Category: Book Reviews

Books I Finished in April

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

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

The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism By: Greg Trimble 

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

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

The Worth of War By: Benjamin Ginsberg

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

Sex and Culture By: J. D. Unwin

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

By: Stuart J. Russell

352 Pages

General Thoughts

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Yuval Levin

256 Pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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


Sex and Culture

By: J. D. Unwin

721 Pages

I covered this in my last post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models

By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

354 Pages

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

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

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

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


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

By: Candice Millard

432 Pages

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

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


The Worth of War

By: Benjamin Ginsberg

256 Pages

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

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

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


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

By: David McCullough

352 Pages

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

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

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


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

By: Euripides

268 Pages

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

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

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


III- Religious Reviews 

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

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

By: Milton Vaughn Backman

228 Pages

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

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


The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism

By: Greg Trimble 

252 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Review: Sex and Culture, or Greatness Through Sexual Frustration

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 consider what’s wrong with the world there are three schools of thought. The first, which I’ve mentioned frequently, and the one championed by Steven Pinker in his books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, is that there’s nothing wrong with the world, that things are as great as they’ve ever been and almost certainly just going to keep getting better. The other two schools of thought are not quite so optimistic, some people feel that there certainly might be problems with the world but mostly it’s things we’re aware of and if we could just get our act together, nothing we can’t solve. Other people don’t think that there might be something wrong with the world, they think that there is definitely something wrong. And furthermore that we might not even be aware of how bad those problems are, and those we do have a handle on are proving to be largely intractable. 

From what I can observe the vast majority of people fall into one of the latter two camps. And I sincerely hope that all of them turn out to be wrong and Pinker turns out to be right, but as you may have gathered I don’t think he is, and I don’t think they are.

If you’re like me and in the something is definitely wrong camp, the next obvious step is to figure out what that something is. This is the whole point of the discipline of eschatology, at least as I practice it, and there are of course numerous candidates, everything from runaway environmental damage, to the looming threat of an eventual nuclear war, to a breakdown of culture and morality. And it seems only prudent to examine each and every candidate in as much detail as possible, in order that the true illness at the heart of modernity (assuming there’s only one, there could easily be more than one) might be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Before the condition is terminal. I understand that this is a profound oversimplification of what this process looks like, if it’s even possible, but regardless of the difficulties involved in correcting the ills of the world, the process can’t even begin without identifying the problem in the first place.

The book Sex and Culture by J. D. Unwin, written in 1934 while Unwin was a professor at Cambridge, is one theory of what the problem might be, and one that, so far as I can tell, has not gotten a lot of attention. This is almost certainly because Unwin’s claim is entirely at odds with modern thinking, what is that claim you ask? 

That a culture is successful to the extent that it restricts pre-nuptial sex. 

I assume that most people can immediately grasp why such a claim has been almost entirely ignored. If not, imagine any current professor getting up and attempting to present this as a topic up for debate at any university or college. And yet, as I pointed out, if we care about the health of society, and we’re not convinced that everything is going smoothly, we really should examine all possible threats, even the ones most people find horribly old-fashioned and retrograde. (In fact, I would argue, especially those threats.)

I said the claim was almost entirely ignored, fortunately Kirk Durston wrote a post about it, which brought Sex and Culture to my attention and convinced me to read it. Though, on doing so, I discovered another reason why the book was largely forgotten. It is not an easy read, and I don’t think I would recommend that you try. The majority of the book is an exacting and detailed examination of the traditions and behavior of 80 different “uncivilized” cultures. So detailed that even I skimmed some of the chapters.

Given all of this, I imagine you’re unlikely to read it, so it’s up to me to tell you what it’s about. Though I would also strongly recommend Durston’s post in addition to mine. 

For my part, I’m going to start by asking, “Why do nearly all cultures have traditions and taboos around sex?” From a straight evolutionary perspective you might imagine that other than some incest prohibitions to prevent genetic issues, that more sex would equal more babies and that greater reproduction confers an obvious benefit to survival. And yet over and over again, regardless of the society we find taboos around sex. With, historically, the strictest taboos being found in the largest civilizations.  Why is that? Unwin wondered the same thing, and Sex and Culture is his answer. It’s obvious from the book that the first step he took was to make an exhaustive study of all the anthropological reports he could get his hands on. I’m sure that quite a bit of newer information has come out since then, but based on what was included in the book it’s hard for me to imagine that he overlooked much of anything that was known at the time.

(As a side note, I didn’t realize until I linked to Unwin’s entry on Wikipedia for this post, but the book was published only two years before his death at the age of 41. One wonders what he might have done with the idea if he’d had several more decades.)

In any event after engaging in a massive survey of the anthropolocial data his conclusion was that more energetic and advanced societies are characterized by greater restrictions on pre-nuptial sex. From that conclusion you might imagine that the book is written primarily from a religious perspective, or as a commentary on modern sexual mores, but that’s not the case at all. In fact one of the reasons for the book’s length is that he goes to great effort explaining what measures he has taken to make his cultural survey as scientific as possible. He throws out a lot of cultures because he doesn’t think there’s enough information.  He also spends quite a bit of time examining the various ways in which the information could have been corrupted by issues of translation and data collection. Furthermore he simplifies his criteria to things that are easy to observe, meaning both that such behavior is more likely to have been accurately reported, and that comparisons between cultures should be relatively accurate.

As I said, out of all of this he is mostly interested in information on a culture’s sexual taboos, but if he merely categorizes cultures according to this single measure all he has shown is that different cultures have different taboos, what he needs is a second measurement to set against a culture’s sexual behavior as an independent guide for how advanced a culture is. The methodology he arrives at is actually pretty clever. He observes that every culture has to deal with two questions:

  1. What powers manifest themselves in the universe?
  2. What steps are taken to maintain the right relationship with these powers?

From these questions he derives four “cultural conditions”, the first three are:

  1. Deistic: Cultures which build temples.
  2. Manistic: Cultures which do not build temples but which do engage in some form of post funeral attention to their dead. (i.e. ancestor worship).
  3. Zoistic: Cultures which do neither of the above.

It might be obvious how those questions about universal powers are answered at each cultural level, but in short, Zoistic cultures don’t really attempt to answer them. Manistic cultures answer it by assuming that the “powers” which were present recently, that is to say other people, are probably still around. And Diestic cultures are those who come to understand that there’s too much going on for it to just be explained by the dead, leading them to conclude that there are even more powerful forces, i.e. deities which need temples and worship. (All of this seems to point to a natural progression where monotheism would be at the very top, but Unwin doesn’t seem to go that far.)

You might notice that I said there were four cultural conditions. The fourth is Rationalistic, which is when a culture finally starts answering the two questions with the scientific method. Once he comes up with these four levels the next step is to see if they bear any relationship to that same culture’s restrictions on pre-nuptial sex, and out of the 86 cultures he studied he discovers that:

  1. All the zoistic societies permitted pre-marital sexual freedom; conversely, all societies which permitted that freedom were in the zoistic condition.
  2. All the manistic societies had adopted such regulations as compelled an irregular or occasional continence; conversely, all the societies which had adopted such regulations were in the manistic condition.
  3. All the deistic societies insisted on pre-nuptial chastity; conversely, all the societies which insisted on pre-nuptial chastity were in the deistic condition. 

Giving evidence to support this correlation takes up the vast majority of the book, but of course you’re probably not that interested in zoistic and manistic societies, and even your interest in deistic societies is probably not all that significant either, what you’re really wondering is what Unwin has to say about the sexual restrictions of societies in a rationalistic condition. Unfortunately, compared to all the other cultural conditions he spends the least amount of time discussing the rationalistic. Perhaps because he assumes that his readers would be the most familiar with it. However the book is long enough that there’s still quite a bit of discussion it’s just more scattered, and in particular Unwin never presents a bright dividing line between sexual restrictions in a diestic society and a rationalist one in the same way he does with the other conditions. Rather he explains the transition as follows (I’m paraphrasing):

The enormous energy available to a deistic society practicing strict monogamy manifests first as a dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by their geographic environment. This leads to an initial, expansionary phase. The sort of behavior we saw from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, etc. And, for many societies, this is where things end, as sexual taboos are loosened and things like polygamy begin to florish. If, on the other hand, they’re able to maintain the initial sexual restrictions and taboos they pass from this expansionary phase into a phase where, “The great mental energy of such a society is directed to every detail of its environment, to every item of human activity, and to every problem of human life.” This is when they pass into the rationalist condition. 

It probably goes without saying that the rationalistic condition is where you want to be, or failing that, in the deistic condition, but either way, in order for that to happen, according to Unwin, you need to have serious restrictions on pre-marital sex. And yes, to be clear, Unwin’s whole model is based on the idea that some cultures are superior to others at least according to certain measurements. And if you’re not willing to grant that I’m surprised you made it this far. 

I imagine there are some out there who would assume that, having finally reached a “rationalistic condition”, a society could ease up on the restrictions. Unwin argues that this is not the case, that within a few generations of backing off a culture begins to slip back into the “lower” conditions. How many generations? Unwin claims, “It takes at least three generations for an extension or a limitation of sexual opportunity to have it’s full cultural effect” Unwin defines a generation as being around 33 years, so three generations is essentially a century.

Before we can begin commenting on this theory there’s one other aspect which needs to be considered. Beyond documenting the relationship between sexual taboos and a culture’s condition, he also goes on to propose a mechanism for that connection. At the time the book was written Freud’s psychoanalytic system was probably the most influential system for explaining human behavior, and Unwin based his own theory on that foundation. He hypothesized that a civilization has a certain amount of energy, but all if it ultimately sexual energy (this is a Freudian theory remember). In a culture with no limits on sex, all of that energy get’s used up. But once a culture starts putting limits on things, some energy ends up unused. This energy needs to be channeled somewhere, and it inevitably ends up getting channeled back into society, creating an energetic culture. One that can expand, or build temples, or eventually, develop science.

With Unwin’s theory stated more or less in its entirety, we can now put forth how it explains what’s wrong with the world:

When sexual restrictrictions of all kinds were eliminated or lessened during the sexual revolution the energy available to our civilization was similarly lessened. This began the 100 year process of leaving the rationalistic condition and heading towards the essentially zero energy zoistic condition. 

