Category: <span>History</span>

The 9 Books I Finished in April (and something Extra!)

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  1. “Engineering the Apocalypse” Podcast Episode by Sam Harris and Rob Reid
  2. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World by: Yancey Strickler
  3. The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life by: Boyd Varty
  4. Babylon’s Ashes by: James S. E. Corey
  5. Peter the Great: His Life and World by: Robert K. Massie
  6. Exhalation: Stories by: Ted Chiang
  7. What’s Wrong With the World by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by: Margaret Heffernan
  9. Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice by: Fredrik deBoer
  10. Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical Questions by: Brittney Hartley

In my last essay I was critical of the way Black Lives Matter emphasized some things while ignoring others. Which might have led some to conclude that I’m pro-police. I am not, I am pro what works. And there is clearly a lot about the justice system which does not work. And I got a couple of tastes of it in April. They were small, even tiny tastes nowhere near what some people have been through, but indicative of the perverse incentives we’re currently grappling with. 

The first taste I got was the tinier of the two, but it did impact me directly. I have a friend in prison. This friend is trying to get some education while he’s in there so that when they finally let him out, sometime in his late 50’s/early 60’s, he might be able to get a job. The chief difficulty in this endeavor is getting the books he needs for the classes he’s taking. The prison is very restrictive on books, allowing them from only a single vendor and sometimes not even then. I once tried to send him Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War because it was available through the approved vendor and it was rejected for encouraging violence. (It’s far more a self help book than a manual for gang warfare.)  The approved vendor has a very limited selection and you’d be amazed at the kind of stuff they don’t carry. They don’t even have things like Harry Potter, so as you might guess they’re never going to carry the textbooks he needs. You can get specific books approved but the process is laborious, and ultimately dependent on the whim of the guards.

In an effort to get the required textbooks to him I’ve frequently had to disassemble the books, photocopy them and then gradually mail them to him intermixed with other stuff. As you can imagine this process is also laborious and subject to the whims of the prison mail room. So he decided to actually try getting the most recent required textbook approved. Fortunately it was. So I dutifully sent it down still in the shrink wrap with the approval slip, and this time it was rejected for not being in a white envelope! See that’s another rule they implemented a year or so ago. You can’t use manila folders to send stuff. Why? I have no idea. They obviously open up everything before it gets to the prisoner. Why do they care what color the envelope is? 

The other justice system abuse happened to the friend of a friend. Apparently she was arrested as part of some long running investigation into a drug distribution network. At this point my friend isn’t exactly sure what she may or may not have done. But he expected that she would be released on bail as long as she had a place to go which conformed to the demands of the prosecutors. With no other options my friend had gone to great lengths to make his house that place, which included getting rid of all the alcohol (this is Utah after all). All of this effort was for naught because the federal prosecutors convinced the judge that she had access to a lot of “cryptocurrency” (how much the prosecutor couldn’t say, but “a lot”) and that a sufficient amount of “cryptocurrency” acted like a genie granting wishes and that she could use one of these wishes to disappear. I’m sure he also threw in a reference to the Dark Web for good measure.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Engineering the Apocalypse

An episode of Sam HarrisMaking Sense podcast, Featuring Rob Reid

4 hours

Briefly, what was this episode about?

Bioterrorism by means of artificial pathogens, which Reid considers to be the greatest current danger to civilization.

Who should listen to this episode?

If the pandemic has gotten you interested in pandemics in general and artificial pandemics in particular, and if you want to know what that danger looks like and the best strategy for mitigating it, this is a fantastic resource.

General Thoughts

Lots of people listen to Sam Harris’ podcast, but I have never been one of them. So I’m grateful to friend of the blog Nick deWilde for pointing this episode out to me. (If you’re at all in the tech or entrepreneurial space you should subscribe to his newsletter, The Jungle Gym.) And it should be noted that this episode has far more content from Rob Reid than Sam Harris. Reid has thought deeply about how easy it would be to create an artificial pandemic, but in fairness, lots of people have done that. Where Reid’s analysis shines are in his thoughts on how to mitigate the risk. And there are indeed lots of ways this risk could be mitigated. Hearing them gave me hope, but it also created a little bit of despair as well. Can the techniques he described actually work? Is preventing a version of COVID that’s ten times as lethal and ten times as contagious doable? Even if it’s not easy? The answer to that question presents profound…

Eschatological Implications

I don’t have the space to get into everything Reid talked about so I’m just going to make quick comments on a handful of the points he brought up.

He spent a fair amount of time talking about ways in which RNA strands could be screened and potential harmful strands rejected before being created. Currently the best place to do that is with the companies who create such strands, but eventually someone will be able to buy an RNA printer, at which point Reid suggests that the screening happen at the level of the printer. He indicated that this would force anyone wanting to make an artificial pathogen to use the older more complicated methodology and most would-be bioterrorists wouldn’t know how to do that. What he didn’t speak to is whether these printers could be hacked in such a way to override this screening. I assume Reid is aware of this possibility, and he may not have had the time to cover it. Also maybe such hacking is impossible. Though that seems unlikely. I could imagine it being difficult, but impossible? Given sufficient motivation just about anything can be hacked, and I have hard imagining that these RNA printers would be any different.

As you might imagine the measures Reid wants to introduce cost money. That money is a small fraction of the cost of any potential pandemic, but the amounts in question are still significant. Reid suggests that the military might be a good organization for spearheading these efforts since they have long experience getting money out of the government. This is an excellent point, but just because the military is good at getting money doesn’t mean that they’re good at using it, or at really getting anything done quickly and effectively. It’s interesting that we’re talking about this in the context of future pandemics because their performance during the current pandemic was abysmal. It took the military nine months to develop and approve a face mask. Nine months! For a facemask! And this was an expedited request! This doesn’t inspire me with much confidence that they’re the organization to head up the complicated measures envisioned by Reid for preventing the next pandemic.

Reid’s plans rely on a certain amount of consensus between scientists, businesses and especially countries. Reid goes to great lengths to explain how much easier bioterrorism is than creating a nuclear weapon. And yet despite the best efforts of basically the entire world North Korea was able to acquire nukes. How are we going to prevent them from making a bioweapon? I understand that pathogens are indiscriminate, that the bioweapon you create may end up killing your citizens as well. But playing with nuclear weapons when your opponents have thousands more than you is not especially safe either. And there are various ways to mitigate its effects like releasing it on the other side of the world or having a vaccine already ready to go. I’m not saying this means international consensus is impossible, just that it may not be as obvious an outcome as Reid hopes.

Speaking of spreading it far away, many of Reid’s plans rely on isolating an outbreak quickly, which keeps it from spreading and leaves the rest of the world free to combat it. But there’s no reason why a bioterrorist wouldn’t simultaneously release their pathogen in as many locations as possible. It’s one thing for the US to respond to a single outbreak in New York, it’s another for the US to respond to multiple outbreaks in New York, and yet another for it to respond to multiple outbreaks in multiple cities.

Finally I understand that we should be able to do all or most of the things Reid is recommending, but there’s not a lot of evidence that we will. It’s one thing to talk about what the government is doing right now, when the pandemic is front and center, it’s another to imagine what the government will be doing 10 years from now when the pandemic has faded from memory and other priorities seem far more pressing. As an example of my doubt over government effectiveness, while I was listening to the podcast in my car it was interrupted by a call. Despite not recognizing the number, I was expecting a call from a potential new client so I answered it. It was a recorded voice telling me that my Social Security number had been suspended, an obvious scam. If the government, despite how much people hate them, despite the fact that only a few companies are involved, and despite the fact that all the vectors of the attack are totally controlled by these few companies, can’t stop robocalls, what hope is there for stopping a virus?

To be clear I support everything Reid is calling for (though I hope we can find an organization more efficient than the military to run it) and I’m glad someone has come up with a semi-feasible plan for dealing with this threat, but I think it’s important to realize how difficult the problem is, and that even a straightforward plan is going to face numerous challenges and Reid’s is anything but.


This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World

By: Yancey Strickler

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the ideology of financial maximization warps business and society. 

Who should read this book?

People who agree that financial maximization has a corrosive effect, and are looking for support and evidence.

General Thoughts

Strickler was one of the founders and the CEO of Kickstarter. Which makes this another book by a CEO (see my review of Satya Nadella’s book) talking about why their company is different and how every company would be better if they were more like (insert company name here).

Unlike many such books however this goes into significant detail about how overwhelmed Strickler felt, how stressed and unprepared he felt and how much pressure it is to be the CEO of a successful startup. Having been involved in a couple of unsuccessful startups, and having been an entrepreneur/self-employed since 2007 in any time I wasn’t involved in an unsuccessful startup, I think I have some sense of what he means. And it is pretty bad.

But most of the book is dedicated to diagnosing what is wrong with society, and what needs to be fixed if we don’t want things to get worse and end badly, which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

There are books which posit a general societal and civilizational malaise. A great example is Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, which puts forth the idea that our country is afflicted by a multifaceted decadence which manifests in all sorts of ways, and in nearly all areas. Strickler makes some of the same points, but in his view the problem with society is very narrow, and it all starts with one man. In fact he nails all of the problems of the modern world to one op-ed written by this one man in 1970. That man is Milton Friedman and the op-ed was titled: A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits. And according to Strickler it introduced the concept of financial maximization and this is when it all went south. That the problem with the modern world is business greed, and all other problems flow from that.

Now it is true that something did happen in the early 70’s, there’s a whole website dedicated to it, and I’m getting really close to writing a post of my own about it. But it seems unlikely that Friedman played much of a role in this pivot, let alone was the primary actor. And to be clear, Stickler does not claim that this is the root of all the problems, that’s something of a strawman, but less of one than you might think.

Regardless of the force with which Strickler makes the claim I think it has several problems. To begin with I don’t think the companies were just waiting for permission to maximize profits, or that CEOs had previously kept their salaries reasonable, but then they read Freidman’s op-ed and came away thinking, “Pay myself more? That never would have occurred to me.”

What seems far more likely to me is that the post-war period was an aberration. That America, as really the only country left standing after the war, was able to create a peculiarly nice business environment. That there was enough demand from rebuilding world that everyone could have a nice job and businesses could afford to be generous. And that what started in the 1970’s was more a reversion to the mean, than some unique evil brought on by a specific economic philosophy.

None of this is to say that the problems he talks about aren’t real. I do think, based on the data, that CEO salaries are excessive, that they generally have less of an impact on the company’s profitability than people imagine.  I do think Wall Street is kind of out of control, but I also think their sins are hard to disentangle from the enormous amount of money the government has injected into the system and the perverse aftermath of the 2007-2008 crisis.  And I’m becoming increasingly convinced that technology and network effects have allowed some companies to become monopolies in ways which are pernicious in new and subtle ways. But when all is said and done I don’t think financial maximization is the disease, I think it’s just one of the many symptoms of a far more widespread malise. 


II- Capsule Reviews

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

By: Boyd Varty

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How getting back to nature is the cure for much (perhaps even all?) of what ails us.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s into anything paleo, or paleo adjacent will probably love this book. It draws a direct contrast between what humanity is doing now and an activity which is literally thousands of years old.

General Thoughts

Varty’s family owns a wildlife preserve in South Africa, as part of that it’s necessary to find lions so that the guides have something impressive to show people on safari. Finding these lions involves tracking them. The book is the story of a morning Varty spent tracking with his two older, more experienced companions. The events of the morning are intermixed with observations about life and the world. 

The last book offered a candidate for the one thing that was wrong with society, this offers up an idea for the one thing that will fix all the problems. Both are pretty unreasonable. In the case of this book we can’t send all 7.7 billion people to South Africa to track lions, but I nevertheless found this book far more compelling.  


Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6)

By: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The war which follows after the events of Book 5.

Who should read this book?

The events of book 5 and 6 are tied together so closely that I can’t imagine reading the one without reading the other.

General Thoughts

Lot’s of science fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief. This suspension is expected and generally not particularly onerous. These suspensions can be wide but not particularly deep — it’s something a little bit unbelievable but it permeates everything about the story. They can be deep, but not particularly wide — the book asks you to accept something truly extraordinary, but it’s effect on the story is limited. And then of course the suspension can be both wide and deep in which case it might make the book unreadable. Babylon’s Ashes required me to suspend my disbelief in a way that was reasonably narrow, at least narrow enough that I enjoyed the book as a whole and am eager for the rest of the series, but at a depth that may have exceeded anything I’ve previously encountered in a fiction novel. 

**Begin Mild Spoiler**

Basically in the books there is an oppressed minority with legitimate grievances. And so, as sometimes happens, this minority resorts to violence, but it’s violence on a scale that beggars the imagination. Despite the truly unprecedented scale of the violence, it’s treated in the book as more of a mild overreaction which is mostly justified by the way in which the minority had been treated.

 

**End Mild Spoiler**

What’s unfortunate is that in the current environment this suspension immediately gets translated in my head into a political statement. And to be clear this says more about me than the authors, but this dash of politics, even if unintentional, diminished my enjoyment somewhat.


Peter the Great: His Life and World

By: Robert K. Massie

910 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The frankly incredible story of Peter the Great.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves a good history book.

General Thoughts

Massie might be my favorite author of history, and while I don’t think this quite reaches the level of Dreadnought, it’s nevertheless a fascinating book about an amazing individual. Rather than trying to go deep on any individual event, I thought I’d just list some things I found interesting:

  • The Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia takes up a large part of the book. I didn’t know basically anything about it going in, but it was crazy, particularly from a modern perspective. Everyone expected Sweden to win.
  • Related, the Swedish King, Charles the XII, Peter’s antagonist during the war, is almost as fascinating a character as Peter. Young and impetuous but also a brilliant and effective general.
  • Peter’s second wife also had an incredible story. She was born a Latvian commoner, taken as a spoil of war by one of Peter’s generals, then passed to Peter’s best friend who eventually passed her to Peter. It’s unclear how sexual these first two relationships were, but she married Peter, saved his army from the Ottoman’s and was Tsaress after his death.
  • Unlike the vast majority of Russians Peter loved ships and the sea. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was his journey to Europe. First off he was trying to journey incognito which was impossible, not only because he was the Tsar, but also because he was 6’7” which is conspicuous even now, but back then he would have stuck out like Andre the Giant. Second, the whole point of the trip was that he wanted to learn shipbuilding in Holland. Consequently he spent four months training as a carpenter in the private shipyards of the Dutch East India Company. In the end they gave him a certificate declaring him to be a shipwright, which Peter was immensely proud of.
  • It’s hard to describe how curious Peter was. It wasn’t just shipbuilding he was interested in, it was nearly everything. In many respects this curiosity was what led Peter to be the ultimate modernizing technocrat, building his capitol, St.  Petersburg, from nothing. Reforming Russian money, the Russian army, and of course the Russian fleet. Constantly looking to every detail of the realm. But in all of his affection and admiration towards Europe, it never occurred to him that Russia should be anything other than an absolute autocracy, led by him. 

Exhalation: Stories

By: Ted Chiang

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of fantastic science fiction short stories.

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Or at least anyone who’s ever enjoyed short science fiction.

General Thoughts

This was an excellent recommendation to me by one of my regular readers, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to get to it. Every single story was good and some were fantastic. My favorite might be the very first, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, but perhaps it was just nice to be reading something so atmospheric, it’s been awhile since I’ve done that. I definitely need to go back and read his other collections (there aren’t many).


What’s Wrong With the World

By: G. K. Chesterton

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Chesterton diagnoses the ills of turn of the century England.

Who should read this book?

To me it felt somewhat dated, so probably only if you are already a fan of Chesterton.

General Thoughts

I’ve talked in the past about how people can have an excellent grasp of how the world got to this point, but when they attempt to turn that into a prescription for what we should do in the future their ideas end up being horrible. There is something of that in this book, though I would argue that by preceding from a traditional foundation that Chesterton comes much closer to an accurate view of the future than people taking a more academic approach. And of course say what you will about Chesterton’s opposition to female suffrage, I think it’s more than made up for by his early and quite vocal opposition to eugenics. And in this respect his warnings were incredibly prescient. This book mentions eugenics in only a few places, but it’s clear that he could see the danger of that path when everyone else was hugely in favor of it and several decades before the rest of the world acknowledged the horror of it.

This book also contains some of his best quotes:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

…washing is a virtue in the rich  and therefore a duty in the poor. For a duty is a virtue that one can’t do. And a virtue is generally a duty that one can do quite easily.

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with the little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.


Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

By: Margaret Heffernan

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that recognizing the ambiguous nature of the future helps, paradoxically, to navigate it better. 

Who should read this book?

No one. I came really close to not finishing it. It’s not so much that it’s a bad book, it’s that there are so many better books. 

General Thoughts

In this reviewer’s humble opinion Uncharted is a poor collection of ideas from so many better books. It lays out the idea of black swans like Taleb, but without actually naming them as such or offering any advice for dealing with them. It’s littered with business advice like Good to Great, but with far fewer anecdotes or evidence. It seems to aspire to offer personal advice as well, with the long story of an Irish Catholic priest who fell in love and left the church, and advice about aging as well. For good measure Heffernan mentions stuff like Superforecasting, Aubrey de Grey, (an anti-aging guru) and the frequently told anecdote of how London Cab Drivers have larger hippocampuses. This would all be useful and interesting if it was used to construct some larger philosophical foundation. But at best it was loosely woven into an extended meditation on ambiguity, but it wasn’t a particularly coherent meditation, and even if it was, one doesn’t build a path to the future on extended meditations. 

Out of it all, I did come across one interesting point. She claimed that businesses with a strong culture weather crises better. Perhaps that’s applicable to nations as well?


Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

By: Fredrik deBoer

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A refutation of blank slate ideology, focusing on education, from a marxist perspective. 

Who should read this book?

If you think the idea that “any person can grow up to do anything they want” is one of the most pernicious lies ever told, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

Some people are talented, and smart, and some people are not. Some people can learn long division in an afternoon, some people, such as one young man deBoer mentions, can spend weeks being privately tutored on the subject and still not get it. The book makes three points with respect to this talent gap:

  1. It’s largely genetic (but only on an individual level, deBoer emphatically rejects racial differences).
  2. It’s not fair to condemn people to crappy lives of poverty based on something they have no control over, i.e. their talent. 
  3. This is exactly what both parties are doing by espousing the idea that children are blank slates, and that given the right education system anyone can succeed, and if they don’t it’s on them.

I enjoyed the book, it was well written, and deBoer is passionate and informed. I disagree with a lot of what he says but not his central point, that blank-slateism is a society wide delusion that is warping the nation in profound ways. In particular it’s made the job of teacher virtually impossible. Being married to one teacher and the son of another teacher I can see this playing out. They’re somehow expected to solve all of our nation’s problems by ensuring that everyone learns algebra. And no one dares question whether everyone, in fact, can learn algebra.


