Month: <span>May 2022</span>

Thoughts on Yard Care and the Modern World

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As I mentioned in my last post, we decided to move, but we don’t have a new house picked out yet. The advice we got was that, in this market, you have to sell the old house first so that you have a pile of cash to use when negotiating for the next house. Or in any case that was the advice as of four weeks ago when we made the decision. Now that interest rates are rising precipitously the housing market is changing pretty fast, so I’m not sure it’s quite as important, but it’s what we decided to do nonetheless. 

You may be wondering why we decided to move with interest rates going up and prices (particularly in Salt Lake) super high. Well a little over a year ago my wife told me that it was time for her mother to move in with us. At the same time it appeared that we would shortly be empty nesters, so this seemed to be an ideal time to remodel the house and put in an addition. So I secured the services of a general contractor and then waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could never get him to start the process. I couldn’t even get him to give me a bid. There was always one thing or the other that had to be done first, but he’d promise that next week he’d come out, and then he wouldn’t. 

Eventually after a year of this I decided it wasn’t going to happen and that while it was a terrible time to get the attention of general contractors it was a great time to sell old houses. So we pivoted to that. I never thought I’d sell our house (but I had dreamed of remodeling it for a very long time). As I mentioned in my last post, I have too much stuff. (I’m not a hoarder, but I may be on the spectrum.) But somehow that’s what we ended up deciding to do, and getting that old house full of 22 years of stuff ready to sell has been crazy, but as of posting, my house is under contract, and it was only on the market for four days so it looks like we pulled it off. Of course doing so required a lot of work, which is why this post, despite being short, took forever to put together, but I told you this might happen.

In any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that most of my efforts so far have been geared around selling our old house, the process of looking for a new house has barely begun. As part of that process we’ve obviously come up with some criteria. The two big ones are, my wife wants to have no more than a 15 minute commute to her job, and I don’t want a yard.

It’s not that I mind a yard per se. In my current house I’ve xeriscaped the front yard, and, particularly in the spring, which is right now of course, it looks amazing—if it’s been weeded. See it’s not the yard I mind, it’s all the work I have to do in order to keep it looking nice. Over the decades I’ve lived in the house I’ve tried various things to make that job easier. And while reducing water usage in a desert is nice, lower maintenance was the primary point of xeriscaping. You would think that putting down a weed barrier and then covering it with rocks would reduce that effort. You would be wrong. Somehow life finds a way, and I have spent considerable time weeding my xeriscaped front yard. 

I find this whole business of yard care to be kind of strange. When I’m out hiking I can stop at literally any point on that hike, look to the right or left, pick any spot, and without fail I would be happy if my yard looked like that. I assume most people would feel similarly if they conducted the same exercise, that I am not an outlier. And of course the punchline is, no one spends even a second of work to make that patch of ground look that way, that’s just how it is in a state of nature, in the complete absence of human intervention. Based on this I have long wondered why that isn’t an option for me. Why can’t I just sit back, do nothing, let nature take its course, and end up with a beautiful yard? 

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well that’s up in the mountains, where you go hiking. Sure that’s pretty, with wildflowers and trees, but would you really want the natural look of the dry desert valley with sagebrush and tumbleweed?” And honestly, I’d be fine with that as well, mostly because my primary goal is not how it looks, but how much work it requires, but even so I think that it would look good. And more importantly it would be natural.

Of course if I sit back and do nothing I don’t end up with a beautiful mountain slope, or a rugged and austere desert landscape, and believe me I’ve tried it. A couple times I’ve been in the middle of starting a business and consequently had no time, and even more frequently I’ve just been lazy. During those times I invariably got a lot of annoying, ugly weeds. I don’t get any beautiful native plants, I got thistles and morning glory, and other crap like that. Of course everyone is familiar with this phenomenon, my experience is not unique, you may have tried it yourself or passed by houses where such an experiment was being conducted, but it is worth asking why does it play out this way?

