Month: <span>February 2023</span>

Eschatologist #26 – A Crisis of Change and Choice

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In my last newsletter we talked about spiritual health, and a few options for acquiring that health, such as overcoming suffering or, alternatively, gaining material abundance. In this newsletter we’re going to go beyond talking about the merits of different options to discussing the way in which these options have multiplied. 

Go back a few centuries, and there was one religion, one staple crop, and one way of doing things. These days, however, we’re spoiled for choices and options for both spiritual and physical health, and beyond that our emotional and mental health as well. We have countless religions to choose from: some secular, some informal. Beyond that there are a bewildering variety of diet and exercise programs, and tens of thousands of self-help books. We are offered a truly insane number of choices, all backed up by a deluge of data drawing sometimes contradictory conclusions. Everybody wants to be happy and live a good life, but which of the thousands of options best accomplishes that?

I am far from the first person to cover the idea that more options may, in fact, not be a good thing. There was a whole book written about it called The Paradox of Choice. Along with that there’s the associated concept of decision fatigue. Nor am I the first person to point out that acquiring more data can, somewhat paradoxically, make picking the correct path or even any single path more difficult. 

On top of all the complexities already mentioned, technology has introduced new options which seem like paths to happiness but which are actually engineered to hijack that impulse. Perhaps you’ve been following Jonathan Haidt’s new substack where he lays out the way social media has done this  — promising a world of connection that brings health and happiness, but actually delivering a huge increase in teen mental illness, particularly among girls. Nor are the problems created by technology likely to get better as it becomes smarter (AI) and more immersive (VR).

This abundance of change and choice is historically unprecedented. For the vast majority of our existence (the countless millennia previous to the industrial revolution) the choices were simple, and our knowledge essentially static. Centuries could go by without much changing. Now we’re lucky to make it a full year. The ground is continually shifting under our feet. There may have been less potential for health and happiness in all its forms, but more actual contentment, by virtue of the fact that they knew what the limits were.

If you’re anything like me this brings to mind the depression era policies of FDR. (That’s a joke. No one is like me.) In her book The Forgotten Man, Amity Shales points out how bad things still were in 1937 eight years into the depression. She ascribes this in part to FDR’s mania for experimentation with government policy. We normally think that experimentation is good because it’s the best method for arriving at the right answer. But what if we just need an answer? Shales points out that businesses were left in a state of uncertainty by all the changes and felt unable to move forward with plans because at any moment things could change. The experimentation significantly slowed the economic recovery. What the country really needed at that point, Shales contends, was a solid unchanging foundation to build on.

I wonder if we’re in a situation similar to those businesses. I don’t want to discount the benefits of information and innovation, choices and change. But perhaps what we really need right now is a solid foundation, some way of pausing for a moment so we can get a handle on things.

It seems unlikely that the world is going to pause, which means this effort has to be driven by individuals and families, though I wouldn’t discount the importance of religious communities either. Given that they’ve provided a solid foundation for millions of people for hundreds of years. A foundation which the modern world has perhaps been too hasty at casting aside.

Religions are also valuable for the methodological example they provide. In place of conclusions, changes, and choices, they offer faith, solidity and limitations. And the point of this newsletter is not to say that that first list is bad. But rather my point is that they make a good house but a poor foundation. As someone very wise once observed, it’s a foundation of sand, and what we really need is to build our house upon the rock. Because the rains and the floods are coming…

Come for the discussion of religion, stay for the obscure references to FDR’s Great Depression policy. You know who’s also going through a great depression? My friend Mark. Remember that for the next couple of weeks, all donations are earmarked for him. 

A Cautionary Tale

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I forget when Mark first told me about Becky. (All names have been changed for reasons which will shortly become obvious.) They met at work, I know that much. Mark didn’t have many friends, and he definitely didn’t have many, or perhaps even any, female friends, so Becky appeared to be a positive development.

It was early summer or maybe late spring of last year when Mark said that Becky was moving in with him. I was told that it was completely platonic, and she had a boyfriend. (I later found out that his name was David.) At the time I had no reason to doubt the platonic part, or the boyfriend part. Though the arrangement still struck me as being a little bit weird. The story was that she wanted to sell her home while the market was hot, and consequently she needed a place to stay. Mark’s house isn’t very large, two bedrooms, one bath, definitely less than a thousand square feet, so it was going to be tight, but I was told it was just temporary, while she waited for her boyfriend to finish a job in Canada.

As the months passed I heard rumblings that whatever the boyfriend was doing in Canada was taking longer and costing more than it should have, and, as a result, he was delayed. This annoyed Mark, because it prolonged the inconvenience, but otherwise things seemed to be okay. Over the last few weeks I got the feeling that tensions were starting to simmer but I assumed it was related to the stress of trying to cram two adults and two households worth of stuff into too little space. But supposedly it would all be over soon. Becky had sent her boyfriend some money to finish off the last of the job, and it would all be wrapped up any day now. 

The true nature of the situation was finally revealed to me last week. Mark approached me asking for advice, but what he really needed was money. The story he told me appeared plausible at first glance. The boyfriend had contracted with Suncor Energy to build an oil rig, and in between the pandemic and the subsequent supply chain issues, he was over-budget, and out of money, but if he could just finish the job he would get paid the remainder of his fees and he could make everyone whole. And all it would take to finish the job was $15,000 so he could purchase one final diesel generator. Mark came to me because it was urgent, David was being sued, and was facing jail time. 

I immediately questioned the idea of jail time for a civil matter, but when Mark assured me that he had looked it up, I let the matter drop. It’s very common for people to offload their critical thinking to other people. No one has the time to critically examine every piece of information. This is why doctors, lawyers, scientists and republican governments exist. And I assumed that Mark had already done significant due diligence, particularly when he mentioned that he had given David (via Becky) a considerable sum of his own money. So while a couple of warning lights were active, my entire dashboard wasn’t lit up, at least not yet. Fortunately those couple of warning lights were more than sufficient to keep me from handing over any money without documentation. But, honestly, I kind of expected it would be a formality. 

