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Is Pornography a Supernormal Stimuli?

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Recently I read a fascinating book review on my favorite blog, SlateStarCodex. Scott was reviewing The Hungry Brain, by Stephan J. Guyenet. His review intrigued me enough that I immediately bought the book and started reading it. If you’re interested in the neurology of eating, and why we overeat, I would definitely recommend it. That said it is not primarily about how to lose weight, it’s more about the brain’s system for determining whether we’re full or not, and how the modern world has created an environment which overwhelms that system. As I said the book is very intriguing, particularly in the way that it rejects the idea of a balanced diet, but I’m not going to spend any time on that, instead I’d like to focus on a concept the book brings up, sort of just in passing, though at the same time it could be said to be the overarching theme of the book as well. It’s the concept of supernormal stimuli.

Guyenet introduces the subject by relating the findings of a study which had been conducted on the nesting habits of ringed plovers. The two scientists conducting the study discovered that the birds prefered exaggerated artificial eggs to their own eggs. Guyenet summarizes the results as follows:

A typical ringed plover egg is light brown with dark brown spots. When Koehler and Zagarus offered the birds artificial eggs that had a white background and larger, darker spots, they readily abandoned their own eggs in favor of the decoy. Similar experiments with oystercatchers and herring gulls showed that they prefer larger eggs, to the point where they will leave their own eggs in favor of absurdly large artificial eggs that exceed the size of their own bodies.

You can see why he introduces this topic in a book about overeating, particularly the ways in which the modern world has created, what might be called, supernormal food, but technology has not only changed the food we eat, it’s changed nearly everything about our lives when compared to those of our distant ancestors. And it’s those other changes that I want to examine.

The term “supernormal stimuli” was coined later by another scientist to describe stimuli like the absurdly large eggs, things which are better than anything found in nature, but which paradoxically produce worse outcomes. It’s obviously bad for the bird if they spend all of their time sitting on an artificial egg as big as themselves, rather than sitting on their own eggs.

As I said I’m more interested in looking at the role of the supernormal beyond the obvious areas of food and bird’s eggs, and Guyenet himself acknowledges the potentially wider application of the phenomenon:

It seems likely that certain human innovations, such as pornography, gambling, video games and junk foods are all supernormal stimuli for the human brain.

The whole concept is fascinating to me, and I can imagine all manner of things it might explain, for instance, Guyenet mentions pornography, and for people who’ve been listening to this podcast for awhile you know I have a deep distrust of the conventional wisdom on the subject of pornography, so let’s start there. How might it be, as Guyenet suggested, a supernormal stimuli?

Well first let’s step back and examine why there are supernormal stimuli in the first place. It all stems from the fact that certain things just don’t occur in nature, primarily because they’re impossible or at least extremely rare. Consequently there was never any evolutionary pressure to protect against these non existent things. As Guyenet points out in the book, in the case of food, there was never any danger of people regularly having 1000 calorie meals two or three times a day, 7 days a week for years on end. The food supply just wasn’t that stable. And thus the body has very little in the way of defense against gaining weight on that kind of diet. In a similar fashion there was never any danger of a bird abandoning her eggs for eggs as big as she was because she could never lay those eggs in the first place. Which is to say there’s no evolutionary backstop against this kind of thing. There’s no innate protection against going too far in one direction.

From an evolutionary perspective, the rule bigger is better worked because scientists were never sneaking into bird’s nests and putting in massive artificial eggs. Now it is true that cuckoo’s get other birds to raise their larger eggs using these preferences, and the book goes into detail on that, but that doesn’t make the situation any less problematic, it just shows that organisms can’t even fully protect against natural supernormal stimulation. And if it can’t, how much worse is it going to be at protecting against artificial supernormal stimulation.

With this explanation in place I think the idea that pornography is a supernormal stimuli should be self evident. But if you remain unconvinced I’ll spell it out. In essence, “Life is a game of turning energy into kids,” which is another quote from the book which Guyenet borrows from anthropologist Herman Pontzer. And, whereas over-eating is supernormal on the energy side of this game, pornography might be supernormal is on the kids side of the game. Just like birds have evolved to really want to sit on eggs, humans have evolved to really want to have sex, since both increase the number of offspring they have. But just as birds will sit on large artificial eggs in preference to sitting on actual eggs, it’s very likely that humans will watch large amounts of artificial sex in preference to having actual sex.

There are of course arguments which could be made against this assertion. You could argue that humans are different than birds. This is undoubtedly true, but based on the enormous demand for pornography is there really any evidence that humans are any less stimulated when it comes to sex than birds are when it comes to sitting on eggs?

You might also argue, that even if pornography has exactly the effect I described that it’s a good thing because we’re better off with fewer kids. Perhaps, but as I pointed in a previous post most developed countries already have below replacement level fertility, and the generation of people raised on internet pornography is only just starting to hit peak child bearing age.

Finally you might argue that watching people have sex is not the same as having sex. Once again that’s certainly true, but there is also some large segment of the population for whom it’s obviously close enough, and getting closer. Pornography is only getting more realistic, which means it’s potential as a supernormal stimuli is only going to increase.

The other day, I was taking a break and ended up watching a clip from the Conan O’brien show where he was doing his “Clueless Gamer” segment. In this particular edition they had him playing a VR game on the Oculus Rift. In the segment, once he finds out that it’s a virtual reality game, literally the next thing out of his mouth is that VR is for sex. Now, I don’t think that Conan is personally longing for a world of VR sex, but there are lots of people out there who are. And given the prominence of pornography on the internet can there by any argument that once technology gets to a certain point that pornography will be equally ubiquitous in virtual reality?

As I said, once this happens, and if past technological progress is any guide, virtual reality sex will become increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing. And any arguments about whether pornography is voyeuristic as opposed to participatory will become increasingly moot. When this happens we can hope that we have some baseline level of morality which will kick in and taboos against VR sex will keep it from becoming widespread. But I’ve see no reason to hope that this will be the case. Thus far modernity has done a remarkable and quite thorough job of knocking down taboos and side-lining nearly everything which resembles traditional morality. Which makes it very difficult for me to imagine that VR sex will be the one place where we finally hold the line.

As usual when discussing pornography there is the standard assembly of people who are ready to defend it, and VR pornography is no exception to this. Just a cursory search turns up the following article from TechCrunch which discusses worries about greater realism and where we are informed that:

  • Any worries about VR pornography being too realistic just mean that we need greater “porn literacy”.
  • That worries about VR pornography should be viewed in the same light as worries that bicycles would turn women into lesbians.
  • That “the fear of VR porn is simply more technophobia as we’ve seen so many times in the past.”
  • That being able to use VR to switch your own gender will allow people to “open up brave new dimensions to their own sexuality and sensuality.”

These are all bold predictions for a technology that’s barely in its infancy, And are they really going to put forth the argument that providing something virtually indistinguishable from actual sex is the same thing as bicycle riding and therefore any worries should be dismissed? This is where I think the framework of the supernatural stimuli really comes in handy. Worries about VR pornography map very well onto the analogy of the bird egg we started things with. VR pornography is replacing stimuli for some deep evolutionary drive with something artificially supercharged. In the example of the bikes, what deep evolutionary drive were they supposed to be stimulating? The need to go down hills fast? And what are bikes an artificial supercharged version of? Walking? In other words I think that specific point from the article is definitely an apples to oranges comparison.

I have no problem granting that there has been technophobia in the past, which later proved to be ungrounded. One common example I hear frequently mentioned, was the fear that people would asphyxiate on the first trains because of their high speed (over 20 mph). And if it will make you feel better I have no problem admitting that this was an example of ungrounded technophobia, but if I’m going to admit this then I think it’s only fair, on the other side, for those pointing out past overreactions, to admit instances where fear of technology fell far short of reality. Previous to World War I lots of people worried about aerial bombardment (which didn’t really come into it’s own until World War II) but how many people worried about the carnage which could be inflicted by more advanced artillery and the machine gun? And for those who did fear aerial bombardment it turns out that they were just a little bit premature.

All of this is to say that yes, it is certainly possible that, as the article claims, worries about VR pornography are overblown, but, more likely, it appears that people who want to draw analogies between these worries and past instances of technophobia are missing important differences and further that not all previous instances of people being afraid of technology have ended up being groundless. Sometimes we have every reason to worry about technology, and we may in fact underestimate how bad it is.

If opponents can’t rely on historical analogies to dismiss the idea that pornography and specifically VR pornography is a harmful supernormal stimuli, perhaps they can fall back on the data? Here I think the opponents continue to be on shaky ground. Though it’s hard to get a good sense of the data. Pornography is one of those very divisive issues where it’s hard to separate facts from opinion and anecdote, but one of the most common ideas I came across was to compare pornography to alcohol:

For some people alcohol simply has the effect of making them more relaxed, letting them have more fun. For other people it’s true that alcohol can increase the likelihood that somebody will behave in a violent way.

“But if I simply make the overall generalisation alcohol causes violence or leads to violence, you’d probably say that’s glossing over a lot of the nuances.

“Similarly with pornography, for some people, it may be viewed as a positive aspect of their life and does not lead them in any way to engage in any form of anti-social behaviour. For some people who do have several other risk factors, it can add fuel to the fire.

Ok, so pornography is alcohol? As you can imagine this does nothing to make me feel better about things. First, as a Mormon, I’m also pretty opposed to alcohol. Second, notice that we’re not even talking about VR pornography which may be to normal pornography what opiates are to alcohol. Finally, if it is alcohol could we at least do a better job of keeping it away from kids? The few attempts at this which have been made have been dismissed as puritanical at worst and unworkable as best.

In the end the data has enough ambiguity that it will probably support whichever position you came in with (which is true for most things). But even if the data showed that pornography had a positive effect (which some people think it does). There would be still be reasons to doubt that conclusion. When it comes to pornography we’re dealing with a very short time horizon during which the impact could be discernable. If, as I suggest, the more realistic the pornography the greater it’s potential damage then we’ve had essentially no time to evaluate the effects of VR porn and even video pornography has only been widely available on the internet for about 10 years. We’re thus in a situation, where on the one hand there’s not a lot of good experimental short-term data and on the other hand it hasn’t been nearly long enough to have any idea of the societal impacts.

And of course this is something I come back to over and over again. People dismiss a danger based on the experience of a few short years, when some things take decades if not longer to play out.

I had initially intended to use pornography as just one example of supernormal stimuli among many, but apparently I had more to say on the subject than I thought. Still it might be useful before we end to look at one more potential example of supernormal stimuli. I’ve already talked about virtual reality, and even though I worry that pornography will be a big part of that (some people estimate it will be the third largest category) the biggest use for VR will be video games. And incidentally video games are another thing mentioned by Guyenet, at the beginning of this post, as a potential supernormal stimuli.

This ties into many of the themes of this blog. For one virtual reality might be a step in the direction of transhumanism, and as I am mostly opposed to transhumanism, this is one more thing to add to the list. Secondly there are some people who believe that Fermi’s Paradox can be explained by VR; that intelligent species get to a point where they have no need to explore or expand because they can simulate all the exploration (and anything else) they desire. And finally it gets back to the issue of community and struggle both of which, I would argue, video games provide a poor facsimile of.

Discussing video games brings up one of the symptoms of a supernormal stimuli, one which I haven’t discussed yet, but which could apply to pornography, food, and video games: addiction. I didn’t bring it up previously because people generally don’t talk in terms of an addiction to food (it’s hard to view something you need to live as a possible addiction) though if you read the Guyenet’s book it’s easy to see how people with leptin deficiency might easily be classified as food addicts. People also dispute whether there’s such a thing as pornography addiction (though I don’t) and there’s plenty of harm attributed to pornography without bringing addiction into it, but when it comes to video games, addiction and excessive time spent, are generally viewed as the primary harm.

And as it turns out for all of these things, but perhaps especially for video games, the addiction is the primary evidence of their status as a supernormal stimuli. In our distant past there were figurative buttons which evolved to indicate a situation that was extremely advantageous from the standpoint of survival and reproduction. In nature these buttons were pressed infrequently and most of the time they were associated with tangible rewards. Technology has allowed us to find these buttons, and then mash them continually for as long as we want.

These buttons can convince us we’re doing something useful by giving us virtual rewards which feel real (also known as operant conditioning.) They can convince we’re actually struggling by overcoming fake challenges. And they can convince us that we’re engaged socially even though we’re just yelling at strangers. And this is the problem, with all of this, how do we know we’re not sitting on a giant fake egg, while the real eggs rot and spoil in the sun? How do we recognize these supernormal stimuli as traps and avoid them? When there are powerful inbuilt urges convincing us that twinkies are better than real food, pornography is better than real sex, and videogames are better than real life?

You may disagree with how bad any one of these things are, or how big of a problem the represent, or whether they are in fact examples of supernormal stimuli. But I don’t think you can argue with the existence of supernormal stimuli, nor with the motivation for people to use technology to continue turning up the dial on their power and effect. As I said in the very beginning, I think the concept of the supernormal stimuli has wide-ranging applications and consequences for our modern world, and it’s definitely a subject I intend to revisit, because technology has gotten to the point where I believe there are all manner of supernormal creations and if we fail to recognize the “super” part of that equation and continue to think that all of this is normal the consequences could be much larger and much worse than we imagine.

I’m working figuring out how to make my donation appeal a supernormal stimuli, but until then pretend that it is and imagine you experience the overwhelming desire to give me money.

Radical Reform and the Three Kinds of Complexity

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The debate I’ve been engaged in over the last several posts continues. The latest salvo is a post from Scott Alexander titled: The Consequences Of Radical Reform. It opens as follows:

The thread that runs from Edmund Burke to James Scott and Seeing Like A State goes: systems that evolve organically are well-adapted to their purpose. Cultures, ancient traditions, and long-lasting institutions contain irreplaceable wisdom. If some reformer or technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room sweeps them aside and replaces them with some clever theory he just came up with, he’ll make everything much worse. That’s why collective farming, Brasilia, and Robert Moses worked worse than ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Alexander then goes on to disagree with this narrative, and in support of this disagreement he offers up a new piece of evidence, a study from 2009 (which he only recently came across) which compares the European territories where the Napoleonic Code was imposed vs. those where it was not. Basically those territories conquered by Napoleon vs. the one’s a little bit farther along his line of advance which weren’t. The study shows that, in terms of economic growth, urbanization, etc. The former did better. If we then go on to define imposition of the Napoleonic Code to be an example of radical reform, then we have the answer to our perennial question. This is proof that, to adapt Alexander’s original statement:

[A] technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room [can] sweep [traditional laws] aside and replace them with some clever theory he just came up with [and] he’ll make everything much… Better!

