Tag: <span>Optimism</span>

The 12 Books I Finished in September (One of Which I’m Not Allowed to Talk About)

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  1. The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization by: Peter Zeihan
  2. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by: David Deutsch
  3. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by: Anne Applebaum
  4. Post-Truth by: Lee C. McIntyre
  5. Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be by: Steven Pressfield 
  6. A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest by: Robert Bell and William Dowling
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by: Agatha Christie
  8. Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1 by: Jack Campbell
  9. Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2 by: Jack Campbell
  10. Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3 by: Jack Campbell
  11. Outland by: Dennis E. Taylor

As mentioned in the title, one of the books I finished this month I’m not allowed to talk about because it hasn’t been published yet. This is not the first time someone has handed me a preprint, but in the past, I either never got around to reading it, or by the time I did it was about to be printed anyway, and so I didn’t need to delay my review. But this time around the book is a long way from being printed, and I only read it because a friend of mine was eager to get my thoughts on it. I found that not being able to review a book I was reading was very frustrating. I suppose that’s a good thing. It means on some level that my book reviewing habit has been firmly established. And not being able to immediately hold forth on a book is annoying. I’m hoping to still write the review while it’s fresh, but as I’m not under any kind of a deadline I may end up procrastinating, which would be bad.

Other than that I was really looking forward to September after the awful heat of the summer, but I ended up being cruelly disappointed. The month started by smashing all of the daily records and September 7th ended up tying the record for the hottest day ever at 107. And while October has been better, it’s still supposed to hit 80 degrees today and tomorrow. I know some people hate winter, but not me. I can’t wait for it to arrive.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization

by: Peter Zeihan

Published: 2022

498 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The catastrophic consequences which will attend the coming end of American Hegemony, or what Zeihan calls the “Order”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Zeihan’s major focus is on geography, as such he’s very focused on how that will help and hinder some nations. Also this book is something of a culmination of his previous books.

Who should read this book?

If you read this blog you should probably read this book. That said, I think Zeihan is wrong about a lot of things.

General Thoughts

I have a love-hate relationship with Zeihan. I think he’s fantastic at identifying the numerous fragilities the modern world has accumulated. But when it comes to predicting how these fragile things are going to break, and what the world looks like afterwards, I think he seriously overestimates his predictive ability. I agree with him that serious Black Swans are on the horizon, but Zeihan is confident enough about the nature of these swans to assure his readers that the US will be fine, Japan will be okay, and China will end up as a warring collection of 18th century warlords. I am less confident about these precise outcomes. Let’s take each in turn.

The US: In the aftermath of WWII the US created what Zeihan calls the “Order”. Zeihan describes it thusly:

[T]he Americans offered their wartime allies a deal. The Americans would use their navy—the only navy of size to survive the war—to patrol the global ocean and protect the commerce of all. The Americans would open their market—the only market of size to survive the war—to allied exports so that all could export their way back to wealth. The Americans would extend a strategic blanket over all, so that no friend of America need ever fear invasion again.

There was probably a little bit of benevolence involved in the establishment of the Order, but it was mostly a way of containing and confronting the Soviet Union. (Presumably when Zeihan speaks of “wartime allies” he’s not including them.) Without having to start yet another war. 

But of course as we all know the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1990, but the Order continued, why? Zeihan argues that it was largely out of inertia, and the fact that it was still working pretty well. Also, after the Soviet Union fell, America was still on top and it could afford to be magnanimous, but such magnanimity can’t last forever. This is in large part because, according to Zeihan, it brings very few benefits and numerous costs. Which is to say, the US doesn’t need to be magnanimous. It doesn’t need international trade, it can feed itself, and since the fracking revolution it could pretty easily be energy independent as well. So it doesn’t need to maintain its costly “strategic blanket” over the seas. This situation of absolute security on the oceans was always incredibly anomalous, though we don’t think of it as such. As Zeihan puts it:

What we all think of as normal is actually the most distorted moment in human history. That makes it incredibly fragile.

So far he and I mostly agree, but let’s move on.

Japan: Ever since reading his book The Accidental Superpower (review here) I’ve been mystified by how bullish Zeihan is about Japan. Though it’s possible that it’s less being bullish about Japan and more being bearish about China, and we’ll get to that, but let’s first consider Japan by itself. Japan cannot feed itself (it produces only 39% of its food locally) nor is it energy independent, and it’s an island. So we’re already in a situation where Japan is very dependent on ocean going trade. So why is Zeihan so bullish? Apparently it all comes down to the Japanese Navy. If the chief cause of the coming disaster is the withdrawal of the global protection of the US Navy, then the only way to avoid disaster is for countries to have their own blue water navy, and according to Zeihan, Japan already has one of the best in the world. And to be fair to Zeihan, the Japanese Navy is pretty good, but is it really that much better than China’s navy? A quote from the book might give you a sense of Zeihan’s optimism:

Japan would seem set to inherit [Asia’s First Island Chain], but the future isn’t going to be nearly that tidy. Sure, Japan’s superior naval reach means it can strangle China in a few weeks and choose the time and place of any blue-water conflicts, but even in weakness China has the ability to strike targets within a few hundred miles of its coast. That doesn’t simply include portions of the Japanese Home Islands, but also most of South Korea and all of Taiwan. Anything short of a complete governance collapse in China (which admittedly has occurred several times throughout Chinese history) will turn the entire region into a danger zone for any sort of shipping on the water.