III- Religious Reviews

Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical 

By: Brittney Hartley

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Connecting Mormon theology to classical philosophy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants to get into the philosophically unique theology of Mormonism without trying to tackle someone like Sterling McMurrin

General Thoughts

The world “simplified” is right there in the title and Hartley does a great job of exactly that. The book is an easy read but still manages to hit all of the important points. I would say that at times it seems too simple, and there is the occasional foray into current culture war territory (the book is more aspirational than apologetic) but if you’re looking for an easy entry point into the subject this is a great place to start.


Speaking of entry points, supporting this blog has a very easy entry point: $1/month. At $12 a year that’s like the cost of one person eating out. If this blog brings you as much satisfaction as that, consider donating.


Dragging History Into the Present Moment vs. Dragging the Present Moment Into History

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One of the earliest podcasts to gain widespread attention, and still one of the best podcasts even now is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I’ve always been interested in history, but I think listening to Carlin really changed something for me, and made me connect to it in a way that had been rare previously.

At the time I started listening Carlin was in the middle of his series on the Mongols, Wrath of the Khans. If you haven’t listened to that series, and especially if you haven’t listened to any Hardcore History I would definitely recommend that podcast and that series in particular. Wrath of the Khans was easily the equal of the best history books I’ve read.

As everyone presumably knows, the Mongol conquests were kicked off by Genghis Khan, who became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1206 when he united the tribes. Having accomplished that, he wasted no time in proceeding to ravage Eurasia. I imagine nearly everyone has at least heard the name Genghis Khan, but that beyond that most people don’t know very much. Though, if the average person was pressed for some fact about the Khan, I imagine the most common one they would come up with is his staggering number of descendants. And it is truly staggering, it has been estimated that out of all the males currently living, half a percent are direct patrilineal descendents of the Khan. (They have his y-chromosome.) Using current figures for world population that translates into just shy of 20 million men, which is about the same as the number of males in California. 

Another bit of trivia, one which is significantly less well known, is that the conquests carried out by Genghis and his immediate successors killed an estimated 11% of the world’s total population. At the time that amounted to somewhere between 37 and 60 million people, but today that figure would be 844 million people. If even the low estimate is accurate the Mongol Conquests would represent the largest act of mass killing ever perpetrated. So how is it that, at least as far as I can tell, (and google auto-complete bears this out) there is far more interest in his staggering number of descendents than there is in the staggering scale of his destruction?

I assume that most people would answer that it’s because those killings happened a long time ago. This is a perfectly reasonable answer, and it’s the answer that first occurs to me as well, but just because it’s the first answer that comes up doesn’t mean it’s the whole answer. I think the history that gets emphasized and the history that gets ignored is a complicated and interesting topic, one that’s worth digging into deeper. For example, while historical distance may be a great answer for people’s ignorance of the Mongol destruction, it’s less applicable to something that’s happening as we speak. To illustrate I’d like to pull a quote from my review of Age of Entitlement by Christopher Caldwell:

[I’ll] start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that [the opioid crisis has] gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises.

I am not arguing that opioids have been ignored, but as Caldwell points out it took a long time before they were getting emphasis equal to their fatality level. And while Caldwell was reduced to comparing the attention given to opioids to the attention given to crack and post-Vietnam heroin abuse, we’re now able to compare it to the emphasis placed on COVID, to compare overdose deaths to COVID deaths. West Virginia’s opioid death rate of 50 per 100,000 is greater than the COVID death rates in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont, and it’s within shouting distance of the 68 per 100,000 rate of my home state of Utah. Since 1999 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose, while only 571,000 have died from COVID. And while there’s reason to believe that COVID deaths will soon bottom out, opioid deaths just keep increasing. The most recent CDC press release on the subject:

Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

I’m not trying to argue that the opioid crisis is worse than COVID, but it appears that the magnitude of the deaths is very similar. On the other hand the magnitude of the response has been miles apart. People are already talking about how to prevent the next disease pandemic, but very little on preventing the ongoing epidemic of opioids. It seems clear that the pandemic has made it onto the list of “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” that we expect every citizen to be aware of. Has the opioid crisis? I joke about such a list, but it seems like a very useful list to have around. What sort of things would we put on it? What standards would we apply before we include things? And is there a standard that includes COVID, but not opioids? And the overarching question of the post, why has the one been emphasized while the other has been comparatively ignored?

Another short historical example. In the course of this blog I’ve been a big proponent of making sure we pay attention to big risks. For example: 75,000 years ago the Toba Supervolcano erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption ever, with an eruptive volume of 2800 cubic kilometers. (Measured using dense-rock equivalent standard.) Of which 800 cubic kilometers was deposited as ash fall. The enormous amount of material which was ejected into the air led to a dramatic climatic shift. The Toba Catastrophe theory holds that following the eruption the number of humans on the Earth dropped as low as 1,000 breeding pairs. Obviously it’s hard to confirm something that happened so long ago, but if it is true this is probably the closest we’ve ever come to extinction. So my question is, how much emphasis should this event get? Does it deserve a place on “the list”?

I initially titled the list “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” but of course the Toba Supervolcano wasn’t a mistake, it was just something that happened. Should the list instead be called “Humanity’s Close Calls”? From a certain perspective the supervolcano is the scariest thing that has ever happened to humanity, but from another perspective, i.e. the distance of 75,000 years, it’s just a curiosity, something to whip out at a dinner party to make some point about x-risks or nuclear war or something like that. Regardless of what list it belongs on, the more general question is how should we relate to events like this? It seems obvious we shouldn’t ignore them, but how much emphasis should they receive? It would seem equally misguided to obsess over them. What is the happy medium?

To take something closer to our modern day, something more firmly in the category of history than the opioid crisis, let’s talk about Napoleon. I find Napoleon particularly interesting because for the longest time I couldn’t really get a handle on him. He seemed clearly to be the bad guy (based on what I was reading at the time). But if so why didn’t the British just outright execute him? Particularly after he had already escaped from exile the first time? Why did the French continue to revere him? These days I understand things a lot better, particularly when I imagine that the French were operating under the ideology of national greatness. Further, while Napoleon was best known for his military conquests, he also instituted a lot of worthwhile reforms. Accordingly when I heard back in 2016 that the French had voted him the second most important Frenchman in history after Charles de Gualle, this felt like an example of that happy medium I was talking about.  He wasn’t being ignored, but he wasn’t being obsessed over. No one is currently worried about the Bonapartists seizing control, nor are people worried about the French trying to conquer the European continent.

Unfortunately I recently discovered from reading an article in The Economist that this happy medium, if it ever existed, exists no longer. Just a few days from now is the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death and apparently his role and the history that surrounds it is, like so much else, being reexamined. Things that were once ignored are now being emphasized and things that were once emphasized are now being ignored. And interestingly enough this change is coming from all sides. We read in the article that:

Alexis Corbière, a deputy from Unsubmissive France, a left-wing party, declared: “It is not for the republic to celebrate its gravedigger.” On the right Jean-Louis Debré, formerly head of the constitutional council, said that “overdoing it” would be “a provocation”. The Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened those who reject any celebration of a leader who reintroduced slavery to the French West Indies in 1802. Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the Socialist mayor of Rouen, says he wants to replace the imposing bronze statue of the emperor on horseback that stands outside his Normandy town hall.

Now, as I pointed out, Napoleon did do a lot of bad things, though all of the bad things he did happened 200 years ago. More recently than that, we had the Civil War, during which the Confederacy did a lot of bad things. More recently still, Hitler and the Germans did unimaginably bad things. But all of these bad things are over and done with, so why have we suddenly decided to go from ignoring them to emphasizing them?

On the other hand the opioid crisis is ongoing and worsening, and yet it arguably gets less attention than either the crimes of pre-Civil War America or the ongoing danger from Nazis. (Hopefully in the US at least this crisis edges out Napoleon, but even here it’s closer than it should be.) Why is that? Why are we spending more time and attention on what happened in the past than what’s happening right now? You may argue that the opioid crisis is not “history” in the same way that the Civil War and World War II are, but what about the COVID pandemic? On most measures it seems very similar to the opioid epidemic, and yet it garners a far greater share of our attention. Nor does anyone doubt it will end up making it into the history books. Why does it receive so much more attention than the opioid crisis? Is it the same reason that World War II is more noteworthy than the Mongol Conquests? Is it strictly an issue of how recent they are?

Perhaps it is. As the Caldwell quote points out, we’ve been dealing with drug problems and overdosing since at least the Vietnam war. So perhaps in some sense the pandemic and the Nazis are recent in a way that drug overdosing and the Mongols aren’t. And I agree that recency should play some role in what we choose to emphasize, but should it always factor in? Should we treat an event that happened 25,000 years ago differently than an identical event that happened 75,000 years ago? Probably not. At that remove I don’t think anyone cares that one event is closer even if it’s three times more recent. If this is the case then at what point does recency cease to play a role? At what point does the degree to which we emphasize something not depend on how long ago it happened? Are the Mongol conquests past that point? If so it might explain why we still care how many people the Khan fathered, but not how many he killed. 

Whatever that line is between deciding whether something should be ignored or emphasized, lately it seems to be moving backward in time. In 2016 Napoleon was on the other side of the line. Safely ensconced as a historical figure and the 2nd greatest Frenchman. In 2021 he’s the man who reintroduced slavery in the West Indies. In those last five years certain acts of Napoleon went from being ignored to being important. This is not to say he didn’t have baggage in 2016, but he appears to have accumulated more baggage in the last five years. Closer to home there were many decades when people didn’t think much about the Confederacy. Now there’s an ongoing project to remove statues, change displays and close down monuments. Finally, anti-nazi fervor is as intense as it’s been in quite some time. Many things that happened before most people were born are suddenly very important. 

So how should we determine importance? How should we decide what gets emphasized and what gets ignored. I’ve talked a fair amount about the difference between recent events (Nazis and the Civil War) and more ancient events (Mongols and Toba). It’s clear that nearness in time impacts importance, but after considering these events from several different angles I think recency is not important by itself, but only as a proxy for our ability to mitigate the negative effects of these events. We don’t pay much attention to the Mongol Conquests because there’s nothing we can do about them. We have a sense that there are many things we can do about the pandemic, but as far as overdose deaths we have the opposite sense, that despite significant effort at reducing those deaths they haven’t budged very much. Whether we have in fact expended significant effort is a different question, but there’s a sense that it’s somewhat hopeless. 

So far so reasonable, but if it’s actually our “mitigation line” that’s been moving back in time, then our question turns into a discussion of why we suddenly feel that our powers of mitigation have increased? Why do we suddenly feel that going from ignoring certain past events and people to emphasizing them will yield a positive outcome? How are we sure that this new focus is the ideal way to treat history instead of the view of Napoleon which prevailed in 2016, or the view of the Confederacy which prevailed during the six year run of the Dukes of Hazzard? (Back when I was 12 I was a pretty big fan). Have our powers of mitigation actually increased? Will not celebrating the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s death actually mitigate the harm he did in 1802, will tearing down Confederate statues help heal the damage caused by slavery? If they will, why didn’t we do these sorts of things sooner? If they won’t why are we doing them now?

I think many people would argue that it’s not mitigation we’re after, but accuracy. That remembering Napoleon’s reintroduction of the slavery results in a more complete picture than just remembering his victory at Austerlitz, or appreciating the modern administrative state he ushered in. But as I look at how this is playing out I don’t see a mania for accuracy. I don’t see an emotionless search for the facts. I see people protesting in the streets over one thing while largely ignoring things that seem objectively just as bad. This new focus doesn’t fit very well into either a quest for mitigation or for accuracy, but it fits perfectly into support for a particular narrative of history. This is not to say that people don’t hope for mitigation or accuracy as by-products, but the main objective is the narrative.

Understanding this illuminates one of the major reasons why the opioid crisis remains largely overlooked despite the huge number of people who have died. It’s a situation that would benefit both from mitigation and accuracy, but narratively it’s not very interesting at all. We can’t blame it on racism, or Democrats, or Trump. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t easily fit into the narrative of Social Justice. It’s ongoing and worsening, but it’s been ongoing for awhile, and there’s no sound bite solution. 

On the opposite side of things we have the most visible recent example of historical changes in emphasis: the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s the perfect fit for the narrative of Social Justice, and it has the perfect sound bite solution, “Defund the Police”. From a historical perspective it has given us the 1619 Project, which put forward a huge change in interpreting the founding of the country, but which was also widely criticized for its ahistorical claims. It has also given us the “Hands up, don’t shoot.” slogan, which emphasizes a very specific modern event, which didn’t actually happen. These two examples should be blows to people pushing the accuracy argument. But beyond these examples there’s the larger shuffling of history which involves tearing down statues, renaming schools, and scattered instances of reparations, along with calls for universal reparations. 

This is not to say that there haven’t been horrible abuses by police and killings that literally make you sick. But it’s important to compare the numbers. Which takes us into the subject of mitigation. According to the Washington Post’s database on police shootings, 985 people were shot and killed by police over the past year. This is a tragedy but as I mentioned previously 81,000 people in the most recent year from drug overdoses. That’s nearly 100x as many. Now not all of those 985 people were unarmed. NPR reports that “Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide”. This is obviously still unacceptable, but in that time 400,000 people died from drug overdose. So about 3000x as many.

Now at this point there are various disclaimers which could be offered. The NPR quote said, “at least 135” it could be more. Of the 400,000 people who overdosed only around 2/3rds overdosed on opioids. Police shootings are in a different category than opioids, they should be more preventable, and state violence is particularly reprehensible. One imagines that police violence can be reduced to fewer causes than opioid overdosing. Furthermore there is evidence of racial bias in police violence whereas overdose deaths are more diverse.

On the other side we could add that while overdosing kills vastly more people, police shootings garner vastly more attention. Even if the opioid epidemic and police shootings got equal amounts of attention, each police shooting of an unarmed Black individual would garner 3000x as much attention per fatality. But given that the problem of police shootings gets at least 10x or maybe 100x as much attention, in this particular case, the shift in emphasis I’ve been talking about, results in an attention rate per fatality ten to a hundred thousand times as great.

You may think, so what? Yes, police violence has been dramatically emphasized recently, but this follows a long period during which it was almost entirely ignored. We’re just balancing the scales. We used to lionize the Confederacy and minimize the issue of slavery. We used to think of Napoleon as a military genius, not a historical arsonist (A fantastic term from Dan Carlin.) We used to give police the benefit of the doubt now we understand the numerous abuses they’re capable of. The problem is that by engaging in such extreme changes in emphasis you end up  weaponizing history. And when you turn something into a weapon people are bound to get hurt. 

As just one example, recently Vox, of all places, drew attention to a study which basically showed that for every police killing that was prevented by BLM protests that city ended up with 10 additional murders. Perhaps that’s a price people are willing to pay, perhaps the math on that works out in the long run somehow. But it’s also important to note that these numbers are probably low. They do not include the surge in murders that happened after George Floyd was killed, so the trade-off could be a lot worse than 10 to 1 which already seems too much. 

Emphasis doesn’t appear to bring greater accuracy, nor does it appear to do much in terms of mitigation, and may in fact have made it worse (depending on how you view the trade off just mentioned). Additionally emphasis is almost always subject to diminishing returns. At some point everyone knows everything there is to know about police violence, and we’ve done everything practical to prevent it. (And I understand definitions of practicality vary.) Whereas those things which have been ignored can often be dramatically improved with just a little bit of attention. To give a more concrete example, if we could reduce the number of opioid overdoses by just 2% then we would have saved more lives than reducing the number of police shootings to zero. 

When I started this post I had not intended to get so far into the weeds of the opioid epidemic and Black Lives Matter. Mostly I wanted to talk about how the trend of emphasizing, and at its most extreme weaponizing, history is a bad trend with bad effects. That it has a negative impact on nearly all of our current discourse and policy making. But how do we deweaponize history? If viewing history through a lens of ideological bias is clearly the wrong way to do things, what is the correct way? How should we view Toba, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, the Confederacy, the pandemic, the opioid crisis and Black Lives Matter? Well to begin with two of the items on that list have not been weaponized. No one is using Toba to decide what should happen on a specific day in May. No one is using the Mongol Hordes to support privileging one group over another. 

I would suggest that instead of bringing history into the arguments of the present that we take the arguments of the present and look at them as if they were history. That we in fact look at them with as much distance as possible. That we try to imagine that we’re historians studying the early 21st century from the vantage of the early 31st century. What would be salient then? And is it salient now? Is their view of what was important more likely to be correct than your view? If that’s the case then that’s the view we should adopt. 

I think this paradigm has several advantages. First off, the past is harder to change than we think. Yes we should attempt to mitigate the murder of George Floyd by trying Derek Chauvin. But when people talk about police evolving from slave patrols, not only is that inaccurate but even if it weren’t what does it contribute to the current debate over policing? I understand that the Nazi’s were scary and did bad things, but does labeling the people who stormed the capitol on January 6th as Nazis really clarify anything about the present moment? Does it lead us to come up with better solutions or worse? It’s unquestionably beneficial for a certain narrative, but that’s precisely the problem I’m talking about.  

If somehow there was widespread defunding of the police would a historian 1,000 years from now view it as the dawn of a truly just society, never before achieved? Or would they view it as another experiment in a long line of historical experiments which all ultimately failed? In other words what we emphasize they might ignore. But in addition, what we ignore, they might emphasize. If the opioid epidemic continues for much longer or gets much worse I could imagine it eclipsing both BLM and the pandemic. What about stuff like falling birth rates? Most people yawn when something like that comes up, but you could easily see how that’s a trend that could define our era for hundreds of years.

In this post I have asked a lot of questions, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to have a longer term view. To understand that dredging up the sins of the past for the arguments of today is neither healthy nor productive. That someday we’re all going to be food for the worms, and everything we’re so concerned about right now will matter not at all. And some of the things we’re not concerned about will matter more than we can imagine.


I often imagine how this blog will age. Will I be one of those writers who was ignored while they were alive but famous after death? Or will I be one of those writers that has his 15 minutes but then is quickly forgotten. Given the choice I’d prefer a third option, just having a few people think my stuff is worth a few bucks once in a while. If that sounds good to you consider donating.


Vanquished Vaccines and Vetocracies

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I.

A friend of mine spent some time as a consultant for the Utah Department of Human Services. Which included things like foster care and child protective services. And he tells the story of a sign which had been put up outside one of the cubicle farms which said, “If we can save just one child it will all be worth it.” Or something to that effect. Upon seeing that sign he thought to himself, “No, if this department, which employs dozens of people, and costs millions of dollars to operate, can only save one child, it will not all have been worth it, it will have been an enormous misallocation of resources. To save only one child would be a failure of epic proportions.” 