I witnessed a large-scale example of this phenomenon a few years ago. Near where I live there was an old high school. Since the area where I live was aging the school district decided it didn’t need that school any longer and they closed it down. There were a bunch of different ideas for what to do with it. The city wanted to make it into a community center, but that was voted down (by two votes, something I talked about in a previous post). Then supposedly they were going to turn it into a movie set for those times when filming a high school was required, but that also fell through. At some point it wasn’t clear what was going to happen and they stopped taking care of the property all together. This went on for several years. And the end result was not native vegetation, or yellow grass with scattered weeds, but rather a forest of milkweeds that were all about chest high. (If you’re curious they did eventually build a bunch of houses on the land along with a new county library.)

How many years would it have taken for that land to return to the way it looked 200 years ago, before the Mormon Pioneers arrived? And yes I know that they weren’t the first humans in the valley but at the time this area was a “buffer zone between the Shoshone and Ute peoples” so it was about as untouched as you could get. Would it have happened in 10 years? 20 years? Never? I suspect because of invasive species and other changes to soil composition from fertilization and cultivation that it’s the latter. It would never go back, but how long would it take for it to not look awful? 

Of course the high schools’ original lawn didn’t look awful, which is kind of the whole point of lawns, they look nice, and apparently they’re also great for games like golf and as the name suggests, lawn bowling.  But they also require a significant amount of work. Lawns have to be watered and cut and fertilized, with weed killer thrown in there as well, year in and year out, and if that ever stops… Boom! A forest of milkweeds, or something equally awful.

Once I had this realization I thought about it a lot as I was putting forth my own efforts to keep my yard looking nice, but my ruminations were limited to the context of the work I was doing at that moment. Only recently did it occur to me that my landscaping epiphany is also a cautionary tale about the efforts and works of man in general. 

Obviously having a nice green lawn was not human’s first attempt to change the natural world in artificial ways, making it conform to their needs and desires rather than leaving it unmolested. These efforts have been going on for millenia. Even groups that have traditionally been viewed as living in harmony with nature altered the world to make it better conform to their needs. The Plains Indians didn’t merely live on the Great Plains, they helped make them into plains and keep them that way by setting large fires. They wanted to create as much habitat as possible for the bison they relied on.

But as much as this has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, more recently it has accelerated, and the difficulty at this point is trying to find some area where it’s not happening.

When one considers changes we’ve made to the natural world the mind is drawn to the big changes, the massive cities with their skyscrapers, the millions of acres of farmland, or the billions of tons of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. And it’s understandable that people are focused on those changes, because they’re so huge, but it’s also interesting to look at it from the other side, at what happens when we make even very tiny changes. 

I mentioned hiking in the wilderness, and even the disturbance caused by a narrow trail can bring in weeds and other invasive species. I took this from a forest service document:

Most noxious weeds are early successional species that prefer highly disturbed sites such as areas along rivers and streams, trails, trailheads, roadsides, building sites, wildlife bedding grounds, overgrazed areas, and campgrounds… In Glacier National Park, exotic plant species showed a continuous distribution along road and trail corridors… Managing knapweed required preventing roadside infestations from spreading.

Road construction and maintenance activities mix soil layers, increasing soil microbial activity. Weeds exploit these newly available nutrients efficiently. This may be one reason that the density of weedy plants increases as intensity of disturbance increases. 

In other words, the minute we change something we alter the natural balance, bringing in short term opportunistic species rather than the long term sustainable stuff we prefer. So the sad truth is that my house couldn’t have the landscaping I see while I’m out hiking because the mere fact of building the house and living in it would make such a yard impossible. 

One could imagine that if I waited long enough, and if I was careful enough I could get pretty close, but generally that’s not what we do. Our solution to the problems caused by the initial intervention is to follow it up with still more interventions. If our activities create a fertile breeding ground for weeds we don’t wait for the natural species to claw their way back in, we introduce different plants we like better. We then water and fertilize the plants we prefer, while pulling or poisoning all the plants we don’t. Any “natural” plants that might still be hanging around are soon forgotten.

