Author: <span>Jeremiah</span>

The 9 Books I Finished in March-2022

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


  1. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by: Roger Lowenstein
  2. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by: Arnold Bennet
  3. Burning Chrome by: William Gibson
  4. Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy by:  Richard Hanania
  5. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class by: Catherine Liu
  6. Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by: Stephen Fry
  7. Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures by: Stephen Fry
  8. If You Absolutely Must…: a brief guide to writing and selling short-form argumentative nonfiction from a somewhat reluctant professional writer by: Fredrik deBoer
  9. Expeditionary Force Book 8: Armageddon by: Craig Alanson

Somehow, without really planning to, I’ve ended up traveling a lot. As I write this I’m actually in a car headed to Albuquerque (my wife is currently driving). A week ago I was in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at Gary Con. And later this month I’m going to Vegas. I’m feeling stressed out and frivolous at the same time. 

I mention the traveling to both prepare the ground for the possibility that I might once again not produce as much writing as I want to this month, and because it leads into a story, a story about masks. As I mentioned I just got back from Gary Con and as the convention approached they made it clear that they wanted a total mask mandate. They were so serious about this that they canceled the option for table-side service, which, as I understand, is a major source of revenue for them, because they didn’t want to give people the excuse that they didn’t have their mask on because they were eating. They didn’t say that you couldn’t eat or drink at the table, but they wanted you to quickly pull down your mask, take a bite or a drink and quickly put it back on.

I was not looking forward to the mandate because I think it makes it super hard to communicate in a noisy gaming hall, and, though it might be psychosomatic prolonged mask wearing always gives me a headache, plus with three shots and a verified positive for Omicron I think I’m about as safe as one can be in this day and age. So imagine my delight when I show up and not only are about half the people in the registration line unmasked, but the guy next to me in line says that the mask mandate was removed at the 11th hour, because the hotel itself doesn’t have a mandate, and indeed 90% of them aren’t wearing masks, so the point seemed kind of moot. And indeed when I get up to the window and get my badge no one mentions that I need to put a mask on. The first room I’m in eventually ends up about 50/50 masked vs. unmasked, and it does seem like it’s being left to personal preference.

But then there’s a pushback. Certain areas seem to get very draconian with the masks, arguments erupt on the facebook page. One of the guys in charge of the con posts something very extreme about the requirement for masks and it gets deleted, even as another guy posts something else reminding people of the mask requirement, but in slightly less extreme language. But it was clear that the number of people who were just sick of masks had reached a critical mass, and it didn’t matter how much people begged and cajoled a universal mask mandate just was no longer in the cards. It really felt like being on the front lines of a front that’s collapsing, with people trying to make an orderly retreat, but on the verge of a route.

As one final point, I’m always amazed that the people loudly proclaiming the need for a mask mandate because they personally can’t attend an event otherwise because of their health, never seem to be wearing an N95. My understanding is that you personally wearing an N95, while everyone else is unmasked, is better than everyone wearing a cloth or a surgical mask. So if you’re that worried, why wouldn’t you take the one step that’s completely under your control?

Anyway I’ve gone on too long about this as it is. On to the reviews!


I- Eschatological Reviews

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management

by: Roger Lowenstein

Published: 2001

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The story of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), a very exclusive hedge fund full of arrogant people that blew up in spectacular fashion.

Who should read this book?

If you enjoyed The Big Short and have a general fondness for stories of financial blow-ups brought on by hubris this is a book about exactly that.

General Thoughts

I remember hearing about the spectacular blow-up of LTCM when it happened in 1998, and my recollection is that it was pretty big news, at least for a week or so. I’m sure that the appeal of the story was helped along by its obvious moral: the arrogant brought low in spectacular fashion by their hubris. Like so many before the principals of LTCM thought that they had outsmarted the market, they were wrong.

The next time I remember encountering the story was while reading Fooled by Randomness by Taleb where he described LTCM as a hedge fund set up by a couple of Nobel Prize winning economists. He scornfully described their delusional belief that they could precisely measure and therefore manage risk. He went on to say that the hedge fund had blown up after four years in what these economists had called a “ten sigma event”, which is to say an event ten standard deviations from the norm—an event which is so improbable that you’re unlikely to see even one such event in the entire history of the universe.

This “ten sigma” claim fascinated me, I was staggered that a Nobel Prize winner could be so wrong. (And yes I know the Nobel in economics is not an actual Nobel Prize.) Ever since then I’ve wanted to hear the whole story about how someone so smart could be wrong on a scale that beggars the imagination. Finally, after many years, I got around to looking into it. To start with I should probably include the section of the book Taleb referenced in making his claim: 

According to these same models, the odds against the firm’s suffering a sustained run of bad luck—say, losing 40 percent of its capital in a single month—were unthinkably high. (So far, in their worst month, they had lost a mere 2.9 percent.) Indeed, the figures implied that it would take a so-called ten-sigma event—that is, a statistical freak occurring one in every ten to the twenty-fourth power times—for the firm to lose all of its capital within one year.

There it is. Of course with all such claims the truth is a little bit more complicated, though it’s also depressingly similar to other stories of financial collapse. (A point which I’ll take up in the next section.)

The fund collapsed through a combination of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the 1998 Russian Currency Crisis, but I didn’t see any evidence that the LTCM principals described this combination as a “ten sigma event” after those things happened. It’s merely that before the events happened their models said that such events were spectacularly rare. If I’m going to be charitable, I don’t think the LTCM guys assumed their model was a perfect representation of reality. But I do get the impression that they thought it was directionally accurate. That it could be used for a baseline. I imagine them reasoning something like this, “At the tails of the model things are probably not completely accurate, so it might only take an seven sigma event rather than a ten sigma event, but that still should only happen once every 2 million years, which is still basically impossible.” I understand that’s still not being particularly charitable, but after reading the book it’s the best I can do. It’s clear that whatever place the models had in their decision making process that their confidence in those models was delusional to the point of insanity.

Before we entirely leave the charitable portion of this review, I need to defend the Nobel Prize winning economists, they didn’t set up the fund, nor did they have a lot of control over how it was run. They were mostly brought on to bolster its reputation. So accusing them of being arrogant and dumb is to overlook the real cocky idiots at the center of the story.

If you’re looking for the person who possessed the plurality of the fund’s hubris that would be Lawrence Hilibrand. I don’t have time to go into all the instances of Hilibrand’s arrogance. It is far easier to list the things he did that weren’t arrogant, because as near as I can tell (and one presumes that Lowenstein might have an axe to grind) there really aren’t any.

He was punished for his arrogance. All of the principals had just about the entirety of their wealth in LTCM, so when it went bust, they went bust as well. Well, not really, not bust in the way you or I would understand it, but they did go from being half-billionaires to merely multi-millionaires, who live in palatial comfort and went on to found yet another hedge fund, JWM Partners.

Unsurprisingly, their arrogance was unabated. The second fund used basically the same models and managed to last all of 10 years before it was killed by the 2007-2008 financial crisis. (Yet another ten sigma event, what are the odds!) You would think this would be the end of things, but they’re actually on their third hedge fund. Though to be fair rather than the billions invested into LTCM they were only able to get tens of millions on this third go around.

Eschatological Implications

If LTCM were an isolated story, then we wouldn’t need this section, but the hubris and collapse of LTCM appear more to be the rule of modern finance than the exception. Despite the lesson of LTCM, the 2007-2008 financial crisis was basically exactly the same story, only this time played out over the entire world rather than over a single hedge fund.

For LTCM it was the Black-Scholes model and the underlying riskless asset was government bonds. In the leadup to 2007 it was the Gaussian copula function and the underlying “riskless” asset was mortgages. We even have the same language being used to declare how improbable it is. In the middle of the crisis David Viniar, the CFO of Goldman Sachs, declared, “We were seeing things that were 25 standard deviation moves, several days in a row” I’m running out of ways to describe how idiotic this is. A 25 standard deviation move should happen once every 10135 years and he’s claiming he saw this sort of thing several days in a row!?!? Furthermore, consider that this is after LTCM, when someone like the CFO of Goldman should know that they can’t use a normal distribution when considering risk. Accordingly, what they thought was so risk free that it should never happen in the lifetime of trillions of universes, happened several days in a row. “Riskless” was anything but.

We have two examples of breathtaking financial incompetence at the highest levels within 10 years of each other. I strongly suspect that if my knowledge of financial history went even deeper that I could come up with a third example. But even if there isn’t, what do you want to bet that it won’t happen a third time? In fact I strongly suspect that the third example is already in motion, and that in 10 years we’ll be able to point to another financial crisis caused by another complicated financial instrument that is already in existence.

If you disagree, then please tell me what we have done since 2008 to keep that from happening. Honestly, I’d like to know how to solve this problem. The LTCM partners went on to found not one, but two different hedge funds after their spectacular collapse, and Lord knows the mountains of bad behavior that led to 2007-2008 crisis went almost entirely unpunished. (In the US only one guy went to jail, though 25 people did end up in jail in Iceland.)

I’m not necessarily saying that the LTCM guys shouldn’t have been able to set up a new hedge fund—I am amazed that people gave them money—I’m saying that exotic financial strategies and the instruments which empower them appear to inevitably blow up in spectacular fashion. And as things increasingly centralize these financial catastrophes just get worse. On top of all this, because of this centralization only governments are in a position to do anything about the problem, and they appear woefully unequal to that task.

It’s possible that none of this will matter, that the invasion of Ukraine will lead to World War III and the last thing on our minds will be complicated financial instruments. But if we do manage to preserve the liberal order, then we’re still going to have to deal with financial crises, because they’re deeply embedded in markets which are a fundamental feature of that order. And I think people underestimate how much the 2007-2008 crisis led to the populism we’re currently seeing, and the attendant political disorder. There are an awful lot of people who remember that while they were getting kicked in the nuts, bankers were making millions of dollars off a crisis they caused. As you can imagine this might lead to them losing faith in the system that allows that, particularly if that system just keeps allowing it to happen. 


II- Capsule Reviews

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day 

by: Arnold Bennet

Published: 1908

92 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a very short, very early self-help book.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a fan of self-help books I think you should check out this one. As I said it’s super short, and reading the earliest examples of any genre always ends up being particularly illuminating. 

General Thoughts

This book put me in mind of Parkinson’s Law, by C. Northcote Parkinson. It’s one of the first, and for my money still the greatest business book. How to Live on 24 Hours is not the greatest self-help book, but it is surprising how many of the themes that are now common in self-help books existed basically from the genre’s inception. Things like prioritization, using your mornings effectively, the power of habits and ongoing effort, etc. And of course we’re still struggling with all those things, in fact, it might be getting worse. I suppose this is more evidence that some problems will always be with us, but even if that’s the case, it’s still useful to read about one of the first people to identify those problems and attempt to fix them.


Burning Chrome 

by: William Gibson

Published: 1982

223 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of Gibson’s cyberpunk stories, something of a prequel to his famous book, Neuromancer

Who should read this book?

If you like Gibson, or cyberpunk, or science fiction short stories as a genre, you should definitely read this book.

General Thoughts

I read this as part of Freddie deBoer’s book club. In particular he wanted to talk about the story New Rose Hotel. I’ve read quite a bit of Gibson, but I’d never read this collection, so it seemed like a great excuse to do so. New Rose Hotel, was the standout story, but possibly just because deBoer drew extra attention to it. But really all the stories were quite good. Gibson is a very literary author, and his prose is always fantastic. Cyperpunk is a close cousin to noir and as such it’s really all about the atmosphere and a certain understated panache, and Gibson, as the designated father of the genre, is the master of both. 


Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy

by:  Richard Hanania

Published: December, 2021

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A comprehensive debunking of the idea that American foriegn policy is driven by a grand, overarching strategy.

Who should read this book?

I would probably just subscribe to Hanania’s substack. I think you’ll get most of the important bits, plus the book itself, as an academic publication, is horribly expensive ($160 hardback, $40 kindle).

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned that I’m part of a local Slate Star Codex meetup group. In addition to meetups we also do a book club, and this was the book we did in February. As part of that we managed to get Hanania to attend our discussion, virtually. So whatever else you might say about Hanania he’s generous with his time. 

His central point essentially boils down to the idea that American foreign policy is incoherent, that it has no overarching goal. Of course people imagine we have an overarching goal, and are quick to offer up suggestions for what that goal is, but Hanania shoots all of them down. As one example many people assume we are trying to maintain our position as the global hegemon. But the only reason that position is under threat is because we gave both Russia and China the necessary help to be competitive. You have to look pretty far back in time to see the help the US gave Russia, but even while outwardly opposed to Stalin, pre-WWII, the US government still allowed US businesses to jump start their heavy industry. Our assistance to China happened more recently when we let them into the WTO and gave them most favored nation status. In other words, the only reason we’re worried about them today is because of the economic help we gave them decades ago. And it wasn’t if they suddenly became our enemy, we have always had a pretty antagonistic relationship. Obviously we did this because we hoped it would provide a long term benefit to us, but this expected benefit was always at cross-purposes with maintaining hegemony. 

On the other side of things even when we’re clearly not hoping to benefit ourselves, when we’re definitely doing things for the sole reason of harming our enemies, our tactics are still incoherent. The best example of this is our habit of imposing sanctions. Hanania points out that sanctions almost never accomplish their intended goal, and generally end up being humanitarian disasters on top of that. Certainly they haven’t really affected Putin, on the contrary they seem to have made him more popular than ever inside Russia. Strengthening the perception that the West will always be implacable enemies of the Russian people and that Putin is the only one who can stand up to them. 

I could go on and cover other suggestions for potential US grand strategies, like the maintenance of international laws and norms. (If that’s our strategy why do we continually break those laws?) But I’m interested in high level questions. Is true grand strategy more common in a multipolar world? As the lone hyperpower is the US trying to be all things to all people? Are monarchies and autocracies better at grand strategy because decision making power is more centralized? Or is it worse because they end up surrounded by “yes men”? Do liberal values make it harder to engage in grand strategy, because there’s an irreconcilable tension between national interests and humanitarian concerns? Is it possible that nations have always fumbled through history, sometimes doing the right thing, sometimes the wrong thing, mostly by chance, but in the age of nuclear weapons, we’re suddenly in a place where these mistakes, which have always happened, might be catastrophic?

As you can imagine the invasion of Ukraine has the possibility of answering many of these questions, and we might not like what those answers turn out to be.


Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class

by: Catherine Liu

Published: December, 2020

90 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There is a war within the left between those who want to prioritize identity (being black, or gay) and those who want to prioritize class. This is a book in favor of the latter and opposed to the former.

Who should read this book?

The book is short, which is why I picked it up, but it’s pretty dense, still if you’re interested in the conflict I just mentioned it’s probably worth reading. Certainly, as someone who’s never really been on the left, it helped me understand things better.

General Thoughts

One of my friends turned me on to Tara Henley who’s kind of the Canadian version of Bari Weiss. And Henley raved about this book, which is how I came to find out about it. Also I’ve long been fascinated by the subject of the book, what Liu calls the professional managerial class (PMC), what others call woke capital, and what still others have labeled “the cathedral”

I have yet to decide which term is best, it’s a little like the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each term emerges from a different point of view of what is clearly a massive phenomenon. As far as the PMC, Liu ends up defining it more by its relationship to the working class than by any elements inherent to the PMC itself. The PMC is the academic who can’t imagine why the working class doesn’t just go to college, surely it must be clear to them that such attendance is the answer to all of the problems they might be experiencing. It’s the bureaucrat, who enforces laws for the working class’ “own good”, and feels all the more smug when the working class chaffs against these laws.  And to take a quote directly from the book:

PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families and deplorable child-rearing habits.

As you might have gathered this is a book about the conflict between the professional managerial class and the working class, and in a larger sense it’s a book about the conflict between those who prioritize identity and those who prioritize class. In order to understand how this conflict emerged you have to go back a few decades. This is a vast oversimplification, but Liu and people like her would probably point to a long standing unity between advocates for minority rights and advocates for economic justice. Certainly Martin Luther King Jr. still embodied both strands, and this was fairly mainstream Marxism as well, but in the years after his death these two strands started to subtly drift apart.

These advocates for broad spectrum justice had clearly seized the moral high ground, and as a consequence of this they were growing more powerful. Those already in power, who had gotten there by way of their wealth and status, needed some way to keep their power—it’s hard for people to take you seriously as an advocate for economic justice and the working class if you’re rich. So partially by design, but mostly just because of the way the incentives were structured, those in power started emphasizing the identity side of things and deemphasizing the economic side of things. It became more about minorities who were poor and less about poor people in general. In other words, identity was easier to subvert than class and so that’s what they did. Given that such subversion was second nature for those who already had power and wealth this was fairly easy to do. Basically they adopted the culture of the 60’s and used it as a proxy for virtue of the 60’s, narrowing the definition of virtue in the process, and hoarding what remained. Thus, the title of the book. Here’s how Liu puts it:

The culture war was always a proxy economic war, but the 1960’s divided the country into the allegedly enlightened and the allegedly benighted, with the PMC able to separate itself from its economic inferiors in a way that seemed morally justifiable.

The post -1968 PMC elite has become ideologically convinced of its own unassailable position as comprising the most advanced people the earth has ever seen. They have, in fact, made a virtue of their vanguardism. Drawing on the legacy of the counterculture and its commitment to technological and spiritual innovations, PMC elites try to tell the rest of us how to live…as the fortunes of the PMC elites rose, the class insisted on it’s ability to do ordinary things in extraordinary, fundamentally superior and more virtuous ways: as a class, it was reading books, raising children, eating food, staying healthy, and having sex as the most culturally and affectively[sic] advanced people in human history.

All of this hopefully gives you enough to understand the outlines of the conflict. You can probably simplify it into the Marxists vs. the Woke. Though that might be too simple. The borders of the conflict can seem a little bit messy when you first encounter them, and this book’s primary utility is to clearly delineate those borders. In any case, I am on neither side of the conflict, and although I never thought I would say this, I clearly prefer the Marxists. In part because of things I’ve read elsewhere, but in part because of this book. Though only in this very narrow sphere, everywhere else I prefer just about anything else to Marxism.

