Category: <span>Newsletter</span>

Eschatologist #24 – ChatGPT and a Lack of Genius

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In the past this has been the time of year when I made predictions. Those predictions were somewhat different from those given by other people. I’m far more interested in being prepared for black swans than I am in predicting whether some mundane political event has a 90% or a 95% chance of happening. But one of the qualities of black swans is their rarity. As such everything I’ve predicted has yet to occur. In fact, for most of the predictions, there hasn’t even been movement over the last year towards making them more or less likely. There is however one notable exception: artificial intelligence.

In my very first set of predictions I asserted that:

General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.

Though I continue to maintain the accuracy of that prediction I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on it. More so than for any of my other predictions. This pushback has only gotten more intense as the amazing abilities of large language models (LLM) have become increasingly apparent. You may have heard about these models, particularly the one released just a month ago: ChatGPT

If you’ve had the chance to play around with ChatGPT it is pretty freaking amazing. It seems to possess some real intelligence, So am I wrong? And if I’m not wrong, then I have to at least be less certain, right? Well, I don’t think I’m wrong, yet. But it would be foolish not to update my beliefs based on this new evidence, so I have. Still… I don’t think the evidence is as strong as people think. 

We’ve got plenty of evidence for ChatGPT’s ability to produce writing that’s around the average of writing fed into it. But where’s the evidence of it producing far better content than that? Where’s the evidence of genius?

A post from Freddie deBoer sent me down this path. He asked ChatGPT to recreate the “to be or not to be” speech in vernacular African-American English, and it was profoundly mediocre. This by itself isn’t damning, the technology is still very young. But how does ChatGPT get from mediocrity to brilliance?

There are plans to throw even more writing at it, but unless there’s some cache of superlative writing they’ve been holding back on, won’t more writing just be a way of more deeply entrenching the average? 

If more writing samples isn’t the answer, then another possibility is training. If we have users provide feedback on when it’s being brilliant vs. when it’s being mediocre, then, in theory, it will become more brilliant. In the same way that they’ve trained it to avoid controversial positions. Unfortunately this sort of reinforcement training doesn’t work great even if the goal is straightforward, and identifying brilliance is anything but straightforward. Also it would seem that “be brilliant” and “avoid controversy” are going to end up being contradictory mandates much of the time.

None of this is to say that ChatGPT and similar technology isn’t going to be terrifically disruptive. It will be. (You may add that to my list of predictions if you wish.) There will be huge changes in the way writing is done, particularly required writing. We may have already seen the effective end of assigning essays as homework. But if AI is going to be as consequential as its proponents claim, it’s not enough for it to produce average work. It has to be able to produce brilliant work.

To distill it down, I have all the faith in the world that a LLM will eventually be able to do 80 or even 90 percent of what humans can do. But it’s that last and top 10% where all the magic is. And it’s not clear to me how we get genius outputs from mediocre inputs, regardless of how voluminous that input is. 


I asked ChatGPT to “write a clever appeal for patreon donations to append to the end of an article about chatGPT’s lack of brilliance”. The first result was long and mediocre, so I told it to shorten it. Then it was short and mediocre. Finally I told it to make it funny. Here’s what it came up with:

Hey there! If you enjoyed reading about chatGPT’s lack of brilliance, you might be wondering how we keep coming up with new material. The answer is simple: we have a team of highly skilled monkeys typing on old typewriters. But seriously, if you want to support our team of human writers and keep the monkey-typing to a minimum, consider becoming a patron on Patreon. Every little bit helps, and with your support, we can keep bringing you the most hilarious (and accurate) AI and NLP content around. Thanks for your help! 


Eschatologist #23 – Avoiding Risk

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I’m going to talk about FTX. I know, you’re sick of hearing about it, and you’re sick of Sam Bankman-Fried’s face and seeing his name abbreviated as just SBF. But out of the thousands of “hot takes” this story has generated, this is the “hot take” you needed, but didn’t know it. Though, as with all examples of greatness, I’ll be standing on the shoulders of giants. Let’s start with Tyler Cowen, the noted economist who observed that:

Hardly anyone associated with Future Fund saw the existential risk to…Future Fund, even though they were as close to it as one could possibly be.

