Tag: <span>Eschatology</span>

The Tricky Business of Reality Construction

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I.

I was recently at a meetup with some Slate Star Codex readers, and I decided to bring up my impressions of The Deep Places by Ross Douthat, which I had recently read and reviewed. For those who may have missed the review, the book was a chronicle of Douthat’s struggles with chronic Lyme disease (CLD). The problem, both in the wider world and at the meetup, is that there are serious questions about the reality of this condition. Or as Wikipedia says:

Despite numerous studies, there is no evidence that symptoms associated with CLD are caused by any persistent infection…

From this we might say that in “reality”, at least as constructed by most doctors and at least some of the people attending the aforementioned meetup, CLD does not exist. According to them, Douthat was not suffering because he still had Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria (the cause of Lyme disease) in his body. On the other hand, the “reality” Douthat constructed asserts the exact opposite.

Recently this business of reality construction, or more formally, the discipline of epistemology, has become a lot more complicated, and for me the primary appeal of Douthat’s book was that he explained the minutia of his reality construction project—down to the studs as they say. His own journey from CLD doubter to CLD believer, and all the empirical evidence he collected which supported this transition.

One assumes that when the doctors and the participants of the meetup take issue with the existence of CLD that they are taking issue with this journey, and the manner in which Douthat has gone about constructing this reality. These issues presumably extend to other sufferers, and of course the rogue doctors who do believe in the existence of CLD.

We’ll get to the conflict within the healthcare establishment in a bit, but first I want to consider the pushback I got at the meetup. I’ll confess I was surprised by the certainty that was exhibited. First I would think that someone’s priors on the assertion “mainstream medicine never makes mistakes” would have taken a significant hit during the pandemic. Second, the people pushing back weren’t dogmatically committed to all of the claims of mainstream medicine. More than one fringe idea had already been asserted as being true by the people pushing back.

For example, one of the most vociferous anti-CLD arguments came from someone who had already claimed that soap doesn’t work. So in the reality he had constructed, CLD was all in one’s head, but so were the benefits of using soap when showering. Of course both things may be true in some objective sense, but I’m interested in how he arrived at each of them given that one—his rejection of CLD—is totally in line with constructing reality using the “lumber” of medical authorities, while the other—his rejection of soap—is the exact opposite. But of course these days one has all sorts of material to choose from when constructing a reality, and perhaps his technique for getting at “truth” involves using different material depending on the seriousness of the subject (is this a load bearing wall?) and the quality of the evidence. And perhaps one can construct a perfectly secure foundation upon which both facts can rest.

The point is not to criticize his particular construction methodology, but to point out how many methodologies the modern world has given us, and the difficulty of determining which of them to use, particularly since combining different ones may in fact produce the best results.

To use Douthat as an example of how things have changed. In the not too distant past he would have had a handful of doctors available to consult, who had a handful of medicines to recommend, and that was it. These days the number of specialized doctors has multiplied, and some of them might have a podcast or a blog. The number of medicines has also vastly increased. To this can be added a nearly infinite variety of supplements. Douthat could also exchange info with sufferers from all over the world on social media. And even if he’s trying to be exceptionally rigorous and go straight to scientific papers, there are hundreds of those as well. Beyond all this, perhaps the biggest change is that Lyme disease only became endemic over the last 50 years.

On the other hand, it could be argued that having so many methodologies and materials to choose from has been, on net, a bad thing. That having wide agreement on something that’s 80% true may be better for society than having the ability for a small number of people to get to 99% truth.

Before moving on, I should hasten to add that while I used this one person as an example, I’m not in any sense trying to make him look bad or prove him wrong. In fact part of my point is that without coming to a consensus on a decision making framework it might not even be possible to “prove” him wrong. Also I like this guy, he’s obviously smart, probably smarter than me. And interestingly enough he wasn’t even the only “anti-soaper” at the meetup. What I’m mostly interested in is how the construction of reality and the pursuit of truth has become so fractured recently. 

II.

Obviously Douthat is not the only person trying to get down to the “studs” of reality, and I thought his book was interesting and useful not only because of its detail, but because of its subject matter. Discussing the “reality” of a disease would appear to be more tractable than a discussion of the “reality” of racism. While we might someday discover a way of detecting lingering Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria in sufferers of CLD, we are unlikely to come up with some similar methodology for detecting racial animus in the human soul. Also, everyone is currently involved in their own, similar reality construction project with respect to COVID, and many of the questions Douthat was asking about CLD are being asked in various forms by billions of people and thousands of organizations.

As interesting as it might be to wade into that mess, it might be more productive to look at how reality was constructed during the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Obviously the tools available to doctors in 1918 were much more limited than the tools we have available now. Vaccination was still in its infancy, and the first flu vaccine was still 20 years away. But they did have some drugs available. In particular, people tried using aspirin and quinine to combat the disease. Hydroxychloroquine is a synthetic version of quinine, which provides one of the many fascinating parallels between the two pandemics. In both cases, the best science says that they were/are ineffective. The story of aspirin, however, is where it gets interesting.

Aspirin had not been around for very long at this point, and it truly was (and still is) kind of a wonder drug, but there was also a lot that wasn’t understood about it. Doctors, unable to do much of anything else, recommended that people take a lot of aspirin—as in an amount that these days is considered dangerous. Meaning that overuse of aspirin may have contributed to the death rate. This idea was first proposed in a 2009 paper, and it’s worth quoting the abstract of that paper in full:

The high case-fatality rate—especially among young adults—during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic is incompletely understood. Although late deaths showed bacterial pneumonia, early deaths exhibited extremely “wet,” sometimes hemorrhagic lungs. The hypothesis presented herein is that aspirin contributed to the incidence and severity of viral pathology, bacterial infection, and death, because physicians of the day were unaware that the regimens (8.0–31.2 g per day) produce levels associated with hyperventilation and pulmonary edema in 33% and 3% of recipients, respectively. Recently, pulmonary edema was found at autopsy in 46% of 26 salicylate-intoxicated adults. Experimentally, salicylates increase lung fluid and protein levels and impair mucociliary clearance. In 1918, the US Surgeon General, the US Navy, and the Journal of the American Medical Association recommended use of aspirin just before the October death spike. If these recommendations were followed, and if pulmonary edema occurred in 3% of persons, a significant proportion of the deaths may be attributable to aspirin.

I only uncovered this fascinating bit of information in the course of writing this post. Which was surprising, I would have thought that it would be one of the major pieces of evidence brought forward by the anti-medical establishment crowd. (And maybe it is and I just missed it.) I am not interested in using it in this fashion. I’m more interested in using it to illustrate the differences between now and then. Back then there were conspiracy theories about aspirin killing people, but they all revolved around the idea that aspirin was made by Bayer and Bayer was a German company. And, when the Spanish Flu emerged, and during that October death spike, we were still at war with Germany. We know now that they were right to be cautious about aspirin (though for the wrong reasons), but it took until 2009 for us to figure out the “reality” of the situation.

Not only is this example more productive because it avoids current, unresolved controversies, it’s productive because it provides a contrast between the reality construction materials available in 1918 and those available today. The primary difference being of course the scarcity of our metaphorical construction materials back then as compared to the abundance we currently possess. In 1918, authority and science were far more monolithic. The number of potential treatments was far smaller. To the extent people were looking for nefarious schemes the narrative of these schemes was simpler. “We’re at war with Germany! They must be behind it!” But of all the differences perhaps the most consequential is that there was far, far, far less data.

Had the same thing played out during the current pandemic (and it has though perhaps in reverse with ivermectin) there might still be people blaming the Germans, but they would also be blaming the Chinese and the Russians, Big Pharma, and Bill Gates. There would also be people pointing out the results of past studies about the harms of aspirin; new studies would be conducted,and huge debates would erupt over the methodology of all of these studies and their statistical significance. Some people would start refusing to take any aspirin for any reason and some would make it a point of pride to take exactly the recommended dosage. There would be pro- and anti- aspirin blogs, and subreddits and message boards and personalities dedicated to each side. 

The big advantage of all the data, of all the methodologies, of all the reality construction materials available to us, is that unlike the doctors of 1918 we would almost certainly uncover the truth. We would also uncover 99 other explanations for things that weren’t the truth, and some people, perhaps many, would have a hard time deciding which of the 100 explanations to believe. Now to be fair, I’m probably exaggerating the uncertainty. Our science is powerful enough that we would reach consensus on the harmful effects of taking 31 grams of aspirin (31 grams!! I still can’t get over that) pretty quickly. But here we arrive at another difference between today and 1918. We have plucked all the low hanging fruit. In those places where reality was straightforward to construct it has already been built. The questions we need to form opinions on today are far more subtle. 

