Tag: <span>History</span>

The 12 Books I Finished in January

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  1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by: Patrick Radden Keefe
  2. Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan
  3. Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by: Karl Sigmund
  4. Columbus Day: Expeditionary Force, Book 1 by: Craig Alanson
  5. SpecOps: Expeditionary Force, Book 2 by: Craig Alanson
  6. Paradise: Expeditionary Force, Book 3 by: Craig Alanson
  7. Row Daily, Breathe Deeper, Live Better: A Guide to Moderate Exercise by: Dustin Ordway
  8. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by: Nir Eyal
  9. What is a p-value anyway? 34 Stories to Help You Actually Understand Statistics by: Andrew Vickers
  10. The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by: Sam Quinones
  11. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by: S. C. Gwynne
  12. Heart: The City Beneath by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

As you can see I read more than the average number of books this month. I was supposed to go on a mini vacation to Vegas with a friend, but a couple of days beforehand he came down with COVID and consequently they wouldn’t let him out of Canada. As such I had some extra time on my hands.

This is not the most books I’ve ever finished in a month, but it is the second most. As such I’m going to try and keep both the intro and the reviews short.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty 

by: Patrick Radden Keefe

560 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history of the Sackler family, their philanthropy, their wealth, but mostly the radical changes they made to pharmaceutical marketing.

Who should read this book?

If you don’t feel that you’re angry enough about the Sackler’s role in the opioid crisis, and you want to be angrier, this is the book for you. Beyond that it’s a fascinating book about the history of selling drugs, and how Arthur Sackler, the oldest brother in the Sackler clan, changed it forever. That part will also make you angry. 

General Thoughts

It has been said that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” I’m inclined to believe that this is not true in all cases, but it’s definitely more true than fans of Ayn Rand would have you believe. Regardless of whether it’s true in general, it is definitely true in the case of the Sackler fortune. The Sacklers were the owners of Purdue Pharma, and Purdue Pharma had/has essentially one product: OxyContin. Perhaps you know the crime of which I’m speaking? This crime—kickstarting the opioid crisis—which might plausibly encompass the deaths of hundreds of thousands, is made all the worse by the fact that thus far the Sacklers have entirely escaped any sort of liability or punishment. At least Bernie Madoff went to jail for his crimes, which were less severe by basically any measure.

Should I make this point to certain friends of mine, they would say that the reason Madoff was punished, while the Sacklers will probably escape punishment, is that Madoff took money from rich people, while the Sacklers just killed poor people. And that this is the case because of the wickedness of capitalism.  I would probably argue that there’s more to the disparity than that, but I will say that capitalism does not come out of this book looking good. And neither does the FDA, Rudy Giuliani, McKinsey, or high-powered attorneys. 

Beyond the story of the Sacklers, which is truly appalling, there’s the story of corruption more broadly. There’s a good argument to be made that the crisis would not have been nearly as bad if a sympathetic FDA official (who later went to work for Purdue) hadn’t let the Sacklers turn the insert for OxyContin into essentially a marketing brochure. One which included the infamous line, “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.” A line which the Purdue sales reps spun into the idea that prescribing the drug was nearly risk free.

I could go on listing crimes and corruption, but I’m planning on taking this book and The Least of Us (also reviewed in this post) and maybe one other book, if I find one that looks good, and doing a post on the current state of the drug crisis. 

Eschatological Implications

Going into the book I had heard that of the three Sackler brothers and their descendents, only two of the branches were involved with Purdue, and that the descendents of Arthur Sackler were upset because despite having no involvement they too had been caught up in the scandal. Before reading the book this seemed obviously unfair, why should Arthur’s descendents suffer for what their uncles and cousins did? 

After reading the book, I would agree that there’s probably still a little bit of unfairness in play, but less than you would think, because the success of OxyContin was entirely based on techniques of pharmaceutical marketing that had been pioneered by Arthur. As one of his employees said, “When it came to the marketing of pharmaceuticals, Arthur invented the wheel.”

What was this wheel? Arthur weaponized science in the service of marketing. And as a byproduct he probably permanently perverted science as well. This great innovation would later be applied to OxyContin, but it was initially applied to Valium. Valium was said to be a mild tranquilizer, completely without any potential for addiction, so safe that it could be given to children, and useful for just about anything. In fact, according to the book, it was prescribed for “such a comical range of conditions that one physician, writing about Valium in a medical journal, asked, ‘When do we not use this drug?’” All of this was a reflection of Arthur’s ability to bend “science” into saying exactly what the marketing needed it to say. In particular it needed to show that Valium was safe. That if it was used properly people wouldn’t become addicted. Decades later Arthur’s brothers and their descendents would be making the same claims about OxyContin.  It’s scary how much the debate about Valium is nearly identical to the debate decades later about Oxycontin. From the book:

Even so, there were actual cases, increasingly, of real consumers becoming hopelessly dependent on tranquilizers. Confronted with this sort of evidence, Roche offered a different interpretation: while it might be true that some patients appeared to be abusing Librium and Valium, these were people who were using the drug in a nontherapeutic manner. Some individuals just have addictive personalities and are prone to abuse any substance you make available to them. This attitude was typical in the pharmaceutical industry: it’s not the drugs that are bad; it’s the people who abuse them. “There are some people who just get addicted to things—almost anything. I read the other day about a man who died from drinking too many cola drinks,” Frank Berger, who was president of Wallace Laboratories, the maker of Miltown, told Vogue. “In spite of all the horror stories you read in the media, addiction to tranquilizers occurs very rarely.” In 1957, a syndicated ask-the-doctor column that appeared in a Pittsburgh newspaper wondered whether “patients become addicted to tranquilizers.” The answer assured readers that contrary to any fears they might harbor, “the use of tranquilizers is not making us a nation of drug addicts.” The newspaper identified the author of this particular piece of advice as “Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler.”

Mortimer was Arthur’s brother. 

This general idea of science being weaponized is an enormous subject, which is right in the center of the debates being had about the pandemic, and it is to do it a severe injustice to treat it so briefly. But it’s one of the huge tragedies of our current situation that we had such high hopes for science, that by doing it correctly it would save us from making the tragic mistakes of the past. Instead, it proved far too easy to misuse, and ended up empowering a whole new class of tragedies. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

416 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Investigative journalism into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ends up concluding that it was most likely a lab leak.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is curious about the origin of the pandemic, or who, more importantly, is interested in preventing future pandemics.

General Thoughts

I already covered this book in my pandemic retrospective, as such I’ll only briefly discuss it here. In fact this is a good opportunity to have something of a meta discussion about the role of books like these. 

To start with, imagine that you’re pursuing a PhD in philosophy, and you have selected Greek Metaphysics as your dissertation topic. In this scenario it’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t read everything Plato and Aristotle had ever written. Should it ever come out that you hadn’t, people would immediately stop taking you or your dissertation seriously. 

It’s completely understandable for this standard to be applied at the highest levels of academia, but to what extent should we apply that standard to commentary more broadly? Certainly if someone was going to do their dissertation on the origins of the pandemic we would have good reason to believe that they would read this book, in the same fashion that a philosophy PhD is expected to read Aristotle. But what if they just want to tweet about the origins of COVID? Should we ignore such tweets unless we have good reason to believe that they read this book first?

I think there’s various ways of answering that question, but for me the primary standard would be to consider the importance of the topic. You can imagine that opining about Kim Kardashian’s latest divorce should not require the same level of familiarity with “the literature” as claiming that Russia will definitely not invade Ukraine, or that COVID indisputably had a zoonotic origin.  

However, this standard of importance presents a problem. The more important something is, the more people feel that offering their opinion is not only a right, it’s a necessity. But what is this opinion based on? How strong should that foundation be before it’s worthwhile for someone to add their own spin on it? 

This takes us to a second standard. I think before commenting you need to have a sense of what sort of fight you’re taking sides in. To get more concrete, I don’t think you necessarily have to read Viral before commenting on the lab leak, but it’d be nice if you had read a review of Viral, or something which fairly presented the argument it was making. Presumably, not having read the book yourself, your own comments would not stray very far from the condensed information you found in the review. For example, you’re allowed to disparage the lab leak hypothesis if you’ve read a review of Viral which presents a credible argument against the hypothesis, and you can fairly represent that argument. This is certainly not as good as reading the book yourself, but I would say it’s definitely a level at which comments are allowed.

