Author: <span>Jeremiah</span>

A Deeper Understanding of How Bad Things Happen

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As long time readers know I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is best known for his book The Black Swan, and the eponymous theory it puts forth regarding the singular importance of rare, high impact events. His second best known work/concept is Antifragile. And while these concepts come up a lot in both my thinking and my writing. It’s an idea buried in his last book, Skin in the Game, that my mind keeps coming back to. As I mentioned when I reviewed it, the mainstream press mostly dismissed it as being unequal to his previous books. As one example, the review in the Economist said that:

IN 2001 Nassim Taleb published “Fooled by Randomness”, an entertaining and provocative book on the misunderstood role of chance. He followed it with “The Black Swan”, which brought that term into widespread use to describe extreme, unexpected events. This was the first public incarnation of Mr Taleb—idiosyncratic and spiky, but with plenty of original things to say. As he became well-known, a second Mr Taleb emerged, a figure who indulged in bad-tempered spats with other thinkers. Unfortunately, judging by his latest book, this second Mr Taleb now predominates.

A list of the feuds and hobbyhorses he pursues in “Skin in the Game” would fill the rest of this review. (His targets include Steven Pinker, subject of the lead review.) The reader’s experience is rather like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over-opinionated driver. At one point, Mr Taleb posits that people who use foul language on Twitter are signalling that they are “free” and “competent”. Another interpretation is that they resort to bullying to conceal the poverty of their arguments.

This mainstream dismissal is unfortunate because I believe this book contains an idea of equal importance to black swans and antifragility, but which hasn’t received nearly as much attention. An idea the modern world needs to absorb if we’re going to prevent bad things from happening.

To understand why I say this, let’s take a step back. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, technology has increased the number of bad things that can happen. To take the recent pandemic as an example, international travel allowed it to spread much faster than it otherwise would have, and made quarantine, that old standby method for stopping the spread of diseases, very difficult to implement. Also these days it’s entirely possible for technology to have created such a pandemic. Very few people are arguing that this is what happened, but the argument over whether technology added to the problem in the form of “gain of function” research, and a subsequent lab leak is still being hotly debated

Given not only the increased risk of bad things brought on by modernity, but the risk of all possible bad things, people have sought to develop methods for managing this risk. For avoiding or minimizing the impact of these bad things. Unfortunately these methods have ended up largely being superficial attempts to measure the probability that something will happen. The best example of this is Superforecasting, where you make measurable predictions, assign confidence levels to those predictions and then you track how well you did. I’ve beaten up on Superforecasting a lot over the years, and it’s not my intent to beat up on it even more, or at least it’s not my primary intent. I bring it up now because it’s a great example of the superficiality of modern risk management. It’s focused on one small slice of preventing bad things from happening: improving our predictions on a very small slice of bad things. I think we need a much deeper understanding of how bad things happen.

Superforecasting is an example of a more shallow understanding of bad things. The process has several goals, but I think the two biggest are:

First, to increase the accuracy of the probabilities being assigned to the occurrence of various events and outcomes. There is a tendency among some to directly equate “risk” with this probability. Which leads to statements like, “The risk of nuclear war is 1% per year.” I would certainly argue that any study of risk goes well beyond probabilities, that what we’re really looking for is any and all methods for preventing bad things from happening. And while understanding the odds of those events is a good start, it’s only a start. And if not done carefully it can actually impair our preparedness

The second big goal of superforecasting is to identify those people who are particularly talented at assigning such probabilities in order that you might take advantage of those talents going forward. This hopefully leads to a future with a better understanding of risk, and consequent reduction in the number of bad things that happen. 

The key principle in all of this is our understanding of risk. When people end up equating risk with simply improving our assessment of the probability that an event will occur, they end up missing huge parts of that understanding. As I’ve pointed out in the past, their big oversight is the role of impact—some bad things are worse than others. But they are also missing a huge variety of other factors which contribute to our ability to avoid bad things, and this is where we get to the ideas from Skin in the Game.

To begin with, Taleb introduces two concepts: “ensemble probability” and “time probability”. To illustrate the difference between the two he uses the example of gambling in a casino. To understand ensemble probability you should imagine 100 people all gambling on the same day. Taleb asks, “How many of them go bust?” Assuming that they each have the same amount of initial money and make the same bets and taking into account standard casino probabilities, about 1% of people will end up completely out of money. So in a starting group of 100, one gambler will go completely bust. Let’s say this is gambler 28. Does the fact that gambler 28 went bust have any effect on the amount of money gambler 29 has left? No. The outcomes are completely independent. This is ensemble probability.

To understand time probability, imagine that instead of having 100 people gambling all on the same day, let’s have one person gamble 100 days in a row. If we use the same assumptions, then once again approximately 1% of the time the gambler will go bust, and be completely out of money. But on this occasion since it’s the same person once they go bust they’re done. If they go bust on day 28, then there is no day 29. This is time probability. And Taleb’s argument is that when experts (like superforecasters) talk about probability they generally treat things as ensembles, whereas reality mostly deals in time probability. They might also be labeled independent or dependent probabilities.

As Taleb is most interested in investing, the example he gives relates to individual investors, who are often given advice as if they have a completely diversified and independent portfolio where a dip in their emerging market holdings does not affect their silicon valley stocks. When in reality most individual investors exist in a situation where everything in their life is strongly linked and mostly not diversified. As an example, most of their net worth is probably in their home, a place with definite dependencies. So if 2007 comes along and their home tanks, not only might they be in danger of being on the street, it also might affect their job (say if they were in construction). Even if they do have stocks they may have to sell them off to pay the mortgage because having a place to live is far more important than maintaining their portfolio diversification. Or as Taleb describes it:

…no individual can get the same returns as the market unless he has infinite pockets…This is conflating ensemble probability and time probability. If the investor has to eventually reduce his exposure because of losses, or because of retirement, or because he got divorced to marry his neighbor’s wife, or because he suddenly developed a heroin addiction after his hospitalization for appendicitis, or because he changed his mind about life, his returns will be divorced from those of the market, period.

Most of the things Taleb lists there are black swans. For example one hopes that developing a heroin addiction would be a black swan for most people. In true ensemble probability black swans can largely be ignored. If you’re gambler 29, you don’t care if gambler 28 ends up addicted to gambling and permanently ruined. But in strict time probability any negative black swan which leads to ruin strictly dominates the entire sequence. If you’re knocked out of the game on day 28 then there is no day 29, or day 59 for that matter. It doesn’t matter how many other bad things you avoid, one bad thing, if bad enough destroys all your other efforts. Or as Taleb says, “in order to succeed, you must first survive.” 

Of course most situations are on a continuum between time probability and ensemble probability. Even absent some kind of broader crisis, there’s probably a slightly higher chance of you going bust if your neighbor goes bust—perhaps you’ve lent them money, or in their desperation they sue you over some petty slight. If you’re in a situation where one company employs a significant percentage of the community, that chance goes up even more. The chance gets higher if your nation is in crisis and it gets even higher if there’s a global crisis. This finally takes us to Taleb’s truly big idea, or at least the idea I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The one my mind kept returning to since reading the book in 2018. He introduces the idea with an example:

Let us return to the notion of “tribe.” One of the defects modern education and thinking introduces is the illusion that each one of us is a single unit. In fact, I’ve sampled ninety people in seminars and asked them: “what’s the worst thing that can happen to you?” Eighty-eight people answered “my death.”

This can only be the worst-case situation for a psychopath. For after that, I asked those who deemed that their worst-case outcome was their own death: “Is your death plus that of your children, nephews, cousins, cat, dogs, parakeet, and hamster (if you have any of the above) worse than just your death?” Invariably, yes. “Is your death plus your children, nephews, cousins (…) plus all of humanity worse than just your death?” Yes, of course. Then how can your death be the worst possible outcome?

You can probably see where I’m going here, but before we get to that. In defense of the Economist review, the quote I just included has the following footnote:

Actually, I usually joke that my death plus someone I don’t like surviving, such as the journalistic professor Steven Pinker, is worse than just my death.

I have never argued that Taleb wasn’t cantankerous. And I think being cantankerous given the current state of the world is probably appropriate. 

In any event, he follows up this discussion of asking people to name the worst thing that could happen to them with an illustration. The illustration is an inverted pyramid sliced into horizontal layers of increasing width as you rise from the tip of the pyramid to its “base”. The layers, from top to bottom are:

  • Ecosystem
  • Humanity
  • Self-defined extended tribe
  • Tribe
  • Family, friends, and pets
  • You

The higher up you are, the worse the risk. While no one likes to contemplate their own ruin, the ruin of all of their loved ones is even worse. And we should do everything in our power to ensure the survival of humanity and the ecosystem. Even if it means extreme risk to ourselves and our families (a point I’ll be returning to in a moment.) If we want to prevent really bad things from happening we need to focus less on risks to individuals and more on risks to everyone and everything.

By combining this inverted pyramid, with the concepts of time probability and ensemble probability we can start drawing some useful conclusions. To begin with not only are time probabilities more catastrophic at higher levels. They are more likely to be present at higher levels. A nation has a lot of interdependencies whereas an individual might have very few. To put it another way, if an individual dies, the consequences, while often tragic, are nevertheless well understood and straightforward to manage. There are entire industries devoted to smoothing out the way. While if a nation dies, it’s always calamitous with all manner of consequences which are poorly understood. And if all of humanity dies no mitigation is possible.

With that in mind, the next conclusion is that we should be trying to push risks down as low as possible—from the ecosystem to humanity, from humanity to nations, from nations to tribes, from tribes to families and from families to individuals. We are also forced to conclude that, where possible, we should make risks less interdependent. We should aim for ensemble probabilities rather than time probabilities. 

All of this calls to mind the principle of subsidiarity or federalism and certainly there is a lot of overlap. But whereas subsidiarity is mostly about increasing efficiency, here I’m specifically focused on reducing harm. Of making negative black swans less catastrophic—of understanding and mitigating bad things.

Of course when you hear this idea that we should push risks from tribes to families or from nations to families you immediately recoil. And indeed the modern world has spent a lot of energy moving risk in exactly the opposite direction. Pushing risks up the scale, moving risk off of individuals and accumulating it in communities, states and nations. And sometimes placing the risk with all of humanity. It used to be that individuals threatened each other with guns, and that was a horrible situation with widespread violence, but now nations threaten each other with nukes. The only way that’s better is if the nukes never get used. So far we’ve been lucky, let’s really hope that luck continues.

Some, presumably including superforecasters, will argue that by moving risk up the scale it’s easy to quantify and manage, and thereby reduce. I have seen no evidence that these people understand risk at different scales, nor any evidence that they make any distinction between time probabilities and ensemble probabilities, but for the moment let’s grant that they’re correct that by moving risk up the scale we lessen it. That the risk that any individual will get shot, in say the Wild West, is 5% per year. But the risk that any nation will get nuked is only 1% per year. Yes, the risk has been reduced. One is less than five. But should that 1% chance come to pass (and given enough years it certainly will, i.e. it’s a time probability) then far more than 5% of people will die. We’ve prevented one variety of bad things by creating the possibility (albeit a smaller one) that a far worse event will happen.

The pandemic has provided an interesting test of these ideas, and I’ll be honest it also illustrates how hard it can be to apply these ideas to real situations. But there wouldn’t be much point to this discussion if we didn’t try. 

First let’s consider the vaccine. I’ve long thought that vaccination is a straightforward example of antifragility. Of a system making gains from stress. Additionally it also seems pretty straightforward that this is an example of moving risk down the scale. Of moving risk from the community to the individual, and I know the modern world has taught us we should never have to do that, but as I’ve pointed out it’s a good thing. So vaccination is an example of moving risk down the inverted pyramid.

On the other hand the pandemic has given us examples of risk being moved up the scale. The starkest example is government spending, where we have spent enormous amounts of money to cushion individuals from the risk of unemployment and homelessness. Thereby moving the risk up to the level of the nation. We have certainly prevented a huge number of small bad things from happening, but have we increased the risk of a singular catastrophic event? I guess we’ll find out. Regardless it does seem to have moved things from an ensemble probability to a time probability. Perhaps this government intervention won’t blow up, but we can’t afford to have any of them blow up, because if intervention 28 blows up there is no intervention 29.

Of course the murky examples far outweigh the clear ones. Are mask mandates pushing things down to the level of the individual? Or is it better to not have a mandate? Thereby giving individuals the option of taking more risk because that’s the layer we want risk to operate at? And of course the current argument about vaccination is happening at the level of the state and community. Biden is pushing for a vaccination mandate on all companies that employ more than 100 people and the Texas governor just issued an executive order banning such a mandate. I agree it can be difficult to draw the line. But there is one final idea from Skin in the Game that might help.

Out of all of the foregoing Taleb comes up with a very specific definition of courage. 

Courage is when you sacrifice your own well being for the sake of the survival of a layer higher than yours. 

I do think the pandemic is a particularly complicated situation. But even here courage would have definitely helped. It would have allowed us to conduct human challenge trials, which would have shortened the vaccination approval process. It would have made the decision to reopen schools easier. And yes while it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t have moved some risk up the scale, it would have kept us from moving all of it up the scale.

I understand this is a fraught topic, for most people the ideal is to have no bad things happen, ever. But that’s not possible. Bad things are going to happen, and the best way to keep them from being catastrophic things is more courage. Something I fear the modern world is only getting worse at.


I talk a lot about bad things. And you may be thinking why doesn’t he ever talk about good things? Well here’s something good, donating. I mean I guess it’s mostly just good for me, but what are you going to do?


The 9 Books I Finished in September

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  1. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by: Carl R. Trueman
  2. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by: Elizabeth Kolbert
  3. Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t by: Julia Galef
  4. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by: Mike Duncan
  5. This Is How You Lose the Time War by: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  6. Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism by: Sharyl Attkisson
  7. Plato: Complete Works by: Plato
  8. Stillness Is the Key by: Ryan Holiday
  9. The Sorrows of Young Werther by: Goethe

I’ve been watching a lot of Big Bang Theory. As something of a sacrilege I watch it at 2x, so a normal 20 minute episode ends up being a 10 minute break. Which takes it from an irresponsible indulgence to a perfectly acceptable “10 minute break”. I guess having given you an insight into my strange little world I shouldn’t hesitate to reveal the full extent of my madness. Episodes of the show actually range in length from 18 minutes to 22 minutes. So I set the speed increase such that it always takes 10 minutes—1.8x for the 18 minute episodes and 2.2x for 22 minute episodes. I’m not taking a break of about 10 minutes, I’m taking a 10 minute break!

I bring this up because Chuck Lorre, the creator of the show, always ends each episode with a message on his vanity card. In the course of reading each of these cards you gain a glimpse into his life (for example you find out more than you might expect about his love life). As I sat down to write this intro I realized that it’s sort of similar to what I do here. Once a month I briefly pause in my jeremiads to give you a brief glimpse into what’s going on in the world outside of my writing. I get the feeling that Chuck Lorre found it therapeutic. That’s probably one of the reasons I do it as well.

As far as what happened in September, it was busy. I went to Gencon and my son got married. The marriage was excellent and beautiful. The convention was enjoyable but also a glimpse into the impact and the weirdness of COVID. My favorite restaurant in Indy is St. Elmo’s, but I can only afford to go there once. My second favorite restaurant, Claddagh, which I sometimes went to 3 or 4 times, did not survive the pandemic. This was surprisingly heartbreaking. Though it would have been less so if my third favorite restaurant, The Ram, hadn’t also succumbed. And then there’s the weirdness of the pandemic theater. As just one example they set an attendance cap at 60% of normal. Implying that there’s some level of transmission which happens when you gather in groups of 50,000 which doesn’t happen when gather in groups of 30,000

But of course the most important news of all is that I didn’t catch COVID, which was good, because if I had, I would have missed the wedding, and my wife would have killed me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

by: Carl R. Trueman

426 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The trend, starting with Rousseau, of people deriving truth from an inner sense of authenticity rather than an external sacred order.

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who’s interested in a better understanding of the modern world. 

General Thoughts

I heard Trueman give a presentation about his book at an LDS apologetics conference I attended back in August. (Trueman himself is not LDS.) Even just based on the limited information he was able to pass along in his 45 minute presentation I knew I wanted to read the book immediately. It did not disappoint, and the cursory overview given by his presentation did in fact accurately foreshadow a deep philosophical treatise I’m still trying to process. As a result my “general thoughts” are still coalescing, but I’ll see what I can do. 

Trueman builds off the work of a lot of other authors including Philip Rieff, and Charles Taylor. I’ve already read a couple of books by Charles Taylor, but Rieff was unknown to me. I may have to add him to my list because he presents a very intriguing framework. 

