Month: <span>June 2022</span>

Eschatologist #18: Famines and Fragility

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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.


Eschatological Frameworks

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I just finished reading the book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. It’s an explicitly Christian book, and it sets out to discuss eight different modern belief systems—things like individualism, scientific naturalism, or consumerism—and then to demonstrate why these other worldviews are inferior to Christianity. I’ll have a review of it in my monthly round-up, but I found the structure to be very interesting: this idea of explicitly breaking down the different ways one might see the world. It gave me the idea of explicitly breaking down and examining the different ways people have come up with for envisioning the future, of exploring the various eschatological frameworks, some religious, but most of them secular.

As I mentioned in my very first post (which, coincidently, went up almost exactly six years ago) the future can really go in only one of two ways. We could achieve some sort of technological singularity, a development so radical that the world is unrecognizable. This term is most commonly used with AI, but there are other possibilities, for example the internet was a soft singularity. Alternatively, modern civilization could take a sharp downward turn into collapse and catastrophe. There is no middle ground. The world of 2122, or 2100, or even 2060  is going to be very, very different from the world of 2022. I am not the only one making this claim. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWall, has said that this is the most important century ever for humanity. Ian Morris, professor of Classics and author of such books as, War! What is it Good For? (see my discussion here) goes even further and says the same thing but claims it will all be taking place within the next 40 years

To be fair, basically everyone thinks the world of 2060 will be different than the world of 2020, the question is how different? Will it be surprisingly similar to today, just better? Or will it be unrecognizable? If so, will it be unrecognizable in a good way or in a bad way? Will it be an undreamt of utopia or a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’m not sure, I have made some predictions, but revisiting those is not the point of this post. No, in this post I want to look at various frameworks people might use to make such predictions, examine the fundamental embedded assumptions within those frameworks and, most of all, discuss where each framework thinks salvation, or potential destruction, lies. Let’s start with the framework where the least is expected to happen:

Pinkerism/Neoliberalism/Fukuyama’s End of History  

Embedded assumptions: All of the statistics show that things are going great. Poverty is down and living standards are up. Everyone has more rights. Violence has dropped across the board, including that most important category: war, which hasn’t happened between Great Powers for 75 years. Beyond that, as long as we don’t sabotage ourselves, progress and technology will take care of problems like climate change and political discord as well.

What is the source of our salvation: We basically already are saved; people just don’t realize it because the process has been so gradual. But by any objective measure, the violence and want of the past have been left behind.

When Fukuyama declared an end to history in his book of the same name, he was making an eschatological claim. If you’re just going off the title, he appears to be declaring that we have already and permanently been saved. If his critics bothered to read the book they would discover that he is far more nuanced about how permanent things actually are. What he’s more arguing is that we have discovered all the tools necessary for salvation. Tools like science, market economies, free flow of migrants, etc. And there don’t appear to be any better tools out there. This is the end he’s talking about.

Steven Pinker goes even farther and claims in his book Enlightenment Now, that not only do we have the tools for salvation, but that they’re working great. We just need to keep using them, and not toss them away because they’re not working fast enough. That to the extent we have a problem it’s that we don’t have enough faith in these tools, and the minute they don’t work perfectly we immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t work at all. 

Of course, speaking of faith, Pinker has been accused of having too much faith that these tools will continue to work in the future, despite whatever new problems arise. This is why this framework ends up with the least dramatic view of the future, because it asserts that even if something changes, and we have to transition to a new reality, that our current tools are more than capable of smoothing that transition. There will be no hard takeoff due to AI, nor a global catastrophe due to climate change. The scientific method and progress more broadly has everything necessary for success and salvation, we just need to not abandon them.

Transhumanism

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This allows us to change what it means to be human, making them better or develop powerful artificial intelligence, or other amazing things we can scarcely imagine.

What is the source of our salvation: Technology is going to allow us to get rid of all the bad parts of humanity, things like death, scarcity, and stupidity, but also violence and want. Once we’ve gotten rid of all of those things, and added lots of cool things besides, we will have essentially achieved a secular version of heaven.

Once again this framework is based on the tools of technology and progress, only in this case it’s focused not on the tools we already have, but on the tools that are being worked on. It is, of course, always possible that these tools won’t be able to do everything transhumanists imagine. As an example, some people still think that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will prove to be far more difficult to create than people imagine, but to be fair these people are rarely transhumanists. Rather transhumanists are those who believe that such developments are right around the corner. 

Robin Hanson, who doesn’t consider himself to be a transhumanist, and who also believes that AGI will be difficult to create, nevertheless wrote an entire book (see my discussion here) on uploading our brains to computers called The Age of Em. (Em is short for emulated person.) I bring this up both to demonstrate some of the debates within this ideology, but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of transhumanism’s eschatological bent. It combines immortality, a postmortal utopia, and a single salvific event. Hanson doesn’t imagine a day of judgment, the Age of Em will actually last two years in his opinion (the book is remarkably specific in its predictions) but during that time Em’s will experience a thousand years of subjective time. My religious readers may see a parallel between this and the concept of millennialism.

A few people, like our old friends the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), who have not made an appearance in this space for a long time, but who have been on my mind a lot recently, explicitly link religion and transhumanism. Similar to Pinker they believe that technology has reduced violence and want, but they go beyond that to imagine that it will completely eliminate it, and allow resurrection and eternal life as well—that most of the things promised by Christianity (and specifically the Mormon version of it) will be brought to pass by technology.