Down still further is the standard picking a set of authorities and just parroting their comments. The problem here is that if the authorities have read all the books, they would have read Viral and they wouldn’t be in this category, they’d be in the previous category. Also the ideological fractures which appear to have penetrated every nook and cranny of our world makes finding true authorities, people who are genuinely unbiased and objective, and trusting them that much harder. And remember we’re not talking about what you should believe personally, we’re talking about what you’re trying to convince others of. We’re talking about commenting and opining on the issue. In that respect I think we’ve crossed the line, at this point you shouldn’t be commenting. That at most you should be linking or retweeting these authorities, but that you are too far removed from the actual debate to get to weigh in.

I could go on, but I’ve already spent a lot of space in this review not talking about the book. So to return to that, my point is much the same now as it was in my previous post. The origin of COVID is an enormously complicated, but also an enormously important subject, and it deserves the most informed discussion possible, rather than being dismissed out of hand. This is a great book if you want to be informed enough to participate in that discussion.


Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science 

by: Karl Sigmund

480 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The Vienna Circle, which ends up being at the center of modern philosophy. The list of names in the circle’s orbit includes Einstein, Gödel, Mach, Boltzmann, Popper, and Wittgenstein, and those are just the ones you might have heard of. There are many more who are only slightly less impressive. 

Who should read this book?

I think anyone who enjoys great history would love this book. It’s very well written. It’s also interesting for its insights into philosophy, ideology, math, politics and the interwar period.

General Thoughts

Several years ago I read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, which was all about Vienna before World War II and during the interwar period. I remember being struck by the difference between Vienna before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna after. But Zweig was mostly talking about literature and culture. From Exact Thinking I discovered that Vienna still had a lot of math and philosophy magic left in it during the interwar years—that is until the Anschluss, which spelled the final doom of what was once one of the premier cities in Europe.

Sigmund ends up being the perfect person to chronicle the Circle. He got his PhD in Vienna in the late 60s which was still close enough to the time of the events that he knew quite a few people from the era, who could give him first hand accounts. After getting his PhD he was only away from Vienna for six years before he returned as a professor. As a consequence of his close association with the people and the place his familiarity with the subject is very apparent. This is one of the better history books I’ve read, and there’s so much else in it about the development of math and philosophy that you’re really getting a lot for the time invested in reading it.

Of course as interesting as the Vienna Circle was its brand of philosophy, logical positivism, is basically dead and buried. Karl Popper takes credit for killing it, though I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have survived even without his intervention. And it’s the same problem we see over and over again, starting with Plato and probably going all the way down to the current rationalist movement. Science and rationality end up being unable to carry all of the ambitions people place upon them. We saw this in Plato and we saw it in the Vienna Circle. (Who incidentally mostly hated Plato, while loving Wittgenstein.) And when those ambitions eventually grow too heavy, they end up crushing the foundation, no matter how much science was poured into it. 


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 1: Columbus Day

305 Pages

Book 2: SpecOps

277 Pages

Book 3: Paradise

283 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read this book?

If you like pulpy, kind of silly military sci fi, I think you’ll really like this series. (At least the three books I’ve read so far.)

General Thoughts

Something about this series reminds me of Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. The premise of that book was that in the near future we find a dead guy in a spacesuit on the Moon. That’s not the weird part, the weird part is that he’s been dead for 50,000 years. When I first picked up Inherit the Stars, the mystery of how someone ended up on the moon 50,000 years ago was so enthralling that I read the book in a single sitting. I’m not sure if it’s the first time I did that, but it’s the time that sticks in my memory.

I was similarly hooked by the Expeditionary Force series. I didn’t listen to it all in one go, but it was pretty close to that, as you can see by the fact that I’ve already burned through three books (though there are 10-12 more books depending on how you count). I think it’s once again the mystery part that I find so compelling. In this case you’ve got the typical setup of an advanced progenitor race who has mysteriously disappeared, and despite the galaxy crawling with other alien species, the people in the eponymous expeditionary force end up on the forefront of the investigation into what has happened to them. All while trying to fulfill their primary mission of protecting humanity from aliens with vastly superior technology. 

Beyond the mystery other positives include: Alanson’s solution to Fermi’s Paradox, and I like his solution to the inevitable tech disparities between humans and aliens, and I really like the world building. 

On the negative side, you’re going to need to get really comfortable with deus ex machina because there’s a lot of it. Also there is a certain repetitiveness to things. Imagine it’s a sitcom where each episode has a similar format and each character makes the same kind of jokes in each of those episodes. We’ll see if that begins to get old, but it’s been just the mindless pulpy break I need.


Row Daily, Breathe Deeper, Live Better: A Guide to Moderate Exercise

by: Dustin Ordway

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The advantages of developing a daily rowing habit.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a new low impact exercise, and you’re curious about rowing this is a good introduction.

General Thoughts

I really need to start paying closer attention to a book’s rating before I pick it up. Both this book and the next two have less than 4 stars on Good Reads, which may not sound bad, but given that the average rating appears to be 4 anything less than 4 is below average. This was a perfectly fine book. It assumes the reader has zero rowing experience and if that’s actually the case then it’s a great book. On the other hand if you do have even a little experience, and you don’t need any motivation to row daily, then the book has very little to add to what you probably already know.  


Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life 

by: Nir Eyal (A-all)

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Making yourself immune to distraction. 

Who should read this book?

Those who will read any book on personal improvement no matter how niche. Also anyone who thinks that distractions are ruining their life.

General Thoughts

In some respects the majority of current advice on personal productivity revolves around eliminating distractions, so this is not new territory. Consequently if you’ve already read a lot in this space then much of Eyal’s advice will not be new. Where he does break slightly new ground is in his answer on where the problem lies. Since I’ve already reviewed one book on drugs and I’m about to review another, let’s pretend being distracted is like being addicted. 

There are various theories why some people get addicted while others don’t, and why some people can break their addiction while others can’t. Some say it’s genetic, others admit that they’re not sure, and still others say it all has to do with whether a person has a strong network of support, and is generally happy otherwise, that if that’s the case addiction is not a problem. Applying this framework to technological distractions, Eyal is in the latter camp. That being distracted is entirely under our control, and that it’s just a matter of mastering our internal motivations, and being content. I’m not sure if he feels the same way about actual drugs, I just thought the comparison was useful and germane to the post as a whole, because…

Just like I don’t think we should let the Sacklers off the hook (see my first review) I don’t think we should let the tech companies off the hook either. To see why I might say this, let’s take one of the stories from the book. This particular story concerns a female professor who got some kind of fitness band which tracked her steps and other activity. The company making the band did everything in their power to “gamify” this device. You could compete with friends, there were daily challenges, there was a point system with rewards and a leaderboard. So one night around midnight, she’s getting ready for bed and it flashes an alert telling her that she can get triple points if she just climbs 20 stairs, which seems so easy that even though she was just about to go to bed she decided to do it, but as soon as she finished it flashed another offer for triple points if she would do another 40 stairs. And then she got yet another offer. I’ll let the book describe what happened next:

For the next two hours—from midnight until two in the morning—the professor treaded up and down her basement staircase as if possessed by some strange mind-controlling power. When she finally did come to a standstill, she realized she had climbed over two thousand stairs. That’s more than the 1,872 required to climb the Empire State Building.

Eyal goes on to explain that this seemingly ridiculous behavior corresponded to an incredibly stressful time in the professor’s life, and that’s why it happened. Eyal’s theory is that all behavior is an attempt to resolve discomfort, and that if she hadn’t had the discomfort of the stress she would have never found herself climbing the Empire State Building in the middle of the night.

Sure that’s obviously part of it, but let’s imagine that she had exactly the same level of stress but without the fitness tracker. I’m guessing that she would have just gone to bed at midnight. And yes, one imagines that she might have tossed and turned for a half hour or even an hour, but she still would have been better off than mindlessly walking the stairs for two hours. The point is that even if discomfort is a necessary element, tech companies prey on this discomfort, and more than that, they amplify create and amplify discomfort as well.


What is a p-value anyway? 34 Stories to Help You Actually Understand Statistics

by: Andrew Vickers

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Statistics and the many ways they can be abused.

Who should read this book?

If you have a basic understanding of statistics and math, and you’re looking to go a little bit deeper this book might be worthwhile.

