Category: <span>Book Reviews</span>

Books I Finished in September (with one I didn’t)

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September ended up being kind of crazy meteorologically, particularly the first 10 days. The month opened with only the third 100 degree day in September we’ve ever had (as measured at the SLC airport). This was followed a few days later by hurricane force winds (100 mph, perhaps higher) as a massive cold front moved in. The high one day was 90 and the next it was 54. As you might have surmised, we don’t get hurricane force winds very often in Utah. I think most of the houses were okay, but the winds brought down hundreds if not thousands of large trees, leaving over a quarter of a million people without power. I was one of those people, and our power was out for 33 hours, which was pretty annoying, but people directly across the street from me were without power for 96 hours!

As an (aspiring, largely secular) eschatologist I try to be on the lookout for impending cataclysms, but also careful to not overreact to things. Catastrophe’s happen all the time, and sometimes they even happen in clusters, and most of the time this doesn’t translate into serious long-term chaos. Still sometimes your emotions go places you don’t expect. Such was the case the Saturday before the windstorm. I had left the house early and I was driving east. The Sun had risen, but I could look straight at it, because with all the smoke it was nothing but an angry red orb, almost Sauron-esque in its appearance. And I was suddenly overcome by a sense of dread and impending doom. I can only imagine what sort of emotions people were experiencing this month when they looked at the skies in California. All of which is to say, despite my apocalyptic interests I don’t think the world is going to end any time soon, but 2020 is sure doing everything in its power to make me doubt that belief.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

By: Christopher Ryan

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in a rebuttal to modern optimists like Steven Pinker will find that this book does a pretty good job of exactly that.

Beyond that if you agree with Jared Diamond that “Agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Then you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

I already took aim at this book in a previous post and I’d rather not repeat too much of what I already said, so if you want more discussion of Ryan and his book than what’s provided here, I would recommend reading that as well (if you haven’t already). 

To begin with, and I probably didn’t emphasize this enough in that last post, I did enjoy this book, and he brought up all manner of issues which are not only ignored by the cheerleaders of modernity like Pinker and others, but issues which are also ignored by the vast majority of “normal” people as well. And as I mentioned in that last post, insofar as you apply these things to yourself and actions you take in service of your own health and happiness then the book has a lot of great advice. For example, using his description of the horrors of medically prolonging life to encourage you to draft a living will. It’s when the book tries to tackle the bigger issues that problems start to emerge. Speaking of which…

In that previous post I pointed out Ryan’s contention that he is fine trading additional deaths if in exchange we get “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. And by the way his trade didn’t involve a few additional deaths, but rather the deaths of nearly half of everyone before the age of 15 and many more deaths beyond that. Claiming you’re willing to make such a trade is easy enough when it’s hypothetical, or when you’re referring to people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago. Where it gets much more difficult is when you’re talking about the deaths of people right here, and right now. In other words having read the book I was very curious about his views on the current pandemic.

It seems reasonable to expect that having written a whole book on the tradeoff between an increased chance of death and “health, happiness and personal freedom” that he would be eager to explain how this tradeoff works when applied to the biggest news story since at least 9/11, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t undertaken that exercise. Which is too bad, because at first glance, it does kind of seem that most people are trading happiness and personal freedom (and possibly health as well, certainly mental health) for a slightly reduced chance of dying (certainly nothing close to the chances he was throwing out for hunter-gatherers in the book). And this would appear to be the exact opposite of what he’s advocating. I could imagine him offering an explanation for why this seemingly obvious interpretation was in fact not the interpretation one should draw after reading his book, but there’s no evidence of him attempting that. Mostly what I found when I searched his twitter account is the kind of the garden variety exhortations to wear masks, and retweets about how much Trump sucks that you might expect out of any urban liberal. (Which is not to say that’s what he is, merely that his tweets contained nothing to set himself apart from that stereotype.)

Though, in the process of searching, I did find this tweet:

Every time you hear someone say, “We’ll get through this,” remember that they’re denying the existence of those who won’t.

Viewed in light of his own very blase attitude towards the 46% of children in forager societies who “don’t get through it” this statement seems at best oblivious and at worst massively hypocritical. 

Eschatological Implications

A long time ago there were these text only story games. One of which was based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In the game there was a path you could follow which closely resembled the plot of the book. However someone once told me (i.e. this might not be true) that that wasn’t the way to win. To win, very early on, before even leaving Earth, you had to do something completely unexpected and it was that path, completely different from the book, and only available if you made a radical choice right at the beginning which led to victory.

I was reminded of this by a story Ryan told in his book of a man by the name of Brian Stevenson who, in 2003, while attempting to help secure a hot air balloon ended up hanging on to the balloon as it was carried away, and hung on so long that when he finally lost his grip he was hundreds of feet in the air and ended up falling to his death. This story ends up providing one of the central metaphors of the book, that the invention of agriculture was like grabbing on to a hot air balloon as it gets blows away and then despite being in a very bad place (cultivators as opposed to foragers) we get to a point where we can’t let go. Where, like the game, we needed to make a different decision right at the beginning, but now we can’t because we’re hundreds of feet in the air. Perhaps this is so, but telling us we should have let go a long time ago isn’t very helpful. What we really need is advice on how to climb into the balloon and descend safely.

From the standpoint of how things end, e.g. eschatology, this makes Ryan’s book post-eschatological. The end isn’t out there somewhere, rather it happened a long time ago in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and ever since then we’ve been consigned to a hell of our own making.


The End of History and the Last Man 

by: Francis Fukuyama

418 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone who snorted derisively at the idea that history ended at the same time as the cold war (like me) should read this book as penance.

Or, if you’re familiar with the term “Whig history” and you want a modern and sober assessment of it, this is also a great book for that.

General Thoughts

I spent my last post talking about this book, and my next post will talk about it as well, so I’ll try and keep my review on the short side. 

At a more general level, beyond all the stuff I’ve been discussing, Fukuyama’s claims can be reduced into a set of tiers of decreasing plausibility:

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

A lot of stuff gets added on top of this framework, but in the end his claim that there are no alternatives left to liberal democracy basically comes down to the idea that no other system of government can beat it in a fight. Which is kind of an interesting way to show that we’re at the “End of History”.

Eschatological Implications

In order to show that we’ve reached some kind of end point (albeit, as we’ve seen a somewhat different end point than most people imagine) you have to assume that history is directional. If we reverse that we find that any claim that history has a direction, like Fukuyama’s, automatically becomes an eschatological claim. However, as you can see from the framework above it’s not a very strong eschatology, Fukuyama predicts neither a utopia (apparently we still have the threat of war and racial animosity) nor an apocalypse, but rather sort of a weird local (or maybe global?) maximum created by the scientific method. The maximum is easy to slip off of, but there are no other heights, at least not nearby, from which it can be challenged. Or is there? China seems to be giving us a lot of problems despite not being a liberal democracy, and this will be the subject of my next post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Siddhartha

By: Herman Hesse

160 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’ve seen this on a lot of lists. And furthermore many people recommend it as one of the best books of all time. On the off chance that it will end up on your “Best of” list you should probably read it. Even if it doesn’t (as was the case with me) it’s still a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This was an interesting book to read in the immediate aftermath of finishing The Master and His Emissary which was all about the need to strengthen the right hemisphere, and in any assessment Siddhartha is a very right-brained book, though perhaps too right-brained. While the quest of Siddhartha is beautiful and simple, his final philosophy ends up being a little too broad, seemingly reducible to the tautology that everything is everything. 

That said I still think there’s a lot a wisdom in here and in particular, like Tim Ferris (who may have provided the recommendation necessary to push me into reading it) I love the response Siddhartha provides when the merchant asks him what he can do: “I can think, I can wait and I can fast.” I would have to say we need a lot more of all three of those in our current world. 

Beyond that, while the book was beautiful and inspiring, I’m not sure how much practical advice there was, or how much you would want to emulate Siddhartha or whether such emulation is even possible. To give one example, which I assume will seem very picky to the many fans of the book, but which I think gets at an important criticism of a lot of books like this. For all of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, for all of his wisdom, he can’t figure out two of the most basic things. How to be a good Son and how to be a good Father. And it’s not as if he decides that those roles are unimportant. In the book, the only thing he wants more than to be a good Father is to achieve enlightenment, and he also realizes, in the process of being a father, how much he has wronged his own father. And yet this thought, rather than prompting him to immediately to make amends, passes with kind of an “Oh, well” shrug. 

The central point being, if enlightenment can’t give you the skills necessary to be even average at some of the most fundamental roles of existence (father and son) what exactly is the point of it? I guess you might say happiness, but clearly his failures as a father make him unhappy and cause him pain, so he doesn’t even get that.

All that said, it’s not inconceivable that I’m missing the whole point of the book…


The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom

By: Slavomir Rawicz

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I couldn’t finish this book, which almost never happens (though it should probably happen more often to be honest) which I guess means that nobody should read this book.

General Thoughts

I assume most people don’t go into books blind, though maybe I’m wrong about that. Speaking for myself I like to at least know what kind of book it is, and a general overview of where it’s headed before I start reading. Wikipedia is usually a pretty great source for that sort of information, and that’s what I consulted before beginning this book. Once there I found out that the book, in addition to being a tale about prisoners escaping a camp in Siberia and making their way to India in the early years of World War 2, might also be entirely made up.

As you can imagine that cast a pall over things, but the book had been recommended to me by the little old lady of my acquaintance who I’ve mentioned in this space before and she normally has pretty unerring tastes when it comes to what makes a good story, so I figured even if it was fictitious I’d get a “ripping yarn” out of it. Accordingly I started reading it (actually listening to it) despite my misgivings.

As I mentioned I didn’t finish it, but I did get around 70% of the way through it, and perhaps the ending is incredible, but the part I did read wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Still, given my desire for completeness, I probably would have pushed through if it had continued to at least maintain the veneer of realism. Unfortunately it couldn’t even do that. What finally made me stop was when, in the process of crossing the Gobi Desert, they ended up going without water for 13 days!!! And this wasn’t 13 days without exertion in mild conditions where there would be no need to sweat for temperature regulation, this was 13 days of walking in the heat. By itself, this is a pretty unbelievable claim, but my choice to abandon the book probably had more to do with his description of the events. I’ve read a fair number of survival books, and his version of going without water seemed almost laid back, in comparison to the frantic, insanity inducing accounts of the other books I’ve read.

Lest I give you the impression that the novel was entirely without merit. I thought the first part of the book, which took place before being sent to Siberia, and mostly consisted of different descriptions of Soviet interrogations was actually quite good. But beyond that I wouldn’t otherwise recommend this book.


Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

By: Kevin Peter Hand

248 Pages

Who should read this book?

People interested in xenobiology.

General Thoughts

If you read anything at all about Fermi’s Paradox you’ll encounter the idea of a habitable zone. That place where a planet is neither too close to the sun, nor too far away. Where most of the time water is a liquid. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find discussions of galactic habitable zones, where the solar system itself is not so close to the center of the galaxy to be overwhelmed by supernovas and high energy gamma radiation bursts, but also not so far away that there are no nearby stars, or previous supernova to supply the heavy elements. To these first two Hand adds a third a habitable zone for planetary satellites, where a moon is close enough to a large planetary body that tidal flexing provides sufficient heat to support oceans of liquid water. As it turns out there are quite a few of these moons just in our own solar system. The most promising candidates being Europa and Enceladus, and Hand goes into quite a bit of detail on why these oceans buried under an external layer of ice make such promising environments for life. But he also covers other moons, and even Pluto as part of the book.

For myself I don’t think Alien Oceans did much to increase the probability I would assign to life on one of these moons, which I already felt was pretty high (which in the xenobiology game is probably equates to anything above 5%) but after reading the book I had a much better foundation for my beliefs than previously. All of which is to say I found the book interesting but mostly unsurprising. And something which tied in well to the recent discovery of phosphine on Venus as another reason to have serious doubts about all of the “Rare Earth” answers for Fermi’s Paradox. 


Kansas City Noir

by: Various

240 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned noir short stories this isn’t a bad collection. 

General Thoughts

I’m doing an embarrassing amount of remote role-playing right now. One of the campaigns I’m playing in is an homage to True Detective set in 2016 Kansas City and environs. On a whim, in an attempt to get more material for things I picked up this book and decided to listen to it. In all my reading I have actually not done a lot of noir reading, and so I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge the quality of this book in relationship to other collections of noir short stories, but I enjoyed it, it seemed to largely do a good job of getting the feeling correct. I understand this isn’t a stirring recommendation, but it is a recommendation nonetheless (for those looking for this specific thing.)


Innsmouth: (The Weird of Hali #1) 

by: John Michael Greer

278 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you like the Lovecraftian mythos, and you’re looking for something different, but still within that “world” this should be right up your alley. 

General Thoughts

I like John Michael Greer a lot, which is not to say that I agree with him on everything, in fact I think we have very different world views, but his thoughts on the problems of modernity are spot on, and I’ve referenced him quite a bit in this space. That, however, is his non-fiction, this book is (hopefully) fiction. Though as you might expect his somewhat eccentric worldview does have a big impact here, so big in fact that *minor spoiler* the followers of Dagon, Cthulhu and the rest are the good guys. I say that’s only a minor spoiler because you found out pretty early on that that’s the way it’s going, so yes, if you know this it will eliminate some of the early suspense, but I think it’s the reason you’re most likely to decide to read the book, so I wanted to get it out there.

Beyond this fascinating premise, the rest of the book was quite good, and I tore through it pretty quickly. That said, there were some bits that didn’t quite work when translated from unnamable horror to defender of magic and mystery, and while Greer is a good writer, he’s not a great writer, and his characterization is a little flat. Even so I quite enjoyed it. And I’ll add it to the list of series (there are at least four more books) which I have started, but not yet finished.