Despite the foregoing, I don’t want to play up the religious angle of transhumanism too much, but it does rely on two kinds of faith. Faith that the miraculous technology envisioned will actually materialize, and faith that when it does it will be a good thing. For a group that doesn’t have that second form of faith we turn to a discussion of:

Existential Risk

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This acceleration will shortly outstrip our ability to manage the risks that inevitably accompany new technology. Not only will we be unable to keep ahead of the risks, but the more technology advances the bigger the risks get.

What is the source of our destruction: While the possibility exists that we might be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid. It’s far more likely we will be destroyed by the tools we’ve created, whether it be nukes, or bioweapons, or an aggressive AI. 

As you might be able to tell there is broad overlap between transhumanists and people who worry about existential risk. You might say that the former are technological optimists while the latter are technological pessimists. From my limited perspective, I think most of these people have been drifting towards the pessimistic side of things.

For an illustration of why people are pessimistic, and this eschatological framework in general, it’s best to turn to an analogy from Nick Bostrom, which has appeared a couple of times in this space:

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

Bostrom puts forward this analogy as a way of describing the potential benefits and harms of new technologies. Many, perhaps most will be beneficial, but some will be harmful, and it’s possible that one will end up causing the end of humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably impossible to stop the development of new technology, to stop drawing balls from the urn, but we can try and imagine what sorts of technology might be dangerous and take steps to mitigate it in advance.

For most people in this space the thing they worry about the most is AI Risk. The idea that we will develop AGI but be unable to control it. That we will create gods and they will turn out to be malevolent.

Speaking of God…

Christian Eschatology

Embedded assumptions: Christian eschatology comes in lots of flavors, but at the moment the discussion is dominated by the aforementioned millennialism, which assumes that things like the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are right around the corner. 

What is the source of our salvation: God. 

It might seem strange to discuss Christian eschatology alongside things like transhumanism and neoliberalism. On the other hand, as it’s the OG eschatology, it would seem strange not to discuss it.

As the original eschatology, Christian beliefs and language are woven all through this discussion. This is what allows me to discuss Robin Hanson’s version of “heaven”. This is what enables the MTA to imagine that technology will be the means of bringing about the end of the world, but in a good way. This cross-pollination has also gone the other way.

To be a modern eschatological framework, you have to have something to say about progress and technology. For many, perhaps even most Christians the modern world is evidence that the end must be close, that we are essentially building the Tower of Babel. (As you might imagine the MTA disagrees with this.) In this sense Christians are somewhat related to the people who worry about existential risk, though in this case they have faith that while things are going to get bad, that eventually Jesus will return and everything will turn out okay. As I’ve said before, when considering the alternatives, I think this view has a lot to recommend it.

New Age Spiritualism

Embedded assumptions: That the world has passed into a new, more enlightened era. As a consequence, we have left behind much of the evil and selfishness that used to afflict humanity, and we are on our way to embracing universal acceptance, tolerance and love.

What is the source of our salvation: An underlying spirit of progress, paired with a greater awareness of the higher morality brought about by this spirit of progress. 

It is my impression that almost no one uses the term “New Age” any more, so if you have a better term for this framework let me know. However, if you followed the link in the section heading you’ll see that “New Age” beliefs are still very common, as such it seemed worth including.

Whatever you want to call it and whatever its current influence, this framework is far less “in your face” than preceding ones. In part this is because its adherents generally feel that it’s going to be eventually successful regardless of how people act. That love, tolerance, and kindness will eventually triumph. That the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice”.

That said, there does appear to be a lot of frustration—by people who have a vision of what progress entails and where we’re headed—with those who don’t share their vision. It might be too much to declare that “woke ideology” overlaps with modern New Age eschatology, but it does seem to borrow a lot of the same principles, albeit with a more militant twist. But both imagine that we’re progressing towards a utopia of tolerance and kindness, and that some people are dragging their feet. 

I confess that this is the framework I understand the least, but it does seem like the foundation of much that is happening currently. And overall it translates into an eschatology that doesn’t revolve around technology, but around human attitudes and behavior.

Catabolic Collapse

Embedded assumptions: That civilization is reaching the point of diminishing productivity, growth and innovation. As a consequence of this we can’t build new things, and shortly we won’t even be able to maintain what we already have. 

What is the source of our destruction: A slow cannibalism of existing infrastructure, government programs, and social capital. 

Here we have come full circle. This is yet another slow moving eschatology, similar to Pinkerism, but in this case we’re not already saved, we’re already damned. This particular eschatological framework was first suggested by John Michael Greer, who got his start as part of the peak oil movement and has gradually shifted to commenting on late capitalism from kind of an ecosocialist perspective. Which is to say he’s very concerned about the environment and he talks a lot about the discontent of the average blue collar worker.

As a formal framework, it’s pretty obscure, but as a generalized sense of where the country is, with gas at $5/gallon, inflation, all the after effects of the pandemic, and a divided country. I think there are a lot of people who believe this is what’s happening even if they don’t have a name for it. 

The point, as I have mentioned before, is that the apocalypse will not be as cool or as deadly as you hope. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation and it’s going to take a long time for that ruin to manifest. Even if there’s a huge worldwide pandemic, even if there’s a nuclear war. Humans are tenacious. But absent divine intervention I don’t think permanent salvation is in the cards. And I think destruction is going to end up being long and painful. 

