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Books I Finished in August (of 2020)

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Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk by: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by: Iain McGilchrist

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by: John Coates

Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by: Jim Butcher

Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by: Euripides

Cutting for Stone by: Abraham Verghese

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by: Francis A. Shaeffer 


August was pretty quiet for me, though much hotter than I would have liked. I’m not sure how many days were 100 or above but it was at least a half dozen, and just about every day hit a high of at least 95. I’m hoping we’re done with triple digit days now that September is here, but I guess we’ll see. 

As I said August was quiet for me, but I don’t think the same could be said for the rest of the country. I’m not sure where things are headed, though in general I get the sense that things are escalating. And if they’re escalating now, one can only imagine how much worse they might get as the election draws closer. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk 

By: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

226 Pages

Who should read this book?

This is another book which puts forth a theory for why the current world is so fractious, and as these things go, it’s better than most. It’s not the best I’ve read, but if the premise is intriguing to you at all, I think you’ll be happy you picked it up.

General Thoughts

I’ve read quite a few of these books, and it’s always interesting to consider why so many people are convinced that the modern world is broken in dramatic and fundamental ways. It is of course possible that people are wrong, that modern media and communication is biased towards amplifying negative events and trends, but that in reality things are actually great. We only think it’s horrible. But it also seems possible that Western Civilization in general and the US in particular is suffering from the cultural equivalent of multi-system organ failure.

In the case of grandstanding, it’s the organ of “moral talk” that’s failing. As the authors point out, moral talk is an essential tool for getting others to behave morally, and for bringing about positive social change. Grandstanding is the equivalent of that organ becoming cancerous, of a runaway expansion in moral talk, and unrestricted, ever more extreme versions of it. (The cancer analogy is mine not theirs, but it’s a good one, I’ll have to use it again. Technology and progress as a beneficial process suffering from uncontrolled growth makes a lot of sense.) 

So what exactly is grandstanding? According to the book grandstanding has two parts. The first is the grandstander’s desire to impress others with their moral qualities. The second is their attempt to satisfy this desire by proclaiming these qualities in public, ideally to a large and appreciative audience.

Some of my readers may hear that description, and assume that the authors have just come up with another term for virtue signalling. As it turns out they have been working on this book for so long that the term virtue signalling wasn’t around when they started, and even if it had been they feel that grandstanding is still the superior label, because it’s not politically charged (yet), it’s always intentional whereas most signalling isn’t, and not all grandstanding is about virtue, much of it is about communicating to your in-group. But let’s return to this idea of runaway growth.

In a sense, though the authors didn’t make this connection, grandstanding is to displays of morality as spam emails are to marketing. In the past a far greater percentage of marketing happened in person, in the presence of the product. It’s harder to reach people that way but far more effective when you do because you’re demonstrating features in a tangible fashion. In a similar manner, in the past if you wanted to impress others with your moral qualities you had two choices: Do something moral in their presence or talk about your morality. Before social media came along when you only interacted with a handful of people it was nearly as easy, and far more effective to just do moral things, the people you interacted with were about as likely to see you do something moral as they were to hear you talk about it, and actions are always the more effective signal. But if you suddenly can talk to millions of people for essentially free then that equation changes. Why bother showing off a product in person when you can tell a million people about through an essentially free email. And why bother doing something moral when you can tell a million people how moral you are, thus the runaway growth. Which takes us to the next section…

Eschatological Implications

Anytime you encounter runaway growth, you’re also encountering something with eschatological implications, because there are really only three possibilities. If the runaway growth is positive then we stand back and wait until it reaches some sort of beneficial singularity. If, on the other hand, it’s negative, then hopefully we’re able to arrest it at some point, but the question is how are we able to arrest it? And why didn’t we do it sooner? Perhaps it’s impossible, in which case we’re left with the final option, this negative runaway growth continues until something catastrophic happens. 

The book identifies five attributes of grandstanding, and all five of them have either recently experienced runaway growth because of the internet and social media, or they’re still experiencing runaway growth. These five attributes are:

1- Piling on: This refers to people’s ability to add their voices to some instance of moral talk generated by someone else. The way social media has enabled righteous mobs. Accordingly when a teenage girl in my home town of Salt Lake City posted a picture of her Chinese prom dress, the problem it wasn’t that one person called her out for cultural appropriation, it’s that

hundreds of thousands of other people were able to join in and say, “I agree with what that first person said, ‘you’re a no-good horrible individual.’” Obviously this connectivity and group formation represent the whole point of social media.

2- Ramping up: The story of the Chinese prom dress also represents another aspect where social media has brought runaway growth, and where it still has plenty of room to metastasize. One can hardly imagine that a teenage girl’s prom dress is really the best example people can come up with of cultural appropriation, but when you’re grandstanding, pointing out the same egregious examples of moral harm as everyone else doesn’t get you nearly as much attention as pointing out some new and even more extreme crime. “Oh, you have a problem with cultural appropriation? Well, so do I, and I’m so attuned to that sin that I’m going to target high school girls and their prom dresses!”

3- Trumping up: Closely related to the last item is the concept of Trumping up. While the last attribute was focused on stronger and stronger reactions to smaller and smaller crimes, this is the idea of taking something that historically hasn’t been immoral and pulling it into that sphere. Of taking something that wasn’t a crime and making it one. The example the book provides is when Obama saluted two Marines while carrying a cup of coffee. Military protocol is that you don’t salute when carrying an object, but given that presidential salutes are a recent invention to begin with, this would appear to be a mistake, not a sin. Still as you might imagine the right-wing media spun it into a condemnation of Obama’s patriotism, his stance on the military, and probably his upbringing as well.

4- Strong emotions: As you’re doing all of the above your moral talk ends up having more force if it’s accompanied by strong emotions. One hopes that there’s no infinite increase in how strong these emotions can get, but as the book says, “Where moral outrage gains social purchase, the implicit assumption is that the most outraged person has the greatest moral insight” (emphasis mine).

5- Dismissiveness: Grandstanders generally refuse to engage, and such refusal is offered as proof of the strength of their moral stand. “If you can’t see that police brutality/abortion/COVID is an unmitigated disaster, and the most important issue facing our country than you are beneath contempt and I refuse to engage with you any further.” As you can imagine this attribute, as well as all of the previous attributes are fatal to public discourse. 

With all of this in mind, I think it’s easy to see how social media creates a mechanism for “piling on”, adds in the incentives necessary to reward “ramping up”, “trumping up”, and “strong emotions”, and finally the separation necessary for “dismissiveness”. It’s much harder to tell someone in person that they are beneath contempt, but thousands of people have found it easy to do that and all the rest online. Worse, most of these things continue to trend negative, and as it becomes harder and harder to get noticed, the grandstanding is just going to get more and more outrageous. 


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

by Iain McGilchrist

588 Pages

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Which is not to say that I think everyone would enjoy it (which is normally what I’m aiming for in this section) more that I think everyone would benefit from it. That said, I am not 100% confident that McGilchrist’s science holds up in every particular, and I’m even less confident about his historical narrative, but I nevertheless think that he has pinpointed something profoundly relevant to any diagnosis of the ills of the modern world. Something that is being almost entirely overlooked.

General Thoughts

I already spent quite a bit of time on this book in my last post, and if you haven’t already read it and you want to get deeper into things I would point you there. My intention this time around is to briefly cover a bunch of other things I thought were interesting, Mostly as a way of piquing your interest, given that I just said that everyone should read it.

To start with, if you’re anything like me, one of the chief hurdles I imagine people running into when making the decision whether or not to read this book is thinking, “Wait, wasn’t the whole pop culture idea of the left brain being logical, and the right brain being emotional and all the stuff that went along with that, debunked, or at least exaggerated?” And the answer to that is yes, but as McGilchrist explains in the preface:

‘Psychiatrist debunks the left brain/right brain myth,’ the headline proclaimed. Always interested to learn more, I read on, only to discover the psychiatrist in question is – myself.

This puts its finger on the nub of the matter. I don’t believe in the left brain/right brain myth: I believe in discovering the truth about hemisphere difference. There can be no question that it would be foolish to believe most of what has passed into popular culture on the topic of hemisphere differences. And yet it would be just as foolish to believe that therefore there are no important hemisphere differences. There are massively important ones, which lie at the core of what it means to be a human being.

With that established it’s time to get into some of those differences, that is, beyond the ones I already covered in my last post. And rather than go into a lot of detail I’m just going to give you a quick list of bullet points:

  • Many languages have two words for knowing. For example in German you have “kennen” and “wissen”. One for knowing someone and one for knowing something. This apparently is a decent way of describing the hemispheric split.
  • The hemispheric differences are exhibited in the size of the hemisphere’s themselves, the right is larger in some areas and the left in others. In fact, every known creature with a neuronal system no matter how far back you go, has a system with asymmetries.
  • You know that thing when you’re trying to come up with a name, and you just can’t remember and then the minute you stop trying it’s there? McGilchrist says that’s an example of the difference between the two hemispheres, the left struggling to pin it down in the first case, and the right easily retrieving it in a holistic manner once the left gets out of the way.
  • McGilchrist asserts that the concept of boredom didn’t arise until the 18th century. That until we “left-brained” time making it a Platonic concept rather than something we inhabited, that boredom was not something people experienced.
  • The book reminded me a lot of Neil Postman’s Technopoly, which I discussed previously here and here. One of Postman’s arguments was that technology requires applying discrete values to everything and that by doing that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. This very closely mirrors the way McGilchrist describes left hemisphere dominance.
  • Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphors, and “metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world”. This was good to hear since I presented my own defense of analogies and metaphors in this space, in particular how they provide a useful secondary framework for understanding the world which can often be more productive than science alone.

Most of these points represent curiosities. The kind of thing that you might see in an end of year trivia game the professor has put together as a reward for reading the book. But this book is not a collection of gee whiz “Did you know?” reveals, it’s a book that claims that Western Civilization is profoundly sick, and it’s this claim which should draw the majority of our attention, which takes me to the next section.

Eschatological Implications

In a sense we’re dealing with the same problem here that we were dealing with in the last review. If you have a positive feedback loop or some other runaway process, how does it come to an end? One of the many assertions McGilchrist makes is once the Emissary starts to displace the Master that this usurpation is self reinforcing, that the focus of the left-hemisphere sees a world in need of yet more focused attention. (This was part of the point I was making in my last post.) In other words it’s another positive feedback loop. And, if, as he said, this is a bad thing then we’re presented with the same questions. How do we arrest this runaway process? And if we can’t arrest it what doom awaits us? 

Let’s take the last part first. Once again, I think there’s so much to cover I’m just going to spit out a bunch of bullet points:

  • First, there are all the harms I mentioned in my last post. A fixation on data and pieces of evidence which creates a very black and white view of the world.
  • While McGilchrist doesn’t deny the many technological advances attributable to a more left-brained view of the world, he wonders if it ends up forcing us to choose either material prosperity or psychological health. A choice that many people are remarking on. 
  • Worryingly, McGilchrist has noticed that without the context provided by the right hemisphere that the left often ends up doing the opposite of what it intends. “How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal?” 
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, religion seems inextricably linked to culture and civilization, it might even be said to act as a link to right-brained modes of thought. As we concentrate more and more on banishing it from society, does this accelerate whatever problems were already occurring?
  • Finally, McGilchrist claims that an overactive left hemisphere is responsible for a host of psychological issues, including autism, schizophrenia and anorexia. (I may have more to say about this in a future post.)

While you may disagree with some of the harms I just outlined, you might nevertheless be convinced that the world needs to be more “right-brained”. If so, to return to our question, how do we arrest this process? 

McGilchrist doesn’t offer any simple or straightforward solutions, and it would be suspect if he had. It’s hard to claim that something which started at the dawn of civilization could be corrected by some simple tweak we’ve overlooked. That said McGilchrist does mention that the eastern mindset might be more conducive to a balanced approach. He also points out that despite the runaway nature of the problem that hemispheric dominance does appear to pendulum back and forth over long enough periods. It’s to be hoped that we’re experiencing one of those pendulum swings right now. Certainly I see hints of it in the rise of things like the minimalist movement, a greater focus on diet and health, the popularity of meditation, and even psychedelic microdosing. For my part, I spent quite a bit of effort arguing for a greater focus on mercy.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust

By: John Coates

340 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re in a stressful job, and you want to read a neurological examination of how to know when your stress is productive vs. destructive, I think this is a great book. I’ve occasionally mentioned some of my own past work experience (startups, a lawsuit, failed businesses, etc.) and there were many points over the last decade or so when I would have really benefited from this book.

