Decisions as a Barbell (Also a Very Meta Post)

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At the end of this post I announce some significant changes to my blog, so make sure to stay till then.

I. Habits vs. Big Decisions

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast. (I forget which one.) The guest was dismissive of the idea that having a good life is all about cultivating virtuous habits. As evidence of this he pointed out that so much of one’s life ends up hinging on a few big decisions; the impact of those few decisions overwhelm whatever small gains one gets from daily habits. 

I’m a big fan of habits and normally I would not have paid much attention to this claim. To start with, it’s tautological. Yes, big decisions are substantial and important by definition. Also I’ve been evangelizing about the impact of black swans for many, many years. In other words, tell me something I don’t know. However, recent circumstances led me to pay closer attention. In particular, I thought of my friend Mark getting scammed out of an enormous amount of wealth. His frugal habits powered the accumulation of that wealth, but it only took one spectacularly bad decision to undo years of good behavior. It raises the following questions: 

  • Did his habits somehow contribute to making that one poor decision?

I have money, I can give a little bit of it to Becky, and a little bit more. Oh shit! I’m ruined.

  • Did they create a financial blind spot?

I’m good with money, I don’t need to worry about being scammed…

The same phenomenon might explain the time I was sued. (Which I also blogged about recently.) It followed a similar pattern. In the time leading up to the lawsuit I was very focused on my habits, while I basically ignored the pending disaster.  

Look how healthy I am, I’m lifting twice a week, and playing squash every Friday. I’m reading lots of books, and using the pomodoro system to be productive.

The flaming, engineless airplane I call a job? The one that’s spiraling towards the ground? I’ll be fine. Now leave me alone, can’t you see I’m reading War and Peace. Back off man, I’m an intellectual!

Defenders of habits, of which I am one, would offer another rejoinder: that there are habits which would have helped in both these situations. Put simply, you protect yourself from black swans by being antifragile. Mark had saved money and been prudent for quite a while, but as we talked about it he admitted had gotten complacent. My doubts about my job had lead me to consider my own fragility. I was well positioned to go six months without a paycheck, I wasn’t prepared to go two years, while simultaneously funding a lawsuit.

There are things that could have been done, general prudential measures you could recommend to everyone. But what are the specific habits Mark or I should have been cultivating? 

Mark could have cultivated the habit of skepticism, and I could have cultivated the habit of trusting my gut when I had misgivings about the contract (and Jean-Ralphio). But are these truly habits? 

Consider the following: You can decide on a habit of “walking outside for thirty minutes every day”. With this habit it’s crystal-clear whether you’ve done it or not. If instead the habit you decide on is “be healthy” that’s not something you can check off. Sure you can break it down into things that can be checked off, like the aforementioned habit of walking, but then those are your habits. Being healthy is too nebulous to turn into a habit. Also health involves striking a balance between many competing priorities. 

You’re searching for the golden mean, not flipping the “health” switch. 

Skepticism and knowing when to quit are the same way. It’s just as dangerous to be too skeptical as it is to be too trusting. While I would have been better off if I’d left my job before it crashed, the best timing for that decision was far from obvious. Moreover, it wasn’t something that could have been turned into a habit.

So, to the extent I’m remembering this guest’s point correctly, I disagree that habits aren’t important. I think they’re super important. You wouldn’t be reading this very sentence if I hadn’t developed several habits around writing. The epiphany I had was neither about habits, nor prudence in general, nor a realization that black swans happen. All these things were known to me already. No, it was a revelation about the space in the middle. 

II. A Barbell Strategy of Attention

Many of you started thinking of Taleb the minute I brought up black swans, given his book of the same name. Let’s bring in another of his ideas. Taleb got his start as an investor and most of his thinking flows from that discipline.  He recommends a barbell strategy, 80-90% of your money should be in super safe assets, and 10-20% of your money should be in exceptionally risky assets, with basically no money in the middle. The safe part of the barbell protects you from negative black swans (gold is still valuable even in the event of a zombie apocalypse) and the risky side of your portfolio pays out on positive black swans.

The epiphany I had while listening to that podcast was that a similar strategy should be applied to where you place your attention. 80-90% of your attention should be on developing virtuous habits, doing the work day in and day out, and 10-20% of your attention should be focused on identifying truly consequential decisions and making sure you nail them. Very little attention should be placed in the middle.

Of course most people place quite a lot of their attention on the “middle things.” The recent push to focus on habits is an attempt to correct this misallocation of attention. But to adapt the point of the podcast to our analogy, this focus frequently takes attention not from the middle, but from the other end of the barbell — the end where all the consequential decisions are made. It would be much better if it pulled attention from the middle, the non-habitual, non-consequential space where most people spend all of their time. 

You might already have a clear picture of this “middle”, but let’s get more specific. It’s all the time you spend worrying about the latest interaction you had with your boss. The anxiety you feel trying to discern whether they’re faintly pleased with your latest TPS report or vaguely annoyed. And if it’s not worrying about your boss then your attention is focused on the daily annoyances of life. The guy who cut you off. Or when you get home with your take-out only to discover that an item is missing. 

Whether it be the interactions with your boss, or the daily annoyances, these things should mostly be dealt with by habits. 

You should develop habits of doing good work. 

You should have a habit of saving money, so if you get laid off in spite of your good work, you’ll be okay. 

You should also have a habit of checking your order before you leave the restaurant. And for those instances where habits might not help — sharing the road with bad drivers — it’s important to recognize that the annoyances they cause won’t matter in the long run. (The accidents they cause are a whole other story.) It has been said that if it won’t matter in five years it doesn’t matter now. The middle is composed of all those things that won’t matter in five years.

III. Identifying the Consequential (A Metaphor of Violence)

You can find many guides to creating habits — at this point the process is fairly well understood. That said, the other end of the barbell — identifying the consequential — is much more challenging. Consequential decisions are obvious in hindsight, but difficult to identify beforehand. Fortunately I have a couple of ideas that might help.

For the first we turn once again to Taleb. This time I’d like to examine his treatment of via negativa. I guess I shouldn’t say it’s his idea, it’s actually a key component of apophatic theology. This way of thinking points out that fully describing God’s positive qualities is impossible. How do you capture omnipotence? So instead they attempt to describe God by pointing out what he is not. 

But I digress… 

Taleb recommends applying this technique more broadly. That in all areas it is more beneficial to focus on what we need to eliminate than what we need to add. In the barbell theory of attention we eliminate the middle. Once we do that all that remains is the habitual and the consequential, and distinguishing between those categories is easy. In two easy steps we have identified what’s truly impactful.

As with so many things that’s easier said than done, but it’s definitely a start. 

The second idea comes from science fiction author Neal Stephenson. In his book Anathem, his main characters are all monks, and while not all of them are martial artists, some are. These martial artists are not only skilled at violence, but also very concerned about using violence only at the right time. In most media which feature martial artists there are plenty of opportunities to fight. Everywhere they turn there are other martial artists primed for combat, just waiting to be defeated by physical violence. This is not the case in the real world and it’s not the case in Anathem. In both settings violence is exceptionally rare, and also very consequential. You must not use violence when it’s not needed, but you must not fail to use it when it is. 

Consequently, as part of their martial discipline, these monks have developed the doctrine of emergence. They spend as much time training themselves to identify when to use violence as they do training themselves to commit that violence. This consists in noticing the precursors to violence so that they will be ready. Situations which truly call for violence feel different, and develop differently, and things can change rapidly.