III. 

As I was writing this post I finished reading Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deenen. (You can find my review here.) As is so often the case, after coming across a new idea, you’re tempted to think it explains everything. It almost certainly doesn’t, it’s just the idea is recent, but while that’s the case I’m going to dig into what it explains about this problem. Deenen makes a particular point of talking about the bifurcation of liberalism, that there is a massive increase in individualism coupled with a massive increase in government authority. While this split manifests in lots of different ways, I think the problems Deenen describes mostly stem from how this results in two different levels of reality construction. We have pushed it to the very highest levels as well as to the deepest recesses of the soul.

The promise of science is that if we devote enough resources toward answering a particular question we can arrive at the Truth, or at least an answer with a high probability of being true. When the question is “What are the effects of taking 31 grams of aspirin every day?” our methodology works pretty well. But what about the effects of taking less than 100 milligrams a day? Since 2007 doctors have recommended that people over 40 with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease take a small daily dose of aspirin, generally in the 75 mg to 100 mg range. But now 15 years later they have backed off of the recommendation somewhat, particularly for older individuals, recommending that people over 70 avoid it entirely. 

I and others have written about the difficulties of creating a broad scientific consensus, so I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing that, but the presence and difficulty of such efforts should be kept in mind as we continue our exploration of how people construct the reality of their own lives, of what happens in the “deepest recesses of the soul”. Here again disease, and more broadly health and wellness in general, provide a great arena for this investigation.

The internet has empowered individual reality construction to a remarkable degree, but when considering health and wellness what’s striking is the degree to which it has also legitimated these individualized efforts. If you tell someone that you found some advice online or a technique or some other wisdom and you tried it out and it made you feel better, most people would, at minimum, applaud you for being proactive and responsible. Beyond that, even if they had doubts about whether a particular bit of wisdom was actually backed by science, a majority would nevertheless congratulate you on your improved sense of well-being. The assumption being that however bizarre your beliefs, how could they ever be more of an authority on your health than you are?

This is the other big thing about individual health and wellness: the empiricism is individual as well. To return to the anti-soapers, this appears to be what happened. They discovered some advice on the internet that recommended showering without soap. Something that would never have happened 30 years ago. They then tried it out, did their own n=1 experiment and decided that it produced a better outcome as far as health, and moved to make it part of their lifestyle. And as I mentioned it’s weird that at least one of them (maybe both, I don’t recall) objected to Douthat’s description of CLD, because that’s precisely what he did as well, only he spent much more time and went much deeper with his efforts.

In my review of Douthat’s book I ended with some questions for those who doubted his assessment. I’m going to end this section and begin the next by revisiting them.

First, the question I’m most curious about: what do these people (the doubters) imagine they would do if they were in Douthat’s shoes? If they had the same symptoms and those symptoms all responded in the same way to the same things? Would they still not believe in CLD? Or do they imagine that it couldn’t happen to them and thus the question is irrelevant? (Asserting their own immunity seems to be something of a matter of faith so we should probably set it aside.) Finally, what do they think is going on? Even if you believe that it’s all in someone’s head, which I think is what the guy from the meetup was claiming, you’re still unlikely to think that the right argument or the right set of facts will make someone go from experiencing symptoms to not experiencing them. (“This brochure cured me!”) Particularly given that the person suffering from the disease is probably, as illustrated by Douthat, actually open to any argument if it will just bring them relief

Still, I would be interested in taking a closer look at any advice the person might have on alternative reality construction methods Douthat should have used instead of the one he did. Because I think he tried most of them, which is another thing that made the book so impactful for me. Douthat starts with the mainstream view of CLD, he really wants to believe there’s no such thing, it’s only when his symptoms persist that he is eventually convinced. Which is why I’m so curious what doubters imagine they would do if they were in Douthat’s shoes.

It’s time to finally jump from diseases to a broader discussion of the problems of reality construction. Which takes us to the next question from my review. What is your position on fringe diseases and other fringe beliefs? Do your views entirely conform to those held by the mainstream medical establishment? 

To come at it from a different angle, we can imagine that there are some problems that are basically part of everyone’s reality: flu, cancer or broken bones as diagnosed by an x-ray. And then there are health issues almost no one thinks are real, like electromagnetic hypersensitivity (If you’ve seen the TV show Better Call Saul it’s what his brother Chuck suffers from.) But then there is clearly a large gray area between these two extremes. 

Where does one draw the line between real problems and fake problems? Your first impulse might be to make an argument around evidence and data. Or if either of those is insufficient, to gather more. To draw the line by referring to science or conducting more of it. If you really wanted to go the extra mile you could assign probabilities, perhaps as some sort of Bayesian exercise. This brings me to another question from my review: When someone says they don’t believe in CLD or for that matter electromagnetic hypersensitivity, what certainty level does this equate to? 51%? 90%? 100%? How certain are they that it’s made up? It might be said that my chief argument for this post is that modernity rather than delivering certainty has ended up burning it under a mountain of data subject to endless revisions. And it might be said that my chief argument with respect to Douthat’s book is that it should be impossible for someone to read it and reach the end possessing the same certainty they had going in.

What does one do with this large area in the middle? With diseases that are neither completely understood, nor obviously in someone’s head? Or to expand it out, most people obviously believe that COVID is real, but there’s still a huge debate over how dangerous it is, how best to deal with it, and whether such measures have unintended consequences, debates which I won’t rehash here. Beyond that is a whole universe of issues unrelated to disease where the science isn’t clear. 

We have long imagined that the tools of modernity, most especially science, would allow us to increase our certainty and end these debates. That they would make us better at the business of reality construction. But it seems increasingly clear that the opposite has happened. Why is that? 

I’ll conclude by trying to gather together the elements I have already discussed, while also introducing a couple of new ones:

  1. All of the problems we have left are subtle ones: We have picked all the low-hanging fruit and now all that’s left are issues where the data is messy and hard to collect.
  2. People recognize the power of science and so it’s become a weapon: This can range from researchers trying to make a name for themselves with exciting results to science being twisted to political ends.
  3. The bifurcation: We have individuals who feel empowered to collect and disseminate their own “science” on the one hand, and the government trying to generalize all data into something they can recommend universally. The former generates too much nuance, the latter too little.
  4. The flood of data: Closely related to the above, we have an enormous quantity and variety of reality construction tools available to us. Not only are there the standard observations about the internet, but we’re also doing far more science. There are dozens of studies just on the effectiveness of ivermectin. 
  5. What’s possible: Something I haven’t seen mentioned a lot, and perhaps it deserves its own post: modernity has increased the number of possible realities. In 1918 you could imagine that the flu was a disease or you could imagine that Bayer was doing something to aspirin tablets, and really only the first withstood scrutiny. These days you can imagine that COVID is natural, that it’s a natural virus which leaked from a lab, that it’s an artificial virus which was created using gain of function research which then leaked from a lab, or possibly something else, and find plenty of data to support any conclusion. Beyond that because we have DNA-sequencing and can identify how different omicron is, it’s possible to have an entirely different set of answers for this variant vs. the alpha variant. And I’m just scratching the surface.

Modernity has given us far more tools and far more materials with which to construct our individual realities. Some have taken these tools and materials and done great things with them. But some have taken them and used them in unintended and strange ways. By and large because reality construction has become so tricky, we’ve mostly gotten a lot worse at it, both individually and collectively. And if we can’t build a secure and consensual “reality”, well… we’re not going to be doing much of anything else either.


COVID spelt backwards is DIVOC and as our own battle against COVID seems to be traveling that direction it’s worth asking what DIVOC going on. Thank you folks, I’m here every week. If you appreciate that, consider donating.


Eschatologist #12: Predictions

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


Many people use the occasion of the New Year to make predictions about the coming year. And frankly, while these sorts of predictions are amusing, and maybe even interesting, they’re less useful than you might think.

Some people try to get around this problem by tracking the accuracy of their predictions from year to year, and assigning confidence levels (i.e. I’m 80% sure X will happen vs. being 90% sure that Y will happen). This sort of thing is often referred to as Superforecasting. These tactics would appear to make predicting more useful, but I am not a fan

At this point you might be confused: how could tracking people’s predictions not ultimately improve those predictions? For the long and involved answer you can listen the 8,000 words I recorded on the subject back in April and May of 2020. The short answer is that it focuses all of the attention on making correct predictions rather than making useful predictions. A useful prediction would have been: there will eventually be a pandemic and we need to prepare for it. But if you want to be correct you avoid predictions like that because most years there won’t be a pandemic and you’ll be wrong. 

