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Books I Finished in September (with one I didn’t)

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September ended up being kind of crazy meteorologically, particularly the first 10 days. The month opened with only the third 100 degree day in September we’ve ever had (as measured at the SLC airport). This was followed a few days later by hurricane force winds (100 mph, perhaps higher) as a massive cold front moved in. The high one day was 90 and the next it was 54. As you might have surmised, we don’t get hurricane force winds very often in Utah. I think most of the houses were okay, but the winds brought down hundreds if not thousands of large trees, leaving over a quarter of a million people without power. I was one of those people, and our power was out for 33 hours, which was pretty annoying, but people directly across the street from me were without power for 96 hours!

As an (aspiring, largely secular) eschatologist I try to be on the lookout for impending cataclysms, but also careful to not overreact to things. Catastrophe’s happen all the time, and sometimes they even happen in clusters, and most of the time this doesn’t translate into serious long-term chaos. Still sometimes your emotions go places you don’t expect. Such was the case the Saturday before the windstorm. I had left the house early and I was driving east. The Sun had risen, but I could look straight at it, because with all the smoke it was nothing but an angry red orb, almost Sauron-esque in its appearance. And I was suddenly overcome by a sense of dread and impending doom. I can only imagine what sort of emotions people were experiencing this month when they looked at the skies in California. All of which is to say, despite my apocalyptic interests I don’t think the world is going to end any time soon, but 2020 is sure doing everything in its power to make me doubt that belief.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

By: Christopher Ryan

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in a rebuttal to modern optimists like Steven Pinker will find that this book does a pretty good job of exactly that.

Beyond that if you agree with Jared Diamond that “Agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Then you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

I already took aim at this book in a previous post and I’d rather not repeat too much of what I already said, so if you want more discussion of Ryan and his book than what’s provided here, I would recommend reading that as well (if you haven’t already). 

To begin with, and I probably didn’t emphasize this enough in that last post, I did enjoy this book, and he brought up all manner of issues which are not only ignored by the cheerleaders of modernity like Pinker and others, but issues which are also ignored by the vast majority of “normal” people as well. And as I mentioned in that last post, insofar as you apply these things to yourself and actions you take in service of your own health and happiness then the book has a lot of great advice. For example, using his description of the horrors of medically prolonging life to encourage you to draft a living will. It’s when the book tries to tackle the bigger issues that problems start to emerge. Speaking of which…

In that previous post I pointed out Ryan’s contention that he is fine trading additional deaths if in exchange we get “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. And by the way his trade didn’t involve a few additional deaths, but rather the deaths of nearly half of everyone before the age of 15 and many more deaths beyond that. Claiming you’re willing to make such a trade is easy enough when it’s hypothetical, or when you’re referring to people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago. Where it gets much more difficult is when you’re talking about the deaths of people right here, and right now. In other words having read the book I was very curious about his views on the current pandemic.

It seems reasonable to expect that having written a whole book on the tradeoff between an increased chance of death and “health, happiness and personal freedom” that he would be eager to explain how this tradeoff works when applied to the biggest news story since at least 9/11, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t undertaken that exercise. Which is too bad, because at first glance, it does kind of seem that most people are trading happiness and personal freedom (and possibly health as well, certainly mental health) for a slightly reduced chance of dying (certainly nothing close to the chances he was throwing out for hunter-gatherers in the book). And this would appear to be the exact opposite of what he’s advocating. I could imagine him offering an explanation for why this seemingly obvious interpretation was in fact not the interpretation one should draw after reading his book, but there’s no evidence of him attempting that. Mostly what I found when I searched his twitter account is the kind of the garden variety exhortations to wear masks, and retweets about how much Trump sucks that you might expect out of any urban liberal. (Which is not to say that’s what he is, merely that his tweets contained nothing to set himself apart from that stereotype.)

Though, in the process of searching, I did find this tweet:

Every time you hear someone say, “We’ll get through this,” remember that they’re denying the existence of those who won’t.

Viewed in light of his own very blase attitude towards the 46% of children in forager societies who “don’t get through it” this statement seems at best oblivious and at worst massively hypocritical. 

Eschatological Implications

A long time ago there were these text only story games. One of which was based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In the game there was a path you could follow which closely resembled the plot of the book. However someone once told me (i.e. this might not be true) that that wasn’t the way to win. To win, very early on, before even leaving Earth, you had to do something completely unexpected and it was that path, completely different from the book, and only available if you made a radical choice right at the beginning which led to victory.

I was reminded of this by a story Ryan told in his book of a man by the name of Brian Stevenson who, in 2003, while attempting to help secure a hot air balloon ended up hanging on to the balloon as it was carried away, and hung on so long that when he finally lost his grip he was hundreds of feet in the air and ended up falling to his death. This story ends up providing one of the central metaphors of the book, that the invention of agriculture was like grabbing on to a hot air balloon as it gets blows away and then despite being in a very bad place (cultivators as opposed to foragers) we get to a point where we can’t let go. Where, like the game, we needed to make a different decision right at the beginning, but now we can’t because we’re hundreds of feet in the air. Perhaps this is so, but telling us we should have let go a long time ago isn’t very helpful. What we really need is advice on how to climb into the balloon and descend safely.

From the standpoint of how things end, e.g. eschatology, this makes Ryan’s book post-eschatological. The end isn’t out there somewhere, rather it happened a long time ago in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and ever since then we’ve been consigned to a hell of our own making.


The End of History and the Last Man 

by: Francis Fukuyama

418 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone who snorted derisively at the idea that history ended at the same time as the cold war (like me) should read this book as penance.

Or, if you’re familiar with the term “Whig history” and you want a modern and sober assessment of it, this is also a great book for that.

General Thoughts

I spent my last post talking about this book, and my next post will talk about it as well, so I’ll try and keep my review on the short side. 

At a more general level, beyond all the stuff I’ve been discussing, Fukuyama’s claims can be reduced into a set of tiers of decreasing plausibility:

  • His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
  • His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. (Certainly it’s not something Ryan’s foragers could do.)
  • Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.

A lot of stuff gets added on top of this framework, but in the end his claim that there are no alternatives left to liberal democracy basically comes down to the idea that no other system of government can beat it in a fight. Which is kind of an interesting way to show that we’re at the “End of History”.

Eschatological Implications

In order to show that we’ve reached some kind of end point (albeit, as we’ve seen a somewhat different end point than most people imagine) you have to assume that history is directional. If we reverse that we find that any claim that history has a direction, like Fukuyama’s, automatically becomes an eschatological claim. However, as you can see from the framework above it’s not a very strong eschatology, Fukuyama predicts neither a utopia (apparently we still have the threat of war and racial animosity) nor an apocalypse, but rather sort of a weird local (or maybe global?) maximum created by the scientific method. The maximum is easy to slip off of, but there are no other heights, at least not nearby, from which it can be challenged. Or is there? China seems to be giving us a lot of problems despite not being a liberal democracy, and this will be the subject of my next post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Siddhartha

By: Herman Hesse

160 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’ve seen this on a lot of lists. And furthermore many people recommend it as one of the best books of all time. On the off chance that it will end up on your “Best of” list you should probably read it. Even if it doesn’t (as was the case with me) it’s still a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This was an interesting book to read in the immediate aftermath of finishing The Master and His Emissary which was all about the need to strengthen the right hemisphere, and in any assessment Siddhartha is a very right-brained book, though perhaps too right-brained. While the quest of Siddhartha is beautiful and simple, his final philosophy ends up being a little too broad, seemingly reducible to the tautology that everything is everything. 

That said I still think there’s a lot a wisdom in here and in particular, like Tim Ferris (who may have provided the recommendation necessary to push me into reading it) I love the response Siddhartha provides when the merchant asks him what he can do: “I can think, I can wait and I can fast.” I would have to say we need a lot more of all three of those in our current world. 

Beyond that, while the book was beautiful and inspiring, I’m not sure how much practical advice there was, or how much you would want to emulate Siddhartha or whether such emulation is even possible. To give one example, which I assume will seem very picky to the many fans of the book, but which I think gets at an important criticism of a lot of books like this. For all of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, for all of his wisdom, he can’t figure out two of the most basic things. How to be a good Son and how to be a good Father. And it’s not as if he decides that those roles are unimportant. In the book, the only thing he wants more than to be a good Father is to achieve enlightenment, and he also realizes, in the process of being a father, how much he has wronged his own father. And yet this thought, rather than prompting him to immediately to make amends, passes with kind of an “Oh, well” shrug. 

The central point being, if enlightenment can’t give you the skills necessary to be even average at some of the most fundamental roles of existence (father and son) what exactly is the point of it? I guess you might say happiness, but clearly his failures as a father make him unhappy and cause him pain, so he doesn’t even get that.

All that said, it’s not inconceivable that I’m missing the whole point of the book…


The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom

By: Slavomir Rawicz

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I couldn’t finish this book, which almost never happens (though it should probably happen more often to be honest) which I guess means that nobody should read this book.

General Thoughts

I assume most people don’t go into books blind, though maybe I’m wrong about that. Speaking for myself I like to at least know what kind of book it is, and a general overview of where it’s headed before I start reading. Wikipedia is usually a pretty great source for that sort of information, and that’s what I consulted before beginning this book. Once there I found out that the book, in addition to being a tale about prisoners escaping a camp in Siberia and making their way to India in the early years of World War 2, might also be entirely made up.

As you can imagine that cast a pall over things, but the book had been recommended to me by the little old lady of my acquaintance who I’ve mentioned in this space before and she normally has pretty unerring tastes when it comes to what makes a good story, so I figured even if it was fictitious I’d get a “ripping yarn” out of it. Accordingly I started reading it (actually listening to it) despite my misgivings.

As I mentioned I didn’t finish it, but I did get around 70% of the way through it, and perhaps the ending is incredible, but the part I did read wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Still, given my desire for completeness, I probably would have pushed through if it had continued to at least maintain the veneer of realism. Unfortunately it couldn’t even do that. What finally made me stop was when, in the process of crossing the Gobi Desert, they ended up going without water for 13 days!!! And this wasn’t 13 days without exertion in mild conditions where there would be no need to sweat for temperature regulation, this was 13 days of walking in the heat. By itself, this is a pretty unbelievable claim, but my choice to abandon the book probably had more to do with his description of the events. I’ve read a fair number of survival books, and his version of going without water seemed almost laid back, in comparison to the frantic, insanity inducing accounts of the other books I’ve read.

Lest I give you the impression that the novel was entirely without merit. I thought the first part of the book, which took place before being sent to Siberia, and mostly consisted of different descriptions of Soviet interrogations was actually quite good. But beyond that I wouldn’t otherwise recommend this book.


Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

By: Kevin Peter Hand

248 Pages

Who should read this book?

People interested in xenobiology.

General Thoughts

If you read anything at all about Fermi’s Paradox you’ll encounter the idea of a habitable zone. That place where a planet is neither too close to the sun, nor too far away. Where most of the time water is a liquid. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find discussions of galactic habitable zones, where the solar system itself is not so close to the center of the galaxy to be overwhelmed by supernovas and high energy gamma radiation bursts, but also not so far away that there are no nearby stars, or previous supernova to supply the heavy elements. To these first two Hand adds a third a habitable zone for planetary satellites, where a moon is close enough to a large planetary body that tidal flexing provides sufficient heat to support oceans of liquid water. As it turns out there are quite a few of these moons just in our own solar system. The most promising candidates being Europa and Enceladus, and Hand goes into quite a bit of detail on why these oceans buried under an external layer of ice make such promising environments for life. But he also covers other moons, and even Pluto as part of the book.

For myself I don’t think Alien Oceans did much to increase the probability I would assign to life on one of these moons, which I already felt was pretty high (which in the xenobiology game is probably equates to anything above 5%) but after reading the book I had a much better foundation for my beliefs than previously. All of which is to say I found the book interesting but mostly unsurprising. And something which tied in well to the recent discovery of phosphine on Venus as another reason to have serious doubts about all of the “Rare Earth” answers for Fermi’s Paradox. 


Kansas City Noir

by: Various

240 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned noir short stories this isn’t a bad collection. 

