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Normalization of Deviance and the Modern World

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I recently read an article titled How I Almost Destroyed a £50 million War Plane and The Normalisation of Deviance. The article opens with the story of a multinational military exercise, which the author, Tim Davies, participated in back in the mid 2000s. As part of this exercise, everyone was assigned to a specific jet, and if your jet was having problems you couldn’t switch. This is, unfortunately, exactly what happened to the Davies.

Our jet had a problem with the undercarriage or landing gear – it wouldn’t lock up under normal flight conditions; the wheels couldn’t be stowed away.

The engineers had found significant and unfixable wear to the mechanical uplock. It would only lock up under 0g and this would mean that I would have to bunt the aircraft, nose down, towards the ground whilst selecting the gear ‘up’.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, a bunt is half an outside loop, meaning you start out straight and level, then dive in a curve, eventually ending upside down.)

With this “solution” in hand and not wanting to be grounded for the remainder of the exercise Davies (and his Weapons Systems Officer) decided to try it out. And lo and behold, it worked. They’d have to do it every time they wanted to fly, right after takeoff, at the point when they had the maximum amount of fuel (five tons), but they had figured out a way to keep flying. So that’s what they decided to do. And this, if you haven’t guessed, was a deviation from the normal guidelines for safely flying a £50 million war plane.

Despite comments from other pilots, and the concerns of their Programme Director, who Davies managed to avoid, they continued performing this maneuver, and everything went great until the last day of the exercise when the weather was worse than expected. It was then, while performing the maneuver, that they entered a cloud, and when they finally emerged from that cloud Davies realized he was in a very bad place.

We were low on energy and the nose was rising too slowly to recover the aircraft before we would hit the ground.

The Ground Proximity Warning System sounded.

‘WOOP, WOOP – PULL UP, PULL UP!’

‘7, 6, 5 – that’s 400 ft Tim!’, called my WSO.

The jet was shuddering against my demands, it just didn’t have the performance to pull out of the dive.

The cockpit was silent. To make things worse, due to our high rate of descent, we were well outside of any ejection option.

I quickly selected full flap and slats to increase the lift over the wing.

The sudden increase in lift meant that the nose started to pitch faster towards the horizon.

A bad picture was starting to look better.

Eventually I levelled the jet at around 2-300 ft above the ground and gradually I climbed us back up into cloud.

The gear had never locked up. It was going to be a long, and a very quiet, journey home.

Why had all this happened? How had it come to pass that in addition to almost destroying a £50 million war plane, he had almost killed himself and his Weapons Systems Officer? It happened because they had taken that initial deviance and normalized it.

I was an experienced pilot but in the bracket where my over-confidence could well have been my downfall. The longer we’d continued performing the manoeuvre the more confident we’d become at doing it.

We had convinced ourselves that the rule breaking was for the benefit of the exercise and that what we were doing was essential.

But I’d almost destroyed a £50 million aircraft.

My actions in performing a zero ‘g’ bunt after take-off, in order to secure the gear, as outside of the rules as it was, had become the normal way to get airborne – I thought that what I was doing was right.

But I was wrong.

Knowing what happens it’s obvious he was wrong, but it’s also easy to see where it might not have been quite that obvious the first time he tried it. And it’s equally obvious where this problem might not be limited to flying. Life is full of very important rules for how things should be done, but it is also full of situations where it would be convenient and seemingly harmless to violate those rules. The initial violation almost always appears to be minor and in any event it will obviously be only temporary, but once we’ve done it the first time it becomes even easier to do it again and again and again… Until, before you know it, we’ve “normalized the deviance”. 

That article offers this formal definition for the normalization of deviance, from Diane Vaughan:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.

Vaughan coined the term “normalization of deviance” in the course of reviewing the organizational and management failures which lead to the Challenger and Columbia disasters. This is yet another example where it’s easy to identify which choices were wrong in hindsight, but apparently more difficult to avoid making those ultimately fatal decisions in the absence of such foreknowledge. And while there is some utility to identifying the problem after it’s happened it’s vastly preferable to identify it before the disaster. With that in mind I’m going to attempt some identification in advance. Also while the examples I’ve offered thus far, and most of the examples you’ll find, deal with small scale “deviance normalization”, as you might imagine I’m far more interested in whether we have any deviance normalization going on at a societal level.

Let’s take the last point first, what would it look like to normalize deviance at the level of a whole society? 

Let’s start by dipping back into the article. One of the things Davies mentions is how it can be very difficult to define what deviant behavior is at the extreme ends of things. While he admits that his take off maneuver was very obviously deviant, what if you’re trying to perform that evaluation on one of the military’s flight demonstration squadrons? In America we have the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, in the UK they have the Red Arrows, and Davies was involved in an inquiry after two of his friends were killed. As part of that he spoke to other people tasked with assessing the standards of the Red Arrows, one of them:

…told me that, when assessing a Red Arrows pilot, he found himself upside down at 100 ft over RAF Scampton’s runway in formation with two other jets only a couple of feet away.

How on earth was he supposed to know if this was normal?

How indeed? Davies doesn’t say except to point out that no organization is ever so specialized that it’s beyond needing external assessment. But the question of evaluation at the extremes is an interesting one, since that appears to be where modern society has ended up. In the same way that there’s not a lot of flight data for going hundreds of miles an hour, 100 ft off the ground with other aircraft only a couple of feet away, there’s not a lot of historical data about being able to form ideological echo chambers with anyone on Earth, with the ability to instantly communicate to any of those people, all while having less and less ability to know if that communication is actually truthful. That seems kind of abnormal or deviant, but how do we know?

To take another more recent, and perhaps more concrete example. News recently broke that Facebook paid contractors to transcribe it’s user’s audio chats. (Most of the other tech companies have been similarly accused.) Is this just a cool thing we can now do which well help Facebook deliver content people will appreciate more? Or is it a horrible invasion of privacy? Regardless of your answer to that question, it shouldn’t change when we get to the point where the transcription doesn’t require contractors; when there’s an AI that can do it. But I think it will. Perhaps more importantly, to get back to Davies’ point about needing external assessment, what do you think Facebook’s answer would be to these questions? (Spoiler: They think it’s awesome, particularly if they could get an AI to do it.) Pulling all this together, my first stab at spotting a normalization of deviance before it happens it to point out that technology is going to create a lot of “deviance” and that it’s going to be difficult to recognize, particularly if we don’t demand external assessment.

From there let’s move on to politics. To start, one imagines that deviations from the norm accumulate the longer an organization is around, and that this would apply at least as much to governments as it would to corporations, and probably much more so. As I have pointed out in the past, the United States and its government is older, relative to other nations, than most people think. All of this means that there should be plenty of examples of accumulated political deviations which have been normalized, and indeed I can think of several. I intend to provide a couple of examples of what I mean, but before I do, it’s important to point out that each could easily be the subject of its own post, and that by necessity, I am going to be leaving a lot of things out. Also, I’m sure that whether you view something as a deviation which has been normalized depends on your core political leanings.

With those caveats aside let’s start by talking about criminal justice. There are lots of things I could talk about in that space, but I’m going to focus on plea bargaining. Currently over 95% percent of federal cases end in a plea deal rather than a trial, and it’s not much better at local level. My sense, when I first thought of this as a potential deviation that has been normalized, is that it had only gotten this high recently, but when I looked into it I discovered that as long ago as 1945 it stood at 70%, and that it actually dipped to 63% in 1982 before starting a steady rise to where it is now. 

(I just gave two links to what appear to be the same statistic from the same governmental report, but while they agree on the general trend there’s a lot of variation in the statistics. For example, the Washington Post has it at 85% in 2000 while Albany University has it at 95% in 2000. Strange, but it doesn’t matter very much to the point I’m trying to make.)

Despite the fact that I was wrong about the increase in plea bargaining being a recent phenomenon, it was nevertheless definitely not a part of normal jurisprudence at the time of the Constitution. Once you start to dig into the history of it, it turns out that it wasn’t practiced with any frequency until “well into the nineteenth century“ and it didn’t come to the “attention of the public” until the 1920s. When “the general reaction-of scholars, of the press, and of the crime commissions themselves [which had publicized the practice]-was disapproval.” On top of this, apparently as late as 1958 it looked like the Supreme Court might declare the practice to be illegal, and while it didn’t, it didn’t formally sanction the practice until 1970. And while it seems normal now, this is all a deviation. The original guidelines for “safe jurisprudence” (similar to the rules for safe flying) included lots of rules about trial by jury, how the jury should work, the rights of the accused, what was and wasn’t permissible evidence, etc. But, at some point, after the system had been working well for possibly as long as a century, someone came along and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we skipped the trial and you just agreed to plead guilty to X, and in exchange we’ll make sure that your punishment is only Y?” And it was easier that once. In fact it was probably eminently sensible. But now, a century or more later, the original concept of trial by jury is used, at most 5% of the time (here’s yet another set of numbers from the NYT saying it’s 3% of federal cases and 6% of state cases) and the deviation has been made into the norm.

Why hasn’t this deviation been corrected? Probably because it only harms (or is perceived to harm) the powerless. Insofar as plea deals (and the associated practice of charge stacking) are bad they’re only bad for potential criminals. Not necessarily a coalition which is essential to anyone staying in power (see my review of The Dictator’s Handbook) and possibly a coalition whose support you would actively avoid.

The question of who the deviation harms is an important one, and comes up again when discussing my other example, though in a more complicated way. What is this example, you ask? It’s the current and growing practice of ignoring immigration laws. As with plea bargaining it’s somewhat difficult to tell exactly when or how this deviation started, but it’s easy enough to imagine why. Immigration enforcement is difficult, with lots of areas of questionable morality, and hard choices that have to be made. Still the current state has not existed for all that long. While the first sanctuary city was Berkeley in 1971, and a few other cities adopted that designation in the 1980s, most cities and states didn’t get serious about it until the 2010s. Meanwhile in the 90s there was serious concern about the state of US immigration policy. From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, ran from 1990 to 1997. The Commission covered many facets of immigration policy, but started from the perception that the “credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in, are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave”. From there, in a series of four reports, the commission looked at all aspects of immigration policy. In the first, it found that enforcement was lax and needed improvement on the border and internally. For internal enforcement, it recommended that an automated employment verification system be created to enable employers to distinguish between legal and illegal workers. The second report discussed legal immigration issues and suggested that immediate family members and skilled workers receive priority. The third report covered refugee and asylum issues. Finally, the fourth report reiterated the major points of the previous reports and the need for a new immigration policy. Few of these suggestions were implemented.

The yardstick mentioned in the article could be used in a Trump campaign ad, and indeed last year Trump put out a presidential message honoring Barbara Jordan, which upset numerous people since Jordan was a black female Democrat. It would certainly be hard to imagine someone similarly situated today being a Trump supporter, or even making similar recommendations. Indeed these days, many people consider it inappropriate to even use the word illegal. But, beyond what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it’s worth going into a deep dive on how this is a deviation which has been normalized, since I suspect you either already entirely agree with me or are never going to agree, but I would like to look at who it harms.

I said earlier that the harms of this normalization are more complicated. In particular there are a lot of fairly powerless people who are helped, and indeed that’s a good argument for the continuance of the practice. But beyond that there are also a lot of powerful people who benefit as well, and that, more than the powerless people it helps, is why it continues. As I pointed out in a previous post, other than Trump and a handful of other politicians, the lax enforcement of immigration is something which is supported by nearly every member in congress despite a majority of actual voters being against it.  The harm, or perceived harm, all falls, once again, on a group of people who have largely been without power, that is until Trump came along. Which is to say even if you don’t see any other harms from this particular normalization of deviance, it probably pushed Trump over the top in the last election…

Finally when we’re talking about deviations being normalized it’s hard not to turn our minds towards behaviors formerly classified as deviant. The entire culture war revolves around this process, and obviously there are quite a few people who believe that quite a few activities should not have been normalized. That “progress” is just another word for the greatest “normalization of deviance” of all. There are of course an equal if not larger number of people (depending on the country) who think this is ridiculous. It would be nice if sheer numbers could decide the issue, but I don’t think they can. All of these issues remain contentious, but, for the moment, let’s assume that in addition to being (at one point) labeled as deviations, that they are actual deviations. What would this mean? In the story I started with, that deviation almost led to a fatal crash. Is that also what we should be worried about here? Perhaps, perhaps not. The modern world is very different from the world of even 50 years ago, accordingly I would never claim that the normalization of these particular deviations will inevitably result in a “crash”. They may in fact be desirable in our current situation. Still, as I have repeatedly pointed out, there just might have been a reason for declaring these behaviors “deviant” beyond just massive historical bigotry. 

If we were to systematize all of this, you could imagine that things might operate in a cycle. Some “bad thing” happens, and as a result rules are put into place to ensure that particular “bad thing” doesn’t happen again. Initially, when the memory of the “bad thing” is still very fresh, those preventative rules would carry a great deal of weight, people would be eager to follow them, and they certainly wouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Gradually, however, the connection between the rules and the “bad thing” would fade in the minds of those forced to follow the rules. These rules would start to appear more onerous and less necessary. As this process continues, eventually rules start being broken. Initially this rule breaking wouldn’t cause any harm, and the longer things went without any harm the more the process of rule-breaking accelerates. All of this would continue until eventually, the “bad thing” the rules were trying to prevent, happened again. Naturally the rules would be reimplemented (and perhaps strengthened) and the cycle would begin anew. 

I’m obviously not the first nor the last to suggest that history, behaviors, and events might be cyclical, but my particular suggestion would be that while this is certainly true, it is also horribly complicated. Yes, history does move in cycles, many, many cycles which overlap, feed on one another and are weak or strong at various times and places. For the next couple of posts I’m going to examine a couple of other cycles and look at which might be strong or weak in our own day and age. As a teaser, in my next post I’m going to talk about how a nation would successfully implement communism. 


There might be some who argue this entire blog is a normalization of deviance! 