General Thoughts

John Coates was a derivatives trader who worked for some of the big banks during the dot-com bubble, and it was around this same time that he got interested in neuroscience, later leaving trading to train as a neuroscientist. But even after he switched careers he was still interested in trading, particularly the hormonal and cognitive changes wrought in this high stress environment, so that became his area of study and this book represents his conclusions. 

My big takeaway from the book is that the body does really well at dealing with short term stress. When it’s temporarily put into fight or flight mode, but such incidents of stress need to be followed by an extended period of rest and recovery. When these stressful incidents are infrequent, but similar enough that some learning can take place, the body’s automatic response, your “gut”, if you will, gets pretty good at reacting in a rapid and sensible fashion. On the other hand if you get stuck in something of a permanent fight or flight mode — which happened to me for several years (though I doubt my example was at the extreme end of things) and happens to traders when the market is tanking — then not only is the perpetual stress profoundly unhealthy, but all of your decisions get worse as logic and even good instincts get warped by constantly bathing in cortisol and adrenaline. 

Beyond that there are some great “behind the scenes” stories of trading floors from the time when the bubble burst. And some general discussion of managing stress that I found very interesting. Coates ends the book with some recommendations, which may have been the weakest part of the book. As is so often the case there are many ideas which sound great in isolation, but which would require a complete reworking of the industry and probably human nature in order to actually be implemented.


Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16)

By: Jim Butcher

352 Pages

Who should read this book?

I can’t imagine why you would even consider reading this book if you haven’t read the 15 preceding books. But on the other hand if you have done that then it almost feels like you have to read this book, right? Unless you feel like this is the time to write the series off as a sunk cost, and if so, given the length of time between this book and the last, that might not be a bad idea.

General Thoughts

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Part of the problem is that this is the first Dresden Files novel I really had to wait to read. I came to the series late, and while the book before this one had not been released when I started the series, I think at most I waited a few months for it. If Butcher had kept up his previous pace of one novel a year, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but for reasons I never bothered investigating, there ended up being a 6 year gap between this one and the last (the aforementioned 15th book). That gap made my experience of reading this entry into the series very different from my experience of reading past entries.

First off, while I had no problem remembering the main characters, there were numerous minor characters, allusions to past events, plot points, and other miscellaneous references to the previous novels that were completely opaque to me. I can’t imagine I’m the only one suffering from this problem and it really feels like Butcher could have done a better job reminding his readers of things given how much time had passed. Second, and this is going to sound cheesy, I think I’m a different person and a different reader than I was six years ago, and the things that appealed to me back then about the Dresden Files (mostly his world building) are now no longer sufficient. Or at least that’s my theory of why this entry in the series felt flat to me. 

I guess the next obvious question is whether I’m going to read book #17 when it comes out later this year. Probably, I’m kind of a completist and even though I understand the sunk-cost fallacy, I’m not very good at incorporating it into my behavior. Also I thought I’d heard that he was ending things around book 20, and it seems a shame to give it up this close to the finish line. I guess my plan with future books would be to wait a little longer before jumping in. Give it a month or two so that the reviews can accumulate, see how they’re trending, verify that whole “ending at 20” thing and then decide. 

Having talked around the book quite a bit, let me try and quickly sum up some of the good and bad points. I’ve always felt that Butcher’s primary strength is world building, and in Peace Talks that continues to be excellent. Character wise, I think he’s lost a step, or perhaps painted himself into a corner, as quite a few characters have the same, virtually identical quality of being unreasonable hard-headed brawlers. Other than that the plot is pretty good, though it follows the typical Dresden formula of being an unending series of crises, which frankly can get a little bit tiring, also it’s basically only part one of the story. Which I guess means, to tie it all together, that you should wait until book 17 comes out and then read both of them. If Amazon is to be believed you’ll only have to wait until the end of the month.


Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus

By: Euripides

284 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you expect to find yourself transported back in time to a university in the late 18th century, and you’re too lazy to learn Greek, then you should at least read all of the Greek Tragedies in English. If you’re lucky this will be enough for you to bluff your way through things. If this scenario seems unlikely, then you should still read them unless you want to be an uncultured schlub your whole life.

General Thoughts

I have reached the end of the extant Greek tragedies, and it’s time for me to move on to the comedies, though if I live long enough I expect I’ll want to return to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides at some point. 

Having reached the end I’m not sure what overarching statements I can make, or at least what I can say that hasn’t been said in previous reviews. Though I will repeat my assertion that though they were written over two thousand years ago, the tragedies seem surprisingly modern, in a way that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and even the Iliad and the Odyssey didn’t. There’s some recognizable shift between those works and these, and I’m sure other people have done a much better job of identifying what that shift might be, but it’s definitely there and it appears to mark the beginning of a long, long road. One that we still haven’t reached the end of.

I guess, just like with the last review, that I should say something specific about this book, rather than opining on the series in general. Continuing the subject of how modern these tragedies are, The Bacchae is either the precursor of the modern horror movie or an example of how “primitive” they still were. It ends with a mother killing her son using her bare hands and carrying the head into town unaware of what she’s done because Dionysius has made her insane. On the other hand Iphigenia in Aulis has a scene that just breaks your heart

Agamemnon has been told by a prophet that the only way for the Greeks to make it to Troy is if he sacrifices his eldest daughter to Artemis. So he decides on a plan of sending for his wife and telling her to bring Iphigenia using the lie that she’s going to be wed to Achilles. But then he has a change of heart and sends another message telling his wife to turn back, but of course the second message never gets there.

This might not have been a problem except Odysseus knows about the prophecy, and in typical Odysseus fashion when it looks like Agamemnon might have a change of heart, he tells the entire army knowing that if they realize that the only things standing between them and Troy is Iphigenia, they will demand that the sacrifice proceed. In any event the scene that broke my heart is when Iphigenia arrives and joyously runs to meet her father, and it’s revealed how close the two of them have always been. The scene continues, with Agamemnon undergoing the severest torture as he talks to his daughter, knowing about what’s going to happen if he follows through on the prophecy, but also what will happen to his whole family, as they sit in the center of the army, if they refuse.

For my money it’s one of the greatest tragic scenes I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. And a fitting end to the whole series.


Cutting for Stone 

by: Abraham Verghese

658 Pages

Who should read this book?

This book was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and it sold over a million copies. Obama put it on his summer reading list. I’m sure it’s been read by thousands of book clubs (including my wife’s). It isn’t the Great American Novel it’s more like the great Ethiopian/Indian/surgical novel, but it is pretty great. If any of that entices you, you should read this book.

General Thoughts

You can easily find a plot summary for this book if you wish, as well as thousands of reviews. So doing much of either seems kind of pointless. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re looking for a great novel to read, I feel pretty confident in saying you won’t be disappointed by this one. Still, once can’t help but wonder what kind of legs this book will have. Will people still be reading it 100 years from now? Is it an actual classic? I’m not sure, I kind of suspect that it won’t be. But maybe I’m wrong, it feels like it’s right on the edge of things. That fate could easily consign this book to the ash heap of history, or alternatively it could still be on whatever passes for a bookshelf decades from now.

As a final note I will say that personally my favorite characters were Hema and Ghosh. Forget the main character I would read it just for the parts featuring those two.


III- Religious Reviews 

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture 

By: Francis A. Shaeffer 

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. It comes across as pretty dated, but if you’re interested in a fairly simple defense of Christianity told through the lens of history, then that’s what this is. It also has an accompanying TV series which is available on Amazon Prime, which has some surprisingly high production values. Apparently the whole package was a big deal in the 70’s among evangelicals.

General Thoughts

For the moment imagine that you had someone who had their doubts about the importance of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilization. And you found out that the TV series, which was based on this book, was playing at some church, so you took this person to go see it. I can imagine that you would spend most of the time cringing, because in 2020, the arguments made by this book and its accompanying show look pretty simplistic. 

In saying this I don’t mean to imply that the arguments are wrong, more that they are the product of a simpler more straightforward time, when people cared more about the overarching narrative than getting the details of every last particular correct. But things are different now, and probably the first thing a modern academic would do is point out all the mistakes Shaeffer makes, all the factual errors, large and small. For example these days historians are pretty sure that the Roman persecution of Christians has been greatly exaggerated, and barely happened at all. And while people might be right to point out these mistakes (or not, see my last post) what’s interesting is that Shaeffer’s central point, as far as I can tell, is still true. A Secular Age (which I reviewed last month) and Francis Fukuyama’s books on the origins of the state (reviewed here and here) don’t simplify things, and are otherwise punctilious about the facts. You might even say the level of detail they engage in is excruciating, and yet they both still arrive at the same fundamental conclusion about Christianity’s importance that Shaeffer does.

A few posts ago I talked about epistemology, and I mentioned that in the past people adopted an epistemology of national greatness. In this book Shaeffer is pushing an epistemology of Christian greatness, and while the negatives of this epistemology are obvious to nearly everyone these days, reading this book once again reminded me that there are probably some positives to this approach as well, particularly from the standpoint of keeping a civilization and a culture unified and happy. And it would be one thing if this epistemology were untrue, if America actually was horrible, or if Christianity had nothing to do with the development of the modern state or Western Civilization. But it’s not untrue, America is a great nation relative to essentially every other nation you can think of, and Christianity was central to what we think of as the West. Which means, in the final analysis, if I found the TV Series cringe worthy maybe the problem isn’t with it, maybe the problem is with me.


As I’ve mentioned in the past I frequently forget who recommended a book or how it ended up on my list. The last book was a great example of that, but starting now, I pledge to write it down! If you want to help me with the purchase of a pen and a pad of paper so I can do that, consider donating. (Okay I’ll actually probably use a computer but those are even more expensive.)


Books I Finished in March

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The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success By: Ross Douthat

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes By: Donald D. Hoffman

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World By: Laura Spinney

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy By: Francis Fukuyama

Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers By: Sophocles


It would be difficult to write about anything other than the coronavirus in a space dedicated to the events of the last month. Though this month we also had an earthquake, which I can assure you, as an eschatologist, is a bad omen. Though not one I would put much weight on. Mostly it was alarming right as it was happening, knowing nothing but that it was an earthquake (my first) and having no idea if it was a small one and I was on top of it, or a giant one far away. (Would I feel a 9 on the Richter Scale in Salt Lake if it happened in Portland?) In any event it’s been an interesting month, and things are likely to continue to be interesting for quite some time.

Returning to the coronavirus, what little I have in the way of unique advice I dispensed in my last post, and now all that remains are just a lot of questions:

  • What is the actual number of cases? How many undiagnosed cases are there?
  • What is the actual fatality rate? And why are rates so different between countries
  • The argument around the fatality rate mostly revolves around the argument over the number of undiagnosed cases, but what if there are undiagnosed deaths? Are there also people who died from it, but aren’t being counted in the official statistics?
  • Most of these questions derive from extreme conditions experienced by Italy. Why have they been hit so hard?
  • China claims they’re on top of things, and that for the last couple of weeks they’ve had almost no new cases can we trust their numbers?
  • Will this whole business dramatically worsen US/China relations? (Which weren’t great before this happened.)
  • Is it possible different populations will have significantly different fatality rates?*
  • What are the chances it mutates into something worse?*
  • Will there be multiple waves?*
  • If there are multiple waves will they happen over the course of a year or two or will social distancing spread them out? In other words how long are we going to be fighting this?
  • When will things return to “normal”?
  • Will things ever return to “normal”?

Finally and most pressingly…

  • Is my current reserve of 50 rolls of toilet paper going to be enough?

*These questions are based on one of the books I read this month, Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney, an examination of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and I’ll cover them in more depth when I get to my review.


I- Eschatological Review

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

I vacillated for quite a while between reviewing this with all the other books and giving it it’s own post. But in the end I decided I didn’t want book review posts overwhelming everything else, and thus I decided to stick it here. 

To start, any discussion of this book has to begin with Douthat’s definition of decadence:

In our culture, the word decadence is used promiscuously but rarely precisely—which, of course, is part of its cachet and charm. The dictionary associates it with “having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc.” which seems far too nonspecific—Ebenezer Scrooge was immoral and money loving, but nobody would call him decadent—and with cultures “marked by decay or decline,” which gets us a little closer, but also leaves a great deal undefined.