General Thoughts

I was underwhelmed by this book. For concepts where I did have a pretty good understanding the book was fine, but didn’t add much, and where he was introducing something I hadn’t come across, the book was generally too dry to be engaging. On the latter point, I think the title is misleading. I went in expecting 34 interesting extended metaphors for statistical principles, but instead the “stories” generally consisted of a short self-deprecating joke at the beginning of the chapter—yeah, we get it, you’re the cool statistician!—with the remainder of the chapter being more akin to a text book. If I had really been interested in getting into the meat of statistics the book could have been good. But I was looking for something a little lighter.

Additionally, I think Taleb may have permanently turned me against “normal” statistics, and I mean that in a formal sense, as in statistics which focus on a normal/Gaussian/bell curve. As near as I can tell Vickers’ discussion of statistics never really steps outside of assuming some degree of “normality”. The closest he appears to come is in a chapter which describes calculating the “average” salary of everyone in a diner. Most of the time you would use the mean, but if Bill Gates walks in, then the mean becomes meaningless. (Ha! Get it?) Vickers says in that case all you need to do is switch to using the median instead. Which seems to oversimplify the situation to the point of ridiculousness. Taleb would point out that the diner (and the world) have become very different places when billionaires arrive on the scene.

Now, I may be exaggerating a little bit, and as I previously said I wouldn’t claim that I brought my A-game when I read the book, but nowhere in it did I detect any acknowledgement of the difference between what Taleb calls mediocristan and extremistan. A difference that’s very, very important.


The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth

by: Sam Quinones

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is something of a sequel to Quinones’ book Dreamland. (Which I talked about here.) [POST] Dreamland was about OxyContin and heroin, this brings the story to the present day by talking about fentanyl and meth.

Who should read this book?

If you read and enjoyed Dreamland, then I think this is a valuable sequel. If you’re looking for a book on the drug crisis and you’re trying to choose between this book and Dreamland, I would probably recommend Dreamland. This is because without understanding how the crisis started it would be difficult to understand how it got so bad.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in a previous review it is my intention to do a full post on the current drug crisis. So some of the juicy stuff will have to wait until then, in this space I’m going to talk about homelessness. I’ve been curious about homelessness for a while (here’s a post I did back in 2018) and just based on the number of homeless people I see and encounter, the problem seems to be getting worse. Quinones agrees with this assessment and his book has passages like this:

In 2018, when the Los Angeles Times reported that “L.A.’s Homelessness Surged 75% in Six Years,” this made a lot of sense to Eric Barrera. Those were exactly the years when supplies of Mexican “weirdo” meth really got out of hand. “It all began to change in 2009 and got worse after that,” he told me as we walked through a homeless encampment in Echo Park, west of downtown Los Angeles. “The way I saw myself deteriorating, tripping out and ending up homeless, that’s what I see out here. They’re hallucinating, talking to themselves. Now, it’s people on the street screaming. Terrified by paranoia. These are people who had normal lives.”

The “weirdo” meth is meth made using the P2P method rather than the old method of using ephedrine. We’ll be talking a lot more about weirdo meth in the eventual drug post, but this book makes the argument (as you can tell from the excerpt) that homelessness is increasing and that P2P meth is a major driver of that. And as I said this increase mostly matches my experience, though I was unaware of a possible connection to a change in the way meth was manufactured. But then just in the last few days, Matthew Yglesias was asked whether he thought there was a connection between drug use and homelessness, and he said:

Homelessness fell pretty steadily from 2007-2017 even while the opioid problem was getting worse and worse, so I don’t think the rebound since then can plausibly be attributed to drugs.

And then he provided this graph:

This of course doesn’t match the LA Times statistic Quinones mentions, nor my experience. Nor does Yglesias provide a source for these numbers, nor does he appear to be aware of the meth connection. And he offers all of this up in support of his argument homelessness is primarily driven by a lack of affordable housing. I’ll allow Quinones a chance to retort:

When asked how many of the people he met in those encampments had lost housing due to high rents or health insurance, Eric could not remember one. Meth was the reason they were there and couldn’t leave. Of the hundred or so vets he had brought out of the encampments and into housing, all but three returned.

I’m hoping to be able to get to the bottom of this before I do my post on the drug crisis, but Quinones makes a pretty persuasive case, so for the moment count me as a member of Team Meth. (A phrase I never thought I’d say…)


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History 

by: S. C. Gwynne

384 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The history of the Texan and federal government’s battles against the Comanches.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in the history of Texas, or the Indians, or who’s interested in history period.

General Thoughts

I can’t think of many books I’ve seen recommended in more places and by more people than this one. As such I am long overdue for reading it. It was indeed a fantastic book, well written with amazing stories and engaging characters. As such, I would add my recommendation to the others. That said, it wasn’t quite the transcendent experience I was expecting based on the effusive reviews. And it’s possible that I came into the book with impossible expectations, but it’s also possible that at least some of the people reviewing it have not read any other truly great history books, and so when they encountered one it was revelatory. Certainly Empire of the Summer Moon belongs in the category of great history books, it’s just not alone in that category.

As far as the actual content of the book, my favorite chapter was chapter 10 about John Coffee Hays and the creation of the Colt Revolver. The way the US ended up forgetting how to fight the Indians reminded me of the way that we forgot the cure for scurvy (but maybe that’s just me.) Other than that, the book is about what you’d expect, but it gave me new respect and interest for both the history of the Plains Indians and the history of Texas. 


Heart: The City Beneath

by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

220 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s the sourcebook for an independently published role-playing game.

Who should read this book?

If you like Dungeons and Dragons or role-playing in general you’ll probably like this book. The setting is great and the system is inventive.

General Thoughts

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a role-playing sourcebook, which is not to say I haven’t been reading them, just that I normally skim them, as opposed to finishing them (see title of post). Heart was the exception. In part this is because it’s just a great system and beautiful book, but the bigger part is that I’m going to be running a campaign in the setting. The first session was actually this last Saturday. Obviously if I’m going to run it, it’s important to know my stuff. I won’t bore non-gamers out there with any further minutia other than to say that I’m really intrigued by the system, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out in practice.


Should you end up reading and enjoying any of these books let me know. Emails are always appreciated, but of course the best way to let me know you enjoy this stuff is by donating. These books don’t buy themselves.


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 Deneen. (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. Deneen 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 Deneen 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.


The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

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I.

A search of my blog reveals that I’ve never had occasion to mention Gwern, of gwern.net. This is the post where I rectify that omission.

Gwern is a prolific and talented essayist who’s, deservedly, famous across maybe 0.1% of the internet and, tragically, completely unknown in the other 99.9%. Not only is Gwern prolific but his essays are obviously well-researched, carefully crafted and extensively footnoted. So one would expect that the first time I mention him it would be to agree and expand on something he said. But no, I’m doing the opposite of that. In an act of apparent madness, I’m going to come out swinging. I intend to criticize one of his essays. The particular essay I’m taking aim at is titled, My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

The essay is mostly a list of such post 1990s improvements or as Gwern introduces things:

When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats⁠.

In essence the list is an effort in the same vein with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (which I did a post on back in 2018.) Though Gwern’s effort is more modest and more focused. In particular he worries that we suffer from a sort of blindness because these post 1990’s improvements:

[R]arely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life

After that intro Gwern proceeds to detail around 60 improvements, some of which are very broad (e.g. smartphones) and some of which are comparatively narrow (e.g. movie theater seats), but mostly these improvements are the kind of things you expect from someone who wants to defend progress and modernity. And to be clear I basically agree with him about all the items on the list, they are improvements. Still, despite this agreement I’m left with two observations:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?
  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Before tackling these observations directly, I’m going to start by approaching them obliquely in the form of a story. 

II.

My great-grandmother, Zena, had great difficulty bearing children. Over the course of 6 years she gave birth to five children, and all of them were either stillborn or lived only a few hours. Despite this she wanted to try again. My great-grandfather tried to talk her out of it, but eventually Zena prevailed upon him to try one more time. His condition was that it would be the last time. She was determined that this child would live and so as soon as she found out she was pregnant she went on bed-rest.

In later years my grandfather talked to a woman who lived in the same small Idaho town as his mother-in-law and who attended her during this time. The person said that Zena knew that the baby would live, but that she would die. And indeed that’s exactly what happened, my grandmother was born, but three weeks later her mother died. She was only 31.

My grandmother went on to have 10 kids, and those 10 kids produced 55 grandkids and those grandkids have produced, thus far, over a 100 great grandkids, and there are even a few great-great grandkids.

As you might have already suspected this story has a religious element to it. Obviously there was no way for Zena to be sure that she would die and her baby would live, but I also have no doubt that she had faith that this is what was going to happen. Whether this belief came to her before she got pregnant or while she was on bedrest, at some point she clearly made the decision that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make. 