We’re seeing another example of strangely mis-aligned government goals playing out in Europe. (By the way, for those who read my last post, just as I finished it I got an email saying that my European river cruise this summer had indeed been cancelled.) This second example concerns the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, which has run into all kinds of problems in Europe and still hasn’t been approved in America which has left tens of millions of doses sitting around, unused. 

Just in the last week the European Medical Agency concluded that there was a link between the AZ vaccine and blood clots. But went on to say that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite this many countries have suspended the AZ vaccine for people under 60, and suggest they should take a different vaccine. This suspension might seem only prudent, but before making that decision let’s look at the actual risk. I grabbed some applicable quotes from an article in Business Insider (which is a weird mix of horrible ads and decent information)

“The risk of dying in an air crash is just astronomically higher than the risk of clotting after the vaccine dose, and yet we all get on a plane without a second thought,” Johan Bester, director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine, told Insider.

Wednesday’s announcement came after European medical officials reviewed fewer than 100 blood-clotting cases reported among more than 25 million people in the EU who’ve gotten AstraZeneca’s shot. That’s a rate of roughly 4.6 clot cases per 1 million shots — higher than expected, the review found, but still extraordinarily rare. 

Although even a minuscule chance of a fatal blood clot sounds scary, no medicine carries zero risk. After a year of taking birth-control pills, about one in 1,000 women will develop blood clots. (The risk is about 1 in 10,000 for all young women, so it’s elevated nearly 10-fold in birth-control takers.)

Now I haven’t exhaustively looked into all the numbers I just quoted, so I don’t know if the “fewer than 100” cases (it looks like it was actually 86) they looked at represented most if not all of the cases or if there could be a lot more out there. On the other hand, out of those 86 cases only 18 people died, so the actual confirmed death rate would be less than 1 in a million. Even with this number in hand it can be difficult to compare it to the other numbers they mentioned

One clotting death for every one million shots is certainly less than 1 in 10,000. Which would initially seem to indicate that the risk of blood clots from the AZ vaccine is less than the default risk of clots mentioned in connection with young women. But I’m assuming that the 1 in 10,000 number is over a woman’s entire lifetime or since they say “young women” perhaps it’s over a span of 10-20 years, while the AZ numbers are compressed into the space of a few months. 

Regardless of the default rate what is clear is that taking birth-control pills for a year is probably more dangerous than getting vaccinated. And yes, I understand that the vaccine risks must be balanced against the risks of not getting vaccinated, which for young people is pretty low, so let’s look at another statistic: On a 500-mile road trip, the risk of dying is about 1.2 in 200,000. And yet which young adult would balk at a 500 mile road trip? Or to put it in economic terms, how much additional would they pay to avoid the risk of the road trip and fly instead? Based on my experience with young people and road trips, the answer is, not very much.

I spent so much time on the AZ vaccine both because it’s so interesting but also because we have a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine can prevent, and a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine might cause and it’s clear that the number of deaths it could have prevented is vastly higher than the number of deaths it causes. Nowhere is this more true than in America which has been sitting on at least 30 million doses of the vaccine since at least early March, and almost certainly longer than that. But for some reason the AZ vaccine still has yet to be approved. And here’s where we circle back to that sign. In the case of the Utah Department of Human Services success was saving even one kid. In the case of the AZ vaccine it appears that failure is causing even one death (or more accurately 1 death in a million doses, but you get the idea). 

At first glance it may seem like the two standards are precisely the opposite of one another, the one is about saving a single life while the other is about causing a single death, but they both stem from the same impulse. The impulse I mentioned in my last newsletter, of turning the knobs as far as they can to one side or the other. On the one hand we have the bureaucrats who believe that their job is so important and the value of saving children is so superlative, that even if they can only do it once, it will all have been worth it. On the other hand bureaucrats who believe that causing even one death due to something they authorized is so bad, that even if it only happens once, none of it will have been worth it. But in both cases they’ve turned the dial of individual importance as high as it will go.

Now of course this is something of a strawman for what they actually believe. I’m sure that the Utah Department of Human Services knows that it’s not enough to only save one child, even if that sign did hang in their offices. And the Europeans are still administering the AZ vaccine, even if they have attached restrictions and warnings to it. But the US still hasn’t started, and given what we know now about the blood clots, what’s your bet on whether they ever will? Mine is that they won’t. That best case scenario those doses will be shipped off to some country in need (some already have been) and worst case scenario they’ll languish in a warehouse, before eventually being tossed out. And what sort of trajectory would you project for the administration of the AZ vaccine in Europe? Would you predict that concerns over blood clots will fade, and the restrictions will be lifted? Or would you predict that each instance of someone dying from blood clots will be major news? That people will grow increasingly reluctant to take it and that eventually European governments will stop distributing it? I’m predicting the latter. As usual I hope I’m wrong, but I guess we’ll see. (In between writing this paragraph and finishing the post Denmark banned the AZ vaccine entirely, and the US paused Johnson and Johnson.)

II.

These examples and others tell us something important about the way western governments work these days. And moreover that they are not working as they should. Western governments should not be restricting the distribution of the AZ vaccine based on a handful of deaths, or consider saving only one child a metric for success. I say western governments because we’re not seeing the same thing happening in China or Russia. And I say “these days” because we didn’t see this sort of thing historically. Can anyone imagine a similar fuss over blood clots happening in Russia, China or 1930? 

What is this quality that separates us from these other countries and our past selves? Would you define it as a form of government? Is this what I was talking about in all those posts when I was criticizing technocracies? Perhaps a little bit, but here’s where I pull in the book Where’s My Flying Car by J. Storrs Hall (which I promised to expand on in my last post) because the book convinced me that I had perhaps been too hasty in using the term technocracy to describe what’s going on. I’m not sure technocracy is the right term for the form of government which obsesses over saving children and preventing blood clots. But nor do I think people use it to describe the opposite of that, a government which clears away safety regulations around flying cars and nuclear power, which is what Hall proposes. Which is to say in arriving at this point I may have made some mistakes in terminology, but that’s how these sorts of things work, and at no point in this journey did I claim to have all the answers. So let’s pull back a little bit, and rather than trying to say what a technocracy is let’s look at various problem solving approaches. Since we’re already talking about vaccines let’s continue to use that as an example..

Of course, with vaccines there are several countries that can afford to be as cautious as they want. Countries which stopped the spread of COVID and therefore don’t need to engage in a massive vaccination effort. The most notable of these success stories is China, which suffered the disadvantage of not only having a huge population and giant land borders, but worst of all, it was where the virus started. If their numbers can be believed they have suffered just 4,636 deaths from COVID, which is only about twice the number of my home state of Utah, at 2,159, despite having a population 400 times smaller. The US, as a whole, is currently at 564k deaths. Now I’m guessing that China’s number is low, that far more than 4k people died from COVID. But it’d have to be off by two orders of magnitude for their deaths to be as bad as the US’s and it’d have to be off by a factor of 500 for the per capita rate to be as bad. 

How did China do it? They did it by taking a different approach than we did, one enabled by having a different form of government. They did it through a draconian authoritarianism which allowed them to put into place a comprehensive lockdown of a breadth which was unimaginable nearly anywhere else. This is an authoritarian approach and it’s the first one we’ll put on our list.

The second approach takes us in the opposite direction, but before we can get into the details of the approach, we need to get into the details of the Moderna vaccine. (I got my second shot yesterday.) And the most important of these details is that it was developed in two days. Once this was known people started wondering, what would have happened if we had immediately started using the vaccine as soon as it had been developed? Well obviously inventing something is a long way from producing it in quantity, and presumably, given the nature of the crisis Moderna didn’t wait too long before they started ramping up production. They were presumably building out factories, and putting logistics into place long before FDA approval. But even in the unlikely event that we couldn’t have gotten doses any faster than we did, we still could have started administering those doses a lot sooner. And clearly many people who died between January 13, 2020 when the vaccine was developed and December 18, 2020 when the vaccine was approved could have been saved. And even if you want to argue about how much faster the Moderna vaccine could have been deployed, you can’t argue with the 30 million or more AZ doses which haven’t been used. 

This approach, this system, this world — the one where we started administering doses of Moderna as soon as it had been developed — this is the world of Where’s My Flying Car. It’s a world where we put our faith in technology and plunge boldly forward, not necessarily heedless of the dangers, but convinced that what technology breaks, technology is best at fixing. Now to a certain extent this is also a strawman. I doubt Hall was a proponent of administering the Moderna vaccine on the day it was developed, but I’m sure he was a proponent of going a lot faster than we did, and of doing things we mostly avoided like human challenge trials. And even if he wasn’t there were people who were. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is Alex Tabarrok, who has been a perpetual advocate of all sorts of tactics for speeding up vaccination (e.g. having the US approve the AZ vaccine as soon as Europe did, first doses first, rapid at home tests, and human challenge trials). Essentially pushing for our approach to be closer to the world as described by Hall. We will call this second approach, which mostly doesn’t exist in the wild, technolibertarianism.

The third approach I want to consider might be called the historical. It’s the system we had in place during the last pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and the system we continued to operate under in the decades which followed. Under this system there were masks, and things closed down, but neither intervention was nearly so widespread as it is today. Beyond that the authoritarianism on display by the Chinese was inconceivable back then. Though I know some imagine that things were more authoritarian back then, but at least in this case, no 1918 government had the wherewithal to lock things down to the extent China did in 2020. Nor did they probably ever even consider it.

On the vaccine side of things, would they have waited 11 months between developing a vaccine and trying it out? That’s harder to know. When the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796 he just immediately tested it out on the 9 year-old son of the gardener. On the other hand by 1935 when John Kolmer was experimenting with the smallpox vaccination the fact that five out of 10,000 children died and 10 were paralyzed led to a pretty severe pushback, so severe that it was another 20 years before a smallpox vaccine was approved by the government. (Side note: these numbers are orders of magnitude higher than the AZ blood clot numbers.) Would it have been different 17 years earlier at the time of the Spanish Flu? If the years wouldn’t have made a difference would the speed and the severity of the disease have made a difference? Particularly as compared to the slower more chronic progression of polio? That’s also tough to say, but there is one thing we can confidently say, and it’s something I’ve wondered about before in this space: Whatever the disruption and the deaths caused by the Spanish Flu, in the decades that followed it was largely forgotten. It had almost no impact on the psyche of the nation. It’s hard to imagine the same thing being said of COVID.

An Aside

Why is this? Why did the 1918 Pandemic, which by any measure was far more horrible than what we’re going through now, have such little impact? In the course of writing this post a thought occurred to me. WWI is far better remembered and studied than the Spanish Flu despite fewer people dying (particularly in America). But war is always an existential threat, there is always the chance that the nation itself might perish, and as a result it’s important to the nation that it learn from those times in which it almost died. The Spanish Flu, despite its lethality, was never existential. There was never a chance that it would end nations. WWI might have, it never had the potential to end the US, but it could have been the effective end of France, with whom we have quite a bit of civilizational overlap. This was part of the reason we entered the war. (“Lafayette, we are here!”)

Given that the current pandemic has made far more of an impact on our national psyche, and will be a far greater part of our history, does this mean we view it as an existential threat? That’s a good question, and this whole idea is somewhat embryonic, but if I was going to push it just a little bit farther, historically, people felt the existence of a nation was ensured by subsequent generations, that if they were having children and raising them to carry on their and their nation’s ideals that the existence of that nation was not threatened, but increasingly existence is not about subsequent generations or our children, it’s about ourselves, and while even a bad pandemic has a hard time eradicating subsequent generations, there’s always a chance of it eradicating any given individual. All of which is to pose the question, is COVID more existential because we’re more selfish?

End Aside

All we’re left with is whatever approach we actually did take. The thing I’ve spent so much effort over the last few essays trying to get at. How did we do at fighting COVID?

Now that we can look back on things it seems clear that our approach wasn’t as successful as the authoritarian approach taken by China and it wasn’t as successful as a “caution to the wind” technolibertarian approach would have been. Was it more successful than the historical approach? The one taken by the US of 1918 when they were faced by the Spanish Flu? That’s a tougher question, and it’s going to be awhile before that’s clear. At this point it does seem safe to assert that it has been more damaging to our confidence. Beyond that things are still up in the air. Will the enormous amount of government spending cause any problems down the road? Will we have a tranche of kids who are permanently behind academically? Will we be quicker to draw on our “COVID toolkit” in the future? That is, quicker to throw trillions of dollars at our problems or even more likely to shut things down in whole or in part. We’ll have to see, but from where I’m sitting the early signs aren’t encouraging.

If on an even longer time horizon it becomes apparent that the historical approach would have also been better, then we will be in the unenviable position of having ended up with the worst approach of all. And if so how did that happen? It certainly seemed like we really wanted to do whatever it took to beat COVID, and yet, it’s already clear that we could have done a lot better. It’s understandable that we don’t want to mimic the authoritarianism of China. And it would have probably been impossible for the government to make us. And in a similar fashion I understand why it would have been hard to use the same approach we used in 1918, though I think there were elements there that we should have been paying attention to, but this is not the time to get into that, as I have spent enough time arguing that point, both here and in other posts. The big question I have after reading Where’s My Flying Car is why was it so difficult to take the technolibertarian approach? And is that approach a true technocracy? If not what is? 

Before proceeding to the next section we should give this final approach, the one we actually took, a label. Based on what’s happening with the vaccines, and elsewhere, vetocracy seems appropriate, but I acknowledge that this doesn’t quite cover all of the complexities. Because it’s not like everything gets vetoed. Some things still happen, some laws still get passed. What can we learn from an examination of what does get done vs. what doesn’t.

III.

One of the reasons this discussion has wandered quite a bit is that there’s a lot of ambiguity in defining what a technocracy is. I actually don’t think most people use it to describe Hall’s vision of flying cars, nanotechnology and nuclear power. I think it’s proponents make the claim that it’s the system which “follows the science”. Certainly the proponents of the current administration made that claim — whether or not they label themselves technocrats — and yet this is the administration which hasn’t released the AZ vaccine and just barely “paused” the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. (It’s amazing how things have changed just in the time it took me to write this post.) 

The most consistent definition of technocracy, at least from my perspective, is the idea not of following the science, but of following the macroeconomists. And here I assume that some of my hardcore socialist friends would say that technocracy is just the latest euphemism for the way entrenched capitalist interests always manage to remain entrenched. Or put more simply it’s just the latest way for the rich to get richer. And this point is not without merit, whatever the success of our COVID fighting efforts we have definitely succeeded in adding a lot of wealth to those who already had it.

Socialist critiques aside, it does seem that the term technocracy as it is commonly used is far more likely to concern money and monetary policy than technology. You hear it used to explain the explosive growth of South Korea and the rise of the chaebol’s (which literally means rich family). You heard the term used during the Greek financial crisis to refer to those most committed to doing what the IMF stipulated. Moving forward to our own time and place, even though we never got around to distributing the AZ vaccine (and probably never will) our own politicians had very little problem passing two huge COVID stimulus bills. And nothing is more technocratic than stimulus bills. 

As another example I think people like Matt Ygelsias and Ezra Klein are viewed as current day technocrats, and while they are interested in the Hall/Tabarrok form of technocracy, their primary focus has always been on economic policy — scolding deficit hawks, and pushing for large stimulus bills. But this gets to one of the key questions of the post: 

How is it that we’re so bold when it comes to spending trillions and trillions of dollars, but so timid when it comes to vaccine safety? Or the safety of other technologies?

Here it’s useful to bring in some of these other technologies, since up until this point I’ve mostly been talking about vaccines, but Hall describes essentially the same thing happening with nuclear power. Vaccines are being banned despite clear evidence that fewer people will die if we use them than if we don’t use them, and this is precisely what happened with nuclear power. It’s very easy to show that it’s the power source which causes the lowest number of deaths per unit of energy produced. And that, already low statistic, is based on reactors which were almost entirely built in the 70’s and 80’s. When it comes to next gen nuclear that number will certainly be even lower. So here you have a source of power that’s safer than even wind and solar, doesn’t emit any carbon, and uses as its power source elements which are all but inexhaustible (estimates are that uranium and thorium could power the world for 100,000 years) and yet, according to Where’s My Flying Car:

The startup company NuScale is intent on developing modular reactors, small enough to be built in a factory and thus cutting costs, construction times, and so forth significantly. NuScale has to date spent $505 million dollars just to produce the 12,000 pages of paperwork the NRC requires simply for an application. The company estimates that the regulatory process will delay actual production until 2026.

If that isn’t a vetocracy I don’t know what is.

Of course when it comes to nuclear power people immediately jump to the problem of waste, that we are creating waste which will still be around thousands of years from now. And in a similar fashion people who object to vaccines will often concede that it saves more lives in the short term, but you can never be sure what harms it might cause in a few months, a few years, or a few decades. And this is true, you can never be sure what harms the future holds. (BTW the historical response was straightforward, have as many children as possible.) But what approach or framework or system of knowledge causes us to be so unsure about the future harms and benefits of the AZ vaccine, but yet so confident about the beneficial effects and lack of any harm from massive government spending? It seems very possible that we are bold when we should be cautious and cautious when we should be bold. That in more areas than just vaccination we have ended up with the worst approach of all.

When I originally conceived of this post I thought I would spend most of my time talking about why we are so cautious, and also a lot more space on Where’s My Flying Car, but here we are 4300 words in and the references to the book have been sparse, and the examination of our caution has been almost non-existent. I think some of that discussion will take place in an abbreviated form in my next end of month newsletter, because it was my last newsletter that gave us a framework for understanding it. In that space I talked about the knobs technology had given us for controlling society, and how the temptation is to turn them all the way to one side or the other. And thinking of it this way is very clarifying. Let’s look at some potential knobs and their settings.

One of the first things you might try to get to the bottom of is the enormous disparity between how careful we are with vaccines vs. how careful we are with cars (see the statistics from earlier in the post). Or in a similar fashion why so little effort is being spent to reduce the amount of coal (100 deaths/terawatt hour) and how much effort is spent blocking nuclear (0.09 deaths/terawatt hour). And here we might say that with older technologies that the knob is stuck. Cars and coal are too entrenched for anything to be done.

Similarly you might try to get at the disparity between deaths caused by COVID and deaths caused by the vaccine. Between the deaths we might have caused and deaths nature might have caused. In essence this is the Trolley Problem. Is it better to let some external force kill five people or is it better to save those five people but to directly kill one person? Of course here we’re dealing with thousands if not tens of thousands of people saved for every one who dies. Also I think it’s very easy to count the one, but harder to count the thousands.