Liu does a good job of making the case that the PMC is on the side of the Woke, and that this alignment isn’t bringing us closer to justice, it’s perverting it. Above all she makes the case that the PMC, which she admits she’s a part of (and for that matter, so am I) are mostly a bunch of sanctimonious assholes. 


Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Retold Series

By: Stephen Fry

Book 1: Mythos

Published: 2019

352 Pages

Book 2: Heroes

Published: 2020

352 Pages

Briefly, what are these books about?

Stephen Fry retells the stories of Greek Mythology.

Who should read these books?

If you like Stephen Fry or Greek Mythology you should read these books, actually you should listen to Stephen Fry narrating these books.

General Thoughts

I was a big fan of Bulfinch’s Mythology when I was a kid. And it’d been a long time since I had revisited the myths, outside of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Greek Dramas, which is not nothing, but it was nice to engage in a comprehensive review of all the myths. 

Fry’s retelling is different from Bulfinch’s (to the extent I remember it) in three respects. First off Bulfinch’s left out the more salacious details, for example I don’t remember reading that when Kronos overthrew Ouranos it involved cutting off his genitals and hurling them across Greece and out into the ocean.

The second point is closely related to the first, as part of this bowdlerization Bulfinch’s left out all of the homosexuality, Fry, for obvious reasons, not only includes it, but really leans into all the LGBT elements of the mythology. For my money a little too much. Which is not to say I think he exaggerates any of the details but rather he can’t resist using these elements as ammo in the current culture war. For example when telling the story of someone who these days would be identified as transgender he offers one of his very few footnotes. Where he not only says that this is proof of current transgender orthodoxy, but goes on to reference an academic paper in support of this point. 

I’m not opposed to such arguments, but for a moment it’s an entirely different book. Rather than being a playful retelling of myths it’s modern cultural pontification. And it’s possible that this point, out of all the points he could have pontificated on, was worth the digression. But it draws unusual attention to the issue which often has the opposite of (what I presume is) the author’s intended goal. “There is no lack of people telling me how natural it is to be transgender, I was reading a book about classic mythology to get away from the grubbiness of the current culture wars. Instead I’m even more annoyed by such statements!”

I don’t want to exaggerate the issue, mostly the books are quite good. Which takes me to the third difference from Bulfinch’s. Fry frequently takes the opportunity to inject humorous asides. You kind of get the sense that these are the Greek myths as told by Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) though Fry’s humor is not quite so dense. 

In the end these are classic stories, told in a humorous fashion, by a great narrator. I just wish he could have done a slightly better job of keeping his politics out of things. 


If You Absolutely Must…: a brief guide to writing and selling short-form argumentative nonfiction from a somewhat reluctant professional writer

by: Fredrik deBoer

Published: January, 2022

50 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The title pretty much sums it up.

Who should read this book?

If you are genuinely trying to make a living as a blogger, newsletter writer, or even a podcaster then I would definitely read this book.

General Thoughts

Obviously I write argumentative nonfiction, so I was hoping to get a lot of great pointers from this book. There were several, you need a niche/schtick, you need to be honest and fearless, you need to actually write, etc. Mostly stuff I’ve heard before, and it was good to be reminded of these things, but there was also nothing revelatory or earth-shattering. Where the book really excelled was in an area I’m not looking for advice, at least not yet. This was the area of actually, really and truly making a living as a writer, as in it’s your primary source of income. DeBoer gets into the nuts and bolts there, going so far as to include his actual book pitch. But of course making a living as a writer is very difficult, and thus the title, you should do it only “If You Absolutely Must”. 


Expeditionary Force Book 8: Armageddon

by: Craig Alanson

456 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The continued adventures of the merry band of pirates, keeping the Earth safe from the horrors of the galaxy.

Who should read this book?

I guess if you’ve already read the previous seven books you should read this one. But I think if you were on the fence about continuing I might stop at book seven or maybe even earlier. Or at least, if I were you, I would wait until some blogger you trust finishes the series and reports back to you. Because I probably will end up being just such a blogger.

General Thoughts

Increasingly this series is 80% stuff that was interesting the first time, but has been done to death by book 8 and 20% stuff I’m intensely curious and interested in and I can hardly wait to see how it turns out. As an example I was in the middle of the book, and there was a setback, and it was basically the same kind of setback that had happened in nearly all of the previous books, and I honestly just about stopped listening right there. But then just a few minutes later Alanson did some world building (technically galaxy building) and expanded on one of the big mysteries of the book and I was all the way back in, at least for a bit. 

Another element that hasn’t gone quite the way I expected: When you start a series and discover it’s already been mapped out to be 15 books long, you expect that in the course of those books that the characters are going to level up in some fashion, and mostly this hasn’t happened. Though again just as I was about to reach the point of despair here as well, they did substantially level up in this book. So I will continue reading, but I wouldn’t blame anyone else for stopping.


If you were paying attention to page numbers you may have noticed a theme. There were a lot of short books this month. But short books need love just as much as massive classics. And tiny blogs need love just as much as giant newsletters. If this saying I just barely made up for completely selfish reasons resonates at all with you, consider donating.


Eschatologist #15: COVID and Ukraine (The Return of Messiness)

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


If you haven’t already sign-up to receive this newsletter in your in-box!

These days everyone worries about the dangers of technology. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine these worries have become very focused on one specific technology: nuclear weapons. Despite this danger and the other dangers technology has introduced, there are still many people who expect the exact opposite, that technology will be our salvation. I brought this dichotomy up in my very first newsletter. Looking back I might have given the mistaken impression that whichever it ends up being, salvation or destruction, that it will be simple. We will either be permanently saved or permanently destroyed.

This is not just my mistake, most people make this mistake, particularly when it comes to our current worry, nuclear war. They take a horribly complicated event and simplify it down to a single phrase: “The end of the world.” And nuclear war is not the only technological danger where this simplification happens. People often use similar language when talking about climate change.

On the other side of things, the imagined salvation is perhaps not as dramatic or as sudden, but it is imagined as being just as straightforward. Last week I attended a lecture by Steven Pinker, who made the argument that progress is continuing and things will just keep getting better, a subject he has written several books about. In support of this argument he offered numerous graphs showing that trends in everything from violence to wealth have been steadily improving for decades if not centuries. From this he asserted that there is no need to worry, just as we solved all of our past problems we will solve all of our future problems as well.

The belief in humanity’s unstoppable progress and the fear that we will annihilate ourselves in a nuclear war represent the extremes of optimism and pessimism. On the one hand is the claim that science and progress have solved or will solve all of our problems, on the other hand is the claim that if the situation in Ukraine escalates 7.9 billion people will die. Neither of these claims are true, but we have a tendency to think in extremes because they’re easier to understand.

As it turns out, even a war involving all of the nukes will not kill everyone. Recently a Reddit user put together a simulation which predicted that around 550 million people would die from the war, and the ensuing fallout and nuclear winter. That’s about 7% of everyone. Obviously the simulation could be wildly inaccurate, though it does claim to be based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN and CIA, but even if it was off by an order of magnitude that would still only be 70% or 5.5 billion people, leaving 2.4 billion people alive. An inconceivable tragedy, but not the end of the world. Also, these people might wish they were dead, because living after a nuclear war would be exceedingly difficult.

However, historically life has always been exceedingly difficult, not to mention messy. The Native Americans survived the loss of 90% of their total population. During the Black Death, Europeans survived death rates of up to 50%, with some people suggesting it was as high as 60%, very close to the extreme estimate of 70% above. 

Despite this sort of messy middle being the historical default, we don’t like it. We want either the steady and implacable march of progress, or a quick end that absolves us of hard work. Even when we imagine surviving “the end”, we cut out most of the messy stuff, like raising crops, and making tools in favor of more simple apocalyptic stories, where there’s always plenty of canned food and lots of guns and ammo—even when we imagine a gigantic mess, we cut out all the truly difficult bits.

The modern world has made a lot of things easy that used to be incredibly complicated. It has made a lot of things possible that were previously impossible. In the process it has weakened our ability to deal with complicated and messy situations. We want the pandemic to go away if everyone just wears a mask, or if everyone gets vaccinated, or if we just ignore it. We want the invasion of Ukraine to stop if we implement the right level of sanctions, or institute a no fly zone, or, again, if we just ignore it. But the truth is that simplicity and ease are temporary aberrations, messiness has returned and we’d better get used to it.


You may not have realized that nuclear war would only kill 550 million people. If you feel any appreciation for this comforting fact, and would like more comforting facts in the future, consider donating.  


Nukes and Stability

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


Back when Russia first invaded Ukraine, I made the decision to not write a post about it. First off, everyone was writing about it, and it wasn’t clear that I had anything unique to say. Secondly, while I knew the invasion was going to be bad, I didn’t think it would be apocalyptic. Though I knew that if it started to head in an apocalyptic direction, I would have to write about it. That’s my whole beat. Me not writing about an apocalyptic war would be like The Bark (tagline: “Dog is my co-pilot”) not covering the Westminster Dog Show. 

Fortunately since I made that decision I have come up with an angle on things that I haven’t seen other people cover. Unfortunately the chances of the Ukrainian invasion turning into the start of World War III have also gone up. So I apologize to those of you who came here expecting a post on the drug crisis. I will be getting to that next time.

I- Why an Apocalyptic Outcome Is Becoming Increasingly Likely 

I didn’t spend any time or effort on predicting whether Putin would invade, nor did I spend any on predicting how things would go if he did invade. I certainly wasn’t surprised when it happened—expecting black and gray swans is another thing where my record is pretty clear. But beyond a lack of surprise, my opinions and reactions generally followed the conventional wisdom, which was that Russia was going to have a pretty easy time of it. Having read Kill Chain by Christian Brose, where he describes the superb effectiveness of the Russian “little green men” in the Crimean Annexation, I was, if anything, biased towards a high assessment of Russian competence. As a result, like most people, including Putin himself, I expected a relatively quick victory. That before we had time to debate arming Ukraine, or imposing a no-fly zone, things would be over. 

As horrible as this would be for the Ukrainians. If Putin was going to invade regardless, a quick victory was really the best outcome we could hope for. Low casualties, minimal economic disruption, and most of all only a very small window during which escalations could happen

Instead what we have kind of reminds me of the start of World War I. One of the first things you discover when you start studying WWI is how quick everyone thought it would be. Of course everyone was wrong and the war turned into a brutal slog which ground through 4 years and 20 million lives, 40 million if you add in the wounded. In making this comparison between Ukraine and WWI there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there is almost no way it will last 4 years, the bad news is that’s because someone will use nukes long before it comes to that. 

The longer it takes for Russia to conquer Ukraine, the more likely it will end up being the start of World War III. This is because there will be more opportunities for it to escalate, more opportunities for mistakes to happen, and more opportunity for passions to become inflamed. And of course we’re not just talking about passions on the Russian side of things, passions in the West are being inflamed as well. Increasingly the public is agitating for the establishment of a no-fly zone. Of course the biggest advocates for a no fly zone are the Ukrainians, but the Estonians have also recently called for one as well. Initially all sober-minded people declared a no-fly zone to be a horrible idea, but my central point is that the longer things go, the less sober-minded people become, and we’re already seeing that trend play out as people look for ways to eat their cake and have it. We have gone from everyone recognizing that a no-fly zone is a horrible idea to the idea that we could impose a limited no-fly zone, and this is not just uninformed members of the public, recently 27 experts signing a letter urging just that. These are generals, senior fellows and ambassadors.

In other worrisome news I just saw a poll from Pew Research where 35% of people were in favor of taking military action even if it risks war with Russia. That still leaves 62% who were not in favor (3% did not answer) but if the Russians stay the course and grind their way into a bloody occupation of Kiev, do you think the number of people in favor will go down or up? I’m betting the longer it goes the more bellicose people will become, and damn the consequences.

Obviously this worry about escalation is not unique to me, and of all the takes I’ve read I thought Ross Douthat’s was the best. In particular I like the way he structured things, so I’m just going to steal it:

II- Drawing Clear Lines (Plus NATO Expansion)

Clear commitments — we will fight here, we won’t fight there — are the coin of the nuclear realm, since the goal is to give the enemy the responsibility for escalation, to make it feel its apocalyptic weight, while also feeling that it can always choose another path. Whereas unpredictable escalations and maximalist objectives, often useful in conventional warfare, are the enemy of nuclear peace, insofar as they threaten the enemy with the no-win scenario that Petrov almost found himself in that day in 1983.

These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry, and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.

He covers a lot of territory in these paragraphs. For those who are curious Petrov was the Soviet officer in charge of the early warning system one night in 1983 when it showed 5 inbound American ICBMs. Petrov decided to wait for corroborating evidence rather than sound the alarm. He was a hero and more than that a good man, and a lot of the scenarios people are discussing assume that nearly all men are that good. Which I’m not sure is the case. But we’ll get to that.

Douthat also brings up the difference between conventional war and nuclear peace. While I see WWI in much of what’s happening I think many people have defaulted to using WWII as an analogy. A European bad guy with nationalist ambitions starts his aggressions by claiming that some territory is legitimately part of his country, and he is just uniting a group of people who should never have been separated. The first time this happened we appeased the guy which was a horrible mistake, so we should never do it again. In addition to this lesson of “never appease the bad guy”, WWII taught us that the way to beat bad guys is through uniting the entire world in opposition. And this was a great plan in 1941. The Allies won because Germany could never keep up with the industrial might of the United States. Most people forget the millions and millions of Russians who died as part of this process. But regardless, this was true in 1941. It is not true today. It doesn’t matter how much greater our industrial might is, we can still lose, that doesn’t mean Russia wins, it means we both lose. 

Douthat goes on to make the critical recommendation that we have to stick to “the lines we drew in advance”. He’s not the only one making this point, Scott Alexander also mentions it in his post on Ukraine. He starts with the point I’ve already harped on:

If you only get one thing from this essay, let it be: unless you know something I don’t, establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine might be the worst decision in history. It would be a good way to get everyone in the world killed.

I’ve already written a post on how it won’t kill everyone, but it would be very, very bad. Alexander moves on from this to discussing the lines, the international norms that keep nuclear war from breaking out:

…those arbitrary lines are what save us from global annihilation.

Any sane person wants to avoid nuclear war. But this makes it easy to exploit sane people. If Russia said “Please give us the Aleutian Islands, or we will nuke you”, what should the US do? They can threaten mutually assured destruction, but if Russia says “Yes, we have received your threat, we stick to our demand, give us the Aleutians or the nukes start flying”, then what?

No sane person thinks it’s worth risking nuclear war just to protect something as minor as the Aleutian Islands. But then the US gives Russia the Aleutians, and next year they ask for all of Alaska. And even Alaska isn’t really worth risking nuclear war over, so you give it to them, and then the next year…

So people who don’t want to be exploited occasionally set lines in the sand, where they refuse to make trivial concessions even to prevent global apocalypse. This is good, insofar as it prevents them from being exploited, but bad, insofar as sometimes it causes global apocalypse. So far the solution everyone has settled on are lots of very finicky rules about which lines you’re allowed to draw and which ones you aren’t…

If there was ever a point at which two nuclear powers disagreed about who was in the wrong, one of them could threaten nuclear war to get that wrong redressed, the other could say they had drawn a line in the sand there to prevent being exploited, and then they’d have to either back down (difficult, humiliating) or start a nuclear war (unpleasant, fatal). So there are a lot of diplomats who have put a lot of effort into establishing international norms on which things are wrong and which things aren’t, so that nobody crosses anyone else’s lines by accident.

I think this is the way to understand the whole NATO expansion idea. We’re so focused on our own side, that we imagine it’s us who’s drawing the lines, but Russia can also draw lines. NATO expansion was their line, and they are also worried about a cascade of exploitation. Now what they call exploitation we call self-determination, but if someone has hundreds of ICBMs we should allow them wide latitude with definitions.

And this isn’t some line that’s only being discussed now, as a pretext for invasion. When Alexander talks about diplomats defining these lines we have dozens of US diplomats pointing out that NATO expansion was just such a line. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the issue of NATO expansion, since it’s been discussed a lot elsewhere, but I have noticed that most of the discussion seems very facile, it rarely mentions how nuclear weapons might change the calculus of expansion and it definitely doesn’t mention the lingering national dread Russia has be experiencing from losing 20 million people in WW2. But as I already pointed out, we have a very US-centric view of that war. I was also amazed that Alexander, who’s an incredibly smart guy, didn’t make the connection between his Alaskan example and the way NATO expansion appears to the Russians. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think Putin is a good guy, or that he’s justified in the slightest, or that the Ukrainians aren’t both brave and righteous. No, my whole point is that when you’re dealing with a nuclear power the rules have to be different. And the Ukrainian invasion is proof that we haven’t quite absorbed that lesson, and maybe we won’t until it’s too late. 

One final scenario before moving on. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone mentioned that if Russia used a tactical nuke that we would have to respond militarily. Obviously we should all hope and pray that this does not happen, but if it does, then this person thinks we should initiate World War III? That we should be prepared to trade US cities for Ukrainian ones? This is the central problem. Yes, we should definitely draw lines, but unfortunately we can’t draw a line anywhere we feel like it. There are consequences to where we draw our line, consequences we may shortly experience.

III- Getting Rid of Putin

Second, [these insights] mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.

Speaking of podcasts, it’s not just Graham that is being reckless. Garry Kasparov was on Sam Harris’ podcast vociferously advocating the same thing, that the only solution was regime change, that Putin is a psychopath, and either we win or he does, that he will not stop at Ukraine. 

To begin with, as I have already pointed out, it’s not inevitable that one side will win, what’s more likely is that we both lose. In response, when Harris brought up the point that Douthat, and many others have made, that if we leave Putin no other option—if it’s a choice between his death and using nukes—then he’s going to use nukes. Kasparov makes the point that he’s going to try to use nukes, but that the actual people in charge of those nukes will refuse his order, particularly if we make it clear that we will immediately respond in kind, by taking them out with a retaliatory nuke. He appears to be advocating that we resurrect the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) but in a limited sense. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will remain limited. Also extending MAD to include Ukraine, feels like both a dangerous extension of the doctrine, and a dangerous precedent. 