Why was she willing to make this sacrifice? Here again religion enters the picture. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons) we have people set apart as patriarchs, and their chief task is to give people what’s called a patriarchal blessing. This blessing is only given once, generally in someone’s late teens, and it is a blessing that lays out the future path someone’s life will take. In Zena’s blessing she was promised that she would have a “numerous posterity”. As you might imagine this promise was critical to the decision she made, and from my perspective, as one of her “numerous posterity”, the promise was very much fulfilled. 

It is not my intention to get into theological debate over the reality of faith, premonitions and blessings. I presented the story of Zena because I want you to imagine what would happen if she was given a choice, perhaps presented by a colleague of Clarence in a different version of It’s a Wonderful Life. She can choose that, rather than going through with her sixth and final pregnancy, she will instead be whisked forward exactly 100 years to 2012 where she will enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, all the things on Gwern’s list, but she will never have any children. 

Even without it being a condition of “the deal”, the idea that 2012 Zena would end up being childless is not hard to imagine, an increasing number of women are. Also as I pointed out in a previous post, fertility issues, which Zena was already grappling with, have only gotten worse. 

I admit that there are certainly a lot of factors to consider when deciding to journey to 2012 from 1912 and one might imagine that Zena would refuse just based on her unfamiliarity and the strangeness of it all. But as part of this hypothetical I want you to imagine that “Clarence” imparts information or reassurances, such that this unfamiliarity is not a factor. Zena still has the attitudes of someone born in 1881 but in whatever fashion 2012 has been robbed of its weirdness. I want Zena’s choice to be simple, have a child secure in the faith that this is the realization of the blessing she was given, or remain childless but have access to all the benefits of the modern world.

We know the choice she made in 1912. Knowing the dangers she chose to have my grandmother anyway. But would 1912 Zena have traded that child for all of the wonders of 2012 and beyond? My sense is that, if she had been given this choice, between having the child she so desperately longed for, but also dying in the process, and having no children, but all the conveniences of the modern world, that she would have still chosen as she did.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with me for the rest of my argument to make sense. I brought up the story of my great-grandmother, because it’s a stark example of what I want to talk about. Not because it’s the only example. But what exactly is it an example of? 

III.

Having told my story let’s return to the observations I was left with after reading Gwern’s list, and particularly the questions it evoked. As you’ll recall the first one was:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?

Having told my story and introduced my hypothetical, are we any closer to answering these questions? What sort of improvements are offered to 1912 Zena by 2012? Do any of them amount to anything other than improved comfort? You may review Gwern’s list yourself but I don’t really see anything on it that doesn’t belong in the comfort bucket. But that doesn’t mean that things other than comfort aren’t part of the 2012 package, just that they aren’t on this particular list.

As I cast around for things which might qualify as non-comfort related improvements it occurs to me that most people would consider the Zena of 2012 to be far more liberated, for one thing she could vote! Also, she would have a much better chance at pursuing some sort of fulfilling profession. But I think even if these things were given special emphasis when our hypothetical Zena made her choice, I still think she would choose having a child vs. not having one and being an attorney or doctor. Obviously this choice would be informed by turn of the century attitudes which are much scarcer these days, on top of her deep religious faith, which has also gotten scarcer. But setting aside whether those attitudes are good or bad for the moment. I think the discussion as a whole has revealed another area where 2012 might be an improvement over 1912. In addition to improving Zena’s comfort, the world of 2012 might also increase her influence and impact.

As I said it might, but right off the bat I’m doubtful. The question which confronts us is whether it’s possible that a childless Zena in 2012 would end up being more influential than the real Zena with her nearly 200 descendents (and counting)? Your answer to this question probably hinges a lot on the value you ascribe to my grandmother, and her numerous descendents. For my part I place a lot of value on those descendents, seeing how I’m one of them. And I think anyone who’s not an antinatalist would have to agree with me. To be sure it’s not inconceivable that 2012 Zena might have more influence. For instance she could end up marrying and then divorcing Jeff Bezos leaving her with billions of dollars with which to make an impact. But absent such improbable circumstances, I think it’s clear that the real Zena ended up being more influential. Particularly since her influence has had so long to operate.

If we decide that 2012 does not offer Zena more influence in the world, then once again we’re back to the idea that the difference between 2012 and 1912 is strictly one of comfort. Which is not to say that comfort is meaningless, but I for one have always believed there had to be more to life than that. And yes, there are all the things religion considers to be important, and certainly that’s a big part of this story. But even if we ignore that in deference to all the irreligious people out there, I believe there is one last measurement we should examine: From the cold and clinical calculus of evolution and genetic fitness, the actual Zena was an enormous success. 

From this standpoint if you survive long enough to reproduce, then you’ve won, and if you don’t reproduce, then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done, you’ve lost. Now, to be clear this metric isn’t necessarily any more important than the previous metrics we examined of comfort or influence, but it’s yet another area where the actual Zena did much better than the hypothetical 2012 Zena. 

IV.

It may be argued that I’m putting too much weight on this one, somewhat unique example. And I agree, we will be broadening things out shortly, but first I want to extract as much wisdom as possible from Zena’s story, before we broaden our investigation. In particular now it’s time to examine our second observation/set of questions. 

  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Gwern brings up a very valid point: we have mostly forgotten (or in my kids’ cases never known) the inconvenience of looking up something in an encyclopedia, of having to tie up the phone line to use the internet, or of not having GPS when traveling to an unfamiliar location. And because we’ve forgotten about them they are unseen. But presumably the idea that something might be unseen doesn’t just apply to gadgets? If we’re really worried about overlooking something then those worries should mostly focus on things which are more distant in time and more immaterial in nature—things like the emotions, and mental health, and the drives and religious beliefs of people in the past. Yes, many people no longer remember not having wikipedia, but far more people not only can’t remember, but can’t even imagine having the kind of faith Zena did when she decided to get pregnant for a sixth time. Is the fact that they can’t, a sign of one of these unseen improvements Gwern should add to his list? Or is it an unseen setback? A way in which the modern world is worse than the world of the past?

At this point we will start to broaden things. But let’s start very slowly, with Zena’s husband. In the course of his life he lost his first wife and their first five kids. On top of that he lost his oldest son from his second marriage in a tragic accident when the boy was only three. My other paternal great-grandfather also experienced significant tragedy. Two wives, and eight of his children preceded him in death (out of a total of three wives and eighteen children). All of these events are clearly awful, and the fact that such things mostly no longer happen is a major selling point for many of the people who declare the superiority of the modern world. Which is as it should be. 

Given the tragedies I just mentioned, surely even if Zena wouldn’t come to 2012, her husband, and my other great-grandfather would, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. To begin with, I think there’s a similar chance that they might end up childless, and possibly unmarried. But beyond the tangible trades like kids vs. no-kids, there are almost certainly less tangible things that would be part of the deal as well. I think if they were presented with this choice, they would want to know about these less tangible things as well.

In my initial hypothetical I said that I wanted Zena’s choice to be simple, a choice between having a child in 1912, or remaining childless but getting all the benefits of the modern world. I didn’t mention all of the disadvantages of the modern world. My guess is that you didn’t notice that omission, because most people imagine the story of the future as one of beneficial progress, not one of uneven progress. But clearly there are some disadvantages, and anyone choosing the present over the past would want to know about those as well. But what are they? Is there some list, similar to Gwern’s, which discusses all of the unseen disadvantages of modernity? 

Before moving on to discuss these disadvantages, let me be clear, I am not blind to the problems of the past. I have put a lot of weight on having children in 1912 vs. not having them in 2012, but of course there were millions of people in 1912 (and earlier) who died without ever having children, or who died while they were children themselves; millions of people killed by tuberculosis, smallpox, or the plague; and finally, there were all the people killed by the wars we have hopefully abandoned. I’m not saying that the past wasn’t full of tragedies, rather my point is that by vanquishing the visible tragedies we have been lulled into the false belief that we have vanquished all tragedies. Not only have we failed to vanquish all tragedies, but with our focus on dealing with what can be seen and measured we have created tragedies in areas that are harder to see and measure. What might those tragedies be?

V.

In some sense the whole point of the blog is to explore the unseen tragedies of modernity, so I’m not going to spend very much time rehashing all of the various candidates. Rather I want to examine things in light of Gwern’s list.