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The Rise of a Civic Religion

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I.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you know that I live in Utah, a state which has a number of interesting qualities, particularly when it comes to politics. To begin with, as you’re all probably aware, Utah is not a swing state, its electoral votes have gone to the Republican Presidential candidate in every election since 1968. Now, Trump may change all of that (though based on the current crop of democractic nominees I’m guessing that he won’t) but Trump’s standing in Utah is a topic for another time. As an additional peculiarity, and something that most people don’t know, Utah is the only state where Clinton came in third place to Perot in 1992. But of all the political oddities peculiar to Utah, the one I want to focus on is lawn signs.

If I’ve done my job right, you are now overcome with curiosity and wondering what possible peculiarity there might be when it comes to Utah and lawn signs. Well to begin with, after considering everything I’ve already said, one would naturally assume that if there was any place where you would expect to see lawn signs for the Republican Presidential Candidate it would be in Utah. And yet, at least in Salt Lake, I not only don’t remember any signs for Trump in 2016. I very clearly remember there being no signs for McCain in 2008 when he was running against Obama. Why, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, would there be no lawn signs for the Republican Nominee? 

One possibility is that I’m just wrong, there were lawn signs and I just didn’t see them or don’t remember them.

Or perhaps, knowing how solidly Republican Utah was, the campaign didn’t bother to send any lawn signs to Utah. But if that’s the case why were there plenty of Obama and Clinton lawn signs? Wouldn’t the same not-worth-fighting-over logic apply?

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in Salt Lake, which is actually pretty blue. Sure, the state is pretty Republican, but perhaps Salt Lake City might as well be San Francisco. Well, if we look at the actual numbers we find that Obama did in fact win Salt Lake County, by the massive margin of 0.1%, 49.2% to 49.1%. In 2016 the margin was greater, 41.99% to 32.96% but that’s still a fair amount of Trump supporters, for there to not be a single yard sign.

As you can tell, none of these three theories seems very compelling, at least to me, but there is another theory that I like better. A theory which combines signalling, with what it’s acceptable to signal. If we start from a very naive view of things, we might expect that the number of yard signs would be proportional to the percentage of eventual voters, but this is obviously not the case. In San Francisco, of those who voted for either Clinton or Trump, one in ten voted for Trump, but I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money that one in ten election signs in San Francisco were not similarly in support of Trump.

If visible signs of support are not proportional to eventual vote totals what does determine people’s desire to signal and the acceptability of such signalling? You might think that if each candidate will eventually get a roughly equal number of votes, that the visible signs of support would also be equal, and that from this point of rough equilibrium, visible support would drop off faster than actual support as one candidate ended up in the minority. That basically, as one candidate’s majority becomes greater and greater, signalling support for the minority candidate has less and less utility. But in the example I just gave from Salt Lake City, McCain and Obama’s eventual support was as close to even as you can get, and yet I would swear that I didn’t see a single McCain campaign sign. Is it possible that it’s disproportionately beneficial to signal support for a Democratic candidate and disproportionately harmful to signal support for a Republican candidate? 

I’m well aware that this is mostly based on a single observation, so one point of this post is to see if anyone else has a similar experience to mine, where you live in a city with lots of Republican voters, but very little visible evidence of these voters? I suspect there are a lot of examples of this. I would even go so far as to say that I’d be surprised if anyone’s experiences didn’t match my own. That is, the percentage of visible support being less than the percentage of actual support given as votes. Beyond the reluctance of people on the right to visibly signal, even while in the majority, as I described above, I have also noticed the opposite situation with those on the left, actual eagerness to signal, even while in the minority, and I would be curious to hear about other people’s experiences. Assuming that all of the foregoing is correct, why might this be?

II.

As part of my answer I’d like to start by relating yet another observation, this one much more recent. As I mentioned in the post just before this one I spent the first few days of August at a gaming convention. (Which convention is probably easy enough to figure out, but I shall leave it unnamed for a variety of reasons.) I’ve been attending the same convention for many years, and for as long as I can remember people have been attaching ribbons to the bottoms of their badges. Generally these ribbons represented one or the other niches at the convention. As an example, a fan of Settlers of Catan might have a ribbon each for brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. Last year I noticed some new, rainbow colored ribbons. (You can probably already guess the nature of the ribbons.) One said “Gaymer”, and for those who weren’t actually gay, there was an “Ally” ribbon. Somewhat subconsciously I added these as another niche. There were fans of Settlers of Catan and there were people who wanted to combine LGBT advocacy with their gaming. 

When I attended this year, I quickly realized that I had been wrong. Last year, I saw just a few people wearing these ribbons and while I hesitate to put forth any hard numbers, my guess would be that, at most, 5% of badges had one of these ribbons last year. And, as I said, I subconsciously added it as another niche.

This year, the number was much higher, again I’m reluctant to put forth a hard number, but it could have easily been 25%, and perhaps higher. Also this year a new variety of ribbon had been added which allowed people to announce their preferred pronouns. (I was surprised by the number of They/Them ribbons I saw.) Once again I’m dealing with only a small amount of data, but at a minimum I’m already curious about what this percentage is going to look like next year. 

All of this is to say that it seems unlikely that the actual number of gay gamers and their allies has quintipled since last year. No it’s more likely that the phenomenon of rainbow ribbon badges and republican candidate lawn signs are actually similar, that both come down to signalling, and what it’s acceptable to signal, or more accurately what it’s unacceptable to signal. As an example of what I mean, imagine that I printed up some ribbons that said “Straight” or “Not an Ally” or “Gamers opposed to Same Sex Marriage”. (That last one wouldn’t fit on a badge, and I think the difficulty of signalling opposition illustrates my point.) But to return to my point can you imagine how unacceptable it would be to signal opposition to LGBT tolerance? And, in fact, I think this leads to the point I’ve already noted, that not only would it be entirely unacceptable to wear any of the ribbons just mentioned, that it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable to not have an “Ally” ribbon showing your support. 

It’s not hard to imagine that this might happen at a gaming convention which mostly skews younger and “woker”, but I believe it’s happening more widely, and that’s why I started out by talking about the lawn signs. This is not only, I would submit, an example of the same thing, but furthermore an example illustrating how long this has been going on for and in places you wouldn’t expect. To be clear, what I’m arguing is that just as it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to not signal support for LGBT issues, that it was already unacceptable for many years, even in very conservative states to visibly signal support for Republican Presidential Candidates. Once again, why might this be?

III.

On one level the answer to this question is that both stories are just examples of the ongoing social progress that has been happening for decades if not centuries, but I find that particular answer lacking. In the first example, it’s not that people are changing how they vote it’s that they’re changing what they’re willing to visibly signal. In the second example, we see a trend (which to be fair, may or may not continue) where once again people expect certain signalling above and beyond someone’s actual behavior. In other words, in both cases, we’re not seeing “progress” in behaviors or progress in what’s allowed, in part because both of these have just about topped out, we’re seeing “progress” through an increasingly unified idea of what attitudes and beliefs it’s acceptable to display openly. That most individuals have moved beyond expecting to be allowed to do and believe certain things, to fashioning a set of attitudes and beliefs which they expect everyone to adopt.

Thus far none of this is particularly new or surprising. Conservatives and other people worried about overactive political correctness have long warned about this transition from allowing people to do certain, previously taboo, things to demanding that everyone enthusiastically support people doing these certain things. But I want to go beyond just identifying the trend, or expressing short-term alarm to categorizing the trend as something specific, consequential and long-term.

A few posts ago I touched on Scott Alexander’s idea that social justice might be a new civic religion. For this to be the case, if social justice is going to supplant the old civic religion of patriotism, it has to be growing. It has to be vibrant and powerful. It has to be able to sweep the old civic religion away. It has to be able to dominate the “signaling space”. In both of the examples I provided this is what appears to be happening. That what people support has decoupled from what people decide to signal. That these examples illustrate not a change in inner beliefs or behavior, but the rise of a different public dogma or in other words a new civic religion.

Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, and certainly there’s a lot of discussion about what makes something a religion, and wading into that is way beyond the scope of this post, but the expectation that everyone will outwardly display specific beliefs has to be a big part of it, particularly in the case of civic religions.

Pulling everything together, I increasingly agree with Alexander that social justice is a nascent civil religion, that the lawn signs and the badge ribbons should be considered as evidence that something new is dominating the signalling space and that these are examples of the presence and growth of this religion, a different, more extreme, and more cohesive phenomenon than the generic social progress we’ve seen previously. 

Before moving on, I should mention that I’m fully aware that just as one swallow does not a summer make, neither does two examples a civic religion make. But my guess is that at this point you’re in one of two categories. Either you can think of a dozen other examples of this and you’re nodding along in agreement, or you’ve completely dismissed my point as conservative paranoia. And in neither case will providing more examples move the needle very much. Assuming that you’re one of the people who’s nodding along, the next question, once we’ve figured out why it’s happening, is to ask what happens next?

IV.

If you are in the “conservative paranoia” camp, and you’ve made it this far. I’ll start off with the possibility you might actually like. It’s possible that what happens next is that, by degrees, we enter a social justice utopia. That all the things people hope for come to pass as people “join” the new religion. That systemic racism is done away with, along with all other forms of bigotry. That gaps in pay and education between minorities and genders vanish. That when everyone is an “Ally” there are no LGBT issues because that distinction no longer makes any sense. That everyone is treated with fairness and kindness and as a result global peace and prosperity will reign. That, in essence, I end up being wrong about everything. This would be great. I could stop writing, buy a nice recliner and finally catch up on all the TV shows people keep recommending to me. Unfortunately, despite my desire to finally watch all six seasons of the Sopranos, nothing about how events are playing out leads me to believe that this possibility has any chance of happening.

Another possibility would be some kind of fusion between the new civic religion and the old, that patriotism and the 4th of July meld with social justice and gay pride to form some hybrid civic religion, better than the old civic religion, or maybe just able to thread whatever needle we’re going through now, and get us to something resembling normality after Trump, but if anything this seems less likely than the previous possibility, given how irreconcilable the differences between the two sides appear to be. Also while I’m not an expert on the rise of new civic religions, I don’t get the sense that “peaceful fusion with the old religion” is something that ever happens. Part of the problem is a relative paucity of examples. I think historically actual religions were the norm and that replacing an actual religion with a civic religion is a relatively new innovation, but insofar as we have examples, most of them have been bloody. Which takes us to the next possibility.

Having talked a lot about possibilities which are unlikely, let’s turn to a possibility that seems more and more likely. Widespread and perhaps even bloody conflict between the two civic religions, old and new. Obviously on some level this is bad, but an argument could be made, that on net, the outcome in its totality might be good. I was having a discussion with a friend recently on this very topic where he made just such an argument. In the course of the discussion, I had brought up previous upheavals which occurred as countries switched civic religions. In particular the decades of revolution that France went through as it, arguably, switched from the civil religion of the monarchy (or the empire) to the civil religion of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Revolutions in which hundreds of thousands of people died (millions if you include the Napoleonic Wars). My friend argued that as bad as all this was that in the long run the French were better off going through all of it than remaining under the monarchy as it stood in 1788. Perhaps this is true, though I’m not the best person to ask. I have a tendency to give fewer points for historical wrongs than other individuals. Also this imagines that there were only those two options, but in reality there were lots of options, and among all the various options I suspect that there were several which would have given them the same amount of liberté, égalité, fraternité with less violence. 

Which is to say, even if conflict is inevitable, it would be nice if we could minimize the actual bloodshed and violence. Given that conflict seems to have already begun this is the course I’m continually advocating for, pointing out that this may require us to end up with two civic religions, which are separated in some fashion. To me this seems markedly better than re-enacting any of the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But in order to do this, I think it’s necessary, first of all, to slow down the pace of change, something the adherents of social justice seem disinclined to consider.

Of course, as I alluded to just now, all conflicts eventually end, and usually (though not always) one side is victorious. What happens if the religion of social justice is eventually victorious? It is certainly possible that conflict, even very violent conflict, could end up being a roundabout way to arrive at the first possibility, the social justice utopia. That in the end, just like the French (if my friend is to be believed) we’ll be better off, despite whatever blood that gets spilt. But we should also consider the possibility that if social justice is triumphant we will end up with something closer to a dystopia instead. Recall that both facism and communism were essentially civic religions. And that communism, at least (but perhaps facism also) promised justice. It wasn’t social justice, it was economic justice, but how sure are we that if the civic religion of social justice ends up triumphing (with or without conflict) that it won’t fail in a similar fashion? In other words, one possibility is that the new religion does wipe out the old one, but that this ends up being a very bad thing.

V.

In the end, the question of whether we’re witnessing the rise of a new civic religion is an important one. Because if we are then the best historical evidence would indicate that such transitions are rarely accomplished without extreme upheaval. Looking back, I probably should have spent more time discussing historical examples of religious transitions, rather than spending so much time on a couple of marginal examples of the current evidence. (Though I find both examples fascinating.) And perhaps I will dive more into the historical record in some future post. Though I can already tell that it will offer very little comfort.

As one final possibility, there is, as always, a very good chance that I’m wrong, that we aren’t currently in the beginnings of a conflict between the old civic religion of patriotism and a new one of social justice. But if I am wrong about things, my guess is that it’s because I’ve vastly undercounted the number of new civic religions, that rather than one new civic religion we might actually end up with dozens, all in competition. Certainly we’ve seen evidence of that happening in the past when the previous civic religion began to run out of steam. Toss in the internet and social media this time around and we might end up with a lot more of it. And while I personally think that one in particular deserves most of the attention, it’s hard to say what will happen.

I guess the one thing I didn’t spend a lot of time was the weakness of the old civic religion, so let me share one brief, final anecdote. On Sunday I happened to be rewatching The Avengers. (Yes, I know I could be watching the Sopranos instead, but I can rewatch The Avengers while doing something else.) And there’s a scene where Agent Coulson mentions to Steve Rogers that they have a new uniform for him, and Rogers responds by asking, “Isn’t the Stars and Stripes a little old fashioned?” I remember being struck by this question, since it gets to the root of the problem. When even Captain America is questioning the power of the flag you know that the current civic religion is getting near the end of its lifespan. And it’s imminent death leaves us with some very important questions to consider, perhaps the most important facing our country right now:

  • How will it die?
  • Is that death going to be violent?
  • And, what comes after? Will it be a utopia or a dystopia?

