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Traditions: Separating the Important from the Inconsequential

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For anyone who has been paying attention, it should be obvious that I get a lot of my material from Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. Optimistically, I take his ideas and expand upon them in an interesting fashion. Realistically, the relationship is more that of parasite and host. But regardless, I bring it up because I am once again going to that well. This time, to talk about a recent series of posts he did on cultural evolution.

What’s cultural evolution you ask? Well in brief it’s evolution that works by changing culture, rather than evolution which works by changing genes, but nevertheless evolution working in service of increased survival and reproduction. That this variety of evolution should exist and be embodied by certain “traditions” almost goes without saying.

(I put traditions in scare quotes because the elements of cultural evolution can take many forms, out of these some would definitely be called traditions, but others are more properly classified as taboos, habits, beliefs and so on. I’ll be using tradition throughout just to keep things simple.)

Some traditions so obviously serve to enhance the survival and reproduction of the people within that culture that their identification is trivial. A blatantly obvious example would be the tradition of wearing heavy clothing during the winter, a tradition which is present in all northern cultures. That such traditions exist is obvious, but for many if not most people it’s equally obvious that not all traditions work to increase survival, that some traditions are useless, probably silly and potentially harmful. That getting rid of these traditions would carry no long term consequences. Given the behavioral restrictions imposed by some traditions, there has been a lot of argument over which traditions should go into which bucket. Which traditions are important and which are inconsequential.

Initially you may be under the impression that it should be fairly obvious which traditions enhance survival and which are meaningless, but one of the key insights contained in Alexander’s posts, an insight based largely on his reading of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich, is that sometimes it’s not obvious at all. As an example, let me quote Alexander’s quote of Henrich (I told you I was a parasite) as he talks about cassava, or manioc as it’s sometimes known:

In the Americas, where manioc was first domesticated, societies who have relied on bitter varieties for thousands of years show no evidence of chronic cyanide poisoning. In the Colombian Amazon, for example, indigenous Tukanoans use a multistep, multiday processing technique that involves scraping, grating, and finally washing the roots in order to separate the fiber, starch, and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when they can then be baked and eaten. Figure 7.1 shows the percentage of cyanogenic content in the liquid, fiber, and starch remaining through each major step in this processing.

Such processing techniques are crucial for living in many parts of Amazonia, where other crops are difficult to cultivate and often unproductive. However, despite their utility, one person would have a difficult time figuring out the detoxification technique. Consider the situation from the point of view of the children and adolescents who are learning the techniques. They would have rarely, if ever, seen anyone get cyanide poisoning, because the techniques work. And even if the processing was ineffective, such that cases of goiter (swollen necks) or neurological problems were common, it would still be hard to recognize the link between these chronic health issues and eating manioc. Most people would have eaten manioc for years with no apparent effects. Low cyanogenic varieties are typically boiled, but boiling alone is insufficient to prevent the chronic conditions for bitter varieties. Boiling does, however, remove or reduce the bitter taste and prevent the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting).

So, if one did the common-sense thing and just boiled the high-cyanogenic manioc, everything would seem fine. Since the multistep task of processing manioc is long, arduous, and boring, sticking with it is certainly non-intuitive. Tukanoan women spend about a quarter of their day detoxifying manioc, so this is a costly technique in the short term. Now consider what might result if a self-reliant Tukanoan mother decided to drop any seemingly unnecessary steps from the processing of her bitter manioc. She might critically examine the procedure handed down to her from earlier generations and conclude that the goal of the procedure is to remove the bitter taste. She might then experiment with alternative procedures by dropping some of the more labor-intensive or time-consuming steps. She’d find that with a shorter and much less labor-intensive process, she could remove the bitter taste. Adopting this easier protocol, she would have more time for other activities, like caring for her children. Of course, years or decades later her family would begin to develop the symptoms of chronic cyanide poisoning.

Thus, the unwillingness of this mother to take on faith the practices handed down to her from earlier generations would result in sickness and early death for members of her family. Individual learning does not pay here, and intuitions are misleading. The problem is that the steps in this procedure are causally opaque—an individual cannot readily infer their functions, interrelationships, or importance. The causal opacity of many cultural adaptations had a big impact on our psychology.

Wait. Maybe I’m wrong about manioc processing. Perhaps it’s actually rather easy to individually figure out the detoxification steps for manioc? Fortunately, history has provided a test case. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese transported manioc from South America to West Africa for the first time. They did not, however, transport the age-old indigenous processing protocols or the underlying commitment to using those techniques. Because it is easy to plant and provides high yields in infertile or drought-prone areas, manioc spread rapidly across Africa and became a staple food for many populations. The processing techniques, however, were not readily or consistently regenerated. Even after hundreds of years, chronic cyanide poisoning remains a serious health problem in Africa. Detailed studies of local preparation techniques show that high levels of cyanide often remain and that many individuals carry low levels of cyanide in their blood or urine, which haven’t yet manifested in symptoms. In some places, there’s no processing at all, or sometimes the processing actually increases the cyanogenic content. On the positive side, some African groups have in fact culturally evolved effective processing techniques, but these techniques are spreading only slowly.

I understand that’s a long selection, but there’s a lot going on when you’re talking about cultural evolution and I wanted to make sure we got all of the various aspects out on the table. Also while I’m only going to include the example of cassava/manioc, there are numerous other examples of very similar things happening.

To begin with we can immediately see that it’s not easy to tell which traditions are important and which are inconsequential. Accordingly, right off the bat, we should exercise significant humility when we decide whether to put a given tradition into the “survival” or the “silly” bucket. In particular, one of the things which should be obvious is that cause and effect can be separated by a very large gap. Now that we have modern techniques for testing the cyanogenic content of something we can identify how much it’s reduced at each step in the process, but that wouldn’t have been clear to the Tukanoans. Rather they could only go by eventual health effects which could take years to manifest and would be unfamiliar when they eventually did end up appearing. As Henrich points out, you would first have to make the connection between someone’s health issues and eating manioc, and then further make the connection to whatever step you got rid of.

It’s also interesting to note that one tradition can seem to hold most or all of the utility. In the example of the cassava, just boiling it gets rid of all the immediately noticeable issues, it “removes or reduces the bitter taste and prevents the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting).” We can imagine something similar happening with other traditions. Like cassava preparation lots of traditions come as packages, for example there are a whole host of prohibitions and injunctions related to sex contained in most religions. And you can imagine someone saying, oh what they’re really worried about is STIs and unplanned pregnancies, now that we’ve invented latex condoms, we don’t have to worry about any of the injunctions against extramarital sex. We’ve identified the bit that affected survival and now the rest of it is just silly. But all of this might be the same as someone deciding that boiling was the only tradition necessary to make cassava safe, and discarding all other steps as superfluous. When, in reality, the benefits of the other steps are just more subtle.

Finally, there’s Henrich’s point that traditions, and the benefits they provide, are often non-intuitive. Alexander even goes so far as to speculate, in his commentary, that trying to use reason to determine which traditions are important could actually take you farther away from the correct answer, at least in the near term. And this is one of the chief difficulties we encounter when grappling with that initial question. In our determination of whether something confers an advantage to survival and reproduction how long of a time horizon do we need to consider? Henrich points out with cassava that it would take several years before problems were even noticeable. How much longer after that would it take before people were able to make the connection between the problems and the tradition they’d eliminated. Note, that even hundreds of years after its introduction into Africa, cyanide poisoning is still a serious health problem. The fact that the African’s never had certain traditions of preparation to begin with, makes things harder, but you’re still looking at an awfully long time during which they haven’t made a connection between cause and effect.

It seems entirely possible that even if you were being very rational, and very careful about collecting data, that it might, nevertheless, take multiple generations, all building on one another, before you could make the connection between the harm being prevented by a tradition and the tradition itself. Certainly it takes numerous generations to come up with the traditions in the first place.

To sum it all up, when attempting to determine which traditions are important, you’re going to encounter numerous difficulties. Chief among this is just the enormous amount of time it’s going to take before you can say anything for certain. And during this time, when you are trying to make a determination, much of the evidence is going to point in the wrong direction. In particular there will be a bias towards dismissing traditions as unimportant. Modern technology might help (for example knowing cyanide is bad and being able to detect it), but it might also lead to giving undue weight to sources of harm or benefit which are easy to detect.

As I mentioned at the beginning there’s been a lot of arguing over this question. The question of which traditions are important and which are inconsequential. To be fair this argument has been going on for a long time, at least the last several hundred years and probably even longer, but I would argue that it’s accelerated considerably over the last few decades. In particular three things seemed to have changed recently:

First, support for traditional religion has gone into a nosedive. There are, of course, various statistics showing the percent of believers (in the US) going from 83 to 77 and the number of unbelievers rising by a nearly identical amount, and this may not seem like that big of a deal. Though given that this decline only took 7 years, that’s still fairly precipitous. But more importantly with relationship to this topic, even if 77% of people are still religious, the religions they belong to have jettisoned many of their traditional beliefs.

Second, technology has made it easier to work around traditions. For one, survival is no longer a concern for most people, meaning that traditions which increased survival, particularly in the near term, are no longer necessary. As another example, in the past, traditional gender roles were hard to subvert, but now we can go so far as to provide gender reassignment surgery for those that are unhappy. The list could go on and on, and while I’m sure that in some cases the fact that technology can subvert tradition means that it should. I don’t think that’s clear in all cases.

And finally, perhaps following from the first two points, or perhaps causing them, there’s intense suspicion of all traditions, particularly those whose utility is not immediately obviously. This seems particularly true of any traditions which impinge on individual autonomy. But I also have a sense of it being disproportionately applied to anything that might be considered a European tradition.

Pulling all of this together we are confronted with a very important question. The question of which traditions can be dispensed with. Recently, and increasingly, the answer has been “All of them!” And perhaps people are correct about this. Maybe we have ended up with a bunch of silly traditions which need to be gotten rid of, but if we can take anything from the lesson of cassava, it’s going to take a long time to be sure of that, and reason isn’t necessarily going to help.

If, in fact, the normal methods of collecting and evaluating evidence in a scientific manner take too long to operate effectively with respect to traditions, you might be wondering what other tools we have for deciding this question? I would submit four for your consideration:

  1. The duration of the tradition. How long has it been around?
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. How severe are the penalties for going against it?
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. How widespread is it? Is it present in many different cultures?
  4. The domain of the tradition. Is the tradition related to something which could impact survival or reproduction?

To the above I would add one other consideration which doesn’t necessarily speak to the intrinsic value of any given tradition, but might suggest to us another method for choosing whether to keep or discard it. This is the issue of tradeoffs. How costly is it to keep the tradition? How much time are we potentially wasting? What are the downsides of continuing as is? Reversing things, if we abandon the tradition what are the potential consequences? Is there any possibility of something catastrophic happening? Even if the actual probability is relatively low?

You might recognize this as a very Talebian way of thinking, and indeed he’s a pretty strong defender of traditions. He would probably go even farther at this point and declare that traditions must be either robust or antifragile, otherwise they’re fragile and would have “broken” long ago, but I spent a previous post going down that road, and at the moment I want to focus on other aspects of the argument.

So enough of generalities, starchy tubers and Taleb! It’s time to take the tools we’ve assembled and apply them to a current debate. In order to really test the limits of things we should take something that has recently been declared to be not just inconsequential and irrelevant but downright harmful and malicious. With these criteria in mind I think the taboo against Same Sex Marriage (SSM) is the perfect candidate.

Before we begin I want to clarify a few things. First it is obvious that historically gay individuals have been treated horribly. And I am by no means advocating that we should return to that. Honestly, I really hope that traditions and taboos around homosexuality and SSM can be discarded and that nothing bad will happen, but I can’t shake the feeling that these traditions and taboos were there for a reason. Also given that two-thirds of Americans support SSM not only is this a great tradition to use as an example for all of the above, it’s also very unlikely that anything I or anyone else says will change things. Finally my impression is that many people offer up homosexuality and SSM as the gold standard for where reason came up with the right answer and tradition came up with the wrong answer. And speaking of which, that’s a great place to start.

One of the key arguments in the broader discussion is that past individuals did things based on irrational biases, but now that we’re more rational, and can look at things in the cold light of reason, we can eliminate those biases and do the correct thing rather than the superstitious thing. But considered rationally what is the basis for SSM?

(I should mention I’m mostly going to restrict myself to the narrower question of SSM, than homosexuality more broadly).

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the moral argument, and it’s a powerful one, but I’m not sure I understand the argument from reason. Rationally, as a society there’s lots of things we should be encouraging, and though there are some arguments over what these things are, reproduction would seem like something most people can agree on, and whatever other arguments you want to make about SSM, reproduction is not its strong point. In other words it would seem that arguments in favor of SSM are mostly moral, which is fine, but in our increasingly post-religious world you have to wonder: Where is that morality coming from? What’s it grounded on? This is obviously a huge topic, my key point is: I think the case for SSM from reason is weaker than most people think.

Moving beyond that most SSM proponents seem to argue from a lack of harm. That it’s not only immoral to withhold marriage from individuals who want it, but that it doesn’t harm anyone else to give them this right. Here’s where I think the question of time horizons brought up be Henrich is particularly salient. He offers plenty of examples of traditions where the harm prevented by the tradition will only manifest many years later. And even without those examples, I think the idea that it could take a generation or two for certain kinds of harm to manifest and that the connection between cause and effect might not be clear even when it does, is entirely reasonable. (There’s that word again.) To put it another way, it’s impossible to know how long it takes for something to manifest, or to be entirely sure that we have “waited long enough”. As a reminder, Obergefell is still a few days away from its fourth anniversary. That definitely does not seem like long enough to draw a firm, and final conclusion.

To return to my parasitism, Alexander just barely posted about one explanation for the more general category of all sexual purity taboos (including homosexuality) and that’s to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A couple of selections:

STIs were a bigger problem in the past than most people think. Things got especially bad after the rise of syphilis: British studies find an urban syphilis rate of 8-10% from the 1700s to the early 1900s. At the time the condition was incurable, and progressed to insanity and death in about a quarter of patients.

[T]he AIDS epidemic proves that STIs transmitted primarily through homosexual contact can be real and deadly. Men who have sex with men are also forty times more likely to get syphilis and about three times more likely to get gonnorrhea (though they may be less likely to get other conditions like chlamydia).

In the previous thread, some people suggested that this could be an effect of stigma, where gays are afraid to get medical care, or where laws against gay marriage cause gays to have more partners. But Glick et al find that the biology of anal sex “would result in significant disparities in HIV rates between MSM and heterosexuals even if both populations had similar numbers of sex partners, frequency of sex, and condom use levels”.

This is probably part of the explanation for the taboo, and I would direct you to Alexander’s post if you want more detail. For my part I worry that uncovering the STI link is akin to finding out that boiling cassava “remove[s] or reduce[s] the bitter taste and prevent[s] the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting)”. That in both cases it will lead someone to feel that they have uncovered everything they need to know about the reason for the taboo. That in the same way they might decide other parts of the cassava preparation tradition are unnecessary, they might also decide that if we have other ways of avoiding STIs that there’s no need to continue to worry about taboos around sexual purity either.

Thus far, regardless of the tools we’ve applied, we’re not really any closer to a definitive answer to our question: Did historical taboos against same sex marriage serve to increase survival and reproduction or were they just silly superstitions? Having examined the ways in which Henrich’s book might help, let’s turn to the standards I suggested:

1- The duration of the tradition. How long has it been around?

I’m not an expert on historical homosexuality, but it seems pretty clear that taboos against SSM have been around in one form or another for all of recorded history. Wikipedia’s Timeline of Same Sex Marriage dedicates 4% of it’s space to everything before 1970, and the other 96% to stuff that happened after 1970. So yes, it wasn’t entirely unknown, but there was definitely a taboo against it at every historical point you care to imagine.

2- The strength of enforcement for the tradition. How severe are the penalties for going against it?

Historically punishments for homosexuality have been severe. I assume that, at least on this point, I won’t get much of an argument from anyone. Though it is true that the most severe punishments seem to have been in Europe and the Middle East, severe punishment wasn’t limited to those areas either. Where the taboo existed (nearly everywhere) it was very strong. And even in times and places where the taboo against homosexuality was not particularly extreme it was still strong enough that it was extraordinarily rare for people to be in a position to confront the, yet further still taboo, against SSM.

3- The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. How widespread is it? Is it present in many different cultures?