With this explanation in hand the next step is to ask what we should do with it? I assume many people would be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. Merely including words like Freudian, and manistic, may incline them to think the whole thing is ludicrous. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but even if you reject Unwin’s data for some reason, doesn’t it strike you as odd that so many large, expansive civilizations had such draconian taboos around sex outside of marriage? I mean we’re talking Romans, Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese. In fact, can you give me a historical example of a large culture that didn’t have such restrictions? Perhaps they’re  not quite as tightly correlated as Unwin would suggest, but could it really be that they are entirely uncorrelated? With any measure of civilizational and cultural success? 

If you were going to be scientific about it, the next step would be to examine Unwin’s data. One would imagine that information on the various customs and taboos of primitive cultures has only increased since 1934 (though perhaps not as much as you might think, proximity in time counts for a lot.) Not only should it be possible to attempt a replication, but Unwin’s claims are so strong that they should be easily falsifiable. Has anyone done this? (Some cursory Google searches didn’t reveal any promising leads.)

Alternatively, and this is what I’m inclined to do, you could broadly accept his conclusion (the data seems accurate to me) but question the mechanism. One could imagine lots of reasons why sexual continence correlates with civilizational success (on certain metrics). Certainly the discipline required to abstain from sex outside of marriage might also translate into the kind of discipline that makes a country energetic. There’s also a huge body of evidence on the importance of intact families, and in particular the presence of a father. It’s certainly possible that civilizations which prohibited pre-nuptial sex ended up with stronger families which translated into stronger, more energetic cultures. If everything else Unwin says is mostly true then discovering the exact mechanism doesn’t matter very much.

To be fair, even if someone is prepared to grant the connection, we still have to grapple with the question of how things play out in the modern world. It’s entirely possible that this is something which was very important a hundred or a thousand years ago, but because of recent advances (the social safety net? Birth control?) it doesn’t matter at all now. I certainly understand the appeal of that argument, but when evidence for such prohibitions are so ubiquitous, appearing in the earliest writings we possess (and no, not just the Bible, they also appear in the Code of Hammurabi) it certainly feels like the burden of proof should rest with the people arguing that after several thousand years, things have somehow changed in the last 50. 

Speaking of the modern world, and falsification, it could be argued that we’re halfway towards falsifying Unwin’s theories ourselves since it’s been around 50 years since the sexual revolution. That being the case it’s reasonable to ask where the evidence is pointing. When we look around does it appear the Unwin was wrong or right? If you read my reviews for March, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat was a book of nothing but evidence that Unwin was correct. Douthat makes the compelling case that the US has entered a period of stagnation, and not only does that sound precisely like the lack of energy Unwin predicted, but the timeline of the stagnation is eerily accurate as well. And, as long as we’re on the subject of last month’s book reviews, I’m also reminded of the quote I included from Will Durant: 

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

While this isn’t quite as on point as Douthat’s book, Durant nevertheless seems to be talking about much the same thing. Which takes us back to the original question, now that we have considered the candidacy of Unwin’s theory for the position of “What’s wrong with the world?” What should we do with it?

Given everything I read and everything I see, I would argue we should take it seriously. Yes, that would mean undoing the sexual revolution, which is both straightforward and also so difficult I don’t imagine that we have even one chance in a thousand of pulling it off. 


There’s not a lot of people willing to moralize about ancient and impenetrable books. So if that’s worth something to you consider donating to one of the few who do.


Books I Finished in March

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


Or download the MP3


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

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

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

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

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

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

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


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

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

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

Finally and most pressingly…

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

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


I- Eschatological Review

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

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

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

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

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

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

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

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


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

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

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


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

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

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


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


Meditations on Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

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


It may seem odd to spend an entire post on a book that was published 25 years ago, but after re-reading The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson recently I just can’t help myself, the book is just that good. Or, at least the first 99% of it is, I’ve always felt that the ending was too abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course any discussion of how something ends means that there’s definitely going to be spoilers, but that’s another reason for talking about something published 25 years ago, the time limit on spoilers has long since expired. 

Diamond Age is set in a future where nanotechnology has revolutionized the world, nearly everyone has a matter compiler, and for those that don’t public matter compilers provide the necessities of life (food, blankets, etc.) for free to anyone who requests them.

In parallel with this development the world has been divided into globe spanning tribes, or phyles, as the book refers to them. Phyles are groups of people sharing a tighter cultural bond than individuals in a modern nation state (though perhaps not a historical nation state?) while being more geographically dispersed. (All cites contain multiple phyle enclaves.) Phyles include groups like Mormons, communists (the Senderos), secret cryptographically oriented phyles (this is Stephenson after all) and finally there are the three great phyles:

The Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of the Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan is a fourth Great Phyle, or a “riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don’t get.” (h/t: Wikipedia)

It should also be noted that not everyone belongs to a phyle, and those who don’t are second class citizens. 

As you might imagine, given how phyles are constructed, culture plays a very large role in the world of Diamond Age, and discussing how Stephenson treats the various cultures, but particularly the Neo-Victorians (or Vickys as they’re often called) is how I’m going to be spending most of my time. 

If you read my book review round up from a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I included a quote from Diamond Age on the subject of hypocrisy. The character who was offering his opinion on how hypocrisy had been elevated to “the mother of all vices” was Lord Finkle-Mcgraw, a member of the Neo-Victorian phyle, and in most respects the main driver of events in the novel (though not the main character). As I mentioned the Vickys were one of the “great phyles” and this phyle took the form of a weird corporate oligarchy that owed its allegiance to the British monarchy. Finkle-Mcgraw is an equity lord, meaning that he had a share in the profits of the phyle. This whole construct seems like the kind of thing that would be completely unworkable in reality, but in the book, the Vickys are portrayed as being the phyle you definitely want to be in. 

Stephenson’s portrayal of the Neo-Victorians, is definitely what struck me the most on my first read through of Diamond Age, however many years ago. In particular this idea that the tribe holding to traditional values and historical norms would end up being clearly the best tribe. This was in stark contrast to most of the science fiction I had read before, or since in which traditional values either don’t make an appearance or are brought on the stage solely for the purpose of demonstrating how much better future values are, and if the author can throw in some mockery of traditional values, so much the better. But in Diamond Age these values were not only present, they provided a competitive advantage! 

It’s tempting to take the next step and hold this up as a broader vindication of tradition, but I’m sure if I did people would hasten to point out that this is fiction, and there are no rules that because something happened in a novel that the chances of it happening in reality are thereby increased. Still, if they’re going to be engaging, the best novels have to reflect at least some reality, and I think that’s precisely what Stephenson has done. 

Speaking of reality, and as something of a tangent, one question that occurs after reading Diamond Age, and other Stephenson novels, is where do his political sympathies lie? After his latest novel, Fall (which I reviewed here) featured a whole subplot about internet extremism among (very) fundamental Christians I saw several people asserting that he was obviously very liberal, and if not, then at least very disgusted with Trump. That may be so, but I find it hard to believe that someone could write so eloquently on the subject of traditional norms and customs without having some recognition of their power.

Also to tie it back into the discussion here’s what Finkle-McGraw thinks about culture. 

[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgement, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how much overlap Finkle-McGraw’s view of culture has with Stephenson’s. Also it should be noted that when he’s speaking of “those days” he’s basically talking about our own time (or at least the 1990’s when the book was written). It would be hard to read that section without immediately following it up with the question of what, exactly, makes one culture better than another? And by making the Vickys the most enviable phyle, Stephenson appears to answer that at least part of it is due to their embrace of traditional norms and customs. 

In the novel (and in reality?) it’s because of the unity such an embrace provides. A unity that is greater because membership in a phyle is clearly something people have to work for. Not something which happens automatically as an accident of birth (though clearly that has some influence). This makes the phyles of Diamond Age much closer to religions than would be typical for a modern nation. Though as Samual Huntington argues in his work on civilizations you can’t have a civilization without a religion, and that historically the two have been tied together much more closely than they are now. Beyond the specific appeal of the Neo-Victorians, I also find the idea of nations with much tighter ideological bonds very appealing, particularly these days. (And it strongly resembles the proposal of an ideological archipelago proposed by Scott Alexander.)

As you might imagine unity is not the only thing the Vickys have going for them. They’ve combined this unity with immense scientific and engineering prowess as well. It should be obvious that this is a powerful combination, but Stephenson doesn’t handwave it into existence, rather he makes the difficulty of maintaining both of these qualities at the same time one of the central themes of the book, going so far as to have one character, the delightful Miss Matheson, point out that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together…” (A point I also made in a previous post.) If this is the case how is it done? I’ll allow Miss Matheson to once again provide the answer:

It is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation—we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things. 

I can imagine many people disagreeing with this statement, particularly coming from the mouth of a fictional character, in a book written 25 years, ago, but if so perhaps you will find less to object to in another statement from Miss Matheson:

Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all that they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.

If you disagree with a foundation of morality I hope you can at least be persuaded that most people would like to preserve what they have built and the things that they have learned. Certainly binding together into a culture is one way of trying to ensure that, but how do you then go on to preserve the subsequent cultural repository? If you’re the Vicky’s how do you maintain unity and technological progress? And more broadly how do you maintain anything at all?

A large part of the problem comes from the fact that the people creating the culture are different from the people living within the culture. It’s made clear in the book that many of the most ardent Neo-Victorians embraced the phyle as a rescue or a correction (or a reaction?) to the licentiousness that surrounded them when they were growing up. But having rejected promiscuity, the last thing they’re going to do is expose their children to it, meaning that people born into the culture won’t have the opportunity to replicate the conditions which lead to the creation of the culture in the first place. The book is initially driven by Finkle-McGraw’s attempt to overcome that problem. Which he does by engaging a young engineer, named Hackworth. Despite its length their initial conversation is worth repeating:

Finkle-McGraw: Tell me, were your parents subjects, or did you take the Oath?

Hackworth: As soon as I turned twenty-one, sir. Her Majesty—at that time, actually, she was still Her Royal Highness—was touring North America, prior to her enrollment at Stanford, and I took the Oath at Trinity Church in Boston.

Finkle-McGraw: Why?