The Kill Chain: How Emerging Technologies Threaten America’s Military Dominance

by: Christian Brose

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re a military buff, I would recommend this book. If you’re a military buff who’s also worried about China then you absolutely have to read this book.

General Thoughts

Last month I ended up reading two books focused on the threat of China, of which this was the first. Reading the two together, with some additional pollination by ideas from End of History and to a lesser extent A World Undone (the last book I’ll be reviewing in this post) led to an interesting and hopefully fruitful alchemical combination. Which, as I have extensively foreshadowed, will be the subject of my next post. I hope that the ideas look as good on paper [BLOG] as they do in my head. In addition to stoking your excitement, this is also my way of saying that this review is only a partial exploration of the book, that I’m saving much of it for that next post.

This book is a deep exploration of the emerging areas of weakness in the US military, compared to the emerging areas of strength in the Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian militaries. As a former aide to John McCain and the Staff Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee the thing that Brose brings to the table is an incredible understanding of the relationship between the military and the government. I imagine that it’s possible to get a sense of the danger China poses militarily from lots of sources. (To be clear they’re really only dangerous in their own backyard, no one is saying China is going to invade and conquer the US.) Indeed I think I already had a pretty good sense of the danger just from stuff I picked up on the internet, what I didn’t have a sense of was how hard it’s going to be for the US military to pivot in such a way that they can effectively counter China in places like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

While it’s hard to know exactly how effective the Chinese military is, (though according to Brose over the last decade in war games intended to simulate a conflict with China the US side has lost every single time) or how good they are at acquiring and using weapons systems. We do have a very clear idea of how good the American military is at such use and acquisition. And the answer is not very. 

A good example of how defense acquisition can go wrong is the Army’s attempt to buy a new pistol a few years ago. It issued a request for proposals that ran over 350 pages of cumbersome details and envisioned years of costly development and testing before soldiers would ever get a new sidearm. Even Army leaders were surprised. They learned about it when McCain and I told them, and then they were as outraged as we were. “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing,” said an outraged General Mark Milly at the time, when he was chief of staff of the Army, “This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million?” he vented. “You give me $17 million on a credit card and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”

This example is just the tip of the iceberg. It pretty much doesn’t matter which aspect of the military or its relationship to the government you look at, it’s all bad. And it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.


Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat 

by: Newt Gingrich

408 Pages

Who should read this book?

Of the two books I’m reviewing that deal with China, if your worry is primarily military in nature, and only secondarily about China read The Kill Chain. But if your worry is primarily China, and only secondarily about their military strength, read this book. Also I’m reasonably certain there are better books about China than Trump vs. China. I’m not certain that there are better books about the current problems facing the US Military than The Kill Chain.

General Thoughts

I feel like this book needed a different title, I think I would have gone with “The US vs. China” rather than “Trump vs. China”, because the problems Gingrich outlined existed long before Trump came into office and will continue to exist long after he’s gone. Nor (and here my biases may be affecting things) did he make a very strong case for Trump being uniquely focused or effective when it came to this problem. Which is not to say that Biden would be better, I don’t think there’s much evidence he would be, but if you imagine that the scale of the problem is 1000, does it really make much difference to have Trump who treats it like a 30 in office vs. Biden who only treats it like a 10? Either way the effort being put forth is completely inadequate to the problem. The thing that Trump should get the most credit for, tariffs, takes up only a small part of the book, and while they’ve probably been better than nothing (for those convinced of China’s perfidy) there impact was pretty small, and there’s ever indication that even Trump might back down before they have the necessary impact. 

Where the book really shone was in crafting an overarching narrative for the Chinese strategy, though even here Gingrich could have done better. He uses the idea that the Chinese treat their international efforts like they are playing a game of go, as opposed to the West which treats it like a game of chess. He also demonstrated how everything China is doing makes sense if you consider it to be part of the high level Belt and Road Initiative. But in both cases he introduced these frameworks well into the book’s second half, which was a weird decision, almost as if he only thought of them after he’d been writing for awhile and rather than go back and introduce them earlier and incorporate them into the stuff he’d already written they just got included at the point at which they occurred to him. Nevertheless their explanatory power was great enough that it was easy to see how they provided excellent analogies for the situation.

The go vs. chess analogy ends up being very illuminating when applied to the situation with Taiwan and the South China Sea. If you view the region as a chess game, then Taiwan is obviously the king, aircraft carriers are the queen and other ways of projecting force are analogous to rooks, bishops and knights. But as a game of go, it’s all about making small incremental moves to take more territory. Building up artificial islands in the South China Sea, moving anti ship missiles to the coast and gradually increasing their range. Getting countries to no longer recognize Taiwan, etc. The analogy is not perfect of course, but in the end I think the Chinese strategy is a better one. Particularly for controlling the area right in their backyard. 

As far as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, I admit to being initially dismissive of the idea when I first heard about it. What do I care if the Chinese build a road that connects China to Rotterdam? I kind of assumed that it was already possible to make that drive and the Chinese were just making it easier, but once you start to view it more figuratively, the initiative becomes a lot more worrisome. What do I mean by that? Well perhaps you’ve heard of the fight over 5G? Well as Gingrich points out the Chinese are well ahead of us on this, and using a spectrum for transmission which the US hasn’t even gotten around to making available yet, and while that’s interesting, I only really grasped it’s true impact when I envisioned 5G as yet another road, one that China is building, one that might be so advanced that a significant portion of the world’s communication ends up on a Chinese road rather than something built using American technology. This same pattern applies to their activities in space, and even the manner in which they work with organizations like the NBA and Hollywood. 

There’s obviously a lot more to things, but as with the previous review I intend to expand on all of these topics in my next post. 


A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 

by: G. J. Meyer

778 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a book on World War I, I would read Guns of August first, but this is a strong contender for second particularly if you’re focused on the actual hostilities. (If you’re looking for a more political angle with a focus on America, Meyer’s other book, The World Remade, is better.) 

General Thoughts

I sort of stumbled into reading several books on World War I. This has given me the idea of choosing some piece of history at the beginning of each year and really focusing on it. Though we’ll have to see how that works out, some periods probably need more than a year, and some probably just need one good book. 

Also I don’t intend to abandon World War I because it’s so fascinating. I know World War II get’s far more attention, and certainly it’s flashier, but WWI was really when the world changed, when old ideologies fractured, when the nature of war was forever unmasked, when the communists took power and the Tsar, Kaisar and monarchs not only lost the war, but lost their countries and in some cases their lives as well. It’s a time that was only 100 years ago, and yet people alive today can’t even fathom doing what those people and nations did. And yet despite this, particularly in the way the nations rushed into war, I still think it holds a tremendous number of lessons.


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The Problem With Solutions

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Some of you may recall my review of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. If you don’t, allow me to summarize. It was a book which contained an enormous amount of insight, assembled during the decades they spent studying historical events and societies, and while reading the book I spent the vast majority of that time in deep appreciation of their scholarship and wisdom. That is until the last chapter when they decided that they would close out the book with some very specific policy proposals. These recommendations were made at the tail end of the Civil Rights Era during Nixon’s presidency, and perhaps times were more different than I imagine. But reading them now, most of their suggestions appear hopelessly naive, combining both insane ambition with a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. As an example I offer up their very first suggestion:

Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.

(And you thought the resistance to masks was intense! How would one enforce this? Compulsory abortions?)

At the time I think I wrote the suggestions off as an artifact of the time in which they were writing, when great big government initiatives still looked like an effective method for problem solving. (I guess some people continue to hold this opinion, but I’d venture to suggest that even hard core advocates of government solutions would still blanche at proposing that people pass tests before being allowed to breed.) Since reading Lessons of History I have noticed a similar pattern in other books:

  • There was Technopoly (reviewed here) where Postman’s solution was to implement education standards so comprehensive and ambitious that no child could possibly be expected to meet them. 
  • There was The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (reviewed here) where the solution was extensive hormone testing of traders and other risk takers before allowing them to continue to take risks.
  • Finally, and the most extreme example I’ve encountered thus far, there was Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan. I’ll be reviewing it at the beginning of October, but the solutions offered were so bad that I was really left with no choice but to write this post.

Before I get into my severe problems with Civilized to Death, let me be clear. All of these books were dead on in bringing to light the subtle problems of modernity we’re currently grappling with. And they were additionally very useful in identifying the source of these problems. Their utility is great enough that I would recommend reading all three books. As examples of my regard, I wrote a whole post in support of Amusing Ourselves to Death and I’ve recommended Hour Between Dog and Wolf to friends of mine who I thought were dealing with chronic work-induced stress. Civilized to Death is very similar in this regard. It’s a great book for countering a certain brand of modern optimism, like that displayed by Stephen Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, an optimism I myself have frequently taken issue with. Civilization does have an enormous number of ill effects, and Ryan does a great job of pointing these out. But in the process of doing this he also makes three big mistakes:

  1. In numerous places Ryan uses examples of a recent increase in some negative outcome in support of his premise that civilization is bad. But given that he basically belongs to the Jared Diamond, “The invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race” school, and defines civilization as everything that has happened since. It seems unlikely that, say, empathy decreasing by 40% over the last 30 years, has anything to do with our abandonment of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
  2. As I’ve said before I bow to no man in my desire to criticize Steven Pinker, but Ryan fundamentally misrepresents Pinker’s argument, and ignores significant sources of pre-agricultural death.
  3. Ryan’s solutions are entirely too small to deal with the size of the problems he points out. If we accept his premise that a hunter-gatherer society is the ideal state for human beings, how on earth do we get from 7.8 billion people being supported by a massive system of agriculture, to some, presumably vastly smaller number of hunter-gatherers?

In this post I mostly intend to talk about this third mistake, though I’ll have to bring in a lot of discussion of his second mistake in order to establish why the solutions are inadequate, so let’s begin there.

Ryan points out repeatedly that hunter-gatherers experienced essentially zero population growth, which he contrasts with the high population growth rate of agricultural societies, at one point describing it as the equivalent of a pyramid scheme, with more and more people needed to support the people already alive. It should be noted that in order to have zero population growth two children per woman have to survive until they themselves can reproduce. Which means that if hunter-gatherers had more than two kids that there was some death happening and if they had a lot more kids than that, then zero population growth corresponds with a lot more death.

Ryan’s own description of how things worked has hunter-gatherer women experiencing a later menses, at around 16, leading to their first child at 17. This was followed by three to four years of breastfeeding which was generally effective in keeping them from getting pregnant again. Once the child was weaned the whole process would begin anew. If, from this, we take five years as the maximum interval between offspring, and assume that they’re having children until their late 30s. (Both of which seem very conservative.) Then that gets us a total fertility rate (TFR) of 5. That’s my back of the envelope calculation, and after a little bit of looking around I found this paper which asserts that the !Kung have a TFR 4.69, which the paper’s authors consider to be on the low end of what they had expected. So rounding it off to 5 to match the other estimate seems pretty reasonable. Contrast this with the modern TFR necessary for zero population growth of 2.1, and we’re forced to conclude that deaths from all causes are 150% higher in hunter-gatherer tribes than in modern nation states.

Now Ryan is not entirely naive, he knows that there’s more death among hunter-gatherers than among modern individuals in a developed society, but he excuses this by pointing out that it’s mostly it’s children under the age of 15 who die:

Lest I be accused of romanticizing prehistory, let me be clear on this point: Foragers pay a very high price for their remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom. And that price is exacted in a most precious currency: dead babies.

Among the aforementioned Hadza of Tanzania, for example, where researchers found amazingly healthy children, about one out of every five infants born dies in its first year, and 46 percent don’t make it to the age of fifteen—rates that reflect the median values for a broad survey of foragers. There’s nothing funny about that.

For the moment let’s set aside the discussion of whether this is a cost people would be willing to pay in 2020 for “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. Because despite his candor, this isn’t the whole cost. Even if we assume, what I feel is a pretty conservative TFR of 5 then 46% of people dying by the age of 15 only gets us down to 2.7 which means that we still have 26% of everyone remaining that’s going to die without reproducing if the population is to remain flat. This remainder is non-trivial, the Black Death is generally assumed to have killed about 50% of people, which means that you’re looking at the equivalent of half of that, for all of the thousands and thousands of years during which humans pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

In comparing this to the Black Death, I don’t mean to imply that they all died due to disease. A study of history and archeology reveals that these additional deaths include every member of the big four: famine, pestilence, plagues, and war. (This despite Ryan’s assertion that war does not exist among hunter-gatherers, a blatant falsehood which could easily be the basis of a completely separate post.) The point being that this lifestyle, in addition to being exceptionally dangerous for the young, was exceptionally dangerous for everyone. Further this wasn’t some ecologically-perfect-in-harmony-with-nature-flat-population-for-thousands-of-years system. Where once you adapted to the occasional death life was great. This was the occasional, but very brutal up and down of feast and famine, where a population might quickly double and then just as quickly be slashed to a quarter of what it once was. Which is to say that once you start to leave the realm of infant mortality many of the deaths were due to enormous catastrophes, not isolated events.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that the mere fact of these deaths completely refutes Ryan’s argument. Certainly he has a point about many things, which is part of why it was so frustrating. Much of what he talked about in the book was important and necessary, but at a minimum he should have done a better job of acknowledging the arguments on the other side. There should have been a whole chapter, or maybe even several on this issue, instead he literally spends three paragraphs on it, all the important bits of which I included above (the first of the three paragraphs is his attempt at lightening the subject by talking about the dead baby jokes which started to appear in the 60s, though I remember hearing them in the 80s. Thus his inclusion of the phrase, “There’s nothing funny about that”.)

Now the choice between the modern lifestyle of a developed nation, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle espoused by Ryan is far more complicated and actually far more difficult than just the trade off between “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom” and nearly half of all people dying before the age of 15 and another quarter dying in some other horrible fashion, but even if we were to restrict it to this vastly simplified construction, it’s still devilishly difficult to imagine a solution to this conundrum that would have any chance of being implemented, but Ryan attempts it anyway, and he comes up with…

  • Greater acceptance of death: Get rid of almost all end of life interventions and implement universal access to euthanasia.
  • Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome.
  • Psychedelics
  • Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter

In contrast to the other three books I mentioned, Ryan suffers from an appalling lack of ambition. Not only are none of these items likely to make the slightest dent in (what he claims to be) an eight thousand year old problem but most of them are not even particularly novel.