Rieff imagines four stages of development for civilization. First there was “political man”. This was followed by “religious man”, who was then eventually displaced by “economic man”. Before we finally arrive at our current state which is “psychological man”. I’m not sure how I feel about his first stage, as I said I should probably read some of his books. But the other three stages, and particularly the last one, feel dead on.

For Rieff the psychological man is:

…a type characterized not so much by finding identity in outward directed activities as was true for the previous types but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.

In Trueman’s reading of Rieff it becomes apparent that the “psychological man” demands a “therapeutic culture”, where:

…the only moral criterion that can be applied to behavior is whether it conduces to the feeling of well-being in the individuals concerned. Ethics, therefore, becomes a function of feeling.

All of this ties into the idea of authenticity, which Trueman pinpoints as starting with Rousseau, but which is then expanded on by a host of other philosophers including Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Freud’s contribution becomes particularly important to understanding the current world as he’s the one who identifies sex as the most important part of psychological happiness and individual well-being.

Pulling all of this together, truth does not originate from a sacred external order or anything external period. Individual preferences become the only source of truth and the deeper the preferences the more truth they contain. Sexual preferences are the deepest preferences of all which is how LBGTQ+ issues (the acronym Trueman uses) become the most important and truest things of all. 

This becomes both an epistemology and a distributed teleology which has profound… 

Eschatological Implications

When I decided to focus on eschatology I said I wanted to expand it to focus on things lower down the scale than just the end of the world. That I wanted to talk about the end of culture. This book is an excellent opportunity to do just that. 

Continuing with Rieff, he asserts that culture is derived from having an external sacred order. He’s not alone in this Samuel Huntington makes essentially the same argument in Clash of Civilizations. That a civilization in its proper sense must inevitably be attached to a religion. 

So what happens to a culture when you dispense with religion and a sacred order? When you start to derive all truth from internal claims of authenticity? In that case you have no culture. Everyone is a culture unto themselves. Rieff calls this an “anticulture”. Trueman asserts that this is exactly what has happened.

He doesn’t spend much time going beyond this assertion into predictions of what will happen to a civilization which ends up with an anticulture in place of a culture, he’s mostly interested in identifying things rather than prognostication. But in the best case it has to be radically different, and in the worst case (the most likely case?) it would appear to be entirely unsustainable. If for no other reason than it’s lack of cohesion.

As I mentioned, Trueman draws the path to our current situation through a lot of different philosophers, including Nietzche. In particular he mentions the madman passage from The Gay Science, which contains the famous assertion that “God is Dead”. I’ve been a big fan of this passage for quite a while. I even wrote a whole post about it. But this time around I was struck with how it ended:

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

Trueman is not the first to complain about the disintegration of morality, the distortion of ethics, or the downfall of civilization. But perhaps all those who came before him came too early. After reading this book it kind of feels like it has all come together. That I finally understand the madman’s warning.


Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

by: Elizabeth Kolbert

256 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

To quote from the book, “This [is] a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” Specifically environmental problems.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a reasonably pragmatic book about the damage to the environment caused by humans and the hard trade-offs faced by people trying to solve those problems, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

Most of the examples in this book follow a fairly predictable pattern. Humans want to do X. X causes environmental issues, but by the time anyone realizes the extent of the issues it’s too late to stop doing X. So they come up with some idea Y which will hopefully allow them to continue doing X only without the issues. Sometimes there’s a chain of such causes and effects. For example:

Back in the 50’s and 60’s people were using lots of pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals were getting into the water and causing issues. This was part of what inspired Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring. As one might have hoped, Carson didn’t merely use the book to complain, she also offered solutions. One of her recommended solutions was that instead of using pesticides and herbicides you could set one biological agent against another. As people looked for ways of taking this advice and furthermore complying with things like the Clean Water Act Asian carp became very attractive “biological agents”. It was thought they could get rid of invasive weeds, clean algae from the water and eat pests. Accordingly the Fish And Wildlife service deliberately brought them over to America… Where they promptly ended up basically everywhere

This quote from the book is illustrative:

“At the time, everybody was looking for a way to clean up the environment,” Mike Freeze, a biologist who worked with carp at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commision, told me, “Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring, and everybody was concerned about all the chemicals in the water. They weren’t nearly as concerned about non-native species, which is unfortunate.”

I said they ended up basically everywhere, that is everywhere in the Mississippi River Basin, but so far they’re not in the Great Lakes Basin. And people are desperate to keep it that way. This wouldn’t be very difficult except, in order to solve yet another environmental problem, Chicago sewage, a canal was dug which connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. And now this canal is the front line in the war against carp. Of course some have suggested that they just reintroduce “hydrologic separation”. The Army Corps of Engineers studied the problem and determined that indeed it would be the most effective solution, but it would also take 25 years to accomplish and cost $18 billion.

Currently they use an electrical barrier and a few years back when they had to shut it down for routine maintenance they used 2000 gallons of poison which resulted in 27 tons of dead fish. Not an ideal solution, but that’s basically the point of the book. There are no ideal solutions.

Eschatological Implications

Of course the biggest X of all is humanity’s desire to burn fossil fuels for power. And the book’s title comes from one of the Y’s which have been suggested for dealing with the environmental damage this has caused. The Y is geoengineering, specifically injecting things like sulfates or calcites into the atmosphere as a way of blocking solar radiation, which would cause the sky to turn from blue to white.

As you might imagine, debate over geoengineering is fierce, and merely exploring it as a potential solution has provoked death threats directed at the scientists involved. And while I don’t at all condone death threats, I do understand why people would be hesitant.

Interventions often backfire, I just provided two examples of exactly that. And it would be hard to make any guarantees that geoengineering won’t have harmful, unforeseen second order effects. That said, not all interventions backfire, some end up saving the lives of millions. If we have a default expectation that they will backfire it’s most likely because those interventions that do, get all of the attention. 

Here’s where eschatology comes into play. It’s as if we’re being offered our choice of dooms. We can allow global warming to proceed without attempting any interventions and hope that climate change skeptics are right. (Though oftentimes that skepticism comes from an assumption that we will do some geoengineering.) Or we can intervene, and assume that the world with intervention will be better than the world without intervention, once everything is accounted for. All that said, the book does point out that it’s much easier to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.

There is of course the idea that we will reverse warming by cutting emissions and sequestering carbon in the atmosphere, but I get the feeling that this author, like many of the people I’ve read, thinks that’s as likely as reimposing hydrological separation between the Mississippi and Great Lakes.


II- Capsule Reviews

Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t 

by: Julia Galef

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An overview and introduction for how to think rationally. A book length defense of mistake theory over conflict theory.

Who should read this book?

This is something of a self-help book written using the framework of rationality. If either of those terms (“self-help” or “rationality”) sound attractive you should read this book. If you’re on the fence I would read Scott Alexander’s review of it (hopefully in addition to mine.)

General Thoughts

Scout Mindset as another work to emerge out of the Bay Area rationality movement. The movement itself is another in a long series of attempts at developing a philosophy for how people should act. With the ultimate goal of making the world a better place.

In order to accomplish this you need some way of spreading that philosophy. Traditionally this has taken the form of a book, something that you could give to someone and say “Here. Read this. It will change your life.” In similar fashion to how those attempting to spread Christianity might give someone a Bible. Scout Mindset is attempting to fill that role for rationality.

Previous contenders for the job were The Sequences (published in book form under the title Rationality: AI to Zombies) and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Both of these contenders were written by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and suffered from many deficiencies, of which perhaps the greatest was that both clocked in at over 1500 pages. In a past post, as a way of illustrating my point, I observed that the idea of someone in prison reading the Bible and converting to Christianity is so common as to be a cliche. The idea of someone reading the Sequences and becoming a rationalist, on the other hand, is so strange as to sound like the premise for a sitcom. 

Scout Mindset gets much closer to this mark than any of the other two contenders. It’s not only short, it’s also well written, and easy to understand. This last point is particularly important because we’re not talking about just improving the way that smart people act, or people who live in the Bay Area. Ideally if any philosophy for improving the world is going to be successful it has to be something that can work with anyone. 

I don’t claim to be an expert on the ideology of rationality, though I have read the entirety of The Sequences, HPMOR, and every last Slate Star Codex post. Out of this reading I would say that in the beginning the focus was on being right (or “Less Wrong”), on identifying and eliminating biases, and on understanding and accurately using probabilities (Bayesianism). But more recently the focus has shifted to being charitable to those you disagree with intellectually and attempting to understand them. This is the whole basis of the difference between what Galef calls the “scout mindset” and the “soldier mindset”—between mistake and conflict theory.

In other words the philosophy of rationality ends up being at least as much about being a good person as it does about how to be rational. But rather than taking my word for it let’s turn to the aforementioned review by Alexander:

I’m mentioning this story in particular because of how it straddles the border between “rationality training” and “being-a-good-person training”. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis…I think Julia thinks of rationality and goodness as two related skills: both involve using healthy long-term coping strategies instead of narcissistic short-term ones.

But all these skills about “what tests can you put your thoughts through to see things from the other person’s point of view?” or “how do you stay humble and open to correction?” are non-trivial parts of the decent-human-being package, and sometimes they carry over…

In one sense, this is good: buy one “rationality training”, and we’ll throw in a “personal growth” absolutely free! In another sense, it’s discouraging. Personal growth is known to be hard. If it’s a precondition to successful rationality training, sounds like rationality training will also be hard. 

Here Scout Mindset reaches an impasse. It’s trying to train you in rationality. But it acknowledges that this is closely allied with making you a good person. 

Here Alexander hits on the point I’ve brought up before. If the difficult part is making people good then perhaps we should just focus on that. And if that’s our focus, is there any reason to believe that rationality is better than traditional religion? 

I understand that religion does not unfailingly produce good people, but neither does rationality (A point Alexander makes at another point in his review.) Making people good is enormously difficult and even the best methods only shift things a little bit. We’re not interested in individual examples of improvement. As I mentioned before we’re looking for something that works with everyone. We’re looking for something that improves society in aggregate. And in this respect, while I think Scout Mindset is a great book with excellent advice, I’m not convinced that it would achieve better outcomes than the way we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. 

Perhaps it would help to present it in the form of a hypothetical situation: Imagine that you can add one book to the curriculum of all the schools in the nation. That you’re hoping to make the nation and maybe even the world a better place. Would you add Scout Mindset or the Bible (or maybe just the New Testament)? Particularly given the facts we’ve just discussed. 1) You want something that works with everyone. 2) Both books are trying to make people good by emphasizing kindness and charity. In this case would it not be better to go with what has worked for thousands of years, then re-inventing the wheel under the heading of “rationality”? 

Given the choice I would recommend that people read both the Bible and Scout Mindset. But as much as I enjoyed the latter I think if you were only going to read one I’d read the former.


Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution

by: Mike Duncan

512 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A biography of Lafayette, a French noble who fought in the American Revolution and then went on to be a major player in the French Revolution and the subsequent July Revolution of 1830.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who enjoys Duncan’s Revolutions podcast. Or who is interested in either Lafayette, or the connection between the American and French revolutions. 

General Thoughts

I quite enjoy the Revolutions podcast and I quite enjoyed this book. Lafayette was a central figure in French politics during its most tumultuous decades. Despite this the French apparently don’t have much interest in him. I was listening to Duncan being interviewed on another podcast. He mentioned that as soon as he told people who he was researching they would nod in understanding. “Of course,” they said, “because only Americans are interested in Lafayette.” Duncan speculated that this was because Lafayette was too much of a royalist to ever be embraced by the hard-core revolutionaries, and too much of a liberal to ever be embraced by the conservatives. This put him in a no man’s land where he wasn’t idolized by either side. But it also makes him something of his own man. And someone like that is always a joy to read about.

If I were going to point out anything specific about the book, it would probably be how much of a family man he was. When he was imprisoned in Austria (which probably saved him from the guillotine) his wife and two daughters, unwilling to be separated from him, traveled to Austria, and finding there was no other way to see him, joined him in prison and remained there for two years. It seems pretty clear that the harsh conditions his wife experienced while in prison contributed to her early death at the age of 48.

Can you imagine anything similar happening today?


This Is How You Lose the Time War

by: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

209 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Two people on opposite sides of a time war who begin sending letters to one another.

Who should read this book?

This novella won the Hugo and the Nebula and a few other awards besides. If you have four hours (the length of the audio book) and you want to read an award winning novella, here’s your chance.

General Thoughts

I expected to like this book more than I did. And I assume that many of the people reading this would enjoy the book, so I don’t necessarily want to do anything to close off the possibility of you doing just that, but this is a review so I have to say something. I guess I can do that in the form of a criticism sandwich:

The writing was gorgeous and to the extent that the book won awards I assume this was a large part of it.

At the bottom of that gorgeous writing most of the chapters were pretty repetitive. 1) Describe interesting location in the past or the future. 2) Describe elaborate way enemy operative hid letter. 3) Read contents of letter. 

All time travel stories have to have a twist at the end involving the manipulation of time. The twist at the end of this story was pretty good. Not fantastic, mind you, but interesting and enjoyable.


Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism 

by: Sharyl Attkisson

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An insider’s account of the liberal bias in the media, particularly as it is manifested against Trump.

Who should read this book?

Those who want a description of how the liberal media bias actually plays out in the decisions made in newsrooms of the major networks (CBS and CNN in particular).

General Thoughts

There are upsides and downsides to reading insider accounts. One of the upsides is you get to hear the stories first hand. Meaning that in the future you don’t have to argue about the media’s liberal slant based on vague inferences you picked up while watching or reading the news. You can point to actual accounts of news directors exercising ideological censorship over what stories get pursued. One of the downsides is that insiders generally have axes to grind, often with specific people, and it can be difficult to disentangle the biases of the person telling the story from the biases they’re describing. 

I’m not sure how well I have disentangled Attkisson’s biases from the stories she tells, but even if only half of them are true (and I suspect that they’re all mostly true) then the situation is pretty bad, and the neutrality of the press has been severely compromised. 

If we accept that this is the case then what should we do? Attkisson offers some recommendations for outlets and individuals who are still doing good journalism. Beyond that she offers the standard recommendation that there should be no censorship. That if we just allow all the information to circulate that the truth will rise to the top. I used to believe the same thing, these days I’m far less confident in that solution. 

By way of illustration, one of the biases which keeps coming up in the book is a bias in the level of evidence necessary to make a story newsworthy. Attkisson describes many cases where the slightest accusation of a Trump misdeed will make the front page, while much more credible evidence of misdeeds by Biden or Clinton will be judged as being not substantial enough to report on. Attkisson doesn’t want the Trump standard applied to Biden, she wants the Biden standard applied to Trump, but that’s the problem. Social media has allowed us to signal boost slight accusations against everyone. Often without any evidence at all. I think over time the truth might rise to the top, but by the time that happens the “top” has long ago been buried under multiple additional layers of B.S.


Plato: Complete Works 

by: Plato

1848 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The collected works of Plato (including stuff that may or may not be Plato) one of the greatest philosophers ever.

Who should read this book?

I don’t think anyone should read the entire book, certainly I didn’t (see below). But probably everyone should read at least some Plato.

General Thoughts

This is a continuation of my project to read the Great Books of the Western World. Which is a huge undertaking. I did not read every last page of the book. I solicited recommendations and trimmed it down to a little over half of the total content. One assumes you could trim it even further than that. 

As usual with the classics, it’s difficult to know what to say, since so much has been written about them already. But I do have a couple of observations:

First, The Republic. My sense is if you’ve read anything by Plato it’s probably this. Which is interesting because after a strong start where it resembles most of the other dialogues, it quickly descends into offering solutions and plans. As I pointed out in a previous post, for whatever reason you can take the wisest person you know, and the minute they start offering solutions they end up in crazytown. As an example of what I mean: In Book III there’s a whole discussion on what sort of things they’re going to allow children to read. And how they’re going to censor passages from Homer and get rid of tragedies. All of this will allow them to unfailingly raise courageous and noble children.

Now this isn’t the craziest solution he comes up with. (That probably belongs to something like having all wives in common so that no one would know who their father is.) But it is amazing how we’re still grappling with this issue thousands of years later. And despite all that time and effort we have neither managed to keep kids from getting ahold of material we deem unsuitable, nor managed to hit on exactly the right material to give them the education we want them to have.