Conclusion

In 1939, Charles Kettering, a truly amazing inventor (He held 186 patents!), said:

I am not disturbed about the future. I think it is going to be a wonderful place. I don’t like people to talk about how bad it is going to be, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in the future.

You may have heard the shortened version, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” But what form should that concern take? And will it be a “wonderful place”? These are incredibly important questions, and it is my hope that by going through the various frameworks I’ve helped you develop some answers. 

As to my own answers to these questions, first we should note that the years immediately following Kettering’s pronouncement ended up being anything but wonderful. Instead war broke out on a scale never before seen and never since equaled. And yet I strongly suspect that Ian Morris is right, that the next forty years will be more impactful than the forty years leading up to the end of World War II. Even though those years contained World War I. And more impactful than the 40 years which started at the beginning of World War II, even though we landed on the Moon.

Because of this I think we should have an enormous amount of concern for the future because there’s a significant chance that it won’t be a wonderful place. We’ve never before been in a situation where things are changing so fast on so many fronts. And the faster things change the harder it is for us to adapt and the less likely a “wonderful” future becomes. 

I certainly hope that Pinker’s right, and we have been saved, or we will soon be saved. And certainly that idea deserves a seat at the table, but as you can see there are several other ideologies also seated at the eschatological table. Some are scary, some are interesting, but they’re all dramatic. Which is to say hang on, the next few decades are going to be bumpy.


I considered putting in Marxism as a framework, but is that really still a going concern? If it is let me know. The best way to do that is to send me money, which is both a great idea anyway, but also, if I’m not mistaken, ideologically appropriate. 


Nassar, Uvalde, and the Decline of Responsibility

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As part of my summer of experimentation (really just the summer when I’m super busy) I thought I’d try a more meditative post. Which is to say a post where I’m thinking out loud and I’m not exactly sure where things are going to end up. 

Even more than three weeks out it’s hard to not still be thinking of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And similar to what I said in my recent newsletter where I mentioned abortion. I don’t think I have any particular insight into what we should be doing that we’re not. Fortunately or unfortunately—I’m not exactly sure which—it appears that the debate over solutions for these sorts of shootings has been eclipsed by horror at how long the police took to storm the room. And each time we receive additional details, the behavior of the police, or at least the commander on the scene, just looks worse and worse. 

Of course this horror also comes down to a list of recommendations for what we should do differently in the future. Though in this case all of the experts had already recommended something, and it was even a recommendation that “both sides” agreed to. The police just failed to follow through on that recommendation.

Ever since Columbine the recommendation/doctrine has been for police to engage quickly, even at the risk of their own lives. This did not happen at Uvalde, and it’s clear that there were children and at least one teacher who died from their wounds who would have lived if they had gotten prompt medical attention. The teacher died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and three kids died after arriving at the hospital. In trauma care there’s the concept of the golden hour, that your chances of saving someone’s life are significantly higher if you can get them care within 60 minutes of the trauma occurring. This is particularly true for blood loss. I’m sure you see the connection given that the golden hour was also the same hour the police spent waiting outside the room. Once you take this into account, I’m guessing that four preventable deaths is the bare minimum, that it could have easily been two or three times that number. 

As shocked as I am by this unforgivable delay, it was another story that really inspired me to write this post. This is also a story of law enforcement behaving exactly the opposite from how we would expect, and while arguably the damage was not as great, the officials in this story had far longer to consider their actions. I came across the story in the June 10th daily news roundup put out by The Dispatch

In 2015, the FBI received reports that Larry Nassar was sexually abusing gymnasts in his role as team physician for USA Gymnastics and elsewhere. Instead of sharing this information with local law enforcement, FBI agents delayed victim interviews, fabricated witness statements, and later lied to investigators—one even tried to get a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee during his investigation, according to an inspector general report.

Between the 2015 reports and Nassar’s arrest more than a year later, he abused at least 70 girls and women, the inspector general investigation concluded. “People at the FBI had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year. “I’m deeply and profoundly sorry.”

But the Department of Justice has declined three times to pursue charges against agents involved in bungling the investigation, noting the third time that its decision did not “in any way reflect a view that the investigation of Nassar was handled as it should have been.”

Both of these stories make me sick to my stomach, and similar to the story of Uvalde, the Nassar story also has the quality that the more you know the worse it looks. This is the opposite of most stories, where the deeper you dig the more sympathy you develop for both sides. Here, the more I dig the less defensible the actions of the Uvalde police and the FBI agents appear.

I’ve uncovered many disturbing details in both stories—for example, while the lawsuit by the gymnasts focuses on the period starting in 2015, there’s evidence that Nassar started abusing Gymnasts as early as 1994! But amidst all these details, the bit that jumped out at me about both stories and the commonality I wanted to discuss in this post is both the lack of responsibility—No one is saying “I screwed up” emphasis on the “I”—and the lack of consequences.