In response they sent me this:

And this:

Okay… apparently it wasn’t a formality, apparently we have some very lazy scammers on our hands. The letter has all kinds of typos, and what on Earth is “Please accept our congratulations” doing in there? As far as the second document, I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to represent. Also I have had the unfortunate experience of being sued and nothing about the process ever amounted to a single page.

Still there was part of me that resisted the obvious conclusion because if I was right, and I had stumbled onto the last stages of an advance-fee scam, it meant that my friend Mark, and his friend Becky were out a LOT of money. Even with changing the name, “Mark” would rather I didn’t reveal how much money it was, but between the two of them it was well into the six figures. Also I was under the impression that David and Becky had met before he went to Canada, which didn’t seem to fit the fraud narrative. I later found out that they had in fact met on the internet. Which cast everything in a completely different light.

It was in fact a tragedy of colossal proportions. Becky was retired, and on social security. She had already sent “David” and his “attorney” all of the proceeds from the sale of her house, plus every last dime she could beg, borrow, or steal. Which is how she ended up convincing Mark to do something similar, including taking out a HELOC on his house, which, previous to this, had been paid off. 

I resisted immediately saying it was a scam, and instead took the tack with Mark and Becky that if David really was being sued they ought to be able to bury me in documents. Just the initial complaint ought to be 20+ pages. Becky said she would see what she could do, but she really needed the money that very day. David and his lawyer were desperate, and kept calling her. No problem, I told her, have them call me. In response I was texted the attorney’s name, Brandon, and number, 813-551-1668 along with the caution that he had an accent.

I tried calling the number. It rang, and rang and rang, never even going to voicemail. I finally hung up. A few minutes later the “attorney” called me back. His number came in as “Scam Likely” and from the second I got on the phone whatever hopes or doubts I had vanished. Just from the way he answered the phone I knew this was no attorney, and yes there was an accent. I didn’t talk to him long enough that I could place it, but it wasn’t the accent of a native English speaker (Becky claimed he was British). He may have mentioned diesel generators, but I immediately asked for his last name so I could look him up on the internet. There was silence on the other end of the line. I asked him again more forcefully. He hung up. The following text conversation ensued:

I forwarded that to Mark. I’m not sure how much he told Becky, but she promised she would get me more documents, but that David and his lawyer were super busy in court, and that’s why they couldn’t send me stuff…

In the end I got three more documents:

There’s lots that could be said about these documents, but my point is not to dive into the minutia of the scam. Though I did find it interesting that all the “court” documents, despite only being a single page in length, always make sure to mention that the money is just out there waiting to be paid the minute the job is finished. 

Also while I couldn’t find anything on the internet about the people or the case or the job (which is to be expected) Paul-Jean Charest, the signer of the last document, is an actual employee of the Cour du Québec, and I located his email. I sent him the document and asked him if it had been issued by his office. I wasn’t sure if he’d respond. Having your email on the internet probably attracts a lot of spam, but he did, the next day with an emphatic “No”. He wanted my number so he could call and talk to me. He has yet to do that, but perhaps I’ll call him at some point. I haven’t done so already because I’m very doubtful he’ll be able to do anything to help.

Given the disaster it represents it’s not surprising that Mark was somewhat resistant to completely giving up hope, but the email from Monsieur Charest was the final nail in the coffin. Becky unfortunately still believes. This is the last text message I got from her:

I don’t share this message to in any way mock Becky, but as a further illustration of the tragedy, and as bad as this tragedy is, as you might imagine, there’s more to come. There’s the obvious point at which Becky realizes it’s a scam, that she never had a boyfriend, only a very wicked person pretending to love her so he could take all of her money and then some. And what is Mark to do about Becky? She’s living at his house and now doesn’t have any money with which to move out. I’m not sure her SSI would even get her an apartment (particularly given that she has a dog.) So the story will continue, but we’ve reached the end of it for now.

Is this one of those stories that ends with a moral? One would hope so. I’d like to think there’s some lesson we can gain from the disaster. Some small benefit we can pluck from the carnage.

And one that goes beyond just “There are bad people out there doing bad things. Watch out!” I’m aware that this is an N=1 situation (or maybe N=3 if you count Mark, Becky and myself) so to the extent there is a moral, it’s based on one anecdote, not extensive data, but hopefully it will carry some utility regardless. With that caveat in place here’s a few things that stand out to me.

I’d obviously like to talk to Becky and get more of the details on how things began. How long before “David” asked for money. One of the documents mentions 2019, and I think they said it had been going on four years at some point, but obviously the pandemic and the supply chain issues were huge gifts to the scammers. Suddenly whatever they claimed as far as delays and cost overruns made perfect sense. 

But even without the gift of the pandemic, the narrative and story behind this particular advance fee scheme strikes me as being far more sophisticated and believable than the ones I’ve heard about in the past — the traditional Nigerian Prince scam, and the one’s which just claim that there’s a huge amount of money locked up in an account. Those traditional schemes seemed so ridiculous on their face that you could imagine that only greedy people would fall for them. Such that we might comfort ourselves by saying that they got what they deserved. This scheme wasn’t driven by greed, but by love. At no time did Becky ever offer me double my money back, or something like that. It was always “Help my boyfriend and I’ll promise to pay you back. Even if I have to do it myself.” That said, I’m sure the romance angle isn’t new, still it seems more pernicious, and also easier to pull off now that online dating is far more common. 

Speaking of which, is this scam easier to pull off in general these days than it was in the past? The documents she sent look reasonably authentic. It’s mostly only the content (or lack thereof) that is suspicious. They have watermarks, logos and stamps. Obviously the technology required for this level of fakery has been around for a couple of decades, but what about new technology? How long before ChatGPT or something similar could have given me the 20+ page complaint I expected? Or craft a believable news story with pictures? Headline: “Provo business man secures lucrative $17.5 million dollar contract.” Perhaps the resources available to detect such scams is also greater? Maybe so, but Becky would have had to choose to avail herself of those resources. Or even know they exist.