Greater acceptance of death: I understand that while Granny is dying it’s difficult to make the decision to end life support, and thus at the moment of decision people end up requesting a lot of end of life interventions, but my sense is that outside of that, most people agree with Ryan on end of life care. As far as euthanasia, it’s important to once again reiterate that this is a need that has only developed over the last few decades. If he wants to talk about problems in that time span I’m all ears, as I have noticed the same trend and problems in that category are presumably far more tractable.

Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome: This seems like a weird hill to die on. As far as I can tell the incidence of schizophrenia is just over 1% of the population, and even then, not all schizophrenics hear voices. While I can certainly see where our treatment of the mentally ill could use a lot of work, I’m not sure how this even relates to Ryan’s core topic.

Psychedelics: I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on psychedelics for quite a while but I’ve never gotten around to it, at least I don’t think I ever did. After 200+ posts I’m having a hard time distinguishing between what I wrote about and what I’ve only thought about writing. To be honest psychedelics intrigue me, but the idea that they have any impact at all is still reasonably controversial.  

To preview the post I may never get around to writing, the big excitement these days is around microdosing, and while I think we are getting some interesting data from that, it feels like something that would be really hard to separate from the placebo effect. On the other side I know a lot of people took magic mushrooms or LSD in doses large enough to hallucinate and swear that it changed their lives. When I asked them to get concrete about that, did it make it easier to stay in relationships? Were they more productive, less angry, etc? They normally get pretty evasive. As one example there was someone I knew really well for over a decade, that I worked with and talked to on a daily basis. He claimed that he had had a life changing psychedelic trip, so I asked him, as a close observer of you, what difference should I have noticed? And despite emphatically claiming that it really was an amazing life altering event, in the end he couldn’t come up with anything that I, as a close external observer, would have noticed.  

One final point, while, as I said, psychedelics represent an intriguing avenue, it’s hard to see that it has much to do with why hunter-gatherers had (according to Ryan) such awesome lives. Until they come up as a potential solution Ryan doesn’t even mention them (that I recall and the index of the book bears that out). 

Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter: I understand that I’m being somewhat snarky here. But Ryan appears to be falling into the same trap that those he criticizes keep falling into. (And to be fair he acknowledges this possibility.) That the distributed, less centralized world of the internet will somehow bring about a future Utopia. And I might grant him this if he didn’t provide so much data in his own book that contradicted this. Because every time he made the sloppy mistake of giving data on how bad things have gotten over the last decades (in support of trends spanning thousands of years) he undermined the argument that recent developments have the potential to make anything better. At best one might imagine that these changes have brought some positives (which no one, not even me denies) but these positives appear to be getting completely swamped by the negatives.

To reiterate, Ryan does bring up some interesting ideas in his chapter on solutions, but none of them would make my list of the top 20 things to change about the modern world, nor would the problems he’s focused on make that top 20 list either. From this you may gather that I have multiple top 20 lists, unfortunately not, I was only using the term metaphorically, but we have reached the point where it’s time to put up or shut-up. It’s easy to criticize other people’s solutions as being too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, it’s a lot harder to offer solutions of your own. But having come this far I pretty much have to. Though I am going to wimp out somewhat by offering standards for good solutions rather than specific solutions themselves (though from my standards you can probably infer the solutions.) So let’s finish the post off with some things good solutions should include. Though before I do, one final caveat, these aren’t all the elements a good solution should include but rather, a selection of things which I feel are frequently overlooked.

Solutions should be incremental: This is one of the things that Ryan get’s right in his book. He even brings up the idea that we have a certain rate of change we can manage when adapting to different circumstances and that recently this has been overwhelmed, as things have started to change at a rate faster than what we can adapt to. Of course, it would be inappropriate to let him off the hook completely. He mostly seems to assume, despite granting the presence of gradual adaptation, that we have yet to adapt the changes wrought by agriculture.

Solutions should not overlook the obvious: Any proposed solution is very likely to fail for some unforeseen reason. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and your solution will be the one that finally succeeds, but if it is going to fail, it should at least fail for some subtle and hard to predict reason, not an obvious reason that can be foreseen by nearly everyone. As long as we’re picking on books, Peter Zeihan’s book, The Accidental Superpower (which I reviewed here) fell into this trap. Though he was more offering predictions than solutions it’s nevertheless notable how glaring the absence of nuclear weapons was from his geopolitical assessments. Something very similar happened with the Iraq War. The naivete about how difficult it would be to rebuild the country in the wake of Sadaam’s overthrow is still breathtaking. 

When suggesting solutions, understand the level at which the problem occurs: If many of our problems are due to no longer being hunter-gatherers that’s a problem that operates on so vast a scale as to essentially be immune to solutions. That said, there might be things a given individual can do, and to the extent Civilized to Death focuses on things at that level it’s a great book. To give a more subtle example, the other day I saw a mother on twitter urging people to “raise their sons to be men”. Her daughter had been out on a date where the boy broke down and cried because of the pressure attendant to dating. And then later this same boy provided a pizza dinner at his house despite knowing that the girl had celiac’s disease. Does anyone imagine that this boy’s parents are singularly incompetent? Or that he would have broken down and cried had this been an example of courting in 1880? I think the answer is clearly no to both. But by the same token the daughter almost certainly wouldn’t have had celiac’s if it was 1880 either. While clearly the problem of the weeping boy is somewhat more tractable than the girl with celiac’s. Both problems, the one she was excusing and the one she was condemning, are very much a product of the time and environment we live in.

Understand that every solution assumes a certain set of values: I’ve spoken before about the difference between optimizing for happiness and optimizing for survival. From my discussion of Civilized to Death you can probably guess that Ryan thinks we should optimize for happiness, and that if we could be much happier then it’s worth having nearly half of everyone die before the age of 15. To begin with I’m feeling pretty good right now, so while I can imagine that I would be happier as a forager, how much happier could I be realistically? Even if I could be twice as happy would I trade that for two of my four kids dying? And then of course the real kicker, is that There’s a good chance I wouldn’t exist at all in Ryan’s ideal world. Even if we assume that somehow I wouldn’t have ended up horribly near-sighted and food for tigers. There are a whole host of profound philosophical issues in this discussion, and it’s fine for him to advocate for one side over the other, but he should at least acknowledge that there’s a debate to be had.

If you’re really serious about a solution you should grapple with all of its implications: Closely related to the above, if you want your solutions to be taken seriously then you should make sure to explore all of the potential consequences of those solutions. I was reminded of this recently by an episode of the podcast Planet Money, where they explored how the Black Death had done an unprecedented job of reducing income inequality by killing 50% of all workers. When you break Ryan’s arguments down there would appear to be a lot of parallels between what he’s advocating and this situation. For example as I pointed out above even if you neglect the deaths before the age of 15, hunter-gatherers default to half a black death all the time. Ryan very conveniently gives lots of anecdotes about how awesome the forager life is, while never giving an example similar to the one I just gave, illustrating all of the implications of his advocacy.

And of course this is exactly the problem, it’s very difficult to disentangle your biases from the solutions you choose to offer. I think Civilized to Death is a rather stark example of authorial bias, but all of the other books I mention also clearly have their biases, and I’m obviously not free from bias either. So what’s the solution to bad solutions? What’s the meta-solution? I have already offered a few ideas, but beyond that, I think the most important thing is to exercise humility. I understand that it seems like kind of a cop-out to point out problems and then refuse to offer solutions, but I think it’s equally clear that a bad solution is worse than no solution at all.


There is one thing though, one solution so powerful that it will solve global climate change, bring harmony to US politics, justice for the oppressed and beyond that universal wealth and happiness. What is it? Donating to this blog. Don’t believe me? Well have you tried?


Books I Finished in August (of 2020)

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Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk by: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by: Iain McGilchrist

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by: John Coates

Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by: Jim Butcher

Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by: Euripides

Cutting for Stone by: Abraham Verghese

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by: Francis A. Shaeffer 


August was pretty quiet for me, though much hotter than I would have liked. I’m not sure how many days were 100 or above but it was at least a half dozen, and just about every day hit a high of at least 95. I’m hoping we’re done with triple digit days now that September is here, but I guess we’ll see. 

As I said August was quiet for me, but I don’t think the same could be said for the rest of the country. I’m not sure where things are headed, though in general I get the sense that things are escalating. And if they’re escalating now, one can only imagine how much worse they might get as the election draws closer. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk 

By: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

226 Pages

Who should read this book?

This is another book which puts forth a theory for why the current world is so fractious, and as these things go, it’s better than most. It’s not the best I’ve read, but if the premise is intriguing to you at all, I think you’ll be happy you picked it up.

General Thoughts

I’ve read quite a few of these books, and it’s always interesting to consider why so many people are convinced that the modern world is broken in dramatic and fundamental ways. It is of course possible that people are wrong, that modern media and communication is biased towards amplifying negative events and trends, but that in reality things are actually great. We only think it’s horrible. But it also seems possible that Western Civilization in general and the US in particular is suffering from the cultural equivalent of multi-system organ failure.

In the case of grandstanding, it’s the organ of “moral talk” that’s failing. As the authors point out, moral talk is an essential tool for getting others to behave morally, and for bringing about positive social change. Grandstanding is the equivalent of that organ becoming cancerous, of a runaway expansion in moral talk, and unrestricted, ever more extreme versions of it. (The cancer analogy is mine not theirs, but it’s a good one, I’ll have to use it again. Technology and progress as a beneficial process suffering from uncontrolled growth makes a lot of sense.) 

So what exactly is grandstanding? According to the book grandstanding has two parts. The first is the grandstander’s desire to impress others with their moral qualities. The second is their attempt to satisfy this desire by proclaiming these qualities in public, ideally to a large and appreciative audience.

Some of my readers may hear that description, and assume that the authors have just come up with another term for virtue signalling. As it turns out they have been working on this book for so long that the term virtue signalling wasn’t around when they started, and even if it had been they feel that grandstanding is still the superior label, because it’s not politically charged (yet), it’s always intentional whereas most signalling isn’t, and not all grandstanding is about virtue, much of it is about communicating to your in-group. But let’s return to this idea of runaway growth.

In a sense, though the authors didn’t make this connection, grandstanding is to displays of morality as spam emails are to marketing. In the past a far greater percentage of marketing happened in person, in the presence of the product. It’s harder to reach people that way but far more effective when you do because you’re demonstrating features in a tangible fashion. In a similar manner, in the past if you wanted to impress others with your moral qualities you had two choices: Do something moral in their presence or talk about your morality. Before social media came along when you only interacted with a handful of people it was nearly as easy, and far more effective to just do moral things, the people you interacted with were about as likely to see you do something moral as they were to hear you talk about it, and actions are always the more effective signal. But if you suddenly can talk to millions of people for essentially free then that equation changes. Why bother showing off a product in person when you can tell a million people about through an essentially free email. And why bother doing something moral when you can tell a million people how moral you are, thus the runaway growth. Which takes us to the next section…

Eschatological Implications

Anytime you encounter runaway growth, you’re also encountering something with eschatological implications, because there are really only three possibilities. If the runaway growth is positive then we stand back and wait until it reaches some sort of beneficial singularity. If, on the other hand, it’s negative, then hopefully we’re able to arrest it at some point, but the question is how are we able to arrest it? And why didn’t we do it sooner? Perhaps it’s impossible, in which case we’re left with the final option, this negative runaway growth continues until something catastrophic happens. 

The book identifies five attributes of grandstanding, and all five of them have either recently experienced runaway growth because of the internet and social media, or they’re still experiencing runaway growth. These five attributes are:

1- Piling on: This refers to people’s ability to add their voices to some instance of moral talk generated by someone else. The way social media has enabled righteous mobs. Accordingly when a teenage girl in my home town of Salt Lake City posted a picture of her Chinese prom dress, the problem it wasn’t that one person called her out for cultural appropriation, it’s that

hundreds of thousands of other people were able to join in and say, “I agree with what that first person said, ‘you’re a no-good horrible individual.’” Obviously this connectivity and group formation represent the whole point of social media.

2- Ramping up: The story of the Chinese prom dress also represents another aspect where social media has brought runaway growth, and where it still has plenty of room to metastasize. One can hardly imagine that a teenage girl’s prom dress is really the best example people can come up with of cultural appropriation, but when you’re grandstanding, pointing out the same egregious examples of moral harm as everyone else doesn’t get you nearly as much attention as pointing out some new and even more extreme crime. “Oh, you have a problem with cultural appropriation? Well, so do I, and I’m so attuned to that sin that I’m going to target high school girls and their prom dresses!”

3- Trumping up: Closely related to the last item is the concept of Trumping up. While the last attribute was focused on stronger and stronger reactions to smaller and smaller crimes, this is the idea of taking something that historically hasn’t been immoral and pulling it into that sphere. Of taking something that wasn’t a crime and making it one. The example the book provides is when Obama saluted two Marines while carrying a cup of coffee. Military protocol is that you don’t salute when carrying an object, but given that presidential salutes are a recent invention to begin with, this would appear to be a mistake, not a sin. Still as you might imagine the right-wing media spun it into a condemnation of Obama’s patriotism, his stance on the military, and probably his upbringing as well.

4- Strong emotions: As you’re doing all of the above your moral talk ends up having more force if it’s accompanied by strong emotions. One hopes that there’s no infinite increase in how strong these emotions can get, but as the book says, “Where moral outrage gains social purchase, the implicit assumption is that the most outraged person has the greatest moral insight” (emphasis mine).