I feel there’s a lesson there. Namely, it’s possible to do something similar with consequential decisions — to recognize when they’re emerging. If we can manage this, then it gives us the opportunity to apply all of our wisdom at that critical point, rather than wasting our attention on the quotidian middle — on the things that really won’t matter over the long run. 

Often, truly consequential decisions don’t unfold quite so rapidly as instances of violence. That’s good news and bad news. Good in that we have more time to think and plan, bad in that the consequential decision may be far removed from the actual consequences. In my lawsuit the consequential decision was signing the contract, which happened three years before the actual lawsuit. For my friend Mark, it may have been the very first time he helped Becky out. It took quite a while before he was completely out of money. 

Another good thing is that we get far more practice with consequential decisions than we do with violence. One would hope that this makes identifying “an emergence” even easier, that we would get better at making the right decisions. Though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.

I don’t think any of what I’ve said will allow one to perfectly avoid lawsuits or scams. There will still be consequential decisions where we make the wrong choice, but given the enormous impact of these decisions anything that increases our odds of success has to be good.

IV. My Own Set of Consequential Decisions

I mentioned in my last book review roundup that I was planning to move to Substack. Since then, I’ve been silent for an unusually long time and I’m still not on Substack. 

So what happened? 

Well, I think I’m in the middle of an emergence. I was recently offered a column in the Technology and Religion section of Deciding whether to accept the offer and what to do about my other writing feels like a consequential decision, and so I wanted to take my time and make sure I got it right. Also there was some other stuff slowing me down as well. There always is. 

After thinking it over, and yes, praying about it. Here’s what I decided to do:

  1. I’m going to accept the Patheos offer. In order to make sure I give it my best shot, I’m mostly going to stop putting out original content on
  2. I am still going to move things over to Substack. I remain convinced it’s a good idea.
  3. Going forward, every Wednesday I will post something from my archives in this space. I will still continue to post my monthly round up of book reviews, and I’m hoping to occasionally publish something original that’s not religious enough for Patheos, but no promises. 
  4. I say from my archives, but the plan is to revise each piece, take another editing pass, and update it to reference anything that’s happened since I originally wrote it. So I’m hoping even those of you that have read all my old stuff will nevertheless find something new and interesting.
  5. I do not yet have a link for my Patheos blog, but as soon as I do I’ll post it here. My plan is to post there every Friday. I expect those pieces will be shorter, so I figure it basically takes the place of my newsletter The Eschatologist
  6. If you listen to me via podcast, for the foreseeable future, audio versions of everything will be released there, both the Patheos columns and the stuff.

Part of this plan comes because I want to make sure I come out swinging on Patheos, and part of it is due to the fact that I have a very busy summer. I intend to revisit things come the end of August. I don’t intend to put out stuff from the archives forever, hopefully it will just be for a few months. 

Thanks for your ongoing patience, and hopefully, when it comes to this consequential decision, it will be obvious that I made the correct one.

I’m not sure what to do about my Patreon with these changes. If you are one of my patrons (and I couldn’t be more thankful to you) I’d be interested in hearing from you. 

The 8 Books I Finished in April

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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  1. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by: Eric Schlosser
  2. Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less by: Alex Epstein
  3. The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 
  4. Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment by: Yanis Varoufakis 
  5. Apollo: The Race to the Moon by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
  6. Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1) by: Orson Scott Card
  7. The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3 by: Matt Dinniman
  8. Faith, Hope and Carnage by: Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan

April continued to be crazy busy with my business. I’ve hired some people, but in between the time it takes to manage them and the steady increase in the number of clients, thus far adding capacity has not reduced my workload. But I’m optimistic that eventually it will

Also I had a weird medical problem. This may be a case of TMI, but the whole thing was interesting. 

Both of my big toes have been tender and occasionally painful for several months. The problem didn’t seem to be getting worse, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better either. Also I eventually concluded that the nails of both had stopped growing, so I figured I’d better see a podiatrist. I expected him to prescribe some kind of cream, or for him to be mystified (as doctors frequently are.)  Instead, he knew exactly what was going on and determined that at some point I had traumatized my two big toes enough that my body had decided that the nails were no longer viable. I couldn’t remember any taxing toe trauma and told him that. He said he often saw severe shock among skiers because of the squeeze — of the boots. I had been skiing once this winter, but I thought the toenail truncation started thereafter.

In any case, because of the trauma my body had decided to give up on the old nail and switch to a new nail, but since the old nails were still there there was a good chance that the new nails would get blocked. If this happened then the body would start trying to grow a third nail, which would almost certainly also get blocked and at some point things get really backed up. The solution was to just yank out both of the old nails. 

This solution was way more dramatic and potentially painful than I expected. My immediate response was to squeak out “Right now?” I honestly didn’t feel psychically prepared — it’s not like the nails were loose or anything. Fortunately, except for a brief moment of discomfort, the removal was painless. The shots to achieve that condition were another thing entirely…

It’s interesting that the initial injury was so mild I can’t even remember it, but the resolution was dramatic enough that I’ll never forget it. Recovery hasn’t been too bad. Though occasionally a wave of pain will emanate from the top of the toe, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what sets things off.

One final update: I’m 90% sure I’m going to move to Substack in May. A few things pushed me over the edge: 

  1. The referral feature is nice. I have some fans who are also Substack writers and it will be easier for them to recommend me. 
  2. I like the idea of Notes. I think that might be more my style than the Hobbesian world of Twitter. 
  3. Finally the Substack team can apparently port over my entire domain, so links to old posts will continue to work. This is a MAJOR deal. 

I mention all this, so that if at some point in May you can’t get to my site, you’ll know why.

I- Eschatological Review

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

by: Eric Schlosser

Published: 2013

656 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The development and integration of nuclear weapons into the military structure, Cold War deterrence strategy, and the numerous accidents involving nukes, many of which avoided being an accidental detonation only by luck.

What’s the author’s angle?

Schlosser is an investigative journalist, so he’s after the juicy stories. I’m not saying he juiced this particular story up, but keep in mind that he has very little incentive to moderate the juiciness.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, there’s a sense in which this is a sequel to that. More generally, anyone interested in nukes should read the book.

General Thoughts

This was a great book. It uses the common non-fiction structure of using a single incident to provide narrative momentum. Schlosser then builds off that incident into a larger examination of the general subject and its history. 

The momentum comes from the story of the Damascus Accident. In 1980, a two-man crew was servicing a Titan II missile. In order to do that they needed to use a very large socket. Unfortunately they subsequently dropped that socket. It slipped through a narrow gap, and dropped 80 feet where it ricocheted off the thrust mount and into the side of the missile. This punctured the fuel tank and the missile began spraying fuel into the silo. (Here’s a link to a YouTube video with a recreation of the accident.) The book recounts all of the events that followed, events which eventually culminated in the silo exploding and the nuclear warhead being ejected. Fortunately it did not detonate or break apart. In fact it only traveled a short distance. Nevertheless it was still an enormous disaster. Twenty-one people were injured and one person died.