Second, speaking of modern issues appearing in ancient texts. In reading Plato I was very much reminded of the modern rationality movement, and things like The Sequences (which I already mentioned in another review). There’s this sense in both of discovering a tool which, if used properly, will solve all of our problems. In Plato it’s the dialectic. For modern rationalists, it’s Bayesianism. And of course there are other historical examples which could be added. Now it’s certainly possible that modern rationalists will bring the world to heel with reason despite all the previous failures, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet.

Next I should be reading Aristotle, but in the course of reading The Landmark Thucydides, I discovered that the people who had done that had gone on to give the same treatment to Herodutus, so I think I’m going to go back and read that first.


Stillness Is the Key

by: Ryan Holiday

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Stillness: “To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude—exterior and interior—on command.”

Who should read this book?

Those who have heard of Ryan Holiday and enjoyed his writing in the past. Or potentially anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed.

General Thoughts

This is a self-help book. But if you imagine that self-help books exist on a continuum between those that are almost textbooks, with exercises at the end of every chapter and those that are essentially history, containing lots of stories of people you should emulate. This is definitely all the way on the history end of things. 

I will say that stillness is definitely something I’ve been working on, and this book certainly helped. But it’s also difficult to summarize how it helped. As you may have gathered from the above it’s more meditative than practical—more right-brained than left. Perhaps, befitting its theme, it would be accurate to call it a quiet book.


The Sorrows of Young Werther

by: Goethe

121 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Werther, a man hopelessly in love with Charlotte, who is unfortunately engaged to someone else. Charlotte appears to reciprocate Werther’s feelings, but still ends up marrying the other man. Their chaste relationship continues in spite of her marriage, but eventually Werther can suffer it no longer and takes his own life. It may be the very first emo book.

Who should read this book?

Hard to say, on the one hand the book was immensely popular, and probably has some historical significance. On the other hand Goethe himself all but disowned it later in life. On the gripping hand it’s short…

General Thoughts

I think this book is most interesting for the story surrounding it rather than for the story it tells. To start with there is the aforementioned opinion of the author. This book catapulted him to fame when he was only 24, but as he grew older it turned into an embarrassing example of youthful excess. Then there were the fans of the book. Apparently it was so popular that people dressed up as Werther, and it even spawned associated merchandise, including a perfume. But what’s perhaps most interesting is that the book engendered some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. With people going beyond just dressing up as Werther all the way to dressing up as him and then killing themselves using the same pistols described in the book. 

I’m not sure if all of this strikes me as strangely modern or bizarrely foreign. Maybe a mix of both?


Now that we’re done with September and into October it appears that the weather has finally turned. Yesterday may have been the last day this year where the high was over 80. You would expect that as it gets colder that I would be inside more and thus read more, but as most of my “reading” is audiobooks which I listen to while I walk, cold weather may have the opposite effect. If you’d like to encourage me to power through the cold and “read” as much as always consider donating.


Eschatologist #9: Randomness

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


Over the last couple of newsletters we’ve been talking about how to deal with an unpredictable and dangerous future. To put a more general label on things, we’ve been talking about how to deal with randomness. We started things off by looking at the most extreme random outcome imaginable: humanity’s extinction. Then I took a brief detour into a discussion of why I believe that religion is a great way to manage randomness and uncertainty. Having laid the foundation for why you should prepare yourself for randomness, in this newsletter I want to take a step back and examine it in a more abstract form.

The first thing to understand about randomness is that it frequently doesn’t look random. Our brain wants to find patterns, and it will find them even in random noise. An example:

T​​he famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand. When he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except… there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms will eat other glowworms) each worm had a similar spacing. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.

One of the ways this pattern matching manifests is in something called the Narrative Fallacy. The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite authors, who described it thusly: 

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

That last bit is particularly important when it comes to understanding the future. We think we understand how the future is going to play out because we’ve detected a narrative. To put it more simply: We’ve identified the story and because of this we think we know how it ends.

People look back on the abundance and economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the end of World War II and see a story of material progress, which ends in plenty for all. Or they may look back on the recent expansion of rights for people who’ve previously been marginalized and think they see an arc to history, an arc which “bends towards justice”. Or they may look at a graph which shows the exponential increase in processor power and see a story where massively beneficial AI is right around the corner. All of these things might happen, but nothing says they have to. If the pandemic taught us no other lesson, it should at least have taught us that the future is sometimes random and catastrophic. 

Plus, even if all of the aforementioned trends are accurate the outcome doesn’t have to be beneficial. Instead of plenty for all, growth could end up creating increasing inequality, which breeds envy and even violence. Instead of justice we could end up fighting about what constitutes justice, leading to a fractured and divided country. Instead of artificial intelligence being miraculous and beneficial it could be malevolent and harmful, or just put a lot of people out of work. 

But this isn’t just a post about what might happen, it’s also a post about what we should do about it. In all of the examples I just gave, if we end up with the good outcome, it doesn’t matter what we do, things will be great. We’ll either have money, justice or a benevolent AI overlord, and possibly all three. However, if we’re going to prevent the bad outcome, our actions may matter a great deal. This is why we can’t allow ourselves to be lured into an impression of understanding. This is why we can’t blindly accept the narrative. This is why we have to realize how truly random things are. This is why, in a newsletter focused on studying how things end, we’re going to spend most of our time focusing on how things might end very badly. 


I see a narrative where my combination of religion, rationality, and reading like a renaissance man leads me to fame and adulation. Which is a good example of why you can’t blindly accept the narrative. However if you’d like to cautiously investigate the narrative a good first step would be donating.


9 Days vs. 3 Years

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


I.

All the way back in 1992, at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. This book has come under a lot of criticism (including from me before I read it) for claiming that we had reached “the end of history”. But in reality the book’s claims are far more subtle. And its main claim, that liberal democracy and free markets have no remaining viable competitor, has been the default assumption of basically all politicians and policy makers over the last 30 years. But as we conduct our retrospective on the events in Afghanistan, these events are not merely a reflection on the country and its peculiarities, nor an embarrassment for Biden, they are a test of this assumption, a test of the liberal order. A test I’m pretty sure we failed.

It might be helpful at this point to remind ourselves of Fukuyama’s argument. In my review of the book I provided the following summary of his claims:

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

In the wake of our retreat from Afghanistan these claims must all be viewed in a different light. Yes we are probably better at taking advantage of the scientific method than the people in Afghanistan. But as I pointed out in the last post, science did not provide us with any method for turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy of the kind promoted by Fukuyama. It gave us a tremendous edge in fighting the Afghans who opposed us, but in the end it made very little impact on their desire to fight for themselves. (More on that in a second.) It remains open for debate whether there can be said to be a science of politics in general, but science certainly appears helpless when it comes to the politics of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was often viewed as a battle for hearts and minds, and while our science and industry are great at winning conventional battles, they proved powerless to fight these other battles of attitude and ideology. 

It’s not that the global liberal democratic project ended in Afghanistan, there are still many parts of the world where it (mostly) works. It’s that it didn’t expand into Afghanistan, and this despite an effort spanning 20 years and costing trillions of dollars. Fukuyama never asserted that liberal values were historically inevitable—despite how much he was influenced by Hegel—for him it was a matter of competition. Liberal democratic states would inevitably outcompete nonliberal states economically, intellectually, and militarily. In order to survive, states would have to adopt this ideology, otherwise their defeat was inevitable. Well we spent 20 years trying to get Afghanistan to accomplish exactly that and we appear to have failed. We didn’t outcompete the nonliberal elements either intellectually or militarily. It can be argued that we’re still outcompeting them economically, but that wasn’t enough. 

This is of course related to the point Richard Hanania made which opened my last post: that political science has failed. One of my readers asked why, when we suffered a similar failure in Vietnam, no one declared political science to be dead back then? If they didn’t, why should we do so now? To begin with, it’s possible they did (see numerous criticisms of guys like McNamara). Also, in response, political scientists, rather than all quitting their jobs to manage a McDonald’s, probably defended their profession (as people are inclined to do), perhaps arguing that they had incorporated the relevant criticism and improved things. I bring up this first possibility because I’m pretty sure that’s what is going to happen this time as well. But there’s another angle of his question that I’m more interested in. 

II.

While our exit from Afghanistan certainly reminded people of Vietnam, in many other respects the two wars were very different. The North Vietnamese had powerful backing in the form of the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan had no such help (or very little). Also, while people have no problem categorizing communism as a true rival ideology, particularly at the time of the Vietnam war, very few people are framing the Taliban’s victory in ideological terms, and no one is anointing any ideology as potential successor to liberalism. (Islam might be considered for that role, but if anything Afghanistan has been a lesson more in its fractures than in its unity.)

Another difference is the history, America’s efforts in Afghanistan were conducted in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s previous disastrous occupation. And I think it’s more instructive to compare the end of our time in Afghanistan with the end of the Soviet’s time in Afghanistan than with the end of our time in Vietnam.

This difference was brought to my attention by Ross Douthat in his column from a couple of weeks ago. 

Only recently the view that without U.S. troops, the American-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed like hardheaded realism. Now such “realism” has been proven to be wildly overoptimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the mujahideen reached Kabul. Whereas our $2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell to the Taliban before American troops could even finish their retreat.

Later in the same article he points out that the US backed government was conquered faster by the Taliban than the Taliban were initially conquered by the US. I understand that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but the speed and lack of struggle accompanying this most recent death suggests something closer to euthanasia than murder. And basically this is exactly how Biden is defending his decision.

It feels like it would be hard to overemphasis this difference: the US backed government lasted 9 days while the Soviet backed government lasted several years. In fact I would argue that this difference speaks to a deep truth about the nature of the American effort and it’s associated ideological foundation. The point of this post is to uncover what that truth might be. Like all deep truths I don’t imagine that I’m going to do much more than scratch the surface in the space of a few thousand words, but I think one entry point would be a comparison of two leaders: 

The Soviet forces started withdrawing from Afghanistan in May of 1988 with the very last troops leaving in February of 1989. At this point Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan was left to fend for himself. The Soviets were still giving him financial aid, but the US and Pakistan were still giving aid to his enemies. Initially things went okay for Najibullah, but by the beginning of 1991 he only held on to 10% of the country. On top of this the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing by this point, finally collapsing for good in December of that year. Despite this, Najibullah fought on, eventually resigning only in April of 1992. A resignation that came about in large part because of the defection of a key general. After being unsuccessful in his attempt to flee to India, he sought refuge in the UN compound where he stayed for the next four years. 

During those years the Afghan Civil War raged. In 1996 the Taliban eventually came out on top, and were on the verge of taking Kabul. At this point Najibullah was offered one final chance to escape which he turned down for reasons which have been much speculated on since then. As one might imagine, when the Taliban took Kabul they didn’t let anything like the UN stand in their way. Najibullah was abducted from the compound, tortured to death, dragged through the streets, and then hung outside the presidential palace. 

Now let’s turn to consider Ashraf Ghani, the most recent president of Afghanistan, the one backed by the US. I’m taking most of my information here from the excellent Washington Post article, “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war“. In reading about Najibullah one gets the sense that the Soviet installed government wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without him. In reading about Ghani one gets the exact opposite sense, that he’s the entire reason everything collapsed so swiftly. That once he fled everyone figured the government had lost, and there was no sense continuing the fight. Now to be fair to Ghani, some of his advisors told him, incorrectly, that the militants were already in the palace and looking for him. So without telling most of his other advisors or the US, he immediately fled. Basically people working for him went to lunch, and when they came back his office was empty. There was no explanation. This paragraph seems particularly damning:

Even after they had reached safety, the president and his party never circled back with senior officials who had been anxiously seeking their help. Some of those who had worked closely with Ghani over the years felt betrayed, believing he had left them to die.

Ghani’s sudden flight from Kabul was a disaster for his government, but it was at least understandable. We already saw what happened to the last president of Afghanistan when the Taliban came to town. Certainly we would hope that he was made of sterner stuff. Personally, I can’t imagine Najibullah fleeing so suddenly. But in a sense all of this is beside the point. In a moment of panic lots of actions are excusable, and while I think there are some insights to be gained in considering his flight from Kabul, I’m more interested in what Ghani did when he had time to reflect. What did he do before and after his panicked flight? We have already seen that he didn’t bother to “circle back” to those he had left behind, but what was he doing in the days beforehand, as all the provincial capitals were falling?

As the Taliban continued to accumulate gains, American officials began to see the president’s confidence as delusion.

Ghani’s lack of focus on the threat that the Taliban posed mystified U.S. officials, in particular, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Ambassador Ross Wilson.

In a July meeting with Ghani in Kabul, the two men told the Afghan president that his team needed a “realistic, implementable and widely supported plan to defend the country” and must drop the idea of defending all 34 provincial capitals, said an official familiar with the meeting.

“They had to focus on what they could actually defend,” said the official. “All provinces are important, but some were integral to the defense of Kabul.”

Ghani appeared to agree, but there would be no follow-through, the official said.

“Advice would be given, the right things would be said, and nothing would happen,” the official said. “They never did it. They never came up with that plan.”

Even as a cascade of provincial capitals fell — starting with Zaranj in the far southwest on Aug. 6, and continuing through two dozen others over the nine days that followed — the president appeared distracted.

“Ghani would want to talk about digitization of the economy,” said the official, referring to the president’s plan for a government salary payment system. “It had nothing to do with the dire threat.”

As late as the Saturday afternoon before Kabul fell, Ghani did not suggest any urgency around departure arrangements or the safety of senior staff.

Receiving one adviser in the palace gardens, and speaking in his characteristic soft tones, he made arrangements to shore up the country’s economy. He was supposed to address the nation later that night. But he never did.

The Americans, meanwhile, were suffering their own delusions.

In June, U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that the Afghan government would hang on for at least another six months. By August, the dominant view was that the Taliban wasn’t likely to pose a serious threat to Kabul until late fall.

As you can see the Washington Post doesn’t let the American military off the hook either, but the article does reserve its harshest criticism for Ghani. And perhaps the Soviets and Najibullah were similarly insouciant in February of 1989, as the Mujahideen roamed the country with their American-supplied stinger missiles. But I really doubt it. I suspect that the reason Najibullah lasted so long was not only did he have a plan for staying in power, but he was very good about executing on that plan.  

Beyond the general sense that the post-soviet withdrawal Afghanistan must have been a very different place that post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, the thing that really jumps out at me from the Washington Post account, is the idea that as the country collapses around him all Ghani wanted to talk about was the “digitization of the economy”. I understand that it’s possible, even likely, that in choosing to emphasize the differences in how long the two governments lasted, and then further emphasizing the two leaders, and then beyond that emphasizing one line in an article, that I have put an enormous amount of weight on a very tiny foundation. But for me this seems to encapsulate, in one anecdote, the entire problem. During the 20 years we spent in Afghanistan, we didn’t create Fukuyama’s market-fueled, science-driven, war-fighting powerhouse. We didn’t replace their tribal culture with a progressive culture. All we managed to do was create a small group of elites who worry about things like the digitization of the economy.

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah was an expert in such conversations. Ghani apparently avoided them. 

III.

Reading about Ghani one word comes to mind: “untethered” as in untethered from reality. The US could also be accused of being untethered as well. There is of course the disconnect immediately preceding the fall of Kabul: despite the speed with which the Taliban was advancing everyone thought it would take a lot longer. There was the famous assertion that Kabul was not in an “imminent threat environment” made just two days before it fell. And many of the key people were so confident of things that they went on vacation, for example the Secretary of State and even Biden himself. But one suspects we were untethered from reality during the entire 20 years we were in the country. 

At the beginning of those 20 years I think most people assumed that progress was possible, in fact they probably on some level imagined that it was inevitable. In a sense this is part of a general view of how the future is going to play out. Most people can imagine that in a 100 years that we’ll have colonies on Mars, very few imagine that when that happens the Taliban will still be in charge of Afghanistan. And yet, though it’s not 100 years, 20 years have passed and at least two trillion dollars have been spent, and rather than getting any closer to this imagined future we appear to have gone backwards. As Douthat says:

Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.

So is progress possible? Will the Taliban or some roughly similar organization still be in charge of Afghanistan in 100 years or will Afghanistan, to borrow another idea of Fukuyama’s, have turned into something resembling Denmark?

If so, how might this progress actually occur? I’m not sure. I’m not one of the people who think it’s inevitable. I think it could very easily not occur, but if I were going to take some guesses here are a few:

Time: It may just be that it will occur, but that we can’t hurry it. That in fact by trying to intervene we actually slowed it down. By making progress seem to be explicitly foreign it becomes more difficult for people to adopt it.

Economic Necessity: It has long been thought that countries will progress towards liberal democracy out of a desire to be part of the global economy with all of its advantages. This was the major justification behind normalizing relations with China and inviting them to the WTO. That didn’t work out quite the way people expected. Even so, at the moment it looks like the best lever we have with Afghanistan.