For all of this, Kasparov may be correct, perhaps if we make it clear that we will immediately retaliate in kind if nukes are used, then if Putin issues an order to use nukes the commanders will disobey that order. But those are a couple of very big ifs. I think I would like to have more certainty when you’re talking about potentially starting World War III. Are you really that sure that no one will follow Putin’s order? You can imagine a scenario like the one I mentioned where a single tactical nuke gets used, and we respond with one of our own nukes. Well at that point the world is a very different place. Is the US still viewed as the good guy or would using a nuke mark the end of US soft power? What does China do? Are they able to take advantage of things to draw more nations into their orbit? I don’t have the space to really delve into the China angle, but obviously they’re the huge wildcard in this conflict.

Even if we avoided responding with nukes of our own and just went all-in on a conventional war, that’s still an enormous escalation, and Russian commanders who initially refused Putin’s order when it was just about Ukraine, might suddenly feel differently when Russian soldiers are being killed by US soldiers.

Even if we’re going to temporarily set aside the question of nukes, we still have to come up with a method of removing Putin from power (or killing him outright). There would appear to be three:

First, we could invade, march all the way to Moscow, or wherever he ends up, and do it in a manner similar to how we removed Sadaam. I can’t even begin to imagine us doing this, certainly I can’t imagine that nukes wouldn’t get used long before we got anywhere close to Putin.

Second, we could assassinate him. I refer you to this opinion piece on Politico (interestingly the same outlet that published the limited no-fly zone letter) for a discussion of why that won’t work and why it has never worked (despite being tried a lot). If nothing else  it would definitely make things very weird with China.

Finally, the option seemingly favored by most people: we can hope that, as Senator Graham said, a Brutus or a Stauffenberg will remove Putin, or perhaps the Russian military could overthrow him in a coup. This is nice to imagine, though as Douthat mentions, dangerous to advocate (particularly if you’re a senator), but how realistic is it? My sense is that overthrowing an autocrat is far more difficult than people imagine. Yes, there have been protests. Yes, the current sanctions will hurt. Yes, there is enormous international pressure. Yes, Putin is hated by lots of Russian citizens. But look at Kim Jong-un and Nicholas Maduro, and before them, Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, and Joseph Stalin. You don’t think all of them dealt with protests, sanctions, international pressure, and the hatred of their own people? 

But let’s say that it does happen, that some Brutus rises up and kills Putin. Well if you know your Roman history you know that Caesar’s assassination was not followed by a peaceful restoration of the Republic, rather it was followed by years and years of war. Perhaps we’ll get lucky, on this count and the assassination or coup will be immediately followed by Alexei Navalny taking power, the oligarchs all getting arrested and the flowering of western-style democracy, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet. 

IV- What Does Stability Look Like over the Long Term?

I’m hoping that the previous sections had bits here and there that you hadn’t encountered before in all of the ink that has been spilled on the Ukrainian situation, but this section is where we finally get to the point of the post. This is the part where I’m arrogant enough to think that I’m covering things from an angle lacking from all of the other articles written about the invasion. To kick things off let’s turn to Douthat’s final point:

Third, [these insights] imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker. The Soviet Union simply had more ground to give up in a conventional war before defeat appeared existential than does Putin’s smaller empire — which may be a reason why current Russian strategy increasingly prioritizes tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional-war retreat.

Everyone, even Douthat, is worried about the situation as it stands now. A weakening Russia being led by a psychopath (if you believe Kasparov). But of course this is an obvious thing to worry about, what’s not so obvious is where things are headed. Should we get past this crisis, what does the future hold? Is Russia likely to be weaker or stronger in 20 years? What about 50 years? Which Russia is less likely to use nukes? Is the leader at that point going to be more psychopathic or less? One hopes less, but there’s plenty of room for them to be even worse. Perhaps you’ve heard of Stalin? And remember we allied with him because he was better than Hitler.

Beyond just the state of Russia there are of course numerous other concerning trends. What direction is US power headed? In 20 years will we be weaker or stronger? What about China? How does culture and ideology play out during that time? What about trends in proliferation? If you’re the leader of a country without nukes, does this war make you more or less likely to try and acquire them? I’m guessing that for a lot of people in positions of power, the number one lesson of the invasion will be that Ukraine should have never relinquished its nukes, and that if they don’t want their country to suffer a similar fate they need to acquire some of their own as soon as possible. 

Lots of people are of the opinion that the invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the Long Peace. Less discussed at the moment is why we had the Long Peace in the first place. One popular theory is that we had peace because nukes made war too awful to contemplate. That more specifically the threat of MAD kept the US and USSR from turning the Cold War hot. An equilibrium prevailed, and while it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was an equilibrium in which nukes were not used. This was a bipolar world with two relatively equal sides. As such the game theory was pretty simple, and for a while at least, stability reigned.  

A different form of stability exists on the other side of things. A stability of complete, or nearly complete destruction. A stability where people don’t worry about whether their enemies are going to use nukes because all of them have already been used, and we no longer have the ability to make more of them. I am not an expert on game theory, so I’m not 100% sure that both of these points of stability qualify as true Schelling points, but I do know that Thomas Schelling was obsessed with trying to find points of stability where nukes would not be used. (Which is why it seems particularly dicey to call the use of all the nukes a Schelling point.) Perhaps it’s better to say that in the graph of nuclear weapon usage we know of two points where the graph is at zero: a bipolar world with sides of relatively equal strength, and a world where war has raged so completely and ferociously that there are no nukes left. And the core question, the one I’ve been building up to this whole time, is are there any others? 

The reason it took me so long to get to my core question is that I wanted to illustrate that whatever sort of Schelling point we occupied, Putin has pushed us out of it. And damn him to Hell for doing so, but unfortunately, as the world transitions to a multipolar one, with nuclear nations of varying strength, it was going to happen eventually. If not when Russia invaded Ukraine, it would have happened when China invaded Taiwan. The question which confronts us is can we find a new Schelling point, a new zero spot on the graph? I see a few options, but one last point before we get to them. Remember that we can’t uninvent nukes. Whatever “point” we come up with has to last basically forever. As you can imagine this is a daunting prospect.

The preferred option would be something along the lines of what Kasparov is hinting at, and before him, what Steven Pinker argued for in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. (See my review here.) That liberal and enlightenment ideology has spread to the point where using nukes is inconceivable. That even if you have a psychopath at the top desperately clinging to power who gives an order to use nukes that the individuals below him won’t follow that order. Of course Kasparov was advocating for some additional inducements in the form of threatening horrible retaliation, so I’m not sure that his view is truly pinker-esque. But in this scenario you can imagine that through a combination of using liberal values as the carrot and massive retaliation as the stick we might have collectively already reached a new Schelling point as a natural result of progress.

As you can imagine I have my doubts about this option. We’d have to be exceptionally good at avoiding escalation (which based on what I said in part I does not appear to be the case). This sort of progress would also have to be exceptionally comprehensive. It would have to include individuals in all nations regardless of the provocation. It has to assume that mentally unstable people, or fanatical terrorists will never have direct access to nukes, that even if nations naturally end up with megalomaniacs as leaders that this megalomania will never infect the people actually in charge of firing nukes. Which is not to say I don’t hope it’s true, merely that it seems unlikely to be so. 

A variation on this option which seems more likely is that we might have grown out of aggressive war. Of all the issues Russia has encountered in their invasion of Ukraine, the issue of Russian troop morale has to be near the top. Russian soldiers do not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of invading another country, and even in a society as repressive as Russia’s it’s difficult for Putin to force them to be effective in the presence of poor morale. All of which is to say that it’s the reaction of the Russian people to the invasion that gives me the most hope. I still think that an assassination or a coup would be difficult to pull off, but I’m heartened by how “low-energy” the invasion has been. 

Of course the problem here is that if a leader can’t rely on a conventional invasion then that may make them more rather than less likely to go directly to nukes as a way of getting what they want. Aggressive conventional war may no longer be “fashionable” but this may only serve to put all of the focus on the ways in which nuclear weapons can be used to underpin aggression. 

Another possibility for achieving a stable point of zero usage is what might be called the historical option, the one liberal and enlightened people have largely rejected. This is the idea of allowing great powers to have spheres of influence, spheres where, by convention, other great powers do not intervene. To the extent that this option might offer a “zero nuke usage spot” on the graph I don’t think it’s a particularly stable one, but it does make the process of drawing lines (previously mentioned by Alexander and Douthat) easier. For example, in the current situation, Ukraine obviously falls in the Russian sphere of influence, Russia is a great power and accordingly we should stay out of things—no sanctions, no supply of missiles, no drones. Of course even when the doctrine of great power spheres prevailed those powers were always messing with each other in subtle ways, and not only that, the spheres were not fixed and immutable. The great powers were constantly trying to expand their spheres at the expense of someone else’s, and not only that, but lesser powers continually aspired to become great powers and great powers spent their existence in fear that the reverse would happen, thus the lack of long term stability.

Still, as chaotic as these situations could become, it worked out better than you might imagine. Take the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the US involvement in Vietnam. The two superpowers were clearly messing with one another as much as they could get away with, but the idea that either might resort to nukes was pretty much off the table. But now that’s all anyone can talk about, because Putin has clearly put it on the table. Obviously a large part of the current dilemma is that other aspect of great power spheres: what happens to them when a great power is in decline? And I understand that for various reasons both good and bad that Ukraine is viewed differently than Afghanistan and Vietnam, but I think we may have cast aside the idea of spheres of influence prematurely. 

My personal prediction for how things will evolve going forward involves a lot more nukes. I don’t necessarily put this forward as a stable spot where nukes are never used, though it could nevertheless be more stable than the current situation. This prediction derives from the opinion I mentioned earlier, the idea that a lot of people in power view the invasion of Ukraine as primarily a lesson about not giving up nukes if you have them and attempting to acquire them if you don’t. This lesson derives not merely from the current invasion, and the fact that Ukraine had nukes and gave them up, but also North Korea’s continued existence, as well as the fate of Muammar Gaddafi after he foreswore his nuclear program. 

I don’t know if it will turn out that two nuclear nations will never end up going to war. I do know that it brought a significant degree of calm to the India-Pakistan conflict. As I said this is my prediction for where things are headed, and I would guess that it’s more stable than what we’re currently experiencing right at this moment, but I very much doubt such an arrangement would end up being perpetually stable. 

The final equilibrium point we could end up in is not particularly stable at all, but neither does it represent the end of the world as people commonly imagine. Nukes, particularly low-yield tactical ones, could just become a common feature of war. Obviously this would be a pretty bad outcome, but it’s also hard to imagine that at some point in the next 50 years that someone somewhere isn’t going to use nukes. At which point we should be praying that it’s a low yield tactical nuke and that it doesn’t cause an immediate escalation to a full on exchange of all the nukes—a true World War III. But even if we should be that lucky, the use of one tactical nuke without the world ending would surely encourage the use of additional nukes. As I said this might lead to a new, temporary point of stability where it’s understood that people are allowed to use low yield tactical nukes because it’s better than using all the ICBMs. But as I’ve said this is not a great outcome, it is however one of the many depressing possibilities.

V- Final Recommendations and Observations

In the midst of all the coverage of the invasion, you may have come across the famous quote from Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It’s a depressing statement, but it’s also a true one. A large part of everyone’s faith in progress has been tied up in the idea that as part of that progress strength was increasing connected to goodness. That yes, the strong are able to do whatever they want, but what they want happens to be good for people and the world. In a sense this was Francis Fukuyama’s central claim when he declared the End of History. Not that history had stopped, but that liberal democracy, a government which encourages good outcomes, also happened to be the strongest form of government as well. Of course the current climate is raising questions about both sides of that statement, and their long-term truth remains to be seen. 

Whether Fukuyama was correct or not, the central theme of this very long post is that nukes undermine traditional ways of testing national strength—they mess with the traditional conduct of war. While it appears true that liberal democracies are better at fighting conventional wars, as we saw in World War II, they don’t appear to have any particular advantage when it comes to acquiring nukes, as the example of North Korea makes clear, since they are essentially the exact opposite of a liberal democracy. Of course, once a country has nukes any war it might engage in has the potential to go from a conventional war to a nuclear war. And there doesn’t appear to be any great options for dealing with this eventuality. 

Just because there aren’t any great options doesn’t mean that there are no options. The obvious thing to hope for is that Pinker and Kasparov are right. While nations will still have nukes there will be no one who will actually follow the order to use them. That this is one of the dividends of progress. If that’s the case I think we should be careful about spending down the principal of progress. This sort of forbearance only comes into play if liberal democracies still have a credible claim of being the good guys. And while I think some of the anti-western sentiment that’s come up recently—the “whataboutism” that excuses Russia’s crimes by pointing out our many crimes—is overblown, it does exist, and there are a lot of people who support Putin because he stands up against “The West”. And we need to be careful not to come across as a monolithic, self-righteous, and uncaring force. That is any more than we already do, which is to say we should actually be trying to dial down our monolithic self-righteousness even now. This project is made more difficult by the fact that we live in the era of the informational echo chamber. Where people who hate the West are likely to encounter other people who hate the West, and it’s possible this hatred has already metastasized.  

I also think that we need to be particularly careful when we’re going through a transitional period. Which we certainly are, both with respect to Russia and China. I understand that the general admonition to “be careful” is not particularly actionable. But I do think that if we look back to the way we treated Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union that we didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory. And the assumption that by bringing China into the global market that they would automatically turn liberal, also appears to be horribly mistaken, and instead it just created a peer competitor.

Of course the whole theme of my blog is that transitions are happening with ever greater frequency. We’re not just going through a transition where Russia is weakening and China is strengthening, we’re also dealing with multiple overlapping transitions related to technology. For example the invasion of Ukraine would be very different if social media did not exist. On top of that cyberwarfare is obviously happening, and apparently drones are wreaking havoc as well.

It also seems to me that attitudes are weird. There’s a certain bifurcation. On the one hand I see people, particularly when the war first started, claiming that Putin was going kill millions of people. And to be fair he still might, but so far, particularly when you’re talking about wars happening in Eastern Europe, casualties have been surprisingly low. But in any case you have people who, when they think about war, imagine it at its most terrible. Millions dead, Putin marching across Europe spreading famine and disease. And then on the other hand you have people who seem excited by the idea of war, who want to go over to Ukraine and fight. Who love the idea of the scrappy underdog Ukrainians. 

In both cases I think we have gone too long without war. It seems both a solution to civilizational malaise and also potentially the worst thing that could possibly happen. The first case is somewhat borne out by perhaps the biggest surprise of the war: the firmness and determination of Western Europe! Many people predicted that Germany would tacitly go along with the invasion because Russia supplies more than half their fossil fuel. No one predicted they would double their defense budget. Clearly the international unity in support of Ukraine is something to celebrate, It would just be nice if it didn’t take a war to get us there. Though a couple of years ago I predicted this very phenomenon.

The invasion of Ukraine is changing a lot of things. A lot more will change before it’s all over, let us hope that we can keep those changes from being apocalyptic. And then keep doing it for the next hundred years, and unless something dramatic changes, additional hundreds of years beyond that.


First off am I the only one who is having a hard time breaking the habit of saying “The Ukraine”? Second, this post ended up being and taking a lot longer than I thought, and as I am leaving tomorrow for GaryCon to pour one out for the father of RPGs, I don’t think there’s going to be a second essay this month. My apologies. If you appreciated the post despite this revelation of the frivolousness of its author and his subsequent dereliction of duty, consider donating.


The 13 Books I Finished in February

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


  1. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
  2. Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality by: Helen Joyce
  3. The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup by: Evan Hughes
  4. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by: Adam M. Grant
  5. The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible by: Various
  6. Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by: Robert K. Massie
  7. Greenlights by: Matthew McConaughey 
  8. The Midnight Library by: Matt Haig
  9. Trouble on Paradise: Expeditionary Force, Book 3.5 by: Craig Alanson
  10. Black Ops: Expeditionary Force, Book 4 by: Craig Alanson
  11. Zero Hour: Expeditionary Force, Book 5 by: Craig Alanson
  12. Mavericks: Expeditionary Force, Book 6 by: Craig Alanson
  13. Renegades: Expeditionary Force, Book 7 by: Craig Alanson

As you can see I read even more books in February than I did in January. I took a trip to Alaska, where I mostly did stuff like driving, walking and snowshoeing and those all combine well with audiobook listening. So I did a lot of it.

If you’re interested in more pictures you can email me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth 

By: Jonathan Rauch

280 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

How both right and left have abandoned the reality-based community, with its constitution of knowledge, and how returning to, and strengthening that community is the solution to all our problems.

Who should read this book?

If you think the vast epistemological crisis we’re suffering is purely a feature of the right or the left, then it might be worth reading this book, though even in that case you should probably just skip to the chapters in question. (Chapter 6 is about the sins of the right and Chapter 7 is about the sins of the left.) Beyond that the book is a rehash of classical liberal arguments that have been made better elsewhere.

General Thoughts

In some of the press for his novel Termination Shock (see my review here), Neal Stephenson recommended this book, along with five others. I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and I’d heard good things about it from other sources as well, so I was surprised to find it to be unimpressive. Though perhaps calling it unimpressive is both too harsh and too kind. The amount of work that obviously went into it was definitely impressive. Rauch’s obvious passion was also impressive. Accordingly, calling it unimpressive is being too harsh. But on the other hand, to merely say that it’s unimpressive is to be far too kind to the book—to overlook its central and glaring flaw. To cut to the chase: the book is hopelessly naive. 

Despite “constitution of knowledge” being the book’s title, the book’s premise actually hinges on the idea that there is a “reality-based community” (RBC) that follows and maintains that constitution. It would be one thing if Rauch was claiming a constitution of knowledge is something we need, but have never had. Under those circumstances we might usefully aspire to acquire one, and furthermore optimistically assume that it will fix the problems he describes. But if we already have such a constitution and a group that reveres it, then our task becomes determining whether it ever fixed the problem, and if so what caused it to stop. Under the first scenario it’s permissible to imagine that the constitution will fix the problem, under the second scenario we know that it didn’t, and our whole task is to determine why.

This is where Rauch’s naiveté comes into play. We know the RBC failed, so arguing that we just need to strengthen it without understanding why it failed is just to double down on that failure. 