My point is not that this is bad, (though it very well might be) it’s that once we have started down this path there’s no easy off-ramp. The requirement to intervene becomes perpetual, and more often than not the amount of intervention that’s required just keeps increasing. And if for some reason we stop these interventions, or even if we just slacken our efforts somewhat because we’re distracted, or if we have to divert resources elsewhere, things don’t end up reverting to some harmonious natural state, rather we end up in the hellish situation where we have something that’s neither natural nor intentional. A forest of chest-high milkweeds.

Even if we never lose focus, and we always have the resources available to intervene as much or as little as we want, it’s not like intervention is an exact science, where we’re always able to get exactly the results we want. Sometimes we misjudge things and we push too much, sometimes we don’t push enough. Other times nature pushes back. 

The difficulties of intervention are legion, but here are just a few:

  • To start with there’s what I just talked about, nature pushing back. The best example of this is antibiotic resistance, but even closer to my analogy, weeds also develop herbicide resistance.
  • Determining the right level of intervention for a yard might be fairly straightforward, but what about more complex systems? Even hardcore government stimulus advocates agree that we pumped too much money into the economy as part of the pandemic response, and now we’re scrambling to undo the inflation that resulted. (Of course other things contributed to the problem as well, but that’s precisely my point.)
  • At the moment the Western US is suffering from a severe drought, which takes us to the next problem: At some point the resources being used for intervention will end up being insufficient, leaving people in the difficult position of deciding which interventions to continue and which to forgo. Do we use the limited water for hydroelectric power or irrigation?
  • Perhaps the most difficult part of all about intervening is the way in which interventions have unintended effects. In a manner similar to thinking that it would be nice to have green lawns, we also thought it would be nice to have cheap and abundant power. And it is very nice, unfortunately in the process we released billions of tons of CO2 into the air. This is another place where it would be nice to intervene, but the scope of the intervention exceeds our capabilities.

This last point is an important one. I fear that as the level of intervention required to solve our problems continues to scale up, both in size and in complexity, that more and more we lack the resources and the wisdom necessary to continue to intervene successfully. That eventually we won’t be able to maintain (some would say “prop up”) all of the various interventions which go into creating the modern world. And in those areas that we have been intervening it won’t smoothly revert to however it was before, but rather just like the lawn of that old high school, it will fail in ugly and unexpected ways.

As a final thought I find this idea that noxious weeds are the first on the scene when the natural order is disturbed to be a fascinating one. I haven’t had the time to fully process it because I just came across this idea as I was writing this post, but it does seem like new industries, changes in regulations, and even technological innovations have a tendency to attract the “noxious weeds”. But more importantly, beyond a discussion of any particular industry, as the pace of disruption increases, could we end up in a situation where so much of the long term order has been recently disturbed that the entire landscape is opportunistic weeds? Is it possible that this is already the state we find ourselves in?


Lots of tangential stuff at the beginning there, and then lots of wild speculation at the end. With nothing concrete in between, if you think paying for these nothing sandwiches is worth it consider donating.


The 10 Books I Finished in April

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  1. The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy by: Taylor Dotson
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by: Mark Fisher 
  3. The Age of AI and Our Human Future by: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher
  4. A Confederacy of Dunces by: John Kennedy Toole
  5. Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation by: Roosevelt Montás
  6. Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen by: Steve Sims
  7. The Thursday Murder Club by: Richard Osman
  8. The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands by: John Michael Greer
  9. Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) by: Craig Alanson
  10. Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9) by: Craig Alanson

The next few months are going to be pretty busy. As I mentioned in the epilogue of one of my essays in April, we’ve decided to move. My house is old, we’ve lived in it a very long time, and I like to collect things, particularly books. (At this point we’ve used 80+ boxes just on them.) So getting ready to show and sell the house has already been a pretty laborious process, and will continue to be so for the next couple of weeks. Once the house is sold, which hopefully will be the matter of a weekend since the market, while cooling, is still pretty hot (my timing for selling the house has not been perfect, but I’m hoping it’s close enough) then we need to find a new house, which will also be time consuming. Once a new house is acquired we’ll need to move, unpack, and reconstruct things. Hopefully this will all happen before July 10th, because that’s when I leave for Ireland for two and a half weeks. As I said, the next few months are going to be busy.