As you can probably guess, going to gaming conventions to make sweeping predictions about colored ribbons is not cheap. If you’d care to assist me in that endeavor consider donating.


Books I Finished in July (With One Podcast Series)

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

Or download the MP3


I was off at a gaming convention all of last week, so I’m somewhat behind on things, but here are reviews of all the books I finished in July (with one podcast series). I started the month with:


The Blade Itself (1 of 3 First Law Trilogy)

By: Joe Abercrombie

560 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If fantasy novels are your thing you should check out this series.

If you like George R. R. Martin’s a Song of Ice and Fire, and despair of it ever being completed this is a pretty good substitute.

Representative passage:

I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once. I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.

He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. “There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.

Thoughts

I quite enjoyed this book, it reminded me of all the reasons why I continue to read fiction, despite the fact that it doesn’t help me with my writing at all. In other words, most of my reasons for reading fiction are selfish, things like escapism and enjoyment, that said, I fancy there are some noble or at least productive reasons in there as well, they just escape me at the moment.

This novel inevitably gets compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, or more likely Game of Thrones, since that’s how most people refer to the series these days. I can entirely see why that is. It has a similar feel, though, at least in the first book, there is significantly less sex, and the violence is probably tamer as well. Outside of that though, it has the same great characterization of very flawed individuals set in a gritty fantasy world. I particularly like the character of Sand dan Glokta, the former dashing swordsman, who was captured and subsequently tortured during a previous war and is now crippled, and, perhaps ironically, a torturer himself.

It’s been quite a while since I read Game of Thrones (which is actually just the first book in George R. R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire series) so it’s hard to say which book I actually enjoyed more, probably Game of Thrones, but given that Martin is probably never going to finish his series and Abercrombie is already done with this one, I think I’d be more likely to recommend Abercrombie over Martin to someone who had read neither, even without having finished the second and third books.

And I guess as long as we’re on the subject I should stick in my George R. R. Martin rant…

Since time immemorial, when a book was being turned into a movie, or a tv show. You could read the book and be ahead of the game. Not only would you get to the end faster, but you almost certainly knew about things that would never get included in the screen translation. To be frank, by reading the book you were better than all those poor schlubs who only watched the TV show. And Martin, by allowing the TV show to get ahead of the books, has broken this sacred pact, a pact that has existed since the dawn of time. Now I’m sure HBO bears some responsibility for starting the show before the series was done (much to the detriment of the final season as I understand it) but mostly I blame Martin.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms, what I mostly have are worries. He introduces quite a few mysteries and hints at a far deeper world than what gets shown in this first book. Whenever you encounter something like this you hope that these mysteries are eventually explained, and that when that happens the explanation is satisfactory. While it’s pretty rare for there to be no attempt at an explanation, it’s very common for the explanation to be unsatisfactory. Star Wars is a great example of what I’m talking about, where an amazing and mysterious universe is hinted at in “A New Hope” only to be revealed as kind of lame and boring in the prequels. As far as this series, I guess we’ll have to see. 

Books I would read before this one:

I’m always going to say that, if you haven’t already, you should read Tolkien before reading anything else in the fantasy genre. But beyond that this is a pretty good place to start if you’re interested in seeing what an epic fantasy series looks like.


Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War

By: Wilfred Reilly

256 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the people who should read this book won’t. In particular I think college administrators should read definitely read this book.

Representative passage:

Probably the most famous Trump-related “hate crime” took place on December 1, 2016, when a young Muslim student claimed that she was attacked on a New York City subway train by “drunken, hate-spewing white men shouting, “Donald Trump!” As we have already seen, she made the whole thing up.

Thoughts

Interestingly enough this book was evidently written and sent to the publisher before that most famous of all hate crime hoaxes, the Jussie Smollett hoax, but it does a great job of showing that Smollett is just the most famous of recent hoaxes, but not even close to being the first. In fact the list of hoaxes and their description is kind of insane, and you come away with two somewhat conflicting thoughts. First, that the perpetrators of these hoaxes should be punished more harshly, and second, that a significant number of them probably have severe mental problems.

For those who hang around certain corners of the internet the fact that there are hate hoaxes is not news (though if you get your news exclusively from the New York Times, it might be) but still the sheer number of hoaxes Reilly ended up covering was impressive. As you might imagine many of these hoaxes took place on college campuses, and one of the chief morals of the book would be that if some dramatic act of hate is reported on a college campus, you can be almost certain it’s a hoax, and that the perpetrator is either the person reporting it, or that it will turn out to be some kind of art installation. (That’s not a joke several of the hoaxes fall into that category.)

Looking at all reported hate crimes, Reilly estimates that probably 15-50% will turn out to be hoaxes. That’s a pretty big deal, and even at 15% it would make sense to start out skeptical anytime you hear about a reported hate crime. Particularly since it would seem (though there was no data on this specifically) that hate crimes you hear about are more likely to be hoaxes than the set of all reported hate crimes.

As I already said, I was familiar with the fact that many reported hate crimes end up being hoaxes. I was not familiar with how high the percentage was, or much variety there was, indeed the most interesting thing Reilly brought to my attention was that individuals on the right end of the political spectrum are getting in on the action as well. That despite the books subtitle, “How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War” increasingly both sides are selling a fake war. If anything this makes the subject more alarming. If it’s just one side then you would think it would be more easy to identify and counteract. If both sides are doing it, then it begins to appear that this is just the way the game is now being played. Which is not a good development

Criticisms

Reilly has kind of a snarky writing style, and that began to wear after a while. Additionally given that the subject is likely to be controversial, I feel like being snarky is going to give people an easy excuse to dismiss it out of hand as being unserious. This would be unfortunate, because it appears clear that it’s a very serious subject and a very serious trend.

Also, this is probably one of those books that could be a long article without losing very much. So much of the content is reciting the details of the individual hoaxes, and while these are titillating, after the first 10 or so, the utility of each additional description starts to go down. But perhaps it takes a mountain of evidence to overcome the default assumption that hate hoaxes are rare to non-existent. 

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

When you hear of some dramatic hate crime, with no witnesses other than the victim, it’s understandable, even rational to be suspicious that it might be a hoax.


The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

352 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in political science, you’ll definitely enjoy this deep dive into the mechanisms of power.

Moreover, if you’re just cynical in general this book is right up your alley.

Representative passage:

The czar fell once there was no one to stop the revolution. Louis XVI suffered much the same fate in the French Revolution. Successful leaders must learn the lesson of these examples and put raising revenue and paying supporters above all else. Consider Robert Mugabe’s success in staying on as Zimbabwe’s president. The economy has collapsed in Zimbabwe thanks to Mugabe’s terrible policies. Starvation is common and epidemics of cholera regularly sweep the country. Mugabe “succeeds” because he understands that it does not matter what happens to the people provided that he makes sure to pay the army. And despite regular media speculation, so far he has always managed to do so and to keep himself in office well into his eighties. He has reduced a once thriving agricultural exporting nation into one that depends on foreign aid. Mugabe is certainly horrible for what he’s done to the people he rules, but he is a master of the rules to rule by. Where policy matters most, when it comes to paying off cronies, he has delivered. That is why no one has deposed him. 

Thoughts

This book is basically a modern day version of Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli holds up Cesare Borgia as an excellent example of someone who embodies the principles he’s espousing. In The Dictator’s Handbook, as you can see from the passage I just quoted, they appear to offer up Robert Mugabe as one of the best examples of someone who understands their principles. Which is tragic, but no less an accurate description of the world, for all its tragedy. The question which follows from all this and which the book attempts to answer and also its subtitle: Why is bad behavior almost always good politics?

The framework which underpins their answer, and most of the book, consists of dividing people into three categories:

The nominal selectorate, or interchangeables: These are the people who in theory have some say in choosing the leader of a country. In the US it’s every person of voting age. And it ends up being a fairly large group in most countries, given that even fairly extreme dictators generally cloak things with an air of popular legitimacy. But this group only selects leaders in theory, in practice they’re mostly powerless.

The real selectorate, or influentials: In the US this is the people who actually vote rather than just being eligible to vote. In China it’s all the voting members of the Communist party. In some countries it’s more fuzzy and frequently shifts.

The winning coalition, or the essentials: This is the minimum number of people the leader needs to stay in power. In the US it’s pretty big, though as we’ve seen it often ends up being less than a majority. In dictatorships where the only thing required to maintain power is to keep a few high level military leaders happy, the essentials may consist of only a small handful of people.

This is a fairly simple framework but from it, all sorts of bad behavior can be described. I can only scratch the surface, but one of the most common examples is the bad behavior enabled by a large supply of natural resources. The Handbook points out that if you have abundant natural resources, it’s easy to extract the money necessary to keep your essentials happy, and you can therefore keep the number of truly essential people small. On the other hand, if you don’t have a source of money that you can easily control you still need money to keep the essentials happy, but in this case you have to resort to taxation, which means you have to have a productive populace, and this is best accomplished by giving them a certain amount of freedom. Accordingly market reforms often happen not because a dictator is particularly enlightened, but because there’s no other way for him to get the money necessary to keep the essentials happy.

This framework is pretty powerful, and as I said, it’s only possible to scratch the surface, particularly in a blog post, but I would argue that, despite writing a whole book about the model, the authors ignore some of its implications, particularly as it applies to modern democracies. Which takes me to the next section.

Criticisms

Having a framework for understanding why dictators behave badly was useful, but mostly in an academic sense, given that you already know they’re going to behave badly even without understanding why. It’s when the framework is applied to our current situation that I think it becomes interesting. As one example, Democrats and liberals are adamant in claiming that they support immigration and oppose voter ID laws for entirely moral reasons, but after reading Dictator’s Handbook it seems more likely that they’re doing it to shift the percentage of “influentials” in a way that favors them. Republicans are fighting these things for exactly the same reason, only they’re trying to protect the percentage of influentials currently in their camp.

Despite that fact that the underlying motivation for both parties is to say in power, the Democrats have, cleverly, made their motives seem pure and altruistic while the Republicans have ended up being labeled as horrible racists.

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

People in power don’t care about ruling well they care about staying in power.


Fall of Civilizations (Podcast)

Hosted By: I’m actually not sure

8 hours (so far)

Format: Podcast

Rating: A

Who should listen to this podcast?

Given the importance of the subject material I honestly think everyone should listen to it. Plus it’s fascinating. 

Beyond that if you like tales of disaster and collapse, and imagining the end of civilizations, this is a great podcast.

Representative passage:

A cascading failure can occur in any system of interconnected parts when one part of the system fails. Other pieces of the system must compensate and this in turn overloads them. Nodes throughout the system fail one after another. Until the whole infrastructure grinds to a halt. One bridge leading into the temple complex of Angkor Thom tells a chilling story of what must have happened during that time. The first thing we notice is that this bridge appears to have been hastily constructed. With none of the refinement of the nearby constructions and when we look closer we see that it was built out of building material, recycled from nearby temples. Some of its stones show the intricate carvings of a temple wall, but mismatched and jumbled in this new structure. The fact that the Khmer people had to hastily build this bridge shows that something had gone terribly wrong with their water control system and the fact that they had to reuse stones from their most sacred and revered buildings shows that the situation was desperate.

Thoughts

Thus far the podcast has covered six civilizations. I’ll just briefly talk about the first two:

Roman Britain: I think a lot of people are familiar with the basic outline of this collapse, but it’s a story with a fair amount of surprises. Perhaps the biggest thing people are unaware of is how gradual the collapse was, but then how deep it went before things started turning around. My question is, at what point did people realize that they were on a downward trend, one that was going to last for hundreds of years? I assume that at some point they did, but that it was well after the collapse had started. 

The Late Bronze Age Collapse: This happened around 1100 BC, and if you haven’t heard about it, it’s one of the great mysteries of the ancient world. If you were only going to listen to one episode it should probably be this one. The historical record is tantalizingly thin, we know there was a massive invasion by the “sea people” but why they invaded, and from where continues to prove elusive. But at the time these invasions caused the complete collapse of every nation existing at the time except for two, Assyria and Egypt, and Egypt was badly weakened.

Beyond these first two the podcast has so far covered:

  • The Mayan Collapse
  • The Greenland Vikings
  • The Khmer Empire
  • Easter Island (here he says there was no collapse they were just devastated by European contact.)

Criticisms

This is one of those rare cases where I kind of wish it was longer. Also he seems to mostly be going for an overarching theme that civilizations collapse because of climate change, I would prefer that he either make it less a morality fable about modern problems or that he go in the other direction and make as many connections between the past and now as possible.

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

As civilizations advance they accumulate complexity, and eventually that complexity is their undoing.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By: Mario Kondō

224 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’ve heard of Mario Kondō or the Konmari method, and wanted to try it, but need an inspirational speech before you do, this is that speech.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about you should also read this book.

Representative passage:

One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongs. For example, I urge them to try saying, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, “Thank you for making me beautiful,” and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, “It’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” Express your appreciation to every item that supported you during the day. If you find this hard to do daily, then at least do it whenever you can.

Thoughts

I’d be a little bit surprised if you hadn’t heard of this book. It’s been quite the phenomenon, and I’m not sure what I can add to the discussion at this point. Personally I enjoyed the book, but for me reading it was less about learning how the system worked and more about being talked into trying the system out. And indeed the system itself is pretty simple. 1) Gather everything you have in a particular category. 2) examine each item in turn, if the item doesn’t give you a feeling of joy, get rid of it. The rest of the book consists of cheerleading for the system. Which takes me to…

Criticisms

This is another book which probably could have been shorter. As I pointed out the actual system is pretty simple, and the rest of the book is taken up with long passages of minutiae, interspersed with bits that essentially describe Kondo’s spirituality. The top review on Amazon describes it pretty well:

Here’s what the book says: touch every item in your home and if you “love it” then keep it. If you don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling of love, throw it away. There. Now you don’t have to read it. Seriously, de-cluttering and organizing can have a huge positive impact on life. But the way this book approaches the topic is so silly and juvenile that I don’t understand why it’s a best seller. People: use your common sense and toss the things you don’t use that are cluttering up your life. Ok?