General Thoughts

I’m doing an embarrassing amount of remote role-playing right now. One of the campaigns I’m playing in is an homage to True Detective set in 2016 Kansas City and environs. On a whim, in an attempt to get more material for things I picked up this book and decided to listen to it. In all my reading I have actually not done a lot of noir reading, and so I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge the quality of this book in relationship to other collections of noir short stories, but I enjoyed it, it seemed to largely do a good job of getting the feeling correct. I understand this isn’t a stirring recommendation, but it is a recommendation nonetheless (for those looking for this specific thing.)


Innsmouth: (The Weird of Hali #1) 

by: John Michael Greer

278 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you like the Lovecraftian mythos, and you’re looking for something different, but still within that “world” this should be right up your alley. 

General Thoughts

I like John Michael Greer a lot, which is not to say that I agree with him on everything, in fact I think we have very different world views, but his thoughts on the problems of modernity are spot on, and I’ve referenced him quite a bit in this space. That, however, is his non-fiction, this book is (hopefully) fiction. Though as you might expect his somewhat eccentric worldview does have a big impact here, so big in fact that *minor spoiler* the followers of Dagon, Cthulhu and the rest are the good guys. I say that’s only a minor spoiler because you found out pretty early on that that’s the way it’s going, so yes, if you know this it will eliminate some of the early suspense, but I think it’s the reason you’re most likely to decide to read the book, so I wanted to get it out there.

Beyond this fascinating premise, the rest of the book was quite good, and I tore through it pretty quickly. That said, there were some bits that didn’t quite work when translated from unnamable horror to defender of magic and mystery, and while Greer is a good writer, he’s not a great writer, and his characterization is a little flat. Even so I quite enjoyed it. And I’ll add it to the list of series (there are at least four more books) which I have started, but not yet finished.


The Kill Chain: How Emerging Technologies Threaten America’s Military Dominance

by: Christian Brose

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re a military buff, I would recommend this book. If you’re a military buff who’s also worried about China then you absolutely have to read this book.

General Thoughts

Last month I ended up reading two books focused on the threat of China, of which this was the first. Reading the two together, with some additional pollination by ideas from End of History and to a lesser extent A World Undone (the last book I’ll be reviewing in this post) led to an interesting and hopefully fruitful alchemical combination. Which, as I have extensively foreshadowed, will be the subject of my next post. I hope that the ideas look as good on paper [BLOG] as they do in my head. In addition to stoking your excitement, this is also my way of saying that this review is only a partial exploration of the book, that I’m saving much of it for that next post.

This book is a deep exploration of the emerging areas of weakness in the US military, compared to the emerging areas of strength in the Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian militaries. As a former aide to John McCain and the Staff Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee the thing that Brose brings to the table is an incredible understanding of the relationship between the military and the government. I imagine that it’s possible to get a sense of the danger China poses militarily from lots of sources. (To be clear they’re really only dangerous in their own backyard, no one is saying China is going to invade and conquer the US.) Indeed I think I already had a pretty good sense of the danger just from stuff I picked up on the internet, what I didn’t have a sense of was how hard it’s going to be for the US military to pivot in such a way that they can effectively counter China in places like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

While it’s hard to know exactly how effective the Chinese military is, (though according to Brose over the last decade in war games intended to simulate a conflict with China the US side has lost every single time) or how good they are at acquiring and using weapons systems. We do have a very clear idea of how good the American military is at such use and acquisition. And the answer is not very. 

A good example of how defense acquisition can go wrong is the Army’s attempt to buy a new pistol a few years ago. It issued a request for proposals that ran over 350 pages of cumbersome details and envisioned years of costly development and testing before soldiers would ever get a new sidearm. Even Army leaders were surprised. They learned about it when McCain and I told them, and then they were as outraged as we were. “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing,” said an outraged General Mark Milly at the time, when he was chief of staff of the Army, “This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million?” he vented. “You give me $17 million on a credit card and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”

This example is just the tip of the iceberg. It pretty much doesn’t matter which aspect of the military or its relationship to the government you look at, it’s all bad. And it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.


Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat 

by: Newt Gingrich

408 Pages

Who should read this book?

Of the two books I’m reviewing that deal with China, if your worry is primarily military in nature, and only secondarily about China read The Kill Chain. But if your worry is primarily China, and only secondarily about their military strength, read this book. Also I’m reasonably certain there are better books about China than Trump vs. China. I’m not certain that there are better books about the current problems facing the US Military than The Kill Chain.

General Thoughts

I feel like this book needed a different title, I think I would have gone with “The US vs. China” rather than “Trump vs. China”, because the problems Gingrich outlined existed long before Trump came into office and will continue to exist long after he’s gone. Nor (and here my biases may be affecting things) did he make a very strong case for Trump being uniquely focused or effective when it came to this problem. Which is not to say that Biden would be better, I don’t think there’s much evidence he would be, but if you imagine that the scale of the problem is 1000, does it really make much difference to have Trump who treats it like a 30 in office vs. Biden who only treats it like a 10? Either way the effort being put forth is completely inadequate to the problem. The thing that Trump should get the most credit for, tariffs, takes up only a small part of the book, and while they’ve probably been better than nothing (for those convinced of China’s perfidy) there impact was pretty small, and there’s ever indication that even Trump might back down before they have the necessary impact. 

Where the book really shone was in crafting an overarching narrative for the Chinese strategy, though even here Gingrich could have done better. He uses the idea that the Chinese treat their international efforts like they are playing a game of go, as opposed to the West which treats it like a game of chess. He also demonstrated how everything China is doing makes sense if you consider it to be part of the high level Belt and Road Initiative. But in both cases he introduced these frameworks well into the book’s second half, which was a weird decision, almost as if he only thought of them after he’d been writing for awhile and rather than go back and introduce them earlier and incorporate them into the stuff he’d already written they just got included at the point at which they occurred to him. Nevertheless their explanatory power was great enough that it was easy to see how they provided excellent analogies for the situation.

The go vs. chess analogy ends up being very illuminating when applied to the situation with Taiwan and the South China Sea. If you view the region as a chess game, then Taiwan is obviously the king, aircraft carriers are the queen and other ways of projecting force are analogous to rooks, bishops and knights. But as a game of go, it’s all about making small incremental moves to take more territory. Building up artificial islands in the South China Sea, moving anti ship missiles to the coast and gradually increasing their range. Getting countries to no longer recognize Taiwan, etc. The analogy is not perfect of course, but in the end I think the Chinese strategy is a better one. Particularly for controlling the area right in their backyard. 

As far as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, I admit to being initially dismissive of the idea when I first heard about it. What do I care if the Chinese build a road that connects China to Rotterdam? I kind of assumed that it was already possible to make that drive and the Chinese were just making it easier, but once you start to view it more figuratively, the initiative becomes a lot more worrisome. What do I mean by that? Well perhaps you’ve heard of the fight over 5G? Well as Gingrich points out the Chinese are well ahead of us on this, and using a spectrum for transmission which the US hasn’t even gotten around to making available yet, and while that’s interesting, I only really grasped it’s true impact when I envisioned 5G as yet another road, one that China is building, one that might be so advanced that a significant portion of the world’s communication ends up on a Chinese road rather than something built using American technology. This same pattern applies to their activities in space, and even the manner in which they work with organizations like the NBA and Hollywood. 

There’s obviously a lot more to things, but as with the previous review I intend to expand on all of these topics in my next post. 


A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 

by: G. J. Meyer

778 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a book on World War I, I would read Guns of August first, but this is a strong contender for second particularly if you’re focused on the actual hostilities. (If you’re looking for a more political angle with a focus on America, Meyer’s other book, The World Remade, is better.) 

General Thoughts

I sort of stumbled into reading several books on World War I. This has given me the idea of choosing some piece of history at the beginning of each year and really focusing on it. Though we’ll have to see how that works out, some periods probably need more than a year, and some probably just need one good book. 

Also I don’t intend to abandon World War I because it’s so fascinating. I know World War II get’s far more attention, and certainly it’s flashier, but WWI was really when the world changed, when old ideologies fractured, when the nature of war was forever unmasked, when the communists took power and the Tsar, Kaisar and monarchs not only lost the war, but lost their countries and in some cases their lives as well. It’s a time that was only 100 years ago, and yet people alive today can’t even fathom doing what those people and nations did. And yet despite this, particularly in the way the nations rushed into war, I still think it holds a tremendous number of lessons.


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Books I Finished in September

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It’s once again time for the monthly round up of the books I read:

Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition

By: Shane Lacy Hensley

208 pages

Thoughts

This is the latest edition of a well known universal Role-Playing game system called Savage Worlds. I’m a big fan of the system, but for my money there weren’t enough changes to justify putting out a new edition.

Who should read this book?

If you love, love, love Savage Worlds and run it all the time, it’s probably worth picking up this book. If you’re like me and you collect RPG systems, and you already have a Savage Worlds rulebook in your collection this is not different enough from past editions to be worth picking up.

Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea

By: Steven Callahan

234 pages

Thoughts

There’s a little old lady who used to be in my ward (that’s the Mormon version of a congregation) and in addition to being a voracious reader she’s exceptionally cunning. The first attribute led her to have an Audible subscription, the last bit led her to offer to share it with me when she realized she could have up to five connected devices. I was going through some financial difficulties at the time (a lawsuit) and so I took her up on the offer. I have since gotten my own Audible account, but she still let’s me know when she’s listened to something she particularly likes. She has a fondness for survival stories, and so I end up listening to quite a few of them. (Two this month.) This is good because I am also a fan of them, but they’re not the kind of thing I would seek out normally.

As you can probably tell from the title Adrift is one of these survival stories. Most survival stories get into the mechanics and the logistics of survival, and Adrift is no exception, in fact if anything it may partake of more of this sort of thing than most books in the genre. If that’s your thing you’ll probably really enjoy this book. For me, listening to it as an audiobook I had a hard time picturing everything he was describing. Nevertheless, Callahan was great at surviving, and is mentioned as one of the best examples of a survivor in another book I read in September. 

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence

By: James Lovelock

160 pages

Thoughts

This was kind of a weird book. (There were a couple in that category this month.) Lovelock is best known for his Gaia theory, which basically holds that organic and inorganic matter work together to create the perfect living environment. (Examples include global temperature, seawater salinity, and atmospheric oxygen.) I haven’t ever read that book but I remember being skeptical when I heard about the premise, what about Snowball Earth or the Great Oxygenation Event? I assume that Lovelock would say that despite how hard they were on the ecosystem which existed at the time that both events were necessary stepping stones to the world we have now. He appears to be making a similar argument here, that everything which has come so far has all been in service of the next stage of evolution, what he’s calling the Novacene. From the book jacket:

In the Novacene, new beings will emerge from existing artificial intelligence systems. They will think 10,000 times faster than we do and they will regard us as we now regard plants. But this will not be the cruel, violent machine takeover of the planet imagined by science fiction. These hyperintelligent beings will be as dependent on the health of the planet as we are. They will need the planetary cooling system of Gaia to defend them from the increasing heat of the sun as much as we do. And Gaia depends on organic life. We will be partners in this project.

Wait, what? Maybe I’m overlooking something huge, but there are lots of cooler places in the universe, to say nothing of in the solar system, than the surface of the Earth. (Check out the aestivation hypothesis as an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox.) And even if, for some reason, the coming hyperintelligence were restricted to Earth (say because of the tyranny of the rocket equation) then, however “cool” the Earth is right now, there are probably lots of ways to make it much cooler that require very little human involvement. 

Who should read this book?

As I said, maybe I’m missing something gigantic, but if not this is a seriously flawed book, which no one should bother reading.

Bronze Age Mindset

By: Bronze Age Pervert

198 pages

Thoughts

Around this time last year a friend of mine visited from out of town, and we had a conversation about incels (mostly those who were literally involuntarily celibate, not those who had adopted the label). At the time I thought the conversation was interesting enough to do a post about it.

As part of the conversation we both agreed that there are lots of young men who lack meaning and feel abandoned by society, women or the world in general. What we disagreed on was what to tell these young men, though we both felt it was a very important question. Well Bronze Age Mindset is one answer to that question, and it’s a doozy. (This is the other weird book I read this month.) 

To begin with, at one point this self-published book, which seems to be written in a vague stream of consciousness fashion with little regard for verb conjugation or indefinite articles cracked the top 150 books on Amazon. This is out of all the books on Amazon, not merely in some specific category. Meaning whatever else you want to say about the book it’s an answer to the question I posed that has resonated for a lot of people. 