On top of this story of disaster experienced and apocalypse avoided, Schlosser lays out the history of nuclear weapons and how they were handled politically and militarily. As you might imagine, he spends a lot of time talking about the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

In all this history I found the immediate post-war period to be the most interesting. I obviously can’t cover everything, but here are two facts to whet your appetite:

President Truman’s [vow to contain Soviet power was tough words [his vow to contain Soviet Power was] not backed, however, by a military strategy that could defend Western Europe. During the early months of 1947, as Truman formulated his anti-Communist doctrine, the Pentagon did not have a war plan for fighting the Soviet Union. And the rapid demobilization of the American military seemed to have given the Soviets a tremendous advantage on the ground. The U.S. Army had only one division stationed in Germany, along with ten police regiments, for a total of perhaps 100,000 troops. The British army had one division there, as well. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Soviet army had about one hundred divisions, with about 1.2 million troops, capable of invading Western Europe—and could mobilize more than 150 additional divisions within a month.

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I often heard that NATO was outmatched conventionally. Still, I always imagined that the disparity wasn’t that great. And by the end of the Cold War it probably wasn’t, but I never realized that the disparity started out at 100 to 1! When that’s the starting point it’s going to take a long time to reverse, and the impression of being outgunned will probably last long after the actual situation starts changing.

Given this disparity, it is only natural that Truman would turn to nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The problem was that no one, not even the president, knew how many nuclear weapons the US had. 

In April 1947, David Lilienthal visited Los Alamos for the first time after becoming head of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was shocked by what he saw: rudimentary equipment; dilapidated buildings; poor housing; muddy, unpaved roads—and plutonium cores stored in cages at an old icehouse… Nuclear weapons were now thought indispensable for the defense of the United States; Lilienthal had expected to find them neatly and safely stored for immediate use. “The substantial stockpile of atom bombs we and the top military assumed was there, in readiness, did not exist,” Lilienthal subsequently wrote. “Furthermore, the production facilities that might enable us to produce quantities of atomic weapons … likewise did not exist.”The number of atomic bombs in the American arsenal was considered so secret that it could not be shared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff—or even recorded on paper. After visiting Los Alamos, Lilienthal met with President Truman in the Oval Office and told him how many atomic bombs would be available in the event of a war with the Soviet Union: at most, one. The bomb was unassembled but, in Lilienthal’s view, “probably operable.” The president was stunned. He’d just announced the Truman Doctrine before Congress, vowing to contain the worldwide spread of communism. Admirals and generals were fighting over the atomic stockpile, completely unaware that there wasn’t one. “We not only didn’t have a pile,” Lilienthal recalled, “we didn’t have a stock.” The threat to destroy the Soviet Union, if it invaded Western Europe, was a bluff.

You can imagine my reaction to this. After reading the first quote, I was surprised that the USSR hadn’t invaded Western Europe. One imagines that had they been aware of the information in the second quote, they certainly would have. 

As everyone knows, the number didn’t stay at one for very long, and in our haste to assemble an actual stockpile, safety was often a secondary concern. These efforts were further stymied by the state of readiness SAC insisted on. Bombers had to be prepared to take to the air with nukes at a moment’s notice, and they frequently flew training missions with actual nukes as well. Unfortunately, planes sometimes have accidents, and if you insist on loading actual nukes onto those planes they’re going to get into accidents as well. Accidents like a fire which might set off the detonators, and trigger a full or partial nuclear explosion.

It would be unfair to say that SAC completely ignored the problem of safety, but they strongly resisted numerous proposed enhancements because they worried it would make the weapons less reliable. When you combine this with the frequent handling these weapons received, there were thousands of accidents. Most were not serious, but dozens were, and that’s a conservative estimate. Since the end of the Cold War things have gotten better, but there are a lot of nukes still out there, and they’re getting older. It’s unclear what the future holds. Speaking of which…

Eschatological Implications

For many people nothing is more viscerally eschatological than nukes. Their vision of armageddon is nothing more nor less than all-out nuclear war. Command and Control makes it clear that we came very close to mutually assured destruction several times. We came even closer to accidentally detonating one of those weapons, which might have served to trigger an all out exchange — the accident could have been mistaken for a deliberate act. The book quotes General Butler, head of SAC at the end of the Cold War. He was tasked with revising our nuclear plans.

I came to fully appreciate the truth … we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.

Regardless of how, we should surely be grateful that we did escape. But is that escape permanent? There are still thousands of nuclear weapons and just a few weeks ago the NYT reported that China is massively expanding its nuclear arsenal with a goal of becoming the third nuclear superpower. Lots of people imagine that because we survived the last 75 years with nukes that the danger is past. But it seems more likely that the danger is just beginning. Despite the dreams of pacifists and presidents, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is as far away as ever. 

Even if we can avoid war, what about accidents? As Schlosser points out, accidents are common, and while none has resulted in an actual detonation, it seems to only be a matter of time before one does. Obviously this book was written from the standpoint of the US. What would a similar book written from the standpoint of Russia and the USSR look like? Would it be even more alarming? And is there not a second book to be written about China? One where most of the pages are yet to be filled?

We are not out of the woods. We’re not even close to the edge of the woods. By all accounts, we’re actually journeying deeper into the darkness. 

II- Non-Fiction Reviews

Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less

by: Alex Epstein

Published: 2022

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the downsides of fossil fuel use are overstated and upsides are understated.

What’s the author’s angle?

I’ll get to a charitable interpretation of his “angle” below, for an uncharitable interpretation all you need to know is that he spent seven years as a fellow at the Ayn Rand institute.

Who should read this book?

If you want a steelman of the case for increasing the use of fossil fuels or if you want someone to reassure you that staying on the current course isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

General Thoughts

In a past post on climate change I pointed out that there are several stages/questions to any discussion of climate change:

  1. Is the Earth getting hotter?
  2. Are humans causing it?
  3. Is that a bad thing?
  4. If so, how bad?

While much of the discussion remains confined to questions one and two, this is a book about levels three and four. In particular, Epstein points out that the effects of climate change will be much easier to deal with if we have lots of energy. Of course the way we get lots of energy is by burning fossil fuels, so it’s a vicious cycle, but Epstein mostly argues that the ship has sailed. Climate change is already locked in, and dealing with it, while also dealing with an extreme lack of energy is going to make things very bad.

Climate change is such a contentious issue that I am not going to attempt any kind of deep dive on his arguments. Though I would be interested in reading something from the other side of this issue. What is the gold-standard “climate change is going to be a massive disaster” book? 

Though no deep dive, I do want to nibble around the edges. At its core the debate over climate change is a debate about impact and how it should be evaluated. (This book was a big part of the inspiration for my recent post on harm.) Consider an example:

There’s a lot of talk about ocean acidification. I frequently see it brought up as an argument against geo-engineering, because even if that serves to mitigate the temperatures we will still have irreparably harmed the oceans. Epstein discusses this at some length and puts forth a lot of different counter arguments. The one I found the most interesting was the fact that historically carbon-dioxide levels have been much higher. (Nota bene: Here historically means hundreds of millions of years ago.) But during those times when the carbon-dioxide level was several times higher than it is today, the ocean had more life in it than it does today. Historically, a more “acidic” ocean was arguably more hospitable.

This does not mean that there’s no impact. Even if the ocean is more hospitable to life, that life might be significantly different than what currently lives there. Changes to the ocean may kill off numerous species that were adapted to the current ocean. This is a very large impact, and a large part of Epstein’s book is dedicated to pointing out that zero human impact is an impossible goal, but it’s precisely the goal at the heart of the environmental movement. Zero human impact equals zero humans, so this leads them, at their core, to be anti-human. This observation is both interesting and, on some level, true.