To be clear he spends a lot of time on what has happened, but it’s always happening outside of the RBC. I would almost say that this creates a book length version of the no true Scotsman fallacy but Rauch doesn’t even make it that far, because that would require him to concretely define the RBC and then to offer explanations for times when it failed. Instead Rauch’s RBC is an amorphous designation, something described in anecdotes, but also somehow concrete enough to provide the answers to all of our questions, and if this were not enough, the RBC is so flawless that it is the originator of none of our problems.

To the extent that Rauch does define the RBC it probably includes scientists and journalists. But already you can see where we have the beginnings of no true Scotsman, because he’s pretty selective in the scientists he profiles, and as you might imagine huge swaths of right-wing media have been excluded from being designated as journalists. But if scientists and journalists are part of the RBC, upon which Rauch pins all his hopes, then one would think it would be very important to examine instances where they failed. When discussing science it’s remarkable that he never mentions the replication crisis. And the journalistic profession, no matter how narrowly you want to define it, contains even more examples of times the constitution of knowledge was violated. One presumes that Rauch includes the NYT in his RBC designation, and yet he makes no mention of the egregious twisting of the historical record perpetrated by the 1619 Project, nor the changes made to its assertions without an accompanying formal retraction, a violation of one of the ironclad rules of the constitution of knowledge.

Rauch does mention the NYT, but only to illustrate the problems of left-wing cancel culture. For his example he uses the Tom Cotton editorial, where the younger members of the editorial staff freaked out because they disagreed with Tom Cotton’s viewpoint, but rather than rebutting it they tried to cancel it. 

To cut to the chase (and recall I still have 12 more books to review) Rauch’s criticism of the right is comprehensive and deep, while his criticism of the left is narrow and perfunctory. One gets the impression that to the extent the RBC can be identified, Rauch believes it resides with the left. And that if young people could just be weaned off their desire to cancel opinions they disagree with and learn to engage with them, the left could re-assume the role of the RBC and everything would turn out okay.

Even if I agreed with this narrow diagnosis I still think Rauch would be understating the difficulties involved in recovery. He points out that the underlying reason for canceling instead of engaging is the phenomenon of safetyism. In making this point he draws a lot on Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s Coddling of the American Mind (see my discussion of that here). I think there are other things that contributed to the creation of cancel culture, but even if safetyism was the only disease the left was grappling with, it still represents a huge and deeply embedded behavioral trend that goes back decades and has penetrated nearly everything. 

But of course I don’t agree with Rauch’s narrow diagnosis, I think the problems created by the left are just as consequential as the problems which originated on the right. Rauch makes much of the importance institutions play in maintaining the constitution of knowledge, and of all those institutions none is more critical than the university. There’s also no institution which is more heavily tilted to the left, and if we snapped our fingers and got rid of safetyism, the university would still be left with an enormous array of problems.

Eschatological Implications

What are these problems of which I speak? There are many, and one of the many purposes of my blog is to document them in all their variety, but for the moment let’s just focus on one:

The acquisition of truth and knowledge, regardless of how well designed your “constitution”, is neither as easy nor as certain as it once was. I know I say this a lot, but we have picked the low-hanging fruit.

Rauch mentions Newton and positions him as one of the very first members of the RBC, as he should. And while I would not say that Newton’s discovery was easy, it is very easy to replicate and beyond that ironclad in it’s predictions. Since his time science has only gotten more difficult and less ironclad, to the point where these days most findings can’t be replicated and even if they can, they mostly just suggest probabilities rather than laying down the law in the fashion of Newton. All of this means that those parts of “reality” people are inclined to fight about are hard to pin down. Science is unable to swoop in and grant either side a decisive victory, and so the war continues.

This is why the book is, at its core, hopelessly naive. Science is not powerful enough to provide a reality on which to base a community, and that is particularly the case when it comes to the issues that divide us. 

Of course everyone wants science to be able to decide such issues, and at the risk of overgeneralizing, the two sides have come at it from opposite directions. The left has adopted the tactic of weaponizing scientific authority, and in response the right has weaponized doubt. Rauch is definitely lined up on the left side of things and his book is replete with appeals to scientific authority rather than appeals to actual science. The difference can be subtle. But if you assert that the authority of institutions which conduct science is the same as science, as Rauch does, that only works if they have no other motivations, and no ideological biases, but these days everyone has both of those. 

Finally, a couple of very short points, points that I was going to expand on but ran out of space.

First, for all the problems I have with the rationalist community, and there are definitely more than a few, I think they are as close to an RBC as you’re likely to find these days. And of course the most common criticism I hear about this community is that it leans right. 

Second, I think Rauch’s definition of “reality” is fatally hampered by ignoring the is-ought problem. Science is at its most powerful when it’s telling us what is, it has no actual ability to tell us what ought to be. To the extent people try to use it in that fashion, bias enters into science. As an example of this bias, Rauch’s view of science-based reality ends up being a decidedly progressive one, even if he takes aim at some of its worst excesses.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if there’s any connection between the progressive “ought” bias and the many excesses Rauch takes aim at. Speaking of which: 


Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality

by: Helen Joyce

331 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

A comprehensive overview of the history of the transgender movement culminating with a discussion of it’s many manifestations in the present day, and their attendant overreach. 

Who should read this book?

Helen Joyce is one of the editors of The Economist. If you already think that magazine is horribly transphobic, then you’re probably not going to like this book, though it is also a book length defense of that position if you’re looking to steelman it. On the other hand, if you feel that The Economist is a moderate voice of reason when it comes to this controversy, then you’ll really appreciate this book, even as it horrifies you. 

General Thoughts

Let’s start with two personal observations:

One, I’ve never been much of a feminist. (I know you’re all very surprised.) I think that, particularly once you account for differences in interest, second wave feminism largely succeeded, and after that things get complicated. To the extent my feminism has a peak it was reached while reading this book. Joyce makes the claim that there are a lot of people who have been victimized by transgender ideology, the vast majority of these people are women. Reading their stories I have never felt more deeply the need for feminism, particular feminism centered on the needs of natal females.

Two, I am more and more convinced that, should we survive the next 50 years, that people will put transgenderism in the same category as eugenics. Something which seemed sensible, but actually caused enormous and numerous harms to some of the very most vulnerable people, all in the name of what, at the time, was considered the height of progressivism. I don’t expect to live 50 more years, but I’m confident enough in things that I’m willing to make this same bet with a 30 year time horizon.

As I’ve already repeatedly pointed out, I have a lot of books to cover this month, and I imagine that anyone reading this has already made up their mind one way or the other on the transgender issue, so I won’t spend much time in the weeds. Further complicating the discussion, much of the data is anecdotal, which is easy to be horrified by if that’s your inclination and alternatively easy to dismiss if you’re of the opposite inclination.

As an interesting side note, part of the reason why there isn’t better data (and this firmly relates to the previous book review) is that many institutions don’t track transwomen separately from women and transmen separately from men, hewing to the supposedly “reality” that there’s no reason to, they’re the same. 

In an attempt to tie all of these things together let’s talk briefly about Canadian prisons. Joyce points out that getting data from the relevant Canadian authorities on the number of transwomen housed in female prisons has proven to be exceptionally difficult. But it has happened that men who have done nothing to transition other than identifying as female have been transferred to women’s prisons. One of the best people working this beat is a female former inmate named Heather Mason. If you’re interested in what she has to say here’s one of her tweets:

We have Self-ID in Canada they started transferring males when I was still in. There have been sexual assaults, physical assaults, pregnancies, abortions, and HIV passed on. One of the males beat up the woman he impregnated and she miscarried his baby. Incarcerated women are silenced

And if you’re really interested in what she has to say my friend Stuart Parker interviewed her on his podcast. The anecdotes are horrifying, the question is how widespread is the problem. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

How you feel about the long term implications of this issue will depend on how you feel about the aforementioned anecdotes. The anecdotes are extensively sourced, so you can’t ignore them, but it’s certainly possible to argue that they are just inevitable speed bumps on the way to our glorious, completely authentic future. Alternatively you might argue that, yes, transgender identification and wokeism more generally has gone to far, but that it’s about to (or has already) peaked, so yes the pendulum has swung too far, but it’s about to swing back.

If you take either of those positions then you might be comfortable minimizing the anecdotes or at least delaying doing anything expansive or hasty based on them. But there are of course some who believe that these situations are not temporary, that they’re not going away, that in fact what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. 

I think as with so many things that we should hope that people are starting to realize things have gone too far, but act as if they’re not and it’s a crisis. Though with transgender issues there’s another problem: “people”, as in the majority, mostly aren’t aware of the excesses of gender self-id. As Joyce points out, transgender activists have mostly succeeded by flying under the radar. To the extent that gender self-id is the norm, it has mostly been accomplished through the courts, not national referendums. As a consequence, most voters have no idea that murderers and rapists are being transferred to women’s prisons based merely on self-id. Nor do they really understand what self-id entails, that merely declaring yourself to be a different gender makes it so, without any other efforts to transition.

To sum up here’s what I’m worried about:

  1. To reference the previous book: the surreality and Orwellian tactics of gender self-id is doing lasting and potentially irreversible harm to the RBC.
  2. Gender self-id is easy to abuse, and instances of it being abused are going to become more frequent.
  3. Transgender advocacy has not peaked and it will get worse before it gets better.
  4. Even if we do get rid of the craziness around the edges, it will still be mainstream to prescribe puberty blockers and practice unquestioned affirmation, which has a nearly a zero percent success rate, as opposed to waiting things out which has a 90% success rate. Success with what? Making people happy in the body they were born with.

It’s amazing how radical that last suggestion has become. The idea that the best option is not taking drugs or undergoing major, frequently sterilizing surgery.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup

by: Evan Hughes

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of Insys Therapeutics and in particular their drug Subsys, an under the tongue fentanyl spray, which was approved in 2012, when we were already well into the opioid crisis. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the opioid crisis this is a fascinating footnote. And the way Insys marketed Subsys is appalling, but if you’re familiar with the way Purdue marketed Oxycontin then you’ve already heard that story. 

General Thoughts

This was another book I read in preparation for my eventual post (maybe my next one?) on the drug crisis. I don’t think it added much to my understanding of the subject, which is why I would only weakly recommend it. 

What’s most interesting is how Insys was basically able to re-run the same playbook as Purdue after Purdue had already gotten in trouble for it. Recall that Purdue’s first settlement was in 2007, but despite that Insys was still able to come along and do basically the same thing in 2012. Now to be fair it was on a much smaller scale, and Insys was more brazen than Purdue, but on the other side of the equation you have to consider that we’re talking about fentanyl. If that drug doesn’t make people pay close attention I don’t know what would.

Of course people did eventually pay attention, but it took five years, and probably would have taken longer if Insys had been just a little bit more careful. And in those five years the owner of Insys, John Kapoor became a billionaire, and I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people died. One could say that the government eventually fixed things, but given that this all took place well into the crisis, why did it take so long? And perhaps the better question is why did they approve the drug in the first place?

If the government can’t be trusted to keep an eye on something with such a clear potential for abuse, perhaps we can turn to the market? Here again we’re going to be disappointed. In the two and a half years after the release of Subsys, Insys’s stock price increased by 1500% (which is how Kapoor became a billionaire). And it was still beating the performance of the S&P 500 even a couple of years after people started getting arrested.

If you can’t trust the government to manage this sort of thing, and you can’t trust the market, all that’s left is the individual and the community. Consider that a preview of my upcoming post.


Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

by: Adam M. Grant

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Questioning assumptions, deep thinking, examining the evidence, all the stuff recommended by the “constitution of knowledge”.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read Scout Mindset you probably don’t need to read this book as they cover very similar territory. But otherwise anyone interested in leveling up their critical thinking would probably benefit from this book.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case it feels like the books I read in a given month end up being connected. This one is definitely closely related to The Constitution of Knowledge and I might even argue that it gives a better description of what that constitution entails, particularly for the individual, than Rauch’s book. But as a consequence it also fails in similar ways. Though because Think Again is less ambitious its failures are both more subtle and more forgivable. 

The problem with both books is they promise if you dig deep enough that you will eventually strike bedrock, and unfortunately that’s just not the case. There is no bottom to the complexity of the modern world. It’s turtles all the way down. This is not to say that I think critical thinking is pointless. It’s tremendously important and Think Again is a great introduction to it. The problem comes when people assume/assert that critical thinking will solve our problems. That if we trained everyone to think critically that we would all end up on the same page and our disagreements would go away. That’s not what has happened, and despite the efforts of books like this it’s not what will happen. Critical thinking is not a method for achieving societal harmony. 


The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible

by: Various

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of stories originally told as part of The Moth Radio Hour, an NPR program featuring amazing stories.

Who should read this book?

If you’re already a fan of The Moth radio program you might like this handy “best off” collection. Otherwise if you like stories these are pretty good, though not as exceptional as I would have expected.

General Thoughts

I expected a truly extraordinary collection of stories, and in the end they were just good, with a couple that qualified as great. I think part of it is that (like many people) I’m weary of content where the primary point is to impart some lesson about social justice, and not to just be a good story. I didn’t keep track, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that 80% of the stories in the book had a very clear social justice message. Which is not to say the stories weren’t good, they were, it just made things repetitive, and ever so slightly preachy.


Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

by: Robert K. Massie

672 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The reign of Tsar Nicholas, in which he was strongly influenced by his wife Alexandra who in turn was strongly influenced by Rasputin. With particular emphasis on World War I and their tragic end.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves great history, particularly if you’re interested in the history of Russia.

General Thoughts

Massie is probably my favorite historian, and this is probably his masterpiece. I can’t possibly do a 672 page book justice in my short review, so I’ll just quickly list off a few things that stood out to me:

  • However bad you think Rasputin was, the truth is he was far worse.
  • Nicholas and Alexandra despite making nearly all the mistakes you could make as a leader were nevertheless good people who were basically doing their best.
  • This whole period is one of the most fertile for asking “What if?” What if Alexei hadn’t been a hemophiliac? What if Rasputin had never existed? What if World War I hadn’t happened or had happened two years later?
  • It was fascinating to hear about the immense difficulties they had in keeping Alexei from injuring himself by being rambunctious. You get the feeling that if anything he was less rambunctious than a normal boy of his age. But these days I can’t imagine there being any problem. Of all the things which have suffered over the last few decades I think the rambunctiousness of boys has to be very high on the list.

Greenlights 

by: Matthew McConaughey

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is both McConaughey’s memoir but also his book of life advice.

Who should read this book?

If you are a particular fan of McConaughey you will probably really enjoy this book. And in particular I would recommend listening to it as he also does the narration.

General Thoughts

I like McConaughey, and I liked the book. That said it wasn’t revelatory or anything like that. Also I think I had already heard the book’s best stories during his appearance on the Graham Norton show.

Also like so many memoirs written by successful people this book vastly understates the role of luck. McConaughey was lucky to be born fantastically good looking. And lucky to just happen to be around and looking for work when Dazed and Confused was being filmed. 

But as has often been said McConaughey is alright, and if you go in looking for some of that alright-ness you’ll find it. But it doesn’t break any new ground as either a memoir or as a self-help book.


The Midnight Library 

by: Matt Haig

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

After attempting suicide Nora Seed finds herself in a library where she can try out every possible life she might have lived, and choose the one that will actually make her happy.

Who should read this book?

Dolly Parton called this a “charming book”. If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for you’ll probably enjoy this book, and it’s short.

General Thoughts

One downside of reading books fast which I didn’t mention in my defense of the practice is that if a book is short enough there’s very little resistance to adding it to your library. So for a while there if I heard of a book that seemed interesting and it was less than 10 hours I would almost reflexively grab it. This book was from that period. Which is not to say it was a bad book, I quite enjoyed it, but it wasn’t so light as to be diversionary, and the areas in which it was serious were not areas in which I needed additional seriousness.

Beyond that a few rapid fire thoughts:

  • It reminded me of Short Stay in Hell which I read almost exactly a year ago, though where Stay was about as pessimistic as it’s possible to imagine, Library was pretty optimistic.
  • It’s always interesting for me that when people want to signal contentment and happiness it almost always involves being married and having children. I’m not sure if that’s because, on some deep level it’s true or if it’s just something that’s easy for people to grasp.
  • Minor spoiler: It kind of ends up in the same place as It’s a Wonderful Life. And to the extent that people criticize it, it’s for this, or more generally not being creative, but I find it hard to imagine how it could be otherwise.

I guess I also wonder how some 300 page books are 8 hours while some 300 page books are nearly 18 hours. Speaking of which:


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 3.5: Trouble on Paradise

98 Pages

Book 4: Black Ops

276 Pages

Book 5: Zero Hour

299 Pages

Book 6: Mavericks

289 Pages

Book 7: Renegades

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

As I mentioned last month this is a quick diverting series that goes down super easy. If you’re looking for a fun diversion and you enjoyed previous books in the series it’s probably worth it to continue.

General Thoughts

One of the reasons why this series is so easy and quick to read is that the number of characters is very limited. However, by the time you get to book seven that strength can become a weakness, as the characters start to become caricatures. This happens with all long running sitcoms and maybe that’s the best way to describe this series, a military sci-fi sitcom. Another weakness of sitcoms is repetitive plots, which is also a weakness of these books. And I will admit that by book seven I was starting to get annoyed. I have various reasons for believing that he might turn a corner in book eight, so I’m going to keep reading. Also I continue to enjoy his world building and the mysteries he’s introduced and seeing how those mysteries resolve would be almost enough on it’s own to keep me reading, though probably not at quite the blistering pace I’ve maintained thus far. 


For all the criticisms I have of a reality based community, I hope that you consider me part of it. Even if or especially if my version of reality is uniquely eccentric. If it is, as they say, just crazy enough to work then consider donating. Craziness isn’t as cheap as it’s made out to be.


Eschatologist #14: The Fragility of Peace

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


This newsletter is an exploration of how big things end, and just four days ago something very big came to an end. Depending on who you listen to, it was the end of “peace on the European continent for a long time to come”, or the end of the post cold-war era, and the reintroduction of force into foreign affairs, or the end of all hope that humans are capable of change. And it’s possible that the invasion of Ukraine may be the end of all three of those things. Only time will tell what this event ended, and what it began, but in my opinion people’s chief reaction has been an overreaction, and these quotes are great examples of that.