What about the book itself? Well if you really want a full review I would recommend the one Michael Anton did in the Claremont Review of Books: Are the Kids Al(t)right? For my own part I could sense how the book might be appealing, but it’s hard to point to anything specific, there’s little direct advice in the book. Rather, I think most of the appeal comes from the transgressiveness which suffuses the book. It probably goes without saying that the book is homophobic, misogynist, racist and anti-democratic, but he doesn’t spend much time or speak very strongly about any of these items. They just appear in support of the larger tapestry of transgression he weaves. I think Anton does a great job of distilling all of that into a short description of the book’s appeal:

This book speaks directly to young men dissatisfied with a hectoring vindictive equality that punishes excellence.

These exhortations towards excellence take the form of urging readers to attempt fantastic feats of military prowess to set themselves apart from the vast masses of people, the “bugmen” as he refers to them. Going so far as to say that life appears at its peak in military state, which he feels is inevitable.  Which would be alarming if true (I don’t think that’s the way things are going.)

Having said all that I’m still surprised that it has sold so well. I was particularly alarmed by what Anton describes as:

…the book’s most risible passages, [where] BAP wonders aloud whether history has been falsified, persons and events invented from whole cloth, centuries added to our chronology, entire chapters to classic texts.

But in the age of conspiracy theories it’s entirely possible all of this was an asset rather than a liability. As I keep pointing out we live in strange times.

Representative passage:

The distinction between master races and the rest is simple and true, Hegel said it, copying Heraclitus: those peoples who choose death rather than slavery or submission in a confrontation that is a people of masters. There are many such in the world, not only among the Aryans, but also the Comanche, many of the Polynesians, the Japanese and many others. But animal of this kind refuses entrapment and subjection. It is very sad to witness those times when such animal can neither escape nor kill itself. I saw once a jaguar in zoo, behind a glass, so that all the bugs in hueman form could gawk at it and humiliate it. This animal felt a noble and persistent sadness, being observed everywhere by the obsequious monkeys, not even monkeys, that were taunting it with stares. His sadness crushed me and I will always remember this animal. I never want to see life in this condition!

Who should read this book?

I think the people who are inclined to read this book are going to read it regardless of what I say. For those who aren’t in that category, I would not recommend this book to anyone, except as an anthropological exercise.

Why Are The Prices So Damn High?

By: Eric Helland, Alex Tabarrok

90 pages

Thoughts

This book is an attempt to explain rising prices in health care and education by tying them to the Baumol Effect. Here’s how Helland and Tabarrok describe it:

In 1826, when Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 was first played, it took four people 40 minutes to produce a performance. In 2010, it still took four people 40 minutes to produce a performance. Stated differently, in the nearly 200 years between 1826 and 2010, there was no growth in string quartet labor productivity. In 1826 it took 2.66 labor hours to produce one unit of output, and it took 2.66 labor hours to produce one unit of output in 2010.

Fortunately, most other sectors of the economy have experienced substantial growth in labor productivity since 1826. We can measure growth in labor productivity in the economy as a whole by looking at the growth in real wages. In 1826 the average hourly wage for a production worker was $1.14. In 2010 the average hourly wage for a production worker was $26.44, approximately 23 times higher in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Growth in average labor productivity has a surprising implication: it makes the output of slow productivity-growth sectors (relatively) more expensive. In 1826, the average wage of $1.14 meant that the 2.66 hours needed to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 had an opportunity cost of just $3.02. At a wage of $26.44, the 2.66 hours of labor in music production had an opportunity cost of $70.33. Thus, in 2010 it was 23 times (70.33/3.02) more expensive to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 than in 1826. In other words, one had to give up more other goods and services to produce a music performance in 2010 than one did in 1826. Why? Simply because in 2010, society was better at producing other goods and services than in 1826.

Scott Alexander also did a couple of posts on the book, and as you might expect his posts go into more depth (in fact I borrowed the above selection from one of them.) I largely agree with his general assessment, which is that the Baumol Effect explains quite a bit, but it doesn’t seem to explain as much as Helland and Tabarrok claim. In particular it can’t seem to explain why subway systems cost 50 times as much to construct in New York as in Seoul, South Korea

Who should read this book?

If you have a deep desire to understand the arguments around the why costs in some sectors are growing much faster than inflation then you should read this book. Otherwise, it’s main contribution is to more fully popularize the Baumol Effect which is easy enough to understand without reading an entire (albeit short) book.

An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Religious)

By: John Gee

196 pages

Thoughts

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) the Book of Abraham is canonized scripture, and members of the Church (myself included) believe that Joseph Smith translated the book from some papyri. Smith purchased the papyri from a gentleman with a traveling mummy exhibition in 1835. Critics of the church feel that that the circumstances of the translation, along with advances in Egyptology which have occured since Smith’s translation, the most important being the ability to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, all combine to provide a fruitful avenue for attacking the church. Accordingly, a significant amount of criticism has been leveled towards the Book of Abraham. An Introduction to the Book of Abraham designed to examine this criticism from an apologetic basis.

For obvious reasons I am not objective on this topic. Nevertheless I feel that Gee did an excellent and credible job. His approach seemed both rigorous and scholarly. I know that there are many people who feel that some criticisms Book of Abraham are impossible to refute, but this book provided many avenues of refutation, none of them were ironclad anymore than the criticisms were ironclad, but neither did they require any handwaving.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is even moderately interested in LDS apologetics in general and the Book of Abraham in particular should read this book. I quite enjoyed it, and had the book been twice as long I wouldn’t have minded it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1)

By: Scott Lynch

736 pages

Thoughts

My habit of starting new fantasy/scifi series while completely ignoring series I have already started continues with this book, which is part of yet another fantasy series. This particular book came highly recommended by frequent commentator Mark (see his excellent science/etc blog) and I was not disappointed, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read with a great ending. That said I do have several quibbles.

Criticisms

For some reason, and I’m not blaming Mark, or the blurb on Amazon, I had the impression when I picked up this book (metaphorically, I actually downloaded it from Audible) that it was going to be sort of a fantasy Oceans 11, and there was quite a bit of lighthearted capering in the book, but it was also pretty dark. I don’t recall anyone dying in Oceans 11, but lots of people die in Locke Lamora. The combination of the two made the tone a little schizophrenic.

Additionally, and I’ve mentioned this before, There are a class of fantasy and science fiction authors who write all of their characters as “sassy”. John Scalzi is the worst offender here, and as I think back on my misspent youth, David Eddings may have pioneered the genre, and it turns out Lynch is also an offender but a minor one.

Finally there is one bit of world building that drove me absolutely nuts. I don’t want to say much more than that for fear of spoiling things, but there are implications to this thing which he entirely fails to consider. But if you can overlook this one thing (which is what I eventually decided to do) or if you don’t notice the problems it would cause, then, as I said, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I think going forward I’m going to try to finish some of the series I’ve started rather than beginning anything new. Time will tell.

No More Mr Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex, and Life

By: Robert A. Glover

208 pages

Thoughts

You may recall my review of Wild at Heart. Well one of the things people do after reading that book is go on a retreat with a large group of other Christian men. I was one of those people, and last month I went on just such a retreat, and it was awesome, and not merely because it was in Alaska. In essence, that book, the retreat, No More Mr. Nice Guy and Bronze Age Mindset are all attempting to answer the same question. What advice should you give to men who feel alienated and abandoned, particularly by women? The retreat, in addition to being one of those answers was also where I heard about No More Mr. Nice Guy, and it’s answer to the question should be pretty obvious from the title, though it’s less antisocial and misogynist than you might imagine.

Glover asserts that a large part of the problem is that a significant portion of men have responded to these feelings of abandonment by assuming that if they just make themselves completely subject to the needs of the women in their life that they will be embraced rather than abandoned. As you can imagine, deriving the entirety of your validation from someone else is a disaster basically regardless of the philosophy you subscribe to. 

Beyond that, there are numerous additional details, but there’s nothing in the book which advocates cruelty, which probably puts it ahead of BAM, and if I were to go on from that and rank all four of these vectors on the quality of their answer to “the question” I would put the retreat first, followed by Wild at Heart followed by this book with BAM last of all. But as the first two come with implicit Christian overtones, No More Mr. Nice Guy might end up at the top of the list for a lot of people. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it unreservedly, or blindly. I’d want to know quite a bit about a person’s situation.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

By: Laurence Gonzales

336 pages

Thoughts

As you might have surmised this is another recommendation from the little old lady. Though I guess it must be popular among the 70+ set because I just discovered that both of my parents have read it as well.

This book, rather than being the story of a single instance of survival, collects numerous survival stories, looking for commonalities; for what makes someone good at survival. The book spends a lot of time on Steve Callahan, who I mentioned above (this is the book that declared him to be one of the best survivors). It also includes the incident chronicled in the movie Touching the Void which I talked about previously in this space.

Of course, you’re probably less interested in what stories it includes and more interested in the qualities which are going to keep you alive when the zombie apocalypse comes. If you’ve read the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman then Gonzales’ framework will probably seem familiar. Kahneman talks about things we do more or less instinctually and things we do rationally. Gonzalez has the same basic division, but he further divides the instinctual part of things in two. Giving him three categories:

  1. Built in instinctual behaviors, like trying to grab onto something if you start to fall.
  2. Learned instinctual behaviors, i.e. adrenaline junkies, people with PTSD.
  3. Behaviors you have to think about.

At various times survival requires alternatively ignoring or emphasizing some or all of the above behaviors, depending on the circumstance. You may need to use humor to overcome your instinctive fear of death (category 1). You may need to develop an instinctive love for certain dangerous things (category 2) but not to the point that it overrides your rationality (category 3).

Allow me to illustrate what I mean. First off, it’s interesting to note that some of the best survivors are children under the age of seven. In part because their behaviors are almost entirely from category one. Which means that they sleep when they’re tired, try to get warm when they’re cold, and drink when they’re thirsty. They are also unlikely to use more energy than necessary. Contrast that with the story Gonzalez includes of a volunteer firefighter who got lost while backpacking and nearly died. He had a learned instinct of not wanting to admit when he was lost. As a firefighter he knew it was illegal to light a fire, so he avoided doing so for several days (some from column two some from column three) and he spent lots of time trying to get to the tops of nearby peaks so he could see better. Exhausting himself in the process.

From the preceding it might seem that you mostly want to avoid category two behaviors and even category three, but if soldiers in World War I didn’t learn to instinctively jump for cover when they heard the whistle of an artillery shell than they weren’t going to survive very long. And Steve Callahan only survived by making lots of very rational decisions. As you might imagine surviving requires doing a lot of things right, and some luck on top of that as well.

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned earlier, those aged 70 and over apparently really like this book, probably because they sense the steady encroachment of death, if you also sense the steady encroachment of death (whether because your 70+ or otherwise) then you’ll probably also enjoy it.


If you haven’t guessed that last bit was in part a joke at my parents’ expense. (Hi Mom!) If my blatant lack of filial piety appeals to you consider donating


Books I Finished in August (of 2020)

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

Or download the MP3


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 April

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

Or download the MP3


Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control By: Stuart J. Russell

Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts By: Milton Vaughn Backman

The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism By: Greg Trimble 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President By: Candice Millard

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream By: Yuval Levin

The Worth of War By: Benjamin Ginsberg

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West By: David McCullough

Sex and Culture By: J. D. Unwin

Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus By: Euripides


It’s been another month where most of my thoughts have revolved around COVID-19. In particular, like most people, I’ve been thinking about the end game. It would seem to me that there are four ways out:

(Edit: In between writing this and publishing this I came across a spreadsheet that did a much better job of outlining the various options. You should probably just check it out and skip the rest of the intro.)

The one that everyone’s hoping for is the development of an effective vaccine. I’ve heard that Oxford is hoping to have something by September, which is faster than I would have expected, but I’m still not sure that gives us the “vaccine solution” much before the beginning of the year, and that assumes that there are no logistical difficulties in trying to get the vaccine to the billions who would need it. And regardless of all of that, even under this most optimistic of all scenarios, no one thinks we can maintain the current measures until then. 