As I mentioned a taboo against SSM was basically present at all times throughout human history, but it’s clear that further it was present in nearly all places at all times as well. It should be noted that even today 75% of the world’s population still live in countries where it’s illegal.

At this point if I were on the other side of that argument (and I am, a little bit, but it’s also apparent that that side doesn’t need any help) then I would use the ubiquity of the taboo to argue that it’s not cultural, it’s technological. It’s not that everyone had the same culture, it’s that everyone still had the same, relatively primitive, technology. I’m not sure current technology makes as big of a difference to this sort of thing as we think, but there’s at least an interesting discussion to be had on the topic.

4- The domain of the tradition. Is the tradition related to something which could impact survival or reproduction?

I would argue that this is the point that most people overlook or at the very least minimize. If culture evolves to enhance survival, then you would expect a lot of what comes out of cultural evolution to involve things which directly impact not only survival but reproduction, since that’s what you’re selecting for. Meaning that, when you’re trying to decide whether a given tradition is important or not, asking whether it has any impact on those two things would be a good place to start. And clearly the traditions we’re talking about do. Up until the very recent past there were a lot of people who were born who otherwise wouldn’t have been, had there been no taboos. Anecdotally, I have four cousin in-laws who wouldn’t have existed if Stonewall had happened 20 years earlier.

I’ve been conflating and separating SSM from other taboos against homosexuality more or less as it suits me, and with, admittedly, less rigor than would be ideal, but it occurs to me that on at least one point the seperation is very clear. In terms of behavior, SSM doesn’t allow for behaviors that much different from general taboos against homosexuality, but it’s very different in terms of societal norms. With most taboos, there are always going to be significant violations that end up being overlooked. Where you might say an “understanding” exists. If the violation of the taboo impacts what’s considered publicly sanctioned behavior, then that’s more difficult to overlook and the taboo is both different and stronger. SSM definitely falls into this category, in that it intrinsically has to be both public and sanctioned. That the Rubicon we’re crossing (for good or ill) is not in what behaviors we overlook, but in what behaviors we sanction.

Because we are crossing a Rubicon, and there would appear to be a lot of things indicating that this crossing is not inconsequential. For reasons of charity, I hope I’m wrong about this, but also because I don’t see any chance of things reversing themselves, if I am right, and we are headed for a bad outcome. There is some chance I’m right about the role of these traditions, that they were important, but recent technology has changed them to being inconsequential. But given all of the above, I think the entire issue should be approached with more humility. That at a minimum we should back off from people who want to maintain the taboo, both practitioners of religion and bakers of cakes. Particularly if there’s nothing resembling coercion in the way they want to maintain those traditions.

In the end I keep coming back to a point I’ve made in the past. You have two options: You can assume that the vast majority of people in the vast majority of places throughout all of history down to the present day were hateful, irrational bigots, or you can assume that maybe somewhere in all of this that there was some wisdom, and we should attempt to understand what that wisdom was before we abandon it.


You know what else has broad historical precedent? Patronage. Yep, the practice of rich and powerful people supporting art they appreciated. This isn’t exactly art, and you’re probably not exactly rich and powerful, but consider donating anyway.


Review- Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

By: Jared Diamond

512 pages

Format: Audiobook w/ physical copy for reference

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you want a new framework for thinking about current problems in the US and the World, you should read this book.

Also, this book is going to be part of the “conversation” for a while and if you want to be part of that you should read this book.

Representative passage:

I agree that these concerns cannot be lightly dismissed. On the one hand, throughout my life, in each decade there have been reasons to consider that particular decade as posing the toughest problems that we Americans have ever faced — whether it was the 1940’s with World War Two against Japan and Nazi Germany, the 1950’s with the Cold War, the 1960’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War that lacerated American society, and so on. But even when I tell myself that we should be suspicious because every decade has seemed at the time to be the one offering the most cause for anxiety, I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.

Thoughts

The structure of Upheaval is very simple. When individuals are in crisis there are a set of a dozen or so factors that determine whether or not they will weather that crisis. Diamond takes these factors and applies them to nations in crisis. He does this first by using them as a lens through which to view past crises in Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany and Australia. Then he moves on to applying the factors to crises he feels are currently underway.

The first question one has on encountering this structure is, “Does that even work?” Or more formally, “Can you profitably apply something designed to treat individuals in crisis to nations in crisis?” As you might imagine the answer to that question is unclear, and many people have dismissed the book because of that. The current top review on Amazon gives the book two stars and describes the problem pretty well:

I found Upheaval to be largely an exercise in loose analogies and long narratives with few testable hypotheses. While pleasant reading it is not the epochal work the author intended.

I agree with basically everything the reviewer says, but as you’ve already seen, my rating is much higher, and it all has to do with that word “epochal”. Arguably Diamond’s best known book, Guns, Germs and Steel was epochal, and expecting the same thing out of Upheaval isn’t entirely unwarranted, but it does seem like a pretty high bar. In contrast. I prefer the word I used earlier when framing the question, “profitably”. Yes, I agree that this structure is not epochal, but is adding it to our chest of tools for discussing the health of nations a net positive? That is are we better of using it than not?

As I’ve said there are valid criticisms to be made. The evidence is almost entirely anecdotal, it appears unfalsifiable (he offered no example of a nation who failed at the crisis point because they ignored the factors), the data set is very small, etc. And despite all of these weaknesses I would say that, yes, we are better of using it than not. If there was some theory of national crisis and decline which lacked one or more of these weaknesses I would gladly switch to it, but as far as I can tell there isn’t. This is not to say there aren’t other theories of national crises and decline, but I’m unaware of any that do better on these measures, and most do a lot worse.

Of course, even if we decide that it’s worthwhile to use Diamond’s list of factors, we still might not agree that there’s any nation in crisis for us to use them on. Earlier in the Representative Passage section I quote Diamond as saying, “I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.” But there are definitely people who disagree with that. (In fact I’m not sure I agree with it. At this point I’m far more anxious about the 2020’s.) Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, which I’ve frequently mentioned in this space makes nearly the exact opposite argument, that things are better than they’ve ever been, and he makes this argument about not only the US but the whole world. Precisely two of the places Diamond identifies as definitely in crisis. Which takes us to the second argument Diamond is making, that there are numerous current and developing crises where his methodology can profitably be applied. As someone who has done a lot of this myself I’m at least as interested in seeing what Diamond identifies as crises as I am in his methodology for dealing with them. Additionally, it’s helpful to have some examples in mind before going through his list of factors. So let’s start with the various crises Diamond has identified, beginning in the US:

First, and in Diamond’s opinion, “the most ominous” current crisis is the decline of political compromise and civility. I would agree that this is definitely one of the more worrying trends, though I disagree that the 2010’s are objectively worse than the late 60’s/early 70’s. That said, I definitely don’t like the way things are headed. In other words, I basically agree with Diamond and my sense is that we’re far from alone in worrying about this. Though you might wonder what kind of counter argument exists. I checked my copy of Enlightenment Now to see what Pinker had to say, and there wasn’t much. He did talk about the divisions between right and left. And seemed to indicate that greater reliance on reason and superforecasting were the answer, but I don’t see much to indicate that there’s a broad-based trend in this direction, or that divisiveness isn’t as bad as people think. All of which is to say, I feel pretty confident that Diamond has identified an actual crisis which appears set to only get worse.

The other three US crises are not quite as compelling (which Diamond himself admits). The second potential crisis is voting, particularly the US’s very low voter turnout. Here I am less inclined to think this is a crisis, and if it is, then it’s probably related to the first crisis and shouldn’t be considered separately. The third potential crisis is socioeconomic inequality, here I’m more sympathetic, but I also admit there are several important caveats. To begin with, whatever worries this should engender, they’re going to be operating on a much longer time horizon than the issue of declining political compromise. Also this is something Pinker speaks to fairly extensively in Enlightenment Now, putting together a pretty convincing argument that inequality is not as big of a concern as most people think. I’m not sure I agree, but it at least appears to be something where there are compelling arguments on both sides. Diamond’s fourth issue is the decline of overall social capital. That the nation as a whole is becoming less cohesive, this once again appears closely related to the first issue, and doesn’t require a lot of additional commentary.

I’ll be honest, the US crises Diamond comes up with are a little underwhelming. Not only are they all fairly similar, but I think Diamond overlooks several other potential crises related to advances in technology. This is not to say that the things listed by Diamond aren’t genuinely concerning issues, just that I’m not sure they have the same heft as the past crises he profiled, for example Germany recovering from World War II or Finland staying independent from the Soviet Union when a dozen other nations were unable to. But from a discussion of US crises he turns to crises facing the world, and given that the US is still the most powerful country in the world, a crisis for the world is essentially also a crisis for the United State. He comes up with another four crises that are world wide. And again, seeing what he identifies as a crisis is at least as interesting as his explanation for how to deal with them.

The first worldwide crisis he identifies is the possibility of nuclear weapons being detonated in anger. Here we’re definitely on the same page, as you may remember I did a post on this very thing not that long ago.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, he then moves on to a discussion of climate change. Out of all the crises he mentions this seems to clearly be the most intractable, and the one where novel ways of thinking are most needed. We’ll see in a moment whether Diamond ends up providing that novelty when we arrive at his list of factors

Third on his list of worldwide crises is global resource depletion. For a counter argument to this we don’t even have to turn to someone like Pinker, things like the Simon-Ehrlich Wager provide a ready made retort to the idea that this is a crisis, let alone an acute one. Tying this into the last point, I think most people are far more worried about the CO2 created by fossil fuels than the idea that we might run out of them. Certainly all of this could be a problem, and maybe even one which can be dealt with by nations acting in concert, but there’s a lot of evidence that even if it is, it’s not our biggest problem.

Finally he brings up global inequalities in living standards. I don’t think anyone denies that inequalities exist and are extreme. The question is, does extreme inequality equal extreme harm? And if it does, how do you solve it without making the previous two problems worse? Resource consumption and carbon emissions by people in developed nations are at least an order of magnitude worse than those in less developed nations. It’s hard to see how you reduce inequality without increasing both emissions and resource usage.

You can probably see where the US is a major actor in all of these crises. Putting all of them together we have eight example crises where we can apply Diamond’s factors and see where they take us. I do not intend to offer 96 separate observations, particularly since most of the factors end up working out similarly regardless of the crisis. Also I am assuming that somewhere in that list of eight is something you are genuinely concerned about. And I would ask you to keep that in mind as we go through Diamond’s 12 “Factors related to the outcomes of national crises”:

  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

To remind you of what I said in the beginning, we have to take it somewhat on faith that Diamond has not only correctly translated these factors from the personal to the national, but that they maintain similar utility when expanded to this level as well. But, once we do, each of them provides an interesting jumping off point when talking about the nation and the world.

1- National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis: This one is interesting precisely because Diamond’s first US crisis is a lack of consensus. Which means we may be dead right out of the gate. When Diamond gives examples of past national crises that have been successfully overcome, I can’t recall any example where the nation didn’t get this first step right, and indeed everything would appear to follow from it.

2- Acceptance of national responsibility to do something: For the worldwide crises Diamond mentions I think we do better on point 1, but then stumble as soon as we get to point two. I imagine just about every nation is worried about nukes and climate change, but accepting responsibility has been a lot harder. Even when we look at the European response to climate change, which is about as good as it gets, it’s far too anemic to really make any significant difference.

3- Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved: This factor relates to dividing things that are working well from things that need to be fixed. Marshalling your strengths to combat your weaknesses. And once again the problem comes from the fact, in the US, we don’t merely disagree about what should go where, we have exactly opposite views on placement. To take just one example, one side identifies immigration as a strength, the more the better, and one side identifies it as the central problem which needs to be solved. This doesn’t merely apply at the national level. As I just pointed out, one way to solve inequality is for people from poorer countries to move to richer countries, but if that increases their carbon footprint then that makes climate change worse. The solution to one problem makes the other problem worse.

4- Getting material and financial help from other nations: Needless to say, we should hope this factor ends up being unimportant. Since there are really no countries in a position to materially help the US, and definitely no other planets in a position to materially help the entire world.

5- Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems: This is another factor which may work great on a personal level, and even pretty well on a national level, but which is entirely impossible at the level of the world. And in fact it’s why I continually come back to Fermi’s Paradox. In theory, we should have other worlds to use as models, but for some reason we don’t and the implications of that should be frightening. Beyond all that it’s unclear how much the US can use other nations as models either, our size, culture and power make our problems somewhat unique.

6- National identity: Here the US does a little bit better, even so, the argument could be made that one more part of the fracture involves questioning exactly what that identity is. From the perspective of the world I think, at best, even if you could come up with an identity, that it would be particularly weak, and easily swamped by the various national identities.

7- Honest national self-appraisal: Much of what was said about the last few issues applies here as well, but I will admit that I don’t have a strong sense for whether we’re currently engaged in honest national self-appraisal, or if all of the conflict and divisiveness and debate going on is actually avoiding the issue. And, yet again, moving from the US to the world would only appear to make this problem worse.

8- Historical experience of previous national crises: At least at the national level I think this is finally someplace where it might be possible to engage with this factor in a useful fashion. That said I see no evidence that we are. If anything I think we’re bringing up crises that were previously solved (or at least shelved) and making them into a new crisis. (For example reparations for slavery.) At the world wide level there might have been past crises, but I think most of them were military in nature, thus I’m not sure how much past experience helps with our current issues. Which is to say if we end up with another Hitler I think the world is ready, outside of that, not so much

9- Dealing with national failure: Here at last I feel like we’ve arrived at a point with some nuance. Nations may frequently fail on their first attempt to fix a problem, or fail in other areas. How they react to these failures can say a lot about whether they will eventually find success. Has the US already failed? Does Vietnam count as a failure? How did we deal with that failure? Is the nation as a whole teachable or is part of the problem? Will the US only engage in a major course change when our failure is impossible to ignore? At a worldwide level has the world failed? Can we recover from a failure that is truly worldwide, to say nothing of learning from it?

10- Situation specific national flexibility: Occasionally crises require flexibility, occasionally they require rigid adherence to a well-defined set of principles. It appears easier to rigidly adhere than to be flexible and many of the examples of nations successfully negotiating a crisis involved extreme flexibility. One fantastic example of this is Meiji Japan. I am not detecting any great degree of flexibility when I consider the worldwide response to crises, and that goes double for the US.

11- National core values: This is different than a national identity, and speaks more to religion, and virtues like honesty. I once again think the key problem, and the reason why Diamond is so alarmed is that the chief crisis currently afflicting the US is one which precisely undermines all of the tools nations normally use to deal with such a crisis. And beyond that we can add this to the long list of factors where a particular tool appears entirely absent at the level of the entire world.

12- Freedom from geopolitical constraints: Finally we reach the one factor where the US actually has significant strength (though, it should be mentioned, even this has been diminished). In dealing with it’s crises the US doesn’t have to really worry about whether Canada will approve. Or whether Mexico might take it as an opportunity to invade. It doesn’t even have to worry very much about Russia or China (as current tariffs demonstrate). As the most powerful country it has wide latitude to deal with any crisis in just about whatever manner it sees fit. But this is the very last step. All the power in the world can’t help you if you don’t know how to apply it. From a worldwide perspective, all I will say is does the world have zero geopolitical constraints or all the geopolitical constraints? I suspect the latter.

It would appear that there are significant reasons to wonder whether any of the factors can be used by the US or the world to overcome the crises Diamond identifies. And you might imagine that this would end up being a strike against the book. And perhaps for some people it is. But for me it’s one of the things I like about it. Pinker says there’s nothing to worry about. Diamond says there may be something to worry about and the tools we have for dealing with it would appear to be inadequate. My own position is much closer to Diamond’s and similar to most people I enjoy reading things that I agree with.

Criticisms

As I mentioned in the beginning, one of the biggest criticisms of this book is that you probably can’t take something that was designed for individuals and usefully apply it to nations. I disagree with this, I think there is some utility, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is mostly because every other system is even worse, not because Diamond’s framework is outstanding. Also as you can see from my rundown of the 12 factors, even if they are useful, most of them seem hard to apply to the US and the world.

Also like many individuals he ends up with a somewhat incoherent policy on immigration. For example he talks about how Japan’s declining population is a good thing because it will lessen the resource crisis they’re having, but then goes on to suggest (as many people do) that Japan needs to admit more immigrants. Won’t that deplete their resources even faster? I pointed out a similar conflict between inequality and climate change.