5- Dismissiveness: Grandstanders generally refuse to engage, and such refusal is offered as proof of the strength of their moral stand. “If you can’t see that police brutality/abortion/COVID is an unmitigated disaster, and the most important issue facing our country than you are beneath contempt and I refuse to engage with you any further.” As you can imagine this attribute, as well as all of the previous attributes are fatal to public discourse. 

With all of this in mind, I think it’s easy to see how social media creates a mechanism for “piling on”, adds in the incentives necessary to reward “ramping up”, “trumping up”, and “strong emotions”, and finally the separation necessary for “dismissiveness”. It’s much harder to tell someone in person that they are beneath contempt, but thousands of people have found it easy to do that and all the rest online. Worse, most of these things continue to trend negative, and as it becomes harder and harder to get noticed, the grandstanding is just going to get more and more outrageous. 


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

by Iain McGilchrist

588 Pages

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Which is not to say that I think everyone would enjoy it (which is normally what I’m aiming for in this section) more that I think everyone would benefit from it. That said, I am not 100% confident that McGilchrist’s science holds up in every particular, and I’m even less confident about his historical narrative, but I nevertheless think that he has pinpointed something profoundly relevant to any diagnosis of the ills of the modern world. Something that is being almost entirely overlooked.

General Thoughts

I already spent quite a bit of time on this book in my last post, and if you haven’t already read it and you want to get deeper into things I would point you there. My intention this time around is to briefly cover a bunch of other things I thought were interesting, Mostly as a way of piquing your interest, given that I just said that everyone should read it.

To start with, if you’re anything like me, one of the chief hurdles I imagine people running into when making the decision whether or not to read this book is thinking, “Wait, wasn’t the whole pop culture idea of the left brain being logical, and the right brain being emotional and all the stuff that went along with that, debunked, or at least exaggerated?” And the answer to that is yes, but as McGilchrist explains in the preface:

‘Psychiatrist debunks the left brain/right brain myth,’ the headline proclaimed. Always interested to learn more, I read on, only to discover the psychiatrist in question is – myself.

This puts its finger on the nub of the matter. I don’t believe in the left brain/right brain myth: I believe in discovering the truth about hemisphere difference. There can be no question that it would be foolish to believe most of what has passed into popular culture on the topic of hemisphere differences. And yet it would be just as foolish to believe that therefore there are no important hemisphere differences. There are massively important ones, which lie at the core of what it means to be a human being.

With that established it’s time to get into some of those differences, that is, beyond the ones I already covered in my last post. And rather than go into a lot of detail I’m just going to give you a quick list of bullet points:

  • Many languages have two words for knowing. For example in German you have “kennen” and “wissen”. One for knowing someone and one for knowing something. This apparently is a decent way of describing the hemispheric split.
  • The hemispheric differences are exhibited in the size of the hemisphere’s themselves, the right is larger in some areas and the left in others. In fact, every known creature with a neuronal system no matter how far back you go, has a system with asymmetries.
  • You know that thing when you’re trying to come up with a name, and you just can’t remember and then the minute you stop trying it’s there? McGilchrist says that’s an example of the difference between the two hemispheres, the left struggling to pin it down in the first case, and the right easily retrieving it in a holistic manner once the left gets out of the way.
  • McGilchrist asserts that the concept of boredom didn’t arise until the 18th century. That until we “left-brained” time making it a Platonic concept rather than something we inhabited, that boredom was not something people experienced.
  • The book reminded me a lot of Neil Postman’s Technopoly, which I discussed previously here and here. One of Postman’s arguments was that technology requires applying discrete values to everything and that by doing 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. This very closely mirrors the way McGilchrist describes left hemisphere dominance.
  • Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphors, and “metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world”. This was good to hear since I presented my own defense of analogies and metaphors in this space, in particular how they provide a useful secondary framework for understanding the world which can often be more productive than science alone.

Most of these points represent curiosities. The kind of thing that you might see in an end of year trivia game the professor has put together as a reward for reading the book. But this book is not a collection of gee whiz “Did you know?” reveals, it’s a book that claims that Western Civilization is profoundly sick, and it’s this claim which should draw the majority of our attention, which takes me to the next section.

Eschatological Implications

In a sense we’re dealing with the same problem here that we were dealing with in the last review. If you have a positive feedback loop or some other runaway process, how does it come to an end? One of the many assertions McGilchrist makes is once the Emissary starts to displace the Master that this usurpation is self reinforcing, that the focus of the left-hemisphere sees a world in need of yet more focused attention. (This was part of the point I was making in my last post.) In other words it’s another positive feedback loop. And, if, as he said, this is a bad thing then we’re presented with the same questions. How do we arrest this runaway process? And if we can’t arrest it what doom awaits us? 

Let’s take the last part first. Once again, I think there’s so much to cover I’m just going to spit out a bunch of bullet points:

  • First, there are all the harms I mentioned in my last post. A fixation on data and pieces of evidence which creates a very black and white view of the world.
  • While McGilchrist doesn’t deny the many technological advances attributable to a more left-brained view of the world, he wonders if it ends up forcing us to choose either material prosperity or psychological health. A choice that many people are remarking on. 
  • Worryingly, McGilchrist has noticed that without the context provided by the right hemisphere that the left often ends up doing the opposite of what it intends. “How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal?” 
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, religion seems inextricably linked to culture and civilization, it might even be said to act as a link to right-brained modes of thought. As we concentrate more and more on banishing it from society, does this accelerate whatever problems were already occurring?
  • Finally, McGilchrist claims that an overactive left hemisphere is responsible for a host of psychological issues, including autism, schizophrenia and anorexia. (I may have more to say about this in a future post.)

While you may disagree with some of the harms I just outlined, you might nevertheless be convinced that the world needs to be more “right-brained”. If so, to return to our question, how do we arrest this process? 

McGilchrist doesn’t offer any simple or straightforward solutions, and it would be suspect if he had. It’s hard to claim that something which started at the dawn of civilization could be corrected by some simple tweak we’ve overlooked. That said McGilchrist does mention that the eastern mindset might be more conducive to a balanced approach. He also points out that despite the runaway nature of the problem that hemispheric dominance does appear to pendulum back and forth over long enough periods. It’s to be hoped that we’re experiencing one of those pendulum swings right now. Certainly I see hints of it in the rise of things like the minimalist movement, a greater focus on diet and health, the popularity of meditation, and even psychedelic microdosing. For my part, I spent quite a bit of effort arguing for a greater focus on mercy.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust

By: John Coates

340 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re in a stressful job, and you want to read a neurological examination of how to know when your stress is productive vs. destructive, I think this is a great book. I’ve occasionally mentioned some of my own past work experience (startups, a lawsuit, failed businesses, etc.) and there were many points over the last decade or so when I would have really benefited from this book.

General Thoughts

John Coates was a derivatives trader who worked for some of the big banks during the dot-com bubble, and it was around this same time that he got interested in neuroscience, later leaving trading to train as a neuroscientist. But even after he switched careers he was still interested in trading, particularly the hormonal and cognitive changes wrought in this high stress environment, so that became his area of study and this book represents his conclusions. 

My big takeaway from the book is that the body does really well at dealing with short term stress. When it’s temporarily put into fight or flight mode, but such incidents of stress need to be followed by an extended period of rest and recovery. When these stressful incidents are infrequent, but similar enough that some learning can take place, the body’s automatic response, your “gut”, if you will, gets pretty good at reacting in a rapid and sensible fashion. On the other hand if you get stuck in something of a permanent fight or flight mode — which happened to me for several years (though I doubt my example was at the extreme end of things) and happens to traders when the market is tanking — then not only is the perpetual stress profoundly unhealthy, but all of your decisions get worse as logic and even good instincts get warped by constantly bathing in cortisol and adrenaline. 

Beyond that there are some great “behind the scenes” stories of trading floors from the time when the bubble burst. And some general discussion of managing stress that I found very interesting. Coates ends the book with some recommendations, which may have been the weakest part of the book. As is so often the case there are many ideas which sound great in isolation, but which would require a complete reworking of the industry and probably human nature in order to actually be implemented.


Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16)

By: Jim Butcher

352 Pages

Who should read this book?

I can’t imagine why you would even consider reading this book if you haven’t read the 15 preceding books. But on the other hand if you have done that then it almost feels like you have to read this book, right? Unless you feel like this is the time to write the series off as a sunk cost, and if so, given the length of time between this book and the last, that might not be a bad idea.

General Thoughts

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Part of the problem is that this is the first Dresden Files novel I really had to wait to read. I came to the series late, and while the book before this one had not been released when I started the series, I think at most I waited a few months for it. If Butcher had kept up his previous pace of one novel a year, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but for reasons I never bothered investigating, there ended up being a 6 year gap between this one and the last (the aforementioned 15th book). That gap made my experience of reading this entry into the series very different from my experience of reading past entries.

First off, while I had no problem remembering the main characters, there were numerous minor characters, allusions to past events, plot points, and other miscellaneous references to the previous novels that were completely opaque to me. I can’t imagine I’m the only one suffering from this problem and it really feels like Butcher could have done a better job reminding his readers of things given how much time had passed. Second, and this is going to sound cheesy, I think I’m a different person and a different reader than I was six years ago, and the things that appealed to me back then about the Dresden Files (mostly his world building) are now no longer sufficient. Or at least that’s my theory of why this entry in the series felt flat to me. 

I guess the next obvious question is whether I’m going to read book #17 when it comes out later this year. Probably, I’m kind of a completist and even though I understand the sunk-cost fallacy, I’m not very good at incorporating it into my behavior. Also I thought I’d heard that he was ending things around book 20, and it seems a shame to give it up this close to the finish line. I guess my plan with future books would be to wait a little longer before jumping in. Give it a month or two so that the reviews can accumulate, see how they’re trending, verify that whole “ending at 20” thing and then decide. 

Having talked around the book quite a bit, let me try and quickly sum up some of the good and bad points. I’ve always felt that Butcher’s primary strength is world building, and in Peace Talks that continues to be excellent. Character wise, I think he’s lost a step, or perhaps painted himself into a corner, as quite a few characters have the same, virtually identical quality of being unreasonable hard-headed brawlers. Other than that the plot is pretty good, though it follows the typical Dresden formula of being an unending series of crises, which frankly can get a little bit tiring, also it’s basically only part one of the story. Which I guess means, to tie it all together, that you should wait until book 17 comes out and then read both of them. If Amazon is to be believed you’ll only have to wait until the end of the month.


Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus

By: Euripides

284 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you expect to find yourself transported back in time to a university in the late 18th century, and you’re too lazy to learn Greek, then you should at least read all of the Greek Tragedies in English. If you’re lucky this will be enough for you to bluff your way through things. If this scenario seems unlikely, then you should still read them unless you want to be an uncultured schlub your whole life.

General Thoughts

I have reached the end of the extant Greek tragedies, and it’s time for me to move on to the comedies, though if I live long enough I expect I’ll want to return to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides at some point. 

Having reached the end I’m not sure what overarching statements I can make, or at least what I can say that hasn’t been said in previous reviews. Though I will repeat my assertion that though they were written over two thousand years ago, the tragedies seem surprisingly modern, in a way that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and even the Iliad and the Odyssey didn’t. There’s some recognizable shift between those works and these, and I’m sure other people have done a much better job of identifying what that shift might be, but it’s definitely there and it appears to mark the beginning of a long, long road. One that we still haven’t reached the end of.

I guess, just like with the last review, that I should say something specific about this book, rather than opining on the series in general. Continuing the subject of how modern these tragedies are, The Bacchae is either the precursor of the modern horror movie or an example of how “primitive” they still were. It ends with a mother killing her son using her bare hands and carrying the head into town unaware of what she’s done because Dionysius has made her insane. On the other hand Iphigenia in Aulis has a scene that just breaks your heart

Agamemnon has been told by a prophet that the only way for the Greeks to make it to Troy is if he sacrifices his eldest daughter to Artemis. So he decides on a plan of sending for his wife and telling her to bring Iphigenia using the lie that she’s going to be wed to Achilles. But then he has a change of heart and sends another message telling his wife to turn back, but of course the second message never gets there.

This might not have been a problem except Odysseus knows about the prophecy, and in typical Odysseus fashion when it looks like Agamemnon might have a change of heart, he tells the entire army knowing that if they realize that the only things standing between them and Troy is Iphigenia, they will demand that the sacrifice proceed. In any event the scene that broke my heart is when Iphigenia arrives and joyously runs to meet her father, and it’s revealed how close the two of them have always been. The scene continues, with Agamemnon undergoing the severest torture as he talks to his daughter, knowing about what’s going to happen if he follows through on the prophecy, but also what will happen to his whole family, as they sit in the center of the army, if they refuse.

For my money it’s one of the greatest tragic scenes I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. And a fitting end to the whole series.


Cutting for Stone 

by: Abraham Verghese

658 Pages

Who should read this book?

This book was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and it sold over a million copies. Obama put it on his summer reading list. I’m sure it’s been read by thousands of book clubs (including my wife’s). It isn’t the Great American Novel it’s more like the great Ethiopian/Indian/surgical novel, but it is pretty great. If any of that entices you, you should read this book.

General Thoughts

You can easily find a plot summary for this book if you wish, as well as thousands of reviews. So doing much of either seems kind of pointless. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re looking for a great novel to read, I feel pretty confident in saying you won’t be disappointed by this one. Still, once can’t help but wonder what kind of legs this book will have. Will people still be reading it 100 years from now? Is it an actual classic? I’m not sure, I kind of suspect that it won’t be. But maybe I’m wrong, it feels like it’s right on the edge of things. That fate could easily consign this book to the ash heap of history, or alternatively it could still be on whatever passes for a bookshelf decades from now.

As a final note I will say that personally my favorite characters were Hema and Ghosh. Forget the main character I would read it just for the parts featuring those two.


