this book represents both his religious outlook and his academic interest. Despite this, the book is not particularly academic, but I’m sure having something to add to his CV was part of his motivation.

Who should read this book?

If the idea of an incredibly deep dive on the idea of beauty—heavily informed by religion—appeals to you, then this is the book for you! 

General Thoughts

A friend of mine is starting an actual print magazine, and he asked me to read and review this book for inclusion in the first issue. I’m still polishing that review, and I’m sure I’ll post it here when it’s done. Or at least make an announcement about it. But for now I don’t want to spoil the premier issue of my friend’s awesome magazine!


Voltaire (quoting a “wise Italian”) said, the “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” In more recent times it’s become common to say that the perfect is the enemy of the done. I have no idea why those phrases came to me right now, but if you appreciate things being done consider donating


Eschatologist #19: The Non-linearity of Baggage Systems

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I ended the last newsletter by suggesting that we needed to make things less fragile, but without giving any concrete suggestions for how we might accomplish that.

Unfortunately reducing fragility is neither easy, quick, nor straightforward. It is an exceptionally complicated endeavor. Fragilities only become obvious after they’ve caused something to break, before then they’re easy to overlook. Also many things we’ve come to value, like efficiency and low cost, work to increase fragility. So it’s an uphill struggle.

Considering both the non-obvious and counterintuitive nature of the problem, the first step in eliminating fragility is to identify it. Unfortunately I’ve just had an experience with a fragile system which broke spectacularly, so let’s start there.

I took a big trip to Ireland in July. (I returned just a few days ago.) After arriving in Dublin, I went through customs, and headed to baggage claim. Once there I was greeted by a discouraging sight. There were bags everywhere. Not only were there bags on the carousel (which was to be expected) there were small piles of bags all around them. Beyond that there was a veritable sea of bags (I’d estimate at least a thousand) arranged behind some rope on one side of the room. It was apparent that something about the baggage handling process had broken. 

I got a small taste of that breakage. The display showed the wrong carousel, my bag was on carousel 3, not 6. So when there was an overhead announcement about a “wee mixup” I headed over there and luckily my bag was waiting for me. The rest of my family, who arrived a few days after me, got a large taste of that breakage.

I connected in Atlanta, they connected in Schiphol (Amsterdam). You probably haven’t been following the baggage chaos as closely as we have, but Schiphol has been having serious problems with baggage. At one point, KLM stopped allowing checked luggage altogether. When the flight from SLC to Amsterdam got in late, they made the connection to Dublin, but their baggage didn’t. 

In the past when your luggage missed a connection there was an 85% chance it would be delivered within 36 hours. It took eight days for their luggage to be delivered and that was only after the manager of the delivery company took it upon himself to spend a couple of hours finding it in the sea of bags I mentioned earlier. 

This is one of the hallmarks of fragility, small disruptions can lead to huge catastrophes.

More technically the system is non-linear. In this case the problems at Schiphol appear to be due to staffing shortages, directly due to a shortage of baggage handlers, and indirectly because a shortage of pilots is causing flights to be delayed. I couldn’t find statistics on Schiphol baggage handlers, but the number of pilots is down only 4% from its pre-pandemic peak. That was all it took to cause the delays and cancellations you’ve been hearing about.

I’m guessing the percentage decrease among baggage handlers is also surprisingly low, but let’s assume they have been hit even harder and that there’s been a 25% reduction in their numbers. This does not mean that 25% more baggage gets lost or it takes 25% longer to deliver. It means the amount of lost luggage increases a thousandfold, and you may never get your bags.

As I mentioned, my family got lucky. I sat next to a couple on the flight home whose luggage never showed up in the 10 days they were there. They told me that just recently the airlines have set up warehouses for lost luggage in Dublin where people can actually look through the luggage. (Previously all the luggage was behind security.) They visited the one for Delta/KLM and said there were probably five thousand bags in just that warehouse. (After seeing the picture they took I agreed.) While they were there they talked to people who’d been waiting for their bags for over a month.

This is what fragility looks like in the modern world: complicated systems where minor problems on the backend lead to total disasters on the front end. And the problem is, there are always going to be minor problems, which will lead to more and more disasters. Let’s just hope that when those disasters happen, you’re not in the middle of your vacation to Ireland.


