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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 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.


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.


This week rather than make an appeal for donations of dubious cleverness. I’d ask that you answer a few questions about the blog. Here’s the link.