The second possibility is that we get so much better at treating it that it becomes no worse than similar illnesses. I’m not sure how close we are to this, mostly what I hear is news about how treatments we thought would work aren’t. That 88% of people still die even on ventilators, and that even young people are suffering strokes. Despite this, I would assume that we can’t help but get better, and it is true that the longer it takes someone to get COVID the more likely they are to get treatment informed by all the knowledge accumulated up to that point. But I don’t think this does or should play a major role in deciding when to open things up in the same way hospital capacity does.

The third possibility is we control things so well that we completely stop the spread of the disease. China claims to have done this, but that claim comes with a lot of caveats, and even if it’s true, it seems clear that we won’t be able to duplicate their methodology in the US.

The final possibility is herd immunity, which seems the most likely outcome, particularly given the limitations mentioned above. To get there a significant percentage of everyone will have to get COVID-19, and the only knob we can turn is how fast or slow that happens. Initially it appeared that, since we were going to need to get there eventually, the primary reason for going slower was to make sure the hospitals didn’t get overwhelmed, not to keep people from getting sick. Especially since slowing down happens to be really hard on the economy. Having done that It appears that in most places the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed which is awesome, but would also suggest that maybe the dial needs moved to a higher speed of transmission. Which is kind of what states are doing by reopening (Utah re-opened on Friday.) So my point is less that we’re doing anything wrong and more that people seem to have lost sight of the fact that herd immunity is still the most probable ending, and that such immunity is going to require that a lot more people get infected…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

By: Stuart J. Russell

352 Pages

General Thoughts

This book came to my attention after I read a review of it on Slate Star Codex, and if you’re just looking for a general review I would direct you there. When it comes to the actual contents of the book, I don’t have much to add, and given that I have another 8 books to cover I don’t think it’s worth repeating anything Alexander already said. No, what I’m interested in are the books eschatological implications, so let’s move straight to there.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

As has been discussed extensively here and elsewhere many smart people have significant worries about the AI control problem. That is, how do you ensure that if and when we get around to creating an artificial intelligence that it doesn’t end up doing things we would rather it didn’t. Things that might conceivably include eliminating humanity entirely. 

Previous attempts to address this problem have notable weaknesses. The first challenge is getting the AI to obey our instructions in the first place, but even once you have mastered that issue, the AI might take your instructions too literally. The famous example being the so-called paperclip maximizer which takes a simple instruction to make paperclips and turns it into a drive to turn everything into paperclips, including us. This led to people imagining that the instructions needed to include a clause for making us happy, which led to other people imagining an AI which stuck an electrode directly into the pleasure center of our brain, which they labeled wireheading

As one of the key features of the book, Russell offers up a new system which is designed to solve these previous problems. It revolves around the idea of telling the AI it needs to keep us happy, but giving it very little information on what that means. This forces the AI to come up with guesses on how to make that happen with each guess getting a certain probability of being correct. Then it uses our behavior as a way to update that probability and narrow things down to the best guess. And, If our behavior is information, it’s not going to stop us from doing anything, because it wants the information encoded in our actions. Meaning it won’t stop us from shutting it off, because that’s potentially the most valuable information of all.

To use the example of an order to make paper clips, the AI might make two guesses it might assign odds of 30% that we want a big bar of metal to be made into paperclips and odds of 70% that we want the dog to be made into paperclips. This is obviously incorrect, and exactly the kind of thing we’re worried about, but under Russell’s proposal when we race across the room and snatch the dog out of it’s robot pincers it will use that information to change the distribution to 99% bar of metal, 1% Fido. 

This methodology is Indisputably superior to what came before, but I still think it has some problems. In particular I think there’s a danger that the AIs evaluations will end up converging around the same supernormal stimuli that we ourselves, and the market in general have converged on. One of the best arguments for capitalism is that it acts as a distributed intelligence for fulfilling people’s revealed desires, and I’m a fan of capitalism, particularly given the alternatives, but I’m not sure the best choice is to turn the dial on it to 11. 

All of which is to say, if you’re worried about the eschatology of AI Risk, the main effect of Russell’s proposal may be avoiding an artificial doom in favor of hastening the natural doom we were already headed for. 


A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

By: Yuval Levin

256 Pages

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in my last post, if you’re one of those people who feels like something is wrong with the modern world, then the next step is identifying what that something is. This book is Levin’s stab at that and from his perspective the problem is that all of our institutions have been gutted in the service of narcissist self promotion. 

To elaborate, in the past attending a venerable institution, say Harvard, was supposed to be about absorbing the lessons, traditions and values of that institution. And with that a certain responsibility to protect and maintain the dignity of the institution. This responsibility continued even after you departed. You were always a Harvard man, and that carried certain expectations. But these days attending Harvard is less about absorbing its history and ideals, and more about making sure Harvard reflects your ideals, and conforms to current social norms, with very little attention paid to institutional values. From this foundation Levin goes on to make arguments about collective action being healthier and more effective than individual action, and how institutions are repositories of virtue, and stuff like that.

I thought it was a pretty good book, and if my review is insufficient there are plenty more out there, but in the end it was another example of discussing symptoms rather than identifying the underlying disease. Which I hope to take a stab at.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Back in 2013 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex put forward a theory for the divide between left and right. He theorized that from an evolutionary perspective humans have two modes. Most of the time they’re in survival mode, but occasionally they get lucky and conditions are such that they can move into a thrive mode. To quote from the post:

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”. 

There’s much more to it than that, and if you want to dig deeper read his post, but as this is just a stepping stone, let’s grant that this might be happening and move on. My question, which I explored in a post I wrote back 2016, was if we assume that this is true, and further that the number of people in “thrive mode” is increasing, what consequences follow? There were a lot of them, but one I didn’t explore was institutional decline, but I think it slots in nicely.

If you’re in survival mode then institutions end up being very important. If you protect them they protect you. So much so that historically getting kicked out of an institution was one of the worst punishments that could be inflicted. This most commonly happened with the institution of a city and was called banishment, but being excommunicated from the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages worked very similarly. But now that more and more people are moving to thrive mode the protections an institution can offer mean next to nothing. Instead it’s all about how the institutions can be used as a platform for increasing the visibility of an individual. 

As long as this is the case, it seems unlikely that we’re going to ever rebuild institutions in the manner Levin hopes for, because the very nature of the people who make up those institutions has changed. The world is slowly and unalterably becoming a very different place, and I don’t think there’s a simple path back.


Sex and Culture

By: J. D. Unwin

721 Pages

I covered this in my last post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models

By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

354 Pages

In certain respects this is just one more self-help book, to sit on the shelf alongside all of the others which have been published over the years. But, having read quite a few of those books, I would say that this one is not only different, but better. To begin with, nearly all self-help books claim to introduce some new way of thinking or some clever system that will radically improve your productivity or at least change your life for the better. Most of these books do not in fact do this, frequently because the idea(s) they introduce aren’t truly new. (For an example see my review of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life which was just a repackaging of The Secret.) 

I understand that there are very few truly new things out there, and some of the better books take one principle and really dig into it, for example the value of habits (eg The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg) or the importance of focusing just on what’s essential (eg Essentialism by Greg McKeown), but this book doesn’t do that either, the approach this book takes is to assemble every single helpful mental model there is and pack it into a single book. 

It would be easy for such a book to feel rushed, or choppy, but somehow it was neither. Does this mean that the book never makes a mistake? No, when you’re including everything some of it is going to turn out to not work as well as initially advertised or end up a victim of the replication crisis (for example the growth mindset). That said I didn’t come across anything harmful, and while I was familiar with most of the models they included, I gained that familiarity after reading dozens of books. It probably would have been preferable to just read this one.

In the final analysis all self-help books can be divided into two categories, those where the knowledge gained was of more value than the time required to read them, and those that were a waste of time. And while this book isn’t the best ever, I would definitely put it in the first category. 


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

By: Candice Millard

432 Pages

This is the same author who wrote River of Doubt which I reviewed back in February. This time she tackled the assassination of James A. Garfield. It’s a fascinating story. To begin with Garfield is a lot more awesome than I imagined. I always had the feeling that he was a mediocre president, and perhaps he was, though if so, that was probably just because he wasn’t in office long enough to accomplish anything. But his life before the presidency was pretty incredible. He was born in a log cabin, fatherless before he turned two, horribly poor, but he managed to get a good education by working like a maniac. Eventually he was elected to the House of Representatives (after serving as a general in the Civil War) and then over his strenuous objections, he was nominated to be the Republican Presidential candidate in 1880 on the 36th ballot, after it was clear that no other candidate could secure a majority. 

This sounds pretty exciting all on its own, but then on top of all you have the awful story of how Garfield wasn’t killed by the bullet, but by the horrible treatment he received from doctors who didn’t believe in sterilization. And then, if that weren’t exciting enough, there’s the additional story of how Alexander Graham Bell worked 16 hour days for months creating a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet. The two stories collide when Bell succeeds in creating the detector, but fails to find the bullet because the doctors would only allow him to use it on one half of Garfield’s body and that wasn’t the half the bullet was in. I’ve read better history books, but this was up there, and it has the advantage of being about an event that I knew almost nothing about beforehand.


The Worth of War

By: Benjamin Ginsberg

256 Pages

Similar to War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris which I reviewed back in November this is another book that makes the case that war has been fundamental to the development of civilizations and nations, and that it’s absence might bring unforeseen harms. Overall I was less impressed with this book. It didn’t seem quite as tight, for example the chapter on “beating swords into malign plowshares” was a particular slog. 

That said I’m a fan of contrarians, and this is certainly a very contrarian book. And it’s possible that just by explaining how war is an instrument of rationality, that the book is worth the cover price. As an example of what that means, recall the optimism which preceded the second Iraq War. It’s safe to say that many people including those at the highest level of government, genuinely believed that we would quickly overthrow Saddam, easily establish a functioning and peaceful democracy, and do both with minimal cost in terms of time and money. As we know, the first part kind of happened. On everything else the expectations were tragically mistaken. 

The question then becomes how much damage would maintaining those mistake expectations have caused? Is it better that we learned our lesson through the crucible of war, or would it be better if we had never learned that lesson? Or is it possible we could have learned it in some other way? It is indisputable that war is an instrument of rationality, it’s just not clear that this is sufficient to make it necessary.


The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

By: David McCullough

352 Pages

I like McCullough, though I frequently get him confused with Ron Chernow, leading me to believe that I had read more of his books than I actually had, but this is actually just the second of his I’ve read, the first being John Adams of course. 

I’m not sure how best to review this book. Though I suppose I can at least keep you from making the same mistake I made. For some reason I expected the book to cover the entire westward expansion, and in reality most of the action is confined to a single town in Ohio, Marietta. But it is impressive how much mileage McCullough is able to get out of this limited geographic focus. He manages to wrap in the Revolutionary War, Washington and his veterans, slavery, the frankly amazing Northwest Ordinance, and the conspiracy by Aaron Burr to form a new nation in the middle of the continent. 

I expect you already know what kind of book this is, and if you like that sort of book you’ll like this.


Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus

By: Euripides

268 Pages

As I continue to read these ancient Greek tragedies, I become more aware of how frequently the playwright manages to point out, that, in addition to everything else that’s going on, isn’t Athens awesome! And when I remember that, comparatively at least, Athens really was awesome, I wonder how much of it was due to art and attitudes like this. 

Beyond that I don’t have much to add to the enormous amount of commentary and scholarship which has been devoted to these plays, except to say that from my perspective, if you only had time to read one play, and you wanted that play to be representative of the entire genre, Medea would be my current recommendation.

(She’s best known for murdering her children, but there’s a lot going on in addition to that.)


III- Religious Reviews 

Since I have some readers that are uninterested or less interested in my religious stuff I decided to create a separate section for my reviews of religious books. Though really, as long as you’re here you might as well read them.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts

By: Milton Vaughn Backman

228 Pages

At the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), President Nelson announced that the next conference, in April, would be dedicated to a celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s Theophany. My next door neighbor lent this book to me and suggested I read it in anticipation of the event. I ended up finishing it just before Conference, and I’m glad I did. For people steeped in LDS apologetics, There probably won’t be many surprises, but it is interesting how long people have been having the same debates over the same subjects. 

Also, despite the fact that standards of proof and citation have tightened up in the intervening decades, I think the book, written 40 years ago, and its research have aged well. 