At the risk of being presumptuous, let me try to refine [the] definition a bit further. Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development. The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.

As it turns out, though Douthat is more focused on a discussion of our immediate problems and I tend to focus my discussion farther out, His definition of decadence is precisely the theme of this blog. Which, for those of you who might have forgotten it, is:

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

It is precisely this sense, that civilization reached its pinnacle recently but that now we’ve drifted into stagnation that characterizes both my theme and Douthat’s discussion of decadence. In many respects, this is the book I wish I had written. 

Along with stagnation Douthat identifies three other elements of society, which, combined with stagnation comprise the Four Horsemen of Decadence. Together they are stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition.

Stagnation might best be characterized by this quote from economist Robert Gordan, included in the book:

A thought experiment… You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A, you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

The experiment is very illuminating because no one chooses option B. And you begin to realize how great stagnation has been when you start to imagine how far back would the technological cut off have to be before you would choose option B? What if we went back all the way to 1992? Or 1982? At what point would the amount of technology overwhelm just the single innovation of running water? 

You can also run the experiment in the opposite direction. That quote was from 2012, but here we are 8 years later, and I don’t imagine anyone’s choice switched from A to B in that time. How far into the future would we have to be, and what inventions would have to come along before the majority of people preferred option B?

Sterility is merely the actual, literal sterility of the modern world. We’re not having kids; families are shrinking; and populations are dwindling. Here Douthat’s argument is less about whether it’s happening than whether it’s a bad thing. (Spoiler: It is.) 

Sclerosis basically means resistance to change and Douthat primarily uses the term to cover modern, political dysfunction. And once again it’s not so much whether it’s happening, but why it’s happening. Why, as Douthat says:

[T]he same Washington that once won global wars and built the atom bomb and sent human beings moonward now can’t pass a normal budget; why a political system that used to produce reasonably durable governing coalitions now has wave elections constantly washing parties in and out of power. 

Repetition is the final quality and maybe the one most likely to be noticed by the average citizen, especially as they look around the media landscape. We have largely stopped creating new, innovative art. 

The easiest way, in Douthat’s opinion, to see this in action is to compare our era to one 20 years earlier. In the past such an exercise would have yielded dramatic architectural changes — compare the Empire State Building (30s) to Grand Central Station (10s) — or dramatic changes in the style of movies — compare A Clockwork Orange (70s) to On the Waterfront (50s) to It Happened One Night (30s) — or the changing styles of music — Nirvana (1992), Neil Young (1972), Patti Page (1952), Duke Ellington (1932). But what are the differences between music in 2012 (or even now) and music in 1992? Not many. It’s all a repetition and a form of stagnation, culturally our own day is virtually indistinguishable from the 90s and 2000s, and so on.

In laying this out I intend more to relay Douthat’s arguments than re-make them. If you feel inclined to disagree with any of the above, I would urge you to just read the book. I think he paints a very compelling picture of a nation and even a civilization which has essentially stalled out. But, before I move onto the next section, this idea of decadence brings an interesting ramification to the old debate between progressives and conservatives, one that Douthat himself seems unaware of.

Much of the debate between conservatives and progressive boils down to conservatives urging a respect of tradition and historical precedents, followed by the progressives saying, “Oh, you mean respect for things like slavery?” And that’s the end of that. But if progress has stalled, if civilization reached its peak several decades ago and has been stagnant ever since. Then it’s possible a conservative argument could be made that seeks not a return to the antebellum south, or a period before the institution of women’s suffrage, but just a return to a point before civilization stagnated. And indeed I think for many conservative pundits, Douthat included, this is precisely what they’re advocating.

To imagine the argument more generally. The same reasoning which says that conservatives are and have always been wrong. (Not my reasoning, but it is the reasoning of many.) Is valid only for so long as civilization is on an upward trajectory, but if things have changed recently such that civilization is stagnating or declining, then suddenly the same reasoning being used to conclude that they were wrong for so very long suddenly now makes them right. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Most eschatologies are imagined to be both sudden and apocalyptic, qualities which are lacking from the eschatology of decadence and stagnation. Though it’s not clear that this lack should make us take it less seriously. An argument might be made that, in fact, it should be precisely the reverse. Spectacular end of the world scenarios must attract at least some attention from their “cinematic” quality , irrespective of their likelihood. The best example of this must certainly be all the attention paid to the genre of the zombie apocalypse, but which, despite the attention, must be among the least likely of all catastrophes to actually happen. Or to state it all more simply, when it comes to end of the world scenarios, the attention it receives and the probability of it happening are not correlated.

While not the only form a stagnant apocalypse could take, one that’s very likely is the idea of a catabolic collapse, an idea I stole from John Michael Greer, and which I’ve discussed before, though it’s been awhile. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As a vast oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, while in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use as energy. Applied to civilization, when it’s in an anabolic state we’re adding programs, building infrastructure and going to the moon. In a catabolic state we’re cutting spending on less critical programs and using the money to prop up essential programs. New infrastructure gets built less frequently and when it does it’s at the expense of maintaining older infrastructure, and eventually everything’s falling apart. Finally, instead of going to the moon, we’re bailing out banks, and passing “stimulus” packages. 

If you expand the definition beyond things which have a dollar value, into drawing down accumulated reputational reserves, isn’t that precisely what’s happening with the massive amount of spending we just decided on? Isn’t this a drawing down of the sterling reputation of US government debt? Yes, we have a large reserve of that, and I doubt this latest crisis has drawn it down to zero, but it also seems like something that’s very hard to replenish, and where the actions required for that replenishment are ones we’re unlikely to take. 

For me, this all leads to the question of where in the process are we? Has the decadence only been going on for a little while and it’s easily reversed or is the decadence quite advanced and already terminal? Assuming we agree that things have stagnated, how would we then go on to determine how far it has progressed? It’s hard to imagine it starting before the moon landing, given how often the book, and others, bring that up as a high point, but it’s also hard to imagine it starting much after Vietnam, and of course those both happened at the same time, so perhaps 1970? Which would mean we’re 50 years into it, but I still don’t know if that’s so long as to indicate that the condition is terminal or short enough to suggest that we still have plenty of time. 

Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century is said to have lasted almost exactly 50 years. Until Diocletian came along, reunited the empire and fought off the barbarians and other nations which had, until that time, been threatening to swallow up the empire. It’s nice to imagine that we just need our own Diocletian to come along, and do the same. But the barbarians might be just as important to that story, and one of the fears is that in addition to lacking anyone resembling a Diocletian that we’re fresh out of barbarians as well. Which may be more important to breaking stagnation than we realize.

Douthat references a famous poem from 1904 called “Waiting for the Barbarians” by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. Which imagines an ancient city awaiting the arrival of the Barbarians, and it seems clear that their arrival will provide a focus for the city, something to do, and to unite around, and then something strange happens:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

I’m trying to remember the last time a non-fiction book genuinely made me angry. I say non-fiction because I get angry all the time when I’m reading fiction. I understand that you might expect it to be the other way around. But in my defense, if I’m reading a novel and something really dumb happens it’s easy to imagine a world in which it didn’t happen that way by just changing the actions of a single person, the author, who would just have had to write it differently. Change a few words, and the character doesn’t do that one ridiculous thing. But when it comes to a recounting of things which actually happened, generally lots of people would have to do lots of things differently for the outcome to be materially affected. As a consequence I’m generally far more sanquine about non-fiction. But that was not the case with this book. Reading it made me very angry. In fact I probably shouldn’t admit but I think this book made me angrier than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Probably because while I felt some distance from that book in time and space, the events Mattis describes in Call Sign Chaos feel very close. 

What was so upsetting you ask? Lot’s of things, but if I had to pick one, it would have been Mattis’ first hand account of how badly Iraq was bungled. I don’t want to get too deep into the details, but shortly after the occupation there were four security contractors who didn’t check in with the military first and as a result, ended up getting killed in Fallujah. They were hung and their bodies burned. Mattis was obviously upset, but he knew that this early into the occupation that he had to proceed cautiously. And that’s what his recommendation was. But the images had been broadcast all over CNN (more anger) and  Bush and Bremer overruled him and said they had to teach the Iraqis a lesson, and instructed him to invade and pacify Fallujah

Mattis disagreed with this decision, but he also asserts, over and over again, the importance of civilian military control, and the supremacy of the Commander in Chief. Accordingly he was absolutely fine following that order, despite thinking it was a bad idea. But if he was going to do that Mattis had a new plea. He told them, fine, but please, whatever you do, once we get started we really need to finish things. So he invaded Fallujah and then, just as victory was in sight, the government couldn’t handle any more negative press about civilian casualties (mostly coming from Al Jazeera) and they called things off. Skillfully managing to create the worst possible situation out of all the various options. Reaping neither the rewards of caution by holding off, nor the benefits of decisively invading.

This sort of bungling didn’t happen just this one time, it happens over and over again, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even once with Iran. Where somehow American military policy was to make the worst strategic level choice every time a choice was presented. You would expect that occasionally they might, even if it’s just by chance, make the right choice, but I got the impression that no, so deft and focused was their pursuit of short term gains that they adroitly avoided any decision with even the slightest hint of being a wise long term policy. 

This seems to have continued through all the presidents Mattis served under, including Trump. And while Mattis has been gone for awhile, it appeared to happen again while I was reading the book in the recent peace deal with the Taliban, and who knows, the approach of that deal may have been why Mattis left, though he gives very little detail in the book about his time in Trump’s cabinet. 

Mattis is an amazing individual, and you really should read the book, just because he’s so awesome, but I expect, like me, it will end up making you very mad. The only hope I was left with after reading the book is that perhaps Mattis might be convinced to run for President in 2020. Certainly he’s old, but he’s still younger than Trump and Biden.


The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

The Durants are famous historians, but it’s entirely possible you haven’t heard of them if you were born after 1970. This book is a distillation of the lessons of history from their numerous books on the subject. And while in places it hasn’t aged well, it’s short enough and so packed with insight (some of which you may disagree with) that I would definitely recommend it.

To be clear, I didn’t actually read it, I listened to it, and the audio version had short snippets of interviews with Will and Ariel in between chapters. These snippets added a lot of additional insight, and because of that I’d recommend listening to the book as well. To give you a taste of these snippets I transcribed one of them. Perhaps you can tell why I liked it:

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

It’s when they make broad pronouncements about the sweep of history that the Durrant’s are at their best. (Possibly because these broad pronouncements are harder to falsify?) When they turn from the general to the specific that’s when things get a little weird. After holding forth on all the things we can learn from history, they point out that many people’s next question is, “Well, what would you recommend.” They oblige by providing a list of 10 suggestions which is a weird mix of timeless wisdom with unusual policies, and other things that mostly haven’t aged well:

  1. Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.
  2. Government annuity to parents for their first and second child if they’re married. Birth control should be provided nearly for free to married couples
  3. Unity of family and authority of the parents should be strengthened by giving parents control over what their children earn.
  4. Education should be provided to fit every high school graduate for employment. Along with an education in the humanities. A wide variety of protections for universities including protection from violent protests. A version of the BBC for the US which is controlled by the universities.
  5. Every religious institution should preach morality instead of theology and welcome everyone who accepts the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.
  6. Morality, that is the cooperation of the individual with the group, should be taught every year from kindergarten through PhD. Including education on the effects of promiscuity, drugs, etc. For those who go astray significant prison reform in the direction of rehabilitation.
  7. Labor should be encouraged to organize as much as possible. Consumer protection made into a governmental agency.
  8. Be skeptical of revolution. It’s a monster that devours its fathers and children. Person’s over 30 should not listen to people under 30.
  9. A supervised election should be held to choose a government for South Vietnam which will be empowered to negotiate with the North. Recognize mainland China and admit it to the UN.
  10. A peaceful acceptance of death when it comes, no artificial prolongation of death.

Related to that last suggestion. Apparently Ariel and Will were so devoted to each other that when Will was admitted to the hospital, presumably to die (he was 96) Ariel stopped eating and actually died before him. Their daughter and grandkids tried to keep the news from Will, but he heard about it on the evening news and died shortly thereafter.