In general Epstein makes a pretty convincing case. But I think his confidence that if we just continue to use fossil fuel that we’ll definitely be better off has a couple of very large issues. I think the speed of change has been pretty slow thus far, but that need not always be the case. Things could speed up and outpace our ability to adapt even if we don’t forswear fossil fuel (though I take his point that in the absence of fossil fuel our ability to adapt is even more limited). Just because carbon-dioxide was much higher historically doesn’t mean that the transition happened as rapidly as it is now. 

More perniciously I worry about visible effects vs. invisible effects. I think we have lots of ways to mitigate the visible effects of climate change: rising temperatures and sea level, climate refugees, droughts, etc. (whether we’ll actually use them is a different story.) But I’m certain that out of all of the effects it’s going to cause, there are some we’re not going to know about until it’s too late. While we’re busy building dikes and spraying sulfur-dioxide into the upper atmosphere, other catastrophes will be brewing and we won’t realize it until they’re too late to stop. 

The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion

by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Democracy requires free and open communication — a loose system of control. But this same system, because of its lack of control, can easily go off the rails, and be exploited. Or, as the book says, “Hence the paradox: the more open the communication we enjoy, the more endangered democracy finds itself.”

What’s the author’s angle?

Most people think that “the default state of democracy is stability, and periods of disruption are the exception.” The author’s want to demonstrate that it’s the exact opposite.

Who should read this book?

The authors demonstrate the aforementioned disruption with a survey of democratic instability throughout history, if you’re interested in such a survey you should read this book. That said, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have read. I frequently point out that my reading is far too skewed towards recent books, that I should cut some of the more recent books in favor of older books. This is a recent book that should have been cut.

General Thoughts

There are people who are surprised by the idea that democracy isn’t being subverted, that it is in fact doing the subversion. I am not one of those people. I have long known that democracy can just as easily lead to illiberalism as liberalism. I’ve been warning about it in this space for quite awhile. This is another reason why I probably should have skipped this book, it was preaching to the choir.

Though the preaching was tiresome, some of it was quite trenchant. A few quotes demonstrate this:

We’re now confronting the greatest structural challenge to democracy we’ve ever seen: a truly open society. Without gatekeepers, there are no constraints on discourse. Digital technology has changed everything. Consequently, reality is up for grabs in a way it never has been before.

Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, sensed, far better than political scientists or sociologists, that our media environment decides not just what we pay attention to but also how we think and orient ourselves in the world.

We’re confronting the true face of democracy: a totally unfettered culture of open communication. Nearly all democracies up until now have been democracies in name only; they’ve been mediated by institutions designed to check popular passions and control the flow of information. 

I would disagree that we lack gatekeepers and that there are no mediating institutions. Their power has been weakened and the culture of open communication has made their interference far more transparent, but they are still there. Nor do I expect them to go away anytime soon, but what we are seeing is a fracturing into tribes and camps. The left has their institutions. The right has theirs. And even the centrists have splintered off into their own camp. As I have repeatedly said, it’s not institutions we lack, it’s a civil religion.

To their credit the authors recognize this:

All democratic communities are held together not by a shared conception of truth but by a commonly recognized experience and a commitment to active dialogue.

We have no commonly recognized experience. No universal myths we all agree on. When you combine that with unfettered democracy, that’s when you really have a problem.

Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment

by: Yanis Varoufakis 

Published: 2017

516 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An insider’s account of the 2015 Greek Debt Crisis written by the finance minister at the time, so, not just a little bit inside, very inside. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Varoufakis is at pains to show how ridiculous the process was and how intransigent the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) was. I have no doubt that his account is largely correct, nevertheless I would dearly like to read something written from the other side.

Who should read this book?

This book portrays a very narrow slice of the modern world, but cuts deeper into that machinery than probably any book I’ve read. If you want a look at the modern world which descends into the deepest depths of the ocean, through the crust, past the mantle and into the core. This is your book.

General Thoughts

This book was by turns gripping, tragic, and, most of all, damning. But I hesitate to pronounce damnation on anyone without hearing their side of the story. The functionaries and bureaucrats in this book, from Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, through Wolfgang Schäuble, German Minister of Finance, to Varoufakis’ own allies within the Greek Government, all do some really dumb things, and I can’t help but imagine that if told from their perspective that these things wouldn’t appear quite so dumb. 

In particular, I wonder what Varoufakis would point to today to prove that he was right all along. The Greek economy does seem to be growing, albeit slightly. The debt hasn’t gone down and in fact it continues to increase, but it’s so huge compared to the Greek economy that it almost doesn’t matter. Varoufakis made a big deal about the devastation austerity wrought on the poor. The poverty rate seems to have fallen in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but then started rising again, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find recent numbers. 

I’m inclined to take Varoufakis’ account as the truth, but that’s precisely why I want to know more because it’s a truth so amazing that I’m curious to know as much as possible. 

Apollo: The Race to the Moon

by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox

Published: 1989

506 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A behind-the-scenes look at the technical and engineering side of the Apollo missions: building the rocket, coming up with the idea for a lunar lander, building the Cape and Houston, etc.

What’s the author’s angle?

Murray is best known for his social science books. He wrote this one with his wife, and I think it was because the story was so amazing he couldn’t help but write it.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in the moon program or engineering, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s fantastic. 

General Thoughts

Like many great books, this one is out of print. I don’t know why because it’s fantastic. It’s not even available as an ebook to say nothing of audio. You can get a decent copy for around $40, which isn’t great, but it was totally worth it.

As far as the book itself, I never considered myself to be a deep student of the Apollo program, but I figured I knew more than most. There was obviously Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, and of course Apollo 13. And I knew there were several missions after 13.

I was also dimly aware that there were missions before 11. I knew they had circled the moon before landing on it. But these pre-Apollo 11 missions were where my knowledge was the most lacking and this is where this book excelled. Obviously just getting to the first launch was a ridiculously difficult endeavor punctuated by the enormous tragedy of Apollo 1’s fire, which killed three astronauts.

One of my favorite of these endeavors was the launch of Apollo 4. It was an unmanned launch and the first full test of all three stages. They had the rocket together for the very first time, a million pieces from countless vendors. They would start at the top of the countdown checklist, come to something that couldn’t be checked off, stop everything, fix it, and then start over. This went on for seventeen days where people were working nearly twenty-four hours a day, but when they finally fixed all of the problems, the launch went perfectly. None of the stages had been independently tested, but it all worked. No one thinks of Apollo 4 these days, but it was a massive engineering accomplishment. 

I know one shouldn’t long for the past, as things are much better on so many fronts today. But when you read about those amazing men, the challenges they overcame, and what they were able to pull off in less than a decade, it does feel like we’ve lost something. That whatever else we might be able to do today, we couldn’t do that again.

III- Fiction Reviews

Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1)

by: Orson Scott Card

Published: 1985

324 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ender Wiggins, a child prodigy, is taken from his family and sent to Battle School to be trained as an eventual fleet commander. Meanwhile his equally prodigious siblings, Peter and Valentine, engage in their own machinations back on Earth.

Who should read this book?

I expect the vast majority of people who read this blog already have. If for some reason you haven’t, you should. This is probably my sixth or seventh time reading it.

General Thoughts

Ender’s Game was originally a short story, which is how I first encountered it. My father maintains that this is the superior version. If you’re curious to compare the two, you can find the short story version in volume 1 of Jerry Pournelle’s There Will be War series (available on Kindle for $5). My personal opinion is that each version harmonizes with its respective format. The short story is more plot-driven and focuses on the twist ending. While the novel is more character-driven and focuses on the interaction between the siblings. 