The picture at the top of the newsletter is Kilmacduagh Monastery, or at least the ruins thereof. The tower is the largest pre-modern structure in Ireland. And it’s still standing. That’s the kind of robustness we should be looking for. If you think what I’m doing is helping with that, or if you just like the picture, consider donating.


The 10 Books I Finished in June Along With Two I Didn’t

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  1. Liberalism and Its Discontents by: Francis Fukuyama
  2. Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World by: Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
  3. Creative Evolution by: Henri Bergson (didn’t finish)
  4. An Introduction to Metaphysics by: Henri Bergson
  5. The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by: Cecil Woodham-Smith  (didn’t finish)
  6. The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery by: Richard Osman
  7. Rising From The Rubble: Buried for hours, changed for life, saved for something greater. By: Williamson Sintyl
  8. The Wind in the Willows by: Kenneth Grahame
  9. Breakaway: Expeditionary Force, Book 12 by: Craig Alanson
  10. Fallout: Expeditionary Force, Book 13 by: Craig Alanson
  11. Match Game: Expeditionary Force, Book 14 by: Craig Alanson
  12. Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives by: Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford

I’m posting this on a Saturday, and the day before I leave for Ireland. Last weekend I moved into a new house. (Actually we weren’t completely done with that until Wednesday.) The combination of the two (mostly the latter) has put me in crunch time and behind on everything. I had ambitions of posting something while I was in Ireland, but at this point I think they were more delusions than ambitions. I am going to try and get some writing done while I’m there, partially because I have some posts I’ve started working on and I’d like to try finishing them before the inspiration dissipates.  And partially because I worry that if I miss too many days of writing I’ll get out of the habit and have to start over, which sounds really bad. Though there is a worse outcome, I could lose the desire to write altogether

I have a friend who never takes more than a week of vacation at a time, because he’s sure in his heart of hearts that if he’s ever gone for longer than that he’ll never go back. That once he’s gone for longer than a week he’ll be enjoying his leisure too much and he won’t be able to bear the thought of returning. All the habits that serve to get him out the door every morning to drive 40 minutes to a job he doesn’t like, will be broken. I like writing, and I don’t have to drive 40 minutes to do it, but I nevertheless worry that something similar will happen. Perhaps needlessly, but everybody has their quirks, and I probably have more than average.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Liberalism and Its Discontents

By: Francis Fukuyama

Published: 2022

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The problems currently plaguing western democracies, particularly the US, and how a return to the moderate, classical liberalism of the past will fix those problems.

What’s the author’s angle?

Fukuyama is one of the heavy hitters in this space, particularly known for his book End of History and the Last Man (which I discussed here). In that book he claims that liberalism is the end point of political development, so its growing weakness is a threat to his theory, a threat he attempts to address in this book.

Who should read this book?

No one. Despite my many disagreements with him, I like Fukuyama, but he’s best when he’s taking his time and going really deep (see for example his two volume Political Order series reviewed here and here). This book is too shallow, and feels rushed.

General Thoughts

As I just mentioned, Fukuyama’s longer stuff is better, you can actually see him working through all the nooks and crannies and really thinking about a subject. I did not get that impression with this book. No, the impression I got was completely different.

Have you ever been playing with a child, and they invent a game or some other imaginary scenario? And as you attempt to participate with them in their invention, you do something that doesn’t match what they had in mind? If this situation sounds familiar, then perhaps you already know what happens next.  They get frustrated and exclaim, “You’re not doing it right!” This was the feeling I got from this book. Fukuyama is the child and liberalism is his invented game.

Obviously Fukuyama did not invent the “game” of liberalism, but he does seem to have his own version of liberalism, where moderation plays a central role. Contending that we could solve all of the current problems liberalism is experiencing if we just just exercise more moderation, ends up being the dominant theme of the book. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by drawing your attention to the book’s final sentence: 

Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival—indeed, to the survival—of liberalism itself.

Despite reading the whole book (technically listening to it) I’m indebted to N.S. Lyons and his Upheaval newsletter for drawing my attention to this final sentence. I had not realized that Fukuyama provided such a convenient summation of how, “You’re not doing it right!”