III- Religious Reviews 

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture 

By: Francis A. Shaeffer 

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. It comes across as pretty dated, but if you’re interested in a fairly simple defense of Christianity told through the lens of history, then that’s what this is. It also has an accompanying TV series which is available on Amazon Prime, which has some surprisingly high production values. Apparently the whole package was a big deal in the 70’s among evangelicals.

General Thoughts

For the moment imagine that you had someone who had their doubts about the importance of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilization. And you found out that the TV series, which was based on this book, was playing at some church, so you took this person to go see it. I can imagine that you would spend most of the time cringing, because in 2020, the arguments made by this book and its accompanying show look pretty simplistic. 

In saying this I don’t mean to imply that the arguments are wrong, more that they are the product of a simpler more straightforward time, when people cared more about the overarching narrative than getting the details of every last particular correct. But things are different now, and probably the first thing a modern academic would do is point out all the mistakes Shaeffer makes, all the factual errors, large and small. For example these days historians are pretty sure that the Roman persecution of Christians has been greatly exaggerated, and barely happened at all. And while people might be right to point out these mistakes (or not, see my last post) what’s interesting is that Shaeffer’s central point, as far as I can tell, is still true. A Secular Age (which I reviewed last month) and Francis Fukuyama’s books on the origins of the state (reviewed here and here) don’t simplify things, and are otherwise punctilious about the facts. You might even say the level of detail they engage in is excruciating, and yet they both still arrive at the same fundamental conclusion about Christianity’s importance that Shaeffer does.

A few posts ago I talked about epistemology, and I mentioned that in the past people adopted an epistemology of national greatness. In this book Shaeffer is pushing an epistemology of Christian greatness, and while the negatives of this epistemology are obvious to nearly everyone these days, reading this book once again reminded me that there are probably some positives to this approach as well, particularly from the standpoint of keeping a civilization and a culture unified and happy. And it would be one thing if this epistemology were untrue, if America actually was horrible, or if Christianity had nothing to do with the development of the modern state or Western Civilization. But it’s not untrue, America is a great nation relative to essentially every other nation you can think of, and Christianity was central to what we think of as the West. Which means, in the final analysis, if I found the TV Series cringe worthy maybe the problem isn’t with it, maybe the problem is with me.


As I’ve mentioned in the past I frequently forget who recommended a book or how it ended up on my list. The last book was a great example of that, but starting now, I pledge to write it down! If you want to help me with the purchase of a pen and a pad of paper so I can do that, consider donating. (Okay I’ll actually probably use a computer but those are even more expensive.)


Books I Finished in July

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In July I took what passes for a vacation during these unusual times. I was gone for a week and a half, and I ended up stringing two vacations together. (This is the big reason this post is a little bit late.) The first was a family trip down to Georgia. It was an interesting trip, essentially 116 years ago my Great-Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandmother were buried on a small family plot near Augusta but their graves were never marked, for reasons too complicated to get into. And over the years we even lost track of where the family plot was, once again for reasons too complicated to get into. Finally, to make things even more difficult, the land was purchased and incorporated into a nearby military base. But after a lot of hard work by my Aunt, and one of my cousins, the graves were finally located, and July 24th (a day of special importance to Mormons) was designated as the day when the graves would finally receive a monument. 

Of course all of that was decided at Thanksgiving of last year, and when the day finally arrived the pandemic had made things considerably more complicated, and it required a special dispensation from a general for us to even get on the base, but that dispensation was granted, and the whole thing was pretty awesome. 

While in Georgia I stopped by Stone Mountain to get a look at the giant bas-relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson before it’s inevitably dynamited, or something similar. I actually predicted all the way back in 2017 that it was no longer a question of if the Confederate monuments would come down, but when, so I’m not surprised that Stone Mountain is in the crosshairs, but I did think it was worth making an effort to see it before that happened. As part of it’s inevitable destruction they already seem to avoid any mention of who’s depicted in the carvings. The tram guide didn’t bring it up, and I saw no plaques with that information either.

The second half of the vacation was what passed for GenCon this year. It consisted of spending a week at my friend’s house, and doing a mix of in-person and virtual gaming. I hope things are back to normal by next year, but that’s by no means certain. 

Finally, a bit of meta commentary, someone mentioned that they liked the “Who should read this book?” Section of my reviews, which I had actually discontinued, but since it isn’t something that would be hard resurrect, I thought I’d go ahead and give the people what they want.


I- Eschatological Review

Super Cooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behavior (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) 

By: Martin Nowak

330 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the game theoretical case for cooperation, then this is a very comprehensive book, covering the research of one of the major figures in the field, but if that doesn’t describe you, you can probably skip it.

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned my interest in cooperation from an evolutionary/game theory perspective. I have a great deal of respect for this friend’s opinion and so when he recommended it, I ordered it and began reading it without bothering to do much research on either the book or Nowak, so I was completely surprised when I came across this:

The phone rang one day, when I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Within a minute or two I found myself explaining my research to a stranger who had introduced himself as Jeffrey Epstein.

Nowak goes on to describe how he and Epstein immediately hit it off and from there it goes on to talk about how he visited Epstein’s “tropical island” and how Epstein was the “perfect host”. In fact everything he says about Epstein is laudatory. Of course, once I read about all of that, I did start looking into things, and discovered that I was not the only one concerned by this connection. That Harvard had placed Nowak on academic leave in May of this year because of his association with Epstein. In bringing all of this up, I’m not looking to discredit Nowak’s work, or even saying that Nowak is a bad guy, there’s always the possibility that he’s just incredibly naive. No, the reason I bring it up, besides it being newsworthy, is that it’s an interesting real world example of what Nowak is talking about.

This book is about how a naive assessment of Darwinian evolution would lead one to believe that organisms should never cooperate because cooperation imposes an expense on the fitness of the organism choosing to cooperate while giving another, competing organism a benefit. And yet we see cooperation in nature all the time. This presents something of a paradox and Nowak’s life work has been creating mathematical models which illustrate how this cooperation actually makes sense. 

The ur-model/example in this field is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two “prisoners” are presented with a choice of either staying silent (i.e. cooperating with the other prisoner) or turning on the other prisoner and blaming the crime on him (i.e. defecting). If both defect, both are punished. If one defects and the other stays silent the former is rewarded and the latter is punished, but if both cooperate (stay silent), both get rewarded. Though the reward for being a sole defector is greater. Civilization is based on creating systems that encourage people to cooperate, not only because that’s what works best for society as a whole but because even for the individuals it’s better than the possibility that both end up defecting. But despite this there’s always going to be a temptation to defect, particularly if you can count on the other party to cooperate.

Bringing it back to Nowak’s relationship with Epstein. I imagine that after studying the benefits of cooperation for years and years that Nowak has a strong impulse to do just that, whereas I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Epstein a defector, someone who preyed upon the strong desire to cooperate in society to get away with some absolutely horrible crimes.

Of course it’s possible I’m wrong and that Nowak was just as much of a defector as Epstein, which wouldn’t surprise me either, defectors are always going to be with us. But the more important point made by the book is that the stronger the expectation of cooperation, and the larger the number of cooperators, the better defection is as a strategy, and the greater the temptation for an individual to defect. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I said that prisoner’s dilemma was the model everyone starts with, but a single game doesn’t tell you much, so when someone like Nowak wants to model things they generally run iterated games of the dilemma where every agent has a particular strategy and they see what strategy dominates over the long run. This better models a population over time, and in this case, if the agents play a sufficient number of games cooperation comes to dominate, which is the point of the book, but it’s precisely when the population has reached this height of cooperation that a strategy to always defect works the best, and if allowed to crop up via a simulated mutation it promptly becomes the most successful strategy, e.g. defectors cause the most harm when cooperation is at its highest.

Combining this observation with our own situation creates a host of questions. Was Epstein able to get away with so much because he was operating in a society where cooperation is the norm? Are his crimes a modern phenomenon or the sort of thing that’s been happening forever? Have we reached some peak in cooperation which makes defection more successful? Is that what civilization is, peak cooperation? If so, should we be expecting widespread defections? Is that what Epstein was doing? Is that what Trump supporters are doing currently? Is that what the protests are? Is this baseless speculation or am I on to something here? 

Going down this path opens up a whole can of worms. Obviously society is more complicated than a game of prisoner’s dilemma, for one thing the benefits of cooperation could be asymmetrical. Poor people could get less out of it than rich people, making it understandable that they might want to defect. But that doesn’t change the fact that defection on a massive scale would be very bad, and according to the models, it’s exactly the sort of thing which should eventually happen. Is it? Is modern politics a massive shift from a policy of default cooperation to default defection? Maybe? I think all that can be said conclusively is that this possibility deserves a deeper discussion than what I was able to provide here.


II- Capsule Reviews

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

By: Satya Nadella

304 Pages

Who should read this book?

I guess if you were the CEO of a mid-tier company looking to mimic Microsoft’s culture, this might be a good book for you, otherwise, unless you’re some sort of CEO-book completist, I don’t think I would recommend it.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I’m not entirely sure who recommended it, or why I decided to add it to my Audible library. It is short, which probably had a lot to do with it. 

In my reviews from last month I mentioned that White Fragility was an interesting snapshot into a certain moment in time, but that I doubt that it would be remembered at all 10 years from now. I could say the same about this book. It’s a very optimistic book, sort of Enlightenment Now if it was written by a tech CEO, and of course this book was written by a tech CEO, nor is it the first such book. In fact if we expand things to include all books written by CEOs there end up being so many they’re almost a genre unto themselves. And the question is always how much is a book by a CEO marketing for his company, and how much is it an instruction manual you can follow to duplicate their success?

Looking back on previous entries in this genre I would say that they certainly want you to think that it’s the latter. That they’re giving you the formula to run a successful company, but that it’s always at best an exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie. How much of whatever success Nadella has achieved is contained in his unique management style which he explains in the book, and how much is a pivot any reasonably competent CEO could have made if they had $22 billion in annual profits to throw around? 

That’s a really hard question to answer. I don’t deny that there are great CEOs. I just also know that there’s an awful lot of luck involved and even for those that have real skill I don’t know how much can be passed along. Look at Jack Welch and GE. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and now 20 years later GE has been delisted from the Dow, and most people think it’s all but dead. To be blunt one assumes that everyone that followed Welch as CEO read all of his books, to say nothing of being personally mentored by him. And yet…

Also, I’m not convinced there’s much unique to Nadella’s book. If Sundar Pichai had written a book about Google, I’m guessing it would read pretty much the same. There seems to be ideology that technology is the eventual answer to all of our problems common to these companies, and I’m not entirely sure how well that belief is going to survive 2020. 


The Chronicles of Prydain

By: Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three 

190 Pages

The Black Cauldron

208 Pages

The Castle of Llyr

208 Pages

Taran Wanderer

256 Pages

The High King

272 Pages

Who should read these books?

If you like YA fantasy novels, or fantasy in general, or coming of age stories, or Wales, or just literature in general, you will like these books.

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned my recent goal to do more re-reading, and in a moment of nostalgia I decided to re-read this series. I first read them in the 5th grade, and while that wasn’t the last time I revisited Prydain, the last time I read them was probably 15 years ago. As is usually the case with stuff like this, you forget how delightful it is. I believe that these books are the equal of anything J. K. Rowling has put out and deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

This is not to say that these books are the equal of the Harry Potter series in every respect. In some ways they are worse, but in many they are better. For example, I would say that some of the supporting characters are kind of one note (for example Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam), but, on the other hand, Taran (the protagonist of these books) is miles ahead of Harry Potter as a character. In particular his growth, experiences, and overall arc are both more serious and more satisfying. I will admit that the movie adaptation of Harry Potter was handled much better than Disney’s adaptation of The Black Cauldron, which I’m sure has probably harmed the series in the long run, or at least not helped.

Speaking of The Black Cauldron, I think that book offers a good comparison between Taran and some of the other bildungsroman heroes in fantasy novels (including Harry Potter). Taran does some decidedly dumb things, like all of such heroes, but the growth from these mistakes is both obvious, and believable. In so many of these books the hero’s character is mentioned but they’re either inherently good or their growth is done in a kind of hand wavy fashion. Also in other books so much of the hero’s status comes not from their character, but from powers or a destiny inherent to them. Taran is not destined, and not special, and in the Black Cauldron, he actually acquires some powers, but by the end of the book he chooses to give them up for something more important. 

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed these books. And I would definitely recommend them, particularly if you’re looking for something to give your child to read.


Euripides IV: Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes 

by: Euripides

290 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re desperately trying to recreate the classical education you missed as a youth (or from being born in the 20th or 21st century) like me, then you should read Euripides, and frankly all of the Greek tragedies. But if you’re content to continue your vulgar plebeian lifestyle, I suppose you can skip them.

General Thoughts

What struck me while reading this latest collection of Greek tragedies was how focused the Greeks were on the stories of just a few families and events. Out of curiosity I decided to go back through all the books (and forward into the final book) and count it up. Here are the numbers I came up with:

Trojan War: 8 plays

The Family of Oedipus: 6 plays

Agamemnon’s Family: 8 plays

Hercules: 4 plays

None of the above: 8 plays

Does it seem interesting or remarkable to anyone other than me that over 75% of the extant plays are about four subjects? (And it might even be worse than that, the Trojan War looms pretty large in all of the plays about Agamemnon’s Family.) Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this, but I don’t recall coming across any in-depth discussion of this quirk. Of course, I did use the word “extant” just then, and it’s possible that what I’m actually noticing is a selection bias present among the people preserving the plays, but that doesn’t change the strangeness it just moves it to a different location. Someone thought these few events and families were particularly important or story worthy, why was that? 

I don’t expect to offer any sort of satisfactory answer to that question in the space of a few paragraphs, but is it possible that we’re the outlier, not them? That most cultures and civilizations latch on to just a few defining events and stories, and that by having thousands of stories, we’re the weird ones? In support of that it would appear that this situation is relatively new historically. That before the advent of the TV, Americans were similar Greeks. Most of our stories were about the Founding or perhaps the Civil War. And before that stories from the Bible dominated things. 