It leaves out things that are hard to predict. Things that have a very low chance of happening. Things like black swans. You may remember me saying in the last newsletter that:

Because of their impact, the future is almost entirely the product of black swans.

If this is the case what sorts of predictions are useful? How about a list of catastrophes that probably will happen, along with a list of miracles which probably won’t. Things we should worry about and also things we can’t look forward to. I first compiled this list back in 2017, with updates in 2018, 2019, and 2020. So if you’re really curious about the specifics of each prediction you can look there. But these are my black swan predictions for the next 100 years:

Artificial Intelligence

  1. General artificial intelligence, something duplicating all of the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.
  2. A complete functional reconstruction of the brain will turn out to be impossible. For example slicing and scanning a brain, or constructing an artificial brain.
  3. Artificial consciousness will never be created. (Difficult to define, but let’s say: We will never have an AI who makes a credible argument for its own free will.)

Transhumanism

  1. Immortality will never be achieved. 
  2. We will never be able to upload our consciousness into a computer. 
  3. No one will ever successfully be returned from the dead using cryonics. 

Outer Space

  1. We will never establish a viable human colony outside the solar system. 
  2. We will never have an extraterrestrial colony of greater than 35,000 people. 
  3. Either we have already made contact with intelligent exterrestrials or we never will

War (I hope I’m wrong about all of these)

  1. Two or more nukes will be exploded in anger within 30 days of one another. 
  2. There will be a war with more deaths than World War II (in absolute numbers, not as a percentage of population.) 
  3. The number of nations with nuclear weapons will never be fewer than it is right now.

Miscellaneous

  1. There will be a natural disaster somewhere in the world that kills at least a million people
  2. The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown.
  3. Five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. I definitely should have put a pandemic on it back in 2017. Certainly I was aware, even then, that it was only a matter of time. (I guess if you squint it could be considered a natural disaster…)

To return to the theme of my blog and this newsletter:

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

I don’t think we’re going to be saved by black swans, but we could be destroyed by them. If the summer is over, then as they say, “Winter is coming.” Perhaps when we look back, the pandemic will be considered the first snowstorm…


I think I’ve got COVID. I’m leaving immediately after posting this to go get tested. If this news inspires any mercy or pity, consider translating that into a donation.


What “The Expanse” Can Teach Us about Fermi’s Paradox

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This post is going to draw fairly extensively from The Expanse series. It contains definite spoilers for anyone who hasn’t made it through book 3 of the series or season 3 of the TV show. Also the post will have some vague allusions to what happens after that. (I have not personally had the chance to watch the TV show much past season 1, so the exact amount I’m spoiling there might be more than I think.) 

You have been warned.

I.

This blog has been fascinated by Fermi’s Paradox since its inception. As such I’m always interested in the explanations science fiction authors create in the course of tackling the paradox in their books. Some explanations are fascinating and thought provoking, some are implausible and lazy. The explanation given by the Expanse Series, by James S. A. Corey, is fortunately one of the former.

We get Corey’s answer at the end of Abaddon’s Gate, the third book in the series. As it turns out there was someone else out there, and they created a empire of over 1300 planets and knit them together with a network of gates. Earth was supposed to be one of those planets, but the device which would have created the gate (and dramatically hijacked all life on Earth in the process) was captured by Saturn’s gravity and never made it to its final destination.

Eventually people find this device and hilarity ensues. Okay not really, the device (what the series calls the protomolecule) actually turns people into horrible zombie-like creatures who eventually merge with each other into something even more horrible, which then eventually turns into the “Sol Gate” humanity’s very own connection to the ring network. You may have noticed earlier that I said that there was something out there. Well, when the humans travel through the ring they find out that the aliens who built the gates have vanished. Nor is the reason for their disappearance entirely mysterious. It is soon discovered that they were killed off by something even bigger and nastier. 

From the perspective of the series the creation of the gate is good and bad. It’s good because now humans have easy access to hundreds of new, habitable worlds. It’s bad because not only do they know that there exists some other awesomely powerful entity—an entity which is horribly, and seemingly blindly malevolent, something like Lovecraft’s description of the elder gods—but they also may have just brought themselves to the attention of this entity.

As I mentioned this all comes out at the end of book three. The series just barely concluded with book 9 (review coming soon!) So based on this mix of good and bad news what do you imagine the humans do in the subsequent books? Well, and I think Corey predicts this accurately, they spend all of their time on the bounty of the 1300+ systems they’ve just discovered, and almost none of it on the giant, horrible elder gods lurking in the shadows. Now to be fair, they’ve got a lot of problems to deal with other than the elder gods. The animosity between Earth, Mars and the Belters has not gone away just because there’s a bunch of new worlds, in fact if anything the discovery has inflamed tensions. But still one would hope that should we be confronted with this situation in actuality that we would spend more time on the giant, horrible alien problem than the people in the book do, but maybe not.

There is however one person in the books who’s different. One person who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of humanity. This is Winston Duarte. If you have read many books like this, you may have already guessed that he’s the bad guy. Whether this would be so in reality is not the point of this post, and to be clear, in the context of the books he does end up doing some very bad things. No, the point of this post is to imagine what we might do if we were Duarte. If we decided that the problem of the missing aliens was really the biggest problem humanity faces. 

Of course to a certain extent there are such people, people who are really interested in identifying and dealing with existential issues, because if we don’t we may not be around to deal with anything else. I’ve reviewed some of their books, for example: Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković and The Precipice by Toby Ord. And I will continue to review and read these books. I think they touch on one of the most important subjects people can be thinking about. But while reading the final book of The Expanse I was struck by the similarity between Duarte’s situation and our own. And I wanted to use it as a springboard to revisit the profound implications of Fermi’s Paradox, and how it’s easy to understand those implications when it’s fiction, but far harder when it’s reality.

II.

The insight which prompted me to write this post was the realization that there are a lot of similarities between our position and the position of the humans who have just discovered the gates. There were many, many years when neither was even aware of the problem, and then suddenly, in their case, and almost as suddenly, in our case, we both realized that we had a big problem. Both of us have every reason for believing that there should be aliens out there. And as it turns out (thus far) the rest of the universe is empty.

Of course there are obviously some differences. To begin with you may think that our situation is not as bad as the one Duarte is focused on, but I’m not sure that’s the case. He has the advantage of knowing exactly what the problem is: there is some sort of Lovecraftian elder god which eradicates any civilization above a certain level of technology. Of course this is a very big problem, possibly insoluble, but at least he knows where to direct his attention and his energy. And while it is true that nearly everyone else in the books seems to be ignoring the problem. At least they’re aware of it. And when the time comes it doesn’t take much to get them to throw enormous resources at it. On the other hand, most people today aren’t even aware that there is a problem, if they are aware of it they may wonder whether it’s appropriate to even call it a “problem”, and if they grant all of that, there’s still very little agreement on what sort of problem it might be.

To get more concrete, sitting on a shelf in front of me is a book which contains 75 explanations for Fermi’s paradox, and even this collection of 75 explanations doesn’t cover all of the possibilities. Duarte only has to concern himself with one of those explanations: malevolent aliens, and not even malevolent aliens as a general concept, but rather a specific malevolent alien whose existence has already been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. This is not to say that all of the questions posed by the paradox have been answered. For example, did the ring builders really wipe out all other life before being wiped out themselves? But as far as Duarte is concerned the part that matters has been solved, and now he just has to deal with the problems arising from the reality of that solution. And he has lots of options for doing just that. The elder gods might have left clues as to their motivations; there might also be precautions he could take; experiments he could run; or at least data he could collect. 

Duarte doesn’t have to worry about other possible solutions. He doesn’t have to worry that all intelligent aliens destroy themselves in a nuclear war so humans will as well. Or at least he doesn’t have to worry about this nearly as much as we do. Humans are now on hundreds of worlds, and have gone hundreds of years without such a war. He doesn’t have to worry about the difficulties intelligent species might encounter in making it off their home planet in the first place. Humans (in The Expanse) have already shown that can be done as well. Nor does he have to worry about interstellar distances, not only has the gates made this point moot, but even without the gates a major plot point of the first few books is that the Mormons (Go team!) are preparing to leave the solar system in a generational ship. And the list of things he no longer has to worry about goes on and on beyond these examples.