What consequences should there be? Well, with Uvalde, I prefer to let the various investigations conclude before making any definitive statements. And it’s certainly too early to say that consequences have been lacking, though I strongly suspect that that will be how it ends up. However it’s not too early to talk about the Nassar situation.  I dug pretty deep and the only consequence I could uncover was that one FBI agent, Michael Langeman, had been fired over things, but not until September of 2021! The other agent who had been involved in things and who was, in fact, more senior, W. Jay Abbott, retired in 2018 (at 57, we should all be so lucky) and is apparently doing great on his government pension

Of course if I’m going to claim that all of the foregoing was bad, I should be prepared to put forth some alternatives, some suggestions for how things should have gone instead. And yes, I do have some ideas, but as I mentioned at the beginning I’m still thinking through this problem, I’m not ready to make any concrete recommendations. But let’s start the process by considering two things:

First, how is it that someone can say something dumb on social media and the whole world will rush to condemn them—for example, as I write this everyone is piling on James Patterson because he said that white men struggling to find writing jobs is “just another form of racism”—but do something awful like stand by as kids bleed out, or ignore a serial sexual predator, and you can largely remain entirely anonymous and continue with your life as if nothing happened. I’m sure that, from here on out, anytime someone talks about Patterson this assertion will get mentioned, up to and including his obituary, while the police officers and FBI agents will soon be forgotten.

I’m not advocating that everyone involved with Nassar and Uvalde should be tried and condemned on social media. In fact I’m reasonably certain that no one should be tried on social media. No, I’m more pointing out the strangeness of our priorities. To provide a different example consider the story of Justine Sacco. Sacco made an unfortunate joke about AIDS on Twitter just before boarding a flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” I’m sure most of my readers have heard this story and that many of you had heard the name, Justine Sacco, how many of you were familiar with the details of the FBI agents incompetence with Nassar? How many of you had heard the names of those agents? I assume far more of you are in the former camp than the latter.

Sacco’s life was ruined by that tweet. She was subjected to brutal online harassment, she lost her job, and for years afterwards she was unemployable. It was so bad that books have been written about it.  Hopefully it’s gotten better, but compare that to W. Jay Abbott, who’s comfortably retired, and even Michael Langeman kept his job for six years before finally being fired for his gross dereliction of duty. The disparity between these two crimes, (if Sacco’s tweet even rises to that level) and their punishments is so egregious that one feels they’re looking at two different realities, or perhaps reading two different novels, written by different authors and in completely different genres. 

To be fair, disparities in punishments were very common historically, but they generally involved wealth and class. The Uvalde police, and the FBI agents—despite Abbot’s comfortable retirement—are not wealthy, so then what class do they belong to that makes them largely immune from consequences?

I’ll get to that in a bit, but before I do, discussing the historical norms takes me to the second point I wanted to examine: How were these sorts of disasters handled in the past?

I have strong feelings about how they should be handled. I think the people in question should accept responsibility, admit that they failed, and resign. In addition to my strong feelings I also have a strong impression that this is how it used to work, but I haven’t been able to find a lot of hard data to back me up. (Perhaps because I’m not entirely clear what sort of data set would cover those events.) Despite this, my sense is that it used to be far more common, when something like Uvalde or Nassar happened, for people to resign, sometimes in disgrace but more often out of a sense of duty. In the latter case the idea was that preventing just this sort of event was so fundamental to their job that the fact that it happened meant that they were clearly unqualified to continue performing that job, and as such they resigned. Here, after spending a lot of time talking about consequences, we return to the question of responsibility. Resigning was an assumption of responsibility. Resigning didn’t mean that you were 100% responsible. As frustrating as the actions of the Uvalde police were, and as incompetent and craven as the FBI agents were, the shooter and Nassar still bear the vast majority of the responsibility. But surely there is some small percentage that should be assumed by law enforcement in these cases, given what we now know.

So then the question is, why don’t we do that anymore? Or if I’m wrong and such resignations never happened, even in the past (which I doubt, though perhaps I have an exaggerated impression of how common they were) we still have to answer the question: why couldn’t it happen now? Why doesn’t Pete Arredondo, (Are-re-don-doe) the commander on the scene at Uvalde resign? (Instead he was quietly sworn in to a position on the City Council.) Why didn’t anyone in the FBI resign? And to be clear, I’m not saying that if they did that it would make it all better. It might be appropriate for there to be additional consequences, but accepting responsibility and resigning would be a very good start.

But it doesn’t happen, and once again we’re reminded of the disproportionate nature of things. Currently, it seems comparatively easy to get people to resign over an ill chosen statement, but somehow it’s inconceivable that someone might resign because they have completely failed at their job. But job failure would seem to be precisely the kind of thing where resignation from that same job would be appropriate. So why doesn’t it happen? And does it give us any insight into the larger problem of law enforcement failure? As you might imagine I have some theories, so let’s go through them:

One obvious factor has to be legal liability. If you admit to any percentage of the overall responsibility then presumably that’s the percent of the damages you’re liable for. If the gymnasts suffered, collectively, $1 billion dollars in harm (which is actually what they’re seeking from the FBI) and by resigning you essentially admit to 1% of the responsibility, then that’s $10 million dollars. And it’s certainly possible that this is the whole of the explanation, that as claims for damages have increased both in frequency and amount that there is a vast disincentive towards anything that might appear to be an admission of guilt. Perhaps that’s all it is, and I should just end here. But I think there’s more going on, and it’s possible that increased litigiousness isn’t the disease, it’s just one more symptom of something deeper.