As is so often the case in this blog we’re led to ask, has modernity made us better off or worse? What are the pros and cons? When there are only a few stories it’s easy to see how that might translate into a more unified culture, or even a religion. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods, and Christianity generally acted as a unifying force in the history of Western Europe. Finally the stories of the founding were unquestionably a large part of American civic religion. What happens if we don’t have stories to unify us? Does it indicate an inevitable fracturing of culture? If so is it a cause of the fracturing or a symptom?


A Secular Age

By: Charles Taylor

896 Pages

Who should read this book?

Someone who has many, many hours to spare and is deeply interested in modern secular behavior as compared to historical religious behavior, and how the latter led to the former.

General Thoughts

I mentioned this book in my last post, and it’s going to be impossible to do it justice in the space I have, not only is it long, but there are great insights on nearly every page, something illustrated by that last post when the whole thing derived from a single page of content.

Moving from the specific to the general, the book starts with the question, how did we go from a world in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which it’s just one choice among many, and not even a particularly high status one. The most common story told about this transition, particularly among unbelievers, is the story of subtraction. The idea that long ago the world was full of irrational ideas and behavior, but that progress and science gradually swept those things away, leaving only knowledge and morality until eventually all that was left was the enlightened state we’re in now. 

Taylor spends 800 pages comprehensively disproving that idea, if you’re lucky I may spend 8 paragraphs covering the whole book, but to give you a taste of the argument here’s one brief selection:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal, nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

The key point Taylor is making is that our modern concept of human welfare isn’t what remains after we’ve eliminated religion, or even just once we’ve eliminated the “bad” parts, like superstitions and authoritarian tendencies. But rather religion is foundational and necessary. That even those parts people view as horribly backwards were important and necessary building blocks. That modern enlightened values would look very different if they didn’t start from a foundation of Western Christianty (and indeed such values are very different elsewhere in the world). 

I found this explanation interesting both for what it had to say about religion, but also what it had to say about progress in general. We see this same sense that subtraction is the answer in so much of the current social justice movement, for example the push to defund the police. With people claiming that if we just strip away the power of the police, that we’ll have less violence, but so far there’s good reason to believe that it’s the exact opposite. That modern policing has a lot of problems, but that it’s build on centuries of experimentation, that it’s not the last gasp of a racist past, but rather, as I said in another post, “it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

All of this ties into the deeper subject of human evil in a very interesting fashion. How do we deal with the fact that everyone is at least a little bit evil and some people are a lot evil. One answer, the one that people are protesting against, is that we set up a state, that state has a monopoly on the use of force and they grant that monopoly to the police, who then go around trying to prevent evil. But what Taylor points out is that the ideology of victimhood has a different answer for where evil resides and how to deal with it:

Then there is the victim scenario. This can colonize the Left. All evil is projected onto the others; they alone are the victimizers; we are pure victim. The liberal self feels relatively innocent, because (a) it sees the whole picture clearly, and (b) it is part of the solution. But this is compatible with recognizing some degree of one’s own fault in the disorder of the world. The victim scenario, on the other hand, a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them.

I, for one, feel like he gets at something deep and important there, something entirely overlooked by other commenters. And also something that deserves a much fuller treatment than what I’m able to provide. Particularly since I still want to talk about the book from a religious angle. But I’ll put that in it’s own section. 


III- Religious Reviews 

A Secular Age (Continued)

Any discussion of a decline of religion, must inevitably touch on the place of religion in society. Is it, as atheists claim, the barbaric relic of an uncivilized past, something that should be dispensed with as soon as possible? Or is it a useful social construct, a piece of what it means to be civilized? Or is it a manifestation of something actually transcendent, whether that be God or some more nebulous universal force? Taylor himself is a believer, though I was hundreds of pages into the book before I was sure of that because his discussion of things was so objective. (Or so it appeared to me, I imagine others may quibble.)  And it was only at the end of the book that he really started to discuss the place of religion in society. And given that I can’t cover everything he discussed I’m going to focus on just a little over one page from the book, which has the added advantage of demonstrating how dense the book is. 

He starts by contrasting our belief in God to leaving the house without an umbrella:

I may leave the house without an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable, and it predicted fair weather. But the difference between this kind of case and the issue we’re dealing with here, is first, that the weather, beyond the inconvenience of getting wet today, doesn’t matter to me in anything like the same way, and second that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s weather than the forecast.

These two considerations are quite different when it comes to the existence of God. First, the answer to this question matters quite a bit, it may even be argued that the answer is the most important detail of our existence. Second, the whole promise of religion is that faith and the practice of that religion allows us an alternative and independent means of getting at the answer. Taylor points out that if we ignore these other means, and rely entirely on “science” to provide us with the answer that we are much like Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. What makes Othello a tragedy, and not just a tale of misfortune, is that we hold its protagonist culpable in his too-ready belief of the evidence fabricated by Iago. He had an alternative mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself, if he could only have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. The fatal flaw in the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this…

The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted God”, without any supplement, as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is that we are on this issue like Othello, rather than the person listening to the forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. We can’t just explain what we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources, without seeing what we made of the internal ones.

[And so] the question remains: if the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive, why do they seem so convincing, where at other times and places God’s existence [seemed] just… [as] obvious? 

I latched on to this analogy because I have the same question as Taylor. I understand people who have queried these internal sources and in return have gotten nothing but silence. Who realize the importance of the question, just as Othello should have, and have done everything in their power to get information from Desdemona only to find her evasive or unavailable. It is the people who have never bothered to “question Desdemona” that I find so baffling. 


Let’s be honest I’m a pretty small fish, in a massive pond, but the advantage of that for you is that I’m actually very responsive to feedback. For example reinstituting one of my book review sections based on an off-handed remark on Twitter. But of course what I respond the best to are donations.


Books I Finished in June

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The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder By: Peter Zeihan
The Good Soldier Švejk By: Jaroslav Hasek
The Diaries of Adam and Eve By: Mark Twain
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism By: Robin DiAngelo
Guns of August By: Barbara W. Tuchman
Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies) By: Euripides
Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow
The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories By: Don Bradley


Over the last few months I’ve taken the opportunity to put a little bit of personal news into the beginning of my monthly book review round-ups. But of course what’s been happening to me personally is completely overshadowed by what’s been happening in the wider world. The biggest event being the killing of George Floyd of course. I said quite a bit about this in my last post, which amounted to, “This is a really complicated situation.” With that in mind I don’t think I’ll try to do any simplification in this space

I will say that I was very surprised by what happened at the beginning of the week in Provo. For those that don’t know, Provo is the home of BYU and often considered to be one of the most conservative towns in America. Accordingly I was a little surprised to discover that protests were even a thing there, more surprised to find out that they were still happening, still more surprised to find out that the protestors were numerous and aggressive enough to be blocking traffic, and outright flabbergasted to discover that while one of these cars was being blocked from moving, someone walked up and shot the driver

Fortunately it looks like the driver is going to be okay, but in order to get out of there he had to push through the protesters with his car and some who didn’t get out of the way were knocked aside. Honestly I think I would have behaved very similarly if protestors were blocking my car and then someone shot me. Particularly given that the gunman ran after the car and fired a second shot! (I mean what was this guy thinking?!?)

Of course, as you might imagine there was a lot of focus on the driver knocking people down, with much of the early focus on protestors who had been knocked down, and interviews where they emphasized that this was a peaceful protest. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you’re blocking an intersection and banging on cars, that on the continuum between Gandhi and riot that you might be closer to the riot end of the spectrum

Beyond that I’d like to wish everyone a happy Independence Day. Apparently national pride has fallen to a record low. I know some people would suggest that this is a positive development, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.


I- Eschatological Review

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

By: Peter Zeihan

384 Pages

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. So much fascinating discussion of geopolitical trends, the strengths and weaknesses of every country, predictions for the future, etc. It really felt like a peek behind the curtains of power, into the deep underbelly where the true engine of the world creaks away.

In another sense the book is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, but with both a more narrow and more recent focus. Zeihan’s primary focus is geography, which permeates the discussion and informs everything from why Iran is so belligerent (mountainous agriculture leads to feast-famine cycles of aggression) to predictions about what will happen with China (the geography naturally splits the country in three sections, which will become increasingly difficult to hold together). 

I made so many notes about this book, and marked so many pages that it’s difficult to know how to summarize it or what points to emphasis. But I’ll give it a shot:

The post World War II era represents an incredibly unusual period where normal geopolitics was suspended under American hegemony. This hegemony largely relieved countries from the need to focus on military and security concerns and allowed them to turn the attention to economic expansion. It was the perfect time for it because the Americans also decided to enforce free trade. This era is coming to an end because the US doesn’t need the rest of the world, in large part because of shale (though 3d printing factors in as well) and underlying all of it, the US has the best geography in the world. 

After establishing this premise, the rest of the book examines the challenges the rest of the world will face as the US withdraws from things, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been more engaged by a book and its conclusions.

That said, even if the conclusions were engaging that doesn’t mean some of them weren’t inaccurate. I’ll get to my two major complaints in the next section, but for now let’s just focus on the critical place shale holds in Zeihan’s predictions. I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that American shale and the energy it provides is one of the top three components of the world Zeihan predicts. He devotes a whole chapter to it in the book (out of 15). And while in general it’s a very solid and compelling argument, it might entirely fall apart if oil ends up being cheaper than he expected. I’m not an expert on shale, but as far as I can, oil has to be north of $50/barrel in order for shale to be cost effective. As I write this it’s closer to $40, with it being as low as $20 earlier in the year. The point of all this is not to falsify Zeihan’s theory, but to point out that even in the near term, fairly safe predictions like: “the price of oil is going to keep going up” turn out to be subject to unexpected events. Which might point to the overarching weakness of Zeihan’s book. It doesn’t pay enough attention to Black Swans, which brings me to the next section.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

In addition to his assumptions about shale oil, where Zeihan could be wrong, but should that be the case, the consequences are low, there are at least two other areas where I think he might be wrong with far more severe consequences. 

First in predicting American preeminence (which is right there in the title) he seems to be imagining that America will remain a unified, well-functioning state. One that intelligently pursues its global interests and acts as a single entity when it comes to foreign policy. For example when he predicts that the US will absorb Alberta, he points out how entirely sensible such a course is. And indeed from a realpolitik standpoint, it seems obvious. The kind of thing where if Kissinger were on one side and Bismarck on the other, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. But the US is unlikely to be led by anything resembling these two individuals, and in fact it appears increasingly unlikely that the US will be “led” by much of anyone in the coming years. 

In other words, when one sees how big the partisan divide is on something like masks, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be similar turmoil on something as big as annexing parts of Canada. Accordingly, before I’m ready to agree with Zeihan that the US will deftly seize the entire world in the coming decade, I’d like to see some evidence of it deftly seizing anything at all, and at the moment, such evidence is scarce. For America to be preeminent it first has to persist.

Second, while one can imagine the transfer of Alberta happening peacefully, other territorial changes Zeihan imagine seem much less likely to happen without war being declared, and from there it’s not difficult to imagine that a nation in decline might decide to use their nuclear arsenal rather than go down without a fight. As an example of what I mean consider this selection from the book:

[Japan’s] first military target is likely to be Russia’s Sakhalin Island. It is just off the coast of Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido Island, putting it well within Japan’s naval and air force power projection range. It’s infrastructure was largely built by Japanese firms, that infrastructure terminates on the island’s southern tip, the Japanese have the technical skill to keep all of Sakhalin’s offshore energy production running, the Russians do not, and Japanese nationalists still fume that the Russians seized it from Japan in the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Securing Sakhalin would place just under 300,000 bpd of crude production and 3 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day) of natural gas production into Japan’s output column. Seizing Sakhalin will also permanently sever any chance of having positive relations with Moscow, but to be blunt, Moscow is five thousand miles away, so the consequences of breaking that relationship aren’t very high. 

Wait… what? The consequences for pissing off Moscow aren’t very high?! As I said I loved this book, but Zeihan has either completely ruled out the use of nukes, which is something he never even mentions, let alone explains. Or he has a major blind spot on that issue. Certainly no reference to nuclear weapons appears in the index. He does have two more recent books, including one released just this year, so maybe he has since rectified this blind spot. And I enjoyed this book enough that I definitely intend to read his other books eventually, so we’ll find out.  But beyond all that you can hopefully see what I mean. He offers up a very compelling argument based on proximity, infrastructure, history, and most of all geography for things to go a certain way. And if Russia was led by Henry Kissinger perhaps that’s exactly the way it would go. But as you may have noticed Putain is no Kissinger (though he comes closer than many of today’s leaders) and it’s hard to imagine him just rolling over if Japan tried to seize Russian territory by force. 

Perhaps another way of describing the disconnect is that Zeihan looks at the world with piercing and refreshing sanity, but the world itself just continues to get more insane.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Good Soldier Švejk

By: Jaroslav Hasek

752 Pages

This book is what Catch-22 would have been if it was written about Czechoslovakian conscripts during World War I rather than American bomber pilots during World War II. Indeed Joseph Heller said that he never would have written Catch-22 if he hadn’t read this novel first. And I swear to you I came up with that comparison before I knew this fact.

Saying that it’s the World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22 may not give an entirely accurate portrait of the novel, but it’s the best short description I could come up with. There are also bits that remind me of Vonnegut, with maybe even smaller bits of Douglas Adams tossed in there as well. Beyond that it fits into the genre of literature, where a seemingly foolish individual ends up being the wisest character of all. And you can never tell whether these “fools” are feigning ignorance or if they’re genuinely foolish, but perhaps wise because of that rather than in spite of it. I can’t pin down a name for this genre, but it made me think of medieval jesters or maybe Sancho Panza from Don Quixote.