Now to be clear I don’t think Alexander is offering this up as some sort of “game, set, match” for the whole debate. But increasingly he has been taking the position that technocrats, on balance, make things better not worse. This study is evidence of that, and it appears to push him farther in that direction. Of course, if you’ve been following along, my contention has been the opposite: that on balance technocrats do make things worse. Though once again, this is on balance, I have never claimed that technocrats never get anything right or have any successes, and in the course of this post we’ll get to some of those successes. But first…


Let’s establish what we’re talking about. Get a sense of what we’re debating and what the stakes are. In essence this is a discussion about societies, cultures, and civilizations at the highest level. We’re evaluating their success when everything is taken into account, not merely as a snapshot of a single point in time but their success over decades and centuries. Civilizations are enormously complex, and essentially this is a debate about how to manage that complexity. On the one side of our debate we have cultural evolution. (Alexander puts forth  Seeing Like a State, but for me the more pertinent corpus is Henrich’s books, Secret of our Success and WEIRDEST People in the World.) On the other side of the debate we have technocrats and rational planning. (Represented by? Enlightenment Now? Anything else?)

Of course, reducing it to two sides overlooks the possibility of other civilizational-level organizing principles, as well as a blending of technocracy and cultural evolution, both options which are outside the scope of this post. Though the latter is an interesting idea, and worth exploring, particularly if technocrats were content to stick with the things they’re good at, and refrain from interfering in areas where they’re less successful. But I have seen little evidence of such a willingness to forebear particularly recently. 

Having identified the two sides of the debate the next step is to define them. How do we distinguish between the two? While initially this might seem straightforward, once you dig in, the line dividing them is not as bright as one might think. Under cultural evolution a person comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other people, eventually becoming part of the cultural package.

Under technocracy an expert comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other governments eventually becoming part of the toolkit of “best practices”.

Stated that way the difference doesn’t seem all that great. I just swapped out a few words, and is there really that much difference between “person” and “expert” or “other people” and “government”? As a matter of fact I would argue that there is, that within these slightly different words lies the entire debate. Let’s start with “government”.

There is of course the standard libertarian argument that governments are different because they use force to get you to do things, whereas cultural evolution is presumably voluntary, or at least more voluntary than a modern state. This may be true, but I don’t think it’s a difference worth spending much time on. Particularly historically, cultures also carried a huge amount of weight. And, for the person experiencing it, the difference between being shunned by an entire community vs. policemen showing up at your door is probably not all that great. 

No, I think the primary difference between how technocracies implement new programs and the way that cultures evolve is a difference of scale and speed. Historically cultural evolution took place in small groups—extended families or tribes—and thus whatever the innovation was, at best it would be adopted by a few hundred people. The success of the innovation would be reflected, in part, by a greater number of offspring, which also provides a mechanism for spreading the innovation. Eventually this gets to the point where the successful culture starts displacing, absorbing or eliminating less successful ones. Beyond the foregoing other things might make the innovation spread more quickly, but at best the whole thing scales up over the course of years if not decades.

On the other hand, with a technocracy, change can be implemented across millions of people conceivably overnight—a speed and scale which is vastly greater. As an example, consider prohibition—a very progressive idea, in a very progressive age. One day booze was legal for 100 million people and the next day it wasn’t. Now there were plenty of scofflaws, but in some respects the battle it created between bootleggers and the police was the bigger story than the fact that alcohol was illegal, and equally a consequence of the technocratic implementation, which came at the stroke of a pen. Now yes, this stroke was preceded by a 394 day ratification process, and that was preceded by decades of effort by the temperance movement, but this is precisely my point. The 394 days the government spent on it accomplished something at a speed and on a scale that decades of attempts to change the culture couldn’t duplicate.

It should also be noted that scale and speed work in both directions. The government is pretty good at changing things, but it’s even better at preventing things from changing. And here we turn back to Alexander’s post, and the way people imagine technocracy will work—when it’s working well. In particular its superiority to vetocracy 

[E]ntrenched interests are constantly blocking necessary change. If only there were some centralized authority powerful enough to sweep them away and do all the changes we know we need, everything would be great.

Vetocracies block the necessary changes. While technocracies presumably don’t allow such vetoes, and are consequently able to make “all the changes we know we need”. Even if we grant that this is a practical description of how technocracies work, rather than just an aspirational one, those words “we know” are doing a lot of work. Who are “we”? And how do we “know”? Which takes us to…


The other key difference between the definitions of cultural evolution and technocracy was replacing “people” with “experts”. This switch presumably comes because most of our problems are problems of complexity. If the world is complicated then it seems logical that we need experts to understand it. But is this in fact the case? I will certainly grant the first part—the world is complicated—it’s the second part I’m not sure about. To put it another way, we’re not debating the existence of complexity we’re debating how best to deal with it. 

Part of the problem is that complexity comes in many different flavors. There is complexity which has existed for as long as humans have (and perhaps longer), like what to do in a given environment so you don’t die. There is complexity which is brand new, like how best to manage social media. And then there is presumably lots of complexity in between that. The kind of complexity that came with nuclear weapons, the invention of the printing press or even the neolithic revolution. So when someone claims that experts are better at dealing with complexity, which sort of complexity are they talking about? All of the above? Just recent complexity? Or some other combination? 

Let’s return to the paper referenced by Alexander. Here’s the abstract:

The French Revolution of 1789 had a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those ‘designed’; that institutions must be ‘appropriate’ and cannot be ‘transplanted’; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.

(I kept thinking I could get away with only quoting part of the abstract, but in the end it was apparent that I was going to end up referencing it all.)

First we can clearly see the speed and scale mentioned in part II. But what about complexity? While not mentioned directly, the complexity referred to by this paper is clearly that brought on by the industrial revolution, so very recent complexity. (If you just do a google search for industrial revolution time period the info box says 1760-1840.) So best case, of the three types of complexity there are, this study represents one point of data for radical reform being better at dealing with new complexity. But there are numerous caveats even to this conclusion.

First it’s pretty straightforward to see that “nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies” are the people most likely to object to anything with the word “revolution” in the title, since they’re almost certainly the one’s benefiting from the status quo. Second it didn’t require visionary reformers or rarified experts to see that the industrial revolution would result in economic growth and urbanization, any unbiased observer could see it. Britain had already shown it could be done, so I’m not sure how radical these reforms really were. In other words, the bits that radical reform got right were not that complicated. This is not to say that the industrial revolution wasn’t complicated. It was horribly complicated. It introduced the complications of child labor, pollution, job losses for skilled workers and all manner of social unrest. (Note the widespread revolutions of 1848.)  

It’s therefore worth asking which institutions did better with the true complications brought on by the industrial revolution. The institutions these countries got from cultural evolution: monogamy, christianity, literacy? (At least according to WEIRDest People in the World) Or the things they got from technocracy: accelerated growth, elite destruction and equality before the law? I would lean towards the former, but at a minimum this question would seem to be a least as important as the one the paper actually addressed.

It might be useful to examine a current situation with several parallels to the industrial revolution, moving jobs over sea and automation. Once again this is something that the experts/technocrats/globalists have been almost universally in favor of. And again the benefits to doing so were obvious, lower labor costs, cheaper goods, etc. While the associated complexities were mostly ignored until they got too big to be ignored. I think there’s a good case to be made that one of the biggest of these complexities is the opioid epidemic which rages among the people who used to do the jobs that got moved out of the country. Admittedly this is probably a third order effect of the initial outsourcing, but it’s precisely second and third order effects that experts are bad at dealing with. Further, rather than helping mitigate the problem of opioids, there’s a strong case to be made that the experts were one of the key factors in exacerbating it. (For the full story on that see the previous post I did on that subject.) 

None of the foregoing is meant to represent my own “game, set, match” in this debate, but rather to remind people that it’s not enough to compare two things on a few selected issues, we have to compare them in their entirety. I’m sympathetic to arguments that cheap goods might help those displaced by offshoring more than they were harmed by the job losses associated with that same offshoring. But it seems apparent that what technocracies and “experts” are really good at is noticing obvious benefits, and implementing changes to capture those benefits rapidly and at scale, of plucking low hanging fruit from the Tree of Recent Technological Progress, but ignoring the pesticides necessary to grow that tree.

Or to use another analogy I heard once, they may be picking up nickels in front of steamrollers…


We’ve talked quite a bit about recent complexity, which I’m using to cover those things which have shown up in the last several decades or so, but not much about complexity which has been around for longer than that. Earlier, I divided complexity up into three categories, but the divisions are obviously pretty arbitrary, and it might be useful to split them into different buckets, but let’s see where we get with the three buckets I started with.

The oldest source of complexity is the natural world, and human’s relationship to it. One would put things like diet, reproduction, and really anything that impacts evolutionary fitness into this bucket. So what is the best way to deal with this complexity? Well, one imagines that given how long these things have been challenges for humans, we have probably developed genetic adaptations for dealing with this complexity, and it’s probably just best to stand back and let these adaptations do their thing. It’d be nice if it were so simple, and to a certain extent it is, but it’s clear more recent complexity has made the adaptations we’ve built for dealing with long term complexity less effective. 

Diet is a great example of all these factors in action. One assumes that there is a diet we’re adapted to. (Though there is a lot of argument over what that diet might be, an argument I’m not qualified to weigh in on.) But then along comes the USDA (read experts/technocrats) with the food pyramid, which provides an authoritative answer to what diet is appropriate. But I think it’s become clear that this is one of those complex areas where experts were not better, and recently the food pyramid has come in for all sorts of criticism, some probably justified some not. 

Then as an even more extreme example, there’s the story from a few years back about how in the 60’s the sugar industry paid scientists to demonize fat, instead of sugar, a mistake we’re still grappling with. Which is not to say that this is an easy problem, that’s precisely the point, it’s a devilish complicated one which modernity has exacerbated. For example, it’s clear that evolution has all sorts of tools to draw on in cases of food scarcity, but that never having had to grapple with long term food abundance and variety, it’s terrible at protecting us from that. This particular phenomenon has been labeled supernormal stimuli, and I wrote a whole post on it if you want more details, but I could certainly see an argument that this is an area where evolution and even tradition is fairly useless, because the situation is entirely novel. But of course that is the debate: are experts, through the medium of radical reform, better at this sort of thing or not?

Even with something as novel as supernormal stimuli, tradition is not entirely powerless. Fasting is very traditional and there’s good evidence that it helps with this issue. Also I’ve seen very little evidence that top-down interventions have made any impact on obesity. While diets that involve individuals listening to the evolutionary adaptations they were born with seem to work pretty well.

The upshot of all this is that it’s possible radical reform might help with some of the recent complexity which has been introduced. Even in areas where for a long time we were able to just rely on the adaptations evolution had provided us with, but… I haven’t seem much evidence of radical reform being applied in this fashion, and even less evidence of such a reform working.

Next there’s all the complexity which isn’t recent, but also hasn’t been around so long that we expect a solution to have been encoded in our genes. The area where if there have been adaptations they would have been cultural adaptations, and consequently where you would expect cultural evolution to have the most impact. But also the area where it’s possible that semi-random cultural evolution did not come up with a solution as good as what a team of modern experts could come up with. 

Most people have no problem accepting the utility of understanding what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They may have different answers when asked what food that actually was, but they’re united in thinking that the answer is beneficial. As in there’s quite a bit of consensus that genetic adaptations are generally beneficial. As we get closer to the present day this unity disappears. As in there’s not nearly as much consensus that cultural adaptations are beneficial. Thus the fact that the Catholic Church and indeed most religions have been pushing the idea of sexual abstinence outside of marriage for thousands of years carries very little weight. That all it took was the sexual revolution to decide that was a dumb idea.

I’m not sure why people are willing to give so much weight to one kind of evolution, and so little weight to the other kind. It seems naive on its face, even if there weren’t books like the recently reviewed WEIRDest People in the World which spends hundreds of pages contradicting the idea. But of course some of this thinking seems to operate on separate tracks. People will view the forced imposition of the Napoleonic Code as a successful experiment with technocracy, but not view the sexual revolution as a similar technocratic experiment. And certainly it seems more technocratic to impose something from the top down, but once you account for the policies, legal rulings, and general sympathies of the technocratic class. It’s hard to argue that they are not conducting a similar experiment with modern sexual mores.  

To be fair I’m sure it doesn’t look like they’re imposing something. I’m sure it looks like they’re allowing something, and the distinction is an important one, though the difference between the two is not as great as you might think, particularly if technocrats use the power of government and the speed and scale we mentioned earlier to force other people to allow it. 


Pulling all of the above together, what sort of conclusions can we draw? It would seem to me that the most difficult complexity to deal with is recent complexity, in that it generally disrupts the methods already in place to deal with long term complexity. That said even though recent complexity is where we should be focusing our attention, and where normal evolution and cultural evolution have done the least to prepare us, it’s still not clear that technocracy is obviously better at dealing with these new challenges. 

I’ve already given two examples where this might be the case. First, with the underlying complexities of the industrial revolution and second the way the opioid epidemic connects to the process of sending jobs to other countries. Let’s look at one more that’s probably closer to home for most of my readers. The problems associated with social media, a huge unforeseen complexity brought on by the internet. What have the experts/technocrats done to rein in this problem? What do they propose to do? How will that help the teenagers who suffer from social-media linked depression? The grandmas who fall into echo-chambers of extremism? Or help us restore civility to the public sphere? 

So far if you’re anything like me you’ve been unimpressed with governmental efforts to deal with the complexities brought on by social media. And you may think, given how recent of a phenomenon it is, that traditional adaptations and institutions would be equally powerless to deal with it. But my sense is this is not the case. That having two supportive parents helps out a great deal. That regular church attendance lowers the risk of depression. And that many “primitive” things like sunlight, physical activity, and seeing people face to face (something which has taken a big hit over the last year) work quite well in dealing with negative effects of social media. They also probably increase the chances that social media will be a positive thing. 

My conclusion would be that radical reform might be superior at dealing with recent complexity in certain narrow cases. That occasionally technology opens a new path to some obvious improvement, and in those cases experts/technocrats may be better at hastening the implementation of that improvement. But I think such wins are infrequent. Far more often the improvements brought on by technology are obvious and straight forward but the downsides are complex and opaque, and in focusing on the improvements the experts do nothing to mitigate the downsides. That in these cases—and in cases where we are dealing with long standing complexities—evolutionary adaptations, both natural and cultural, generally perform better. 

As one final thought, I want you to conduct a civilization pre-mortem. A pre-mortem is a tactic frequently used by businesses which asks people, at the start of a project, to imagine that it has failed, and then imagine why that might be, so that failure points obvious enough to be summoned up before the project has even started can be mitigated in advance. I want you to take this same methodology and apply it to civilization. If it ends up failing, what will have caused it? Will it have failed because we were too cautious about implementing radical reform? Or will it have failed because we were too aggressive in that endeavor? To look at it from the other side, are long standing adaptations more likely to cause the failure of society or are they more likely to prevent it? 