War: People will argue that we already tried war. But I’m not sure that we have. The great transformation of Germany and Japan happened after the most brutal war imaginable. Taking such a course in Afghanistan would be horrible, but repeated and violent demonstrations of the military superiority of a western liberal democracy vs. Islamic tribalism might be the only thing that gets people to abandon the latter in favor of the former. At its core I think this is Fukuyama’s argument.

Muscular Ideology: Whatever our plan was for “nurtur[ing] the shoots of Afghan liberalism”, it had some curious holes. The US turned a blind eye to ridiculous amounts of corruption. It’s my understanding that this corruption was a major factor in the ease with which the Taliban took over. The US forces also turned a blind eye to traditional Afghan pederasty. Despite these examples of extreme tolerance it’s not like we didn’t impose any ideology on Afghanistan. Much has been made of the expansion of women’s rights and their subsequent retreat now that the Taliban are back in power. But if you’re an Afghan looking for an ideology to give your allegiance to this combination is a very weird mish-mash to stake your future on.

I think this last point starts to get to the heart of the matter, and illustrates the ultimate difference between Ghani and Najibullah. The former did plant his flag in this vague ideological mish-mash where digitizing the economy somehow took up more of his attention than ensuring the survival of his administration. Whereas the latter was almost certainly laser focused on survival and maintaining power. This is the difference between a regime which lasts 9 days and one that lasts three years. 

Of course the default American regime has lasted nearly 250 years. Why don’t we just use that ideology? Well that would obviously open us up to accusations of colonialism (it’s interesting what sort of things do trigger those accusations and what things don’t.) But also it’s an ideology which was being developed for centuries even before it provided for the foundation of the United States.

Examining this development makes the situation even more baffling. The countries which would go on to become western liberal democracies eliminated wide scale corruption and pederasty fairly early on. I’m not an expert on the level of corruption in 17th century Europe, but by the time of the American Revolution corruption was relatively rare, certainly far more rare than what we saw in Afghanistan. And of course pederasty had been taboo for centuries. On the other hand at the time of the American Revolution women’s suffrage was still more than a century away. And the digitization of the economy was another century or more beyond that. But somehow this is what we ended up focusing on, the fruits of liberal democracy rather than the foundation. It’s as if people think they can skip ahead and go straight to the parts they find attractive while overlooking all the steps that were initially required. We’ve become untethered from the ideology that got us here, and without it our days are numbered. We have more than 9 days our Afghan proteges lasted, but beyond that, I’m certain we have fewer days than we think.


Until writing this I didn’t realize how close we are to the Semiquincentennial (Wikipedia tells me it’s also called Sestercentennial or Quarter Millennial). I hope to still be writing about events when it happens and as that is many days hence I hope it does happen. If you’d like to help ensure that (my writing not the existence of the country) consider donating.


Tetlock, the Taliban, and Taleb

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I.

There have been many essays written in the aftermath of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. One of the more interesting was penned by Richard Hanania, and titled “Tetlock and the Taliban”. Everyone reading this has heard of the Taliban, but there might be a few of you who are unfamiliar with Tetlock. And even if that name rings a bell you might not be clear on what his relation is to the Taliban. Hanania himself apologizes to Tetlock for the association, but “couldn’t resist the alliteration”, which is understandable. Neither could I. 

Tetlock is known for a lot of things, but he got his start by pointing out that “experts” often weren’t. To borrow from Hanania:

Phil Tetlock’s work on experts is one of those things that gets a lot of attention, but still manages to be underrated. In his 2005 Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, he found that the forecasting abilities of subject-matter experts were no better than educated laymen when it came to predicting geopolitical events and economic outcomes.

From this summary the connection to the Taliban is probably obvious. This is an arena where the subject matter experts got things very wrong. Hanania’s opening analogy is too good not to quote:

Imagine that the US was competing in a space race with some third world country, say Zambia, for whatever reason. Americans of course would have orders of magnitude more money to throw at the problem, and the most respected aerospace engineers in the world, with degrees from the best universities and publications in the top journals. Zambia would have none of this. What should our reaction be if, after a decade, Zambia had made more progress?

Obviously, it would call into question the entire field of aerospace engineering. What good were all those Google Scholar pages filled with thousands of citations, all the knowledge gained from our labs and universities, if Western science gets outcompeted by the third world?

For all that has been said about Afghanistan, no one has noticed that this is precisely what just happened to political science.

Of course Hanania’s point is more devastating than Tetlock’s. The experts weren’t just “no better” than the Taliban’s “educated laymen”. The “experts” were decisively outcompeted despite having vastly more money and in theory, all the expertise. Certainly they had all the credentialed expertise…

In some ways Hanania’s point is just a restatement of Antonio García Martínez’s point, which I used to end my last post on Afghanistan—the idea we are an unserious people. That we enjoy “an imperium so broad and blinding” we’ve never been “made to suffer the limits of [our] understanding or re-assess [our] assumptions about [the] world”

So the Taliban needed no introduction, and we’ve introduced Tetlock, but what about Taleb? Longtime readers of this blog should be very familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but if not I have a whole post introducing his ideas. For this post we’re interested in two things, his relationship to Tetlock and his work describing black swans: rare, consequential and unpredictable events. 

Taleb and Tetlock are on the same page when it comes to experts, and in fact for a time they were collaborators, co-authoring papers on the fallibility of expert predictions and the general difficulty of making predictions—particularly when it came to fat-tail risks. But then, according to Taleb, Tetlock was seduced by government money and went from pointing out the weaknesses of experts to trying to supplant them, by creating the Good Judgement project, and the whole project of superforecasting.

The key problem with expert prediction, from Tetlock’s point of view, is that experts are unaccountable. No one tracks whether they were eventually right or wrong. Beyond that, their “predictions” are made in such a way that even making a determination of accuracy is impossible. Additionally experts are not any better at prediction than educated laypeople. Tetlock’s solution is to offer the chance for anyone to make predictions, but in the process ensure that the predictions can be tracked, and assessed for accuracy. From there you can promote those people with the best track record. A sample prediction might be “I am 90% confident that Joe Biden will win the 2020 presidential election.” 

Taleb agreed with the problem, but not with the solution. And this is where black swans come in. Black swans can’t be predicted, they can only be hedged against, and prepared for, but superforecasting, by giving the illusion of prediction, encourages people to be less prepared for black swans, and in the end worse off than they would have been without the prediction.

In the time since writing The Black Swan Taleb has come to hate the term, because people have twisted it into an excuse for precisely the kind of unpreparedness he was trying to prevent. 

“No one could have done anything about the 2007 financial crisis. It was a black swan!”

“We couldn’t have done anything about the pandemic in advance. It was a black swan!” 

“Who could have predicted that the Taliban would take over the country in nine days! It was a black swan!”

Accordingly, other terms have been suggested. In my last post I reviewed a book which introduced the term “gray rhino”, something people can see coming, but which they nevertheless ignore. 

Regardless of the label we decide to apply to what happened in Afghanistan, it feels like we were caught flat footed. We needed to be better prepared. Taleb says we can be better prepared if we expect black swans. Tetlock says we can be better prepared by predicting what to prepare for. Afghanistan seems like precisely the sort of thing superforecasting was designed for. Despite this I can find no evidence that Tetlock’s stable of superforecasters predicted how fast Afghanistan would fall, or any evidence that they even tried. 

As a final point before we move on. This last bit is one of the biggest problems with superforecasting. The idea that you should only be judged for what you got wrong, that if you were never asked to make a prediction about something that the endeavor “worked”. But reality doesn’t care about what you chose to make predictions on vs. what you didn’t. Reality does whatever it feels like. And the fact that you didn’t choose to make any predictions about the fall of Afghanistan doesn’t mean that thousands of interpreters didn’t end up being left behind. And the fact that you didn’t choose to make any predictions about pandemics doesn’t mean that millions of people didn’t die. This is the chief difference between Tetlock and Taleb.

II.

I first thought about this issue when I came across a poll on a forum I frequent, in which users were asked how long they thought the Afghan government would last. The options and results were:

(In the interest of full disclosure the bolded option indicates that I said one to two years.)

While it is true that a plurality of people said less than six months, six months was still much longer than the nine days it actually took (from capturing the first provincial capital to the fall of Kabul) and from the discussion that followed the poll, it seemed most of those 16 people were thinking that the government would fall at closer to six months or even three months than one week. In fact the best thing, prediction-wise, to come out of the discussion was when someone pointed out that 10 years previously The Onion had posted an article with the headline U.S. Quietly Slips Out Of Afghanistan In Dead Of Night, which is exactly what happened at Bagram. 

As it turns out this is not the first time The Onion has eerily predicted the future. There’s a whole subgenre of noticing all the times it’s happened. How do they do it? Well of course part of the answer is selection bias.  No one is expecting them to predict the future; nobody comments on all the articles that didn’t come true.  But when one does, it’s noteworthy. But I think there’s something else going on as well: I think they come up with the worst or most ridiculous thing that could happen, and because of the way the world works, some of the time that’s exactly what does happen. 

Between the poll answers being skewed from reality and the link to the Onion article, the thread led me to wonder: where were the superforecasters in all of this?

I don’t want to go through all of the problems I’ve brought up with superforecasting (I’ve easily written more than 10,000 words on the subject) but this event is another example of nearly all of my complaints. 

  • There is no methodology to account for the differing impact of being incorrect on some predictions vs. others. (Being wrong about whether the Tokyo Olympics will be held is a lot less consequential than being wrong about Brexit.)
  • Their attention is naturally drawn to obvious questions where tracking predictions is easy. 
  • Their rate of success is skewed both by only picking obvious questions, and by lumping together both the consequential and the inconsequential.
  • People use superforecasting as a way of more efficiently allocating resources, but efficiency is essentially equal to fragility, which leaves us less prepared when things go really bad. (It was pretty efficient to just leave Bagram all at once.)

Or course some of these don’t apply because as far as I can tell the Good Judgment project and it’s stable of superforecasters never tackled the question, but they easily could have. They could have had a series of questions about whether the Taliban would be in control of Kabul by a certain date. This seems specific enough to meet their criteria. But as I said, I could find no evidence that they had. Which means either they did make such predictions and were embarrassingly wrong, so it’s been buried, or despite its geopolitical importance it never occurred to them to make any predictions about when Afghanistan would fall. (But it did occur to a random poster on a fringe internet message board?) Both options are bad.

When people like me criticize superforecasting and Tetlock’s Good Judgment project in this manner, the common response is to point out all the things they did get right and further that superforecasting is not about getting everything right; it’s about improving the odds, and getting more things right than the old method of relying on the experts. This is a laudable goal. But as I point out it suffers from several blindspots. The blindspot of impact is particularly egregious and deserves more discussion. To quote from one of my previous posts where I reflected on their failure to predict the pandemic:

To put it another way, I’m sure that the Good Judgement project and other people following the Tetlockian methodology have made thousands of forecasts about the world. Let’s be incredibly charitable and assume that out of all these thousands of predictions, 99% were correct. That out of everything they made predictions about 99% of it came to pass. That sounds fantastic, but depending on what’s in the 1% of the things they didn’t predict, the world could still be a vastly different place than what they expected. And that assumes that their predictions encompass every possibility. In reality there are lots of very impactful things which they might never have considered assigning a probability to. That in fact they could actually be 100% correct about the stuff they predicted but still be caught entirely flat footed by the future because something happened they never even considered. 

As far as I can tell there were no advance predictions of the probability of a pandemic by anyone following the Tetlockian methodology, say in 2019 or earlier. Or any list where “pandemic” was #1 on the “list of things superforecasters think we’re unprepared for”, or really any indication at all that people who listened to superforecasters were more prepared for this than the average individual. But the Good Judgement Project did try their hand at both Brexit and Trump and got both wrong. This is what I mean by the impact of the stuff they were wrong about being greater than the stuff they were correct about. When future historians consider the last five years or even the last 10, I’m not sure what events they will rate as being the most important, but surely those three would have to be in the top 10. They correctly predicted a lot of stuff which didn’t amount to anything and missed predicting the few things that really mattered.

Once again we find ourselves in a similar position. When we imagine historians looking back on 2021, no one would find it surprising if they ranked the withdrawal of the US and subsequent capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban as the most impactful event of the year. And yet superforecasters did nothing to help us prepare for this event.

IV.

The natural next question is to ask how should we have prepared for what happened? Particularly since we can’t rely on the predictions of superforecasters to warn us. What methodology do I suggest instead of superforecasting? Here we return to the remarkable prescience of The Onion. They ended up accurately predicting what would happen in Afghanistan 10 years in advance, by just imagining the worst thing that could happen. And in the weeks since Kabul fell, my own criticism of Biden has settled around this theme. He deserves credit for realizing that the US mission in Afghanistan had failed, and that we needed to leave, that in fact we had needed to leave for a while. Bad things had happened, and bad things would continue to happen, but in accepting the failure and its consequences he didn’t go far enough. 

One can imagine Biden asserting that Afghanistan and Iraq were far worse than Bush and his “cronies” had predicted. But then somehow he overlooked the general wisdom that anything can end up being a lot worse than predicted, particularly in the arena of war (or disease). If Bush can be wrong about the cost and casualties associated with invading Afghanistan, is it possible that Biden might be wrong about the cost and casualties associated with leaving Afghanistan? To state things more generally, the potential for things to go wrong in an operation like this far exceeds the potential for things to go right. Biden, while accepting past failure, didn’t do enough to accept the possibility of future failure. 

As I mentioned, my answer to the poll question of how long the Afghanistan government was going to last was 1-2 years. And I clearly got it wrong (whatever my excuses). But I can tell you what questions I would have aced (and I think my previous 200+ blog posts back me up on this point): 

  • Is there a significant chance that the withdrawal will go really badly?
  • Is it likely to go worse than the government expects?

And to be clear I’m not looking to make predictions for the sake of predictions. I’m not trying to be more accurate, I’m looking for a methodology that gives us a better overall outcome. So is the answer to how we could have been better prepared, merely “More pessimism?” Well that’s certainly a good place to start, beyond that there’s things I’ve been talking about since the blog was started. But a good next step is to look at the impact of being wrong. Tetlock was correct when he pointed out that experts are wrong most of the time. But what he didn’t account for is it’s possible to be wrong most of the time, but still end up ahead. To illustrate this point I’d like to end by recycling an example I used the last time I talked about superforecasting:

The movie Molly’s Game is about a series of illegal poker games run by Molly Bloom. The first set of games she runs is dominated by Player X, who encourages Molly to bring in fishes, bad players with lots of money. Accordingly, Molly is confused when Player X brings in Harlan Eustice, who ends up being a very skillful player. That is until one night when Eustice loses a hand to the worst player at the table. This sets him off, changing him from a calm and skillful player, into a compulsive and horrible player, and by the end of the night he’s down $1.2 million.

Let’s put some numbers on things and say that 99% of the time Eustice is conservative and successful and he mostly wins. That on average, conservative Eustice ends the night up by $10k. But, 1% of the time, Eustice is compulsive and horrible, and during those times he loses $1.2 million. And so our question is should he play poker at all? (And should Player X want him at the same table he’s at?) The math is straightforward, his expected return over 100 games is -$210k. It would seem clear that the answer is “No, he shouldn’t play poker.”

But superforecasting doesn’t deal with the question of whether someone should “play poker” it works by considering a single question, answering that question and assigning a confidence level to the answer. So in this case they would be asked the question, “Will Harlan Eustice win money at poker tonight?” To which they would say, “Yes, he will, and my confidence level in that prediction is 99%.” 

This is what I mean by impact. When things depart from the status quo, when Eustice loses money, it’s so dramatic that it overwhelms all of the times when things went according to expectations.  

Biden was correct when he claimed we needed to withdraw from Afghanistan. He had no choice, he had to play poker. But once he decided to play poker he should have done it as skillfully as possible, because the stakes were huge. And as I have so frequently pointed out, when the stakes are big, as they almost always are when we’re talking about nations, wars, and pandemics, the skill of pessimism always ends up being more important than the skill of superforecasting.


I had a few people read a draft of this post. One of them complained that I was using a $100 word when a $1 word would have sufficed. (Any guesses on which word it was?) But don’t $100 words make my donors feel like they’re getting their money’s worth? If you too want to be able to bask in the comforting embrace of expensive vocabulary consider joining them.