Thus every potential blood clot caused by a vaccine is rigorously documented, but how many people have any sense of how many people die from natural blood clots (or blood clots from birth control pills)? We rigorously dissect and document and mythologize every nuclear accident, but how many people die from coal mining or pollution? We are obsessed with every child we can save (“if we can save just one it will all have been worth it”) but relatively unconcerned with the millions we can’t save. 

You might say that our knob for counting harms we’ve caused is turned all the way up. And why wouldn’t it be? And our knob for safety is turned all the way up. Again, why wouldn’t it be? But in consequence, the minute we become aware of one death we’re responsible for we turn that knob, the one that caused it, (say the AZ vaccine) all the way to zero. Unless it’s stuck of course. This is the nature of our vetocracy.

I’m aware that this is not caused by a handful of bureaucrats imposing these regulations and restrictions and bans on an unwilling population, that this is a decision society as a whole has taken. That we don’t want the kind of authoritarianism that locks us down so tight COVID has no chance to spread, but we do want the kind of authoritarianism that makes new nuclear plants require a 12,000 page application. That we don’t want a technocracy that actually gives us new cool technology, but we’re fine with a technocracy that gives out lots of money. That we can’t imagine living like we did in the past because that’s terrifying, but we’re fine with a host of new, trivial terrors. That if we can prevent even a single death or save even a single child it will all have been worth it. Even if it has led us to a world entirely geared around avoiding risks rather than taking them.


Of course I often say that if my blog is read and appreciated by even one person it will all have been worth it. If you find that declaration to be similarly asinine and you would like me to read and appreciated by all people in need consider donating


The 8 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by: Joseph Henrich
  2. Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition by: Stephen R. Bown
  3. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by: Thomas Frank
  4. Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt by: Clay Moyle
  5. The Landmark Thucydides by: Thucydides Edited by Robert B. Strassler
  6. The Abolition of Man by: C. S. Lewis
  7. Orthodoxy by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by: Bart D. Ehrman

My wife was a big Star Trek: Voyager fan, so I ended up watching a fair bit of it myself back in the day. Out of all the episodes I saw, one in particular keeps coming back to me, probably because it seems to speak to the situation we’re in. And more specifically the situation I found myself in last month.

The episode was titled The Voyager Conspiracy and in it Seven of Nine “decides to increase the amount of information she receives from the ship’s database by directly assimilating as much of Voyager’s data as possible”. After doing so she starts to see conspiracies everywhere, eventually deciding that the whole “being lost in the Delta Quadrant” is an intricate plan to capture a borg drone, i.e. her. This causes her to flee the ship. Eventually they convince her that she’s sick and the episode resolves in the usual semi-artificial way. 

This is not a subtle way of saying that I’ve descended into conspiracy theories. What resonated with me is the danger of seeing connections where none exist. I feel like lately I’ve been making a lot more connections between disparate bodies of material and I’m ever so slightly worried that rather than elegantly integrating various strands of knowledge into a brilliant thesis, I’m in the situation of Seven of Nine. The doctor’s diagnosis of her could apply equally well to me:

Seven has downloaded more information than she can handle…

I guess we’ll have to see.

Of course, beyond my own situation, the parallels between that episode of Star Trek: Voyager and the current state of the country are probably too obvious to be worth belaboring. But comparing social media to an out of control Borg implant would not be far from the truth.

Oh, also I turned 50 in February… It’s been a little bit surreal.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

by: Joseph Henrich

682 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democractic. Combine that with the subtitle and you actually have a pretty good summary, though it neglects to foreshadow the enormous amount of time Henrich spends talking about the importance of Western Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a powerful counter narrative for much of what people believe about the world. Though it’s written in such a way that I don’t think most people realize how radical of a book it is. As such I think just about everybody should read it. Certainly if you’ve ever considered reading a nearly 700 page non-fiction book by a Harvard professor, you should read this one.

General Thoughts

This is Henrich’s follow up to The Secret of Our Success, which I reviewed last month, so obviously, of the many connections I made this month, one was the connection between those two. Though it is certainly not necessary to have read that book in order to understand this one. In fact Henrich doesn’t pull in cultural evolution (the main subject in Secret) until the end of WEIRDest. Probably because in this book he’s going in a different direction. In Secret he was going from the general idea of the importance of cultural evolution, to the specific examples of it in action. While in WEIRDest he’s going from the specific, a detailed history of the development of Western/WEIRD culture, and then only later tying it in to the general subject of how cultures evolve. 

I mentioned in the last post how this ends up being very similar to what Charles Taylor did in A Secular Age, only Taylor approached it from an historical perspective, while Henrich was looking at it from more of a sociological perspective. The other book WEIRDest connected to for me was The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist which I did an extensive writeup of back in August

McGilchrist’s book is all about the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere and WEIRDest starts with a prelude titled,“Your Brain has Been Modified”. It then goes on to list seven changes to the brain which might have been pulled straight from McGilchrist. In particular #7 is almost precisely McGilchrist’s thesis:

Your default tendency toward holistic visual processing [has been reduced] in favor of more analytical processing. You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns. 

You could shorthand all of this to The West = WEIRD = Post-Christianity = Left hemisphere dominance, and there are other connections beyond that. In fact, WEIRDest could act as supporting documentation for the majority of the contentions I’ve made over the last five years. 

Henrich has his own list of contentions which understandably have a different focus from mine. Another way in which we’re different is that he mostly shys away from making strong connections between these contentions and the cultural debates which are currently raging. Which is to say, the books stop short of making any recommendations. I consider this a weakness of his books, though perhaps from Henrich’s perspective it’s a strength. Certainly it’s probably better for him if his books don’t get swallowed into the blood-soaked trenches of the culture war. As evidence of this, while there are connections he doesn’t make, if there are any particularly inflammatory connections which could be made, he does point those out, and makes sure to disavow them. 

So let’s look at the sort of recommendations one might infer from this book, the kind of things Henrich himself might suggest if he were as foolish as me. Though even I’m not foolish enough to cover everything one might infer from the book. In any case, let’s talk about the book’s…

Eschatological Implications

Even though Henrich points out the connection between WEIRDness and prosperity (it’s right there in the title) he doesn’t spend much time advocating for more WEIRDness. This is all part of the lack of recommendations I mentioned, and perhaps it’s just him exercising scientific distance. But not everyone reading this book will be a scientist. What are you supposed to do with this book if you’re a policy maker?

This is not a book for cultural relativists. The strong implication of both of Henrich’s books is that some cultures are better than others at doing certain things. This is the point where Henrich generally stops, but if you’re a policy maker and you want to encourage “certain things” then a logical path to get those things would be to evangelize the culture which is the best at those things. Perhaps this is difficult to determine so, as a policy maker, you have an excuse for not doing it. But then along comes Henrich who writes a 700 page book claiming that Western Culture equals prosperity. He even places a big emphasis on monogamy, and the critical role of religion. So what is one supposed to do with this information? I mean you’re not anti-prosperity are you? In fact if you’re a technocrat of the Steven Pinker school, prosperity is kind of your core metric. So what do you do?

There are lots of things you might do, but let’s start with one of the more obvious areas: immigration. Here you are taking people with very different cultures, cultures which, according to Henrich, are worse at doing all the things we associate with modernity. Do you make them conform to the WEIRD culture? Do you leave them alone? Do you celebrate their culture and disparage WEIRD culture? The answer to these questions are well beyond the scope of this review, but that last option, celebrating other cultures and disparaging the WEIRD culture as being the height of evil seems the very least likely to end up being the right one.  

And then there’s all the religious ideas which are out of fashion like monogamy and the associated sexual continence, to say nothing of religious prohibitions against things like same sex marriage. How important are these things? Can we continue without them? How important is the basis of Christianity to the modern world? Japan and Korea have imported the modern world without Christianity and both have ended up with legendarily low birth rates. Is this a coincidence? 

I’m aware of the criticism of taking the WEIRD/left-brained stuff too far. I wrote a whole post on it, but how do we determine what to keep and what to abandon? My sense is that we’ve largely abandoned the important things and kept the things that seemed nice in the short term. That we have essentially used the stability, progress and prosperity given us by the WEIRD package (i.e. Christianity) and used it as an excuse to do whatever we want.

That we got going so fast we didn’t realize we’d driven off the edge of a cliff, and for the moment the view is amazing, but the bottom is coming up fast.


II- Capsule Reviews

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition

by: Stephen R. Bown

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Two expeditions which were sent out by Russia to explore Siberia, and the northern Pacific. Both expeditions were initiated by Peter the Great and prominently featured Vitus Bering. 

Who should read this book?

If you enjoy other stories of exploration and survival, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s also very interesting as a history of Siberia, and the “discovery” of Alaska.

General Thoughts

As I already mentioned in my first post on technocracies, this book was very interesting as an example of the kind of top down governmental efforts popular during the Age of Enlightenment. And while it’s clearly an overgeneralization to claim that Europeans thought they could will into existence whatever they imagined, neither is such a generalization entirely inaccurate. This includes things like exploring the world, cataloging all the species of the Earth, as well as colonizing and civilizing “primitive” people. Of course, one of the ways they imagined this would happen was just by throwing sheer manpower at the problem. And while there are many differences between such efforts then, and such efforts now, it’s the scale of these efforts that keeps jumping out at me as I read about them.

To illustrate what I mean let’s bring in another, very similar book I read back in November, The Man Who Ate His Boots. In Boots it was the British trying to find the Northwest Passage, in Island of the Blue Foxes it was Russia trying to claim the North Pacific, explore Siberia and connect it’s far flung empire. In both cases it wasn’t small groups travelling light, but rather massive expeditions with huge resources, and an enormous number of people. In Bering’s case it ended up being three thousand people journeying across the length of Siberia, in what almost looked like an invasion, except (as I said when I brought it up before) it was an invasion of interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia.

I say it was an invasion, and in some senses it was, in other senses it would have been more effective had it been planned as invasion, since then they would have expected nothing from the people already in Siberia. By contrast the rulers in Moscow expected those people to do all manner of impossible things, like assemble vast quantities of food and construct housing for thousands of people, and they expected it to be done just because they had ordered it. 

In the case of Boots, it was only after decades of failed expeditions by ships with hundreds of people that the Europeans abandoned the idea of using the large ships to explore, and instead turned to using the ships as a base from which to send out small sled teams. And of course, this culminated in the most famous polar explorer of all, Roald Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole with a team of only five people. 

Of course Amundsen made his journey in 1911, while the massive expedition Bering was in charge of, stretched from 1733 to 1741. So even if it could be argued that people eventually learned it took an awfully long time. Beyond this the case could be made that they still hadn’t entirely learned, since Robert Falcon Scott attempted to reach the South Pole at the same time as Amundsen (only to have Amundsen beat him by 30 days) and ended up perishing. This was due both to bad luck and the fact that his plans were more complicated than Amundsen’s, and included not only more men, but motorized sleds, dogs and horses. As it turns out Bering also perished while returning from America.

I wonder if this is a lesson we’re still learning, not in the realm of exploration, but in the realm of getting things done in general. Even today we often end up throwing more men and resources at things, assuming that that’s what’s lacking. Or we imagine that just by declaring something to be the case that reality will conform to our wishes, similar to how the rulers in Moscow dealt with the inhabitants of Siberia. 


The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism 

by: Thomas Frank

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of populism, mostly assembled by clarifying the origins of populism, and how it operated historically.

Who should read this book?

If you like the idea of populism, but don’t like Trump, this book is for you. Yes, you might in fact say that this is aimed at supporters of Bernie Sanders. 

General Thoughts

This book, as you might have guessed, has very interesting things to say on the subject of technocracies, and since they’ve dominated my thoughts as well over the last month it was good to get this perspective on things. 

Some of the things Frank says are exactly what you would expect. He’s not a fan of technocracies, particularly insofar as they are frameworks for the elites to keep the masses away from the levers of power. He further argues that one of the chief tools technocracy uses to accomplish this has been to turn the term “populist” into a pejorative and use it to reject everything non-elites do that elites don’t like. These are the bits that are unsurprising, the bit that is unexpected is that he argues populist movements throughout history beat the experts when it comes to policy details. That their recommendations are universally better than those made by the elites. What most people would also find surprising is he argues that populist movements were historically not xenophobic or racist. 

There’s a lot going on, and the whole book is delivered in a pretty student tone (I listened to the audiobook which was read by the author) but I’ll try and divide it up into three themes.

First, I would say that the bulk of this book is dedicated to trying to rehabilitate the word “populist” by showing how great historical populists were. How their positions were eventually proven to be correct (particularly with stuff like abandoning the gold standard and fiat currency). And how most of the things populists get accused of these days were not part of the historical platform of populism, and were in fact the opposite of what the populists stood for. As you can imagine he talks a lot about William Jennings Bryan but he also applies the populist label to FDR, mostly on the basis of how united the elites were in the opposition to him in 1936.

He also claims Martin Luther King, Jr under this banner. I’m sure there’s lots of evidence for this, but what stuck in my memory is a speech where MLK argues that populists were trying to unite the southern whites and blacks, but that in an effort to stop populism, the Democrats implemented Jim Crow laws which created special privileges for the poor whites, so while they were still poor at least they could take comfort in the fact they weren’t black.

The second part of the book is showing where things changed. Frank argues that the left’s rejection of populism started as a reaction to Mccarthyism (the book is almost entirely directed at the left, the right is presumably beyond hope). This percolated into academia where it became the perceived wisdom that populism was the problem. The 60s might have been able to reverse that, but most of the campus activists abandoned the American working class in favor of a global proletariat, which was easy to do while the Vietnam war raged. Accordingly by the time the Clintons, and even Obama came along this attitude had hardened to the point we find it today, where Trump could come along and steal white working class voters and win elections because the left had a built in negative opinion of them as irrational xenophobes. (See Obama’s “cling to their guns” remark and Hillary using the phrase “basket of deplorables”. Both examples Frank brings up.) They had in effect abandoned them, a statement which could serve as the book’s thesis.

All of this takes us to the third part. Which was noticeable more by its lack. Certainly you could make an argument that maximum democracy yields the best outcomes if the elites are just smart enough to get out of it’s way. And that, to the extent you think Trump was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake which originated from voters, but one which originated from the elites. But most people would expect that the person making this argument would have the burden of proof. They would expect you to provide lots of evidence. This book is not completely devoid of such evidence, but the impression I got was less of a carefully reasoned argument and more a variant of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. That every time the vast masses of people go awry (Trump, French Revolution, Fascism) it’s not really populism but everytime the masses are correct it is.

In short I really expected a lot more effort to identify what separates mass movements with bad outcomes from mass movements with good outcomes.


Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt

by: Clay Moyle

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Billy Miske, a boxer from the early 1900s whose promising career was cut short by Bright’s disease

Who should read this book?

There is a fantastic story in this book, the kind of story that should be made into a movie, but I’m going to tell it to you in this review. If after hearing it you want more details you should read this book. You should also read this book if you’re into early 19th century boxing, but I imagine the overlap between that fanbase and mine is pretty small.

General Thoughts

Billy Miske was a fantastic boxer and an all-around great guy. He was considered one of the toughest boxers of the era, though he never held the heavyweight championship. He was, however, a contender, he just happened to not be able to get past Jack Dempsey, who was the dominant boxer of the day. In Billy’s defense it seems pretty clear (though not certain) that he was not at full strength at the time of his fight because of the Bright’s disease. 

As an aside you’ve probably heard the name Jack Dempsey, even if you couldn’t have said where you’d heard it. As long as we’re on the subject of Dempsey. I will mention, despite him being from my hometown, he doesn’t come across as a particularly admirable guy. It’s not horrible, but his tactic of standing over opponents who were trying to get up and immediately hitting them again before they were even back on their feet (which was legal, but frowned on at the time) left a bad taste in my mouth.

So in any case the story. Billy’s illness had progressed to the point where he had stopped fighting, and it was clear that the end was near, but because of some bad business decisions he was, in his own words, “flat broke”. It was coming up on Christmas and he really wanted the last one his family would ever have with him to be a special one. So he told his manager to set up a fight for him. His manager refused, saying another fight would kill him. Billy persisted. The manager offered to get him a fight if he could get back into shape. Billy said that was impossible, but he was going to fight anyway, and he needed the manager’s help. Finally his manager gave in.

A newspaper reporter found out and was going to expose the manager as a despicable lowlife who was only interested in money. So the manager and Billy visited the reporter, the reporter also strenuously objected, but eventually he acquiesced to the plan saying, “I’ll keep your secret. For one fight. And God help us all.”

The fight was on November 7, 1923. And… Billy knocked out his opponent in the fourth round. He took the money, used it to give his family a fantastic Christmas, including buying a baby grand piano for his wife which she had for the rest of her life. 

The day after Christmas Billy woke up in excruciating pain, and after it became clear it wasn’t going away he was taken to the hospital. His health continued to decline swiftly and he died on New Year’s Day. I think it’s fair to say that he was hanging on for that last Christmas, and when it was over, he couldn’t hold on any longer.


The Landmark Thucydides

By: Thucydides

Edited by: Robert B. Strassler

714 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which was waged between Sparta and Athens between 431 and 404 BC. A history written by someone who was there. You may have heard of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition which is the most notable event in the book. 

Who should read this book?

This book is part of my project to read the foundational books of Western culture. If you have a similar project, this book should definitely be on the list. I would highly recommend this edition of the book as well. In between the appendices, the numerous footnotes, and the ubiquitous maps (probably 1 every half dozen pages) it has all the supplementary material you need to jump right in.

General Thoughts

I just spent a couple of posts talking about religion in general and civic religion in particular. And of course this book has a lot of interesting things to say about both of those things, given that Sparta and Athens had the same religion, but different forms of government. Athens was of course a democracy and Sparta was an oligarchy. What I didn’t realize is that Athens abandoned democracy near the end of the war in an effort to curry favor with the Persian Empire. This was after the Sicilian Expedition and the Athenians needed all the help they could get. What was even more interesting is that most of Sparta’s victories came by fomenting revolution among cities dominated by the Athenian Empire with a promise of “Freedom!” Not the playbook you would normally expect out of an oligarchy.

These two forms of government largely resulted in very different civic religions, but these civic religions were not what the war was about. Athens wasn’t trying to make the world safe for democracy and Sparta wasn’t defending slavery (which was extensive in Sparta). And in fact the discussions and disagreements about the different governments seemed to be remarkably civil. Today we can’t even maintain civility when discussing the difference between mail-in and in person voting. I’m not sure if this counts as progress or not. I’m mostly just pointing it out.