A quick internet search would seem to indicate that such scams are in fact on the rise. Here’s a headline from CNBC: Consumers lost $5.8 billion to fraud last year — up 70% over 2020. A 70% year over year increase is huge. Also of note, the article reveals that the average amount lost to an imposter scam is $1000, so Mark and Becky are giant outliers in the amount they lost. 

If we allow ourselves to get even more speculative, I have to wonder if there’s something about the modern world that made Mark particularly vulnerable. Some background: he had a career in tech, but it got derailed by the dot-com bust. I’m sure he could have resurrected it if he’d worked hard enough, but instead he drifted into a series of service sector jobs. This was mostly fine. Being single he didn’t need much money, and up until he got enmeshed in this scam he was doing pretty well. His house was paid off, and he had enough money to avail himself of all the comforts of modernity (streaming services, eating out, pursuing his hobbies) and have a surplus on top of that. In other words, Mark didn’t fall prey to the scam because he was bad with money. He was great at living within his means. So how did this particular scam end up being his Achilles heel?

As I said we’re in more speculative territory. I think having few friends and fewer family contributed. Mark’s parents are both dead. He cut off his brother for being a conspiracy-obsessed Trump supporter, and his remaining sibling, a sister, lives out of state, nor are they very close. One imagines that if Mark hadn’t been so atomized, if he had had a large community, that it would have helped. Though perhaps I’m wrong about that. Mormons are famous for having strong communities, and also for their susceptibility to affinity scams. Maybe Mark had precisely the wrong amount of community, enough to be snared by Becky, but not enough that anyone cautioned him. 

What about marriage? If he had been married to Becky, or married, period, it wouldn’t have happened. Instead he ended up deep in white knight mode, another thing modernity seems to have made far more common. This first started when he agreed to let Becky move in, but it then progressed to the point that he gave her all his money. One also detects something of Richard Hanania’s Women’s Tears observation, and by Mark’s report there were a lot of tears shed. 

If anyone out there has any ideas for recovering the money I’m all ears. But I’m guessing it’s gone, and shortly “David” and the “attorney” will disappear as well. Leaving only a wound that will haunt Mark and Becky for the rest of their lives.

It doesn’t feel like the time for jokes, but it does feel like a time where it might be appropriate to ask for money. I am helping Mark out somewhat, but if anyone also feels like helping, I will take any pledges which come in over the next couple of weeks and give them entirely to Mark, for the duration of that pledge. (So if you sign up for $3/month on patreon, I’ll make sure Mark get’s $3 every month as long as it lasts.) 

Polycrises or Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

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There are people who are optimistic about the future. I am not one of them. (I do have religious faith, but that’s different.) I am open to the idea that I should be more optimistic, but that doesn’t seem supported by “facts on the ground” as they say.

Some might argue that I have a bias for ignoring the good facts and focusing on the bad ones. That’s certainly possible, but I have put forth considerable effort to expose myself to people making the case for optimism. Here are links to some of my reviews of Pinker, perhaps the most notable of our current modern optimists. Beyond Pinker I’ve read books by Fukuyama, Deutsch, Yglesias, Zeihan and Cowen, and while these authors might not have quite the optimism of Pinker, they nevertheless put forth optimistic arguments. Finally if any of you have recommendations for optimists I’ve missed, I promise I’ll read them. (Assuming I haven’t already. That list of authors is not exhaustive.)

After doing all this reading, why do I remain unconvinced and expect to remain that way, regardless of what else I end up coming across? To understand that we first have to understand their case for optimism. It generally rests on two pillars:

First, they emphasize the amazing progress we’ve made over the last few centuries and in particular over the last few decades. And indeed there has been enormous progress in things like violence, poverty, health, infant mortality, minority rights, etc. They assume, with some justification, that this progress will continue. Generally it is dicey to try predicting the future, but they have a pretty good reason for believing that this time it’s different. Through the tools of science and reason we have created a perpetual knowledge generation machine, and increasing knowledge leads to increasing progress. Or so their argument goes.

Second, they’ll examine the things we’re worried about and make the case that they’re not as bad as people think. That certain groups are incentivized, either because it attracts an audience or there’s money involved, or because of their individual biases to engage in fearmongering. Highlighting the most apocalyptic scenarios and data, while downplaying things that paint a more moderate picture. Pinker is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for his optimism about global warming. Which is not to say that he doesn’t think it’s a problem, merely that he believes the same tools of knowledge generation that solved, or mitigated, many of our past problems will be up to the task of mitigating, or outright solving the problem of climate change as well.

In both of these categories Pinker and the other’s make excellent and compelling points. And, on balance, they’re entirely correct. Despite the pandemic, despite the war in Ukraine, despite the opioid epidemic, and a lot of other things (many of them mentioned in this space) 2023 is just about the best time to be alive, ever. Notice I said “just about”. Life expectancy has actually been going down recently, and yes the pandemic played a big role in that, but it had been stagnant since 2010. Teen mental health has gotten worse. Murders are on the rise. This is a US-centric view, but outside of the US there’s the aforementioned war in Ukraine, but also famine is on the rise in much of Africa. With these statistics in mind it certainly seems possible that as great as 2023 is that 2010 was better. 

Does this mean that we’ve peaked? That things are going to get steadily worse from here on out? Or are we on something of a plateau, waiting for the next big breakthrough. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of commercializing fusion power, or of widespread enhancements from genetic engineering, or perhaps the AI singularity. 2023 does have ChatGPT which 2010 did not. Or are our current difficulties just noise? If they look back on things from the year 2500 will everything look like one smooth exponential curve? This last possibility is basically what Pinker and the others say is happening, though some are less bullish than Pinker, and some, like Deutsch, are more bullish. 