To be fair he doesn’t discount the idea that it’s going to get hot, but this idea that the Japanese navy could easily blockade China does not match what I’m seeing anywhere else. I couldn’t find any source which ranked the Japanese Navy as being better than the Chinese Navy. Mostly what I’m seeing are discussions of whether even the US Navy could match China, at least around Taiwan. And remember for all of this to work out for Japan, they have to beat China, and still have enough of a navy left to guard their shipments of food and oil. And all of this while their population plummets

China: Of course China also has serious demographic problems, but given that they start out with 10x the population of Japan, their situation is quite a bit different. Zeihan puts quite a bit of weight on demography, but despite China’s rapidly aging population he seems to think that their biggest source of weakness is that their growth is backed by truly staggering levels of debt. As in a corporate debt load that’s 350% of GDP, and a monetary supply that, since 2006 has increased by eight hundred percent. Zeihan draws this comparison between all the big economies:

So, have the Americans played a bit fast and loose with their monetary policy? Perhaps. Will that have consequences down the line? Probably. Will those consequences be comfortable? Probably not. But it is the Europeans and Japanese who have gone off the deep end, while the Chinese have swum out to sea during a hurricane and dived headfirst into the Texas-sized whirlpool that serves as Godzilla’s front door. Scale matters.

So out of all this Zeihan’s theory for the collapse of China goes something like this: The US will start withdrawing from its job as globo-cop. This will disrupt supplies of food and raw materials. This will take the rug out from China’s ability to finance continued expansion which will disrupt growth, and growth is the Chinese leadership’s sole claim to legitimacy. Any attempt on China’s part to secure food and raw materials will be blocked by the Japanese Navy, and if that doesn’t do it the Indian Navy is also in the way (particularly if China wants to get oil from the Middle East.) This will all be too much to bear for China’s vast and factious population leading to a China that is a ghostly shadow of its current power—if not to its entire disintegration. 

Zeihan never mentions what role the Chinese nuclear arsenal might play in this process. In fact, as far as I can determine he goes the entire book without ever mentioning China’s nuclear weapons at all. This is a strange omission, and one that was also present in his last book as well. I’m not sure what to make of it. 

But to return to my original point. Zeihan is great at identifying a certain class of modern fragility, and I agree that the world is set to break. But he’s entirely too confident about what the world will look like after it’s been smashed into a thousand pieces.

Eschatological Implications

Eschatology is all about the end. And while the end of American hegemony will not be the literal end of the world. Zeihan is right that it will be the end of the world as we know it. To begin with he argues that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I’m not sure it happens the first time someone shoots at one, but the first time one of them is sunk by a hostile nation? Then yeah, everything we know changes. 

The question is how does this come about? Zeihan assumes that any day now the US is going to realize that it doesn’t need the rest of the world and call its navy home, because that’s the logical thing to do. This assumption is so deeply embedded that Zeihan doesn’t really ever bother explaining the chain of events that would lead up to this withdrawal. For him it just seems so obviously the smart thing to do that it has to happen. It would be one thing if we were trending in an isolationist direction. Instead, if anything, we’ve gone the opposite way. We’re deeply involved in assisting Ukraine against Russia, and on no less than four separate occasions Biden has asserted that we’re going to defend Taiwan. Of course his advisors have tried to walk those assertions back, and no one is entirely sure what happens under the next president, but Biden has the public’s support. The number of Americans who think we should defend Taiwan has been going up, and crossed 50% for the first time last year

I totally agree that American hegemony can’t last forever, and that it’s already starting to fray. And Zeihan’s analysis of the fragility which will be exposed when it does end is more than worth the price of admission. But I think it’s going to last longer than he thinks—that we’re going to try to hold on to it for as long as we can. This will make a big difference because as Zeihan points out, that’s what everyone else wants as well, so if we’re all on the same page it could end up continuing for decades. And as time goes on things will inevitably change, and the elements of Zeihan’s analysis will have to change as well. China’s navy will continue to get stronger. The horrible demographics of the modern world will continue to play out. Elections will happen. China will make a play for Taiwan. Putin will use nukes, or he won’t. But I think the idea that the US will sit back comfortably enjoying self sufficiency while the rest of the world breaks down into regional spheres of influence is too simplistic. I think it’s going to be a lot crazier than that.