The list provides a useful contrast because it’s basically the opposite of my efforts, it’s a list of the unseen benefits. But what’s interesting about it, what sparked me to write this post in response, is that the vast majority of the list is composed of material benefits. Benefits that are actually very tangible even if people have a tendency to discount them. 

There’s the stuff I’ve already mentioned like smartphones, movie seats, and always on broadband. On top of that there are dozens of other things which boil down to the idea of “Yay! Better technology!” But the thing is, no one disagrees with this, with the idea that we’ve recently gotten some really cool gadgets. They may not realize how fast these gadgets have arrived, in just the last few decades, and for that reason Gwern’s post is still useful. But when people talk about the unseen effects of the modern world they’re not talking about the fact that they no longer have to rewind VHS tapes (another item on the list). They talk about unseen societal problems. But never fear, Gwern does have a section for societal improvements. Though perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t included it. 

Without this section it would have been a perfectly interesting list covering a very narrow, but still interesting topic. But by including it, and I guess if you’ve made it this far I can be blunt, the whole thing comes across as hopelessly naive. Technology’s effect on society is the whole debate, the thing everyone worries about. It’s where the battle is being fought and where casualties are happening. Some of these casualties, perhaps the majority, are unseen. They’re casualties of mental health, of functional sterility, of loneliness and despair. Though not all of the casualties are intangible, even if it may be argued that they’re still unseen. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, what does Gwern have to say about such things in his “Society” section?

As I mentioned, it’s underwhelming, and it probably would have been better if he’d left it out entirely. About half the word count concerns stuff that seemingly didn’t fit neatly anywhere else. Things like better board games, faster shipping, and IP law. That leaves just five items which are:

  1. Lower Dysfunctionality
  2. War on Drugs Lost
  3. War On Smoking Won
  4. Nicotine gum & patches 
  5. Environment

Whether the environment has, on net, improved since the 1990s I will leave to others. I have no problem granting that we did win the war on smoking, though one could make the case that the modern world made smoking a problem in the first place. (Sales of cigarettes in 1912 averaged ½ a cigarette per adult per day, which rose to 11 in 1963 before falling to 3.5 in 2012. Which is still well above the 1912 rate.) Also, as Gwern himself admits, there has been some retrogression in the form of vaping. If we put nicotine products in with smoking that just leaves “Lower Dysfunctionality” and the “War on Drugs Lost”. 

Let’s take the second one first, and since we’ve narrowed things down to a single point we can afford to include the entire text:

  • War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance; other drugs are increasingly treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.

I don’t really have strong feelings on the issue of marijuana and psychedelics. I think it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, from the idea that they’re horribly dangerous to the idea that they’re the cure for everything. But as I said, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. Which just leaves us with the bit about “other drugs” being “treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.” So I guess the entirety of the opioid crisis is covered in this one phrase?

If you ever read my previous posts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones, you may recall that the medicalization and normalization of opioids sort of kicked off the whole crisis. In fact there was just a paper released that tied the crisis to the introduction of OxyContin in 1996. (Should it have been on Gwern’s list?) Unfortunately that wasn’t the biggest recent news on this subject. That belonged to the news that overdose deaths from May 2020 through April of 2021 reached 100,000 which was a 30% increase over that same period the year before. Anyone want to place a bet on whether more people will die from overdoses than COVID in 2022 or 2023? What about whether it will get more coverage in the press? As I alluded to earlier, even tangible casualties sometimes get less attention than they should. 

Before I leave the subject of drugs I need to include a statistic I came across recently in The Economist:

There are 50% more injection drug-users in San Francisco than there are students enrolled at its public high schools.

I thought that was a particularly trenchant summation of a lot of our current “unseen” problems.

VI.

This just leaves us with “Lower Dysfunctionality”. Again I’ll quote Gwern in full:

  • Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
    • URBAN LIFE: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and annual summer urban riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).

To begin with he’s trying to cover an enormous amount of ground with this one point. Furthermore it’s interesting that Gwern, who’s the king of links and footnotes, would have none for this point. Perhaps you can start to see why I think he should have just left it out. It’s both insanely ambitious and woefully inadequate. The point acknowledges the many intangibles of modernity but leaves most of them off of the list (both the list within the point and the larger list) and those it does mention it dismisses in four words, that they: “in general kept falling”.

As you can imagine, I would have really liked to have seen links or footnotes, because while the data on property crime looks pretty good, the data on violence shows a huge spike over the last two years. The abusive drug use I mostly already covered, which just leaves us with teen pregnancy and the larger issue of sex in general. This is a huge topic, and this post has already run long, so let me just toss something out there. Why is porn not on his list? 

Recall that it’s a list of the improvements brought about by technology since the 1990s. It’s hard to think of anything technology has done more to “improve” than the availability of pornograpy. And yet, it’s not on the list. Not only does it match well with the technology criteria, I think it matches well with the theme of “unseen” improvements as well. (It’s not as if it doesn’t get any attention, but it doesn’t get much.) So why did Gwern leave it off his list? Is it because it isn’t clear yet if it’s an improvement or not? Or maybe he decided it was one of the few places where technology didn’t improve things, it made them worse. Or perhaps it’s too contentious. Or maybe, he just didn’t think of it. Certainly all of these are possibilities. And while I’m interested in whether Gwern thinks it belongs on his list, in the end one man’s opinion doesn’t make much of a difference. In reality we all need to have an opinion on it, because everyone is walking around with a smartphone or working on a computer where, unless they do have an opinion and have acted on it, it’s never more than five seconds away. 

This is a great example of my point, it is the intangibles of the modern world and our opinion of them where everything of consequence is being decided. Everyone agrees that smartphones are a cool technology. What they can’t agree on is whether the alchemy of that technology and the technology of social media is awful or awesome. Or whether it’s awesome for adults, but awful for kids. Or whether it’s okay if used in moderation but terrible if used to excess. Or whether it’s possible to become addicted to it. Which is to say no one is arguing that there haven’t been improvements in material conditions since the 1990s. And certainly since 1912. What people haven’t been able to figure out is if it also comes with unseen setbacks. And if it does, whether the setbacks outweigh the improvements or vice versa.

In the end Gwern was right about one thing, there is the seen and the unseen. The problems of 1912 are easy to see. People, like Zena, died in childbirth, and other people died while they were still children. Then there were those who went hungry.  Disease was rampant. But I don’t think they had many unseen problems. On the other hand these days any problem we can see has someone working on it, and on many of them, particularly the problems of the past, we’ve made great progress. But I fear that we have accumulated intangible harms, while also losing many of the intangible benefits as well. There’s more to life than the comforts we’ve created and the toys we’ve built. More to appraising whether the present is better than the past than creating a list of material improvements. More to the world than what we can see.

You may think that it’s a tragedy that anyone would want a child so badly that they would be willing to die in the attempt. I think it’s a tragedy that no one can even imagine that level of devotion and faith any longer. 


I should apologize to my relatives for appropriating the story of Zena for my third rate blog. As penance rather than following my usual strategy of asking for money I will instead ask that you do some genealogy. Work on finding and collecting the stories of your own ancestors. Start with FamilySearch.org


Nukes

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The key theme of this blog is that progress has not saved us. It has not made us any less sinful, it has not improved our lives in any of the ways that really matter, but has rather introduced opportunities to sin that for someone living 200 years ago would beggar the imagination.

Of course it’s easy and maybe even forgivable to think this is not the case. We live longer, there’s less hunger and poverty, along with this comes more freedom and less violence. For now we’re going to focus on that last assertion, that things are less violent. And since we already broached the subject of nukes in our last post, we’re specifically going to continue to expand on that idea.

One of the best known arguments about a decrease in violence comes from someone who I actually admire quite a bit, Steven Pinker. He made the argument in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. Taleb, as you might imagine, disagrees with Pinker’s thesis and in what is becoming a common theme, asserts that Pinker is confusing the absence of volatility with an absence of fragility. If you want to read Taleb’s argument you can find it here. Needless to say, as much as I admire Pinker, on this issue I agree with Taleb.

As I have already said, this post is going to be an extension of my last post. In that last post I urged people to take a longer term outlook, and to eschew the immediate political fight in favor of a longer term historical outlook. In other words that post was about being wise, and this post is about what will happen if we aren’t wise. In particular what things look like as far as nukes.