I wouldn’t be that harsh, and I would replace the word “silly” with “simple” and the word “juvenile” with the word “spiritualistic” but beyond that, it’s a decent summary.

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

Organization and tidying work best when you do everything in a category all at once.


Wild at Heart Revised and Updated: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Religious)

By: John Eldredge 

272 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If people frequently describe you as a nice guy, and you think that might be a bad thing, but you’re not sure what to do instead, then this would probably be a good book for you.

If you’re a Christian male, looking for advice on being a better man, this is a pretty good place to get that advice.

Representative passage:

One more thing, don’t even think about going into battle alone. Don’t even try to take the masculine journey without at least one man by your side. Yes, there are times a man must face the battle alone in the wee hours of the morn, and fight with all he’s got, but don’t make that a lifestyle of isolation. This may be our weakest point. As David Smith points out in the Friendless American Male, “One serious problem is the friendless condition of the average American male. Men find it hard to accept that they need the fellowship of other men.” Thanks to the men’s movement the church understands now that a man needs other men, but what we’ve offered is another two dimensional solution: accountability groups, or partners. Uh! That sounds so old covenant, you’re really a fool and you’re just waiting to rush into sin so we’d better post a guard by you to keep you in line.

We don’t need accountability groups. We need fellow warriors, someone to fight alongside, someone to watch our back! A young man just stopped me on the street to say, “I feel surrounded by enemies and I’m all alone.” The whole crisis in masculinity today, has come because we no longer have a warrior culture, a place for men to learn to fight, like men. We don’t need a meeting a really nice guys. We need a gathering of really dangerous men! 

Thoughts

It seems like everyone agrees that men have a problem. But beyond that the two diagnoses seem to end up drawing exactly opposite conclusions: One side thinks there’s too much masculinity in the world and one side thinks there’s too little. This book is firmly on the side of there being too little, and if you’re not ready to at least entertain the idea that this is in fact the case, you should definitely not read this book. For myself I am not only willing to entertain the idea, I actually embrace it, particularly when it comes to the importance of fathers. 

Beyond that the book says that men need three things:

  1. A battle to fight
  2. An adventure to live
  3. A beauty to rescue

Toss in a strong dose of Christianity, and that’s pretty much the whole book. I imagine most people are either going to love it or hate it.

Criticisms

As you may or may not have gathered, I’m fairly Christian myself, though of a different denomination (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints vs. evangelical) than the author, and despite that I came away feeling that the book may have benefitted from fewer overt references to theology and the devil, but some of that may be because of the differences between my theology and the author’s. 

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

The modern world is at war with masculinity, and that’s a bad thing.


A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

By: Nicholas Wade

288 pages

Format: Audio w/ physical book for reference

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you genuinely have an open mind, I think you would benefit from reading this book. 

Representative passage:

…On the basis of Pinker’s vast compilation of evidence, natural selection seems to have acted incessantly to soften the human temperament, from the earliest times until the most recent date for which there is meaningful data.

This is the conclusion that Pinker signals strongly to his readers. He notes that mice can be bread to be more aggressive in just five generations, evidence that the reverse process could occur just as speedily. He describes the human genes, such as the violence-promiting MAO-A mutation mentioned in chapter 3, that could easily be modulated so as to reduce aggressiveness. He mentions that violence is quite heritable, on the evidence from studies of twins, and so must have a genetic basis. He states that “nothing rules out the possibility that human populations have undergone some degree of biological evolution in recent millennia, or even centuries, long after races, ethnic groups, and nations diverged.”

But at the last moment, Pinker veers away from the conclusion… since many other traits have evolved more recently than that, why should human behavior be any exception? Well, says Pinker, it would be terribly inconvenient politically if this were so… 

Thoughts

This is one of those books that you can get in trouble for reading, and definitely get in trouble for writing. (Just ask Charles Murray.) Accordingly, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. Briefly, this is one of those books that posits a genetic component to racial differences in intelligence. It’s a book that is very critical of the idea that race is a social construct. Beyond that Wade goes even farther to theorize that much of culture is genetically based. Which is not that crazy of an idea if you also accept his assertion that evolution has been recent, copious and regional. But this leads to the distressing conclusion (among many distressing conclusions) that it’s possible that some ethnic groups may be genetically better at things like democracy and the rule of law than other ethnic groups. In just a few sentences I’ve assembled a whole bucket of fairly incendiary claims, so I’ll leave it at that.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms of this book, I’m glad it was written. It was, perhaps, a little dry, but also it’s yet one more work, where I felt it actually could have benefited from being longer, particularly given how controversial the subject is. But for those inclined to criticize it, I doubt even a thousand more pages would make much of a difference.

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

Evolution has been recent, copious and regional. Also race is real.


The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs

By: Ryan Holiday

224 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for an introduction to Stoicism, you could do a lot worse. 

If you believe in the power of books to change your attitude and you need a better attitude, this book might do exactly that.

Representative passage:

Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph?

Thoughts

From where I stand these days stoicism seems to be very much back in vogue, and Ryan Holiday has managed to maneuver himself into a position of being its chief evangelist. There’s a reason for this, he writes very compellingly on the subject. Also, while I imagine that Holiday, himself, might recommend going to the original sources first, like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Holiday is probably nearly as effective, and a whole lot more accessible. 

Criticisms

All of the above aside, you get the feeling that most of the things Holiday talks about have been well known for quite a while, and appeared in a lot of past self-help books. I think you’d be hard pressed to find something Holiday talks about which wasn’t also touched on in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It just wasn’t specifically labeled as stoicism. All of which is to say that I think what’s going through a surge in popularity is the stoic label, but that stoic philosophy has never really been out of fashion. And that most of the stuff Holiday advocates is less revolutionary than people might think.

Also while the numerous anecdotes are nice, and a good way of imparting principles, I think the book leaned a little too much on the anecdotes, and could have done more to illustrate how someone today would apply stoic principles. I’m a big advocate of the position that ancient philosophy is still useful, but it may not always be immediately apparent how to make use of it in a modern context.

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

Life is full of difficulties and we can only learn how to overcome those difficulties if we confront them and master them. Avoiding difficulties is the worst way to solve them.


Having tried this experiment for a few months I think going forward I’ll just review some of the books I read each month, rather than trying to review all of them. Also I may play with the formatting as well. If you disagree with this decision, let me know, And if you really disagree with the decision consider donating.


Leaving the Earth: 50 Years After Apollo

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

Or download the MP3


Knowing that the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing was this month, I felt a strong compulsion to say something about it, but what exactly? There is definitely no shortage of commentary related to the occasion. Obviously the most interesting part of the anniversary is the fact that we haven’t been back since the end of the Apollo Program, nearly 47 years ago. Perhaps I should wait and say something when the 50th anniversary of the last man on the moon rolls around. (Does anyone think we’ll make it back before then?) But I’m definitely not the only one to have noticed this distressing fact, most of the commentary surrounding the anniversary mentions the fact that we haven’t been back. What can I say on this occasion that would be unique?

I do think there’s something interesting to be said about the connection between space travel and human salvation, but I’ve already covered that connection and however unique that observation is, I don’t want to just rehash what I’ve said previously. So what can I bring to the table that isn’t being served in dozens of different locations by hundreds of other commenters? Well, as I survey the commentary I think there’s a definite dearth of extrapolations. Sure, humans will probably make it back to the moon. (I assume that if no one else gets around to it China will, at least, if only for reasons of national prestige.) But if we extrapolate things out and look at the trends, when are we likely to be there permanently, and what about Mars? And, perhaps most important of all, if current trends continue when would humans actually leave the solar system? Obviously this exercise will produce only the crudest of numbers, but I expect that whatever comes out will be pretty depressing even if I end up off by a factor of 2 or more.

To start, though, for those who never read or can’t recall my post on the connection between space travel and salvation, and who don’t have the time or inclination to go back and read it, I should briefly explain my point, which is: If you want to ensure that humanity continues for as long as possible, and you don’t believe there’s any external force capable of helping with that (religion, aliens, vaguer forms of spirituality, etc.) then, ultimately, this is going to require getting off the planet in a sustainable and ongoing fashion. In that post, I further pointed out that most of the large scale goals we’re pursuing at any given moment have very little to do with this endeavor and in fact work against achieving it, if for no other reason than opportunity cost. 

It’s upon considering this last point that branching off into an extrapolation of trends starts to look like an important next step. Yes, occasionally when a technology becomes available, things can change dramatically, and trends before this change become meaningless, a great example of this is the internet. But in the case of space travel we’ve had all the relevant technology for at least 50 years (and yes, I’m aware of the EMDrive) but yet so far there’s been no dramatic upward spike in space travel, particularly if we view the Apollo Program as an outlier (as I am inclined to do, see my post about S-Curves). Accordingly if our salvation depends on getting off the planet, and we have 50 or more years of data on the rate at which that’s actually happening, and every expectation that this rate is unlikely to change very much, then, it would definitely appear to be worthwhile to extrapolate out these rates and see where they get us. 

None of this is to say that the rate of space exploration and colonization isn’t increasing in an exponential fashion. In fact, for all of my trend extrapolation, I’m going to assume that there’s some underlying law along the lines of Moore’s Law, where a given quantity doubles every X years. Meaning that we merely have to decide what a reasonable rate of doubling would be, using the last 50 years worth of data. I’m not actually saying that there is a parallel to Moore’s Law when talking about space, I’m more saying that there had better be, because the distances from one destination to the next are already exponential. Meaning that we’d better hope things are growing exponentially because otherwise space colonization is definitely doomed. Also something that doubles every two years is going to already assume significant ongoing technological advancements. Meaning that if you do think something like fusion or the EMDrive is going to come along and drastically change things, those advances are probably already built in to the model

For our first example, let’s start off by making the hugely optimistic assumption that the current trend is for the distance humans are capable of travelling to and returning from to double every 10 years. And if we then take 1970 and travelling to the Moon as our starting point, we wouldn’t make it to Mars until sometime in the 2040s, Jupiter would be about 2075, Neptune around 2100 and Alpha Centauri would not be reached until the year 2230. And If we, instead, made the more reasonable, but still fairly optimistic assumption that the distance only doubled every 15 years, then we’d get to Mars around 2075, Jupiter would slot in at  2120, Neptune would be 2180 and Alpha Centauri wouldn’t be until sometime around the year 2360…

That last one may not seem especially optimistic, but recall if we’ve decided that space travel is important for our long term salvation it’s not enough to get there once. Surely some nation can massively divert resources for a single moonshot, which is what the word came to mean, and possibly put people on Mars a half dozen times and bring them back, but in order for it to assist with our salvation we have to be able to do it on an ongoing, perpetual basis. And, of course, not only is all of the above optimistic, but based on a single data point: putting a man on the Moon. Not only have we not gotten any farther than that, we haven’t even been able to do it on the ongoing and perpetual basis I’m talking about. But before we leave this example, let’s conduct the exercise one more time, and assume that, as he has predicted, Elon Musk manages to put someone on Mars in 2024 (and by the way here we would appear to be in the realm of the insanely optimistic). This would finally give us a second data point and putting that into the crude model I’m using it would mean a doubling approximately every 7.5 years. Which gets us to Jupiter in 2045, Neptune in 2075 and Alpha Centauri in the year 2165. Not bad, but still a lot slower than most people imagined 50 years ago, and here we touch on one of the problems.

In many respects we’re living in a science fiction world more incredible than anything anyone imagined in 1969, and in other respects, particularly when one looks at space travel, someone reading Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov would be profoundly depressed by how little progress we’ve made. And yet the idea that any day now things will change and suddenly we will be living in that world is hard to shake. Certainly there could always be some dramatic new invention that would change whatever curve we’re currently on, but at the moment there’s good reason to think that, absent some massive space exploration/colonization inflection point in our future, the current rate of plodding along isn’t going to get us anywhere very fast. Now it may be that it doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as we get there eventually, but a lot can happen between now and even 2024, to say nothing of 2040, 2075 or 2360. Recall that there’s good black swans and bad black swans, and while the former may be exactly the positive inflection point we were hoping for, there are a lot more things which could happen that would make this whole project much more difficult rather than less.

Moving on, what other trends are there that we can extrapolate? Above I talked about something being continuous, and we have had continuous human presence in low earth orbit (with occasional gaps) since 1973 when Skylab was launched and occupied. All of this has occurred at around 250 miles from the surface, but I’ll be generous and round up to 300. With this as our new starting point we can once again imagine this distance doubling every so many years, only this time it gives us the distance from Earth where humans will be able to sustain a continuous presence. If we once again start with, what I feel, is an incredibly optimistic doubling time of 10 years, we will have a continuous human presence on Mars in 2140, Jupiter (or one of its moons) in 2175 and a continuous presence at Alpha Centauri around the year 2300. If we instead assume a more realistic trend of doubling every 15 years, then Mars is 2225, Jupiter is 2280 and Alpha Centauri is not until the year 2500. 

Now I understand that certain things might get easier, for example just getting out of the gravity well of the Earth is a major hurdle, and perhaps we should take that into account, but when you’re talking about a continuous presence, I would argue that getting out of the Earth’s gravity well, is perhaps the least of your worries. Also recall that to a certain extent productivity gains are built into the model of exponential growth we’re already using. Finally, these extrapolations are not meant to be especially precise, but rather to illustrate that even using some fairly generous assumptions space colonization is going to be a lot harder than I think most people realize. Particularly given how spectacularly unimpressive our manned efforts have been since the end of Apollo. But, perhaps that’s where I’m going astray, by so far only focusing on manned efforts. 