Finally as has been mentioned this is not Guns, Germs and Steel, and if you come expecting something like that you’ll be disappointed. It is nevertheless a perfectly interesting and useful book, if you’re not expecting something revolutionary.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

It might be possible to identify the factors that go into helping a nation successfully navigate a crisis, but even if it is, we’re still probably in a lot of trouble.


Among the many factors for having a successful blog is almost certainly some amount of money. I’m not sure what the other factors are, but I suspect that whatever they are I could do better. If you want to at least help with the factor I have identified consider donating.


The Top of the Curve

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I’ve been playing this game called Hexcells Infinite. It’s kind of like minesweeper, but with at least a half dozen ways of indicating how many “mines” there are in a given cell. The way play generally progresses is with long pauses of thinking interspersed with fairly rapid clicking once you figure something out because that initial insight cascades to reveal a bunch of nearby “mines”. It’s quite an enjoyable game and if you’re looking for something casual with a playtime of between 5 and 20 minutes I’d recommend it (there are actually three editions: normal, plus and infinite). But that’s not why I bring the game up. I bring it up because the manner in which it plays is an example of a very, very tiny S-curve.

What’s an S-curve? It’s a curve that looks kind of like a flattened “S”, it starts out nearly horizontal, turns up into something that looks exponential and then flattens out again at the top. Just as my hexcells game play starts with not much activity as I think, before going through a burst, then gradually tapering off as I run out of obvious moves. Anywhere positive feedback loops battle with constraints you’ll see S-curves, and they’ve been a topic of frequent discussion recently (at least in my corner of the internet).

As far as that discussion goes, I’m probably somewhat late to the game, but I think thus far people have mostly been focused on smaller S-curves, perhaps not as tiny as the one I experience when playing Hexcells, but fairly small nonetheless. I want to go in the exact opposite direction and focus on the possible existence of very large S-curves. And, in particular, whether we’re near the top of any of those curves.

Energy

One of the points which has been made in other spaces is that if you combine a series of S-curves that combination looks very much like exponential growth. For example, take something like Moore’s Law, which is the exponential growth in the number of transistors that can fit in a given space. At first glance this may seem like one curve, but in reality it’s a bunch of S-curves stacked on top of each other.  You might have an S-curve associated with transistors and then another S-curve around advances with integrated circuits. Farther along there’s the S-curve related to various methods of lithography, and cpu architecture. But as each advance followed immediately on the heels of the last one, there was never a time for the Moore’s Law graph to reach the top of any given S-curve and flatten out. Though perhaps that’s finally about to happen.

My point in bringing this up is not to talk about computer chips, but to point out that something similar happened with energy. If you look at a graph of worldwide energy use, you’ll see a similar vaguely exponential curve, but you’ll notice that within that curve you have various smaller S-curves, sources of energy which start off small, grow really fast and then level off. First there was wood, then coal, then oil. And for a long time there was a lot of attention being paid to the inevitable leveling off of oil, or peak oil as it’s commonly known. Though, of course, just like with processors there was every reason to suspect that another S-curve would come along and keep the overall energy curve pointing up. Initially nuclear power seemed very promising as a candidate for this next innovation, but then it mostly stalled. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you ask, something else came along, fracking, and a new curve started. There’s also, of course, renewables, which could easily be a blog post on its own.\

As I mentioned previously in this space energy production has been growing at somewhere north of 2%/year for centuries, basically through the stacking of the S-curves I’ve been talking about. This growth has been fundamental to the world we now live in, and it’s unclear what happens if that growth stops, but it’s probably bad. And when we tie all of the above together there are many reasons to think that we may be facing exactly that possibility. That we have reached some sort of inflection point. For example here are some of the questions I’m pondering:

1- Do we still have to worry about the S-curve of peak oil. Or is it now an S-curve of peak natural gas?

2- As I pointed out, much of progress seems based on maintaining a certain rate of energy growth. What happens if the technology is there, but the political will isn’t? For example with nuclear power, and possibly fracking.

3- Related, if fracking is problematic even without its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear is problematic despite its lack of the same. How does climate change factor into the continued use of certain sources of energy? So far it doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact either way.

4- In the past new technology was implemented as soon as it was feasible, with little regard to public opinion or politics. This is no longer the case. How does this new reality interact with our reliance on continual progress? Or with the diffuse harm that comes from technological innovation? (i.e. it’s one thing to demand 100% renewable energy, it’s quite another thing to actually make that switch.)

Antibiotics

I would offer up antibiotics and another example of a big S-curve. One that appears to definitely be plateauing out recently. I would also argue that unlike previous examples it’s less obviously a composite of lots of smaller S-curves. Yes, new antibiotics have been developed (though that process is getting harder and harder) but my impression is that most of the upward slope is entirely due to just having antibiotics available in the first place (i.e. penicillin) and that subsequent classes of antibiotics allowed us to hold our ground, but didn’t bring any big jump in effectiveness. All of which is to say that there is not some metaphorical nuclear power equivalent waiting to save us once antibiotics are no longer effective. We have one tool and we’ve already extracted most of the benefit.

Obviously I am not the first person to point this out, but my broader contention is that we may be reaching the top of a lot of our big S-curves and our effectiveness at dealing with the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics could be indicative of how we deal with the other S-curves as they plateau out. So far the signs are not encouraging.

Manned Space Exploration

Manned space exploration has been in the news a lot lately. Not only is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up next month, but both SpaceX and Blue Origins have announced plans to send humans to Mars. And then of course there’s Trump’s very… interesting(?) tweet from a few days ago:

For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!

Where does all of this put us as far as an S-curve for the manned exploration of space? I would argue that we’ve already experienced an S-curve, one which plateaued awhile ago. Remember the description of S-curves we started with. It begins with a positive feedback loop. When you’re talking about the Apollo missions this is a little vague, but obviously competition with the Soviets was a big part of it. After an initial burst things taper off as you run into constraints. On that end things are not vague at all, the constraints of manned space exploration are legion, particularly when you’re trying to do it at the government level.

That last bit is key, I would argue that we have run through the governmental S-curve already and that we’re at the beginning of a new S-curve, the manned exploration of space by private entities. In this new stage we’ll see some more innovations (like reusable rockets) but eventually even Musk and Bezos will run out of places where they can economize and improve, and things will reach another plateau. We’ve seen S-curves which stack one after the other and give the impression of continuous exponential growth. This, on the other hand, is an example of two curves with a long gap in between. Also once the current private entity fueled curve plateaus it’s unclear when or in what domain another one will start. And what’s even more uncertain is whether that will happen before or after we have a long-term sustainable presence somewhere other than Earth. My bet would be that it will definitely be before, and that there is no smooth path to the stars, or even Mars.

Scientific method

At last we finally arrive at the S-curve that worries me most of all, the S-curve of scientific discovery. For decades if not centuries it has been more or less an article of faith that scientific progress would continue to increase in essentially an exponential fashion, and indeed by some measures it still is, for example scientific output, measured in terms of scientific papers, doubles every nine years. But are all of those papers just as impactful as Einstein’s On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies? Definitely not, meaning that at best the number of scientific papers is a very rough proxy for scientific progress, not a direct measure of it. But even if you disagree, and argue that the ever doubling number of papers means that scientific progress hasn’t slowed down, there is absolutely no law that says that it never will. And many reasons to think that it’s already happening.

Not too long ago I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It was just before I started reviewing everything I read, but maybe I’ll go back and pick that one up, because it was truly a great book. One of the things that was striking is how amazingly fruitful the pre-war years were for physics. Everywhere you turned people were uncovering new things, the structure of the atom, the existence of neutrons, the discovery of fission. (George Gamow also noticed this leading him to write the book Thirty Years that Shook Physics). All of this is a classic description of the bottom of the S-curve. As discoveries and scientists feed off one another it produces a positive feedback loop of understanding.

These days, we’ve got far more scientists working on things, publishing, as I mentioned far more papers, but the discoveries of the last 30 years have been much less consequential. All of the laws of physics where things are unchanging and easy to replicate, have largely been uncovered, or will require spending billions of dollars on a new particle collider. It’s pretty clear that all of the places where the scientific method was easy to apply have been mined out. That we have picked all of the low hanging fruit. The S-curve is starting to plateau as we bump up against various constraints

In part this is because much of science has moved on to experiments about human physiology and behavior, where there are numerous constraints. It’s difficult to establish control groups, things aren’t unchanging, and there are vast differences between individuals, meaning that instead of groundbreaking discoveries that shake our understanding of the universe we get small discoveries about how we just have to assume a “power pose” and it will immediately make us more confident. Worse than the smallness of these discoveries is the fact that 50% of the time they fail to replicate (like the research about the power pose). That sounds a lot like a plateau to me.

Tying all of this together, we have this idea that progress is a smooth curve moving ever upward towards a better and better future, and indeed this has been the case for the last few decades and in some cases for the last few centuries, but as I pointed out a couple of times, the bottom of an S-curve is indistinguishable from exponential growth. It’s only as you get farther along that the difference is apparent. And I would argue that we’re finally reaching the stage where it’s clear that most of the things we’ve come to expect from progress aren’t exponential, that they won’t grow forever, and that in fact we’re nearing the top of a lot of S-curves which have been powering civilization for a long time. And as they start to plateau it’s unclear what will happen

This is not to say that progress is over, even if most things should be viewed as an S-curve instead of something that grows exponentially, there are lots of S-curves remaining, and we’re still at the bottom/high growth part of many of them. But it’s unclear how much comfort this should give us. Saying that while we may be close to peak antibiotics, we’re nowhere near peak Facebook, is not particularly reassuring.

Undoubtedly lumping all trends under the heading of an S-curve will turn out to be too crude, some trends will end up being more complicated, and some really will turn out to essentially grow forever. But just as undoubtedly some of the trends that have powered the modern world over the last few hundred years are S-curves, and they will plateau if they haven’t already. How we will deal with these plateaus? These changes in direction? Will the process be smooth and uneventful or catastrophic? For a long time we’ve essentially been able to innovate our way out of the problems we’ve created, but we’re coming to a time when we’ll no longer be able to count on that.


I know that at least some of my readers love nothing more than proving me wrong. Well if you were to look at donations, they also resemble an S-curve. This is a chance to prove me wrong, make it grow exponentially!


Books I Finished in May (With One from April)

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The Collapsing Empire

By: John Scalzi

384 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: C+

Who should read this book?

If you like Scalzi, particularly his sense of humor, you should read the book. If you like Wil Wheaton you should listen to the audiobook, he does a pretty good job (better than his work on Ready Player One.)

If you’re offended by swearing you should definitely not read this book.

If you’re only going to read one science fiction book, it definitely shouldn’t be this one.

Representative passage:

“You threw him into space?”

“Yup.”

“And he didn’t die?”

“We only threw him out a little bit.”

Thoughts

I’m not a huge Scalzi fan. That said the plot was interesting enough that I’ll probably finish the series. His world building was vaguely interesting. I did like this more than Old Man’s War.

Scalzi is, or at least tries to be funny. If his style of humor clicks with you, then you’ll probably enjoy the book quite a bit, if it doesn’t then his whole schtick get’s kind of grating. He’s kind of the science fiction version of Cards Against Humanity, if you like playing that game, my guess is that you’ll like the book.

This is not great science fiction a la China Miéville or Neal Stephenson. But as light diverting science fiction it does okay.

Criticisms

When I was in high school I wrote a few cheeky science fiction and fantasy stories, where all the characters had one trait turned up to 11, and nothing was particularly serious. That’s what this book reminds me of. That or perhaps high quality fan fiction. Which is to say the writing feels like something a well edited high schooler would write.

Books I would read before this one:

There is a whole universe of books I would read instead of this one:

If you’re looking for light pulpy action, read the Expanse series.

And, if you’re just looking for something funny, for heaven’s sake, if by some miracle you haven’t read Douglas Adams, do that!


Porcelain: A Memoir

By: Moby

416 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you like Moby’s music and you like biographies, you should read this.

If you’re interested in the nitty gritty of how someone goes from being all but homeless to a massive success you should also read this book.

Representative passage:

It represented a world I didn’t know, the opposite of where I was—and I hated where I was. I hated the poverty, the cigarette smoke, the drug use, the embarrassment, the loneliness. And Diana Ross was promising me that there was a world that wasn’t stained with sadness and resignation. Somewhere there was a world that was sensual and robotic and hypnotic. And clean.

Thoughts

The autobiography is a weird medium. It’s always going to risk descending into narcissism, and while it’s far more intimate than the biography, it risks being much less objective as well. This book, however, manages to comes across as both very intimate and surprisingly objective.

On top of all that, Moby is actually a great writer (and a good narrator), with interesting stories and a refreshing charm. I particularly liked the story of him starting out, living in a warehouse in New Jersey, commuting into New York (hiding in the bathroom because he didn’t have the money for a fare) and just dreaming that one day he could live in New York and maybe release a few dance singles.

Criticisms

Not many, other than the fact that “autobiographies by contemporary musicians” is kind of a niche genre, and I’m not sure how much of an appeal it has for my typical reader.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

That a lot of things go into being successful: passion, timing, luck, talent, persistence, etc. And that even if you have all those things, it’s going to be hard.


Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI

By: John Brockman (Editor), Various

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’re really into the philosophy of AI and you want lots of different perspectives, you should read this book.

I would not, however, recommend it to anyone as an introduction.

Representative passage:

I see the Possible Minds Project as an ongoing dynamical emergent system, a presentation of the ideas of a community of sophisticated thinkers who are bringing their experience and erudition to bear in challenging the prevailing digital AI narrative as they communicate their thoughts to one another. The aim is to present a mosaic of views that will help make sense out of this rapidly emerging field.

Thoughts

Like many people I’m fascinated by AI, and when I heard about this book, I figured why not? And in the end it turned out to be a perfectly adequate collection of essays by brilliant individuals, but nothing particularly special. None of the essays jumped out at me, and I don’t recall any genuinely new insights into the issue. Steven Pinker’s essay may have been the most interesting because his view was the most contrarian, but even there, it was mostly all stuff I had heard before.

The book also engages in a weird framing device with everyone keying off a 70 year old book. The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, which I guess helps constrain the discussion, but also makes it even less accessible, and gives it an air of pretension. “If you were a brilliant individual, like me than of course you’d be familiar with this out of print book, and would have realised long ago Norbert Wiener’s uncanny prescience.”

Criticisms

My biggest criticism is that I’m not sure what the point of the book is. It’s not an introduction, nor is it breaking any exciting new ground. It’s neither as in-depth as a book like Superintelligence nor as accessible as any of a hundred other pieces. It’s perfectly adequate and frequently interesting, but it’s overarching theme is both far too diffuse, and at the same time incredibly narrow.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

AI can be connected to a lot of different academic fields. Not all of those connections are going to be interesting.


Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick (Reviewed earlier in separate post.)


The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration (Religious)

By: Tad R. Callister

484 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and you enjoy reading books about religion, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.

If you’re not LDS, then there are two other groups of people who might benefit from reading this book:

  • People who are curious about theology in general, particularly early Christian doctrine, for which it provides a good overview.
  • Someone who is favorably disposed to Christianity, but is unsure which denomination to align with.

Representative passage

The early Christian writers taught that the preaching of the gospel to the dead was not limited to the Savior’s few days in the spirit prison. The Shepherd of Hermas informs us that the apostles and others followed the Savior to the spirit world after their respective deaths…

Thoughts

This is a very exhaustive comparison of modern LDS theology with early Christian theology, and I came away from it very impressed not only by the author but by the staggering number of ways in which LDS doctrine lines up very well with early Christian theology, and where both share very little resemblance to historical Protestant and Catholic doctrine. Which definitely speaks to some sort of Apostasy, thus the title of the book.

In particular I thought the chapters examining how teachings and ordinances of the early Church were changed or lost, with new ones taking their place, were especially interesting. Not only was this the meat of the book, but it seemed to draw in the most quotes from the early Church Fathers, which gave things quite a bit of heft

Criticisms

This is one of those books that is very persuasive, but you have to wonder what a book written from the other side would look like. Is it possible Callister is overselling some pieces of evidence and ignoring others? It feels pretty comprehensive, but it’s also clearly written from a perspective which is biased towards the LDS church.