And, to be clear, on this first point, which is largely focused on human capacity, they may be right. I’m familiar with the seemingly insoluble manure crisis of the late 1800s. And how it suddenly was a complete non-issue once the automobile came along. Still, evidence continues to mount that things are slowing down, that civilization has plateaued. That science, the great engine powering all of our advances, is producing fewer great and disruptive inventions, and resistance to innovation is increasing. If it is, that would mark the big difference between now and the late 1800’s. Back then science still had a lot of juice. Now? That’s questionable. And we might be lucky if it turns out to just be a plateau, the odds that we’re actually going backwards are higher than they’ll admit. But this isn’t the primary focus of this post. I’m more interested in their second claim, that the bad things people are worried about aren’t all that bad. 

In general, albeit in a limited fashion, I also agree with this point. I think if you take any individual problem and sample public opinion, that you will find a bias towards the apocalyptic. One that isn’t supported by the data. As an example many, many people believe that global warming is an extinction level event. It’s not. Of course this assumes that people know about the problem in the first place. There’s a lot of ignorance out there, but it’s human nature that those who are worried about a problem, likely worry more than is warranted. And Pinker, et al. are correct to point it out. That’s not the problem, the problem arises from two other sources.

First, and here I am using Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now as my primary example, there’s an unwarranted assumption of comprehensiveness. In the book, Pinker goes through everything from nuclear war, to AI Risk, to global warming, and several more subjects besides. And when it’s over you’re left with the implication of: “See you don’t need to worry about the future, I’ve comprehensively shown how all of the potential catastrophes are overblown. You can proceed with optimism!” If you’ve been reading my posts closely you may have noticed that on occasion (see for instance the book review in my last post of A Poison Like No Other) I will point out that the potential catastrophe I’ve been discussing is not one covered by Pinker.

Of course, if Pinker just missed a couple of relatively unimportant problems then this oversight is probably no big deal. He covered the big threats, and the smaller threats will probably end up being resolved in a similar fashion. The problem is we don’t know how many threats he missed. Such is the nature of possible catastrophes, there’s not some cheat sheet where they’re all listed, in order of severity. Rather the list is constantly changing, catastrophes are added and subtracted (mostly added) and their potential severity is, at best, an educated guess. Some of them are going to be overblown, as Pinker correctly points out. Some are going to be underestimated, which might end up being the case with microplastics. I’m not sure how big of a problem it will eventually end up being, but given that it didn’t even make it into Pinker’s book, I suspect he’s too dismissive of it. But beyond those catastrophes where our estimate of the severity is off, there’s the most dangerous category of all. Catastrophes that take us completely by surprise. I would offer up social media as an example of a catastrophe in this last category.

As I said, the problems of the optimists arise from two sources. The first is the assumption of comprehensiveness, the second is the ignorance of connectedness. To illustrate this I’d like to go back to a post I wrote back in 2020 about Fermi’s Paradox.

At the time I was responding to a post by Scott Alexander who argued that we shouldn’t fear that the Great Filter is ahead of us. For those who need a refresher on what that means. Fermi’s Paradox is paradoxical because if the Earth is an average example of a planet, then there should be aliens everywhere, but they’re not. Where are they? Somewhere between the millions Earthlike planets out there, and becoming an interstellar civilization there must be a filter. And it must be a great filter because seemingly no one makes it past it. Perhaps the great filter is developing life in the first place. Perhaps it’s going from single celled, to multicellular life. Or perhaps it’s ahead of us. Perhaps it’s easy to get to the point of intelligent life, but then that intelligent life inevitably destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust. In his post Alexander lists four potential great filters which might lie ahead of us and demonstrates how each of them is probably not THE filter. I bring all of this up because it’s a great example of what I’ve been talking about.

First off he makes the same assumption of comprehensiveness I accused Pinker of making — listing four possibilities and then assuming that the issue is closed when there are dozens of potential future great filters. But it’s also an example of the second problem, the way the problems are connected. As I said at the time:

(Also, any technologically advanced civilization would probably have to deal with all these problems at the same time, i.e. if you can create nukes you’re probably close to creating an AI, or exhausting a single planet’s resources. Perhaps individually [none of them is that worrisome] but what about the combination of all of them?)

Yes, Pinker and Alexander may be correct that we don’t have to worry about nuclear war, AI risk, or global warming, when considered individually. But when we combine these elements we get a whole different set of risks. Sure, rather than armageddon there’s an argument to be made that nuclear weapons actually created the Long Peace through the threat of mutually assured destruction, but what happens to that if you add in millions of climate refugees? Does MAD continue to operate? Or, maybe climate refugees won’t materialize (though it seems like we’ve got a pretty bad refugee problem even without tacking the word climate onto things). Are smaller countries going to use AI to engage in asymmetric warfare because nukes are prohibitively expensive and easy to detect? Will this end up causing enough damage that those nations with nukes will retaliate. And then there’s of course the combination of all three things: Are small nations suffering from climatic shifts going to be incentivized to misuse new technology like AI and destabilize the balance created by nukes?

This is just three items which produces only six possible catastrophes. But our list of potential, individual catastrophes is probably in the triple digits by this point. Even if we just limit it to the top ten, that’s 3.6 million potential combinatorial catastrophes. 