As far as the actual religion. You get the feeling it might have contributed to this civility. To offer a couple of examples: After every battle it was just given that you would grant a truce to the other side so they could come retrieve the bodies of the fallen. And then when (*spoiler alert*) the Spartans finally won the war, there was a call by the allies of Sparta to destroy Athens (think of what a loss that would have been) and to enslave all of the citizens. “However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece.”

After a very acrimonious 27 year war, Sparta still recognized that they were both still Greek. That’s pretty impressive. I would hope we might make a similar realization should this situation come for us. I fear that it already has and we didn’t.


III- Religious Reviews

The Abolition of Man 

by: C. S. Lewis

116 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book is a defense of objective value.

Who should read this book?

If you like Lewis at all this is as good as anything he’s written, and short to boot. Why wouldn’t you read it?

General Thoughts

I’ve already told you it’s a book about objective value by C. S. Lewis. I think you have a pretty good idea of what Lewis is going to say and what I’m going to say, but the way Lewis says it, is as always, magnificent. With that in mind I’ll content myself with giving you one quote from the book as representative of my own thoughts as well:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.


Orthodoxy 

by: G. K. Chesterton

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Chesterton’s defense of how he came to believe in Christian Orthodoxy, it is more “measured argument” than Road to Damascus

Who should read this book?

I am not a Chesterton expert, but this is a companion to his book Heretics, and having read both they seem like an excellent place to start with Chesterton. And really everyone should have read some Chesterton! 

General Thoughts

First, as a logistical matter, I would recommend that you not read Lewis and Chesterton at the same time. Their styles and subject matter are very similar, and while, as I’ve been pointing out, connections are good, the connections here were too close, to the point of temporarily confusing me everytime I started reading one or the other.

Second as long as we’re on the subject of objective values it’s interesting to tie things back to The WEIRDest People In the World. Because in a sense Henrich is arguing both sides of this. First he’s arguing that what we used to think were objective values are really just Western values, but on the other hand he’s arguing that these values are objectively better at accomplishing certain things, that together the values form a cultural package which has led to nearly everything we associate with modernity. In a sense Lewis and Chesterton are arguing the same thing, the three are even united in recognizing the importance of Christianity. 

But having spent a lot of time on the values part I’d like to turn to look at the package part of things, because Chesterton has something very interesting to say about that. Most Christian writers express their dismay at the vices which have been let loose, but Chesterton points out:

[T]he virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. 

One of the things I keep coming back to in this space, is that many people will acknowledge that there is some good in religion, but then go on to think they can easily identify which parts are good and which parts are bad, and thereby excise the latter, and keep the former. But it’s really the whole package that got us to where we are. 


Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife 

by: Bart D. Ehrman

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The historical evolution of our concept of the afterlife. That initially there was no afterlife, no heaven, and no hell in Judaism or Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

This book tries to do two things. First, it’s a historical overview of the evolution of concepts like resurrection, heaven and hell. Second, it’s sort of an anti-apologetic book, attempting to show that modern Christians don’t know what they’re talking about. If you’re interested in the former it’s fascinating. If you’re interested in the latter I would skip it.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case this review post is pretty long, so I’ll just end with two final connections:

Ehrman, like so many working in the anti-apologetic space (I just made up the word “anti-apologetic”, there’s probably a better one) seems to feel that uncovering the evolution of religious doctrine acts as something of a slam dunk for refuting that religion. But here’s Chesterton writing on exactly that subject from Orthodoxy:

It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods. We must have a long historical experience in supernatural phenomena—in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I find the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins, quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told that the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any research to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important, just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only slowly that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite.  

One of Ehrman’s claims is that hell is something evil men made up as a form of religious abuse, but then we read in The WEIRDest People In the World:

Based on global data from 1965 to 1995, statistical analyses indicate that the higher the percentage of people in a country who believe in hell and heaven (not just heaven), the faster the rate of economic growth in the subsequent decade. The effect is big: if the percentage of people who believe in hell (and heaven) increases by roughly 20 percentile points, going from, say, 40 percent to 60 percent, a country’s economy will grow by an extra 10 percent over the next decade… believing in just heaven (but not hell) doesn’t increase growth… Since many people seem keen to believe in heaven, it’s really adding hell that does the economic work…

As I keep saying it’s all part of the package…

The theme of this post was tenuous connections. But that’s always the theme of this bit at the end, the tenuous connection between writing and asking for money.  So now I’m making a tenuous connection between tenuous connections. If making ever slighter connections appeals to you, consider donating


The 7 Books I Finished in January

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  1. Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts by: Ilya Shapiro
  2. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by: Joseph Henrich
  3. Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) by: Brandon Sanderson
  4. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by: Margaret MacMillan
  5. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by: Steven Pressfield
  6. The Minuteman by: Greg Donahue
  7. There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days by: Hyrum Lewis

January started off with a bang, and I was worried that there would be more bangs in between the 6th and the 20th, but fortunately things were pretty quiet. Also, as far as that subject goes I think I’ve already said quite a bit, and other people have said quite a bit more than that, so I thought I’d talk about something lighter. Since this is my book review post it always feels appropriate to talk about books and reading, so let’s do that.

January is a weird month for me when it comes to reading. Every year I have a big annual goal, plus I’m motivated to beat the previous year’s page count (last year it was 37,215, a new record). What this means is that I generally push to finish any book I’m in the middle of by December 31st, so when January dawns I’m not in the middle of any books I’m starting fresh with everything. Since some books may take me several months to finish, I end up doing a significant amount of reading in January I don’t get credit for, i.e. it’s not reflected in the books that show up as being finished that month, it shows up in subsequent months.

At this point you’re all thinking that this is exceptionally boring, and more than you wanted to know, but I do have a point, and as is so often the case that point is that I screwed up. Knowing that this is how January always goes, instead of focusing on some shorter books, I decided to read the latest 1200 page monstrosity from Brandon Sanderson. Which was so huge and started off so slowly, that there was a small chance that when it came time to do this, that would be the only book I would be reviewing. Fortunately, I was incredibly disciplined in January, and I managed to finish just slightly less than my average number of books. Though I will say that as of the 28th of last month, I had only finished three of them, the other four books were all finished during the last three days of the month…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts 

by: Ilya Shapiro

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Supreme Court confirmation battles throughout history, with some additional emphasis on the more recent battles (This was written after Kavanaugh but before Barrett.)

Who should read this book?

People who want historical context for the current battles over nominations. Or people who want a deeper dive on what happened during those battles, along with opinion on the same from a moderate libertarian perspective.

General Thoughts

The look back through history was very interesting, and I recommend the book just for that part. Obviously contentious politics was not invented in 2016, or in 1987. It’s been around for a lot longer than that, and that goes just as much for the Supreme Court as for anything else. But it is clear that the post war years were unusually calm, and when we compare something happening today to how it’s “always been done” we’re comparing today to that post war period, if you go farther back most of the things that are happening now happened at some point historically. That said, though the fights look similar, Shapiro argues, and I agree, that the stakes are different, but before we get to that some random notes I made while reading the book:

  • Early on in the country’s history they were less concerned with the ideological balance of the court and more concerned with regional balance. It was felt that one member needed to be from Virginia, and one member had to be from New England, etc. So that regional concerns were properly protected. Interesting to think about this in the context of how balanced the current Supreme Court is on specific dimensions, for example: Ivy League vs. Non-Ivy League. (Spoiler: It’s currently 9-0. And arguably worse than that, all current justices went to law school at either Harvard or Yale.)
  • Shapiro puts forth the theory that if Reagan had nominated Bork first, and then Scalia, rather than the other way around, that he probably would have gotten both nominations through. Scalia was charming and would have gotten through regardless, and Bork, who was frank to the point of being combative, would have had an easier time if he hadn’t been the second conservative nominee.
  • Shapiro spent a lot of time praising Clarence Thomas, particularly his work ethic. (I myself have often thought that Thomas is unfairly maligned.)
  • With that partiality in mind, his take on Anita Hill and the nomination of Thomas to the bench was interesting. I had always had the impression that it came down to his word against hers, and they went with him. But Shapiro seems to indicate that there was almost no evidence to support Hill’s accusations and significant evidence contradicting it. That at best she was exaggerating incidents, and at worst she was outright lying.
  • As you might imagine, after the controversy over Merrick Garland not receiving a hearing, Shapiro spends quite a bit of time talking about nominations near the end of a President’s term. He calls it the Thurmond Rule, after it’s first invocation in 1968. And it turns out that not a lot of justices have been nominated and confirmed near the end of a President’s term. Of course having been written between Garland and Barrett he doesn’t cover the full impact of its presence in modern times. But overall the book gives an interesting history of the idea without either dismissing it or advocating for it.

Eschatological Implications

I have often talked in this space about the way in which the Supreme Court has increasingly become the de facto rulers in America, and even the way that this transition somewhat mirrors the end of the Roman Republic. This is increasingly why presidential elections are often decided by what sort of justices the president will nominate. (Would Trump have won in 2016 without this consideration?) A President’s later success is judged by what justices they did nominate. And the nomination of those justices have become far more contentious than any potential legislation because the Supreme Court will be the ones who ultimately decide whether that legislation will take effect. 

Various ideas have been offered for how to reverse this trend including getting rid of lifetime tenure, giving each president a set number of nominations, expanding the number of seats, etc. Shapiro reviews several such proposals in the book, but in the end he contends that none of the proposals is going to work as long as the Supreme Court continues to wield such enormous power. That there is no way for the nominations to become less contentious if you’re fighting over the ultimate power to decide the course of the country. Now obviously, as a well known libertarian, Shapiro is going to make this argument, but at the same time it seems self-evident to the point of being tautological. People are going to fight for power, and if ultimate power is vested with the Supreme Court, that’s what they’re going to fight over. 

The historical stuff in the book is all important because it illustrates that the Supreme Court didn’t always wield such power, and so perhaps they can return to that state. In this endeavor Shapiro praises the idea of textualism, and in particular Scalia’s championing of it. And he is very critical of Roe v. Wade, pointing to it as the point when things went off the rails. Now it is not my intent to relitigate Roe v. Wade, I have said that I don’t think it will be entirely reversed, even after Barrett’s nomination. (Though certainly if it were ever going to happen this would be the time.) Also it’s worth pointing out that even the Ginsburg thought it was a bad ruling from a legal standpoint.  All that aside, I think there’s a credible argument to be made (which is what Shapiro does) that this is when the court took a decisive turn in the direction of absolute power.

I see some similarities here to how the Gracchi brothers used their near absolute power as Tribune of the Plebs to implement their reforms. Reforms which were sorely needed. (This is what the pro choice crowd also argues.) However in the end the only response to such absolute power was for one of the brothers to be clubbed to death (the first such political violence in 400 years) and the other to commit suicide before he could be clubbed to death.

I keep bringing Rome into things because I feel like there’s this similar process happening where loopholes and legalistic interpretations are being invoked more and more rather than relying on the initial understanding of how things are expected to work. The Tribune of the Plebs was not supposed to threaten to veto everything. The Supreme Court was not supposed to invent rights from “penumbras and emanations”, the minority party in the Senate was not supposed to filibuster everything, and the Vice President is not supposed to have the power to change the counting of the Electoral Votes in such a way that it reverses the election. And yet all these things have been attempted. It’s interesting that only the last one failed.


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

by: Joseph Henrich

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another answer to the age old question of what separates humans from animals. Our contender this time is the human ability to transmit knowledge in the form of culture. That we don’t just adapt to our environments through genetic mutations but through cultural mutations as well.

Who should read this book?

Similar to Seeing Like a State, a book I reviewed last month, this book was also the subject of a Slate Star Codex review. Both reviews were so good they just about obviate the need to read the actual books. The one for Secret was thorough enough that I used it as the basis for a podcast episode of my own which, even after having read the book, I still stand by. That comparison aside if you felt the need to read one of the two books I would recommend this one over Seeing Like a State.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I already wrote a blog post about this book. In preparation for this review I re-read that post and I think it still mostly covers my thoughts on the subject of cultural evolution. But, as not all of you will read it, and as it is pretty long. I’ll summarize my previous point.

Cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution in that it can lead to things which take up a lot of resources, but which don’t actually provide a survival advantage. The classic example from biological evolution is peacock feathers. They may be useful for convincing peahens to mate with you, but they don’t do much to help you get away from predators, i.e. it’s an adaptation which is good for the genes but bad for the individual carrying those genes. From the standpoint of cultural evolution you can imagine funny memes occupying a similar position. Being funny helps the meme to propagate, but spending all of your time on reddit consuming memes may have a negative impact on the survival of the person engaged in the behavior. As memes, and culture more broadly, can be created with less time and effort then developing six foot long feathers, one expects that maladaptive examples of the former should be more common. Accordingly, anytime we examine things that have evolved culturally whether they be traditions, taboos, flourishes, art or what have you, we are faced with two questions. Was this bit of culture useful? That is, did it help people with that cultural package survive? And is it still useful? That is, could it help us survive?

At one point the knowledge of how to make stone weapons was fantastically useful, but these days even if you could somehow acquire it, it would have no value other than as an object of curiosity. To see how we might apply it to the debates of our own day: historically there has been a strong tradition of monogamous heterosexual marriage (MHM) among nearly all cultures, especially larger ones. When we ask our two questions about stone tools the answers are obvious, “yes, it was useful” and “no, it’s not still useful” respectively. When we ask our two questions about MHM, the answers are not nearly so clear. In my previous post I gave some standards for how to answer the first question, and concluded that MHM probably had been useful, but it’s possible that it’s not still useful.

Eschatological Implications

While there is and will continue to be lots of debate over whether a particular bit of culture was useful in the past, there are vast implications for the future of any culture in figuring out what traditions and practices are still useful. I think people want to imagine that the forward march of technology has changed everything, but I strongly suspect it has changed far less than people think. While Henrich doesn’t directly address MHM, or, probably wisely for him and his career, really any of the hot button cultural issues of the day, he does address, and at significant length, how difficult it can be to determine what utility a particular cultural practice has. Things that seem clearly to be nothing more than primitive superstitions like reading animal remains to determine where to hunt, turn out to play a critical role. And as both this book and Seeing Like a State point out the negative effects of abandoning a particular tradition or practice can take decades or even centuries to manifest. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) 

by: Brandon Sanderson

1232 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The fourth book of a planned 10 (supposedly two five book series) in Sanderson’s epic saga of the world of Roshar, and the return of the Knights Radiant. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first three and enjoyed them you’ll probably enjoy this one, though it was my least favorite of the four.

General Thoughts

Sanderson has the life I dreamed of when I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’m bitter about that, but I might be, so you should take that into account with this review. With that potential bitterness in mind let’s start with the bad stuff:

  • As already mentioned this was my least favorite of the four books.
  • Sanderson is great at writing action and there just wasn’t very much of it in this book.
  • I’ve had the impression since book two, but particularly after book three, that whatever character progress was made in the last book gets undone at the beginning of the next book. This is particularly true with Kaladin and Shallan.
  • I don’t have any problems with characters dying, but in high fantasy you expect characters to die in a noble fashion. Sanderson seems to do the opposite of that. (I’m thinking in particular of a specific death at the end of the previous book, but a similar thing happens in this book.)
  • There’s some big developments right at the end that feel like they came out of left fied.
  • There had to be some way to make this book shorter.

And now for the good:

  • While I can’t stand Moash and cringe every time he shows up, some of the other bad guys were really good in this one.
  • Adolin continues to be one of my favorite characters and I really liked his arc in this one.
  • Despite what I said above, this book’s resolution of Shallan and Kaladin’s arc was more satisfying than I expected. Though I fear in book five we’ll be back to square one or at least several squares behind where we ended in this book.
  • As usual Sanderson’s world-building is top notch and the way in which he expanded on the “physics” of the world in this book was both cool and interesting.

If you’re interested in having a spoiler filled discussion feel free to email me. In particular if you’ve also finished the book. I’m curious what other people think.


The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 

by: Margaret MacMillan

744 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Events in Europe leading up to the start of World War I

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned I have read a lot of books about World War I recently. I think I would put this at the bottom of the list. Even if your interest was specifically the pre-war years I would read Dreadnought by Robert Massie before this one, despite Massie’s narrower focus. 

General Thoughts

This was the final book of my year long dive into World War I. From the previous section you may come away with the impression that I thought that it was bad. This is untrue. It’s more that the other books were all so good. This book did have lots of details about the various crises leading up to the war, particularly those centered in Austria-Hungary’s relationship to the Balkans. This included the Bosnian Crisis and the Balkan Wars.

I’m sure these events were mentioned in the other books I read, but it wasn’t until this book that I quite realized how close in time they were to the actual war. The Bosnian Crisis was 1908-1909 and the Balken Wars happened from 1912-1913. Despite this 1914 started relatively peacefully.

From this sequence I think we can draw three potential lessons:

First, each crisis depleted the “crisis handling reserves” each nation possessed. Everytime they backed down they looked weak. Everytime they peacefully resolved a crisis only to have a new one erupt a couple of years later, the tactic of peaceful resolution suffered. And after each crisis their views inevitably shifted from, “we avoided war” to, “we should have ended up in a better position or gotten more concessions”. Essentially the whole idea that peace was better gradually eroded, and it had been so long since the last war that the idea was never that strong to begin with.

Second and somehow working in the opposite direction, with each crisis that didn’t end in war, it seemed more obvious that such crises would always be peacefully resolved. And therefore (following the above) we can demand more and be more intransigent. (See the demands Austria-Hungary made of Serbia right before the war started.)  

Finally, and perhaps most troubling. In the end it would have been better for Germany to have started the war sooner. Had they begun things in 1908 Russia’s position would have been much worse, and even France would have not been quite as prepared as they were in 1914.

And of course there’s the lesson one takes away from all books on World War I. The Kaiser really made things much worse. 

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to draw parallels between all of the above and our own time, but there are a lot of them.


Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t 

by: Steven Pressfield

210 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How to write well, with a particular look at the various genres of writing (Advertising, screenplays, novels, etc.)

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who wants to be a better writer could benefit from this book. It’s short, dense with information, and entertaining to boot. 

General Thoughts

There are many self-help books out there, though sometimes they’re disguised as autobiographies. And there are many examples, particularly in that latter category of people who claim to give you the secret to success, but what their story really boils down to is, don’t be lazy and get lucky. “I worked really hard while I was at Harvard and had the good fortune to meet <Fill in name of famous person>.” The idea being that the numerous things which had to happen in order to get admitted to Harvard were not the lucky bits, it was developing a relationship with the professor while you were there.

On the other hand, occasionally you come across a book by someone who really struggled, who spent decades failing before they finally started to get a little bit of success. Who really did have to figure out how to do something, they weren’t just handed it. Steven Pressfield is in this latter category. And I find books written by such people to be both far more enjoyable, and far more useful. 