Additionally, he ends up with a list of 13 pieces of evidence and each get a chapter, and essentially equal weight, but not all pieces of evidence are equal. For example the idea that there would have been no Dark Ages without the apostasy, seems far more speculative than some of the other evidence he offers.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Most of what seems unusual or even blasphemous about LDS doctrine, turns out to have at least some support, and in many cases a lot of support, in the writings of the early church fathers.


The City & The City

By: China Miéville

336 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read other stuff by China Miéville and enjoyed it, you should read this book.

If you’ve been meaning to read something by China Miéville, this is a good place to start.

Finally, if you like hardboiled detective stories, or more literary science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Representative passage:

How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border.

Thoughts

It’s hard to talk about The City & The City without explaining the central conceit of the novel. And for that I’m going to just be lazy and steal from Wikipedia:

The City & the City takes place in the fictional Eastern European twin city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully “unsee” (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasised by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a terrible crime for the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder.

As interesting and provocative as these ideas are, at its heart The City & The City is basically a hardboiled detective story, and in that respect it succeeds admirably with fantastic characters and great interactions between the characters.  Miéville is also known for his intricate settings and this is no exception, it felt both very alien, very Eastern European, and very deep all at the same time. The conceit of the two cities which exist both in entirely the same space and entirely separate was well-crafted and deftly explored. For those who decide to listen to it as an audiobook, I thought the narration was perfect, and definitely added to the Eastern European vibe.

All of the above being said, The City & The City suffered from a major Teen Wolf problem…

In the movie Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox turns into a werewolf in the middle of a basketball game, and once it’s clear that he’s really good at basketball, everything continues kind of as normal. Which is to say the national media doesn’t show up. He’s not subject to extensive medical tests. It doesn’t make everyone question everything they once knew, etc. The movie doesn’t shy away from the consequences of him being a werewolf within his friend group, and to an extent his high school, but it completely ignores any consequences outside of that. But if you look past all of that Teen Wolf is a perfectly fine movie.

In The City & The City something very similar is happening. You have a novel which is set in our world, and as far as you can tell everything is the same in this world except with respect to these two cities. And similar to Teen Wolf, the novel does a great job of describing the consequences this has on the citizens of the two cities, and on the laws and customs, but it almost entirely ignores the consequences this arrangement would have on the broader world. This is fine, and sometimes art requires a suspension of disbelief, but The City & The City asks for more than that, which takes me to…

Criticisms

Without going into too many spoilers, the big problem I had with The City & The City was that I felt like it altered what I was disbelieving near the end of the book, which had the effect of destroying the suspension. I suspect, and in fact I know, that other people were not nearly as bothered by this as I was, but this is not their review it’s mine. And this shift detracted quite a bit from my overall enjoyment of the book.

I can be a little more clear if I spoil things a little bit. If you don’t want to be spoiled skip the next paragraph.

Connected to the problem of changing what the novel asked me to disbelieve, the novel gave every indication that it was going to be one of those books where there would be a big and exciting reveal at the end about the nature of the weirdness which existed between the two cities. So as I read it, that’s the bucket I put it in, and I was excited for that reveal, but it turns out it really wasn’t in that bucket after all

Books I would read before this one:

In the very narrow niche of the New Weird movement, I’m not sure there is a book I would read before this one. I certainly prefer other writers like Stephenson to Miéville, but within his little domain he’s clearly a master. I guess I might put Perdido Street Station ahead of this book, mostly because it’s more Miéville-ly.


13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning

By: Spotted Toad

152 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

I haven’t really followed Spotted Toad’s blog, but if you do, then I imagine you might want to read this book.

If you’re interested in the Teach for America program, and want to get a sense of what it was like from the inside, then I would read this book.

Representative passage

In practice, of course, the accused kid very well may have been better off doin’ nuthin’ than doing his work. Doing your work means writing things down; in middle school at least, a practice that for many kids more-or-less assures that their full attention is focused on forming or copying letters rather than on the topic of discussion or relevant thoughts. For many kids keeping them writing keeps them quiet enough to assure a simulacrum of learning in the classroom, but may at times prevent actual learning from taking place

Thoughts

I picked this up on a whim after seeing it mentioned on Steve Sailer’s blog. He described it as an “elegantly oblique memoir”. When I read that description, I think skipped past the word “oblique”. And I picked it up hoping for more of a tell-all behind the scenes account of modern teaching. There was some of that, but mostly it was somewhat sweet stories of kids and teachers doing what they could. Some of them would succeed and some would fail, with probably more kids in the latter category than the former. There is a lot of insight in the book about the problems of modern education, but the insights are more poetic than pragmatic.

Criticisms

Most of the stories were quite good, but none were really incredible. Also the book was very episodic, and I would have preferred a tighter connection between chapters and clearer themes that got built up over the course of the narrative.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book

That the problems of education are many and complicated, and that teacher quality should not be very high on the list.


Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

By: Casey Cep

336 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you’re a fan of Harper Lee and/or True Crime, you’ll enjoy this book.

If you want to be on the cutting edge of what the intelligentsia are reading this summer, this is a good book for that. (It’s been covered by The Economist, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR, plus a host of local papers.)

Representative passage:

It took a few telephone calls, but finally Lee agreed to sit with Capote for the interview and meet the photographer Harry Benson near Capote’s apartment at the UN Plaza. The old tree-house friends walked around Second Avenue, talking in what Benson remembers was an almost private language, sweet and loving, like siblings. A lot had transpired between the two of them by then, including no small share of envy and anger and disapproval, but there was no mention of any of it that day: gray-haired now and moving more slowly, the pair walked around New York together as if it were the old, familiar courthouse square. Lee had turned fifty that year, and Capote fifty-two, but they could summon their childhood as if it were yesterday. A kindergarten teacher had whacked Capote’s hand with a ruler for reading too well, Lee remembered to the reporter, a small episode but one that said plenty about the lives of brilliant misfits in their small southern town. It was in that interview that Lee said of them, evocatively and enigmatically, “We are bound by a common anguish.”

Thoughts

I was in that category of people who like both true crime and Harper Lee. And while I normally pick up books and sit on them for months (if not decades) I grabbed this one and listened to it almost immediately.

The book is composed of two halfs, one half tells the story of Rev. Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who almost certainly murdered numerous relatives in order to collect life insurance on them. The second half tells the story of Harper Lee, and particularly her attempt to create a second novel from the story of Maxwell.

Both stories are great. Though I think I preferred the story of Harper Lee. These days the fact that she only wrote one book is a piece of trivia, or an interesting fact you might bring out if To Kill a Mockingbird ever comes up. At most, it occupies a role as a somewhat nebulous cautionary tale about the dangers of sudden fame, but for Lee the struggle to write a second book occupied more than 50 years of her life. (Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird, so it doesn’t count.) You can pack a lot of regrets, missteps, sorrow and alcohol into 50 years. And Lee did just that.

Criticisms

This is essentially two books, and you imagine that a more skilled writer, rather than having two halves, one for Maxwell and one for Lee, could have figured out a way to interweave both stories into a cohesive narrative. But maybe it just illustrates one of the lessons of the book: The perfect is the enemy of the good, and that it’s better to have the book we got then to never get a book at all.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Writing something really great is hard. Doing it again is even harder.


The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (Incerto)

By: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

176 pages

Format: Print

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’re a Taleb completist you should read this book.

If you like pithy quotes, then you also might want to check out this book.

Representative passage:

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

Thoughts

I am a huge fan of Taleb, I have even gone so far as to call myself a disciple of Taleb. Antifragile and The Black Swan are tied for my favorite non-fiction books of all time. Fooled by Randomness is incredible, and while I found Skin in the Game a little cantankerous I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have pre-ordered the forthcoming deluxe collection of all his books (which he calls the Incerto) and I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival at the end of July. As you can imagine, from all of the foregoing, I am very biased towards being favorably disposed to anything Taleb writes, and despite that I would have a hard time recommending this book.

The book is a collection of aphorisms by Taleb, and while some are real gems, others, honestly border on the juvenile. This was my second time reading the book. The first time I read it, I did so like I would any other book, straight through over the course of a few days. This is not what Taleb intended. He recommends that you read no more than four aphorisms in one sitting and preferably, that you select them randomly. I did not go that far, but I did read one page a day for 148 days. That did improve the book, and I certainly got more out of it, but it did not elevate it to the level of his other books. But I did pick out quite a few gems using this method, for example:

The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.

On the other hand, for an example of something which bordered on the juvenile we turn to…

Criticisms

When he says something like this:

I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.

It kind of reminds me of Ogre yelling Nerds! And of course it’s not just nerds he has a problem with, anyone who’s followed Taleb for any length of time knows that he doesn’t like economists and academics much either. This is on full display in The Bed of Procrustes. A few examples:

There are designations, like “economist,” “prostitute,” or “consultant,” for which additional characterization doesn’t add information

Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.

We should make students recompute their GPAs by counting their grades in finance and economics backward.

Having read all of the rest of his stuff, I understand the underlying point, but given that his philosophy is so often the opposite of conventional wisdom I think it only sinks in with quite a bit of explanation, which is precisely what you get in the rest of his books. But shorn of that explanation and reduced to a sentence or two, it risks coming across as petty or pointless.

As I said there are some gems, but I think you’re better served by reading his other books than trying to find them here.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

I will let Taleb provide the final word

If my detractors knew me better they would hate me even more.


Given that this is the first time I’m trying a dump of book reviews I’m very interested in feedback. Would you prefer them to be split up? Should I add anchor links to allow you to quickly jump to a review? Should I exclude certain genres of books? Also, I should point out, if you donate, whatever suggestions you make? I have to follow them.


Potpourri of Abortion Commentary

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Two posts ago I did a long one on abortion, in particular the new anti-abortion laws which had recently been passed by Georgia and Alabama. It was not my intent to return to the subject so soon, but I got a fair number of comments, both here and via email that seemed to require a more in-depth response, and so rather than replying in the comments where very few will see it, or via email where only one person would see it, I thought I’d make a post out of it. (We’re still in a position where not many people will see it, but I get a post out of it.) I’m going to bounce around a lot, so be warned.

1- Abortion, the Sex Recession, and Fertility Rates

To begin with one of my readers made the connection between a previous post where I talked about young men having less sex, and making abortion illegal. His theory was that the cost of raising a kid is greater than ever, and that this is already exerting a downward pressure on sex and intimacy. If this is the case, then what happens when you no longer have the option of abortion? Won’t that make things even worse, he reasoned, causing still more men to go their own way, and yet lower fertility?

On its face this theory seems reasonable. To begin with, one of the major theories for declining birthrates is the expense associated with children. In particular children have gone from being an asset (additional very cheap labor to help you work the farm) to a liability. And yes, kids are more expensive than ever, though the perception of that expense is worse than the reality. BLOGThis website seems to indicate that in inflation adjusted terms the cost of raising a child was 203k in 1960 compared to 233k in 2015. That said, I think there’s a valid argument to be made that the real massive increase has been in time and attention, and other less quantifiable costs. For one thing, it generally takes two incomes to cover things now, where in 1960 one income was sufficient.

Still, when you bundle all of this together how much of an impact does it have on the sexual activity rate of young men? My sense is that the problem is not that there are plenty of women who are willing to have sex, but young men are declining because it might lead to a pregnancy, and that pregnancy might lead to a child, and that child would be really expensive. Rather, my sense is that the chief obstacle is step one, finding a woman in the first place. And while there has been some tightening of abortion availability even before the recent flurry of laws, it seems hard to imagine that this is what’s behind the tripling of young men under 30 who aren’t having sex over the last ten years.

The reader also pointed out that downstream of all this was the issue of fertility, where I have also expressed concerns. And there are some interesting questions to consider in this arena. What will Georgia’s fertility rate look like if the recently passed law survives the inevitable legal challenges? Does it go up because of all the births which otherwise would have been ended by abortion? Or does it go down because they’ll be even less sex now that the danger of an unplanned pregnancy is greater. Or as my reader said:

It’s not hard to envision all kinds of delicious dysfunction later in life where, in a white hot heat of frustration and rage, the parents tell the unwanted child that they exist only because “UNFORTUNATELY we lived in GEORGIA! The government made me keep you!”

In any event, these are questions I would be interested in the answer to. Of course that will only be possible if the law isn’t struck down and we have the data to make a comparison, which for my money is a consideration which should actually carry some weight in this whole debate, though, to be clear, not very much. If all this happens, I’m not sure what I expect to see. It was never very easy to get an abortion in Georgia, so I’m not sure that the law would make an appreciable difference in terms of fertility. On the other hand, as I pointed out, I don’t think the unplanned pregnancy consideration is much of a factor in young men not having sex, but maybe it’s a bigger deal than I think.

The key point is that there is a lot going on with fertility, how much sex people are having, and morality in general. It would be interesting to consider an alternate world, of absolutely enforced Catholic morality: no birth control and no abortion. What does the fertility rate look like in this world? Is it dramatically lower than our current world because almost no one has sex? Because they know that if they do there’s a good chance they’ll end up saddled with a child? Or is it dramatically higher because all of the kids that were avoided or aborted in our world now exist? I don’t know. I suspect the latter. But in this day and age I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong either.

2- Slippery Slope Arguments

The reader who emailed me brought up one more subject, which I’m including because I think it is something I could do better:

I noted the difference between your slippery slope response with respect to transgender protections–“Where does it end??”–versus a very relaxed stance about the admittedly vanishingly small number of women who would actually be imprisoned for life for getting an out-of-state abortion.

It is very easy to fall into a trap where you apply the slippery slope argument when it’s convenient, but then go on to ignore it when it isn’t. But I think looking at the specific examples of transgender protections and women who might be imprisoned for out of state abortions illustrates some of the criteria I hope to apply when making that particular argument.

To begin with, we have actually experienced what happens when abortion is illegal. We can look back to the 60’s and early 70’s and see whether there was a slippery slope back then. Were there large numbers of women imprisoned, only to be freed by Roe v. Wade? Did the states where it was illegal resemble A Handmaid’s Tale? As far as I know neither of these things happened the last time abortion was illegal, which inclines me to believe that they won’t happen the next time it’s illegal either. I do have some concerns that the nation can’t survive much more drama in this area, which is a whole other issue. But if it can, then not only do I foresee nothing resembling A Handmaid’s Tale, I also think Roe will be reinstated in some fashion even if the pro-choice side does achieve a temporary victory at the Supreme Court. (My prediction is that if Roe is overturned that it will be reinstated within 10 years, assuming that the repeal doesn’t trigger some political black swan.)

On the other hand, when we look at the changes we’re making to accommodate transgender individuals, it’s historically unprecedented. In spite of this, there is still a good chance that we’ll end up in some sort of equilibrium, that there will be no slippery slope. But given that we have no experience in this area, I think the we need to take the slippery slope argument more seriously than in the previous example. A lack of data makes it harder to know which outcome to expect, and I think the vast majority of things I talk about fall into this category. To put it another way, it’s taken over 45 years for the first significant challenge of Roe to emerge, and even if it somehow manages to succeed, it’s mostly just going back to conditions we already have experience with. If there is a slope in this area, it’s not a very steep one. On the other hand there are several measures of transgender trends that look essentially exponential.

If I had said there’s a slippery slope towards an increasing number of late term abortions that would be more interesting, and more controversial. There have in fact been academic papers arguing that post-birth abortions should be legal as well, but I think people’s opinion about this has remained pretty static, though I might be tempted to argue that the pro-choice side is moving towards later abortions at about the same speed as the pro-life crowd is moving towards overturning Roe.

3- Bodily Autonomy Leading to a Lack of Support

Moving on, a comment from Mark made a couple of intriguing points, to start with he points out that a principle of absolute bodily autonomy may have some unintended side effects:

I saw some guy talking about how he knocked up his girlfriend. She asked him what he thought about whether she should continue the pregnancy or have an abortion. He was proud to report he told her the whole thing was none of his business and he wasn’t going to try and influence her decision one way or another.

He was proud that after participating to create a difficult situation for her, when she craved counsel and support the most, he abandoned her?

This is an interesting and believable second order effect of the push for women to have absolute right over their pregnancies, one which probably deserves further examination. Also it might be useful to imagine all the ways in which men might react, based on their various ideologies:

  • Selfish Progressive: Demands woman get an abortion because he doesn’t want to risk having to pay child support.
  • “Enlightened” Progressive: As above. Maybe with the addition of offering to pay for the abortion if that’s her choice.
  • Compassionate Pro-life: When asked, advises her to keep the baby, offers marriage, and help.
  • Fire and Brimstone Pro-life: Tells her she’s going to go to Hell if she gets an abortion, perhaps abandoning her when she suggests it’s an option.