Unmanned exploration really is the easiest way to explore space. And while unmanned probes do not directly accomplish that “salvation of humanity” I keep coming back to, they are at least a reasonable potential stepping stone along the path to that. With that in mind, what kind of Moore’s Law might we extract if we turned our focus to unmanned exploration? Here, at least, we have multiple data points, one for each celestial body, and if you graph it, it looks like a pretty nice exponential curve:

 

There are a couple of things to note about this data. First given that Uranus and Neptune were both first visited by Voyager 2, I’m not sure if Neptune should count as a separate milestone from Uranus (or perhaps it’s the other way around). Also you’ll notice that I didn’t include Pluto, if I did you’d see that nice exponential curve flatten out into something that looks a lot more like a plateau, since, at the time New Horizons visited it, Pluto wasn’t that much farther out than Neptune and we didn’t get to it until 2015. 

Mapping this to our simple model of deciding on a doubling rate is messier with actual data, but after fiddling with it a little bit it looks like seven years fits fairly well. Taking that and anchoring it around Voyager 2, I came up with an arrival time for the first probe to Alpha Centauri of around 2110. Which is almost exactly NASA’s current estimate of a 2113 arrival for the probe they plan to launch in 2069. (You’ll have to take it on faith that I came up with my number before I found the number from NASA). These estimates might be pessimistic, given that Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire, is proposing to launch a probe by 2036, which might arrive as early as 2056. But when you get into the details of that proposal there’s reason to question whether it should necessarily be placed in the same category with all of the other probes. The probe proposed by Milner’s team weighs only a few grams and would enter the Alpha Centauri system at 20% the speed of light. Which means the probing part is going to end up being some infinitesimal fraction of the entire trip.

Of all these trends, the trend in unmanned probes is the only one that seems a little bit promising, and even there, it’s going to take quite a while to get anywhere we haven’t already been. 

Fifty years ago everything seemed so promising. What happened? What happened to the science fiction dreams I grew up on? Instead the best way to describe space exploration over the last 50 years, is vaguely depressing with occasional all to brief glimpses of triumph here and there. And perhaps even worse than that, there is no sign that the future is going to be any better. Instead most of our energy seems focused inward, and the Great Silence of the universe becomes less and less paradoxical.

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


Space: the final frontier. These are the writings of a slightly unhinged blogger. His five-year mission: to explore strange new topics. To seek out new controversies and new weirdness. To boldly go where no man should ever go period! If you’d like to help with this mission consider donating.


Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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A few posts ago I talked about memetic evolution. As a result of this post one of my readers, Mark, and I had an in depth discussion about what mechanism, exactly, I was trying to describe and whether there really is such a thing as memetic evolution. Mark is a scientist specializing in oncology research (he also has a blog, which you should check out) and he pointed out that evolution is exceptionally complicated and that many people use the term to describe lots of things that aren’t actually evolution by natural selection. Particularly when they’re trying to use it by way of analogy which I was. As part of our discussion a lot of things were clarified for me, and I think I’ve tightened up the analogy and hopefully gotten rid of most of the issues Mark pointed out. This post is about sharing the additional insights which came out of that discussion.

I.

Mark was, of course, correct, there are in fact lots of pitfalls involved in the discussion of evolution and selection, and even if you manage to avoid making any big mistakes there are still numerous specifics that can trip you up as well. For example, most people don’t realize that there are two competing theories regarding the rate at which evolution occurs. And the difference between these two theories turns out to be very important. Not only in general but also for the point I want to make.

The first theory, and the one initially put forward by Darwin, is phyletic gradualism. Under this theory the creation of new species happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly as small changes accumulate over tens of thousands of years. Because of how gradual this process is, you might not end up with a clear line where you can say that one species has changed into another, and, insofar as a layman thinks about evolution with any rigor, they probably envision it working something like this.

The second theory, which was proposed only in 1972, by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, is called punctuated equilibrium. This theory holds that species appear fairly suddenly in response to some rare and geologically rapid event (the punctuation) and that once a species appears that it ends up being relatively stable (the equilibrium). To reiterate, I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that this theory has the most support among scientists, particularly when you’re talking about the big evolutionary events, like speciation. To be clear both kinds of evolution, gradual and punctuated, appear to be taking place, but the latter is more impactful, and more important, particularly when the survival of a given species is really in question.

Having, hopefully, grounded our understanding and discussion of evolution on a somewhat firmer footing, we are still left with the question of how much of that understanding and discussion maps cleanly to the topic of cultural evolution, and beyond that to the more speculative topic of memetic evolution. For instance, insofar as cultural evolution is adaptive, is this adaptation gradual? Or does it operate more along the lines of the punctuated equilibrium model? I’m not entirely sure what would count as hard data when considering these questions, but at the level of anecdote, I’m inclined to believe that the situation is similar to genetic evolution, both forms occur, but that the cultural selection which occurs gradually ends up being less impactful than cultural selection which happens at times of rapid change and extreme crisis.

As I said this is mostly at the level of anecdote, but consider the example of Germany. It’s hard to argue that Germany didn’t have a long martial tradition, starting with their first appearance in the records of the Roman Empire and continuing down through the centuries to the two World Wars. Would you say they still have that culture today? I think most people would agree that they don’t, and that it all changed during the extreme crisis at the end of World War II. Sure there have been many gradual changes to German culture over the years, but the fact that there’s also numerous long-standing stereotypes about Germans would seem to indicate that a relatively stable equilibrium existed as well. From where I sit, this example has all the elements you’d expect if cultural evolution also happened according to the punctuated equilibrium model.  

Another example would be the creation of the United States of America. Evolution through natural selection concerns itself with the creation of new species. The parallel in cultural evolution would be the creation of a new culture or nation, and this is an example of exactly that. And, once again, it happened over the course of a few years where things were rapidly changing under crisis conditions. Additionally what resulted was not some incremental change in English culture (though there are obvious connections) but an entirely new culture forged in the fires of the Revolutionary War and the many debates over governments and rights

The more I consider the question the more I am convinced that there are numerous examples of punctuated equilibrium with respect to cultural evolution. I suspect all of the examples of nations in crisis given by Jared Diamond in his recent book Upheaval (see my review), would end up being examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of cultural evolution as well. And of course these are successful “mutations”, if cultural evolution is anything like biological evolution most mutations are going to end in failure. Is that perhaps the best way of describing communism and fascism?

Obviously not all cultural changes are so large, as I said, I’m sure that things also change gradually, but we would appear to have less to fear from those changes. Sure the vast majority will fail just like all “mutations”, but that failure should be much easier to recover from. Much less disastrous than the analogous “speciation” of adopting something like communism.

II.

If you’ve followed me this far and you accept (even if only for the sake of argument) that punctuated equilibrium applies not only to biological evolution, but to cultural evolution as well, then we’re finally ready to revisit memetic evolution, though right off the bat I’m going to dump the word “evolution”. One of Mark’s bigger contributions in the discussion we ended up having was to point out that once we’ve reached this point that things have been stretched so far that using the term evolution conceals more than it reveals, particularly if we’re more interested in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. So we need a new term, but before we get to that what exactly are we talking about? And, in what sense are we talking about something separate and interesting?  

When considering the punctuated equilibrium model most of the attention ends up on the punctuation part, but what’s happening during the equilibrium part? Here I’m going to quote liberally from Mark:

[The punctuated equilibrium model] posits [that] major selection events might be somewhat uncommon.  As such, we would expect to see accumulations of multiple different mutations, all present in a species’ gene pool simultaneously.  The longer the period of time free of selection, the greater the potential for diverse new mutations within the species. Since anything directly lethal is going to weed itself out fairly quickly, this enriches for potentially-beneficial mutations.  With all these mutations lying around, it’s possible for individuals to even have two or more traits that might not be adaptive on their own but that function very well together. This period of stability can be thought of as ‘good’ in that is allows for much greater variability to enter the population.

Along comes the selection event – the filter, removing anything that can’t pass through a particular challenge – and most of that diversity disappears.  However, since the population experienced a long period of growth and mutation without being subject to a filter, it’s possible that the adaptation that made it through the filter is more complex – is a bigger change – than the kind of single-mutation adaptation you would see from a series of rapid filters.  Populations that instead pass through serial filtering events will only be able to select based on single-mutation traits.

….We expect to have multiple possible pro-adaptive traits at any given time, waiting to pass through the next, unexpected, filter and join future generations.  Thus, memetic evolution is simply a sub-process of cultural evolution. It would be as meaningless to speak of it in isolation as it would be to talk about accumulating mutations prior to selection events (filters) when speaking of biological evolution.

…Memetic ‘evolution’ is simply another name for cultural evolution prior to selecting events. 

Some of this is obviously speculative, but on the whole Mark’s comments were fantastic, and really helped me to understand something that had previously eluded me, and I agree with everything he said, with one exception… I don’t think it’s “meaningless to speak of it in isolation”. I think “it” is very important to talk about. What is “it”? What is this thing that’s worth discussing, but which is not evolution? I’m going to call it “memetic accumulation”. 

III.

For most of history the rate of accumulation for genetic mutations has probably been fairly static. I assume that during periods of greater radiation (if any) that it might have increased, or perhaps the greater the variety of life the greater the space for mutations to occur and perhaps there are other factors as well, but I don’t see any evidence that there were periods where it was significantly faster or slower. There is the Cambrian Explosion, but remember we’re talking about the rate of accumulation, not the rate of evolution or of speciation, and while it was an “explosion” for many things, I don’t think it was an explosion in the accumulation of mutations. In other words I think the rate of mutation accumulation with natural evolution has been pretty constant. 

Even when humans entered the scene and started the selective breeding of domesticated animals, this didn’t change the mutation rate, even for the animals in question. (CRISPR, however may be another matter.) We just introduced a lot more filters and selection events. So, if mutations are relatively constant in natural evolution, what about cultural evolution? Has that rate also been constant? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this, more than anything else, is why it’s worth discussing. I suppose, given the fact that humans can introduce new ideas, new potential memes into the space of culture whenever they feel like it, that there are a great many things which could affect the speed at which memetic accumulation occurs. But certainly technology and progress has to have a large impact on that speed, and almost exclusively in the direction of speeding it up. In fact, “something which speeds up the rate of memetic accumulation” is not a half bad definition of progress. But beyond that, might technology and progress have any other effect than generating ideas quickly?

With the advent of global communication and social media, we are moving ever more rapidly in the direction of creating a single ecosystem for ideas, and I don’t think we’ve fully come to terms with what that means or how it will play out. Certainly ideas propagate faster, and I would also say we end up with a handful of “apex ideas” similar to the idea of an apex predator. Which is to say that we’re in a space where a memetically fit idea is able to very quickly outcompete all the other ideas among people susceptible to that idea. (Notice the increase in the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.) Leading to a stratification at the level of ideas rather than at the level of a community or nation. Basically, social media and global communication have allowed invasive species/ideas to go everywhere.

On top of all this there’s one final thing which needs to be pointed out, humans are more removed from issues of actual survival than ever before. Toss all of this together and we have rapid memetic generation, but which results in a relatively barren collection of a few dominant memes/ideologies, none of which are likely to have anything to do with actual survival. Now I’m aware that this is something of an oversimplification, culture is still complex and varied, and people still worry about survival, but we have nevertheless lost an awful lot of both those qualities.

Finally, if I’ve convinced you that memetic accumulation is speeding up, then even if you disagree with me about everything else, you might at least want to examine what the potential consequences of that are with respect to cultural evolution.

IV.

Having examined what the modern state of memetic accumulation is within the equilibrium part of the model, what does all of this mean for the eventual “punctuation”? How does our rapid, barren and superficial method of memetic accumulation play out when we actually run into a selection event? Into rapidly changing crisis conditions? Well that’s hard to say, though none of those elements would appear to be positive.

Just by itself, the rapid part isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps if culture is moving rapidly, then, by the time the eventual crisis rolls around, we will be in some location uniquely well suited for surviving that crisis, a location we would not have reached had we not been moving so quickly. And certainly if there were a bunch of cultures all speeding off towards their own unique locations we might have some expectation that at least one of these locations would be exactly the spot they should be in, but this is where the lack of variety comes into play, we’re not all choosing different locations where we can survive the potential crisis, we seem to all be journeying as quickly as we can towards a small handful of locations, and the rapid bit means if it’s not the right place we will have gone an awfully long distance in the wrong direction. Furthermore, what do these locations look like? If we were really concerned about survival, they would hopefully be strongholds, but if we don’t factor in survival I would think they’re more likely to end up looking like expensive penthouses. Dwellings which look really nice and are great for entertaining, but also the last location you’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse starts. There’s obviously still a lot of variety in these dwellings, but can anyone honestly tell me we’re not building a lot more penthouses than strongholds these days?

There also seems to be significant effort being spent on getting people to abandon locations which proved to be strongholds in the past. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, there are essentially three ways to choose a “location” we can choose them randomly, which is essentially what natural evolution is doing. We can choose one based on whether it sounds good or not, but in this sense, as I already pointed out, we’re probably not choosing a stronghold so much as a nice place to live. Or we can choose one based on what’s worked in the past. Any option where we choose is going to be better than random (one would hope) but it’s not clear to me that “sounds good” is definitely better than “worked in the past” (in fact, I strongly suspect it’s worse) and in any event it’s probably best to have cultures in both types of locations.

To be clear, we don’t know which location will best withstand the eventual crisis, because we don’t know what that crisis will look like, but you could certainly see how changing the way in which memetic accumulation happens could change the likelihood of being in the right location. And I hope we can agree on this, even if you don’t agree with me on exactly how memetic accumulation has changed

But beyond all this, there’s probably more bad news, particularly if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention, that in addition to changing to speed of memetic accumulation, that progress and technology has also changed the nature of potential crises as well. That we have made them less frequent, but in the process we’ve also made them larger. As a real world example, lots of people feel that there is no safe location (both figuratively and literally) if the crisis ends up being full scale nuclear war or runaway climate change (I disagree, but I’ve already covered that in past posts). Both crises that have only been made possible recently.

I will freely admit that I’ve followed a long chain of assumptions to get to this point, but strip all that away and I would contend that the two initial ideas, 1) that cultural evolution also follows a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, and 2) that technology and progress can change the rate at which cultural mutations/memes accumulate, are both pretty solid. And both of those together should be enough to introduce serious uncertainty into any claims that conditions are following some long-term, unstoppable, positive trend.