According to him, none of the three sides is exercising moderation. (Yeah, there are at least three players in this game.) Trump and his followers have gutted institutions and ignored laws. Neoliberals allowed businesses and banks to run amuck, and then bailed them out while shafting the little guy. And the cultural left has elevated individualism to a pathological degree, turning words into violence and inverting the original meaning of tolerance. And in his estimation the answer to all of this is more moderation. The problem is, as Lyons goes on to point out in his excellent review, there’s nothing inherently moderate about liberalism. 

Maybe Fukuyama could argue that moderation is itself the epitome of true liberalism as a political philosophy. I happen to think moderation is one of the greatest of the classical virtues, so would be open to being biased in this direction. However, there is already a system of political thought that emphasizes the risks of extremes and prioritizes moderation, as a principle, over any specific rationalist theory of how to govern – it’s typically called conservatism.

I agree with Lyons (and by extension Fukuyama) about the greatness of moderation. The problem, as he points out, is that liberalism has never prioritized moderation, in fact if anything it’s been the opposite. It was William F. Buckley, the Father of American Conservatism, who pointed out that conservatism is that force which “stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” A statement clearly made as a reaction to liberalism.

Now, to be clear, there’s a separate argument to be had about the state of modern conservatism, and the role Trump does or does not play in it, but that’s not Fukuyama’s point. His point is to heal classical liberalism by the application of greater moderation. But this is definitely not something that liberalism does automatically. It has no built in instinct for moderation. If something is going to heal liberalism via moderation, it has to be something external. 

Fukuyama claims that we need more moderation on both an individual and communal level, but other than being a good idea (which it is) how does following the ideology of liberalism—an ideology of revolution, and social change; an ideology that has always been about acquiring new freedoms for the individual and the markets; an ideology where continual progress has long occupied center stage—suddenly decide to set all that aside in favor of moderation?

Eschatological Implications

In 1992 when Fukuyama published the End of History and proclaimed that liberal, western democracies represented the best form of government, everyone was basically inclined to agree with him. I’m not sure if they realized how profoundly eschatological his claim was. Yes, it’s true that “cure all diseases”, “eliminate poverty”, and “switch to renewable energy” were all still on our to-do list, but being able to check off “discover best form of government” was still a monumental end point to have reached. Of course these days people are starting to think that we may have marked it off prematurely, and in this book Fukuyama expresses some of the same pessimism, but he also reiterates the point he made in End of History, if western liberalism isn’t the best form of government what other contenders are there? 

The problem, both now and then, is that the liberalism Fukuyama is defending is a direction, not a destination. It’s fine for Fukuyama to point at some spot and say we should stop here, but he can’t call that spot liberalism. Liberalism is how we got to the spot, it’s not the spot itself. And it’s unclear from the book what standard he would apply to mark that spot. 

Many people seem to think that liberalism or the progress enabled by liberalism will eventually reach some obvious stopping place. That we’ll eventually reach the top of the mountain, and it will be clear that this was our destination all along. And perhaps Fukuyama is saying something to that effect, but if we are at the top (or if we were in 1992) it’s definitely not self-evident. And given that there are multiple visions for what our destination looks like we could just as easily be about to go off a cliff as reach a summit. Particularly since everyone is fighting over the steering wheel. 

Going over a cliff would also be an end, but one very different from what Fukuyama imagined in 1992, but which he appears more worried about in 2022.


Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World

By: Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross

Published: 2022

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

You would think I could just point you at the subtitle, but it’s appallingly misleading. The word “energizer” is never mentioned once within the book. The word “winner” is basically never used in that same sense, and the book doesn’t spend much time on how to acquire talent “around the world”. It is about identifying talent, just not any of those other things.

What’s the author’s angle?

Tyler Cowen has one of the most successful blogs in the world, and Daniel Gross runs a startup accelerator. I’m sure in part they want to pass on their wisdom, but I’m also sure they want to prove that they possess wisdom in the first place.

Who should read this book?