The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

by: David Deutsch

Published: 2012

487 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The infinite potential which has been unlocked for humanity by the creation of explanatory knowledge, or what we normally call science. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I thought this description from an article in Scientific America was spot on. Deutsch is a  “quantum theorist [who] thinks we’ll solve war, global warming and consciousness—and that will be just the beginning.”

Who should read this book?

I’m leaning towards placing this in my “no one” category. It is useful as the record of a sort of blind humanistic optimism, which in 100 years will either be held up for extreme ridicule (if it’s remembered at all) or viewed as being so self evident as to be boring.

General Thoughts

Somewhere along the line I came across a list of book recommendations by Neal Stephenson, and I naively assumed that since he wrote such excellent fiction that his non-fiction recommendations would be of a similarly high quality. Unfortunately this has not proven to be the case. I’ve been trying to work through my backlog of audio books, and this is the month I ended up in the middle of all the books I impulsively added from that list. This was actually not the first book from the list. That was The Constitution of Knowledge, but I didn’t make the connection at the time. Though you may recall that I wasn’t particularly impressed by that book either. 

Most of the books on the list (that I read) are pessimistic in ways which I’ll discuss, but not this book. As I already mentioned, this book is overflowing with optimism. His central claim is that humanity, by discovering how to generate explanatory knowledge, has set itself on a path which has no end, that we are at the beginning of infinity. To quote from the book:

[E]very putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either

– impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or

– achievable, given the right knowledge.

That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. {Emphasis mine]

Most importantly we have figured out how to get that knowledge. Some people disagree, pointing out that monkeys, while intelligent, will never understand calculus, and that perhaps there is knowledge which is similarly situated beyond our intelligence. But Deutsch points out that because we can invent tools which increase our abilities, that we are not subject to that restriction. That yes, there might be some things normal humans can’t understand, but that humans plus computers can. Humans are universal constructors. 

I obviously don’t have time to get into all of his reasoning, but you might be interested in some of his other assertions:

      • The knowledge-friendliness of the physical world
      • Almost all environments create an open-ended stream of knowledge
      • People are universal explainers
      • All interesting problems are soluble by virtue of being interesting
      • The existence of universality in many fields
      • Biological evolution was merely a finite preface to the main story of evolution, the unbounded evolution of memes.

In many ways this book reminded me of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Deutsch is also a big fan of the Enlightenment. But whereas Pinker’s book was full of statistics Deutsch’s book comes across as almost mystical. This despite Deutsch being, as near as I can tell, an atheist. 

Clearly there are people who have a mystical faith in continued progress. You might have heard people using the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But why does Deutsch belong in a similar camp? Because he’s basically saying the same thing. Though he might prefer it if people said, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards knowledge.” And he asserts that it doesn’t require recourse to anything supernatural, that it’s just a matter of understanding the true power of human potential.

Eschatological Implications

When someone claims that we’re at the beginning of infinity, they’re basically claiming that we’re at the end of the finite and static period of humanity. And Deutsch in fact does spend quite a bit of time criticizing static societies, and he holds particular disregard for the precautionary principle. Which is to say Deutsch puts forth an eschatology, it’s just a very positive eschatology. As I mentioned in my last post, it would be great if this were the case, but as you might imagine I have my doubts.

Recently, this book, and a few other things, have reminded me of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I discussed at length in a previous post. As a reminder, Bostrom likens new technology to blindly drawing balls from an urn. Each ball can be any shade from pure white to pure black. The lighter the ball the more beneficial the technology, the darker the ball the more harmful it is. If you ever draw a pure black ball then it’s a technology which is so destructive it means the end of humanity. On the other hand, a pure white ball would mean the eternal salvation of humanity. 

Deutsch not only denies that pure black balls exist, but his essential claim is that we have already drawn the pure white ball sometime during the enlightenment. You could even say that the whole book is a description of this pure white ball. But even if you set aside the fact that Deutsch believes we have already been “saved” by science. He makes further claims about the nature of the balls in the urn. By claiming that the physical world is “knowledge-friendly” he’s basically saying that the urn is set up to deliver white balls. You might retort that just because the world is knowledge friendly doesn’t mean it always delivers good knowledge. If humans will eventually be able to do anything not forbidden by the laws of nature couldn’t they blow up the planet, or eradicate all life? It would seem so, but Deutsch has an explicitly optimistic view of knowledge. In fact he puts forth what he calls “The Principle of Optimism”, which is:

All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.