I’m sure there are probably more than that, and those that I’ve listed are also something of a caricature, but if we agree with Mark’s point that the “guy” in question shouldn’t have abandoned the girl, which of the other three would pro-choice advocates recommend? Presumably none of them. So if the abandonment approach isn’t ideal, what is the ideal approach, again, from a pro-choice perspective? I’m genuinely curious.

4- Showing Insufficient Concern For the Women Involved

This is the area where the criticisms were the most justified. To begin with, as you can probably guess the unintended effects of absolute bodily autonomy was not Mark’s primary point, but it does lead into it:

With abortion I feel like there’s all this oxygen wasted about whether or not the State should allow/endorse/fund it. And the real tragedy is that the debate keeps people on both sides from supporting women in making difficult choices. If a woman has an abortion she’s either condemned to burn in hell, or she should be applauded for dealing with the inconvenience.

But this isn’t like the decision to buy a new cell phone, and it’s not as morally straightforward as whether to strangle defenseless old ladies. (Hint: don’t strangle old ladies.) The decision will have lasting consequences either way, and pretending there’s no decision here, or that the decision is less impactful than, say who you marry, doesn’t just ignore the problem, it is the problem.

This is a reasonable criticism of most abortion commentary but particularly my own, and it’s closely echoed by that leveled by another commenter, Andrew:

Your proposed punishment seems like you think abortion is akin to a luxury purchase. You also admit that for all practical purposes the laws we’re talking about will criminalize all abortion and yet you have stated your moral position isn’t absolute. This seems a strange take. I don’t think I have a counter to something that seems so conflicted.

Other than saying you want mercy shown to women who have abortions illegally, you seem to have no thoughts on how abortion or lack of abortion availability impacts the mothers, families and by extension, society at large. Moral stances without thought for practical impact is folly.

There’s a lot going on in this comment, much of which I will get to in a second, but as he does point out, other than when I said, “I would want the greatest possible mercy shown to [the] women [having the abortions].” I didn’t spend any time talking about how enormously consequential the decision is, as Mark points out, or about the potential impact of abortion restrictions on pregnant women, their families and society, as Andrew mentions.

I should have talked more about that, and it should be a part of any discussion of abortion. I understand that these are real individuals making a very difficult decision. In fact as an illustration of how difficult that decision is, it’s interesting to note that while there are many behaviors which used to be completely off limits for depiction by TV and movies, but which are now depicted sympathetically or even positively. For example, things like divorce, teenage sex, adultery, drug use, etc. Actual abortions are still rarely depicted, and when they are, almost without exception, they’re framed as being very sad and awful. (I understand the movie Obvious Child is an exception, but I’ve never seen it. And I’m not aware of any other exceptions.)

On top of all this, I’m definitely libertarian enough to recognize that having the government insert itself into a difficult decision makes that decision way more difficult, and onerous, and terrible. So both Mark and Andrew are saying that I should have talked more about some other aspect of the abortion controversy either instead of, or in addition to the things I did talk about. And I agree, as I said, that’s a reasonable criticism, of not only discussions of abortion, but of most discussions period. The question is, after taking that criticism into account, what should I have done differently? How should I have talked about things?

5- General Principles of Discussion and Practicality

Let’s turn again to Andrew’s comment, since he brings up both things I could have done better, and places where I’m going to stick to my guns:

Your proposed punishment seems like you think abortion is akin to a luxury purchase.

He’s responding to a suggestion of mine that even though I am in favor of abortion providers being punished that I didn’t say anything about the severity of the punishment (in an earlier comment he accuses me of wanting to “bring down the hammer”.) The suggestion I made was that you could imagine abortion carrying $1000 fine, which would be large enough to act as a deterrent, but small enough that safe abortions, if really necessary, could still happen. But of course the point is not to get into the weeds of a he said/she said argument about this tiny point, but to examine whether I could have done better.

In this case, I will freely admit that I screwed up. It is fine to toss out a quick example to clarify things, but in my haste to come up with something which fit, I ended up proposing a scenario which is completely unrealistic. There is no conceivable scenario under which abortion doctors are lightly punished for abortions in what are essentially pro-life states, and then go on to continue operating in spite of these light punishments. Even if the law worked that way. (And here I think both of us could have done better, speeding carries a fee, is it considered a luxury purchase?) The polarization is too great. And given that polarization is my primary villain I ended up weakening my central point rather than strengthening it.

Moving on:

You also admit that for all practical purposes the laws we’re talking about will criminalize all abortion and yet you have stated your moral position isn’t absolute. This seems a strange take. I don’t think I have a counter to something that seems so conflicted.

Indeed my moral position isn’t absolute, but I don’t think there’s any conflict, because the laws aren’t absolute either. Despite what Andrew says the laws in question don’t criminalize all abortions, they only criminalize all abortions in Alabama and (effectively) Georgia. This is an important distinction, but one I think most people, perhaps including Andrew, overlook because they feel that there is one correct way of handling the abortion question, and that we should just implement that “correct way” across the entire nation. But I would argue instead that it is precisely because this is a super contentious issue where absolute morality is difficult to arrive at which means we may not be able to have a one size fits all policy.

In fact, at the risk of coming across as insufferably arrogant, paradoxically it’s humility that seems most missing from discussions of abortion, moreso even than the concern for women facing that difficult choice, which I mentioned previously. People are fixated on this current battle and deciding things permanently and for all time. But it takes humility and maybe a dose of realism to admit that this is not going to happen. That Alabama and Georgia are ***not*** everywhere. That the abortion issue doesn’t need to be decided ***for all time*** in May of 2019. That yes, any delay in deciding means bad things might happen, but also that a lot of people are making the credible argument that bad things have been happening since 1973. That the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd is not going to go away, and that this issue is not going to be decided once and for all, anytime soon, which takes us to Andrew’s final sentence:

Moral stances without thought for practical impact is folly.

As you can guess, based on what I just said, I don’t think I ignored the practical impact at all. Though I may have been looking at practical impacts at different level. As I said, I should have spent more time talking about the actual human cost of abortions. The difficulty of the decision, and the way in which the actual women facing it end up being abandoned by both sides of the issue, but I’m also going to argue that it’s entirely possible that other people spend too much time in this area, and ignore the fact that abortion is an incredibly thorny moral issue with no easy answers, which was the central point of that previous post.

And of course if we really want to discuss what’s practical, then practically I can’t imagine that I have any impact on the debate; I can’t imagine any laws will be passed or overturned based on my writing; and I’d be extraordinarily surprised to find out that I’d prevented even a single abortion. And even though all these things are undoubtedly true, I think the larger discussion, and the small part I played in that discussion is important. Whatever I might have implied, I’m glad for the comments that were made. And in the end I hope I contributed something useful however tiny that contribution might be.


This is more acknowledgement of error than I usually engage in (though still far less than what would be expected). If you’d like to support that sort of thing consider donating.


Horses, Rollaboards and Nukes

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Recently I’ve been working my way through the Iliad (the Richard Lattimore translation as recommended by Harold Bloom). And as I’ve been doing so, I noticed something I hadn’t on my previous read-through, something having to do with…horses.

Horses are mentioned a lot in the Iliad. One of Homer’s frequently used epithets is “breaker of horses”, but he also talks about “horse tamers”, and “horse drivers”. And of course everyone knows about the Trojan Horse, though, to be clear, that doesn’t make an appearance in the Iliad. But it wasn’t the fact that there were horses which caught my attention, it was the fact that no one rode those horses, the horses are used exclusively to pull chariots. On some level I may have already known this, but it was only on this recent read-through that I paused to consider the implications of this fact.

I’m no expert on the history of horses, but I did some digging and this is what I found. While horses were domesticated no later than 2000 BC and probably as early as 3500 BC, the earliest evidence for them being ridden in warfare is from around 850 or so BC. (The Trojan War, or at least the event that we think of as the Trojan War is generally considered to have happened around the 11th or 12th century BC.) And evidence that horses were ridden even outside of warfare before then is suggestive, but mostly inconclusive. I find this interesting for a whole host of reasons, but primarily for what it says about how long it can take for the full utility of a new technology to become apparent, even in the realm of war, where it’s a matter of life and death.

Those that have spent any time studying the Mongols (and if you haven’t I could not recommend the Hardcore History series on the Mongols enough) will know that before the harnessing of gunpowder the ultimate military unit was the mounted archer, particularly once the stirrup was invented. And yet by the time the Mongols used them to such devastating effect, horses had been domesticated for thousands of years. Bows which could be used from horseback had existed for almost as long, and while stirrups were a recent invention there is nothing about their construction which kept them from being invented much, much earlier. So why did it take so long? And is there anything which is currently just sitting around waiting for a slight improvement before it entirely changes the world?

As for the first question, while riding horses is baked into our psyche now, I’m sure that the first time someone suggested getting on the back of something alive, which could buck you off without any warning, seemed pretty crazy. Also if you’re mostly using horses to facilitate archery it would seem logical that a stable platform like the chariot, with a 360 degree field of fire was much better than trying to do the same thing from horseback. Also even something which seems obvious can take a long while to develop. The classic example of this is wheeled luggage.

I’m not sure when it would first have been useful to have wheeled luggage. You obviously want a reasonably flat surface that’s free of mud and horse crap. But once that’s in place, and perhaps even before then, you could imagine something like a traditional steamer trunks with wheels built into one corner being easily wheeled from place to place. But even if flat surfaces were uncommon and horse crap all too common, it certainly would have come in handy by the time of World War II, and particularly in the immediate aftermath as commercial air travel took off. And yet the first time someone actually put wheels on luggage was 1972 or, as has been frequently pointed out, after we landed on the Moon. Further, this was not the wheeled luggage most of us are familiar with this was the typical old style suitcase with a strap you could pull, and which tipped over all the time. The rollaboard style didn’t come along until 1991! This is despite all the necessary technology existing for decades before hand.

There are certainly other examples of this sort of thing, but you can see that even over very long periods (centuries in the case of horses, decades in the case of wheeled luggage) obviously innovative improvements can elude us. And it doesn’t seem to be important that it’s a matter of life or death (horses) or if it’s something that millions of people could notice (luggage). It can still be overlooked for a disconcertingly long time.

To return to my two questions, I’m not sure why certain innovations take so long, there are obviously lots of potential theories, but the fact is that they do. And as far as the second, if I knew of a slight improvement that would change the world I should be out there raising capital rather than writing this blog. That said I do have what I think is a good (or perhaps awful) candidate, though unfortunately it’s not the kind of thing you raise money for. That candidate is… nuclear weapons.

I’ve blogged before about nuclear weapons, and they’re definitely something I frequently worry about, but a combination of my observation about the Iliad and a recent Bloomberg article by Tyler Cowen brought the subject back to the top of my list. Combining all three of these sources together we come up with the following list of reasons why I think nuclear weapons should still be humanities number one concern (which is Cowen’s position as well.)

1- Just as it took a long time to figure out the “killer app” (literally) for horses, it could be that we haven’t yet figured out the most effective way to use nukes. For example, I personally think there are probably methods of just threatening to use nukes that could be horribly effective in the hands of an aggressive nation. (Look how far Hitler got on nothing but aggression and confidence with nations who had no appetite for violence.)

2- If it potentially takes many man hours before a novel way of doing things is uncovered, as in the case with luggage, we don’t actually have all that many “nuke man hours”, however you choose to define that term. This is good in general, but may be bad if it leads us to believe we’ve ruled out or accounted for all of the possible scenarios for nuclear weapons to be used.

3- Cowen points out that every era has their recency bias. In the immediate aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War people were very worried about war because we had just one. Now that we’re experiencing the Long Peace, people don’t worry about that anymore. Now they worry about banks failing because of bad mortgages. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we worried about terrorism. In each of those cases our worries were based more on what sprang to mind than on what the true probabilities were.

4- Following from the above Cowen goes after Steven Pinker, and makes an argument I’ve also made. Those who paint a rosy picture of a future without nuclear war have to be right every single year, while those who worry about it only have to be right once for all their worry to be justified and for all the optimism to seem fantastically naive. Or as Cowen says it:

Yes, the arguments for optimism often appear stronger than the arguments for pessimism, and indeed they are. When it comes to nuclear weapons, however, the arguments for pessimism only have to be true once — and that is likely to happen sooner or later, no matter how positive the general trends

5- Cowen’s final point is that, as with all technology, nukes are becoming “easier and cheaper to build” and beyond that other improvements are being worked on, like hypersonic delivery systems. These are also things I’ve talked about before but it sounds more impressive coming from Cowen.

6- Related to the above, ICBMs, particularly solid fuel MIRVs (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles) are basically impossible to defend against, and if there is any wiggle room, hypersonic missiles will definitely get rid of it. Absent the ability to mount a successful defense we can only deter through the promise of retaliation, but that means we need to be willing to retaliate, and that we can’t make any mistakes in this area, which if history is any indication is harder than you think.

7- Additionally, as nukes become easier and cheaper to build more countries are likely to acquire them, which means that the bipolar game of deterrence which got us through the Cold War is going to increasingly become a much more difficult multipolar game. And this doesn’t even take terrorist nukes into account, which is an entirely separate massive threat.

8- Despite all of the above, people appear to have stopped worrying about nuclear weapons or nuclear war. In every way that matters nuclear weapons are at least as dangerous as they have always been, and in many ways much more dangerous. But the amount of attention and worry they attract is lower than at any point since their invention. Consequently, vigilance is much lower than in the past, and there’s much less effort being put towards related diplomacy, treaties and other activism.

I think, as always, the key problem is the people have a very narrow time horizon. Is there going to be a nuclear war in 2019? I’m 99% sure there won’t be. But it’s not just a question of 2019, or 2020, or 2025. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. They’re not a danger for the rest of the decade, or the rest of the century, they’re a danger for the rest of forever.


The Iliad goes into a surprising amount of detail when describing death. On the other hand, I have assiduously avoided describing someone getting “struck in the chest near the nipple, and the point fixed itself in his lungs”. If you appreciate that, consider donating.


The Unwinnable Battle Over Abortion

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I.

Last week one of my friends called me up. This was surprising. The nature of our relationship is such that I normally call him, not the other way around. Accordingly I asked him to what I owed the pleasure, and he said he was calling to yell at me about the Georgia “fetal heartbeat” abortion law. I responded “Oh, joy…” and he proceeded to basically do just that. To be fair there wasn’t much literal yelling, but there were a lot of very strong declarations about how horrible the law was, the horrible things it would bring to pass, and the horrible people who were responsible for it all.

I defended myself as best I could, particularly given the fact that I had never expressed support for that exact law to anyone, let alone this friend. Also I hadn’t really been following the story, so I was largely going off his description of it. A description which had been significantly colored by his biases and the biases of most of the reporting. By this I’m not trying to imply any significant mendacity, rather I’m merely pointing out that he got all of his info from people who are predisposed to be absolute in their defense of a woman’s right to an abortion, and that he is similarly predisposed. Also I’m not trying to imply that his worries were unfounded, or that the bill doesn’t have some significant weaknesses. It does, and since he appointed me, as his token (pseudo) conservative friend to defend it, I figured I might as well give it a shot. If nothing else, there was a significant amount of bafflement on his side, and perhaps I can at least help resolve some of that.

II.

I should probably start by clarifying my own views on abortion. I believe that there’s a moral continuum. On the one end abortion takes the form of a morning after pill, which I am libertarian enough to believe should be entirely legal and easily available. On the other end the closer you get to the moment the baby is ready to be delivered, the closer abortion gets to just being infanticide, and to being indistinguishable from murder. Draw a line between these two points (though it’s probably some kind of curve) and you can visualize the morality of abortion at every point in a pregnancy. Depending on one’s views on the value of female autonomy vs. the value of the unborn at some point the value of the former will outweigh the value of the latter. Before that point abortion is undesirable but allowable, after that point it should indeed be illegal, or at least legal only under certain circumstances.