The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism

By: Greg Trimble 

252 Pages

Once again I’m not sure who recommended this book to me. I should start writing it down. If I enjoyed a book (which I generally do) it doesn’t matter. In the future I can just continue to do what comes naturally, but if I didn’t like a book then I need to exercise caution before accepting another recommendation from the same source. Which is a roundabout way of saying that this was kind of a mediocre book. Perhaps it’s biggest problem was that it wasn’t a book, it was a collection of essays, but not billed as such. The chapters/essays had just enough of a connection that it made me wonder if there was a deeper connection that I was just missing, which tied the essays together into a book. But I don’t think there was.

Also even if you considered the chapters as essays rather than parts of a cohesive whole, some were pretty good, but a lot weren’t. As an example many of the essays had an apologetic theme, but were so superficial that they actually had the opposite effect on me, and I’m a committed member! (It’s possible that’s the point, that his presentation works best on people who aren’t already in the deep end, but I kind of doubt it.)

The title essay (though not labeled as such, just the first chapter) was directed at members within the Church, arguing that as a whole we need to be less dogmatic and more accepting. Trimble is not the first to suggest this, in fact I would argue that it’s almost a cliche. And it’s precisely for that reason that I think it needs to be examined more closely. I’m sure that improvements could be made in this area, but I worry that it obscures the true root problem. Allow me to provide an example of what I mean.

I was out to lunch with an old co-worker the other day (take-out which we ate while walking), and he told me about an incident that had happened in his congregation. He’s in the young men’s and they had a boy who wanted to stop attending church. In an effort to reach out to him they decided to let his father teach a lesson, hoping either the setting or the instructor would make a difference. But as soon as the lesson started the boy got up to leave. And the father and everyone else did exactly what Trimble and others like him would recommend, they asked him nicely (meekly) to stay. He blew them off and left.

Now I don’t know about anyone else who might be reading this blog, but I cannot imagine in a million years doing something like that to my father. Nor can I imagine what he or the other adults would have done. So what’s the difference? Is this a problem with the boy? Is he so hardened that he would have walked out even if it had been 30 years ago? I really doubt that. Was it the fault of the Dad? Based on the story I don’t think there’s any way he could have been nicer or more understanding, which people claim is the answer. Could he have been meaner? Sure, but is there any doubt that he would have been viewed as the bad guy?

So what’s the difference between when I was a boy and now? Who screwed up? Was it the Boy? The father? I would contend that it was society. That in our drive to be accepting that we have abandoned the principle that, if you’re part of a community, there are certain expectations. (This is closely related to what Levin was saying.) That essentially the center of gravity has shifted from the majority of people thinking that such behavior is totally unacceptable to the majority of people thinking that we have to treat our kids with infinite tolerance regardless of what they do. This is a cultural evolution, just as the title of Trimble’s book would suggest, but I would contend that this evolution is just as likely to be the problem as it is to be the solution. 

This review is already long, and no one’s saying that this is not a tough subject, but the key question is, in the end, if your goal is to keep this boy in the church, what method works better. The method I and my contemporaries experienced 30 years ago, or the method we’re using now of being super tolerant? Trimble strenuously argues for the latter, and I don’t think the evidence is as clear cut as he thinks. Kids are dumb, and having a community agreement that they are going to do certain things until a certain age, i.e. how it worked in all ages and societies up until about 10 years ago, might not be as awful as people claim. At a bare minimum is it possible the pendulum has swung too far?


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Books I Finished in February (Plus a Conference I Attended)

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For the last several years Nassim Nicholas Taleb, along with a few associates, has conducted a week long course on risk, the Real World Risk Institute. As anyone who has followed the blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Taleb, going so far, on occasion, to call myself a disciple of Taleb. As such it was always my goal/dream/plan to attend the institute at some point. However, if you had asked me at the beginning of the year if 2020 was the year for that, I would have laughed, but I had a recurring item on my to do list to at least consider it every year and late in January that reminder popped up. This year, after reviewing my calendar for the week it was being held, and finding it was completely open, while also considering whether any other year would necessarily be better (assuming they even hold it in the future which is never a guarantee). I realized that perhaps this year was as good as it was going to get. Which is a very round about way of saying: I spent the last week of February at the Real World Risk Institute.

Going in I really had no idea what to expect. I had read all of his books of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of the material would be an expansion on that, how much of it would be entirely different, or really what the course work would look like. (I was also really worried about staying awake all day during five days of coursework. Particularly given that my last personal update was all about how I like to take naps.)

It ended up being awesome. As far as Taleb himself, I had always heard that despite a reputation for being savage to public figures and on Twitter in general that he was delightful in person. And that was indeed the case, He basically asked me how I was doing every time I was anywhere near him. He was a genial and humorous lecturer, and I (mostly) had no problem staying awake because the material was so engaging. It was largely stuff from his books, but deeper and more discursive. We spent a surprising amount of time in Mathematica with him showing the formulas behind his various assertions and graphs.

Beyond the actual coursework, I met a lot of great people as well. I ended up sitting next to an admiral, talking to people from all over the world including places like India, Iran, and Switzerland, and overall making some great connections. It was genuinely a fantastic experience. Though as you can see it left me a little light on the number of books I finished:


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties

By: Christopher Caldwell

352 pages

General Thoughts

First, because I couldn’t figure out where else to put it, I’d like to start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that they’ve gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises. I bow to no one in my concern of the opioid crisis and related deaths of despair, but even I was shocked by the disparity.

I hadn’t seen anyone else mention that comparison, so I thought I’d get it out there. Where most of the people who review this book end up going is to Caldwell’s contention that America really has two constitutions. The first, created in 1787, is the one we all think of when someone mentions the US Constitution. The second, created in 1964, and commonly called the Civil Rights Act, is not generally viewed as a constitution, but one of Caldwell’s central arguments is that it is, and that from this much of the current political landscape follows as a conflict between the original, de jure constitution, and the new de facto constitution. That, rather than being a natural extension of the original constitution, the Civil Rights Act is in fact a rival constitution, not complementary but actually opposed in most respects to the values of the original. 

Having read the book and considered the evidence I see no reason to doubt that this is exactly what’s happening, and that furthermore a reckoning is coming. But it’s not immediately clear what that reckoning will be, one assumes Trump (and Sanders?) is part of that reckoning, and on the very last page of the book there’s the briefest reference to his 2016 candidacy, but that’s it. The lack of any other reference to Trump’s presidency almost makes one wonder if Caldwell is teeing up a sequel. Rather, instead of spending time on Trump, and the various recent discontents, he spends a surprising amount of time on the financial side of things. Which I think has been less remarked on by other people reviewing this book. (At least from what I’ve seen.)

In addition to his “two constitutions” thesis, he puts forth another thesis, which is in some respects more interesting. It goes something like this. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 it essentially opened up the gates of entitlement spending. But, while this spending was still in its infancy it was possible to imagine that things could be stopped or reversed, and indeed, that appeared to be the way things might be headed under Johnson, and even more so under Nixon, but Nixon ended up getting impeached. Which basically put the issue in the hands of Carter. Who actually tried to cut entitlements, and furthermore proposed lean and tight budgets. Whether his efforts contributed to the stagflation of the 70s or not, the timing of that was against him. All of this meant that by the time it got to Reagan entitlements were too entrenched to do anything about, and there was really only one thing he could do: Spend like crazy, cut taxes, and shift the burden of entitlements to future generations. 

Certainly Reagan wanted to cut entitlements. He campaigned on getting rid of the Department of Education, and promised to end affirmative action with “the stroke of a pen”. But by the time he came along it was too late, entitlements had already become so embedded that there was nothing he could do, and instead, backed by massive increases in government spending and persistent deficits, the number of people who view entitlements as their birthright has just continued to grow. 

I mostly agree with this, but I also think he’s probably conflating two separate things, and not doing a great job of connecting the two. (What percentage of the debt can actually be attributed to the Civil Rights Act?) Additionally I wonder how much of what he’s talking about is genuinely unique to the US and how much is just what Lord Woodhouselee observed in 1791, namely:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.

Is it possible that the only thing which has been added in the modern version of this equation is the ability of people to vote themselves special treatment as well? Perhaps, though it should be noted that most additional rights were granted by the judiciary rather than through a vote. But perhaps in this day and age agitation is more powerful than voting. Perhaps the quote should be changed to:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the people discover they can agitate for largess and special benefits at the expense of the nation as a whole.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Having covered all of this, what we might call the domestic eschatological implications of the book should be obvious. It used to be taken for granted that while there might be severe crises from time to time in the US, the country’s core foundation was unshakeable. Particularly after passing through the crucible of the Civil War. Increasingly this is no longer the case, the foundation is definitely starting to appear “shakeable” and people are wondering if their confidence might be misplaced. If, perhaps, our system of government might be more fragile than we think. 

The book posits two possible avenues for catastrophe, the first and seemingly more immediate problem in Caldwell’s opinion is spending, and much of what Caldwell warns us about is dependent on the assumption that the deficit and the debt are going to turn out to be big problems. I’m obviously on record as saying they are, but there is an increasing minority who argues that the dangers posed by debt are overblown, and maybe spending on entitlements won’t single-handedly blow things up, or at least if it does it will take longer than I think. (It certainly has taken longer than Ross Perot thought it would.) And if that’s the case, perhaps Reagan was unintentionally brilliant when he opened the floodgates of federal spending. But if ongoing spending and entitlement growth are going to kill the country then all that matters is whether it’s going to continue or not. It seems safe to bet that it will.

Even if spending isn’t going to end up being catastrophic all by itself. The book puts forth another possible avenue for catastrophe.  One that’s more vague, but in the end probably less tractable. This is the conflict between the two constitutions. As they say, a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, but I think Caldwell has done something very valuable by pointing out the fundamental irreconcilability between the two visions. That they cannot coexist for very long, one or the other is going to eventually triumph. What will that triumph look like? Will it end up shattering the nation? At a minimum it’s already created some bizarre contradictions, and it’s safe to say these contradictions are only going to get harder to manage, and the conflicts surrounding them more difficult to resolve.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

By: Doris Kearns Goodwin

928 Pages

This book is what you would get if a biography of Teddy Roosevelt and a biography of Taft loved each other very much, and the offspring of that union was then adopted by a history of turn of the century muck-racking/investigative journalism, and then allowed to grow until it was nearly 1000 pages. And what a book it is. 

As usual with books of this breadth I’m not going to be able to cover even a fraction of what I read, but I will offer up a few things I thought were particularly interesting.

  • It’s hard to overstate how close Roosevelt and Taft were before Taft became president, and how excited Roosevelt was to have Taft succeed him and how much he did to make it happen.
  • Taft never wanted to be president, his true dream was always to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and he was, eventually). It was really his wife, Nellie, that had all of the ambition. Taft was fine with that as long as she was in a position to support him, but a couple of months after he was inaugurated, she had a pretty severe stroke, and things instantly flipped from her being able to support him, to him spending a lot of time supporting her. It’s one of those things that doesn’t get much attention, but you can imagine an alternate universe where she didn’t have a stroke and things were very different.
  • Roosevelt’s wife was the opposite. She hated the limelight and was a very private person. Also, she was his second wife. His first wife died of Bright’s Disease (kidney failure) two days after the birth of their first child. And just eleven hours earlier, upstairs from where his wife would die, Roosevelt’s mother died at the age of 48 from typhoid fever. (His father had died six years previously.) Roosevelt would never talk about his first wife, even going so far as to leave any mention of his first marriage out of his autobiography.
  • Roosevelt only became president because McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. That much everyone knows, but he was only vice president because conservative New York “Machine” Republicans, opposed to the progressive agenda he was pushing as the state’s governor, wanted him out of that office, and contrived to offer him a role where he would be essentially powerless. Roosevelt knew what they were up to, but the trap was so cleverly constructed he couldn’t get out of it. But when McKinley ended up dying in office it backfired spectacularly.
  • As part of Roosevelt’s platform for president, when running against Taft, he wanted to subject judicial decisions to being reviewed and overturned by plebiscites, where a simple majority of the people could annual any judicial decision. A proposal so radical that even with the enormous fights over the Supreme Court currently taking place, I’ve never heard of it being suggested again. (Figuring out why that is would make an interesting post of its own.)
  • Taft and Roosevelt did eventually reconcile, and had a few more years of being close friends before Roosevelt died at 60. You may be wondering why he died comparatively young. If so make sure to check out the next review.