In many respects this works better as a self-help book than as an HR book. There are countless suggestions for activities that will broaden your talents. But as far as finding talented people I don’t think many people are going to have the time, resources, or pool of applicants necessary to implement the book’s recommendations.

General Thoughts

My sense as I was reading this book was one of narrowness. That yes, Cowen and Gross are trying to cast a wide net in an effort to find hidden talent, but the sort of talent they’re interested in finding is very, very specific. Mostly they’re interested in finding people like themselves. People who are smart, creative, self-directed, autodidactic, ambitious, optimistic, and driven. There are not a lot of these people.

Beyond that, everyone wants to hire them. I don’t think that smart, creative, self-directed, autodidactic, ambitious, optimistic, driven people are really having a hard time finding a job. So the key question is: given the extreme level of effort we’re already expending to find and hire these people, what kind of marginal utility are Cowen and Gross actually creating? I’m sure that it’s not zero, but I don’t think it’s huge either. You might think that these people are so useful, and so impactful that any improvement in finding them would be beneficial. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

Inevitably as we put more effort into reducing Type 2 errors, we inevitably create more Type 1 errors. Which is to say the more effort we put into identifying overlooked talent (people who previously would have been rejected, i.e. false negatives) the more likely we are to mis-identify talent, and subsequently give them a lot of money and power (false positives). Examples of this phenomenon include Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes, along with a host of other people you’ve never heard of. (A couple of whom I’ve worked with.)

This might be fine if startups existed in a vacuum, but—as evidenced by all the mini series which have recently been produced—dramatic failures and undeserving founders are part of the culture, and their failures, along with their hubris are having a corrosive effect on people’s faith in the fundamental justice of society. I’m not saying that we should ignore the book’s recommendations, or that we should stop looking for these people. It would just be nice if the book spent more time acknowledging the trade-off; gave more advice on how to separate gifted con-artists from founders of spectacular start-ups. And unfortunately the difference between the two is very subtle.

Eschatological Implications

It may seem strange to place a book on talent in the eschatological section, but, beyond just being a book of HR advice, the book gives one the sense that if we can solve the problem of recognizing and encouraging talent, that this talent will go on to solve all of the problems we’re currently wrestling with. Cowen’s Emergent Ventures is basically an attempt to save the world. 

But before talented people can save the whole world they would probably start by saving part of the world. Perhaps the western liberal part? In other words I thought this book provided an interesting contrast with the last book. Fundamentally, Fukuyama wants people to act more intelligently, and you could certainly imagine that if we had the right sort of talented oligarchy running things that our problems would be solved. 

You could imagine it, though I’m not sure it would actually be true in practice. As I said western governments and businesses are already engaged in a huge talent search, and while I think Cowen and Gross’s ideas could definitely help improve the efficacy of that search, I don’t think those ideas are sufficient to transform the current chaos into a smoothly running utopia. To put it in starker terms, what would an Adam Neumann or Elizabeth Holmes presidency look like? 


II- Capsule Reviews

Creative Evolution (didn’t finish)

By: Henri Bergson

Published: 1907

470 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The idea that there is an underlying force, an élan vital pushing evolution in a particular direction. That things don’t evolve randomly but in a positive direction.

What’s the author’s angle?

A desire to unveil the truth about evolution and philosophy.

Who should read this book?

Possibly people doing graduate work in philosophy or maybe theology. Otherwise, no one.

General Thoughts

Almost exactly a year ago I went to a theology conference. While I was there I spent a lot of time explaining my idea that Fermi’s paradox was best explained by the existence of God along with my thoughts on how methods for dealing with AI Risk resembled LDS Cosmology. One of the attendees, who also happened to be LDS, told me that I had to read Bergson, and that I should start with Creative Evolution. Nearly a year later I finally got around to it, and while I can sort of see what he’s saying, I gave up about halfway through.

Much of what Bergson claims relies on an early 20th century understanding of evolution, and consequently the vast majority of his “evidence” is out-dated, if not outright refuted by our current understanding. Additionally French Philosophy just gets more dense the closer you get to the present day, so while Bergson is no Lacan or Derrida, reading the book was kind of a slog. I was putting in a lot of effort for not much insight, so about a third of the way through I gave up. 

