Tag: <span>Eschatology</span>

1971 Continued – It’s Energy Stupid!

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I- The Historical Increase in the Amount of Energy Available

This is a continuation of my last post, where I examined different explanations for the way a bunch of things all seemed to simultaneously go off the rails in 1971. In simpler terms in the last post I attempted to answer, as the eponymous website asks, WTF happened in 1971? But I left one explanation out. I saved my favorite for this post. But before we can get to that I need to go much farther back, all the way to 1650.

It was in about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, that the United States (or what would become the United States) started growing and from then until (almost) now it grew at a steady average of 2.9% per year. Despite the passage of decades and centuries this growth was basically constant. Though recently there are signs that it’s started to slow. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.7%, 2% if we don’t include last year.) After hearing this one is immediately prompted to ask: What was the long term average growth rate before 1650? Or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was all but zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%? Based on this one might just as reasonably ask, WTF happened in 1650? 

It was presumably a combination of a lot of things. The mother country was at the tail end of 300 years of fighting the black death with the associated drop in population. (The last great outbreak, the Great Plague of London, ended in 1666.) Such plagues, while being vast, unimaginable tragedies, also end up being great for innovation. Additionally, the U.S. is a vast continent, full of resources, and in 1650 it had been emptied by its own set of plagues, the black death being only one of many. And then of course there was the scientific revolution, which got the ball rolling on all of the inventions that would come to define the later industrial revolution.

This last element was what really made the difference. There had been temporary surges in growth before. Rome experienced one every time they conquered a new territory. But the scientific revolution changed a short-term surge into a long term trend. Growth that continued decade after decade and year after year as the scientific revolution gave way to the industrial revolution. When people think of the industrial revolution they picture the associated inventions: the cotton gin, the telegraph and most of all the steam engine. And while these inventions were all important, what really enabled the ongoing growth was the additional energy our improved ingenuity allowed us to extract. First in the form of coal and then in the form of oil. 

In other words, lot’s of things may have gotten the growth going, but it was the extraction and use of millions of years worth of accumulated energy in the space of a few centuries, that really kept it going. The engine of growth has always been energy, and the big difference between the pre-1650 0.1% growth and the post-1650 2.9% growth was the amount of energy available. And between 1650 and 1950 or 1971 (depending on how you slice it) economic growth and the amount of energy available went up at basically the same rate. In some respects this connection is almost tautological. If you want to make more stuff you need more energy to do it. Economic growth implies a similar growth in the amount of available energy. 

To be fair, having more energy isn’t the only way to increase economic output. You could become more efficient in using the energy you already have. You could also increase output by increasing the number of people — though in essence this is just another form of energy, just not in the way we normally think of it.

II- The Henry Adams Curve

These three things, growth in population, efficiency and the amount of energy being produced in turn created the 2.9% economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the mid 1600s. By predictable I mean that we can fit it to a curve, in this case it’s the “Henry Adams Curve”, a concept introduced in Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall (which I reviewed here, and also reference here and here). From the book:

Henry Adams, scion of the house of the two eponymous presidents, wrote in his autobiography about a century ago: “The coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power…”

In other words, we have a had a very long term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. Let us call it the “Henry Adams Curve.” The optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries can quite readily be seen as predicated on it. To a first approximation, it can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate and a 2% growth in the actual energy consumed per capita. 

Here is the Henry Adams Curve, the centuries-long historical trend, as the smooth red line. Since the scale is power per capita, this is only the 2% component. The blue curve is the actual energy use in the US, which up to the 70s matched the trend quite well. But then energy consumption flatlined.

The 1970s were famously the time of the OPEC oil embargo and the “energy crisis.” But major shortages preceded the embargo by a year or two. They were caused by Nixon’s energy price controls, instituted in 1971. The embargo wasn’t until 1973. [emphasis mine]

III- What Happened in 1971? Energy Decoupled from Growth

In 1971 (or thereabouts) energy decoupled from economic growth. Okay, fair enough, but a lot of other things also happened in 1971. Why is this a better explanation than the end of Bretton Woods, or the peak of American power? Why do I think this is the true disease rather than just another symptom? Why is it my favorite explanation? 

First off, one of the points I brought up in the last post was the lack of data for so many of the phenomena that were being highlighted. Half of the graphs didn’t go back farther than World War II, making it impossible to know if 1971 was the beginning of something exceptional or a return to normality. But this is a trend that has been going on since before America was even a country. Making this change, potentially, far more consequential. This isn’t a reversion to the 1920s, as was the case with inequality, this is completely new territory: Modern technology without the associated growth in energy which made the world modern in the first place.

This gets us to the second reason I prefer this explanation. It illustrates the fact that this is completely uncharted territory. Modern society is built on the idea that the amount of energy available on a per capita basis will just keep growing. Perhaps you’ve seen the meme where there’s a picture of the Wright Brothers on one side and on the other side is a picture of Neil Armstrong, and the caption points out that only 66 years separate the Wright Brothers first flight from the moon landing. I don’t know about you, but that fact blows my mind. It’s also the perfect illustration of what it looks like for the amount of available energy to grow at a compounding rate. In the mid-1900s we had been experiencing this sort of growth in available energy for centuries, and in those years, when science fiction was at its height, it’s vision of the future was based on it continuing. Which is how they arrived at the idea of flying cars, moon bases and manned missions to Jupiter. But in 1971, shortly after the moon landing, per capita energy flatlined.

One of the biggest revelations to come out of Flying Car, for me at least, was the fact that had growth in energy continued at the pre-1971 rate we would have had flying cars and moon bases and probably much else besides. The science fiction writers would have been right. The reason they were wrong had nothing to do with their understanding the dangers, difficulties and desires of and for flying cars. They were wrong because they didn’t foresee that the growth in energy which had so dominated the previous two hundred and fifty years, going all the way back to Newcomen’s steam engine at least, was only a few years away from coming to an abrupt end. 

It’s now been 52 years since that legendary first walk on the moon and 50 since 1971. Not quite the 66 years between that and the Wright Brothers flight, but getting pretty close. Can we point to any comparable achievement? And does anyone imagine that waiting an additional 14 years will change that?

Despite all of the foregoing, the economy is still growing even if it’s doing so in a slightly slower fashion than it was for most of the country’s history (2% vs. 2.9% as mentioned previously). What does it mean for the economy to grow without a corresponding growth in the amount of energy? What does it mean to increase output in a way that doesn’t require any energy? What does that output look like? These questions take us to my third reason for preferring this explanation: energyless output is a credible cause for most of the things people have been complaining about. 

But before we get to that it is necessary to make sure we’re not barking up the wrong tree. There were three components to the curve, growth in available energy, growth in population and gains in efficiency. Before we focus on that first one we need to make sure it’s not one of the other two. As I pointed out in a recent book review, it’s definitely not growth in population. The US population is only growing at 0.3%. But might we be using the same amount of energy more efficiently? 

The math here gets a little complicated, but if we keep it simple, energy output and efficiency were both growing at 2% a year. If energy output stops growing then for efficiency to “take over”, for there not to be an increase in the amount of “energy-less output”, efficiency would have had to double from 2% to 4%. I have not come across anything that leads me to believe this is what happened, nor does it seem very plausible for something like that to suddenly double. Though given the timing — the 1970s was the first big energy crisis, and we’ve been emphasizing efficiency since then — it wouldn’t surprise me to find that it went from 2% to 2.5% or something like that. But it seems very implausible for it to have suddenly doubled, and if you look at the graph,energy per capita hasn’t just flatlined it’s gone down, so efficiency would really have to more than double, at the same time that the other factor, population growth, was also flatlining.

If you’re with me this far and you agree that there has been an increase in the amount of economic output that doesn’t require any energy, or at least far less energy, what would that look like? For me this whole process was put into stark relief in the process of writing my last newsletter. In particular this fact:

During the Trump Presidency the national debt increased by nearly $8.3 trillion dollars. This is enough money, in today’s dollars, to refight World War II twice over.

Here we can clearly see the difference between productivity which is tightly coupled to energy use, and productivity that is not. During World War II the money we spent went into ships and planes and tanks, and the salaries of the 16 million people in the armed forces plus all of the people working on the home front. I would imagine that World War II is as efficient as we’ve ever been at turning “energy” into “stuff”. But at the time of the Trump Presidency when he was increasing the debt by twice the cost of World War II, most of our economy had nothing to do with stuff. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. In 2007-2008 you had Wall Street investors moving around billions of dollars which had no connection to anything tangible. And as early as the 80s, the finances of Wall Street were only tenuously connected to tangible outputs, as illustrated by books like Liar’s Poker and movies like Wall Street. In more general terms the financial sector is growing to be an ever larger slice of GDP (output) but requires very little in the way of energy. And beyond that a huge slice of the economy has moved on to the internet. Which suffers from much the same problem of disconnecting the economy from energy. 

One of my readers pointed out that you probably couldn’t literally compare the $8.3 trillion increase in the national debt under Trump with the money spent fighting World War II. That you needed to do more than just adjust for inflation, you also had to account for the mass mobilization factor and the other extraordinary circumstances associated with World War II. I’m sure that he has a point. If nothing else, a peacetime economy is very different from a total war economy. But even so the difference is stark. We’re not talking about the same amount of money, we’re talking about twice the money, so even if a peacetime economy is only half as efficient we still should be able to point to some accomplishment as impressive as beating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, instead it was swallowed without much to show for.

As one example, look at employment. At the start of the pandemic there 6 million people unemployed, within two months that had surged to 23 million. So an additional 17 million, which is very close to the 16 million under arms during World War II to say nothing of all the civilian workers essentially being paid by the government. Back then we were able to use the money we spent to pay them for years plus provide them with everything necessary to fight a war. Today there’s still 10 million people unemployed and of the 13 million who re-entered the workforce very few were directly employed by the government. In fact if anything the consensus seems to be that government money is keeping people from seeking employment. Meanwhile the stock market has nearly doubled from it’s pandemic low-point. A lot of money has gone into financial instruments and very little into stuff. Near the beginning of the pandemic Marc Andreessen, the famous venture capitalist, made this same point in his much shared post, It’s Time to Build. But building is precisely what you’re not doing if your economy has become disentangled from energy usage.

IV- Nuclear Power

In the past I’ve mentioned the idea of a religion of progress, an almost mystical belief that progress will continue essentially forever — that humanity is on a permanent upward trajectory. Some people believe this is happening with morality, and offer up the ongoing decline of bigotry and racism as evidence of its continuing impact. Or as Dr. King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Some people believe that this is happening with technology, that scientific innovations have lifted people out of poverty, cured diseases and otherwise improved the lot of man. That if we just get out of the way human ingenuity will lead us to the promised land. Some people believe that both things are happening. Beyond the division between moral progress and technological progress, a further division can be made between those who have a primarily humanist interpretation of this progress, and those who think the process is primarily spiritual. With people like Steven Pinker on the first side of the divide and new age spiritualists on the other side. 

I don’t fall into either camp, at least not in any recognizable fashion. But reading about what happened with nuclear power almost changed my mind. Here we are, it’s the early 70s, OPEC has just imposed a petroleum embargo. Things in general are not going well in the Middle East (and will continue not going well down to the present day). Fracking, and the vast supplies of domestic oil and gas it will make available, is still 30 years in the future. We didn’t know it at the time but energy production per capita has already started to stagnate. But it’s at this exact moment, when it seems that we’ve run out of road, when it looks like progress has been derailed, that nuclear power is finally ready for prime time. The way that just as one door has closed that another one opens is almost mystical. 

But it was also at this moment, that for the first time since 1650, we hesitated. We had no problems moving from wood to coal, and from coal to oil, but when it came time to make the transition from oil to nuclear we dropped the baton. And nuclear power, which had been getting continually cheaper, suddenly started getting more expensive. The universe had provided us with the next step in the long march of progress and we refused to take it.

As we get near the end of things, I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming that the world fundamentally changed precisely in 1971. (I fundamentally changed in 1971, but the world didn’t.) But I do think things are different now than they have been. That the 52 years since the moon landing have been very different than the 52 years preceding it. And that the primary (though certainly not the only) cause of this difference was the stagnation in per capita energy availability. 

V- Final Thoughts

Many years ago one of my close friends (we had been roommates in college) died because his liver failed. The question was why did it fail? The doctor’s decided it was alcoholic hepatitis, but I had my doubts. Yes my friend did drink, but I didn’t think he was that heavy of a drinker. But what he did do, more than anybody I’ve known, is take lortab. For those unfamiliar with lortab it’s a pain reliever which is a combination of hydrocodone (an opioid) and acetaminophen. I don’t think the alcohol destroyed his liver, I think it was the acetaminophen. As I was preparing to wrap up I was reminded of this story. We’ve identified the underlying disease, the available energy has stopped going up, but just like with me and my friends doctors, we may not agree on the behavior that’s causing the disease. 

Alcohol is generally considered to be a bad thing, while medicine is generally considered to be  a good thing, so it was easy for the doctors to blame the former rather than the latter, regardless of what was actually at fault. And as we move from identifying our malady to identifying behavior causing that malady I think we need to be careful to consider all possibilities. Even things we thought were beneficial. And here I am reminded of my newsletter from April. I would argue that this disease stems from the entirely understandable desire to maximize safety. 

Clearly in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s understandable that people would be biased against a form of power that used the same mechanism as that used by the bombs. From this an understandable caution developed, but eventually some caution became an abundance of caution which became a super abundance. The chief example of this being the linear no-threshold doctrine of radiation, which holds that there is no safe level of radiation. That in tandem with trying to achieve perfect safety we decided to designate radiation as being perfectly dangerous. That zero is the only safe amount. 

But it turns out that, just like with my friend, it’s actually the medicine that’s killing us, because once this ideology is widespread it’s only natural that the cost of nuclear power would go up, and as the cost rises it becomes even more difficult to take this next step. Accordingly, the amount of available energy stagnated. And economic growth without a corresponding growth in energy is a strange thing — we have yet to appreciate all of the consequences. 

In pointing out the fact that available energy stopped growing, I am not going beyond that to claim that it’s a bad thing. In fact, in another post I pointed out that it was inevitable. Further, I am not convinced that if we had smoothly switched to nuclear we would now be living in a technological utopia. I am sure it would be a very different world, but I’m not sure it would be any better. And as available energy usage had to plateau eventually this is a transition that was coming one way or the other, but just because the transition was inevitable doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is in fact a massive shift from how things have worked for centuries — a shift that hasn’t received nearly enough attention.

Obviously this is a complicated problem, not only is there the disease itself, there’s also the matter of the behavior that got us there: our overwhelming timidity. Things are changing in ways we don’t understand and we’re not prepared for. We’re in a world that’s superficially similar to the one we’ve had since 1650, but under the surface it’s vastly different. Perhaps the best answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is that we  entered uncharted territory, and it’s going to take all of our skill and wisdom, and yes, our courage as well, to avoid catastrophe.