Beyond those brief takeaways, I was particularly struck by one very distinct parallel between that time and ours: both now and then people and politicians found themselves in the middle of a media revolution. In Roosevelt’s time it was the revolution of investigative journalism, and he managed to partner with these journalists in a masterly fashion in his pursuit of progressivism. This partnership is the primary reason Goodwin titled the book “The Bully Pulpit”. But even as Roosevelt took advantage of the muckrakers, he also warned that they could go too far. That at some point journalism would reach a point where it would be so dominated by the search for scandal that, in response, the government would be able to do very little other than respond to those accusations, leaving hardly any time for the actual business of government to take place. 

This is interesting given how much scandal there actually was at the time. Corruption was endemic in a way that’s hard for us to imagine (I know people will disagree with me on this, but I don’t think Trump comes even close) and at the time nearly every politician of a certain age had engaged in it to one extent or another. As a result uncovering scandals was easy and productive, particularly at the beginning, but as all the “low-hanging fruit” was uncovered, the muckrakers had to dig deeper and deeper to uncover new scandals to satisfy the appetites of their readers, which is precisely how they got their name. And Roosevelt worried that as things continued the government would be spending so much time on scandals that it wouldn’t have any time left to govern. 

I understand that our own situation is not identical, and that there certainly still are active scandals that should be uncovered, but when you look at the kind of things that have happened historically, most of what counts as a scandal today is almost laughably minor by comparison. And the situation gets even worse when we compare the size of the scandal to the level of outrage it generates. And yes, this is a complicated topic, coming as it does, shortly after Trump’s impeachment. (FYI, I think I would have voted the same way Romney did.) But considering the topic more generally, I do think that pointing out wrong-doing (much of it imagined) is easier than ever, the outrage generated by it greater than ever and that both have contributed more than we think to the dysfunction of government, in much the way that Roosevelt imagined.


The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

By: Candice Millard

416 Pages

This was in my audible library, and having finished the one book about Roosevelt it seemed only natural to immediately move onto another book about him while everything was still fresh in my mind. Though in most respects, despite it largely being about the same person, this book reminded me more of the survival books I’ve read recently than any presidential biography. 

Like many true stories where people barely survive, this book starts with heavy foreshadowing, mentioning all the bad choices that get made before the journey even starts, all of the decisions that will come back to haunt people, and all of the past events which, while seemingly inconsequential at the time, nevertheless manage to have profound effects on the journey.

After reading River of Doubt I’m actually surprised that Roosevelt’s story wasn’t featured in any of the survival books I’ve previously read. Because as far as coming close to death, I think Roosevelt and the rest of them came as close to death as anyone I read about in those other books. For example, at one point Roosevelt had decided to take a lethal dose of morphine because he’s been badly injured and the injury is infected, leaving him unable to continue. The only reason he didn’t is that his son, Kermit, is on the trip, and he not only manages to talk Roosevelt out of it, but manages to convince the rest of the party to try this insane scheme for getting their canoes past some particularly difficult set of rapids. As it was, even though he survived, the journey clearly shortened TR’s life, by possibly 10-20 years. 

As you can imagine from all this, it was a truly epic story, with death, suffering, courage, stupidity and betrayal. I think it’s possible to disagree and argue about Roosevelt the politician, but when it came to his philosophy of the strenuous life he definitely practiced what he preached.


The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

By: Neal Stephenson

499 Pages

Late last year I decided that I was going to start doing deep re-reads of selected books. This is the first book I chose. Having finished it, I realize it deserves a full post, because there’s so many great things going on (along with a few head scratchers). But I would like to include one of my favorite quotes from the book, to give you a taste of why I like the book so much:

“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others–after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

“Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour–you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

“We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception–he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.” “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved–the missteps we make along the way–are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.


God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (Religious)

By: Thomas Jay Oord

214 Pages

Late last year Oord emailed me and said he liked my podcast, which was enough to convince me to read one of his books and see what his philosophy consisted of. Which eventually led me to this book…

As I’ve blogged about extensively, the theological problems of suffering and evil have been around for a very long time, at least since the time of Epicurus who is said to have come up with this the initial trilemma around the topic: 

  1. If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
  2. If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
  3. If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?

As you might have guessed from the title of the book Oord’s answer, is that it’s the first option, “God is unable” or in pithier terms, “God Can’t”. But he adds a very large caveat to this assertion: It’s not that he is not omnipotent, rather he refuses to control us. From the jacket:

God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. God loves everyone and everything, so God can’t control anyone or anything.

As explanations go, this one has a fair bit going for it. It allows God to be every bit as loving as you can conceivably imagine. A being who would entirely remove evil and suffering, but just can’t without diminishing some of his love through unrighteous control. It definitely fulfills the primary requirements of allowing God to be loving and omnipotent while still explaining suffering. And on top of that it’s straightforward, it doesn’t rely on mystery, i.e. saying things like “God’s ways are not our ways.” All that said, I think it ends up generating its own trilemma:

  1. If God can’t control “anyone or anything” then why do we do things like pray?
  2. But clearly, to the extent Jesus is God, he certainly controlled at least some things. For example controlling diseases by healing them.
  3. If God can control some things, like diseases, and those things cause suffering, why do they still exist? 

I admit it’s not quite as pithy as the original trilemma (or even a true trilemma) and I’m equally certain that Oord has an answer. But if he did I’m still a little fuzzy on what that answer is. Also I have my own theory for why God permits evil and suffering (and which has backing from recent work on AI Risk) and for obvious reasons that’s the one I’m going to stick with. But it was intellectually stimulating to read someone else’s explanation.


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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.


What’s to Be Done About China?

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I.

With all that is going on currently, from the pandemic, to civil unrest, to an incredibly contentious political climate, even those who were alive at the time find it hard to remember how much optimism there was at the end of the Cold War, particularly around the subject of China. It’s easy to grasp now why there was optimism about the Soviet Union and the accompanying collapse of communism, but people forget that there was almost as much optimism about the Chinese communists. The Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989, which actually happened before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union officially dissolved, seemed like the first shudder of the massive earthquake of democracy and liberalization that would eventually come for China in the same way that it came for all the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.

It was this optimism that spawned things like The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama a book which has occupied a prominent position in my last two posts. And even though, as I mentioned, it holds up better than I would have expected, it’s equally obvious that Fukuyama was very wrong on China, but it’s starting to look more and more like everyone was wrong. 

The example of this “wrongness” that’s gotten the most attention recently is what happened between China and the NBA. It all started when Daryl Morey, the owner of the Houston Rockets tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The backlash from China and Chinese companies was swift, and presumably surprising. It’s not worth going into everything that happened but it was quickly apparent to the NBA that billions of dollars were on the line and everyone, including Morey backtracked, apologized, and, in keeping with the theme, basically kowtowed. From this example it might not immediately be clear what “everyone was wrong” about. But I think it can be best summed up by the idea that doing business in and with China was going to be the same as doing business in and with other countries. This is not to say that there aren’t difficulties in doing business in Russia or Saudia Arabia, but not only does the Chinese reaction seem more extreme than what you might expect out of those other two countries, there’s also so much more at stake. Whatever broadcast deal the NBA has with Russia or Saudia Arabia, I’m sure it’s a small fraction of the $1.5 billion they’re getting out of China. In other words China is different, more different than I think the NBA expected.

This post is all about exploring how they’re different, because I don’t think that’s quite clear yet. Also, since a discussion of differences could fill several books, I’m going to restrict my discussion to examining very high level differences between nations and cultures. Even with this restriction there are still numerous competing explanations of how China is different, or what the “wrongness” might be, so we’ll spend a little bit of time with each of them.

II.

To begin our examination I’d like to turn back to the book, What’s Wrong With China? by Paul Midler, which I reviewed here, since, based on the title, it should provide an almost direct answer to our question, and Midler doesn’t just provide one answer to this question he provides lots of them, but most of his explanations and the stories which illustrate them operate at a level lower than the one we’re interested in. That said he does have two very important insights. First, that in China the rules and expectations surrounding business and agreements in general are very different from Western rules and expectations, and second, and perhaps more importantly from our perspective, he has some very interesting things to say about the motivation of the Chinese leadership. 

According to Midler, it’s very important to understand that the Chinese think dynastically. They don’t imagine a smooth upward curve where they’ll be in power forever, but rather they imagine that they have a limited window when times are good and that they need to take advantage of that window. (Sometimes this is referred to as the Mandate of Heaven.) Accordingly, Midler asserts that one of the keys to understanding their actions is to recognize that they’re in a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends. Some quotes from the book:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

Of course, more than helping us understand China, what we really want out of an explanation is a guide for what to do about China, what actions we should take. 

How does this explanation do on that front?  Well it does supply the somewhat counterintuitive guidance that the more pressure we bring to bear upon China the more aggressive they’ll be. But more interestingly it seems to suggest that we can just wait China out. That just like we expected in the early 90s eventually the Communist Party will be removed from power or suffer some other calamity, and the problem will go away. Unfortunately, in the meantime, this does nothing for the Hong Kong Protestors, or the Tibetians or the Uighurs. Nor is it clear even if we can wait them out how long that might take. Certainly the Chinese Communists themselves are determined to hold on to the Mandate of Heaven for as long as possible.

The final question which we need to ask of this explanation and of all our explanations is how much weight we should give it, and here, I’m inclined to say quite a lot. Of all the people I mention Midler is the only one who has spent decades living in China, and so while it might be possible to argue that others understand the Chinese leadership better (possible to argue, not definitely true) I don’t think anyone I’ve come across has a better grasp of the people.

III.

In his book The Accidental Superpower. Peter Zeihan puts forth an even more pessimistic view about China’s prospects:

The reality of China is considerably different from the conventional wisdom. There are many reasons to doubt the strength of the Chinese system, but let’s focus on those relevant to things geographic and demographic. Individually, any of the raft of concerns I’m about to detail would be enough to derail the Chinese rise. Collectively they are more than enough to return China to the fractured, self-containing mess that it has been for most of its history. 

I don’t intend to spend much time on Zeihan’s concerns, but it’s worth being aware of what they are:

First, Zeihan’s primary focus is geography and this might be the area he feels the strongest about. Specifically he thinks China is actually three nations (or perhaps four). This may be the least obvious of his concerns, so I’ll include his explanation:

This tripartite system—northern China as the stable-as-glass political core, central China as the nationally disinterested economic core, and southern China as the potentially secessionist territory (and the interior being largely ignored)—holds to the present day. Even contemporary China’s political system reflects it: All of the critical military branches of the government are headquartered in the north, the north and central regions trade of the premiership every decade in order to balance security and trade interests, while the south is not even represented on the Politburo.

Such a geographic look at the country lays bare the greatest myth about China: that it is united. I’m not talking here about the concept of the mainland versus Taiwan, but rather the idea that the mainland itself can ever truly be a unified entity. Taking a closer look at history indicates that China’s past periods of “unity” are anything but.

Second, that as deep as their rivalry/conflict runs with the US that their rivalry/conflict with Japan is a hundred times deeper.

Third, that the only reason they’re unified right now is because of the US. We neutralized the rivalry with Japan, we cleared the oceans of predatory navies (Ziehan also makes the point that China is not a natural naval power), enforced freedom of navigation, and created and invited them to participate in a global market.

Fourth, their financial system is a mess, and is more a system of subsidization, than a system of credit. Leading to lots of projects that are technically possible but economically ridiculous. (This is something Midler touches on as well).

Fifth, demography, China is getting old faster than it’s getting rich, which is bad for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because their economy is entirely driven by exports, which requires new cheap workers. And even if they wanted to switch to internal consumption, demography makes that hard as well.

Finally, and I had to include this because it seems to be the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Zeihan claims that Taiwan, in concert with Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, “Form a line of islands off the Chinese coast that block any possible Chinese access to the ocean blue.”  

If anything this assessment of what’s wrong with China (everything) and what we should do about China (wait and/or exclude them from the international system) is even more optimistic than Midler’s. Though I should also point out the book was published in 2014, so it’s possible that the last few years have made a huge difference, though you wouldn’t think so. As far as how much weight we should assign to Zeihan, I would say over the long run, particularly when it comes to geography, quite a bit, but in the short run I think he misses a lot of subtleties. Perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis is the part about the rivalry between China and Japan. A subject I’ll be returning to. 