One of my readers convinced me that I had to read Children of the Mind, the fourth book of the saga, because it contained some interesting ideas about unembodied intelligences, a topic in which I’ve expressed some interest. I figured in order to do that I needed to reread books 1-3, so here we are. You should expect reviews of Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide shortly.

And yes, the book was just as good as I remembered.

The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3

by: Matt Dinniman

Published: 2021

534 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you may recall, this is a series where aliens show up, take possession of the Earth, kill most of its inhabitants and make the rest participate in a real life fantasy dungeon crawl computer game. The series revolves around Carl and his sentient, talking cat, Princess Donut. In this book he has to defeat level four which, much like the internet, is a series of tubes

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for mindless escapist fantasy. And you enjoyed books one and two.

General Thoughts

Of the three books I’ve read thus far, I thought book two was the strongest. I suspect I’m going to tire of Carl continually triumphing over impossible odds by being very lucky and coming up with crazy ideas. But I guess that’s what I signed up for when I started the series. My grumbling aside, this series has been a very enjoyable diversion. I plan to continue reading it and I believe I’ll start book 4 right…now!

IV- Religious Reviews

Faith, Hope and Carnage

by: Nick Cave, Seán O’Hagan 

Published: 2022

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Cave and O’Hagan had several long conversations during the COVID lockdowns which they recorded and turned into a book. It covers a lot of territory, music, God, and, of course, all the words in the title. Carnage refers to many things, but mostly to the loss of Cave’s fifteen year-old son Arthur, who accidently fell to his death in 2015. 

Who should read this book?

My wife recommended this to me after reading it with her book club. Despite all the reviewing I do, I rarely reach out to someone and say, “You should read this book.” I did with this one. This is one you should almost certainly read. (Or at least listen to the authors re-narrate their conversations.)

General Thoughts

The conversation between the Cave and O’Hagan is so wide-ranging that it would be wrong for me to try and summarize it further. I’ll just end things with one of Cave’s numerous amazing observations:

Yes, but Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person – and, Seán, when I use that word ‘religious’, you do understand the way that I am using it, right? We’ve talked about that enough for you to understand I am not talking about being a traditional Christian or something like that. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt on a profound level a kind of deep inclusion in the human predicament, really, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled.

I messed with the categories a little bit this month, and it made me wonder if I should stop ending with religious reviews. They have a tendency to be heavy, which makes joking about donations more difficult. And yet I soldier on regardless of how tasteless it is. If you appreciate that brazenness, consider donating.  

Eschatologist #28: If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear

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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Doom is coming. The end of the world approaches and men’s hearts fail them. What are we going to do? What are you going to do? 

Have you considered religion? No? Well you should. But I understand if you’re hesitant. There’s a lot of that going around. Or perhaps you are already religious, but you’ve heard that the Lord helps those who help themselves. 

Fair enough. Let’s tackle preparing for the end of the world. First it’s necessary to define the term. Sure, some people are worried about the literal extinction of the human race or a catastrophe so bad that the living will envy the dead. But most people’s worries are more immediate: they just don’t want horrible things happening to them or their loved ones.

For the vast majority of people — including you — this is wise. Yes, great and terrible apocalypses are possible and we shouldn’t ignore them. But most of your time and attention should be focused on those around you, your community. To begin with, you should make sure you have a community in the first place. Outside of the most extreme catastrophes this will be very important. 

Beyond that, you should prepare yourself for the common stuff. Are you saving money? What does your job look like? Is it precarious? Do you have a plan if you’re laid off? What natural disasters might happen in your area?  Do you have a 72-hour kit? I understand that all these questions are just boring common sense.  But, I am surprised by how many people will spend hours talking about a possible AI apocalypse, but who haven’t spent 30 minutes deeply considering the consequences of losing their job.

Speaking of the AI apocalypse, another common failure mode I see is for people to get freaked out, to start panicking. They end up with an unhealthy degree of fatalism. If you fall into that category, perhaps this observation from Ray Dalio about historical calamities will help:

What are these destruction/reconstruction periods [Great Depression, world wars, Spanish Flu] like for the people who experience them? Since you haven’t been through one of these and the stories about them are very scary, the prospect of being in one is very scary to most people. It is true that these destruction/reconstruction periods have produced tremendous human suffering both financially and, more importantly, in lost or damaged human lives. Like the coronavirus experience, what each of these destruction/reconstruction periods has meant and will mean for each person depends on each person’s own experiences, with the broader deep destruction periods damaging the most people. While the consequences are worse for some people, virtually no one escapes the damage. Still, history has shown us that typically the majority of people stay employed in the depressions, are unharmed in the shooting wars, and survive the natural disasters.

That last bit is worth emphasizing: “the majority of people stay employed in the depressions, are unharmed in the shooting wars, and survive the natural disasters.” This has been true and I believe it will continue to be true. The majority of people will stay employed despite AI automation. They will survive even nuclear armageddon. And yes they will also successfully weather global climate change. 

This does not mean that any of these events will be pleasant, and you might end up in the unlucky minority of those whose lives are destroyed. But they are all things that can be mitigated by being prepared. Also, if you’re in a strong community it’s unlikely that all of you will be in the unlikely minority, and those that aren’t can help those that are.

Some of you may be saying, but what about the singularity? What about truly unprecedented black swans? Yes, even if you’re perfectly prepared, there are some catastrophes you can do nothing about. I don’t think they’re going to happen soon, but the probability of them happening eventually is much higher than I would like. And it’s not just you, it’s possible no one can do anything about them. Not when they’re happening, and — even if they had perfect foresight — not now either. Should this be the case, is there then no hope?

Well… Have you considered religion? 

I guess what I’m saying is that you should focus on things you can control. Which is more than you realize. For example you have control over how you spend your money. You can spend it wisely or foolishly. I leave it as an exercise to the reader, what category donating to this blog falls into. 

The Modern Landscape of Harm

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Though life has existed on Earth for billions of years, it’s only in the last few hundred that one form of life (i.e. humans) has thought to worry about the harms it might inflict on other forms of life (i.e. the birds, the bees, and the trees). 

We call this environmentalism. By all appearances, it is a good thing. (The worry, not necessarily every action that follows from that worry.) It’s also a very recent thing. It makes up one part of a general movement to consider the harms caused by our actions. Because this idea is so recent, we struggle to strike the correct balance between massive overreaction to minuscule harms and completely ignoring potential catastrophes. 

The push to more deeply consider the harms caused by our actions, policies, and decisions plays out everywhere, but the difficulties and trade-offs are starkest in the environmental movement. In the past people worried about trade-offs — they appear as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh — but only insofar as it harmed them. If we kill all the forest creatures, what will we eat? If we cut down all the trees what will we build with? Past peoples were fine with massive environmental damage if the benefit was clear. A good example would be the use of fire by the Plains Indians. They were constantly setting fires in order to create vast grazing territory for the bison upon which they relied. Though the constant burning kept trees from growing and presumably killed anything not quick enough to escape, like snakes, it was good for the bison and what was good for the bison was good for the Indian tribes.

Once you start caring about snakes, everything gets significantly more difficult. Certainly the snakes don’t care about us. In fact for 99.9999% of the time life has been on the Earth there was no attempt by any species to mitigate the harm it was causing to the environment. What’s more, during the remaining 0.0001%, 95% of that was spent caring about harms only selfishly. We happen to exist in the 0.000005% of history where we care about the harm we cause even if such harms ultimately benefit us.