One of my readers thought that I spent too much time on my own connection to 1971 in the last post. But clearly blogging is inherently a narcissistic activity, so I’m not sure what they expected. Going beyond that to ask for money to engage in this activity may be the most narcissistic thing of all. And yet, here I am, once again asking you to consider donating


Theories for the 1971 Inflection

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Many months ago I came across the website wtfhappenedin1971.com. The website is a collection of around 60 charts. All of the charts show some aspect of the modern world going haywire in 1971.

Some of the charts show that certain things were tightly connected for many decades before suddenly decoupling in 1971, with one thing continuing to go up while something else flatlined. An example of this would be compensation and productivity. Productivity continued to rise while compensation flattened off. Other charts show a single line that was trending more and more positive, up until 1971 when suddenly the trend flattened out. An example of this would be black income as a percentage of white income. Still other charts just show that things worked one way before 1971 and afterwards they started working another way. Examples in this category include global currency crashes but also incarceration, obesity and divorce rates.

As the last set of examples illustrates, while most of the charts deal with economic concerns, with particular emphasis on inequality and inflation, 1971 is also the inflection point for many of the other things we worry about, like political extremism. The two parties had been in pretty tight agreement for several decades, but in 1971 you see both start to veer off towards the extremes. After seeing dozens of inflection points, all occurring at the same point in time, one has no choice but to join the website in asking WTF happened in 1971?!?! 

Unfortunately rather than just coming out and offering an explanation the website prefers to use something of a socratic method. They hope that the graphs will generate questions which will lead people to reach the correct conclusion on their own, and that the conclusion will have a better foundation because they arrived at it independently. However, if you make it all the way through the graphs there’s a link to a “Discussions” page which features some videos and podcast appearances by the guys behind the site. If you follow one of these links you’ll find that they blame it all on the end of the Bretton Woods system under Nixon. The biggest effect of this change was to end the gold standard. The 1971 guys think we should go back to a non-fiat currency system and in place of the gold standard we should have the bitcoin standard. I’m not sure what all or even most of the effects would be if the U.S. switched to backing their currency with bitcoin, but I can guarantee at least one effect. It would be very lucrative for early bitcoin investors, which is to say I’m not entirely sure we can count on these guys to be objective.

As I mentioned I came across the website several months ago, and at the time I made it the subject of one of my rare tweets (or perhaps I retweeted it, I forget which). In response some of my readers asked me to take a stab at answering the question. Of explaining what exactly did happen in 1971. Was it the end of the gold standard/Bretton Woods or was it something else? My curiosity had been piqued, and it seemed like something that might be in my wheelhouse. Accordingly in the months that followed I’ve been keeping my eyes open, on the lookout for evidence of big changes in the late 60’s early 70’s. Some grand explanation for WTF happened in 1971? Since that time here are the potential explanations I’ve come across:

1. I Was Born

It would be irresponsible of me to write a whole post on what happened in 1971, and not disclose that I was born in 1971. Perhaps the answer to: “WTF happened in 1971?” Is: “Jeremiah was born.” And of course if you’re going to have a Jeremiah he needs subjects for his jeremiads, so everything started going wrong the moment I was born.

Consider also that from a position of extreme solipsism I can’t even be sure that anyone other than me exists. Perhaps this reality is just my simulation and when I was born the creator of the simulation changed a bunch of the settings in order to craft the precise reality he wanted me to experience. 

I’m not sure of a lot, but I am sure that we can’t rule out the possibility that it’s entirely my fault.

2. Nixon Ended the Bretton Woods System and the Ability to Convert Dollars to Gold 

Next we might as well get the preferred explanation of the 1971 guys out of the way. For those that still aren’t sure exactly what happened, I don’t have the space to get into all the implications (and believe me, depending on who you listen to there are thousands of interpretations). But here’s the short description from Wikipedia:

On 15 August 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated convertibility of the US dollar to gold, effectively bringing the Bretton Woods system to an end and rendering the dollar a fiat currency. At the same time, many fixed currencies (such as the pound sterling) also became free-floating.

Certainly this is a big change to the way both the U.S. and the world economy operated. Also the timing does seem suspicious. Finally this is the explanation the website wants you to arrive at, which has to carry some weight.

While I only recently dived into the discussion section of the website and uncovered their fascination with bitcoin, the Bretton Woods angle was obvious just by looking at their charts, and one of the reasons I delayed writing about it is I wanted to better understand the linkage between going off of the gold standard and all of the things that had happened since then. And while I came across many other explanations for what happened in 1971 the “leaving Bretton Woods” explanation didn’t really get any clearer to me. And yes I understand that when you allow your currency to float freely ungrounded from any hard reality that it seems only logical that it would be easier to spend (government debt has exploded since 1971) and hard to keep the value stable (inflation has also skyrocketed). But despite this it’s rare to find even defenders of the gold standard claiming that we could ever go back to it. (Though such advocacy is becoming more common.)

I certainly understand the argument that the answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is, “We went off the gold standard”, but it feels too pat. It doesn’t explain everything else that inflected in 1971. It’s hard to find anyone arguing we should go back to the gold standard and even harder to find people saying we shouldn’t have left it in 1971. (Though if you have come across any great arguments please forward them.) 

As far as moving to a bitcoin standard, tackling that would be a separate post, one I’m in no position to write just yet.

3. Nothing, there Was No Inflection Point in 1971

One of the big problems with the previous explanation and indeed all of the explanations is that there exists a reasonable possibility that despite all the charts nothing really changed in 1971. One of the points I’ve made before in this space is that anytime we talk about modern trends, we’re almost always dealing with very limited data. We didn’t really come up with the idea of tracking societal statistics until pretty recently. So when you’re looking at a graph charting the rise of real GDP per capita compared against median male income, the data for that graph was only collected starting after World War II. We don’t know what the comparison looks like before then.

This turns out to be a big issue. If we review the charts on the website, nearly half of them (27) only show data after World War II (with many not starting until 1960, and a few actually starting in 1970). If we were to divide the time since 1945 into two parts, the part before 1971 and the part after, two-thirds of that time has come after 1971. This makes it difficult to argue that the time before 1971 should act as some sort of “normal”, or control on our experiment, while the post 1971 period is the aberration. It seems just as, if not more likely, that the immediate postwar period — when the US stood alone as the only nation unscathed by the war, and furthermore at the peak of its power — was the aberration, and that the post 1971 period represents a return to normal. 

Of course there is the other half of the graphs, the ones that go back farther than World War II, what about those? 

Well the rest of the graphs are a mixed bag. There’s a fair amount of duplication particularly in the graphs showing the growth of federal spending and the debt. Of those that do go back farther back than World War II, most only go back as far as 1900 or maybe 1880. And some of those, particularly the ones dealing with inequality show that World War II and its immediate aftermath really did represent an aberration, that from 1900 to 1940 inequality was similar to what we’re seeing now. That 1971 wasn’t when things broke, it’s when things were “restored”. When inequality returned back to its usual level.

Related to the foregoing I should include a comment made in response to a post over at Astral Codex Ten. The post asserted, “Around 1970, something went wrong.” In response the commenter said: 

This is semimythology. The richer the region within the U.S. you look at, the less growth there was between 1930 and 1970. The 1930s-early 1970s was mostly a process of poor regions catching up with the rich, not faster growth in the richest regions, which is what matters.

Combining these two explanations together I think we’ve gone a long way towards explaining what happened in 1971. But I don’t think they explain everything, and even if the postwar period was an aberration, it was apparently a particularly nice one, and it’s entirely reasonable to ask how we could return to those conditions, now that we know that it’s possible. Nevertheless I think it’s clear that at least in some respects the answer to the question of “WTF happened in 1971?” is that the auspicious conditions the U.S. had been enjoying since the end of the war finally came to an end.

4. The Long Peace Happened

As I mentioned many of the charts on wtfhappenedin1971.com concern rising inequality. This reminded me of the book The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel, which I read and reviewed several years ago. Scheidel’s contention is that in normal times inequality is constantly increasing, that it’s only during times of great disruption that we get drops in inequality. Quoting from the book:

Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality but did little if anything to bring it under control. Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks.

Scheidel then goes on to say:

State collapse served as a more reliable means of leveling, destroying disparities as hierarchies of wealth and power were swept away. Just as with mass mobilization wars and transformative revolutions, equalization was accompanied by great human misery and devastation, and the same applies to the most catastrophic epidemics: although the biggest pandemics leveled mightily, it is hard to think of a remedy to inequality that was dramatically worse than the disease. To a great extent, the scale of leveling used to be a function of the scale of violence: the more force was expended, the more leveling occured. Even though this is not an iron law—not all communist revolutions were particularly violent, for example, and not all mass warfare leveled—it may be as close as we can hope to get to a general premise. This is without any doubt an exceedingly bleak conclusion. (Emphasis mine)

This conclusion fits the data that shows that inequality was bad up until World War II and then started to get bad again a few decades later. But what about the rest of the charts? What about the other things that changed starting in 1971? To answer that, let’s turn to another book, The Worth of War by Benjamin Ginsberg, which I also reviewed several years ago. In this book Ginsberg points out that war is the ultimate test of rationality. When you’re experiencing a time of peace and prosperity, as we obviously are, then you can get away with doing things which are suboptimal. This is not the case when you’re involved in a fight to the death. In that case every dumb thing you do has a chance of opening you to the punishment of it being the last dumb thing you do. To put it in a milder form, we’re more tolerant of inefficiencies during times of peace than we are during times of war, and we have accumulated a lot of inefficiencies since 1971. 

At best this would represent a partial explanation, and I know a lot of people would be inclined to deny that it should be extended even that far. Also the cure of re-engaging in existential warfare is almost guaranteed to be worse than whatever our post 1971 disease happens to be. Nevertheless this all touches on a larger point. One that I’ve made repeatedly in the past and which will come up again in this post. We’re in historically uncharted territory. 

5. It’s All Part of a Historical Cycle

Peter Turchin, the leading proponent of historical cycles has gotten a lot of attention for predicting the unrest we’re currently seeing. His cycles have a period of 50 years, meaning the last period of unrest was in the late 60’s early 70’s but as I understand it spikes of unrest and violence bookend the different periods of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression. 

I am not a Turchin expert. I’ve read one book of his so far and it was entirely concerned with identifying historical cycles. It had nothing to say about what period we’re currently in, but if 2020 marks the transition between the stagflation period and the crisis period, and 1970 marked the transition from the period of expansion to the period of stagflation that would certainly seem to explain WTF happened in 1971. As I mentioned when I reviewed the last book, I do intend to read more Turchin. Perhaps I should start by following his blog? If anyone out there has been following it and can recommend any posts which bear on this as a potential explanation I’d be grateful.

6. We Broke The Country

As I’ve already alluded to, the late 60’s early 70’s certainly represented a political inflection point. Among the things that happened we have:

Extreme Violence: I’ve used this quote from FBI agent Max Noel before, “People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” This is also suspicious timing, and while the violence itself might not have inaugurated the long standing trends we’re still seeing today, you could certainly imagine that in the face of that violence you might be willing to implement all sorts of changes. And while they might be in response to something which later goes away, the changes could prove harder to reverse. 

Watergate: While Nixon didn’t resign until 1974 the actual break-in and the ensuing political circus happened in 1972. And since that time the ability of the government to get things done, particularly across party lines has steadily decreased. In particular while it’s easy to continue to spend money and kick the can down the road, it’s much harder and requires more coordination to exercise fiscal discipline. It’s hard to keep the train from driving off the cliff if you’re still fighting over the controls.

Roe v. Wade: Closely related to the above, this is when many people feel like the Supreme Court broke. And when I say many people I’m including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who felt the decision represented judicial overreach and subsequently caused a lot of problems further down the road. Roe wasn’t decided until 1973, but it was argued in 1971.

The Age of Entitlement: In his book of the same name, which I reviewed last year, Christopher Caldwell makes the argument that the U.S. has two constitutions. The first, created in 1787, is the one we all think of when someone mentions the US Constitution. The second, created in 1964, and commonly called the Civil Rights Act, is not generally viewed as a constitution, but one of Caldwell’s central arguments is that it is, and that from this much of the current political landscape follows as a conflict between the original, de jure constitution, and the new de facto constitution. That, rather than being a natural extension of the original constitution, the Civil Rights Act is in fact a rival constitution, not complementary but actually opposed in most respects to the values of the original. 

You may wonder how something which seems primarily cultural works to explain a phenomenon that’s largely financial, and moreover how something which happened in 1964 didn’t actually break things until 1971, but for Caldwell this is largely a financial argument. His claim is that passage of the Civil Rights Act opened up the floodgates of entitlement spending. While this spending was still in its infancy it was possible to imagine that things could be stopped or reversed, and indeed, that appeared to be the way things might be headed under Johnson, and even more so under Nixon, but Nixon ended up getting impeached. (I’m only now noticing the parallels between this description and the arc of Obamacare.)

This basically put the issue in the hands of Carter. Who actually tried to cut entitlements, and furthermore proposed lean and tight budgets. Whether his efforts contributed to the stagflation of the 70s or not, the timing of that was against him. All of this meant that by the time it got to Reagan entitlements were too entrenched to do anything about, and there was really only one thing he could do: Spend like crazy, cut taxes, and shift the burden of entitlements to future generations. 

One could argue that 1971 comes into play because that’s basically the point at which entitlement spending passes from being contentious to part of the landscape. Which seems kind of a stretch, but at the same time it’s easy to imagine that a sense of entitlement combined with massive spending on entitlements could lead to many of the trends documented on the website. Similarly it’s also clear that we have been entirely unable to slow spending on entitlements, (indeed recently such spending has skyrocketed, see my last newsletter) which is why these trends have continued for so long.

Taken together these four political inflection points seem at least as much a symptom of an underlying disease rather than the disease itself, but it is interesting how many such inflection points were clustered right around 1971.

7. Decadence and the Twilight of America

Closely related to the previous point is the idea of decadence. This argument was recently put into book length form by Ross Douthat in his book The Decadent Society. I did a review of it back in March of last year, and I would direct you there for the full discussion. In this space I just want to see how well his arguments map to our 1971 timeline.

As is the case nearly every time someone makes an argument for modern decadence Douthat begins his tale with the moon landing. This is his very first paragraph:

The peak of human accomplishment and daring, the greatest single triumph of modern science and government and industry, the most extraordinary endeavor of the American age in modern history, occurred in late July in the year 1969, when a trio of human beings were catapulted up from the earth’s surface, where their fragile, sinful species had spent all its long millennia of conscious history, to stand and walk and leap upon the moon.