Hackworth: I knew two kinds of discipline as a child: none at all, and too much. The former leads to degenerate behavior… My life was [also] not without periods of excessive, unreasoning discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for the laxity in the first place. That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.”

Finkle-McGraw: Well done, Hackworth! But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

Hackworth: We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised that era.

Finkle-McGraw: Have we then? How reassuring. And have we resolved them in a way that all of those children down there live interesting lives?

Finkle-McGraw somewhat euphemistically uses the term “interesting” as a catch-all for the many things which drove him and Hackworth to be Neo-Victorians, and which create success and character in general. But regardless of the culture or in the case of the book, the phyle, maintaining the culture that got you to where you are is a constant problem and nowhere more so than right now.

These days, there are many people who view progress as something of an unstoppable force, or at least an inevitability, and if that’s the case then nothing I say will matter in the slightest. And it would be nice if this were so, but I would hope that something like the coronavirus at least engenders some doubt that things will be quite so smooth. If lines at Costco and the price of gold are any indication it certainly appears that way. (If you’re interested in my take on things, I’m not sure I have much to add, but I’m sure it will form the subject for my personal life section when I do the next book review post.)

As I have repeatedly indicated I am not so sanguine about the future. I think that getting to where we are was a massive effort that built on centuries of trial and error, and yes also a significant amount of morality. That we seem to be abandoning many of the things which got us here without really considering whether they might have been important (i.e. Chesterton’s Fence). That not only are we not making life “interesting” for our kids but that many of us are declining to have kids at all. 

Ultimately as Miss Matheson says, it’s a question of survival and propagation. We’ve reached a point where there are no barbarians at the gate and where the idea that there might ever be barbarians is scoffed at. And maybe there won’t be, maybe the barbarians are all gone, and no effort is required to keep civilization going or make the lives of children interesting. But even in the absence of barbarians, I feel positive that some effort is nevertheless required to maintain civilization. That in the end certain traditional standards, standards which got us to where we are will also end up being critical to keeping us where we are.


Somewhat unconnected to the topic, while I was writing this I experienced my first earthquake (magnitude 5.7). I try to neither overreact or underreact, but I’ll tell from an eschatological perspective having an earthquake in the middle of a plague is a bad omen. If you were thinking of donating, then this might be the time to do it, after all you never know when the world might end.


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

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



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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties

By: Christopher Caldwell

352 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

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

By: Doris Kearns Goodwin

928 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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


The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

By: Candice Millard

416 Pages

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

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

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

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


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

By: Neal Stephenson

499 Pages

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Thomas Jay Oord

214 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. If you enjoy this blog, and you don’t want that enjoyment to go away you should donate.
  2. If you value this blog and that value can be quantified, you should donate that quantity.
  3. If you neither enjoy nor value this blog why are you reading it?

Books I Finished in January

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

Or download the MP3



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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

By: David Brooks

348 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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


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

By: Chapo Trap House

310 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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


Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

By: Deirdre Barrett

216 Pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

My Life and Work

By: Henry Ford

140 Pages

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

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

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


My Inventions

By: Nikola Tesla

88 Pages

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

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


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

By: Benjamin Franklin

144 Pages

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

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


Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America

By: Scott Adams

256 Pages

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

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


The Library Book

By: Susan Orleans

336 Pages

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

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


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

By: Sophocles

238 Pages

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

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

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


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


Books I Finished in December

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. Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age By: Bear F. Braumoeller
  2. Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2) By: Anthony Ryan
  3. Oath of Swords (War God #1) By: David Weber
  4. The War God’s Own (War God #2) By: David Weber
  5. Aeschylus II: The Oresteia- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, Proteus (Fragments) By: Aeschylus
  6. The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints (Religious) Translated By: Thomas A. Wayment
  7. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Religious) Annotated by: Grant Hardy
  8. Republican Party Animal: The “Bad Boy of Holocaust History” Blows the Lid Off Hollywood’s Secret Right-Wing Underground By: David Cole
  9. Utterly Dwarfed (The Order of the Stick #6) By: Rich Burlew
  10. Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus By: Wizards RPG Team
  11. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul By: Leo Tolstoy
  12. The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity By: Ryan Holiday
  13. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (The Last Lion #1) By: William Manchester

As part of my new focus (both on eschatology and on writing a book) I’m going to change things up on my reviews again. I’m going to begin my monthly round-up of books I’ve read with lengthier reviews of the books that might have something to say about the end of the world/nation/culture/long peace/good times, i.e. eschatology. After that I’ll wrap up with short reviews of all the other books I’ve read in the “Capsule Reviews” Section. 

I know. I can sense your excitement even as I write this. It crosses space and time and I can hear it as a frenzied whisper, right at the edge of my consciousness, “Eschatological Book Reviews!?! Capsule Reviews?!? Everything I’ve ever dreamed of is coming to pass all in one blog post!”


I- Eschatological Reviews (it just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)

Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age

By: Bear F. Braumoeller
344 pages

General Thoughts

In both Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker complains that things are better now than ever, but that this news gets very little attention because people are naturally drawn to negative news. So that’s what media outlets focus on. (e.g. if it bleeds it leads.) I take issue with this complaint for a couple of reasons. First, as I’ve argued in the past, there might be some very good reasons for people to fixate on negative news. And second, while his assertion is probably true in general, in the specific case of Pinker, he, at least, seems to have no problem getting attention. While people making the opposite argument appear to have a much tougher road. 

Only the Dead is a direct response to and refutation of Better Angels. The former has a single review on Amazon. (That will probably be at two by the time you read this because I intend to adapt this and post it on Amazon.) While the latter has 1,069 reviews. So at least on that metric I don’t think Pinker has anything to complain about. In fact, I’m having a hard time finding any book of modern pessimism that beats him on this metric of attention. To be fair, Taleb’s, The Black Swan has 1,793 reviews but it was published four years before Better Angels. Also, I don’t know if it should actually count as modern pessimism.

Of course, none of this speaks to the quality of Only the Dead. As to that, I would say that it’s definitely drier than Pinker’s work. Braumoeller is not as good a writer. But if we turn from style to substance, I would have to give the award to Braumoeller. It’s always hard to judge the evidentiary and methodological basis of a book without redoing the math, reading all (or many) of the sources, and knowing a lot about the subject already, but my sense, from the standpoint of evidence, is that Only the Dead is the equal of both of Pinker’s books, and may surpass them, and that from a methodological standpoint it’s definitely better. In particular Braumoeller’s definition of what constitutes war is more sophisticated than Pinker’s. Also, for me at least, Only the Dead does a much better at passing the smell test

I imagine other people might feel differently. That’s certainly their right, but I think this is one of those books that’s particularly important to read before dismissing. Especially for people using Pinker’s books as their primary support for one or the other political platform or policy proposal.

What It Says About Eschatology

War, particularly in the age of nuclear weapons, has to take up a large amount of any eschatologist’s time and attention. Obviously everyone, myself and Braumoeller included, hope that war is no longer something we have to worry about. Unfortunately, despite his hopes, that is not the conclusion Braumoeller reaches when he actually looks at the data.

As I mentioned this book was written as a direct response to Better Angels and it might be easiest to look at some of the places Braumoeller disagrees with Pinker.

First off, Pinker argues that war has been declining for centuries. Braumoeller disagrees, and actually finds the opposite:

The story told…is pretty grim. [The data] shows a significant drop [in the use of force] around the end of the Cold War. The overall trend over the course of the past two centuries, however, has been an increase in the rate of conflict initiation between countries. In fact, if we leave out the two World Wars, we can see that the COld War was the most conflictual peacetime period to have occurred since the Napoleonic Wars, and the end of the Cold War was the first instance of a decrease in the rate of conflict initiation in nearly two centuries. 

This is obviously not the story that Pinker is telling. War has not been declining for centuries, though the fact that it declined after the Cold War has to count for something, right? Well to begin with, that time period is not really long enough for us to draw any conclusions. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t fit Pinker’s idea that the reduction of war is due to the long arc of progress which has been ongoing since at least the Enlightenment.

This takes us to another area of disagreement. Braumoeller found that in periods and areas where war did decrease that it had very little to do with the rise and spread of enlightened humanism, and almost everything to do with international orders, like the Concert of Europe, the Bismarckian System and, more recently, things like NATO and the United Nations. This is exactly the same conclusion put forward by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I talked about back in November. According to both Braumoeller and Morris, the decline of war which started at the end of the Cold War, was all about American hegemony, and unrelated to any surge in enlightened liberal values. As I pointed out in that post, there’s every reason to believe that international orders work in exactly the way Morris describes, but also several reasons to believe that we can’t create an international order bigger than what we already have. 

All of this means that war is likely to continue, and it illustrates one final point of disagreement between Pinker and Braumoeller. Braumoeller points out that this has already been happening, wars have continued in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Pinker, on the other hand, prefers to limit his focus to wars between Great Powers. And while I agree that this is a useful distinction, it’s also a distinction that can easily be breached. As Braumoeller points out, every war no matter how small has a chance of exploding into something far larger. 

 If chance events are the main drivers of escalation, anyone who starts a war today is running a small but nontrivial risk that the war will snowball to nightmarish proportions.

The impression one gets from all of this is not that we are living through the Long Peace, a peace that is likely to continue forever, but that we were exceptionally lucky during the Cold War that none of the many conflicts ended up “snowball[ing] to nightmarish proportions.” And as much as I hope that our luck holds, the “small but nontrivial risk[s]” are going to continue to accumulate, and one of these days our luck is going to run out.


II- Capsule Reviews

Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2)

By: Anthony Ryan
602 Pages

Yes, you heard that right! It’s book two in a series… I have finally moved deeper into a series I already started, rather than starting something new. I had heard that the first book was the best, and that the series got progressively worse as it continued. I can believe that, and depending on how much time you have to read, I might recommend just stopping at the first book. Still this book was pretty good. The action was great, and it all built to a satisfying climax where everything came together, somewhat along the lines of what Brandon Sanderson is always doing, though not as skillfully. 

If there was a weakness it was the characters and the overall plot. There was a lot of character growth, but it seemed to happen off screen and without much drama. Also I think it’s hard to overstate how much it helps to set something in a school (just ask J.K. Rowling) an advantage the first book had and the second book lacked.