Why do we care now when we’ve spent so much time not caring? I think many people would argue that it’s because of our heightened sense of morals. And I’m sure that this is part of it, but I’d argue that it’s the smallest part of it, that other factors predominate.

Of far greater consequence is our desire to signal. Historically we might want to signal health or wealth to encourage people to mate with us. But these days — with both widespread health and more than sufficient wealth — many of our signaling efforts revolve around virtue. There is virtue in not being selfish, of considering the impact our actions have not merely on ourselves but on the world as a whole. But signaling virtue doesn’t indicate a heightened morality, only exercising virtue does, and I fear we do far more of the former than the latter. 

To the extent that we are able to act unselfishly, modern abundance plays a large role there as well. In the past people didn’t worry about the environmental harm caused by their actions because they had no latitude for that worry. A subsistence farmer lacks the time to worry about whether his farming caused long term pollution. If he did decide to worry about it, there was almost certainly very little he could do about it without imperiling his survival. In other words, he did what he had to do and had no room to do otherwise. 

Of all the elements which contribute to this recent increase in care the one I’m most interested in is the expansion in the scale. We’re capable of causing enormous harm: warming the world with carbon dioxide, ravaging the world with nuclear weapons, and transforming the world with omnipresent microplastics. On the flip side, we’re also capable of doing extraordinary things to mitigate those harms. We can spray sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere and cool the world down. We can launch powerful lasers into the heavens and (in theory) shoot down nuclear missiles in flight. We can genetically engineer bacteria that eat plastics and release those bacteria into the wild. But all of these things have the potential to cause other, different harms.

Our concern about large scale harms is mirrored by an increase in concern for small scale harms as well. We take offense over minor slights, and attempt to protect our children not only from harm, but also minor discomfort. We spend the majority of our time in climate controlled comfort. Summoning food and entertainment whenever the whim strikes us. Banishing inconvenience at every turn. 

If we decided to graph the recent changes to the harm landscape. We would start by imagining the classic bell curve with frequency on the y-axis and severity on the x-axis. This is what harm looked like historically. We didn’t have the power to cause large harms, and we didn’t have the time and energy to even identify smaller harms. 

Over the last few centuries progress has allowed us to eliminate numerous harms. Starvation is a thing of the past. Violence has markedly declined, along with bullying and other forms of abuse. In effect we’ve whittled down the hump in the middle. As we have done this our ability to both cause and notice harm on the tails has gotten much greater. On the right hand are the catastrophes we’re now capable of causing. On the left hand is snowplow parenting, microaggressions, and cancellations. 

When we pull all of this together it paints quite the picture. The landscape is radically different from what it was in the past. We have created whole new classes of harms. Some are quite large, others are rather small. Our ability both to generate and mitigate harms is greater than it’s ever been, to an extent that’s almost hard to comprehend. What are we to do in this vastly different landscape?


I was already working on this post when a friend sent me the answer. More accurately it was included in a newsletter he recommended I start reading. The newsletter is Not Boring by Packy McCormick. He’s one of those people that in a certain subculture is so well known that people speak about him on a first name basis. I had never heard of him (or if I have, it didn’t stick in my memory). I haven’t been following him long enough to know if he’s mostly right, mostly wrong, or always wrong. (You may notice I left out “always right”. That’s because no one is always right.) The answer to my dilemma came nestled in a link roundup he sent out.

(4) Against Safetyism

Byrne Hobart and Tobias Huber for Pirate Wires

Now, whether we think that an AI apocalypse is imminent or the lab-leak hypothesis is correct or not, by mitigating or suppressing visible risks, safetyism is often creating invisible or hidden risks that are far more consequential or impactful than the risks it attempts to mitigate. In a way, this makes sense: creating a new technology and deploying it widely entails a definite vision for the future. But a focus on the risks means a definite vision of the past, and a more stochastic model of what the future might hold. Given time’s annoying habit of only moving in one direction, we have no choice but to live in somebody’s future — the question is whether it’s somebody with a plan or somebody with a neurosis.

Call it safetyism. Risk aversion. Doomerism. Call it whatever you want. (We’ll call it safetyism for consistency’s sake). But freaking out about the future, and letting that freakout prevent advancement has become an increasingly popular stance. Pessimists sound smart, optimists make money. Safetyists sound smart, optimists make progress.

Friend [sic] of the newsletter, Byrne Hobart, and Tobias Huber explain why safetyism is both illogical and dangerous. These two quotes capture the crux of the argument:

Obsessively attempting to eliminate all visible risks often creates invisible risks that are far more consequential for human flourishing.

Whether it’s nuclear energy, AI, biotech, or any other emerging technology, what all these cases have in common is that — by obstructing technological progress — safetyism has an extremely high civilizational opportunity cost. [emphasis original]

We worry about the potential risks of nuclear energy, we get the reality of dirtier and more deadly fossil fuels. Often, the downsides created by safetyism aren’t as clear as the nuclear example: “by mitigating or suppressing visible risks, safetyism is often creating invisible or hidden risks that are far more consequential or impactful than the risks it attempts to mitigate.” While we worry about AI killing us all, for example, millions will die of diseases that AI could help detect or even cure.

This isn’t a call to scream YOLO as we indiscriminately create new technologies with zero regards for the consequences, but it’s an important reminder that trying to play it safe is often the riskiest move of all.

I was being sarcastic when I said that this was the answer, though it’s certainly an answer. I included it, in its entirety, because it illustrates the difficulties of rationally dealing with the new landscape of harm.

To start with I’m baffled by their decision to use “safetyism” as their blanket term for this discussion. Safetyism was coined by Jonathen Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in the book The Coddling of the American Mind. And it’s used exclusively to refer to the increased attention to harm that’s happening on the left end of the graph. When Packy and the original authors appropriate safetyism as their term they lump together the left hand side of the graph with the right. Whether intentional or not, the effect is to smear those people who are worried about the potential catastrophes by lumping them in with the people who overreact to inconsequential harms. I understand why it might have happened, but it reflects a pretty shallow analysis of the issue. 

To the extent that Packy, Hobart, and Huber lump in people worried about AI Risk with people who worry about being triggered, they construct and attack a strawman. As originally used by Haidt and Lukianoff, all people of good sense agree that safetyism is bad. Certainly I’ve written several posts condemning the trend and pointing out its flaws. No one important is trying to defend the left side of the graph. It’s tempting to dismiss Packy, et. al.’s point because of this contamination, but we shouldn’t. If we dismiss what they’re saying about safetyism and its associated sins, we miss the interesting things they’re saying about the right side of the graph. The side where catastrophe may actually loom. There’s some gems in that excerpt and some lingering errors. Let’s take Packy’s two favorite quotes:

Obsessively attempting to eliminate all visible risks often creates invisible risks that are far more consequential for human flourishing.

Whether it’s nuclear energy, AI, biotech, or any other emerging technology, what all these cases have in common is that — by obstructing technological progress — safetyism has an extremely high civilizational opportunity cost.

Starting with the errors. Those people who are concerned with large catastrophic risks are not “Obsessively attempting to eliminate all visible risks”. This is yet another straw man. What these people have recognized is that our technological power has vastly increased. The right end of the curve has gotten far bigger. This has increased not only our ability to cause harm, but also our ability to mitigate that harm.