The 8 Books, 2 Graphic Novels, & 1 Podcast Series I Finished in August

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  1. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by: Nicole Perlroth 
  2. Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope by: Mark Manson
  3. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by: Chris Voss
  4. Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore by: Michele Wucker
  5. Golden Son by: Pierce Brown
  6. Red Rising: Sons of Ares – Volume 1 and 2 (Graphic Novels) By: Pierce Brown
  7. The Bear by: Andrew Krivak
  8. The Phoenix Exultant by: John C. Wright
  9. A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View by: Stuart Parker
  10. Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology by: Adam S. Miller

In August my youngest child left for college, and my oldest child started her graduate work. Next month another one of my children is getting married, though he’s been moved out for quite a while. Out of all of this only one child remains at home. He’s recently graduated from college with a computer science degree and is looking for his first job. Once he gets it, he too will move out. And, in what seems a very short space of time, my wife and I will be empty nesters. I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for it.

One of the first things we’re going to do is move out of the house while it undergoes a long overdue remodel. I’m expecting it to start sometime in October. I’m obviously nervous about an undertaking of this size. Remodeling isn’t a huge gamble, but it is a costly one. It’s also asymmetric, the upside is essentially capped while the downside has a very fat tail. So lots of changes, but hopefully none of them will impact the mediocre logorrhea you’ve come to expect from me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race

by: Nicole Perlroth

528 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history, mechanics, and actors of a global and escalating cyberwar.

Who should read this book?

If you have enough worries about the future already I would avoid this book. If you’d like more or if you’re interested in cybersecurity this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

There are a lot of moving parts in this story, numerous actors, different incidents, and various technologies. One gets the sense that Perlroth is writing the history of something that hasn’t happened yet. Similar to someone writing the history of World War II at the end of August, 1939. Germany hasn’t invaded Poland, but they have annexed Austria, occupied the Sudetenland, and signed a nonaggression pact w/ Stalin (though no one knows that yet). Certain things are going to end up being very important and certain things are going to end up being entirely forgotten but none of that is clear yet.

Out of all the things Perlroth mentioned I’m going to make a few guesses as to which events and actors will end up actually being important when the war is finally over.

Stuxnet: This is the worm that was developed to take out Iranian centrifuges and slow down their uranium enrichment. It’s important for two reasons: It’s the first clear example of one nation attacking another using cyberweapons. Beyond that it undercut any moral high ground the US might have had. When the final history is written I think it will actually be less important than Perlroth claims, but it’s hard to imagine it not being included.

Heartbleed: This was a huge open source bug in the OpenSSL library that the NSA and others took advantage of for a long time. It illustrated that open source was not necessarily any more secure than the alternative (despite what some have claimed). Unsurprising given that the budget for the OpenSSL foundation was $2000/month. 

Ukraine: The Russian cyber attacks against Ukraine are a huge part of the story, big enough that I’ll cover it in the next section.

China: As is the case with so many things these days, China also conducts extensive cyberwarfare operations. And the story is similar to all the other China stories. China does something completely ridiculous, but in the end there’s too much money at stake so we overlook it. The key story from the book was Google, which exited China in 2010 after a gigantic hack, but then by 2018 they were working on getting back in. Currently the situation is complicated, but it’s obvious that Google is trying to get back into China’s good graces.

Of course I could be wrong as well about what will end up being important, but I don’t think I’m wrong about this being only the beginning.

Eschatological Implications

Historically wars have been the most common way that one sort of world changed into another sort of world, what we might consider eschatology lite. But it was only with the advent of nuclear weapons that people started to seriously consider the possibility that we could have wars which ended the world. With the book’s title Perlroth is making the claim that we should add cyberwar to that category. I don’t think she makes a convincing case that it should be added to the list with other x-risks, still she does make the case for significant worry. 

The book opens with the stories of Russia’s cyber attacks on Ukraine. The first, in 2015, took down their power grid, the second, in 2017, took down nearly every company in the country (though to the best of my knowledge the power stayed on this time). The second used the Petya malware, and apparently the Urkainians divide their lives into before Petya and and after Petya, in part because so much information was lost in the attack. From Pelroth’s description these attacks were obviously bad, but she claims that they could have been a lot worse. That this was just a test, not a real attempt to do as much damage as possible. That we should assume that if a big enough player, like Russia or China, really wanted to cause as much damage as possible, it would be far far worse. 

This example of Ukraine and the other discussions of cyberwarfare remind me of discussions about strategic bombing during the interwar period. World War I had given people a taste of what might be possible, and the advancement of technology only served to make those possibilities more terrifying—possibilities which would certainly play out in future wars.

These discussions were not universally bleak. Many thought it would lead to war more terrible than any which had come before, but some thought it would actually lead to fewer deaths because it would end wars so quickly. People would just give up once you had air superiority and could bomb them at will. In particular it was widely believed that aerial bombardment would cause uncontrollable panic among civilians. As you can see some people got it right and others didn’t. But amidst all the theorizing, one thing was definitely clear, industrial capacity would be a hugely important factor. You had to be able to build both the bombers and the bombs and the more you could build the better. 

We’re having the same discussions with respect to cyberwarfare. Some, like Perlroth, judging by the title of her book, think it has the potential to be apocalyptic, while others think that the danger is severe but manageable. (I assume Pinker is in this category, but this is another danger from progress/technology which doesn’t appear in Enlightenment Now.) I think I’m somewhere in the middle of those two positions. What I’m more interested in thinking about is which factors are going to end up ultimately determining success in cyberwarfare. If industrial capacity is what eventually allowed the US to win World War II, what factors will eventually allow which actors to achieve victory in a cyberwar?

From the book it’s clear that currently warfare revolves around highly talented individuals finding security holes in important software. From this you can imagine lots of ways this could go:

  • Is it a numbers game where the larger your country’s population the more talented individuals you possess and thus the more security holes your country has access to?
  • How does culture play into things? Are Chinese and Russian hackers more dedicated or less? If you’re a talented programmer in the US you’re working for six figures in silicon valley. If you’re a talented Russian hacker you’re building ransomware. The latter skill set would appear to be more useful if a cyberwar starts. 
  • Related, our government seems to suffer from more leaks than the Chinese and Russian governments. See for example Edward Snowden. Does our expectation of openness work against us?
  • China seems to have a pretty tight clamp on its software companies. For example it’s widely believed that they can have them include whatever backdoors and spyware they want. While we do see some cooperation between our government and our companies, it’s not nearly so extensive, and there’s been enormous pushback. Who has the advantage here? 
  • There’s a market for security holes and exploits. Given that you can buy your way into being competitive, but doing so is viewed as immoral, to whose benefit is that?

As I said, it’s impossible to predict which factors are going to be important and how things will play out in this arena, but reviewing the factors I just listed most of them seem to work to our disadvantage and to the advantage of our enemies. In particular this book has made me very worried about cyberterrorism. Thus far most terrorist organizations are fairly low tech, but that can’t last forever. In the old days it was assumed that the holy grail for a terrorist organization would be a nuke. With security vulnerabilities you have thousands of potential nukes wandering around. How long before a terrorist organization gets its hands on one? 

Consider, what would cause more chaos? A terrorist nuke in a major city (probably closer to Hiroshima than an ICBM) or 20% of the country being without power for a month because terrorists managed to blow out a couple of critical transformers? Okay, now which is easier to pull off? My hunch would be that the power disruption causes more chaos and is easier to pull off. And if the terrorists can’t quite pull that off, there are thousands of security holes out there—some more damaging, some less damaging—but all with the potential to cause a lot of chaos.


Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope 

by: Mark Manson

288 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

I’m honestly not sure. It was kind of all over the place. I think it’s primary theme was an admonition to accept the world as it is, and that hope and the search for happiness is the opposite of that.

Who should read this book?

If you loved Manson’s other books, you will probably like this one, beyond that. I’m not sure I would recommend it. There are good parts, but nothing you couldn’t get from reading Ryan Holiday or some other stoic. 

General Thoughts

I’m not entirely clear on how this book came to my attention, but I had read Manson’s previous book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, and I enjoyed it, so that’s probably why I decided to read this book, plus it was short. The book is strange. It’s got a fair amount of philosophy in it, and most of that is pretty good. In fact Manson seemed to be making exactly the same connection I did between Nietzche and AI. It also had a lot of stories which I also enjoyed. The story of Antonio Damasio and “Elliot”, a man who couldn’t do anything because he felt no emotion is one I’ve heard, and even referenced on a couple of occasions, but Manson presents it with far more detail than any of the previous retellings I’ve encountered, so that was certainly useful. 

One thing I hadn’t encountered, at least that I can remember, was the blue-dot experiment. In this experiment researchers ask participants to decide if a dot is blue, and initially they show them a set of dots where half are blue and half are purple. Then they gradually reduce the number of blue dots until all they’re showing is purple. As it turns out the number of dots identified as blue remains fairly constant, even as the actual number of blue dots goes to zero. As the occurrence of blue dots decreased, their definition of blue expanded. Thus far it’s interesting, but not particularly earth-shattering, but then they did some follow-up experiments:

In one follow-up experiment, the researchers showed the participants 800 computer-generated faces that varied on a continuum of “threatening” to “nonthreatening.” When the number of malevolent mug shots the researchers showed the participants decreased after 200 trials, the participants started labeling nonthreatening portraits as threatening.

From this, people (including Manson) concluded that even if things are improving humans are wired such that they will always see a constant level of danger and disorder. That if we’re not feeling sufficiently threatened by external foes that we’ll make up the difference by perceived internal threats

The things I’ve just mentioned along with other human biases are what lead him to conclude that Everything is F*cked. It’s when he provides his solution, in a chapter titled “The Final Religion” that things get interesting.

Eschatological Implications

So what is the FINAL religion? In Nick Bostrom’s foundational work on AI Risk, Superintelligence he proposes something he calls “The principle of epistemic deference”:

A future superintelligence occupies an epistemically superior vantage point: its beliefs are (probably, on most topics) more likely than ours to be true. We should therefore defer to the superintelligence’s opinion whenever feasible. 

Manson takes this principle and turns it up to 11. I have never seen anyone lean into it as much as Manson does. He doesn’t suggest we defer to them “whenever feasible”. He suggests we worship them as gods:

AI will reach a point where its intelligence outstrips ours by so much that we will no longer comprehend what it’s doing. Cars will pick us up for reasons we don’t understand and take us to locations we didn’t know existed. We will unexpectedly receive medications for health issues we didn’t know we suffered from…

Then, we will end up right back where we began: worshipping impossible and unknowable forces that seeming control our fates, Just as primitive humans prayed to their gods for rain and flame—the same way they made sacrifices, offered gifts, devised rituals, and altered their behavior and appearance to curry favor with the naturalistic gods—so will we. But instead of the primitive gods, we will offer ourselves up to the AI gods.

We will develop superstitions about the algorithms. If you wear this, the algorithms will favor you. If you wake at a certain hour and say the right thing and show up at the right place, the machines will bless you with great fortune. If you are honest and you don’t hurt others and you take care of yourself and your family, the AI gods will protect you. 

[A]llow me to say that I, for one, welcome our AI overlords.

Needless to say there is a lot wrong with this. First it completely ignores the AI alignment problem. Do we care what location we’re taken to by the car that “pick[s] us up for reasons we don’t understand”? What if it’s an assisted suicide facility because the AI has decided we’re old, sad and lonely and all of those conditions are only going to get worse? What if it’s a eugenics facility? And these are the very mildest examples.

All of the foregoing might be forgivable if this conclusion was supported by a foundation built over the course of the previous 200 pages, or if it was foreshadowed at all. But instead it seems to come out of left field. A strange eschatology emerging, unheralded from a rambling mix of self-help, neuroscience, and Nietzsche. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It 

by: Chris Voss

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A method of negotiation which involves open ended questions designed to get the other side to solve your problems for you.

Who should read this book?

Someone, I forget who, pointed out that you’re never making more money, or losing more money in a given period of time than when you’re negotiating. If this book can improve your negotiating power by 1%, say by netting you $101k vs. $100K and you do this sort of negotiation a lot, then it’s value should be obvious.

General Thoughts

One would think based on what I just wrote that I have read every book on negotiation I can get my hands on. This is not the case, I mostly only read ones that have been recommended to me, and out of those I think this one, Influence by Robert Cialdini and Secrets of Power Negotiating by Roger Dawson have been the best. If you’re trying to decide between them it might be useful to point out that Influence has 365 ratings on Amazon with an average of 4.7 stars. Power Negotiating has 428 ratings also with a 4.7 average. Don’t Split the Difference on the other hand has 20,000 ratings with an average of 4.8. I’m not sure if these numbers should reflect on the author’s negotiating prowess or not. 

Beyond that, as I’ve already said, I believe this is a useful book. Voss has lots of great stories from his time as the FBI’s chief international hostage negotiator. And lots of good advice beyond that. With that in mind, my sense of things is that these sorts of books are best read right before a big negotiation. They’re useful in general, but they kind of recommend a different mindset, one you’re unlikely to practice enough (unless you’re in a position like Voss’s) to be able to recall at will. 

So if you’ve got a big negotiation coming up, I would definitely recommend this book, and probably the other two as well.


Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore

by: Michele Wucker

284 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Catastrophes which have been predicted but not prepared against.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in risk management, though, if you haven’t read The Black Swan you should read that first.

General Thoughts

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused the levees to fail in New Orleans. The resulting flood killed approximately 1500 people and inflicted $70 billion dollars in damages. This was a catastrophe, but it wasn’t a black swan, the potential for catastrophe had been foreseen well in advance of Katrina, and yet the necessary preventative steps were not taken.

Shortly after reading this book Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana and New Orleans, and while the levees fortunately held this time, the 911 system once again collapsed. Despite the 16 years that had elapsed since Katrina, New Orleans was only now putting in a new system and it wasn’t ready, and the old system collapsed in the same way it had the last time around.

All of the foregoing are examples of Grey Rhinos. Disasters which can be foreseen, even if the actual timing can’t be pin-pointed. Wucker uses the analogy of someone out on safari who wants a picture of a rhino. In their quest they get too close, ignoring all the rules given by their guide, and as a result they spook the rhino and next thing they know it’s charging in their direction, whereupon they freeze. Everything about the “grey rhino” crisis is predictable and obvious, but because people are more focused on short term incentives they ignore the giant, and possibly fatal risk, which is now barreling down on them. 

Grey rhinos are obviously more common than black swans, and far easier to see, but as Wucker points out this doesn’t mean we’re great at dealing with them. If this book can help even a little bit it’s utility will be unquestionable. Despite that potential, reading the book was depressing rather than hopeful as it goes through example after example of people who got too close to the rhino, found themselves facing down possible catastrophe, freezing up and getting trampled. And yes, Wucker does provide plenty of advice for avoiding that fate, but people have been giving such advice for thousands of years and it hasn’t seemed to make much of an impact, it’s hard to imagine that this book is going to finally be the one that takes. 


Golden Son

by: Pierce Brown

464 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is book two of the Red Rising Trilogy. The continued saga of Darrow, a low caste Red who becomes a Gold and must navigate the various treacheries and machinations of their society while attempting to bring the whole thing crashing down. 

Who should read this book?

Every series has its peak, if you’re lucky it comes at the end, but that’s actually fairly rare. I think this series peaks in book one. Book two is still enjoyable, but if you didn’t love book one this book isn’t going to improve things for you.

General Thoughts

I’ve decided this series is a combination of Dune, Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games. This is not necessarily a good thing. In particular it out paces all of them in the amount of deaths and duplicitous double dealing. (Yes, it even out paces Game of Thrones.) At a certain point I started to find this tiresome. My plan is still to read the third book, but I’m worried. The friend who recommended them said that each book is worse than the one before. Of course he told me this after I finished book two…


Red Rising: Sons of Ares – Volume 1 and 2 (Graphic Novels)

by: Pierce Brown

152 Pages and 132 pages respectively

Briefly, what was this series about?

This is a prequel to the main trilogy, in graphic novel form. 

Who should read it?

First off you shouldn’t read this series before you read book two of the actual trilogy because it contains major spoilers. Second, unless you’re a Red Rising completist you probably shouldn’t read it at all.

General Thoughts

The back story provided by these graphic novels is somewhat interesting, though it doesn’t break any new ground. Also it’s incoherent in places, and I didn’t really like the art, which was kind of the whole reason I decided to check them out. (In this case, literally, I checked them out from the library.)


The Bear

by: Andrew Krivak

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A man and his daughter making their living in the wilderness long after the rest of humanity has disappeared.

Who should read this book?

This is another instance where I think viewing something as a long podcast is very clarifying. The audio book is four hours, so if a great four hour podcast episode sounds appealing then this should as well.