Oath of Swords (War God #1)

By: David Weber
576 Pages

A pulp fantasy novel, and a quick and enjoyable read, but not to be mistaken at any stretch for a great work of art. It was basically a novelization of what I would have considered the ideal D&D campaign, when I was 14.

Though I will say that his world creation was quite good, particularly with the Hradani, his version of the fantasy orc/ogre. Though I’m still not sure about his decision to make them Irish (but maybe if Dwarves are Scottish it all makes sense?)


The War God’s Own (War God #2)

By: David Weber
374 Pages

It’s a Christmas miracle, book two in yet another series! I have a couple of friends who are huge David Weber fans, and they both agree that even though there are five books in the series that I should stop at book two. Which I think I will. Also, everything I said about the first book applies here as well. 


Aeschylus II: The Oresteia- Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, Proteus (Fragments)

By: Aeschylus
178 Pages

My quest to read the great works of Western Literature in chronological order continues. This book contained The Oresteia a trilogy of plays about a very dysfunctional family. While the dysfunction is interesting, and perhaps the key point of the whole thing, I was struck by how it ended up being an origin story for Athens and a certain idea of justice. The climax of the third play takes place after Orestes shows up in Athens to throw himself at the mercy of the city. Which takes the form of the goddess Athena literally showing up to judge him for the murder of his mother Clytemestra. And rather than dispense divine justice, which would have been what you’d expect, she calls a jury and then casts a vote as just one more member of that jury!

I do think that people often exaggerate how ancient the roots of Western Civilization are, or whether things are actually distinctly Western, or part of some universal culture of things which have out competed everything else. But neither of those criticisms apply to trial by jury, which is both something very ancient (the play was written in ~458 BC) and distinctly Western. (In as much as Greece is considered the beginning of Western Civ, which is another discussion.)

Also, it’s not just that they had stumbled upon juries as some sort of eccentric local custom. In the play Athena gives a whole speech about how Athens will forevermore be defined by the idea of impartial justice, laying out a whole ideology, even if ends up being a relatively narrow one.

Oh, and as far as whether the jury acquits or convicts Orestes? You’ll have to read it to find out (or use wikipedia, or countless other sources).


The New Testament: A New Translation for Latter-day Saints (Religious)

Translated by: Thomas A. Wayment 
512 Pages

Last year I had four books which I started at the beginning of the year with the plan to read a few pages each day, and finish them over the course of the entire year. This was one of those books, and it seemed particularly appropriate, since within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) last year we were studying the New Testament. And four years from now when we are once again studying it, I would definitely recommend this book, though less for the translation than for the footnotes. 

I could imagine that for someone who has difficulty with the English of the King James Version that this translation might be useful, but there were only a few spots where I think I discovered a deeper meaning in the text because of this translation. That was not the case with the footnotes, there was all sorts of valuable insight there. And for that alone I would recommend it, even for people who aren’t LDS.


The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Religious)

Annotated by: Grant Hardy
600 Pages

The second of the four all-year books. This one was also all about the footnotes, and given that the LDS course of study for this year is the Book of Mormon I would definitely recommend this edition, particularly for people who’ve read the Book of Mormon many times already. 


Republican Party Animal: The “Bad Boy of Holocaust History” Blows the Lid Off Hollywood’s Secret Right-Wing Underground

By: David Cole
320 Pages

Well, first off, as I was pulling the link for this book, I discovered that, since it’s out of print, it’s going for $100 online. (And there’s only one copy at that price. The next lowest price is $950..) Guess I should take better care of my copy… (Hmm… when I went back it was down to $10, Amazon is weird.)

Beyond it being apparently a rare and very valuable book, this is also a book that acts as a test of rationality and objectivity. Are there some things that are off limits for rational discussion? Are there things which are so awful, that to question whether their awfulness might have been exaggerated (while still being unimaginably awful) should entirely keep people out of polite society? If there is such a thing, then the Holocaust would certainly qualify. And that’s what David Cole is, a Holocaust Revisionist. An idea so toxic to polite society that I’m even a little nervous reviewing the book.

To be clear that is not the primary focus of the book. It’s an autobiography, describing Cole’s long strange journey, a journey I can’t possibly do justice to, but which involved him faking his death more than once, a lot of strange and damaged people, and the inner secrets of conservative Hollywood. But, since the whole thing started with Holocaust revision, it ends up providing the backdrop to everything else in the book. And… in fact it’s what makes the book great.

The story of his girlfriend’s betrayal, and his absolute shunning by conservatives is interesting (though, if I had one complaint, it might be that he described it with too much detail). But having a real life example of the limits of discourse seems very timely even if a lot of it happened decades ago. And to be clear (this is where the nervousness comes from) he includes his thoughts on what’s wrong about the standard Holocaust story, and they don’t appear to be crazy, and would seem to me to be well within the limits of what can be discussed calmly, without death threats (another recurring feature of the book). 


Utterly Dwarfed (The Order of the Stick #6)

By: Rich Burlew
352 Pages

This is the latest collection of Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick webcomic. Which follows a party of D&D adventurers on their quest to save the world. I’ve felt for a long time that Burlew is one of the best fantasy writers currently working, and although there’s only the tiniest amount of additional material in this book beyond what you get for free on his website, I’m more than happy to support things by buying a copy. It’s great stuff.

Also, it’s a series I’m completely current on! 


Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus

By: Wizards RPG Team
256 Pages

This book is the latest D&D adventure from Wizards of the Coast. If that means anything to you, you’ve probably already heard of the book, and there’s not a lot for me to add. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you should skip ahead to the next review. 

For those in the former category I will say that the adventure gets off to a good start, and overall the setting and plot is great, but it feels a little rushed and somewhat thin the closer it gets to the end. Also it’s a lot of travelling from one location to another, with each location having a single encounter before the party moves on. I would have liked at least one more big dungeon style location near or at the end. Still the adventure has a lot of potential for someone who wants to customize it as they run it, which may include me.


A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul (Religious)

By: Leo Tolstoy
384 Pages

This is the third book I read over the course of the entire year, and the first of two “page a day” books. I have read Tolstoy’s novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, or rather I should say I have listened to both as an audiobook, which for my money is the only way to tackle really huge old novels. I thoroughly enjoyed both. This book, however, is something different. I’m no expert on Tolstoy, but as I understand it, later in life he had a spiritual awakening and became what could best be described as a Christian anarchist, advocating for radical non-violence, and inspiring people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Indeed his name came up quite often in the Gandhi book I just read. This book, unlike his famous novels, is from this later period of his life.

Obviously I’m not bothered by the Christianity, or the non-violence, and there were some great quotes on both of those subjects. But I was somewhat dismayed by the utopianism, which seemed at least as important to Tolstoy as the other two ideas. Tolstoy really felt that progress equaled Christianity and that both would spread inexorably until violence and other sins had been eradicated. I’ve gone into this before but I think that this version of Christianity seriously diminishes the role of Jesus’ Atonement. To the point where one might actually call it a heresy. 

Speaking of Gandhi, while his non-violence gets most of the press, I think his embrace of Tolstoy’s Christian utopianism (which he converted to Hindu utopianism) was at least as important, and shows up in his fixation on the spinning wheel and building communes. 

In summary, the book was interesting as a snapshot of a certain ideology and moment in history, but I don’t think I got much useful advice out of it.


The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

By: Ryan Holiday
416 Pages

The last of the four books I read over the entire year, and the second of the “page a day” books. If you’re into stoicism, then this book is a nice daily reminder of those principles, with a quote from one of the ancient stoics for every day of the year. That said, I’m not sure I’m the intended audience. I think I know the principles of stoicism well enough that nothing was surprising, or particularly inspiring. Which is to say, I don’t think I acted any differently in 2019, in the presence of this book than I would have acted in its absence. On the other hand, I think this book would have been enormously helpful the year I got sued and had to rebuild my business from scratch. Also I think if my identity were more tied up in stoicism, I would definitely appreciate the book more. 

It was a good book. I’m just not sure how much nuance you can really add to stoic philosophy. It’s pretty straightforward, and like most philosophies the difficulty is in doing it, not understanding it. And a daily reminder probably helps a lot of people, it just didn’t do much for me in 2019.


The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (The Last Lion #1)

By: William Manchester
992 Pages

The last book I finished in 2019. I mentioned previously that I thought I already knew quite a bit about Churchill, but there’s always more to learn. And this 3000 page, three volume biography is certainly the place for that. Least there be any confusion, I have only finished the first volume, but at 992 pages there’s still lots of things I could say, so I’ll just pick out a few:

  • I understand that it’s unwise to compare levels of suffering between someone growing up in the top ranks of the most powerful nation in the world, with anyone growing up anywhere else. But Churchill did have a pretty lousy childhood. I’d known it was rough, but it was rougher than I thought.
  • Churchill reminds me of Alexander Hamilton. (I read Ron Chernow’s biography a while ago.) Hamilton’s superpower was his ability to write enormous quantities of very polished content. Churchill was similarly gifted as a writer, though politically, his strength was more his speeches, while Hamilton was more of an essayist.
  • Churchill is attacked these days for his policies towards India, in particular the 1943 Bengal Famine. I’m not in a position to defend his policy. (For one thing, I haven’t reached that part of the biography). But the feeling I got from this, and other books I’ve read about him, but particularly this one, is that Churchill really did pay attention to the suffering of people at the bottom of the heap. That he possessed a large amount of empathy.

Beyond that Churchill is a very impressive individual, full of flaws just like everyone, but something special for all that. I’d be happy for just a fraction of that in my own life.


Well 2019 is over and things continue much the same as they always have, if perhaps a little more chaotic. It would be nice if things calmed down a bit in 2020, but given that it’s an election year, I doubt it. As for me, I’ll definitely still be around, commenting in the same idiosyncratic fashion I always do, if you’d like to help with that, consider donating


Books I Finished in November

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 Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why By: Amanda Ripley
  2. The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7) By: Jacqueline Winspear
  3. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution By: Francis Fukuyama
  4. The Odyssey By: Homer
  5. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
  6. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life By: Jen Sincero
  7. Ayoade on Top By: Richard Ayoade
  8. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business By: Neil Postman
  9. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology By: Neil Postman
  10. Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1) By: Ben Aaronovitch
  11. Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound By: Aeschylus

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

By: Amanda Ripley
288 pages

Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers after I published the reviews of the books I read in September, which included quite a few survival books. As is usual with these books the content is basically evenly divided between survival stories and commentary on those stories. 