As you can imagine if our survival hinges on our wisdom, then I’m not optimistic, and I personally predict that nukes are in our future. In this, I think, as with so many things, that I am contradicting conventional wisdom, or at least what most people believe about nuclear weapons, if they in fact believe anything at all.  If they do they might be thinking something along these lines: It’s been over 70 years since the last nuke was exploded in anger. (In fact I am writing these words on the 71st anniversary of Nagasaki, though they won’t be published until a few days later.) And they may further think: Yes, we have nukes, but we’re not going to use them. Sure some crazy terrorist may explode one, but the kind of all-out exchange we were worried about during the cold war is not going to happen. First don’t underestimate the impact of a loan terrorist nuke, and secondly don’t write off an all-out exchange either. Particularly if we’re going to poke the bear in the manner I described in my last post.

The first question to consider is why are we still worried about nukes even 70 years after their invention? Generally the development of a technology is quickly followed by the development of countermeasures. To take just one example, being able to drop bombs from the air was terrifying to people when that first became a possibility, but it didn’t take long to develop fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. Then why, 71 years after Nagasaki and 50+ years after the development of the ICBM, can we still not defend ourselves? Can’t we shoot missiles down? Well first off even if we could a lot of people think building a missile defense system is the ultimate way of poking the bear. For what it’s worth I don’t fall into that camp despite my reluctance, in general, to poke the bear. But even if we decide that’s okay, right now it just isn’t technologically feasible to make a missile defense system that works against someone like Russia or China.

At this point I’d like to offer up data on the effectiveness of various anti missile systems and unfortunately there’s not a lot of it, and what there is isn’t good. If North Korea or Iran happened to launch a single missile at the United States we might be able to stop it, but when asked what he would do in that case one knowledgeable US official is reported to have said:

If a North Korean ICBM were launched in the direction of Seattle, …[I] would fire a bunch of GMD interceptors and cross [my] fingers.

Some clarification: GMD stands for Ground-based Midcourse Defense and is our current anti-ballistic missile platform, also North Korea currently doesn’t have a missile capable of reaching Seattle. But it’s interesting to note what they do have, given how impoverished the country is in all other respects.

As I said I’d like to offer up some data, but there isn’t much of it. Recent tests of our anti-missile systems have been marginally promising but they have mostly been conducted in a reasonably controlled environment, not on actual missiles being fired by surprise from a random location, at a time chosen by the aggressor for optimal effectiveness.

Tacked on at the end of the Wikipedia article on the US’s efforts at missile defense is a great summary of the difficulties of defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. In short:

  • Boost-stage defenses are the only layer that can successfully destroy a MIRV (an ICBM that has multiple warheads.)
  • Even so, boost stage interception is really difficult particularly against solid fuel ICBMs of the type that Russia and China use.
  • And even then the only current technology capable of doing it has to be within 40 km (~25 miles) of where the missile is launched. For those in Utah that means that if you had an anti missile defense system located at Hill Air Force Base it could shoot down missiles launched from no farther away than downtown Salt Lake City.

The Wikipedia article concludes by saying that, “There is no theoretical perspective for economically viable boost-phase defense against the latest solid-fueled ICBMs, no matter if it would be ground-based missiles, space-based missiles, or airborne laser (ABL).” (A reference from the following paper.)

In the end it’s not hard to see why nuclear missiles are so hard to defend against. Your defense can’t be porous at all. Letting even a single warhead get through can cause massive destruction. Add to that their speed and small size and you have the ultimate offensive weapon.

Thus far we’ve talked about the difficulties in defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. But of course we haven’t done anything to address why they might decide to nuke us. I did cover that at some length in my last post, but before we dive back into that, let’s look at people who we know want to nuke us, terrorists.

Obviously there are no shortage of terrorist groups who would love to nuke us if they could get their hands on one. Thus far we’ve been lucky and as far as we know there are no loose nukes. And I’m sure that preventing it is one of the top priorities of every intelligence agency out there, so perhaps it won’t happen. Still this is another situation where we’re in a race between singularity and catastrophe. On a long enough time horizon the chances that there will be some act of nuclear terrorism approach 100%. To argue otherwise would be to assert that eventually terrorism and nukes will go away. I will address the later point in a minute, but as to the first I don’t think anyone believes that terrorism will disappear. If anything, most sources of grievance have increased in the last few years. If you think I’m wrong on this point I’d be glad to hear your argument.

Of course, if we never have an incident of nuclear terrorism, then, as I frequently point out, that’s great. If I’m wrong nothing happens. But if I’m right

Perhaps you might argue that a single nuke going off in New York or Paris or London is not that bad. Certainly it would be one of the biggest new stories since the explosion of the first nuclear weapons and frankly it’s hard to see how it doesn’t end up radically reshaping the whole world, at least politically. Obviously a lot depends on who ultimately ended up being responsible for the act, but we invaded Iraq after 9/11 and they had nothing to do with it (incidentally this is more complicated than most people want to admit, but yeah, basically they didn’t have anything to do with it and we invaded them anyway.) Imagine who we might invade if an actual nuke went off.

And then of course there’s the damage to the American psyche. Look at how much things changed just following 9/11. I can only imagine what kind of police state we would end up with after a terrorist nuke exploded in a major city. In other words, I would argue that a terrorist nuke is inevitable and that when it does happen it’s going to have major repercussions.

But we still need to return to a discussion of a potential World War III, a major nuclear exchange between two large nation states. What are the odds of that? Since the end of the Cold War the conventional wisdom has been that the odds are quite low, but I can think of at least a half a dozen factors which might increase the odds.

The first factor is the one I covered in my last post, and that is that we seem determined to encircle and antagonize the two major countries that have a large quantity of nuclear weapons. I previously spoke mostly about Russia, but if you follow what’s happening in the South China Sea (that article was three hours old when I wrote this) or if you’ve heard about the recent ruling by the Hague we’re not exactly treating China with kid gloves either. I’ve already said a lot about this factor so we’ll move on to the others.

The next factor which I think increases the odds of World War III is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I know that most recently Iran looks like a success story. Here’s a country who wanted nuclear weapons and we stopped them. Well of course that remains to be seen, but it does seem intuitive that the longer we go the more countries will have nukes. Perhaps it might be instructive to determine a rate at which this is happening. In 1945 there was one country. Today in 2016, everyone pretty much agrees that there are nine. Dividing 71 years by 8 we get a new nuclear nation every nine years. Which means that in 99 years we’ll have another 11 nations with nuclear weapons, assuming that the rate of acquisition doesn’t increase. But actually most technological innovation doesn’t follow a linear curve. Consequently we may see an explosion (no pun intended) in nations with nuclear weapons, or it may be gradual or it may not happen at all (again this would be great, but unexpected.)

But let’s assume the rate at which new countries are added to the nuclear club stays constant and it takes 9 years on average to add a nation to the club and that in 100 years we’ve only added 11 more countries. On the face of it that may seem fairly minor, but if we assume that any two belligerents could start World War III then we would have 55 potential starting points for World War III rather than the one starting point we had during the bipolar situation which existed during the Cold War.

In saying this I realize, of course, there were more than two nations with nukes during the Cold War, but everyone had basically lined up on one side or another, in 100 years who knows what kind of alliances there will be. Even France and the United States have had rocky patches in their relationship over the last several decades. (More about France later.)

The third factor which might increase the odds is the wildcard that is China. As I mentioned in my last point for a long time we had a bipolar world. The Soviet Union only had to worry about the United States and vice versa. Now we have an increasingly aggressive China whose intentions are unclear, but they’re certainly very ambitious. And, from the standpoint of nuclear weapons, they’re keeping their cards very close to their chest.

Most people have a tendency to dismiss China, because they are still quite far behind the US and Russia. But they’re catching up fast, and also since they weren’t really part of the Cold War there’s a lot of restrictions that apply to Russia and the US which don’t apply to China’s weapons, allowing them (from the article I just linked to)

…considerably more freedom to explore the technical frontiers of ballistic and cruise missiles than either the US or Russia.

The fourth factor involves a concept we’re going to borrow from Dan Carlin, of the podcast Hardcore History, it’s the concept of the Historical Arsonist. These are people like Hitler, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. Who burn down the world, generally not caring how many people die or what else happens, in their quest to remake things in their image. You can see people like this going back as far as we have records up to as recently as World War II. While it’s certainly possible that we no longer have to worry about this archetype, they seem to be a fairly consistent feature of humanity. If they haven’t disappeared, then when the next one comes along he’s going to have access to nuclear weapons. What does that look like? During Hitler’s rise he was able to gain a significant amount of territory just by asking, how much more effective would he have been if he had threatened nuclear annihilation if he didn’t get his way?