However, in the process I did learn some things. First, while I had heard the term élan vital I did not realize that it originated with Bergson, nor did I make the connection between this idea and the concept of élan which so dominated French military thinking prior to WWI, and which ended up being so disastrous in the first few weeks of the war. 

Also I had no idea how big of a deal Bergson once was. Apparently the first traffic jam to happen on Broadway, in New York, was caused by people clamoring to attend his lecture, despite the fact that it was delivered in French. I looked around a little bit to see if this might be the first traffic jam ever, and it just might be. When I searched for “world’s first traffic jam” I ended up on a site claiming it happened in Washington DC on Armistice day, 1921. Bergson’s lecture was in 1913. Another site mentioned 1895 in San Francisco, but that clearly had to be horse drawn carriages. 

In any case, given how popular he once was I figured I should at least read something by Bergson, so…


Introduction to Metaphysics

By: Henri Bergson

Published: 1903

99 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are two ways you can view something: there’s the exterior view and the interior view. Simplified, the exterior view is science, the interior view is metaphysics.

What’s the author’s angle?

Advocacy for his definition of metaphysics.

Who should read this book?

It’s still French philosophy, and it’s still pretty dense, but I quite enjoyed it. Also it’s more of an essay than a book, and only a couple of hours on Audible. 

General Thoughts

Bergson describes the exterior view as a bunch of snapshots. As an example he asks you to imagine a sketch of the tower of Notre Dame in Paris. 

…the artist does not concern himself with [the stones which make up the wall], he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organi­zation of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation. 

He argues that this sketch is a poor and misleading substitute for going to Paris and entering the cathedral itself. But yet when it comes to science and psychology we’re mostly making crude sketches of some aspect of reality, and we need to get into the interior of what we’re studying. We need to visit the cathedral not merely look at sketches, or pictures or other snapshots of a thing. I think we’re increasingly aware of these limitations, so it’s impressive that Bergson was making this point in 1903.

Of course, we have to grapple with the prospect that such an interior view might be impossible. That we don’t even have an interior view of ourselves. Bergson claims that it is possible and falls in the domain of philosophy and metaphysics and comes about through inspiration. Others (including myself) would say that it’s the domain of religion, and that there is such a thing as divine inspiration. Perhaps we’re both right, perhaps neither of us is, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the limitations he brings up. Limitations which are only getting worse as the things we study get more and more complex.


The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 (didn’t finish)

by: Cecil Woodham-Smith

Published: 1962

528 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Irish Potato Famine. The actions taken by the government. The deaths of at least a million Irish, and the subsequent migration of possibly twice that many.

What’s the author’s angle?

To set out the first comprehensive account of the famine and the wholly inadequate effort to provide relief.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the potato famine this is still regarded as one of the best books on the subject. 

General Thoughts

I already mentioned this book in my last newsletter, as a result I only have a few more things to add:

My father was the one who recommended that I not finish the book. That the visit of Queen Victoria and the 1848 rebellion were handled better elsewhere. (Of course now I need to find that elsewhere and complete my study of things.) 

One has to wonder how many similar famines and tragedies happened historically that never made it into the historical record. The potato famine could be said to have taken place at the intersection of history and modernity. History in that widespread famines still happened despite people’s best efforts to deal with them, and modernity, in that we have a record of those efforts, and the deaths, and the suffering. Of course there have been massive famines since then, but the really big ones were all in communist countries and I think those belong in a separate category. 

Speaking of the efforts, there was certainly plenty of apathy, mistakes, and outright misrule to go around. But there were actually people who were doing their best. There were too few of these people, and they were hampered by bad ideas (laissez-faire being the big one) but they didn’t ignore the problem. A million people ended up dying, so I’m not sure how much credit we should give them. But it’s a good example that even in the worst tragedies, everyone is the hero of their own story.


The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery

By: Richard Osman

Published: 2021

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of the Thursday Murder Club, a group of four English pensioners, who solve old and new murders. In this one Elizabeth, a former agent for MI5 must deal with her scoundrel of an ex-husband.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. And if you liked the first book, then I have no doubt that you’ll also like this one as well. 