On the story side of things this one focused a lot on plane crashes and 9/11, and she had some great interviews with survivors. In both cases people froze up a lot more than you would have expected. Apparently playing dead is not an old wives tale, and most of these disasters are so huge that it’s not uncommon for that response to trigger. There were also a surprising number of people who would essentially act as if nothing had happened. Executives who stayed on their phone on 9/11 or more commonly people who stopped to shut down their computers. Other people would grab their carry-on luggage before getting off a plane that was already on fire.

As far as practical lessons there were a few good ones. She urged people to pay attention to the high probability/low visibility catastrophes like house fires and car accidents. Also, she mentioned the reluctance of people to evacuate. In particular, people who are old and settled are less likely to want to leave or do anything dramatic. As a consequence they were particularly likely to die during something like Katrina. Finally, if you’re interested in surviving, visualization and practice helps a lot before the catastrophe happens, and apparently yelling helps a lot during it. 


The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)

By: Jacqueline Winspear
352 pages

Thoughts

The first weekend in November my wife, my youngest daughter, my mother and I all went on a road trip. For me a road trip is a great chance to catch up on my reading by listening to an audiobook. For my wife it’s a great chance to talk. On this trip we decided to split the difference somewhat. We would start by talking and when the conversation flagged we would switch to an audiobook, and not just any audiobook, the book she was supposed to be reading for her upcoming bookclub. And so it was that I ended up listening to the seventh book in the Maisie Dobbs series. (Once again I’ve started a new series of books without finishing any of my previous series.) 

The book was a reasonably good murder mystery. Not quite as good as the best stuff, but done very well with lots of atmosphere, and some pretty good characters. But the real revelation of this experience was how much fun it can be to listen to a murder mystery with other people. Everytime some hint was dropped we’d stop the book and discuss it. Was it a red herring or a legitimate clue? My wife was pointing out stuff that I missed and vice versa. As a tactic for amusing oneself during a road trip, it worked marvelously. I will definitely be trying it again on future road trips.


The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

By: Francis Fukuyama
608 pages

Thoughts

I’ve been critical of Fukuyama in the past, particularly his End of History theory, but I’ll say up front that whatever else I may have said, this was a great book. I believe I came across it on one of those lists of “books that everyone should read”, and, having followed that advice, I would have to agree.

The book is massive, and sprawling, and almost certainly deserves its own post. Also, as is so often the case with me, it’s actually part of a two book series, so rather than finishing any of the 20 series I’ve already started, I once again began a new one. It would therefore seem obvious that I should do a full post once I’ve finished the second book. Which is what I intend to do. Until that time here are a few, brief thoughts:

Fukuyama claims three things are required to have a modern state:

  1. A Strong State
  2. Rule of Law
  3. Accountability

As an example of the first, he directs our attention to China. They’ve had strong states going all the way back to the Qin Dynasty. But just because they had strong states did not mean they had stable states. There were frequent coups, rebellions and other violent transfers of power as one government or another lost the Mandate of Heaven (a fascinating subject all on it’s own, which I wish I had more time to explore.) And while everyone in China agreed that a strong state was important, they never went on to recognize the need for accountability or the Rule of Law, both of which remain problems down to the present day.

Similar to China, England was also an early example of one of the elements required for a modern state, in this case it was the Rule of Law. Common law and property rights were in place well before the Norman Conquest, and everyone has heard of the Magna Carta. You might imagine that Rule of Law would be sufficient all by itself to eventually lead to a modern state. But it turns out that Rule of Law can actually retard the development of a strong state. For example, Hungary had the Golden Bull, a document very similar to the Magna Carta and which similarly granted significant rights to the nobility, but it turned out too grant them too many rights, leaving the Hungarian King relatively powerless.

Finally, there’s accountability. To achieve this in the modern sense it seems that it was easiest if it emerged organically from the Rule of Law. But, accountability also manifested in other ways as well. Historically, the biggest challenge was to make the people who ran the nation accountable to the nation as a whole rather than their families. Many nations were able to develop a strong state, but as these states developed they needed a larger and larger bureaucracy, and the minute someone ended up with any power they were naturally inclined to use it to benefit their tribe or family, which then undermines the state they’re supposedly working in service to. Accordingly, several states came up with methods for eliminating these attachments. China had eunuchs and to a lesser extent, their system of examinations. While the Ottoman Empire had the devshirme system, whereby Christian slaves acted as the bureaucracy. This sat alongside the system of Janissaries, which was the same thing but for the military. Additionally, to a certain extent this idea also ends up describing clerical celibacy in Catholicism. 

I’ve considered the tension between the state and the family before, but never quite from this angle. And as someone belonging to a religion that puts a lot of emphasis on the family, the dichotomy brings up a lot of interesting issues:

  • To begin with, it’s obvious that loyalty to family is probably at an all time low. Is this because loyalty to the state is at an all time high? If not what has replaced loyalty to the family?
  • Even if loyalty to the family is low, it does seem like there’s been a recent increase in tribal loyalty, if we consider the rise in identity politics to be essentially a tribal thing.
  • It’s been centuries since the modern state has had to deal with strong tribal affiliations, are they still capable of doing so? I’m not sure they are, and if Fukuyama is to be believed that could be very bad.
  • Finally, I mentioned Catholic celibacy, and it turns out that this, plus rules against marrying first cousins did a lot to loosen familial linkage in early Europe and many people, including Fukuyama, believe that this is a large part of what set Europe apart from the rest of the world.

All this stuff is fascinating, but most people are looking for more than the mere satisfaction of their curiosity from observations like these. Ideally, they want wisdom applicable to the current situation, and even better, some guidance for the future. And regardless of whether we grant that some nations have permanently and irrevocably implemented Fukuyama’s three elements, there are still many nations which haven’t. I assume that Fukuyama might cover this more in the second book in the series, but I was left wondering what to do about these nations. I got the distinct feeling that none of the three elements were the sort of thing that was easily transmissible. And, consequently, their lack will not be a simple thing to rectify.


The Odyssey

By: Homer Translated by Emily Wilson
582 pages

Notes on this translation

As I recall, I first heard about this translation though Marginal Revolution. But after that I started seeing it mentioned everywhere. For a long time I’ve had the goal of reading the great works of Western Literature starting at the beginning, and hearing people rave about this particular translation was a large part of the catalyst for taking another run at it. Comparing this translation, which was very modern, with the more traditional Lattimore translation of the Iliad, which I finished back in August, was very illuminating. I wouldn’t have expected it going in, but I think I preferred the more modern approach. Certainly it went down easier, but that could, in part, be due to differences in the original works. I think it’s widely agreed that the Iliad is the weighter of the two.

Representative passage:

Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,

he leapt upon the threshold with his bow

and quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped

out in a rush before his feet, and spoke.

“Playtime is over. I will shoot again,

towards another mark no man has hit.

Apollo, may I manage it!”

He aimed

his deadly arrow at Antinous.

The young man sat there, just about to lift

his golden goblet, swirling wine around,

ready to drink. He had no thought of death.

How could he? Who would think a single man,

among so many banqueters, would dare

to risk dark death, however strong he was?

Thoughts

Once again I’m not sure how to review a work of literature that’s nearly 3000 years old. In addition to giving a feel for Wilson’s translation I selected the passage above mostly because of the phrase, “Playtime is over.” I can even imagine it on a list of quotes:

Playtime is over.

—Homer

But also I choose it to illustrate the realism with which combat is handled. I know I’ve seen a movie version of the Odyssey where Odysseus, after shooting an arrow through all the axes, turns and proceeds to immediately kill everyone with one rapid shot after another, before any of the suitors can react. 

In the actual story, he has to hide all the weapons, arm his son and two of his servants, lock the doors and engage in some very tense hand to hand combat after running out of arrows. To add further to the realism there’s a whole scene where he has to deal with the angry relatives of all the suitors he killed. As the book says, “Who would think a single man, among so many banqueters, would dare to risk dark death, however strong he was?”

It’s interesting that the Iliad is considered the more dramatic of the two works, and also the more realistic. There is no Scylla and Charybdis, no sirens, no lotus eaters, and no one is turned into a pig, so in many senses that’s true. And yet, when it comes to the actual fighting I think the Iliad was less realistic. 

I realize that’s a pretty slim observation to take out of a 3000 year old classic, but it’s what I’ve got.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
176 Pages

AND

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

By: Jen Sincero
244 Pages

Thoughts

I’m going to try something different. I’m going to review two seemingly unrelated books at the same time. We’ll start with Incidents in the Life.

I mentioned to my daughter in college that I was behind on my reading goal for the year (104 books, or two a week) and she suggested that I read Incidents. Not only did she think it was a great book that should be read by everyone, but it was also short. I have to agree with her, it was great. It was also pretty depressing and awful, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should that be a reason not to read it, in fact I should probably read more books like this. That said I was initially not sure what to do with it. My normal shtick is to engage in some light commentary or criticism, but this is not the sort of book you criticize and even commentary of it could be fraught in this day and age. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Jen Sincero.

I don’t recall who recommended it, but someone said I should read YAAB. (I really should keep better track of recommendations going forward.) I do recall that whoever it was, they were very effusive in their praise. Now by and large I’m aware that most self-help books are a waste of time. In general they either repeat things you’ve already heard, or they’re so vague you don’t really end up with any actionable suggestions. Occasionally, however, spending a few hours reading a self-help book can boost your productivity by a couple of percentage points (and maybe more in the short term) and if it does, then that easily makes up for the time you spent reading it, and even makes up for the time you spent reading other self-help books which didn’t have that payoff.

But, as I said, this process is hit or miss, and the misses out number the hits. As a general rule, any self help book will make you feel good while reading it, but if you were to do an experiment where half of your subjects read the book and half didn’t, in a year there would be no discernible difference between the two groups. Fortunately YAAB, is not such a book. I am convinced that the group which read the book would be measurably worse off.