As an example, we have the power to harness the atom. Yes, some people are trying to stop us from doing that even if we want to safely harness it to produce clean energy. They can do that because it turns out that the same progress which gave us the ability to build nuclear reactors also gave us the awesome and terrible government bureaucracy which has regulated them into non-existence. What I’m getting at, is that if we’re just discussing potential harm and harm prevention we’re missing most of the story. This is a story of power. This is a story about the difference between 99.9999% of history and the final 0.0001%. And the question which confronts us at the end of that history: How can we harness our vastly expanded power?

Packy urges us to be optimistic and to embrace our power. He contends that as long as we have a plan we will overcome whatever risks we encounter. This is farcical for three reasons:

    1. Planning for the future is difficult (as in bordering on impossible).
    2. There is no law of the universe that says risks will always be manageable
    3. Everyone has a different plan for how our power should be used. There’s still a huge debate to be had over which path to take.

There is no simple solution to navigating the landscape of harm. No obvious path we can follow. No guides we can rely on. We have to be wise, exceptionally so. Possibly wiser than we’re capable of.

I understand that offering the advice “Be wise!” is as silly as Packy saying, that they’re not advising “zero regard” they’re advising some regard. How much? Well not zero… You know the right amount of regard. 

So let me illustrate the sort of wisdom I’m calling for with an example. Hobert and Huber assert:

Now, whether we think that an AI apocalypse is imminent or the lab-leak hypothesis is correct or not, by mitigating or suppressing visible risks, safetyism is often creating invisible or hidden risks that are far more consequential or impactful than the risks it attempts to mitigate.

Let’s set aside discussion of AI apocalypses, there’s been quite enough of that already, and examine the lab-leak hypothesis. I’m unaware of anyone using the possibility of a lab-leak to urge that all biotechnology be shut down. If someone is, then the “wise” thing to do would be to ignore them. On the other hand there are lots of people who use the lab-leak possibility to urge a cessation of gain of function research. Is not this “wise”? I have seen zero evidence that gain of function research served a prophylactic role with COVID or any other disease for that matter. Would it not then be wise to cess such research?

Yes, gain of function research might yet provide some benefit. And the millions of people who died from COVID might not stem from a lab-leak. We have two “might”s, two probabilities. And it requires wisdom to evaluate which is greater. It requires very little wisdom to lump the lab-leak hypothesis in with the AI apocalypse and then gesture vaguely towards invisible risks and opportunity costs. To slap a label of “safetyism” or “doomerism” on both and move on. We need to do better.

I admit that I’ve used a fairly easy example. There are far harder questions than whether or not to continue with gain of function research. But if we can’t even make the right decision here, what hope do we have with the more difficult decisions?

If there is to be any hope it won’t come from trivial rules, pat answers and cute terms. True, it won’t come from over-reacting either. But when all is said and done, overreactions worry me less than blithe and hasty dismissals.

The landscape of harm is radically different from what it once was. Nor has it stopped changing, rather it continues to accelerate. Navigating this perpetually shifting terrain requires us to consider each challenge individually, each potential harm as a separate complicated puzzle. Puzzles which will test the limits of our wisdom, require all of our prudence, and ask from us all of our cunning and guile. 

When I was a boy my father would do seemingly impossible things. I would ask him how, and he would always reply, “Skill and Cunning.” He did this because it was an answer that could apply to anything, even saving the world. We also need to do the seemingly impossible. I know it seems daunting, but perhaps you can start small, and advance the cause by donating. It doesn’t require a lot of skill and cunning, but it requires some.

The Silly Startup and the (Law)suit It Spawned

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I’m going to try something different. 

I’m going to relate the story of the greatest disaster that ever befell me. Or so it seemed while I was going through it. In retrospect it’s still pretty bad, but having fully recovered I can now also appreciate how weird it was. I’m hoping that you’ll appreciate that as well. Also one of my readers requested it and I’m a sucker for reader requests. 

You’ll need to know a few things before we dive in. First, I have changed all the names, and some of the details. As you can tell from the title I was sued and I don’t want it to happen again. Second, I have simplified things just a little bit. True life is a lot more complicated than fiction, and I want you to be able to follow the story.

When my story begins I’m in a business with three other partners (four guys total). One of the partners has given up on the business, forcing us to consider — and as you’ll see eventually accept — an acquisition offer from a local startup that he arranged, and which was very beneficial to him. The story of that partner and indeed how I arrived at that spot, will have to wait for another time, he will not come up again. As far as the other two partners and the rest of the characters, I have decided to use characters from Brooklyn 99 as stand-ins (with two Parks and Recreation cameos). I’m hoping that this will help you to both visualize their attributes and keep track of them. With some of the characters I’ll just introduce them as part of the narrative, but there are some who are important enough that I’ll introduce them separately. To start with:

Jake Peralta: Peralata is one of my two partners. Young and an immensely talented programmer.

Charles Boyle: Boyle is the other partner. Also a very talented programmer, but kind of weird and very, very talkative.

The 99: The Startup that acquired my business and where all the weirdness happened.

The Vulture: This is the CEO of the startup. So if you’re familiar with Brooklyn 99 imagine Season 3 when the Vulture becomes the new captain. The real CEO was nicer, but equally misguided.

Norm Scully: Scully was yet another major shareholder. He functioned (poorly) as de-facto CFO and COO for most of the time.


Our story begins in 2011. As Peralta, Boyle, and I considered the acquisition offer, right out of the gate we made two critical mistakes. I’d rather not admit my big mistakes, but this post will be full of them and perhaps those that follow in my footsteps will glean some wisdom from them. The deal coupled a small amount of cash with what we thought was a large amount of stock. Of course, as we all learned from The Social Network, thousands of shares of stock are meaningless if there are millions of shares outstanding. Now at the time I did, repeatedly, ask to see the 99’s cap table. The Vulture kept promising to get it to me, but he never did, and I didn’t make that our line in the sand. But I should have.

Ultimately the 99 didn’t have a liquidity event or any kind of exit so it didn’t matter, but part of the reason we were doing the deal, despite our misgivings, was the idea that we might get rich from it. Much later I did see the cap table and it turned out that we each owned a mere 0.21% of the company. So given that my “I can retire amount” was at least $3 million, to have reached that goal the company would have to be worth a minimum of $1.5 billion, and that assumes no further dilution. This was never going to happen. 

The second mistake involved the contract we signed. Among other draconian terms, it included a non-compete and ownership of everything we created while working for the 99. But once again, rather than drawing a line in the sand, I pushed past my doubts. I rationalized that it was mere boilerplate and thought, “Of course people have to sign this. It’s never going to actually come to that, aren’t we all friends?” sort of thing. Even so we did bring up our concerns and the Vulture solemnly promised, in writing, that there was no way he would ever sue us. The mere idea that it would ever come to that was ludicrous. 

With our 0.21% and onerous employment contracts in hand we joined the 99 and began working. On the plus side the pay was really good, not crazy good but nothing to sneeze at either, and also… 

Actually that was basically it. 