On the other hand, when we contemplate the silent universe we have to consider all 75 solutions, while also being aware of the fact that this list might not be exhaustive, we have probably overlooked some of the possibilities, perhaps even the correct one. 

Some of the potential solutions to the paradox are better for us than the elder gods of The Expanse. Some are worse. You might take issue with the idea that anything could be worse than implacably hostile, nearly omnipotent super aliens, but I disagree. There’s always some chance that we could avoid, placate, or defeat the other aliens. In fact, the chances of avoiding them seem particularly high, since we already managed to do so for tens of thousands of years. But if we consider the entire universe of possible solutions, there are explanations where our chances of survival are much, much lower. As an example, what if the answer to Fermi’s paradox is something inherent to intelligence, or technological progress, or biological evolution itself? Something that hasn’t merely defeated one set of aliens (as was the case with The Expanse) but has defeated all of the potential aliens. Something which because of this inherency will almost certainly defeat us as well.

Back in 1998 Robin Hanson gave a name to this idea of something that defeats all potential aliens, he called it the Great Filter. This is the idea that there is something which prevents intelligent life from developing and spreading across the galaxy in an obvious fashion. Some hurdle which makes it difficult for life to develop in the first place, or which makes it difficult for life, once developed, to achieve intelligence, or which makes it difficult for intelligent life to become multiplanetary. Since Hanson came up with the idea, people have obviously wondered what that hurdle or filter might be, but more importantly they’ve wondered, is it ahead of us or behind us? 

Pulling all of this together, I would say the idea that the Great Filter is ahead of us, and not merely ahead of us, but nearby—a built in consequence of technological progress—is a far scarier solution to the paradox than even the elder gods of The Expanse. The only thing that mitigates the scariness of this solution is the fact that it’s not certain. There is some probability that the true explanation for the paradox is something else. 

It is this uncertainty, and not the magnitude of the catastrophe which represents the key difference between Duarte’s situation and ours.

III.

This is not the first time this blog has covered potential catastrophes with uncertain probabilities. In fact it might be said to represent the primary theme of the blog. So how do you handle this sort of thing if you’re a real, modern day Duarte, rather than the fictional one a couple of centuries in the future? How do you proceed if the threat isn’t certain, if there’s no data to collect, no experiments to run, no motivations to probe? Are there at least precautions one could take?

There might be, but most people who do end up focusing on this sort of thing spend far more time trying to assess the probabilities of the various catastrophes, the various solutions to the paradox, than in trying to understand and mitigate those catastrophes. And frequently the conclusion they come to is that one can explain the paradox without resorting to catastrophic explanations. It can be explained entirely by the fact that we’re extraordinarily lucky. And I mean EXTRA-odinarily lucky. Since I’ve already alluded to Stephen Webb’s book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life we might as well look at the account he gives of our unbelievable luck.

I did a very detailed breakdown of it in a previous post, but in essence it assumes that there are 1 trillion planets in the galaxy and out of the trillion places where it could have happened Earth was the only place where life did happen.

That we were lucky enough to be on a planet in the galactic habitable zone.

…which also orbits a sun-like star

…in the habitable zone of that same star

…which turned that luck into life

…that this life was lucky enough to avoid being wiped out prematurely

…developing from single-celled to multicellular life

…and not merely multicellular life, but intelligent, tool-using, mathematical life.

In other words we won the lottery, but actually we did better than that. You actually have a 1 in 300 million chance of winning even a really big lottery, like the Mega Millions. 1 in a trillion is actually 3,000 times less likely even than that. 

This explanation and similar explanations for the paradox are given the label “Rare Earth”, and I’ll admit that I’m probably not the best person to talk about them because they strike me as being optimistic to the point of delusion. Similar to the people in The Expanse who look at the gates and only see the hundreds of inhabitable worlds, not the omnicide of the aliens who built the gates in the first place. Yes, it’s possible that Earth, alone out of the trillion planets in the galaxy, has managed to get past the Great Filter. That some species on some planet was going to get lucky, and it just happened to be us. That, now, as the beneficiaries of this luck, a glorious transhuman future stretches out in front of us, where everything just keeps getting better and better. Certainly this vision is attractive, the question is whether it’s true. Of course it’s impossible to know, but many people have decided to treat it as such. Is this because the body of evidence for this position is overwhelming? Or is it because it’s comforting? My money is on the latter. But we’re not looking for comfort. We’re not interested in the hundreds of habitable worlds. We’re Duarte and we’re focused on the danger. 

This is not to say, in our role as Duarte, that we entirely dismiss the possibility of a Rare Earth explanation. Only that such an explanation is being adequately handled by other people. Duarte doesn’t need to focus on how to speed up the colonization of the newly discovered worlds. Everybody else is doing that. He’s focused on the paradox, and the potential danger. He doesn’t care whether there are a trillion planets in the Milky Way or only 800 billion. He doesn’t worry about knowing the minutia of astrobiology. He’s just worried about preventing humanity’s extinction, and in that effort, spending all of your time debating probabilities is just a distraction. 

Why? Well to begin with, as we’ve seen with people making the Rare Earth argument, people will ignore probabilities when it suits them. And if they were really concerned about assigning probabilities to things, what probability would they assign to the ideas I’m worried about, the ideas I’ve talked about over the course of this blog? For example, the possibility that intelligence inevitably creates the means of its own destruction. Less than 1 in a billion? Less than 1 in a thousand? And yet for reasons of sophistry and comfort they will proudly claim that Fermi’s paradox has been dissolved because we happen to be the result of odds which are much longer than that. 

Second, and even more importantly, assigning such probabilities is difficult to the point of basically being worthless. We have no idea how hard it is for life to arise on an earth-like planet, and still less of an idea how hard it is for that life to progress from its basic form to human-level intelligence. And if, despite these difficulties, we decide that we’re going to persist in trying to assign probabilities, it would seem easier and more productive to try to assign probabilities to the potential catastrophes rather than buttressing our illusion of safety. It’s easier because while we have no other examples of complex life developing we have plenty of examples of complex civilizations collapsing (for examples see the Fall of Civilizations Podcast) And it’s more productive because even if everyone who believes in the rare earth explanation is absolutely correct, we could still be in trouble from our own creations. 

IV.

If the previous parts have been enough to make you sympathetic to the “Duarte viewpoint”, and you’re ready to move from a discussion of probabilities to a discussion of precautions, then the obvious question is what precautions should we be taking?

Here I must confess that I don’t actually know. Certainly there’s the general admonition to gradualism. Also I think we should be attempting to reduce fragility in general. And to the extent I have advice to give on those topics, I have mostly already given it in other posts. What I was hoping to do in this post was to make the whole situation easier to understand by way of analogizing it to the situation in The Expanse and in that effort there are a couple of points I would still like to draw your attention to.

As I said I’m not sure what precautions we should be taking. But I am sure we have more than enough people focused on “colonizing new worlds” and not nearly enough focused on “scary elder gods”. Additionally we seem unwilling to make many tradeoffs in this area. Lots of people give lip service to the terrible power of the elder gods, but almost no one is willing to divert resources from the colonization project in order to better fight, or even just understand their awful power.

Finally there’s the objection I think most people will have, particularly those who’ve read the books, or who are otherwise familiar with totalitarianism. If we do manage to get more Duartes isn’t it possible or even likely that they will go too far? That the neo-neo-luddites will throw the baby out with the bathwater? If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that reasonable people can disagree about how threatening something is, and whether a given response is appropriate for that threat.

Obviously such an extreme outcome is possible, but thus far it isn’t even clear that we’re going to ban gain of function research despite there being at least some chance that it was responsible for the pandemic. If that’s where we’re currently at on managing the unexpected harms of technological progress I don’t think we’re in much danger of going too far anytime soon. 

I suppose the big takeaway from this post is that we need more Duarte’s. I suspect that there are a lot of people who read The Expanse and think: Those foolish individuals! They’re so focused on colonizing the habitable planets, when really they should be focused on the huge malevolent aliens that wiped out the last civilization. If you are one of the people that comes away with this impression then you should come away with precisely the same impression when viewing our own situation


It’s possible that someone out there is wondering what they could get me for Christmas. Well mostly I want the ability to ruthlessly crush my enemies, just like everyone. But if that seems too difficult to arrange, consider donating


Eschatologist #11: Black Swans

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February 2020, the last month of normalcy, probably feels like a long time ago. I spent the last week of it in New York City. Which was already ground zero for the pandemic—though no one knew that yet. I was there to attend the Real World Risk Institute. A week-long course put on by Nassim Taleb, who’s best known as the author of The Black Swan. The coincidence of learning more about black swans while a very large one was already in process is not lost on me.