I say this because at its core YAAB is a repackaging of The Secret, or if you’re lucky enough to never have heard of that book, it advocates for the Law of Attraction, the idea that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative consequences. That by thinking about what you want in a positive fashion, it will automatically manifest in your life. Perhaps now, you can see where I’m going with this: I’m going to juxtapose quotes from these two books, which, coincidently, I read within a few days of one another.

First YAAB:

When I’m connected with Source Energy and in the flow, I am so much more powerful, so much more in tune to my physical world and the world beyond, and just so much happier in general. And the more I meditate and the more attention I give to this relationship with my invisible superpower, the more effortlessly I can manifest the things I want into my life, and I do it with such specificity and at such a rapid rate that it makes my hair stand up. It’s like I’ve finally figured out how to make my magic wand work. 

Now from Incidents a partial description of the torments Jabobs suffered during the seven years she hid in tiny attic in her grandmother’s shed. An attic with a 3 foot high ceiling at its peak!

I suffered much more during the second winter than I did during the first. My limbs were benumbed by inaction, and the cold filled them with cramp. I had a very painful sensation of coldness in my head; even my face and tongue stiffened and I lost the power of speech… I was restored to consciousness by the dashing of cold water in my face…[My brother] afterwards told me he thought I was dying, for I had been in an unconscious state sixteen hours.

YAAB again:

In order to create wealth, you must bring yourself into energetic alignment with the money you desire to manifest.

And Incidents:

My children grew up finely; and Dr. Flint would often say to me, with an exulting smile. “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”

I thought to myself that, God being my helper, they should never pass into his hands. It seemed to me I would rather see them killed then have them given up to his power. 

It seems clear to me that if Jacobs had just had a copy of YAAB to teach her how to bring herself into “energetic alignment with the money [she desired] to manifest”. I’m sure that she could have specifically and rapidly attracted the money necessary to make an offer for her children that was so extravagant that Dr. Flint couldn’t possibly refuse! If only Jen Sincero had been born 200 years ago! I’m positive she could have ended slavery without the civil war!


Ayoade on Top

By: Richard Ayoade
256 Pages

Thoughts

Richard Ayoade played Maurice Moss on the British workplace comedy The IT Crowd. Which if you haven’t watched it you should, it’s one of the best comedies of this or any decade. Apparently, in real life Ayoade is fairly similar to his IT Crowd character, or which is to say a very eccentric nerd. He has turned his eccentricities to things other than acting, including writing. On Top is his most recent book and it’s difficult to describe. Running the length of the book is a blow by blow critique and commentary on the 2003 Gwenyth Paltrow movie View from the Top. An obscure movie which you might have never even heard of let alone watched. It’s hard to know how much of his affection for this little known film is sarcastic and how much is sincere, but it’s definitely some of both. On top of commenting on the movie he tosses in personal stories, weird asides, and frequent meta-commentary on how strange it is to write a book about a little known Gwenyth Paltrow movie…

I listened to the audio version, which he narrated, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it’s weird enough that other than my wife, I’m not sure who else I would recommend it to.


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By: Neil Postman
208 Pages

AND

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

By: Neil Postman
240 Pages

Thoughts

I mostly reviewed these books in my last post, so I didn’t intend to spend much additional time on them, but I did want to spend a small amount discussing Postman’s suggested solutions to the problems he identified, which he included at the end of Technopoly. Though, as he accurately points out, it’s far easier to identify a problem then it is to offer solutions for solving it, which is why he spends most of his time on the former. A crime I’m also guilty of. However, since invariably the first thing people want to know after hearing about a problem are ideas for solving it, he decides to take a crack at it, and his proposal is a doozy.

I say that because it’s crazy, not crazy insane, just crazy ambitious. He starts out by quite reasonably suggesting that a solution should involve changing the way we educate our children. This is where a lot of people choose to intervene, and so it makes sense that Postman would propose it as well, but that’s where the reasonableness ends. 

When I was young I came across the Great Books of the Western World series which had been put out by the Encyclopædia Britannica. This is where I first got the idea to read all the major works of western literature (see my previous review of The Odyssey and my upcoming review of Aeschylus.) It’s also where I first encountered the idea of The Great Conversation, the idea that writers and thinkers are listening to, and building on, all of the works which came before them. I bring all this up because that’s the educational model Postman proposes for solving the problem of cultural degradation brought on by TV and technology. And It’s a great idea, but it’s also, as I said, crazy ambitious. A few selections to give you a sense of what I mean:

Let us consider history first, for it is in some ways the central discipline in all this…history is not merely one subject among many…every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher. To teach what we know about biology today without also teaching we we once knew, or thought we knew…is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what, and how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli…is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. 

I would propose that every school—elementary through college—offer and require a course in the philosophy of science. Such a course should consider the language of science, the nature of scientific proof, the source of scientific hypotheses, the role of imagination, the conditions of experimentation, and especially the value of error and disproof.

On the subject of the disciplined use of language, I should like to propose that, in addition to courses in the philosophy of science, every school—again from elementary school through college—offer a course in semantics—in the process by which people make meaning…Every teacher ought to be a semantics teacher, since it is not possible to separate language from what we call knowledge. Like history, semantics is an interdisciplinary subject: it is necessary to know something about it in order to understand any subject. But it would be extremely useful to the growth of their intelligence if our youth had available a special course in which fundamental principles of language were identified and explained. 

I think the foregoing should be more than sufficient to illustrate my point. I totally agree that if we could reconstruct our educational system along these lines that it would be far better than the system we have, I just don’t think that 1 child in 1000 could keep up with and absorb everything he’s suggesting. (Also, my selections didn’t cover anywhere close to all of his proposals.)

Perhaps this is why people like Postman (and myself) are loathe to suggestion solutions…

Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1)


By: Ben Aaronovitch
320 Pages

Yes, once again, I’ve started another series without making further progress on any of the series I’ve already begun. I’m starting to think there’s something legitimately wrong with me. In any event this is an urban fantasy series, and if you’ve heard of the Dresden Files this one aspires for a similar feel. The main character is one Peter Grant, who becomes the first English apprentice wizard in over seventy years, and from there you get the typical, “everything is the same except some of the weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic which has existed all along”.

I say “aspires” because it definitely wasn’t as good as Dresden. In particular it could have done two things better. It could have taken longer to ease the reader and the main character into the world of magic. (Something J.K. Rowling did extraordinarily well.) And it could have done better at the whole “weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic” angle. 

All that said, I am a sucker for Urban Fantasy (probably why I picked this book up, rather than continuing one of the other series I’ve left languishing) so I suspect that someday, despite my criticisms, I’ll continue the series. 


Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound

By: Aeschylus
243 Pages

As mentioned, this is part of my ongoing project to read all the great works of Western Literature, in chronological order. This is not the first time I have made it this far, I actually read all of the extant greek plays when I was 18, I don’t think I got much out of them, which is why I started over. 

As with my previous reviews of the great works. It’s not entirely clear what one can say about something that was written nearly 2500 years ago. Or what the point of reviewing it would be. But I guess I do have a few remarks to make:

  • I didn’t realize that the reason there were Seven Samurai (and later the The Magnificent Seven) was that there were Seven Against Thebes, or so the book claims.
  • If you were going to read one of these plays I would read Prometheus Bound
  • It’s strange to me how all Greek literature is concentrated around retelling just a handful of stories. I’m not sure if that represents a paucity of imagination, a paucity of stories, survivorship bias, or whether it’s all religious in some way.

Also, as far as the whole great books project, I would recommend it. It is going much slower than I would have thought (particularly since I first had the idea sometime in the late 80s) but it’s enriching in a way that I can’t entirely put into words. Which may be something that could be said about all reading. Well, except You Are a Badass. That was just crap.


Speaking of books, my plan for 2020 is to focus on writing one. I’m hoping that this won’t affect my posting schedule that much. That, rather, posts will just be shorter and pithier. On the other hand shorter posts may actually be harder. To paraphrase Pascal, “I have only made my posts longer because I have not had the time to make them shorter.” But I’d be willing to see if money would help. If you’d also be willing to experiment with that consider donating.


If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now?

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 I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day. 

(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)

An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.) 

Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.

I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak

All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.

McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:

I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]

From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”

The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:

With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.

When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? 

For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. 

All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.

I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:

…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.

Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?

Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.

That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation. 

Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.

As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.

Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.

Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.

There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant. 

In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth. 

So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:

Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!


I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.


Books I Finished in October (Including a Graphic Novel On Immigration)

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 Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation By: Carl Benedikt Frey
  2. Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age By: Arthur Herman
  3. All Creatures Great and Small By: James Herriot
  4. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian By: Stephen E. Ambrose
  5. War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots By: Ian Morris
  6. The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses By: Dan Carlin
  7. Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics By: Mary Eberstadt
  8. Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration By: Bryan Caplan

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

By: Carl Benedikt Frey

480 pages

Thoughts

As you probably gathered from the title, this book is all about job losses from automation. Something which has been in the news a lot lately, and was the subject of one of my previous posts. This book covers that topic in great depth and can essentially be divided into two parts, an overview of historical automation and its effect on employment at the time, and then an assessment of how much we should worry about the automation that’s happening right now.

As far as the first part, I found the history of automation to be fascinating, and clearly there are some useful parallels to be drawn between past times and this. But there’s one aspect of the history of automation that I was largely unaware of that I’d like to dive into. 

Everyone knows that the technology for the steam engine existed during the Roman Empire, but it didn’t end up going anywhere, and never escaped it’s status as a novelty. And even if you dismiss that example and insist that what we really should be paying attention to is the steam turbine, that existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1551. The point being that the technology necessary for the industrial revolution existed long before that revolution, but that governments discouraged it’s development precisely because they foresaw the massive social unrest which automation eventually brought. After hundreds of years where the technology existed but wasn’t developed, it was only in 18th century Britain that the right combination of factors existed for automation to finally take hold

There are thus good reasons to believe that relatively cheap labor in preindustrial times created fewer incentives to put worker-replacing technologies into widespread use. In fact, Robert Allen has argued that the reason why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain is that at its onset, it was not economical anywhere else… The critical factor, Allen argues, was that British industrialists were fortunate enough to be sitting on a mountain of coal… Facing low energy prices and high labor costs, British industry began to adopt machines that would not have been cost-effective elsewhere…Examples of technological advances emerging from necessity are in fact seemingly few before the Industrial Revolution.