This brings up another point, are we even sure we know all the ways someone could use nuclear weapons? In the past one of the defining features of these historical arsonists was they took military technology and used it in a way no one expected. Napoleon was the master of the artillery and was able to mobilize and field a much bigger army than had previously been possible. Hitler combined the newly developed tank and aircraft into an unstoppable blitzkrieg. Alexander the Great had the phalanx. Nuclear weapons, as I’ve mentioned, are hard enough to defend against in any case, but imagine the most deviously clever thing someone could do with that, and then imagine that it was even more devious than that. With something of that level, you might have historical arson on a scale never before imagined.

The fifth factor which makes the odds of World War III greater than commonly imagined is the potential change in the underlying geopolitics. By this I mean, nations can break up, they change governments, national attitudes mutate, etc. We’ve already seen the Soviet Union break up, and while that went fairly smoothly (at least so far, it actually hasn’t been that long when you think about it.) There’s no reason to assume that it will go that smoothly the next time. Particularly when you look at the lesson of the former Soviet Republics who did give up their weapons. When you look at what’s happening in Ukraine it seems probable that they might now regret giving up their nukes.

Of course the US isn’t going to last forever. I have no firm prediction what the end of the country looks like, and once again it’s possible that we’ll reach some sort of singularity long before that, but it may happen sooner than we imagine, particularly if the increased rancor of the current election represents any kind of trend. Thus if, but more likely when, something like that happens, what does that look like in terms of nukes? If Texas breaks off that’s one thing, but if you end up with seven nations who ends up with the nukes?

And then of course you could have the possibility of a radical change in government. Some people think that Trump would be catastrophic in this respect. On the other side of the aisle, many conservatives think that a country like France might get taken over by Muslims if demographic trends continue and immigration isn’t stopped. Certainly a book about the subject has proven very popular. Does a Muslim run France with nukes act exactly the same as the current nation? Maybe, maybe not.

The final factor to consider, at least for those who believe in revelation and scripture, are the various references to the last days which fit very well with what might be expected from nuclear warfare. We believe that war will be poured out upon all nations, and that the elements will melt with a  fervent heat and finally that the earth will be baptized by fire. Obviously saying I know what this prophecy means is a dangerous and prideful game, and that is not what I’m doing. What I am saying is that this is one more factor to be added to and weighed alongside the other factors which have already been mentioned.

The point of all this is not to convince you drop everything and start building a bomb shelter (though I think if you already have one you shouldn’t demolish it.) Along with everything I’ve said I still believe that no man knoweth the hour. I’m also not saying I know that some form of nuclear armageddon will accompany the second coming. My point as always is that we are not saved and cannot be saved through our own efforts. Only the Son of Man and Prince of Peace has the ability to bring true and lasting peace. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, thinking we have or even can achieve peace on our own, that we just need to keep pushing the spread science, or liberal democracy, or our “enlightened” western values, is more dangerous and more likely to hasten what we fear than reminding ourselves of the fallen nature of man and restricting ourselves to the preaching of gospel, while eschewing the preaching of progress.

In the end, attempting to eliminate World War III may paradoxically hasten its arrival…`


Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election

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When I created this podcast I decided that I wouldn’t shy away from controversial topics. And when people talk about topics to avoid, the first topics they mention are politics and religion. Having already covered the latter I decided that maybe it’s time to tackle the former. I’m a big political junkie, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m a big history junkie, and insofar as politics is a subcategory of history I love politics. Conventions and debates, other than a few phrases here and there, are not history, they’re political theater, and so, with some rare exceptions, I don’t bother watching them, so don’t ask me what I thought of Trump’s speech or Obama’s (or Scott Baio’s for that matter). In my defense, I don’t think either conventions or debates have much power to influence the actual election results. I know that some people will argue that the Nixon-Kennedy debate swung things to Kennedy. Perhaps it did, but I was 11 years away from being born so I couldn’t have watched it even if I had wanted to.

People might also mention the 2000 election, arguing, probably correctly, that even a slight push in one direction would have given the election to Gore, and of course a slight push in the other direction would have kept it from being decided by the Supreme Court. And this is where we start to see the difference between history and politics. I’m glad it was close, because the drama and uncertainty that came with that turned it from just another election into history. Election night in 2000 was one of the most exciting nights of my life, and it only got more exciting as it became clear how tight things actually were.

I bring all this up because I think differentiating politics from history is important. For one thing, politics is very short term. Perhaps a metaphor would help illustrate my point, an election is like watching a football game. If you’re political, you really want your team to win and you really want the other team to lose. Passions are high, and it doesn’t matter what your team does, you still want them to crush the other guys, and it really doesn’t matter what the other side does you still really want them to be crushed. As an example, the BYU-Utah rivalry is big in my area, and one of my neighbors is a huge Utah fan. At one point I was talking to him about a recent game and I said I wanted it to be close and exciting. He vehemently disagreed, he wants Utah to win in a blowout. That’s the difference between politics and history. If you’re strictly political it’s all about your team winning, regardless of how uninteresting it is. If your interests are more historical, then, to extend the metaphor, you’re more interested in watching a last minute come-from behind touchdown, regardless which team does it. In other words, something like the 2000 recount.

Another example, also involving football, involves a BYU fan this time. This was back in the early to mid 2000’s when the memory of the Lavell Edwards years were still fresh. As I was talking to this fan, he mentioned, in all seriousness, that BYU fans sometimes called BYU “The Lord’s Team”. I made the joke that it was dangerous to bring religion into things because if the Good Lord did care about college football (and, I added, I was pretty sure he didn’t) it was clear that he was Catholic, not Mormon, since historically Notre Dame was a better team than BYU. I was surprised by the vehemence of his reaction, though in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been. He claimed that BYU was the better program. I said, you can’t just look at the last few decades when Lavell Edwards was the coach. You have to look at the whole history of the program, unless you want to argue that the Good Lord didn’t start paying attention to things until 1972. Despite pointing this out he refused to budget. I sent him a link to a site that declared Notre Dame to be the all time best football program (In the intervening years Alabama has passed them, currently BYU is 66th behind Utah who’s 37th), and he wasn’t swayed. This was politics. BYU was the best program/team/university ever, and nothing was going to change his opinion.

This is where I think we are today. We’ve been on top for awhile. People are really invested in the Democratic-Republican rivalry. They have their team and all they care about is winning. They’re way more fixated on whether someone plagiarized a speech, or said the wrong thing in emails, or seems to be too friendly with Russia (or whether someone threw a punch or dumped beer on the quarterback’s family) than parallels between now and the last time there was a strong populist candidate, or what kind of agreements we made with Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, or how the situation in the South China Sea may resemble the situation before World War I (or whether it took 20 years for BYU to win their first game against Utah.) Perhaps this is good, perhaps it’s a waste of time to worry about things that happened decades ago. Perhaps you consider examining previous black swans a waste of time when Trump just barely said something ridiculous (again). But whether you worry about black swans and catastrophes or not they’re going to happen. To paraphrase the old quote attributed to Trotsky, “You may not be interested in catastrophes, but catastrophes are interested in you.” And when they are, understanding things beyond just the “Lavell Edwards” era, is going to come in handy.

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 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.

To put this into terms we can understand. If we end up in a nuclear war with Russia or China whatever else we were focused on, student loans, poverty, Black Lives Matter, etc. it was the WRONG THING. Forget 1000 years from now, all that people will remember in 4 years if the next president gets us into a nuclear war is that. As I said nothing else will matter.

It’s not just nuclear war, there are lots of other things which could end up being a preventable Black Swan that in retrospect makes the petty arguments we’re having about immigration and email seem laughable, if they’re remembered at all. But for the moment let’s focus our attention on nuclear war, because I think some useful ideas might come out that discussion.

At first glance you might think that there’s not much difference between the two candidates on this issue. In fact you might even give the edge to the democrats particularly since Obama, at least at the beginning of his term spent a lot of time working to eliminate nuclear weapons for which, (along with his ability to not be George Bush) he was given the Nobel Peace Prize. But of course the point is that no one wants nuclear war. No one is going to campaign on a platform of nuking Russia. Consequently if we want to examine the candidates on this issue you have to take a few steps back. Where should we look if we’re worried about nukes? There is of course the possibility of a terrorist nuke, or perhaps in it’s death throes North Korea might set off a nuke or two. Both of these would be pretty bad, but, one there’s not a lot we can do about them and two, while they would definitely be giant black swans I think they would only be really impactful in the short term. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be paying attention to this area, but there’s a limited amount we can do. No, if we’re really trying to prevent the sack of Baghdad we should be looking at China or Russia.