If you have any interest at all in writing I would recommend this book.


The Minuteman

by: Greg Donahue 

Only available on Audible 1 hr 54 minutes

Briefly, what is this book about?

Domestic Nazis and the Jewish gangsters who beat the crap out of them in the years before World War II.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a domestic predecessor for Antifa, or you really like stories of Nazis getting punched. This is your book.

General Thoughts

During prohibition Sidney Abramowitz, aka Nat Arno was an enforcer for the Jewish mob. When prohibition ended that job largely ended as well. Fortunately for Arno shortly thereafter Hitler came to power and with that came the rise of Nazism in America. This book is the gleeful recounting of how Arno organized former enforcers like himself and other New Jersey Jews into a band of vigilantes dedicated to disrupting American Nazi rallies by throwing in stink bombs and then ambushing the attendees as they ran away—beating them with baseball bats and brass knuckles.

At least it came across as gleeful, also vigilante is my term. I don’t recall it ever being used in the book.

Everyone who reads this book understands how bad Nazis are. And I admit there is a certain pleasure at hearing how Jews “fought back” in America. But before lionizing Arno it’s important to remember that this is pre World War II. Most of the evidence we draw on for how horrible Nazis are is based on what happened during World War II, so the people beating the crap out of German Americans couldn’t use that as justification. Also Arno did it in opposition to the police, and to many leaders of the Jewish community, who thought he was making things worse. Also it’s not clear how much of this was actually fighting back. The stories of the Nazis beating up Jews are relatively sparse, but this book has lots of stories of the reverse.

All of which is to say that I think, particularly based on what was known at the time, that Arno was the bad guy. And I’m not even sure his actions are defensible even in retrospect. Certainly I don’t think Arno should be used as a role model for anyone operating today. And this book rather than dealing with any of these issues, mostly came across as a celebration of vigilantism.


III- Religious Reviews

There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days 

by: Hyrum Lewis

162 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re expecting to have a debate soon with a New Atheist this is a great book to help you prepare for that debate. Similarly if you’re wondering what sort of arguments you might make against a New Atheist even if you never plans to ever use them, you might also want to read this book.

General Thoughts

This book is a pretty good collection of arguments against New Atheism. I keep qualifying that we’re talking about New Atheism and not atheism in general, because as we saw in the book The Seven Types of Atheism, which I reviewed back in October, New Atheism is only one of several types of atheism. And even John Grey who felt compelled to write a whole book on the many different types of atheism doesn’t think much of it. Which is to say the book is focused on only a narrow slice of atheism, and not a well regarded one at that. The book’s utility grows more narrow still when you consider that there is much more to winning an argument than logic and reason. It’s entirely possible that Lewis’ arguments are all but ironclad. (And indeed, particularly when paired with Grey’s, they do seem pretty solid.) Despite this I still very much doubt that if I gave this book to someone who was deeply atheist that reading it would turn him into a Christian. 

This outcome is what we would expect no matter how carefully crafted the book, but I still think that Lewis could have done better. His tone is pretty combative. A weakness he admits to in the introduction. Beyond that the book is long on argument and short on persuasive rhetoric. My own son considers himself to be an atheist, and while there were moments when I thought about trying to get him to read this book, by the end I felt that the experience would be counterproductive. 

None of this is to claim that writing such a book would be easy, merely that knowing he was being too combative it should have been possible for Lewis to tone it down more than he did.


A better writer would have taken Pressfield’s book, used the tactics therein to combine the themes of combativeness, preemptive action and Germans into some wisdom for the ages. Unfortunately I am not such a writer, if you want to help me become such a writer, consider donating.


The 10 Books I Finished in December (Along With One I Didn’t)

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  1. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by: James C. Scott
  2. Status Anxiety by: Alain de Botton
  3. Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World by: Chris Wallace
  4. Enemy At the Gates by: William Craig
  5. Necroscope by: Brian Lumley
  6. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by: John McPhee
  7. Bang For Your Buck by: Stefan Gasic
  8. The Darkest Winter by: Nick Johns
  9. C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Book of Mormon Made Harder by: James E. Faulconer
  11. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion by: Sterling M. McMurrin

Thanks to all the people who reached out and offered their well wishes about my mother. That was exceptionally kind. She’s doing much better, and has been home for awhile, though she’s still on a feeding tube because the doctors aren’t convinced that her pancreas has completely calmed down yet. But everything still seems headed in the right direction, so that’s good. And thus far she’s been able to avoid getting COVID which may be the most important thing of all. 

It’s the New Year, which is the generally accepted time for making resolutions. If you caught my last post you saw that I’m making some changes to the blog in general, but this seems the space to talk about changes I’m making to my reading ambitions. My first goal is to not start any new series until I’ve finished some of the one’s I’ve already started. Second, I’ve realized that, when studying history, it’s useful to really immerse yourself in a particular time in history or a particular historical thread. That it’s by really diving deep that you finally see patterns and people. And so while this resolution won’t preclude reading other history, I thought it might be nice to choose a historical focus for each year, something to really sink my teeth into. Last year basically ended up being World War I. This year I was thinking about doing the Romanovs. In particular, Robert K. Massie, has a four volume series running from Peter the Great up through the revolution that looks quite fantastic. I really enjoyed his books Dreadnought and Castles of Steel about the British and German naval rivalry up to and through World War I, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this other series as well. (And yes I’m aware that this is a new series which contradicts my first resolution, but this is one of those cases where the specific overrides the general.)


I- Eschatological Reviews

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

by: James C. Scott

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book about “high modernity”, the idea that through the powers of pure reason we can figure out the best way to do things like: build a city, grow food, or manage the citizenry. In particular how these ideas and tasks are implemented via state power.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dry book, and while the content is super important, I’m not convinced it’s necessary to read the whole thing in order to absorb that importance. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex did a fantastic review and I would recommend reading that, and hopefully my review, and only then if your curiosity and passion have not yet been quenched go on to read the entire book. 

General Thoughts

This book, with its descriptions of the various methods governments have applied to manage an essentially chaotic world, seems to follow naturally from the hypothesis that the modern world is suffering from an overactive left hemisphere, which appeared previously in this space, when I discussed another book, The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. That book and the associated hypothesis are not mentioned by Scott, though if you keep that hypothesis in mind when reading it, Seeing Like a State ends up looking very much like a catalog of symptoms to go along with McGilchrist’s underlying disease. An exhaustive description of the damage that has been wrought by an overactive left hemisphere in the form of social engineering. Such social engineering is generally implemented through the mechanism of the state, and can be broken out into four parts:

  • A desire for legibility: This desire mostly comes because the government needs to raise money, and that’s much easier to do if you know what money there is and who has it.
  • The faith that you can make things legible: This is the essence of High Modernism, which Scott defines as “a muscular confidence in science and technical progress”.
  • The ability to enforce legibility: The existence of a strong state is necessary to even start the process.
  • A society which is too weak to resist the foregoing: Which seems like a repeat of the last point, but these efforts still work best if you have a thoroughly exhausted or cowed population, say after a big war.

The problem with all of these efforts, beyond just the violations of liberty they entail, is that it drives people to focus on those areas which can easily be made legible, i.e. measured, while ignoring those things that can’t. At its most arrogant, this is because the architects of these solutions are convinced that no measurement is necessary because through the powers of pure reason all of the problems have been solved. Those who are more humble recognize the need for measurement, but still fail to recognize both the limitations of their measurements and the way in which those measurements distort the endeavor.

All of these factors are illustrated in the example Scott opens with: scientific forestry, as practiced by Prussia and Saxony in the late eighteenth-century. At the time timber was of surpassing importance, and used for all sorts of things from fuel to ship-building. Recognizing this importance the government felt that they could increase the supply of timber by making the forests more scientific, i.e. legible. To do this they reduced everything about the forest to a single goal: “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood”. (Emphasis original) This focus resulted in clearing the old forest and replacing it with neat and orderly rows of Norway spruces or Scotch pines—since those trees (naively) best met their metric. As you can imagine this system ignored all of the many other things the peasants used the forest for: grazing, food, raw materials (like thatch for roofs) and medicines. 

Eschatological Implications

But more importantly it ignored and disrupted the ecology of the forest. This disruption didn’t happen immediately. In fact, it took about 100 years for the full extent of the disruption to manifest. Initially, the whole thing appeared to be a resounding success. The first generation of these “scientifically” planted forests did amazingly well, as they benefited from all of the nutrition and none of the competition. But by the second and third generations, the lack of new nutrients, along with a host of other problems, ended up fatally undermining the forests, in some cases outright killing them (they had to coin a term for it, Waldsterben). In the end, “scientific” forestry proved to be a disastrous idea even when judged by the narrow standards they had set, to say nothing of all the broader effects. All of this didn’t surprise me and it probably didn’t surprise you, but there are a couple of points that deserve particular emphasis: first that it initially worked, and second that it took so long for the ultimate failure of the idea to become apparent.

Are we currently attempting any similar experiments in imposing rationality on some natural system? Almost certainly, though a lot of what we do is difficult to classify, particularly when you’re talking about changing human behavior. How much is natural and how much is learned? If we are engaged in any such efforts, it’s probably very important to keep in mind the two points I just mentioned: It might initially look like our efforts are a great success, and it might take a long time to find out that we’ve actually made the problem much, much worse.

It might help to have an example, so I’ll wrap things up with one that occurred to me. I am not saying this is what’s happening only that if it is what’s happening this might be how it played out:

We are engaged in an effort at managing the citizenry. In particular we want to reduce racism. Those people who aren’t racist represent the clean well planted lines of Norway spruces. While those people who are a little bit racist represent the old growth forest. Initially it’s easy to clear the forest, broad laws are enacted killing the biggest offenders: businesses and institutions, but getting all of the underbrush proves difficult. Initially, just accusing someone of being a racist generally works, but after a while it becomes apparent that certain species of planets have developed a tolerance to this “herbicide”, and more and more drastic measures need to be taken. Meanwhile with less competition from other plants, the nastiest plants start spreading, but also the spruces don’t seem to be doing so well either. Rather than being naturally healthy and productive it takes greater and greater effort to fertilize them and keep them healthy. And in the end, not only do you end up with two divergent monocultures, but both are at the extreme ends of things

This may not bear any resemblance to what’s happening, and to truly extend the analogy we’d have to add in elements like social media, and politics, but as analogies go, this one has a lot to recommend it.


Status Anxiety

by: Alain de Botton

306 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The pivotal importance of status in human society. How recent developments have upset the previous status equilibrium and how that equilibrium might be restored.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty short book on a pretty important topic. If the description of the content resonates with you at all I would recommend reading this book. 

General Thoughts

De Botton starts his argument by asserting that our perception of poverty, failure and inequality has changed. That the stories which formed the dominant narrative of status in the Christian West from the moment it became Christian, all the way up until the middle of the 20th century, have recently completely flipped, such that poverty, failure and inequality are viewed exactly the opposite of how they once were. And while it was only in the last century that these new narratives became ascendent, de Botton asserts that the change began in 1776. That’s the first time status went from being based on a fairly rigid class structure to something you could earn, largely through the possession of money but also merit. And it started us on a path of rejecting the old stories and substituting the new. Those old stories were:

  1. The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  2. Low status has no moral connotation
  3. The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor. (A view most prevalent between 1754 and 1989)

The three old stories were replaced by three new stories, where the exact opposite is claimed:

  1. The rich are the useful one’s not the poor (a position commonly associated with Adam Smith)
  2. Status does have moral connotations (i.e. the concept of a meritocracy)
  3. The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity (the idea of prosperity gospel, and, for a time, Social Darwinism)

Now I think reducing everything to these three new stories overlooks a host of complexities. Obviously some people still believe in the old stories, and even those people who are accused of believing the new stories will still put a farmer ahead of Jeff Bezos in their moral hierarchy. But as an explanation just of status, it explains a lot. Particularly how each of these new stories end up maximizing our anxiety around status.

To put it another way, status, self-esteem and identity, now rarely depend on the role you were born into and the community you grew up in. Instead all three depend on your “performance in a fast-moving and implacable economy.” And that dependence is multi-faceted. Your success requires a combination of:

  • Talent, which is fickle
  • Luck, which is random
  • Your employer’s whim’s
  • Your employer’s profitability
  • The global economy

As a way of quantifying these factors along with the influence of the modern “stories”, de Botton offers the following formula:

Self-esteem = Success/Pretension

Out of all this we can start drawing some conclusions. First, while I definitely think we still need a generous helping of the first set of stories, I’m not sure that the second set of stories were all bad. In fact it seems that if pretension stays relatively constant, and success is manageable, tying it to self-esteem may be a good thing. It may in fact be argued, as many people have, that the way capitalism harnesses our drive for status and self-esteem has led to enormous increases in the standard of living, and to significant progress in general. But as I said this is easier to pull off if pretension is kept constant and success is within reach. However, as is so often the case, social media has completely changed that equation. Our pretension is fueled not just by our local community, but by everyone social media allows us to interact with from the high school classmate that’s moderately more successful than we are, but who we wouldn’t be aware of in a previous age, to instagram influencers showing us the inner workings of lives we previously wouldn’t even have been able to imagine, but to which we now have ring side seats. 

On the other side of the equation, the level of success any given person feels has also decreased. The mechanisms are similar, though I think they somewhat predate the rise of social media. There was a time when you were considered a success if you had just graduated from college, but this turned into needing to go to a good college, and then one of the best colleges, and then getting a great job, etc. This is also a huge topic with lots of additional complexity that I’m just glossing over, but it seems clear that over the last few decades success in a relative sense has become far more difficult to achieve.

When we combine increased pretension with decreased success we end up with low self-esteem, which is essentially status anxiety.

Eschatological Implications

Nothing about current trends gives me much hope that this problem will get better in the future, which means the best course of action is to figure out how to mitigate this status anxiety. What tools are available to make us care less about success and be less pretentious. The book explores five possibilities:

  1. Philosophy
  2. Art
  3. Politics
  4. Religion
  5. Bohemia

Let’s quickly examine each of them:

Philosophy: As de Botton says, “Philosophy is what allows you to interpose reason in between other’s opinion of you and your self image.” And certainly I think status anxiety has been one of the things driving the renewed popularity of Stoicism. That said, I don’t think people cultivate a philosophy as such or really any philosophy at all.

Art: Here de Botton claims that, “Art is what reverses the new stories of failure back to the old stories of failure.” Once again this is useful, but I think for art to be an antidote to status anxiety it can’t be superficial, and I’m reasonably certain that at the moment superficial art is outcompeting the kind of art de Botton is recommending.

Politics: It seems clear that whatever power politics once possessed at reducing status anxiety, it has that power no longer. 

Religion: Religion seems to take all of the best aspects of the first three options and combines them into the perfect anti-status anxiety package. Religion is philosophy, but of a form that’s palatable to everyone. It’s art, but only of the profoundest sort. It’s politics, but with a focus on service rather than competition or power. None of which is to say that religion doesn’t have all manner of issues, but when compared with the other options it seems clearly superior. Nor should the supernatural elements of religion be overlooked. As de Botton says in the book:

But when belief in an afterlife is dismissed as a childish and scientifically impossible opiate, the pressure to succeed and find fulfillment will inevitably be intensified by the awareness that one has only a single and frighteningly fleeting opportunity to do so. In such a context, earthly achievements can no longer be seen as an overture to what one may realize in another world; rather, they are the sum total of all that one will ever amount to.

Bohemia: If religion is the best option, bohemianism seems to be the one that’s the most popular. But while it appears reasonably effective at rejecting pretension and conventional definitions of success, it doesn’t strike me as being very good at creating something to take their place. Meaning, as far as I can see, while there are a lot of casual bohemians, I think there are very few true bohemians. Certainly far less than the number of true believers. And my sense is to really reduce status anxiety being a casual bohemian doesn’t cut it. On the other hand religion would appear to have some utility at nearly every level of belief.


II- Capsule Reviews

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World 

By: Chris Wallace

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The final days of the Manhattan Project and Truman’s decision to use the bomb.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the story behind the dropping of atomic bombs at the end of World War II then this is a pretty good book for that, though if you were only going to read one book I would recommend The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes instead. The advantages of this book would be that it’s shorter and has more details on Truman and how he grappled with authorizing the use of the bomb.

General Thoughts

As you can see from the title this is a book about the 116 days immediately preceding the bombing of Hiroshima, and all the people whose efforts contributed to that event: the amazingly skilled pilots, the women working at the Oak Ridge plant refining uranium, the scientists who were worried about whether it would actually work, the little girl who was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and above it all, Truman. Who went in a very short time from not even knowing the bomb existed to having to decide whether to use it. While at the same time trying to fill all the other huge holes left by FDR’s death.

It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, and Wallace crafts it into a compelling narrative. Though the aspect that resonated with me the most was how much the Manhattan Project ends up being a microcosm of the entire American experience of World War II, and the wars since then. It is not my intention to argue that the US had it easy during the war. Obviously lots of people died and many sacrifices were made. But it was still a very different endeavor for the Americans than for any of the other belligerent nations, and the Manhattan Project is the prime example of that. In the course of the project whole towns were constructed, and then, in the case of Los Alamos, staffed by the most brilliant minds of that, or really any other era. Billions of dollars were spent, and tens of thousands of people were employed. As one example, to make sure everything went smoothly they took some of the very best pilots and put them into a special unit dedicated just to dropping the atomic bomb, and then gave them months of practice time to perfect that one mission. No other belligerent could have done any of these things, let alone all of them. 

I bring all this up because of another book I read this month, Enemy at the Gates, which is the story of the Battle of Stalingrad. The contrast between the two stories, though both took place during World War II, couldn’t be more stark, and it occurred to me that if the Manhattan Project is an analogy for the American experience of war, that Stalingrad is the analogy of the war for just about everyone else, certainly the Germans, Russians and Japanese, but even, though to a lesser extent, the British.

Countdown 1945 is in many ways a book about how lucky we’ve been, and how easy we’ve had it. The question is can our luck continue to hold? Either through the absence of war or being lucky with wars that are far away, and against opponents where our technology and industrial strength are overwhelmingly superior. I’ve always thought that the answer is probably no, our luck won’t continue forever. And at its core what Countdown 1945 is mostly about is a different era. One we won’t ever see again.


Enemy At the Gates 

by: William Craig

460 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Battle of Stalingrad. You might be familiar with the 2001 movie of the same name about a sniper duel during that battle, but if that’s what you were expecting, the story of the snipers is only a very small part of a horrifically bloody battle.

Who should read this book?