Once you start to look for the way our problems combine, you see it everywhere:

  • Microplastics are an annoying pollutant all on their own, but there’s some evidence they contribute to infertility, which worsens the fertility crisis. They get ingested by marine life which heightens the problems of overfishing. Finally, they appear to inhibit plant growth, which makes potential food crises worse as well.
  • You may have seen something about the recent report released by the CDC saying that adolescent girls were reporting record rates of sadness, suicidal ideation, and sexual violence. Obviously social media has to be suspect #1 for this crisis. But I’m not sure it can be blamed for the increase in sexual violence. Isn’t the standard narrative that kids stay home on their phones rather than going out with friends. Don’t you have to be with people to suffer from sexual violence? I’d honestly be surprised if pornography didn’t play a role, but regardless this is definitely a case where two problems are interacting in bad ways.
  • If you believe that climate change is going to exacerbate natural disasters (and there’s evidence for and against that) then these disasters are coming at a particularly bad time. Lots of our infrastructure dates from the 50s and 60s and much of it from even before that. But because of the pensions crisis being suffered by municipalities. We don’t have the money to conduct even normal repairs, let alone repair the additional damage caused by disasters. And most projections indicate that both the disaster problem and the pension problem are just going to get a lot worse. 
  • I’m not the only one who’s noticed this combinatorial effect. Search for polycrisis. There are all sorts of potential crises brewing, and most of the lists (see for example here) don’t even mention the first two sets of items on my list, and they only partially cover the third one.

You may think that one or more of the things I listed are not actually big deals. You may be right, but there are so many problems operating in so many combinations, that we can be wrong about a lot of them, and still have a situation where everything, everywhere is catastrophic all at once.

Pinker and the rest are absolutely correct about the human potential to do amazing good. But they have a tendency to overlook the human potential to cause amazing harm as well. In the past, before things were so interconnected, before our powers were so great. Just a few things had to go right for us to end up with the abundance we currently experience. But to stay where we are, nearly everything has to go right, and nothing, very much, can go wrong.

If you’re curious I did enjoy the Michelle Yeoh movie referenced in the title. I’d like to say that I got the idea for this post from the everything bagel doomsday device. But I didn’t. Still I like bagels, particularly with lox. If you’d like to buy me one, consider donating

The 9 Books I Finished in January

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  1. A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies by: Matt Simon
  2. Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by: Helen Thompson
  3. The Captive Mind by: Czeslaw Milosz
  4. Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer by: Scott P. Scheper
  5. The Farthest Shore by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by: Martha Wells
  7. The Mind of the Maker by: Dorothy L. Sayers
  8. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by: G. K. Chesterton 
  9. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by: Alex & Brett Harris

January is the time for resolutions, for changing course, and doing better. My essay consistency was not great in 2022, but I’ve already talked about the various reasons why that was at some length. It’s time to look forward. What am I hoping to accomplish in 2023?

I really want this to be the year that I publish a book. It may not be the greatest book, or the longest book, but I want there to be a book. I know some of you following along at home have every reason to doubt that such a thing will ever happen, let alone soon, but I’ve decided to always spend at least the first fifteen minutes of my morning writing block working on a book. 

This is not the first time I’ve made this commitment, but hopefully it will stick this time. The problem is that it will be going great but I’ll get behind on my normal blog posts, and end up deciding to skip working on the book for a few days “just until I catch up”. But if I go for too long then it becomes hard to get back into things. So no matter how far behind I feel my new resolution is to never skip this writing.

Of course it would be great if I never felt like I was behind, and as you may have already figured out, being more consistent about getting essays out, and being more consistent about working on my book are contradictory. I’m hoping the structure of all of this helps somewhat, but also I am once again resolving to try and keep at least some of my essays shorter. I mean there’s my newsletter, which is always short, but I think there’s also some space for pieces between that and the 4500 word pieces I seem to have drifted into. Ideally each month I would do my newsletter, my book review round-ups, one or two short essays and one long essay. And perhaps by doing this I can improve the quality at all levels.

In the end there is always going to be a tension between building and keeping an audience’s attention — putting out content frequently — and creating something which really deserves an audience — a fully formed book length treatment of some interesting subject.

In any case, regardless of what happens in 2023 I hope you’ll stick around.

I- Eschatological Reviews

A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

By: Matt Simon

Published: 2022

252 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which we have covered the Earth in microplastics, the potential effects of that, and the possibility of mitigation.

What’s the author’s angle?

Simon has been on the environmental beat for awhile, mostly as a writer for WIRED. You get the feeling that he’s pretty passionate about the subject.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a doomer and you want something else to worry about, this is a great book. If you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of things you can get a good sense of the scale of the problem just reading this WIRED article Simon adapted from the book.

General Thoughts

I’ve been aware that there’s a potential “problem with plastics” for quite a while, but I hadn’t really read very deeply on the subject. Thinking back, I feel like I assumed that it was connected to the worry about disposing of all the trash we create. Since that disposal problem is overblown I guess I kind of figured the plastics problem was as well. This is not to say I was unaware of the problem of BPA and endocrine disrupting chemicals, but I put that in a separate bucket, when in reality it’s just one big catastrophe. As you can tell the book caused me to “update some of my priors” as they say, the question is by how much? To put it another way, I have become convinced that the plastic problem is serious, but I’m still not clear on exactly how serious. At this point I think I’m somewhere between “definitely causing some harm, but mostly around the edges” and “from an environmental perspective it’s worse than global warming”.

Yes, we do have plenty of space for new landfills, but plastic waste is different from conventional waste in three key ways:

  1. It can last for thousands of years
  2. Despite its longevity, small bits of it are breaking off all the time. You’ve probably heard the term microplastics, the book also talks about nanoplastics.
  3. Each of these bits may contain potentially 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which, according to the book, “scientists consider to be of concern”.

The book opens with a trip to the top of Beaver Mountain in Utah, past the ski resort where I happen to go skiing every year, to collect rainwater and see how much plastic it contains. And as Janice, the person doing this collection says, “what the hell, there’s so much plastic in here”. And it’s not just on mountaintops in Utah. 

Everywhere scientists look, they find plastic particles, from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the tippy top of Mount Everest and every place in between.