General Thoughts

If you were to view this as a happy version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road you wouldn’t be far off. It also has hints of Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Finally it reminds me of some of the Native American mythology I’ve read over the years. Krivak does a great job of combining all of these elements together into something great. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about the book: the setting, the plot, the characters and the writing. It was great.


The Phoenix Exultant 

by: John C. Wright

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A story set in the far future, full of AI’s and humans in every variety you can imagine (from base neuroforms, to warlocks, composites and invariants). A story about one man’s quest to explore beyond the solar system and the forces trying to stop him.

Who should read this book?

This is also the second book in a series. It was also not as good as the first, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. I expect this series might peak at the end, and thus if you’ve read the first one, read this one too.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in my review of book one Wright is great at creating an interesting setting. That mostly continues to be the case, though this book takes place at a smaller scale than the last one, which is somewhat to its detriment. Also one thing I didn’t mention is that Wright himself is a conservative catholic. It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a book with an underlying ideology that doesn’t appear heavy handed, but I think Wright pulls it off. As you might imagine this gives the book a bit of an old school science fiction feel which I also enjoyed. 


A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View (Podcast Series)

by: Stuart Parker

15 hours

Briefly, what is this podcast about?

The history of North America environmentalism and the creation of the Green Party, which have not always been as closely aligned as you might think. 

Who should listen to it?

From the outside looking in I always assumed that the environmental movement was well organized and monolithic. Parker shows that it was anything but. If you’re interested in a detailed story about how the narcissism of small differences plays out in politics, this is the series for you.

General Thoughts

Parker has been heavily involved in politics and environmentalism essentially his entire adult life. He was leader of the British Columbia Greens from the age of 21 to 28. So this really is an insider view of things. Parker is also a gifted academic and lecturer with a deep and eclectic knowledge of the history of environmentalism, the relationship between various factions (farm workers, rich elites, native americans, etc.) and how it all came to be manifested or ignored in the form of the Green Party. 

As the series progresses it comes to events where Parker really was an insider. He is able to give more of a first hand account of how things played out and we get to really see how the sausage was made. Which is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and I don’t even have a dog in the fight. I really enjoyed the series, much more than I expected.


III- Religious Reviews

Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology

by: Adam S. Miller

132 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of essays with a particular focus on what Mormonism has to say about grace and the atonement.

Who should read this book?

If you only dabble in Mormon theology, then there are easier books to read, but if you’re serious about the subject the essays in this book are deep and thought-provoking.

General Thoughts

I found Miller’s writing to be somewhat opaque, in my opinion more opaque than was actually necessary. Miller has some brilliant insights, but at times I felt like I was having to work too hard for them. My favorite essay from the book was “Notes on Life, Grace and Atonement.” Grace is going through something of revival in current Mormon dialogue and Miller’s contribution is fascinating, and almost Buddhist in nature:

With respect to grace, the legitimacy of my preferences for pleasant or productive things is a secondary issue at best. Grace is not concerned with preferences, legitimate or not. Grace, in its prodigality, is relentlessly and single-mindedly concerned with just one thing: the givenness of whatever is given, regardless of how such things may or may not comport with my preferences.

This definition of grace is all part of what he calls a non-sequential theology. We are not interested in cause and effect. We shouldn’t be focused on doing this in order for this to happen, but rather we should be focused on the totality of our lives at any given moment. I am certain I am not doing it justice, but perhaps I’m giving you enough of an idea to determine whether or not the book would appeal to you. And isn’t that the whole point of a review?


September looks to be the month when I finally finish reading Plato. So you’ve got more dilettantish commentary on ancient classics to look forward to. If that’s precisely what’s been missing from your life all this time, consider donating. If, inexplicably, you’ve already got enough of that sort of commentary, consider donating to support all the non-classical dilettantish commentary I do.


Eschatologist #8: If You’re Worried About the Future, Religion is Playing on Easy Mode

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


As has frequently been the case with these newsletters, last time I left things on something of a cliff hanger. I had demonstrated the potential for technology to cause harm—up to and including the end of all humanity. And then, having painted this terrifying picture of doom, I ended without providing any suggestions for how to deal with this terror. Only the vague promise that such suggestions would be forthcoming. 

This newsletter is the beginning of those suggestions, but only the beginning. Protecting humanity from itself is a big topic, and I expect we’ll be grappling with it for several months, such are its difficulties. But before exploring this task on hard mode, it’s worthwhile to examine whether there might be an easy mode. I think there is. I would argue that faith in God with an accompanying religion is “easy mode”, not just at an individual level, but especially at a community level.

Despite being religious it has been my general intention to not make any arguments from an explicitly religious perspective, but in this case I’m making an exception. With that exception in mind, how does being religious equal a difficulty setting of easy?

To begin with, if one assumes there is a God, it’s natural to proceed from this assumption to the further assumption that He has a plan—one that does not involve us destroying ourselves. (Though, frequently, religions maintain that we will come very close.) Furthermore the existence of God explains the silence of the universe mentioned in the last newsletter without needing to consider the possibility that such silence is a natural consequence of intelligence being unavoidably self-destructive. 

As comforting as I might find such thoughts, most people do not spend much time thinking about God as a solution to Fermi’s Paradox, about x-risks and the death of civilizations. The future they worry about is their own, especially their eventual death. Religions solve this worry by promising that existence continues beyond death, and that this posthumous existence will be better. Or it at least promises that it can be better contingent on a wide variety of things far too lengthy to go into here.

All of this is just at the individual level. If we move up the scale, religions make communities more resilient. Not only do they provide meaning and purpose, and relationships with other believers, they also make communities better able to recover from natural disasters. Further examples of resilience will be a big part of the discussion going forward, but for now I will merely point out that there are two ways to deal with the future: prediction and resilience. Religion increases the latter.  

For those of you who continue to be skeptical, I urge you to view religion from the standpoint of cultural evolution: cultural practices that developed over time to increase the survivability of a society. This survivability is exactly what we’re trying to increase, and this is one of the reasons why I think religion is playing on easy mode. Rejecting all of the cultural practices which have been developed over the centuries and inventing new culture from scratch certainly seems like a harder way to go about things.

Despite all of the foregoing, some will argue that religion distorts incentives, especially in its promise of an afterlife. How can a religious perspective truly be as good at identifying and mitigating risks as a secular perspective, particularly given that religion would entirely deny the existence of certain risks? This is a fair point, but I’ve always been one of those (and I think there are many of us) who believe that you should work as if everything depends on you while praying as if everything depends on God. This is perhaps a cliche, but no less true, even so.

If you are still bothered by the last statement’s triteness, allow me to restate: I am not a bystander in the fight against the chaos of the universe, I am a participant. And I will use every weapon at my disposal as I wage this battle.


Wars are expensive. They take time and attention. This war is mostly one of words (so far) but money never hurts. If you’d like to contribute to the war effort consider donating


Chemicals, Controversy, and the Precautionary Principle

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


I- The Precautionary Principle

Wikipedia’s article on the precautionary principle opens by describing it as:

…a broad epistemological, philosophical and legal approach to innovations with potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous. 

On its face this sounds like an ideal approach to new technologies and other forms of progress. As I have continually said in this space we’ve decided to do a lot of things which haven’t been done before. And these endeavors carry with them the potential for significant risk.

There’s a related metaphor from Nick Bostrom I’ve used a couple of times in this space, that technological progress is like a game of blindly drawing balls from a bag. Each new technology is a different ball, some are white and represent technology which is obviously beneficial, and some end up being dark grey—technology which has the potential for great harm. If we ever draw a pure black technology then the harm is so great it ends the game, and humanity has lost. With this metaphor in mind it would seem only prudent to pause before we draw these balls, and, once drawn, to exercise caution while we’re figuring out what color the ball is.

Certainly Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has also appeared a lot in this space, is a big fan of the precautionary principle. Among other places, he has referenced it in his fight against genetically modified crops, with his primary concern being the fragility introduced by monocultures. His definition is even more extreme than Wikipedia’s:

The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety.

“Scientific near-certainty” is a pretty high bar. Would that be 90% certain? 95%? 99%? That seems like it would be pretty onerous. Though to be fair he couples this extreme requirement for certainty with a presumed scale of harm in a way the Wikipedia definition doesn’t. He speaks of general health and the environment globally. But what are we to make of the phrase “suspected risk”. Certainly there has to be some threshold there, probably most innovations are suspected of being risky by someone somewhere. So I’m not sure that’s very limiting, and if it is limiting I’m not sure it should be. How many people suspected that social media would be dangerous. Lots of people suspect it now, but who looked at “TheFacebook” when it was still only accepting college students and said “This site will eventually swing presidential elections and result in the worst polarization since the Civil War.” My guess is nobody.

Beyond the questions I’ve brought up, there are more significant objections to the precautionary principle. The Wikipedia intro goes on to say:

Critics argue that it is vague, self-cancelling, unscientific and an obstacle to progress.

The idea of it impeding progress is especially relevant because I have also talked extensively in this space, particularly recently, about the smothering effects of regulation on things like nuclear power. I also had a whole post on how the safety knob has been turned to 11, where I discussed how vaccines were being taken out of circulation out of an “abundance of caution”, caution that, on net, was almost certainly killing more people than it was saving. But Taleb’s definition of the precautionary principle would appear to recommend the same caution I was decrying, that before doing anything potentially risky we should have “near-certainty about its safety”. 

(This is not to imply that Taleb was one of those who advocated for vaccine suspension, or felt the vaccines were released prematurely. I don’t think he did either, but I haven’t looked into it deeply.)

If you don’t like the vaccine example, I’ve also spent a lot of time talking about the regulations slowing down adoption of carbon-free nuclear power. But if you asked someone for the reason behind those regulations they might also reference the precautionary principle. So am I just a hypocrite, in favor of the precautionary principle when it’s applied to things I don’t like and not in favor of it when it slows down the things I do like? Or is there some way to thread this needle? What methodology can we use, what standard can we apply, to know when to be careful and when to be bold? 

II- Chemicals

As I mentioned in my book review post at the beginning of the month I recently finished Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Shanna H. Swan, which made the case that we are suffering from a crisis of chemically induced infertility. At the same time I became very engrossed in a series of posts over at Slime Mold Time Mold (SMTM), which made essentially the same case, except with respect to obesity rather than infertility.

I understand that there is a type of person who spends a lot of time being worried about “Toxins!” And in many cases this worry comes across less as a specific complaint…against a particular chemical…backed by science, and more of a generalized inchoate condemnation of modernity. But when you have two groups independently making claims about the negative effects of increased levels of specific chemicals in the environment, with evidence tied to those chemicals, that seems like something else. Something that deserves a closer look. The question is: what part deserves a closer look?

Most people want a closer look at the evidence. From my perspective there seems to be a lot of it. SMTM has come up with several candidate “chemicals”: livestock antibiotics, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), lithium, and glyphosate so far. The series is still ongoing and there is at least one more candidate to come, perhaps more. Swan’s list is somewhat less structured, but it includes, at a minimum, phthalates, BPA, flame retardants, and pesticides. In particular she’s looking for anything that might disrupt endocrine function. Having identified the culprits your next step would be taking a closer look at the evidence connecting them to the supposed harm. 

Starting with SMTM, they have individual posts dedicated to each of their candidates. In these posts they do a great job of walking through what evidence there is and pointing out where they wish there was better evidence. And even pointing out when they think a particular chemical is unlikely to be associated with the obesity epidemic, as was the case with glyphosate. For what it might look like when they believe there is a connection, let’s take lithium as an example. They would love to be able to tell you how much lithium is in the groundwater, and how much lithium we’re exposed to, but neither thing has been tracked. They can however point to a huge increase in lithium production, going from essentially zero in 1950 to 25,000 metric tons in 2007 (when the graph ends). They can also provide data showing that people who take lithium therapeutically nearly always gain weight, with about 70% gaining significant weight. Finally they point out that places which are known to have lots of obesity, for example Chile and Argentina, which are the most obese countries in South America (each has an obesity rate of 28%), are also two of the biggest exporters of lithium in the world.

In Count Down the evidence is a bit more scattered, and Swan is not as good at pointing out where she wishes there were more evidence, but there are numerous sections like the following:

Studies have shown that young men with higher levels of phthalate metabolites…have poorer sperm motility and morphology. This is bad news, since higher levels of phthalate metabolites also are associated with increased sperm apoptosis—a term for what is essentially cellular suicide. It’s safe to assume that no man wants to hear that his sperm are self-destructing.

Phthalates are bad news for women’s ovaries, too. High levels of phthalate exposure have been linked with anovulation (when ovaries don’t release an egg during a menstrual cycle) and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder involving abnormal ovarian function and elevated levels of androgens.

The sort of things I just went through are where and how most people would take a closer look. Such an approach is designed as a way to increase certainty, in one direction or another but for nearly everyone engaged in this approach, it’s entirely academic. One person could look at the evidence and decide that it’s compelling, another could look at it and decide they still prefer the supernormal stimuli explanation for the obesity epidemic. But in both cases neither person is very likely to have the ability to change the entire course of capitalism and mitigate these harms at a national or global level. In fact, regardless of the conclusion someone reaches in their investigation, it could even be difficult to change these things at the personal level, given how ubiquitous the problems are.

I too “took” that same “look”. I found both the SMTM and the Count Down arguments to be compelling, but to move the debate from the academic to the practical we have to discuss what I would do if I was somehow made dictator of the world (truly a scary thought). Do I find the arguments compelling enough that in this position I would immediately ban all of these chemicals using my dictatorial powers? Probably not, and the reasons would presumably be obvious. Reading one book and one blog post series is definitely not enough information for me to truly understand the harms and even if it was, I have no sense of the benefits provided by these chemicals. What kind of trade-offs would I be making if I banned these chemicals? In attempting to rectify the infertility and obesity problems, what other problems might I introduce? Beyond this there are issues of logistics, public opinion, potential backlash, and of course the general problems associated with exercising power in a dictatorial fashion.

Conversely doing nothing doesn’t seem appropriate either, at a minimum these issues would appear to deserve more study. But is that all we should do? Increase our data collection, so that in 10 years when SMTM does an update they can tell you how much lithium is in the groundwater? But otherwise report that nothing else has been done? That also seems insufficient.

There is a lot of space between data collection and a complete dictatorial ban, and somewhere in there is the ideal set of actions. This is the part I want to take a closer look at, not the evidence. The evidence is never going to be such that we can declare that these chemicals have no potential to cause harm and we’re definitely not going to get to Taleb’s standard of “near-certainty”. In fact at this point I would argue that fighting over the evidence is a distraction. That if the precautionary principle is to have any utility, this is a situation where it should be useful. But what that might be is not entirely clear. There is still the trade-off I mentioned in the beginning, between the problems we fear we will cause with technology and the problems we hope to solve with technology. 

This is a difficult problem, and I’m just a lowly blogger. Also despite the fact that this is an “essay”, I’m still mostly thinking out loud (see my last post for a deeper discussion of what I mean.) But I’ve found that one of the best ways to think through a problem is to look at examples, so let’s try that.

III- Silent Spring

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, was published in 1962 and while it’s debatable whether it started the environmental movement, it definitely turbocharged it. For those who might somehow be unfamiliar with the book, its main focus was a claim that pesticides were causing widespread environmental damage. Carson took particular aim at DDT which was largely used for mosquito abatement, this abatement was very important because of the mosquitos role in transmitting malaria. Her best known claim is that DDT thinned the shells of eggs. This resulted in birds being unable to incubate those eggs. And this led to a massive decline in the population of these birds. As I recall she singled out bald eagles as a species that was especially endangered.

Viewed from the standpoint of the precautionary principle, Silent Spring could be seen as a notice, or perhaps it was just a strong reminder. We have never had any way of knowing in advance what the environmental effects of widespread chemical use would be. Nor is it unreasonable to default to the assumption that they would be harmful. These chemicals could decimate bird populations. They could cause obesity and infertility. They could cause a host of other things we’ve yet to detect. And they could cause none of those things. But again it’s impossible to know in advance, and it’s even difficult to know that now.

As I said Silent Spring put the world on notice. Before that perhaps we shouldn’t blame people for not being concerned about man made chemicals being dumped into the environment. But after it was published, such lack of concern is less excusable. Rather it seems more reasonable to assume, based on the attention it received, that some form of the precautionary principle should have kicked in. But what form should that have taken? Certainly now that we’re also seeing evidence that chemicals cause obesity and infertility, we imagine that it should have taken a fairly broad form. If nothing else it would be nice to have more data about these things than we currently have. 