Future Fund was also called FTX Future Fund, and was wholly funded by “profits” from FTX. Their primary focus was on preventing future risk, so you can see how Cowen might find the situation ironic. I also think it’s super ironic, though I’m inclined to cut them a little bit of slack. Risk detection and mitigation is hard, and technology has only made it harder. 

Of course thievery predates humans by tens of millions of years, and even Ponzi schemes have been around since at least 1920 when Charles Ponzi started his. (You can see why I’m only cutting them a little bit of slack.) But the crypto-specific version of the scam was brand new. Being able to privately mint something that is half currency/half asset and then sell a small portion of it to create a scandalously inflated mark to market value for that currency/asset is an innovation. An innovation in evil but an innovation nonetheless. 

So yes, as has been pointed out, this lack of foresight is perhaps not quite the abject failure Cowen makes it out to be, but it’s still a good illustration of how difficult it is to avoid risk. You can have an organization where that’s their entire purpose, and they can be blindsided by something because they were only looking for specific kinds of risk. 

The Future Fund was focused on exotic risks, which is a fascination many people have recently developed. But in their focus on exotic risks they missed a very common risk. They could imagine a malevolent all powerful AI. (It’s the first item on their Areas of Interest list.) But they couldn’t imagine that SBF was a common criminal (or they could but didn’t do anything about it). 

The simple point would be: don’t let shiny new exotic risks distract you from common everyday risks. But the larger point is that we have to have a comprehensive approach to risk. The Future Fund and others are correct, technology has created a host of new dangers. But reality is not some game where when you reach the next level you never again see the monsters from the previous levels. We always have to deal with all the monsters, the old ones, the new ones we’ve created, and a whole host of other monsters lurking just out of sight.

The hard and uncaring universe doesn’t grade on a curve. It doesn’t imagine the answer you thought you were giving and say close enough. It doesn’t care what your intentions were — that technology is supposed to be a good thing. When it creates risk it does so randomly and capriciously. To look at just one more recent example: when you close down schools, the universe doesn’t automatically turn that into a good decision because you did it in the name of safety. Risk doesn’t just emerge from actions that are obviously bad. 

This is particularly important when considering technology. Nearly all of it was developed for the benefit of humanity, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t enabled a host of new risks. There are the obvious risks from engineered pandemics, nuclear weapons and being hit by a comet, but it has also brought a host of subtler risks: risks of stagnation, discord, and narcissism. And, as we discovered with FTX, it’s created new ways to package old risks.

So while it’s understandable that Future Fund missed the rampant fraud, it’s not forgivable. Because there is no forgiveness, there are only consequences. And if your fund, or your nation or your world ends, it doesn’t matter how it happened. And while I personally believe our souls will be graded by a kind and understanding judge and our intentions will matter. As long as we’re still in this life, we still need to be aware of all the risks, the old and the new, the big and the small, the flashy and the subtle, but most of all the thousands of new risks we’ve created for ourselves. We need to step up our game.


After all of this you may be wondering, is anything risk free? Or will we inevitably discover that it all has negative second order effects? Well, there is one thing completely free of risk: donating to this blog. And yes, I know that sounds self-interested, but as SBF once said, trust me here. I know what I’m doing.


Eschatologist #22 – A Survey

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This is my 300th post. It’s only my 22nd newsletter, but given that it’s 2022, that seemed numerologically significant enough for it to also count as a special occasion. An occasion on which to reflect on the whole grubby endeavor. 

Writing is a weird business. To put out any level of content consistently you have to basically treat it as a part time job. A difficult, lonely, job where you mostly work for free. So why do it? That is an excellent question. As I mentioned in a previous post, I suffer from the silly and conceited idea that I have something important to say. But why do I think that?

All of the attributes I’ve already mentioned make it very easy to get trapped in an individual echo chamber. Constantly regurgitating one good idea until everyone is sick of it. And that assumes that I have one good idea. (I actually fancy I have more than that, but once again why do I think that?)

Numerous people have sent me emails over the years, left comments, mentioned me on Twitter, or done some other form of social media shout out. But while such spontaneous feedback is always appreciated (more than you know), sometimes it’s best to be direct.