Simon spends much of the book putting numbers to the “what the hell?” amount. The thousands of particles we ingest each day, the millions of threads shed by our synthetic clothes every wash. The billion particles a formula fed baby ends up consuming just because of the plastic bottles and that’s on top of the microplastics they ingest by crawling around on the floor. An amount 10x higher than what adults ingest.

Even if we stopped producing plastics right now, the plastic that is already in the environment would keep shedding microplastics. But obviously that’s not about to happen, our appetite for plastics continues to grow. 

Eschatological Implications

So we’ve got a situation where we’ve covered the planet in microscopic plastic particles that contain “concerning” chemicals. And it’s just going to get worse for the foreseeable future. How are we supposed to decide on the scope of that problem? 

At first glance it seems tractable. We can do science. We can collect data. We can pass laws. Sure, the absolute ubiquity of plastic makes it impossible to have a control. And, to play off the title a bit, the dose makes the poison. You could have some chemical that is no big deal below a certain threshold and worse than smoking at a somewhat higher level. Also if someone were to argue that, by the time we get a grip on the problem, we’ll be too late to do anything about it, I wouldn’t immediately accuse them of alarmism. But all those issues aside, there are people trying to get a handle on this problem. 

Simon includes studies of plastics’ effect on fishes and coral reefs and plants, and speculation on the effects it might be having on fertility, along with a host of other studies. And it’s all bad. (Though I guess some of the potential problems could cancel each other out. If we’re heading into Children of Men territory with fertility, then it might not matter if microplastics start reducing crop yields.) But we’re still left with the question of how bad? Where does it fall on my aforementioned continuum between some harm around the edges, and worse than global warming? I don’t know that this comparison is actually productive, but CO2 went from 320 to 420 ppm since 1960. Plastic production went from around zero to 420 million tons in the same period. And it’s projected to hit 1.5 trillion tons in 2050. And remember this is not the amount of plastic in existence, this is new plastic being added. Which is to say the curve is massively more exponential. 

I know this is a big number, and the book is full of big numbers, but what sort of harm are we talking about? Is this a forget global warming, forget Ukraine and potential nuclear armageddon and focus entirely on plastics? Or is this, yeah as long as we stop using plastic shopping bags and require better filters on washing machines and dryers we’ll be fine. Simon seems to lean towards the latter, but I’m pretty sure that he figures if he makes the problem sound too intractable that people will just give up. 

It does sound pretty intractable, so I guess I hope it’s one of those things where the curve goes straight up, but it’s fine. Though we have a lot of things where the curve is going straight up and they can’t all be fine…

II- Capsule Reviews

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By: Helen Thompson

Published: 2022

384 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book has three sections: oil and geopolitics, economic craziness post Bretton Woods, and modern democratic weakness. Thompson ties these things together in a complicated source of our current difficulties. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Thompson is a Cambridge professor, so while written for the masses, it is still pretty dense. Which is to say there is a degree to which she wants to display her erudition, which is significant. 

Who should read this book?

If it sounds interesting then you might want to read it. It adds a lot of detail to our current problems, but I don’t know that it brings any really fresh perspective. Thompson’s command of the details is amazing, but if you don’t care about every twist and turn, then you probably won’t enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

For me, the first section covered the ground I was the most unfamiliar with. Of course I knew that oil had played a major role in the world, but Thompson lays out, in rigorous detail, how access to oil drove nearly all major geopolitical decisions in the 20th century. Even if it was one or two steps removed, it was always in there if you dug deep enough. Certainly, it’s possible that she overemphasized oil’s role in some respects, but I wouldn’t want to get into a debate with her about it. I think she would slaughter me.

The second section was interesting, though I came across one review that was pretty critical of it. The review was in Foreign Policy, and the guy seemed to know what he was talking about. (This all gets back to the hard job of deciding between experts I brought up in my last set of reviews.) He didn’t have a problem with the details, rather he felt that Thompson placed too much emphasis on structural factors and not enough on avoidable mistakes made by individuals in power. Otherwise he seemed broadly on board with Thompson’s prognosis. Which is that the Euro-zone is a mess, and that it’s only gotten messier. (The reviewer did say he thoroughly enjoyed the first section however.) 

The third section was the one I was the most interested in, and it sparked the thinking that led the second essay of last month, The Optimal Dosage of War, or at least the conclusion. (Though to be clear it was written before the invasion.) I was particularly intrigued by her idea that you need a strong national identity in order to maintain a democracy within that nation. When one nation is trying to destroy another nation through the medium of war, it automatically provides that. But where does it come from in the absence of war, when the country has ceded decision making to ephemeral international organizations? When it’s mostly seen by its citizens as the provider of spoils to be fought over? 

Having read section three I was somewhat disappointed, she once again gave a very detailed recounting of recent events, but I found those details more distracting than illuminating. This is almost certainly something that reflects poorly on me.  I have a tendency to prefer grand philosophical theories, and balk at the hard work of fitting the details to those theories. And if I were going to use one word to describe this book, it would be “detailed”. And my criticism would be that the details come too quickly. But in a sense that just illustrates her point, the modern world is a complicated structure. And more and more it looks like we’re unequal to the task of managing it.

The Captive Mind 

By: Czeslaw Milosz

Published: 1953

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Milosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951. This book is something of a post mortem of his time there both as a writer and as a close observer of other writers., both under the Nazis, but more importantly under the communists.

What’s the author’s angle?

Milosz is attempting to explain some of the paradoxes of communism to people in the West. And he can’t help but add a dash of apologetics in there. “Yes, me and my fellow intellectuals did stupid things, but here’s why.”

Who should read this book?