I bring all of this up because there’s obviously a chance it will affect the time I have available to write. (It already delayed the second half of my drug post so that it was almost on top of my end of month newsletter.) There’s a chance I just won’t put out two essays one of these months (the best candidate being July) but my plan is to focus on trying to write some shorter essays. These will hopefully take less time, and as my post lengths have been creeping up, it’s probably a good idea to try to exercise some restraint in any case. That said sometimes shorter pieces require just as much, if not more effort than longer pieces. All the way back in 1657 Pascal apologized for the length of one of his letters because he “had not the time to make it shorter”. The more I write the more true I realize this is. 

In any event we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure how much shorter I can make my reviews, but I guess we’re about to find out. Making things more difficult, I’m going to immediately undermine this effort by adding a new section for non-fiction books, and the occasional fictional book: “What’s the author’s angle?”


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy 

By: Taylor Dotson

Published: 2021

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another examination of political polarization. This one focused on pointing out that science is not nearly as prescriptive as people claim, but also neither is “common sense”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Dotson describes himself as a leftist, and his primary thrust seems to be urging other leftists to re-engage with pluralist, discursive democracy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone sick of people telling them that we just need to “follow the science” or anyone who suspects that the value of an epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) has been oversold.

General Thoughts

I found this book to be appealing but flawed. Let’s start with its appeal. I have noticed, particularly since the pandemic started, that the admonition to “follow the science” has gotten ever more insistent. These admonitions preceded the pandemic, but that was what really put the idea to the test and found it wanting. I have previously discussed why this is so. Why determining the correct action is not nearly so simple. But some people imagine that it is precisely that simple, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

Tyson and Nye are not generally at the top of anybody’s list of “people who are destroying the world”, but Dotson is pretty hard on them. This was definitely part of the book’s appeal for me. Not because Tyson or Nye are bad people, but precisely because they’re not. This allows us to clearly identify the bad idea as something separate, not part of other biases which might attach to the person, something which is impossible with people like Biden and Trump. 

So what is this bad idea? Let’s start with Nye:

“On his Netflix program, Bill Nye tackles controversial issues such as alternative medicine, antivaccination, and climate change primarily by presenting one side as in line with science and the other as beset by cognitive biases and ignorance. Yes, people are often misinformed about the issues they care about, but narratives like Nye’s and the others mentioned here portray disagreement as if it were always the result of cognitive deficiencies and conspiratorial thinking on one side or the other. The historian Ted Steinberg describes this tendency to blame political opponents’ opinions on an underlying psychological ailment as “the diagnostic style of politics.”

The problem with the diagnostic style of politics is not simply that it is rude and condescending but that it encourages a fanatical approach to political disagreements. Opponents are no longer people who see the world differently but instead heretics who refuse to think “rationally” or accept objective science.”

Tyson takes this “diagnosis” and runs with it:

In a recent viral YouTube video, for instance, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims that America’s problems stem from the increasing inability of those in power to recognize scientific fact. Only if people begin to see that policy choices must be based on established scientific truths, according to Tyson, can we move forward with necessary political decisions. 

… 

Tyson’s call for a world government called “Rationalia,” whose one-line constitution requires that policy decisions simply be settled by “the weight of the evidence,” went viral on Twitter. 

It’s hard to express how breathtakingly naive these ideas are. Particularly given Tyson’s reputation for intelligence. Which, bears repeating, is not the same as wisdom. But perhaps you think I’m being too hard on him and Nye. I don’t think so, and as I mentioned, that’s the appeal of the book. It points out all the ways these recommendations won’t work. 