After that first historic landing we did it five more times. The last of those was December of 1972. If the moon landing represents peak America, then there’s a credible argument that 1971 was the summit of that peak. By 1973 we had withdrawn from Vietnam in embarrassing fashion. Which was also the year OPEC announced their oil embargo. Oil prices didn’t make it onto wtfhappenedin1971.com, but I found another site which pointed out that the early 70s was also when oil prices went from “stable to unstable and never looked back”. We also suffered blows to our prestige in areas like car manufacturing. By 1970 foreign car makers had started to flood the U.S. market with cheaper, more reliable cars. The big three responded by introducing more compact models, but none of them was very well regarded and to the extent people remember Gremlins, Pintos and Vegas it’s as punchlines to jokes. Compounding their problems they had to deal with numerous union/labor issues.

To put things in more general terms Douthat argues that decadence can be broken down into four different components:

The first is stagnation. In the book Douthat borrows a thought experiment from economist Robert Gordon. Where he asks people to choose between having no technology invented since 2002 or all current technology except indoor plumbing and toilets. Everyone always chooses the former. When I reviewed the book I speculated you could go back farther than 2002, and I wonder at what point you’d get 50 percent of the people saying I’d give up indoor plumbing rather than give up all the technology after year X. Is that year 1971? Almost certainly not, but I would bet that it’s in that general neighborhood if not actually earlier than 1971.

The second component of decadence according to Douthat is sterility. As in the fact that we’re literally not having kids. You want to take any guesses as to the last year the USA’s birthrate was above the replacement level of 2.1? Did you guess 1971? If so you get a gold star, because in yet another example of the 1971 inflection that is precisely the case. And it’s an inflection point I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else. 

The third component is sclerosis which Douthat mostly uses to cover political inaction. For most of us the filibuster has become emblematic of this inaction and indeed we see an inflection point in the early 70’s there as well. It got so bad so fast that in 1975 it was reduced from a 2/3rds majority to the current 60 votes we see today. 

Finally there’s repetition, the stagnation of art and culture. Where, for example, a 2010’s movie looks like a 2000’s movie looks like a 1990’s movie. I think it would be very hard to pin the beginning of this to a specific year, and perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Once again we may be describing the symptom more than the disease, but taken in its entirety you can certainly see a narrative where around 1971 the US went from being vibrant and expansive to tentative and self-absorbed. Where we accomplished one final amazing thing — landing a man on the moon — and then there were no other frontiers left. Probably because I just read that book, it puts me in mind of Shackleton and the great British explorers, which of course coincided with the heights of the British Empire. I think to be vibrant a country needs a frontier or an enemy or something to strive for and perhaps in the early 70s after the moon landing and our defeat in Vietnam we had run out of both. 

8. Less Likely but still Interesting contenders
So what’s my favorite explanation? It’s actually none of the above. And because it’s my favorite, it won’t appear here. I’m going to devote the whole of my next post to it. But before I end this post here are a few miscellaneous contenders:

Healthcare: Another area that looks more like a symptom than a disease, but it’s easy enough to find graphs that show not only that we spent next to nothing on healthcare in 1971, but that we spent the same amount as other developed countries. That 1971 is when spending started to go up and to diverge from other developed nations.

Sexual Revolution: The timing is more or less right, and there are books that have made this case like Sex and Culture and Primal Screams. I doubt that it’s at the top of anyone’s list, but I suspect that the sexual revolution and other cultural changes have had a much greater impact than most people suspect. 

Science broke: With the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis getting lots of attention, along with all of the things science did right and wrong over the last 18 months, added on top of the replication crisis, and the fight over climate change. Lots of people are asking if science is broken. If for the moment we assume that it is, then the next question would be when did it break? I haven’t dug into this as much as some other stuff, but one potential answer is 1971. That’s when peer review really took off, and it couldn’t have been too long after that that “publish or perish” became the law of professorship. 

End of the Malthusian Cycle: If birthrates flatten and agriculture becomes more productive then we have reached a state in human development we very rarely see, a state where population is not limited by the food supply. This is not the first time this has happened, but previously it’s always been because of horrible catastrophes like the Black Death. The reason I didn’t give more space to the explanation is that it appears to have happened closer to 1960 than 1971, and other people have already spent quite a bit of time on it. But in essence one possible answer to the question of what happened is that after thousands and thousands of years humanity finally escaped the Malthusian trap.

Tune back next week when I cover my favorite explanation (hint: I’ll once again be talking about nuclear power.) There’s very little chance I won’t be back next week, but if you’re concerned at all, the best thing to do is to donate.


The 10 Books I Finished in May

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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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

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


  1. A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by: Jeff Hawkins
  2. One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by: Matthew Yglesias
  3. Persepolis Rising by: James S. E. Corey
  4. Project Hail Mary by: Andy Weir
  5. The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century by: Stein Ringen
  6. The Ethics of Authenticity by: Charles Taylor
  7. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours by: David D. Friedman
  8. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by: Alfred Lansing
  9. The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel) by: Neil Gaiman Adapted by: P. Craig Russell Illustrated by: Various
  10. Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020 by: Seth Masket

It’s the end of the school year, and this one has been particularly dramatic. My two oldest both graduated from college, and my youngest graduated from high school. Beyond that my wife is a school teacher and this year has easily been her most difficult. She was required to do her normal in person teaching, while on top of that to prepare everything again for a separate virtual track. Which more than doubled her workload. My two oldest didn’t have a normal graduation ceremony, and spent much of their final year in virtual classes, which I don’t think they enjoyed. But the person who really suffered was my youngest. The pandemic clobbered the end of her junior year and most of her senior year. At a time when kids should be spending time with their friends and going to games and dances, she did far less of that than normal. Fortunately though they cancelled prom last year, they didn’t this year, which I was overjoyed to hear. She ended up missing the majority of her high school dances, I was glad she got to go to prom.

We did a lot during the pandemic to save the lives of old people. And it was easy to know if we were succeeding or not by looking at how many of them died. Of course in order to protect these lives we made sacrifices, we sacrificed the lives of the young for the lives of the old. Not literally of course, their sacrifice was less dramatic, but they did make sacrifices. In the end, perhaps whatever sacrifice the young needed to make was entirely worth it. It will probably end up being only a minor disruption, and quickly forgotten. Kids are pretty resilient after all. But when I consider everything my daughter was looking forward to that she ended up missing out on, and then beyond that to consider the millions of other kids who missed out on stuff I can’t help but be sad. Also it’s clearly a perversion of the natural order to have the very young make sacrifices for the very old, and I suspect that these days we do it far too often. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence

By: Jeff Hawkins

288 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

How the brain works, and what implications that has for artificial intelligence.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in artificial intelligence or neurology you should probably read this book. 

General Thoughts

This is a follow-up to Hawkins’ previous book, On Intelligence, which introduced the predictive processing model of the brain. I loved On Intelligence so I was eager to read Hawkins’ follow-up. I also enjoyed this book, but it was not nearly so revelatory as his first one, though it was more ambitious. However, I’m not sure this ambition was a good thing.

In this book Hawkins fleshes out the predictive processing model introduced in On Intelligence. For those unfamiliar with the idea, the predictive processing model holds that the brain works by creating predictions for what it will see and hear and then uses those predictions in essence to meet sensory input half way. That’s a simplistic explanation for a fascinating topic, and if it’s still unclear I would recommend the wikipedia article I linked to. In this book Hawkins adds two new ideas:

First off he presents the idea of reference frames. If the brain is going to make predictions it has to have a framework around which to base its predictions. Thus, according to Hawkins, intelligence relies on a large collection of models. It models objects, rooms, ideas, etc. Once these models are in place it can compare them against what it encounters in reality and use them to identify objects, catalog things which are new, and make judgements based on how closely things correspond or deviate from these models. 

His second idea, embodiment, is closely related to reference frames. A brain has to be attached to a source of sensory input to something in order to make and use these models. Perhaps not in theory, but in practice when all the food and the predators were physical, reference frames ended up being very closely tied to the actual environment. This means our intelligence is intimately connected to our bodies, and that creating an intelligence without giving it a body to control as it goes about collecting data and turning it into models is to miss the entire definition of intelligence. In more concrete terms Hawkins asserts that robotics will end up being critical to AI, that thinking is inseparable from moving. The natural question is whether we could simulate a physical environment. I think Hawkins could have spent more space on this question, but his answer appears to be that we cannot, not in a way that leads to actual intelligence.

Underlying all of this is the neocortex, the most recent addition to the brain and the seat of intelligence. The fundamental unit of the neocortex is the cortical column, which makes it also the fundamental unit of intelligence. If we assume (as Hawkins does) that each cortical column takes up one square millimeter at the surface of the brain and has a depth of 2.5 millimeters (the thickness of the neocortex) then humans have 150,000 of them. (Thus the title of the book.) And each one can contain parts of thousands of different models. But the key fact, according to Hawkins, is that they all have essentially the same architecture, and as such if we can just duplicate a cortical column we can attach it to a “body” and we’ll have intelligence, and consciousness. 

I will leave a full discussion of the book’s implications for AI and the “hard problem of consciousness” to the experts. Though I do find his contention that AI will need to learn through movement fascinating for religious reasons which I’ll get into at the very end of the post. And as far as consciousness, according to Hawkins it will be easy to replicate and should carry no particular moral weight, meaning it’s not a big deal to shut off such machines even if they are conscious, and getting into why takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

A big part of Hawkins’ book is making a division between the neocortex and the “old brain” and while he doesn’t go as far as some people I’ve seen (Tim Urban over at Wait but Why makes the same distinction and claims that “the Higher Mind [i.e. the neocortex] values truth above all else” and yes it was bold in the original.) Hawkins basically claims that all of the problems we’re currently grappling with as humans, the biases, the divisions, the violence, etc. originates in the old brain. Thus when we build an artificial neocortex it won’t have any of that bad stuff because we won’t have built an old brain along with it. Apparently caring about survival and consciousness is one of those bad things, which is why shutting off AIs which lack old brains will not carry any moral weight. Moreover, an AI built in such a fashion will be perfectly subservient and docile. From all this Hawkins concludes that all those people who are worried about AI risk are worried about nothing.

At a bare minimum such a blanket rejection seems hasty, but there’s a case to be made that it’s worse than that, that it’s actually staggeringly naive. I can think of at least 4 reasons why this might be the case:

  1. As I’ve pointed out over and over again civilization is the accumulation of cultural evolution. Out of this we’ve gotten things like rule of law, expectations of reciprocity, positive systems of belief, etc. Let’s assume, as Hawkings appears to, that none of this is built in, that we’re born as a blank slate with respect to these issues. This would mean that a blank neocortex would have none of this very important cultural evolution either. Nevertheless it seems important that they acquire it. How is that to be accomplished? This seems like a reasonably important and difficult issue, and I’m just talking about the technical aspects, forget the arguments which would arise over deciding which “culture” to embed in our AI.
  2. More importantly there are studies that indicate you actually can’t make even routine decisions without emotions, and further that emotion is tied to perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. But emotions are all part of the bad old brain, so we’d have to come up with some other way of providing the AI with emotions or at least something which directs the neocortex. But wouldn’t this just take us back to the AI alignment problem?
  3. Another reason Hawkins has for dismissing AI risk is if we take it as given that intelligence needs to be embodied in order to learn, this inevitably puts a cap on how fast the AIs can develop. A computer may be able to play a million games of virtual chess in only a moment or two, but if it tries to play physical chess that fast the robot arm won’t be able to keep up. This is an important point, but I think Hawkins dismisses the potential of virtual worlds too easily. Also I think he underestimates the advantage of being able to clone experts and mass produce bodies. Which is to say there’s a good chance that if one robot spends the time necessary to become an expert in a given domain, we can copy that robot as often as we want, or even add that expertise to other robots. 
  4. The impression I got from the book is that if we can figure out how to create a cortical column then the problem of intelligence would be solved beyond a few trivial issues that are barely worth mentioning. One of these issues that was apparently too trivial to mention is the specialization between the left and right hemispheres, something I went into great detail on in a previous post. (Left brain obsesses over details, right brain is the one that assembles them into coherent wholes.) This oversight is just one example, I suspect there is vast complexity in the cortex that would not be captured by just duplicating cortical columns.

These are all significant problems, despite that it seems clear that if you think understanding natural intelligence is an important step in creating artificial intelligence, you’re going to have to grapple with Hawkins’ ideas. If we are as close to AI as Hawkins claims, it would carry profound implications for the future of humanity and our eventual destiny. This endeavor touches on most of the hot topics in the trans/posthumanist space, and in the last part of the book he also grapples with these.  He vigorously disagrees with the idea that anyone is ever going to want to have their brain uploaded, and he’s also fairly dismissive of the idea of integrating brains and computers cybernetically. He knows that part of this desire is connected with a desire for immortality which leads him to a discussion of ways to achieve immortality for humanity and Fermi’s Paradox. Here he summarily dismisses worries about announcing our existence (i.e. the Dark Forest explanation) and offers some ideas for creating a civilizational archive.

I agree with most of his predictions, though often for very different reasons, but I wonder if it would be a better book if he had leaned in more to these additional topics or ignored them entirely. His tactic of touching on them briefly gave the appearance of arrogance, and leads to the accusation that Hawkins feels that because he has solved one problem, how the brain works, that he can use that methodology to solve all problems.

I don’t think Hawkins has solved all the problems of the future, and I don’t even think he’s solved all of the problems of intelligence as comprehensively as he imagines. Nevertheless I think this book represents a significant step forward in our understanding of natural intelligence, which is why, despite my numerous criticisms, you should still probably read this book. 


One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger

By: Matthew Yglesias

268 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is less about dramatically increasing the population than the title suggests. That is in there, but it is at least as much about ambitious technocratic solutions to our current problems.

Who should read this book?

If you like Yglesias then subscribe to his substack. (I do.) If you think his problem solving approach is so important that you should read everything you can about it, then also read this book, but I think from the standpoint of information density and utility the substack is better.

General Thoughts

As I said this book is less about the mechanics of getting “One Billion Americans” than the title would suggest, and at least as much about the subtitle “The Case for Thinking Bigger”. This disconnect violates one of Yglesias’ own rules, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. (I really like this rule, I did a whole post on it.) As an example of this lack, nowhere in the book does he lay out a timeline for how long he expects this population increase to take — 20 years? By the end of the century? He never even hints at this answer which seems like the bare minimum one should expect for a proposal like this. I suspect he leaves it out because it would point out some obvious difficulties with the idea. But clearly if we’re going to evaluate his idea we need to know what those difficulties might be, so let’s see if we can infer them based on what he does say. 

Space-wise he spends about the same amount of time on increasing population through increasing the birthrate as he does on increasing it through immigration, and he frequently talks about one billion as a tripling of the population. Obviously the first part of the three parts is the current population, so let’s say the second is babies born to current Americans and the third part is immigration. If we can decide a reasonable rate for adding the second part we can come up with a timeline for the whole endeavor. Currently the US Population is growing at 0.3% per year. At that rate it would take until 2256 for the population to double, and I’m assuming that much of that 0.3% is already due to immigration, but let’s be optimistic and assume it’s all births to current Americans, obviously we’re going to have to increase that rate, but how much is reasonable?