When I read books like this I end up noticing parallels between how things worked under communism and how they work today in America. I’m sure that this is in large part due to my particular biases, but even for people without those same biases I think it might be useful to see both the strangeness and the similarities between now and the Eastern Bloc in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned there did appear to be some similarities between the things Milosz described and things that are happening now. Obviously one doesn’t want to make too much of these similarities — 2023 is a vastly better place than the Eastern Bloc during the time of Stalin — but I still think there is some wisdom which might be gleaned. In particular this book dovetailed and illuminated a couple of other books I read recently. The first was Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. Milosz spends quite a bit of time talking about socialist realism, for example:

“Socialist realism” is much more than a matter of taste, of preference for one style of painting or music rather than another. It is concerned with the beliefs which lie at the foundation of human existence. In the field of literature it forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task—to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

It’s hard to be knowledgeable about everything and before reading Capitalist Realism I was unfamiliar with the idea of socialist realism, now that I’ve had it explained by someone who lived through it, I have a better sense of what Fisher was going for. Not to get too far off track, but Milosz was saying that socialist realism channeled all art into a very specific groove, you could only speak about one thing (the awesomeness and power of socialism). Dissent and rebelliousness were unthinkable. Fisher was making an analogous point, that capitalism, despite not having the top down dictatorial nature of socialism, nevertheless seems to similarly funnel everything into a specific groove. It does this not by disallowing dissent and rebelliousness but by absorbing and neutering it. I’m not claiming that Fisher was correct, but I understand where he was going much better now.

The second book it helped to illuminate was The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Milosz describes two totalitarian systems, the Nazis and the Communists. In both cases the desire to impose order was very overt, and explicitly ideological, and the order thus imposed was pretty awful. Desmet argued in his book that the desire to impose order is a property of modernity, not something specific just to certain ideologies. Certain ideologies move more quickly in their attempts to impose order, but all modern systems are headed in that direction.

As I read Milosz’s descriptions of the narrowing window of acceptable art, and the pressure being placed on authors and artists to conform, it did feel like that situation and our situation now bore some depressing similarities. Again, I’m sure I’ve got some biases on this front, but I would nevertheless argue that we’re dealing with similar impulses.

Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer

By: Scott P. Scheper

Published: 2022

594 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The one true method of notetaking. It’s Analog, Numeric-Alpha, Tree, and Indexed (thus the acronym ANTI). Based on Niklas Luhman’s actual system, not a modern digital bastardization of it!

What’s the author’s angle?

The “one true” part is a big deal. Scheper spends a lot of time (as in probably 70% of the book) explaining why the true Zettelkasten has to be done his way and how everyone else working in the space has perverted and undermined Luhman’s initial genius

Who should read this book?

If you are mostly convinced that digital is the way to go, but before you go all in you want someone to steelman analog. Or if you want to take good notes, and you want to understand analog note-taking down to its roots. If you just want an overview of Scheper’s system then you can probably do that more efficiently by watching his videos.

General Thoughts

I’ve been using Roam for the last couple of years. It’s pretty cool, but I have a hard time finding time to really take advantage of it, and thus far I haven’t gotten much benefit from old notes. I will think something is worth recording for future use, and then it will never come up again. I imagine that it might end up being useful for writing books (refer back to the intro) but overall I don’t think I’m currently great at taking notes. The question is why? Am I a bad note taker inherently? Is it just an issue of time? Or am I using the wrong system?

I feel like I have an above average memory, and that I’ve probably coasted on that for long enough that at this point I’m disposed to be a bad note taker. As far as time, Scheper confidently asserts that his system only takes two hours a day, which includes the associated reading. I think it’s clear that I read more than average, and I’m still very lucky to get 30 minutes a day where I’m reading an actual book with pen in hand — more often it’s closer to 10 minutes. Obviously I can work on my desire, or I can try to carve out more time, but it seems my best bet is finding a more efficient and effective system, which is why I read this book, and as you can imagine his two hour assertion was already a strike against it.

On the positive side, I definitely came away from the book with some ideas on how to improve things. In particular he had three recommendations that I’m going to try:

  1. He placed a big emphasis on selectivity, and it is easy with modern tools to just dump in everything and let search sort it out.
  2. Closely related to that, he also talked me into the idea of creating a network of knowledge, that rather than just throwing out tags willy-nilly you should carefully consider where to attach a given insight, and that if it attaches to everything it attaches to nothing.
  3. Finally, his idea of having a system that encourages review and re-engagement resonated with me. I re-read old journal entries and the daily notes I took in Roam already and that has been very illuminating. I think a directed subject matter review could work even better.

That’s the good. Here’s the bad. He is a huge advocate for analog, as in writing everything down on cards that get put in actual file drawers. I would guess that 80% of the book amounts to an analog polemic. And despite hundreds of pages of this advocacy I ended the book unconvinced. Sure if I had all the time in the world I would probably do analog, but I don’t. 

He understands that analog is a big ask, and he promises that if you really can’t do it he will tell you how to create a digital version.  And eventually in one of the appendices he does. It takes up all of five pages, and he spends a page and a half emphasizing that the whole thing is a dumb idea and you really should do analog. He then spends two pages offering examples of analog notes as part of the process of establishing a character limit (see step 2 below). Which leaves the final page and a half for actual instructions. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. Establish a character limit.
  3. Disable editing and deleting.
  4. Make sure it mimics his analog rules as closely as possible.
  5. Disable copy and paste.
  6. Disable tags and backlinks.
  7. No really, don’t do it. Delete the whole thing and go analog.

So his advice is to take everything that might save you time, everything that’s an advantage of digital, and dump it. And then pretend it’s analog, only you’re typing not writing.

The book has some good ideas that I’m actually going to try out, but I had to wade through a lot of “The one true way to take notes is precisely the way I’m doing it” to get to it.

The Farthest Shore

By: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1972

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. This time around he and his young companion, Arren must sail to distant lands to investigate the disappearance of magic.

Who should read this book?

This is another classic of children’s fantasy literature. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything that fits into that category you will probably enjoy this, though you should start with A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan

General Thoughts

The book opens with Prince Arren arriving on Roke, the Isle of the Mages. He bears a disturbing report from his father, the king: wizards and sorcerers are forgetting how to perform magic. By this point in the series Ged is the Archmage, and he decides that he needs to investigate, and invites Arren to accompany him. They soon discover that someone has overcome death, and that in the absence of death magic gradually ceases to function.