A couple of final things to think about, which I leave as an exercise for the reader:

Are we at a point of “punctuation” right now? If so how’s it looking?

Could memetic accumulation get so out of whack that it actually causes the crisis?


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Worrying Too Much About the Last Thing and Not Enough About the Next Thing

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As I mentioned in my last post one of the books I read last month was Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory, by Michael Korda which covers the beginnings of World War II from the surrender of the Sudetenland up through the retreat from Dunkirk. As I mentioned one of the things that struck me the most from reading the book was the assertion that before the war France had a reputation as the “world’s preeminent military power”. And that in large part the disaster which befell the allies was due to a severe underestimation of German military might (after all, hadn’t they lost the last war?) and a severe overestimation of the opposing might of the French. 

As someone who knows how that all turned out (France defeated in a stunning six weeks) the idea that pre-World War II France might ever have been considered the “world’s preeminent military power” seems ridiculous, and yet according to Korda that was precisely what most people thought. It’s difficult to ignore how it all turned out, but if you attempt it, you might be able to see where that reputation might have developed. Not only had they grimly held on for over four years in some of the worst combat conditions ever, and, as I said, eventually triumphed. But apparently the genius and success of Napoleon lingered on as well, even at a remove of 130 years.

Because of this reputation, at various points both the British and the Germans, though on opposite sides of things, made significant strategic decisions based on the French’s perceived martial prowess. The biggest effect of these decisions was wasting resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. In the British case they kept sending over more and more planes, convinced that, just as in World War I, the French line would eventually hold if they just had a little more help. This almost ended in disaster since, later, during the Battle of Britain, they needed every plane they could get their hands on. On the German side, and this is more speculative, it certainly seems possible that the ease with which the Germans defeated the French contributed to the disastrous decision to invade Russia. Particularly if the French had the better reputation militarily, which seems to have been the case. Closer to the events of the book, the Germans certainly prioritized dealing with the French over crushing the remnants of the British forces that were trapped at Dunkirk. Who knows how things would have gone had they reversed those priorities.

This shouldn’t be surprising, people frequently end up fighting the last war, and in fact the exact period the book describes contains one of the best examples of that, the Maginot Line. World War I had been a war of static defense, World War II, or at least the Battle of France, was all about mobility. Regular readers may remember that I recently mentioned that the Maginot line kind of got a bad rap, and indeed it does, and in particular I don’t think that it should be used as an example for why walls have never worked. But all of this is another example of the more general principle I want to illustrate. People’s attitudes are shaped by examples they can easily call to mind, rather than by considering all possibilities. And in particular people are bad at accounting for the fact that if something just happened, it’s possible that it is in fact the thing least likely to happen again. The name for this, is Availability Bias or the Availability Heuristic, and it was first uncovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Wikipedia explains it thusly:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, “if you can think of it, it must be important.” The availability of consequences associated with an action is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of the consequences of that action. In other words, the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater we perceive these consequences to be. Sometimes, this heuristic is beneficial, but the frequencies at which events come to mind are usually not accurate reflections of the probabilities of such events in real life.

As I was reading Alone, and mulling over the idea of France as the “world’s preeminent military power”, and realizing that it represented something of an availability bias, it also occurred to me that we might be doing something similar when it comes to ideology, in particular the ideologies we’re worried about. From where I sit there’s a lot of worry about nazis, and fascists more broadly. And to be fair I’m sure there are nazis out there, and their ideology is pretty repugnant, but how much of our worry is based on the horrors inflicted by the Nazis in World War II and how much of our worry is based on the power and influence they actually possess right now? In other words, how much of it is based on the reputation they built up in the past, and how much is based on 2019 reality? My argument would be that it’s far more the former than the latter.

In making this argument, I don’t imagine it’s going to take much to convince anyone reading this that the Nazis were uniquely horrible. And that further whatever reputation they have is deserved. But all of this should be a point in favor of my position. Yes they were scary, no one is arguing with that, but it doesn’t naturally follow that they are scary now. To begin with, we generally implement the best safeguards against terrifying things which have happened recently. Is there any reason to suspect that we haven’t done that with fascism? It’s hard to imagine how we could have more thoroughly crushed the countries from which it sprang. But, you may counter, “We’re not worried about Germany and Japan! We’re worried about fascists and nazis here!” Well allow me to borrow a couple of points from a previous post, where I also touched on this issue.

-Looking at the sub-reddits most associated with the far right the number of subscribers to the biggest (r/The_Donald) is 538,762 while r/aww a subreddit dedicated to cute animals sits at 16,360,969

-If we look at the two biggest far-right rallies, Charlottesville and a rally shortly after that, in Boston. The number of demonstrators was always completely overwhelmed by the number of counter demonstrators. The Charlottesville rally was answered by 130 counter rallies held all over the nation the very next day. And the Boston free speech rally had 25 “far right demonstrators in attendance” as compared to 40,000 counter-protestors.

Neither of these statistics makes it seem like we’re on the verge of tipping over into fascism anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’m guessing there are people who are going to continue to object, pointing out that whatever else you want to say about disparity and protests or historical fascism. Donald Trump got elected!

I agree this is a big data point, 62,984,828 people did vote for Trump, and whatever the numbers might be for Charlottesville and Boston, 63 million people is not a number we can ignore. Clearly Trump has a lot of support. But I think anyone who makes this point is skipping over one very critical question. Is Trump a nazi? Or a fascist? Or a white supremacist? Or even a white nationalist? I don’t think he is. And I think to whatever extent people apply those labels to him or his supporters they’re doing it precisely for the reason I just mentioned. All of those groups were recently very powerful and very scary. They are not doing it because those terms reflect the reality of 2019. They use those labels because they’re maximally impactful, not because they’re maximally accurate. 

Lots of people have pointed out that Trump isn’t Hitler and that the US is unlikely to descend into Facsism anytime soon (here’s Tyler Cowen making that argument.) Though fewer than you might think (which, once again, supports my point). But I’d like to point out five reasons for why it’s very unlikely which probably don’t get as much press as they should.

  1. Any path to long standing power requires some kind of unassailable base. In most cases this ends up being the military. What evidence is there that Trump is popular enough there (or really anywhere) to pull off some sort of fascist coup?
  2. As our prime example it’s useful to look at all the places that supported Hitler. In particular people don’t realize that he had huge support in academia. I think it’s fair to say that the exact opposite situation exists now.
  3. People look at Nazi Germany somewhat in isolation. You can’t understand Nazi Germany without understanding how bad things got in the Weimar Republic. No similar situation exists in America.
  4. Even though it probably goes without saying I haven’t seen very many people mentioning the fact that Trump isn’t anywhere close to being as effective a leader as Hitler was. In particular look at Trump’s lieutenants vs. Hitlers.
  5. Finally feet on the ground matter. The fact that there were 25 people on one side (the side people are worried about) and 40,000 on the other does matter. 

I’d like to expand on this last point a little bit. Recently over on Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander put forth the idea that LGBT rights represents the most visible manifestation of a new civic religion. That over the last few years the country has started replacing the old civic religion of reverence for the founders and the constitution with a new one reverencing the pursuit of social justice. He made this point mostly through the methodology of comparing the old “rite” of the 4th of July parade, with the new “rite” of the Gay Pride Parade. There’s a lot to be said about that comparison, most of which I’ll leave for another time, but this does bring up one question which is very germane to our current discussion: under what standard are the two examples Alexander offers up civic religions but not Nazism? I don’t think there is one, in fact I think Nazism was clearly a civic religion. To go farther is there anyone who has taken power, particularly through revolution or coup, without being able to draw on a religion of some sort, civic or otherwise? What civic religion would Trump draw on if he was going to bring fascism to the United States? I understand that an argument could be made that Trump took advantage of the old civic religion of patriotism in order to be elected, but it’s hard to see how he would go on to repurpose that same religion to underpin a descent into fascism, especially given how resilient this religion has been in the past to that exact threat.

Additionally, if any major change is going to require the backing of a civic religion why would we worry about patriotism which has been around for a long time without any noticeable fascist proclivities, and is, in any case, starting to lose much of its appeal, when there’s a bold and vibrant new civic religion with most of the points I mentioned above on it’s side. Let’s go through them again:

  1. An unassailable base: No, social justice warriors, despite the warrior part, do not have control over the military, but they’ve got a pretty rabid base, and as I’ve argued before, the courts are largely on their side as well.
  2. Broad support: It’s hard to imagine how academia could be more supportive. In fact it’s hard to find any place that’s not supportive. Certainly corporations have aligned themselves solidly on the side of social justice.
  3. Drawing strength from earlier set-backs and tragedy: Hitler was undoing the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles and the weakness of the Weimar Republic. Whatever you think about the grievances of poor white Trump supporters there are nothing compared to the (perceived) wrongs of those clamoring for social justice. 
  4. Effective leadership: This may in fact be the only thing holding them back, but there’s a field of 24 candidates out there, some of whom seem pretty galvanizing. 
  5. Feet on the ground: See my point above about the 130 counter rallies. 

To be clear, I am not arguing that social justice is headed for a future with as much death and destruction as World War II era Nazis. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, perhaps it will be just as all of its proponents claim, the dawn of a never ending age of peace, harmony and prosperity. I sure hope so. That said we do have plenty of examples of ideologies which started out with the best of intentions but which ended up committing untold atrocities. Obviously communism is a great example, but you could also toss just about every revolution ever into that bucket as well. 

Where does all of this leave us? First it seems unlikely that nazis and fascists are very well positioned to cause the kind of large scale problems we should really be worried about. Also, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that our biases would push us towards overstating the danger, on top of that. Beyond all that there is a least one ideology which appears better positioned for a dramatic rise in power, meaning that if we’re just interested in taking precautions at a minimum we should add them to the list alongside the fascists. Which is to say that I’m not trying to talk you out of worrying about fascists, I’m trying to talk you into being more broad minded when you consider where dangers might emerge. 

Yes this is only one, and probably reflects my own biases, but there are certainly others as well. At the turn of the last century everyone was worried about anarchists. As well they might be in 1901 they managed to assassinate President Mckinley (what have the American fascists done that’s as bad as that?) And there are people who say that even today we should worry more about anarchism than fascism. Other people seem unduly fascinated with the dangers and evils of libertarianism (sample headline, Rise of the techno-Libertarians: The 5 most socially destructive aspects of Silicon Valley). If there is a weaker major political movement than the libertarians I’m not aware of it, but fine, add them to the list too. But above all, whatever your list is and how ever you make it, spend less time worrying about the last thing and more time worrying about the next thing.


I will say that out of all the things to worry about bloggers carry the least potential danger of anything. Though maybe if one of us had a bunch of money? If you want to see how dangerous I can actually get, consider donating.


Books I Finished in June of 2019 (With One Podcast Series)

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

Or download the MP3


Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (Reviewed earlier in separate post.)


Then It Fell Apart

By: Moby

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you read Moby’s previous autobiography Porcelain and enjoyed it, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

If you have not read Porcelain, I would definitely recommend reading it first. It’s a better book and chronologically it comes first. 

Representative passage:

After the show I drank champagne and vodka in my dressing room with Ewan McGregor. After a few drinks I decided that he and I should go out and drink more, but that I should be naked. Sandy, my tour manager, urged me, “Moby, at least put on a towel.” So I went out in downtown Melbourne wearing a towel. No shoes. No clothes. Just a towel. Ewan and I stumbled from bar to bar, getting drunker and drunker. At the end of the night we ended up in a subterranean bar filled with Australian celebrities. I’d had ten or fifteen drinks, so I went to the bathroom to pee, and found myself standing at a urinal next to Russell Crowe. He zipped up his pants, and then pushed me against the wall of the bathroom and started screaming at me. “Uh, we’ve never met,” I tried to say. “Why are you yelling at me?” He never told me, but he kept me pinned against the wall while he shouted and screamed. After a minute he lost interest, cursed a few times, and stumbled out of the bathroom. I went back to the bar and told Ewan, “Russell Crowe just yelled at me.” 

“I wouldn’t worry about it. He yells at everyone.”

Criticisms

I read Porcelain last month, knowing that Then It Fell Apart was about to be released, and as you may or may not recall I quite enjoyed it. This book was not as good. And it was almost entirely due to the very depressing sameness of nearly every story. To set the scene, the last book ended just before the release of Play. Play ended up being a gigantic worldwide success, giving Moby all the money and fame anyone could possibly want, and of course, it wasn’t enough, and he spends the entire book desperately, suicidally unhappy. The book in fact opens with a suicide attempt.

He does just about every dumb thing you can imagine to try to fill the gaping, empty hole that is his soul, and everything he tries ends up being a disaster. The level of sex and drugs and alcohol in this book is beyond staggering, and it’s so obvious from the outside what he should stop doing, and equally so obvious what he should be doing instead. After hundreds of pages where he does neither, it starts to wear you down.

Lest you think the entire book is composed of these disasters, he does alternate stories of his debauchery with stories from his past. I enjoyed these parts more, though they were also mostly depressing.

Thoughts

This book was in the news above and beyond what might normally be expected because of Moby’s description of his relationship with Natalie Portman. Moby claimed they dated. Portman was in her teens at the time (18) and claims it was far more stalkerish. Moby profusely apologized and canceled his book tour. Having actually read the parts about Portman, and having read them before I saw that it had made the news I’m going to say that I feel like the whole thing was overblown. He didn’t claim he took her virginity, or something sensational like that. He claims he spent time with her (which appears to be the case), and certainly he characterized this time as dating, but I’m not even 100% sure he uses that actual word. The whole thing actually came across as very chaste. All of which is to say, I agree, Moby screwed up, but I think people made a lot more out of it than was really warranted.