This means that as soon as humans developed the ability to reliably create explanatory knowledge, that they had it within their power to banish all evil. That sure feels like a mystical eschatology. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism 

by: Anne Applebaum

Published: 2020

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The rising authoritarianism in the West, with a particular focus on Poland. But it also includes significant discussion of Hungary and the UK (think Brexit). 

What’s the author’s angle?

As an international journalist Applebaum has been right in the thick of things, and this is a surprisingly personal account of changing Eastern European politics from the inside.  She’s also married to a Polish politician (Radoslaw Sikorski, who, among other things, was the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007-2014). And more recently the guy who tweeted “Thank you, USA” in reference to the explosions which damaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

Who should read this book?

You have probably heard of Victor Orban, you might even have a strong opinion about him. You probably haven’t heard of Jarosław Kaczyński, who is sort of the Orban of Poland. If you want the inside baseball of Kaczyński’s rise to power, and the parallel rise of authoritarianism and conspiratorial thinking then this is the book for you. If that all sounds a little bit niche, and of limited applicability, then you should skip it.

General Thoughts

This is yet another book from the Stephenson list. And it suffers from the problem common to most of the other books on that list (though not Deutsch’s): They all do a reasonably good job of describing some of the things happening on the ground, but then their solutions are either laughably naive (as was the case with Constitution of Knowledge) or non-existent as was the case with this book. Applebaum is very worried about the future of democracy, and she wonders if democracy will end up always sliding into authoritarianism. Certainly the Founders worried about that, and Applebaum mentions these worries, she also mentions statistics indicating that a third of the population has an “authoritarian predisposition”. From this her contribution is to point out that even should these people exist that that’s not enough for the rise of authoritarianism. An additional step is needed: 

They need members of the intellectual and educated elite…who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.

The book opens with a New Years Eve party she and her husband threw in Poland at the end of 1999. And then she goes on to detail how so many of the people at that party who she thought were her allies, ended up joining this authoritarian elite.

This is great, and interesting to hear about, but she doesn’t ever offer any ideas for how to prevent this. She gives a very interesting narrative of the process, but she never really gets into why that process starts or how one might prevent it.


Post-Truth

by: Lee C. McIntyre

Published: 2018

116 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Post-truth, which the OED named as their word of the year in November of 2016, and defined as: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

What’s the author’s angle?

This book is part of the MIT Essential Knowledge Series, McIntyre is a professor at Boston University and an Instructor at Harvard. This book has a real “declaiming correct beliefs from the heights of the ivory tower” feel.

Who should read this book?

No one. Yes, this is another Stephenson recommendation, and it’s weak in the same ways that the last one was weak. Also to the extent that it does have something worthwhile to say it’s out of date. A lot has happened in the realm of post-truth since 2018.

General Thoughts

From the very first page McIntyre admits that it’s impossible for him to be neutral about this subject, and to look at it dispassionately. And I agree that there’s really no case to be made that we should abandon truth, but as you read the book it becomes clear that what he’s really attempting to do is cover for his profound political bias. Yes, the left did come up with postmodernism, which is the “godfather of post-truth” but it was only weaponized by the right’s lust for power. All of the science denial comes from the right as well. And then, of course, he talks about Trump incessantly. (Some version of the word Trump appears 222 times, so an average of almost 2 times per page.) I think everyone reading this already has a pretty firm opinion, one way or the other, on Trump. Certainly McIntyre does, so I’d like to focus just briefly on science denial.

McIntyre spends a lot of space talking about climate change, (71 instances) and the science denial on the right about that subject, but you can search in vain for a discussion of gender self-id and the denial of physical differences between men and women, which is clearly science denial from the left, nor is it that the only potential example. Now to be fair it was published in 2018 and a lot has happened in the last four years on that front. But one feels like it would have been possible to come up with a left wing example, even if you wanted to argue that it’s not as bad. 

Finally, like all of the Stephenson recommendations, the solutions on offer are pretty anemic, and consist mostly of more discussion of how awful Trump is. I get it, you guys don’t like Trump. But if he were to die tomorrow your problems would not be solved.


Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be 

by: Steven Pressfield 

Published: 2022

148 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Tough love about how to succeed at the “War of Art”. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Pressfield is well known for his passionate advice on writing and creating in general, and this is an extension of that. 

Who should read this book?

Pressfield gives great motivational speeches for aspiring artists. If you fall into that category and need motivation this is another great (and very short book) from him.

General Thoughts

As I just said this is a very short book. Basically two hours as an audiobook. That’s a large part of its appeal, you get a lot for a short expenditure of time. And if you’ve read any of his other books, you know what you’re getting. If you haven’t read any of his other books, you probably shouldn’t start with this one. I would recommend The War of Art.


A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest 

by: Robert Bell and William Dowling

Published: 2005

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The title pretty much says it all. If like me, you need help reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, then you might want to pick up a book like this.