The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

This book was recommended to me by a reader. I’m not sure I will be forwarding that recommendation to the rest of my readers, mostly because the things I thought were useful I had heard elsewhere, and those things that I hadn’t heard generally felt far too speculative. To the point of being largely unbelievable.

An example that combines both of these attributes is his “Interface Theory of Perception”. Think of a computer interface where there’s an icon, for a file, but that icon has very little to do with the string of 1’s and 0’s which actually comprise the file at the lowest level. And more generally the idea that perceiving what’s real, and perceiving what assists you to survive are not necessarily the same thing, and any time they come into conflict, survival will win. That the brain has built an interface for survival, not an interface for reality. I had already heard this and it is indeed an important idea, but Hoffman:

[T]akes the well worn concept of our perceptual systems assembling only crude approximations of reality, and cranks it up to eleven. If you had assumed, like me, that, despite its approximate nature, our concepts of the world and the objects that inhabit it are at least somewhat veridical, think again! We are quickly disabused of the common sense notion that apprehending the truth of one’s environment is roughly compatible with maximizing genetic fitness. Instead, we are presented with the case that truth and fitness are mutually exclusive goals in our evolutionary trajectory.

That’s from a review I found on GoodReads that was too on the nose not to quote.

If anything, it gets worse when the book starts to dive into the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the controversial further extrapolation of that interpretation that things are constructed only when we perceive them. That, for example, when you’re not looking at it, the Moon isn’t there.

It’s not all bad, there is a lot of good stuff, it’s mostly that he’s just too ambitious. For example he definitely gets credit for bringing in supernormal stimuli, a long-time interest of this blog, and also a great example of survival warping perception. But this ends up being another example of overreach. I understand that supernormal stimuli makes certain things seem more attractive than they might be otherwise, and that I eat twinkies when I really should be eating low fat chicken breasts, but twinkies are still food. It’s not like I’m going to starve if I eat twinkies. In fact if anything it’s not our perception of reality that’s screwed up in this instance, it’s our perception of what will help us survive that’s screwed up. 

In the end the biggest problem is that the stuff that’s true and useful in this book is already well known, and the stuff that’s speculative has no practical application even if it could somehow be verified which mostly it can’t.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

It’s impossible when reviewing this book to avoid talking about the current crisis. And while the history of the Spanish Flu has been picked over pretty thoroughly for advice on how to handle things now, there are still a few items I haven’t seen brought up, or if they have been brought up they haven’t been emphasized. The first and biggest would be patience. The era of the Spanish flu lasted for three full years over three different waves. And when people talk about flattening the curve the whole point of that is to spread out this period. I’m not making any predictions, a lot depends on whether COVID-19 mutates into something significantly different or more deadly and fortunately, there’s evidence that it’s not mutating very fast. But even so, this is not going to be something that’s over by June or probably even over this year. But let’s all hope I’m wrong.

Speaking of mutating, I think more people are aware of it now, but I had always kind of assumed that the first wave of the Spanish Flu was the worst, but it was actually the middle wave, and then there was a further third wave that was not as bad as the second but worse than the first. As I said there’s evidence COVID-19 isn’t mutating very fast, so that’s obviously a good thing, but I also think we need to be prepared for multiple waves of it.

Something else that the book brought up is that the Spanish Flu had a significantly different fatality rate depending on the population. Native Americans were particularly hard hit, and the flu wiped out whole villages of Inuit. I’ve yet to see any evidence that the same thing is happening with C19, and I doubt it’s the explanation for things like the fatality disparity between Italy and Germany, and it’s probably too early to be able to tell, but we definitely could see some of that, and it might be really bad for whatever population ends up being the most susceptible. 

On the whole I’m not sure if I’d recommend the book right now. I think most of the useful insights it contains are already in the wild, and the rest of it will probably just depress you.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

This was a collection of short stories about the afterlife. Short vignettes, each with a different twist. It was enjoyable enough in the manner of most collections of speculative short stories, though there was nothing that knocked my socks off. There as an afterlife were Mary Shelley basically ran things because she was the only person who understood the fraught emotional relationship a creator has with their creation, and god spent all of his time brooding over her novel Frankenstein. Another story depicted an afterlife where you live out the eternities as characters in the dreams of those who haven’t died. And, yet another, where you died in the normal way, but eventually the universe reversed itself and you lived your life again,only in reverse and everything was much better. An idea he clearly stole from the Red Dwarf novels. (Though they may in turn have stolen it from somewhere else.)

You get the idea. And while they were all clever none of them seemed better or more logically constructed than the typical religious doctrine of the afterlife. In a sense this would be surprising, if some fiction writer managed to best the collective imagination of billions of people over thousands of years. But in another sense isn’t that the whole argument of people like transhumanists, that they can in fact come up with something better? I understand I’m probably putting too much weight on this book if I use it as evidence in that debate, but neither should it fill anyone with optimism either.


Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

First off I owe Francis Fukuyama an apology. On more than one occasion I brought up his idea of the “end of history” as something which had been proven so obviously wrong that neither I nor anyone else needed to take it seriously.

What’s worse is that this is a well known failure mode, you should always try to understand an argument before dismissing it. (Though I understand there’s only so much time in a day.) Additionally this might also be an example of a failure of oversimplification, where a phrase is simplified so much in people’s perception that it’s connotation is not very close and may in fact be the exact opposite of the true meaning the author was going for. (Other examples include Taleb’s idea of Black Swans, and Nietzsche’s contention that “God is dead”.) 

For myself, and I assume most people, the phrase “end of history”, invoked the idea that humanity had won. That we had banished wars, come up with the best system of government, and passed into a new age where big dramatic catastrophes (the kind of stuff you learn about when you study history) would no longer occur. But Douthat claims in his book The Decadent Society that Fukuyama was arguing something very similar to Douthat’s own thesis, that liberal market-based democracy had banished it’s ideological rivals. But rather than this being a glorious triumph, it was more likely a stagnant plateau. Now I feel like I need to read Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man and see what he’s really arguing, but, as you might have noticed, that is not the Fukuyama book I read, so I should really move on.

Coincidentally, this book seems to tie in to many of the other books I read this month, and books I’ve read in the last few months as well. I already mentioned the tie in to The Decadent Society, but of all the connections, the greatest is to the previous book in the series Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution which I finished in November and just as in that book his big emphasis is how difficult the formation of a stable well functioning state really is, or as he calls it “getting to Denmark”. This brings in another connection to the Mattis book with all of the difficulties he describes in both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. 

Beyond that Fukuyama seems very much in the camp of people who feel that war is an important component in the creation of states, and particularly in the creation of nations, those superpowered states that can call on nationalistic unity (i.e. patriotism) in the event of a threat. A process I talked about in a previous post when I discussed War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

Finally it’s connected to the book by the Durant’s in that it covers much the same territory. In fact if you were going to either read Lessons of History or The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay I would definitely encourage you to read the latter. The caveat being of course that those two books together are over 1300 pages, while Lessons of History is a tenth of that. Also the styles are very different. The Durant’s are far more narrative, while Fukuyama is more comprehensive jumping from one example to the next in service of a particular point.

There’s obviously a lot more to the book, but this post is already really long, so I’ll just leave you with just one final take away from the book. Fukuyama argues fairly persuasively, that it’s better to start with an effective state, and then add democracy than to attempt things in the reverse order. 


Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

As I may have mentioned, I read all of the Greek tragedies when I was young during my initial attempt to make it through the great books of the Western World. I may have also mentioned that I didn’t end up retaining much from that first read through, though that’s not to say I don’t remember anything, and one of the things I definitely remembered was the play Philoctetes, because it was around this time that I started to realize that Odysseus, far from being a heroic role-model was actually sort of a horrible individual. The details of why are too complicated to get into, and it’s more than just this play, but trust me, Odysseus was a jerk.


The pandemic continues, and I hear that people stuck at home are reading a lot more books. If you come across something great let me know. And if my reviews help you find something to pass the time with, consider donating, mostly I’ve always dreamed of getting paid to read, and donations make it seem like that’s what’s actually happening.


Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why By: Amanda Ripley
  2. The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7) By: Jacqueline Winspear
  3. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution By: Francis Fukuyama
  4. The Odyssey By: Homer
  5. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
  6. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life By: Jen Sincero
  7. Ayoade on Top By: Richard Ayoade
  8. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business By: Neil Postman
  9. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology By: Neil Postman
  10. Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1) By: Ben Aaronovitch
  11. Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound By: Aeschylus

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

By: Amanda Ripley
288 pages

Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers after I published the reviews of the books I read in September, which included quite a few survival books. As is usual with these books the content is basically evenly divided between survival stories and commentary on those stories. 

On the story side of things this one focused a lot on plane crashes and 9/11, and she had some great interviews with survivors. In both cases people froze up a lot more than you would have expected. Apparently playing dead is not an old wives tale, and most of these disasters are so huge that it’s not uncommon for that response to trigger. There were also a surprising number of people who would essentially act as if nothing had happened. Executives who stayed on their phone on 9/11 or more commonly people who stopped to shut down their computers. Other people would grab their carry-on luggage before getting off a plane that was already on fire.

As far as practical lessons there were a few good ones. She urged people to pay attention to the high probability/low visibility catastrophes like house fires and car accidents. Also, she mentioned the reluctance of people to evacuate. In particular, people who are old and settled are less likely to want to leave or do anything dramatic. As a consequence they were particularly likely to die during something like Katrina. Finally, if you’re interested in surviving, visualization and practice helps a lot before the catastrophe happens, and apparently yelling helps a lot during it. 


The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)

By: Jacqueline Winspear
352 pages

Thoughts

The first weekend in November my wife, my youngest daughter, my mother and I all went on a road trip. For me a road trip is a great chance to catch up on my reading by listening to an audiobook. For my wife it’s a great chance to talk. On this trip we decided to split the difference somewhat. We would start by talking and when the conversation flagged we would switch to an audiobook, and not just any audiobook, the book she was supposed to be reading for her upcoming bookclub. And so it was that I ended up listening to the seventh book in the Maisie Dobbs series. (Once again I’ve started a new series of books without finishing any of my previous series.) 

The book was a reasonably good murder mystery. Not quite as good as the best stuff, but done very well with lots of atmosphere, and some pretty good characters. But the real revelation of this experience was how much fun it can be to listen to a murder mystery with other people. Everytime some hint was dropped we’d stop the book and discuss it. Was it a red herring or a legitimate clue? My wife was pointing out stuff that I missed and vice versa. As a tactic for amusing oneself during a road trip, it worked marvelously. I will definitely be trying it again on future road trips.


The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

By: Francis Fukuyama
608 pages

Thoughts

I’ve been critical of Fukuyama in the past, particularly his End of History theory, but I’ll say up front that whatever else I may have said, this was a great book. I believe I came across it on one of those lists of “books that everyone should read”, and, having followed that advice, I would have to agree.

The book is massive, and sprawling, and almost certainly deserves its own post. Also, as is so often the case with me, it’s actually part of a two book series, so rather than finishing any of the 20 series I’ve already started, I once again began a new one. It would therefore seem obvious that I should do a full post once I’ve finished the second book. Which is what I intend to do. Until that time here are a few, brief thoughts:

Fukuyama claims three things are required to have a modern state:

  1. A Strong State
  2. Rule of Law
  3. Accountability

As an example of the first, he directs our attention to China. They’ve had strong states going all the way back to the Qin Dynasty. But just because they had strong states did not mean they had stable states. There were frequent coups, rebellions and other violent transfers of power as one government or another lost the Mandate of Heaven (a fascinating subject all on it’s own, which I wish I had more time to explore.) And while everyone in China agreed that a strong state was important, they never went on to recognize the need for accountability or the Rule of Law, both of which remain problems down to the present day.

Similar to China, England was also an early example of one of the elements required for a modern state, in this case it was the Rule of Law. Common law and property rights were in place well before the Norman Conquest, and everyone has heard of the Magna Carta. You might imagine that Rule of Law would be sufficient all by itself to eventually lead to a modern state. But it turns out that Rule of Law can actually retard the development of a strong state. For example, Hungary had the Golden Bull, a document very similar to the Magna Carta and which similarly granted significant rights to the nobility, but it turned out too grant them too many rights, leaving the Hungarian King relatively powerless.