Asking for patronage is actually a very old adaptation to the problem of supporting writers you like, or at least those whose work you think is important. If you like the idea of solving complex problems with long standing adaptations you should like donating to my patreon

Books I Finished in April

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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?

Summer is just around the corner, which is unfortunate because it’s my least favorite season (The order is fall, winter, spring, summer.) If you have any desire to help me through this difficult time, or if you’re also a curmudgeon who hates summer as well consider donating

Books I Finished in March

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

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

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

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

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

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

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

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

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

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

Finally and most pressingly…

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

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

I- Eschatological Review

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

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

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

They were, those people, a kind of solution.

II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

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

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

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

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

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

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

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

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

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

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

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

“The Good Place”, Brain-uploading, and Eschatology

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***Warning: Massive spoilers for The Good Place ahead. If you don’t want to be spoiled don’t read this post.***

The Good Place recently ended after four seasons. The show was praised for its various twists, and it’s “exploration and creative use of ethics and philosophy”. But of course it was also a show about eschatology, in fact it may be argued that this was it’s primary subject matter. Given this focus it’s reasonable and even important to examine the nature of the eschatology it espoused. There are of course a wide variety of imagined eschatologies out there, and numerous definitions of the word itself beyond that. So what was The Good Place’s contribution to this topic?

Before answering that question we first need to set some parameters for the discussion. To begin with, I want to discuss this subject in a very practical fashion. Obviously, despite my argument that the show’s primary theme was eschatology, that wasn’t the show’s purpose. It’s purpose was to entertain, and as such it was far more interested in taking a humorous look at a potential afterlife than it was in taking a serious and consistent approach to things. On the other hand, I would like to set aside the humorous bits and strip away things which are present only for their entertainment value, but in order to accomplish this I need to do two things:

First, while a large part of this post will be dedicated to pointing out the various flaws I noticed in the show’s handling of how an afterlife might work. I need to make it clear that this should not be construed as an attack on the show, or any indication that I didn’t enjoy it or that you won’t enjoy it. In particular I don’t want people to be distracted by defending the show, as I said the show’s purpose was to be entertaining, not philosophically rigorous. And as a sitcom it was one of the best, but it did propose an eschatology, and it’s worth examining whether that eschatology hangs together.

Second, in order for those flaws to have any resonance, we have to be willing to imagine that we’re critiquing something which might actually exist, that there might, in fact, be an afterlife, and additionally that there might be god-like beings in charge of that afterlife, or at least something supernatural about how it’s put together. Otherwise any discussion of how it should work, and how that might be different than how it worked on the show, will be, at best superficial, and at worst, entirely pointless. For anyone who’s religious, imagining an afterlife and the supernatural qualities which would have to attend such a place, is easy. But I don’t want to rely too much on religion (though I can’t avoid it entirely) because it will inevitably be off-putting for those who are not religious, or who belong to a different denomination than those I ended up using in my examples.

Fortunately, this is an ideal place to bring in my extensive work imagining how certain religious ideas (including the afterlife) resemble ideas for dealing with AI risk. Meaning, that for those who aren’t religious, rather than imagining what happens or should happen to the souls of the departed, we can imagine the eschatology associated with AIs or, their close cousins, individuals who have had their brain uploaded into a virtual environment where the natural rules don’t apply (an environment which is supernatural by definition.) Obviously, I’m not going to want to type out that entire explanation every time I refer to these individuals, so instead I’ll just use Robin Hanson’s shorthand and call them Ems. Presumably even those who are not religious can imagine that someday we might develop the ability to construct (or reconstruct) a person in a virtual environment, and thereby realize a technological eschatology. And considering how that environment should work gets us to an afterlife or at least a “heaven” very similar to one imagined by many religions and by The Good Place itself.

Having hopefully given everyone a little more skin in the game on this topic, let’s proceed to our examination of what The Good Place got right, but probably more importantly what it got wrong about eschatology and potential afterlifes. 

Let’s start with one of the very first things I noticed, and one of the elements the show mangled the most. To repeat, I’m sure they made things this way for entirely understandable reasons, it was both comedic and necessary for the character arcs of nearly all the people on the show.  But, their representation of the “Good Place Committee” (GPC) represented a fundamental and almost insulting misunderstanding of the nature of good. I am assuming that most of those reading this had a chance to see the show, but if not, in the show, after people die, they can go either to the “Good Place” or the “Bad Place” and there isn’t much to distinguish these two places from common conceptions of heaven and hell, so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably.

Heaven is run by a committee, and apparently in this version of the world being good (or at least qualified to run the Good Place) comprises a combination of fawning politeness with absolute and total ineffectiveness. This seems clearly to be one of those things that was done the way it was for both the humor value and as a way to give the main characters something to do because certainly this bears no resemblance to the theology of any of the world’s religions, and even if we imagine that the “souls” in question are Ems and that humans are running the show rather than an omniscient creator it’s still impossible to imagine that the best governing structure they could come up with is the committee from the show (or any committee for that matter.)

Of course this leads to the question of what sort of people we should expect to be running or even just inhabiting heaven. And here I will allow that it’s a difficult question. One of the chief lessons to come out of recent philosophical work on AI risk has been the realization that coming up with a fool proof standard for morality is both enormously important and enormously difficult. That defining an objective, and it should be added, secular standard for what’s good and what’s not is a challenging task. But even with those difficulties in mind I think we should at least expect that any morality worthy of the name has to have some backbone to it, that this is in fact almost the definition of morality. And while, as I said, there were probably several good reasons for portraying it the way they did, I also wonder if they could have portrayed it in any other way, and if equating being obsequious for being good was the only way to not get overly political. 

(It should be noted it’s not just the GPC, in the show the paragon of “virtue” on the earth, Doug Forcett is also a gigantic pushover.)

I feel like this was not always the case, that there was a time when you could have pointed to a society-wide morality, and that being able to draw on a more robust morality would have allowed them to construct a far more convincing heaven (can you imagine what the Good Place would have looked like in the 1920’s?) but that such universality is no longer present. All that said, perhaps I’m reading too much into things, but at its most essential when anyone imagines heaven and hell you always imagine a war existing between the two. In the show it’s clear that the Bad Place is waging such a war against the Good Place, which the Good Place has been losing for centuries, apparently without even noticing it, or having the ability to fight back if they had. And it’s hard to imagine that any functional organization, much less one designed to be the ultimate ideal, could ever be that inept. But it makes you wonder, is there any chance that this is a reflection of our own failings in this area? Because it gets worse.

In the final few episodes we find out that not only have the effective “rulers of heaven” been too polite and willing to compromise and that they are losing a war with Hell they don’t even seem to be aware of, but on top of all this they’re actually terrible at running heaven. Somehow they have managed to create another version of hell, which is so bad that when it’s announced to those souls who’ve made it to heaven that they will be allowed to effectively commit suicide in order to leave, they cheer, and it’s implied that it’s the first cheer that’s been heard there in hundreds if not thousands of years. 

Here is where we turn to the things The Good Place did well. To begin with they tackle head-on the question of whether immortality would be a blessing or a curse. This idea that immortality might get old (pun intended) is one of the more interesting philosophical topics the show tackles, and a serious subject for debate among actual philosophers. One of the reasons to favor the idea that it’s a curse (which ends up being the show’s position) is illustrated by the pseudo-hell of boredom the characters find when they arrive in the Good Place. A boredom so soul-crushing that even with access to anything they could possibly imagine suicide seems preferable. Certainly claiming that regardless of how good it was, that one would eventually tire of life is not an unreasonable position to take, but neither does it feel particularly creative either. Regardless, one assumes that the GPC still could have done a better job of dealing with that boredom than they did, but if we keep our same basic emotions and appetites, even after having our brain uploaded into a virtual heaven, then boredom would still probably be a real concern. It should be mentioned that Hanson cleverly solves this problem for Ems by running them at a lower speed. As I said the “immortality is a curse” option is reasonable, but surely we can imagine ways to change that.

To flip it around and look at what people might want rather than what they’re trying to avoid, any system like this would, in theory, be trying to maximize human flourishing. One of my readers recently pointed me to an article where the Royal Society suggested that future technological systems should have “promote human flourishing” as their primary imperative. And The Good Place does a great job of illustrating how this is much easier said than done. 

For all of the characters in the show it quickly becomes obvious that even in heaven in order to be happy, that is to flourish, they need to have a work to do, something to occupy their attention. It’s not clear if this is an innovation introduced by the main characters or if all the previous inhabitants of the Good Place have exhausted this avenue before they arrive, but you get the impression it’s the former. And it illustrates another failure mode of heaven and immortality, the hedonic treadmill. If you give people everything they’ve ever wanted, the increased happiness is temporary. (The classic example is lottery winners.) That along with rewards there has to be continual challenges. And it occurs to me that beyond being interesting dilemmas, boredom and a hedonic set point are problems we’re already facing without having to imagine a heaven, virtual or otherwise.

It’s something of a cliche to talk about how in a developed country even relatively poor people live better than the kings of old. And while the situation is more complicated than that, it’s remarkable how much the modern world already resembles the Good Place of the show. One of the characters, Jason, apparently wants to play Madden forever. Well it’s my understanding that you can already do that. It probably helps if your parents let you live in their basement, or if you’ve got some other minimal level of support (I don’t think it takes that much. UBI or disability might be sufficient.) But that is something that’s already within reach and is probably just going to get easier. But is it flourishing? Are we sure we know what flourishing is? One of the whole points of the show is that no one, even in the afterlife, actually does. 

Hovering in the background of the show, but never mentioned, is the question of a designer. And while this part ends up being the most metaphysical, it’s also the part I find the most interesting. In most mythologies, or theologies, or even most systems in general, there’s a very prominent creation story. In Greek mythology there’s Gaia and Uranus. For the Abrahamic religions there’s Adam and Eve. For Facebook there’s Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room. But The Good Place pays almost no attention to any sort of “origin story”.

The closest we come is to find out that the Judge can destroy creation, and then reset it, but the “demons” running the Bad Place are not affected by this destruction so they exist outside of creation? But beyond this, the list of things we don’t know is staggering. Who created the point system? Why is there a point system? Who’s the judge? Where do the GPC and the Demons come from? And those are just questions directly relating to the show. There are still all the normal questions of why suffering and evil exist. What is the point of having a hell? And what is the source of morality?

In the end it definitely feels that there had to be a designer, whatever else you may say about things they definitely don’t feel organic. It seems clear from the show that someone came along and set all of this up, the point system, the existence of a Bad Place and a Good Place. The angels and the demons had to come from somewhere as well. But apparently whoever this person was, despite being effectively omnipotent, they don’t appear to have been omniscient, or even particularly wise. I’ve already talked about the various issues with the committee that runs the Good Place, but more than that the central premise of the show is revealing how poorly designed the afterlife actually is.

This is yet another similarity with our own condition. Being omnipotent without being omniscient or even very wise is not that far off from describing our own situation. Particularly if we’re ever able to upload our consciousness into a rules free virtual environment. How concerned should we be by this mismatch? If there’s one actual lesson to be taken from the show, it might be that we should be very concerned. And it actually works from both directions, in addition to showing a heaven where no one is actually happy, the show begins with the premise that, despite having infinite power to inflict torture on humans, they’re apparently looking for better ways of making them suffer as well. And part of the genius of the show is that both ring true, both happiness and misery end up being more complicated than expected, and being omnipotent is not the same as being omnicompetent. 

Obviously drawing a direct connection between a TV show and hypothetical future technology is of very limited utility, but I would argue that the utility is not zero. We’ve had the ability to satisfy our appetites beyond anything our ancestors imagined for quite some time (see my episodes on supernormal stimuli) and thus far the best we can say is that results have been mixed. And while we’re definitely going to get better at satisfying our appetites, it’s not clear that we’re going to get any better at managing the outcome of that.

We’re quick to imagine that if we ever get to the point where we can upload our brains into a virtual world of our own devising, crafted in such a way that our wildest dreams become reality, that all our problems will be solved. And if it’s not exactly this scenario there are still a lot of people with the same basic eschatology as the show: There’s a Good Place out there and we need to get to it. But just like the characters, there’s some chance that when we get there, it will turn out that it’s not as straightforward as we thought. And to the extent that we’re already there this is becoming increasingly obvious.

As those of you who have watched the show know. There’s also a Medium Place, inhabited by exactly one individual. And despite being only one person out of billions and despite being deeply flawed, this person exercised disproportionate influence on the rest of “creation”. I’m guessing there’s some lesson in there about the power we all have, but mostly I’m just making the connection that there was one person in the Medium Place and there’s one person writing this blog, so donate, I guess? 

Books I Finished in January

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

In general my posts don’t mention much in the way of personal details, but by revealing the entirety of what I finished reading in a given month, these book review posts are about as personal as it gets. And after realizing that it’s jarring too jump right into a review (particularly on audio). I thought I’d take the briefest moment at the beginning of each of these monthly round-ups to engage in some narcissistic navel-gazing. Which is what I just did… So I guess I’m done for the month!

Okay, I will say that I recently discovered the beauty of caffeine naps. In its canonical form you drink a cup of coffee then take a 20 minute nap. The caffeine kicks in right at the end of the optimal nap, and you’re doubly alert. I had heard of these before and even tried them, but since I don’t drink coffee, my caffeine intake was too slow (sipping coke) to make it work, but I got some super concentrated caffeine, and now I take a shot of that before my nap and the overall effect of the nap plus the caffeine is amazing. 

I- Eschatological Reviews

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

By: David Brooks

348 pages

General Thoughts

This book is a defense of community, religion, and civic interdependence and a denunciation of hyper-individualism, selfishness, and the cult of authenticity. Given that I am largely for and against the same things as the book, it has a lot to recommend it. And because of this overlap, in general I’d say it’s a necessary book with a good message. That said I have a few criticisms of it, two minor and one major. Let’s start with the minor ones:

His advice on finding a vocation fits into the mold of telling people to follow their passions, to dig deep into themselves until they have found their calling. Brooks’ version of this ends up looking more like selfless charity and less like stand-up comedy, but even so, I’m not sure it’s the advice that most people need. Also it’s very easy to overestimate how successful that endeavor is likely to be when you’re a celebrated columnist with lots of disposable income. Or even if you’re just middle class or higher. Beyond that he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining how people selflessly pursuing their special and unique vocation is different from people selfishly pursuing authenticity and fulfillment.

My other minor criticism concerns the timing of the book. Brooks divorced his first wife in 2013 and entered a second marriage with someone 23 years younger than him, and who also used to be his research assistant. He talks about his second wife at some length, and for him it makes up a big part of his “second mountain”. Now, I’m not trying to imply that there’s anything skeezy going on there. Brooks goes into great detail about how chaste the courtship was and how slowly and carefully they proceeded. And I’m convinced it was exactly as he described, also what he’s saying about community and religion continues to be true and worthwhile. My criticism would be that his overarching credibility suffers from the timing of things, and the prima facie appearance of it all. It’s hard not to come away with a subtext of “You too can start climbing the second mountain by trading in your boring wife of 28 years for a second hotter wife!”