This is one of the reasons why I spent the last few newsletters talking about randomness, black swans, fragility and its opposite: antifragility. If you put it all together it’s a toolkit for knowing when things might break and then dealing with that breakage. This is not to say that it enabled me to know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine in February of 2022, but it does put one on the lookout for things that are fragile. And it’s been apparent for a while that the “Long Peace” was very fragile. I wish it wasn’t, but that and a dollar will get you a taco. 

Certainly, now that it’s broken, it’s easy to say that peace was fragile, that it would inevitably break and we shouldn’t lose our heads about it. But how do we identify fragile things before they break? And in particular how do we make them less fragile, even antifragile? In simple terms things that are fragile get weaker when subjected to shocks, with antifragility it’s the opposite, they get stronger, up to a point. A teacup is fragile: the more you jostle it, the more use it gets, the more likely it is to end up in pieces on the floor. The immune system is antifragile: when you expose it to a pathogen (or a vaccine) it gets stronger. 

So how does all of this help us deal with the invasion of Ukraine? That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is either simple or straightforward. But, as evidenced by the initial quotes, I think that we’ve had peace between the great powers for so long that we become unhinged at the idea of war. We’ll do anything to prevent it. Unfortunately prevention can turn out to be just postponement.

I’ve written a couple of essays where I used the analogy of fighting forest fires. The forest needs periodic fires to clean out the deadwood, but when you fight every fire the deadwood accumulates and eventually you end up with a fire that has so much fuel that it ends up wiping out the entire forest. You take an antifragile system and turn it into a fragile one. 

Obviously coming up with a clever metaphor for the situation doesn’t get us very far. But it does illustrate what I’m most worried about, that we’ve become so unused to fires (which used to happen all the time) that when the first one comes around we’re going to mishandle it and turn it into an inferno.

I see lots of people saying that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine, that this is the beginning of WW III. First off, it’s only been four days. Acting too hastily almost certainly has far more downside than upside, because if we’re not careful then, yes, this could be the beginning of WW III. Immediately losing our heads and declaring it to be so on day one could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is because of another topic I talk about a lot, and part of why it’s difficult to draw on what happened in the past: the modern world has changed all the rules. War is now very different. Hanging over any decision to intervene, in the background of every war room, haunting every discussion of force, is a fear of nuclear war. And Putin has already upped the ante, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert.

I hope the Ukrainians humiliate the Russians, and it’s nice to see that the war is already not going as smoothly as they expected. But in the end if this escalates into a full on nuclear war, it’s not going to matter who started it, or whose cause was just, because the inferno doesn’t care.


If peace is fragile, is war antifragile? That’s a scary assertion, though one I have toyed with in the past. Perhaps historically it was, but we’re at the end of history, and no one knows how it’s going to turn out. If that scares you as much as it scares me consider donating.


What If Things Are Changing Faster than We Can Adapt?

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


At some point, in some post (and probably several posts) I asserted that:

The world is changing faster than we can adapt to it

Then (and now) this statement seemed obvious, so I remember being surprised when I got some pushback on it. But upon reflection it was also illuminating. Many disagreements come down to core values and assumptions which are so deeply embedded that we’ve forgotten they’re there. It’s what makes these disagreements so intractable. We’re arguing from different, unseen foundations. I decided it was past time to unearth this particular foundation, and examine its various parts. What do I mean by “the world” and “change” and “speed” and “adaptation”? And if we can come to an agreement on all of that, what are the consequences of change moving faster than our ability to adapt?

I- The World

This first idea is pretty simple. By “the world” I mean nearly everything. Certainly I’m not arguing that continental drift has sped up, but depending on how apocalyptic you are about climate change and the environment (and there is evidence in favor of being pretty apocalyptic) just about everything outside of geology has been touched by progress and modernity: oceans, weather, other forms of life, nations, institutions, people, gadgets, technology, etc. 

My own interests and writings have been about things at the end of that list, societal issues, the impact of technology, but as I’ve said I think the issue is broader. Nearly everything has been affected. Nearly everything is worthy of study, nearly everything is changing more quickly now than in the past. But in this post I’m mostly going to focus on societal progress and new technology.

II- Change

As we get deeper into the discussion things get tricker, and it’s important to recognize that while some things have changed a lot, some things haven’t changed very much at all. So let me start by acknowledging things that haven’t changed. While I fear we may be coming to the end of it, there’s been remarkable political stability for many decades. Compare the last 100 years in America with nearly any other 100 year period anywhere else and you’ll be amazed by how calm the last century has been. Yes, there was World War II, but the US came through that relatively unschathed. Additionally there was the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam, but again as these things go it could have been a lot worse. Should you decide to limit it to the last 50 years then things really look good because everything I just mentioned, other than the Cold War, falls off the list, and even the Cold War has been over for 30 years.

As a comparison, take France between 1775 and 1875. The period started with them assisting the American Revolution, then they had their own quite dramatic revolution in 1789. Shortly after this the Revolutionary Wars started. Napoleon took power in 1799, and turned them into the Napoleonic Wars. These wars reached a nadir for France in the disastrous Russian campaign, which was the first step in Napoleon’s eventual abdication and the restoration of the monarchy. He was sent to Elba, then he came back and was defeated again. After this the French had 15 years to catch their breath before undergoing another revolution in 1830. Then a democratic revolution in 1848. This democracy only lasted three years before Napoleon III pulled a coup-d’etat and declared the second empire. This limped along until 1870 when the French were abjectly defeated by the Prussians. If all of this is too messy, you could cut to the chase and just consider France during the 50 years between 1900 and 1950, which included both World Wars.

All of this is to point out that things have been remarkably calm in the US for the last 100 years. No invasions, no wars actually being fought on home soil, peaceful transfers of power every four years, etc. But what’s interesting is that this period of peace is also an example of change. As I have argued in previous posts perhaps wars are necessary to reveal inefficiencies, to shake up scloretic institutions. Perhaps conflict is necessary if you want to bind nations together into a common cause. Historically we’ve had an overabundance of wars and conflicts, at the moment they’re so scarce we’re almost forced to invent them. Obviously the world, and in particular the Ukrainians, would be a lot better off if Russia didn’t invade, and this should not be ignored, but given that our involvement will probably only increase the risk of the conflict escalating into something truly dangerous it’s not clear why we think we have a dog in this fight. Which is to say we’re inventing conflicts.

I could go on and on listing things in 2022 which are different from 1922, 1822 and 1722. And the list gets even longer if we start talking about differences between 2022 AD and 22 AD or 1522 BC or 10,000 BC. There has been an enormous amount of change. I am sympathetic to those people who think that most of this change has been good. Certainly I’d be unwilling to abandon most of it. But change, by definition, has consequences. Some of these consequences are beneficial, some are harmful, but amenable to mitigation. However, some are harmful in non-obvious ways. Ways which may not initially seem linked to the underlying change . If harmful consequences are rare, or obvious or tightly linked, then mitigation might be straightforward (and then again it might not). But if harmful consequences are numerous, subtle or difficult to link back to a cause then mitigation becomes nearly impossible. The next idea increases the likelihood that change will possess all of those properties

III- Speed

The word “speed” carries a lot of weight in my original statement. It not only covers how rapidly technology advances, but how rapidly it spreads. Also speed is relative. There are few people left who remember pre-war America, and so it seems like a long time ago, and yet from a historical perspective the transition from frequent wars between the great powers to no wars between the great powers happened mere moments ago. All of these factors must be considered when we’re speaking of how fast things have changed.

Before we get too deeply into things we should once again consider the opposite side, the many arguments for stagnation—that change isn’t speeding up, it’s slowing down. I certainly acknowledge that there has been some degree of stagnation. I wrote a glowing review of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, in which stagnation is a major theme. But while I agree that stagnation is happening, I don’t think it undermines my point as much as you might think. To begin with, we could be stagnating quickly, going from an expanding, culturally rich society with a great economy, to a society that’s shrinking, recycled and impoverished in just the space of a few decades.

One example of stagnation provided by Douthat is our falling birth rate. Whether you agree with him that this is a sign of decadence and a bad thing, it’s indisputable that it happened very quickly. The US’s total fertility rate has recently been cut in half, going from 3.58 at the height of the baby boom to 1.77 in the space of 20 years (1960-1980). And on this measure the US is doing better than most developed countries. South Korea went from a total fertility rate of 6 to 1.5 in the space of just 30 years (1958-1988) and is now hovering at just over 1. All of this speaks to a degree of stagnation, but also illustrates the speed with which things change in the modern world. Speed isn’t just about new technology arriving, it’s about old ways of doing things disappearing.  

Beyond this, most stagnation arguments end up referencing big visible things. For example, we rarely build new skyscrapers and when we do it takes forever. Big infrastructure projects are also rare and hideously expensive. We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters (now 280 characters). I agree with most of these arguments, but even if such efforts are slowing down rather than speeding up, I think the consequences for the world of slowing in these areas are entirely swamped by the speedup in other areas. Even when things were moving fast in the realm of infrastructure they were still moving pretty slow. There’s a limit to how fast you can build the interstate highway system, or construct the infrastructure necessary to send a man to the moon. By shifting our focus online changes happen much, much faster. To take the example I just mentioned, the interstate highway system took 35 years to build, while it only took Facebook four years to become the dominant social media platform and a similar amount of time for Google to become the dominant search engine. And of course they were becoming dominant in industries that didn’t even exist more than a handful of years before that. 

While virtual changes happen much faster, one might still argue that material changes have a bigger impact. Which is to say, that even though it took 35 years, the interstate highway system had a far bigger impact than the rise of Facebook. Well, insofar as they both brought about massive changes both feed into my point about the speed of modernity, but those making the materialist argument would go on to say that because we’ve stopped “building things” that we’ve stopped the biggest source of change, and here I’d have to disagree. The change of being able to easily travel from one side of the country to another is a big one, don’t get me wrong, but, depending on how you define “easily”, we’ve been able to do that since at least 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed, and if you didn’t mind more hardship, for decades before that as well. Yes, it’s true, we had never previously sent anyone to the moon, but we’ve been spending lots of money to send explorers to dangerous places for centuries. 

What we haven’t ever done is create echo chambers where millions of people whip their political co-religionists into ecstatic frenzies of hate and distrust. We haven’t ever used machine learning to optimize the process of turning young people into zombified status-scrollers. And we’ve never flooded the world with information, much of it wrong, nearly all of it stripped of nuance. Returning to my central point, all of these new and unprecedented things have happened with unbelievable speed. 

I ended the last section by claiming that speed made negative consequences numerous, subtle, and difficult to link back to a cause. The “numerous” part should hopefully be uncontroversial, as things speed up more things happen in less time. “Subtle” and “difficult to link” probably require more explanation, but perhaps some examples might help. The harms I mentioned in the last paragraph (echo chambers, zombification, information overload) seem pretty clearly to be harms wrought by social media. But it took many years for that connection to be made, long enough that it’s going to be difficult to unwind. Also here again we see the difference between the virtual and the material. When someone dies in a car crash the role of the car in the whole affair is pretty obvious. When the rate of teenage depression goes up by 59% over 10 years, the causes are harder to untangle. 

This is what I mean by “subtle” and “difficult to link”, but in many respects, social media is actually one of the easier places to draw conclusions. To move on to another example consider the opioid crisis. Obviously something had to change in order for drug overdose deaths to increase by nearly 600% in only 23 years (17,000 in 2000 to 100,000 in 2021). But you certainly can’t point to just one change as being at the root of everything. (And to be fair blaming teenage depression on social media is also probably an oversimplification.) Many people want to put the blame entirely on the introduction and aggressive (some would say illegal) marketing of Oxycontin, but as I have previously pointed out, upstream of the introduction of Oxycontin there was a broad change in the opinion of the medical community that pain should be treated much more aggressively. This opinion was progressive and compassionate, and the modern world, in the form of Purdue Pharma, was able to capitalize on this change far faster than society or government could adapt to the consequence brought on by the change. As I mentioned in my book reviews at the beginning of the month a drug crisis post is on it’s way, but it’s worth adding that the Oxycontin change was followed by a heroin distribution change, followed by a switch to fentanyl, followed by the craziness of P2P meth. And as far as I can tell we haven’t been able to adapt to any of these changes. 

Choosing to talk about opioids is relatively safe. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that it’s something which hasn’t changed fast, or that we have dealt with that change well. So let’s talk about something more controversial, something which also moved very fast, but where, at first glance, adaptation appears to have been equally fast. We have a tendency to think that if something was easy to adapt to, it’s natural, and by extension good. Unlike the opioid crisis, an enormous number of people think that this change has been good. What is this change? LGBT rights, encompassing both acceptance and identification. 

Once again it’s hard to argue that this didn’t move really fast. And again, it’s hard to point to some single background change which lies at the root of the expansion, but the hardest task of all is to imagine that it could have happened this fast or at all 100 years ago. But of course whereas everyone views the opioid crisis as unquestionably bad, nearly the exact opposite view is held with it comes to LGBT rights, most people view their expansion as something which was unquestionably good. That said, I’m not one of them. I’ve talked about this before and I don’t think this is the space to rehash all the details, nor does it seem time to relitigate that argument. So let’s take something where opinion is more divided: the rising number of people identifying as transgender and in particular the concept of gender self-identification. Regardless of what side you take, it’s clear that this is another example of things changing far faster than we can adapt. Everyone agrees with that, where the disagreement lies is on where the adaptation needs to happen. On one side you may think adaptation is being slowed by bigotry and outdated beliefs, on the other side you may think adaptation is being slowed because the demands are incoherent and disconnected from reality, but in either case speed is presumably a problem. Either we need to slow down the changes, or we need to speed up adaptation, which takes us to:

IV- Adaptation

When you hear the word adaptation, you are most likely thinking of people adapting to their environment. But of course it can go the other way as well, we can adapt our environment to people, make it a better fit for human nature, as it already exists. We can view the first as fixing the people who are broken while viewing the second as fixing the things that are broken

We think we’re focused on the latter, but in practice we put most of the weight on the former. The opioid crisis is a great example. One of the reasons Purdue pharmacy got away with it for so long was the claim that their time-release formula had fixed the thing that was broken. That yes, in the past, lots of people had abused or become addicted to opioids, and presumably they still would, except Purdue changed opioids so that people wouldn’t abuse them. When confronted by evidence that people were abusing it in spite of this “fix” they claimed that they had already fixed the thing so that it worked with normal human nature, anyone who was still having problems had an “addictive nature” and these people were broken in ways beyond what Purdue could be expected to deal with. 

This example also illustrates the big problem with adaptation as it is practiced by the modern world. We have this expectation that our technology is powerful enough, and our scientists smart enough, that all things ought to be fixable. We ought to be able to finesse our technology in such a way that we are only left with the good bits: opioids with all the pain relief but none of the potential for abuse; social media that improves mental health and acts as a bastion of facts and reason without devolving into ideological echo chambers; unfettered expressions of identity that always end up being healthy without ever being dogmatic, or bundled into a harmful social contagion. 

One further element gets thrown into this mix, humans actually are pretty adaptable, particularly over the short term, so while the ideal is fixing things, we often end up leaning on the idea that humans can fix themselves. Is social media a problem? Then just stop using it. Addicted to opioids? You should have been more careful. You want to identify as a different gender? Oh, well in that case we’ll just have everyone else do the adapting. 

When you combine these two things together—the expectation that we can get technology to do anything we want, with human’s innate adaptability—it’s easy to slip into an assumption that when something is broken it’s people not technology. 

Even if people are willing to admit that technology is broken, frequently the answer is that we just need more technology: tamper proof Oxycontin, better algorithms to detect questionable content on social media, gender reassignment surgery to get rid of dysphoria. Of course, for some people the eventual goal is to transcend human nature entirely, uploading our consciousness into a computer, then people will be things and we’ll be able to indulge in unlimited tinkering.

I haven’t done anything to tie this back to the speed at which things are changing, but you can see where if the answer to the problem is more technology, that in a sense the answer to the problems of adaptation is to change things even faster. In the final analysis, I think we are expecting both too much out of people and too much out of technology. Just because we can do something with technology doesn’t mean that we should. 

V- Consequences

I would hope that the examples already provided would give an adequate sense of the consequences of speed outstripping adaptation, but if not let me make one last attempt to pull it all together. When technology advances faster than society a chasm is created between the two. Or more specifically between the consequences of the technology and the tools available to deal with those consequences. The differential between the speed with which those two develop—tools vs. tech—determines the size of the chasm. Additionally until the speed of adaptation equals or exceeds the speed of technology the chasm just keeps getting bigger. I have no idea when our tools will catch up to our technology, but my worry is that before it does the chasm will grow so large that it will swallow us. 

For those who think I’m being alarmist or unduly apocalyptic, I’m going to conclude by telling the story of a previous time when technological speed outstripped societal adaptation:

In 1452 Gutenburg invented the printing press. By 1500, 236 towns had printing presses, and an estimated 20 million books had been printed for a population of perhaps 70 million. This was an explosion in the availability of information similar to what we’re seeing today. Similar, but still far slower. This explosion in information was shortly followed by the Protestant Reformation, this went through various twists and turns but eventually culminated in the Thirty Years’ War. On a per capita basis this war was almost certainly the most deadly European War ever. Overall 20% of the population of Germany died, and in some areas it was as high as 50%. I heard someone compare the present day to the period preceding the Thirty Years’ War. There are definitely similarities. Am I predicting something as awful as that? No. But if you’re looking for a worst case scenario for when technological change outstrips society’s ability to adapt, the worst case is really really bad. 

I don’t know where things are going to end up. I don’t know what sort of technology has yet to be invented. Maybe it will make things worse, maybe it will make things better. What I am confident in predicting is what we’re experiencing now is only the beginning. 


Of all the changes wrought by new technological advances, information dissemination may be changing the fastest. I suspect that by continuing to maintain a patreon backed blog, rather than pivoting to tiktok videos that I am not adapting quickly enough. Perhaps the next time I post it will be to direct you to my tiktok channel, but until then consider donating.


In Defense of Listening to Audiobooks at 3x (And of Reading a Lot in General)

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. Supposedly I’m Doing It All Wrong

My last post was my monthly round-up of book reviews. I mentioned that at 12 reviews it was the second longest collection of reviews I’d ever done. What I did not mention was that if we are actually judging it based on the more significant criteria of the most books I’ve read in a single month then it’s number one. This is because the 13 books I finished in December of 2019 included four books which I had read over the course of an entire year, and at the beginning of January I always start fresh. Acknowledging this record seems an appropriate occasion to go “off topic” and do a whole post on the business of reading, and how it should be done.