Who should read this book?

I have not finished Infinite Jest, but this book has been very helpful in keeping me from getting overwhelmed.

General Thoughts

I’m on my third time starting Infinite Jest. I picked this book up in the middle of my second attempt, but then my crazy summer intervened before I could get to it, but it was helpful enough that I decided to start over for a third time. I’m hoping to finish it soon, but man, that is one hefty book!


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

By: Agatha Christie

Published: 1926

312 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. As you might expect someone is murdered and Poirot solves the murder. However, there are several interesting differences: to start with, Poirot is retired.

Who should read this book?

I don’t read a ton of murder mysteries, but I thought this was a particularly fine example of the form. If you do read a lot of them, then you should definitely read this one.

General Thoughts

My daughter set out to read every book ever written by Agatha Christie. She completed this task recently and reported that out of all the books she liked this one the best. Well, with a recommendation like that, I had to read it. I can definitely see why she would place it in the number 1 spot. To say much of anything would spoil things, but I will say that it was very inventive with great characters.


The Lost Fleet Series

By: Jack Campbell

Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1

Published: 2006

304 Pages

Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2

Published: 2007

295 Pages

Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3

Published: 2007

299 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

John “Black Jack” Geary, hero of the Alliance, thought to be dead, is found and revived after spending 100 years in cryosleep. This happens just in the nick of time because the Alliance fleet has just lost a major battle and is stuck deep behind enemy lines, and only Black Jack can get them home.

Who should read this series?

I really like the premise of this series, and it started strong, but after book three I abandoned it. So I would say either read the first book or two and then stop, or don’t read it all. 

General Thoughts

As I said, I liked the premise. Imagine if Nelson or Napoleon returned to their respective countries in the middle of WWI. How would the British Navy and the French Army react to that? The series is also an homage to Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, a group of Greek mercenaries who found themselves deep in Persia and on the losing side of the war. 

Unfortunately, in order for the books to play out in the most dramatic fashion possible Campbell asks us to swallow a lot. The easiest thing to swallow is that the commanders of the Alliance fleet would leave a recently revived Black Jack as fleet commander while every last one of them goes to negotiate a surrender, only to be slaughtered. For one thing, it’s another allusion to Xenophon. But after that things get more difficult to digest.

Black Jack is a hero because of one battle early in the war, after which he disappeared. And yet his fame, 100 years later, is equal to or greater than that of a Nelson or Napoleon who accumulated their fame over the course of dozens of major engagements. 

Additionally, even though 100 years of constant war has taken place, the technology being used has hardly changed.

But the hardest thing of all to swallow is that Black Jack turns out to be the best commander ever because, despite the aforementioned 100 years of constant war, the current Alliance commanders have forgotten how to fight. This is convenient for the story, but the exact opposite of how things work in reality. Campbell tries to explain it by saying that the war is so vicious that no commanders live long enough to become experienced, which implies that they’re incapable of learning from the mistakes of others…

If this had been all there was I probably would have persevered, but it started becoming quite the soap opera with large chunks of the books taken up by the drama of Black Jack’s romantic entanglements, which was not what I signed up for.


Outland

By: Dennis E. Taylor

Published: 2015

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

College students discover a way to open up a portal to a parallel Earth (the eponymous Outland.) This discovery happens to occur right before the Yellowstone Supervolcano explodes, and the students end up being the only people who can save civilization. 

Who should read this book?

This is by the author of the Bobiverse series, and the humor is similar, so if you liked that, or if you like end of the world science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book. But it is Taylor’s first book, so it’s a little rough.

General Thoughts

This is perfectly serviceable science fiction, with an interesting premise, a well crafted plot and okay characters. It pretty much is what it claims to be on the cover. But as with his Bobiverse books Taylor makes some very curious world building choices. (See here for a discussion of his choices in the Bobiverse.) What does he do in this one? Well if you’ll permit me a mostly-spoiler free rant:

As I mentioned the students figure out how to open portals to parallel worlds, but in this book rather than there being one world for every possible choice, the worlds have a tendency to settle into a groove, or perhaps revert to some sort of mean. Consequently they’re only able to open a portal to two different worlds. Outland, which is a world without humans (or at least there are no humans in North America). And a world they call Greenhouse Earth. 

In Outland the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted sometime in the last hundred thousand years, and this is presumably why there are no humans. 

Greenhouse Earth, on the other hand, is only featured very briefly, but the temperature is 194 degrees, and atmospheric pressure is twice that of “Earth Prime”. That all seems pretty implausible, but I suppose some ancient divergence could create an Earth with those characteristics, except apparently the divergence wasn’t ancient because when they look through the portal they can see the ruins of the university. Including a building that was constructed in 2002. The novel gives every indication of being set in the present day. Which means up until very recently conditions were still temperate enough that they were constructing buildings as per usual, and then in the space of a 13 years the average temperature goes up by 100 degrees, and the pressure doubles! 