(Curiously enough, this is not the first time I was in New York right before a black swan. I also happened to be there a couple of weeks before 9/11.)

Before we go any further, for any who might be unfamiliar with the term, a black swan is an unpredictable, rare event with extreme consequences. And, one of the things I was surprised to learn while at the institute is that Taleb, despite inventing the term, has grown to dislike it. There are a couple of reasons for this. First people apply it to things which aren’t really black swans, to things which can be foreseen. The pandemic is actually a pretty good example of this. Experts had been warning about the inevitability of one for decades. We had one in 1918, and beyond that several recent near misses with SARS, MERS, and Ebola. And that was just in the last couple of decades. If all this is the case, why am I still calling it a black swan?

First off, even if the danger of a pandemic was fairly well known, the second order effects have given us a whole flock of black swans. Things like supply chain shocks, teleworking, housing craziness, inflation, labor shortages, and widespread civil unrest, to name just a few. This is the primary reason, but on top of that I think Taleb is being a little bit dogmatic with this objection. (I.e. it’s hard to think of what phrase other than “black swan” better describes the pandemic.)

However, when it comes to his second objection I am entirely in agreement with him. People use the term as an excuse. “It was a black swan. How could we possibly have prepared?!?” And herein lies the problem, and the culmination of everything I’ve been saying since the beginning, but particularly over the last four months.

Accordingly saying “How could we possibly have prepared?” is not only a massive abdication of responsibility, it’s also an equally massive misunderstanding of the moment. Because preparedness has no meaning if it’s not directed towards preparing for black swans. There is nothing else worth preparing for.

You may be wondering, particularly if black swans are unpredictable, how is one supposed to do that? The answer is less fragility, and ideally antifragility, but a full exploration of what that means will have to wait for another time. Though I’ve already touched on how religion helps create both of these at the level of individuals and families. But what about levels above that? 

This is where I am the most concerned. And where the excuse, “It was a black swan! Nothing could be done!” has caused the greatest damage. In a society driven by markets, corporations have great ability to both help and harm by the risks they take. We’re seeing some of these harms right now. We saw even more during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. When these harms occur, it’s becoming more common to use this excuse. That it could not be foreseen. It could not be prevented.

If corporations suffered the effects of their lack of foresight that would be one thing. But increasingly governments provide a backstop against such calamities. In the process they absorb at least some of the risk. Making the government itself more susceptible to future, bigger black swans. And if that happens, we have no backstop.

Someday a black swan will either end the world, or save it. Let’s hope it’s the latter.


One thing you might not realize is that donations happen to also be black swans. They’re rare (but becoming more common) and enormously consequential. If you want to feel what it’s like to have that sort of power, consider trying it out. 


Shallow Seriousness Is Crowding Out Deep Seriousness

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I.

With the exception of my newsletters every one of my posts is thousands of words, and yet despite that length I am always left with the impression that I haven’t hit all the points I wanted to or explained things as well as could have. That in some sense I still haven’t quite gotten to the essence of a subject. Normally I just shrug this off as something that comes with the territory. A skill I’ll hopefully get better at, but also a feeling I’ll probably never get rid of because I will always have a certain amount of built in anxiety which is forever intractable. I will also remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you have to hit publish at some point.

This was certainly the case with my posts on Afghanistan, and initially it just seemed like the standard second guessing that happens after every post. But it didn’t fade, and I found my mind continually drawn back to some of the ideas from those posts, in particular the idea that one of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan is that we are “no longer a serious people”.  

II.

As a brief reminder here’s where I left things:

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah [The president backed by Russia] was an expert in such conversations. Ghani [The president backed by the US] apparently avoided them. 

As you can see I was already hinting at the idea that people mean different things when they talk about being serious. And that perhaps if we’re going to say that we failed in Afghanistan for not being serious we need to unpack that word. What does it mean to be serious, particularly in this context?

As the word is used day to day it generally comes as an injunction to dispense with frivolity, to set aside extraneous matters and focus on what’s important. The word also carries a connotation of consequential, as in a serious heart attack vs. a mild attack. 

If we look around at what’s currently happening, on certain measures we are very serious. Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed over a week ago, and it would seem to meet all of the above criteria. We have set aside the extraneous concerns of politics and the back and forth accusations of one party vs. another to focus on something truly important. Additionally it’s consequential, even in an age where deficits don’t seem to matter, $1.2 trillion is, as Biden would say, a big f’ing deal. 

This would seem to be an example of serious people doing serious things, and yet on the other hand it’s exactly the thing I complained of when talking about Afghanistan. President Ghani was obsessed with digitizing the economy, which is essentially also an infrastructure initiative, albeit a virtual one. But if he really cared about the country as a whole (and there’s reason to suspect he didn’t) what he really should have been obsessed with was the defense of his country.

As I sat down to grapple with this issue again, I was reminded of one of my very earliest blog posts, as a matter of fact, it was only the sixth thing I’d posted. The post was titled Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election. In particular I was reminded of this passage:

As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.

The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later.  Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?

As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.

I’m surprised I never thought to reference this in the previous posts on Afghanistan, because, more or less, Kabul ended up being a mirror of Baghdad. To be clear, we have to adjust things for modern sensibilities. But in both cases the most critical task was making sure the capital wasn’t conquered, and in both cases the rulers failed. The only reason the rulers weren’t killed this time is because of the existence of air travel. (Though I would also argue it was an issue of courage as well.) Also, and unfortunately for the Taliban, there wasn’t much treasure to be carried off. (Which I guess is one good reason to digitize the economy.) Apparently Ghani carried off quite a bit of the treasure before they got there. Finally I suspect that many women were raped when Kabul fell, and we know for sure that many were given to Taliban fighters in forced marriage

III.

From all of this we are left to consider our own situation: Are there any Mongols or Taliban fighters on the verge of sacking our capital?  I think it’s clear that we have neither steppe horseman nor Islamic fundamentalists outside our gates. But it’s a mistake to take things too literally, what we’re really looking for is patterns. Who are our enemies? Are we focused enough on the dangers they pose? Or have we perhaps been distracted by something else? All of which is to say, are we paying attention to the right thing?

The genesis of this post and the beginning of me revisiting things, came early last month when one of my loyal patreon subscribers pointed me at a story which had run in the New York Times.

Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants…being captured or killed…

The message, in an unusual top secret cable…highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

While we don’t have Mongols outside our walls we do have other countries who would like nothing more than to destroy us and carry away our treasures. Espionage is the field on which the battle is taking place, and if the NYT is to be believed, we’re not doing very well in this battle.

Perhaps our situation is not as dire as that of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 or of the Afghan government in August. But when it becomes that dire it will probably already be too late. So is this an issue of seriousness? One requiring serious people? Are we failing because we lack such people?

There’s a lot to unpack in the Times article, and I obviously only quoted a portion. One of the explanations given for the problems the CIA has been encountering is technological: 

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources. 

This part is certainly interesting, and it relates to themes I’ve touched on a lot in this space. But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Rather my eye was drawn to point about the deterioration of the craft, particularly the drive to “quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks”.

Apparently:

Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the C.I.A.’s case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.

In other words the CIA has turned recruiting spies into a numbers game. And as you may recall from my last post, when I reviewed The Tyranny of Merit. There are a couple of adages about this, one of which asserts that: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

But how does all of this relate to whether or not we’re serious people? Do I mean to suggest that if we stopped tracking the number of new informants a case officer recruited that the whole situation would be reversed? Or, to draw on another concept from my last post, do we just need to implement a few nudges? Perhaps we can give the “Add New Informant” screen a red background to remind them of the blood that will be spilled if they don’t consider the quality of their informants in addition to the quantities? Or maybe we should conduct a follow-up survey, with questions like, “Did the informant turn out to be a double agent?”, followed by: “How many Americans did they end up getting killed?”

I assume that these suggestions seem ridiculous or flippant, but why? Certainly many governments are enamoured by the idea of nudges, perhaps the red background nudge wouldn’t work, but how do you know? Have you tried an A/B split test? And if in the past we based promotion on job performance metrics, why is it bad to refine those metrics and add additional ones to plug the gap? Are these not the sort of things which serious companies do? 

But it would seem once again that there is a level of seriousness beyond this when we consider matters of national security—matters of life and death. And that even things which are normally plenty serious, something which wouldn’t feel out of place in a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, becomes downright frivolous when applied to things that are truly serious. 