Finally, there’s accountability. To achieve this in the modern sense it seems that it was easiest if it emerged organically from the Rule of Law. But, accountability also manifested in other ways as well. Historically, the biggest challenge was to make the people who ran the nation accountable to the nation as a whole rather than their families. Many nations were able to develop a strong state, but as these states developed they needed a larger and larger bureaucracy, and the minute someone ended up with any power they were naturally inclined to use it to benefit their tribe or family, which then undermines the state they’re supposedly working in service to. Accordingly, several states came up with methods for eliminating these attachments. China had eunuchs and to a lesser extent, their system of examinations. While the Ottoman Empire had the devshirme system, whereby Christian slaves acted as the bureaucracy. This sat alongside the system of Janissaries, which was the same thing but for the military. Additionally, to a certain extent this idea also ends up describing clerical celibacy in Catholicism. 

I’ve considered the tension between the state and the family before, but never quite from this angle. And as someone belonging to a religion that puts a lot of emphasis on the family, the dichotomy brings up a lot of interesting issues:

  • To begin with, it’s obvious that loyalty to family is probably at an all time low. Is this because loyalty to the state is at an all time high? If not what has replaced loyalty to the family?
  • Even if loyalty to the family is low, it does seem like there’s been a recent increase in tribal loyalty, if we consider the rise in identity politics to be essentially a tribal thing.
  • It’s been centuries since the modern state has had to deal with strong tribal affiliations, are they still capable of doing so? I’m not sure they are, and if Fukuyama is to be believed that could be very bad.
  • Finally, I mentioned Catholic celibacy, and it turns out that this, plus rules against marrying first cousins did a lot to loosen familial linkage in early Europe and many people, including Fukuyama, believe that this is a large part of what set Europe apart from the rest of the world.

All this stuff is fascinating, but most people are looking for more than the mere satisfaction of their curiosity from observations like these. Ideally, they want wisdom applicable to the current situation, and even better, some guidance for the future. And regardless of whether we grant that some nations have permanently and irrevocably implemented Fukuyama’s three elements, there are still many nations which haven’t. I assume that Fukuyama might cover this more in the second book in the series, but I was left wondering what to do about these nations. I got the distinct feeling that none of the three elements were the sort of thing that was easily transmissible. And, consequently, their lack will not be a simple thing to rectify.


The Odyssey

By: Homer Translated by Emily Wilson
582 pages

Notes on this translation

As I recall, I first heard about this translation though Marginal Revolution. But after that I started seeing it mentioned everywhere. For a long time I’ve had the goal of reading the great works of Western Literature starting at the beginning, and hearing people rave about this particular translation was a large part of the catalyst for taking another run at it. Comparing this translation, which was very modern, with the more traditional Lattimore translation of the Iliad, which I finished back in August, was very illuminating. I wouldn’t have expected it going in, but I think I preferred the more modern approach. Certainly it went down easier, but that could, in part, be due to differences in the original works. I think it’s widely agreed that the Iliad is the weighter of the two.

Representative passage:

Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,

he leapt upon the threshold with his bow

and quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped

out in a rush before his feet, and spoke.

“Playtime is over. I will shoot again,

towards another mark no man has hit.

Apollo, may I manage it!”

He aimed

his deadly arrow at Antinous.

The young man sat there, just about to lift

his golden goblet, swirling wine around,

ready to drink. He had no thought of death.

How could he? Who would think a single man,

among so many banqueters, would dare

to risk dark death, however strong he was?

Thoughts

Once again I’m not sure how to review a work of literature that’s nearly 3000 years old. In addition to giving a feel for Wilson’s translation I selected the passage above mostly because of the phrase, “Playtime is over.” I can even imagine it on a list of quotes:

Playtime is over.

—Homer

But also I choose it to illustrate the realism with which combat is handled. I know I’ve seen a movie version of the Odyssey where Odysseus, after shooting an arrow through all the axes, turns and proceeds to immediately kill everyone with one rapid shot after another, before any of the suitors can react. 

In the actual story, he has to hide all the weapons, arm his son and two of his servants, lock the doors and engage in some very tense hand to hand combat after running out of arrows. To add further to the realism there’s a whole scene where he has to deal with the angry relatives of all the suitors he killed. As the book says, “Who would think a single man, among so many banqueters, would dare to risk dark death, however strong he was?”

It’s interesting that the Iliad is considered the more dramatic of the two works, and also the more realistic. There is no Scylla and Charybdis, no sirens, no lotus eaters, and no one is turned into a pig, so in many senses that’s true. And yet, when it comes to the actual fighting I think the Iliad was less realistic. 

I realize that’s a pretty slim observation to take out of a 3000 year old classic, but it’s what I’ve got.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
176 Pages

AND

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

By: Jen Sincero
244 Pages

Thoughts

I’m going to try something different. I’m going to review two seemingly unrelated books at the same time. We’ll start with Incidents in the Life.

I mentioned to my daughter in college that I was behind on my reading goal for the year (104 books, or two a week) and she suggested that I read Incidents. Not only did she think it was a great book that should be read by everyone, but it was also short. I have to agree with her, it was great. It was also pretty depressing and awful, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should that be a reason not to read it, in fact I should probably read more books like this. That said I was initially not sure what to do with it. My normal shtick is to engage in some light commentary or criticism, but this is not the sort of book you criticize and even commentary of it could be fraught in this day and age. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Jen Sincero.

I don’t recall who recommended it, but someone said I should read YAAB. (I really should keep better track of recommendations going forward.) I do recall that whoever it was, they were very effusive in their praise. Now by and large I’m aware that most self-help books are a waste of time. In general they either repeat things you’ve already heard, or they’re so vague you don’t really end up with any actionable suggestions. Occasionally, however, spending a few hours reading a self-help book can boost your productivity by a couple of percentage points (and maybe more in the short term) and if it does, then that easily makes up for the time you spent reading it, and even makes up for the time you spent reading other self-help books which didn’t have that payoff.

But, as I said, this process is hit or miss, and the misses out number the hits. As a general rule, any self help book will make you feel good while reading it, but if you were to do an experiment where half of your subjects read the book and half didn’t, in a year there would be no discernible difference between the two groups. Fortunately YAAB, is not such a book. I am convinced that the group which read the book would be measurably worse off.

I say this because at its core YAAB is a repackaging of The Secret, or if you’re lucky enough to never have heard of that book, it advocates for the Law of Attraction, the idea that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative consequences. That by thinking about what you want in a positive fashion, it will automatically manifest in your life. Perhaps now, you can see where I’m going with this: I’m going to juxtapose quotes from these two books, which, coincidently, I read within a few days of one another.

First YAAB:

When I’m connected with Source Energy and in the flow, I am so much more powerful, so much more in tune to my physical world and the world beyond, and just so much happier in general. And the more I meditate and the more attention I give to this relationship with my invisible superpower, the more effortlessly I can manifest the things I want into my life, and I do it with such specificity and at such a rapid rate that it makes my hair stand up. It’s like I’ve finally figured out how to make my magic wand work. 

Now from Incidents a partial description of the torments Jabobs suffered during the seven years she hid in tiny attic in her grandmother’s shed. An attic with a 3 foot high ceiling at its peak!

I suffered much more during the second winter than I did during the first. My limbs were benumbed by inaction, and the cold filled them with cramp. I had a very painful sensation of coldness in my head; even my face and tongue stiffened and I lost the power of speech… I was restored to consciousness by the dashing of cold water in my face…[My brother] afterwards told me he thought I was dying, for I had been in an unconscious state sixteen hours.

YAAB again:

In order to create wealth, you must bring yourself into energetic alignment with the money you desire to manifest.

And Incidents:

My children grew up finely; and Dr. Flint would often say to me, with an exulting smile. “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”

I thought to myself that, God being my helper, they should never pass into his hands. It seemed to me I would rather see them killed then have them given up to his power. 

It seems clear to me that if Jacobs had just had a copy of YAAB to teach her how to bring herself into “energetic alignment with the money [she desired] to manifest”. I’m sure that she could have specifically and rapidly attracted the money necessary to make an offer for her children that was so extravagant that Dr. Flint couldn’t possibly refuse! If only Jen Sincero had been born 200 years ago! I’m positive she could have ended slavery without the civil war!


Ayoade on Top

By: Richard Ayoade
256 Pages

Thoughts

Richard Ayoade played Maurice Moss on the British workplace comedy The IT Crowd. Which if you haven’t watched it you should, it’s one of the best comedies of this or any decade. Apparently, in real life Ayoade is fairly similar to his IT Crowd character, or which is to say a very eccentric nerd. He has turned his eccentricities to things other than acting, including writing. On Top is his most recent book and it’s difficult to describe. Running the length of the book is a blow by blow critique and commentary on the 2003 Gwenyth Paltrow movie View from the Top. An obscure movie which you might have never even heard of let alone watched. It’s hard to know how much of his affection for this little known film is sarcastic and how much is sincere, but it’s definitely some of both. On top of commenting on the movie he tosses in personal stories, weird asides, and frequent meta-commentary on how strange it is to write a book about a little known Gwenyth Paltrow movie…

I listened to the audio version, which he narrated, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it’s weird enough that other than my wife, I’m not sure who else I would recommend it to.


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By: Neil Postman
208 Pages

AND

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

By: Neil Postman
240 Pages

Thoughts

I mostly reviewed these books in my last post, so I didn’t intend to spend much additional time on them, but I did want to spend a small amount discussing Postman’s suggested solutions to the problems he identified, which he included at the end of Technopoly. Though, as he accurately points out, it’s far easier to identify a problem then it is to offer solutions for solving it, which is why he spends most of his time on the former. A crime I’m also guilty of. However, since invariably the first thing people want to know after hearing about a problem are ideas for solving it, he decides to take a crack at it, and his proposal is a doozy.

I say that because it’s crazy, not crazy insane, just crazy ambitious. He starts out by quite reasonably suggesting that a solution should involve changing the way we educate our children. This is where a lot of people choose to intervene, and so it makes sense that Postman would propose it as well, but that’s where the reasonableness ends. 

When I was young I came across the Great Books of the Western World series which had been put out by the Encyclopædia Britannica. This is where I first got the idea to read all the major works of western literature (see my previous review of The Odyssey and my upcoming review of Aeschylus.) It’s also where I first encountered the idea of The Great Conversation, the idea that writers and thinkers are listening to, and building on, all of the works which came before them. I bring all this up because that’s the educational model Postman proposes for solving the problem of cultural degradation brought on by TV and technology. And It’s a great idea, but it’s also, as I said, crazy ambitious. A few selections to give you a sense of what I mean:

Let us consider history first, for it is in some ways the central discipline in all this…history is not merely one subject among many…every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher. To teach what we know about biology today without also teaching we we once knew, or thought we knew…is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what, and how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli…is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. 

I would propose that every school—elementary through college—offer and require a course in the philosophy of science. Such a course should consider the language of science, the nature of scientific proof, the source of scientific hypotheses, the role of imagination, the conditions of experimentation, and especially the value of error and disproof.

On the subject of the disciplined use of language, I should like to propose that, in addition to courses in the philosophy of science, every school—again from elementary school through college—offer a course in semantics—in the process by which people make meaning…Every teacher ought to be a semantics teacher, since it is not possible to separate language from what we call knowledge. Like history, semantics is an interdisciplinary subject: it is necessary to know something about it in order to understand any subject. But it would be extremely useful to the growth of their intelligence if our youth had available a special course in which fundamental principles of language were identified and explained. 

I think the foregoing should be more than sufficient to illustrate my point. I totally agree that if we could reconstruct our educational system along these lines that it would be far better than the system we have, I just don’t think that 1 child in 1000 could keep up with and absorb everything he’s suggesting. (Also, my selections didn’t cover anywhere close to all of his proposals.)

Perhaps this is why people like Postman (and myself) are loathe to suggestion solutions…

Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1)


By: Ben Aaronovitch
320 Pages

Yes, once again, I’ve started another series without making further progress on any of the series I’ve already begun. I’m starting to think there’s something legitimately wrong with me. In any event this is an urban fantasy series, and if you’ve heard of the Dresden Files this one aspires for a similar feel. The main character is one Peter Grant, who becomes the first English apprentice wizard in over seventy years, and from there you get the typical, “everything is the same except some of the weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic which has existed all along”.