IV.

One more “we don’t need to worry about China” position came to light while I was composing this post, it’s a set of remarks delivered a couple of weeks ago by Chas Freeman, a noted American Diplomat, and Nixon’s chief translator during his 1972 visit to China. The article is titled The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War. Some key quotes:

  • To analogize [the conflict between China and the US] to the Cold War of 1947 – 1991 is intellectually lazy… China is both a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.
  • China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it remains decidedly inferior.
  • China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel that dwarfs the nearest American equivalent – the Marshall Plan.
  • American military intervention in the Russian civil war lasted only two years (1918-1920). Overt U.S. intervention in China’s ongoing civil war, sparked by the Korean War, began in 1950.  Seventy years later, U.S. support for the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese regime not only continues but is escalating.
  •  During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay.
  • If the contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages. (emphasis mine)
  • Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, practically guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power. 
  • For the first time in our history, we Americans must decide how to deal with a country that not only has the capacity to surpass us but is actually doing so. 

This seems to answer the question of what’s wrong with China with “nothing”. The question you should be asking is what’s wrong with the US, and I guess the answer there is that we’re attempting to replay the Cold War with China, and that’s not going to work. Which is also a prescription for the actions we need to be taking. As for my opinion on this advice, certainly I think he’s correct about China being a more “robust rival” than Russia. But I have reason to suspect that our military advantage is not insuperable. Certainly not in the area where hostilities are most likely to break out. Which brings us to the next view of China.

V.

Thus far the people we’ve discussed have either had no opinion on China’s military (Midler) or have asserted that it’s far inferior to the military of the United States. In The Kill Chain by Christian Brose which I reviewed in my last post, and to a lesser extent in Trump vs. China by Newt Gingrich, the exact opposite position is put forth, both authors are convinced that we would probably lose a war against China, particularly one that was fought over Taiwan or the South China Sea, and didn’t involve nuclear weapons. 

Given the colossal amount of money the US spends on its military, an amount which is still significantly more than that spent by China, this may seem hard to believe. And a full explanation would involve describing a host of new weapons systems, hypersonic and anti-carrier missiles, autonomous drones, cyber warfare and misinformation campaigns like those conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. And if you really want to get into that I would highly suggest reading Brose’s book. But I have several reasons for finding his description of things more credible than Freeman’s or Zeihan’s (though to be fair Zeihan’s argument isn’t quite as strong as Freeman’s).

To begin with I think it’s clear Brose, and obviously Gingrich to a certain extent have a far more insight into the condition of our military, and how well it’s likely to perform in any potential conflict. The perfect string of war game losses mentioned by Brose seems particularly applicable here. Also I don’t get the sense that Freeman or Zeihan are as familiar as they should be with some of the weapons systems China has or is developing, and that’s really what the outcome of any future conflict will hinge upon. What sort of impact will newer weapon’s systems have, and who will best take advantage of them? When considering this question the last few major conflicts are very instructive. In every single one, the dominant weapon of the previous war was rendered obsolete by new weapons. In World War I it was the cavalry being rendered obsolete by the machine gun. In World War II it was the battleship being rendered obsolete by the aircraft carrier and the defensive line being rendered obsolete by the tank. (And I realize that the true picture is somewhat more complicated than this.) 

In any potential war against China there’s numerous candidates for game-changing weapons, and China is ahead of us on basically all of them. We’re focused on things that make big juicy targets, like aircraft carriers and bases on Guam and Okinawa, they’re focused on what they call the “assassin’s mace”, cheap, numerous, and, frankly, sneaky weapons that are designed precisely to take out those big targets. Additionally all of our recent military experience has come against opponents where we’re overwhelmingly more powerful. Where we can count on our satellites and our communication and having an AWACS hanging around. And yes, the Taliban can’t do anything about those systems, but China can.

VI.

The foregoing discussion of a potential military conflict is pretty meaningless if a war never happens. Though the one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on is that China will not rest until it has reabsorbed Taiwan, and if America remains committed to preventing that, then war would appear to be inevitable. And this is another area where many people like to flip things, and rather than asking what’s wrong with China that they would want to do that, they ask what’s wrong with us that we think it’s our job to stop that? 

Probably you’re not merely worried about the liberty and continued independence of Taiwan, you’re also worried about freedom for the citizens of Hong Kong, or perhaps you feel that the US has some moral responsibility to stop the ongoing abuse of the Uighars and Tibetans. And there’s no denying that great harms are being committed, and perhaps it is the role of the US and the other free countries of the world to stop such harms wherever they might be happening. Certainly it would be nice if we could, but if there is such a path it almost certainly doesn’t involve war with China, which would very likely cause more harm than it prevented. (For a taste of what I mean consider Iraq and Afghanistan, and then factor in China’s vastly greater capacity to fight back.)

Beyond outright war, which we didn’t resort to even with the Soviet Union, there is the option of a very aggressive and confrontational stance that stops short of outright war. But there are arguments to be made that even this might be a mistake. A few examples:

First there’s the position of Freeman which appeared earlier in the post. He doesn’t mention the Uyghurs at all, and he doesn’t offer much of an opinion on Taiwan either. But his position that the US needs to avoid another cold war with China has a certain logic to it, if for no other reason than that China has an economic strength the Soviet Union never possessed.

Next there’s the position of Samuel Huntington and his book Clash of Civilizations, which I talked about here. Huntington contends that Southeast Asia has and always will be part of the Chinese sphere of control and that in the long run there’s not much we can do about it. Interestingly Fukuyama was a student of Huntington but in this area he disagrees with his former professor, not in claiming that they aren’t civilizations, or that they’re not important, but rather in putting forth the idea that progress has spawned a universal civilization. As such, rather than abandoning most of Asia to the dominion of China we should instead be encouraging China to join the universal civilization. 

Beyond these two America has always had a streak of isolationism, perhaps best represented currently by Pat Buchanan. Who recently pointed out in reference to the rising tensions between China and India that:

Exactly what kind of “ally and partner” the U.S. is to be “in the fight” between India and China over disputed terrain in the Himalayan Mountains was left unexplained. We have no vital interest in where the Line of Control between the most populous nations on earth should lie that would justify U.S. military involvement with a world power like China.

I understand that Buchanen is something of a pariah among some, but it’s hard to find fault with this statement.

Underlying all of these arguments is the question of US hegemony, and what the ongoing value of that is. From where I sit, it would appear that the biggest value is slowing down nuclear proliferation. To speak more directly to the subject at hand, Japan has the technology for nuclear weapons, they don’t possess them (that we know) because the US is shielding them with its nuclear umbrella. Should the US make a significant withdrawal from Asia, effectively ceding it to China, there’s good reason to suspect that Japan would decide that “now” would be an excellent time to start possessing such weapons. 

The foregoing would appear to leave us with three choices:

  1. Accept that our power and influence is or will be declining and attempt to create a new hegemony, perhaps something involving the creation of a significant international coalition, or perhaps just an international order that focuses on nonproliferation, but doesn’t try and solve all of the worlds problems (i.e. something that keeps Japan from feeling the need for nukes, but does nothing to prevent China from annexing Taiwan.)
  2. Accept that our power and influence are declining and decide that any attempt to replace the US hegemony with something else is destined to fail, so why bother making the attempt. Perhaps this comes about from deciding that any effort spear-headed by the US is bound to have too much baggage, and hope someone else will step up.
  3. Hang on to our current role for as long as we can, and do everything possible to extend this period. In the meantime, hope that something changes, perhaps China will embrace liberal democracy, or China and Russia will go to war or some weird technological singularity will come along (this is exactly the plan laid out by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I reviewed here.)

VII.

Finally we arrive at what is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frightening possibility of all. I’ve frequently mentioned Fukuyama and his book End of History and the Last Man in the course of this discussion, and I think it’s fair to say that the book is very Hegelian. Of course as Fukuyama also points out, Marx essentially ruined Hegel, but if you can strip that away and look at what Hegel was actually saying, it’s all pretty interesting. When talking about Hegel everyone mentions the “dialectic”, but essentially, as Hegel saw it that mostly amounted to a conversation between civilizations, a conversation that generally starts with two opposing viewpoints (thesis and antithesis), but eventually through dialogue, ideas, experimentation, and yes, even war, the two ideas eventually combine into one better idea (synthesis).

As an example you might start out with security on one side and freedom on the other, eventually synthesizing the two into a system with both significant policing, but also significant protection for individual rights. As that example makes clear, it’s not always as clean and straightforward as Hegel would lead you to believe, but he nevertheless claimed that this process also operated at the level of nations and brought us liberal democracy. Whether this was in fact “the process”, and whether it was not only “the process”, but the end point of “that process” are separate issues. I think there’s a good case to be made that the process was something like that, but the idea that we’ve reached the end is less certain, despite Hegel’s and later Fukuyama’s claims to the contrary. 

With an understanding of that framework, we’re now in a position to discuss the interesting/frightening possibility I alluded to at the beginning of the section. What if the Chinese government is the next level of Hegelian synthesis? What if they have synthesized market capitalism, with communism (or if you prefer just straight authoritarianism)? As you may recall from some of my previous posts on the book, Fukuyama isn’t making the claim that liberal democracy is some sort of obvious utopia, and he mostly tries to minimize claims of whig history, rather what he’s saying is that only liberal democracy has both the legitimacy necessary for internal health and the access to science and industry necessary to win a modern war, that is external threats to a nation’s health. But so far threats to the legitimacy of the Chinese government have been pretty anemic, and, if Brose is correct, their war making capability is at least sufficient and it may be superior. 

In both cases there are other elements which have contributed to China’s success. Turning first to legitimacy, there was a time when it was expected that technology and particularly the  internet would be a huge boon to political freedom, and the longer things go the more it looks like it might be just the opposite. China’s great firewall has proven to work a lot better than people expected when it was first mooted, things like China’s social credit system wouldn’t be possible without recent technology, and finally advances in machine learning/AI promise to make the tools available to the government more effective still. All of this works to shore up the authoritarian side of the synthesis. It also makes it easier to disentangle market capitalism from other elements of liberal democracy giving China an engine of economic growth the Soviet Union lacked.

On the war-fighting side of things, the Chinese seem to have managed to avoid the bureaucratic inertia that, according to Brose, currently plagues the US military. I assume that there are a lot of things which have contributed to this, but it’s easy to imagine that being authoritarian helps out quite a bit. Another simplifying factor is the fact that the Chinese have well-defined goals for their military, unlike the US which, in addition to trying to maintain its hegemonic position, also has a tendency to get into endless wars of occupation.

To be clear in putting this possibility out there I am not arguing that this is in fact what has happened. I’m not a Hegelian, I’m a Christian, but for those who do see history from a Hegelian viewpoint, like Fukuyama, or those who just have a general belief in progress, like Pinker, what’s the counter argument? And if there isn’t a definitive counter argument what does that mean for the history of humanity? Will all nations end up converging to this new endpoint? Or does it only work for China? 

VIII.

This post ended up being longer than I expected and rather than making it much longer, on the one hand, or on the other, cutting out anything genuinely interesting, I thought I would dump it all in the last section as a collection of miscellaneous rapid fire thoughts, so here goes:

I didn’t really touch much on trade, but obviously that’s been one of the biggest areas of contention between the US and China over the last several years. Despite this trade restrictions are still controversial and my sense is that they’re unlikely to continue under Biden, though honestly neither side is really spending much time talking about China at this point, so it’s difficult to tell. As far as whether they should continue, that’s always difficult to say, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that the trade war was a bad idea, which hurt us more than it hurt them. However the one study I came across estimated that China lost $35.2 billion as a result of it while the US only lost $15.6 billion. Indicating that we have more bargaining power than we think, that if it is necessary to confront China this is a good place to do it, that Trump probably deserves at least some of the credit, and that Biden should continue the policy.

It’s really amazing all of the different venues where China is causing problems, or at the very least distorting the way things have traditionally been done. We’ve already talked about the NBA, but they also exercise a significant influence on how Hollywood makes movies. They’ve got significant influence in developed countries, and they’re influencing technology in major ways as well, particularly when it comes to 5G. And because of the way their influence works, these distortions don’t get reported on to nearly the extent you would expect, meaning that the news is yet another area of distortion.