General Thoughts

This was another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series. As with most mystery novels, there are plot holes, and people sometimes do things merely because that’s what the plot requires, but the same could be said for all modern media. If I had to highlight one aspect of the book for special recognition, it would be the characters. Anyone who doesn’t love these four old retirees, particularly Joyce, has no soul. If you enjoy murder mysteries at all I would pick up this series. Start with the first book


Rising From The Rubble: Buried for hours, changed for life, saved for something greater. 

By: Williamson Sintyl

Published: 2022

202 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An autobiographical/self-help book about the author’s experience surviving 28 hours trapped in the rubble caused by the Haitian earthquake, and his journey since then.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sintyl is the head of a non-profit which is focused on providing mentors for Haitian children. This book wants to convince you that you should contribute to this non-profit, and you should. I do.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes inspiring stories, or feels like they should pay more attention to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

General Thoughts

Sintyl attended the same church as me for several years, so I know him pretty well. He’s basically the nicest guy you will ever meet and his story really is incredible. It’s not merely that he survived for 28 hours buried under rubble in excruciating pain with no water, that’s really only the beginning. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happened afterwards is just as incredible as surviving the earthquake.


The Wind in the Willows 

By: Kenneth Grahame

Published: 1908

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. The calm and idyllic lives of the first three contrasted with the automobile mania of Toad. 

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes Tolkein, Lewis or Milne.

General Thoughts

This is one of those books that somehow slipped past me when I was younger. But recently my aunt recommended that I check it out, and I’m glad that I did. It’s one of those books that is endlessly enchanting and delightful. All the characters are marvelous and all the stories are charming.


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 12: Breakaway

393 Pages

Book 13: Fallout

556 Pages

Book 14: Match Game

593 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

Supposedly there’s only one book left in the series after these ones. If you’ve made it to book 12 you’re definitely in the home stretch, and I would say that these books are better than the one’s in the middle. 

General Thoughts

I’m a little bit worried that with only one book left that I’m not going to get the payoff I’ve been hoping for on all of the mysteries he’s introduced. Though he has been gradually resolving many of them, so I’m cautiously optimistic. 

Also there is a tendency as series progress for things to get increasingly ridiculous (think the Simpsons). I definitely noticed this happening with XForce, but there’s a large amount of ridiculousness embedded in things from the very beginning, so that makes it easier to swallow. I’ll repeat again, this is a very pulpy series, and you should approach it accordingly. 

The final book should be out by the end of the year, and if you wanted to wait for my review of the whole series I wouldn’t blame you.


III- Religious Reviews

Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives 

By: Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford

Published: 2009

218 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you might gather, different ways of viewing the world, but more than that, different ways of succeeding.

What’s the author’s angle?

Both of the authors are Christian, and they want to show that out of all of the worldviews, Christianity is the best, that it doesn’t have the weaknesses of the other eight purely cultural approaches.

Who should read this book?

Even if you’re not Christian the fact that these worldviews are hidden still makes for an interesting discussion of unseen motivations and unstated assumptions.

General Thoughts

The authors profile nine worldviews:

  1. Individualism
  2. Consumerism
  3. Nationalism
  4. Moral Relativism
  5. Scientific Naturalism
  6. New Ageism
  7. Postmodern tribalism
  8. Salvation by Therapy
  9. Christianity

Obviously I don’t have the time to go through the strengths and weaknesses of all nine. Nor to justify, for those inclined to doubt, why Christianity lacks the weaknesses of the other eight. But I would like to touch on the idea of salvation, because in the end that’s what each of these worldviews offers: salvation, albeit in very different flavors and at very different scales. 

Several of the worldviews operate at the scale of the individual. Individualism obviously, but also consumerism, and salvation by therapy. (Also, depending on how you operationalize them, New Ageism and moral relativism are also pretty small scale.) These approaches could, conceivably, save everyone, but there’s no economy of scale, and in fact individualism and consumerism become more expensive as they scale. Either way, each person, independently, has to go through the process. And even if we managed to pull such a thing off, such salvation is temporary. You have to start over every time someone new is born. 

Nationalism and postmodern tribalism both possess the advantage of operating at larger scales. Which is very useful from a pragmatic standpoint, but still insufficient if you’re looking for ultimate salvation. 