Let’s say we got it all the way to 1% in this case it would take until 2092. This would require that government incentives triple the population growth, something no government has even come close to doing, and we’re still looking at 2092. Israel has the highest population growth of any developed country at 1.44%, and they achieve that mostly through their huge population of orthodox Jews, so as it turns out religion is more powerful than policy. (A point I think I make all the time.) Even if we were to manage to get to that rate of growth it would still take until 2070 to double the population. This starts out as around five million new people per year and by 2070 it’s around 9 million people, since we’re assuming equal contribution from immigration this means that we’re also admitting that many immigrants. Currently we have around 46 million 1st generation immigrants, so we’d be doubling that number in 10 years, and eventually adding that many more immigrants every five years. And recall that these huge numbers get even huger if we can’t vastly increase the birthrate. So under the most optimistic scenario we’d need Israeli birthrates, 330 million immigrants and it wouldn’t happen until 2070.

One of the reasons Ygelsias gives for needing this massive population growth is to enable us to stay ahead of China. This is a big part of his book, it first comes up in the second paragraph of the introduction. As I’ve pointed out, getting to a billion Americans by 2070 would be a staggering achievement. Does anyone think it’s going to take 50 years before things come to a head with China? All of which is to say Yglesias is either encouraging politically inconceivable amounts of immigration, or he assumes that we will have many, many decades of runway before it will be a problem.

I focus on the unreality of Yglesias’ logistics first because if he’s actually serious then the minimum he can do is put together a timeline and some numbers. He has positioned himself as a pragmatist and I would think a timeline would be the bare minimum required for something to be considered a pragmatic solution. But the second thing I want to bring up is probably more serious, though at least he has an ideological excuse for ignoring it: 

It’s the problem of assimilating this massive influx of immigrants. My memory is that the topic of assimilation never appears in the book, certainly it’s never seriously grappled with. I bought the book expecting to be able to confirm this using the index, but it doesn’t have an index! (I would have bought the kindle version so I could search, but the hardback was actually less expensive.) I understand that some people believe assimilation to be unnecessary or even harmful, but I think they’re mistaken, particularly when dealing with an influx as massive as the one being discussed in this book..

Eschatological Implications

In some respects what this book has is an anti-eschatology. It contends that we can continue to avoid history and the catastrophes that accompany it if we just have a billion Americans, and perhaps more importantly if we implement his ambitious technocratic proposals, which cover areas like energy (way more nuclear), infrastructure (figure out and eliminate cost disease), and immigration (way more, but with some filtering). 

In this latter respect this book somewhat resembles Where Is My Flying Car, by J. Storrs Hall which I reviewed back in March. Hall claims all our problems can be solved by scientists and engineers if the government would just get out of the way. Yglesias claims that all our problems can be solved by government bureaucrats, though it’s not entirely clear who needs to get out of their way, perhaps the bureaucrats need to get out of their own way? This is the charitable interpretation of the book. But I don’t think it quite captures the book’s essence. No, for that we need to turn to Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

In one of the strips from this classic comic we see a man trapped in a box full of snakes hanging from the side of a tall building. The caption reads: “Professor Gallagher and his controversial technique of simultaneously confronting the fear of heights, snakes and the dark.” This appears to be the same technique Yglesias is advocating, that if America just had a billion people we would be forced to figure out a solution to transportation, infrastructure spending, and NIMBYism. And Yglesias has some decent ideas for how to do these things. Of course we would presumably also have to figure out racism, education (in particular racial achievement gaps), climate change and border control (Yglesias doesn’t want to admit just anyone). And here his ideas are far more vague, though I appreciated his advocacy of nuclear power. 

On one level you think, that might just be crazy enough to work! But on another level I think I would have been more interested in hearing the one thing he would focus on first, rather than his vague and crazy plan to solve everything all at once.


II- Capsule Reviews

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7)

By: James S. A. Corey

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book jumps 30 years into the future and finally reveals what’s been happening with the renegade Martians who’ve been hiding out all this time in the Laconian system.

Who should read this book?

It’s book 7 of a series, presumably by this point you should know whether or not you’re the audience for this book.

General Thoughts

The improbable centrality of James Holden and his associates to everything that happens everywhere continues in this next book of the Expanse series. But that’s okay. Since I came to the realization that the Expanse is just the campaign log for a particularly well run science fiction themed role-playing game that particular conceit has been a lot easier to stomach.

This book continues the interesting and capably written science fiction of the previous books with one notable exception. Singh, the viewpoint character for nearly a quarter of the chapters and the primary antagonist, did not gel for me. He was a bundle of attributes that never cohered. And out of all the attributes in that bundle he lacked the one you most expected him to have. So great was this lack that the book acknowledged its peculiarity and provided a perfunctory explanation. (I believe the cool kids call this lampshade hanging.) But as you might be able to tell I found the explanation entirely inadequate. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the Expanse series has actually done a reasonably good job of constructing interesting antagonists, and the Laconians have the potential to be the most interesting of all, but by making Singh the Laconian who gets the most screen time they fatally undermine this endeavor.


Project Hail Mary

by: Andy Weir

496 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the third book by the author of The Martian. (Now a major Hollywood motion picture starring Matt Damon!) This book is also the story of a scientist/engineer who finds himself alone and far away from home and must use his science/engineering chops to save the day.

Who should read this book?

If you liked The Martian I’m pretty confident you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this book is very similar to The Martian, but that’s okay. Lot’s of authors essentially write the same book over and over again (Fleming, Le Carre, Clancy, Crichton, Doyle, etc.) and if that’s where their talent is that’s what they should do. And clearly Weir has a talent for this sort of book, so he should probably write as many of them as he and we can stomach. That said, as is so often the case, I had a couple of problems with the book, one minor and one existential. 

Starting with the minor one, Weir, like so many science fiction authors who end up touching on Fermi’s Paradox, falls prey to the Mistake of Dramatic Timing, where despite the fact that something could have happened anytime in the last 100 million years (if not far longer) it happens at some point in the next 20, at a point where it’s occurrence creates the most drama. But as I said this is a failing common to many authors, not just Weir. 

The existential issue I have involves massive spoilers, so I have hidden it but if you select the space below you can see it. But, seriously think carefully before you do, I am spoiling the central mystery/reveal of the book, and if you don’t want that spoiled then come back after you’ve read it.

The main character has amnesia, and the central mystery of the book is how he ended up on the spaceship, since as his memories return it’s clear that he was not supposed to be on it, someone else was and on top of that, there was another person as a backup for the first  person. As you read you figure that something obviously happened to the primary crew member and their backup and indeed near the end you find out that they both end up dying in a freak accident. And Ryland Grace, the main character, ends up being the best person to take their place, in part because he’s been intimately involved in the project and already mostly has all the necessary knowledge, and in part because he’s got the rare gene which allows people to survive the artificial coma the crew is going to have to undergo in order to make the 13 light year trip. (Not 13 years for the crew because of relativity, but long enough that without the coma the mission planners are confident the crew will end up going crazy and killing on another.) 

So far so normal, authors create contrived situations all the time in order to end up with the story they want. It’s contrived that the other two crew members would die, leaving him alone. It’s contrived that the main character would have amnesia. And the whole book is a contrivance constructed to get a junior high science teacher on an interstellar ship. But all of these I can forgive, because they’re part of the story. But then there’s one contrivance which ends up being part of Grace’s character and I can’t believe that Grace would act this way, and furthermore I can’t believe that Weir thought it was acceptable to write the character this way.

Near the climax of the book Grace finally remembers the accident which kills the person who was supposed to go as the science officer and that person’s backup. When this happens the woman in charge (who I love) asks him to take their place. And when she makes this request, when she tells him that the only hope of the ENTIRE WORLD and EVERYONE ON IT depends on him, that they’re days away from launch and it would be impossible to train someone else, he refuses to go.

What sort of person would refuse this request?!?! (Honestly, and I know this is abjectly sexist according to conventional norms, but what kind of man would refuse this request?) More than that, what sort of author thinks this unbelievable level of cowardice is an acceptable trait for anyone let alone their main character? And most important of all, how did we reach this point as a society where we have no problem accepting the idea that it should be someone’s right to refuse to save the world? That even if someone is the only hope for saving the world, that they can just say they don’t feel like it and that’s an understandable and acceptable motivation? I’ve looked around some and no one else seems to have this problem. Now possibly it hasn’t come up because it’s a huge spoiler, but before you let society off the hook also remember that Weir not only had to come up with the idea and it had to get past numerous editors and first readers. As one final point, compare this to the heroic novels of just a few decades ago and try to imagine how people back then would have reacted. 

As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve been reading the archives of The Last Psychiatrist, and he frequently talks about the way narcissism has become the defining trait of modernity. Could there be a better example than this? Perhaps? But this is a doozy regardless. 

Now Weir has a reason. In establishing that Grace’s desire to live is so strong that he would refuse to save the world (the mission is one way). When, later in the book, he has to choose between living and doing something else noble (I could go into details, but I’m trying not to spoil everything) it makes this choice more noble because we already know how much he wanted to live, enough to choose it over saving the planet. But couldn’t Weir have accomplished the same thing by doing something similar to what Nolan did in Interstellar — give the guy a daughter? Yes he would have been copying Interstellar, and yes it would have introduced some other complexities, but that’s kind of the point. How did it come to seem that the best choice, and more importantly a believable choice was making Grace a coward with zero sense of duty?

Finally as perhaps a denouement to my rant. Even if we ignore what this choice says about our world, it’s still hard to argue that it wasn’t a dramatic choice, and one that received zero foreshadowing. To consider just one possibility overlooked by Weir, there’s the scene where Grace finds out he has this rare gene, and he doesn’t introspect at all about what it might mean with respect to this mission he’s deeply involved in. Weir could have foreshadowed his terror at the idea, making his eventual choice at least somewhat more believable.

Having read this spoiler you may wonder why I’m recommending the book. Well it comes at the end, the noble thing which follows it, somewhat redeems the choice, and the book up until this reveal is genuinely fantastic. 


The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century 

By: Stein Ringen

194 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Defining what sort of government China has and what we can expect out of it going forward. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re really trying to understand China this is a valuable addition to that quest. If not, the book is pretty technical and dry.

General Thoughts

I already talked at some length about this book in a post from a couple of weeks ago, though in that post I mostly focused on Ringen’s predictions. The book actually spends most of its time assessing how successful the Communist party has been at ruling China, and the conclusion is “mediocre”. Ringen points out that South Korea modernized far faster and far more successfully, and that most of China’s success is a natural byproduct of being so huge and from starting at basically zero after Mao comprehensively wrecked the country. 

In a past post on China I wondered if, based on Fukuyama’s Hegelian analysis of history, if China represented the synthesis of a new and more successful form of government. Having read this book I think we can be reasonably confident that it’s not. And if Ringen is correct it’s swiftly moving to a form of government we already tried, and with disastrous results: facism. 


The Ethics of Authenticity

By: Charles Taylor

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which supporters and critics of the modern drive for authenticity end up missing the point.

Who should read this book?

This is a densely written book, similar to the other book I’ve read by Taylor, A Secular Age but not nearly so long, so it’s a great way to get both a sense of Taylor and a nuanced discussion of authenticity, but it is pretty academic.

General Thoughts

Arguments over authenticity generally fall into two camps. There are the people arguing that it’s acceptable to abandon everything, religion, family, and even spouses if it brings someone closer to their authentic self. And then there are people who think such abandonment is everything that’s wrong with the modern world, and an elaborate justification for the worst kind of selfish and destructive behavior. In this book Taylor attempts to strike a middle ground between these two views. He understands the importance of individual choice, of allowing people to choose what seems most authentic to them, but argues that in order for that choice to have any meaning there still has to be a background of external values. From the book:

Even the sense that the significance of my life comes from its being chosen — the case where authenticity is actually grounded on self-determining freedom — depends on the understanding that independent of my will there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life…unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues are more significant than others…Which issues are significant I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

By: David D. Friedman

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The collected descriptions of historical legal systems with very different ways of doing things.

Who should read this book?

If you have libertarian leanings, or a fascination with historical legal systems, or if the idea of the book sounds interesting, you should read it. 

General Thoughts

I read this book as part of a Slate Star Codex reading group. The book was selected because it was reviewed on SSC. I don’t think I can improve on, or even add much, to that review. I will say that the discussion of historical methods for dealing with a legal code which was literally handed down by God — as is the case with Jews and Muslims (and to a lesser extent Mormons) — was fascinating. In these situations there needs to be some flexibility in enforcing the law particularly as times change — to give a simple example enforcing Jewish law in a Jewish state is a lot easier than enforcing it when you’re ruled over by the Romans — but a system of law which came directly from the mouth of God doesn’t naturally lend itself to flexibility. The historical ways in which flexibility was justified in spite of this made for some very interesting reading.


Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

By: Alfred Lansing

357 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ernest Shackleton’s aborted attempt to cross Antarctica in 1914 and the amazing survival story which took place after his ship was destroyed by the ice.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. Certainly everyone who isn’t intimately familiar with this amazing story.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I watched a TV show about Shackleton and since then I’ve been enthralled by the story, but I hadn’t really come across a good book about it (which is not to say that I looked very hard) so I was grateful when one of my readers recommended this book. It was a quick read (10 hours on audio) but I don’t think it skimped on the details. And really the story, particularly the part where Shackleton sails a 20 foot open boat 800 miles across the worst seas in the world to get help, is just incredible.


The Graveyard Book (Graphic Novel)

By: Neil Gaiman

Adapted by: P. Craig Russell

Illustrated by: Various

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a graphic novel adaptation of Gaiman’s novel of the same name, which itself is a re-imagining of Kipling’s Jungle Book, with a graveyard in place of a jungle.

Who should read this book?

Everyone should definitely read The Graveyard Book, the question is whether the graphic novel version is faithful enough to serve as a replacement for the original novel. I would say probably, but I really think you should probably just read both, in which case I would probably start with the novel.

General Thoughts

I’m a huge fan of graphic novels (and it’s a mystery why I don’t read more, they would definitely help pump up my numbers). And I’m a huge fan of Gaiman and in particular The Graveyard Book so the other day when I was browsing through a Barnes and Noble and saw this book I immediately bought it and read it. 

Obviously when talking about a graphic novel you need to discuss the artwork. I thought it was good, but not incredible. There were slightly more examples of the artwork being worse than what I had imagined than there were examples of it being better. But that’s probably more a comment on how great the novel was at stoking my imagination than any comment on the skill of the artists. The art was great, and I’m glad I bought the book.


Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016–2020

By: Seth Masket

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A data driven examination of what lessons the Democrats took from their loss in 2016 as they considered who to nominate in 2020.

Who should read this book?

Hardcore political junkies who think anecdotes just slow things down.

General Thoughts

Over the last few years I’ve read two great books about the lead up to the 2016 election from the Republican perspective. One was The Wilderness by McKay Coppins, the other was American Carnage by Tim Alberta (you can find my review of it here.) I immensely enjoyed both books, and was looking for something that did the same thing but from the perspective of the Democrats, I thought this might be such a book, it was not. Wilderness and Carnage were full of amazing anecdotes and behind the scenes stories. Learning from Loss was a collection of data from numerous surveys asking high level Democrats why they thought they had lost in 2016, and then graphs and analysis of their responses. I suppose that this methodology is more generally useful than knowing what Mitt Romney’s reaction was when Jeb Bush preemptively hired all the people qualified to run a campaign, but the latter is way more engaging. All of which is to say I did learn some things — for example lots of people blamed the loss on too big of an emphasis on identity politics which is how we ended up with an old white guy — but overall it was a pretty dull book.

III- Religious Reviews

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence [Addendum]

I mentioned above that the contention that intelligence has to be embodied is very interesting from a religious perspective. In particular I’m thinking of my own religion. In Mormon cosmology there is not only life after death, but there was life before birth. In that state people are specifically referred to as “intelligences” and one of the primary reasons to be born is in order to get a body. That the next step if you want to progress as an intelligence is to be embodied. Obviously it would be very easy to make too much of the way this correlates with what Hawkins is saying, but I find it a fascinating correlation nonetheless.


I worry about these posts being too long, though I’m sure the anchor links at the top help. Is there any benefit to breaking them up into separate posts, maybe spreading them out over the month? Would it give the impression of more content and thus encourage more donations? Obviously anything that encourages someone to donate is a good thing. 


In Defense of Prophets

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A few weeks ago I came across a book review for The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but it seemingly presents an interesting way of categorizing our two broad approaches to preparing for the future, and harnessing new technology.

According to the instructions on the tin, The Wizard and the Prophet is meant to outline the origin of two opposing attitudes toward the relationship between humans and nature through their genesis in the work and thought of two men: William Vogt, the “Prophet” polemicist who founded modern-day environmentalism, and Norman Borlaug, the “Wizard” agronomist who spearheaded the Green Revolution. Roughly speaking, Wizards want continual growth in human numbers and quality of life, and to use science and technology to get there: think Gene Roddenbury’s wildest dreams, full of replicators and quantum flux-harnessing doodads that untether us from our eons-long project of survival on limited resources and allow us to expand limitlessly. “Prophets” believe that we can’t keep growing our population or impact on the world without eventually destroying it, and ourselves along with it. Their ideal future is like one of those planets the Federation ships would Prime-Directive right over, where humankind scales back and lives in harmony with the land, taking just enough to sustain our (smaller) numbers and allowing the intricate web of human and non-human creatures to flourish.

This idea of dividing people into “Prophets” and “Wizards” intrigued me, particularly since it’s a distinction I’ve been making since my very first post in this space, though of course I didn’t use those terms. But I did point out that the modern world is racing towards one of two destinations, on the one hand, a technological singularity that changes everything for the better and, on the other hand, a catastrophe. Both are possible outcomes of our increasing mastery of technology. And one of the most important questions humanity faces is which destination will we arrive at first?

From the review it appears Mann approaches this question mostly from the perspective of the environment, with particular attention on carrying capacity, but I think the two concepts are useful enough that we should broaden things, using the label of Wizard for those who think the race will be won by a singularity, and the label of Prophet for those who think it will be won by catastrophe. Not only does broadening the terms make them more useful, but I also think it’s in keeping with the general theme of the book.

Of course, in that first post and in most of the posts following it, I have been on the side of the Prophets. The review takes the side of the Wizards. And indeed the Wizard side is pretty impressive. The quote mentioned the Green Revolution which probably saved the lives of a billion people. To this we could add the billion people saved by synthetic fertilizers, the billion people saved by blood transfusions, and the billion people saved by toilets. If we wanted to further run up the score we could add the millions saved by antibiotics, vaccines and water chlorination. With numbers like these, what possible reason could anyone have for not being on the side of the Wizards?

It gets even worse for the Prophets. I was recently listening to a podcast and the host was interviewing Niall Ferguson. Ferguson was on to promote his new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. In the course of the interview he pointed out that when it comes to the most extreme claims of the Prophets, namely a total apocalypse, they have been wrong 100% of the time. That essentially in every age and among every people there have been predictions of apocalypse and armageddon, and no matter the time or the person they’ve all been wrong. So given all of the foregoing why on earth would I choose to defend the Prophets?

In order to answer that question we’re going to need to break things down a little bit. There’s a lot of things tied up in the labels “Wizard” and “Prophet”, and it’s easy to declare one the victor if if you only consider what has happened already and don’t consider what might happen, but once you start looking into the future (which is precisely what Prophets are doing) then the situation becomes far less clear. To illustrate, let me turn to another one of my past posts, and the metaphor of technological progress as an urn full of balls.

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence… [He also came up with the simulation hypothesis.]

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think of the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net, they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

This metaphor allows us to more accurately define what distinguishes Wizards and Prophets. Wizards are those who are in favor of continuing to draw balls from the urn, confident that we will never draw a black ball. Prophets, on the other hand, are people who think that we will eventually draw a black ball, or that, on balance, the effect of continuing to draw balls from the urn is negative i.e. we will draw more dark gray balls than white balls. Viewed from this perspective whether you have any sympathy for Prophets depends in large part on whether you think the urn contains any black balls. Accordingly, stories about the amazing white balls which have been drawn, like the green revolution and vaccines and all the other stuff already mentioned, are something of a distraction because it doesn’t matter how many white balls you draw out of the urn, that can never be proof that there are no black balls. And of course Prophets are not opposed to white balls, they just know that if we ever draw a black ball the game is over.

To be fair there is one other possibility. More recently some of the Wizards have started to argue that it’s also possible for the urn to contain a ball of such surpassing whiteness that it also ends the game, but with a win, instead of a loss. That rather than permanently destroying us it permanently saves us. This permanent salvation would, by definition, be a singularity, though not all singularities ensure permanent salvation. But put in terms of the metaphor, my point from the very beginning is that we have been playing the ball drawing game for quite a while and eventually we’re probably going to draw one or the other, and I not only do I think drawing a pure black ball is more likely than drawing a pure white ball. I think that even a small chance of drawing a pure black outweighs even a large chance of drawing the pure white ball. To show why takes us into the realm of something else that’s been part of the blog from the beginning. The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Most of the balls we draw from the urn, particularly those that are very dark or very white, are black swans. I’ve already linked to the whole framework of Taleb’s philosophy but for those that don’t want to follow the link but still need a refresher: black swans are rare events with three qualities:

  1. They lie outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. They have an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterward to show how they should have been expected.

Technological progress allows us to draw more balls, which means there are more black swans. More things that “lie outside the realm of regular expectations”. The word “regular” is key here. Regular is the world as it was, the world we’re adapted for, the world we were built to survive in. This “regular” world also had positive and negative black swans and in fact may have had even more negative black swans, but since it didn’t involve the ball-drawing game, this regular world didn’t have to worry about black balls. We may not have been thriving, but there was no chance of us causing our own extinction either. Another way of saying this is that we already had the pure white ball. We had developed sufficient technology to assure our permanent salvation.

Part of the reason for this is that whatever the frequency of black swans, they were less extreme. The big thing capping this extremity is that they were localized. Until recently there was no way for there to be a global pandemic or a global war. This takes us to the second attribute of black swans: their extreme impact. Technology has served to increase the extremity of black swans. When the black swans are positive, this is a very good thing. No previous agricultural black swan ever came close to the green revolution, because a change of that magnitude was impossible without technology. It’s the same for all of the other Wizardly inventions. In their hands technology can do amazing things. But the magnitude of change possible with technology is not limited only to positive changes. Technology can make negative changes of extreme magnitude as well. In allowing us to draw all these fantastic white balls, it also introduced the possibility of the pure black ball. A negative black swan so bad we don’t survive it. A point we’ll return to in just a moment, but before we do that let’s finish out our discussion of black swans.

The third quality of a black swan is that in retrospect they seem obvious. When it comes to technology this quality is particularly pernicious. Our desire to explain the obviousness of past breakthroughs leads us to believe that future breakthroughs are equally obvious. That because there was one green revolution, and in retrospect its arrival seems obvious, that the arrival of future green revolutions whenever we need them are equally obvious. Somewhat related to this having demonstrated that we should have expected all previous advancements, because someone somewhere imagined they would come to pass, Wizards end up confusing correlation with causation and assume that anything we can imagine will come to pass. And in doing so they generally imagine that it will come to pass soon. You might be inclined to argue that I’m strawmanning Wizards, when in actuality I’m doing something different. I’m using this as part of my definition of what makes someone a Wizard as opposed to just, say, a futurist. They have a built in optimism and faith about technology.

A large part of the Wizard’s optimism derives from the terrible track record of the Prophets, which I already mentioned. Out of the thousands of times they’ve predicted the actual, literal end of the world, they’ve never been right. However when it comes to their record for predicting catastrophes short of the end of the world, they’ve done much better. Particularly if we’re more concerned with the how, than the when. Which is to say while it’s true that Prophets are often quite premature in their predictions of doom, they have a very good record of being right eventually.

This point about eventually is an important one because above and beyond all the other qualities possessed by black swans the biggest is that they’re rare. So the role of a Prophet is to keep you from forgetting about them, which because of their rarity is easy to do. And while most of the warnings issued by Prophets end up being meaningless, or even counterproductive, such is the extreme impact of black swans that these warnings end up being worth it on balance because the one time they do work it makes up for all the times they didn’t. I think I may have said it best in a post back in 2017:

Finally, because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. For example, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions [just] to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

As I pointed out, technology has served to increase the extremity of black swans, and the mention of nuclear war in that quote is a good illustration of that. Which is to say the game continues to change. At the start of the scientific revolution we were only drawing a few balls, and most of them were white, and the effects of those that weren’t were often mitigated by balls which were drawn later. (Think heating your house with coal vs. heating it with natural gas.) But as time goes on we’re drawing more and more balls, which results in more extreme black swans both positive and negative.

You might say that the game is getting more difficult. If that’s the case how should we deal with this difficulty? What’s the best strategy for playing the game? It’s been my ongoing contention that the reason we have Prophets is that they were an important part of the strategy for playing the old game. They were terrible at predicting the literal end of the world but great at helping make sure people were prepared for the numerous disasters which were all too frequent. The question is, as the game becomes more difficult, does the role of Prophet continue to be useful? My argument is, if anything, the role of Prophet has become more important, because for the first time when a Prophet says the world is going to end, they might actually be right. 

One such prophet is Toby Ord whose book Precipice I reviewed almost exactly a year ago. I think what I said at the time has enormous relevance to the current discussion:

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

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

In the same vein, one of the inspirations for this post was the appearance in Foreign Affairs of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Moore’s Law for Mad Science”, which states that, “Every 18 months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.” If you give any credence at all to either Yudkowsky, Ord, or myself, it would appear impossible to argue that we have passed beyond the need for Prophets, and beyond that hard to argue that the role of Prophet has not actually increased in importance. But that’s precisely what some Wizards have argued.

One of the most notable people making this argument is Steven Pinker, and it formed the basis for his books Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. His arguments are backed by lots of evidence, evidence of all the things I’ve already mentioned, that over the last hundred some odd years while Prophets were busy being wrong, Wizards were busy saving billions of lives. But this is why I brought up the idea that the game has changed—growing more difficult. When you combine that with the time horizon we’re talking about—a century, give or take a few decades—it’s apparent that the Wizards are claiming to have mastered a game they’ve only barely started playing. A game which is just going to continue to get more difficult. 

Yes, we’ve drawn a lot of fantastic white balls, but what we should really be worried about are the black balls, and we don’t merely need to avoid drawing one for the next few years, we need to avoid drawing a one forever, or at least until we draw the mythical pure white ball that ensures our eternal salvation. And if I were to distill out my criticism of Wizards it would be that they somehow imagine drawing that pure white ball of guaranteed salvation will happen any day now, while refusing to even consider the existence of a pure black ball. 

If you’ve been following recent news you may have heard that there has been a shift in opinion on the origins of the pandemic. More and more people have started to seriously consider the idea that it was accidentally released from the Wuhan lab, and that it was created as part of the coronavirus gain-of-function research the lab was conducting. Research which was intentionally designed to make viruses more virulent. One might hope that this causes those of a wizardly bent to at least pause and consider the existence of harmful technology, and the care we need to exercise. But I worry that instead the pandemic created something of a “no true science fallacy”, akin to the “no true scotsman fallacy” where true science never has the potential to cause harm, but only to cure it. That the pandemic was caused by a failure of science rather than possibly being exactly what we might expect from the pursuit of science over a long enough time horizon. 

As I conclude I want to make it clear, Wizards have created some true miracles, and I’m grateful every day for the billions and billions of lives they’ve saved. And I have no doubt they will continue to create miracles, but every time they draw from the urn to create those miracles they risk drawing the black ball and ending the game. So what do we do about that? Well, could we start by not conducting gain-of-function research in labs operating at biosafety level 2 (out of 4), regardless of whether that oversight was involved in the origin of COVID-19? In fact could we ban gain-of-function research period? 

I am aware that once you’ve plucked the low hanging fruit, like the stuff I’ve just mentioned, this question becomes enormously more difficult. And while I don’t have the space to go into detail on any of these possible solutions, here are some things we should be considering:

  1. Talebian antifragility: In my opinion Taleb’s chief contribution is his method for dealing with black swans. This basically amounts to increasing your exposure to positive black swans while lessening your exposure to negative black swans. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s a way of maximizing the miracles of the Wizards while avoiding the catastrophes of the Prophets.
  2. Make better use of the miracles we do have: This is another way of getting the best of both worlds. While I have mostly emphasized the disdain Wizards have for Prophets it goes both ways, and many of the things Prophets are most worried about, like global warming, get blamed on the Wizards and as such people are reluctant to use Wizardly tools like nuclear power and geo-engineering to fix them. This is a mistake.
  3. Longer time horizons: Yes, maybe Wizards like Ray Kurzweil are correct and a salvific  singularity is just around the corner, but I doubt it. In fact I’m on record as saying that it won’t happen this century, which is to say it may never happen. Which means we’ve got a long time where black balls are a possibility, but white balls aren’t. Perhaps each year there’s only a 1% chance of drawing a black ball, but over the timespan of a century a 1% chance of something happening goes from “unthinkable” to “this will almost certainly happen”.

And finally, whatever other solutions we come up with, it’s clear that one of the most important is and will always be, give heed to the Prophets!