Beyond that, what should the invocation of the precautionary principle have entailed? We have a “when” for that invocation, and a sense that it should have been broader, but what else? It’s easy to say we should have banned DDT immediately as soon as Carson brought it to our attention, but, as mentioned, it was mostly being used to fight malaria. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, mostly in Africa, mostly below the age of 5. Since large-scale use of DDT was restricted in 2004, at least 11 million people have died of malaria. I couldn’t find numbers going all the way back to 1962, but even a very conservative estimate of DDT’s impact on the spread and transmission of malaria gives us an impact of millions of lives. Despite this number I feel confident in saying that on balance restricting the use of DDT in 2004 was a good thing, mosquitos were developing resistance, and at this point it’s hard to find anyone defending widespread use of DDT. Though to be clear, in 2004 the debate still raged. Back then even the New York Times was publishing articles titled, “What the World Needs Now is DDT”. 

This brings up the legitimate question, would it have been possible to ban DDT any sooner? And when we consider the millions of deaths would it have been wise to do it any sooner? If we agree that the 2004 ban was a good thing would it have been a good thing in 1994 or 1984, or if we had banned it worldwide in 1974 shortly after it was banned in the U.S.? Given the number of malaria deaths I suspect not, but as you can see it’s a difficult question. Also we have thus far only been talking about malaria, what about other chemicals we’ve been pumping into the environment? We have a sense that we should have taken more precautions, but as we see from the example it’s still not entirely clear what those precautions should have been. 

As something of an aside before we move on, looking into this topic not only involved a lot of research about malaria, but also the history of environmentalism, green parties, and antiwar activism. Some of which seems worth including.

As far as malaria goes, I thought this article from the Yale School of the Environment was a pretty good summation. It sets out to answer two questions:

[W]hat actually happened with DDT? And why is malaria, which seemed to be en route to eradication in the 1950s, still killing 584,000 people a year?

The answer to the latter question is the more interesting one, and it seems to boil down to “less-developed countries don’t have sufficiently non-corrupt governments which can successfully execute on public health initiatives.” 

As to the rest of it, environmentalism and everything adjacent, I quickly realized that I was well outside even my pretended areas of expertise. As such I am indebted to my friend Stuart Parker and his podcast series, A History of North American Green Politics: An Insider View. I have mentioned him before in this space, but never by name. I didn’t want him to be tarred by association with me, on top of all the other tarring that he’s had to endure. But I really enjoyed that series, there is some great stuff in there. Also in this case I’m particularly indebted because my ignorance was so deep. Accordingly I wanted to at least make sure he gets credit. And to the extent I have any influence with you, I would recommend that you give it a listen.

I can’t really do it justice, but the history of environmentalism, like so many other things, is horribly complex, and it brought home to me again how complicated it is to get anything done. Everything you might want to do gets tied up in the larger and more narrow political narrative. (Environmentalism frequently succeeded or failed based on how it could be deployed as a weapon in the cold war.) On top of that people have a limited ability to focus, even if you’re working in an area they care about. Add to that infighting, tactics, personalities, and priorities and you can see it’s difficult to even get agreement as to what should be done. But if by some miracle you can get a broad agreement internally you still have to contend with external opposition. Environmentalism has always had a whole host of enemies. Even if these enemies merely thought that the trade-offs went the other way. 

Out of all of this we can see that in addition to the questions of “When?” and “What?” we need to add the question of “How?” We can decide it’s time to be cautious, we can decide what that caution should entail, but we still have to enact that caution in some concrete fashion. 

This example seems to have given us more questions than answers. I don’t think the second example is going to be any better, but let’s proceed anyway.

IV- Gender Dysphoria and Same Sex Attraction

I debated making this section into its own post, so I could cordon it off, given how controversial the topic is. But if you’re going to examine an issue you really need to consider it from every angle and at every level of difficulty. I would say that the DDT example would be considered easy mode. We’ve known about it for a long time. We took steps. We can imagine that the steps we took should have been more extreme and sooner, but it’s also possible to argue that it went as well as it could have given the competing interests, the various tradeoffs in human lives and environmental damage, and of course the political reality.

Chemically induced infertility and obesity might be this subject at a medium level of difficulty. It’s only now entering mainstream awareness, even though it might have been going on for decades. (Swan makes the claim that chemically induced infertility is where global warming was 40 years ago.) Those who profit from these chemicals are deeply entrenched and the public have long ago been persuaded to other explanations for the phenomenon, making them particularly difficult to persuade. This means that there is a significant contingent already dedicated to defending the status quo, with only a very small contingent in favor of overturning it, or at least examining it. Furthermore the evidence you might use to change that imbalance is interesting, but certainly not ironclad. On the other hand the issue does have a few things going for it. For one thing it hasn’t yet become horribly partisan. Nearly everyone agrees that infertility and obesity are bad things. You could imagine that a narrowly crafted bill banning or restricting certain chemicals might even receive bipartisan support. Of course as battle lines are drawn things would certainly change, but that’s the case with everything at this point.

The idea that chemicals may be causing an increase in gender dysphoria and same sex attraction (SSA) is definitely hard mode. The subject is already a political and cultural minefield where reasonable discussion is impossible. And while I don’t think the evidence for this connection is any weaker than the connection between chemicals and infertility, it’s hard to imagine it not being scrutinized a hundred times more closely. And the biggest factor of all, those afflicted by infertility or obesity largely desire to be rid of the condition and consider it an affliction, while many who experience gender dysphoria and SSA consider it part of their identity, and violently reject any attempts to pathologize it. It’s hard to tell whether this contingent is the more numerous, but they are certainly the loudest.

Of course, the argument that some amount of SSA and gender dysphoria can be explained by environmental chemicals definitely counts as pathologizing the condition. Once again I think arguing about the evidence can end up being a distraction, because there’s no amount that is going to be convincing to all parties. And if we’re working on the basis of the precautionary principle, we’re really just looking for enough evidence to suspect risk, or (in the case of Taleb’s definition) rule out a “near-certainty” of safety. To that end I will spend some space laying out the case, but of course if you want to go deeper you should read the book:

In a 2019 article in Psychology Today, Robert Hedaya, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, wrote, “It is nothing short of astounding that after hundreds of thousands of years of human history, the fundamental facts of human gender are becoming blurry. There are many reasons for this, but one, which I have not seen discussed as a likely cause, is the influence of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”

Many other clinicians and researchers are wondering about this, too. The question of whether chemicals in our midst are affecting gender identity is a bit like the metaphorical elephant in the room—obvious and significant but uncomfortable and difficult to address. 

Swan goes on to list several mechanisms through which this might happen, and studies that show correlations between chemical exposure and gender development. She also has a section on rapid onset gender dysphoria, which covers much the same territory as Irreversible Damage. (Which I talked about in a previous post.) Also, I should mention that I put forth the theory that environmental chemicals might be causing the rise in gender dysphoria all the way back in 2018, as one of seven possibilities for the increase. So in some sense I was ahead of the curve.

As far as SSA, Swan spends less time on this, though she does make mention of the usual evidence from animals. 

Meanwhile, some environmental contaminants have been found to alter the mating and reproductive behavior of certain species. We’ve seen alterations in courtship and pairing behavior in white ibises that were exposed to methylmercury, in Florida. One study found a significant increase in homosexuality in male ibises that were exposed to methylmercury, a result the researchers attribute to a demasculinizing pattern of estrogen and testosterone expression in the males; sexual behavior in birds (as in humans) is strongly influenced by circulating levels of steroid hormones including testosterone.

Again the evidence is suggestive, but inconclusive, but to repeat my point I’m not trying to reach a conclusion. What I want to know is what precautions do we take when there’s suspicion of harm and the evidence is incomplete? It’s difficult enough to act when the evidence is overwhelming (see the global warming issue, and also all previous discussions about nuclear power.) But what possible precautions can we take on an issue like gender dysphoria where the harms are hotly disputed, it’s right in the middle of a culture war, and the evidence is never going to be ironclad? 

V- Solutions

This post has gone on longer than I intended, so it might be worthwhile to briefly review what we’re trying to do here. One of the best ways to look at the situation is using the analogy offered by Nick Bostrom. We’re drawing balls from the bag of technology. Some are white and beneficial, some are gray and harmful. If we ever draw a black ball the game is over and we’ve lost. 

As to the last point, I am not claiming that any of the things we’ve discussed represents a black ball. Rather I think something else is going on, something which Bostrom doesn’t consider in his original analogy, rather it’s something I came up with as an addition to his analogy: some of the balls will get darker after being drawn. Initially DDT’s effect on malaria transmitting mosquitoes seemed nothing short of miraculous. And plastics and other chemicals have been put to millions of uses in nearly everything. It’s only in the intervening years that DDT was shown to cause deep ecological harm, and plastics and other chemicals are now suspected to be causing infertility and obesity. 

So, how are we supposed to handle the possibility that the “balls” of technology may change color? That something which initially seemed entirely beneficial will end up having profound, but unpredicted harms? Obviously this is a difficult topic, made more difficult by the fact that nearly any solution you can imagine would impact beneficial technologies at least as much as the harmful ones. That said, I think there are some principles that could be useful as we move forward. Clearly there is no simple solution which can be applied in all cases—something obvious and straightforward. We can’t suddenly stop introducing new technologies, nor can we unwind the last few decades of technology. (Which is what would be required to be certain of reversing the effects I’ve mentioned above.) But rather each technology requires precautions carefully crafted to the specific nature of the technology.

The first and most obvious principle is that of trade-offs. None of the things we’re considering have zero benefits and neither do any of them have zero harms. Whether it’s chemicals or nuclear power or vaccines everything has advantages and disadvantages. I have argued that the downsides of vaccines are vastly outweighed by its benefits, and I maintain a similar position when it comes to nuclear power, though the case is not quite so clear. When it comes to chemicals, the situation is even more complicated, but to have any chance of making a decision we need to know what sort of decision we’re making, and which benefits we’re foregoing in order to prevent which harms.

This takes us to the second principle. We need to have the data necessary to make these decisions. The SMTM guys would have had a much easier time making their case (or being refuted) if data collection had been better. As one example of many from their posts:

Glyphosate was patented in 1971 and first sold in 1974, but the FDA didn’t test for glyphosate in food until 2016, which seems pretty weird.

I am not an expert on which sorts of data are already being collected, who’s collecting them, what sort of costs are associated with the collection etc. But I have a hard time imagining that any reasonable level of data collection would be more expensive than trying to rip a harmful technology out of society after it’s spent decades putting down roots.

Of course this is yet another principle: Earlier is better. The sooner we can detect possible harms the easier and less complicated it is to deal with them. Lithium extraction has been going on for decades, but the oldest paper I could find linking it to obesity is from 2018. Presumably we might have been able to take more effective precautions if we had known about this link before lithium took on it’s critical role in the modern world, most notably in the form of lithium ion batteries. 

It should be pointed out that the only way we can do all of these things is if we establish awareness of suspected harms in the first place. We’re unlikely to collect data on something when there’s no suspicion of risk. Or if the suspicion of risk has not risen to become part of the awareness of those empowered to collect data. That, more than anything else, is the point of this post, and of my blogging in general. Convincing people of some particular harm is secondary to making people aware of its potential for harm in the first place.

I am well aware that awareness can easily morph from familiarity into fear. To a degree that’s what I think happened with nuclear power. Preventing this from happening presents one of the greatest difficulties to the whole endeavor. One where I don’t think there’s a good answer. But I will offer up the somewhat counterintuitive opinion that the more potential harms we identify the better it will be. I think if people understand that nearly everything has the potential for harm, that this knowledge might help them not to overreact when some new harm is added to their already long list.

Thus far what we have mostly described is a process of observation not of intervention. While one assumes that intervention will ultimately be necessary, our usual tactic for such interventions is to enact them at the highest level possible. International treaties, federal regulations, etc. This results in interventions which are both crude, and ineffective, if not outright harmful. A great example of this would be environmental impact statements, which seem to be hated by just about everyone.

Here we arrive at what I consider the most important principle of all. The principle of scale. I’ve talked about scale before, and in a similar context, but in the limited space I have remaining I’d like to approach it from a different angle.

One of the things that jumped out to me as I was reading both Count Down and the SMTM stuff was how useful it was for their endeavors to have groups which provided natural experiments. Groups which had a greater than average exposure to the chemicals in question, or happened to have entirely avoided it either through chance, some system of belief, or a different regulatory system. It’s helpful to have lots of different people trying lots of different things.

This idea, depending on its context, can be labeled federalism, subsidiarity, or libertarianism. But in another sense it’s also a religious issue, nor is it certain that the two don’t bleed together. People offer religious objections to vaccines, could they go the opposite way and assert that their religion demands that they use nuclear power? As another example, what if there was a religion which demanded that their food be free of certain chemicals? Considering the wide availability of kosher and halal food, this tactic seems worth pursuing. I understand that some people already do this with organic food, and to an extent there is an associated ideology. Is there any reason not to lean into this?

The point I’m trying to make is not that we should encourage religions to do such things but rather we shouldn’t discourage them. If someone wants to try something, like intentionally infecting themselves with COVID as part of a human challenge trial. Whatever they want to label it—and it’s possible the most effective label would be the religious label—we should allow it. 

In this way we can do all the things I mentioned—assess trade-offs, gather data, raise awareness—at a scale that limits the harm. Of course this is not to say that there is no harm. I realize this opens the door to having even more people refuse to get vaccinated. I disagree with people who are opposed to getting vaccinated and I understand how having such unvaccinated people endangers the rest of the population. And I realize this proposal might make it easier to refuse a vaccine. I also understand people who are opposed to nuclear power, despite my strong advocacy of it. They believe they will suffer the harmful effects of radiation despite not being part of the community that uses nuclear power just as vaccinated people think they are more likely to get breakthrough COVID despite not being part of the anti-vax community. Unfortunately one of the few ways available to us to figure out whether a technology is dangerous or not is for some people to use it and for some people not to use it. 

It would be nice if we could instantly discern whether a technology was going to be beneficial or harmful, on net, but we can’t. And I think our record of deciding such a thing in one fell swoop for all time and all people shows that we’re wrong at least as often as we’re right, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re actually wrong more often.

If you take nothing else from this very long post, it should be this. The precautionary principle is important, and as new technologies come along and as the harms of old technologies become more apparent we need to figure out some way of being more cautious—to neither blindly embrace nor impulsively reject technology. We need to be brave and careful. We need to gather data, but also act on hunches. The dangers are subtle and if we’re going to survive them we need cleverness equal to this subtlety. Put simply we need to look before we leap.


I’m not sure if this is my longest post, I’m too lazy to check. If it’s not it’s close. If you made it this far let me know. I’ll randomly select one of you for a $20 Amazon gift card. Let’s be honest you earned it. If alternatively you want to fund the gift card consider donating


Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window

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Or download the MP3


I- A Brief Meta-Aside

I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:

A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]

The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction. 

I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)

Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news. 

II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?

I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.

It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.

Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor. 

I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar.  It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable. 

All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq. 

III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?

Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.

Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March.

And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020? 

There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”

If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban. 

As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.

Those caveats aside, what would success look like?

IV- Getting people out of there

I feel bad reading things like this:

Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”

This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens. 

But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”

But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”

The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend…

I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.

I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?

(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)

We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.

V- Enforcing some kind of standard

It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.

 

Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle. 

VI-Politics

Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.

Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.

First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.

Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America. 

Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! 

First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?

VI- I’ve seen this movie before

The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.

I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid. 

Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:

This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.

It’s a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki ‘circling back’, until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It’s like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.


If you like this sort of “hot take” consider donating. If, on the hand, you would prefer that I stayed away from the melee of current events, then consider making current events less like a melee. And if you don’t know how to do that then donate to me and I’ll at least look into it.


The 10 Books I Finished in July

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  1. Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by: Shanna H. Swan
  2. End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) by: Katie Mack
  3. Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America by: Charles Murray
  4. Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness by: Tim Grover
  5. Streaking: The Simple Practice of Conscious, Consistent Actions That Create Life-Changing Results by: Jeffrey J. Downs and Jami L. Downs
  6. Red Rising by: Pierce Brown
  7. Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas by: Spike Walker
  8. Freedom by: Sebastian Junger
  9. Faust by: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  10. Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas by: Thomas Jay Oord

I’m back. Hopefully my absence was not too distressing… 

The older I get the more I hate the heat, and as July is the hottest month of the year, lately I’ve been trying to get out of Utah, or at least up into the mountains. This July I went to the Open and Relational Theology Conference which was at a ski resort near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Shortly after getting back from that I took a trip with my wife to a condo in the mountains. Both trips were nice, and I will talk more about the theology conference when I get to the associated review.