On top of that, it’s very discursive. The main plot is quite short, but Švejk is constantly relating some story about a villager of his acquaintance the situation reminds him of. And every time a minor character is introduced they get a whole sub-story as well. Which reminded me a little bit of Canterbury Tales or The Book of the New Sun or the stories Woody would tell on Cheers. And once again I have no idea what this genre of literature is called. (You would think that if I got nothing else out of my English degree I would at least have a better grasp of the various genres, but no…)

Beyond that, according to Wikipedia, in addition to being the greatest Czechoslovakian novel of all time (or at least the most translated), it has credible claim to being the very first anti-war novel as well. 

Having laid out this menagerie of qualities, you may still be unsure, whether you should read it. To that I would say, if you don’t find yourself in the position of Rene Zwellenger in Jerry McQuire, “You had me at ‘World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22’”, then you probably shouldn’t. I enjoyed it, but I’m weird. Also having read the whole thing, I kind of think this is one of those cases where being a completist doesn’t add much. In fact Hasek didn’t finish the series, so rather than having a well defined plot and a dramatic ending, (though spoiler the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost.) Švejk just kind of peters out. As it’s largely a collection of vignettes, which end up being essentially equal in their satirical delightfulness, I would say that if you selected 50 pages at random you would probably get the majority of what the book has to offer, or at least a pretty good idea if you wanted to read 700 pages more of it. 


The Diaries of Adam and Eve

By: Mark Twain

128 Pages

This very short book was funny, but not uproarious, it was well written, but not a classic, and it was witty but that wit often relied on somewhat antiquated stereotypes. But it’s just slightly over an hour on Audible, and it’s by freaking Mark Twain, one of the greatest American authors. How many mediocre podcasts have you listened to that clocked in at over an hour? Whatever else may be said this book will be better than that. Accordingly, you should listen to this book. It provides a decent glimpse into an America that is all too quickly being forgotten when it is not being actively attacked.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By: Robin DiAngelo

192 Pages

In my last post I already spoke quite a bit about this book, and in particular the paradox it presents. For those that didn’t get a chance to read the last post. DiAngelo makes the claim that racism is ubiquitous among white people, and when accused of it they invariably get defensive, which is understandable if racism is evil, but DiAngelo wants to get past a black and white understanding of the problem, to an understanding that the racism of white people is largely unconscious but if you can bring it up without them being defensive, you can make people less racist. Of course the problem is that everything else in the present moment is geared towards asserting that racism is awful and murderous. Nor does DiAngelo spend much effort refuting that, and seems to want to have it both ways.

Because of this and other issues I would say that the book was mediocre. It certainly has significant value as something of a manifesto for a certain philosophy of racism and how it works. But given, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, that it’s not even particularly vigorous in defense of that ideology, I’m not sure how valuable it is even towards that end. I will say that after reading this book I think I understand racism better from what might be called an HR perspective, but if you’re looking for insight into the problems of policing, this book is essentially valueless.

You may think I’m being unusually harsh, but there’s an argument to be made that I’m actually being kind. Matt Taibbi posted an absolutely savage review of the book just a few days ago. Sample quote:

When one employee responds negatively to the training, DiAngelo quips the person must have been put off by one of her Black female team members: “The white people,” she says, “were scared by Deborah’s hair.” (White priests of antiracism like DiAngelo seem universally to be more awkward and clueless around minorities than your average Trump-supporting construction worker). 

DiAngelo doesn’t grasp the joke flopped and has to be told two days later that one of her web developer clients was offended. In despair, she writes, “I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics.” …(everyone should have such a person on speed-dial)

I include this section because I had basically the same reaction upon reading it. Nor is Taibbi the only person to dislike the book. David Brooks, who’s conservative, but of the most moderate type called the book, “the dumbest book ever written. It makes The Art of the Deal read like Anna Karenina.” And while the book itself has a 4.2 out of 5 star rating on Amazon the top seven(!) most helpful reviews are all one star.

This book is interesting as one snapshot of the current moment, but I can hardly imagine that it will be remembered at all 10 years from now. 


Guns of August

By: Barbara W. Tuchman

510 Pages

If you were only going to read one history book ever, this might be it. I could fill up page after page with a discussion of this book. Tuchman does a truly unbelievable job of eloquently pulling together a whole host of people and events, using prose that strikes you again and again with it’s craft and eloquence.

Given that I could say a whole host of things about the book, but that the space I have is limited, what am I going to say? Upon reflection, I guess the most useful take away, for me, from the first month of World War I is how many incorrect assumptions governments, leaders and people had going into the war. Assumptions which were only proved incorrect in the unforgiving crucible of war and at the cost of millions of deaths. (See one of my previous posts for a discussion of war as the ultimate test of rationality.) What were some of those assumptions? 

  • The whole French plan assumed that the Germans couldn’t field nearly as many men as they actually did.
  • The Germans assumed the Russians would take six weeks to deploy, they deployed in two.
  • Everyone overestimated the Austro-hungarians
  • French war doctrine before and during the initial stages of the war all revolved around going on the offense, and emphasized bravery and guts as the key components.
  • The Germans thought the Belgians would just let the Germany army pass through their country without a fight.
  • The French and British thought that the Belgian forts would hold out for months, they held out for days.
  • The British entirely dismissed the importance of the Ottomans, and did nothing to keep them out of the war and several stupid things to bring them in.

As you can see, just a discussion of bad pre-war assumptions would take up quite a bit of space and the list above is far from complete. But after reviewing that list aren’t you struck with a profound need to know what incorrect assumptions we might be laboring under? And might the biggest one of all be that war between the great powers is a thing of the past?


Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies)

By: Euripides

306 Pages

As I review more and more of these collections of Greek Tragedies, it starts to become harder to come up with things to say. But after saying in a previous post that “trust me, Odysseus was a jerk” one of my readers questioned first, whether he should trust me on anything, which is a fair point, and second whether Odysseus was actually a jerk or if I was applying 21st century morals to the situation. In response I offer up the following exchange between the herald of the Greeks (remember he’s on the same side as Odysseus) and Andromache.

TALTHYBIUS

O wife of Hector, once the bravest man in Troy,

do not hate me. This is the will of the Danaans and

the kings. I wish I did not have to give this message.

ANDROMACHE

What can this mean, this hint of hateful things to come?

TALTHYBIUS

The council has decreed that your son—how can I say this?

ANDROMACHE

That he shall serve some other master than I serve?

TALTHYBIUS

No man of the Achaea shall ever make this boy his slave

ANDROMACHE

Must he be left behind in Phrygia, all alone?

TALTHYBIUS

Worse; horrible. There is no easy way to tell it.

ANDROMACHE

I thank your courtesy—unless your news be really good.

TALTHYBIUS

They will kill your son. It is monstrous. Now you know the truth.

ANDROMACHE

Oh, this is worse than anything I heard before

TALTHYBIUS

Odysseus. He urged it before the Greeks, and got his way

ANDROMACHE

This is too much grief, and more than anyone could bear.

So don’t just take my word for it, It seems clear that even the ancient Greeks thought Odysseus went overboard with this act.


Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS

By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow

296 Pages

I should mention before I dive in, that this book showed up, unannounced, in the mail one day. There wasn’t even a note attached. Someone just decided to send it to me. I assume they wanted me to read and review it, but for future reference, if you’re going to do this, including a note might be nice. 

Also, I debated whether to stick this review in the religious section or keep it in the main section. As a compromise I stuck it at the end of the main section. Because, while this book does have a lot of Mormonism in it, I don’t think that a deep knowledge of the religion is necessary to appreciate it. Particularly if you’re my age or a little bit older (as is the case with the author), and even more especially if you grew up in Utah in the 80s. Because even more than religion, this book is an autobiographical retelling steeped in that time and place. And on that metric I thought Bigelow did a fantastic job. 

The book was strongly nostalgic for me, especially the first few pages, which were so evocative that I almost declared the book a masterpiece without reading any further. (In particular being reminded of the $3.35/hour minimum wage really took me back.)

Unfortunately for me and my desire to read a blow by blow retelling of my own youth, after the first couple of chapters Bigelow’s path diverges fairly strongly from my own (he jumped from new wave to punk, while I stayed with new wave). Despite this, the stories he tells are still very relatable. As I said, while the book has a fairly strong religious component, the story of someone making the transition into adulthood and not knowing what the heck they were doing, is pretty universal, and though Bigelow went a lot farther than I did in his search for meaning, I still think his stories of trying to figure things out can be appreciated by everyone.

Supposedly this is the first book in an autobiographical trilogy, and I’m looking forward to the next two.


III- Religious Review 

The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories

By: Don Bradley

318 Pages

I know Don Bradley, not super well, but I’ve ended up in short conversations with him a half a dozen or so times, and once he was in the group I went to lunch with at the Mormon History Association. I mention this both because it probably impairs my objectivity, but also to just put out there that he’s a super nice guy and I couldn’t be happier that he’s been able to publish this book, which as I understand it represents something he’s been working on for many, many years.

With my prejudices noted, let me say I quite enjoyed this book, in addition to learning a lot. I don’t read as many LDS books as some people I know, but I don’t remember another book length treatment of this subject, and certainly if there was one I can’t imagine that it was nearly so comprehensive. 

For those non-Mormons who may be reading this, I’ll try to briefly summarize the subject. After Joseph Smith had been translating the Book of Mormon for awhile, and had assembled a significant number of pages (116 as the story goes), Martin Harris, a gentleman who had been assisting him both as a scribe and with a significant amount of money, wanted to show these pages to his wife, who was not as excited about things as he was and kept demanding to see what he had been working on. Harris asked Joseph if he could show the translated pages to his wife, Joseph inquired of the Lord who said no. Harris persisted. Joseph asked again, and again the answer was no. Harris pleaded yet again, Joseph asked yet again, and finally the Lord said, yes. Or more likely some version of, “Fine, go ahead, but don’t be surprised if something bad happens.” And indeed something bad did happen. The pages went missing and have never been seen since. Joseph was instructed not to retranslate that section and since then they’ve been referred to as the lost 116 pages. 

One of the first things Bradley points out is that given that the current Book of Mormon is 532 pages, you might imagine that if 116 pages went missing that this represents 18% of the intended volume. But he points out that this almost certainly understates the content that was lost. The figure of 116 is probably just an after the fact estimate which may have been derived from the fact that the section which replaced it happened to be 116 pages in the printer’s manuscript. At other times it was referred to as closer to 200 pages, and also, because of the larger size of the transcribed pages even if it was 116 it would have probably translated to more than that when it was printed.

Beyond that Bradley spends most of the book attempting to reconstruct what might have been on those pages from things that were said at the time. Either by Smith or Harris, or by people they talked to and who then subsequently recorded those conversations. The narrative he pieces together is excellent and painstaking work, and beyond that very interesting. None of what Bradley assembles comes completely out of left field, but I was very impressed by how much he was able to stitch together.

Of course in a reconstruction like this, you walk a fine line between making too many connections on the one hand or on the other, making too few, of being too conservative about filling in the gaps or too liberal. If it were me I might have erred on the side of being a little bit more conserative, but as I said it’s a difficult balance to strike, and if I was writing this review a month from now, maybe I’d say it was just right. 

In any event for those who do read a lot of LDS books, or even those who only read a few, I can unhesitatingly recommend this book.


You know what else I can unhesitatingly recommend? The pot stickers at David’s Kitchen in South Salt Lake. Oh, and also I suppose donating to this blog, although if your excuse is that you need that money in order to buy the pot stickers, I’d be okay with that.


Books I Finished in May

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The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity By: Toby Ord
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction By: Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Dune By: Frank Herbert
Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human By: William Tucker
Euripides II: Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliant Women, Electra By: Euripides
10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less By: Garett Jones
Saints Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand By: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints


Some of you might have noticed that May was a pretty slow month as far as posts. Part of that was due to the last post, which was not only long, but seemed to require some additional care and attention. Some of it was due to spending several days traveling from Utah to Arizona to New Mexico and then back to Utah on a trip to help my brother move. But most of it is that I’m trying to make sure I spend some of my writing time every day working on a book. I’m pretty sure I mentioned my intention to write a book previously in this space, but it is definitely happening and I expect it to be out this year for sure, and maybe if I’m lucky it will be out this fall.

Beyond that 2020 continues to be interesting, in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” And as an (aspiring, mostly secular) eschatologist, it seems like I should say something about the ongoing protests/unrest/riots happening in the wake of George Floyd’s death. but I think now is not the time. (Though I may allude to it here and there in my reviews) It will probably come up as part of the next post, though as more of a tangent than the primary subject.  Also I think it’s easier to be wise when events aren’t quite so fresh. For now I would just refer people to my post about civil unrest being like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your town.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

By: Toby Ord
480 Pages

General Thoughts

As you might imagine I’ve read several books with more or less the same subject as The Precipice. And, as of this moment, if I were asked which of them I would recommend as an entry point, it’d probably be this one. It’s short — the page count above is misleading, the book ends on page 241 and the other half is appendices, notes, etc. — well written, and a good introduction without being dumbed down. And if you do want to dig deeper the other half of the book contains pointers to all the additional information you could ever want. Finally, while I’m wary of placing precise numbers on the chances of a particular existential risk (x-risk) happening, since I worry those numbers will be used to justify inaction, for those that are prepared to use them responsibly, having numbers provides a useful place to start a discussion. Assuming that all of my readers fall into this latter category here they are:

Existential catastrophe via Chance within the next 100 years
Asteroid/comet Impact ~1 in 1,000,000
Supervolcanic eruption ~1 in 10,000
Stellar explosion ~1 in 1,000,000
Total natural risk ~1 in 10,000
Nuclear war ~1 in 1,000
Climate change ~1 in 1,000
Other environmental damage ~1 in 1,000
Naturally arising pandemics ~1 in 10,000
Engineered pandemics ~1 in 30
Unaligned artificial intelligence ~1 in 10
Unforeseen anthropogenic risks ~1 in 30
Other anthropogenic risks ~1 in 50
Total anthropogenic risks ~1 in 6
Total existential risk ~1 in 6

In addition to the value of having an estimate of the various odds, of even more interest is comparing the categories against one another. To begin with Oord contends that anthropogenic risks completely overwhelms natural risks. Which is to say that we will probably be the architects of our own destruction. Of further interest, his rating of the risk from artificial intelligence almost completely overwhelms the other anthropogenic risks. I don’t agree with this second contention, though given my uncertainty, I suspect the amount of money I want to spend on the issue is not all that different from Oord’s figure. At a minimum we both want to spend more. 