Given the numerological significance of this newsletter/post/episode it seemed the perfect opportunity to just come out and ask for feedback. In order to make it easy I’ve created a survey. Which asks all sorts of useful questions including a query about the many things I could be doing better, and even a couple about the many things I might be doing right.

Here’s the link: https://forms.gle/toRzdKPervpygw8MA 

For those who might still be hesitating, there are only 15 questions, none are required, but one lucky person who fills out all 15 will get a $100 Amazon Gift Card. And next month we’ll return to your normally scheduled pedantry.


I’m not kidding about the $100 gift card. In fact depending on the number of responses I get, I may give out two of them! So go, and fill out the survey!


Eschatologist #21: But What if They’re Wrong?

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I recently finished reading three different books:

I mention these books together because they all make very strong predictions about the future. 

Dalio predicts that the US will continue to decline and eventually be supplanted as the dominant world power by China. 

Zeihan predicts that the US will return to isolationism, which will be fine for them/us, but an absolute disaster for the rest of the world, particularly China. 

Deutsch predicts an amazing future where everything is awesome for everyone. 

These are wildly different visions of the future, and I’ll get into actual details in a future essay. (If you’re interested in reading it you should sign up for the “Everything I Write” newsletter.) But for now I just want to talk about how an individual should approach these very different predictions. Because my advice is going to be different than most. 

Before anything else you might notice that the first two predictions are essentially pessimistic, while the final prediction is super optimistic. After making that determination most people would move on to trying to determine which of them is the most accurate. The methodology isn’t particularly important. 

They might compare the predictions of the book vs. what’s actually happening. Particularly if the book has been out for a while. They might “go with their gut”. They might look at the opinions of the experts, though that’s basically how we ended up here in the first place. All three of these authors are considered to be experts, and yet despite that, their predictions couldn’t be more different. What all of this illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter which methodology you use. Predicting the future, particularly with any degree of specificity, is impossible.

Consequently, I’d like to suggest the opposite approach. To suggest that rather than asking what the consequences might be if they’re right, that instead you should be asking, “What if they’re wrong?” Or more specifically what if you decide to follow their advice and it turns out to be wrong? (Of course if you follow their advice and they turn out to be correct then you win.)

But you start by following their advice. If you decided to follow Dalio you might mostly divest from the stock market and put a lot of money into gold. In theory you might move to China, but more likely you’d try to live more modestly where you already are. Perhaps search out a strong community. 

With Zeihan, despite the differences between their predictions, you might do something very similar. Though of course you definitely wouldn’t move to China. 

With Deutsch though, things would be very different. He doesn’t have any specific investment recommendations, but I suspect you’d put a lot of money into crypto. Rather than living in America or China you’d probably live wherever it’s cheapest, and not worry too much about embedding yourself deeply in a community. 

And if you’re wrong? With Dalio and Zeihan, it’s not really a big deal. You probably traveled less than you might have otherwise, and you own fewer luxuries. But if they’re wrong you’re still fine. And it should be noted that despite the very different character of Dalio and Zeihan’s predictions, you’re mostly able to prepare for both at the same time. And beyond that you were probably better prepared for a host of other catastrophes as well. 

However if you decided to follow Deutsch’s advice, and he ends up being wrong then your situation is much worse. You might find yourself trapped either in the new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Dalio) or on the other side of the newly dangerous oceans which are crawling with pirates (Zeihan). You might have lost all your money when the tech sector collapses and with it the value of crypto. Or some other constellation of bad outcomes. (As you’ll recall I said predicting the future was impossible.)

The key point is that you need to consider both if someone is right and if they’re wrong, and how bad both of those things are. Because if you’re okay if either one happens then you can’t lose. But if you need them to be right, because you can’t handle them being wrong, well then you may be in for a very nasty surprise. Because they might very well be wrong.


You might be asking “But what if you’re wrong?” Ahh, I have trained you perhaps too well. I’m never wrong, I’m just misunderstood. I know this because of how often I have to repeat the same appeal. You know the one, “Consider donating”?


Eschatologist #20: The Antifragility of Taboos

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We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better.

You might imagine that since taboos are also human creations that they would suffer from the same fragility I described in my last newsletter. But there is a difference between systems which were invented and systems which have evolved. The process of evolution separates the antifragile from the fragile. 