What This Book Says About Eschatology

You may have initially suspected that this book would have nothing to do with eschatology, but it both does and doesn’t, which is my major complaint with the book. By calling this my “major” complaint I do not mean to imply that it was the place where Brooks made the biggest mistake, or said the most untrue thing, but rather that he made a major assumption along with a major omission. But most people writing in this space make the same assumption followed by the same omission, so it’s an error shared by a lot of people. His assumption is that the decline in religion and community and civic interdependence can be solved by small measures, books like the one he just wrote, community programs that duplicate families governmental interventions. And perhaps such measures can eventually reduce the decline. But that’s far from guaranteed, and Brooks’ omission is to ignore that discussion. Because, in the end, figuring out how to solve the problem will be what matters.

The decline of family, religion, and community that Brooks speaks of has been going on for a very long time, and the causes of that decline are deeply entrenched trends which seem largely resistant to simple fixes (like books from New York Times columnists.) Of course like most of these books, it’s full of examples and anecdotes of people rebuilding communities, creating replacement families, and crafting effective substitutes for religion, and all of these people have my profoundest respect, but it’s essentially impossible to imagine that such programs can scale up to the point where they fill the gaping abyss which has opened up over the last several decades. Brooks’ and others like him seem reluctant to confront the disparity between the modest size of the programs and the enormity of the problem they’re trying to solve, preferring, instead, to assume that if it can be done for 300 people it can be done for 300 million. We just need more people and more programs.

An example might help, one of the programs he mentions is Thread, which connects students in Baltimore to mentors and a network of other supporters. It’s clearly a great program. According to the website, in 15 years they’ve helped 527 students. That’s fantastic, and great for those 527 individuals, but it’s also just a drop in the bucket. Because on the other hand, starting in 2015, Baltimore has seen a spike in homicides, with between 100-200 additional homicides over the 2014 rate. Thread has helped an average of 35 people a year, meaning that Thread is losing the race. Even if we assume the number of people helped is greater than average recently, we still have a situation where for every person they’ve helped since 2014 at least two additional people have been murdered by the recent deterioration of the community.

The point being, one program cannot change the direction of an entire culture. Nor can a dozen. The culture itself has to change, and while the book provides lots of anecdotes about individuals changing, it presents very little evidence that indicates the entire culture is changing. And this is what’s lacking in this book, a discussion of whether incremental change is going to be enough. Because from my perspective it’s starting to seem like it won’t be. That if you want to return to the kind of community Brooks says we need, then it’s going to require something revolutionary. The question of how literally we should take the word “revolution” brings me to my next review.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason

By: Chapo Trap House

310 pages

General Thoughts

I first became aware of this book when my son received it for Christmas from my parents. He thinks it’s hilarious that they bought him this book, I think it shows that he’s less oppressed than he thinks. As you might imagine, I’m curious about what my son reads, particularly when it’s something political like this. After looking it up on Audible and discovering it was only 7 hours in length I decided to read it myself.

The Chapo Trap House phenomenon is largely centered on their podcast, and this book appears to be more supplementary material than the core curriculum. Since I’ve never listened to the podcast take everything I say as the view of an interested bystander, rather than someone who’s deeply informed, but, from where I stand, CTH is a group of hardcore socialists who communicate heavily through the use of satire and absurdity, but who are light on prescriptive injunctions. But if you were going to pin them down, they’re Sanders supporters, who think that capitalism has failed. When you combine political advocacy, humor, history, political science and satire you end up with a lot going on, but this snippet from a review I found on Amazon, is a pretty good encapsulation:

All I can say is that after reading this I at least have a better understanding of those who seek socialism in order to be able to work less and game more…

The book is funny, and that seemed to be their main goal, so I guess they deserve credit for that. In particular I thought their critique of how Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing had mislead people, particularly liberals, into believing that politics is the realm of reasonable debate and compromise between well meaning individuals, was particularly trenchant as well as being hilarious. Where their viewpoint and mine diverges is not in their assessment of the symptoms (I think we largely agree there) but their assessment of the underlying disease. I think the disease is complicated (see my previous 178 posts) they think the disease is capitalism.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

If we mostly agree that things are messed up, then the next question is can we fix things with incremental changes or do we just need to burn the place down and start over? It’s hard to get a read on what the CTH opinion is through all the jokes, but it feels like they’re on the “burn it all down” side of things. In particular you never got the impression that there was a point in history where socialism could have triumphed peacefully if just one or two things had been different. Rather if feels like no matter how far back you go they feel betrayed at every turn and by everybody. Perhaps William Jennings Bryan would have been the exception? I don’t know, they don’t mention him, the first president they mention is FDR, who they appear to kind of hate. In fact the only people they hate more is every other Democract president who came after him. They loathe Kennedy, they despise Johnson, they scorn Carter, and they absolutely abominate Clinton. The only president they go somewhat easy on is Obama, but you get the feeling that it’s more because of how popular he is among their audience, then because they actually think he did anything worthwhile (and in fact they have a whole list of bad things that he did.)

All of which leads to the question, if they’ve never been happy with an actual president, what is going to be different about this upcoming election? It’s all fine and dandy to imagine how your preferred candidate would have done things differently had he won, but he didn’t. In the real world the whole bit about actually getting elected ends up being pretty important. Perhaps the answer is that Sanders finally appears to have a chance, and one supposes that their hope is that Sanders will get elected and finally bring about the massive wealth redistribution they’ve been longing for, but if so I think they’re being horribly naive. Unless Sanders is part of some giant blue wave that sees the defeat of over half the Republican Senators standing for election in 2020, he’s going to have a hard time doing anything particularly radical. And of course this assumes he actually gets the nomination and from there wins the presidency. 

As of this writing it seems like he has a decent chance at the nomination, at a minimum he’s pulling away in Iowa, so I guess we’ll see what happens. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to see him as the democractic candidate, because it will be a great test of something that people on the far left and the far right have been saying for years. Because getting the nomination is just the first step, after that you have to win the general. Sanders will have to beat Trump and this is where things get interesting. People like the CTH guys feel that it’s a myth that far left candidates can’t win. That Sanders actually has a better chance of beating Trump than a moderate like Biden. And further, that moderate Democrats do all the things moderates are supposed to do and they still get slaughtered when the election comes. (See Clinton and the 1994 midterms.) There’s a lot that can be said about that, but it’s mostly speculation. (Though with Corbyn getting slaughtered in the last UK election I feel like there’s more evidence they’re wrong than that they’re right.) But it will be interesting to “run the experiment” and see what happens if Sanders does get the nomination. The CTH guys better hope he wins, because if a far left candidate gets nominated and loses to Trump, then we’ll never see another one.

Which brings us to the idea that they may have given up on an electoral solution, and are already moving on to a revolutionary solution (thus the title). Or that this is what they intend to do if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination or if he does and then loses, and if that’s the case, then that’s an entirely different matter, and a very different form of advocacy. One I’d want to see coming from as far away as possible, and this may be my primary reason for reading the book, I wanted to see if I was first up against the wall when the revolution comes. My son assured me that I won’t be, and he also promised he wouldn’t turn me in for a struggle session either. I guess that’s the best I can expect during the inevitable proletarian rebellion.

Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

By: Deirdre Barrett

216 Pages

General Thoughts

I’m fascinated by the idea of supernormal stimuli, and when I discovered there was an entire book written on the subject, it seemed an obvious decision to pick it up and read it. Well it may have been an obvious decision, but it wasn’t the correct one. I can not recommend this book to anyone. 

I can imagine certain of my readers jumping to the conclusion that the reason I didn’t like the book is that Barrett doesn’t agree with me that pornography is a supernormal stimuli. That is not the case, but to be honest I would have preferred that flaw to the many flaws the book actually possessed. It would have been fine had she disagreed with me about pornography (though I’ve yet to hear of anyone talking about supernormal stimuli who doesn’t identify pornography in that category) if the book had otherwise been an interesting and in-depth discussion of how supernormal stimuli affects the modern world, but the book was strangely superficial, disorganized and most of all preachy. 

I’m not interested in spending a lot of time on a book I didn’t like, but I will provide a couple of quick examples of what I mean. First there was her chapter on food. Which spent about 5% of it’s time on the supernormal stimulus angle and the other 95% of it castigating people for their poor eating choices and making dietary recommendations (including hypnotism). The castigation seems particularly odd if the whole point of her book is that humans have a built in evolutionary/genetic weakness for bad food. 

As a second example, there was a chapter on war. Here the breakdown was even worse, she spent 99% of her time on an anti war screed, and barely mentioned how it tied into supernormal stimuli at all. Basically there were a couple of sentences about how propaganda might be supercharged in the modern world, but nothing beyond that. Also she seemed to be declaring that modern wars were especially bad, a point belied by Steven Pinker, and his Better Angels argument. Which would not be worth remarking on if there wasn’t a blurb from Pinker on the dust jacket.

In general the book seemed less about supernormal stimuli and more about things the author personally found annoying with a nod towards supernormal stimuli to lend a veneer of science to her rants about fat people and war mongers. These rants were further undermined by entirely lacking any sense of scale. Barrett seemed just as incensed by the fact that youth soccer games involve more logistics and less exercise than they used to, as she was about spikes in violence from increased territoriality. 

I had high hopes for the book, but I was mostly disappointed, though only mostly, not entirely, which brings me to the next section

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I almost didn’t put this book in the eschatology section, even though I think supernormal stimuli pose a unique and subtle danger to civilization and society. But there is one point Barrett brought up that I thought bore further examination. She went into the idea of neoteny, when a creature carries adolescent qualities into adulthood. And in particular the process whereby species gradually become infantilized. Which is connected to the process of domestication. She related the well-known experiment of Dmitry Belyaev’s domestication of the Siberian foxes. Where it became obvious that neotenous attributes are shared across species, which led to the conclusion that Humans are neotenous versions of other primates. That we have self domesticated over thousands of years. 

I take two points from this, the first is one more criticism. If this particular supernormal stimuli has been going on for thousands of years, where does Barrett get off on singling out the modern world? Where’s the inflection point? I can think of many, but Barrett seems curiously uninterested in drawing a line between what’s new and potentially fixable and what’s been going on for so long that we probably just have to accept it. And curiously when she does call out an inflection point, it’s generally in the latter category. For example pointing out Jared Diamond’s claim that agriculture is the worst mistake humans ever made. Well possibly, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.

The second point, if we are self-domesticating, can we take it to far? And can we hasten this domestication through technology? I assume that dogs are easier to train with leashes and fences, to say nothing of shock collars. And does a well trained and well domesticated dog run after cars, disappear into the woods for days, or land on the moon? No. And it seems possible that our own domestication has taken all of those things off the table as well, particularly landing on the Moon again.

II- Capsule Reviews

My Life and Work

By: Henry Ford

140 Pages

I may or may not have mentioned the little old lady of my acquaintance who’s a voracious reader, and who provides me with a steady stream of recommendations. I almost always take her recommendations because they’re generally excellent. This time around she recommended the Autobiography Collection: Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, and Benjamin Franklin on Audible. It was a very interesting listen, though I might call it one of her rare misses. There’s a reason Ford and Tesla were famous for things other than writing, and Franklin left out most of the good stuff. Still reading primary source documents is an important exercise, and I’m glad I did it.

The first book was Ford’s autobiography, and it was probably the most interesting of the bunch. To begin with, you really come away from it feeling that Ford and Steve Jobs were formed from the same mold. Both were uncompromising industrialists who had a firm vision of what their product needed to be, and they didn’t pay any attention to those who criticized their vision. In Ford’s case, his vision was to work on a single car model until he had perfected it, both in terms of features, but even more importantly in terms of price. That was the Model T. And it revolutionized transportation and manufacturing, in ways that are probably difficult to imagine today. Of course, as you may have heard, he took this idea of focusing on perfecting a single model to such an extreme that he only allowed it to be manufactured in a single color, and one wonders what would have happened if, at the end of the day, he had been a tiny bit less draconian. Perhaps this was impossible, perhaps it was only his singular focus that allowed him to succeed, and if he was the kind of guy who would have allowed a red Model T, he would have been the kind of guy who could have never come up with the Model T in the first place.

His sense that he knew exactly how things should be done was not limited to cars. He was interested in politics, healthcare, antisemitism, economic theory, and the dangers of automation. These topics are too deep to get into, but it was interesting to hear him dismiss people’s worries that automation was going to cause unemployment using the same arguments people use today. Which either means such worries are groundless because they always turn out to be wrong, or that the arguments need to be updated to cover very different forms of automation. Forms that bear very little resemblance to the assembly line.

My Inventions

By: Nikola Tesla

88 Pages

I’m sure that Tesla was an amazing inventor. I’m sure that his genius is underappreciated even to this day, but I am equally sure based on his autobiography that he had some pretty serious psychological issues. For example:

During that period I contracted many strange likes, dislikes and habits, some of which I can trace to external impressions while others are unaccountable. I had a violent aversion against the earrings of women but other ornaments, as bracelets, pleased me more or less according to design. The sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit but I was fascinated with the glitter of crystals or objects with sharp edges and plane surfaces. I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver. I would get a fever by looking at a peach and if a piece of camphor was anywhere in the house it caused me the keenest discomfort. Even now I am not insensible to some of these upsetting impulses. When I drop little squares of paper in a dish filled with liquid, I always sense a peculiar and awful taste in my mouth. I counted the steps in my walks and calculated the cubical contents of soup plates, coffee cups and pieces of food–otherwise my meal was unenjoyable. All repeated acts or operations I performed had to be divisible by three and if I missed I felt impelled to do it all over again, even if it took hours.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

By: Benjamin Franklin

144 Pages

Franklin is definitely an interesting character, and this is a great book. I just felt like I’d already heard it all in one form or another. I imagine that most people already know about his program for developing virtues. (Franklin could very well be the first lifehacker.) We also read about his success as a writer, printer, creator of the first public library, etc. But what I really wanted to read about was his experiences during the Revolutionary War. I know he was in France for most of it, but he did help with the Declaration of Independence, and he had plenty to do in France. It seems pretty clear that if he hadn’t secured a military alliance with France that the Revolution would have failed. Unfortunately his autobiography contained next to nothing on these subjects.

It was a good book, even a great book. And Benjamin Franklin was truly amazing on top of all that, I suppose most of my disappointment was because I expected one thing and ended up with something else. If you go into the book with more modest expectations it’s probably well worth your time.

Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America

By: Scott Adams

256 Pages

I realize that Scott Adams is not everyone’s cup of tea. And I can sympathize with that. Every time he made a claim that starts, “As a trained hypnotist…” I had to resist the urge to stop the audiobook, ask for a refund, and take out of my bookmarks.  But if you can get past the self-promotion (and let’s be honest, is it even possible to have a platform these days without it?) Then Adams is actually a pretty objective, intellectually humble guy, who frequently not only  admits that he could be wrong, but identifies the bias he’s most likely suffering from. And out of this comes a fairly clear-eyed view of the modern world and its discontents. 

If you’re one of those who’s wondering what the heck is going on, and you want to hear from someone who makes a cogent case for Trump without being crazy. This is about as good as it gets. 

The Library Book

By: Susan Orleans

336 Pages

Susan Orleans wrote the Orchid Thief, which was turned into the movie Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman and Spike Jonze. I love Charlie Kaufmann movies, “Adaptation” included, so there was already a predisposition to look on this book favorably. Then hearing that it was a meditation on libraries in general sealed the deal. It does actually have a plot on top of all that. It concerns the horrible 1986 fire in the central Los Angeles library, and the man who was charged with causing it. 

In the end there are definitely better books that weave several stories into one (for example The Devil and the White City) and there are probably better meditations on libraries (though I’m not aware of any). But The Library Book does a pretty good job of combining the two, and it’s an easy, comfortable read on top of that. 

Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus

By: Sophocles

238 Pages

I’m sure there are other places to find the story of Oedipus, but these are the earliest stories which have survived and they may be the best. Which means they’re also basically the most tragic as well. The story of Oedipus and his family is pretty bleak stuff and Sophocles milks it for all it’s worth, so if you’re the kind of person who likes tragic tales these plays are for you. 

Beyond that, as was the case with the Eumenides by Aeschylus, the plays also form something of an origin story for Athens. This time around it wasn’t quite as explicit but the Athenians are once again the heroes, and they’re heroic because of their commitment to impartial justice. 

Finally, in Oedipus at Colonus it’s obvious that Oedipus has been sanctified and made wise by the enormity of his tragedy. And I’m not sure if that is a profoundly deep insight about the nature of Greek Civilization, or if it’s something that’s everywhere and I just never picked up on it, or if it only applies to Oedipus specifically, or if I’m actually completely wrong about this idea in the first place. Probably, I’m wrong about so many things.

The other day someone sent me a book out of the blue. I’m not even entirely sure who it was. But if you’d like me to review a book leave it in the comments. Though, I will say your chances are higher if you also toss in a buck or two as a donation.

Pornography and the End of the World

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It may seem strange to declare that going forward this blog is going to be entirely focused on eschatology, and then to choose pornography as the very next subject. Most people scoff at the idea that pornography could lead to the end of the world all on it’s own. And I mostly agree with that, but as I said, part of what I want to do is expand the discussion of eschatology vertically to encompass things that aren’t commonly considered, but may represent more subtle threats, and I would argue that pornography might be just such a threat. 

In part this is precisely because very few people take it seriously. Everyone understands that if we get hit by a comet, or if the ice caps melt, or if there’s a nuclear war, that even if humanity survives, things will be pretty grim, whereas with pornography, we have the exact opposite situation. There’s a substantial segment of the population who feels that it’s entirely benign, and some who even feel that it’s healthy. As you may have guessed I’m not in either camp, and I’ll explain why.

To start with, if people were certain that some aspect of society was definitely going to end in catastrophe, or worse, end up causing the destruction of that very society. Then they would definitely do something about it. When there’s a clear and present danger, like being invaded by a foreign army, people are pretty good about doing whatever it takes. Unfortunately most dangers are not so obvious, nor so inevitable. Many dangers are subtle, and those which aren’t, are generally improbable. And yet it is from the universe of these subtle and improbable dangers, that catastrophe often emerges. I think we can safely say that no one foresaw that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand would lead to 40 million deaths (more if you count World War II). And even if we move the causation down a few steps, there were hardly any people who thought war between the Great Powers would cause 40 million deaths. But if we’re going to have any chance of preventing catastrophes, then identifying all the many potential dangers beforehand is a necessary first step.

All of this means that a large part of any study of eschatology has to involve a discussion of catastrophes with a very low probability. As I said, I think it’s extremely unlikely that pornography is going to lead to the end of the world all on it’s own, but I do find it fascinating that numerous people don’t even view it as a danger. This was illustrated by a recent Twitter debate between cultural conservatives and more libertarian conservatives on the topic. I’m sure it doesn’t take much to imagine what that debate was about. The cultural conservatives think that pornography is a huge danger and the government should do more to keep it out of people’s home’s, and the libertarian’s think the pornography is not that big of a deal, and that if you’re worried about it you just need to “parent better”. As you might imagine I’m firmly on the cultural conservatives side. I think that pornography is dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted. 

As part of that debate someone linked to an article in the The Dallas Morning News that illustrates all of these attributes, particularly the idea that you just need to “parent better”. The author describes how something was obviously weighing on her daughter. It took some coaxing, but the daughter eventually revealed what it was:

At a friend’s birthday party, they were playing on the little girl’s phone. The girl handed it to my daughter and said, “Boys are disgusting.” My daughter clicked on a male classmate’s Snapchat story to find a video of him and a few other boys from her class laughing as they watched “rape porn”. She said the woman was bound up, saying “no” as a masked man approached her.

[She] went on to describe a group of boys in her sixth grade class frequently joking about assaulting the girls in the parking lot. She said if any of the girls aren’t sitting with their legs closed, the boys will ask if they want to get pregnant. And if the girls’ legs are crossed, boys from this group often walk by and say, “Spread ‘em.”

To begin with we need to ask if the story is true. I see no reason do doubt that, it doesn’t strike me as being implausible. The behavior described in the last paragraph seems a little over the top and caricatured, but not so much that it seems unrealistic. Perhaps some parts of it are exaggerated, maybe the boys only joked about assault once or twice. Or maybe if we’re really skeptical, it didn’t happen to the author’s daughter it happened to the daughter of a friend, and she was 15. But does anyone doubt that at some point a child was exposed to “rape porn” through some, supposedly benign portal, like Google?

After considering whether the story is true, we have to ask if it’s representative. Again this is hard to say, but every statistic I’ve seen indicates that pornography is ubiqitious, and I’d be very much suprised if most statistics don’t understate the true percentages of teenagers who’ve been exposed to it. Asking a kid if they’ve viewed pornography has the same declaration against interest problem that asking about drugs has. Which is to say, you can definitely trust that everyone who says they have viewed it is telling the truth, but you should definitely carry some doubt about everyone who says that they haven’t.  But regardless of whether it’s 28% of 11-12 year olds, or closer to 50% or 80%, does anyone doubt that children are being inadvertently exposed to really upsetting pornography all the time?

Many people, even those who defend pornography, would basically agree with the first two points (if not the exact details of the example I provided). Which is that children, even those as young as 11, are consuming pornography, and that this consumption is not isolated. But after granting this, many people don’t see any particular harm, and they certainly don’t think that the government needs to do anything about it. Rather, as I mentioned at the beginning, they think that if I or people like me have a problem with it, that we just need to “parent better”. This is a great example of how difficult that is.

This girl wasn’t exposed to “rape porn” because she ended up on Pornhub on the home computer, and it’s the mother’s own fault because she didn’t install content filtering software. She was exposed to it on Instagram. I have no direct knowledge of how common that is on Instagram specifically, but I do know that there are numerous mainstream sites that also host an awful lot of porn (not extreme stuff like in the example, but still) for example Reddit and Imgur. Meaning that a parent can install ironclad content filtering software in their home, but what happens the minute your child goes over to a friends house, or ends up in the presence of a smartphone that doesn’t have filtering software. Or if it ends up on a site like Instagram that isn’t filtered. And of course, no kid has ever figured out how to get around content blocking. The key point being that “rape porn” is easily available on any internet connection unless special, even extraordinary care is taken. 

I said that the story would illustrate that pornography is “dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted” and I think it does, but now that we’re through discussing the provence and how difficult it is for even good parents to restrict, it’s time to get into a specific discussion of the subtle and multifaceted danger of porn. For myself, I have a hard time imagining that sixth graders consuming “rape porn” could be viewed as anything other than dangerous, and even if we assume that most childhood consumption of pornography is not so extreme, they’re still viewing stuff which is almost entirely composed of unhealthy examples of sexual relationships, and it would be difficult to argue that they’re not learning from these examples and translating that into expectations. Indeed, there’s broad evidence for that, and it’s also what happened to the boys in the story I provided as an example. 

Even if you are making the argument that pornography is harmless for most people, (which I don’t agree with) the same could be said of alcohol and yet we universally restrict that to people over 21. Can we at least agree that pornography requires a certain amount of maturity to handle? More maturity than that possessed by the average 11 year old?

Thus far we have only discussed the obvious dangers, but as I said there are more subtle dangers as well. Many people want to focus on the ways in which pornography degrades women. And indeed there was some of that present in the example I provided. But what about the effect it has on men? I know that there are arguments that it warps their expectations of sex (indeed I already made that argument) but let’s set that aside for the moment. You could imagine that pornography could be an entirely healthy outlet (again I don’t think it is) but if it replaced the need for actual sex with real people that would still be bad.

Back in May of 2018 I did a post about incels, (people, especially men, who are celibate, but not by choice) and at the time I posted a graph showing a large upswing in the men aged 22-35 who reported having no sex in the previous year, and speculated that it was probably connected to pornography. And indeed, in terms of the effort required for gratification, you can hardly compare the two. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, finding someone to actually have sex with requires leaving the house, spending some amount of time at a bar, displaying a certain level of charm while at the bar, and whatever additional logistics might end up being required. And normally a lot more than that. While achieving gratification with pornography doesn’t even require someone to get up out of their chair. This asymmetry is hard to ignore, and it’s equally hard to imagine that it doesn’t carry any additional consequences. 

Finally I claimed that the danger from pornography was multi faceted. Which it is. There’s the danger it poses to children, there’s the danger it poses to those who are married (studies indicate it increases the risk of divorce), there’s the danger it poses to people trying to start a relationship, and the danger to those people who will never have a relationship because pornography is easier. But all of those dangers are really only about what is happening right now. Another facet to the potential danger is where things are headed. As I pointed out the last time we were on this subject, we’re only about a dozen years into the era of streaming video, which means that it’s reasonable to assume that the full effects of that innovation are yet to be felt. And I would argue that this is particularly true when it comes to pornographic videos. On top of that there are probably second order and downstream effects. Some of which I’ve already touched on and some of which have yet to be uncovered. 

This is where we get to the other reason for bringing up this subject now, so far what I’ve covered is fairly typical of the debate between cultural conservatives and basically everyone else. But in addition to the twitter debates which define every subject these days, including pornography, there are other, deeper, historical reasons for concern, as laid out in the recent article, Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought by Kirk Durston. I would urge you to read the entire article, but if you don’t have time it’s a discussion of the book Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin, which was published in 1934. At the time Unwin had engaged in an exhaustive survey of past cultures, and as part of that he came to a somewhat startling conclusion:

If total sexual freedom was embraced by a culture, that culture collapsed within three generations…

Obviously this is an extraordinary claim? What are we to do with it? 

To begin with we can examine it in the light of the subject we were already discussing, pornography. None of the civilizations Unwin studied had anywhere close to the level of pornography that ours does, for technological reasons if nothing else. Does this mean that ours will collapse faster? Maybe it won’t make any difference. Or, I could actually see some people arguing that it will somehow slow the collapse, but honestly, I can’t take either of the final two arguments seriously. Pornography allows people to engage with their depravities to an extent never before possible. And to return to where I began, while I still don’t think it will cause the end of the world all on it’s own, if we take the Unwin’s conclusion seriously, it certainly might contribute. And indeed a civilization of men (and I use that term loosely) who spend more time closeted in their room in the onanistic enjoyment of pornography than out there getting married, having offspring and working to make the world better for their offspring, doesn’t seem like a healthy civilization by any measurement.

Of course most people aren’t asking whether pornography speeds up the collapse of civilization predicted by Unwin, because they reject his prediction all together.  I have a few friends that I can use to take the temperature of the modern world. Friends who are essentially archetypical, intelligent, secular liberals, and all of them considered this prediction to be ludicrous. I’m not surprised by this, but neither do I agree with it, and I think it illustrates one of the key divides in society, one which doesn’t get a lot of airplay.

Many people, including myself, recognize that civilizations do collapse, catastrophe’s do occur, and that to a first approximation certain cultures are present when nations are ascendent and other cultures are generally present when nations are in decline. And while three generations does seem fast. (Unwin’s generations appear to be approximately 33 years, so around 100 total.) The kind of culture where pornography is ubiquitious and sexual restraint lacking does seem to be one of the cultures more often present when a nation is declining than when a nation is ascendent. 

On the other side of that divide, we have the people who think that this time it’s different. That progress and technology have allowed us to create a civilization immune from the problems that plagued past civilizations. Or, perhaps more charitably, that, “Yes, this civilization is fragile just like every other civilization, but it’s not going to be brought down by ‘total sexual freedom’. That’s not a problem with our civilization, that’s what makes it awesome!” 

After considering all of the foregoing we’re left with a host of questions

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? 

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction?

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? 

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have purchased Sex and Culture, and I will read it and let you know (it is massive), but questions like these are at the core of any study of eschatology. And, as I have said, identifying all of the potential dangers is a necessary first step but it’s not sufficient. And most of the time the potential that any given danger will actually come to pass is going to be difficult if not impossible to assess. So what do we do once we think we’ve identified a danger? Well, as I’ve mentioned before it’s far easier to identify the danger than to know what to do about it, though just awareness can be palliative, but if we’re looking to go beyond that, this is also where the precautionary principle kicks in. Another thing that’s going to come up a lot in any discussion of eschatology. 

I think I’ll save a full discussion of this principle for another time, but I would think that if there are things which could be easily done to minimize future danger, even if that danger has a very low probability, that we should do them. As one example, the Supreme Court has definitely ruled that you can segregate adult content without running into any free speech issues. One way of doing that would be to create a top level domain, say .xxx and require that all pornography be hosted on one of those domains. I understand that there are some technical challenges here, but it’s still a reasonably straightforward low cost solution to the problem of pornography. Whether you think it’s all bad or whether you would just like to keep 11 year old girls from inadvertently viewing “rape porn”. And yet somehow, to my continued bafflement, there is enormous resistance towards any kind of regulation. 

I guess I shouldn’t be baffled. Most people view the current availability of pornography as a minor change in the way the world works. And I understand, that’s an easy position to fall into, progress brings new innovations, society adapts, the world continues. But there’s no guarantee that the world, as we know it, will continue, and lots of reasons to believe that when we’re messing with sex and reproduction, even if it’s just through the avenue of pornography, that we’re messing with something deep rooted and fundamental, possibly in ways we don’t understand. (I didn’t even bring in the idea that pornography is a supernormal stimuli.)