  • Collecting evidence has proven to be far more difficult than people expected, leading to a vast replication crisis.
  • Different scientists weigh evidence differently. An ecologist may be concerned about evidence that genetically modified crops are more fragile. While a geneticist may be entirely concerned with evidence of pest resistance. 
  • “Scientizing policy privileges the dimensions of life that are easily quantifiable and renders less visible the ones that are not.”
  • Science as it is conducted is not apolitical. Scientists not only have biases in how they weigh the evidence, they are biased in which studies they conduct, and the recommendations they make. 

I could go on, but perhaps at this point it’s more useful to apply it to an actual problem we’re currently grappling with. I’m sure everyone’s excited that the controversy over abortion is once again dominating the news. What does science say about how to decide that problem? 

Back in 2018 The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost”. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. I’m sure there is some other science, that weighs in on the opposite side (though I expect it would mostly apply to very early abortions). But my point is not to get into the actual debate, my point is that there is a debate. A debate where there’s significant evidence for the pro-life side. The side Nye and Tyson are almost certainly opposed to. 

To put it another way, forget about the morality of the situation. Forget about bodily autonomy or choice, or anything like that. And just consider, what the “weight of evidence” says about abortion, what science says about it. Using nothing but science would every person arrive at the same conclusion? Obviously not. Of course this gets into the is-ought problem which I’ve mentioned before.  And Dotson’s whole point is that when Tyson advocates for Rationalia and other people advocate for an epistocracy, they have no idea how to overcome this problem. The question we’re left with is, does Dotson?

Eschatological Implications

In any discussion of this topic almost no one questions Dotson’s premise. Everyone agrees that there’s a divide. Furthermore, most people, even Tyson and Nye, would go on to agree that  there’s too much fanatical certitude. (Though they would point to the other side as the one where this is a problem.) Which is to say everyone grants the title/thesis of the book. What they want to know is: what do we do about it? What does it mean for the future of civil society? How will America survive this widening divide? Or will it not survive it? If “following the science” isn’t the solution, what is?

As I mentioned the book is appealing but flawed, and it’s when we get to Dotson’s solutions that the flaws emerge, but as I pointed out at some length in a past post, solutions are oftentimes where great thinkers stumble. I’m not sure that I would classify Dotson as a great thinker, but his proposed solutions are better than most. He doesn’t put together a list, but he seems to offer up three solutions:

1- Better, and more civil discourse: This is something of a free speech argument. That we need more speech, not less. That this is the problem with the left, they use appeals to “science” to shut down discussion, and while I haven’t focused on his criticisms of the right as much, he claims they use appeals to “common sense” in a similar fashion. Dotson is not a free speech absolutist, but he believes we have abandoned the “pluralist process of negotiation at the heart of democracy”.

This all sounds great, but it’s easy to make the case that social media has made “pluralist negotiation” basically impossible. Dotson doesn’t ignore the problems of social media, but he doesn’t have any innovative suggestions for fixing the problem either. Here’s as close as he comes:

It is difficult to imagine exactly what a better net might look like, but a reasonable first step would be to hold information distributors to the same standards we would want information producers to abide by. News aggregators and social media sites should be forced to protect against outright fraudulent claims and libelous speech and perhaps be incentivized or encouraged to prioritize material from multipartisan public media.

2- Demarchy: Dotson spends much of the book advocating for democracy over epistocracy, but when it comes down to what most people think of as democratic he’s against it. He doesn’t like representative democracy because politicians are entrenched and oligarchic. He doesn’t like direct democracy, like California’s ballot proposition system, because it leads to bad outcomes. instead he proposes the creation of a demarchical system. Demarchy is “randomly selecting a representative sample of citizens to serve as legislators.” This is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea, and it was used in Ancient Athens, so that’s something. And in many ways it’s interesting, but it’s a very big jump from where we are to there, and I expect that there are lots of ways it might go wrong that we haven’t even imagined.

As one example, he mentions that demarchy can be thought of as similar to how juries are selected. And they seem to work out okay. That may be true, but other than the random selection part, everything else is very different. They are impaneled to consider a single issue. It’s expected that they frequently won’t reach a decision. And there’s a whole additional process of jury selection after the random selection. Will we have something similar where given sufficient grounds potential legislators could be dismissed or not seated? If so, that puts us back in the same position we’re already in. My favorite version of demarchy imagined that the people selected would remain anonymous. In conclusion this proposal is interesting, but embryonic.