There was one other incident from the book that struck me as particularly interesting. One of the reasons why he can’t get his life under control is that the merest hint of a romantic commitment causes him to experience intense panic attacks. This would be one thing if it had always been present, the source either genetic or buried in the mists of childhood, but as Moby tells it, it all started after a particularly bad LSD trip. As he describes it before then he had had several moderately successful long-term relationships, and was in fact involved in one that appeared headed for marriage at the time of the bad trip. In talking to people with more “domain experience” than me this seems either unbelievable or very uncommon, but it also seems like lots of drugs have a few rare but catastrophic side effects. Accordingly I’m not inclined to dismiss it out of hand, and if it did happen the way he describes, it’s pretty sad, since it’s entirely possible that without these panic attacks that he would have had a much easier time getting his life under control.

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

Even if you try really, really hard, money can’t buy you happiness. Particularly if you’re going to mistake hedonism for happiness.


Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel

By: Neal Stephenson

880 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B-

Who should read this book?

If you’ve liked everything else Stephenson has written you’ll probably like this, though it’s unlikely to be your favorite.

If you love mythology and devoured Bulfinch or something similar when you were a kid you’ll probably like the book.

Representative passage:

In the Garden lived a boy and a girl. Trees and flowers, herbs, vines, bees, birds, and beasts of various kinds lived there too. But there were no others like them. The Garden was circumscribed on three sides by a sheer wall of stone, and on the fourth side by the Palace. Above was sky, where clouds danced in the day and stars wheeled at night. Below was earth, where plants of many kinds spread their roots.

Special recognition of how horrible Stephenson is at writing sex scenes:

She took a step forward, leaving maybe a quarter of an inch clearance between her belly and the tip of his boxer-tented doodle. “It comes from thinking about mortality, right? Leads to a ‘life is short—let’s go’ mentality.”

He pulled her into him and mashed his doodle, bolt upright, against her stomach. She wrapped her arms around his neck for purchase and mashed back. They went on to perform sexual intercourse on the big pile of T-shirts on the rug.

Thoughts and criticisms free of spoilers

Stephenson is adept at creating rich, inviting worlds. Sometimes those worlds seem fairly realistic, the world of Fall is not one of them. I’m sure part of that is that Fall starts in the present day and then extends into the near future, making the problems of realism much easier to spot. This did bother me less than other people, (for example see Robin Hanson’s criticism) but it still detracted from the novel overall.

In previous Stephenson novels, my sense was that he was frequently going off on small tangents. Generally these were delightful. In his later works, particularly this one and Seveneves the tangents seem much longer, whole dramatic subplots that are aborted before they can really go anywhere interesting. Both Seveneves and Fall felt like they would have worked better as two separate books. And with Fall I could even see the argument for three.

Thoughts and criticisms with mild spoilers

Before reading Fall I saw several things saying that Stephenson tackles fake news and extremism on the internet, but that he doesn’t go nearly far enough. I think this says far more about the times we live in than about the book or Stephenson. My sense is that these days everyone wants all art to be a commentary on today’s problems, and what’s even more ideal is if it’s directly critical of Trump. That everything that has the potential to be a polemic should be a polemic. As I said in the last section I do think the extremism subplot felt tacked on, but I don’t think that’s what people are complaining about, I think they’re complaining that the identification of the righteous and the wicked needed to be clearer.

If the section on internet extremism is one book, than the other section is a book of modern mythology. The online consensus was to favor the section on extremism (even if it didn’t go far enough) over the mythology section. In my opinion that’s exactly backwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the mythology section, while the section on extremism was more bizarre than revelatory. 

In Stephenson’s last book, Seveneves, one of my greatest disappointments was that there was never a scene where someone unloaded on Julia Bliss Flaherty for how stupid she had been. In a remarkably similar fashion in Fall there’s a dramatic murder which then barely gets mentioned again, and where there’s never any reckoning. 

I didn’t get a strong sense of what the core philosophical differences were between Dodge and the main antagonist. Dodge was good seemingly merely by virtue of being the protagonist with the antagonist being the mirror image of that. 

Books I would read before this one:

I would read basically anything else by Stephenson before reading this. 


To Live and Die in LA (Podcast)

Hosted By: Neil Strauss

9 hours

Format: Podcast

Rating: B

Who should listen to this podcast?

If you really like blow-by-blow true crime stuff, this is a pretty good podcast.

If you want to see what goes on in a journalistic investigation this is a pretty good example of that.

Representative passage:

CHRIS SPOTZ: I’m not recording any more.

Adea: You’ve beat me

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: You have beat me up.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: Beaten me up, you toke my Rolex-

CHRIS SPOTZ: I have the video.

Adea: You took my Rolex. You took my Rolex. You beat me up. Everything hurts.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get outta my truck.

Adea: I’m not getting out ‘til I get my Rolex.

This very disturbing recording is of 25 year-old Adea Shabani, an aspiring actress who moved from Macedonia to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of becoming, as she put it, “A different kind of star.” But just three weeks before I’m recording this, Adea Shabani went missing. Vanished without a trace from outside her apartment on Hollywood Boulevard, right alongside the legendary Walk of Fame.

Thoughts

I wasn’t sure about including a podcast series in this list with everything else, but these days I think there are a lot of great podcast series out there which, when all is said and done, might as well be audiobooks. This was one of those series, and it was definitely well done. Certainly it had most of the things you’ve probably come to expect out of this format. The story was engaging and mysterious, the narrator was compelling, and the characters were all fascinating. 

In particular, while I don’t think this was their primary goal in telling the story, the process of actually getting to the truth, and the time and effort required was fascinating. Particularly since in the end the case didn’t end up being particularly complicated. Which seems like a better commentary on the present day than anything Stephenson may have written.

With that said, you may wonder why I gave it a B. Well…

Criticisms

They teased a lot of things in the beginning, which ended up not going anywhere, and which they exaggerated to boot in an obvious effort to make it sound like there were more twists than there actually ended up being.

By the time the podcast was over, the solution they arrive at feels pretty straightforward, and not particularly mysterious. All of which leads to this series being not quite as good as either of the first two seasons of Serial. 

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

Even if you’re absolutely tenacious, with lots of time and resources, and even if the actual events are uncomplicated, it’s still really difficult to get at the truth.


Left For Dead: 30 Years On – The Race is Finally Over

By: Nick Ward and Sinead O’Brien

296 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you like man against nature stories of extreme survival than this is a great one. 

If you’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and sailing this is also a great book, but it might put off of ever going near either.

Representative passage:

The swell I had felt below in the cabin was escalating. Ceaseless seas like corrugated iron were stacked up behind us row upon row as if awaiting their turn. I picked one out. Choosing the most deformed monster from this cliff face of madness, I stared at it mad, enraged. I kept staring. I focused on this one huge moving mass, waiting for it. Grimalkin lifted sharply. The horizon was nearly vertical, but this time I made no effort to save myself. All instinct for survival had abandoned me. I stood in the cockpit with Gerry at my feet taunting the wave to get me. As the horizon disappeared I implored this malevolent beast to knock me out cold, kill me. “Come on you bastard! Come on!”

Thoughts

That’s always something magnificent about a great survival story, and when you combine that with sailing (which I’ve always had a soft spot for as well) you’re going to get a great book. This particular story took place during the 1979 Fastnet race. Fastnet is one of the classic offshore yacht races, but this particular edition of the race ended in disaster. From Wikipedia:

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaked havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race, resulting in 19 fatalities (15 yachtsmen and 4 spectators). Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were summoned to aid what became the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involved some 4,000 people including the entire Irish Naval Service‘s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, and helicopters.

Nick Ward was caught in the middle of it, and was the last person rescued. This book is his story, and it’s amazing.

Criticisms

I have only one criticism. A large part of the book is the question of why he was left on the boat by the other members of the crew. And while you get an answer it’s not as satisfactory as one would hope. Part of the book is the story of Ward, himself, finally coming to terms with the uncertainty that’s left, but I’m not there yet. (It took him many many years, I’ve only had a week or two.)

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

If you’re going through hell, keep going.


Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

By: Michael Korda

544 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you loved Nolan’s Dunkirk (or if you wanted to love it, but it was way too loud) and were looking for further information this would be a great book.

If you like history in general, then this is pretty good as history books go.

Representative passage:

In fact the most warlike decision that Chamberlain made—and the one that would have the most drastic effect on the war—was to invite Winston Churchill to join the War Cabinet, and also to serve once again, as he had from 1911 to 1915, as the first lord of the Admiralty (the civilian head of the Royal Navy, roughly equivalent to the American secretary of the navy). Chamberlain’s War Cabinet consisted of nine men, including the prime minister—probably too many, Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in World War One had only consisted of five—and placing Churchill in it was tantamount to putting a hawk in a cage full of doves.

Thoughts

I’ve read a fair amount of history, and getting it to flow well is always a problem. If you do find something that flows well, you often run into a different problem, the book isn’t comprehensive enough. Real history doesn’t come in neatly packaged narratives, there are lots of people doing lots of things all at the same time. Korda manages to do a pretty good job balancing both of these things, and ends up creating a very accessible book that nevertheless does a great job of capturing events at every level, from German strategy all the way down to how Dunkirk played out for an average family in London. Korda is assisted in this latter effort by having been a part of one of those families, even if he was only 7 at the time. 

Beyond that I definitely learned some new things about Dunkirk, particularly why the Germans were so ineffective at finishing things off there when they were so effective everywhere else. Probably the most surprising revelation was how well-regarded the French Military was, since these days it’s the exact opposite. But at the time the British thought that the French would launch some brilliant counter attack at any moment, and the Germans were sure that they would manage to hold the line at some point just as they had in World War I. This not only made the French the primary focus, but on top of that Hitler apparently still thought they might be able to strike a deal with Britain, which not only made the situation at Dunkirk less pressing, but may have inclined the Germans in the direction of avoiding a slaughter.

It’s unclear what would have needed to change for the British to have made a deal with Hitler. But clearly it would have been easier if Lord Halifax had been Prime Minister, and it does seem like that was avoided by the narrowest of margins. Something I had heard about but not in any detail. Korda did a great job of detailing not only this event but much of what was happening in British politics during the time of the invasion, and this may have been my favorite aspect of the book.

Criticisms

Korda mentions that during the invasion the mistresses of the French politicians exercised undue influence on them, and that if the British had been aware of how much influence they exercised that things might have turned out differently. I had never heard this and was eager to hear more, but he didn’t go into it nearly as much as detail as I would have liked on that aspect, which was unfortunate, since I would have loved to hear more. There were several examples like this, and it’s something of a minor complaint, obviously you can’t cover everything, but he shouldn’t have teased me like that.

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

The mistakes made in war are at least as interesting and perhaps more interesting than the things that went according to plan.


How Will You Measure Your Life?

By: Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon

240 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you like other stuff by Clay Christensen, you’ll probably like this.

If you voraciously devour anything self-help related, this one should be on your list.

Representative passage:

To understand how all three work together, let’s continue the example of a child developing an iPad app. If your child has a computer on which to program, and knowledge of how to program an iPad app, he has resources. The way in which he pulls these resources together to create something novel, something that he hasn’t been taught explicitly how to do, to learn as he goes along—these are his processes. And the desire he has to spend his precious free time creating the app, the problem he cares about enough to create the app to solve, the idea of creating something unique, or the fact that he cares that his friends will be impressed—those are the priorities leading him to do it. Resources are what he uses to do it, processes are how he does it, and priorities are why he does it.

I worry a lot that many, many parents are doing to their children what Dell did to it’s personal-computing business—removing the circumstances in which they can develop processes.

Criticisms

Every self-help book has to have something of a special sauce. Something that makes that self-help book different than the thousands of self-help books which have come before, and I’m not sure this book has enough of that. First, I don’t think it has much to say what wasn’t said already and probably better in Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. So, if you haven’t already, I would read that book first. Second insofar as it does have a special sauce it’s kind of vague. Christensen and his co-authors take some lessons from how businesses succeed (or fail) and apply them to individuals and families. But beyond that there’s not much of a unifying theme, and maybe that’s fine. There is a lot of good stuff in there, but much of it wasn’t particularly actionable, and what things were actionable I’d already heard somewhere else. Which is to say after reading most self-help books I come away with at least one to-do item, something to look at more closely or a tactic I want to try out, but that was not the case with this book.

Thoughts

All those criticisms aside, for how short it was it packed a lot in, and on top of that these books are still clearly necessary. Despite the thousands of self-help books which have been published people still do a lot of dumb things, even if they should be very familiar with the principles of success. By way of illustration Christensen frames the book by talking about his own Harvard Business School (HBS) graduating class. One would think that if you have managed to do all the things necessary to get into HBS, that you’d have mastered most of the hard stuff. And certainly that you would have read lots of advice on how to succeed. Despite this Christensen discovers that many of these individuals, who seemed to have lives “destined to be fantastic on every level” show up at each successive reunion more and more unhappy. And this is if they show up at all, in the most extreme example, one of his classmates was Jeffrey Skilling who went to jail for his role in the Enron scandal

It is for people like Christensen’s fellow HBS graduates where this book probably works best. People who are doing great in business, but at the expense of marriages, families and other relationships. And, to be fair, that’s probably a pretty big group.

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

It’s important to find meaning both at work and at home, and if you lose it in either that’s when the trouble starts.


Bloodchild and Other Stories

By: Octavia E. Butler

224 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you’re like me and you haven’t read anything by Octavia Butler then this seems like a decent place to start.

If you’re a fan of science fiction short stories as a form of art distinct from novels, these are some great examples.

Representative passage:

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I grew to be six feet tall. Boys in particular seemed to assume that I had done this growing deliberately and that I should be ridiculed for it as often as possible. 

I hid out in a big pink notebook—one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath.… There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.

Thoughts 

This book was recommended to me by one of my regular readers. I had been meaning to read some Butler for quite some time so this was a good excuse to jump in. As I said, it seems like a decent place to start, though Butler herself admits that her strengths lie more in novel writing than the short story. And I guess that means I should read some of her novels. If anyone has a recommendation on where to start let me know.

Considering things more generally, I liked the fact that this collection included a couple of essays as well. As you can probably tell I’m a fan of non-fiction essays, and I thought the ones in Bloodchild added to the experience. Speaking of non-fiction bits, Butler also did a brief afterword following each story which I appreciated. 

Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms, this is a solid collection of short stories, even if none of them rise to the level of being brilliant. I do, however, want to single out Butler’s final story, “The Book of Martha”. In this story a non-omniscient god (he/she got rid of that power because it made things too boring) asks Martha to make one change to the world that would help humans be less destructive. As a philosophical thought experiment it’s great, but neither Martha nor, seemingly, Butler treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Considered more broadly I don’t think this problem is limited to Butler, which is why this is only a minor quibble. Playing god is difficult.

Books I would read before this one:

I suppose if you have never read any science fiction short stories, then I’m not sure this is the place to start. There’s plenty of classic anthologies out there, and depending on the person, I might recommend starting with one of those to get a feel for the genre before reading this book.


As I just mentioned, one of the books I read was recommended by one of my readers. It’s actually pretty easy to get me to read a book, but if you really want to guarantee I’ll take you seriously, consider donating. I know it’s mercenary, but that’s kind of how the world works.


How Do We Adapt to Things?

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

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When I started my last post I had intended to examine the various ways in which humans adapt to their environment. Four thousand words later, and I’d spent all of them on a defense of cultural evolution/tradition, which is of course just one of the ways we adapt to things, and probably (based on the comments) more interesting when considered in connection with other methods of adaptation than when considered in isolation. Though I still think my last post was important because there’s not nearly enough attention paid to cultural evolution as compared to other methods of adaptation, so establishing some kind of grounding there before proceeding will probably turn out to have been useful. But in any event, I didn’t even get to a discussion of other ways in which humans can adapt to their conditions, so I’m going to take another shot at it and see if I can do better this time. That resolution in place I’m going to immediately go in the opposite direction and spend just a minute or two clarifying some things left over from the last post.

I ended up posting a link to the last post in one of the SSC open comment threads. In addition to the link I laid out my four alternative criteria for judging a tradition. In response to this someone pointed out that in addition to being applied to same sex marriage that these criteria could also be applied to slavery: 

  1. The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
  4. The domain of the tradition. Does it relate to survival or reproduction? –> “The Confederacy decided slavery was so vital to their survival, they went to war for it. See again the Spartacus rebellion.”

To begin with, I found his response to the fourth point not very on point, and probably even a little flippant, but that still leaves the other three. Obviously it’s hard to talk about slavery in any fashion other than righteous flaming denunciation without it getting messy, but I guess I’m going to try it anyway. First, we need to remember that cultural evolution doesn’t care about morality, it cares about survival. Essentially what he’s arguing is that nothing immoral could possibly also be important for survival, which doesn’t follow at all. Second, this is precisely why the fourth point is important, I don’t think slavery does have any relationship to survival or reproduction. Finally, if we are going to add morality to the criteria, as this person seems to be doing, slavery has always provoked intense moral debates, while such debates over SSM are very recent.

In fact everything about SSM is very recent, which leads to the other observation I wanted to make before we move on. After finishing the last post, and discussing it a bit with some people, I realized I left out one of my main motivations. Given that it makes me look better (I think) it seemed wise to include it. I imagine that a lot of people would take that last post as evidence that SSM keeps me up at night, particularly if they also know that I’m religious. They might even assume, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I’m an extreme homophobe. But honestly, my interest is largely intellectual. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight on any one piece of data, but I keep coming back to the content disparity present in the Timeline of Same Sex Marriage article on Wikipedia. How is it that evidence before 1970 could be so slim? Not only does it represent a mere 4% of the article, but it’s clear that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get even that. If you haven’t bothered to check out the article here are some examples of evidence for SSM  before 1970.

  • They mention a single marriage in Spain from 1061.
  • There’s a paragraph on it being referred to in a derisory fashion to describe political opponents during the Roman Empire.
  • It appears to have been legal in ancient Assyria.
  • The emperor’s Nero and Elagabalus married men.
  • It was part of the culture of an oasis in Egypt of about 30,000 people (that is its modern population, I assume anciently it was even less).

Reviewing this list you might assume that I cherry picked the least impressive examples, but actually the list I just gave is more or less comprehensive. These are essentially all of the  examples they could come up with. How is it that something which was so incredibly rare in the past has become such a huge deal in only the last few decades? One of my commenters suggested that perhaps it had just not occurred to anyone before 1970. I suppose that’s possible but if anything that just makes things more interesting. We have lots of examples of historical taboos, I can’t think of another example of something never even being considered before the present, certainly not outside of new technology, which SSM is not.

If my interest in SSM is mostly intellectual, you might wonder if I can provide any more visceral examples, reports of traditions under threat where my reaction involves more anger. I can. In particular I remember being very annoyed by the story making the rounds last month about training being given by the New York City Department of Education where things like “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word,” were labeled as “White Supremacy Culture”. This is only one data point, but it was a piece of data that fed into a feeling I’ve had for awhile. While I mostly talk about the erosion of moral traditions because that erosion is so obvious, it feels like there’s something deeper going on. I’ve had the sense for awhile that the attack on traditions might not stop there. And when I hear someone label objectivity as “White Supremacy” it seems to confirm those deeper fears. 

With the last post put to bed let’s finally turn to a discussion of the various ways humans can adapt to their environment.

The first and most obvious method of adaptation is evolution through natural selection, which is a large topic unto itself, so for our purposes I just want to point out a few key features. To begin with, it operates through genetic mutations, which occur randomly. Most of the time these mutations are benign, some of the time they’re maladaptive and a tiny minority of the time they’re actually beneficial. (Commentators may notice that I borrowed some of their wording.) Despite the fact that these mutations are beneficial only a tiny minority of the time, the vast majority of what we see when we look are beneficial mutations, because that’s what’s being selected for, and is in fact the definition of beneficial since in this context that just means it makes the organism more likely to reproduce in such a fashion that the gene is transmitted to the next generation. To boil everything down, at this level adaptation:

  1. Is initiated randomly.
  2. Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
  3. Takes a very, very long time.

The next method of adaptation, is the one I discussed at such length in the last post, that is cultural evolution. I obviously spent quite a bit of time on it in the last post, so you would expect there wouldn’t be much left to say on the subject. But I think it’s important to draw some sharp lines about what it is and what it isn’t. To begin with, while evolution through natural selection operates on the level of genes. Cultural evolution operates at the level of practices that can be transmitted by language. Which I shorthanded as traditions, and it makes having a common language pretty important (though being able to translate might get you most of the way.) The first thing that’s interesting about this, is that it makes culture harder to transmit in some respects, but easier in others.

Genes represent a common language for everything, meaning we get them from all over the place, not merely from Neanderthals, but from viruses as well. The same can not be said for traditions. We didn’t get any traditions from viruses, and it seems pretty unlikely we got any from the Neaderthals either. This is where traditions and culture are harder to transmit, but if you speak the same language, they suddenly become much easier to transmit than genes. Which makes it faster as well. So then how is it tested? This is the part of cultural evolution where all the debate is happening, and where I spent a lot of time in the previous post. But certainly survival has to be in there, and not merely survival of individuals, but survival of the whole culture. In fact I would argue that humans being what they are, that if your culture, taken in its totality, can’t survive conflict with other cultures (i.e. war). Then sooner or later your culture isn’t going to be around and there will be no traditions left to transmit.

Beyond survival, if traditions are the unit of evolution they have to be easily transmissible as well. They also have to be sticky, otherwise they wouldn’t be around long enough to have any effect. That makes traditions sound like memes, but I think there is one big difference. I think for a tradition to be considered part of cultural evolution it has to be attached to its host’s reproduction and survival. I think a meme just has to be able to ensure its own survival.  This takes us to the final and weirdest way for humans to adapt. But before we go there let’s summarize the attributes of cultural evolution:

  1. Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
  2. Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
  3. Is much quicker than genetic evolution, but still kind of slow.

At last we reach the final method of adaptation, memetic evolution, and yet again I’m indebted to Scott Alexander of SSC for so clearly identifying it and I would encourage you to read the original post he did on it. But I also think there’s more to the story than what he points out, in particular I think he undersells the role of survival as the key differentiator between cultural and memetic evolution. But before we jump ahead I should explain the differences between the two as Alexander sees them. For him it mostly revolves around the idea of “convincingness”. That memetic evolution is about doing what sounds good (with competition happening around what that is at any given moment) while cultural evolution is about doing what worked in the past. 

As you can see from the previous list, cultural evolution probably starts in very much the same way. Despite this there are at least two significant differences in how this process works for each. To begin with, in cultural evolution, the space of things eligible to be considered “good ideas” is much smaller, both because of greater resistance to change and because, due to technology, the list of things which could possibly be changed is also vastly smaller. The other difference is that at some point or another the “good idea” is going to be tested to see whether it actually improves the culture’s fitness or makes it worse. Neither of these things is true when it comes to memetic evolution. In the first case it’s a difference of degree, resistance to change still exists, but it’s decreased while the list of potential good ideas just keeps growing. But in the second case it’s a difference of kind, and I would contend that with memetic evolution we have reached a point where “good ideas” are completely disconnected from fitness. The test never happens. Accordingly the attributes of memetic evolution are:

  1. Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
  2. Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
  3. Much quicker than cultural evolution, and it can be made quicker still by technology.

While we have mostly covered the first point, the remaining two require further discussion. While I think point two is self evident, it immediately leads to a very important follow-up question, how can we get away with no longer worrying about survival? There are three possibilities:

  1. We have progressed to the point where survival is no longer in doubt, therefore we can safely ignore it. The old rules really don’t apply. Perhaps because everything promised by the advocates of posthumanism is coming to pass.
  2. Survival and reproduction and evolutionary fitness still lurk in the background, but we have managed to make significant progress in lessening their importance, allowing us to profitably focus on other things, perhaps in something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. We can’t get away with it. Survival and reproduction are just as important as ever, but they’ve been completely overshadowed by the variety and speed of memetic evolution. That eventually cultural evolution will still be important.

You can probably guess which possibility I favor, but I’m not the only one to notice that we have developed lots of behaviors that have little to do with ongoing survival. Robin Hanson calls it Dreamtime, and describes it thusly, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” But I’m jumping ahead, each of these possibilities has some interesting and possibly disturbing implications. 

The first possibility represents the most extreme shift. Because, as I said, the old rules don’t apply. Under the old rules it was all about us, the humans, and whether we continued to exist or not. With possibility number one it’s all about ideas, and humans are just a place for ideas to reside, and not even a particularly good place now that we have computers, which takes us to my posthuman reference. If ideas are all that matter what’s to say we even have a role in the world of the future. Certainly there are lots of posthumanists who worry that we don’t.

Under the second possibility, one imagines that, civilizationally, we’re perched near the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the areas of love, esteem and self-actualization, and that this is a good thing. But in this model the bottom level with the physical needs of food and water is still down there. Is there ever a point where we forget how to supply those needs? Certainly on an individual level, almost no one in the US knows how to grow or kill enough food to feed themselves for an extended period. We still possess this knowledge at a civilizational level, fortunately, but it’s unclear how robust this knowledge is. I say this, primarily, because it hasn’t been put to the test recently, There are lots of ways for something like this to be tested, but if nothing else in the past there were frequent wars which acted to test the mettle of a civilization. We haven’t had one of those recently, and to be clear, that’s a good thing, but it also seems like the kind of thing where the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it finally happens. And I’m by no means convinced that there will never be another great power war.

Turning to the third possibility, the first thing we need to do is decide what it means for survival to be “just as important as ever”. From one perspective, of course it’s as important as ever, as I frequently point out, if you can’t survive (and reproduce) you can’t do anything else either. So on reflection, it’s more accurate to say that the third possibility asserts that survival is just as difficult as ever. Stating it this way I assume a lot of people are going to immediately dismiss it as obviously incorrect, since that’s not what the numbers show at all. Rather they show a huge increase in life expectancy and vast decreases to most of the causes of death people had to worry about historically, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. This is a pretty good argument, but let me offer at least one counterargument (there are many).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that technology and progress have not created any decrease in fragility, that rather, if anything, they have increased it, which would mean that, currently, survival is not merely as difficult, it’s more difficult. But what about the numbers? Here Taleb argues that though technology doesn’t decrease fragility it does allow you to dampen volatility, particularly in the short term. I say in the short term because what we’re really doing is postponing volatility and making things that much worse when whatever tools you’ve been using eventually reach the limits of their effectiveness

You can see how this all might play out using the example of nuclear war. It is widely agreed that a large part of the reason for the Long Peace is the horror of nuclear weapons. This is the low volatility. However if war ever does come the eventual volatility will be far greater than any previous war. Additionally, while no previous war ever threatened the survival of humanity, a nuclear war very well might, leading to exactly the situation I described. Survival isn’t just as difficult, it’s actually much more difficult.

The last issue we have to deal with is the speed of memetic evolution. Recall the title question, “How do we adapt to things?’ Or to take it from another angle, what are we adapting to? In the past all adaptation was in service of survival and reproduction, and the fact that cultural evolution was faster than genetic evolution allowed humans to adapt more quickly to a variety of conditions. Certainly I’m not aware of any other animals which have adapted to live nearly anywhere. But if we’re not adapting to survive in changing conditions because our survival is no longer in question than what are we adapting to? And how does doing it faster help? If anything it appears that things are reversed. That the changes brought about by memetic evolution aren’t helping us to adapt they’re what we have to adapt to. In which case, the fact that it just keeps going faster isn’t a feature, it’s a bug…

If we have passed into the era of memetic evolution. And if it has the qualities I describe. Both of which seem very likely. Then there doesn’t seem to be much of a silver lining. It would appear that the best case scenario would be to hope that we have progressed into a new and better world where ideas are the only thing that matters, and then to further hope that we can manage to find a place in that world. The other possibilities all seem to boil down to a rapidly changing world where survival is still important but the conditions we’re trying to adapt our survival to are changing with ever greater rapidity.


These ending blurbs are actually examples of memetic evolution. No, really. I never said they were good examples, in fact they’re more akin to the random mutations of genetic evolution. But maybe this is the random mutation that will work, and you’ll be convinced to donate.


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.