I think on some level, this continuum applies to most people, though I doubt they think of it with quite this level of detail, and, of course, the current battle isn’t being fought by most people, it’s being fought by the true believers at either end of the spectrum, and for them there’s basically a cliff. On the one side, abortion is wrong from the moment the zygote is implanted in the walls of the uterus and on the other side there’s been a recent push in a couple of states to make abortion allowable basically up to the moment that the baby has left the mother. Now I know that post-viability abortions are very rare, and I’ll be returning to that point, but they do happen, and there has been a push recently to make it even easier for them to happen.

To continue unpacking my personal views, I am also in favor of the typical exceptions that are always listed: rape, incest, and the health of the mother. Though, I can also see where those could be abused and act as a loophole to get an abortion when you might not otherwise be allowed to. Which is more about the nature of what happens with exceptions than the nature of abortion.

Pulling all of this together, if it were entirely up to me (and it’s not, nor should it be) I would make sure that there was plenty of education about birth control, and that all the different forms of it, including morning after pills, were easy to obtain, and then, once all of that was in place I would make the legality of abortion a state-level issue, with the exceptions mentioned above. And where abortion is illegal, I would want the greatest possible mercy shown to women, with all enforcement directed at abortion providers. Even if some of these elements were not present, I would be fine living in a state that decided abortion should be illegal. Which I guess makes me pretty pro-life, albeit with a libertarian slant, and also endowed with the realization that the sexual revolution did happen and, perhaps unfortunately, the genie is already out of the bottle.

III.

Given this essentially pro-life stance, you may wonder why, as I said previously, I hadn’t been following the story of the Georgia abortion law, but this is where we get into the last piece of my stance on abortion. I am on record as predicting that Roe v. Wade will not be overturned, and that specifically Chief Justice Roberts will join with the four liberals in upholding it. (Experts agree with me.) Which means that it doesn’t matter what kind of law Georgia passes, federal judges will put a stay on it (as they already have to a similar law passed by Kentucky). From there, it will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court and they’ll decide that it’s an unreasonable restriction. Meaning that while there is currently a lot of excitement around the bill, that eventually it won’t amount to anything.

And here is where we bring my friend back into the picture, since, at the time of his call, I wasn’t able to speak very knowledgeably to the specifics of the bill I offered this latter argument as justification for why he shouldn’t worry about it. To which he retorted, “Only if Ginsburg doesn’t die!” And yes, if Ginsburg dies, that would definitely throw a wrench into things, and it’s clear that her health isn’t great, but I think it’s equally clear, based on the Kavanaugh hearings, that if she does die, and Trump is still president that the Democrats will do everything in their power to stop Trump from appointing another justice. What those actions might be is beyond the scope of this post, but recall that they have the House, which means they have the power of the purse, and you shouldn’t underestimate what they can do with that. Also at this point the “blood in the streets” option is also probably on the table. And that takes me to my biggest worry about Roe being overturned, not that the legality of abortion will go back to being determined at the state level, but that the insane divisiveness which already exists will get turned up to 11, and whatever the chances of “blood in the street” are if Ginsburg dies, that they’re at least double that if Roe actually gets overturned.

Accordingly, one of my biggest worries is one I’ve mentioned before, that issues like abortion are going to be so divisive that eventually people are going to start resorting to violence, and that once that violence starts, I’m not sure where it ends. But as I’ve already talked about that let’s get into a discussion of the actual Georgia law.

IV.

After a high level discussion of the new law, which as I said, is the only level I could engage at, my friend proceeded to list all of the horrible things that were specifically part of the new law. Women thrown into jail for miscarriages, charged with second degree murder. Women being charged with murder for getting an abortion in another state. People who drive the women to get an abortion (in or out of the state) being charged with conspiracy to commit murder, etc.

At the time of the call I was out for a lunchtime walk, so I didn’t have access to the internet (or rather I was talking on my internet connected device.) But when I got home I quickly looked up the actual text of the bill. I should mention at this point that it’s surprising how few of the articles, particularly those that are critical of it, link to the actual law, for example the NYT article I linked to at the beginning includes no link to the actual bill.

Reviewing it I very much expected to see all of the penalties my friend described, and I was surprised to discover that in fact none of what he said was in there. No murder penalties, no mention of conspiracy, none of that. So what was going on? Well, the primary thing the Georgia law did, other than the six week cutoff, was define a fetus/unborn child to be “person” under the 14th Amendment. And then, if an unborn child is a person, there are a whole host of other laws which kick in. If unborn children are people then an abortion is 2nd degree murder. In other words, the opponents of the law are arguing that while the law doesn’t mention any of these penalties that they flow as a natural consequence from declaring that the unborn are people. That under the law all miscarriages are now possible cases of 2nd degree murder.

Given that only 34% of voters can name all three branches of government, what are the chances that the average person upon hearing about the horrible penalties of the law realize that they are not actually written into the law itself? But only a possible consequence of declaring an unborn child to be a “person” under the 14th Amendment. (If you’d like to see someone from the left arguing that these penalties definitely will be applied see here. And if you’d like to see someone on the right arguing that they definitely won’t see here.) All that said, I will admit that it’s reasonable to ask, why did they invoke the 14th Amendment?

I can think of several possibilities:

  1. They did it precisely in order to be able to apply these penalties. They want to charge women who have an abortion with 2nd degree murder, and they want to immediately suspect all women who have miscarriages of the same thing.
  2. Bringing in the 14th Amendment has nothing to do with the mothers or their unborn children. It’s actually about something entirely different. For example, the bill does mention including the unborn in “population based determinations” perhaps what Georgia is really hoping for is another seat in congress.
  3. They actually didn’t think through the consequences. The 14th Amendment has been used to expand rights for lots of different groups, including being used in the recent decision which legalized same-sex marriage, and tossing it in sounded good. But, by doing so, they failed to realize that if they declare fetuses to be people that abortion is 2nd degree murder.
  4. They did think through the consequences, but they were far more focused on the hundreds of thousands of unborn who are aborted every year than they were on the women who might have an abortion. That, basically, they feel like abortion is an enormous crime, and after 46 years of Roe v. Wade, they are desperate to see it overturned, also, similar to what I just said, the 14th Amendment seems like a promising avenue to accomplish this. As far as the penalties, they are either planning to deal with that after they see what the courts say, or they feel that they are already covered by pre-existing laws (which is what the conservatives are arguing.)

Without attempting to put words into the mouth of either my friend, or the bill’s opponents, my sense is that they are both sure that it has to be possibility number one. That the bill is a malicious and premeditated attack on women. That the people who supported and voted for this bill are not trying to “save lives” they are looking for the best way to punish women who have the temerity to violate their puritanical views on morality, and that applying the 14th Amendment to fetuses is the best way to accomplish this objective. This seems unlikely, and in a minute I’ll look at why I think that is.

Number two also seems unlikely. Doing anything with abortion laws is such a messy business that it’s hard to imagine that anyone would think that it’s the best way to accomplish some unrelated goal, regardless of what that goal might be.

Number three would appear to be strictly superior to number one just on the basis of Hanlon’s Razor (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.) And for that reason alone I wouldn’t discount it as the best explanation for what happened. As I’m sure my friend would/will point out, this explanation doesn’t absolve the lawmakers from the responsibility of considering the possible consequences of declaring an unborn child to be a person, and of being more clear about what sort of punishment (or lack of punishment) they envisioned. And I would have to agree, but I also think it’s more important to look at what they intended to do, rather than what they forgot to do.

Once we honestly try to imagine what they intended then I think it’s clear that their intention was to use the 14th Amendment as part of an overarching strategy for increasing the chances that this law won’t be struck down by the Supreme Court. Maybe they did it without considering all of the potential consequences. Maybe they saw the consequences, but didn’t want to risk diluting the bill, by adding anything extraneous (possibility four). Regardless, I think it’s clear that whatever their reasoning their primary focus was stopping the abortion of unborn children, not punishing the women who had those abortions. Though I expect that assertion to be controversial, given that, in many respects, it represents the crux of the abortion debate.

V.

One common complaint among the vociferously pro-choice is that those who oppose abortion don’t actually care about the unborn, that they are mostly men, entirely motivated by a desire to punish those women they see as being immoral. And even if concern about the unborn is in there somewhere, that it’s still largely driven by animus towards women, and if some abortions are prevented as a side effect of this animus, they’re fine with that, but it’s not their primary goal. I seem to remember my friend making an argument very much along those lines. Given that there is no gender split in the debate over abortion and that the most ardent pro-life activists seem to largely be women, the narrative of a movement entirely driven by misogyny seems false on its face, but beyond that, as is so often the case, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex, gave the definitive response to this argument back in 2013, and I would urge you to read his entire post on the subject. But if you don’t have time here are the salient points:

  • Many people make the argument that if pro-life Christians truly cared about stopping abortion they would support much greater access to birth control to prevent pregnancies in the first place. But this assumes that, philosophically, they’re consequentialists. That a lesser evil is okay, if it leads to a greater good. But Alexander points out that Christians aren’t consequentialists, and that only about 10% of all people are consequentialists. As you can imagine this particular distinction gets pretty deep in the theological/philosophical weeds, which is one of the reasons why I recommend the original post.
  • Given that fetuses, particularly the later you get in a pregnancy strongly resemble human beings, except for location, you would be very surprised if abortion didn’t end up being a very fraught moral issue, and you would be even more surprised to find that no one was bothered by it. So if all of the normal pro-lifers just want to oppress women, where are all the people who are bothered by doing something which strongly resembles killing a human being? Or as Alexander says:

In short, in order to believe [this] thesis, we would have to accept both that a hundred million pro-lifers who claim they believe in rights for fetuses are lying, and explain the absence of about a hundred million pro-lifers we would expect to find merely by the difficulty of the moral dilemma alone.

  • Alternatively, one might argue that when pro-life individuals argue against abortion that they’re actually signalling their morals, that deep in their heart of hearts that they don’t really believe that abortion is wrong. This gets into the weeds of what it means to “really want” something. And even if we accept that there might be something disingenuous about their support, what makes the oppression of women less disingenuous? How do we know that they “really want” one thing but not the other?
  • Even if you steelman the argument, as some of the commenters do, into “Pro-lifers just want to force women who have sex to bear the consequences for their supposed misdeeds”. Alexander points out that this still amounts to basically the same thing. Our legal system is based on the idea of forcing people to bear the consequences of their action, particularly if we can’t mitigate those consequences without bringing harm to someone else. Given that pro-life individuals feel that a fetus is a “someone else”, then everything about his point still stands.

Alexander tosses in other things like the genetic fallacy, the principle of charity, and even a study showing that birth control may not reduce the number of abortions, but the key point to take away from all of this is that abortion is an enormously complicated moral issues where a lot of values conflict, and it is entirely understandable and even predictable that someone, probably a large number of someone’s, would end up thinking that abortion is akin to murder. And if that’s the case then it’s also entirely reasonable for them to think that millions of babies being aborted is akin to millions of murders being committed. And once you’re there, you could imagine that for these people the Georgia law doesn’t seem all that bad. And I understand that there are people on the opposite side of this issue, as I said it’s a place where two of our most cherished values, freedom and life collide in a spectacular fashion. And, at the end of the day, there doesn’t appear to be some easy or philosophically obvious way to resolve this collusion, so what are we going to do?

VI.

The Georgia bill is one attempt to resolve this collusion, and I understand that there are a LOT of people who think that, as attempts go, it’s horrible. Particularly the part where an innocent women who just had a miscarriage might end up going to jail, so let’s talk about that for a minute.

We have lots of laws where innocent people are occasionally, and unfairly punished. We have lots of stories of bad things happening, that we wish didn’t happen because things are one way rather than another. And I would argue that many of these bad things happen because abortion is legal, even if you assume that society should be reasonably pro-choice. For example there is widespread agreement that abortion after the first 20 weeks is different than abortions before then, and that partial birth abortions are particularly abhorrent. (In fact 65% of people think abortion should be illegal after the first 13 weeks.) And yet they still happen, despite the fact that at 20 weeks you’re very close to the point where the baby can survive on its own outside of the womb and under any reasonable system of morality you’re edging towards infanticide. But, over and over again, you’ll hear the justification that such abortions are rare. Most recently Samantha Bee pointed out that abortions at or after 21 weeks comprise only 1.3% of all abortions. Is the other side allowed to make the same argument? That it’s very rare for a woman to be charged with 2nd degree murder for travelling to another state to have an abortion, or that it’s okay because only 1.3% of all miscarriages result in the woman mistakenly going to jail?

I don’t know what the numbers would end up being, certainly if you look back through history, it does happen. Woman went to jail for miscarriages. And I think that’s awful, and as I already said we should show the greatest amount of mercy to the actual women. But if the Georgia law is not struck down by the Supreme Court how common would this sort of thing actually be? One story can certainly be sensational, and a woman falsely imprisoned for abortion when it was just a miscarriage, makes a heck of a story (much better than the story of a 23 week old fetus). But we can’t make and overturn laws based on one bad story.

The larger point is that of course there are tradeoffs. Of course bad things are going to happen, really no matter what we do. The current system brought us Dr. Gosnell, how many falsely imprisoned women is he worth? 100? 20? 5? 0? I understand where you’re coming from if your answer is zero, though I suspect you might be biased. But, also, you should realize that for a lot of people the answer is definitely not zero.

VII.

In the time it’s taken me to write this, other laws restricting abortion have been passed, including the one in Alabama which criminalizes all abortion except where the mother’s health is at risk. And the Alabama law also includes a steep prison sentence for abortion providers of up to 99 years. As I have said, the Georgia law is not the one I would have passed, and that goes double for Alabama’s. But once again the same two points I brought up with respect to Georgia’s law also apply to Alabama’s law. First, both of these laws are moves in a larger game. The people who crafted Georgia’s law thought that referencing the 14th Amendment was a good idea. In Alabama’s case the move was to craft a law the Supreme Court couldn’t ignore. In both cases they want the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade and they want to increase the chances of it being overturned.

Secondly, if anything, the Alabama law even more clearly demonstrates that some people do really view abortion as essentially murder, and if it is, having an exception for rape or incest doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, many individuals on the pro-choice side have used the rape and incest exception as proof that pro-life people don’t care about the unborn they just don’t want women having sex. Alexander had a particularly good answer here:

If some anti-abortion people want to relax their sacred beliefs out of deference to the trauma of people who have been raped, I am totally going to let them do it without attacking them or pillorying them for their kindness or accusing them of secretly hating women (if they do, they are doing a very bad job of it).

But I think most of this is just political compromise anyway. X proposes an anti-abortion bill, Y tries to drum up opposition by saying “But what about rape victims?!” (who are less than one percent of abortions), and X tries to head off the objection and restore support by saying “fine, no abortion for anyone except rape victims”. It’s a good political strategy and it would be surprising if people didn’t use it.

(As a side note, if you’re curious like me, apparently abortions in cases of rape and incest combined only represent 1.5% of all abortions.)

VIII.

At this point, I assume that many people are wondering, “Why now?” And “What happens next.” The first question is obviously easier to answer than the second. Kavanaugh, and a conservative Supreme Court is why it’s happening now. Though I think there are also reasons beyond that. A columnist in the Washington Post opined that extremism on the other side, in New York and Virginia, paved the way for extremism in Georgia and Alabama. While I think this earlier extremism also has its roots in Kavanaugh’s appointment, I would also not underestimate how big the New York and Virginia laws were for the pro-life crowd. But I think there are some reasons which pre-date Kavanaugh, but which may be more subtle. As with so many things I think technology has played a role.

For example, here’s an article that appeared last year in The Atlantic, Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. All of these are things which have gradually and cumulatively made fetuses seem more like babies and less like the sort of thing you can dispose of if they’re inconvenient. And none of these technologies are going to become less impactful as time goes on and many of them will become even more salient in the ongoing debate. Just a few days ago there was the article, We’ll Grow Babies in Artificial Wombs “In a Decade”. What happens when the technology exists to, in place of an abortion, move the fetus to an artificial womb? What does the debate look like then?

Which takes us to the discussion of what happens next. With many progressive issues there has been a clear trend, where even if a state passed a reactionary law, all you had to do was look at the trend line to know that in 5-10 years it wouldn’t matter. Same sex marriage is a great example of that, support went from 37% to 62% in 10 years. But abortion is not like that, the country has essentially been split 50-50 for the last 20 years, and arguably the trend is towards being more pro-life. Also, as I pointed out previously, the support by gender is pretty evenly split as well. This isn’t an issue where there are obviously a class of victims who all feel universally harmed by it. This is an issue, where as I’ve been trying to point out, there are real and difficult questions. There no clear situation where one group is oppressing another. There is no easy answer.