Obviously one of the great achievements of western democracy has been the concept and gradual solidification of “rule of law”. But of course as I just mentioned, it’s possible that we have gone too far, that we rely too much on defining what exactly is lawful and what exactly isn’t, which often involves lawsuits. One place where this over-reliance is most pronounced, to the point of it being a cliche, is within government bureaucracies, which is precisely where law enforcement sits. Now, you may argue that in both of the examples, the people in question weren’t following the law, but I don’t think that’s the case. The failure in Uvalde didn’t involve rule breaking, they ignored a guideline, but they were scrupulous about following rules, particularly the rule about obeying the chain of command. No officer decided to disobey Arredondo and go in regardless, and officers were equally rigorous about keeping parents away from the school. As far as the FBI situation, given the fact that the FBI has three times refused to prosecute the agents, presumably they didn’t break any obvious laws either, as far as rules, that seems less clear, but my guess is that the agents in question were exquisitely aware of where the law actually drew the line and they were very careful to never cross it. 

This all takes us back to a discussion of responsibility, and I think both of the foregoing points can be traced back to a decline in personal responsibility. And I know that the minute someone complains about something like this they get put in the “grumpy old man” category (which is indeed precisely what I am) but clearly this post has given two examples that are clear demonstrations of a deficit of personal responsibility, the question is whether this deficit is broader than that—if it’s something that’s endemic. I would claim that it is, though I don’t have the time to back up that claim. So, I’m kind of just tossing it out there, but before you dismiss it ask yourselves what incentives are currently in place to encourage responsibility? And what about the opposite, what incentives are there that have the effect of discouraging the acceptance of responsibility? I’ve already provided two examples in the latter category: litigiousness and bureaucracies.

To wrap things up I have two more thoughts, each of which is even more speculative, but despite that (or more likely because of it) I find them to be the most interesting of the factors I’ve discussed.

I have commented before about the current overemphasis on safety, nor am I the first to do so. It certainly was and continues to be a huge factor in our response to COVID, but was it also a factor in the two examples we’ve been discussing? I’m not sure it played a factor in the investigation (or lack thereof) of Nassar, though I could certainly imagine that one of the reasons the agents didn’t try very hard is that they were getting pushback from “entrenched interests” as they’re euphemistically known. And they tried to “play it safe”. This would go a long way to explaining Abbott’s attempt to secure a job with the Olympics. On the other hand, safetyism seems to have clearly played a role in Uvalde. Officer safety was the main reason given for the delay, and while I don’t want to discount that, I am once again of the strong opinion that it would not have been such a large concern had this happened in the past. I am convinced that there was a time, not that long ago, when there would have been officers who would have rather died trying to save those children, then lived with the guilt of standing outside the door for an hour while those children bled to death. Perhaps they still exist and were there, but decided to defer to Arredondo or other officers. If so I have a lot of sympathy for them, I can only imagine what sort of guilt they may be experiencing now.

Finally, there’s the closely related idea of heroes. There were no heroes in either of these stories, nor can I remember that last time someone doing something truly heroic ended up being big news. I assume that this dearth is related to a lot of things I’ve already discussed, but I wonder if it’s also related to the attention one receives for being heroic. There’s a theory that school shootings are all about the notoriety given to the shooter. That’s the reason troubled people commit these horrible acts, it will make them important even if it’s posthumously. Does that work the other way as well? Probably. I assume that someone might decide to do something heroic in a similar bid to feel important. So why did it not happen in my two examples? Why didn’t someone from the FBI, or heck why didn’t someone in all the time since 1994 stand up and make sure Nassar was arrested? And why, out of all the cops on the scene in Uvalde, didn’t one or a dozen step up and decide that they couldn’t wait any longer.

One would think that we would want the world to be set up in such a way that we encourage heroism. But clearly that’s not the case. I think all the things I’ve mentioned thus far serve to dissuade heroes, the chance of a lawsuit, the bureaucratic nature of the world, etc. And it’s possible that it’s even worse, that we have somehow twisted things so that the modern world is excellent at creating villains and awful at creating heroes. It’s easy to imagine this happening as a side effect of social media. If you’re interested in being infamous, then that’s easy to accomplish through social media, but being heroic on social media is a lot harder. If nothing else you have invited people to examine the rest of your life, and somewhere during all the time you spent not being a hero will be something people find objectionable, and you’ll go from being a hero to an object of scorn and ridicule at least for half the country. Beyond all the other things I’ve mentioned this system has to create a powerful disincentive for the average person who stumbles into a chance to be heroic.

I started this post, and the discussion of Nassar and Uvalde with the vague idea that there needed to be more consequences for members of law enforcement who dramatically failed in their duty, But is it possible the problem is the inverse of that? That the problem is not that villains don’t get punished, but rather that heroes don’t get rewarded.


From my perspective this is another late post. I don’t know if you’re keeping track or if you even care. But I do really try to get out four pieces a month. If you appreciate the guilt I feel when I’m not publishing as often as I think I should, or even if you’re just amused by it, consider donating


The 9 Books I Finished in May

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  1. The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society by: Azeem Azhar
  2. Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by: Leonard Sax
  3. The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by: Sohrab Ahmari
  4. The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era by: Liu Mingfu 
  5. Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left by: Ben Burgis
  6. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 
  7. Paper Heroes by: Steven Heumann
  8. Critical Mass (Expeditionary Force, #10) by: Craig Alanson
  9. Brushfire (Expeditionary Force, #11) by: Craig Alanson

Our house went under contract in mid-May. As I mentioned in previous posts, it was a devil of a time getting it ready, but once we listed it everything else went off without a hitch. We had an offer within four days, and then all the subsequent inspections, along with the appraisal and financing went off smoothly as well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for finding a new house. Which is not to say that things have been disastrous, merely that we are still looking. The rise in interest rates have slowed down the buying frenzy, so there’s actually a reasonable amount of inventory which has been nice. But looking at this inventory has been time consuming. By my count we’ve seen 50 houses so far, and I’m hoping that we’re getting close, but as of the end of May we had not made an offer on anything. 