How, then, do the two major candidates (I’ll get to third party candidates later) compare on this issue? Well it’s not something that comes up a lot. At this point in the election there’s been a lot more focus on whether Trump is really as good of a businessman as he claims to be or whether Clinton was being stupid or corrupt when she ran all of her email through a private server, than any discussion of the dangers of a nuclear exchange with the Russians. Of course the Russians do come up. 20,000 DNC emails were released and various people have accused the Russians of being behind it, as part of that they have accused Trump of being too cozy with Putin. This is generally viewed as a negative, but from the perspective of avoiding the big war, this might actually be a good thing.

However, if you dig you can find some illuminating things. No real smoking guns, but it does appear that Clinton definitely leans one way and Trump obviously leans another. Let’s start with Clinton. Clinton appears to be an interventionist. She pushed for intervention in Libya. She appears to have wanted to intervene in Syria as well. On the bigger and scarier issues she is reportedly very hawkish with Russia. She apparently has compared Putin to Hitler. And by the way, on that point, she’s completely and totally wrong. Not because Putin is nicer or better than Hitler but because unlike Hitler, Putin. Has. Nukes. When it comes to China Clinton doesn’t appear to do any better.

Turning to Trump, if anything people feel that he’s too close to Putin, as I already mentioned, but then there are his comments about NATO. And here there is an interesting discussion to be had. A few months ago Trump gave an interview to the new york times and as part of the interview he said that he would be less willing to defend our NATO and East Asian allies at the current level without greater financial contributions from them. The interview rambles a bit, but these appear to be the key quotes:

If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich…

With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

In taking that position would Trump increase or decrease the chances of a nuclear war? In the immediate and unequivocal judgment of many this position dramatically increased the chances of war. The article in Vox was typical of the reactions:

Wednesday night, Donald Trump said something that made a nuclear war between the United States and Russia more likely. With a few thoughtless words, he made World War III — the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in nuclear holocaust — plausible.

I disagree with this assessment. Of course it’s hard to know what will set off a war, and I think World War III was already plausible. But let’s dissect the core idea of whether Trump increased the odds of war with that statement.

The first thing Trump is claiming is that the countries we’re protecting are wealthy countries who can probably pay more for their own protection if such protection is required. This is true. He’s also talking in more broad terms about the US being over-extended. Whether the US is currently overextended or not is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is that being overextended is a significant contributing factor in the falls of all previous great empires.

The second thing to consider is that when he tells NATO nations that they can defend themselves he’s talking about ignoring the collective defense clause (Article 5) of the original treaty. Now in general I’m in favor of following treaties and doing what we say we’re going to do, but NATO has extended well beyond its original purpose, and well beyond its original members, and maybe re-examining it isn’t such a bad idea. But of course the writer at Vox and many others think that questioning it is just the first step towards nuclear war. But is that actually the case, does Trump’s position make war more likely?

At the moment there are 28 members of NATO. If any of them go to war with Russia than the US goes to war with Russia. If we kicked some of the member nations out as Trump seems to be suggesting doesn’t this literally make a war between the US and Russia less likely? Now I’m not saying that it makes a war between, say, Russia and Estonia less likely (Though it wouldn’t be much of a war…) I’m just saying it makes the war we’re trying to prevent, the war the Vox article specifically mentions less likely. Honestly, and I’m sure the author feels like he’s fighting the good fight, it actually just sounds like he’s just looking for any excuse to demonize Trump.

Speaking of Estonia, I’m a big fan of Estonia. I actually applied for e-residency there, but I’m almost positive that if Russia wants it, it’s not worth using nukes to keep them from getting it. Also when you think about Estonia it leads naturally to a thought experiment. Imagine that in the next few years that Texas manages to secede. Now imagine that a few years after it seceded it joined the Russian version of NATO, a military alliance designed exclusively around containing the US. Further imagine that this alliance included nearly all of South and Central America. How would we feel? Well that’s probably a close comparison to how the Russians feel.

Instead of asking whether it would be a good idea to back off from guaranteeing Estonia’s independence with the threat of nuclear weapons, Clinton is instead of the opinion that NATO should continue to expand. Whether this expansion would include countries like the Ukraine and Georgia is unclear, but with her general bias towards expansion and her husband’s own expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. (All former Warsaw Pact countries.) It’s unlikely that the Russians would believe any assurances she made on the subject, and would rather expect the worst, were she to become President. And let us pause here for a moment to explain the Russian mindset. It’s not just a matter of feeling encircled, or being unable to deal with the loss of their empire. Whatever you believe about Russia and however you feel about Putin, the last example of war they experienced, World War II, was literally (if you look at deaths) 50 times worse for them than for us. When you consider something like the Siege of Leningrad it’s understandable if they’re a little paranoid.

Of course there are at least two arguments which are going to be raised at this point. One being that we are unlikely to use nukes if Russia just invaded the Estonia, or a similar NATO member. This is certainly true, but once you’re in a war escalation becomes natural (just look at World War I which also involved a large alliance.) Also given how few troops we have, using tactical nukes might seem like a natural option. In other words while we’re not likely to use nukes in a situation where Russia invaded Estonia, we’re certainly more likely to do it than if we had no treaty commitment to Estonia.

The second argument is that if Estonia (or a similar member) is not a NATO member than they are far more likely to get invaded by Russia. This is also certainly true, and yes, I know we have made war more likely, but it is not the kind of war we’re really worried about. It is not the Sack of Baghdad. And here we once again get into a discussion about the difference between volatility and fragility. By taking the vast majority of countries in Europe and putting them under the umbrella of NATO and the US nuclear deterrent we’ve made things a lot less volatile. Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace, but we have made things a lot more fragile. One of the points that Taleb makes is that when you have high volatility the graph moves a lot but not very far. When you have low volatility the graph is largely flat until suddenly you hit a cliff. In this case the cliff would be war between the US and Russia, and it might very well involve nukes.

I don’t think people have really absorbed how different nuclear weapons have made things. Previously it didn’t matter how desperate one of the belligerents became if the other side out fought them and out produced them there was nothing they could do. It didn’t matter how desperate Germany and Japan got, at some point they were going to lose and we were going to win. But imagine if they had had the same number of ICBMs that Russia currently possesses?

I am by no means suggesting that Russia is as desperate as Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, but this does not mean that they might be feeling angry or backed into a corner. We’ve gone 70 years without another nuke being exploded in anger and after surviving the cold war I think we’re getting complacent and arrogant. These days people don’t take Russia seriously, and they should. Recall that during the Cold War we let the Soviet Union get away with a lot, they installed puppet governments across all of Eastern Europe and when the people of one of those countries, Hungary, had an uprising they crushed it. We let them invade Afghanistan (though this was something of an own goal, a mistake we ended up duplicating) and while we provided assistance to the rebels it wasn’t much, and it was only when they tried to put missiles in Cuba that we really pushed back, and that nearly resulted in catastrophe.

Having said all this you may be wondering what I’m actually advocating for, and you may even get the impression that the whole point of this episode is to declare my support for Trump. That’s actually not the case, and in fact while I was in the process of writing the initial blog post a story came out that Trump had repeatedly asked an advisor why he couldn’t use nukes. Which, if true, is scary. I haven’t had the time to really look into that, and as we saw above it is not unprecedented for people to latch onto things just because they make Trump look bad.

To go back to the very beginning of the post what I am mostly advocating is to take a historical view of elections rather than a political view. And honestly what that mostly means is getting away from the two major parties because that’s nothing but politics. I know it’s a little late in the game to be tossing in a discussion of third parties, but I have long been an advocate for greater third party participation in American politics. I think we need a whole marketplace of ideas with vigorous and informed discussion. In 1257 the citizens of Baghdad didn’t need to hear a discussion of tax rates, or the latest fashion or whether the laws were too harsh or too lax, they needed to hear from the lone general who advocated everything possible to placate the Mongols. Six months before the sack I’m sure there were all sorts of things which seemed very important which didn’t matter in the slightest six months and one day later.

Steering a nation is complicated, and I’m not saying I know who would do the better job, and even if I did the results are well beyond my ability to influence, but when you’re thinking about these things, spare at least some thought for preventing big negative black swans. Spare a thought for what you can do to prevent the Sack of Baghdad.