And yes, given that it’s an alternate dimension the timelines could be different by more than that, but even if it took a century that would still be climatic change at insane speed. Nailing down the actual timeline isn’t the point, but rather the key point is they get two views into what might have been, and in both of those views disaster has struck. But rather than worrying about how a world that was otherwise identical to theirs in terms of tech and progress suddenly became Venus junior, they spend all of their time worried about the possibility of the supervolcano.

Now of course the protagonists of novels have a way of being correct, and the Yellowstone Supervolcano actually does explode on Earth Prime but if you were playing the odds our best guess is that Yellowstone has a yearly probability of blowing up of around 1 in 730,000. While apparently the chances of the insanity of Greenhouse Earth are 1 in 13, or perhaps, if we’re being generous, 1 in 100?

I went on a long rant because this sort of phenomenon—interesting disasters getting all of the attention while likely disasters end up relatively ignored—is something that affects a lot of our thinking around risk. And as with so many things the pandemic is exhibit number one. Not only weren’t we prepared despite the very high priority, we don’t appear to be doing much to increase our preparedness should another pandemic emerge.  


As I mentioned I was disappointed in Stephenson’s recommendations. If you think you can do better feel free to email me at we are not saved AT gmail. Of course if you were an actual supporter I’d have no choice but to read and review whatever you recommended. That’s just how it works! 


Doom vs. Optimism

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

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As I frequently mention, I’m wrong about a lot of things. But I know this, which means that if someone accuses me of being wrong, rather than ignoring them, I actually try to pay closer attention. Unfortunately this system relies on being able to identify the accusation in the first place. This is easy if you’re talking to someone face to face. Or if someone actually comes to your blog and tells you that you’re wrong, but for me (though perhaps not most people) potential accusations of wrongness occur far more frequently when I’m reading something. And it’s not always clear if the accusation applies to me.

For example when Thoreau says: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Is he talking to everyone else, but not me? Or is he, perhaps, just wrong about general levels of desperation? Or am I actually leading a life of quiet desperation, even though I don’t feel particularly desperate? In other words, am I wrong? It would be so much easier if it just said, “Jeremiah, you’re leading a life of quiet desperation and you don’t even realize it.” Then my only concern would be whether he’s wrong or whether I’m wrong. I would not have to decide if he’s even talking to me in the first place. All of this is a very roundabout way of saying, that I’m open to soul-searching if that’s what’s required, but I’m not always sure when it is.

I came across an example of this recently while reading through the Gordon B. Hinckley manual, the one we’re using in Priesthood and Relief Society this year. It happened as I was reading Lesson 3 which is titled Cultivating an Attitude of Happiness and a Spirit of Optimism. This lesson really jumped out at me, and in the Church that’s something you’re told to pay attention to. It’s not hard to imagine why it jumped out at me. I will freely admit to being very cynical by nature. If someone were to accuse me of being grumpy by default I don’t think I would argue with them very much. Consequently, this definitely seemed like one of those times where someone might be trying to tell me that I’m wrong.

As I mentioned above in the Thoreau example. There are three possibilities. First, President Hinckley could be talking about someone else. Second, he could be wrong. Or third, I could be wrong. The first possibility is unlikely given the natural cynicism I already mentioned. Also he is the leader of MY church, which means I’ve already decided he’s talking to me, and then finally there’s the whole bit about the lesson jumping out at me.  The second possibility, that President Hinckley is wrong, is something, which, for religious reasons, I’ve already basically ruled out. Which only leaves the final possibility, that I’m wrong, or at a minimum that I need to do some soul-searching, and, lucky you, I’m inviting you along for the ride.

Of course, wrongness operates on a continuum. On the one end it can be very black and white, as was the case when a one of my 2nd grade classmates bet me a “hundred bucks” that the speed of light was only 1,000 miles per hour. Needless to say he didn’t have a “hundred bucks”, and if I could remember his name maybe I’d try to track him down and collect it now. On the other end of the continuum are opinions like declaring Harry Potter the greatest fantasy series ever (for future reference it is, and always shall be, the Lord of the Rings.) So though I expect to be find some places where I’m wrong, I hope that it might fall more on the Lord of the Rings end of the spectrum, than on the speed of light end. Also, while, I’ve already admitted that I have a “bad attitude” what’s more important, particularly from the standpoint of the church is what I say and do.