This gets us quite a bit of the way to what we’re looking for when we describe the qualities of a nation of “serious people”. Those who are familiar with life and death situations and who also perform well in them. The reason we are no longer a serious people is that by and large we don’t deal with life or death situations—certainly not with the same frequency or intensity as our forebearers. And when we are called to do so, as in the case with CIA case officers, we bring in tools from our unserious existence, and wonder why they don’t work.

But why? What’s the difference? What differentiates  a serious tool from an unserious one? 

IV.

A little over a year ago I published what many have declared to be my best post. (Though one reader declared it to be the closest I’ve come to insanity.) It was an extended meditation on the book The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which itself is an extended look at the way modernity leans into a left-brained view of the world, resulting in the perpetuation of various damaging distortions. 

After I published that post I expected to reference it frequently, but mostly I haven’t returned to the subject. I think largely the reason can be boiled down to the idea that if you’re a fish it’s difficult to comment on water. That said, I think this is finally a subject where the connection seems obvious.

As I have pointed out there seem to be two levels of seriousness. The more shallow form of seriousness is the one that tracks the number of informants recruited, but overlooks the fact that most of them are killed or turned. The shallow form spawns leaders who are obsessed with digitizing the economy of their country, but have no desire to make any plans for the defense of that same country. And then there is a deeper level of seriousness which considers not only the quantity of the informants being recruited but their quality, and indeed the way in which this recruitment effort contributes to the struggle between nations in its entirety. A seriousness which empowers someone to hang on as the President of Afghanistan for years rather than days.

When considering these two levels, I would argue that the more shallow form corresponds to a predominantly left-brained way of thinking, while the deeper form is predominantly right-brained. 

It is not my intent, nor do I have the space to go into all of the attributes of right vs. left brained modalities. But whatever your preconceptions about the difference you should probably cast them aside as pop science oversimplifications. The difference of left vs. right is not a matter of logic vs. emotions or facts vs. imagination. It’s best described as a difference between trying to turn the whole into parts vs. binding parts into a whole. And yes, this is also another oversimplification. But I think it’s good enough to give us a basis for the point I want to make. Particularly if we include a couple of examples. 

Coincidentally, speaking of espionage and Afghanistan, at this moment, I’m reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. This is the story of the British efforts to secure the northern approaches into India against the expanding influence of Russia. These efforts involved a lot of spying, and the story of these spies provides an interesting contrast to the NYT story. To give but one example, consider the story of Arthur Conolly. I don’t have the space to give a full account of his exploits and life, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Was the person who coined the term “The Great Game”
  • Went undercover into Muslim Central Asia for years at a time
  • Was eventually captured and later beheaded while on a daring solo mission trying to rescue another British officer.
  • One of six brothers, three of whom, himself included, suffered violent deaths while “playing” in the Great Game.
  • Finally, Conolly was motivated in all of these efforts by his Christian beliefs and his patriotism.

Now let us contrast this list with a list of presumed qualities possessed by one of the CIA officers mentioned in the NYT article:

  • Has very little concept of the struggle they’re engaged in right now. Not only have they not labeled it, no one has labeled it yet.
  • They expect to have a mostly normal life.
  • Would never set out on a solo mission to rescue a fellow agent, nor even need to.
  • Setting aside how weird it would be for one of these officers to even have five brothers, it’s inconceivable that half of them would die because they all passionately believed in the importance of American interests in Central Asia.
  • Primarily motivated in their efforts by what will get them promoted.

It’s the contrast between the last points of both lists where we really get to the heart of the matter. It’s impossible to imagine a modern CIA officer being motivated by Christianity. And really being motivated by any ideology, even patriotism, would get him funny looks. No, he’s motivated by considerations that are largely material, and individualistic. Calculations of what actions are required to get the numbers necessary for promotion. His perspective is essentially a left-brained one.

Now I’m probably overstating the individualism of our hypothetical CIA officer a little bit. I mean to begin with he’s in the CIA, he could probably have chosen a profession that was both safer and more lucrative. But I would argue that, at a minimum, there is a trendline and it’s pointing in a left-brained direction. In part this is illustrated by the fact that even if he wanted an overarching ideology on which to base his efforts there isn’t one available, certainly not one which would be shared by his fellow officers, not one that could animate the entire enterprise.

On the other hand Conolly understood the problem from a right-brained perspective. As evidence of this more holistic perspective, he was able to give the entire conflict a label which was so on point that we continue to use it down to the present day. Still just because he approached things from a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better perspective. Most educated Westerners would be horrified if modern spies talked about the civilizing mission of Christianity and the benefits of British rule in the same fashion as Conolly.

It’s possible that the two different levels of seriousness are useful, but in different contexts. I’m happy to grant that the shallow form of seriousness is great if you’re in a mature and stable democracy. While the deep form of seriousness is useful if you’re in a desperate struggle for existence.

(This all reminds me of Scott Alexander’s Thrive/Survive Theory of politics, which I expanded on in a post of my own.) 

However, even if the shallow level of seriousness is more useful, most of the time, it should be clear that it’s less important than the deep level of seriousness, because as I have pointed out on numerous occasions: if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else either. This means it’s a problem if the shallow form of seriousness starts to crowd out the deep form, such that it can’t be called on even when needed, as appears to be the case with the CIA and Afghanistan. 

To close out I’d like to offer up a second example I came across recently, this one from the Vietnam War. From a left-brained perspective this was a war we should have easily won. We had the numbers. We had overwhelming might. The math was entirely in our favor. We even had computers which told us we were going to win. But as you may recall, we didn’t. Why? Well I would opine that one of the reasons was we had different levels of seriousness. We were mostly conducting the war from a shallow level while for the North Vietnamese it was deeply serious. 

I encountered the example in an episode of the Radiolab Podcast. This particular episode told how, at some point during the war, partially in response to fears of Communist brain-washing, the Army decided to look into psychological operations or what came to be known as psyops. As a first step, they decided that the best people to consult for such an operation were advertisers from Madison Ave. There’s even a quote from the episode along the lines of “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective, maybe you can teach us how to get someone to lay down their weapons.” If that isn’t an example of using shallow methods on a deep problem I don’t know what is.

In any case, the idea they came up with was to drop coupons on the North Vietnamese troops. (Perhaps you can see the advertising connection?) These coupons were good for safe passage across US lines, where they were promised a warm cup of coffee, safety, and an end to all their privations. Unfortunately for the military, these coupons ended up having very little effect. I imagine that most of my readers are probably not too surprised to discover this. But why not? Here you have a country that’s slightly smaller than the average US state, and we end up dropping twice as much ordnance on it as all of the ordnance dropped in all theaters during the entirety of WW2. Why wouldn’t you be grasping for any excuse to get out of there, no matter how flimsy. During the episode they play an interview with a North Vietnamese soldier and they ask him about this, and as I recall, after explaining how awful things were, and how impoverished he was, he still declares that the “coupons” never even tempted him. That he felt like he was participating in something larger than himself. That it was his country, and he didn’t care how bad it got; he wasn’t going to stop fighting until the invaders had been driven out. 

That’s someone who’s serious. 

V.

Perhaps when I talk about US seriousness with respect to the CIA, and Afghanistan and Vietnam, I have selected too narrow of a focus. Perhaps if our country was truly threatened we would discover that we’re a deeply serious people after all. Certainly there was something of that feeling after 9/11, but it’s been in short supply since then. Also it should be pointed out that I’ve focused entirely on the seriousness we’ve displayed when dealing with other nations. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about seriousness as it relates to the culture war. But here again many of the proposed solutions involve breaking things down into parts that we can understand and measure, when we should really be trying to unite the various parts into a larger whole.

Once upon a time we were “one nation”, perhaps that next phrase, “under God”, or at least under some unifying ideology, was more important than we realized.


My uncle was in the CIA. He generally doesn’t talk about it all that much. But at one point he said that the reason he left was that his next job was going to be in a foreign country, presumably recruiting informants. If you want to hear the rest of that story, consider donating. I’ll use it to buy him lunch and see if I can’t pull some details out of him.


9 Days vs. 3 Years

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I.

All the way back in 1992, at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. This book has come under a lot of criticism (including from me before I read it) for claiming that we had reached “the end of history”. But in reality the book’s claims are far more subtle. And its main claim, that liberal democracy and free markets have no remaining viable competitor, has been the default assumption of basically all politicians and policy makers over the last 30 years. But as we conduct our retrospective on the events in Afghanistan, these events are not merely a reflection on the country and its peculiarities, nor an embarrassment for Biden, they are a test of this assumption, a test of the liberal order. A test I’m pretty sure we failed.