In addition to expensive labor, and cheap energy, Britain had a culture of science and experimentation which appears to have not been present in any previous civilization. Frey even puts in a plug for my favorite religion, Christianity:

The Romans and the Greeks regarded nature as the domain of the gods: any manipulation of its forces by means of technology was considered sinful and even dangerous. This stands in contrast to medieval Christianity, which historians have argued paved the way for future technological progress as it embraced a more rational God. As Lynn White explains, “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asian religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”

It seems like a lot of things had to go right for the industrial revolution to actually take off. Which brings me to my criticisms and a discussion of the second part of the book.

Criticisms

The standard refrain of most economists is that the jobs that are destroyed will be replaced by new, generally better jobs, but even if the jobs aren’t better, at a minimum, automation will not cause long-term unemployment. And yes, that’s mostly been the case since the industrial revolution, but given the enormous number of things that had to go right in order for that revolution to actually happen and to shift into this new reality, how can we be so sure that we’ve arrived at some sort of stable trend that will never change?

In the past if someone had said that automation would never happen because it never had, they would have had far more data to support their conclusion than we have to support this one, and yet, in the end they still would have been wrong. At some point there was a state change, things that had been true for thousands of years suddenly weren’t.

What did things look like before that last state change? I imagine if you had asked a sufficiently observant person what the future held on the eve of the industrial revolution. They might very well have been able to predict that things were about to change and that progress was about to take off like a rocket. But for most people, not only was it a surprise but for seven decades the idea of new and better jobs was not the reality for most people. Their standard of living actually decreased during this time, a period known as “Engels Pause” after the author (with Marx) of the Communist Manifesto. 

Similarly there are people today who are also predicting significant disruption. It remains to be seen whether they’re correct, but situations are similar. One of the issues to keep in mind, as we evaluate the probabilities, is the distinction Frey draws between replacing vs. enhancing technology. During Engel’s Pause, apparently much of the technology was replacing (lots of low hanging fruit like carding cotton) and only later did it get sophisticated enough to be enhancing. In our day we have the opposite problem. Technology has long been enhancing and now machine learning and automation have finally taken things to the point where we can truly imagine a complete replacement. And the question on everyone’s mind is what jobs are in danger of replacement?

As you might imagine Frey spends significant time on this subject, and by his estimation fewer jobs than feared are in danger of replacement. In other words, his estimate is lower than most. In a move that is both ironic and too clever by half, he uses machine learning/AI to decide which jobs are in danger. As I said this procedure produces a low estimate for replaceable jobs, and predictably high status professional jobs don’t end up on this list. For example Frey asserts that doctor’s aren’t in any danger, but is this really the case?

Certainly I can see why he says this, the job of a doctor is very difficult. But isn’t it mostly pattern matching? (Here I’m mostly talking doctors not surgeons). Isn’t this precisely the thing that AI is getting really good at? Don’t we already have things like Deep Patient and aren’t they already better than doctors at certain forms of prediction? And perhaps more importantly aren’t health care costs skyrocketing? Meaning we have both the means and the motive as they say. Accordingly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that doctors are in danger of replacement sooner than Frey thinks, meaning potentially a lot of other things are as well. 

I think the big takeaway is that automation has nearly always brought some kind of civil unrest, regardless of whether the jobs were eventually replaced with better jobs. Meaning that even in the best case, the transition from the current economy to one with far more automation is probably going to be accompanied by significant turbulence. And if people like Frey are wrong, and nearly every job is vulnerable to automation, ‘significant turbulence’ could be a massive understatement. 


Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

By: Arthur Herman

760 pages

Thoughts

I don’t know how much I learned about Churchill, I think I had a pretty good handle on his life and career already, but I learned an enormous number of surprising things about Gandhi. A few, in no particular order:

  • He was married when he was 13 and his wife was 14, and apparently he had an insatiable sexual appetite. He lived in his father’s house at the time and his father had been in a horrible accident, leaving him an invalid. So every night Gandhi would massage his father’s ‘withered limbs’ before rushing back to bed to have sex. And one night in the midst of this his father died.

The thought that he had been having sex at the moment his father died—that his “animal passion,” as he called it, might even have somehow contributed to his father’s death—would haunt Gandhi for the rest of his life. “It is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget,” Gandhi confessed years later

  • Gandhi was perhaps the least progressive leader you can imagine. Not only was he fixated on religion and chastity (as I mentioned above), he was also obsessed with the traditional Indian spinning wheel and would spend hours every day using it. So far, this might be considered only mildly eccentric, but the spinning wheel was also a huge part of his ideology and politics. He would regularly demand that its use be mandated as part of draft resolutions for Indian independence.
  • As part of this very traditional ideology he really wanted India to be self-sufficient and felt that factories and other signs of encroaching industrialization were awful, both for India and the world. One can only imagine what he would think of the modern India. But suffice it to say that he didn’t work for Indian independence so that it could be a center of industry and technology. Rather he envisioned that its independence would lead to a worldwide spiritual awakening, and he was constantly setting up communes as models for the rest of the nation.
  • Finally, Gandhi had an enormous amount of respect for the British Empire. Near the end he became increasingly frustrated with things, but he acknowledged himself, as I mentioned in a previous post, that his campaign of non-violence would not have worked with a less enlightened culture. 

In summary, this was a great book about two very important people and a very pivotal period in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.


All Creatures Great and Small

By: James Herriot

437 pages

Thoughts

This is one of those books that lurks at the edge of your consciousness. A book you know you’ll enjoy, but which is long past its peak of popularly. As you might imagine I burn through Audible credits pretty fast, so I’m always on the lookout for audio books I can check out from the library which will supplement my stock of books without diminishing my supply of Audible credits, which is how I came to read this. I saw it as I was browsing the library, and I’m glad I did.

This book (actually a series of books which has been made into a TV series as well) is a classic for a reason. The writing is great, the stories are excellent, the characters are both enchanting and relatable. The story of the rubber suit is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And yet again I’ve started another series without finishing any of my previous series…


To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian

By: Stephen E. Ambrose

288 Pages

Thoughts

I often say that this blog is primarily focused on Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) apologetics. (Albeit a very strange variety.) Ambrose’s book is essentially the same thing except for America. Among the things Ambrose acts as an apologist for are:

  • Thomas Jefferson, in particular his slave owning.
  • George Washington, same as above, plus Ambrose considers him an amazing person in general.
  • Harry S. Truman, for dropping the bomb.
  • Ulysses S. Grant, for ending reconstruction in order to heal the Union.
  • Andrew Jackson, for a whole host of things, even his treatment of the Native Americans. Also he thinks people severely underestimate the importance of the Battle of New Orleans.
  • And even Richard Nixon, about whom Ambrose wrote a three volume biography.

Beyond being an apologist for American leaders he also acts as an apologist for slavery (in a very limited fashion), segregation, and sexism. In most cases he doesn’t try to justify those actions, but rather points out how relatively well the US did on these issues when compared to other countries. 

The book was published in 2003, at despite 9/11 it is suffused with optimism. But now, less than 20 years later, one wonders if Ambrose would have maintained that optimism. The book itself seems hopelessly quaint, but at the same time important and necessary. Though one still wonders what Ambrose would make of the current state of the country. (Would he also be an apologist for Trump?) 


War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots

By: Ian Morris

512 Pages

Thoughts

My initial impression upon reading this book was that it drew very heavily from several other books I have read. In particular this book incorporates a lot of the ideas from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, especially when talking about the lucky latitudes. And the book is so similar to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature that it feels like a weird non-fiction sequel but written by a different author. (Sort of like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Same characters but entirely different motivations.) It also covers the same territory as a host of other books on history and progress that I’ve read recently. And I’m not sure if all of this was good or bad. On the one hand I definitely had no problem following his argument since it was part of a conversation I’ve been heavily steeped in over the last few years, on the other hand it made the first two thirds of the book seem uninspired and perhaps even a little boring. 

That said, although there was a lot of overlap with Pinker, he did add one element to Pinker’s ideas that was fairly unique. You might be able to guess what it was from the title, the idea that the relative absence of violence Pinker talks about is all due to the ***presence*** of violent war. That short term extreme violence leads to an overall long term lessening of violence. He even goes so far as to take Pinker’s five elements which contributed to lessening violence (Governmental Leviathans, Commerce, Feminization, Empathy and Reason) and says that they can be replaced by just one element: productive war.

This idea is interesting enough, particularly when applied to the modern world that I’m going to spend my next post discussing it, so I’ll leave off for now.

Criticisms

In the subtitle he mentions “Robots” and while it’s hard to talk about the current state of war without discussing robots and AI, not only did the discussion feel tacked on, but it was clear that this was an area where he was out of his depth. I’ll talk about this more in my next post, but as an example his prediction for the near future is that the US hegemony, while fraying around the edges, will hold until the 2030s, or there about, and that since a lot of AI researchers are predicting the singularity will happen around 2040 that what will probably happen is the world will pass smoothly from Pax Americana to Pax Technologica. And that therefore the only thing we really need to worry about is a delay in the singularity, say from 2040 to 2070. 

I bow to no man in predicting that we’re in a race between a catastrophe and a singularity, but Morris seems to be both remarkably calm about the outcome of the race and remarkably specific in exactly what that race looks like. I guess we should hope he’s correct.


The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses

By: Dan Carlin

288 Pages

Thoughts

I love Dan Carlin. I love his Hardcore History podcast and his Common Sense podcast. His series on the Mongols is as good as any history book I’ve ever read. And the latest installment of Supernova in the East which I listened to just before this book was fantastic. Considering all of this it pains me to admit that this book wasn’t nearly as good as even the worst of his Hardcore History episodes.