I say “aspires” because it definitely wasn’t as good as Dresden. In particular it could have done two things better. It could have taken longer to ease the reader and the main character into the world of magic. (Something J.K. Rowling did extraordinarily well.) And it could have done better at the whole “weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic” angle. 

All that said, I am a sucker for Urban Fantasy (probably why I picked this book up, rather than continuing one of the other series I’ve left languishing) so I suspect that someday, despite my criticisms, I’ll continue the series. 


Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound

By: Aeschylus
243 Pages

As mentioned, this is part of my ongoing project to read all the great works of Western Literature, in chronological order. This is not the first time I have made it this far, I actually read all of the extant greek plays when I was 18, I don’t think I got much out of them, which is why I started over. 

As with my previous reviews of the great works. It’s not entirely clear what one can say about something that was written nearly 2500 years ago. Or what the point of reviewing it would be. But I guess I do have a few remarks to make:

  • I didn’t realize that the reason there were Seven Samurai (and later the The Magnificent Seven) was that there were Seven Against Thebes, or so the book claims.
  • If you were going to read one of these plays I would read Prometheus Bound
  • It’s strange to me how all Greek literature is concentrated around retelling just a handful of stories. I’m not sure if that represents a paucity of imagination, a paucity of stories, survivorship bias, or whether it’s all religious in some way.

Also, as far as the whole great books project, I would recommend it. It is going much slower than I would have thought (particularly since I first had the idea sometime in the late 80s) but it’s enriching in a way that I can’t entirely put into words. Which may be something that could be said about all reading. Well, except You Are a Badass. That was just crap.


Speaking of books, my plan for 2020 is to focus on writing one. I’m hoping that this won’t affect my posting schedule that much. That, rather, posts will just be shorter and pithier. On the other hand shorter posts may actually be harder. To paraphrase Pascal, “I have only made my posts longer because I have not had the time to make them shorter.” But I’d be willing to see if money would help. If you’d also be willing to experiment with that consider donating.


Is the World Coming Together or Splitting Apart?

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I ended the last post promising to talk about a future dominated by the clash of civilizations. Some of you may have picked up that that was a reference to the book of the same name published in 1996 by Samuel Huntington. The books full title is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When I came up with the idea to write about Midler’s book on China, I realized that it would dovetail right into Huntington’s book, so immediately after finishing What’s Wrong with China I read (actually listened) to Clash of Civilizations. And while I don’t know that you need to read both books in exactly that fashion, the connection is very interesting.

My recollection is that when the book first came out Huntington got a lot of grief for his emphasis on the coming clash between Islam and the West. But he also predicted significant friction between the West and China, which wasn’t commented on as much but may have ended up being more important. And having read Midler’s book (and to reiterate I have no particular expertise on Islam or China) I think in the end China may end up posing the greater problem. The big difference being that the Chinese civilization has, what Huntington calls a “Core State”, while Islam does not. This makes China less inclined to random acts of terrorist violence, but far more unified in whatever actions they do take. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where I’d really like to begin is to look at Clash of Civilizations from something of a historical context. The book, as I mentioned, came out in 1996 but the article on which it was based was published in 1993. This was, as you’ll recall, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were trying to figure out what this meant for the future. Two broad theories were advanced. There was Huntington’s of course, and then there was Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, published in 1992, which advanced a very different theory, and which I’ve mentioned several times in this space. To be clear, I suspect that I’m too hard on Fukuyama, and that there are nuances which I’m missing, and ways in which it was more accurate than I give it credit for. That said if you were going to declare a winner out of the two views I don’t see any way to not declare Huntington the victor.

As you might be able to tell from the title Fukuyama asserted that the future would be fundamentally different than the past. Conspiracy theorist caricaturize this as the New World Order. (Oftentimes referencing the speech by Bush Sr.) I don’t think it ended up being quite as menacing as they thought. In fact, I think it would have been nice if there had in fact been a new world order, and for a while in the 90s it appeared as if there might be, but I think it’s evident now that it was at best a temporary transition period between the ideological conflict which defined the Cold War back to the civilizational conflict which has dominated the rest of human history. A small breather between rounds in a boxing match rather than the start of something long-lasting or genuinely different. Though I think some people still hold out hope that it’s the reverse that what we’re looking at is the last gasp of pre-modern sectarian strife before we finally make the full transition to a true global, universal culture.

As I said, I think it’s clear that the evidence is heavily in favor of Huntington. But the idea that as our world becomes more interconnected we are gradually transitioning to a universal culture, has some evidence on it’s side as well. And it’s always been one of the principal objections to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Consequently he devotes a chapter of his book to answering it and identifies four ways in which the term is meant:

First it might be referring to the idea that humanity has a universal morality. It is true that nearly all cultures are opposed to murder and in favor of families, etc. But this has so far not prevented any wars between those cultures. If you’re looking for an argument against a clash of civilizations, then this is a fatal flaw.

Second there’s the advance of civilization, increasing literacy, urbanization, and other forms of progress. Once again this is true, but irrelevant to a discussion of civilizational conflict.

Third, and what most people, including Fukuyama, mean by the idea, is a civilization based on a recognizable set of western values like liberal democracy, market economies, individual rights, etc. Huntington actually prefers to call this the Davos Culture, after the annual gathering in Switzerland, which may be a more accurate description. The key problem Huntington points out with this idea, and one of the reasons why he prefers to call it the Davos Culture is that it’s largely only shared among the elites of a society:

Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The Davos Culture hence is tremendously important. Worldwide, however, how many people share this culture? Outside the West, it is probably shared by less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population and perhaps by as few as one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population. It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in the Davos Culture do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies… its roots are shallow…

He specifically talks about how many people share the culture outside of the West, but when one considers the election of Trump and Brexit are we sure how many people share it even inside of the West?

The fourth thing people mean when they talk about universal culture is entertainment culture and in particular the dominance of Hollywood movies and Western music (not to be confused with country music). This may be the strongest claim for a universal culture. Because, while the Davos Culture may be limited to a small elite, Hollywood is making almost as much money in China as they make in the US, despite the fact, as I pointed out in my last post, that their culture is otherwise very different.

It used to be said that two democracies have never gone to war. That’s not entirely true, but along those lines can we say that two countries who both enjoy the same movies have ever gone to war? My guess is that they probably do go to war (particularly if Inglorious Bastards is to be believed.) And as Huntington points out, it’s very easy to find young men, say in Iraq. Who wear jeans, drink coca-cola, enjoy Marvel movies, and are still plotting to kill Americans. Furthermore when you look at places like Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are they more or less western culturally than they were 30 years ago?

Speaking of Turkey, their example is an interesting one. I don’t have the time to go into any great depth on it, but basically, in the wake of World War I, Kemal Ataturk rebuilt Turkish society along a western, secular, democratic model. If there was a poster child for transitioning to a universal culture, Turkey was it, and yet if you look at Turkey today, you’ll see a society that’s becoming less democratic, less secular, and less western (particularly if you count freedom of press and speech as a core western value). This is despite it being more modern in most other respects. As Huntington points out:

Modernization, in short, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions and practices. The latter, indeed, may be almost impossible: whatever obstacles non-western cultures pose to modernization pale before those they pose to Westernization. It would as Braudel observes, almost “be childish” to think that modernization or the “triumph of civilization in the singular” would lead to the end of the plurality of historical cultures embodied for centuries in the world’s great civilizations. Modernization, instead, strengthens those cultures and reduces the relative power of the West. In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more modern and less Western.

This last point is critical, and when you think about it, self-evident. If the West is completely dominant, then there’s a strong motivation to be more Western. And insofar as it’s probably unclear what part of Western practices and culture created their dominance you’re going to want to adopt them all. While this vastly simplifies things, I’m sure that it was something like this going through Ataturk’s mind as he worked to put things back together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But, once you begin to catch up with the West, the dominance gap lessens, and with it the motivation to adopt their culture, particularly those parts that seem to have nothing to do with modernization. This is the case with any country you choose to examine, not just Turkey. It was certainly the case in my last post, where we examined China. When they were struggling there were numerous reasons for change, now that they’re ascendent the impetus for any change, and particularly one which is strictly cultural, decreases more and more.

If you agree that this is a fatal blow to the idea of a universal or Davos Culture, then the next question must be, what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like? Actually, I guess we know the answer to that one, we just have to look back through history. The question is more properly what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like when you add modern technology? And more critically, does that modern technology make this competition better or worse?

At this point it’s useful to step back and define what we mean by both “clashing”, and “civilizations”. We’ll start with the second part. What is a civilization? Huntington goes all the way back to ancient Greeks to use the example of Athens and Sparta as different countries, but the same civilization, versus the Persians which was a different country and civilization

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent.

The emphasis on religion is interesting, both because it gives us a useful shorthand, but also because it immediately draws us back to the issue of a universal culture. Could a proponent of universal culture reopen the argument by claiming that it will come about through the natural progression of secularism? Perhaps claiming that while modernity doesn’t necessary lead to Western universalism, that it does lead to secular universalism and in the end that will be close enough? That we will lose the distinction between separate civilizations at the same time as we abandon religion? There’s always a chance that this is the way it will play out, but secularism also leads to a lower number of births meaning that the percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to go down in the coming decades not up. Which definitely makes it less promising as a path to a universal culture.

More speculatively if the most important element of a civilization is religion, could it be argued that people without religion are also without a civilization? Insofar as one of the key attributes of a civilization is the ability to propagate forward in time, the low secular birth-rates we already mentioned could be a fatal weakness. Might a lack of religion carry other weaknesses with it as well that make it impossible for the irreligious to ever coalesce into a full civilization?

We could get a lot deeper into the attributes of civilizations, including a discussion of the difference between being civilized in the sense of level of modernization (though I prefer to equate it to low time preference) and a Civilization. But I think everyone already has a pretty good idea of what a civilization is. It is, however, worth a brief aside to examine what Huntington (and the other scholars he draws on) count as a civilization:

Western: While Western Civilization definitely encompasses Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, the interesting question here is whether to include Latin America. There is an argument to be made for a separate Latin American civilization, and perhaps if they spoke Spanish in Brazil the answer would be obvious.

Sinic: China, along with much of Southeast Asia, the largest civilization. Definitely on the ascent, and helped out by the advantage of having a very clear core state. Being the largest and possibly the most unified as well is a big deal.

Islamic: The second largest civilization, but hampered by having no definite core state, and by the Sunni-Shia division. But also ascendent, or at least fired up.

Hindu: Narrowly the third largest civilization, at least at the time of the book, though I’m guessing if anything the gap would have widened. Since Islamic birth rates have probably exceeded Indian birth rates. Mostly restricted to a single country, and also on something of a rise.

In terms of population, those four are the big ones, and I should mention that if you include Latin America, Western Civilization would probably jump ahead of Islamic and Hindu. (Though I haven’t bothered to compile recent figures).

After that you get two small (but feisty!) civilizations:

Orthodox: This is basically Russia, with parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and perhaps Greece. As I said feisty, but unclear whether it’s about to slowly be gobbled up by Western, Sinic or perhaps even Islamic civilizations, or whether it’s ready for a re-emergence.

Japanese: This is definitely a single country civilization. And I’m not sure what the future holds here.

You’ll notice that no civilization includes Sub-saharan Africa (North Africa is Islamic). I can only imagine that some people will find that to be inaccurate, or offensive or both, but it would appear to nevertheless be true. This is not to say that one won’t develop, but without a common religion or even a common language, there’s nothing that currently fits the bill.

Once you’ve established that there is no Universal Culture, at least not one with any power. And then gone on to identify the distinct cultures that do still exist. Moving from that to a future where these civilizations clash is an obvious next step. And if, by this point, it doesn’t seem obvious to you there’s a 368 page book on the subject I’d be happy to recommend to you. As I said in the beginning what I’m most interested in is how technology changes these clashes.

First on the list, has to be nuclear weapons. I’ve talked about these a lot in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much depth here, but it boils down to an argument, on one side, for them drastically elevating the violence and destruction of civilizational clashes, and on the other side an argument that their use is so terrible as to make civilizational conflicts almost exclusively non-violent, or at the very least something which generally happens through proxies.

Next on the list, is an item we’ve already covered, does technology lead to some sort of Universal Civilization? The answer we arrived at appears to be no, it does not, despite the ease of communication, and travel and the like. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that it might do the exact opposite, which takes us to our third potential difference.