Of course even if support for the two sides has remained relatively constant, the intensity of that support has increased dramatically. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to imagine a situation where both points of view can coexist peacefully. I said earlier that a repeal of Roe v. Wade could be a “blood in the streets” moment, but I wonder how many people actually understand that all it does is move it back to the level of the states? It doesn’t make abortion illegal across the entire US. And I also wonder if, after the initial shock of the repeal, we might end up in a better place. Yes I imagine there might be some sorting with people leaving Georgia and Alabama (and maybe New York and Virginia), but might that not be a good thing? Might it be the only thing that can solve an issue that shows no signs of going away and every sign of getting more and more divisive?

I’m sure there are people who imagine that all they have to do is hope that Ginsburg doesn’t die, weather the next 20 months between now and the election, and that everything will go back to “normal”. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s apparent that the abortion issue is not going away, people aren’t becoming more progressive on this issue and technology isn’t going to help. We have a situation where two groups of people genuinely see the world in two entirely incompatible ways. We can seek either greater understanding or greater separation, but if we don’t do either of those things then we’ll eventually end up with greater violence.


I said a couple of weeks ago that I would have shorter and longer posts, this is definitely an example of a longer post. What did you think? Did it make you want to donate?


Review: Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

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I read a fair number of books. Under the old system of posting ~3500 word essays (Posts? Diatribes? Jeremiads?) once a week, very few books made the cut for a discussion of that length. But now that my writing/posting is looser I’m thinking I’ll do more reviews. In fact I think I’m going to try to review all the books I read in this space. It will still be somewhat rare for a single book to get a post all to itself, I’m planning to toss most of them into an end of the month round-up. Also, I should mention that many years ago I came up with a book review format, which I quite liked, so I’ll be dusting it off and using it in this space. And while I just said that most books will not warrant an entry all to themselves, this one does:

Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

By: David Frye
304 pages
Format: Audiobook with physical copy for reference

Rating

A-

Who should read this book?

If you like history, particularly sweeping thematic examinations of history which cover thousands of years all at once, you should definitely read this book.

You should also read this book if you want the entire backstory of the current debate over walls and border security. It may not change your mind, but you will end up with the deepest context possible for the issue.

Representative passage:

As Rome went, so went the provinces. For nearly three hundred years, Roman cities had given little thought to protecting their citizens, relying, just as Aristides said, on faraway troops and eventually border walls to hold the frontier against the warlike peoples massed outside. Some cities, mostly the older ones, had outgrown their ancient walls. Others had never had any walls at all.

In the whole of world history there had never been an experiment as grand as that of an empire composed mostly of unwalled cities. By leaving so many towns undefended, the Romans had adopted a comprehensive approach to local security—hundreds of miles of border walls and other barriers designed to create a massive impenetrable shield over all Western civilization. In the aftermath of the third-century invasions, that all changed: the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) implemented a program to fortify the suddenly insecure cities of the western provinces. It was the last great construction boom of a city-building empire, and it was an act that repudiated every Roman belief in what a city should be.

With due deliberation, the wall builders dismantled those splendid, open cities that their fathers had created in earlier more confident days. Buildings in the paths of the new walls were razed. Some were torn down simply to provide stone. In the rush to fortify the cities, the relentless chisels of the laborers broke apart tombs, temples, columns, baths, theaters, and amphitheaters. They tore friezes, relief sculptures, and capitals from their settings, using the bigger blocks for masonry and crushing the rest for rubble. Many an inscription, once intended to ensure immortal glory, was wrenched from its proper place to rest ingloriously among the bricks, masonry, and concrete of a rampart.

Thoughts

Everywhere I look I see examples of people who have essentially no historical knowledge, and what little they do “know” is worse than the ignorance, because it’s a complete misinterpretation of actual history. The chief value of Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick is that it takes one specific subject where deep historical misinterpretation and ignorance exists and shows conclusively how it was misinterpreted and what the facts actually are. As you might guess from the title that subject is the building of walls.

One of the most common ways for history to be misinterpreted is to give far too much weight to recent history, and far too little to more ancient history. I’m sure that on some level this sort of ignorance has always existed, but I suspect that it’s much worse now than it’s ever been, particularly on the subject of walls. As you might imagine from a history book “Walls” starts with the very oldest wall (built around 2000 BC in Syria; no one knows much about it;) and moves forward to the present day. I’m going to take something of the opposite approach and start out by covering the modern views and misconceptions of walls, before going back to a (brief) discussion of historical walls.

It probably goes without saying that if you bring up the idea of a wall today, people’s minds immediately jump to Trump’s “big beautiful wall”, and given that association, people either hate the idea or love it. And it’s unfortunate that this is as far as most people get when considering the idea of a wall. But for those that do go farther they don’t go much farther. Mostly they journey to 1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I think it’s safe to say that the Berlin Wall has a horrible reputation. And for most of the people who do make it this far back in history, that’s enough. The Berlin Wall was bad and therefore all walls are bad. The point that there’s a world of difference between a country building a wall to keep people in and building a wall to keep people out gets brought up again and again, with, as far as I can tell, no discernible impact. Here’s what Frye had to say:

For the time being, however, the Wall…has firmly attached itself to our historical memory. In modern debates on walls, the Berlin Wall figures in almost every utterance. It is the universal example, perpetually at hand, perpetually tossed into discussions of barriers with which it had absolutely nothing in common.

The Wall shed its former role as a symbol of communist oppression and acquired an entirely new image in a foggy-minded popular imagination that remembered the Wall but couldn’t quite recall who’d built it or why.

The Berlin Wall had always had impeccable timing—making its grand appearance at the height of the Cold War and bowing out in spectacular fashion to bring the Cold War to its conclusion. It would now embark on its second career with similar timeliness, returning to the stage as a symbol of all border walls, just as they were about to make a reappearance around the world.

(Emphasis in the original)

As I’ve said the misinterpretation of the Berlin Wall is unfortunate, but if it had never existed, I’m not sure the current (low) opinion of walls would be very much different, because only a few decades before the Berlin Wall there was the Maginot Line. For those who might be unfamiliar with the Line. It was a series of fortified bunkers and gun emplacements (the French called them ouvrages) guarding the border between France and Germany. The Line was finished in 1939. Which would have been excellent timing if the Germans had not merely gone around it. Unfortunately, the French considered the Ardennes Forest to be “impassable” and they didn’t fortify their border with the Low Countries either. The Germans proved that the forest was eminently “passable” and beyond that they’ve never much cared about the sovereignty of the Low Countries.

The fall of France came swiftly, and it was with equal rapidity that the Maginot Line joined the Great Wall in that growing list of symbols that compose our mental shorthand when thinking about walls. For the next fifty years, at least, writers could speak of a “Maginot Line psychology” when dismissing some misplaced faith in the power of sanctuary. Historians applied the term retroactively. The great Persianist Richard Frye spoke of Sasanid Persia’s “Maginot Line mentality” when describing its system of walls. Arthur Waldron compared the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line.

Perhaps, if the French had been wise enough to extend the Line (it’s possible they would have done just that had they been given more time) it’s story and place in history would be entirely different. As it turns out, when the Germans did decide destroy the Maginot Line, that despite being able to attack it from both sides, and using aerial bombardment and artillery, they were unable to destroy or capture a single ouvrage. The defenders eventually surrendered only when their food started getting low and when ordered to by the French commander in chief.  A World War II where the Germans never made it across the borders of France would have been a very different war from the one we ended up with.

But, as you may have gathered from the quote, no discussion of walls would be complete without considering that zenith of historical wall-building, the Great Wall of China. It’s very fashionable these days to dismiss the Great Wall as a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure. And from there to go on to dismiss all walls, ever, but this may be the greatest misinterpretation of all.

To be clear there were a lot of negatives to the Great Wall of China and historical walls in general. They were deadly for the workers. They were horribly expensive. Unless they stretched the entire length of the border you could go around them. Also they were only as good as the men who guarded them. If a general could be bribed, (as one was in an oft-repeated story about the Great Wall) then it didn’t matter how secure they were. And yet in every region of the world (New and Old) and in every historical era walls kept getting built, despite all of these costs.

I don’t have the space to get into all of the numerous historical examples. To discuss the difference between the wall-less Spartans and the wall-building Athenians. To review all of the many Chinese walls which predate the Great Wall, stretching all the way back to 800 BC. For that you have to read the book. I will only offer up the falling observation. You have a choice between only two conclusions. One, that despite all of their weaknesses, and despite the enormous cost in blood and treasure, that walls provided a significant net benefit to the kingdoms and nations which constructed them. Or, two, that nearly all civilizations, throughout all of history were seized with the same irrational wall-building madness. Pursuing damaging and misguided policies again and again despite the evidence.

This takes us to the current misinterpretations plaguing the debate over walls. Apparently, there are a significant number of people who believe in conclusion two. In fact in the link I gave earlier about how the Great Wall was a staggeringly expensive and deadly failure, the author includes a quote from Arthur Waldron (the person who also compared the Great Wall to the Maginot Line) who suggested, “There was a cheaper solution, as it turns out, which was to simply do some trade with the Mongols.” I’m not sure the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the Sack of Baghdad would agree. In any event, whether they’ve actually adopted conclusion two, or if their historical thinking extends back no further than the Berlin Wall, in the West all the current talk is about building bridges not walls. (This is only in the West by the way, everywhere else a Second Age of Walls has begun. Lead by Saudi Arabia which has already built a wall longer than the one proposed by Trump.)

Frye had this to say on the subject of bridges:

“Good fences make good neighbors” experienced early retirement. In its place came the untested phrase “Build bridges not walls.” If nothing else, the new slogan seemed designed to give military historian fits. Throughout history, bridge building had been recognized as an act of aggression. Since at least the time of Xerxes bridging the Hellespont, Caesar the Rhine, or Trajan the Danube, bridge building had preceded invasions, enabling troop movements across natural barriers, and as late as the twentieth century, military uses had figured prominently in the thinking behind the bridges of Germany’s autobahn and the American interstate highway system. None of this was enough to slow the rise of a hot catchphrase. The slogan showed up on T-shirts, wristbands, and banners. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Protestors chanted it. Politicians invoked it. Even Pope Francis paraphrased the sentiment.

The arguments are fierce, and I think all sides could use the benefit of a historical perspective. “Walls” definitely provides it.

Criticisms

As I just mentioned Frye buttresses his argument that walls are still important by talking about all the walls which have recently been built. He points out, that in terms of length, there are more border walls than they have ever been. But what he doesn’t really talk about is how these walls have a significantly different purpose than past walls. They are not designed to keep out invading armies, they are designed to keep out immigrants. This is a big enough difference to have deserved more commentary than he gave it. While I basically agree with the points he made, the possibility certainly exists that modernity has changed things in a way that makes walls less useful. Of course the opposite is also possible, that technology has made them more useful, and while he does spend some time on that side of things, as a whole, the discussion of how modern walls might be different from ancient walls is lacking.

Beyond that my only other criticism is that he has this whole argument that one of the reasons people dislike walls is become of primitivism. That they have an idealized vision of a freer, more primitive state where there are no walls. As he points out this vision is entirely incorrect, but I’m not sure that it plays a very big role in current anti-wall sentiment, and although he didn’t spend that much time on it, the time he did spend could have better been spent elsewhere.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

How important have walls been in the history of civilization? Few civilized peoples have ever lived outside them.


If you enjoyed this review you know what would help me do more of them? More books. Can you guess how I get more books? More donations… And I really do promise I’ll spend it on books.


Are Democrats Trapped by the Immigration Issue?

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In a recent post about the 2020 presidential election I wondered about the fact that Biden hadn’t entered the race. Well he finally did, and in a recent poll he appears to be stomping on the rest of the candidates, with a 30 point lead over his nearest competitor (Sanders, 44 to 14). One can almost imagine a relatively smooth primary process where Biden has things locked up as soon as Super Tuesday rolls around, and from there goes onto easily beat Trump, ending the long national nightmare and restoring peace and prosperity to the land. Of course we arguably already have prosperity, which is one of many reasons why Biden’s path to victory might not be quite that smooth. Another reason is immigration.

Despite being one of the biggest political issues of the day, I’ve spent very little time directly talking about immigration. Which is not to say I’ve spent no time on it. I feel like I did a pretty comprehensive survey of the issue back in February of 2017 and I stand by that post. To recap, my argument always starts with the question, “Can we have completely open borders?” That is, could we accommodate, as immigrants, every person who wants to come here? Given that conservatively, the number of people who want to come here is in the hundreds of millions, realistically the answer to that has to be “No”. And if that’s the case, if we can’t take everyone, then we need to have some rules for who can come and who can’t. And further we should have some standards for deciding what those rules are. I’m fine with different people having different standards, that’s only to be expected, but they should at least be required to articulate what those standards are.

In the race to determine who will face Trump in the 2020 election, the race Biden seems to be winning, all of the various Democratic candidates are going to have the opportunity to do just that. The question is, what will they do with this opportunity? I imagine they’ll have very little difficulty talking about who should be able to come, and perhaps more importantly, stay. It’s when they’re required to articulate who can’t come that things are going get tricky. But of course unless they’re for open borders (which the New York Times assures us is not the case) all of them should have a standard for both.

But, as I said, it’s tricky. Given this, most have chosen to make lots of supportive comments and speeches about immigrants and keeping families together and, most of all, how evil Trump has been about the whole thing, while avoiding any actual policy proposals. As far as I can tell only Julián Castro has put together an actual platform explaining what he would do as far as immigration, but even here, his focus seems to be entirely on “radically restrict[ing] immigration enforcement”. There’s no discussion of anything resembling a standard for determining who can’t immigrate. I guess you could take what remains from the first part, and that might be a standard, if you squint?

It’s possible that most candidates have a strategy of continuing this tactic all the way through to the election, but will that strategy work?

I’ve seen a lot of articles arguing that it probably won’t. And, I should point out, it’s an indication of the issue’s importance that news sites are already talking about it 17 months before the election. Though, it is of course always possible that it will end up not being very important by the time the actual election rolls around, I see no reason to expect that.

These sites offer a lot of different takes on the issue; recommend various strategies; and use different numbers to define the importance of the issue. But they all seem to agree that if they’re not careful, that Democrats may lose the election on precisely this issue. The article which lays this possibility out most starkly appeared in The Nation (a very progressive outlet) titled Trump Is laying a Trap for Democrats on Immigration and it points out the following:

…a majority of Americans—in numbers well beyond Trump’s base—also want immigration laws to be strictly enforced and the border sealed against illegal crossings. A 2018 Harvard/Harris poll reported that 70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws, with 64 percent—including 53 percent of Latinos—in favor of sending back people who cross the border without papers. And although most blamed Trump for the government shutdown, when that skirmish was over, his favorability ratings rose by three points.

On top of all this the immigration crisis appears to only be getting worse. From the same article:

Until recently, Democrats might have counted on the issue
 going away by itself. Unauthorized border crossings fell substantially from their highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely because of a drop-off in migrants from Mexico. But the numbers from Central America—especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have risen. Some 76,000 undocumented migrants crossed the border in February, an 11-year high. Forecasts are for another 180,000 by May.

The immigration system on our southern border is collapsing. Courts are swamped with a backlog of cases estimated at 850,000. Detention centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Children are lost, women are abused, and busloads of confused migrants and refugees are dumped on the street and told to come back later for their hearings. Some show up, some don’t.

70 percent and 850,000 are both big numbers, and it illustrates a point I’ve made before. For a long time there has been a disconnect between the politicians and the people on what should be done about immigration. Not merely among the Democrats, but also the Republicans. And I have long argued that Trump won, in spite of all of his negative qualities, because he was the first politician who was able to tap into that disconnect. There were other Republican candidates before Trump who wanted to be tough on immigration, but none of them managed to get any attention or traction. Trump came in with plenty of built in attention, and when you combine that with an issue that has the support of up to 70 percent of the electorate, and a worsening situation on the ground, his election becomes a lot easier to explain.