This post ended up being kind of a clip show. If it reminded you of past posts you enjoyed, and that lengthened your time horizon, consider donating. I’d like to keep doing this for a long time.


Revisiting China: Inflection Points, Semiconductors and Fascism

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As we, hopefully, emerge out the other side of the pandemic, it’s obvious that the U.S. still faces numerous challenges. Most of the immediate focus has been on the challenge of a citizenry that’s increasingly divided by culture and ideology. But this is certainly not the only challenge the U.S. faces, and it may not even be the most pressing. For many people that award would go to the challenge posed by an increasingly aggressive China. The cover of the May 1st edition of The Economist had the phrase “The most dangerous place on Earth” over a picture of Taiwan. And somewhat to my surprise Biden appears to largely be continuing Trump’s policies towards China. Additionally many of the podcasts I’ve been listening to have also been discussing this challenge and not only China’s aggression, but their potential desperation. (More on that in a bit.) Finally I just finished another book about China, Stein Ringen’s, The Perfect Dictatorship. Taken together it seemed like it might be time for another post on China.

The last time I talked about China, I ended up posting a link to it in a Whatsapp group populated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb acolytes. Someone read it and praised it, and in response one of Taleb’s closest associates came along and basically said that you couldn’t listen to what anyone in the West said about China. For several reasons I took umbrage at this. First I wasn’t dogmatically putting forward what I claimed to be the one true gospel of China. I actually took pains to include a broad array of opinions about its current state and future path — some pro and some con. Second, I certainly appreciate that cultural differences can lead external observers to misjudge China, while at the same time making it difficult for internal observers to explain things in a way that’s easy to understand. However, despite these obstacles I don’t think that China knowledge is so impossible to acquire that we shouldn’t even try, particularly given how important such knowledge is.

I agree that the country is complicated both politically and culturally, but can we not even take stabs identifying important bits of the China path? A general sense of the course it’s taking? Some inflection points we might look for? Some guidance for how best to deal with the problem even if it’s only at a very high level? I would assert not only that we can, but that we must. 

My goal in taking on this task is not to divine when and how they’re going to invade Taiwan, or whether they will be able to continue to maintain an annual growth rate of 6% or higher, or even whether the economic statistics underlying that growth rate are themselves hopelessly flawed and unreliable. My focus, which was illustrated at some length in that last post, has always been to determine whether China, at its core, is fundamentally strong or fundamentally weak. And I’m still not sure I know the answer to that question, but I think that makes the pursuit of it more important rather than less.

Being able to pin down the fundamentals would be immensely valuable. There is a huge difference between a powerful and globally aggressive China initiating another proxy driven Cold War (perhaps in partnership with Russia) and a China who only wants control of nearby territory (the South China Sea and Taiwan) but who otherwise finds it necessary to spend most of their attention on internal stability. Between it becoming a hyper-power supplanting Pax Americana with Pax Sinica or it only desiring the legitimacy, position and territory it once had. There are also large differences between a productive Chinese population unified under a strong sense of nationalism and supportive of a strong central government on the one hand, or on the other a population that is undermined by demographic, ideological or geographic factors, and other factors as yet unforeseen.

In other words my initial ambition in discussing China was to get some sense of which way the trends are pointed. Are they mostly going up? Or have they already plateaued and are starting to head back down? Bringing up the possibility of a change in direction opens up the possibility that there has been or will be an inflection point. And while I’m still interested in getting a sense of the strength of the Chinese foundation, and which way the arrows are pointing, I wonder if a discussion of potential inflection points might yield even greater insight into the questions we’re concerned about. 

Inflection Point #1 – Technological Audacity

The initial impetus to revisit China came while I was reading Where Is My Flying Car? By: J. Storrs Hall. Hall describes a future of abundance and plenty if we can just get rid of the entrenched interests protecting the status quo, and with it our unreasonable fixation on safety. His key example (after the titular flying car) is nuclear power. As I was reading the book, and since then as I’ve discussed it with other people, China is continually offered up as a counter example. If safety concerns are the key impediment, what’s keeping China from pursuing this “flying car”, nuclear powered future? While, as I said, there is a lot of disagreement about what’s actually going on with China, all the experts agree that China cares far less about safety than we do. Accordingly if nuclear power is clearly the superior option in the absence of safety regulations then China should be building lots of reactors. If they’re not then perhaps they really are just too expensive.

The first result on google, a report from the World Nuclear Association seemed to basically have all the answers I was looking for. With the normal caveats to beware the man of one study, the report indicates that China is building a lot of reactors and that the energy available from nuclear is growing in what looks a lot like an exponential curve. While it is true that currently only 4% of Chinese power is coming from nuclear, looking at the graph of power generation it appears they really only started bringing reactors online in earnest around 2010. And in the 10 years from 2010 to 2019 (the last year data is available) generation grew at 19% per year, for a total increase of over 500%. Additionally while new plant construction has stalled in the west, according to the report China has 17 plants under construction which will increase their power generation by an additional 33%. Any bets on whether those plants will be constructed more quickly and cheaply than the few plants currently under construction in the West?

The question then is not whether China has embraced nuclear, clearly they have. The question is why did it take them so long? Why did they only really start in 2010? Is it reasonable to make inferences on their dedication based on only a decade of data? The U.S. had a couple of decades when nuclear power also grew swiftly. Might renewables like wind and solar still eventually turn out to be the more attractive options in China just like here? With most of these questions I can only guess, but to the more general question of why they didn’t start sooner, the answer there doesn’t require any guessing. They couldn’t. These days we have become so used to thinking of China as this technological powerhouse that we forget how recently they were essentially a 3rd world country. One of the points that The Perfect Dictatorship makes repeatedly is that Mao caused so much damage, that when he finally died their progress and technology had essentially been reset to zero. And recall that he didn’t die until 1976.

All of this takes us to our first potential inflection point: China passing us technologically. I think most assessments of potential conflict are based on the idea of us being even or slightly ahead of them technologically, but what if China’s technological velocity is both pointed in the right direction, and greater than ours? What if the only reason it looks like we’re staying ahead of them is that they didn’t even start the race until 7 years after we had already landed on the moon? Most importantly, what if Hall is correct and the only thing preventing technological utopia is audacity, which China has?

If all these things are true then China won’t merely pass us, they might do so in a fairly spectacular fashion. If transhumanists and futurists like Hall are to be believed there is a huge technological harvest just waiting for the country that masters things like modular nuclear power and nanotechnology. It certainly couldn’t help but change the dynamic in China’s favor if they pass us and get to this harvest first.

In its most benign form this might involve things like China constructing nuclear powered jets and convincing the rest of the world to allow them to land at their airports. In its most malevolent it could mean China doing to us what Britain did to them during the First Opium War: imposing terms on us from a position of vastly greater technological strength. Of course, we’ll still have plenty of nuclear weapons, but if you’re considering that, you’ve already lost.

Inflection Point #2 – Peak China

The technological arms race between China and the West takes us directly into our next inflection point. But in order to understand it some historical background might be helpful. 

One of the reasons that World War II (and for that matter World War I) happened the way it did is that certain countries felt that if they let any more time pass that their odds of winning a war would just continue to decrease. That, though they hadn’t reached the peak of their strength, they were as strong as they were ever going to be relative to their enemies. While this applies to Germany in both wars, the example of Japan in World War II is the one I want to draw your attention to.

On August 1, 1941 the U.S. instituted an oil embargo against Japan. This had the effect of eliminating over 80% of Japan’s oil supply. Given that oil was the lifeblood of the world in 1941 and certainly the lifeblood of Japan’s navy, the Japanese leaders decided they had no other recourse than to go to war. There were lots of reasons to declare war, but one of the biggest was seizing the oil of Borneo. And the first step in that process happened to be attacking Pearl Harbor. 

Turning to our own day, in the same fashion that oil was the lifeblood of the 1940’s, semiconductors are the lifeblood of our current world. They’re involved in every aspect of the modern world. Now as you might imagine China does have a domestic semiconductor industry, it’s just 10 years behind the current state of the art, and it can only supply about 8% of China’s current needs. 

This would all be okay if they could import technology, but as it turns out, under Trump, and continuing under Biden, the U.S. has effectively clamped down on Chinese importation of semiconductors along with the technology and machines necessary to build semiconductors. This not only includes stuff that was built in the U.S. but anything that was built using U.S. derived technology, which is just about everything. So pre-Pearl Harbor the U.S. put an embargo on oil wiping out 80% of Japan’s supply. This time around we’re putting an embargo on something equally important which affects up to 92% of the supply. Obviously it’s important to not take this parallel too far. Japan in late 1941 looked a lot different than China in early 2021, but not all of the differences are positive.

For example, in one of those coincidences you might dismiss as being too convenient or implausible if it happened in a movie or a book, the most advanced semiconductors in the world are made in Taiwan. Yep! We’ve drastically restricted Chinese supply of one the most important modern commodities and in the process given them even more incentive to invade Taiwan. 

This situation was brought to my attention by an episode of the podcast Hexapodia (and Hexapodia was brought to my attention by frequent commenter Boonton).  Having only listened to a single podcast episode on the topic means my knowledge is not as deep as it would be if I had read a book on the topic, but I think it’s important to include because the situation would appear to contribute to at least three possible inflection points.

First, desperation could easily create an inflection point. People do things when they’re desperate that they wouldn’t do otherwise, and the same goes for countries. It’s possible, even likely that if China can just be patient that the chip technology imbalance will eventually rectify itself, but if there’s one other thing all the experts can agree on, it’s China’s impatience. In this situation it’s evidenced by China throwing money at anyone with the words business plan and semiconductor on the same sheet of paper. But as the podcast points out industrial policy is hard and prone to inefficiencies, particularly as that policy gets closer to resembling a command economy. It’s not inconceivable that Chinese desperation around domestic chip manufacturing will make the problem worse. History is full of stories where the unfettered market out-competed government-backed endeavors, and as the Chinese government backs more and more companies the unfettered market becomes smaller and smaller. Should this result in China falling even farther behind in semiconductor technology it will only increase their desperation.

Second, the united front we’re seeing with respect to semiconductors could be an inflection point in the attitudes of the rest of the world towards China. Whereas once most of the nations of the world were neutral towards China, increasingly it appears that the majority of countries, particularly in the West, are taking a harder and more unified stand. At a minimum numerous countries are assisting the U.S. with their export restrictions. But I’m also seeing things like trade deals stalling over human rights concerns, pushback on exploitative practices, and of course the recent attention being given to the lab-release theory of COVID. This attitudinal inflection probably translates into a greater willingness to confront China militarily. In which case we’re back to looking at parallels between now and the World Wars, with China in the position of seeing the number and power of its enemies increasing faster than it’s own power. 

Moving into the realm of military might takes us to the third inflection point touched on by the semiconductor situation, but it’s also a big enough issue to get it’s own section.

Inflection Point #3 – Taiwan

Whatever else may be said about the situation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that China won’t eventually invade Taiwan. There was a time when you could imagine reunification without shedding any blood, but I think the Taiwanese have decisively rejected that possibility after seeing what happened to Hong Kong.

Even as the Taiwanese are rejecting peaceful reunification, the Chinese leadership have become ever more insistent that reunification will happen one way or the other, and it seems clear that they have painted themselves into a corner. They have been so insistent that Taiwan is part of China that backing down now would entail possibly fatal damage to their reputation and by extension the reputation of the Communist Party. Now I don’t think that the Chinese people expect the attack to come tomorrow, but the leadership has done everything they can to ensure that they expect it to come eventually. Furthermore “eventually” is increasingly turning into “soon”. (See the discussion of the semiconductor situation above.)

In other words a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is increasingly not a question of if, but when. And it should go without saying that when it does happen it will represent perhaps the biggest inflection point of all.

I opened this post by talking about the difficulties of commenting on China and predicting what they were going to do. But in addition to the small things I mentioned: disregard for safety and impatience, this is another big thing that nearly everyone agrees on. China will not rest until they have reabsorbed Taiwan. But despite what appears to be the virtual certainty of this happening neither the U.S. nor Taiwan seems as worried as one might expect. I understand that because of the nature of our government we often end up taking positions which end up being compromises combining the worst of both worlds. In this case we neither get the benefits of not being entangled with Taiwan, but nor is it clear that we’re committed enough to prevent China from taking Taiwan, and thereby reap those benefits. We may end up failing while maximizing the money we’ve spent to do so.

That’s the U.S. excuse, but what about Taiwan? This is an existential issue and yet their defense spending continues to hover around 2% of GDP. One would expect, given how obvious the threat is, that their military spending would be among the highest in the world and certainly higher than the U.S.’s but that’s not the case. 

Perhaps China will suffer some internal catastrophe which will remove its fixation with Taiwan, but absent that it appears that Taiwan’s doom is sealed, and we’re merely waiting for it to play out.

Inflection Point #4 – Moving From a Trivial State to a Power State

In The Perfect Dictatorship Ringen has a lot to say about China, and some of it will have to wait for my review, but he does make a very interesting case for yet another potential inflection point, the transition of China from a trivial state to a power state. What’s a trivial state? From the book:

Some facts are given. The Chinese state is constituted as a party-state. It is dedicated to two absolute priorities: the perpetuation of the regime itself and the protection of the country’s territorial integrity.

The question then is: what more is there to it? My first hypothesis is that there is nothing more. The Chinese state is strong but does not possess any purpose beyond itself for the use of its strength. There is no ideology, no socialism, no vision for the well-being of the Chinese people, no idea about quality or glory…The leaders always speak about ‘stability’, and this hypothesis says that is all they finally have in mind.

I call this hypothesis trivial not because it would make the Chinese state insignificant or unimpressive. It is and will be a powerful state. But it would be trivial in the sense that it would have nothing to its name but force and nothing to present itself to others with than bigness.

Ringen asserts that up until Xi Jinping, this was the state of China. They were powerful and big, but had no animating ideology. That mostly they were trying to recover from the destruction wrought by Mao, while also avoiding collapsing, like the Soviet Union. But now that it appears both have been accomplished, they are transitioning from a trivial state to a power state.  Once again from the book:

Power states are strong states in which the state and its strength are for a higher purpose. They are different from strong trivial states where the state is its own purpose and there is nothing more to it… In power states the purpose is given by an official ideology, and citizens are subordinate to the advancement of the ideologically defined purpose.

…The state is the instrument of the party, and state institutions have a duty to serve the party by force of the ideology that is embodied in it, and citizens by the same logic have a duty of obedience and service to state and party. This is what generates and justifies the ruthlessness which is endemic in power states: when ideology rules any action that is ideologically correct or productive is justified. It is not strength alone that makes a state a power state but the way strength is constituted and used.

While trivial…states may or may not be aggressive in international relations, power states are likely to be aggressive. 