Also, I think people underestimate how much has changed. I remember a time when having HBO in the home was a big deal, and the “Playboy Channel” was the stuff of legends, but just a few decades later and now a large number of people see no problem with giving their kid a smartphone that can access stuff that makes the Playboy Channel look like Barney the Dinosaur.

As I’ve said countless times, predicting the future is impossible. And when I say that people often accuse me of hypocritically doing just that by, for example, entertaining the idea that total sexual freedom, and particularly pornography, will bring down civilization within three generations, but isn’t the opposite true as well? That on the other side they’re predicting that total access, at all ages, to the hardest of the hardcore will have no negative effects? Which is really the more implausible position? 

I agree that there are lots of open questions and that we don’t know what is going to happen, but lets review the questions I posed above one more time, and add a little bit more thought to each.

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? Speaking just of pornography if the choices are “eventual contributor to catastrophe” and “things which make modern civilization immune to catastrophe”. It seems far more at home in the first bucket than in the second.

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I intend to take every prediction of civilizational collapse seriously.

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? Durston certainly thinks it does and his entire article was written in support of that idea. For myself I think three generations seems remarkably specific, but when I look around I don’t see much that would convince me Durston and Unwin are wrong either.

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology? We don’t.

It’s Christmas Eve as I publish this, and I know all of you are wondering, what do I get the eschatologist who has everything?  Well how about a recurring donation? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Start Here

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I’ve noticed a hole recently. More specifically, a hole in my writing. I frequently meet people who I think would enjoy or appreciate my ideas, and yes, occasionally, when I meet these people, I say “Check out my blog!” and give them the URL. But I do it less often than I should, and part of the reason for that is I’m unsure where I should tell them to start. There was the very first post, which was intended as an introduction, but at this point that was two and a half years ago, and in that time things have evolved somewhat. And even assuming they read the first post, where do they go from there? Certainly I can’t expect them to then read everything up to the present day. So this is the post where I’m going to fill that hole. If you’re not its intended audience, i.e. you’re one of the people who’s been faithfully reading since the beginning or at least a long time, then I hope that it will be interesting to you as well, but you have my permission to skip it.

This blog starts with two basic and related questions. “What does the future hold?” And, “What should I be doing about it?” Many people, if not most, don’t think very deeply about the future, and what thoughts they do have assume it will be similar to the present, except possibly with better smartphones. Meaning they should largely continue to do what they’ve been doing. There is another, smaller group of people, who do think deeply about the future and they’ve concluded it’s going to be “Awesome!” That technology will solve all our problems. And beyond working to bring that future to pass as quickly as possible, what they intend to do is sit back and enjoy it.

My answer is different than both groups. It’s taken from a verse in the Bible, the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:

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

This answer is the theme of the blog, and also the origin of the domain name as well. But to properly understand how I arrived at that it I’m going to have to walk you through a few things first. To start with, when people think about the future they usually do so on one of four levels, two of which I’ve already alluded to:

1- Taking the present as a guide: These are essentially the people I mentioned above who don’t think very deeply about the future, and default to assuming it’s going to be similar to the present. To be fair, if you’re just going from one year to the next most years are pretty similar, so this isn’t a horrible strategy. Also thinking about the future is difficult, as we’ll see.

2- Taking the recent past as a guide: Not that long ago, by historical standards, we learned to start “harvesting” technology, and we entered a “summer” of progress. The harvest was bountiful and the summer was bright. As I said above, it’s been pretty awesome. We went from the steam engine all the way to nuclear power. We eliminated slavery and promoted democracy. We experienced exponential economic growth. And, at least in the developed countries, even relatively poor people have it pretty good when compared with the historical average. These people are not so naive as to think that nothing changes, but they feel that the harvest of technology and summer of progress have altered conditions so completely that only recent trends matter.

3- Taking all of human history as a guide: This approach is similar to the last one, but broader, and while no one in this category gives the same weight to 25 AD that they give to last year, when attempting to predict the future, they still give some weight to 25 AD. This obviously makes them less inclined to think that we have permanently banished war between the great powers, and less inclined to cast aside religion and tradition. They also have a greater tendency to think differences in culture are profound, or that technology has not changed things as much as people think.

4- Taking the attitude that the future can’t be predicted: It could be argued that this attitude is undoubtedly true, but not very useful. Perhaps, but just because I said that the future can’t be predicted doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. The mere realization of its unpredictability makes some actions better than others. For example diversification vs. betting everything on a single investment, regardless of how safe it seems. A lesson some Bernie Madoff investors learned too late.

Of these four levels, the first level is fine probably 90% of the time, maybe even more. Which is part of why most people end up on this level, but when we start talking about how often it works at a societal level, it goes from adequate to hopelessly naive. And I think we can safely remove it from further consideration.

The second level is the “Awesome!” level. The idea that the harvest is going to continue and the summer is never going to end.

The third and fourth levels might seem different, but the difference is less than you imagine. Level four says bad things might happen and we should live in such a way that, if they do, if things turn out to not be awesome, then it won’t be the end of the world (and I mean this literally). Level three says that bad things have happened a lot, and that based on historical evidence the world has generally not been awesome, and that further, religions, traditions and cultural norms have developed to minimize the impact of the bad things when they do happen.

We can combine three and four together into the camp of people who think the future is not going to be awesome versus, level two, the camp of people who think it is going to be awesome. I’m in the non-awesome camp. Though I’m aware that I may be wrong, and when people in the “awesome camp” point out that things are pretty great right now, relatively speaking, they’re not wrong. What we’ve been able to do over the last few hundred years has been truly incredible. But here’s the main point, and if there was one thing I want you to take away from this post, and actually from everything I’ve written it’s this:

If I’m wrong and the future is awesome, then we will have only lost the time and resources that I, and others like me, spent preparing for something that never happened. But if the other side is wrong, if the future is not awesome, if catastrophes happen which could have been avoided, then the cost is the full weight of those avoidable catastrophes.  Which could be millions of people dying, or billions, or everybody.

This asymmetry, when combined with the fact that we cannot predict the future is why I’m on the “non-awesome team”. Without the ability to predict what will happen, it’s best to prepare for the worst.

That phrase “prepare for the worst” may incline you to believe that I’m just another “prepper” who’s going to urge you to stockpile guns, ammo and food. Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you not to do that (if you’ll forgive the double negative) but I also think “the worst” could encompass situations far more subtle and slow-moving than a nuclear holocaust. For all it’s terror, wide scale nuclear war is fairly straightforward. First as I pointed out in a previous post The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope it probably doesn’t mean the end of all human life. Second if it does happen it will reduce everything down to a simple question of survival in very difficult circumstances, and I think despite the conveniences of modern life that it will turn out that we’re still pretty good at that. So, yes it is probably a good idea to prepare for that, but if it happens I think you’ll know what to do. This blog is dedicated to more subtle dangers where the correct action might not be quite so obvious.

The source of these subtle dangers turns out to be the same as the source of awesomeness: progress and technology. In addition to harvesting stuff like representative government and antibiotics, the harvest has also brought us the aforementioned danger of nuclear weapons, and by some accounts the more insidious danger of social media. So let’s talk about technology.

As I said at the beginning my answer to the question of what the future brings is that the harvest of technology is past. But what do I mean by that? Surely technology is still advancing? Don’t new smartphones still come out every year? (Now with three rear facing cameras!) They do, but a harvest implies things that are beneficial, that are life-sustaining, and more and more, new technology is neither. I mentioned social media and just this week a study was released by Stanford claiming a marked improvement in mental health from quitting Facebook. This is not to say there aren’t also stories about potential cures for cancer (though this most recent story is probably bogus) but I’m not sure where the balance between harmful and beneficial technologies sits at the moment. It may on net have tipped to harmful, and even if it hasn’t, as I pointed out in a recent post. It only takes one really bad technology to destroy us while there may be no amount of technology that will permanently save us.

Another thing to consider is how would technology save us? Over a long enough time horizon, to be truly saved we have to leave Earth. Until we do that we have “all our eggs in one basket” so to speak. I was about two years old the last time there was a man on the moon, and growing up I read a steady diet of science fiction stories from the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Card and Hogan which all naturally assumed that we would soon leave the Earth and journey out into the cosmos. (level two!) But we never even went back to the Moon, and currently we spend about $64/person/year in the US on NASA as compared to the $10,739/person/year on healthcare. Now of course you could argue that we should add the operating costs of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on top of the NASA figure, but even if we did it wouldn’t break $100/person/year, and beyond that the vast majority of that does not go towards anything that would allow us to permanently and sustainably leave Earth. Think of other things you spend more than $100/year on, McDonalds? (I admit I myself suffer from mild addition to sausage egg McMuffins) and you get some sense of how low of a priority it really is.

I compared NASA spending to healthcare spending just now for a reason, because healthcare spending represents one of the subtle and slow-moving dangers I was talking about. A big part of what makes it subtle is how unobjectionable it seems. What kind of heartless person (other than me I suppose) would have a problem with spending money on health? But why do we spend so muchmoney on it? If technology and progress are so great why are they making us less healthy? Why has the rate of diabetes increased by eight times from 1959 to 2015? Why has there been a worldwide increase in obesity? And why is it more pronounced in “more advanced” countries? Why has there been a large increase in mental illness, particularly among teens? And why does it appear to correlate with social media use? (All level four) Considering all of this, I stand by my assertion that the “summer has ended.” And, to bring it back to the original point, it’s going to be hard for technology to save us if we’re spending 100x as much on the problems technology creates as we are on the salvation we hope it will provide.

Reasonable people may disagree with my figure of 100x or the entire argument, but what you can’t disagree with is the enormous amount of change progress and technology has wrought. To return to the two original questions. Given this massive amount of change, “What does the future hold?” And “What should we be doing about it?” Thus far I’ve mostly focused on the first question but now it’s time to turn our focus to the second. As I mentioned if you believe, because of progress and technology, that the future is going to be awesome (level two) then your main goal is to bring that awesome future to pass as quickly as possible. This means adopting new technology and new morality as quickly as possible. The problem is, if we have decided that we don’t know what the future will bring (level four) and by extension what effect new technology will ultimately have, then rapid adoption just hastens the arrival of an unknown, but potentially negative future, and gives us less time to adapt to any potential harms. So what should we do about this?

The answer is: “Be antifragile.” What does that mean? Antifragile is a word coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book of the same name, to describe things that get stronger when they’re subjected to stress. Of course, this can only be true up to a point, nothing is infinitely antifragile, but, as you probably guessed, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. In other words, if you’re antifragile then even if the future isn’t awesome you’ll be okay, in fact you may even be better off. Of course you might also add in slow down the adoption of new technology and morality, but as an individual that’s something you have very little influence over. Also having an antifragile mindset give you an intellectual backing for the what, the how and the why of slowing things down.

Of course, it’s easy to say, “Just do that thing where bad stuff makes you stronger.” But what does it actually look like in practice? Allow me to turn to one of my favorite quotes from Taleb:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.

This example perfectly illustrates the point I made above. If you’re wrong and there are never any difficulties (but how likely is that?) then you’re just that somewhat eccentric guy with spam in his basement who could have had a boat, or a bigger house instead. But if the guy in debt is wrong and difficulties arise then he ends up bankrupt with possibly no house.

Additionally this doesn’t just apply to cash. If you’re married, and in a strong religious community, than difficulties are a lot easier to face than if you’re single, or have no large community to draw on. This is most apparent when you’re speaking of single parent families which are much more fragile than two parent families.

Early on I grouped the historical view (level three) and the skeptical view (level four) together. It’s now time to separate them again because the historical view has a lot to teach us about how to be antifragile. First it’s important to realize that things are either fragile or antifragile. They are either harmed by stress and disorder or they are helped by it. There is a third category, robust, things that are neither harmed nor helped, but in practice very few things are truly robust so I’m going to ignore it.

As it turns out the amount of stress and disorder something has been subjected to is, to a good approximation, equal to the amount of time it’s been around. Meaning that long standing beliefs including culture, religion and tradition are almost certainly antifragile, because the only other option is for them to be fragile, and if they were, they would have disappeared at some point. Broken by the stress and disorder which inevitably occurs over a sufficiently long period of time.

This makes sense, the past contained all sorts of difficulties and uncertainties and it’s only to be expected that people would have developed tools to soften those difficulties. One of these tools was obviously religion, which encouraged things like having kids only if you had two people to raise them, a spare parent in case something happened. And it’s why a taboo against premarital sex didn’t just exist in Christian Europe, it existed in the Muslim Middle East, and even Ancient China.

Accordingly this blog spends a lot of time defending traditional beliefs and religion, because I think they’re still the best strategy for dealing with an uncertain future. This is contrary to the more common refrain that we no longer need religion and traditions because things have changed so much, but if things are changing so much and so fast how do we know what we need? To know that we would have to know what’s going to happen, and we can’t. And if that’s the case, the best strategy is to be antifragile and the best way to do that is using the tools which have been developed over thousands of years for exactly that purpose: traditional religion.

There is, of course, another reason for religion, one I personally subscribe to. Unlike, progress and technology, which I have argued don’t offer salvation, religion does offer that hope. I agree it’s a hope not a certainty. I agree that it requires faith, but I still think it gives better odds than us being saved under our own power.

To tie everything together, I think we should prepare for a future which is not-awesome. That technology and progress are moving things into unknown territory, and bringing with them the potential of subtle and slow moving catastrophes. But that despite these changes the best way to prepare is the same as it’s always been, follow traditional values, because they’re traditional for a reason.

For those encountering my writing for the first time, if any of this resonates with you I urge you to keep reading, I put out a new post every week. (Here’s a link to my mailing list if you’d like to be notified.) And if you’re ready for more right now here are some other posts you might find interesting:

If you’d like to read more about the subtle ways that technology is making things worse check out my post on supernormal stimuli. Examples include things like twinkies and pornography.

One reason to be pessimistic about the ability of technology to save us is that it doesn’t appear to have worked anywhere else. The universe is silent. This is called Fermi’s Paradox and I’ve written lots of posts about it, including what it might say about the existence of God.

As I mentioned above the “awesome camp” has a lot to recommend it, if you’re interested in a deeper examination of why I’ve decided to bet the other way I’d recommend the post where I review Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

I’ve just barely scratched the surface of antifragility, to say nothing of Taleb’s other ideas like Black Swan events. If you’re interested in learning more see my post on The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The idea I’m perhaps best known for is the realization that proposals for ensuring the morality of god-like AIs strongly resemble the LDS Plan of Salvation.  If you’re interested I did a whole three part series on it. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Finally, remember this: The world is in a state of flux. Things are changing more rapidly than people realize. The future is not guaranteed to be awesome. Religion is not a useless relic of the past and we are not saved.