3- Civic religion: I bow to no one in my appreciation for the benefits of civic religion, and you would think that appreciation would extend to anyone else who also chooses to extol it’s virtues, but Dotson’s advocacy is the strangest I’ve come across. Most people who think civic religion is important will pine for a return to the civic religion of patriotism, with its veneration of the founding fathers, the constitution, and the Revolution. Even though our former civic religion did all the things Dotson says he wants, he not only doesn’t wish to revive it, he doesn’t even acknowledge its existence!

It would be one thing if he had a different definition of civic religion, but when he says things like, “For pluralism to blossom, the next generation may need to be brought up within a democratic civic religion.” That sure sounds like the kind of thing I experienced in the 70’s and 80’s, but he never once draws that connection…

I’m not saying that returning to the old civic religion of patriotism, 4th of July parades, and secular saints like Washington and Lincoln will be easy, but if civic religion is going to save the country it will be a heck of a lot easier to return to what we already have, than to invent some new civic religion out of whole cloth.


II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 

By: Mark Fisher 

Published: 2009

81 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

I have many thoughts about this book, but I’d rather not go off half-cocked, which is to say, my plan is to re-read this book on my Kindle where it’s easy to highlight things and only then do I intend to opine deeply on what it’s saying. 

As I have mentioned in the past, I’m part of a book club, and one part of my plan to re-read this book is hoping to use my substantial influence (that’s a joke) to convince them to read it along with me. If I’m successful I will return here and report on not only what I thought, but what others thought as well. 

I realize that this is something of a cop-out, so I’ll leave you with a quote. This is from the section of the book where I first was prompted to sit up and think, “Wow, this is powerful stuff!”

In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, [Kurt] Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that [Fredric] Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.


The Age of AI and Our Human Future

By: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher

Published: 2021

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The changes that are likely be wrought by increasingly advanced AI, with a particular focus on near term changes.

What’s the author’s angle?

They’re hoping to bring greater awareness to the geopolitical changes which will be brought by AI and to urge the US to take the lead with AI.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in AI, but all your attention has been dominated what’s happening now (i.e. GPT-3, DALL-E, AlphaGo, etc.) or what may eventually happen (AI risk, Superintelligence, Age of Em, etc.) then this is a great book for covering the territory in between. 

General Thoughts

Yes, the lead author is that Henry Kissinger, who is apparently still writing (or at least contributing to books) at the age of 98. We should all be so lucky.

While Kissinger is well known for foreign affairs in general, his initial interest was “nuclear weapons and foreign policy”, which ended up being the name of his first book. His experience with nuclear weapons is one of several interesting things about this book, because it contends that national AI programs pose similar threats to world peace, and require similar thinking. But in all other respects they are vastly more difficult to manage. They are more difficult to create international agreements around, to defend against, to collect intelligence on—more difficult along just about any measurement you can imagine.

As I already alluded to, another interesting thing about the book was its focus on the near-term. The vast majority of the people working on AI are either fixating on developing or improving something which currently exists, or on being ready for the Singularity. As an example of the latter, my sense is that Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that we’re already too late. This book spends a lot of time looking at what’s going to happen on a 10-20 year horizon. One byproduct of this, is that the authors seem to largely dismiss the idea that the singularity is going to arrive unexpectedly sometime in that period.

As a follow-up to reading the book I listened to Schmidt being interviewed by Sam Harris, and as you can imagine the question of AI Risk came up. Schmidt confidently predicted that the next generation of AI researchers would be able to come up with a “run amuck” button, as in if an AI starts to “run amuck” you just press that button and it stops them. You could forgive a blasé answer about the future if it came from Kissinger, what does he care, he’s 98, but I expected better from Schmidt.