These two trips meant that I didn’t get as much done as I had hoped but I did quite a bit done with the time freed up by not writing two essays last month. I’m hoping some of my efforts will bear fruit, but only time will tell. As you can tell whatever else I may have been doing in July I did get quite a bit of reading done, so I’m going to try to keep things tight. Thus, without further ado:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race

by: Shanna H. Swan

292 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

That modern world is suffering from a severe chemically induced fertility crisis.

Who should read this book?

If news about decreased sperm counts fills you with curiosity or dread, this is the book for you. 

General Thoughts

Growing up my experience was that kids were everywhere and they arrived fairly effortlessly. I’m the oldest of seven kids. In the house across the street was another family with seven kids and one of my best friends had 11 brothers and sisters. Now admittedly Mormons have always been at the higher end of the total fertility rate (TFR) curve, but the larger point I’m trying to get at is that when I was a child I saw no evidence of any fertility problems. 

These days it seems like we’re in exactly the opposite situation. It feels harder to come up with couples who don’t have any fertility problems than those which do. If I’m trying to be objective I don’t think this is literally the case, nor do I put much stock in my childhood impressions, but I know an awful lot of couples who are having a devil of a time conceiving. 

I hadn’t really given that much thought to this dichotomy until I started reading this book. Certainly I had heard that male sperm counts had been falling, but even with my focus on technologically induced crises, it only dimly registered. If someone had asked me for my opinion on the subject before reading this book, I probably would have said that the science on the phenomenon was still unclear. I would have been wrong.

Perhaps this subject was just a blind spot for me and everyone else knew it was a crisis, but my sense is that we’ve spent so much time focusing on why people might have fewer children, that the crisis of being unable to have kids has slipped under the radar. But make no mistake, it is a crisis. Here are just a handful of the statistics Swan provides in the book:

  • Miscarriages are increasing by 1% per year
  • Between 1973 and 2011 sperm concentration dropped 52% in western countries. This study involved 42,935 men.
  • The average twenty something woman is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35. 
  • In China eligible sperm donors dropped from 56 percent to 18 percent. (So it’s not just the west.)
  • Standards for infertility have been lowered. In the 40s it was 60 million sperm/mL, now the standard is 15.
  • 26% of men who present with some degree of erectile dysfunction are under 40.
  • Impaired Fecundity is actually worse among young women, relatively speaking. There was a 42% increase in impairment among women aged 14-24. While there was only a 6% increase in impairment among women aged 35-44.

About half the book is composed of statistics and a general overview of chemically induced infertility and about half is advice for what individuals can do to increase their personal fertility. I find the advice for individuals less interesting, but I was curious how efficacious it was. Swan gave lots of pointers but not much guidance on how much impact each, or even all of these changes would make. For example, with age having such an effect, which cohort has greater fertility: 20 year olds who follow none of Swan’s advice or 35 year olds who follow all of it? I suspect the former. If that’s the case, which is easier? Convincing people to have children earlier or completely eliminating harmful chemicals from every corner of the environment, and from everyone’s bodies? 

We might hope that there’s some simple fix, that perhaps we can fight chemicals with chemicals. That if these chemicals mess with fertility, perhaps by throwing off the proper function of estrogen or testosterone we can just add more. Unfortunately the body is more complicated that, as one example, testosterone replacement therapy causes 90% of men to drop to a sperm count of zero!

Eschatological Implications

Shortly after finishing Count Down I came across another piece claiming that chemicals were also causing the obesity epidemic. So I intend to do a separate post looking at both claims, and the ways in which they interact. Instead I’m going to use this space to have a higher level discussion.

There are many people who wish to claim that everything is going great, and that the future is going to be awesome. In order to do this they have to explain how the dangers people currently fixate on are overblown or soluble. I am most familiar with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and while he talked directly about climate change and AI risk, as well speaking about pollution generally, he did not cover chemically induced infertility. This was not a danger that was on his radar, not a problem of modernity he considered.

As I said I am not familiar with every work in this genre, and perhaps some of them have a compelling answer for why this potential catastrophe should not trouble us, but Pinker entirely ignores it. In drawing attention to this, my point is not that it’s unanswerable, my point is that it illustrates just how many potential technological catastrophes there are. 

It’s not as if this problem is difficult to foresee or get a handle on. It’s easy to measure, it’s central to human flourishing, and the evidence has been available for decades. It didn’t make my list, or Pinker’s list, or really any list because there are just so many things for us to worry about. (Pinker also completely missed the corrosive effects of social media, because his book was written in 2018 rather than 2020.) There are just so many things that can go wrong. So many unintended consequences to our large-scale tampering. If we can’t even adequately deal with problems which should be obvious, how are we going to deal with the subtle problems, the ones that sneak up on us?


End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) 

by: Katie Mack

240 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

An exploration of theories on how the universe will end.

Who should read this book?

People who like astrophysics, or thinking in time horizons of trillions of years.

General Thoughts

I remember reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time back in the day. This book has a similar feel, though it was more irreverent and humorous than Hawking’s. (Though, to be clear, Hawking could be quite funny.) Labelling this book “A Brief History of the End of Time” would not have been misleading.

In the book Mack covers six possibilities for the end of everything: Heat Death, Big Crunch, Big Rip, Vacuum Decay or Bouncing Branes. Two of these explanations (crunch and bounce) posit a universe that cycles with the death of one universe leading to the birth of the next. The rest of the explanations posit a universe that dead ends. Cycles have always made more sense to me, otherwise you need a whole separate endeavor for explaining how universes begin. That said, dead end explanations currently seem to be favored by astrophysicists. And if that’s the way the data points, that’s the way it points. But my bet is on cycles, or some other stable state (And my personal bet is that God will reveal this to me in the hereafter. Should we run into each other in the next life I want you to remember this prediction and give me credit accordingly.)

Eschatological Implications

This book is primarily about eschatology, so obviously I had to include it in this section. Though it is an eschatology much different than what I normally write about, and much different than what most people care about. Mack largely writes about things that will happen long after we are gone, and by long I mean, for example, 10^1000 years from now. And while it’s good that some people are thinking about it, I will still contend that my eschatological focus is more useful than Mack’s. 

This is not to say the book wasn’t useful or interesting. It was fascinating. I particularly liked the Vacuum Decay possibility. This holds that the Higgs Field/Potential is at a local minimum, but not a global minimum. Some incredibly energetic event could locally knock it out of its current minimum and into the global minimum, when that happened the nearby space would follow suit and a bubble of this new universe would expand out at the speed of light. Since it’s expanding as fast as information can travel we wouldn’t know about it until it hit us. One day everything’s fine and the next day the universe is unrecognizable. If you’ve ever read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut this is similar to what happens with ice-9.

Finally, this book was also a great reminder about how little we know about things. Mack points out that of the four things that determine how the universe behaves—matter, dark matter, dark energy, and time—we really only understand matter and it’s the smallest contributor to that behavior.


II- Capsule Reviews

Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America

by: Charles Murray

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The two truths that there are racial differences in cognitive ability and criminality. 

Who should read this book?

Possibly no one. I think Murray’s arguments are important, but the issue is so polarized that there is no one left who does not already have a position which is unalterable.

General Thoughts

Murray is best known as the co-author, along with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve which makes the case that intelligence is important and partially heritable. As a result of this heritability they go on to say that intelligence has different means and distributions among the various racial groups. In this book Murray again makes the case for racial differences in cognitive ability, and to that he adds data making the case for racial differences in criminality. He doesn’t speculate on a root cause for these differences, but he does assert that they will be with us “indefinitely”. And indeed, according to his data the difference was shrinking until the late 80’s, but since then it’s been remarkably stable. 

As you might imagine we’re already in dangerous territory. The Bell Curve is still taboo, and Murray, despite being unfailingly civil, is also basically taboo. And while Murray avoids mentioning genetic racial differences in this book, it’s impossible for the mind not to go there, so perhaps you want me to offer some opinion.

This reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets a couple of women to agree to a ménage à trois, but in the end decides that he can’t go through with it because he’s not an orgy guy. If he were going to do that he would have to get new clothes, new decor, new friends—he’d have to grow a mustache. Which is to say diving into racial differences in IQ is a whole lifestyle, really on both sides of the argument. And I’m not going to do it. 

However I will say this, and I’ll probably end up regretting it. In the rationalist community, which I am adjacent to in a very vague sense, these sorts of ideas are generally viewed as having some truth to them. And I don’t think it’s because rationalists are just unforgivably hateful and racist, I think it’s because that’s what the data seems to say. If you’re interested in a brief overview of that data you could do worse than read Murray’s book.


Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness 

by: Tim Grover

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the true pursuit of winning requires an absolute single-minded devotion.

Who should read this book?

If you want to be inspired to try harder and to be tougher this is your book.

General Thoughts

Grover trained Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (among others) two of the most relentless competitors who have ever walked the Earth. This is a book about how if you really want to win, there is no work/life balance, there is no pausing to rest. That all the cliches we tell ourselves are wrong. Showing up is NOT half the battle. Winning is selfish, there is an “I” in team. And you don’t need to make time for yourself or others. The only thing you should be making time for are things that take you closer to victory.

I found this book a useful wake-up call, and something of a corrective to so much of the current self-help landscape. I think I had mostly slid into a certain routine which was more focused on the perfecting of the routine than getting to a certain outcome. If it never gets me the outcome I want, what use was the routine? 

However, while I think the world in general needs more focus on “Winning!” and less focus on small incremental improvements. I would argue that the absolute fixation Grover advocates for is dangerous. I do think balance is important, but more than that I’m worried that Grover doesn’t draw any lines. As an example consider Lance Armstrong. Grover didn’t coach Armstrong, but Armstrong is another example of a relentless competitor, so relentless that he didn’t give a second thought to doping (i.e. performance enhancing drugs). Grover doesn’t ever mention doping but the impression one gets is that he would be in favor of it. Particularly given that all of Armstrong’s competitors were doping. How else would Armstrong win if he didn’t do the same?

If Grover is against doping, this book gives no hint of it, and nothing in the book could be used to derive that conclusion. But of course the real question is: did Jordan or Bryant ever use performance enhancing drugs while Grover was training them?


Streaking: The Simple Practice of Conscious, Consistent Actions That Create Life-Changing Results

by: Jeffrey J. Downs and Jami L. Downs

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Creating “streaks”, i.e. doing an activity every day in an uninterrupted fashion as a way of self improvement.

Who should read this book?

If the previous book didn’t appeal to you, maybe this one will. This is self-improvement at its easiest and most basic.

General Thoughts

This book is basically the inverse of the previous book. Rather than looking at improvement or winning as a total endeavor, this book puts forth the smallest and easiest possible methodology for improvement. The “streaks” methodology involves picking some activity that would be a part of your ideal life, and then making sure that you do that activity every day, keeping track of your “streak” of days. This activity should not be big, in fact they recommend the criteria of “laughably easy” when deciding what the activity should be. They also don’t recommend starting several streaks all at once, but rather suggest that you should go 100 days with your first streak before adding another one.

As you can see this is basically the opposite of what Grover is recommending, and I think both points of view are valuable, but my guess is that Downs’ recommendation will be more useful for more people. Still, you should never forget the need to actually win on occasion.


Red Rising 

by: Pierce Brown

382 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the first book of a dystopian science fiction series set ~700 years in the future where humanity has been divided into colors, each color has a specific role. Golds are on top and Reds are on the bottom.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a good sci fi series, I’ve heard good things about this one, and the first book was very enjoyable.

General Thoughts

There are lots of elements that go into a good science fiction book. Plot, characters, setting, world building, etc. Pierce is pretty strong with nearly all of them. In part this is because he uses the increasingly common technique, one which I’ve kind of decided is cheating, of setting his book in a school. It’s a very strange school, and I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense, but it is a school, and with that setting comes all sorts of things you don’t have to worry about. You only have to deal with basically one location. The plot is naturally driven by the pedagogy of the school. And, If you only focus on a few characters that feels entirely natural. 

However, as I said, I’m not sure it makes sense. *Incredibly mild spoiler* The school is composed entirely of Golds, the very highest caste, and they die like flies. Which is a world very different from ours, and I don’t know that his world-building is deep enough to make it believable. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t entirely cohere. But as criticism goes, that’s a pretty mild one. It’d be pretty hard to find a book that doesn’t have some flaw at least as egregious. 

As I write this I’m a third of the way done with the second book, and it occurs to me that the part Red Rising does poorly is what Dune does so masterfully. And there are definitely echos of Dune in the book, but that’s a very hard act to follow.

In the final analysis, Red Rising is not a classic, but it’s still quite good.


Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas 

by: Spike Walker

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Amazing Coast Guard rescues off the coast of Alaska.

Who should read this book?

People who appreciate shows like “Deadliest Catch” or general stories of man against nature.

General Thoughts

I’ve read a lot of these stories and this collection is as good as any of them, in particular the story of the most prominent rescue has a horrible twist that makes it all the more dramatic. 


Freedom

by: Sebastian Junger

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A meditative book that’s half autobiographical narrative of a walking trip Junger took and half narrative of the way freedom was understood during the early history of the country. 

Who should read this book?

People who enjoy long, discursive podcasts, or Junger’s other stuff.

General Thoughts

Freedom was not as good as Tribe (few books are), though it is probably more personal. After getting divorced Junger decided to start walking the rails with three companions. Walking the rails is illegal, and as such it provides the setting for numerous anecdotes on freedom. About half the anecdotes come from his trip and about half the anecdotes are historical.

I listened to the audiobook, which is only three hours long, and I think if you approach the book as just a long episode of a good podcast it’s amazing.


Faust 

by: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

158 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The original Faustian bargain.

Who should read this book?

It’s a classic and it’s short, so maybe everyone?

General Thoughts

Sometimes when you read an acknowledged classic you immediately recognize why it’s a classic, sometimes you kind of have to take it on faith. Faust is split into two parts and I think the first part fell into the “immediate recognition” bucket, while the second part was in the “take it on faith” bucket.

Though Faust isn’t just an acknowledged classic, it’s frequently named as the greatest work of German literature, which would appear to be a level beyond that. I definitely didn’t get that sense, even out of Part 1, but perhaps I should try reading it in the original German. I mostly know Dutch and it feels like with a moderate amount of effort I could pick up German literacy. Though it kind of feels like I’m at a point in my life when I should be cutting back on things rather than being ambitious. 

As a final note I should mention that in the past I have found full cast audiobooks to be less enjoyable than those with a single great narrator. I listened to a full cast version of this book and it was quite good. So perhaps I just had a few bad experiences. I’ll keep you posted.


III- Religious Reviews

Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas

by: Thomas Jay Oord

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A new take on how God operates, very different from traditional religious ideas.

Who should read this book?

If you like plumbing the depths of theology, but find some of it far too dry, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I went to a conference on open and relational theology (ORT) last month, but this was not because I subscribe to it. My biggest reason was that I was acquainted with Oord, who organized the conference. Also, it didn’t appear any more expensive than taking a vacation of similar duration, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone. 

ORT does have a lot of overlap with LDS theology, in particular they’re very big on the idea of free will and agency. Something that’s also pretty foundational for Mormons. ORT uses it to answer the questions of evil and suffering.  Basically God can’t do anything which interferes with our free will. More broadly, God has only a limited ability to interfere with anything.

As I said this is not my theology and so I don’t want to get too deep into things lest I misrepresent it, but one of the interesting outgrowths of this focus on free will is that God can’t know the future. If he knows with absolute certainty what’s going to happen then we don’t really have free will. This is the “open” part of ORT, it describes the idea that the future is open, that both we and God move through time in the same way at the same rate. So God doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow anymore than we do. (One assumes his predictions are better, but they are still just predictions, there is no certainty.)

As a result of this God experiences things, again much the same way we do, and he experiences our actions while we experience his. This is the “relational” part. God is not a fixed unmovable being unchanging through all the eternities, in ORT God develops in harmony with the rest of creation. His essence is unchanging, but what he has experienced is constantly being added to.

It’s a very interesting idea, and I met a lot of very cool people. As a theology I think it’s something of a statement on the ongoing developments in Christianity and religion, but I’m still not 100% sure what that statement is.

Winning for me is getting people to pay me to write. I have an ongoing “streak” where I ask for money at the end of every post. But perhaps I’ve been looking at it all wrong, and if I really want to “Win!” I need to pass the bank teller a note demanding all the money. Wouldn’t that count as getting paid for my writing? And the rate per word would be huge! Perhaps that should be my plan B. If you want to help me with plan A, consider donating.