One of the things I do (and also say) is this blog. Does it reflect a bad attitude? Probably. I wouldn’t blame anyone if that was their impression after reading posts about nuclear war, the end of progress, the near impossibility of space travel, etc. etc. In fact reading the last two posts they might specifically point to a lack of optimism about technology. Fortunately, there is a section in the lesson which appears to address that very subject. And given that at least one other person has pointed this out as an area where I may be wrong, it’s probably a great place to start. Here’s the relevant quote:

There never was a greater time in the history of the world to live upon the earth than this. How grateful every one of us ought to feel for being alive in this wonderful time with all the marvelous blessings we have.

When I think of the wonders that have come to pass in my lifetime—more than during all the rest of human history together—I stand in reverence and gratitude. I think of the automobile and the airplane, of computers, fax machines, e-mail, and the Internet. It is all so miraculous and wonderful. I think of the giant steps made in medicine and sanitation. … And with all of this there has been the restoration of the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. You and I are a part of the miracle and wonder of this great cause and kingdom that is sweeping over the earth blessing the lives of people wherever it reaches. How profoundly thankful I feel.

You can probably see where this quote might have some bearing on my last two posts about technology, specifically what I was saying about the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). And, in my experience, this is the sort of quote the MTA loves. Does this mean I’m about to say that my last two posts were wrong? No. Definitely not. I’ve already written two posts on the subject (and the last one even addressed the idea that I might be wrong), so I don’t want to rehash all that here, but I continue to maintain that the technology President Hinckley is talking about and the technology the MTA is talking about are very different. That said, I could certainly see where someone might accuse me of underselling the awfulness of the past and overemphasizing current problems. And this is a great time to correct that impression.

When speaking on this subject I am reminded of my Grandma, who was born in 1912. Near the end of her life, she would often talk about how difficult young people have it these days. How hard it is to get started financially. She might also express her worries about war and disease. Oftentimes using some variant of the idea that “It’s never been worse.” Of course this is not true. My Grandmother lived through the Great Depression and World War II (also World War I though she probably didn’t remember much) not to mention the Spanish Flu Pandemic. But all of those things happened at least half a century ago, while the latest crisis, whatever it was, was always front and center. I don’t think I’ve ever said that that there was less violence or less sickness or less poverty in the past, but I also haven’t done perhaps as much as I should to emphasis the many ways in which modern life is pretty amazing. We do live, as President Hinckley said, in the greatest time in history, and we should be grateful for that.

By returning to the neglected theme of the blog, Jeremiah 8:20, I think we might find some clarity. Jeremiah said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.” Implicit in that scripture is the idea that there was a harvest, and a summer. And when President Hinckley talks about the wonderful technology of the modern world, that is precisely what he’s talking about. I don’t disagree with President Hinckley or the MTA about that. Where I disagree with the MTA is whether this harvest of technology and this summer of progress, has saved us or whether if it hasn’t. I think it has not and based on the rest of the President Hinckley quotes in the lesson I think he agrees. But getting to the bottom of President Hinckley’s feelings on technology is not the point of this post, the point is to get to the bottom of what he’s saying about happiness and optimism, and if you look at the full lesson you’ll see that references to modern conveniences makes up just a small portion of it. (In fact it basically just appears in the two paragraphs I quoted.)  So what does President Hinckley offer up as the keys to happiness and optimism?

Absent a better way of approaching things (and believe me I did spend a lot of time trying to come up with one) it’s probably best to just go through the various sections in the lesson. The first section is all about cultivating a spirit of happiness and optimism. As I’ve already mentioned this is where I could do better. I’m not someone who brims with happiness and optimism and I’m not someone whose writing brims with happiness and optimism either. I could do better and I’ll try to do better going forward, but I’m not committing to anything. Particularly since in the middle of this section President Hinckley says that he’s not asking for a silencing of all criticism. And he points out that:

Growth comes with correction. Strength comes with repentance. Wise is the man or woman who, committing mistakes pointed out by others, changes his or her course.

Someone who chooses the alias of Jeremiah is never going to shy away from pointing out mistakes, offering criticism or calling people to repentance. Nevertheless, I should remember to do it in the most loving way possible, and that probably hasn’t been the case thus far.

Section two is where his discussion of technology and the modern world appears, and since we’ve already covered that, we’ll jump ahead to section three.

The title of section three is “The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a reason for gladness.” And I think here is where the lesson really gets into the meat of things, and the section where President Hinckley and I largely agree. It begins with a quote from the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 25 verse 13:

Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made.