(Also I’m leaning into the “Look at me! Aren’t I so amazing!” angle for reasons which will soon become apparent.)

I should start off by saying that I have no strong feelings on how it should be done. If your ideal life includes reading a hundred or more romance novels every year, then, assuming this endeavor doesn’t lead you to neglect your family or your job, it would sound like you have a hobby which is no worse or better than binging TV shows. Where I do have strong feelings is when people tell me that I’m doing it wrong. And in part this post was engendered as a reaction to many people doing just that

All of these people make the argument that when it comes to reading quality is more important than quantity. As such anyone who prioritizes quantity, has obviously missed the point. Here’s how David Perell, the noted writing guru, describes such people:

Mike boastfully reads 100 books per year. He listens to audiobooks at 3x speed whenever he drives and swears he can remember it all. His browser has a plugin that lets him speed up YouTube videos, and for a while, he listened to podcasts on a special app because of its unique “Smart Speed” feature. All around, his strategy for learning is simple: shove as much information into the mind as possible. 

He’s one of those white-collar workers who’s always on the brink of quitting his job. He listens to podcasts while making pivot tables in Excel and stopped taking the subway to work because the train noise made it impossible to hear the audiobook narrators. During coffee breaks, he avoids conversation because he doesn’t like living life at “1x speed.” With a sped-up voice in his ear instead, he looks out of the 32nd floor of his company’s office and dreams of the day when he can finally quit his job and have the time to consume even more information. 

200 books per year, he hopes. 

Kevin Rapp, a guy I met through a writing workshop, is more blunt:

I now understand that telling people the quantity of books you read last year is the dick measuring contest of the pseudo-intellectual.

For example, as younger me plowed through books, it was never really about the “learning”. It was about having some objective measure I could lean on to signal how smart I was.

Every book I binged was about adding another notch in the bookshelf. A +1 to an ever growing number which I would bandy about so I could be showered with validation.

The insinuation in both of these quotes is that if you are reading 100 books a year (I am) or listening to stuff at 3x (I do) or mentioning how many books you’ve read in any kind of self-congratulatory fashion (which I just did) that this is ironclad evidence that you are a “Mike” or an odious pseudo-intellectual who should be barred from polite society. You are obviously prioritizing quantity over quality, and have thereby missed the entire purpose of reading. Basically, you are doing it wrong. Obviously I don’t think I’m doing it wrong, and I’m here to argue that it’s possible to do reading right even if, and especially if, you’re doing a lot of it—that, as the saying goes, quantity has a quality all its own

II. The List of All the Reasons Why I’m Doing It Wrong

As all of the complaints mostly hinge on my practice of listening to stuff at 3x (or as fast as I can understand it, which is sometimes only 2x or 2.5x) we’ll start by examining the various criticisms of that practice. Some of these criticisms are contained in the passages just quoted, some of them are found elsewhere, some of them are implied and some of them are things people have said to my face. Let’s start with mild objections and work up to the major ones.

Listening that fast keeps you from enjoying books: People who know me don’t generally accuse me of not understanding the books I listen to, rather their objection is that I can’t possibly be enjoying them. Those who appreciate audiobooks imagine that at those speeds it’s impossible to enjoy the narration and that good narration is one of the big selling points of audiobooks. I wouldn’t say that there’s zero truth to that, but in my experience it’s far less of an issue than people think. I’m not sure of exactly what adjustments they make in addition to just speeding it up (I know it doesn’t end up increasing in pitch) but in my experience the quality of the narration is persevered. George Guidall still sounds great and having an author read their own book is still a hit or miss proposition regardless of the speed. 

Furthermore, while I very much enjoy reading, enjoyment is not my primary reason for doing it. I do it to learn. But even if I was prioritizing enjoyment, reading serious books quickly allows me the time to read additional books strictly for enjoyment. If you look at the 12 books I read last month, and imagine that by listening more slowly I only was able to read 8 books, which books would have gotten cut? Almost certainly the enjoyable ones, particularly the three pulpy sci fi books I read.  

It puts you in the mode of forever preparing and never executing: There does seem to be a specific and identifiable failure mode where people are stuck constantly creating a plan, but never actually executing on that plan. But some of the people who’ve fallen into this trap read books very slowly and carefully, and some don’t read books at all, but endlessly browse aspirational websites, while some are forever busy trying to get their website to look just so, or perfect their marketing plan. Since the humble ship has already sailed I might as well point out that unlike “Mike” I quit my job to do a startup in 2007. (Which was a horrible year to decide to do a startup by the way, but that’s another story.) So while I have many problems I don’t think a lack of execution is one of them.

It’s primarily about signaling: In Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain they argue that everything is about signaling. So if you buy that, which I do though, not unreservedly, then of course it’s about signaling. Nor do I have any problem admitting it. In my case I’m trying to signal, “You should listen to what this guy says because he’s trying really hard to be informed before he says anything. Yes, he’s biased and wrong and caught in an echo chamber just like everyone else, but he’s trying really hard to lessen all of those things by exposure to lots and lots of books.”

When you listen that fast you don’t remember anything: If you were paying attention I previewed this subject back when I did the round up of the books I had finished in October. In my intro to that post I took issue with some retention percentages Holden Karnofsky had published for various reading methodologies. He asserted that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but at the time I drew particular attention to his claim that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title.

Setting all of my objections to Holden (which were many) aside I do agree that lots of people read in a detached manner. (I would say that “detached” and “engaged” are better descriptions than “quickly” or “slowly”) And that retention under such conditions isn’t great. I think you have to be engaged with what you read regardless of whether you’re listening at 3x or 1x. In fact, in my experience, listening to something at 3x forces you to be focused and engaged. Still, it’s clear that regardless of the speed and the manner in which you read, engagement would, ideally, also include taking notes (which I do), summarizing the book later (ditto), and having an intellectual landscape in which to place the book. All three of those things are made easier by reading quickly. Allow me to explain:

The problem with taking notes and summarizing is that it takes time. If you read/listen faster you have more time available. For example, let’s assume that you’re able to carve out 15 hours in which to listen to an audiobook, and that, coincidentally, all your audiobooks happen to be 15 hours long. At 1x all you will be able to do is listen to one book, with no time left over for summarizing or taking notes or anything like that. Let’s go on to assume that to really do that would take an additional 2.5 hours. In that case you could listen to the book at 1.2x and fit everything in. The advantages to engagement of increasing the speed even a little bit become apparent! Okay but now imagine that you’re listening at 3x. At this rate, using the same 15 hours you would have time to listen to and take notes on two books. 

But it’s really with the third item on my list, being able to place the book in an intellectual landscape, that the advantages truly start to manifest. Because each and every book you read is part of a larger dialogue, and taking sides in a vast debate. Reading one book, no matter how deeply you engage with it, is like reading one monologue from a Shakespearian play. That monologue might be fantastic, you might even decide to memorize it, but it’s going to lose something if you don’t understand the rest of the play. As an example you might completely misinterpret Polonius’ advice to Laertes, not realizing how much dramatic irony it contains, if you only focus on the advice and not on the plot of Hamlet in its entirety. Reading a lot of books is one of the few ways I’m aware of to understand the whole play.

It keeps you from deeply engaging with really good books: Closely related to the previous point, and perhaps the objection I see the most often, is the idea that you should be focused on deeply engaging with truly great books. That since quality is so important you should spend all of your time on books of the highest quality. I don’t disagree that people should prefer high quality books, and that they should read them in preference to low-quality books, but how does one know which books these are? Obviously you can seek out the opinions of experts, but it’s not as if this will provide you with a list of 10 books that everyone agrees on, rather such an endeavor will provide you with a list of more books than you could possibly read in a lifetime, even at a rate of 100 books a year. Which is to illustrate two things: first the category of “really good books” is huge and ill-defined, and second that it’s something that varies widely from person to person. What this boils down to is that you’re going to be forced to come up with your own list of really good books, and you do that by reading lots of books, and allowing those books to point you at other books. And yes experts can help, but they’re most helpful when you’ve read enough to have some foundation for judging their recommendations. 

III. Having Routed All of the Objections What Should One Know About the Art of Listening at 3x?

None of what I’ve said so far should be taken as a claim that listening to books really fast is without any downsides. First off, It’s something you need to work up to. I first started listening to audiobooks in probably 2007, so 15 years ago. In the beginning I was a little bit wary, in particular I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get through a really long audiobook. So the first book I listened to was Atlas Shrugged, and I did all 52 hours at 1x. After this “proof of concept” I stayed at normal speed for quite awhile. But eventually I started moving the dial up. I remember that I plateaued at 1.5x for a couple of years, and based on anecdotal evidence this is where a lot of people end up. My memory is that I didn’t make it to 3x until about 2017, so ten years of gradually turning the dial up. All of which is to say that it’s like any skill, it takes practice and in this case, probably a certain amount of brain rewiring. As an aside, did you know that congenitally blind people can listen to books at 7x? Presumably this is because their brain has been rewired to be exceptionally good at processing sound. 

I would assume that someone could do it far faster than the 10 years it took me. I didn’t have any kind of goal or plan, just a vague desire to get more reading done in a given amount of time, and over the years that meant the speed gradually drifted upward to 3x. The natural next question is whether I think I will go even higher. On average, probably not, in fact these days I’m more likely to dial it down a few notches than to dial it up. Audible will go as high as 3.5 but it’s pretty rare that I’ll take advantage of that. At this point it mostly depends on the book and the narrator. As an example, I remember that when I listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals the narrator talked so slowly that I felt like I could have gotten away with listening at 4x. 

So the first hack is just to train yourself to be able to listen at a faster speed. But the far more important hack is to get in the habit of taking notes, particularly if you’re reading for knowledge and not enjoyment. If you’re not driving you can take notes on your phone. Which is why, to combine these two points, I will often listen to fiction in the car and non-fiction while I walk. And speaking of walking, with particularly meaty books, in addition to buying the audio version I will also buy a physical copy to carry around on my walks. I can save my place with a pen and when I hear something that seems noteworthy, quickly open the book and use the pen to mark that spot. Then when I get home I can quickly skim through the section I just listened to, and translate the marked sections into notes on my computer. (I personally use Roam Research.)

To repeat, it is certainly possible to “do 3x” very badly. Certainly if you didn’t retain anything then you’re just being stupid. But on the other side of things a lot of its critics just don’t don’t do the math. How much of the book do you think gets missed when listening at 3x versus listening at 1x? Particularly if you’ve actually worked up to it rather than just jumping into the deep end? From my experience listening at 3x provides about 90% of the comprehension that you get from listening at 1x. And honestly that’s being pretty conservative, it might be closer to 95%. As in I am distracted, or mishear, or can’t parse 1 in 20 sentences. (And I should mention, since I have plenty of time in hand at that speed, if the sentence seems at all pivotal I’ll rewind.) But let’s use the 90%. So this would mean I get 9/10 of the benefit/knowledge/important stuff from a book in ⅓ the time. Meaning that for every unit of time I spend I get 2.7 times as much benefit out of my reading. 

Now of course these calculations are exactly the sort of thing the critics complain about, a relentless quest for efficiency which tears the soul out of reading, rendering it sterile and without value. Instead they insist that we should be deeply engaging with great books, perhaps reading them over and over again until we’ve sucked out the deep marrow of meaning. But as I’ve been trying to point out, listening at 3x is not mutually exclusive with doing any of this. In fact, it arguably gives you more time to do it, and a greater selection of books it might be good to do it with! How do you know if a book is worth revisiting if you never get around to visiting it the first time? At 3x you visit a lot of books.

As one final point, I would argue that the world needs more generalists. But given the explosion of information this is increasingly difficult to do, and depending on your definition of generalist it might even be impossible. But as breadth of knowledge becomes rarer, that only makes it more valuable. I don’t scream through books at 3x because I want to brag, or because it’s some kind of status marker. I do it because I’m desperate. I’m hoping that somewhere out there, scattered among all the books, and only if someone makes the connection, is the knowledge that might eventually save us.


I suspect asking for donations is another thing I’m supposedly doing all wrong. All the cool kids have substacks with paid and free posts, while everything I post is free. I guess that’s another sign of my desperation. I’m desperate to give whatever crumbs of knowledge I gather to the widest possible audience. If you’d like to help me do that while simultaneously showing me that I do some things right, consider donating


The 12 Books I Finished in January

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

Or download the MP3


  1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by: Patrick Radden Keefe
  2. Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan
  3. Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by: Karl Sigmund
  4. Columbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1 by: Craig Alanson
  5. SpecOps: Expeditionary Force, Book 2 by: Craig Alanson
  6. Paradise: Expeditionary Force, Book 3 by: Craig Alanson
  7. Row Daily, Breathe Deeper, Live Better: A Guide to Moderate Exercise by: Dustin Ordway
  8. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by: Nir Eyal
  9. What is a p-value anyway? 34 Stories to Help You Actually Understand Statistics by: Andrew Vickers
  10. The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by: Sam Quinones
  11. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by: S. C. Gwynne
  12. Heart: The City Beneath by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

As you can see I read more than the average number of books this month. I was supposed to go on a mini vacation to Vegas with a friend, but a couple of days beforehand he came down with COVID and consequently they wouldn’t let him out of Canada. As such I had some extra time on my hands.

This is not the most books I’ve ever finished in a month, but it is the second most. As such I’m going to try and keep both the intro and the reviews short.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty 

by: Patrick Radden Keefe

560 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history of the Sackler family, their philanthropy, their wealth, but mostly the radical changes they made to pharmaceutical marketing.

Who should read this book?

If you don’t feel that you’re angry enough about the Sackler’s role in the opioid crisis, and you want to be angrier, this is the book for you. Beyond that it’s a fascinating book about the history of selling drugs, and how Arthur Sackler, the oldest brother in the Sackler clan, changed it forever. That part will also make you angry. 

General Thoughts

It has been said that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” I’m inclined to believe that this is not true in all cases, but it’s definitely more true than fans of Ayn Rand would have you believe. Regardless of whether it’s true in general, it is definitely true in the case of the Sackler fortune. The Sacklers were the owners of Purdue Pharma, and Purdue Pharma had/has essentially one product: OxyContin. Perhaps you know the crime of which I’m speaking? This crime—kickstarting the opioid crisis—which might plausibly encompass the deaths of hundreds of thousands, is made all the worse by the fact that thus far the Sacklers have entirely escaped any sort of liability or punishment. At least Bernie Madoff went to jail for his crimes, which were less severe by basically any measure.

Should I make this point to certain friends of mine, they would say that the reason Madoff was punished, while the Sacklers will probably escape punishment, is that Madoff took money from rich people, while the Sacklers just killed poor people. And that this is the case because of the wickedness of capitalism.  I would probably argue that there’s more to the disparity than that, but I will say that capitalism does not come out of this book looking good. And neither does the FDA, Rudy Giuliani, McKinsey, or high-powered attorneys. 

Beyond the story of the Sacklers, which is truly appalling, there’s the story of corruption more broadly. There’s a good argument to be made that the crisis would not have been nearly as bad if a sympathetic FDA official (who later went to work for Purdue) hadn’t let the Sacklers turn the insert for OxyContin into essentially a marketing brochure. One which included the infamous line, “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.” A line which the Purdue sales reps spun into the idea that prescribing the drug was nearly risk free.

I could go on listing crimes and corruption, but I’m planning on taking this book and The Least of Us (also reviewed in this post) and maybe one other book, if I find one that looks good, and doing a post on the current state of the drug crisis. 

Eschatological Implications

Going into the book I had heard that of the three Sackler brothers and their descendents, only two of the branches were involved with Purdue, and that the descendents of Arthur Sackler were upset because despite having no involvement they too had been caught up in the scandal. Before reading the book this seemed obviously unfair, why should Arthur’s descendents suffer for what their uncles and cousins did? 

After reading the book, I would agree that there’s probably still a little bit of unfairness in play, but less than you would think, because the success of OxyContin was entirely based on techniques of pharmaceutical marketing that had been pioneered by Arthur. As one of his employees said, “When it came to the marketing of pharmaceuticals, Arthur invented the wheel.”

What was this wheel? Arthur weaponized science in the service of marketing. And as a byproduct he probably permanently perverted science as well. This great innovation would later be applied to OxyContin, but it was initially applied to Valium. Valium was said to be a mild tranquilizer, completely without any potential for addiction, so safe that it could be given to children, and useful for just about anything. In fact, according to the book, it was prescribed for “such a comical range of conditions that one physician, writing about Valium in a medical journal, asked, ‘When do we not use this drug?’” All of this was a reflection of Arthur’s ability to bend “science” into saying exactly what the marketing needed it to say. In particular it needed to show that Valium was safe. That if it was used properly people wouldn’t become addicted. Decades later Arthur’s brothers and their descendents would be making the same claims about OxyContin.  It’s scary how much the debate about Valium is nearly identical to the debate decades later about Oxycontin. From the book:

Even so, there were actual cases, increasingly, of real consumers becoming hopelessly dependent on tranquilizers. Confronted with this sort of evidence, Roche offered a different interpretation: while it might be true that some patients appeared to be abusing Librium and Valium, these were people who were using the drug in a nontherapeutic manner. Some individuals just have addictive personalities and are prone to abuse any substance you make available to them. This attitude was typical in the pharmaceutical industry: it’s not the drugs that are bad; it’s the people who abuse them. “There are some people who just get addicted to things—almost anything. I read the other day about a man who died from drinking too many cola drinks,” Frank Berger, who was president of Wallace Laboratories, the maker of Miltown, told Vogue. “In spite of all the horror stories you read in the media, addiction to tranquilizers occurs very rarely.” In 1957, a syndicated ask-the-doctor column that appeared in a Pittsburgh newspaper wondered whether “patients become addicted to tranquilizers.” The answer assured readers that contrary to any fears they might harbor, “the use of tranquilizers is not making us a nation of drug addicts.” The newspaper identified the author of this particular piece of advice as “Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler.”

Mortimer was Arthur’s brother. 