It might be helpful at this point to remind ourselves of Fukuyama’s argument. In my review of the book I provided the following summary of his claims:

  • His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
  • His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. 
  • Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.

In the wake of our retreat from Afghanistan these claims must all be viewed in a different light. Yes we are probably better at taking advantage of the scientific method than the people in Afghanistan. But as I pointed out in the last post, science did not provide us with any method for turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy of the kind promoted by Fukuyama. It gave us a tremendous edge in fighting the Afghans who opposed us, but in the end it made very little impact on their desire to fight for themselves. (More on that in a second.) It remains open for debate whether there can be said to be a science of politics in general, but science certainly appears helpless when it comes to the politics of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was often viewed as a battle for hearts and minds, and while our science and industry are great at winning conventional battles, they proved powerless to fight these other battles of attitude and ideology. 

It’s not that the global liberal democratic project ended in Afghanistan, there are still many parts of the world where it (mostly) works. It’s that it didn’t expand into Afghanistan, and this despite an effort spanning 20 years and costing trillions of dollars. Fukuyama never asserted that liberal values were historically inevitable—despite how much he was influenced by Hegel—for him it was a matter of competition. Liberal democratic states would inevitably outcompete nonliberal states economically, intellectually, and militarily. In order to survive, states would have to adopt this ideology, otherwise their defeat was inevitable. Well we spent 20 years trying to get Afghanistan to accomplish exactly that and we appear to have failed. We didn’t outcompete the nonliberal elements either intellectually or militarily. It can be argued that we’re still outcompeting them economically, but that wasn’t enough. 

This is of course related to the point Richard Hanania made which opened my last post: that political science has failed. One of my readers asked why, when we suffered a similar failure in Vietnam, no one declared political science to be dead back then? If they didn’t, why should we do so now? To begin with, it’s possible they did (see numerous criticisms of guys like McNamara). Also, in response, political scientists, rather than all quitting their jobs to manage a McDonald’s, probably defended their profession (as people are inclined to do), perhaps arguing that they had incorporated the relevant criticism and improved things. I bring up this first possibility because I’m pretty sure that’s what is going to happen this time as well. But there’s another angle of his question that I’m more interested in. 

II.

While our exit from Afghanistan certainly reminded people of Vietnam, in many other respects the two wars were very different. The North Vietnamese had powerful backing in the form of the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan had no such help (or very little). Also, while people have no problem categorizing communism as a true rival ideology, particularly at the time of the Vietnam war, very few people are framing the Taliban’s victory in ideological terms, and no one is anointing any ideology as potential successor to liberalism. (Islam might be considered for that role, but if anything Afghanistan has been a lesson more in its fractures than in its unity.)

Another difference is the history, America’s efforts in Afghanistan were conducted in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s previous disastrous occupation. And I think it’s more instructive to compare the end of our time in Afghanistan with the end of the Soviet’s time in Afghanistan than with the end of our time in Vietnam.

This difference was brought to my attention by Ross Douthat in his column from a couple of weeks ago. 

Only recently the view that without U.S. troops, the American-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed like hardheaded realism. Now such “realism” has been proven to be wildly overoptimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the mujahideen reached Kabul. Whereas our $2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell to the Taliban before American troops could even finish their retreat.

Later in the same article he points out that the US backed government was conquered faster by the Taliban than the Taliban were initially conquered by the US. I understand that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but the speed and lack of struggle accompanying this most recent death suggests something closer to euthanasia than murder. And basically this is exactly how Biden is defending his decision.

It feels like it would be hard to overemphasis this difference: the US backed government lasted 9 days while the Soviet backed government lasted several years. In fact I would argue that this difference speaks to a deep truth about the nature of the American effort and it’s associated ideological foundation. The point of this post is to uncover what that truth might be. Like all deep truths I don’t imagine that I’m going to do much more than scratch the surface in the space of a few thousand words, but I think one entry point would be a comparison of two leaders: 

The Soviet forces started withdrawing from Afghanistan in May of 1988 with the very last troops leaving in February of 1989. At this point Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan was left to fend for himself. The Soviets were still giving him financial aid, but the US and Pakistan were still giving aid to his enemies. Initially things went okay for Najibullah, but by the beginning of 1991 he only held on to 10% of the country. On top of this the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing by this point, finally collapsing for good in December of that year. Despite this, Najibullah fought on, eventually resigning only in April of 1992. A resignation that came about in large part because of the defection of a key general. After being unsuccessful in his attempt to flee to India, he sought refuge in the UN compound where he stayed for the next four years. 

During those years the Afghan Civil War raged. In 1996 the Taliban eventually came out on top, and were on the verge of taking Kabul. At this point Najibullah was offered one final chance to escape which he turned down for reasons which have been much speculated on since then. As one might imagine, when the Taliban took Kabul they didn’t let anything like the UN stand in their way. Najibullah was abducted from the compound, tortured to death, dragged through the streets, and then hung outside the presidential palace. 

Now let’s turn to consider Ashraf Ghani, the most recent president of Afghanistan, the one backed by the US. I’m taking most of my information here from the excellent Washington Post article, “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war“. In reading about Najibullah one gets the sense that the Soviet installed government wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without him. In reading about Ghani one gets the exact opposite sense, that he’s the entire reason everything collapsed so swiftly. That once he fled everyone figured the government had lost, and there was no sense continuing the fight. Now to be fair to Ghani, some of his advisors told him, incorrectly, that the militants were already in the palace and looking for him. So without telling most of his other advisors or the US, he immediately fled. Basically people working for him went to lunch, and when they came back his office was empty. There was no explanation. This paragraph seems particularly damning:

Even after they had reached safety, the president and his party never circled back with senior officials who had been anxiously seeking their help. Some of those who had worked closely with Ghani over the years felt betrayed, believing he had left them to die.

Ghani’s sudden flight from Kabul was a disaster for his government, but it was at least understandable. We already saw what happened to the last president of Afghanistan when the Taliban came to town. Certainly we would hope that he was made of sterner stuff. Personally, I can’t imagine Najibullah fleeing so suddenly. But in a sense all of this is beside the point. In a moment of panic lots of actions are excusable, and while I think there are some insights to be gained in considering his flight from Kabul, I’m more interested in what Ghani did when he had time to reflect. What did he do before and after his panicked flight? We have already seen that he didn’t bother to “circle back” to those he had left behind, but what was he doing in the days beforehand, as all the provincial capitals were falling?

As the Taliban continued to accumulate gains, American officials began to see the president’s confidence as delusion.

Ghani’s lack of focus on the threat that the Taliban posed mystified U.S. officials, in particular, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Ambassador Ross Wilson.

In a July meeting with Ghani in Kabul, the two men told the Afghan president that his team needed a “realistic, implementable and widely supported plan to defend the country” and must drop the idea of defending all 34 provincial capitals, said an official familiar with the meeting.

“They had to focus on what they could actually defend,” said the official. “All provinces are important, but some were integral to the defense of Kabul.”

Ghani appeared to agree, but there would be no follow-through, the official said.

“Advice would be given, the right things would be said, and nothing would happen,” the official said. “They never did it. They never came up with that plan.”

Even as a cascade of provincial capitals fell — starting with Zaranj in the far southwest on Aug. 6, and continuing through two dozen others over the nine days that followed — the president appeared distracted.

“Ghani would want to talk about digitization of the economy,” said the official, referring to the president’s plan for a government salary payment system. “It had nothing to do with the dire threat.”

As late as the Saturday afternoon before Kabul fell, Ghani did not suggest any urgency around departure arrangements or the safety of senior staff.

Receiving one adviser in the palace gardens, and speaking in his characteristic soft tones, he made arrangements to shore up the country’s economy. He was supposed to address the nation later that night. But he never did.

The Americans, meanwhile, were suffering their own delusions.

In June, U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that the Afghan government would hang on for at least another six months. By August, the dominant view was that the Taliban wasn’t likely to pose a serious threat to Kabul until late fall.

As you can see the Washington Post doesn’t let the American military off the hook either, but the article does reserve its harshest criticism for Ghani. And perhaps the Soviets and Najibullah were similarly insouciant in February of 1989, as the Mujahideen roamed the country with their American-supplied stinger missiles. But I really doubt it. I suspect that the reason Najibullah lasted so long was not only did he have a plan for staying in power, but he was very good about executing on that plan.  