This is another great historical book about an amazing historical event. The kind of book that makes me wonder why I read anything but history. If you like history at all you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

The Battle of Stalingrad represents part of World War II and indeed part of war in general that the US has never really experienced. At least not since the Civil War, and probably not ever, particularly when you’re talking about the civilian experience of war as opposed to the military experience. From the book:

As for the civilian population of [Stalingrad], a prewar census listed more than 500,000 people prior to the outbreak of World War II. This number increased as a flood of refugees poured into the city from other areas of Russia that were in danger of being overrun by the Germans. A portion of Stalingrad’s citizens were evacuated prior to the first German attack but 40,000 civilians were known to have died in the first two days of bombing in the city. No one knows how many died on the barricades or in the antitank ditches or in the surrounding steppes. Official records show only one stark fact: after the battle ended, a census found only 1,515 people who had lived in Stalingrad in 1942.

Those are pretty staggering numbers particularly when viewed as a percentage. No matter how optimistic you are about the initial evacuation and other mitigating factors it seems hard to imagine that more than about 20% of the pre-war civilian population survived the battle, and it could easily be as low as 2%. As bad as Stalingrad was it was only a small part of the overall horror of the eastern front. Again just speaking of civilian fatalities it’s estimated that 13.6 million died on the Soviet side. Perhaps the actual number is lower, but no one thinks that it’s much lower. 

Now, compare all of this with US civilian fatalities during World War II, which amounted to 12,100 people. Which is less than the documented civilian deaths in the first day of Stalingrad. And of those 12,000, three-fourths were in the merchant marines, so not exactly the women and children people generally imagine when they think of civilian casualties. As traumatic as Pearl Harbor was for the nation, only 66 civilians died in that attack. 

From a military perspective the US was not quite so lucky, and some of the beach landings, particularly in the Pacific were especially horrific, but even here the disparity is stark. The US had 400,000 military deaths. Germany (a nation significantly smaller than the US) had 4.4 million and the Soviet Union had 8.8 million deaths. And the latter two numbers are on the low end of the estimates.

In addition to the two books I read last month which touched on this subject I also heard a talk in church which tied into things. It was an older gentleman and as part of the talk he told the story of his father’s experiences during World War II. As part of his story he read a letter from his father which had been written on Christmas 1943. His father, an anti-aircraft specialist in the Pacific Theatre, was bemoaning the fact that his Christmas gifts had not yet arrived. The gentleman said that as he considered this story about his father he was moved to ask, “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” 

That question is actually the same question I have as well, though on a much larger scale. How much suffering could we as a people endure? What would Americans do if we are ever confronted with war as terrible as that waged by the Germans and Russians in the streets of Stalingrad? Could we endure it? Would we rise to the occasion? Or would we collapse?

The year before this man’s father wrote that letter, Christmas of 1942, the Germans at Stalingrad had been encircled and their Italian, Romanian and Hungarian allies were already being carted off to brutal Siberian POW camps where cannibalism would become the norm. Long before Christmas of 1943 the Germans would have joined them, and they’d have a lot more to complain about than tardy gifts. Out of three million German POWs, 1 million would die, and 1 million would still be in these camps as of 1946. So the answer to the question “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” I don’t know, but for lots of other people in World War II the answer was a nearly unimaginable amount. 

I suspect that his father and the rest of the US military would have been able to endure that suffering. Fortunately the Manhattan Project meant that we never found out. That we don’t have stories of the horrible Battle of Tokyo to set alongside stories from the Battle of Stalingrad. The question is not whether 1940’s USA could have endured it, the question is whether 2020’s USA can. Let us hope we never have to find out.


Necroscope

By: Brian Lumley

400 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young man who can speak with the dead gets entangled in the cold war battle between British and Soviet paranormal espionage agencies.

Who should read this book?

I don’t know that I’m the best person to comment on this. Necrosope was first published in 1986, and is the first book in a series which ended up at 18 volumes. So I would not be offering advice merely on this book, but in a sense commenting on the whole series which I am ill-equipped to do. I will say that reading this book did not immediately fill me with the need to read the next book in the series.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t blow-away by it. There was too little urban fantasy and too much urban horror for my tastes. Also the best part of a book like this: one in which a young person discovers that they’re different, that they have powers that most people don’t, that they’re part of an ancient and secret world, etc. Is getting to be inside their head and experience their amazement as this world is revealed. Necroscope more or less entirely skips that part of the story, which ends up being my biggest criticism of the book. I guess the only additional thing I have to add is that the book is supposed to be vaguely Lovecraftian. I only came across this information after finishing the book. I think, had I gone into it with that knowledge, it would have improved the story.


Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 

by: John McPhee

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Draft No. 4 is a series of autobiographical essays about the process of writing. 

Who should read this book?

Not me, I didn’t finish it. I suppose if you’re a big fan of McPhee you’ll probably enjoy the various vignettes, but I found it to be heavy on the memoir and light on the practical advice.

General Thoughts

From time to time books get added to my list because I hope they’ll improve my writing. This was one of those books, and it’s possible that if I hadn’t expected it to fulfill such a specific role that I might have enjoyed it. But after getting pretty far into things and discovering very little practical writing advice, my initial expectation had already hardened too much to switch to considering it as a delightful collection of stories about writing. Consequently I ended up setting it aside.

Lest there be any mistake, he does talk at great length about how he writes. But he doesn’t put much effort into generalizing his writing methodology into usable advice. And in fact some of his writing methodology is so specific that it would be impossible to implement. For example he spends an entire chapter talking about KEdit. An ancient program that was heavily customized for him by a now deceased colleague, which apparently has a user base of McPhee and maybe five other people. I guess if you squint, this does translate to a general lesson of “customize your tools”, but following his advice any more closely is essentially impossible. Which is to say lots of people are looking for advice on writing tools McPhee’s is, “Well I recommend a piece of software you’ve never heard of, can’t get, and which is only really useful with a ton of customization I can’t even talk you through because someone else did it for me and they’re dead.” 

I’m sure all of this will come across as some talentless amateur being too stupid to recognize the genius of one of the greatest writers of our age, and perhaps it is. Mostly what I’m trying to get across is that should you decide to read it, it’s best to go in thinking it’s a charming collection of anecdotes on the subject of writing. Not a how-to book.


Bang For Your Buck 

by: Stefan Gasic

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a collection of comics about investing inspired by the attitudes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Who should read this book?

If you like Taleb’s stuff or if you just have a general disdain for conventional investing and economics you’ll probably enjoy these comics.

General Thoughts

Nothing in this collection was uproariously funny, but there were bits that were clever, and he does really accurately nail the idiocy of some of the usual suspects like naive economists and brain-dead investment bros. I would go on, but this post is already huge and I still have four books left.


The Darkest Winter

by: Nick Johns

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A massive foreign hacker attack takes down power to the eastern seaboard in such a way that it will be weeks if not months before it’s restored.

Who should read this book?

I like fiction about potential future catastrophes, and for a first time author (which is what Johns is) this is pretty good. (Make what you will of the fact that I finished this, but not the McPhee book.)

General Thoughts

As I said this was a decent book, but the fact that Johns is a first time author is pretty apparent. The book drifted a lot into cliche, both in plot and characterization. You had the computer nerd who doesn’t know how to survive without his tech, the battered but defiant female. Some prepper red neck types. On the plot side society decides into anarchy surprisingly quickly, and yet in the midst of this anarchy the protagonist is constantly worried that when the smoke clears CSI is going to come in solve all of the crimes he ends up committing and put him in jail. 

In short, it had some great scenes and some decent characters, but taken as a whole it was pretty uneven.


III- Religious Reviews

C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces

By: C. S. Lewis

894 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of short pieces by C. S. Lewis. Mostly with a religious angle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all a fan of Lewis this is a great collection. It’s pretty expensive in print, but it is available on Audible, and the narrator is fantastic.

General Thoughts

I listened to this once on Audible and was impressed enough that I wanted both to re-read it and have a physical copy. My wife shelled out the $100 to get it for me a couple of Christmases ago, and this last year I selected it as one of the books I would read a few pages of every day (see the quote collections from my last review post). 

On this read through I was impressed by how prescient he was. He foresaw the danger of ideological echo chambers, the debates over the utility of prisons, the tension between justice and mercy, and attacks against liberal education:

Democratic education, says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy. Until we have realised that the two things do not necessarily go together we cannot think clearly about education.

If you have ever read any of Lewis’ essays—or seen them, the CSLewisDoodle channel on YouTube is fantastic—then this is all of them wrapped into one glorious package.


Book of Mormon Made Harder 

by: James E. Faulconer

384 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is a collection of penetrating questions about the Book of Mormon designed to be used during a year-long course of study.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’ve studied the Book of Mormon many times over the years and you’re looking for a new way to approach it this is a pretty good way of getting that.

General Thoughts

This is the last of the four books I read over the course of the whole year, but out of all of them this is the only book specifically designed to be read that way. It has chapters corresponding to the old set of 48 weekly Book of Mormon lessons which was recently changed with the Come Follow Me curriculum. But as it turns out the divisions didn’t change that much, so on a week by week basis things still match up pretty well.

Faulconer doesn’t cover every chapter, and some he covers in far more depth than others, and, this is the big part, he doesn’t really give you much in the way of new information, nearly all of the content consists of questions for you to ponder as you read. Thus the title of the book. He’s not trying to smooth out the road and make things easier he’s trying to get you to work harder at really engaging with the text. I confess personally that I could have done better with that. Many days reading this book was just something to check off my to-do list, but on those times where I did really engage it was very rewarding.


The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

by: Sterling M. McMurrin

184 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book that goes through most if not all of the big questions in theology—original sin, salvation by grace, the problem of evil—and shows how Mormon theology provides particularly satisfying answers to all of them.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dense book, and to fully appreciate it you either need a decent background in Mormon Theology and philosophy or a really deep knowledge of general Christian theology. But if you have one of those, or the discipline to look up what you don’t understand (something I resorted to on occasion) then this is a very interesting and illuminating book.

General Thoughts

In the book’s introductory essay, by L. Jackson Newell, the story is related of McMurrin being asked whether he was an atheist. McMurrin responded by quoting Bertrand Russell, who when asked a similar question, responded that he leaned towards atheism. McMurrin then went on to say, “I’m on that knife edge with Russell, but I lean toward theism.” I bring this up to point out that McMurrin was not some hardcore Mormon apologist. I would characterize him more as a sober student of philosophy and religion who happened to have an intimate acquaintance with Mormon theology having grown up in the religion and nominally continuing to belong to the church, though definitely as more of a gadfly than a leader. He was also Commissioner for Education for a couple of years under Kennedy, so he possessed at least enough mainstream credibility to be selected for that post. Bottom line for those who may fall into the later category of potential readers, someone with a general background in theology, but no specific experience with Mormonism, who may be on the fence about picking up this book, I predict it will be more objective and more scholarly than you think.

Beyond that as I said it’s a very dense book, and I really need to wrap up this exceptionally long post, so I’ll end with just a couple of quotes that I thought were particularly good:

But it is the task of religion to achieve in men that nobility of character that enables them not only to live through their severest adversity but at times even to accomplish that divine alchemy whereby they transmute loss and sorrow and tragedy into some moral good for the universe. 

My thesis is a very simple one: That the philosopher’s God, who is the explanation of the world, need not be a person; and the sanction of moral virtue need not be a personal God; but that the God of religion is a person.


When I was younger I read a lot of Tom Clancy, and I noticed that everytime a new book came out it was longer than one before. At the time I assumed it was a problem of editing, that the more successful he became the harder he was to edit. But now I notice it happening to me, and I’ve never done any editing other than self editing (at least in this space). Perhaps the length corresponds to my increasingly infantile desperation to be noticed, that it’s a sort of “Look at me! Look at me!” at ever increasing volume. If you want to help me quiet those inner demons, consider donating


Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

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


Sometimes when I sit down to start a post I have something that’s dying to get out, something which I feel must be said, and as quickly as possible. In my assessment of social media I assume that many people feel this same mix of necessity and rapidity, and that it’s probably just as illusory for them as it is for me, but without such illusions no one would ever write anything. At other times I’m not sure what to write about. One might imagine that in these instances that I would decide to write nothing, but that never happens. Perhaps it should, but I tell myself that my writing is as much for my own education as it is for the education of others, and as such I should maintain the habit regardless of whether I feel particularly driven to write at any given moment.

All of this is a way of explaining that when I sat down to write this post I found myself in the latter category, wondering what to write about. Which is not to say there was no subject that seemed important enough to write about, but more that there were too many important subjects at that moment, and I’ve already talked about them, and worry I’m out of anything unique or noteworthy to add. As a further drag on my desire I worry that my own methodology for speaking about things might be getting overused, that is digging into the deeper implications of some book I’m reading, or alternatively exploring the ramifications of the political crisis de jour. But I’ve decided that rather than avoiding this tendency that, at least in this post, I’m going to double down on it, and combine a discussion of a book I’m reading with a discussion of the latest political crisis! I’m sure you’re all very excited.

The book is The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. In the past I have made light of the contention Fukuyama makes right in the book’s title. That we have reached the “end of history”, but my criticisms were probably misplaced and mostly due to me having an overly simplified view of what he was saying. After discovering that his point was more complicated, I vowed to read the book, which I did while at the same time working on this post. 

Fukuyama’s chief argument is that, at the end of the cold war the hybrid system of capitalism and liberal democracy didn’t have any obvious competitors. That no other ideologies remained which had a credible claim for being the better system. The book was written in 1992, when the Chinese communist system was still looking somewhat shaky in the wake of things like Tiananmen Square. In the intervening years I think it’s made a credible run at providing a competing vision of governance, but a specific discussion of China will have to wait for another post (probably not the next post which will be my September book review post, but the post after that.) However, in 1992 things were very different and there was lots of room for hope. Thus one obvious criticism of the book is that it suffers from being too close to things.

At the time, this idea that capitalism and liberal democracy had won, was treated as great news. The cold war was over. We didn’t have to worry about being eventually overwhelmed by communism or alternatively perishing in a fiery apocalypse brought on by two irreconcilable ideologies. Unfortunately in the midst of all this optimism, a new problem emerged, and this is where Fukuyama’s book is at his best. (Chapter 28, “Men Without Chests”, which discusses Nietzsche’s view of things, justifies the entire book all by itself.) This new problem might be stated: If what we have is as good as it’s going to get, if we’ve reached an ideological dead end, what happens if it turns out not to work either? What if we discover that liberal democracy itself is ultimately fragile in a similar fashion to all previous types of government? (Perhaps the fragility just takes longer to manifest?) If this turns out to be the case, then there’s really no refuge left. To put it another way, since the Enlightenment, people have aspired to a liberal democratic government as an ideal, even more so after 1776 when it was apparent that it was actually possible. And it was felt that if a nation ever managed to make that transition that things would vastly improve But if, as seems to be currently happening, liberal democracy starts breaking down, then what’s left to aspire to?

I know some people still aspire to communism but that carries a host of issues, including it’s record of failure, and the difficulty of assembling a broad enough base of support. Beyond that there are proposals for a variety of untried systems, or for massive changes to liberal democracy, but the proposals seem unlikely to work in anything close to the fashion their advocates envision, and making massive changes seem at best a method of buying more time, not anything that changes liberal democracy from something which can fail into something which can’t.

In examining this question of whether democracy too might fail, or whether it’s already failing, it’s useful to consider why previous systems of government failed. Fukuyama mainly ascribes these previous failures to a lack of legitimacy. In particular the 20th century saw lots of totalitarian states. These states derived their legitimacy from several things, economic growth, stability, and particularly the point of a gun. What didn’t play any part in their legitimacy were big ideas which persisted when those other three things went away. Because eventually all three of those things will go away.  Even rule at the point of a gun isn’t sustainable forever. (Though as North Korea illustrates it can be sustained for a very long time.) To a certain extent communist regimes had big ideas like equality and plenty for all, but these big ideas never panned out, even after decades of effort. Also it’s difficult to combine maintaining something at the point of a gun while also claiming that it’s really the big idea that keeps everything going. Which is to say it’s tough to believe in the utopia of Communism when your country is being run by Stalin.

Previous to democracy and communism, and even well into the 19th century, there were monarchies, which operated under big ideas like heredity and the divine right of kings. (And the fact that the vast masses of people couldn’t do much about the system even if they wanted to.) Whatever their source, according to Fukuyama, these big ideas provide a long-term source of legitimacy, similar to a cash reserve that can be drawn on when things get bad. In the case of the monarchy, even during a revolution, these big ideas were in play, and a relative of the previous king started from a much stronger position than some random individual, or even some random noble. In the same way that someone who won an election (even if that election was suspected of being rigged) has far more legitimacy than the average individual these days. But this isn’t the only source of modern legitimacy. When things were tough for the Soviet Union during World War II they could draw on the idea that they were fighting fascist hordes who wanted to wreck their communist utopia, and probably they drew on their sense of national pride as well. Finally, the point of a gun was almost certainly in there as well. This is still Stalin we’re talking about.

This last example brings up the idea of necessity, which is related, but somewhat different than legitimacy. As I pointed out in a previous post, one possible reason for why we’re so disunited at the moment is that there’s nothing forcing us to be united. No external threat we need to face. Post Pearl Harbor and with literal Nazis in charge of Europe, it was probably pretty easy to be united, and as far as I can tell there were very few questions of where the government derived its legitimacy. And the point that Fukuyama makes in his book, is that while some external threat exists, or alternatively when the economy is booming and times are really good, it’s easy for any form of government to seem legitimate. They’re performing the core tasks that governments need to perform. It’s when times get tough and there’s nothing external to unite against that totalitarian governments end up being more fragile than liberal democracies because there’s no underlying big idea to draw on to keep things together if, say the economy tanks. 

If, as is the case today, the country feels no necessity to unite in the face of an external threat, because there are none. And further, if the economy is not booming and things are not going well, at least for the vast majority of people. And finally, if the government is (hopefully) not being maintained at the point of a gun. Then the only difference between a totalitarian regime on the verge of collapse, say the Soviet Union in 1988, and us, is our big ideas. And if they truly are the only thing standing between us and collapse, then it’s probably a good idea to examine what those big ideas are and see how they’re holding up.

One of the big ideas is permitting free and open debate. The assumption being that if all the information is out there that people will eventually make the right decision. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this particular idea because it’s something which I’ve talked a lot about in the past, and it’s also something that’s being talked about a lot by people other than me, but it seems clear that this is one big idea that’s looking pretty shaky. Not only is it harder and harder to separate good information from bad, but there’s a significant push to restrict speech and information above and beyond that. 

Another big idea is using elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. This isn’t looking that great either. Certainly Trump’s recent statements undermining this idea are alarming, but when Hillary Clinton is saying that Biden should not concede the election “under any circumstances” I’m not sure 100% of the blame can be placed on Trump for the erosion of this idea. My current prediction is that the 2020 election will continue to fulfill this function, but it’s hard to argue that this idea isn’t getting weaker each cycle.