If this is the first post of mine you’ve read then another thing I do is come up with a clever (or not so clever) way to ask for your donation at the end of every post. But I’ll forebear this time. Just as there as some things you shouldn’t do on a first date, it’s probably inappropriate to ask for money on the first post.

Technology, Transit Systems and Uncharted Territory

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Long time readers (and probably even people who just started last week) know of my admiration for Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. An admiration which extends to doing the same thing for his blog that I do for mine, i.e. record it and syndicate it as a podcast. Which is not to say that I don’t also, on occasion, disagree with him. I bring all this up because there’s a metaphor of his that I’ve been meaning to discuss for quite a while, probably since he first introduced it near the end of September, but somehow I never get around to slipping it in. This is despite it being directly applicable to much of the stuff I’ve been writing about, particularly over the last couple of weeks. This feels like it was partially a factor of size. That this metaphor has ended up being too big to just use as just one more example of my point, but too small to carry an entire post. Well, we’re about to see if this is the case because I have decided to delay no longer and devote an entire post to Alexander’s The Tails Coming Apart as Metaphor for Life.

He starts off by pointing out that even if you have two variables which are strongly correlated, the most extreme example of one will only rarely be the most extreme example of the other. As an illustration he offers up arm strength vs. grip strength. Certainly you would expect someone with really powerful arms to have really powerful hands, and there would appear to be no reason why you couldn’t have both, but apparently there is enough of an edge to focusing on either arms or grip that different people will end up on the extremes of either measure. Rather than one person being the strongest in both.

You can certainly see this kind of specialization at the highest levels of athletics. Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive at the 100 m dash, but when people started wondering how fast he could run a mile his agent clarified he’s never run a mile in his life. And it turns out that at 2:10 even his 800 m speed is entirely uncompetitive (to be in the top 10 of Utah HS Athletes he would need a time of at least 1:53). On the other side of things, we have the less well known, Eliud Kipchoge, the current holder of the marathon record, who I’m sure would be slaughtered in any competitive 100 m dash (though unlike Bolt, he’s definitely run that distance). In other words, they’re both runners but it turns out they’re very different kinds of runners.

At this point we could go off into a discussion of fast-twitch vs. slow-twitch muscle fibers, and other factors, but that’s not really where I want to take this. Because as much as Bolt and Kipchoge are specialized, there’s a limit to that specialization. People try to push these limits with performance enhancing drugs, but even if those were allowed no one is going to run a five second 100 m dash, or complete a marathon in less than an hour. But once you add technology all of those things are easy. Take the worst car in the world, and as long as it actually still runs it should be able to do both trivially. But then on top of just doing most things better technology vastly increases our ability to really crank up the dial on specific things.

Of course when we do this we have to make sacrifices in other areas. More so even than the elite athletes. Regardless of how much someone focuses on being a sprinter or alternatively being a marathoner, they’re never going to lose their ability to walk. Perhaps even more to the point nothing about sprinting or endurance running precludes learning how to swim. But despite technology allowing us to make a car that is better at both sprinting and endurance, outside of a James Bond movie it’s never going to be able to pass through water deeper than it’s exhaust.

To jump to a more extreme example, let’s discuss airplanes. On the sprinter side we have the SR-71 which had a 56 foot wingspan; was 107 feet in length; had a loaded weight of 76 tons and a maximum speed of Mach 3.3. Of course to achieve that speed it burned 22 tons of fuel every hour, meaning it had to be refueled about every 90 minutes. On the endurance side we have the Rutan Voyager which had a 111 foot wingspan; was 10 feet in length; had a loaded weight of five tons, and a maximum speed of 122 mph. This required it to burn 32 lbs of fuel every hour. On its record setting flight it did the first non-stop, non-refueled circumnavigation of the globe that involved crossing the equator twice. It was aloft for 216 hours.

Yes the SR-71 and the Voyager are both airplanes, but beyond the fact that they both fly there’s not much resemblance. And what resemblance there is probably comes down to the fact that they both have human crews. Eliminate the crews and the how fast can we propel something through the air and how long can we keep something aloft diverge even more. Russia claims it just tested a hypersonic missile that hit Mach 27. On the other side you have the Airbus Zephyr which can, as an unmanned solar-powered UAV (drone), stay aloft essentially indefinitely, at a cruising speed of 35 mph. For comparison to above it has a 74 foot wingspan and weighs 117 lbs.

Returning to Alexander he points out that we end up with two zones, and borrowing some terminology from Taleb he labels them Mediocristan and Extremistan. In my examples Mediocristan is everything where just humans are involved. The speed at which Usain Bolt can travel 100 m is only about 7x as fast as the average person can walk 100 m. And it will never go to 8x. Once you start introducing technology, you enter Extremistan. The hypersonic missile travels 582x as fast as the Zephyr (which coincidentally travels about the same speed as the Wright Brother Flyer). And we already have space probes which have traveled 5000x as fast.

But Alexander isn’t solely focused on technology, the central point of his post is to talk about morality.

The morality of Mediocristan is mostly uncontroversial. It doesn’t matter what moral system you use, because all moral systems were trained on the same set of Mediocristani data and give mostly the same results in this area. Stealing from the poor is bad. Donating to charity is good. A lot of what we mean when we say a moral system sounds plausible is that it best fits our Mediocristani data that we all agree upon. This is a lot like what we mean when we say that “quality of life”, “positive emotions”, and “meaningfulness” are all decent definitions of happiness; they all fit the training data.

The further we go toward the tails, the more extreme the divergences become. Utilitarianism agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because Utility, but take it far enough to the tails and we should tile the universe with rats on heroin. Religious morality agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because God, but take it far enough to the tails and we should spend all our time in giant cubes made of semiprecious stones singing songs of praise. Deontology agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because Rules, but take it far enough to the tails and we all have to be libertarians.

I should point out that the ultimate expression of my religion is not spending “all of [my] time in giant cubes made of semiprecious stones singing songs of praise”. But I can’t speak for everyone.

He actually immediately follows this up with a graph. On one axis is “How good something is according to hedonic utilitarianism.” On the other axis is “How good something is according to Christian teachings on morality”. Then he plots various events/actions such as, “The Holocaust” (very bad for both). “Donating to a Charity” right in the middle. “Starting a Catholic Hospital” high for Christians, middle for utilitarians. And so on. All of these things are in morality Mediocristan, where everyone basically agrees what’s good and what’s not. Then he gives two examples from Extremistan. At the very top of the Christian axis (but lower than the holocaust on the utilitarian axis) is “One thousand year reign of Christ over the Earth with unbelievers thrown into the bottomless pit”. (Once again I should point out this isn’t exactly what I believe though he’s getting closer.) And at the very top of the utilitarian axis (but lower than the holocaust for Christians) is “Entire mass of the universe converted into nervous tissue experiencing raw euphoria”.

This is an excellent observation and you can see where I’ve alluded to it in several previous posts, like my last post on the conflict between happiness and survival. Historically the overlap between survival and happiness has been nearly total, so it didn’t really much matter which we were prioritizing. We were firmly in Mediocristan. But I would argue that the two spaces are starting to diverge; the overlap is getting less and less. As we saw with flying, technology allows us to make radically different planes depending on what we decide to prioritize. I don’t think it’s to much of a stretch to say that we’re entering a period where we can make radically different societies depending on what we decide to prioritize, and if we prioritize happiness we may end up with a society that isn’t great at survival, just like the SR-71 is great at going really fast, but isn’t great at staying aloft for long periods.

To use Alexander’s term, there’s a danger that the “tails are coming apart”. Which takes us to his best metaphor, the Bay Area transit system. But, before we get into that I want to point out something about his two examples of Extremistan. People are inclined to declare that religious fanaticism and technological fanaticism are both equally alarming. In fact, to a point Alexander himself does this. But let’s return to his two very extreme examples. Christ reigning over the earth and nervous tissue experiencing raw euphoria.  Outside of the Mormon Transhumanist Association no one thinks that we can bring about Christ’s return by creating sufficiently advanced technology. But the technology to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain directly already exists, and we should also include designer drugs, and other supernormal stimuli in this category as well. You may of course argue that this is a long way from “the entire mass of the universe”, or that it’s not exactly “raw euphoria” but there’s nothing necessarily stopping us from heading in that direction and the steps we’ve already taken are disturbing and unlikely to get less so. Whereas all the space between where we are now and “Christ reigning on the Earth” largely consists of people trying to master the morality of Mediocristan. Which is precisely where most people, including Alexander, want to remain.

The key point being that we can bring about a utilitarian pleasure maximization nightmare, but we can not make Christ return. Either God exists or he doesn’t and if he does, there’s not a lot we can do to change his plan except perhaps by working out our own salvation, and certainly nothing we can do with technology to change it. In the more immediate sense I know that lots of people worry about religious fanatics, and I would argue that we should worry more about technological fanaticism. Religious fanatics have existed for a long time, and as yet they haven’t seriously endangered the world, nor do they have the power to. Technological fanatics are both potentially more powerful, and also a lot less well understood.

This takes us, finally, to the Bay Area transit system metaphor. Though you could also use the Salt Lake City Trax system. In both cases there is a densely populated area through which all of the lines pass, but once you leave the more densely populated area the lines start to diverge. I’ll let Alexander explain the metaphor from here:

Mediocristan is like the route from Balboa Park to West Oakland, where it doesn’t matter what line you’re on because they’re all going to the same place. Then suddenly you enter Extremistan, where if you took the Red Line you’ll end up in Richmond, and if you took the Green Line you’ll end up in Warm Springs, on totally opposite sides of the map.

Our innate moral classifier has been trained on the Balboa Park – West Oakland route. Some of us think morality means “follow the Red Line”, and others think “follow the Green Line”, but it doesn’t matter, because we all agree on the same route.

When people talk about how we should arrange the world after the Singularity when we’re all omnipotent, suddenly we’re way past West Oakland, and everyone’s moral intuitions hopelessly diverge.

For myself I’m not sure it will take the singularity, we might have passed our metaphorical West Oakland already. But I do agree that technology is a big part of the problem. Of course, as people will often point out technology has no inherent morality, it’s just a tool. I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with that, but it is important to note that it’s mostly human desires being given a more perfect expression by technology that’s causing the divergence. To extend the metaphor, in the past it was difficult to get much farther than West Oakland, just as arguing whether we should build a plane that goes really fast or one that stays aloft forever was pointless before the Wright Brothers came along. But now we can have arguments about all sorts of things that were previously unthinkable, or at least only discussed in the realm of science fiction. Some examples:

  • The recent story of the Chinese scientist who used CRISPR to genetically modify babies.
  • The new tactic of large groups of people publicly shaming private individuals.
  • The question of whether Facebook is using their 10 Year Challenge to improve their facial recognition software.
  • The changing face of war and deterrence in light of the new hypersonic missiles I described above.
  • Elon Musk’s plans for a million person city on Mars.
  • The epidemic of anxiety among teenagers and college students and how much of it is due to social media.

A future of ubiquitous designer babies, a la Gattaca, is very different from a future where we decide that such technology should be entirely off limits, and the rest of the examples are similar, particularly if we imagine how far we could travel if we take one side of the argument all the way to the “end of the line”.  

If you push on the metaphor enough you realize that it’s entirely too certain and clean to actually represent reality. A rider of the Bay Area transit system can tell which line they’re boarding, and know where they’re headed, but such is not the case with humanity. Even if we all decided we wanted to take the hedonic utilitarian train all the way to “raw euphoria” town, we might not get there. And of course we don’t all agree. And it’s not like there’s multiple trains, there may only be one train, with a bunch of people all fighting for control of the speed and direction, which brings up another point, forget about tracks, or even roads, those don’t exist either.  And the landscape passing by on either side of us? Completely new.

I’ve gotten continual pushback for discussing falling birthrates as a proxy for survival priority, some of which is certainly fair, but given that we’re in completely new territory, what landmarks can we rely on? A lush countryside tells us one thing, a barren one another. Both may be temporary, but how can you tell? Take I-80 west out of the Bay Area and once things start looking like a desert they’re going to look that way for a long time.

One argument that’s been made for the falling birthrates is that it’s a rational response to population pressure. That in essence someone sitting in the front of the train can see approaching catastrophe, and they’re braking to avoid it. And, if there was a central authority telling everyone to have fewer children, similar to China’s One Child policy, that might make sense, but instead everyone seems to have made this decision just about regardless of where they are on the train. In fact it should be noted that total fertility rate (TFR) seems to be mostly uncorrelated with population density. Consider Nigeria and South Korea, both countries have similar population density (Nigeria is slightly higher) but Nigeria is 8th in total fertility while South Korea is 206th (out of 209).

Probably a better argument is that the declining TFR has nothing to do with rationally making a choice to avoid Malthusian catastrophe, or rationally choosing happiness over survival. But is rather a mostly unconscious following of incentives, some hidden, some obscured, and some right out there in the open. The point I’m getting at is that technology allows us to pursue those incentives in previously unimagined ways. In the example above, when the incentive was speed, engineers built a terrifyingly fast plane that burned 22 tons of fuel every hour.

What incentives are we maximizing with technology? What plane have we built and does it also have a voracious appetite for fuel? Stated in that way the current culture war seems to qualify and at the risk of mixing metaphors, it’s definitely clear we’re way past West Oakland with one side speeding towards Warm Springs and another headed just as fast to Richmond. Gallons of virtual ink has already been spilled on this subject, (perhaps that’s the fuel?) but can anyone look at controversy over the smirking MAGA kid and not see this split?

Despite the emphasis I have placed on technology, in the end Alexander is right and this is primarily a split in morality. Between two competing visions of what ultimate morality is, once you get past things we can agree on like the evils of murder and the benefits of being charitable. At this point I could interject that one side wants to stay in West Oakland, or at least reduce the speed at which we pull away. And maybe that has some validity, and maybe it doesn’t. Regardless I think humanity as a whole is definitely headed into uncharted territory, and I’m not sure what we’ll find when we reach the end of the line.

I can’t improve upon Alexander’s closing statement, so I’m going to go ahead and steal it:

When Lovecraft wrote that “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far”, I interpret him as talking about the region from Balboa Park to West Oakland on the map above. Go outside of it and your concepts break down and you don’t know what to do. He was right about the island, but exactly wrong about its causes – the most merciful thing in the world is how so far we have managed to stay in the area where the human mind can correlate its contents.

Speaking of Lovecraft, last year I worked my way through his complete works. I’m not sure I’d recommend it. It may have affected my sanity. If you would like to help with the inevitable cost of therapy stemming from that and many other things, consider donating.

Fighting Fires the Wrong Way

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If you’re anything like me you probably followed the news of last month’s California wildfires with some interest, particularly the Camp Fire. A name which now seems morbidly ironic given how deadly it ended up being. As of this writing 85 people were killed by the fire and six are still missing. That makes it the sixth deadliest wildfire in US history, and the deadliest since 1918.