According to my notes, which are never as good as they should be, Schmidt said he wasn’t worried about AI running amuck, he was worried about them changing what it means to be human. They spend a lot of time talking about this aspect of things, and I think the authors believe that this is really their main contribution to the discussion. Enough so that they included it in the title. Their approach to this question mostly seems curious and neutral, avoiding conclusions of doom and utopia that seem so common in other books of this sort. But I think doom might be warranted. AI can’t really change what it means to be human, too much of that meaning is encoded in our genes, but it can manipulate those built in attributes, and sow an enormous amount of confusion. Which is not only something to worry about happening in the near term, it’s something we should be worried about right now.


A Confederacy of Dunces 

By: John Kennedy Toole

Published: 1980

405 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The misadventures of the overweight, overeducated and overwrought Ignatius J. Reilly, and fleshed out with similar misadventures from other eccentric personalities of 1960’s New Orleans.

Who should read this book?

This is rightly judged to be a modern classic, and you should probably read it just for that reason, but as Ignatius is the original geek who spends most of his time in his bedroom declaiming his superiority into the ether, I think it has a lot to say about our present moment as well. 

General Thoughts

I enjoyed this book. The plot was nothing to write home about, but the characters, dialogue, writing and setting were all fantastic. Also for a book written in the late 60’s it seemed unusually prophetic. But of course there’s an argument to be made that we’re replaying the 60’s only with the addition of the internet, so perhaps that’s why it feels so timely. 

I can’t emphasize enough how eccentric the characters are in this book, but again that’s another way in which it somehow nails the current moment.


Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By: Roosevelt Montás

Published: 2021

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Montás’ journey from poor kid in the Dominican Republic to undergraduate at Columbia, to Director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the pivotal and empowering role “Great Books” played at every stage of that journey.

What’s the author’s angle?

Montás’ has been the head of Columbia’s “Great Books” effort for many years, so in part he’s defending his job.

Who should read this book?

Anyone looking for a defense of including great books as one of the foundations of a liberal education, in particular a first person defense. 

General Thoughts

I remember a time when the “Great Books” still had a lot of cachet. I’m sure it was already fading by the time I came along, but it was still there. In the decades since then they’ve taken a beating. The most common accusation is that they were all or mostly written by old white guys, and that privileging them crowds out minority authors and academics. So I was very interested in reading the story of one of those minority academics who claimed that a traditional “Great Books” course dramatically, profoundly, and positively altered his life. 

Of course these days we have expanded the Great Books canon to include books by Gandhi and other non-european authors, but as Montás points out, these new books have not replaced the old books, they are an addition to the canon. All of the books that were great in 1920 are still great today. Montás covers four authors in particular: Augustine, Aristotle, Freud, and the aforementioned Gandhi. He spends one chapter on each of them detailing how they impacted his life in positive ways. I liked the first person aspect of the book, but as this was a book giving a defense of the Great Books as a general tool for educating everyone, it would have been nice if he had included more examples of people benefiting from them beyond just his own story.

Still as someone who is engaged in his own laborious path through the Great Books, it was nice to read someone urging me to continue.


Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen

by: Steve Sims

Published: 2018

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A self-help/business book written by a guy who specializes in making seemingly impossible dreams into realities. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I assume he has enough money, and that he genuinely wants to help people turn their dreams into reality, but I assume the money from the book is a nice bonus.

Who should read this book?

This does not break any new ground in the self-help/business book genre. If you haven’t read the 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, I would read that first, but after a certain point these books are more about motivation than knowledge and this book provides plenty of motivation.

General Thoughts

Sims has an inspiring rags to riches story. He started out as a bricklayer in East London, having dropped out of school at age 15. After landing a job in Hong Kong and getting fired five days later he got a job as a doorman, and kind of stumbled into being a concierge as part of that job. As part of that he kept pushing the limits of what a concierge could do, eventually pulling off some truly amazing requests, like arranging for six people to have dinner at the feet of Michaelangelo’s David. My favorite story from the book is how he had a client who wanted to meet the band Journey, and Sims took that request, ran with it, and in the end the guy was able to get on stage with them and be lead singer on four of their songs at a charity concert. 