Unsurprisingly there is something along the lines of a project triangle present in the whole affair. The project triangle can be summed up as “Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.” Only in the case of houses it’s: “Big, close, affordable. Choose two.” I’ll keep you posted. I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seats.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society 

By: Azeem Azhar

Published: 2021

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle of the book pretty much covers it, though in the UK it has a different title: Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It

Which is probably even closer.

What’s the author’s angle?

Azhar has a whole “exponential” empire with a website, newsletter and podcast, so it was only a matter of time before he added a book to that.

Who should read this book?

People hoping to understand the accelerating pace of technological change outside of just the internet. This includes computing and artificial intelligence, renewable electricity and energy storage, along with biology and manufacturing.

General Thoughts

In the intro Azhar claims that there are two main problems with our “conversation about technology”. The first problem is the idea that technology is neutral, that by itself it’s neither good or evil it just is. That it exists “independent of humanity” in a fashion similar to gold—it’s already out there, we’re just digging it up. Or if there are aliens out there that they would end up with identical technology, despite, presumably, the vast differences which otherwise exist between us and them. 

Azhar rejects this idea, though his examples are not especially earth shattering:

…that means our technologies often recreate the systems of power that exist in the rest of society. Our phones are designed to fit in men’s hands rather than women’s. Many medicines are less effective on Black and Asian people, because the pharmaceutical industry often develops its treatments for white customers. When we build technology, we might make these systems of power more durable – by encoding them into infrastructure that is more inscrutable and less accountable than humans are

I also reject the idea that technology is neutral, but my primary example would be the phenomena of supernormal stimuli. This is the idea that historically it was difficult to get too much of some things—things which were beneficial in small amounts—and as such we have no built in protection against excessive consumption, because it’s not something that ever came up historically. In theory if technology was neutral it could just as easily be used to protect us against excessive consumption, as it could be to encourage such consumption, but as it turns out it’s far easier and more lucrative to do the latter. We see this play out in areas as diverse as junk food and Facebook algorithms, both of which are basically evil. Not EVIL, but certainly not neutral. 

The second problem Azhar points out is that most people make no effort to understand technology. Here he is mostly talking about politicians, but the point could also be expanded to the rest of us. 

Again, I would take issue with Azhar’s claim. Certainly some people make no effort to understand technology, but even for those that do make an effort the task is essentially impossible. To begin with there’s far too much technology for anyone to completely grasp all of it. And beyond that it’s changing so fast that even if one were to “get up to speed” on some aspect of it, by the time you have, it’s changed enough that the “speed” you’re at is no longer the speed it’s going. Even if you somehow avoid this strange version of Zeno’s Paradox there are still dozens of other areas you have fallen behind on while your focus was elsewhere.

Taken together, I think Azhar’s book is interesting, and enlightening. He definitely provides a lot of information about a real problem. I just don’t think he goes far enough in grappling with future disruption.

Eschatological Implications

I have my issues with how Azhar presents the problem and his proposals for dealing with it, and we use different terminology, but at the core we’re both talking about secular eschatology. We are accelerating towards a future we’re entirely unprepared for. 


Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men 

By: Leonard Sax

Published: Originally 2007, Revised 2016

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are problems unique to adolescent boys and young men that have been brought on by the modern world and other forms of supposed “progress”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sax is a psychologist, physician and speaker. One presumes that advocating for this thesis provides the majority of his income. 

Who should read this book?

Parents raising boys should absolutely read this book. And given that we’re talking about something that affects huge swaths of society, probably everyone should read this book. 

General Thoughts

As you might be able to tell from the title Sax’s book is built around five factors, each contributing to various problems being experienced by young men. These five factors are:

  1. The way school has changed: There is less time for physical activity, and things like learning to read have been moved to earlier and earlier in the child’s life. 
  2. Video games: Sax spends a lot of time talking about the violence angle, but I think the way it affects motivation is a bigger story.
  3. ADHD medications: The first factor leads to a greater diagnosis of ADHD, and then while medications solve the immediate problem of lack of focus, over the long term they actually undermine motivation.
  4. Endocrine disruptors: The way that certain plastics, in particular phthalates, have disrupted male puberty while accelerating female puberty.
  5. Abandoning traditional transitions to manhood: We no longer have formalized steps and achievements that mark the passage from boy to man.

I could spend a whole post talking about each one of these (as indeed I have with endocrine disruptors.) And while I think he goes too far in some respects (see my comment about video games above). I would say that he’s 90% correct about both the causes and the scope of the problem. And even if we were to be ultra conservative and say that Sax is only 50% correct he would still be describing a massive problem.

Eschatological Implications

I remember a time when there was enormous attention being paid to Sax’s concerns. When debates over whether boys were in crisis was a major part of the culture war, and single sex education (which Sax is a big advocate of) was gaining significant traction. But these days it’s almost entirely disappeared from the national conversation. Is that because Sax was an alarmist and there wasn’t actually a problem? I wish. No, I think the problem is far worse than that. This crisis has not gone away, it has merely been replaced by crises that are even worse.

The process of replacement was already well underway by the time the pandemic came around, but it was certainly the final nail in the coffin. Preceding that, I would place the crisis of young women identifying as young men as a result of social contagion, and of course closely related to that, is the fact that who even counts as a boy has gotten a little bit slippery with the increase in trans-identifying teens. But I think the biggest thing to overshadow the crisis Sax describes was the crisis brought on by social media. 