Trump himself was reportedly indifferent to the idea of a wall, at least initially. But once he started talking about it the response was overwhelming. An indication of how bad the disconnect had been and how much pent up demand there was. By making it a signature issue, in effect

Trump let the genie out of the bottle. I don’t want to exaggerate immigration’s unimportance pre-2015, but neither party paid much attention to it, and while it received some lip service, what action there was always ended going in the direction of loosening standards. People are finally realizing that there is a huge appetite for discussion of tighter controls, but as I have repeatedly said, it’s tricky, and I think we all know why. Not only did Trump let the genie out of the bottle, he also made it an issue so toxic that no one wants to touch it, but is that a viable long term strategy? It’s a huge issue and with 70 percent of people favoring more restrictive laws it’s a little unclear how the Democratic candidates are going to deal with it. If that number was 45% it’d be an entirely different story, but it’s not. Or is it?

As I said each of the articles I’ve seen has offered up different data in support of their arguments. And the data included by the various articles is not easy to compare. For example here’s what Slate says:

In a poll just before last year’s midterms, a Pew study found that 75 percent of Republicans identify illegal immigration as a “very big problem” for the United States… [However] immigration doesn’t seem to be a priority for most American voters. Among the general public, immigration ranks ninth among “public policy priorities” for 2019. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans view immigration as an asset for the country. Perhaps more importantly, some polls suggest the number of independents who hold a positive view of immigration and its role in America has continued to grow.

During the same conversation, Daniel Restrepo, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Western Hemisphere adviser to President Obama, told me Democrats should avoid “getting into some sort of argument about how to manage migration into the United States.” According to Restrepo, immigration “is not a frontline issue for a lot of persuadable voters.”

You can see how “70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws” and “immigration ranks ninth among ‘public policy priorities’ for 2019” could both be true. But, for me at least, they give very different impressions about how big the issue is and whether Democratic candidates can afford to ignore it. Slate uses their data to support the idea that they might be able to do just that, but even here, in the most optimistic article I could find, they call it a “huge gamble”.

If candidates aren’t willing to take the gamble of ignoring it entirely, if they feel the need to have a strong stance on the issue of immigration. What are their options?

I’ve already mentioned Julián Castro’s plan to radically restrict immigration enforcement. And yes, at least he’s not ignoring the issue, but it seems unlikely that this plan will do much to placate the 70 percent of people who want more restrictive laws. (Though, perhaps the fact they’re both talking about “restrictions” will help a little bit among the easily confused.) Also I think there’s going to be a lot of competition for this particular territory.

For one possible answer I’ll now turn to the FiveThirtyEight article on the subject. As you can imagine, considering the source, the article has much more data than either the Slate or The Nation article, but despite that I don’t know that I came away with any additional clarity on the mood of the nation, except perhaps on the issue of border security. FiveThirtyEight seemed to think that there was space for Democratic candidates to take a stand there.

Opposing Trump’s unpopular positions on immigration and fighting for legal protections for some undocumented immigrants has proven to be safe political ground for Democrats. Now it might be time for Democratic presidential candidates to expand on this approach and start tackling the issue of border security in a similar way. Simon Rosenberg, president of a liberal think tank called NDN, argues that Democrats should take advantage of the fact that Trump has attached himself to unpopular immigration stances that didn’t pay off in the 2018 midterms. “Democrats just have to be clear on what their positions are on the border and [border] enforcement.” And ignoring concerns about border enforcement could prove unwise for Democrats — for instance, a January survey from ABC News/Washington Post found that 54 percent of Americans thought the country was doing too little to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Rosenberg said he thought Democrats could find a way to craft an immigration strategy that’s both humane and “also takes border enforcement seriously.”

This seems simultaneously wise and incredibly risky, and thus far, to the best of my knowledge, none of the Democratic candidates have even hinted that they might adopt an immigration platform which includes a tightening of border security. This makes a certain amount of sense, as I said Trump has made the whole issue toxic, and this does seem a dangerous tightrope to walk. On the one side the candidate would almost certainly alienate a significant fraction of Democratic primary voters, while on the other side there’s no guarantee you’d pick up any of the more moderate voters who might appreciate tighter security at the borders, to say nothing of picking up enough to be ahead of the game.

As I final potential position there remains the possibility that one of the candidates will not only speak to border security, that he or she will emphasis it. Make it one of the central themes of their campaign, in a fashion similar to Trump, but hopefully with a little more grace. This would seem to be the least likely option of all, but there is reason to imagine that it might be on the table for some of the candidates.

It’s often been said, and I think I may have even said it myself, that the political divide is increasingly not between the conservatives/right on the one side and the liberals/left on the other, but between the nationalists and the globalists. And in no case is that divide clearer than when it comes to immigration. If we look at things from this perspective it’s worth asking if there are any Democratic candidates with nationalist leanings? Is populism on the nationalist side of the fence? I would think so, in which case there might be at least one candidate who fits the bill, Bernie Sanders.

You may think it’s a stretch to suggest that Sanders could end up being a Trump clone, at least on immigration, but no less of an authority on extreme immigration restrictions than Ann Coulter has said that she would support Sanders if he returned to his original immigration position. Beyond Ann Coulter it’s not immediately clear how much support someone like Sanders might pick up from returning to his original position on immigration, but, if nothing else it would certainly set him apart from the rest of the pack.

And here we return to the poll I started with, Sanders is currently 30 points behind Biden. Maybe he’ll start clawing that back. Maybe a significant part of that lead is temporary, an artifact of Biden recently launching his campaign. But on the other hand maybe it will just keep getting bigger, and taking a harder stance on immigration will become more and more appealing, particularly if it’s something that Sanders is already ideologically disposed to. Which based on his populist/nationalist leanings and his past statements he very well might be. And of course if you look past Sanders there are 16 candidates currently polling at less than 3%. Given the numbers I listed above (take your pick) it’s certainly conceivable that one of those candidates will try something of a hail mary with respect to immigration.

Tying all of this together, my central point is that the immigration issue is not going away. And in the current political climate, it’s something which strongly favors Republicans. The 2020 primaries are going to be our first real chance to see how Democrats might handle this new landscape, and I think it’s already apparent that it’s going to cause them problems. Perhaps even more important, is the landscape after the next election. You can certainly imagine Biden easily winning despite ignoring the issue, just because Trump is so unpopular, but what happens in 2024 or 2028? There will definitely be several Republican candidates trying to duplicate Trump’s success by being tough on immigration. And while I think Trump is underestimated as a communicator and a candidate, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone else could come along who’s more likable. In that case, if support for more restrictive laws remains as high as it is now (and recall it might actually go up, that’s what happened in Europe) and if the Democrats still haven’t developed an effective counter, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.


Fortunately for all of you, this blog has entirely open borders, though to truly be a citizen you should donate. (I’m not sure if that really makes sense, but I’m going to go with it anyway.)


AI Risk Might Be More Subtle Than We Expect

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I.

There’s a famous experiment among people who study addiction called Rat Park. It was conducted by Bruce K. Alexander of Simon Fraser University to test a hypothesis he had about addiction. At the time there were lots of experiments which showed rats becoming so addicted to drugs like heroin and cocaine that they would ignore food and water in favor of self administering more of the drug. Eventually dying from dehydration. Alexander felt like this had less to do with the drugs and more to do with the experimental conditions, which generally involved caging the rats in small spaces, isolated from all the other rats and, on top of all that, with a big needle permanently stuck in them to administer the drugs. Alexander’s hypothesis was that the rat’s addiction came about as a result of these horrible conditions and if you put rats in an environment that more closely mirrored their natural environment that they wouldn’t get addicted. To test this theory he created Rat Park.

According to Wikipedia, Rat Park was, “a large housing colony, 200 times the floor area of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating.” And, according to Alexander, despite being offered a sweetened morphine solution right next to the water dispenser, the rats did not become addicted to morphine. From this Alexander argued that opiates aren’t actually addictive. It’s rotten conditions which cause the addiction, not the drugs themselves. As you might imagine he extended this to humans arguing that it’s terrible slums and poverty that cause addictions, and that the drugs themselves have no inherent addictiveness.

At this point there are many of you who arrived at this blog from the Slate Star Codex podcast and you remember an article from SSC pointing out that Rat Park is one of those things that didn’t seem to replicate very well, despite all the press it got. (You may in fact remember me reading that very post.) To review some of the arguments.

On the pro-Rat Park side:

  • Only about 10% of people put on opiates for chronic pain become addicted.
  • German soldiers during World War II popped meth like it was candy and yet after the war they mostly had no problems with later addiction. (I understand the same thing happened with Vietnam Vets and heroin.)
  • And of course there are vast numbers of people who drink alcohol without ever becoming alcoholics.

On the anti-Rat Park Side:

  • Plenty of people who seem to “have it all” definitely get addicted. (In the SSC post he mentions Ogedei Khan and celebrities.)
  • There also definitely seems to be a genetic component to drug reactions, particularly as far as alcohol.
  • And, certainly, there are people who have been raised out of poverty and given every possible support who still can’t shake their addiction.

The SSC conclusion is that on top of the study not replicating very well, there are obviously a whole host of factors involved in addiction. That the causes of addiction are complicated. There are obviously environmental and cultural factors as Alexander hypothesized, but saying it’s entirely environmental is naive. Because, on top of the environmental factors it’s clear that genes have a role as well. It’s also equally clear that some drugs are just more addictive. All of this means that treating addiction is hard.

II.

Thus far we’ve mostly talked about rats and heroin, so why did I choose the title “AI Risk Might Be More Subtle Than We Expect”? Well, to begin with we have to talk about what sort of AI risk most people expect. When you talk about AI risk with an average individual they generally end up imagining something along the lines of Skynet from the Terminator movies. Where we’re going along, gradually making computers more and more powerful, and then one day we cross some critical threshold. The computer “wakes up”, and it’s not happy. This is obviously an oversimplification, but it gets at the key point. Most people don’t start worrying about AI risk until we build a computer with human or greater than human level intelligence. When that happens if it has a morality different than our own (or no morality at all) we could be in a lot of trouble.

Given the difficulties attendant to building an AI with human level intelligence, which is to say that it has to not only play chess as well as a human, but do everything as well as a human can, many people will claim that there’s nothing to worry about. And even if there is, such a worry is a long way off. But this whole scenario seems to be imagining that there’s some stark cutoff where right before we reach human level intelligence there’s zero potential harm, and right after that there’s severe potential harm. Now, I’m sure that this is once again an oversimplification, that there are researchers out there who have thought about the potential harm an AI could cause at capabilities below those of full human intelligence. But such discussions are vanishingly rare compared to discussions of risk on the greater than human side of the spectrum. This is unfortunate because by not having them I think we’re overlooking some potential AI risks. So let’s have that discussion now.

It would be useful if AI progressed in a fashion similar to biology. If we could speak of fish-level AI and dog-level AI, and so on. Because we know what kind of damage a fish can cause, and what kind of damage a dog can cause. (My sister’s dog recently got loose and killed six of her neighbor’s chickens, so dog damage is on my mind at the moment.) And knowing this we could have some reasonable expectation of preventing the kind of damage those AIs might cause. But artificial intelligence hasn’t progressed in the same fashion as biological intelligence. Instead, there are some things an AI can do much better than a human, for example playing chess, and other things it still does much worse, for example tying its shoes. The question then becomes, is there any danger attached to the things AIs do really well? With chess, it’s just our pride at stake, but are there areas with more at stake than that?

III.

As I mentioned above we’re still a long ways away from general, human-level AI, but we have made a lot of progress in some specific AI sub-domains. In particular, one of the things that AI has gotten very good at is brute force pattern detection. The example of this which has gotten the most press is image recognition.

As you can probably guess image recognition is a very hard problem. You might think that if you were trying to get a computer to recognize pictures of cats that you could just describe what a cat is. But once you actually attempt to explain the concept of a cat it turns out to be basically impossible. So instead what they do is feed the AI lots of pictures with cats, and lots of pictures without cats, until eventually the AI figures out how to spot the image of a cat. But just as we can’t explain what a cat is to the AI, the same thing is true for the AI, it can’t explain what a cat is to us either, it just knows it when it “sees it”.

Now imagine that instead of maximizing the AIs success rate at identifying cats, you want it to maximize engagement. You want it to pick content that ends up maximizing the time someone spends on your platform. As a more specific example, instead of the AI picking out cats you want it to identify Facebook timeline content that keeps an individual on Facebook for as long as possible. To do this, instead of feeding in cat pictures and pictures without cats, you feed in data about what content they like vs. what content they don’t like. In the first example you get better cat recognition in the second you get more engaging content.

Thus far everyone pretty much agrees that this is what Facebook and similar platforms do. Where opinions start to diverge is on the question of whether this engagement is bad. And here we bring back in the issue of addiction. Is there a level at which engagement is the same as addiction? Or, coming at if from the other direction, would creating addiction be a good way of achieving engagement? If so, is there any reason to doubt that AIs would eventually figure out how to create this addiction as part of their brute-force pattern matching?

How would they go about creating it? Well as I said above, the causes of addiction are complicated, but that’s precisely where AIs excel. Not only that but it seems easier to create addiction than to cure it. Maybe certain kinds of content is more addictive, so the AI will show that more often. (I’m sure you’ve heard the term clickbait.) Maybe it will use variable operant conditioning, or maybe, if Rat Park has any validity, it will do it by making us sad and lonely.

To be clear I agree with SSC that the most extreme claims made by Bruce K. Alexander are probably false, but on the other hand it’s difficult to imagine that being sad and lonely wouldn’t contribute on some level to addictive behavior. Or to put it another way, does being psychologically healthy make someone less likely to engage in addictive behavior or more likely? If less likely, then the AI is incentivized to undermine otherwise healthy individuals. And, as it happens, there is plenty of data to back up the idea that this is precisely the effect social media has on people.

As I said, an AI can’t explain to us how it determines whether there’s a cat in the picture or not. In the same fashion it also can’t explain to us how it achieves greater engagement. If it is making people sad and lonely in order to create addictive engagement, this is not because it’s naturally cruel. It understands neither cruelty nor sadness, it only knows what works.

Lot’s of ink has been spilled on the more flashy side of AI risk. AI overlords with no regard for biological life. Out of control versions of the broom in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Or an AI that simply plays the stock market like it plays Chess and takes all the money. But at the moment I’m far more worried about the dangers I’ve just described. Not only are we experiencing that harm right now, rather than 50 years from now, but if it is happening, the effect is very subtle, so much so that it’s entirely possible that we won’t really recognize it until it’s too late.

IV.

I had intended to end on that point about the subtlety of this danger, but then yesterday I came across an article published last week in Wired covering much the same ground, though the argument was broader. The title was: Tristan Harris: Tech Is ‘Downgrading Humans.’ It’s Time to Fight Back. The major thrust of the article is how Harris spent a whole year trying to come up with the perfect phrase to describe what was happening. Given that I’ve only been thinking about it for the last couple of weeks, it’s possible that Harris’ argument is more convincing, as such I thought I’d better include it.

As he struggled with the words, he had a few eureka moments. One was when he realized that the danger for humans isn’t when technology surpasses our strengths, like when machines powered by AI can make creative decisions and write symphonies better than Beethoven. The danger point is when computers can overpower our weaknesses—when algorithms can sense our emotional vulnerabilities and exploit them for profit.

Another breakthrough came in a meeting when he blurted out, “There’s Hurricane Cambridge Analytica, Hurricane Fake News, and there’s Hurricane Tech Addiction. And no one’s asking the question ‘Why are we getting all these hurricanes?’”

He didn’t want to define the problem as one of evil technology companies. Even social media platforms do all sorts of good, and Harris, in fact, uses them all, albeit in grayscale. There are also plenty of technologies that don’t ever hack us, help elect fascists, or drive teens to cut themselves. Think about Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word. He needed a phrase that didn’t make him seem like a Luddite or a crank.

Finally, in February, he got it. He and Raskin had been spending time with someone whom Harris won’t identify, except to note that the mysterious friend consulted on the famous “story of stuff” video. In any case, the three of them were brainstorming, kicking around the concept of downgrading. “It feels like a downgrading of humans, a downgrading of humanity,” he remembers them saying, “a downgrading of our relationships, a downgrading of our attention, a downgrading of democracy, a downgrading of our sense of decency.”

I think Harris is correct, some technological advances have had the effect of downgrading humans, and my point about AI and addiction represents one of many specific examples for how it might be happening.

Harris included something else in his article, a quote which may sum up all of the problems I’ve been talking about. It’s from E. O. Wilson:

Humans have “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”


I guess the point of this post is that I might get more donations if I make you feel sad and lonely. But also that doing so is kind of awful. So I’m just going to hope you donate because you enjoy what I write.