Rather than bringing us together, technology seems to be fracturing people into mini-civilizations. The internet has allowed geographically scattered people to gather into very tightly defined communities, something that previously wouldn’t have been possible. These ideological echo chambers are definitely not a “Civilization” but it’s unclear how they’ll interact with traditional civilization, particularly as there is some evidence that they can cut across civilizational lines. (Another thing that used to be very difficult.) I can think of several possibilities:

1- Somehow the fracturing, paradoxically, is what actually leads to a universal civilization, perhaps by creating a set of high level rules allowing the various factions to interact which goes on to achieve universal adoption.

I haven’t seen much evidence for this. If it were going to happen you would expect something like the First Amendment to be a very important initial foundation, and instead it appears to be increasingly controversial.

2- These factions will seem like a big deal until something catastrophic happens, like 9/11. At which point all the differences will be put aside and one civilization will rise up in anger against another civilization, and the civilizational clash will happen more or less as it always has.

Of course the post 9/11 civilizational clash we did get was pretty mild as clashes go. But it’s hard to see where it had anything to do with an incipient universal culture. It seems more related to peculiarities of Western Civilization and the fractured nature of the Islamic Civilization.

3- These factions gradually hollow out the larger civilization, sapping civilizational unity and causing most energy to be directed inward in a low intensity civil war, rather than outward at other civilizations.

Based on past experience, I would lean towards number two, but it also seems like two only operates in the presence of some strong external unifying factor. (It has often been said that the Cold War would have ended instantly if the Earth had been attacked by aliens.) And as much as we would prefer that Pinker and the rest are correct and large external catastrophes such as the great wars of the 20th century are largely a thing of the past. I have also pointed out that war might have played an important role. Leaving us in a situation where a given civilization would pull together in a heartbeat if there were another 9/11 (as Western Civilization did after the first one.) But that such catastrophes won’t happen (or won’t happen often enough.) Leaving us with possibility 3, gradually being ripped apart from within.

If civilizational clashes still end up occurring, then those who can generate strong external threats, while minimizing factionalization are going to triumph in these clashes over the long run. That may be so obvious as to go without saying. But this takes us back to the question of how technology will change these clashes, and the answer is, social media has made factionalization considerably easier, while modernity has made external threats far more rare. So yes it’s obvious that external threats bind civilizations together while factionalism tears them apart, but never before has the first been so rare while the second has been so easy.

Once we consider these factors it would appear that other civilizations may have the West beat. Islamic civilization comes with factionalism built in, in the form of the Sunni-Shia split, but we helpfully lob cruise missiles at them every so often, meaning external threats are never very far from their thoughts. And if any civilization was going to be good at reducing factionalism it would be the Sinic/Chinese.

I’m sure there are other ways in which technology changes civilizational conflict, but I think the items I just covered are the big ones. To close out I’d going to toss out a few miscellaneous questions and speculations on the topic that linger after reading the book.

What’s going to happen with Sub-Saharan Africa? If they haven’t already got a civilization are they going to develop one? How does that happen? I get the feeling that it probably helps if you have an empire combined with a religion, and I don’t see any budding African empires, and while Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly Christian, that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) seem to provide much unity to the region. When you combine that with the expected population growth you have a lot of people without a civilization, how would that fit into Huntington’s Model?

Huntington appears to be of the opinion that ideological conflicts were an historical anomaly, a brief detour before returning back to the more typical civilizational conflict. While I agree that there doesn’t appear to be much evidence for a universal civilization as the next step, I’m not convinced that the next step couldn’t be multipolar ideological conflict. As I said social media is making it easier to organize around ideologies even across civilizational boundaries. So far the Davos Culture seems to be doing this most effectively, but rather than being the harbinger of a universal culture could it instead be just the first of many trans-civilizational cultures?

FInally, while I’ve covered some of the possible effects technology might have on civilization there are probably many others. Most of the data we have on how civilizations behave and how the interact with other civilizations comes from a time before industrialization. It could be argued we have some data on post industrial civilizations, but we have essentially zero data on post internet civilizations.

Huntington identified religion as the most important element of Civilization cohesiveness, and so far changes in technology, whether from industrialization or the internet, all seem to have weakened the power of religion. I know I said earlier that the future will have less unbelievers than the present because of birth rate differentials, but that doesn’t mean that those who do believe won’t practice their belief in very different ways. What does that mean for the larger civilization if it’s religious core is constantly being altered?

We’re left in a situation where, even if we accept Huntington’s thesis, there’s still a lot of questions. Enough that we can imagine many possible futures, unfortunately out of all those futures, I think the least likely is one where everyone comes together in a universal culture where all ideological and civilizational conflicts cease. Which is to say, I’m not sure Huntington is correct in every particular, but I am sure that Fukuyama is wrong.


Have you heard that joke about two civilizations waking into a bar? No? Neither have I, but if thinking about that sort of thing is something you want to support consider donating.


And There Was Silence in Heaven…

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And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

Revelation 8:1

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;

Doctrine and Covenants 87:6

I sometimes worry that I have made it impossible for anyone to read my blog unless they think exactly the same as I do (or are REALLY open-minded). For anyone who’s not religious, there’s too much religion. For anyone who is religious there’s too much science fiction. For anyone who’s a religious science fiction buff, there’s too much that’s specifically Mormon. For Mormon science fiction buffs there’s too much pessimism. If, after all that, you happen to be a pessimistic Mormon science fiction buff, then you may have felt right at home so far. Well we can’t have that, so for this post I’m going to throw in some crazy speculation, and engage in the sort of thing normally restricted to numerologists, apocalyptic prophets, and seminary teachers. Okay, I’m not going to get into as much speculation as the average seminary teacher, but I wanted to err on the side of over-selling things.

I started the post off with a couple of scriptural references. I’ll be contrarian by discussing the second verse first. That verse is from D&C 87, the section of the D&C where in 1832 Joseph Smith predicts that there will be a Civil War and it will start in South Carolina. Which is at least somewhat impressive considering that this was almost 30 years before the actual Civil War, which actually did start in South Carolina. But more important for our purposes he goes from predicting the Civil War in basically a straight line to verse 6, quoted above, which ends by predicting a “full end of all nations.” So what happened? It’s been over 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we certainly haven’t seen the “full end of all nations.” And, frankly, the famines, plagues and vivid lightning have been underwhelming as well.

You might reply that Joseph was wrong, and that he wasn’t a prophet (though I would argue that just being wrong on this point doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a prophet.) This is certainly one possibility. But this is a Mormon blog, so we’re obviously not going to spend much time on the idea that Joseph was wrong. We’re going to proceed from the assumption that he was right. But of course even if he wasn’t, he is not alone in predicting some sort of apocalypse. Not only do we have the rest of Christianity to add to that, but there’s also a pancultural millennial impulse appearing even in places not know to be bastions of Christianity like India and China. And this was all part of the zeitgeist before we even had nuclear weapons. Surely if it seemed like the apocalypse was inevitable before that, the addition of nukes could only change things from “maybe” to “definitely.”

And yet, since those two terrible days in 1945, when nuclear weapons were actually used in anger things have been fairly calm. Nukes have not been used again (outside of tests). There have been no wars between the great powers. The whole period is unusual enough that people have called it the Long Peace, and other people have written books about the eventual extinction of war in books like The Better Angels of our Nature and The Remnants of War. So if Joseph Smith predicted that the American Civil War would be the beginning of the end, why have we had 70 years of relative peace?

And here we finally turn to the first scripture and the theme of this post, the silence in heaven and here, we begin our speculation. Obviously speculation can’t get anywhere without making some assumptions. Our first assumption will be that the silence spoken of refers to a period of relative calm. No big disasters, no big wars, no worldwide famines or plagues, etc. The second assumption is that the opening of the seventh seal refers to the time immediately preceding the Second Coming (an assumption backed up by McConkie’s chapter heading). The final assumption (at least to start) is that the half hour is based on a day lasting a 1000 years. With all these initial assumptions in place we can begin by speculating that the Long Peace is just the half hour of silence mentioned in Revelation before the action really starts. In other words the Long Peace is part of the plan, and Joseph wasn’t wrong, we just needed to combine his apocalyptic prophecies with the apocalyptic prophecies of John and it all makes sense. Except…

Except that 1000 / 24 = ~42. So one hour in a thousand year day only equals around 42 years, which means that half an hour is only around 21 years, which is way too short to account for the 70 years of peace we’ve had. Of course it does say “about” the space of a half an hour, but you would assume that anything above around 31 years and it would have been more accurate to say “about” the space of an hour. So at this point we’ve realized that it’s a dead end and we end this post and I see you next week, right? No! What kind of rampant speculator would I be if I just called it a day there? The next step is obviously to take our period of 70 years and see if we can find some 21-31 year slice which might fit the bill. In other words we have to take parts of that 70 years and make them, metaphorically, noisy.

As grim as it might be, in this case deaths are a useful proxy for “noise”, thus, not to get too clinical about it, if a lot of people died at the beginning or end of those 70 years we’d start our half hour clock after that or end it before that.

Looking towards the beginning of the period, while it’s commonly believed that World War II wrapped everything up in a tight little bow, Stalin and Mao were still out there. And even if you ignore the Cold War they were killing millions of their own citizens in the years following the war. Presumably Stalin stopped killing people when he died in 1953 (though you never know, killing people beyond the grave is exactly the kind of thing Stalin would do.) But Mao was around much longer, and is thought to have (indirectly) caused the deaths of nearly 45 million during the Great Leap Forward, which didn’t end until 1961. Most of those people died from famine, which is one of the things mentioned in section 87. In the end, regardless of the cause, the premature deaths of 45 million people or more than half of everyone who died during World War II gives us ample justification for moving the start of the half hour of silence to at least 1962.

If the silence begins in 1962, it would have to have ended sometime between 1983 and 1993.  That obviously still doesn’t get us where we want to be, since if anything rather than marking the renewed start of violence and famine and plagues and earthquakes* that period contained the end of the Cold War. But if we’re trying to extend the “noisy” period, what about the Cold War? Would it count? I said already that I was going to use death as a proxy for noise and in this particular case the Cold War was not particularly “noisy”. Of course there was the Korean War and Vietnam. Both of which saw the deaths of a few million people. And while I don’t want to minimize either war, they don’t quite seem to rise to the level of what we’re looking for. But if we abandon the standard of deaths (I know I’m abandoning a standard I proposed, but trust me you do this all the time during rampant speculation.) Could we make a case for the Cold War?

*Speaking of earthquakes there was an earthquake in China in 1976, which you have probably never heard of, which is estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people. Still nothing to compare to the Great Leap Forward. But, in terms of percent of population this would be equivalent to 94,000 people dying in the US, or 50x as bad as Katrina.

The best case to be made would be built around the potential for death and destruction. And while it never came to that (though it came close several times) the potential was there on a scale never before imagined. If we decide to assume that the Cold War fits our criteria for “noise” and that the half hour of silence would have to start after it ended, then that pushes the start all the way from 1945 to 1989. (I’m going with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of the end). When you combine the unraveling Soviet Union with the Tiananmen Square protests, which also happened in 1989, it really seemed like a long nightmare had just ended. It was earth-shattering enough to lead people like Francis Fukuyama (who we pick on a lot) to declare the end of history. (The essay on which the book as based was also written in 1989.) Frankly, I’m getting a pretty good feeling about 1989. (To cap it all off that’s the year I graduated from high school.)

All of this is of course rampant speculation and of limited (if not nonexistent) utility. So why engage in it? While there is a certain esoteric draw in trying to understand the scriptures in this fashion, I do it more to bring out a larger point. (Though I shouldn’t minimize the pleasure I take in engaging in a little apocalyptic nerdery.) And the larger point is that we shouldn’t mistake the current “silence” for the first day of summer, when it’s actually just a temporary calm as we pass through the eye of the storm. And I believe that it’s safe to say that we’re more likely in the eye of the storm regardless what you believe about Joseph Smith, or the Bible.

There are four reasons why the eye of the storm model is better:

1- It corresponds more closely to reality. People want to talk about the Long Peace, but as I pointed out 45 million people died in a four year period under Mao. This event was unique only in scale. Something similar happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when 25% of the population died. While this only represents 2 million people, it was still 25%!!! I know this trick is getting old, but if translated to the US that would represent the deaths of 80 million people. Would anyone be making the Long Peace argument if that many people had died in the US regardless of the whether a foreign power had anything to do with it? In other words the Long Peace argument would appear to dismiss entirely or seriously undervalue internal political strife.