One way of looking at this is to examine the way the Soviet Union behaved. By Ringen’s definition it was clearly a power state, and it used that power in an ostensibly ideological fashion. One would think that this is the obvious connection the book would make, since China is still nominally communist, but Ringen predicts that China is more likely to become the perfect fascist state. 

[A] power state needs ideological in addition to administrative grounding. Totalitarian use of state power needs more than the excuse of stability; it needs the justification that comes from higher ideas and principles. A resurrection of classical communist ideology would not be credible. A new power state in China would need a new ideology. That ideology may be in the making in Xi Jinping’s China Dream.

It is possible that the China Dream will turn out to be a hot air of little substance as have previous ideology-like signals. Perhaps that is all it is—but it could also become the new narrative for a revived China, a narrative that draws on Chinese history more than on Marxist theory and that goes to nation, nationalism, strength, unity and patriotism. When Mao declared the People’s Republic in 1949, his message was that China had risen again. He slotted the revolution into a tradition of nation and greatness. He got himself lost in a fantasy of revolution, but those who have followed him have reverted to nation building. The unifying idea has been China the great. This may now be in the process of finding its ideological articulation.

The narrative of national greatness has the resonance in Chinese imagination and tradition to make that possible, the resonance that ‘harmonious society’ failed to find. 

If things stopped there, China would be a power state, but not necessarily a fascist one, but Ringer goes on to claim that the party wants to go even farther with the idea. In support of this he quotes from the April 5, 2013 cover story of the Beijing Daily:

Extensively promulgate that patriotism is the nucleus of the national spirit… Promote patriotism as the soul of a powerful and invigorated country which joins minds and gathers strength, and as the spiritual force which strengthens and unites the Chineses people… Extensively promulgate that realizing the China Dream requires the consolidation of Chinese power. Extensively promulgate that the China Dream is the dream of the nation, and is also the dream of every Chinese person.

Ringer goes on to point out that:

This is not just a celebration of national greatness. It is in addition an idea that national greatness and individual happiness are one and the same and inseparable, and conversely that there is no individual happiness without national greatness.

At its core, the idea of unity between nation and person is a fascist idea, the fascist idea.

Asserting that China is transitioning into a fascist state is a huge claim, and deserves far more discussion than I’ve been able to give it. But if this is in fact what’s happening, if China is transitioning from a country mostly worried about survival into an aggressive, ideological state, then this would be the biggest inflection point of all, even bigger than an invasion of Taiwan.

It would turn China from a nation which can be negotiated with or managed into a nation which can only be destroyed.


It might be worth pointing out that at the same time China is experiencing one or more inflection points so is the U.S. Obviously it would take someone of masterful intellect and understanding to explore the interaction between the changes both countries are experiencing. If you don’t think that’s me, consider reading someone else, but if you do, or at least think it might be worth me taking a stab at it, consider donating.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

Engineering the Apocalypse

An episode of Sam HarrisMaking Sense podcast, Featuring Rob Reid

4 hours

Briefly, what was this episode about?

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

Who should listen to this episode?

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

General Thoughts

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Yancey Strickler

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the ideology of financial maximization warps business and society. 

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

By: Boyd Varty

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6)

By: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The war which follows after the events of Book 5.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

**Begin Mild Spoiler**

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

 

**End Mild Spoiler**

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


Peter the Great: His Life and World

By: Robert K. Massie

910 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The frankly incredible story of Peter the Great.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves a good history book.

General Thoughts

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

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

Exhalation: Stories

By: Ted Chiang

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of fantastic science fiction short stories.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


What’s Wrong With the World

By: G. K. Chesterton

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Chesterton diagnoses the ills of turn of the century England.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

This book also contains some of his best quotes:

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

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

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


Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

By: Margaret Heffernan

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


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

By: Fredrik deBoer

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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


III- Religious Reviews

Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical 

By: Brittney Hartley

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Connecting Mormon theology to classical philosophy.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


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Eschatologist #4: Turning the Knob of Safety to 11

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


In the previous newsletter we told of how we discovered the Temple of Technology, with wall after wall of knobs that give us control over society. At least that’s what we, in our hubris, assume the knobs of technology will do. 

Mostly that assumption is correct. Though on occasion an overager grad student will sneak out under cover of darkness and turn one knob all the way to the right. And, as there are so many knobs, it can be a long time before we realize what has happened.

But we are not all over-eager graduate students. Mostly we are careful, wise professors, and we soberly consider which knobs should be turned. We have translated many of the symbols, but not all. Still, out of those we have translated one seems very clear. It’s the symbol for “Safety”.

Unlike some of the knobs, everyone agrees that we should turn this knob all the way to the right. Someone interjects that we should turn it up to 11. The younger members of the group laugh. The old, wise professors don’t get the joke, but that’s okay because even if the joke isn’t clear, the consensus is. Everyone agrees that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to choose any setting other than maximum safety. 

The knob is duly “turned up to 11” and things seem to be going well. Society is moving in the right direction. Unsafe products are held accountable for deaths and injuries. Standards are implemented to prevent unsafe things from happening again. Deaths from accidents go down. Industrial deaths plummet. Everyone is pleased with themselves. 

Though as things progress there is some weirdness. The knob doesn’t work quite the way people expect. The effects can be inconsistent.

  • Children are safer than ever, but that’s not what anyone thinks. Parents are increasingly filled with dread. Unaccompanied children become almost extinct. 
  • Car accidents remain persistently high. Numerous additional safety features are implemented, but people engage in risk compensation, meaning that the effect of these features is never as great as expected.
  • Antibiotics are overprescribed, and rather than making us safer from disease they create antibiotic resistant strains which are far more deadly. 

Still despite these unexpected outcomes no one suggests adjusting the safety knob.

Then one day, in the midst of vaccinating the world against a terrible pandemic it’s discovered that some of the vaccines cause blood clots. That out of every million people who receive the vaccine one will die from these clots. Immediately restrictions are placed on the vaccines. In some places they’re paused, in other places they’re discontinued entirely. The wise old professors protest that this will actually cause more people to die from the pandemic then would ever die from the clots, but by this point no one is listening to them. 

In our hubris we thought that turning the knob “up to 11” would result in safe technology. But no technology is completely safe, such a thing is impossible. No, this wasn’t the knob for safety, it was for increasing the importance of our perception of safety.

  • When the government announces that a vaccine can cause blood clots we perceive it as being unsafe. Even though vaccines prevent a far greater danger.
  • We may understand antibiotic resistance, but wouldn’t it be safer for us if we got antibiotics just in case?
  • Nuclear power is perceived as obviously unsafe because it’s the same process that goes into making nuclear weapons. 
  • And is any level of safety too great for our children? 

Safety is obviously good, but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward. While we were protecting our children from the vanishingly small chance that they would be abducted by a stranger the danger of social media crept in virtually undetected. While we agonize over a handful of deaths from the vaccine thousands die because they lack the vaccine. The perception of safety is not safety. Turning the knobs of technology have unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences. Even the knob labelled safety.


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Vanquished Vaccines and Vetocracies

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I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Aside

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

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

End Aside

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The 9 Books I Finished in March

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  1. Secular Cycles by: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov
  2. Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past by: J. Storrs Hall
  3. A Short Stay in Hell by: Steven L. Peck
  4. Cibola Burns by: James S. A. Corey
  5. Nemesis Games by: James S. A. Corey
  6. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1 by: Peter Adamson
  7. Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games by: Jon Peterson
  8. Earth Abides by: George R. Stewart
  9. The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel by: Eliyah Goldratt

I keep a daily journal, as many writers do. In addition to that habit, every day I am also in the habit of re-reading the entries from a year ago, and five years ago, etc. Which means I spent this month re-reading my journal entries from March of 2020, when everything was shutting down.

As always the exercise was both thought-provoking and cautionary. Reading the March 2020 entries was an experience rich in dramatic irony. But really that’s the case when I read nearly any past journal entry. I know what’s going to happen, the person writing the entry doesn’t. The person writing is frequently wrong. I am that person. It gives one a certain humility. 

There were lots of things I didn’t suspect a year ago. I didn’t imagine that the pandemic and wearing masks would become so politicized. I should have. I didn’t think we’d have vaccines so quickly, that mistake was probably more forgivable.

In other areas I was more prescient. I could already sense in my gut by the end of last March that the Rhine River Cruise my wife and I had booked for July (in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary) was going to get cancelled. We have rebooked it for June of this year, and my gut is once again telling me (as I look at the climbing numbers in Europe) that it’s not going to happen. On the other hand my head is telling me that there’s no way Europe is going to miss another tourist season. Let’s hope my head is right.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Secular Cycles 

By: Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov

350 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The repeated historical cycles of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression experienced by all nations, with two examples each from England, France, Rome and Russia.

Who should read this book?

I’ve wanted to dive into Turchin for a while, and I couldn’t get any clear sense on where to start. Of all his books I already owned this one, so eventually I decided to start with it. So far I think that may have been a mistake. Not that it’s a bad book, I just get the sense that it’s not a good starting point. But I’ll know more once I read some of his other books. Which I intend to do. All of which is to say at the moment I’m not sure who should read this book.

General Thoughts

The idea of historical cycles has been around for a long time. I’m no expert on this particular area (nor really any particular area) but as far back as the Greeks there was the idea of Kyklos, which I think just literally means cycle. Though they seemed to mostly use this term to describe the transition between the various systems of government, not quite using it so expansively as to describe the broad sweep of societal boom and bust we’re interested in.

In more modern times, my sense is that Oswald Spengler is the person most associated with applying the idea of cycles to Europe and the West. Asserting not merely that the West was caught in the same historical cycles which affected all civilizations, but that we were also nearing the end of that cycle. That our best days were behind us. The idea of cycles was also a big part of Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12 volume, A Study of History, which was enormously popular in the 40’s and 50s. But after this surge of popularity, Toynbee’s books and the idea of cycles fell out of favor, particularly once the Cold War ended. At least that’s how it appears to me.

As you might imagine, with the increasing unrest we’ve been seeing since at least 2016 interest in the subject of cycles has been rekindled. And Turchin is clearly at the head of the pack here, particularly since he started talking about it long before 2016. He’s been predicting worldwide civil unrest during the 2020’s since at least 2010. Which may not seem like much, but for a prediction that’s pretty good.

This book is not about the current day, or even the United States, it’s about him laying out, in meticulous detail, the historical case for cycles. This is not precisely what I was looking for and it’s probably not what you’re looking for either, but building out the foundation of his theory might be a good place to start. But as I already said in the previous section the jury’s out on that for now. 

The key problem with any theory like Turchin’s which attempts to predict the future by drawing on what happened in the past — deriving trends or cycles or general rules — is that it’s very difficult to make it even approach science. You have no control group to compare against. There’s no way to account for the effects of new technology. And your sample size is tiny. Turchin’s sample size is eight, or four if you only count the nations, and it was the work of hundreds of people and decades of research to compile the information necessary for even this small sample. So you’re faced with a situation where making a case is fantastically difficult and the case you can make isn’t very scientific even if you do go to the effort. 

Within the context of these limitations, I don’t think it’s possible to do a better job of making a case than Turchin has. He has pulled in data from several different angles. It’s full of charts, statistics and comparisons. He’s applied his theory successfully to multiple nations, in multiple different settings and historical periods. So, If you’re willing to at least entertain the idea that it’s possible to predict the future by looking at the past, then Turchin has done everything that might be expected towards making such a prediction. I understand he still may be wrong, that he has “proved” nothing, but it’s hard to imagine a more serious attempt than Turchin’s.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, making this case, and assembling all of the data proves to be a very dry read. Which is another reason why I’m not sure who to recommend it to. It probably serves better as a work of reference than something you just sit down and read from cover to cover.

Eschatological Implications

At a high level the eschatological implications of Turchin’s theory of cycles should be reasonably obvious. Unfortunately this book doesn’t give much guidance on where we are at in our own cycle and how that might play out. Though even without being familiar with anything else he’s said this book would lead you to the conclusion that we’re on the downhill side of the cycle and more chaos should be expected. 

One draws this conclusion from the many similarities our situation shares with the situations Turchin documents. A few are worth discussing briefly.

First, his analysis and theory owe a lot to Malthusian thinking. Good times lead to an increase in population which eventually outstrips the carrying capacity of the land leading to a stagnant and eventually collapsing population. We don’t seem to be having any problems with food, at least not yet, but we are suffering from a collapsing population. Is this a new thing or is food only the most visible example of “carrying capacity”? Have we reached other less obvious limits to our capacities?

A more obvious commonality is Turchin’s idea of “elite overproduction”. Most people who study civil unrest agree that generally the lower classes don’t spontaneously organize and revolt on their own, they have to be harnessed to that end by disaffected elites who have been excluded from wielding power more directly. Diving into how elite overproduction is playing out currently is beyond the scope of this review, but there are few two word phrases that are more evocative of our current condition. 

Finally, plagues play a major role in most of his examples of civilizational crisis, but what’s strange is they aren’t the instigating factor. Generally the crisis and decline has already begun and then a plague comes along. Turchin doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why that might be. (Rural overpopulation leads to increasing urbanization, leads to ghettoization, leads to poor sanitation, leads to disease, maybe?) But reading this in light of the recent pandemic was frankly a little bit eerie.

It’s interesting to draw such parallels, but not particularly useful. What we really want is to be able to translate Turchin’s theory into a course of action for our country or our politicians or even just ourselves. Which is not to say I have no ideas, I actually have lots of advice on this subject, I just don’t think reading Turchin’s book has added much to my store of practical wisdom on this topic. It’s added a huge amount of data, and I think the idea of elite overproduction is worth a deeper dive, but beyond that it doesn’t offer much solace for someone observing the end times.


Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past 

By: J. Storrs Hall

627 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very detailed examination of why we don’t have flying cars, which ends up pulling in all of the technology we might have had but don’t. Beyond the subject of flying cars this book also includes in depth discussions of nanotechnology, nuclear energy and even cold fusion. 

Who should read this book?

In the last post before this one I talked about the metaphorical knobs of society. If you want someone to paint a picture of what it would look like if the knob of “technological progress” was turned up to 11, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

I should state up front that while I try to limit discussion of individual books to my review posts that this book deserves and is going to get it’s own post, which will be the next one after this one. Why is that? Because this book has enormous bearing on the discussion of technocracies, and the pandemic, and just about everything else I’ve been talking about. As such it deserves a deeper discussion than what I have room for here. 

That discussion will be both theoretical and hypothetical, so I’m going to use this space to make sure I cover the practical side of the book. In particular Hall leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the issue of flying cars, going so far as to get his pilot’s license so that he has first hand experience on the difficulties of flying. He also goes into detail about engineering challenges, the disadvantages of helicopters, the unfulfilled promise of the autogyro, and every attempt, no matter how small, at making a commercial flying car.