This general idea of science being weaponized is an enormous subject, which is right in the center of the debates being had about the pandemic, and it is to do it a severe injustice to treat it so briefly. But it’s one of the huge tragedies of our current situation that we had such high hopes for science, that by doing it correctly it would save us from making the tragic mistakes of the past. Instead, it proved far too easy to misuse, and ended up empowering a whole new class of tragedies. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

416 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Investigative journalism into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ends up concluding that it was most likely a lab leak.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is curious about the origin of the pandemic, or who, more importantly, is interested in preventing future pandemics.

General Thoughts

I already covered this book in my pandemic retrospective, as such I’ll only briefly discuss it here. In fact this is a good opportunity to have something of a meta discussion about the role of books like these. 

To start with, imagine that you’re pursuing a PhD in philosophy, and you have selected Greek Metaphysics as your dissertation topic. In this scenario it’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t read everything Plato and Aristotle had ever written. Should it ever come out that you hadn’t, people would immediately stop taking you or your dissertation seriously. 

It’s completely understandable for this standard to be applied at the highest levels of academia, but to what extent should we apply that standard to commentary more broadly? Certainly if someone was going to do their dissertation on the origins of the pandemic we would have good reason to believe that they would read this book, in the same fashion that a philosophy PhD is expected to read Aristotle. But what if they just want to tweet about the origins of COVID? Should we ignore such tweets unless we have good reason to believe that they read this book first?

I think there’s various ways of answering that question, but for me the primary standard would be to consider the importance of the topic. You can imagine that opining about Kim Kardashian’s latest divorce should not require the same level of familiarity with “the literature” as claiming that Russia will definitely not invade Ukraine, or that COVID indisputably had a zoonotic origin.  

However, this standard of importance presents a problem. The more important something is, the more people feel that offering their opinion is not only a right, it’s a necessity. But what is this opinion based on? How strong should that foundation be before it’s worthwhile for someone to add their own spin on it? 

This takes us to a second standard. I think before commenting you need to have a sense of what sort of fight you’re taking sides in. To get more concrete, I don’t think you necessarily have to read Viral before commenting on the lab leak, but it’d be nice if you had read a review of Viral, or something which fairly presented the argument it was making. Presumably, not having read the book yourself, your own comments would not stray very far from the condensed information you found in the review. For example, you’re allowed to disparage the lab leak hypothesis if you’ve read a review of Viral which presents a credible argument against the hypothesis, and you can fairly represent that argument. This is certainly not as good as reading the book yourself, but I would say it’s definitely a level at which comments are allowed.

Down still further is the standard picking a set of authorities and just parroting their comments. The problem here is that if the authorities have read all the books, they would have read Viral and they wouldn’t be in this category, they’d be in the previous category. Also the ideological fractures which appear to have penetrated every nook and cranny of our world makes finding true authorities, people who are genuinely unbiased and objective, and trusting them that much harder. And remember we’re not talking about what you should believe personally, we’re talking about what you’re trying to convince others of. We’re talking about commenting and opining on the issue. In that respect I think we’ve crossed the line, at this point you shouldn’t be commenting. That at most you should be linking or retweeting these authorities, but that you are too far removed from the actual debate to get to weigh in.

I could go on, but I’ve already spent a lot of space in this review not talking about the book. So to return to that, my point is much the same now as it was in my previous post. The origin of COVID is an enormously complicated, but also an enormously important subject, and it deserves the most informed discussion possible, rather than being dismissed out of hand. This is a great book if you want to be informed enough to participate in that discussion.


Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science 

by: Karl Sigmund

480 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The Vienna Circle, which ends up being at the center of modern philosophy. The list of names in the circle’s orbit includes Einstein, Gödel, Mach, Boltzmann, Popper, and Wittgenstein, and those are just the ones you might have heard of. There are many more who are only slightly less impressive. 

Who should read this book?

I think anyone who enjoys great history would love this book. It’s very well written. It’s also interesting for its insights into philosophy, ideology, math, politics and the interwar period.

General Thoughts

Several years ago I read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, which was all about Vienna before World War II and during the interwar period. I remember being struck by the difference between Vienna before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna after. But Zweig was mostly talking about literature and culture. From Exact Thinking I discovered that Vienna still had a lot of math and philosophy magic left in it during the interwar years—that is until the Anschluss, which spelled the final doom of what was once one of the premier cities in Europe.

Sigmund ends up being the perfect person to chronicle the Circle. He got his PhD in Vienna in the late 60s which was still close enough to the time of the events that he knew quite a few people from the era, who could give him first hand accounts. After getting his PhD he was only away from Vienna for six years before he returned as a professor. As a consequence of his close association with the people and the place his familiarity with the subject is very apparent. This is one of the better history books I’ve read, and there’s so much else in it about the development of math and philosophy that you’re really getting a lot for the time invested in reading it.

Of course as interesting as the Vienna Circle was its brand of philosophy, logical positivism, is basically dead and buried. Karl Popper takes credit for killing it, though I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have survived even without his intervention. And it’s the same problem we see over and over again, starting with Plato and probably going all the way down to the current rationalist movement. Science and rationality end up being unable to carry all of the ambitions people place upon them. We saw this in Plato and we saw it in the Vienna Circle. (Who incidentally mostly hated Plato, while loving Wittgenstein.) And when those ambitions eventually grow too heavy, they end up crushing the foundation, no matter how much science was poured into it. 


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 1: Columbus Day

305 Pages

Book 2: SpecOps

277 Pages

Book 3: Paradise

283 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read this book?

If you like pulpy, kind of silly military sci fi, I think you’ll really like this series. (At least the three books I’ve read so far.)

General Thoughts

Something about this series reminds me of Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. The premise of that book was that in the near future we find a dead guy in a spacesuit on the Moon. That’s not the weird part, the weird part is that he’s been dead for 50,000 years. When I first picked up Inherit the Stars, the mystery of how someone ended up on the moon 50,000 years ago was so enthralling that I read the book in a single sitting. I’m not sure if it’s the first time I did that, but it’s the time that sticks in my memory.

I was similarly hooked by the Expeditionary Force series. I didn’t listen to it all in one go, but it was pretty close to that, as you can see by the fact that I’ve already burned through three books (though there are 10-12 more books depending on how you count). I think it’s once again the mystery part that I find so compelling. In this case you’ve got the typical setup of an advanced progenitor race who has mysteriously disappeared, and despite the galaxy crawling with other alien species, the people in the eponymous expeditionary force end up on the forefront of the investigation into what has happened to them. All while trying to fulfill their primary mission of protecting humanity from aliens with vastly superior technology. 

Beyond the mystery other positives include: Alanson’s solution to Fermi’s Paradox, and I like his solution to the inevitable tech disparities between humans and aliens, and I really like the world building. 

On the negative side, you’re going to need to get really comfortable with deus ex machina because there’s a lot of it. Also there is a certain repetitiveness to things. Imagine it’s a sitcom where each episode has a similar format and each character makes the same kind of jokes in each of those episodes. We’ll see if that begins to get old, but it’s been just the mindless pulpy break I need.


Row Daily, Breathe Deeper, Live Better: A Guide to Moderate Exercise

by: Dustin Ordway

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The advantages of developing a daily rowing habit.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a new low impact exercise, and you’re curious about rowing this is a good introduction.

General Thoughts

I really need to start paying closer attention to a book’s rating before I pick it up. Both this book and the next two have less than 4 stars on Good Reads, which may not sound bad, but given that the average rating appears to be 4 anything less than 4 is below average. This was a perfectly fine book. It assumes the reader has zero rowing experience and if that’s actually the case then it’s a great book. On the other hand if you do have even a little experience, and you don’t need any motivation to row daily, then the book has very little to add to what you probably already know.  


Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life 

by: Nir Eyal (A-all)

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Making yourself immune to distraction. 

Who should read this book?

Those who will read any book on personal improvement no matter how niche. Also anyone who thinks that distractions are ruining their life.

General Thoughts

In some respects the majority of current advice on personal productivity revolves around eliminating distractions, so this is not new territory. Consequently if you’ve already read a lot in this space then much of Eyal’s advice will not be new. Where he does break slightly new ground is in his answer on where the problem lies. Since I’ve already reviewed one book on drugs and I’m about to review another, let’s pretend being distracted is like being addicted. 

There are various theories why some people get addicted while others don’t, and why some people can break their addiction while others can’t. Some say it’s genetic, others admit that they’re not sure, and still others say it all has to do with whether a person has a strong network of support, and is generally happy otherwise, that if that’s the case addiction is not a problem. Applying this framework to technological distractions, Eyal is in the latter camp. That being distracted is entirely under our control, and that it’s just a matter of mastering our internal motivations, and being content. I’m not sure if he feels the same way about actual drugs, I just thought the comparison was useful and germane to the post as a whole, because…

Just like I don’t think we should let the Sacklers off the hook (see my first review) I don’t think we should let the tech companies off the hook either. To see why I might say this, let’s take one of the stories from the book. This particular story concerns a female professor who got some kind of fitness band which tracked her steps and other activity. The company making the band did everything in their power to “gamify” this device. You could compete with friends, there were daily challenges, there was a point system with rewards and a leaderboard. So one night around midnight, she’s getting ready for bed and it flashes an alert telling her that she can get triple points if she just climbs 20 stairs, which seems so easy that even though she was just about to go to bed she decided to do it, but as soon as she finished it flashed another offer for triple points if she would do another 40 stairs. And then she got yet another offer. I’ll let the book describe what happened next:

For the next two hours—from midnight until two in the morning—the professor treaded up and down her basement staircase as if possessed by some strange mind-controlling power. When she finally did come to a standstill, she realized she had climbed over two thousand stairs. That’s more than the 1,872 required to climb the Empire State Building.

Eyal goes on to explain that this seemingly ridiculous behavior corresponded to an incredibly stressful time in the professor’s life, and that’s why it happened. Eyal’s theory is that all behavior is an attempt to resolve discomfort, and that if she hadn’t had the discomfort of the stress she would have never found herself climbing the Empire State Building in the middle of the night.

Sure that’s obviously part of it, but let’s imagine that she had exactly the same level of stress but without the fitness tracker. I’m guessing that she would have just gone to bed at midnight. And yes, one imagines that she might have tossed and turned for a half hour or even an hour, but she still would have been better off than mindlessly walking the stairs for two hours. The point is that even if discomfort is a necessary element, tech companies prey on this discomfort, and more than that, they amplify create and amplify discomfort as well.


What is a p-value anyway? 34 Stories to Help You Actually Understand Statistics

by: Andrew Vickers

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Statistics and the many ways they can be abused.

Who should read this book?

If you have a basic understanding of statistics and math, and you’re looking to go a little bit deeper this book might be worthwhile.

General Thoughts

I was underwhelmed by this book. For concepts where I did have a pretty good understanding the book was fine, but didn’t add much, and where he was introducing something I hadn’t come across, the book was generally too dry to be engaging. On the latter point, I think the title is misleading. I went in expecting 34 interesting extended metaphors for statistical principles, but instead the “stories” generally consisted of a short self-deprecating joke at the beginning of the chapter—yeah, we get it, you’re the cool statistician!—with the remainder of the chapter being more akin to a text book. If I had really been interested in getting into the meat of statistics the book could have been good. But I was looking for something a little lighter.

Additionally, I think Taleb may have permanently turned me against “normal” statistics, and I mean that in a formal sense, as in statistics which focus on a normal/Gaussian/bell curve. As near as I can tell Vickers’ discussion of statistics never really steps outside of assuming some degree of “normality”. The closest he appears to come is in a chapter which describes calculating the “average” salary of everyone in a diner. Most of the time you would use the mean, but if Bill Gates walks in, then the mean becomes meaningless. (Ha! Get it?) Vickers says in that case all you need to do is switch to using the median instead. Which seems to oversimplify the situation to the point of ridiculousness. Taleb would point out that the diner (and the world) have become very different places when billionaires arrive on the scene.

Now, I may be exaggerating a little bit, and as I previously said I wouldn’t claim that I brought my A-game when I read the book, but nowhere in it did I detect any acknowledgement of the difference between what Taleb calls mediocristan and extremistan. A difference that’s very, very important.


The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth

by: Sam Quinones

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is something of a sequel to Quinones’ book Dreamland. (Which I talked about here.) [POST] Dreamland was about OxyContin and heroin, this brings the story to the present day by talking about fentanyl and meth.

Who should read this book?

If you read and enjoyed Dreamland, then I think this is a valuable sequel. If you’re looking for a book on the drug crisis and you’re trying to choose between this book and Dreamland, I would probably recommend Dreamland. This is because without understanding how the crisis started it would be difficult to understand how it got so bad.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in a previous review it is my intention to do a full post on the current drug crisis. So some of the juicy stuff will have to wait until then, in this space I’m going to talk about homelessness. I’ve been curious about homelessness for a while (here’s a post I did back in 2018) and just based on the number of homeless people I see and encounter, the problem seems to be getting worse. Quinones agrees with this assessment and his book has passages like this:

In 2018, when the Los Angeles Times reported that “L.A.’s Homelessness Surged 75% in Six Years,” this made a lot of sense to Eric Barrera. Those were exactly the years when supplies of Mexican “weirdo” meth really got out of hand. “It all began to change in 2009 and got worse after that,” he told me as we walked through a homeless encampment in Echo Park, west of downtown Los Angeles. “The way I saw myself deteriorating, tripping out and ending up homeless, that’s what I see out here. They’re hallucinating, talking to themselves. Now, it’s people on the street screaming. Terrified by paranoia. These are people who had normal lives.”

The “weirdo” meth is meth made using the P2P method rather than the old method of using ephedrine. We’ll be talking a lot more about weirdo meth in the eventual drug post, but this book makes the argument (as you can tell from the excerpt) that homelessness is increasing and that P2P meth is a major driver of that. And as I said this increase mostly matches my experience, though I was unaware of a possible connection to a change in the way meth was manufactured. But then just in the last few days, Matthew Yglesias was asked whether he thought there was a connection between drug use and homelessness, and he said:

Homelessness fell pretty steadily from 2007-2017 even while the opioid problem was getting worse and worse, so I don’t think the rebound since then can plausibly be attributed to drugs.

And then he provided this graph:

This of course doesn’t match the LA Times statistic Quinones mentions, nor my experience. Nor does Yglesias provide a source for these numbers, nor does he appear to be aware of the meth connection. And he offers all of this up in support of his argument homelessness is primarily driven by a lack of affordable housing. I’ll allow Quinones a chance to retort:

When asked how many of the people he met in those encampments had lost housing due to high rents or health insurance, Eric could not remember one. Meth was the reason they were there and couldn’t leave. Of the hundred or so vets he had brought out of the encampments and into housing, all but three returned.

I’m hoping to be able to get to the bottom of this before I do my post on the drug crisis, but Quinones makes a pretty persuasive case, so for the moment count me as a member of Team Meth. (A phrase I never thought I’d say…)


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History 

by: S. C. Gwynne

384 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history of the Texan and federal government’s battles against the Comanches.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in the history of Texas, or the Indians, or who’s interested in history period.

General Thoughts

I can’t think of many books I’ve seen recommended in more places and by more people than this one. As such I am long overdue for reading it. It was indeed a fantastic book, well written with amazing stories and engaging characters. As such, I would add my recommendation to the others. That said, it wasn’t quite the transcendent experience I was expecting based on the effusive reviews. And it’s possible that I came into the book with impossible expectations, but it’s also possible that at least some of the people reviewing it have not read any other truly great history books, and so when they encountered one it was revelatory. Certainly Empire of the Summer Moon belongs in the category of great history books, it’s just not alone in that category.

As far as the actual content of the book, my favorite chapter was chapter 10 about John Coffee Hays and the creation of the Colt Revolver. The way the US ended up forgetting how to fight the Indians reminded me of the way that we forgot the cure for scurvy (but maybe that’s just me.) Other than that, the book is about what you’d expect, but it gave me new respect and interest for both the history of the Plains Indians and the history of Texas. 


Heart: The City Beneath

by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

220 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s the sourcebook for an independently published role-playing game.

Who should read this book?

If you like Dungeons and Dragons or role-playing in general you’ll probably like this book. The setting is great and the system is inventive.

General Thoughts

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a role-playing sourcebook, which is not to say I haven’t been reading them, just that I normally skim them, as opposed to finishing them (see title of post). Heart was the exception. In part this is because it’s just a great system and beautiful book, but the bigger part is that I’m going to be running a campaign in the setting. The first session was actually this last Saturday. Obviously if I’m going to run it, it’s important to know my stuff. I won’t bore non-gamers out there with any further minutia other than to say that I’m really intrigued by the system, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out in practice.


Should you end up reading and enjoying any of these books let me know. Emails are always appreciated, but of course the best way to let me know you enjoy this stuff is by donating. These books don’t buy themselves.


Eschatologist #13: Antifragility

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


This newsletter is now a year old, and we spent much of that year working through the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is not merely because I think Taleb is the best guide to understanding the challenges of the modern world, he’s also the best guide to preparing for those challenges. 

This preparation is necessary because, as Taleb points out, our material progress has largely come at the expense of increased fragility. This does not necessarily mean that things are more likely to fail in the modern world, just that when they do, such failures come in the form of catastrophic black swans. The deaths and disruptions caused by the pandemic have provided us with an excellent example of just such a catastrophe.

If fragility is the problem, then what’s Taleb’s recommended solution? Antifragility. Upon hearing this word you may think, “Of course, antifragility is the solution to fragility, but what does antifragility even mean?” Fortunately Taleb has a formal definition, but let’s start with his informal definition:

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

Fragility is when we accept small, limited benefits now, in exchange for potential large, unbounded costs. In the quote it’s the benefit of getting a little extra money by going into debt, which presumably translates into a bigger house or a nicer car but running the risk of bankruptcy if you lose your job and are unable to pay those debts. 

Antifragility is when we accept small, limited costs in exchange for potential large, unbounded benefits. The time and discipline it costs to save money and stockpile spam in your basement—accompanied presumably by a smaller house and a more modest car—turns into a huge benefit when you are unscathed by disaster. As a graph it looks like this:

For fragility just flip the graph upside down. If we apply this to our current catastrophe the pandemic was preceded by thousands of small, fixed benefits, using the time and money we could have spent planning, preparing, and stockpiling, on other things. Things that presumably seemed more important at the time. But these small benefits turned into large costs when the pandemic arrived and revealed how fragile things really were.