Everything I read portrayed China as being almost entirely machiavellian, willing to ignore agreements, skirt treaties, conceal their intentions, and outright lie if it served their purpose. As examples they’re actively trying to subvert the UN, the agreements they have made on autonomous weapons are obviously designed with huge loopholes, and they’ve got a secondary naval militia disguised as a fishing fleet. And while I understand the caution that we shouldn’t enter into another cold war with China, they’ve deliberately closed off nearly all avenues short of force. This is part of why a trade war is appealing because as bad as it might be it’s still orders of magnitude better than outright war.

As China gets closer and closer to the point where they feel ready to annex Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, particularly the younger segment of the population are less and less likely to want to be reabsorbed. In particular the recent crack-down in Hong Kong has only increased their reluctance. 

Finally, one of the books I already finished in October is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. I had intended to talk about it more in this post, but it’s one of the things that didn’t fit in anywhere else. In the book, the point Mishra emphasizes repeatedly is the level of humiliation felt by the Chinese as a consequence of colonialism. A humiliation they still feel. I’m not sure exactly how that translates into a policy prescription, or what we can really do about it at this point, but it does suggest that underlying everything I’ve talked about is less the normal desire for a people to improve their circumstances and more a straight up hunger for revenge.


As my posts gradually get longer they also get less frequent. I guess I could have split this in two, but I feel like it’s better to get it all out at once. If you have an opinion on that I’d love to hear it. You know what I also love? Donations. Mostly because of the warm fuzzy feeling they give me. 


Stubborn Attachments vs. The Vulnerable World and Fermi’s Paradox

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

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence, which I have referred to more than once in this space.

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

As an example of a “black ball technology” Bostrom asks us to imagine a hypothetical alternate history:

On the grey London morning of September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard was reading the newspaper when he came upon a report of an address recently delivered by the distinguished Lord Rutherford, now often considered the father of nuclear physics. In his speech, Rutherford had dismissed the idea of extracting useful energy from nuclear reactions as “moonshine”. This claim so annoyed Szilard that he went out for a walk. During the walk he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction—the basis for both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Later investigations showed that making an atomic weapon requires several kilograms of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which are very difficult and expensive to produce. However, suppose it had turned out otherwise: that there had been some really easy way to unleash the energy of the atom—say, by sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass.

Having asked us to imagine this alternate history Bostrom asks us to further imagine what would have happened to the world had this been the case. I suspect most of us have a hard time imagining anything other chaos and anarchy.

This is the “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) from the title. The hypothesis that somewhere in the urn there is a black ball (and probably more than one). Sure, nuclear weapons ended up being difficult to create, but perhaps engineering new, highly infectious diseases will be as easy as ”sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass”. If there is a black ball in the urn, then the worry is that if we keep drawing from the urn eventually we’ll pull it out, and as I said, the game will be over.

Once you start thinking about this idea, there are some interesting (and frankly frightening) possibilities. One of the things that Bostrom doesn’t go into very much is that the shade of the ball might change after being drawn. To begin with when you do research It’s not always clear what sort of technology you’re going to end up with. For example when Roentgen stumbled on X-rays, that ball may have looked a little greyish, but once their medicinal application became apparent the color of the “X-ray ball” ended up being very white.

One consequence of this, is that in addition to not being able to choose the shade of the ball before we draw, the balls can change color the longer they’re out. You can draw a ball which looks bright white and ends up getting darker and darker the longer the technology is in use. Certainly some people would argue that coal falls into this category. (The gradually darkening of the ball being appropriate in this example.) When people first started burning coal the ball must have seemed pretty white, but now there are at least as many people who think it’s going to destroy the planet (and very few people think it’s great.)

Social media is definitely not as black as coal (pun intended), but I think everyone agrees that it’s getting grayer with every passing year. It’s hard to imagine it will go all the way to black, but once again this illustrates that it’s impossible, if you’re actually drawing balls to not draw ones that are bad because even after you draw them the shade may not be apparent, possibly for decades, or in the case of coal, centuries. Thus even if you think that somehow humanity will coordinate in some amazing and unprecedented way if a true black ball is drawn, we might not know until it’s too late.

As you might imagine this metaphor is not encouraging. The only way humanity avoids drawing a black ball, and thus “losing the game” is if they stop drawing, or if there are no black balls. The first seems possible but very, very, unlikely, though as unlikely as the first one is the idea that there are no black balls seems even more unlikely. I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan, just because the only swans you’ve ever seen are white doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans, but of course this situation is even worse. It’s not as if we have only drawn white balls so far, and can thus plausibly hope that’s all there are. We have already drawn many balls that are very, very grey (thermonuclear weapons anyone?) and many of the balls are getting darker with each passing year.

Interestingly at around the same time as I came across Bostrom’s paper, I also finished reading Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. You could consider this book a companion to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (and Cowen mentions that book approvingly). Whereas Enlightenment Now’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t abandon the ideals of the enlightenment, Cowen’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t take our eyes off the ball of economic growth. As you might imagine the VWH doesn’t fit in very well with either model, but in particular Cowen could be said to be advocating not only that we continue to draw balls from the urn, but that we increase the speed at which we do so.

If we set aside the VWH for a moment, Cowen’s focus on growth, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, makes quite a bit of sense, and it’s worth laying out the case for it. Here’s the books own summary:

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.

Cowen is not claiming that growth makes everyone better at the same rate, or that there aren’t pockets of problems. Rather, his claim is that if you compare the world of today with the world 200 years ago that basically everything is better, even if there are individual years within that span that were worse than the previous year. Over a long enough time horizon all the problems of unequal distribution and outcomes are eventually solved..

Some people would counter that modernity has brought a decrease in contentment and happiness, but Cowen argues that this is just a problem with the way we describe happiness.

To give an example, if you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States. The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.

In other words happiness is relative, but in absolute terms Americans are way better off than Kenyans. And that this is because of economic growth. This is an important point for Cowen to clarify, and beyond that, there are of course all manner of nooks and crannies to his arguments. For example, he makes a big deal of preserving certain rights and values even if they conflict with maximizing growth. He also has interesting things to say about charitable giving and redistribution, but I don’t have the space to cover most of them. There is however one concept of his which I do need to bring up because it’s so central to the rest of the book, his idea of “Wealth Plus”.

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Thus when Cowen talks about maximizing growth, he’s talking about maximizing Wealth Plus. Which means he doesn’t think people should work fourteen-hour days, nor does he think it’s a good idea to destroy the environment. In fact to his credit Cowen advocates for very low time preference, something we share. And, insofar as leisure time, and amenities and traditional wealth contribute to happiness, maximizing Wealth Plus generates happiness as a useful byproduct.

Recently I have become more and more convinced that one of the central tensions in the modern world is the tension between the values of happiness and survival. Now, Cowen goes to great pains to say that he is not trying to maximize a single value:

…I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness.

But then he also explicitly says that he wants to maximize Wealth Plus, and as I just pointed out even if Wealth Plus is not a “single value” there is a lot of overlap between it and happiness. Also you’ll notice that survival is not mentioned in his list of potential values, either. And of course all of this takes us back to Bostrom and the urn.

It would appear that regardless of whether Wealth Plus is shorthand for happiness or not, it explicitly calls for us to draw out new balls at an ever faster rate, particularly given Cowen’s assertion that “technological progress [is] a major factor behind U.S. economic growth.”

All of this leaves us with a few possibilities:

1- We stop drawing balls. This would certainly allow us to avoid any black balls, but it’s hard to imagine how we would continue to experience any economic growth let alone the level of growth that Cowen is advocating. Also I can’t imagine any world where the policies necessary to make this happen would be implemented, even assuming they could be enforced.

2- We keep drawing balls, but we implement draconian measures to prevent black balls from truly “ending the game”. This is the suggestion Bostrom puts forth in the paper, and in fact it forms part of his definition:

VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

He then goes on to define “semi-anarchic default condition” as a world characterized by three features:

a) Limited capacity for preventive policing.

b) Limited capacity for global governance.

c) Diverse motivations.

I obviously don’t have the space to go into these three features, but his recommendations end up being quite extreme (think 1984’s Big Brother only worse). They may perhaps be more feasible than stopping technological development all together, but not by much. Making this possibility only slightly more probable than possibility number one.

3- We keep drawing balls, but there are no black balls in the urn. There is no technology that will irrevocably end humanity. For example, I mentioned thermonuclear weapons above, but perhaps their actual effect was to make war so unthinkable that it never happens again (meaning they were actually a white ball.) Or maybe even if there is a nuclear war perhaps over a long enough time horizon it would end up being just be a bump in the road, not any kind of hard stop. I think this is the option most people hope for, though I doubt there is much conscious choice involved. I have some thoughts on how to evaluate the probability of this option, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I suspect it’s lower than most people think.

Thus far none of these possibilities seems especially promising, and none seem to play very well with Cowen’s growth-will-fix-everything model, but perhaps that’s exactly the point perhaps that’s the fourth possibility:

4- Growth will fix everything even the existence of a black ball. Back under possibility number two Bostrom claims that the VWH is only a worry as long as we are in a semi-anarchic state. In an analogous fashion perhaps VWH is also only a worry if you haven’t experienced enough growth or if your rate of growth is too slow. Perhaps the best example of this: many VWH possibilities go away once we have self-sustaining populations on two planets. And it’s also possible that most black balls have a white ball which negates them, we just need to develop it. Returning one more time to nuclear weapons, some have made the argument that once submarine launched nukes were available they provided a guaranteed second strike capability. This made nuclear weapons functionally unusable because the initial aggressor couldn’t guarantee they would escape without retaliation. It could then be argued that nuclear weapons were only a “black ball” during the period between their invention and the invention of submarine launched missiles.]

Perhaps we need to add another shade of ball to the game. A pure white ball, which, when drawn, permanently wins the game once and for all. Perhaps something like creating an omnipotent AI which would fulfill all three of Bostrom’s criteria for moving us out of a semi-anarchic state.

What this means is that even though Cowen’s plan has us drawing balls out of the urn as fast as possible, it might actually be the safest plan, because it leads to the shortest time between a black ball and the white ball which counters it. And if there is a pure white ball we draw it as soon as possible as well. Perhaps this plan will work. Maybe there is a potential future where we can have our cake and eat it to. That focusing on economic growth/happiness is also the best way to ensure our survival as well.

That seems too good to be true, but how can we know? Is there any method which would allow us to evaluate the probability that there are no black balls or that if we just grow fast enough we can counter all the black balls with “defensive” technology, or that pure white balls exist?

Well one thing that would certainly help is if we could point to the example of someone else who had done it. And here we return to our old friend Fermi’s Paradox. Which once again, instead of giving us hope for the future, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Could VWH be just one more explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and further an explanation which puts the Great Filter ahead of us rather than behind us? That black balls exist and that all civilizations eventually draw one, and that’s why we’re alone in the universe?

Long time readers of the blog will know that my preferred explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that aliens are out there, but they’re so advanced that we just call them “God”. It’s not my intent to revisit that argument here, but it does give us one final possibility:

5- Someone is in charge of the game. If we return to considering possibility number three, the idea that there are no black balls just by chance, that somehow the universe is randomly set up such that there is definitely very destructive technology, but it’s always just this side of being too destructive. This seems suspiciously convenient, also unlikely, particularly when you toss in Fermi’s Paradox. But if you consider my explanation for the paradox, or even religion more generally, there is the possibility that someone is running the game, and it’s designed such that at least some people will eventually “win”. Obviously this takes us into the realm of theology, but that objection aside, I think you’ll agree that it’s clearly the most hopeful of all the possibilities. Of course, there are many people who can’t put this objection aside, which would mean our best hope is possibility four.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, my very first post talked about being in a race between a beneficial singularity and technological catastrophe. Possibility number four brings us back to the same spot, a race of drawing balls as quickly as possible and hoping we either draw a pure white ball, or that each black ball we draw is quickly negated by a white ball. The only hint we have as to whether this plan will succeed is Fermi’s Paradox, and if it has any predictive power at all we have to assume that this is a race we’re probably going to lose.

Next week I will return to Fermi’s Paradox. I’m continually amazed by how many subjects eventually end up being touched by it, and even though I’ve spent plenty of time talking about it already, we’re going to be talking about it again. I just finished another book on the subject which has revealed even more nooks and crannies to explore.


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