I think there are a lot of people that have no problem with the first part, but don’t pay much attention to the second part. The part about actually keeping the covenants we’ve made. Obviously covenant keeping is something which largely applies to people inside of the Church but if we speak of commandments more generally, then I would have to say most people don’t agree with this connection between being happy and obeying the commandments. In fact my strong sense is that most people think that it’s the exact opposite. That obeying commandments is the biggest obstacle to happiness.  That telling people not to have sex outside of marriage or to avoid drugs or to do anything else to restrict their natural urges is the chief cause of unhappiness. President Hinckley makes it very clear that this is not the case:

Transgression never was happiness. Disobedience never was happiness. The way of happiness is found in the plan of our Father in Heaven and in obedience to the commandments of His Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the point most people overlook, and while I’m sure, as this lesson demonstrates, that we need to be reminded from time to time to be optimistic and happy. When I look at the world I see at least as much need if not more of reminding people to keep the commandments. And while I am horrible at the former I don’t think anyone can say that I’ve avoided doing the latter.

President Hinckley goes on to make another point which I think a lot of people miss. Many people in the world today think that happiness comes from being able to do what we want to. This is why most people think that keeping the commandments is the opposite of happiness, but President Hinckley points out that happiness comes from faith in things which are outside of ourselves, that in fact if we can only derive happiness from things going the way we want that we’re going to be disappointed a lot of the time. To illustrate this he offers up an old newspaper clipping:

Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.

Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise…

Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.

The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.

Thanking the Lord for letting us have the ride is an example of looking for a foundation outside of ourselves, an idea President Hinckley expands on in the fourth section, so we’ll move on to that.

The overarching message of section four and perhaps of the whole lesson, is faith. Specifically the idea that everything will work out. In fact the lesson says that this may have been the assurance President Hinckley repeated most often to family and friends. This may seem at odds with the newspaper clipping I just included, but President Hinckley’s point is more that everything will work out eventually, rather than that everything will work out immediately. Once again people reading my blog could find ample places where I appear to be saying that things won’t work out. But what I’m saying is the complement to what President Hinckley is saying, he’s saying that in the end everything will be okay, and I’m saying that before the end their might be some times when things are not okwy. In other words, I think we’re saying the same thing, in any event where we both agree is that we definitely need the help of God. That we will not be saved through our own efforts. President Hinckley states it this way:

The Lord never said that there would not be troubles. Our people have known afflictions of every sort as those who have opposed this work have come upon them. But faith has shown through all their sorrows. This work has consistently moved forward and has never taken a backward step since its inception.

This idea of troubles and afflictions runs through the last part of the lesson, continuing from section four into the concluding section, section five. Section five is more about recognizing our status as Children of God, but it ends on a note that I think ties in with many of the things I’ve already written on the topic.

In a dark and troubled hour the Lord said to those he loved: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

These great words of confidence are a beacon to each of us. In him we may indeed have trust. For he and his promises will never fail.

Right at the beginning of the lesson we’re urged to not fret about the future. The word future is mentioned a couple of other times, but on those other occasions it’s in reference to the future of the Church. This is the only time where specific instructions are given about the future in general, but in reality the future and worrying about the future form the background for the entire lesson. When President Hinckley urges us to be optimistic it’s understood that we should be optimistic about the future. When he mentions keeping the commandments, once again he’s referencing the future, specifically how we should act in the days and months to come. Of course he also mentions troubles and afflictions. It may seem counterintuitive to emphasis both troubles and optimism. While we can draw a certain amount of optimism from the assurance that everything will work out eventually, that only gets us so far. How do we maintain a spirit of optimism and happiness in the meantime? We don’t do it by ignoring potential catastrophes, or by blindly assuming everything is going to be great, we do it by protecting ourselves against those catastrophes. This largely takes the form of keeping the commandments, but it also takes the form of savings and food storage and strengthening families and communities. While it’s true I may spend too much time emphasizing the bad things which may happen, I did it largely to assist with this preparation.

Certainly, like President Hinckley I believe that everything will work out eventually, but that doesn’t mean that a lot of bad might not happen in the next 10 years or the next 20. And, obviously, it is exactly that sort of statement that makes me seem pessimistic, but the way to happiness and optimism is not through ignoring the future or naively assuming we’ve progressed past the point of worry, the way to happiness and optimism is knowing that you’re prepared. It didn’t come up in the lesson, but President Hinckley gave an entire talk on the idea that if we are prepared we shall not fear.

This is why we’re urged to keep the commandments. What does anyone have to fear if they’re prepared to meet their maker? Death itself holds no terror if we’ve done what we were supposed to. In the shorter term the Church encourages us to stay out of debt, assemble food storage, live modestly, support one another. All of these are things which increase our happiness and optimism because we have less to worry about. And here, rather than being wrong, I think President Hinckley and I are in exact agreement. This is the whole concept of Antifragility which I’ve talked about in numerous places. Keeping the commandments makes you antifragile. Having savings and food storage makes you antifragile. Having a loving and strong family makes you antifragile. And as much as I need to work on my attitude I think doing all of this is the surest way to happiness and optimism.


If you’re feeling happy and optimistic, consider donating, it might decrease your happiness, but it will increase mine.