Antifragile things are made stronger by disorder, chaos and other shocks (up to a point). Fragile things are made weaker. Invented things, by nature of their novelty have not been subjected to ongoing shocks or chaos, while evolved things have undergone that evolution in the presence of and in response to such shocks and chaos.

All of this is to say that for something to become a taboo, it must have survived. It must not have broken. Which means, it’s antifragile. More specifically it made the culture as a whole antifragile. 

At this point some of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah. Chesterton’s Fence. I get it.” But I would argue that this is a stronger argument than the one Chesterton was making. Chesterton pointed out that you shouldn’t remove a fence unless you understood the reason it was constructed. But this assumed that if you put in some effort, you could uncover that reason. Probably just by asking around. The fence is an invention, and it’s assumed you could find the reason for its invention.

Evolutions leave fewer clues, but despite that they end up being even more important. You might be familiar with the famous example of how the preparation of manioc evolved in order to eliminate the cyanide. The indigenous people who undertook such preparations had no idea what cyanide was, nor would the connection between chronic cyanide poisoning and the processes of manioc preparation have been easy to discern. Now that we can test for cyanide the reason for the extensive preparations is obvious. But just because we can uncover the underlying reason for one taboo, doesn’t mean we can uncover the underlying reason for all taboos. 

To take an example that’s closer to home, let’s consider the longstanding and very widespread taboo against premarital sex. (Consider for a moment: Why should China and the West, historically so different in most other respects, have this exact same taboo?)

Adherence to this taboo has plummeted since the sexual revolution, and to the extent people think about why it existed in the first place they imagine that sex produces children who need to be cared for, but now that we have numerous methods of birth control we can dispense with it. They might admit that there used to be a reason for the taboo, but that technology has solved the problem—that our inventions have eliminated the need for our evolutions. 

I think this is sheer hubris, and I’m not alone. In her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry makes the case that the taboo solved numerous other problems like preventing sexual violence, which we’re only now grappling with. That “hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women”. 

But does this mean that all traditional taboos are antifragile evolutions that should be maintained absent ironclad evidence to the contrary? And what about traditional culture more broadly? 

I’m arguing that in both cases this should be the default. That we should be very careful anytime we think we’ve invented our way out of a problem previously solved by cultural evolution. And in particular we should never imagine that our ancestors were silly and superstitious and had no reason for a taboo. And yet both things are far too common. In so many areas we’ve abandoned thousands of years of wisdom because it seemed unnecessary, archaic, or just inconvenient. 

This has been and will continue to be a mistake.

Some might dismiss me as an old man yelling at the clouds, but if old men have been yelling at clouds for thousands of years, I’m asking you to assume that there’s a good reason for it. 


I’m always on the lookout for good band names and this newsletter had a surprising number: Material to Ephemeral, Evolved Taboos, Sheer Hubris, and of course Old Men Yelling at Clouds. To those I’d like to add, Donations Encouraged.  


Eschatologist #19: The Non-linearity of Baggage Systems

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I ended the last newsletter by suggesting that we needed to make things less fragile, but without giving any concrete suggestions for how we might accomplish that.

Unfortunately reducing fragility is neither easy, quick, nor straightforward. It is an exceptionally complicated endeavor. Fragilities only become obvious after they’ve caused something to break, before then they’re easy to overlook. Also many things we’ve come to value, like efficiency and low cost, work to increase fragility. So it’s an uphill struggle.

Considering both the non-obvious and counterintuitive nature of the problem, the first step in eliminating fragility is to identify it. Unfortunately I’ve just had an experience with a fragile system which broke spectacularly, so let’s start there.

I took a big trip to Ireland in July. (I returned just a few days ago.) After arriving in Dublin, I went through customs, and headed to baggage claim. Once there I was greeted by a discouraging sight. There were bags everywhere. Not only were there bags on the carousel (which was to be expected) there were small piles of bags all around them. Beyond that there was a veritable sea of bags (I’d estimate at least a thousand) arranged behind some rope on one side of the room. It was apparent that something about the baggage handling process had broken. 