Yet another important big idea is equality of opportunity. Of all the ideas that existed at the time Fukuyama wrote his book, this is the one that has undergone the most sustained attack, particularly from the perspective of the ongoing racial inequalities. Though in Fukuyama’s defense he foresees that this might be the case:

Moreover, even American democracy has not been particularly successful in solving its most persistent ethnic problem, that of American blacks. Black slavery constituted the major exception to the generalization that Americans were “born equal,” and American democracy could not in fact settle the question of slavery through democratic means. Long after the abolition of slavery, long, indeed after the achievement of full legal equality by American blacks, many remain profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American culture. Given the profoundly cultural nature of the problem, on the side both of blacks and whites, it is not clear that American democracy is really capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.

However, having mentioned it as a possibility, he doesn’t seem to think it poses much of a problem long term. Yes, it comes up a lot, but only in very general terms, he definitely didn’t foresee what’s happening now. And of course maybe he’s right, and in the end current unrest may have very little long term impact. Perhaps I’m as blinded by the events of 2020 as Fukuyama was by the events of 1989. In his case it ended up creating too much optimism, perhaps in my case it’s creating too much pessimism. But for the moment let’s imagine that the possibility Fukuyama brings up in the book is in fact a description of our current reality, that American democracy is not “capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.” What then?

Well, insofar as big ideas confer a reserve of legitimacy, to be drawn on when times are difficult (which they seem to be) the disappearance of this idea, perhaps more than any of the other big ideas, may leave us without any reserves of legitimacy. The equivalent of a totalitarian government dealing with a popular uprising. Indeed many people would describe it in just these terms, but I don’t think any of those people have actually ever lived somewhere truly repressive. 

The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg brings up the final big idea I’d like to cover. (To be clear there are lots of big ideas underpinning liberal democracy, but I think even the ones I’ve neglected to mention are passing through a period of unusual weakness.) This final big idea is the rule of law. Now of course Republicans would be quick to point out that in confirming her replacement they aren’t violating any laws, and this is entirely true, nor did they violate any laws when they refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nor did the Democrats violate any laws when they failed to confirm Robert Bork, nor will they be violating any laws if they retake the Presidency and the Senate and pack the courts. But laws, particularly laws as elegantly devised and as pithy as the Constitution aren’t designed to cover every conceivable eventuality. Accordingly part of the “rule of law” big idea is the awareness that laws are surrounded with certain understandings, norms, and even a layer of civility and cooperation which keeps things from descending into a contest of merely seeing who can get away with the most the fastest. 

Despite the existence of these many pressing problems I just pointed out (and the many I didn’t), it’s common to hear people counter that things aren’t as bad as they were in the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly they’re nowhere near where they were on the eve of the Civil War. (I’ve even done it myself on occasion.) But if, as Fukuyama asserts, it’s less about the amount of blood being spilt and more about the amount of legitimacy in reserve, then we might actually be closer to disaster than we were in either of those cases. For example, however intense the violence got during the late 60s/early 70s, all of the “big ideas” were significantly healthier. Free and open debate was taken to be an article of faith by the media and those in power, and it was a particular cause of the left (see for example the Free Speech Movement). I don’t recall any big worries about the peaceful transition of power, but that says more about us than about them, that the subject has even come up. Moving on to equality of opportunity, certainly the Civil Rights act didn’t solve everything, but I would nevertheless argue that people were significantly more optimistic about it solving the problems of racial inequality than anyone is about anything involving race right now. Finally, as has been well documented, despite whatever other unrest was going on, partisan rancor was not nearly so severe. Further, I can only conclude, based on all the people arguing that the Senate has historically “never done this”, or “never done that”, or “always done something else” that this history of greater cooperation they’re referring to includes that period in the late 60s and early 70s. 

As far as the Civil War. Here the case for big ideas is even stronger. So strong, that, speaking personally, I’ve always had a hard time entirely wrapping my head around it. This is a situation where, speaking just of soldiers on the Union side (it being dangerous to say much of anything about the Confederacy these days) 360,222 were willing to die, just for the big idea of preserving the United States. For those with more modern sensibilities it would be easier to understand if you imagine that they were dying for the big idea of ending slavery and indeed that was the thing underlaying the entire war, but for the average Union solider the priority was preserving the country. They were fighting and dying for the big idea of American exceptionalism. This takes on added significance when you recall that the 360,000 who died came out of a far smaller population, about a tenth of what it is today, meaning that would be equivalent to 3.6 million dying today.

If all of the foregoing is correct and legitimacy is really the thing that matters, and liberal democracy, especially American liberal democracy, is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, what can we do about it? The totalitarian governments which had recently fallen when Fukuyama was writing his book were able to shift from totalitarianism to liberal democracy. But as I pointed out at the beginning, if Fukuyama is correct and liberal democracy represents the end point of progression, then there is no system we can switch to. We’re at the end of things, and if that system doesn’t work then there’s nowhere else to go. 

Some people seem to imagine that communism is still an option, and perhaps it is, perhaps it just needs certain institutions, technologies and attitudes which didn’t exist the last time it was tried. An idea I explored in a previous post, despite this it’s still a pretty far-fetched idea. 

Other people think that there’s a way of combining critical race theory with liberal democracy to produce a new system which would finally fully assimilate blacks in a way that actually led to equality of condition. When I say that some people think there’s a way to do this, I’m actually not sure anyone seriously thinks it can be done, the conflicts between the two systems are essentially irreconcilable, but it represents the vague desires of everyone with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard. Which is to say, it’s a great idea, but from the standpoint of this post, even if it were possible, the system would end up possessing neither the big ideas of liberal democracy nor the big ideas of critical race theory. I understand this last bit is a claim that probably needs more support than I’m giving it. But my post Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory covers a lot of that territory.

As perhaps the most radical option of all, conceivably you could ditch liberal democracy entirely, and switch to a system whose legitimacy rested on the big ideas of Critical Race Theory. Fukuyama actually covers this possibility, though not directly:

At one extreme, the Marxist project sought to promote an extreme form of social equality at the expense of liberty, by eliminating natural inequalities through the reward not of talent but of need, and through the attempt to abolish the division of labor. All future efforts to push social equality beyond the point of a “middle-class society” must contend with the failure of the Marxist project. For in order to eradicate those seemingly “necessary and ineradicable” differences, it was necessary to create a monstrously powerful state. (emphasis mine)

Again, I understand that this point deserves more support than it’s getting, and again I would direct you to my previous post

After surveying our various options, it would seem that if our reserves of legitimacy are depleted that there are no good options, of course other than somehow refilling those reserves, of restoring the big ideas enough so that they can once again act as a source of legitimacy. Put that way, there are obviously lots of people working on the project. But unfortunately I’m not seeing many signs that they’ve been at all successful.


There is one other system that seems to possess some reserves of legitimacy, (though how large these reserves are is anyone’s guess) that system is Chinese Communism. But as I alluded to near the beginning I’m saving that for the post after next. If you have any concerns that I might run out of steam before then, consider donating.


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?


Picking an End Point for the Revolution

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For the moment let’s assume that things need to change in the US, and probably the entire world. That we have serious and urgent problems which need fixing. For most people I imagine this assumption isn’t particularly controversial, though before we proceed with it, it’s probably worth at least mentioning the idea that this assumption could be wrong, that perhaps the problems we experience are neither serious nor particularly urgent. To at least entertain the notion that things are actually awesome and all of the current turmoil is self-generated drama. That, as Steven Pinker says in the opening to his book Enlightenment Now, a “bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.”

Of course as anyone who has dealt with self-generated drama knows, it can cause quite a few problems without necessarily being based on anything concrete. Which is to say even if we factor Pinker’s assertion into our calculations I still think it’s pretty safe to assume that things need to change. From here we can imagine two ways that this might happen. We could work within the existing system, and make gradual changes to the framework that already exists. Or we can ditch the old system and replace it with a completely new and presumably better system. 

In my last post I examined a proposal that fell into the latter category, one that proposed a completely new system of racial justice, and found that it suffered from a distressing lack of pragmatism. In this post I want to examine the general idea of completely replacing a system rather than gradually modifying the current system. And right off the bat I want to make the bold claim that a complete replacement never works, or if it does it takes so much longer than anyone ever thought it would when things began that the effect is the same.

To be clear when I’m talking about a complete replacement I mean nothing less than a revolution. Something which clearly separates one form of government and ideology from another. In the interest of full disclosure I draw most of my knowledge about revolutions from the excellent podcast of the same name by Mike Duncan, and out of the modern revolutions he covers I think three are worth discussing here: the American, French and Russian.

To begin with you may already be thinking, “But the American Revolution worked! I thought you said revolutions never worked?” I actually didn’t say that, I said a complete replacement never works. And, while it’s impossible to completely replace your system of government without a revolution, it is possible to have a revolution without completely replacing your system of government. To illustrate what I mean it’s instructive to contrast the American and French Revolutions. Why was one successful, while the other was largely unsuccessful? (Unless you consider Napoleon some sort of win condition…) This disparity would make sense if the unsuccessful revolution had occurred first. You could imagine that the second time someone attempted an “enlightened” revolution that the revolutionaries would have learned from all the mistakes of the first, and as such it would be more likely to be successful, but in fact it’s the reverse.  Another factor that might have played a role in things was the fact that the Americans were rebelling against an external power, while the French were largely rebelling against themselves. Certainly this disparity has to be taken into account, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it. The Revolutionary War was more loyalists vs. patriots than it was colonists vs. England, and it was much closer to a civil war than an indigenous rebellion. So why did the one fail while the other succeeded?

I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, how is it that these two revolutions, so close in time and goals, had such different outcomes? Just recently I read something which seemed to answer it. It was a passage in the book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It’s a massive, incredibly dense tome which clocks in at 874 pages. And I’m going to attempt to do some justice to it in the July book review round-up, but for now I just want to focus on one little part of it: a section comparing the American and French Revolutions:

The [American] revolutionary forces were mobilized largely on the basis of the old backward-looking legitimacy idea. [The revolution] will later be seen as the exercise of a power inherent in a sovereign people. The proof of its existence and legitimacy lies in the new polity it created. But popular sovereignty would have been incapable of doing this job if it had entered the scene too soon. The predecessor idea, invoking the traditional rights of a people defined by its ancient constitution, had to do the original heavy lifting…

…this projection backwards of the action of a sovereign people wouldn’t have been possible without the continuity in institutions and practices which allowed for the reinterpretation of past actions as the fruit of the new principles. The essence of this continuity resided in the virtually universal acceptance among the colonists of elected assemblies as legitimate forms of power. Popular sovereignty could be embraced because it had a clear and uncontested institutional meaning. This was the basis of the new order. 

In other words the American Revolution worked because of the things it modified rather than the things it dispensed with. The various legislative bodies present in the colonies and in the mother country formed the foundation for the new system they ended up with. Without that foundation already in place they would have found it impossible to build something new. On the other hand:

Quite different was the case in the French Revolution, with fateful effects. The impossibility remarked by all historians of “bringing the Revolution to an end” came partly from this, that any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support. Part of the terrifying instability of the first years of the Revolution stemmed from this negative fact, that the shift from the legitimacy of dynastic rule to that of the nation had no agreed meaning in a broadly based social imaginary. 

[Edmund] Burke’s advice to the revolutionaries was to stick to their traditional constitution and amend it piecemeal. But this was already beyond their powers. It was not just that the representative institutions of this constitution, the Estates General, had been in abeyance for 175 years. They were also profoundly out of sync with the aspiration to equal citizenship…That is why virtually the first demand of the Third Estate in 1789 was to abolish the separate chambers, and bring all the delegates together in a single National Assembly. 

Even more gravely, outside of [the] educated elites, there was very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.

In both revolutions they had the idea of popular sovereignty, the difference was that for the American Revolution popular sovereignty had a “clear and uncontested institutional meaning” whereas in the French Revolution, there was “very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.” And consequently any “particular expression of popular sovereignty” could be supplanted by any other “expression of popular sovereignty”. The American Revolution had a logical endpoint, the French Revolution didn’t. That was why one was a success and one wasn’t and it’s also the key difference between making changes within a system and trying to implement an entirely new system, as long as you keep the old system you also keep an endpoint, but once you abandon it, you also abandon any obvious markers for declaring the thing finished. 

I leave it for the reader to judge whether the current political unrest represents an example of something where the radical changes being demanded will nevertheless ultimately use the current system as a foundation, i.e. is there in fact an obvious stopping point. Or whether it falls into the category of revolutions which entirely reject the old system. Or whether it should be considered to be a revolution at all. What I’m more interested in at the moment is the historical perspective. Which takes us to the other revolution I said I was going to cover, the Russian Revolution.

There is an argument to be made that this was both a successful revolution and a revolution that thoroughly and comprehensively rejected the previous system. For myself, I would certainly agree with the last half of the argument, Russian communism was clearly something entirely new, it’s the first half that I take issue with. Yes, if your sole criteria is whether a new ideology took power, and held onto that power, it was a success, but when you consider the millions and millions of people who died in the course of making that happen, it’s not a success I think that anyone should want to emulate. And in any consideration of the Russian revolution that would be the lesson I’d want people to come away with. But if you assure me that you have absorbed that lesson, I think the lessons that came from how that revolution ended are valuable as well.

To pull all three revolutions together, and restate things: in order for the revolution to end there has to be a point where most people admit that it has ended. For the American Revolution that end point was independence and a revised system of elected assemblies. For the French Revolution they had the supposed end point of achieving popular sovereignty, but no one could agree on precisely how they would know when that was achieved. The end point of the Russian Revolution was more complicated, there was the overt and widely proclaimed goal of total economic leveling, but this was combined with the more covert endpoint of a select group of people seizing power. In making these comparisons I’m hand waving numerous very complex situations, but distilled out, I think the Russian Revolution provides two additional examples of how things might end, 1) the ideology motivating the revolution could provide a clearly defined endpoint. Or 2) the revolution could be led by people powerful enough to call a halt to things when they’re satisfied. Out of these two it is unclear if either is sufficient to end things by itself, but if one of them is, it would have to be having strong leaders.

As I said, I’m not ready to declare what sort of revolution is taking place right now, or if it even is a revolution. But if it is, then it would appear to be in danger of falling prey to the phenomenon I’ve been talking about, the lack of any obvious endpoint. The clearest way this manifests is in the lack of leaders, something which has been brought up a lot in this space particularly in the comments, but which seems to pass mostly unremarked upon everywhere else. Or at least I haven’t seen any really serious grappling with what this might mean in the mainstream press. Which is surprising because it represents a huge difference between past protests and now. And even if I’m over-reaching when I argue that this lack of leaders is going to make it harder to bring things to a close, I can’t see anyone arguing that it doesn’t significantly alter the dynamic. 

The effect of ideology is more nebulous, but as I argued in previous posts, the protesters seem to have a whole constellation of demands, none of which are particularly pragmatic, or even well-defined. But from a high level view, and at the risk of being too simplistic, it feels like if the French Revolution was motivated by popular sovereignty that the current protests are motivated by the idea of justice. And if anything it seems even tricker to decide when justice has been achieved than it was to establish when popular sovereignty had been. As Taylor pointed out, “any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support.” Couldn’t we adapt that, and with equal accuracy say, “any particular demand for justice could be superseded by some other, with substantial support”?

You might assert that simplifying things down to the idea of justice goes too far, that they are not demanding some form of unreachable platonic justice, for all people and for all times, that their ideology is more complicated, but if anything doesn’t that make it even worse? If the French couldn’t agree on the meaning of popular sovereignty, and the Russian revolution only stopped after millions of deaths, and the imposition of a dictatorship, what makes you think, should this actually be a true revolution, that having lots of competing ideas about what needs to be accomplished will make declaring an end to things easier?

Lest you think I’m overstating the complexity of things here is just a half dozen points from the website blacklivesmatter.com:

  1. We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.
  2. We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege.
  3. We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.
  4. We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.
  5. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.
  6. We embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace.

I’m not necessarily saying that any of the above is bad (though I think some points bring a lot of negative second order effects) nor am I necessarily claiming blacklivesmatter.com speaks for all of the protestors (though that takes us back to the lack of leadership) I’m saying that these points are nebulous (what has to occur for us to be sure that cisgender priviledge is dismantled?) and also numerous. 

As I mention, I’m not sure how this is going to play out over the next few weeks and months (or years). What I am saying is that if the protests are expected to continue until every item on the list is checked off, then the expected duration starts to approach infinity. Of course, no one is patient enough for an infinitely long process, which is why people want to speed things up. And that’s how we switch from gradually remaking the existing system into violently imposing an entirely new system. 

In the end, the caution I’m urging here is closely related to the caution I’ve been urging in all of my recent posts:

  • Don’t panic so much over the first mistake, that you make a second bigger mistake. While I’m not saying the excesses of the French Revolution were worse than the abuses of the Ancien Régime. It should have been possible to do something about those abuses without The Terror.
  • If you are going to try something radical, try it on a small scale rather than at the level of the entire nation. In 1900 it was reasonable to argue that Communism would be a better system of government than market capitalism, but rather than start with a modest experiment, they imposed it at the point of a gun in two of the biggest nations in the world, Russia and China, and it led to millions of deaths.
  • Things are more complicated than you think. At the time of the French Revolution, (particularly in light of the American Revolution) it may have seemed straightforward to implement something completely new, but there are always all manner of complexities and systems you’re almost entirely unaware of.
  • There are lots of different ways of viewing the world, and getting everyone on the same page is more difficult than you think. If you’re creating chaos in an attempt to disrupt the current system, how do you turn that chaos off? For the French it was essentially Napoleon. For the Russians it was Lenin or possibly Stalin. For the Americans it was elected assemblies. Who or what turns off the current chaos?
  • And of course the last post where I directly address the lack of pragmatism in the ideology of Critical Race Theory.

To all of that I would like to repeat my caution from the beginning of the post, trying to completely replace the system never works. So if we want to succeed, if we want to address the problems of police brutality and income inequality and the rest, we need to build on what we have. I know that this is not what people want to hear, but before you dismiss it, take a minute to consider the differences between the American and French Revolutions, and in particular the horrors of the Russian Revolution. I know it seems impossible to go from what’s happening now, to either the French or Russian Revolutions, but had you asked the French in May of 1789 or the Russians in January of 1917 I’m sure that what actually happened would have seemed impossible to them as well…


This is actually my 200th post. I thought about doing something meta, or special, but in the end I decided not to. However, if you wanted to give me a gift, becoming a patreon would be at the top of my list…


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.