All of which is to say it’s a great book which makes a powerful case for paying attention to existential risks, and it backs up this case with a large quantity of useful information. If I had any complaint it would be that it doesn’t mention Fermi’s Paradox. As anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows, from a purely secular perspective I believe that the paradox represents the best proof of x-risks, particularly of the anthropogenic sort, which Oord himself considers to be the most dangerous, and the idea that intelligent species inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction remains one of the leading explanations for the paradox. All of this combines to leave the paradox as one of the best reasons to take x-risks seriously. Which is why it’s unfortunate he doesn’t include it as part of the book. Even more unfortunate is the reason why.

When I said it wasn’t included in the book, I meant it wasn’t included in the main text. It is brought up in the supplementary material, and it turns out that Oord was one of the co-authors of the infamous (at least in my eyes) paper that claimed to dissolve Fermi’s Paradox. I have written extensively about my objections to that paper, and it was only after I finished Precipice that I made the connection and I have to say it surprised me. And it may be the one big criticism I have of the book and of Oord in general.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I’m sure that other people have said this elsewhere, but Oord’s biggest contribution to eschatology is his unambiguous assertion that we have much more to worry from risks we create for ourselves than any natural risks. Which is a point I’ve been making since my very first post and which bears repeating. The future either leads towards some form of singularity, some event that removes the risks brought about by progress and technology (examples might include a benevolent AI, brain uploading, massive interstellar colonization, a post-scarcity utopia, etc.) or it leads to catastrophe, there is no a third option. And we should be a lot more worried about this than we are.

In the past it didn’t really matter how bad a war or a revolution got, or how angry people were, there was a fundamental cap on the level of damage which humans could inflict on one another. However insane the French Revolution got, it was never going to kill every French citizen, or do much damage to nearby states, and it certainly was going to have next to no effect on China. But now any group with enough rage and a sufficient disregard for humanity could cripple the power grid, engineer a disease (something I touched on in a previous post) or figure out how to launch a nuke. For the first time in history technology has provided the means necessary for any madness you can imagine.


II- Capsule Reviews

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

By: Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
352 Pages

After writing the post Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting (originally ‘limitations’ was ‘ridiculousness’) I got some pushback. And it occurred to me that it would be easier to respond to criticism if I had read the book. So I did. And then I wrote another post on the subject. As such most of my thoughts on the book and the topic will appear in one of those two posts. In those posts I was trying to be as objective as possible, but I would assume that I’ll be forgiven if in the actual review I end up being slightly more opinionated. 

To begin with the idea of tracking and grading predictions is a good one, and an obvious refinement from making random pronouncements on TV. The first part of the book is largely Telock railing against these bad predictions and the bad predictors of the past. Which I suppose is interesting, but it’s also largely unsurprising. The last part of the book is a gushing love letter to superforecasters, with over half the book talking about how great they are and how to achieve this greatness on your own. This part is interesting but, and it should be noted that I’m pretty biased, I found it to be heavy handed with large doses of self-congratulation in there as well.

What he didn’t spend much time on was proving the connection between accurate forecasting and better decisions based on that forecasting. But I’ve spent far too much time on that subject already.

In the end, and with my biases once again noted. I thought it was the kind of thing where 95% of the book could be gleaned from a long article.


Dune

By: Frank Herbert
518 Pages

I think I already mentioned this, but I’m experimenting with doing more re-reading of books I’ve enjoyed in the past, which is how I came to read Dune for (I’m guessing) the fourth or fifth time. 

Dune is inarguably one of the greatest science fiction novels ever, which came back to me powerfully as I was reading it. But, also, as I carefully went through it again, marking passages I liked, and really attempting to breathe deeply of it, I noticed that some aspects of the novel are actually a little bit silly. 

To be fair, much of this is due to the fact that I’ve gone from being the wide-eyed youth who read it for the first time in high school, to an obvious curmudgeon. But on top of that, noticing what was silly made me appreciate even more the bits of the book that were so fantastic. So which parts were silly? Well to pick just a couple, and remember I love this book:

First, the ecology of the sandworm makes very little sense. Herbert imagines a species of megafauna a hundred times larger than anything which ever existed on Earth, and puts them in the most inhospitable place imaginable. What do they eat? They have these giant maws which are great for swallowing thopters and spice harvesters, but what are they used for in the absence of these things? 

Second, a great deal of the plot revolves around the idea that difficult conditions produce better warriors, and moreover that this is some kind of secret. For example the fact that there’s a connection between the Sardukaur and the Emperor’s prison planet is incredibly dangerous to even mention. But the general connection between fighting and difficult training has been known since at least the time of Alexander and presumably long before that.

I could go on, but it’s not my point to savage Dune. I come to praise it not to bury it. And my point is that knowing about some of its weaknesses makes its strengths all the more remarkable. What are those strengths? I think it mostly boils down to his depiction of the Fremen. And there’s one scene in particular that encapsulates this the best. Thufir Hawat, the Atreides mentat, has survived the betrayal and encountered some Fremen. His goal is to continue fighting, but he’s got numerous wounded men, and he’s hoping that the Fremen will help him with both problems, but they keep telling him that he hasn’t made the “water decision”. 

[Hawat] “I wish to be freed of the responsibility for my wounded that I may get about it.”

The Fremen scowled. “How can you be responsible for your wounded? They are their own responsibility. The water’s at issue, Thufir Hawat. Would you have me take that decision away from you?”

“What do you do with your own wounded?” Hawat demanded.

“Does a man not know when he is worth saving?” the Fremen asked. “Your wounded know you have no water.” He tilted his head, looking sideways up at Hawat. “this is clearly a time for water decision. Both wounded and unwounded must look to the tribe’s future.”

The Fremen is asking which of his wounded men Hawat wants to sacrifice and have their water rendered out, because without water nothing can happen on Arrakis.  There’s other great stuff going on in this scene as well, but I think much of the appeal of Dune crystalizes around the purity of the Fremen’s relationship with water. It combines stoicism, sacrifice, and being part of a closely bound tribe. (For more on why that’s appealing see my review of the book of the same name.) It’s a world stripped down to only the essentials. Something that was lacking even in 1965 when the book was written and is even more sorely missing now.

As much as we love our comforts there’s something deeply appealing about the Fremen and their water.


Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human

By: William Tucker
290 Pages

Marriage and Civilization covers much of the same territory as Sex and Culture, by J.D. Unwin, a book I reviewed previously, but whereas Sex and Culture was deep, anthropological and freudian, Marriage and Civilization is broad, evolutionary, and current. And if you’re one of those rare people who’s on the fence about whether monogamy is important and you’re looking for a book to help you decide I would definitely recommend the latter over the former. 

Of course most people aren’t on the fence. Most people have already taken sides in the debate on marriage and monogamy, and from my perspective most people have decided it doesn’t matter. The question is, what’s in this book that might convince them to change their mind? Well frankly lots, though out of a consideration for space I’ve found a quote that hopefully gives a pretty good summary:

…the modern package of monogamous marriage [has] been favoured by cultural evolution because of [its] group-beneficial effects—promoting success in inter-group competition. In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery…fraud…personal abuses…the spousal age gap…gender inequality… [and] increases savings, child investment and economic productivity.

The anthropological record indicates that approximately 85 per cent of human societies have permitted men to have more than one wife…The 15 per cent or so of societies… with monogamous marriage fall into two disparate categories: (i) small-scale societies inhabiting marginal environments with little status distinctions among males [i.e. hunter-gatherers] and (ii) some of history’s largest and most successful ancient societies.

Lest you think that’s an example of Tucker’s writing, it’s actually a quote from a paper he excerpted from called The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage, but it was the best summary I could find quickly. And it’s interesting that there have been papers on it, since when I reviewed Sex and Culture I wondered why no one had tried to Unwin’s findings, and I continue to be pretty sure no one has, particularly the zoistic, manistic, diestic split, but here we have a paper which does basically confirm his central point. And the excerpt I included can be found in a book full of similar pieces of evidence.

As I’ve said before and I’ll say again. People living in the past were not nearly as ignorant as some people think, in fact they may have even been on to something important.


Euripides II: Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliant Women, Electra

By: Euripides
268 Pages

For those who’ve been following my path through the Greek tragedies, this collection continues the trend I mentioned before of lionizing Athens. This time around I recognized how often Theseus, the rule of Athens, swoops in at the end of the play and manages to “save the day.” Growing up, I remember people talking about the Greek tradition of deus ex machina, which is when a god shows up at the end and solves everything, but from what I’ve seen Theseus ex machina is a lot more common.

Beyond this I continue to be surprised by the antiquity of civilized customs. This time around it was respect for the dead of your enemy, something which everyone agrees is civilized, but which we have a hard time doing even now. But in the play The Suppliant Women people are willing to go to war not merely to recover their own war dead, but to recover the war dead of another city state. Any guess who these people might be? Yep. The Athenians, and they’re led into war by Theseus…


10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less

By: Garett Jones
234 Pages

Growing up I read a lot of politically themed science fiction collections which had been edited by Jerry Pournelle. The best known of which was the There Will be War series. (The first volume featured the short story version of Ender’s Game.) Intermixed with science fiction short stories were essays, some by Pournelle, and in my memory a significant fraction of his essays dealt in some fashion or another with restricting democracy. Pournelle’s idea being that a government was only as good as it’s rulers, and given that the rulers of a democracy are its voters, it might make sense to not let just anybody do it. That restrictions put in place to improve the quality of the voters would be a good thing. Those were simpler times, calls for restricting democracy are more dangerous these days, and yet Jones has decided to brave the same treacherous waters as Pournelle did back in the 80s with a book calling for exactly that.

Despite the aforementioned danger I will admit that I have a certain amount of sympathy for these arguments. As a thought experiment, imagine a policy that takes the segment of the population who’s never voted, who doesn’t want to vote, who’s apathetic and uninformed about the issues and makes these people vote, does this improve our system of government or not? If the number of voters added is small enough, it probably doesn’t matter, but if we imagine that this group comprises 33 million people (or 10% of the country) would adding these millions of voters improve things or make them worse?

This is along the lines of what Garret’s imagining as well. He feels that Democracy might be similar to taxes, that just as taxes of 100% wouldn’t maximize revenue, 100% democracy doesn’t maximize good governance. From there he suggests various ways to make slight reductions to democracy in a targeted fashion. Examples range from things like not letting felons vote, appointed, rather than elected judges, and independent central banks through things like longer terms for elected officials, and restoring earmarks, all the way up to proposals like making the Senate into a Sapientum, by requiring that only people with college degrees are allowed to vote in those elections.

All, or at least most of these proposals are encapsulated by the subtitle of the book, “Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less”. As I’ve said I have some sympathy for some of these ideas, but I also have a big problem with elite consensus, and the key word in that phrase is “consensus”. I worry that if we’re all doing the same thing and if that thing ends up being a mistake, then everyone ends up making that mistake. Which is not only bad in and of itself but given that the damage from mistakes often scales exponentially rather than linearly with the number of people making mistakes widespread mistakes are generally far worse than mistakes made insolation.


III- Religious Reviews 

Saints Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand

By: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
833 Pages

Several years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) decided to be more proactive about confronting and explaining subjects that some people found troublesome, mostly subjects of doctrine and history. In other words they essentially created an internal apologetics department. As part of this initiative they released the Gospel Topics Essays. These mostly focused on the doctrine side of things. For dealing with the history side of things they put together a group of editors and writers and tasked them with producing multi volume history of the Church. The first volume was released in 2018 and covers from Joseph Smith’s youth all the way up to the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple in 1846 (two years after Smith’s martyrdom). This is a review of volume 2 of that project which picks up where the last one left off and goes up through the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893. 

As I indicated, one of the major motivations for the project was apologetic, and to be honest I’m not sure I’m a fan of how this gets reflected in the writing and tone of the book. In particular two, somewhat objectionable things end up happening. First, because good apologetics requires a strict adherence to primary sources the writers have no latitude for embellishment. They can’t speculate on what an early saint might have been thinking or on their inner motivations or anything like that. If it isn’t mentioned in a primary source like a journal or a newspaper article, it isn’t included.

Second, because it’s a work of apologetics it has to make sure to hit all of the incidents and events which might benefit from an apologetic defence. This leads to a lot of jumping around, where once incident after another is touched on and explained, but without much space to do anything beyond that. In my opinion this has resulted in a choppy and disjointed style, though I will say that I thought Volume 2 was much better about this than Volume 1. So, perhaps I wasn’t the only one who remarked on the problem and they have worked to smooth it out in the second volume. 

These are all fairly minor quibbles. What’s most important is that this period of LDS history is objectively amazing and interesting even if you aren’t a member of the church, and I’m looking forward to volume 3.


I’ve been saying for a long time that bad things have not been eliminated by progress and technology. In a moment filled with bad things I warned about, let me reiterate the other thing I’m always saying, “I would have rather been wrong.” If you’d like me to continue saying things that might later turn out to be true but hopefully won’t be, consider donating.


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?


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Review: Sex and Culture, or Greatness Through Sexual Frustration

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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. 


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Books I Finished in March

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

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

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

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

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

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

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


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

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

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

Finally and most pressingly…

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

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


I- Eschatological Review

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

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

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

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

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

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

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

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


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

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

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


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

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

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


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


Meditations on Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

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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.