Despite the fact that the book was updated in 2016 Sax only mentions “social media” twice, and then it’s basically just to add it to the list of the ways computers can sap your motivation, placing it alongside video games. 

This is the eschatological implication, that we have been experiencing a series of escalating crises, such that the problem with young men, which still exists and is still massively important, now barely rates a mention. As near as I can tell from looking at the numbers and my own experience there are actually more boys adrift today than there were in 2007, it’s just that we don’t have any attention left to spend on them.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

By: Sohrab Ahmari

Published: 2021

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book Ahmari is writing to his two year old son Max. It’s constructed around 12 questions Max might ask as he grows up, questions about how to live a good life.

What’s the author’s angle?

Ahmari was raised Muslim in Iran, after spending quite a while as an atheist he was baptized into the Catholic Church at age 31 (in 2016). So his discussion of tradition has been said to be motivated by the zeal of a convert. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re not a fan of tradition I don’t think this book will change your mind. I think the book probably assumes too much to be persuasive to those who aren’t already favorably disposed towards tradition. But if you agree with Ahmari’s basic premise, then the biographic examples he gives are very interesting and impactful.

General Thoughts

Each of Ahmari’s twelve chapters (excepting an introduction and conclusion) are built around a title question and the biography of someone who grappled with that question. While I appreciated Ahmari’s reasoning (and in fact used it as the basis of a recent post) I really think the biographies were what drove the book. Consequently I thought it would be a good use of space to list the chapters with their subjects, along with a short blurb:

Part I: The Things of God

1- How Do You Justify Your Life? C. S. Lewis 

A discussion of his conversion interspersed with scenes from his Space Trilogy.

2- Is God Reasonable? Thomas Aquinas

The creation of Summa Theologica and Aquinas’ demonstration of God’s reason.

3- Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

How taking a day off is another example of virtuous freedom.

4- Can You Be Spiritual Without Being Religious? Victor and Edith Turner 

The story of how their studies of African Tribalism led them to realize the importance of religion and their eventual conversion to Catholicism. 

5- Does God Respect You? Howard Thurman

A civil rights leader who knew that even if whites didn’t respect him, God did. He went on to strongly influence Martin Luther King, Jr.

6- Does God Need Politics? Saint Augustine

The story of his role in defending Christianity against the backdrop of a disintegrating Roman Empire when Christianity was being blamed for that disintegration. 

Part II: The Things of Humankind

7- How Must You Serve Your Parents? Confucius 

How filial piety is the beginning of crafting a broader just and humane society.

8- Should You Think for Yourself? John Henry Newman

How “thinking for yourself,” in the modern, liberal sense, undermines the true conscience.

9- What Is Freedom For? Alexander Solzhenitsyn

His famous speech at Harvard, that true freedom is not unlimited license to do whatever feels good. 

10- Is Sex a Private Matter? Andrea Dworkin

Her battle against pornography and sex-positive feminism. 

11- What Do You Owe Your Body? Hans Jonas

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” 

12- What’s Good About Death? Maximilian Kolbe

The story of his sacrifice at Auschwitz, where he volunteered to be starved to death by the Nazis in place of another.

As I mentioned, if you want an even deeper dive, see this previous post.


The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era 

by: Liu Mingfu 

Published: 2015

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The necessity for China to rise and become the champion nation of the world—which is different than being the hegemon—and how it will need to deal with the US in order to do that.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mingfu is a retired PLA colonel, and one of the leading America hawks within China. This is a book written for a Chinese audience.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’re on a quest to better understand China, you should definitely at least skim this book. I’ve read lots of books attempting to explain China from the outside. This is the first I’ve read that explains China’s goals from the inside.

General Thoughts

I highlighted 149 passages in this book. Most of them qualified because of how strange they sounded to my, presumably biased, American ears. He goes on and on about how the rise of China will be the most peaceful of all ascensions by “champion nations”. That China is super civilized and peaceful, that:

As China moves toward the world’s leading nation it will struggle to become a new kind of champion nation, the significance of which is that China will never seek to become a global hegemon, and will never seek hegemonic benefits, and will never consider holding hegemonic power as a core national interest. 

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps if we stand by when they eventually invade Taiwan. And if we stop caring about what they do internally, i.e. the Uighurs (who are never mentioned, as you might expect.) Then China will have no further ambitions. Our relationship with them will be similar to our relationship to Japan in the 80’s: significant economic competition and rivalry, but no real military concerns. 

In support of this possibility Mingfu offers up a theory that competition between nations has gradually softened. He calls it the “Track and Field Model”:

A New and Civilized Competition Model: A track and field competition model between China and America is significant on two levels. The first is that the 21st century will hinge on the competition between America and China, which will be history’s most civilized round of great power competition. It will not be a duel-style great war nor a boxing-match-style Cold War; it will be a track-and-field-style heat. The second is that the competition will be a century-long struggle, a track and field competition between the two nations. Not a hundred-meter or thousand-meter sprint, this will be a marathon that tests courage, will, and patience. The upcoming track and field event between China and America in the 21st century will be notable for two things: the civility and the length of the competition. 

I hope that the competition between the US and China ends up being as civilized as he claims. I guess only time will tell. I think a lot hinges on our different ways of seeing the world, and it was enlightening and a little bit strange to read a book about how China sees the world.


Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left

by: Ben Burgis

Published: 2021

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is another author attempting to get the left to be more strategic. To work on building a broader coalition and to focus less on being censorious and more on engaging and debating their ideological opponents.

What’s the author’s angle?

Burgis is a Bernie Sanders supporter who writes for Jacobin. He’s a philosophy professor and he hosts a podcast called Give Them an Argument

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. Perhaps people on the left who are sick of cancel culture and looking for an alternative. But I suspect that if they were actually looking for an alternative they would have encountered it already, and not need this book.

General Thoughts

Only the first chapter of the book talks about comedians, the rest is the kind of thing you might get from Matthew Ygelsias, or Freddie deBoer. To give you an example Burgis talks about when Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders and how the Sanders campaign embraced the endorsement only to get excoriated by people on the far left. Burgis points out that this is really dumb, and that the left does a lot of things like that. He is not the first, nor will he be the last.


The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe 

By: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 

Published: Originally in 1979, Abridged in 1983, 2nd Edition w/ Afterword 2005

336 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The contribution printing made to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and to the Scientific Revolution.

What’s the author’s angle?

Eisenstein was a historian, and in 1979 most people didn’t pay much attention to the role printing played in the huge changes which took place in Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. This book was Eisenstein’s attempt to change that.

Who should read this book?

It is a sign of how successful Eisenstein was, that her thesis has largely become conventional wisdom. As such, most people don’t need a book full of arguments in order to be convinced. But for those interested in the nitty-gritty of how printing impacted everything this is a great resource.

General Thoughts

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press upended religion, society, and knowledge. The invention of the internet appears to be having a similar effect. I picked up this book because I was hoping that it might have some wisdom to provide, that by reading about the last time we had a communication revolution I would get some insight into the current communication revolution. I was largely disappointed in this hope. Eisentstein did add an afterword in 2005, but it was largely a discussion of various criticisms of the original work; she did not offer much if any opinion on the parallels between then and now. 

Despite this it was nevertheless a fascinating book, though to be clear it was not written for a general audience. It was written to advance and refute very specific historical arguments and sometimes the specificity of those arguments can bog things down. For example: Can we use the memoirs of a Florentine manuscript book seller to estimate the number of books produced by scribes? Spoiler alert, we cannot, they are “entirely untrustworthy”.

In any case, the book did give me a greater appreciation for the insights of Marshall McLuhan, who Eisenstein cites as one of her inspirations. But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what Eisenstein and McLuhan would say about the modern world.  Mostly I’m guessing it wouldn’t be good. Eisenstein herself feels that there is good reason to suspect that the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t have happened without the printing press, and if that’s the case then you probably also don’t get the incredibly bloody 30 Years War, or the Troubles in Ireland which have only recently abated. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

What will be the modern version of the Protestant Reformation? And more frighteningly will there be a modern version of the 30 Years War? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but if you’re interested in a deep dive on all the things that happened the last time around, Eisenstein has you covered.


Paper Heroes

By: Steven Heumann

Published: 2018

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The main character is approached by his billionaire boss and offered the chance to be a literal superhero. He accepts and morality ensues.

Who should read this book?

People who like supporting small, independent authors. Or those who are fans of unconventional superhero tales.

General Thoughts

I bumped into Heumann at a local networking event. When he mentioned he was a science fiction author I asked him which book of his I should read (or, actually, listen to). And he pointed me at this book. I’ll be honest, I have not discovered the next Orson Scott Card or the next Heinlein, but it was an enjoyable book with a lot of heart and a great ending. 


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 10: Critical Mass

Published: 2020

393 Pages

Book 11: Brushfire

Published: 2020

392 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?

There was a point when this series was starting to feel repetitive. That point is mostly past. The plot of the series has definitely entered a new phase and so far I’m enjoying it. Also, the complications present in this new phase are more interesting and less likely to become repetitive. As such, I’m looking forward to seeing how Alanson wraps it up. (Supposedly book 15 will be the last one.)

General Thoughts

Before starting a new series one should carefully consider what they’re getting into. How many books are there in the series? Is the series complete or is the author still working on it? How many books are there expected to be when it is completed? Is there any chance the author won’t be able to finish the series? You really should carefully consider the answers to all those questions before you make the commitment implicit in starting the series. Of particular importance is that last question. Nothing is more annoying than starting a series and finding out once you’re halfway through that you may never find out how it ends. (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin!)

I confess I don’t always follow my own advice as well as I should. Perhaps if I’d really ruminated on the fact that Expeditionary Force was likely to be 15 books long I wouldn’t have started it, but I did and now that I’m up through book 11, it seems like I might as well see it to the end. And fortunately there does not appear to be any chance that Alanson will “pull a Martin”. He seems to have no problem putting out two books a year (as you can see from the publication dates above) and book 14 was just released which means book 15 should come out by the end of this year or early next year.

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I’m reading the books more because I’m a completionist than because I enjoy reading them. Mostly, that is not the case. I am enjoying the books, the characters, the plot and the gradually unfolding mysteries of the universe Alanson has built, but as I get near the end I would be remiss if I didn’t reemphasize how big of a commitment you’re taking on when starting this series. 


By the time I finished all the reviews we actually had made an offer on a house and that offer was accepted. I’m very happy with the house we ended up with. If you’re the kind of person that gives housewarming gifts, consider donating. I promise I’ll put a post-it note with your name on it on the wall of my new office.