As far as how to do stuff like that, as I said I’m not sure that Sims gives away any big secrets in this book. His recommendations are the same as the recommendations from a dozen other books like this. But at a certain point it’s not knowing what to do, it’s being motivated to do what you already know you should be doing, and on that count Sims is a very motivational guy.


The Thursday Murder Club

by: Richard Osman

Published: 2020

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four people in a retirement community who meet every Thursday to work over old unsolved murders who are suddenly confronted with an actual murder.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. If you like all those things and you’re starting to feel the melancholia of being old then this book is especially for you.

General Thoughts

Every good novel ideally has great characters, witty dialogue, and a good plot. The latter is particularly important for a mystery novel because it’s a genre that not merely demands good plots, they have to be intricate and surprising. Osman manages to pull off all of those features. The characters are delightful, the dialogue is fantastic, and beyond that he manages to pull off not just one intricate plot, but multiple interlocking, intricate plots. I thought it was especially brilliant to set it in a retirement community. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

249 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fourth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, and here.) This one is set at Miskatonic University, and the titular Dreamlands.

Who should read this book?

As with all series, whether you read this book depends a lot on what you thought of the books which preceded this one. I thought this was the strongest entry in the series since the first one. So if you’re thinking of continuing I would.

General Thoughts

Greer mostly writes non-fiction, he recently described his career as follows:

Over the years… I watched (and joined in) the peak oil movement as it rose and fell, watched (and kept my distance from) the parallel movement of climate change activism as it rose and fell, watched (and dealt in my own life with some of the consequences of) the slow twilight of America’s global empire and the vaster twilight of Western civilization as a whole.

I bring this up because, for Greer, in both the novel and in the real world, the bad guys are those who think that technology and progress are the solutions to everything. That the modern world with its institutions and ideology is somehow special and different. Of all the books in the series I think this one illustrates the bad guys the best, particularly as they appear in academia. Despite the obvious moral of the story, it’s never preachy or heavy handed, it’s just a very interesting, very different view of how the world works, and of course, as always with this series, how Lovecraftian horror is conceived.


Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

6 Hours (Only available on audio)

Briefly, what is this audio drama special about?

As you can tell from the title this is an interstitial piece between books 7 and 8 in the main series. It concerns an unforeseen alien threat which suddenly arrives at Earth, which as I think about it, is the plot of the very first book in the series as well.

Who should listen to this audio drama special?

I’m not sure. It is referenced at the start of book 8, and it’s kind of annoying to not know the story, and it’s also kind of annoying to have to go out and spend an audible credit to get the story. They attempt to compensate for these annoyances by bringing in some big names and doing a full cast production, but I found the full cast recording with sound effects to be more annoying than just having the single narrator, so your annoyance is tripled. If you want my advice, you can skip it. 

General Thoughts

This is basically an attempt to turn Expeditionary Force into an old-timey radio drama. Having only listened to a few old-timey radio dramas I can’t say whether they succeeded or not. But as a general rule every full-cast recording I’ve listened to has been disappointing. If someone has one they particularly enjoy let me know. I’d like to find a good one, but so far, in my limited experience, they have all been mediocre.


Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9)

By: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

398 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As I mentioned in my review of book 8, the Merry Band of Pirates have finally leveled up, this book is about what they do with their new “powers”. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve come this far you should probably continue. By now you will have either given up in annoyance at Alanson’s quirks or come to accept them. I think this book is better than some of the previous books, and ends on a very interesting cliffhanger.

General Thoughts

I’m writing this having already read book 10. And I will say that up until about halfway through book 9 things were getting pretty formulaic. Now it was a good formula, one I mostly enjoyed, but it was still getting old, but about halfway through this book and continuing into the next book, things have been very interesting. I’m hoping they stay that way. 


I also hope my blog stays interesting, which can be tough, since I’ve written at least as many words as 10 novels. This post I started pointing out people’s angles. I have many angles, but certainly one of them is precisely this, to keep things interesting. And obviously another is to try to make you guilty enough to donate