Beyond the general sense that the post-soviet withdrawal Afghanistan must have been a very different place that post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, the thing that really jumps out at me from the Washington Post account, is the idea that as the country collapses around him all Ghani wanted to talk about was the “digitization of the economy”. I understand that it’s possible, even likely, that in choosing to emphasize the differences in how long the two governments lasted, and then further emphasizing the two leaders, and then beyond that emphasizing one line in an article, that I have put an enormous amount of weight on a very tiny foundation. But for me this seems to encapsulate, in one anecdote, the entire problem. During the 20 years we spent in Afghanistan, we didn’t create Fukuyama’s market-fueled, science-driven, war-fighting powerhouse. We didn’t replace their tribal culture with a progressive culture. All we managed to do was create a small group of elites who worry about things like the digitization of the economy.

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah was an expert in such conversations. Ghani apparently avoided them. 

III.

Reading about Ghani one word comes to mind: “untethered” as in untethered from reality. The US could also be accused of being untethered as well. There is of course the disconnect immediately preceding the fall of Kabul: despite the speed with which the Taliban was advancing everyone thought it would take a lot longer. There was the famous assertion that Kabul was not in an “imminent threat environment” made just two days before it fell. And many of the key people were so confident of things that they went on vacation, for example the Secretary of State and even Biden himself. But one suspects we were untethered from reality during the entire 20 years we were in the country. 

At the beginning of those 20 years I think most people assumed that progress was possible, in fact they probably on some level imagined that it was inevitable. In a sense this is part of a general view of how the future is going to play out. Most people can imagine that in a 100 years that we’ll have colonies on Mars, very few imagine that when that happens the Taliban will still be in charge of Afghanistan. And yet, though it’s not 100 years, 20 years have passed and at least two trillion dollars have been spent, and rather than getting any closer to this imagined future we appear to have gone backwards. As Douthat says:

Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.

So is progress possible? Will the Taliban or some roughly similar organization still be in charge of Afghanistan in 100 years or will Afghanistan, to borrow another idea of Fukuyama’s, have turned into something resembling Denmark?

If so, how might this progress actually occur? I’m not sure. I’m not one of the people who think it’s inevitable. I think it could very easily not occur, but if I were going to take some guesses here are a few:

Time: It may just be that it will occur, but that we can’t hurry it. That in fact by trying to intervene we actually slowed it down. By making progress seem to be explicitly foreign it becomes more difficult for people to adopt it.

Economic Necessity: It has long been thought that countries will progress towards liberal democracy out of a desire to be part of the global economy with all of its advantages. This was the major justification behind normalizing relations with China and inviting them to the WTO. That didn’t work out quite the way people expected. Even so, at the moment it looks like the best lever we have with Afghanistan.

War: People will argue that we already tried war. But I’m not sure that we have. The great transformation of Germany and Japan happened after the most brutal war imaginable. Taking such a course in Afghanistan would be horrible, but repeated and violent demonstrations of the military superiority of a western liberal democracy vs. Islamic tribalism might be the only thing that gets people to abandon the latter in favor of the former. At its core I think this is Fukuyama’s argument.

Muscular Ideology: Whatever our plan was for “nurtur[ing] the shoots of Afghan liberalism”, it had some curious holes. The US turned a blind eye to ridiculous amounts of corruption. It’s my understanding that this corruption was a major factor in the ease with which the Taliban took over. The US forces also turned a blind eye to traditional Afghan pederasty. Despite these examples of extreme tolerance it’s not like we didn’t impose any ideology on Afghanistan. Much has been made of the expansion of women’s rights and their subsequent retreat now that the Taliban are back in power. But if you’re an Afghan looking for an ideology to give your allegiance to this combination is a very weird mish-mash to stake your future on.

I think this last point starts to get to the heart of the matter, and illustrates the ultimate difference between Ghani and Najibullah. The former did plant his flag in this vague ideological mish-mash where digitizing the economy somehow took up more of his attention than ensuring the survival of his administration. Whereas the latter was almost certainly laser focused on survival and maintaining power. This is the difference between a regime which lasts 9 days and one that lasts three years. 

Of course the default American regime has lasted nearly 250 years. Why don’t we just use that ideology? Well that would obviously open us up to accusations of colonialism (it’s interesting what sort of things do trigger those accusations and what things don’t.) But also it’s an ideology which was being developed for centuries even before it provided for the foundation of the United States.

Examining this development makes the situation even more baffling. The countries which would go on to become western liberal democracies eliminated wide scale corruption and pederasty fairly early on. I’m not an expert on the level of corruption in 17th century Europe, but by the time of the American Revolution corruption was relatively rare, certainly far more rare than what we saw in Afghanistan. And of course pederasty had been taboo for centuries. On the other hand at the time of the American Revolution women’s suffrage was still more than a century away. And the digitization of the economy was another century or more beyond that. But somehow this is what we ended up focusing on, the fruits of liberal democracy rather than the foundation. It’s as if people think they can skip ahead and go straight to the parts they find attractive while overlooking all the steps that were initially required. We’ve become untethered from the ideology that got us here, and without it our days are numbered. We have more than 9 days our Afghan proteges lasted, but beyond that, I’m certain we have fewer days than we think.


Until writing this I didn’t realize how close we are to the Semiquincentennial (Wikipedia tells me it’s also called Sestercentennial or Quarter Millennial). I hope to still be writing about events when it happens and as that is many days hence I hope it does happen. If you’d like to help ensure that (my writing not the existence of the country) consider donating.


Eschatologist #8: If You’re Worried About the Future, Religion is Playing on Easy Mode

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As has frequently been the case with these newsletters, last time I left things on something of a cliff hanger. I had demonstrated the potential for technology to cause harm—up to and including the end of all humanity. And then, having painted this terrifying picture of doom, I ended without providing any suggestions for how to deal with this terror. Only the vague promise that such suggestions would be forthcoming. 

This newsletter is the beginning of those suggestions, but only the beginning. Protecting humanity from itself is a big topic, and I expect we’ll be grappling with it for several months, such are its difficulties. But before exploring this task on hard mode, it’s worthwhile to examine whether there might be an easy mode. I think there is. I would argue that faith in God with an accompanying religion is “easy mode”, not just at an individual level, but especially at a community level.

Despite being religious it has been my general intention to not make any arguments from an explicitly religious perspective, but in this case I’m making an exception. With that exception in mind, how does being religious equal a difficulty setting of easy?

To begin with, if one assumes there is a God, it’s natural to proceed from this assumption to the further assumption that He has a plan—one that does not involve us destroying ourselves. (Though, frequently, religions maintain that we will come very close.) Furthermore the existence of God explains the silence of the universe mentioned in the last newsletter without needing to consider the possibility that such silence is a natural consequence of intelligence being unavoidably self-destructive. 

As comforting as I might find such thoughts, most people do not spend much time thinking about God as a solution to Fermi’s Paradox, about x-risks and the death of civilizations. The future they worry about is their own, especially their eventual death. Religions solve this worry by promising that existence continues beyond death, and that this posthumous existence will be better. Or it at least promises that it can be better contingent on a wide variety of things far too lengthy to go into here.

All of this is just at the individual level. If we move up the scale, religions make communities more resilient. Not only do they provide meaning and purpose, and relationships with other believers, they also make communities better able to recover from natural disasters. Further examples of resilience will be a big part of the discussion going forward, but for now I will merely point out that there are two ways to deal with the future: prediction and resilience. Religion increases the latter.  

For those of you who continue to be skeptical, I urge you to view religion from the standpoint of cultural evolution: cultural practices that developed over time to increase the survivability of a society. This survivability is exactly what we’re trying to increase, and this is one of the reasons why I think religion is playing on easy mode. Rejecting all of the cultural practices which have been developed over the centuries and inventing new culture from scratch certainly seems like a harder way to go about things.

Despite all of the foregoing, some will argue that religion distorts incentives, especially in its promise of an afterlife. How can a religious perspective truly be as good at identifying and mitigating risks as a secular perspective, particularly given that religion would entirely deny the existence of certain risks? This is a fair point, but I’ve always been one of those (and I think there are many of us) who believe that you should work as if everything depends on you while praying as if everything depends on God. This is perhaps a cliche, but no less true, even so.

If you are still bothered by the last statement’s triteness, allow me to restate: I am not a bystander in the fight against the chaos of the universe, I am a participant. And I will use every weapon at my disposal as I wage this battle.


Wars are expensive. They take time and attention. This war is mostly one of words (so far) but money never hurts. If you’d like to contribute to the war effort consider donating


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:

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

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.