The pandemic not only revealed the fragility of our preparations it also revealed the fragility of our logistics when it broke the global supply chain. Of course before the pandemic people didn’t talk about fragility, they talked about efficiency, the wonders of “just in time” manufacturing, the offshoring of production, and global consolidation. But when the black swan arrived all of those things ended up breaking, as fragile things tend to do.

Moving back a little farther in time, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 is an even better example. As Taleb describes it the entire financial system was focused on picking up pennies in front of a steamroller—limited benefits with eventually fatal consequences.

As you may have already surmised, antifragility is the opposite of all this. It consists of spending a certain amount of time and money on being prepared, some of which will be wasted. Of taking certain risks/costs in order to avoid catastrophic harm. It’s also, like many things, easier said than done. But as long as we’re talking about the pandemic it’s worth asking: what steps are being taken to prepare for the next pandemic?

So far, it’s not looking good, we’ve slashed the amount of money we’re spending on such preparedness, and rather than figuring out the origin of the pandemic (see my last essay) we’re still fighting about masks. I would have hoped that the pandemic would have led us, as a society, to focus more on preparedness, risk management, and above all antifragility, but perhaps not. That being the case, I hope all of my readers are lucky enough to have some gold bars in the basement, even if they’re metaphorical. 


All of my gold bars are metaphorical. If you’d like to help make them non-metaphorical consider donating. I understand that it takes a LOT of donations to equal one gold bar, but one has to start somewhere.


Pandemic: The End of the Beginning

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


When people in the US think of World War II, they think of Pearl Harbor, or Normandy or Hiroshima. What most people don’t realize is that the war had been already going on for two years when Pearl Harbor happened. During that time, the UK stood alone against Germany, and the situation looked grim. Even once the US had entered the war things still mostly went badly for them. They were just barely holding their own in North Africa against Rommel, and on the other side of the world there was the disastrous fall of Singapore. But finally nearly a year after the US had entered the war, and three years after it had started, the British finally got their first decisive win at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. (AL-a-main)

Shortly after this victory Churchill was giving a speech, and in reference to this battle and the turning point it represented he said:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I bring this quote up because it feels like a decent description of where we are with COVID. It is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but I think once the omicron surge passes that it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning. As a consequence I thought it might be time to do a post about the beginning of the pandemic, both because I think we’re at the end of that beginning, but also because it’s an opportunity bring together some insights about the pandemic I recently gleaned from three books:

Nightmare Scenario by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Premonition by: Michael Lewis

Viral by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

But first, before I forget, back on the 8th I made a prediction about when omicron would peak. I said that it would peak on the 15th, at around 2,500 new daily cases per million people. So how’d I do? 

It did in fact peak on the 15th at 2,409 cases per million. How’s that for an accurate prediction? 

Hopefully now that I’ve verified my expertise you’re ready to listen to me on all the other things I have to say about COVID. Speaking of other things, I obviously can’t cover everything from three books, or even everything I think is important and interesting. Instead I’ve picked five subjects where I think I have something important and interesting to add. Let’s get started with:

I- Schools

With the latest surge there was a lot of pushback from teachers unions, and even students on the fact that schools were not closing this time around. But it wasn’t just right wing governors that refused to close schools, Biden and democratic politicians were also emphatic that schools should remain open. 

For my own part I think going back to remote learning for a week during the very peak of omicron (which, as you may remember, I called) is fine, particularly if it’s a staffing issue rather than overactive risk management. The big question we’re grappling with now is not whether we should continue doing it, but whether we should have ever done it. Increasingly the answer seems to be that, outside of those first few weeks when information was scarce, it was always a mistake, and a huge mistake at that.

Recently shots were fired on this subject by Nate Silver, the noted statistician, who tweeted:

Suppose you think that school closures were a disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision. Shouldn’t that merit some further reflection?

He later clarified that this was not merely a hypothetical, he did in fact think it was a mistake on the magnitude of invading Iraq. As you can imagine responses were all over the map, but I think Jonathan Haidt’s summation of the situation was on the money:

It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace… learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students…a million students functionally dropped out of school…caused a mental health “state of emergency,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage…will be irrecoverable.

 

It is nearly as clear that these measures did little to contain the pandemic… 

 

By the tail end of spring 2020, it was becoming reasonably clear both that remote education was failing badly and that schools could be reopened safely.

 

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions…

 

It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side. You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones.

For me it mostly boils down to that last bit. If we’re faced with the horrible task of apportioning harm, and unfortunately we are. Then it seems logical to not apportion a greater share of it to the young. And not only is it logical, but viscerally I, and I think most people, recoil from the idea of sacrificing the boundless potential of the young for the limited potential of the old. (Which is harsh to say but ultimately true.)

So how did we end up doing just that?

Here’s where I can add something to the discussion, to do that I need to take you back to 2005. President Bush had just read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry about the Spanish Flu and decided the government needed to pursue pandemic preparedness. This was the first big effort taken by the federal government and they had to develop a lot of stuff from scratch. One of the things they lacked was a good model. The Premonition has a whole cute story about how the best model was developed by a child for a science fair project, which only starts to make sense when you realize her dad worked at Sandia National Labs. I don’t have the space to go into that story, the key point is once they started messing with this model they realized that they could significantly reduce transmission through non-pharmaceutical measures. This was the birth of social distancing. And if distance mattered for transmission, then the first places the model said you needed to shut down were schools. Nobody gets packed in tighter than school children.

I’m not sure how much this model drove school closures in the early days of the pandemic. I assume it had to have had some impact, but I don’t remember it ever getting mentioned. And of course even if the model was used to make this decision, it should have been updated as more information came in. Which is to say even if the model was used to justify closing schools I don’t think it could be used to justify keeping them closed.

As one final point as long as we’re on the subject of what sort of things were recommended in the years before the pandemic. When the group President Bush put together went to the CDC and recommended closing down things as per the model the CDC pushed back and said it would never work, people wouldn’t tolerate it. And to a certain extent that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Also the period the group recommended for shutting things down was relatively short. Which is also something we haven’t exactly done (particularly with schools).

II- Republicans vs. Democrats

I’m already a third of the way through the expected length of this post and I’ve only covered 1 of the 5 items on my list. I guess I’ll need to exercise more brevity going forward.

Like so many things COVID became a tribal issue with the blue tribe on the left and the red tribe on the right. And members of each tribe want to know that their tribe was the righteous one, while the other tribe was the wicked one.

Nightmare Scenario was written with the goal of proving that the Republicans, and particularly Trump were the wicked ones. Having also read Premonition as well as countless blog posts and tweets, I think this fixation blinded the authors of Scenario to the even greater failings of the FDA and CDC, institutions which are supposed to be the ones preparing for and dealing with emergencies like this. Which is to say while it would have been nice to have a President who’s great at handling a global pandemic, it shouldn’t be too surprising when we don’t. The president has countless jobs, the CDC only has a couple and the most important of those is handling a global pandemic, and on this count they were abject failures.

This discussion of tribalism and the CDC takes us to the story of Charity Dean, one of the three stars of The Premonition. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Charity was a public health official, a very talented and dedicated one, exactly the kind of person you wanted in charge during a pandemic. The book relates numerous stories about her, but two are germane here.

First, in the months immediately before the pandemic Charity had risen to be the number two  person in the state of California for public health, and when the top position, Director of the California Department of Public Health, opened up in 2019, Charity assumed she would be appointed. She was not, and she discovered later that as a white woman with blond hair she wasn’t even in the running, despite being the number two person. Instead Dr. Sonia Angell was given the job. Her primary qualification appeared to be the fact that she was Latina. In other words it was an affirmative action hire. Had it been a successful example of affirmative action, raising someone with the necessary skills who had previously been overlooked, then we wouldn’t be talking about Dr. Angell, but that was not the case. Lewis described her as being “monstrously incompetent”, so much so that she ended up abruptly resigning in August of 2020.

Republican ideology gave us Trump, and he obviously made some big mistakes (more on that later) but the presidency is not our primary line of defense. The public health bureaucracy is, and Democratic ideology undermined that, and not merely in the case of Dr. Angell. I think one of the biggest hits the public health authorities took was when they backpedaled all their guidance on gatherings when people started to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The second reason I wanted to bring up Charity Dean was to highlight her views on the CDC, since you might need further convincing. Lewis describes how Dean, through her connection with other characters in the book, was finally given the opportunity to put together a plan for how to deal with the pandemic. Someone, in an effort to help, added a small role for the CDC in her plan. Charity wrote back:

No…The single most important part of this plan is IT IS NOT RUN BY THE CDC… The entity/agency/figurehead leading this must be a Churchill not a Chamberlain.”

III- The FDA and CDC

So what made the FDA and CDC so bad? What did they do that they shouldn’t have and what should they have done that they didn’t? 

To explain that I’ll first need to take you on a brief aside. Back in 2014 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex decided to take on the effects of marijuana legalization, in a post titled, Marijuana Much More Than You Wanted to Know. As is usual with his “Much More Than You Wanted to Know” posts he went really deep, looking at the issue from every angle you could imagine. But despite pot affecting everything from IQ to organized crime, one consideration overwhelmed everything else: traffic fatalities. Does pot increase the number of traffic fatalities because more people drive under the influence? Or does it decrease the number of traffic fatalities because people substitute pot for alcohol and while driving under the influence of pot is bad, it’s vastly better than driving drunk? In the final analysis death is so bad, and traffic fatalities are such a big cause of death that even changing it by a tiny percentage one way or the other overwhelms every other consequence the legalization of marijuana has on society.

This is the position the FDA and CDC were in. They probably did a lot of things right. There are probably many criticisms which are unjustified. But in the final analysis the consequences of the few bad things they did were so bad they overwhelmed all the rest.

The reason these things were so bad is that when you’re talking about exponential growth, what happens at the very beginning of that curve has a far more dramatic impact than anything that happens later on, after the curve is established. I’ve seen evidence that they did lots of things wrong at pivotal points where speed was essential, but here are the two biggest examples in my opinion, one from each agency:

For the CDC it was obviously creating the initial test. If you haven’t heard this story Buzzfeed actually has a great investigative piece on it. But basically they refused to rely on tests that had already been created in other countries, they refused to let private companies market tests they had developed, the supply of their test was horribly limited and to top it all off it didn’t work! Certainly even with good testing there was no way for the US to avoid the pandemic, but we seeded it far more deeply and more broadly than necessary because in the very earliest days we couldn’t test for it.

For the FDA it was the vaccine, and in some respects this is less forgivable. The CDC might plausibly claim that, early on, it wasn’t really clear how important the test was going to be, the FDA had no such excuse when it came to the vaccine, everyone knew exactly how important it was. And yet the FDA’s Vaccine Advisory Committee seemed almost leisurely in their approval approach. The vaccine was ready for approval by November 20th, but they didn’t meet until December 10th, nearly three weeks later. What possible reason could there be for not meeting on November 21st or the evening of November 20th? 

As I said, I think these are the biggest mistakes, but they are by no means the only mistakes made by the FDA and CDC. In fact when it comes to the vaccines there may be an even bigger scandal, but for discussing that, let’s turn to: 

IV- Trump and the Vaccine

The same thing I said about the CDC and the FDA could be applied in reverse to Trump, and his team. However many mistakes they may have made, in the final analysis, the speed of vaccine development was going to be the measurement that mattered the most. And in this respect everyone basically agrees that Operation Warp Speed did an amazing job. The obvious objection for those not inclined to give Trump any credit is that he played only a very small part in the operation. That’s a fair point, but in considering it we should remember what Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs, “Victory has 100 fathers while defeat is an orphan.” Lots of people now want to take credit for starting or managing or having the idea for Operation Warp Speed, but if it had failed everyone would have blamed Trump. This being the case, should he not therefore get some of the credit?

Even Nightmare Scenario which was written specifically to savage Trump, admitted that this sort of “hail mary” approach was something the Trump administration was actually pretty good at. The book’s chief criticism of such efforts was not that they were ineffective, but rather that by routing around the normal procurement process, such efforts wasted money. This complaint about the government wasting money made me laugh, a lot.  Other more serious criticisms include duplication and a lack of focus, and there was certainly a lot of that, but in the end we got the vaccine months and months sooner than anyone thought possible. Though we could have gotten it even sooner and therein lies the potential scandal. 

There’s lots of evidence of people working to move the announcement of a successful vaccine from October to November, enough that the fact of it happening really isn’t in question, what’s in question is why?

The most benign explanation is these people were worried about anti-vaxxers and vaccine hesitancy, and they wanted to make sure the safety data was ironclad. 

However, lots of people (including the aforementioned Nate Silver) find the timing to be very suspicious. The fact that moving it from October to November happened to move it from before the election to after the election makes it look like it was largely motivated by a chance to hurt Trump’s reelection efforts.

Other people don’t care about the motivation, they just think that it was a bad trade off, that the delay was never going to have that much of an impact on vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers, but it was always going to have a huge effect on the number of people who died. Who cares what the motivation was, the decision to delay ended up killing thousands of people.

The problem with much of the discussion is that it ends up being broken into a binary. Either it was totally reasonable for the FDA to wait 60 days to see about side effects or it was monstrous and politically motivated. And what’s lacking in both the current discussion and the toolkit of bureaucratic capabilities is any capacity for nuance. Could we have authorized it for high risk old people in October? People who felt that the protection from not dying was worth the potential that there might be unknown side effects?

V- The True Beginnings of the Pandemic 

Here we arrive at the ultimate example of the “traffic fatality effect”. Despite everything that has been said so far, when it comes to the pandemic all other considerations are secondary to the question of where the virus came from, because if it didn’t happen in the first place every other issue is moot. Thus far I have mostly drawn from The Premonition and Nightmare Scenario. This section is going to draw almost entirely from Viral. With a few other quotes here and there. Speaking of which, here’s Matthew Yglesias to start us off with a quote saying essentially the same thing:

(Or not… I had this quote in my notes I thought it was from Yglesias but it wasn’t, and now I don’t know where I got it… That said I still think it’s 100% true.)

I’m not saying it was definitely a lab leak. I’m saying that answering that question is one of the most important tasks of the post-mortem, and anyone who says it definitely wasn’t a lab leak is not trying to answer it they’re engaged in the culture war.

Before we get to a discussion of the actual evidence, this is a perfect example of what I talk about over and over again in this space. You might think that in a situation where something only has a 5% chance of happening that you should act as if it won’t or if it didn’t. But my argument has always been if the consequences of it happening are bad enough, you should act as if it will or that it did. Applying this the lab leak hypothesis they should have never been conducting coronavirus research in a biosafety level 2 lab (4 is the highest) and going forward we should probably stop such research all together, certainly anything that involves gain of function. But that’s precisely what we’re NOT doing. To quote from Yglesias again:

By contrast, on something like Covid-19’s origins, we’ve had a decent amount of coverage of the lab leak controversy but essentially no coverage of what is being done to prevent future lab leaks (basically nothing) or to prevent future zoonotic crossover events (again, nothing). But the reason these are our two contenders is that as far as we know, these are the routes through which new viruses emerge…either way, we’re not doing anything to counter either route for transmission, and that (shocking! alarming! insane!) fact gets way less attention than the latest round of “who’s yelling at whom about masks?”

We should be taking all of these measures even if the chance is only 5%, but having read Viral I would argue that the chance is far higher than 5%. In fact it might be the inverse of that, I might put the odds at 95% lab leak, 5% zoonotic origin. I’m sure you’re interested in the evidence backing up that assertion. As this post is already running long I’m going to steal Scott Aaronson’s list, and briefly offer my own commentary. And if you’re interested in going deeper you should read his whole review. But this is his list of things Viral proved beyond reasonable doubt, a list I entirely agree with:

Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work. 

This gets to the point I was making previously. We were already taking risks we shouldn’t have been. Lab leaks happen all the time, and rather than focusing on the huge negative black swan of potentially creating and releasing a viral pandemic, they were focused on the small gains of having a better viral database. The claim was it would help us fight future pandemics, but:

Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to… useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.

Another point I make all the time, the benefits of technology are almost always oversold while the potential harms are generally entirely invisible. Particularly once we have done all the obviously beneficial things (modern sanitation) and we’re moving on to things of more dubious value (harvesting exotic viruses and studying them).

There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

I had to quote this point in full. It really elegantly encapsulates the whole argument. And what about the wet market?

The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.

My sense is that those who hold on to the zoonotic origin idea, imagine that the wet market was this crazy lawless area where anything could have happened. Actually it was closely monitored, and because of other diseases they were carefully tracking what was sold and when, and as Aaronsson says, none of the potential carriers were even sold at that market.

Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists… They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. 

If that database had been taken offline in November of 2019, this would be the smoking gun, but even September seems very, very strange. But of course the most inexplicable thing is why it has never been made available since the pandemic started. The whole point of the database was to assist people in fighting pandemics, and when an actual pandemic comes along it’s permanently made unavailable. The list of other strange oversights and evasions is nearly as baffling. And of course on top of it all:

The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine.

Sometimes people imagine coverups where there probably aren’t any. Or there is a coverup, but they’re covering for something different than what you imagine. Consequently I try to be somewhat skeptical when an organization or a person is accused of acting in bad faith. The world is complicated, and incompetence is ubiquitious, but for this particular issue there are so many obvious good faiths steps would could be taken but haven’t been:

  • WIV could restore access to the database.
  • China could allow an international team to investigate the cave.
  • Daszak could confirm and explain facts that are already out there.
  • They could stop any remotely dangerous viral research now that it’s been shown that it may have caused significant harm, and it didn’t provide any significant help.

Of course this lack of good faith engagement illustrates the entire problem, not just with finding the actual source of the pandemic, but with everything about the pandemic, and indeed everything about the modern world. We have turned everything into tribal warfare, and the only thing that’s important is that our tribe wins.


Speaking of fracturing into tribes, sometimes I feel like Treebeard, from the Lord of the Rings, when he was asked by Pippin whose side he was on, “Side? I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on my side…” If you’d like to be on my side with things like the pandemic, and the fragility of modernity more broadly. Consider donating