I’m not sure how most people feel about that death toll. I saw a lot of posts about the fire, but not many people were reacting to the number of people who died. I get the sense that if you asked, they’d say that 85 sounds like a lot of deaths, but given that it kind of falls in the “Act of God” category, it’s far less tragic than say the Las Vegas mass shooting, even though fewer people actually died in Vegas. I’m not arguing with this, by the way, but it is interesting that there’s clearly a hierarchy attached to how tragic we consider any given death.

Most of the elements in the hierarchy are subjective to the person. It’s obviously far more tragic if someone close to you dies, or even if someone you know loses someone close to them. I think this is entirely as it should be, though there are people who would argue otherwise. Yet another subjective criteria is how the deaths play into your ideology. Gun rights activists probably find Las Vegas less tragic than people who think we should ban all guns. Though perhaps if you’re looking for ammunition (pun intended) to use in your fight over the issue it’s the exact opposite.

The California fires are no exception to seeing events through an ideological lens (is anything these days?) and there are many people who view the deaths as more or less tragic because they fit into a particular narrative. Perhaps, at this point we should broaden the discussion from “tragic” to “important”. The most frequent reason I’ve come across for attaching importance to these deaths, setting aside people actually connected to the victims, is the idea that these deaths are directly attributable to global warming.

I don’t actually want to do another post on global warming, at least not right now. But I think for a variety of reasons it’s not the primary cause of the fires, and even if it were, as I have pointed out in previous posts, it’s the hardest cause to do anything about.

On something of the other side of the issue, there are people who don’t think global warming is the problem, the problem is restrictions on logging. Included in this category is President Trump, which immediately makes the idea completely off limits to a whole host of people. I’m no fan of Trump, but I don’t immediately dismiss everything he says.  And in fact I’m inclined to believe that the right kind of harvesting might have helped. I’m no expert on logging or forestry, and at the level of exactly what sort of logging might help, things get pretty muddy.

You’ll see articles with titles like: Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat, but overlogging them will ruin our forest ecosystems. Though a closer reading of the article seems to indicate that the author is mostly referring to the danger of standing dead trees, or snag, not fallen dead trees.

You’ll see a different point of view in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine. (I mention the source this time because these days it’s always more important to quote your sources if you’re supporting Trump, however indirectly, than when you’re opposing him.) This article details the battles waged by a Forest Service ranger, who wanted to use logging to perform some selective thinning, against the environmentalists who opposed it. This ranger, who always considered herself to be an environmentalist, and did a stint in the Peace Corp, spent three years studying the situation, before eventually submitting an 81 page report, but this was when the environmentalists “pounced”. Three years later (so six in total), while her staff was in the midst of preparing what she hoped would be their final rebuttal, a fire started in the area she was hoping to thin and within a week “the whole area had burned up.”

The purpose of this is not to take sides in the logging debate, or to be exhaustive in describing all the possible contributing factors. For example I haven’t even covered the problem of people building basically in the forest, or what’s called the wildland-urban interface. This led the New York Times to declare that Trump is wrong in part because what we just saw in California weren’t technically forest fires, they were fires in the wildland-urban interface. No, putting the silliness of that aside, my point is to discuss one specific contributing factor, the one which I think has the most to do with the current problem: Decades of fire suppression and a lack of preventative burns. And more importantly to discuss how this ends up being a metaphor for everything that’s currently wrong with the world.

It is interesting that so much of the media is focused on global warming and dry conditions. (Though if you read close enough it’s a wet spring followed by a dry summer that’s really causing the problems.) Though of course this goes back to the subjective nature of prioritizing the importance of deaths. Though I haven’t bothered to look, I am sure that on some website somewhere there is a list of “Deaths Due to Global Warming” to which the 85 deaths of the Camp Fire have been added. All of this is to say that there is definitely also going to some subjectivity in my fire suppression explanation. And the subjectivity will get even greater when I then transition to using it as a metaphor. But this also doesn’t mean that it’s not an accurate description of the world.

In fact it’s telling that even the guy who wrote the article claiming that dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat is the co-editor of a book called: The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. In other words he may be anti-logging, but he’s pro-fire. In fact the phrase “Mixed-Severity” makes it sound like he’s pro-fire across the board. And, I would argue, for good reason.

It’s past time to explain what I’m talking about when I claim fires are caused by fire suppression, and by not having enough fires, though for many of you it may already be obvious. The Smithsonian article I referenced actually has a great explanation of the history of the problem.

Forests across the west are primed for catastrophic fire, in part by a government policy put in place after the “Big Blowup,” in 1910, a two-day firestorm that incinerated three million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. The fire was so ferocious that people in Boston could see the smoke. The U.S. Forest Service, then five years old, decided to put out every fire in its domain, and within three decades the agency had formulated what it called the 10 a.m. policy, directing that fires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As fire-fighting methods improved through the years, the amount of burned forest and grassland declined from about 30 million acres annually in 1900 to about 5 million in the 1970s.

But the success of fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, has turned Western forests into pyres, some experts say, with profound ecological effects. The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had as many as 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900s, in grassy parklike stands, now have 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.

Now this article was written in 2003, but it doesn’t appear that much has changed since then. We can certainly see the opposition to logging and tree thinning, but it also turns out that recreating the low-intensity fires the trees evolved with, is difficult as well. If you do a search on controlled burns in California you’ll mostly get articles wondering why they don’t happen more often. This one from a local California public radio station published earlier this year is representative: Why California’s Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used. Which explains that controlled burns are costly take a lot of effort and people don’t like the smoke.

However if you don’t do controlled burns, if you fight every fire, then you end up steadily increasing the fuel load because the deadfall never gets burned up, and eventually, even if you wanted to suppress every fire, you’d eventually end up with a fire that’s so hot and so terrible that you won’t be able to fight it.

As you might imagine the idea of a controlled burn is very antifragile, you’re paying a small, known cost (ideally) in order to reap a large unbounded benefit later on (i.e. avoiding the huge out of control fire that kills people.) Of course there’s the cost of the personnel to actually set the fire and make sure that it’s controlled, but there’s also the cost to those who will suffer worse air quality while it’s happening, and the cost of people who don’t like the way the forest looks after it’s been burned, etc. All of these are costs which people have proven unwilling to bear even if it makes things better in the long run. This introduces fragility (as we saw) and here is where we transition to fire suppression as a metaphor for modern society.

Of course, the fight over whether to blame things on global warming or insufficient logging is already a reflection of some of the ills of our society, but the ills I want to talk about run even deeper. I often talk about how technology distorts things and, as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re talking about fire we’re talking about probably the first technology ever developed. Accordingly, whatever benefits can be derived from fire, and whatever it’s harms we’ve been dealing with them for a very long time. The benefits are legion, in the last post I mentioned the alleviation of suffering, but it uses go far beyond using a fire to keep warm at night. Once you discover a great multipurpose tool like fire, you immediately search for as many ways as possible for using that tool.

I recently finished the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. And one of the things he pointed out was the way the indigenous Americans used fire, particularly on the Great Plains, where they used it to create a “prodigious game farm”. And so, similar to our last discussion, we once again have a situation where humans have been artificially controlling their environment, in this case the incidence of fire, for hundreds of years, why are things different now? And once again the answer is we’ve crossed some sort of tipping point, one that may even be more stark than the line crossed by college students in 2013.

1491 doesn’t mention if the Indians ever tried to put out fires, but beyond extinguishing an out of control fire in their actual dwellings I doubt it. This is the stark difference, the difference between setting fires and putting out fires. But why is the latter so different from the former? They’re both meddling in the “natural” cycle. And once again the answer takes us back to the concept of supernormal stimuli, though more particularly the idea that things can be bounded in one direction by reality, and thus ignored by evolution.

Yes, when you set fire after fire to clear trees and encourage grasslands, and by extension bison, then you’re messing with nature, or rather with the way things worked in the time before humans. But wherever plants grow, and whatever form they take, they had to learn to cope with fire. You’re certainly altering things if you set fires more often than they would occur just because of lightning, but in the whole sweep of evolutionary history, I’m sure that multiple fires happened in quick succession even without the intervention of humans, and those plants that couldn’t deal with this didn’t survive. So yes, the Plains Indians may have been messing with stuff, but they were doing it in a way that wasn’t outside of the bounds of what evolution had prepared plants to tolerate. What plants are unprepared for, because it doesn’t exist in anywhere in the historical record are long periods of no fires.

Thus far, this may appear less a metaphor and more a lecture, but we’re getting there. The point I want to make is that everything has adapted around certain natural processes, even humans. And when we mess with these processes, things can change in unexpected ways (and yes I would include in this a precipitous increase in the amount of atmospheric C02). This leads to the questions: What processes have humans adapted around? What’s our version of fire?

The most obvious candidate is war. Humans have more or less evolved in the presence of constant warfare, and it’s only recently that we’ve largely eliminated it. I talked about this in a previous post, but it’s worth revisiting in the light of the fire suppression metaphor. Once we decide to start drawing parallels then it’s only natural to ask what represents the deadwood accumulating on the forest floor? Are there individuals or maybe ideas who are metaphorically dead trees? Where, having a few scattered here and there is fine, even useful, but when half the forest becomes dead trees any fire becomes catastrophic? And, if war is fire, what would a controlled burn look like? Does sports fit the bill or is it closer to being equivalent to someone chopping down a tree for use in heating their home? Yes it’s a controlled burn involving the forest, but not anywhere close to the scale required to do any good.

A discussion of war as a reset button for humanity, similar to fire being a reset button for a forest puts me in mind of another past post, the post where I reviewed the book The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel. Once again there are very interesting parallels. To return briefly to the book 1491 and it’s section on fire. Mann points out that, “if ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents would be covered by climax-stage vegetation:a world of great trees, dark and silent.” Scheidel makes basically the same point but with respect to wealth inequality, the great trees are the super rich. And in the absence of violence their numbers and the associated inequality increases until all you are left with are those super rich, and the, far more numerous, small forms of life which are able to exist in their shadow, but nothing in between. And just as there are more ways than fire to interrupt ecological succession, there are more ways than war to interrupt the rise of inequality, but none of them are particularly pleasant. Or to put it in terms of my last post, they all involve suffering to a certain degree.

As you can imagine, if very large trees had a say in the matter they would prefer that there be no fires, though just like the wealthy, to whom we’re comparing them, the great trees do fine if there are small fires, it’s only the huge fires from years of pent up resentment, I mean deadwood, that threaten the truly large trees.

It may be easy to see where the metaphor lends itself easily to things like war and revolution, but it’s interesting to extend it in scope and imagine that it applies in other places as well, for example, banking.

Though, to begin with, it needs very little imagination to picture the 2007-2008 financial crisis as an out of control fire. An inferno caused by a lack of liquidity. This fire was put out by an unprecedented injection of cash into the system. Cash that mostly went to those, who by all accounts, started the fire. Incidentally the resentment this cased provided fuel for the other kind of fire we just mentioned. I think thus far most people wouldn’t object to the parallels I’ve drawn, but things get a little more controversial when I start taking about what represents deadwood and water in this example.

First does the continual extinguishing of financial crises create any deadwood? Stuff which should have been beneficially burned out during the crisis but wasn’t? During the most recent of these crises the term “too big to fail” got tossed around a lot. The term implied that a given institution should have failed, but could not be allowed to. That however much failure would have represented the natural consequences for their irresponsible behavior in the years preceding the crash, the short-term damage would have been to great. Just as we have to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface I mentioned earlier, these institutions had become so intertwined with the rest of society that they could not be allowed to burn, however much they might deserve it.

Of course “deserve” is a loaded term, but just as fire represents a natural process which helps to clear and refresh forests, one of the benefits of capitalism, many would argue, is that it has its own inherent checks and balances, among the biggest of these: risk and return should go hand in hand,  When you remove the risk you end up creating strange and unpredictable after effects as you interrupt the natural flow of capitalism.

So what about water? Well if cash in a financial crisis is equivalent to water in a wildfire, then the next question is, do we have unlimited cash with which to put out our financial fires. I talked about the people who believe this is the case in a previous post, and perhaps they’re right. But if we’re accumulating deadwood, i.e. increasing our fuel load, every time we extinguish one of these fires then we had better hope the supply of water is infinite, because if it’s not, the minute we run out, we’re going to end up with a fire/revolution that is going to put all previous ones to shame.

Outside of banking I also think this metaphor has some merit as a description of politics. There are of course many political fires burning at the moment, basically everywhere you look. And people desperately want to “put them out”. I understand the impulse, but I also think that if you put it out too quickly you once again end up in a situation where you’re accumulating deadwood, and increasing the fuel load.

As an example take any of the battles in the current culture war. I have argued in the past that people rushed to “put them out” as quickly as possible, mostly by way of the Supreme Court, rather than using the more laborious method of holding a vote, or the even more laborious method of passing a constitutional amendment. Doing it this way may have seemed like a good idea, but it also certainly came with some costs. Among these costs, I would argue, is that it increased the “fuel load” of a certain class of people. Which is to say, do you get the anger and annoyance necessary for Trump to be elected if you hadn’t been so quick to put out each and every cultural “fire”? To dismiss and shove aside what might have been legitimate complaints?

If there’s a single issue Trump has been associated with, it’s immigration, and for years polls showed that only a tiny minority wanted an increase in immigration, the vast majority wanted it kept at it’s present levels or decreased. At no point since polling started has the percent of people who want it increased been greater than the percent who wanted it to decrease even today when anti-trump pro-immigrant feelings are at their highest. (As excellently documented by Slate Star Codex recently, Trump may be very bad for Trumpism.) Despite this, what we have ended up with is a de facto policy of increased immigration despite support for it being in the teens or single digits up until very recently. Now it may be stretching the metaphor to describe the way the pro-cheap-labor Republicans and the pro-civil-rights Democrats joined together in ignoring the problem as “putting out the fire too quickly” but I have definitely seen a persistent pattern of promising to do something when the election is on, and then failing to do anything once in office. In other words putting out the fire before it removed any of the accumulated deadwood.

We’re seeing it again now. If Trump promised anything he promised a wall, now whether he actually meant it is another discussion. And yet nearly two years in it hasn’t even been started. But imagine, regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, if we decided that elections have consequences and one of those was that we would see this thing out and build the wall. Does this remove some of the “fuel load” of the angriest portion of our population? Does it allow the current fire to burn in such a way that it puts itself out? Is it in fact a controlled burn, something we can manage? (Certainly a wall doesn’t result in the end of all immigration forever.)

Is it in fact a controlled fire that helps us avoid the out of control inferno that might be coming otherwise? Or as they’ll refer to it in the history books of the future when the bloody tale is finally written, the Second American Civil War.

Of course as we learn from Alfred’s advice to Batman, some men just want to watch the world burn. Despite what you might think I am not one of those men, if you’re not either, consider donating.