Only Christianity (or more accurately religion in general) and scientific naturalism offer the potential of salvation for everybody. And many people, when given a choice between the two, will immediately choose science. Nor is that a bad choice, but it does seem like the bloom is off the rose. There was a time when there was every reason to be optimistic about science’s ability to save, but these days science gets far more attention for its destructive possibilities than for its salvific power.


This week rather than appealing for donations for my work, I would ask you to donate to Arise: Project for Humanity. The Haitian mentoring program I mentioned in my review of Rising from the Rubble. It’s a great cause and I would even say that it should be considered effective altruism. The address to do that is: Ariseprojects.org


Eschatologist #18: Famines and Fragility

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

Or download the MP3


I’m leaving for Ireland in just over a week. The trip is about half touristy stuff and half genealogical. I have many Irish ancestors, but two in particular are worthy of note:

First, there’s John Richey. As best as we can tell, he was a member of the Hearts of Steel, a militant group of tenant farmers. In 1770 the “Steelboys” marched on Belfast to demand the release of a prisoner. After setting fire to a house they were successful in that endeavor, but this made them all wanted men. John immigrated to America in 1772, in some haste, we assume in order to avoid the hangman’s noose.

Second, Charles Conner, who came to America during the Irish Potato Famine. We suspect in 1847. Presumably he traveled in what’s come to be known as a coffin ship, because so many people died aboard them, mostly from typhus.

One of the goals of my trip to Ireland is to understand these ancestors better. Though in fact I do feel that I can understand John Richey fairly well. While they’re not always accurate, and most are not set in 1772, we have plenty of modern representations of people who are one step ahead of the law. What the modern developed world doesn’t have much of is representations of starvation and suffering on the scale experienced during the Potato Famine. Accordingly, as an additional preparation for the trip, I read The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith. And yes, it recounts suffering on a scale that I can hardly imagine. The book is one horrific scene after another.

Any sane person, upon reading this book, will be moved to consider how we can stop something like it from ever happening again. Of course in order to do so you have to have some idea of how it came about in the first place. 

In a previous newsletter I talked about the ways in which progress and technology have allowed us to turn the knobs of society. One commonality between John Richey and Charles Conner is that they were both tenant farmers, and in both cases they were suffering under British landlords who had turned the knob of efficiency as high as it would go. At the time of the famine Ireland was as densely populated as it was possible to be. The rents placed on Irish tenants by the English landlords were so high that everything had to go perfectly for tenants to avoid defaulting and being kicked off the land. The land that remained to them after paying their rents was only enough to cultivate the world’s most efficient crop, the potato, which along with some buttermilk, represented the exclusive diet of the majority of the Irish peasants. As such, when the potato blight struck, there was nothing to be done, everything depending on generating a large amount of calories on a small amount of land, a role which could only be filled by the potato, and there were no potatoes.

While I do have some concerns that the big push towards GMO crops has lowered the genetic diversity, making these crops more vulnerable to diseases. I don’t think we have to worry about widespread famine from crop failures. But that does not mean that we are not also busy turning knobs as high as they will go. We have been engaged in our own quest for efficiency with just-in-time delivery and outsourcing things to be made at the cheapest possible price with the cheapest possible labor. The fragility of these systems was illustrated when we faced our own crisis in the form of the pandemic. Supply chains still have not recovered.

This takes us to one of the other lessons from the famine: for a variety of reasons crises often feed on one another. During the Potato Famine, not only did the potato fail, but the winter of 1846-47 was particularly harsh, and on top of all that, relief for the famine involved repealing the Corn Laws, the single most contentious issue in English politics at the time. In our own time, we have the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, high inflation, political turmoil, and technological disruption. And each crisis makes every other crisis harder to deal with.

So far we’re handling things, but maybe, while we still have time, we should consider turning the efficiency knob down just a little bit. Maybe we should consider making things a bit less fragile.


To the extent we know anything about John Richey and Charles Conner it was the result of a lot of hard work. But genealogical work, despite its difficulty, is very rewarding. This time around, rather than ask you for a donation, might I suggest you try some genealogy? Familysearch.org is a good place to start.