I got a small taste of that breakage. The display showed the wrong carousel, my bag was on carousel 3, not 6. So when there was an overhead announcement about a “wee mixup” I headed over there and luckily my bag was waiting for me. The rest of my family, who arrived a few days after me, got a large taste of that breakage.

I connected in Atlanta, they connected in Schiphol (Amsterdam). You probably haven’t been following the baggage chaos as closely as we have, but Schiphol has been having serious problems with baggage. At one point, KLM stopped allowing checked luggage altogether. When the flight from SLC to Amsterdam got in late, they made the connection to Dublin, but their baggage didn’t. 

In the past when your luggage missed a connection there was an 85% chance it would be delivered within 36 hours. It took eight days for their luggage to be delivered and that was only after the manager of the delivery company took it upon himself to spend a couple of hours finding it in the sea of bags I mentioned earlier. 

This is one of the hallmarks of fragility, small disruptions can lead to huge catastrophes.

More technically the system is non-linear. In this case the problems at Schiphol appear to be due to staffing shortages, directly due to a shortage of baggage handlers, and indirectly because a shortage of pilots is causing flights to be delayed. I couldn’t find statistics on Schiphol baggage handlers, but the number of pilots is down only 4% from its pre-pandemic peak. That was all it took to cause the delays and cancellations you’ve been hearing about.

I’m guessing the percentage decrease among baggage handlers is also surprisingly low, but let’s assume they have been hit even harder and that there’s been a 25% reduction in their numbers. This does not mean that 25% more baggage gets lost or it takes 25% longer to deliver. It means the amount of lost luggage increases a thousandfold, and you may never get your bags.

As I mentioned, my family got lucky. I sat next to a couple on the flight home whose luggage never showed up in the 10 days they were there. They told me that just recently the airlines have set up warehouses for lost luggage in Dublin where people can actually look through the luggage. (Previously all the luggage was behind security.) They visited the one for Delta/KLM and said there were probably five thousand bags in just that warehouse. (After seeing the picture they took I agreed.) While they were there they talked to people who’d been waiting for their bags for over a month.

This is what fragility looks like in the modern world: complicated systems where minor problems on the backend lead to total disasters on the front end. And the problem is, there are always going to be minor problems, which will lead to more and more disasters. Let’s just hope that when those disasters happen, you’re not in the middle of your vacation to Ireland.


The picture at the top of the newsletter is Kilmacduagh Monastery, or at least the ruins thereof. The tower is the largest pre-modern structure in Ireland. And it’s still standing. That’s the kind of robustness we should be looking for. If you think what I’m doing is helping with that, or if you just like the picture, consider donating.


Eschatologist #18: Famines and Fragility

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I’m leaving for Ireland in just over a week. The trip is about half touristy stuff and half genealogical. I have many Irish ancestors, but two in particular are worthy of note:

First, there’s John Richey. As best as we can tell, he was a member of the Hearts of Steel, a militant group of tenant farmers. In 1770 the “Steelboys” marched on Belfast to demand the release of a prisoner. After setting fire to a house they were successful in that endeavor, but this made them all wanted men. John immigrated to America in 1772, in some haste, we assume in order to avoid the hangman’s noose.

Second, Charles Conner, who came to America during the Irish Potato Famine. We suspect in 1847. Presumably he traveled in what’s come to be known as a coffin ship, because so many people died aboard them, mostly from typhus.

One of the goals of my trip to Ireland is to understand these ancestors better. Though in fact I do feel that I can understand John Richey fairly well. While they’re not always accurate, and most are not set in 1772, we have plenty of modern representations of people who are one step ahead of the law. What the modern developed world doesn’t have much of is representations of starvation and suffering on the scale experienced during the Potato Famine. Accordingly, as an additional preparation for the trip, I read The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith. And yes, it recounts suffering on a scale that I can hardly imagine. The book is one horrific scene after another.

Any sane person, upon reading this book, will be moved to consider how we can stop something like it from ever happening again. Of course in order to do so you have to have some idea of how it came about in the first place. 