2- It is mathematically more robust. I already mentioned this in a previous post, but Taleb has show that the work of Pinker and others on this subject is not statistically valid. You can read his paper for a more detailed analysis, but in short, when you’re talking about the average level of violence in a period, that average is completely dominated by large, rare events. The example Taleb gives is of saying someone is extremely virtuous except for that time he gunned down 30 students. Our own period could be extremely peaceful except for that one nuclear war in 2027.

3- If we assume that the storm is about to start again, and we prepare accordingly, this has very little downside. As I’ve said before. If you’re wrong and it is the start of summer, than having been more cautious carries minimal expense. But if you’re right and it was just the eye of the storm then being more cautious may save your life.

4- Finally, if you are an active member of the Church with a testimony of Joseph Smith it accords better, not only with what he said but with what more recent prophets have been saying

Of course just knowing that you’re in the eye of the storm doesn’t allow you to stop the hurricane. You can only survive it.

There are, of course, people who don’t agree with these points. Certainly 1 could be a matter of opinion. I will leave Taleb to defend point 2, a task he is more than capable of. And of course point 4 is all about faith, which leaves us with point 3.

I see two avenues for attacking point 3. The first is that it pulls resources away from things that are more probable and more important and more beneficial. The second would be that it actually leads to dangerous millennialism where people either stop doing things in expectation of the end of the world, or they try to hasten the end of the world in some fashion reasoning that the perfect world only comes after the tribulations. The two objections are related, with the one being, essentially, just an extreme version of the other. I separate the two because the second case can snowball into something that can only be described as a mass hysteria. Of course examples like Harold Camping’s predictions in 2011 are easy to identify and ridicule, as are early examples like the Millerites. But more disturbing are the secular millennialists, since this is arguably what was going on during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cambodian genocide mentioned earlier. (See how I tie it all together.)

I think in discussing this it’s useful to examine the LDS Church’s stance on the matter. While not incredibly common it’s easy to find General Conference talks about the Second Coming. And you can even find talks about preparing the world for the Second Coming. Yet if you read these talks there is very little beyond exhortations to do more missionary work, and have more faith. Mormons have to no mass project to save the world (or to kill all people with glasses, like the Cambodian genocide) nor have the brethren given any hint of a date. In fact what the brethren constant urge is that we stay out of debt, have a 72 hour kit, and as much food storage as is practical. In other words, even in a religion with the concept of the Second Coming right in it’s name. It’s certainly possible to avoid the more extreme strands of millennialism.

But of course that still leaves us with the idea that by focusing too much on potential bad stuff that we can slow down or prevent the good stuff. Many people will confidently argue that if we spend all of our time fearing worst case scenarios that the best case scenarios will never come about. Well first, there is definitely a difference between taking precautions and being afraid. As the Mormons like to say, if ye are prepared ye shall not fear. And I don’t think that as a society that we spend too much time and money on preparedness for potential disasters. And I think all of the people involved in Hurricane Katrina would probably agree with me. I think if there’s any misallocation of resources it would be that we spend too much on short term band-aids and not enough on preventing long term calamities. That concept deserves it’s own post, but allow me to illustrate how it ties into our current subject.

My argument is that while it looks like the dawning of a new age of peace, prosperity and progress that this is actually just the eye of the hurricane. We want to believe, that with the exception of a few pesky terrorists that we’re still at the end of history, and it’s only a matter of time before peace and democracy and freedom will triumph everywhere. This is why people have no problem expanding NATO and pissing off the Russians (did you notice that a rollback of NATO was part of the demands Russia made when they suspended the arms control deal?) or deciding to risk war with Russia over Syria. Which might be forgivable if it was clear what we expected to accomplish. As far as I can tell we want to save lives and depose Assad and eliminate ISIS and promote a moderate, secular replacement and eventually rebuild the country into a modern democracy. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but it is certain that in trying to contain and manage this regional conflict we have increased tensions with Russia.

Tensions with Russia are bad because they have nukes, which I worry about, a lot. Obviously they’re pretty scary all on their own, but I worry that we have no experience conducting diplomacy in the presence of nukes. Allow me to explain what I mean. The history of the world since the invention of nuclear weapons can be divided up into three periods:

Period one: The US has nukes and no one else does. This lasted basically four years from the end of 1945 till the end of 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke. I don’t know what diplomacy was like then. The war has the effect of overshadowing everything after it. But if we engaged in any diplomacy it should have been designed to prevent proliferation at all costs. Based on everything I know about Stalin it wouldn’t have worked. Churchill’s solution was to keep the war going and immediately pivot to the Soviet Union. I can certainly see where it might be argued that war-weariness kept us from achieving a truly decisive victory. And I see parallels between the two World Wars and between the two Gulf Wars. But I’m inclined to think that Churchill was wrong. Still if World War III had happened, say in the 60’s, if for instance the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone another way, then Churchill would have seemed prescient, but the farther we get from 1945 the less of a good idea it seems. (And as I said I think on balance it’s already a bad idea.)

Period Two: The bipolar cold war of mutual assured destruction. Here our diplomacy was all designed around getting countries into our sphere and keeping the Soviets from getting people into their sphere. And avoiding war through the promise that whatever the Soviets did to us, we’d do back to them. I’m not honestly sure how good we were at this sort of diplomacy or even if we were pursuing the right goals. (The older I get the more impressed I am by Nixon’s trip to China though, I can tell you that.) But regardless we survived, which was by no means a sure thing.

Period Three: A multipolar world where many countries have nukes. With the end of the Cold War it’s no longer just us vs. Russia, there are a lot of players. It’s entirely possible the biggest risk of nuclear war is between India and Pakistan, and however hard diplomacy was in bipolar world, it’s even more difficult in a multipolar world. And yet rather than being aware of that fact we seem to have reverted to some version of pre-1945 diplomacy, only with the addition of Churchill’s idea of imposing our will on the Russians, after they have nukes. While Churchill’s idea was misguided, doing it after the invention of the ICBM is suicidal.

What do we do about all this? You may have noticed that when I finally ended my speculation by concluding that the half hour of silence ended in 1989, that I never took the obvious next step and calculated when that would put the end of the half hour. You may have already done the calculation, but if not, it would put the end sometime between 2010 and 2020. Let’s all hope that I’m wrong.


Christianity, the Singularity and Getting a Driver’s License

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As I mentioned in my initial post, I had a difficult time imagining anything after the year 2000. Any examination of those difficulties would have to include my religious upbringing. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has the end of days built right into their name, apocalyptic thinking is built right into our DNA. On top of that toss in the Cold War and nuclear weapons, sprinkle in the coming turn of the millennium, place the cherry of my own innate pessimism on top of it all and you end up with a teenager who was pretty sure that the end was nigh.

I am sure I’m not the only teenager to have visions of Armageddon. And I’m equally sure that had I been born in some different era I probably would still have had feelings of impending doom. This is not to say that the 80’s didn’t have their share of existential angst, but if you were going off nearness to nuclear war we were closer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And if you were going by the actual intensity of the conflict World War II was orders of magnitude worse. Still in the 80’s, looking at things through the lens of religion, it appeared that the combatants were set, the doomsday weapons were primed and ready, and the clock was ticking down. Everything seemed to be pointing in the direction of Armageddon.

But then, of course, the Soviet Union fell, and for a while it appeared that we were not so very close after all. In fact, Francis Fukuyama famously speculated that we were at the end of history. Liberal democracy had triumphed; global antagonism was practically non-existent; and to top it all off we had the internet, and a promise of a connected world where everyone could join together in harmonious and enlightened forums. You may think that the last bit is hyperbolic, but I assure you it’s not (and that was written in 2010, it was even worse in 1999).

Having passed from doom to optimism, you might wonder where things stand for me now. To begin with I no longer entertain any illusions that I can predict the year or the actors or the manner of the apocalypse. I am definitely operating from a thief in the night viewpoint. But while I’m far less confident about the specifics of the catastrophes, I’m more confident than ever that they’re coming.

From a secular perspective they’re coming because chaos is the default state of the universe. And they’re coming because in our efforts to decrease volatility we have increased fragility, meaning that when black swans arrive they have a far greater impact. But all of this is a subject for another time. This post is about examining things from a religious perspective. Obviously I’m coming at things from an LDS viewpoint, but I think any form of Christianity will take you to the same place.

Even the mildest religion or the vaguest spirituality assumes that there is some kind of plan. A plan that has a happy ending, and from this it naturally follows that there is a power greater than ourselves. Presumably it could be part of this plan that having reached this point in human progress and evolution that no further bad things will happen. And there are probably some logically consistent frameworks out there that would lead to just that result. But as I said I want to go a step farther and talk broadly about what the plan might be from a Christian perspective.

Going back to my last post I posited that there were two possible paths: the apocalypse or the singularity. Taking Christianity as our framework can we deduce which of these two paths Christianity would point to?

Well to begin with Christianity Theology has a pretty strong end of the world component. Thus, right off the bat you’d have to say that it points to the apocalypse. But I want to ignore that element of things. If I say the Bible predicts an apocalyptic end of the world, then I might as well not even bother to blog. I’m sure there are thousands of blogs and millions of people who already agree with me there. But the theme of this blog is to go deeper and bring in arguments beyond just “and that’s what the bible says.”

In fact let’s set aside the idea of an apocalypse and Armageddon entirely for the moment. What does Christianity have against the singularity? In order to answer that question let’s start by reminding ourselves of some of the principal tenets all (or at least most) Christians have in common:

Tenet 1: We cannot be saved without the atonement. (John 14:6)

Tenet 2: God has some reward waiting for us. (Matthew 5:12)

Tenet 3: We have to die in order to receive the reward. (Hebrew 9:27, Alma 42:1-6)

It would appear on its face that several possible singularities like radical life extension or uploading our brains into a computer would violate all three of these tenets, but in particular #3. But even other singularities run into doctrinal issues. The chief appeal of AI is that we could create something smart enough to solve all our problems. In essence creating a sort of mini-god. How on earth would this not be a violation of several tenets of Christianity, not the least of which would be Commandment #1. I began by asking what does Christianity have against the singularity. Well I don’t know that it has something against every possible singularity, in fact the Second Coming of Christ is a huge singularity, but it definitely has issues, with many possible singularities.

In addition, the whole history of Christianity is one of struggle, and bearing our cross (Matthew 16:24). If we did create something that prevented disasters, and prevented opposition would we not have perverted the plan? Here I am starting to get more into Mormon theology and perhaps it’s best to make that jump. While all christianity has elements which would speak against a singularity Mormon theology is particularly damning on the subject. In particular there is the idea of deification, as embodied in the well know saying: As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be(come).

There are certain singularities that promise to grant deification. Or at least effective deification. In particular I’m thinking of being able to upload our minds into a computer. In effect something like this would allow us to achieve godhood under our own power. But if we become gods without the atonement (see tenet 1) what was the point of Jesus’ suffering? If we achieve the rewards without God (tenet 2) are his promises meaningless? And finally if we conquer death (tenet 3) why did Christ die on the cross, and what need do we have of the resurrection?

And here, perhaps, a metaphor is in order. Let us compare deification to getting a driver’s license. In particular I want to look at the destructive power it provides to the new driver, which is orders of magnitude greater than anything they’ve had before. Deification carries a similar (albeit vastly greater) increase in power. And in making this comparison I don’t want to minimize something that is both sacred and incomprehensible. But if this life is a test (Revelation 3:21) then we can compare mortality to driver’s ed. And you don’t pass driver’s ed by figuring out how to build a car. We are not saved by technology. We are granted salvation by following the commandments, and seeking after righteousness. Just as we get a driver’s license by following the rules, learning what is necessary and proving that we can be trusted with a car. The singularity will not save us. We can only be saved by the atonement of Jesus Christ, if we can be saved at all.

Through progress we have gained immense power, with the promise of even greater power. But gaining the power has no relationship to whether we have the wisdom to use that power. Just as building a car has no relationship to how skilled of a driver we are. The wisdom necessary for salvation does not come from progress. I comes from God. And we forget that at our peril.

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