The relationship between Ged and Arren is well told, and after spending two other books with Ged it’s nice to see him at the point of maximum wisdom. But what I most enjoyed about the book was Le Guin’s description of what the world looks like in the absence of death and magic. 

I am almost certainly overfitting the events of the novel into my current preoccupations, but the novel felt prescient. The world Le Guin described felt very similar to our own. The lack of death led to a lack of striving, and from there a lack of art and accomplishment. We haven’t conquered death, but we’ve certainly eliminated a lot of it. We’ve also been marinating ourselves in comfort, something I’ve touched on in the last couple of posts. Out of this we seem to be suffering from a malaise similar to what’s described in the book. 

As I said I’m almost certainly overfitting, but it still gave the book a deeper sadness than it had for me on previous readings.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) 

By: Martha Wells

Published: 2017

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A security cyborg manages to hack its governor module, which allows it to finally experience something resembling freewill. Because of an unfortunate incident in its past, it calls itself “murderbot”.

Who should read this book?

This was actually a novella, not a novel, and thus only 3 hours on Audible. Most of us listen to podcasts longer than that. (The latest Hardcore History anyone?) At that length a book doesn’t have to be a classic for the ages. It just has to be entertaining, and this definitely was.

General Thoughts

This book won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for the best novella, and I’m not sure what to make of that. As I’ve already said it was definitely entertaining, but it wasn’t out of this world. I felt like Wells could have done more with the premise, and the plot was relatively light weight. As a result it actually could have benefited from a greater length. I mean, you could almost double the length and it still would have been a really short book. 

As usual the question now is whether I should continue with this series. The other entries are equally short, so perhaps I will. 

III- Religious Reviews

The Mind of the Maker 

By: Dorothy L. Sayers

Published: 1941

246 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that the creative process illuminates the nature of the Trinity and vice versa.

What’s the author’s angle?

Beyond being a devout Christian, Sayers was a devout defender of the various creeds (Athanasian, Nicene). This book is a defense of their verity from an unconventional angle. Though one Sayers had experience with since she was best known as a mystery writer.

Who should read this book?

I’m not a trinitarian, and I nevertheless enjoyed the book. I think it’s applicable even if you’re an Arian heretic, but I valued it mostly for the great advice she dispensed on creativity and writing. 

General Thoughts

The book is written in a denser, some might even say, old fashioned style. And while I enjoyed nearly all of it, Sayer seemed to really hit her stride only in the last third of the book. But as I said if you’re a writer, and particularly if you’re a Christian writer, I definitely think this book is worth reading. 

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare 

by: G. K. Chesterton 

Published: 1908

330 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Scotland Yard detective, who has been tasked with combating negative philosophies, ends up being elected as one of seven members (each named for a day of the week) of the governing council of anarchists. And then strangeness ensues.

Who should read this book?

Chesterton’s writing is always delightful and this book is thought to have inspired Kafka and Bourges. Which I did not expect. Kingsley Amis called it “The most thrilling book I have ever read.” 

General Thoughts

I have a bad habit of reading plot summaries of books. If you’re reading as many books as I do you need all the help you can get keeping things straight. That was a mistake with this book. If you’re going to read it you should definitely do it unspoiled. That said, even knowing how it ends I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Chesterton is one of those people that I would enjoy reading even if he were just describing an average day at the office. 

As something of an example of that, he has his main character defend the poetry of train schedules, and it’s brilliant. I wonder that more neoliberals haven’t adopted it as something of a motto. 

As I said, this is definitely one you should go into unspoiled, so I won’t say anything further, except that it was a great book.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations 

By: Alex & Brett Harris

Published: 2008

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A case for getting teenagers to take on bigger tasks and more responsibility. With a particular emphasis on finding a “holy calling” and doing what it takes to fulfill that.

What’s the author’s angle?

At the time the book was written the authors were teens themselves, running a very popular Christian youth website. I’m assuming that the book was, in part, written to promote their wider efforts.

Who should read this book?

If my kids were still teenagers I would have them read this book. There are probably better books than this one if you’re approaching things as a parent. But overall I found it very worthwhile.

General Thoughts

This came up as I was writing my blog post Challenging Children, and since it seemed directly on point to my discussion of hard things, I decided to read it before publishing. In the end I didn’t use very much from it since that post was trying to make the case largely without recourse to religion and as this book was explicitly religious. It was a great book, but I wanted to make the point in a different fashion. 

Beyond that, most books like this fall on a continuum. On the one end are hard facts, studies and data. “Teens who take on greater responsibilities are 50% less suicidal than teens who play video games all day.” (That’s an example I made up btw, not a real statistic.) “These are some proven steps which have been shown to increase children’s ability to be responsible.” Etc.

On the other end of the continuum are inspirational stories. “Fifteen year old Connor, inspired by a magazine showing the lack of clean water in Africa, decided to raise money to dig wells. In the end he provided clean water for twenty thousand people and saved hundreds of lives.” (That is a real story from the book by the way.)

This was pretty firmly on the latter end of things. Lots of great stories, some specific recommendations for how to act but mostly lacking in hard data. Which to be clear is fine, but that’s part of why I think it’s more geared towards teens themselves than their parents. You’re not looking to prove to teens that it’s a good thing to be responsible, you’re trying to inspire them, individually, to choose to be responsible and do hard things.

As I mentioned I already did a whole post on this subject, so I obviously think it’s tremendously important, and this book is a great addition to the effort. If you have teenagers I think you should get them to read this book.

If I had a nickel for every particle of microplastic you breathed in while reading my blog, I wouldn’t be a wealthy man, but I might be able to quit my day job. I’d take even a penny per microplastic particle. If for some reason this strange logic appeals to you, consider donating