That is not to say the book wasn’t good. More just that the podcast is so consistently great. To begin with, the book was right up my alley. The unifying theme of the book was a discussion of catastrophes and wars, and in particular the idea that today is not that different from the past. He even had an afterward all about Fermi’s Paradox. It was a book I could have written, and it was full of excellent observations, and interesting history. The section on the Bronze Age Collapse with a discussion of the six possible explanations was particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately…

Criticisms

The genius of Dan Carlin and Hardcore History is that he takes his time and really gets into the nitty gritty of things. For example in the most recent Supernova in the East episode he spent a long time just talking about Douglas MacArthur. In the book he doesn’t do that, it’s much more abbreviated. In fact in audio (which is how I read it) the book is not that much longer than a typical Hardcore History episode. In theory this could have made things tighter, but it didn’t. He admits himself that while the book has a central thesis, more or less, that his examination of that thesis is pretty scattered. Which is why I called it abbreviated. In Hardcore History episodes he wanders into very interesting nooks and crannies. In this book he wanders, but it gets cut off before it has the chance to develop into anything especially interesting.  

Some people are born to excel in a certain medium, and for all that I enjoyed the book, and would even recommend it, it seems obvious that Dan Carlin was born to be a podcaster.


Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

By: Mary Eberstadt

180 Pages

Thoughts

The central premise of this book is that the sexual revolution fatally undermined the family and in doing so it destroyed the source of identity for those individuals born in its wake. That the question, “Who am I?” is central to human existence and that it used to be answered by reference to one’s immediate family, but that the sexual revolution, by creating smaller families, more divorce, and a host of other anti-familial effects has lead to a situation where there is no stable foundation to provide an answer to that question as in times past.

Consequently people are turning to other markers to provide identity, things like being black, gay or female. And of course because identity is at the core of any individuals feeling of self worth, when you attack this new identity they react just as strongly as if you had attacked their actual family, but they also have less to draw upon to defend this new identity. The connection to a family is easy to identify and tough to argue with. And if it is subject to being questioned (“You’re adopted!” Or, “I never loved you!”) then it’s understandably devastating. These new identities are more difficult to substantiate, and thus people are encouraged to go to more and more extreme lengths to do so. 

Criticisms

This idea, that identity politics exists to fill the chasm left by the disintegration of traditional sources of identity, makes an enormous amount of sense, but laying it entirely at the feet of a specific cause seems to go too far. I am certainly no fan of the sexual revolution and I think the invention of birth control is a bigger deal than anybody wants to acknowledge, but I also think the causes are deeper than prophylactics and promiscuity.

To Eberstadt’s credit she gives space at the end of her book for some commentary by Rod Dreher, Peter Thiel and Mark Lilla. Lilla, a liberal, makes the excellent point that most if not all of the negative consequences Eberstadt blames on the sexual revolution: small families, no siblings, delayed marriage, difficulty with sexual relations, etc. Also occur in China and Japan, but without a similar outbreak of US-style identity politics. 

There are lots of reasons for why this might be. And some of them would preserve Eberstandt’s thesis. But I think laying it all at the feet of the sexual revolution was already on shaky ground before Lilla’s observations, and it looks all but dead after.


Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

By: Bryan Caplan

Illustrated by: Zach Weinersmith

256 Pages

Thoughts

This book has gotten a lot of attention, at least in the circles I run in, and probably most of it is well deserved. This book is a masterclass of presentation, persuasion, and crafting arguments. You might think, being a graphic novel, that it wouldn’t go very deep, and that was one of my worries. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that generally wasn’t the case. It actually covers a lot of ground. Including chapters on counter arguments, immigration as seen from all of the world’s major philosophies, and keyhole solutions (which I’ll get to in a minute). While being impressively thorough, the graphic novel format did what it was supposed to do: create a visually stimulating, easy and enjoyable read.

Caplan’s argument may be obvious from the title of the book, but even if it is, it’s worth repeating. Caplan is in favor of entirely open borders everywhere. And he doesn’t shy away from what that means (though he doesn’t really draw attention to these numbers either). He admits that this would mean that hundreds of millions, if not potentially billions of people might immigrate.

Several years ago I did a post on immigration, and I mentioned people like Caplan:

Now, based on that number [hundreds of millions of immigrants] do you think it would be feasible to get rid of all restrictions on immigration? Of course there are all sorts of reasons for it being infeasible… [and] we’re going to talk about all of these issues in just a minute, but let’s imagine that you’ve already considered all of them, and despite that you’re of the opinion that it is feasible. Perhaps you think free market forces and the invisible hand would end up solving all the difficulties. At this point, if, after coming up with a number and considering feasibility, you think it’s doable, then great. Go ahead and advocate for that, go ahead and fight for that solution. I feel that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, but at least there is zero hypocrisy. At least it’s a coherent ideology. And who knows it might be worth trying. In other words you’re done. You can skip the rest of the post. You already have a solution to the immigration problem.

Indeed, this is what Caplan is doing. Most people would consider absorbing hundreds of millions of immigrants to be infeasible, but Caplan doesn’t and this book is his argument for why, and as I said it’s impressive, but I also remain unconvinced. I have three main objections, but before I get to them, a few minor, unconnected thoughts on the book

  • On two separate occasions Caplan mentions that immigrants “rarely vote” as a positive and reassuring thing. This struck me as weird. I understand why it might be reassuring to nativists, but it sounds insulting otherwise. Also, immigrant voting seems like something that could easily increase over time. 
  • Caplan really did dive into the counter arguments, including the very controversial IQ argument. This may have been the most impressive part of the book. (That he tackled it, not the actual counter argument.) 
  • That said, despite claims to the contrary he didn’t tackle every counter argument. In particular he missed that argument that by raising average living standards you also raise average per capita carbon emissions, making potential climate change more severe. 
  • While the book was comprehensive, a 256 page graphic novel does not have time to go very deep on any particular topic. As a specific example he covered Christianity in his section on how the various philosophies view immigration. In the section he retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For me, at least, it came across as something of an, “Aha! Check mate!” But I doubt any Christians are unfamiliar with that parable, and I can’t imagine any who are currently opposed to immigration saying, “Well I never considered the parable that way. Who would have imagined? I’ve been wrong this whole time!”

Objection 1:

Let’s start by talking about the section in the book that might actually change people’s minds: keyhole solutions. This is, not entirely coincidentally, also the part I liked the best. (You might be wondering how this ends up being an objection, but I’ll get to that.) 

Caplan’s argument is not just that open borders would be good, but that it would be fantastic. That it is possibly the greatest wealth-creating, inequality lessening, poverty reducing policy the world had ever known. If that’s the case then it’s supporters ought to be willing to grant significant concessions to their opponents in order to bring it to pass. Caplan is a particularly rational example of such a supporter, and so he not only acknowledges that this is a good trade, he offers some examples of the kinds of things immigration supporters should be willing to offer. 

These are the keyhole solutions I mentioned above. The term comes the idea that rather than performing massively invasive surgery to fix problems as in times past these days they prefer “minimally invasive” surgery, or keyhole surgery. And that this same approach should be taken to crafting policies. Such keyhole policies include: charging immigrants to enter the country, making them pay higher taxes, restricting their access to free or subsidized government services, etc. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think such policies would go a long way towards easing people’s concerns about immigration, but (and this is finally the part where the objection comes in) whatever these keyhole policies end up being they’re going to take the form of laws on immigration, and if we can’t enforce the laws we already have what makes anyone think we’ll be able to enforce these laws. To say nothing about passing them in the first place. 

If some particular candidate runs on a platform of Caplan’s keyhole solutions, then I hereby pledge my support. (Assuming they’re not crazy in some other respect.) But my assessment of the anti-immigrant electorate is that they’ve been burned too many times by promises of new immigration laws that never materialized or were never enforced, to make this same pledge of support, or to trust any promises for how things are going to go in general. In other words I think Caplan has some interesting ideas, I just think the moment has passed when they might be implemented. And this is a problem on both sides.

Objection 2:

One of Caplan’s key claims is that completely open borders would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150%. Well the world’s per capita GDP is $11,355, while the US’s is $62,606. Which means that if everything is spread equally, and the US’s per capita GDP converges with the world’s (which, under open borders, has risen from $11k to between $17k and $28k) you’re still talking about cutting the salary of the average American in half under the best case scenario. I understand Caplan’s point that the vast majority of people will be much better off. But the vast majority of people are not going to be the ones deciding American immigration policy. And for those people who do make those decisions, i.e. vote, the effect I just described is going to outweigh just about every other consideration. And it’s telling that, while Caplan does acknowledge that this will happen, he buries this admission in his defense against the IQ argument. Rather than placing it in a more prominent location.

In other words, Caplan acknowledges that under open borders the average American would see their wages cut in half, and if anything, this decrease would be even worse for the poorest Americans who would suffer the most direct competition from low-skilled immigrants. Not only is it impossible to imagine that American voters would ever go for that, but it’s impossible to imagine what sort of practical keyhole policies could make up that difference. Even if we’re willing to give them a try.

Objection 3:

At a high level, open borders advocacy reminds me of the way people advocate for Communism, particularly the way they used to advocate for it. As I pointed out in a previous post, before World War II, it was hard to find an intellectual who wasn’t convinced that Communism was the wave of the future, that not only was it more moral, but that it’s economic output would, as Khrushchev famously said, bury the West. All that needed to happen was for a certain class of people to realize that cooperation is better than competition. The benefits were obvious and people just needed to be smart enough and kind enough to get rid of the laws and customs which were preventing this obvious utopia from coming to pass. Does this sound at all similar to what Caplan is urging? Perhaps identical? This is not to say that it would end in the same way or to minimize the differences, which are many. But there is one big similarity which is hard to get past. Both of these plans require people to be a lot less selfish than they’ve ever been.

In this sense open borders is not merely similar to communism it’s similar to a host of ideas that sound really good on paper, but which ultimately overlook the messy complexity of the real world. None of which is to say that Caplan underestimates the difficulties involved in passing open borders legislation. Rather I think he underestimates the number of things that could go wrong after those laws are passed. 

All that said, this was a truly spectacular attempt at making an argument for something most people think is impossible. And at the end of the day we could use a lot more such attempts.


As I write this it’s election day. And by reading this you’re in essence voting for my content, and I appreciate that. But what I really need, unlike in a conventional election, is more money in politics. If you would like to, “Corrupt the system!” Consider donating.