In a previous newsletter I talked about the ways in which progress and technology have allowed us to turn the knobs of society. One commonality between John Richey and Charles Conner is that they were both tenant farmers, and in both cases they were suffering under British landlords who had turned the knob of efficiency as high as it would go. At the time of the famine Ireland was as densely populated as it was possible to be. The rents placed on Irish tenants by the English landlords were so high that everything had to go perfectly for tenants to avoid defaulting and being kicked off the land. The land that remained to them after paying their rents was only enough to cultivate the world’s most efficient crop, the potato, which along with some buttermilk, represented the exclusive diet of the majority of the Irish peasants. As such, when the potato blight struck, there was nothing to be done, everything depending on generating a large amount of calories on a small amount of land, a role which could only be filled by the potato, and there were no potatoes.

While I do have some concerns that the big push towards GMO crops has lowered the genetic diversity, making these crops more vulnerable to diseases. I don’t think we have to worry about widespread famine from crop failures. But that does not mean that we are not also busy turning knobs as high as they will go. We have been engaged in our own quest for efficiency with just-in-time delivery and outsourcing things to be made at the cheapest possible price with the cheapest possible labor. The fragility of these systems was illustrated when we faced our own crisis in the form of the pandemic. Supply chains still have not recovered.

This takes us to one of the other lessons from the famine: for a variety of reasons crises often feed on one another. During the Potato Famine, not only did the potato fail, but the winter of 1846-47 was particularly harsh, and on top of all that, relief for the famine involved repealing the Corn Laws, the single most contentious issue in English politics at the time. In our own time, we have the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, high inflation, political turmoil, and technological disruption. And each crisis makes every other crisis harder to deal with.

So far we’re handling things, but maybe, while we still have time, we should consider turning the efficiency knob down just a little bit. Maybe we should consider making things a bit less fragile.


To the extent we know anything about John Richey and Charles Conner it was the result of a lot of hard work. But genealogical work, despite its difficulty, is very rewarding. This time around, rather than ask you for a donation, might I suggest you try some genealogy? Familysearch.org is a good place to start.


Eschatologist #17: We’ve Solved All the Easy Problems, Only Hard Problems Remain

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:

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With the release of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion is back in the news, so much so that anything I could add to the subject would seem wholly superfluous. And indeed spending a few hundred words advocating for one side or the other would be pointless. (Should you wish for a few thousand words of such advocacy I would direct you to a couple of posts I wrote the last time the abortion debate flared up.) 

No, I am not going to spend any time on whether one side of the debate is more or less moral, rather I am going to discuss moral debates in general—how they’ve played out in the past and how they’re likely to play out in the future. 

The Reformation ushered in the age of large-scale debates on public morality. These debates really took off during the Enlightenment as ideas about individual rights came to the fore. You end up with very different answers to certain questions if everyone gets a say, than if only the priests, kings, and nobles get a say. As these debates intensified, certain subjects, which no one had given much thought to previously, suddenly became grounds for intense conflict, often culminating in bloodshed. The best known of these debates is the one concerning slavery, which was finally decided in the US after the long and bloody Civil War. 

Other debates took even longer to resolve, but in the end they too were resolved no less decisively (and fortunately none with as much bloodshed). An example would be interracial marriage. In 1958 only 4% of people approved of it. These days it’s 94%. One could offer up other examples like child labor, public executions, and smoking—debates where if you just wait long enough the majority switches their opinion from one side to its exact opposite. However, abortion does not appear to be in this category:

As you can see the split was pretty wide in 1995, but since then rather than moving towards a majority being on one side or the other, it has instead just gotten tighter and tighter.

Tragically, guns and the Second Amendment are back in the news as well. Here again, while the graphs aren’t quite as stark, there is no evidence that a majority is solidifying around a particular position. 

Why is this? Who do some questions of public morality eventually resolve into an answer the majority of people agree with, and why do some questions harden into two opposing camps? There are probably many reasons, but I would like to consider two that seem particularly important currently:

First, the passage of time distills out the true weight of arguments. In the time since the Enlightenment, some of them have turned out to be rather shallow, while some have turned out to contain surprising depth. Where deep principles exist on both sides of a question it becomes much more difficult to get a majority to unite behind just one answer. In the centuries since we started examining these questions in earnest shallow positions have fallen by the wayside, meaning that now, only deep conflicts remain.

Second, the modern phenomenon of internet echo chambers would also seem to be hardening opinions, creating opposing camps of passionate believers, which further exacerbates the difficulty of achieving a majority consensus.  