Obviously one of the big things people think of when they consider the flying car are the numerous times futurists and science fiction authors confidently predicted their imminent arrival, and how wrong all of these predictions were. Less discussed is why these predictions were wrong. Most of the time when I see them offered up, the assumption is just that prediction is hard and the people making these predictions were not as far-sighted as they thought. Storrs went into things with basically this attitude, but ended up concluding that we really should have had flying cars and on the timeline people predicted, but there are four reasons why we don’t:

  1. Flying is harder than driving.
  2. The transition from driving to flying (i.e. taking off and landing) is a difficult technical problem. Airplanes require lots of room, and don’t like flying low and slow. Helicopters are exceptionally difficult to fly and don’t go very fast once they are flying and autogyros never received widespread support.
  3. Flying is expensive, especially for what you get. The amount of additional travel one gets for each additional dollar spent goes down as costs rise. For example helicopters cost easily 10x what a car costs, but only travel at best 3x as fast.
  4. But sitting behind all of the previous points there is the legal and regulatory landscape. Which according to Hall was “insanely overdone”.

In other words the reason those predictions were wrong is only a tiny bit reasons 1-3, and mostly reason 4. And 1-3 would be straightforward to fix, without 4 looming over everything, disincentivizing investment and innovation. Thus, the biggest blindspot of futurists, was the evolution of the regulatory state, and the product liability revolution.

Eschatological Implications

I’ll use my next post to really get into the eschatological implications of this book, including a discussion of the regulatory state, but I thought it was important to point out that unlike most of the books I review in this section, this book puts forth a positive eschatology. It’s all about the wonderful things we can do with technology, and presumably will do with technology once we can get past our current period of stagnation.

This book paints a picture of Jetson like flying cars powered by small nuclear reactors, super abundant food grown with nearly unlimited energy in massive greenhouses, incredibly precise nanotechnology, and trivial control of global warming and the weather. In that last item you may recognize another link to my last post, and hints at interventions which scare a lot of people. Of course as Hall will point out we are already messing with global warming, we’re just doing it in a very unconstructive and damaging fashion.

My overall reception of this book reminds me of a scene from the New Testament. In the book of Acts, chapter 26, Paul is brought before King Agrippa and asked to defend Christianity. Agrippa is obviously hostile towards the faith, but Paul’s defense of it is so stirring that by the end Agrippa says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” As you may have noticed from the last few posts, I’m somewhat hostile to technocracy, but having read Hall’s defense, I’m inclined to say the same thing, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a technocrat.” 

Now to be fair to me, what Hall is describing bears very little resemblance to what we’re actually doing, and we’ll spend the next post disentangling that.


II- Capsule Reviews

A Short Stay in Hell 

By: Steven L. Peck

108 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Mormon, who upon dying, discovers that Zoroastrianism was the true religion. As penance for not holding the correct beliefs during his life he must spend the afterlife in a library with all possible books, searching for his life story.

Who should read this book?

There is a genre of science fiction novellas, which prioritize M. Night Shyamalan-esque plots over character development. Another apt comparison for such novellas might be the Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone.  If you’re familiar with novellas of this style or if this otherwise sounds appealing this book is just the thing to scratch that itch.

General Thoughts

One might almost think that I would put this in the religious reviews section given the subject matter. (And also I have nothing for that section this month.) Though, if it does have a religious message it seems like it would be ‘You better hope the Zoroastrians aren’t right!” Beyond that I liked what Peck did with his initial premise, in particular the book has an unflinching quality which I appreciated.

The book is based on the short story The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges which imagines a library containing all possible books. These have been divided into 410 page chunks. And by all possible books he means not that it collects books that have actually been written but that it contains all possible characters combined in all the possible ways they could be combined over the length of 410 pages. 

As is often the case with ideas like this, someone actually implemented it. If we go there and take an example book at random the first 20 characters are:

m.eygvh rbzefwss,ctj

This implementation only includes lowercase letters, periods, commas and spaces, but beyond that, somewhere in its vast virtual bowels there is any book which has ever been written and any book you could imagine being written. Soren Johansson, the main character of the book is tasked with finding the book that tells the story of his life, I don’t want to give anything away, but as you can imagine that is an essentially impossible task. And it’s this impossibility which makes the book strangely compelling.


Cibola Burns (The Expanse #4)

By: James S. A. Corey

624 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the eternal story of poor squatters vs. an avaricious corporation. Only in this telling the squatters and the corporation are fighting over a planet which was once inhabited by a super advanced alien civilization, which adds all kinds of interesting chaos to the equation.

Who should read this book?

I have quite enjoyed the Expanse series. If you’re considering starting it I would. If you’re considering whether to continue past book 3, I would also do that. 

General Thoughts

This book somewhat reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book Aurora which I brought up in a previous post, specifically the dangers of an alien biosphere, a theme which features prominently in both books. These dangers certainly add an exciting layer to an inflammatory human conflict that is already pretty exciting.

As with all of The Expanse books, this book also engages in the completely ridiculous conceit of having a small group of people end up in the center of all of the action. And the equally ridiculous conceit of that action always being of the super-exciting, nail biting, cinematic sort. The kind you’re lucky to survive once, but these guys have survived similar circumstances over and over and over again.

But if you can ignore how implausible that all is (and I think you should) they’re great books.


Nemesis Games (The Expanse #5)

By: James S. A. Corey

576 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four individual stories, one for each of the four main characters, which come together in spectacular fashion.

Who should read this book?

The same people who fit my recommendation for the last book.

General Thoughts

I mentioned the extreme implausibility of these books in my previous review, and it was during this book that I switched from treating them as an attempt to describe the future to viewing them as the log of a role-playing campaign. Unlike most campaigns this one isn’t set in a world of tolkien-esque fantasy, but in the near future, with the crew of the Rocinante obviously being the “player characters” or “party” as they say. You would think that splitting them up would be proof that this is not what’s happening (“Don’t Split the Party” as they say) but in actuality the opposite happened. It could not have been more clear that this book was the retelling of the four side quests created by the Gamemaster to flesh out the character’s back story, a common trope in role-playing games.

Yes I know that this comparison won’t make sense to some of you, but for those for whom it does make sense I think it’s the clearest way of describing the book. Though before I move on two other quick notes.

First other than the implausibility of all the characters being intimately involved in every exciting thing that’s ever happened, the series itself is pretty hard sci-fi. In fact it kind of has an old-school Heinlein vibe to it, particularly since AI and cybernetic enhancements are basically MIA in The Expanse.

Second, it’s tough to talk about this series without referencing the TV show. I watched the first season, and I might, some day, watch the rest. I found all of the actors to be spot on, with the exception of the guy they got to play James Holden, the main, main character. I’m sure he’s a fine person, but he’s not a great actor, IMHO. 


Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1

By: Peter Adamson

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Western philosophy from the very beginning (there are 12 chapters on the pre-socratics) up through Aristotle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a general overview of ancient greek philosophy, this provides that in an easily digestible form. I’m not sure if it’s worth reading on it’s own, and I’m about to discover if it’s useful for providing the background one needs before reading the actual works of those ancient greek philosophers. 

General Thoughts

This book went down easy. In fact I got the feeling that it went down too easy, and I’m not sure why. Possibly I have that feeling because I’ve been conditioned to expect that reading philosophy is supposed to be hard and if it’s not hard then you’re not doing it right. Possibly it’s because in covering such a large number of people and ideas Adamson doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and in consequence, the book is superficial. 

I’m expecting to be able to answer this question once I start actually reading Plato. He is up next in my “great books of the western world project”. If this book makes Plato easier to understand and particularly if it helps place him in context, then it will have been a success. I’ll make sure to report back.


Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games

By: Jon Peterson

698 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An encyclopedic history of tabletop strategy games as they evolved towards Dungeons and Dragons. 

Who should read this book?

The feeling I had while reading this is the same feeling I imagine a rabbi might have while reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. Most other people reading this book will probably have a very different feeling, that of anyone other than a Rabbi reading the Torah in ancient Hebrew. 

General Thoughts

Earlier in this post I said that I’m not really an expert in any particular area. Well Dungeons and Dragons may be the exception to that statement. I’ve been playing it almost continuously since 1980. In fact in addition to the books I read in March I also attended a virtual D&D convention (GaryCon). Which was quite a bit of fun, though a pale imitation of attending in person. 

As I alluded to, this book is something of the Torah for role-playing nerds, and any details I could go into would be of limited interest to anyone outside of that group. In spite of that I will go into one part of the early history of D&D because I think I can extract a larger lesson from it.

D&D was initially created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Later Arneson was fired, written out of things and denied royalties. These actions have always been held against Gygax, and while opinions vary on how big of a role Arneson did play, the consensus seems to be that Gygax was selfish and greedy. Having read this book I’m much more on Gygax’s side. Yes, it’s possible it could have been handled better, but the key fact in my opinion is this. TSR, the company producing D&D, was a startup. This makes Arneson basically a co-founder with Gygax, and while Gygax was busting his ass putting out book after book, and tens of thousands of words beyond that in the form of magazine articles and correspondence, Arneson produced basically nothing

I know people think ideas are worth something, and they are, but not nearly as much as people think. But particularly when it comes to starting a business hard work is vastly more important. If you aren’t willing or able to do the work, then you don’t deserve the money. And to be clear Arneson sued and did get the money. So, after hearing all the details, from my perspective Arneson got more than he deserved out of things rather than less. 


Earth Abides

By: George R. Stewart

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The handful of people who survive a global pandemic, and what life is like in the ruins of civilization.

Who should read this book?

This book was published in 1949, before science fiction had really congealed, and it’s a great early example of the form. It’s particularly interesting in light of recent events. If you enjoy either disaster stories or old sci-fi, you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned this came out before some of the tropes of science fiction had congealed and as such it’s a different take on how people would react to the apocalypse and the story also takes place over a longer period of time. These differences took a little bit of getting used to, but eventually I really came to appreciate them.

Also while it’s clear that there are lots of things he got wrong — for example he made the same mistake nearly everyone does, gas does not remain good for years — he mentioned a lot of things which I haven’t seen anywhere else, but which seem likely to happen in some form. Most of these involve a rebalancing of animal species after the disappearance of humans, with the additional factor of suddenly abundant food, i.e. human corpses, though Stewart mostly avoids the more morbid facts of the apocalypse. 

All of which is to say that if you want to know what the apocalypse will really look like I think Earth Abides has a lot to contribute. And it’s a great story beyond that.


The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel

By: Eliyah Goldratt

143 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a graphic novelization of The Goal, a business book originally published in 1984. Both are about the theory of constraints

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. This book was recommended to me, and these days my book buying is so reflexive that I had purchased the graphic novel version without really realizing it. But if you’re interested in learning more about the theory of constraints, doing it in graphic novel format is actually kind of cool.

General Thoughts

Having read the graphic novel version I’m not sure if I’m going to go on to read the actual book. In large part this is because I have already read the The Phoenix Project, which is basically the IT version of The Goal. The Goal deals with manufacturing, and if that’s what you’re doing then I would probably read the actual book rather than the graphic novel. But if you’re in software like me then I would just skip straight to The Phoenix Project. 

From a conceptual standpoint the theory of constraints is very interesting. And I can see it applied to a wide variety of undertakings (as demonstrated by The Phoenix Project) but within the confines of a graphic novel things have to be kept fairly focused. So I’ll probably look into these ideas some more but don’t expect a review of the full book anytime soon.

My average book length for the year is up 13% over last year. That may not seem like much but under the old average I would have read three additional books. If you like the fact that I read long books so you don’t have to (or more likely so you can know if they’re worth reading) consider donating.


Eschatologist #3: Turning the Knobs of Society

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When I ended my last newsletter, I promised to name the hurricane of change and disruption which is currently sitting just off the coast gathering strength. Indeed “Change” and “Disruption” could both serve as names for this hurricane. But I want to dig deeper. 

This change and disruption haven’t arisen from nowhere, it’s clearly driven by the ever accelerating pace of technology and progress. Which is to say this isn’t a natural hurricane. It’s something new, something we have created.

This is in part why naming it is so difficult. New phenomena require new words, new ways of thinking. 

Perhaps a metaphor would help. I want you to imagine that we’re explorers, that we’re somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, or in a remote Siberian valley. In the course of our exploration we come across an ancient temple, barely recognizable after the passage of the centuries. As we clear away the vegetation we uncover some symbols. They are related to a language we know, but are otherwise very ancient. We can’t be entirely sure, but after consulting the experts in our group we think the symbols identify it as a place where one can control the weather. This seems unbelievable, but when we finally clear enough of the vegetation and rubble away to enter the building, we discover a wall covered in simple knobs. Each of these knobs can be turned to the right or the left, and each is labeled with another set of faded symbols.

An overeager graduate student sees the symbol for “rain” above one of the knobs. He runs over and turns it slightly to the right. Almost immediately, through the still open portal, you see rain drops begin to fall. The grad student turns it back to the left, and the rain stops. He then turns it as far as he can to the right, and suddenly water pours from the sky and thunder crashes in the distance.

Technology and progress are like finding that abandoned temple with its wall full of knobs, but instead of allowing us to control the weather, the temple of progress and technology seems to contain knobs for nearly anything we can imagine. It allows us to control the weather of civilization. But just like our imaginary explorers the symbols are unclear. Sometimes we have an idea, sometimes we just have to turn the knob and see what happens.

One of the first knobs we found was labeled with the symbol for energy. Or at least that was our hope. We immediately turned it to the right, and we’ve been turning it to the right ever since. As we did so, coal was mined, and oil gushed out of the ground. It was only later we realized that the knob also spewed CO2 into the air, and pollution into the skies. 

More recently we’ve translated the symbol for social connectivity. Mark Zuckerberg and other overeager graduate students turned that knob all the way to the right, giving us a worldwide community, but also echo chambers of misinformation and anger. 

As time goes on, we interpret more symbols, and uncover more knobs. And if the knob seems good we always start by turning it all the way to the right. And if the knob seems bad we always turn it all the way to the left. Why wouldn’t we want to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad? But very few things are either all good or all bad, and perhaps the knobs were set in the position we found them in for a reason.

One thing is clear, no one has the patience to wait until we completely understand the function of the knobs and the meaning of the mysterious symbols, least of all overeager grad students.

Both civilization and weather are complicated and chaotic things. It has been said that a butterfly flapping its wings in Indonesia might cause a hurricane in the Atlantic. If that’s what a butterfly can do, what do you think the effect of turning hundreds of knobs in a weather control temple will be?

Essentially that’s what we’ve done. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve generated a hurricane. And perhaps the simplest name for this hurricane is hubris.


It might surprise you to find out that extended metaphors aren’t cheap. Sure they may seem essentially free, but there’s a lot of hidden costs, not the least of which is the ongoing pension to the widows left behind by those who go too deep into a metaphor and never return. If you’d like to help support those left behind by these tragedies consider donating.