I strongly suspect that abortion, gun control, and several other issues fall into that first category—debates where both sides rest on deep values—questions which are extremely difficult to reach consensus on even without the introduction of echo chambers and impossible now that they’re ubiquitous.

If I’m correct, if we have already reached agreement on all the “easy” stuff, and lost our ability to make progress on hard questions, just as those are the only ones remaining, then the future is bleak. It would mean that there is no end to our current political discord. It would also be a particular problem for our perceptions of progress, as it implies not only stagnation, but stagnation at a particularly contentious plateau. A future where consensus becomes more and more rare, where it doesn’t matter how long we debate the issue, unanimity will never be achieved. A future where the best case is fragmenting the nation into mutual hostile camps, and the worst case is violence and bloodshed.


Did you notice the alliteration there at the end? That’s the kind of craftsmanship I bring to discussions about the collapse of the nation. If you’re one of those people who has always claimed to support quality, made in America products, this is your chance. All you have to do is donate


Eschatologist #16: The Right Amount of Danger

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When I was a kid, I had never heard of someone with a peanut allergy. The first time I encountered the condition I was in college, and it wasn’t someone I knew. It was the friend of a friend of a friend. Enough removed that these days you’d wonder, upon first hearing of it, if the condition was made up. But those were more credulous times, and I never doubted that someone could be so allergic to something that if they ate it they would die. But it did seem fantastic. These days I’m sure you know someone with a peanut allergy. My daughter isn’t allergic to peanuts, she’s allergic to tree nuts, and carries an epipen with her wherever she goes.

The primary theory for this change, how we went from no allergies of this sort to lots of them, is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty to keep it occupied, but now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, overreacts to things like peanuts. (Obviously this is a vast oversimplification.)

As the parent of someone who suffers from a dangerous allergy, I feel guilty. I don’t think we went overboard on cleanliness. Certainly we weren’t constantly spraying down surfaces with disinfectant, or repeatedly washing with antibacterial soap. Nevertheless, it appears that we failed to stress her immune system in the way it needed to be—that somewhere in the course of trying to make her safer we actually made her life more dangerous.

Does this idea—that certain amounts of stress are necessary for healthy development—need to be applied more broadly? Do we need to add a psychological hygiene hypothesis to the physical one? I would argue that we do. That it’s not just children’s immune systems which are designed around certain stressors, but that everything involved in their development needs a certain amount of risk to mature properly. 

We see a dawning acknowledgement of this idea in things like the Free-Range Parenting movement, which, among other things, wants to make sure kids can walk, unaccompanied, to and from school, and the local park, without having child protective services called. The free-range argument is that kids need to get out and experience the world. Which presumably means experiencing some danger. If you want to get more technical, the theory underlying all of these efforts is that kids are antifragile and they get stronger when exposed to stress, up to a point. But is having them walk alone to school enough “stress”? When I was 8 I wasn’t just walking to school alone I was wandering for hours in the foothills, and climbing cliffs. These days I’m not sure that would be labeled “free-range parenting”, I think it might still be labeled neglect. It wasn’t, but where do you draw the line? 

In the past a parent could do everything in their power to protect their kids, and they would still experience an abundance of suffering, danger, and stress, enough that no one ever worried whether they might be getting “enough”. But after centuries of progress we’ve finally reached the point where it’s reasonable to ask if we’ve gone too far. Particularly when we have young adults who, historically, would have been raising families or fighting in wars instead declaring that certain ideas are so harmful that they should not be uttered.

For those parenting in a modern, developed country, this problem is one of the central paradoxes of parenting, perhaps THE central paradox. And it’s not just parents that face this paradox, educators and even employers are facing it as well. Unfortunately I don’t have any easy solutions to offer. 

As I mentioned I was wandering in the foothills of Utah when I was 8, but it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still at best only half the man my father is, and he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if this is indeed the trend, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. 

This would leave us with a very difficult problem: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we have the wisdom to bring it back?


The punchline of me wandering in the foothills when I was 8, is that I was nearly always accompanied by my cousin who would have been 5 or 6. So if stories of brave kindergartners is your thing, consider donating, I might have more of them. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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