The money was good. Everything else was awful. To spare your time and my fingers I will not go into every element of the farce we called a startup but here are some highlights:

  • The 99 was supposed to be a cross between Amazon and Facebook, sort of a social selling platform, but beyond this somewhat vague idea, the overall vision and the direction for the company was incredibly nebulous, to the point that it felt like we were writing code almost at random.
  • There were four major stockholders. We’ve already met the Vulture, then there was the Commissioner, Wuntch and Scully. The Commissioner was off doing another startup. Wuntch, on the other hand, had already been indicted for tax evasion when we joined and about a year into things she went to jail for five years.
  • Scully was an older religious gentleman (LDS) who tried to treat the startup like a normal business, when it was anything but. This tension caused him to have numerous health problems both physical and mental. When he would reach his breaking point, which happened frequently, he would send out blisteringly pessimistic emails, and threaten to resign. He may have been the only sane one there.
  • The Vulture was horrible at hiring people, really just awful. We weren’t big enough to justify having in-house counsel, but he hired someone anyway. The guy he hired was disbarred, rarely arrived at the office before noon, and mostly napped during the brief period when he was in the office. Beyond that he had been married seven times. Which I guess wouldn’t necessarily make him a bad employee, but still… Most incredible of all, as a lawyer he didn’t know how to use command/ctrl-f to search for something in a document. (I can put up with a lot, but that?!)
  • The Vulture also hired an administrative assistant, mostly because one of his buddies, who was going through a divorce, thought she was hot. (Nota bene: This was not the only person hired on the basis of their attractiveness). In another colossal case of tech ignorance it turned out that she didn’t know how to “reply all” when responding to an email.
  • I’m not even close to being out of bad hiring stories, but I’ll toss in one final example. The Vulture brought on a salesperson. This salesperson decided that we needed a document describing how we would move people from sales to fulfillment (I use both of those terms loosely, things were far too chaotic for either of those to really be a concrete role.) I offered to write it, but he was in a hurry so he said he’d take a crack at it. Here’s the first bullet point (and assume the entire thing has one giant [sic] attached):

Stage 1: Hand-off:

Each customer is different and its our job and duty with the services/solutions person  the positive impacts of new application from Float/99…  Keeping them engaged in, are re-affirmed. assure and highlight the process moving  forward and  staying consistent is our #1 success factor.  THE MAIN GOAL IS ACCOMPLISHING OPEN LINES 

That’s just a small sampling of the insanity. I have a dozen additional stories that are even more idiotic, they just require quite a bit more backstory to tell properly. Also the madness started off slowly, and it took a while for its full scope to manifest. But even early on when things were kind of sane, I wanted out. I worked for the 99 for three years and I was ready to leave after three months. Peralta and Boyle, my two original partners, felt similarly. Before the first year was up we started considering how to leave without running afoul of the employment contract given its aforementioned draconian terms. This turned out to be easier said than done.

If we had been wiser, we would have gotten jobs, waited out the non-compete, avoided the incompetent co-workers and the incoherent sales people. But we didn’t want to get a job, we wanted to start a new, non-sucky business. But new businesses require time, attention, and capital. We lacked all three, but particularly capital. On top of that it had to be in an area far away from what the startup was doing. So we pondered and planned, but we mostly procrastinated. 


It’s time to introduce one last Brooklyn 99 character:

Gina Linetti: This was another investor in the 99, and like Linetti very mercurial.

And our Parks and Rec cameos:

Tom Haverford: If you’re familiar at all with the show, the match is nearly perfect. As we attempted to get out of the 99 he was someone we considered going into business with.

Jean-Ralphio Saperstein: If Haverford is a nearly perfect match Jean-Ralphio is absolutely perfect. Jean-Ralphio was Haverford’s business partner.

Pawnee: The deal my partners and I considered creating with Haverford and Saperstein.

Eagleton: The deal Haverford created with Linetti.

It happened that the Vulture took Boyle on a sales trip to Vegas. (You might say that the Vulture nested in Vegas. He was there a lot.) On this trip, Boyle would meet the technical guy on the other side of a data deal and work out how things would be implemented. What’s a data deal you ask? Well the guy on the other side of the deal had, by means both foul and fair, acquired customer information from numerous websites. These websites mostly belonged to internet gurus of one stripe or another. The Vulture was obsessed with data since he figured that was how Google made all of its money. Though true, the data we were getting could not, in any sense, be compared to the data Google was collecting, and we tried to tell him that. 

In any case, the other tech guy was Haverford, and Boyle and he hit it off. In the course of talking about things Boyle mentioned our desire to leave the 99 and start something new. Haverford was convinced that with our tech talent that he could easily find some investors to start a new business. This was what we were looking for: the chance to start a new business, doing something different than the 99, with plenty of capital, and people who weren’t insane. There were many subsequent discussions, but the thinking at the time was that there wasn’t any harm in giving Haverford the go ahead to see what he could come up with.

It turned out that Haverford also had a business partner, Jean-Ralphio. I picked the character of Jean-Ralphio for a reason, he gave me a bad feeling right from the get go. He was a relentless self-promoter, constantly going on about who he knew and the deals he had made. Despite this, we figured there was no harm in seeing what they could do. The only thing we were losing was time and we had nothing but time at that point. 

In the course of trying to raise money and spin up this new entity there were a lot of emails back and forth. We even had a name for the potential entity. We called it Pawnee. There were several more twists and turns, equally insane to the other things I’ve described, but too complicated to explain simply, and some of it is hearsay. But after all of that, eventually Haverford and Jean-Ralphio found an investor. That was the good news. The bad news is that it was one of the 99’s investors, Linetti. Apparently the set of connections that led to Boyle and Haverford meeting in the first place also led to the same set of investors. They decided to create a company called Eagleton. 

With it being the same investor we didn’t even consider hopping to the new company. It was all too incestuous. Not only would it look bad, but the new company seemed intent on building a business closely adjacent to what the 99 had been trying to do. However, by this point the 99 had basically burned through all of its money and there seemed little prospect of raising more. But they were still paying us, there was still work to be done, and there weren’t any obviously better prospects, so we figured we’d wait around and see what happened.

In the course of landing this investor, something very consequential happened. Jean-Ralphio upset Linetti by trying to go around her to get to the actual investors in his fund. As a result of that he was cut out of the Eagleton deal. 

During all of this time the Commissioner, the 99’s biggest shareholder, had been off doing his own startup. Well that startup had its IPO. That IPO promptly tanked and the Commissioner was fired, which left him free to put all of his attention into the 99. So at this point all the pieces were in place. The Commissioner was trying to salvage something out of the 99 and he replaced the Vulture as CEO. Scully, his health shattered by the perpetual stress, had left, and I had taken over the financial side of things. Haverford and Linetti were starting Eagleton but Jean-Ralphio had been kicked to the curb. If the Vulture was Darth Vader, the Commissioner was the emperor.

The Commissioner was the kind of guy who was always chasing the new hotness (as I write this he’s being sued for a crypto scam) and back in 2014 he decided that it was WordPress plugins and services. As a result at the end of 2014 we were working on some WordPress plugins. Every few weeks we’d get together in the conference room in the shared office space I was renting and have a progress meeting. (Fortunately, during the three long years of insanity, I had my own office in Salt Lake, while the bulk of the company was 45 minutes south of me in the Provo Area.) 

On Monday, December 15th, we were scheduled to have yet another status meeting. Things had been kind of quiet but I just figured it was the holidays. Peralta, Boyle, and I were in the conference room waiting for the Vulture and the Commissioner to show up. When they did they had a young woman with them. They introduced us to her and she promptly served us with a lawsuit and a termination notice. It would be hard to overstate how shocked we were. Though we hadn’t been model employees, we’d nevertheless worked hard under ridiculous conditions. What’s more: we had been super careful to not violate our contracts. So what the hell happened?

Remember how Jean-Ralphio was cut out of the Eagleton deal? As it turns out he was beyond furious and decided he would get his revenge on Haverford and Linetti. So he went to the Commissioner and told him that Haverford and Linetti were conspiring with us to take all of the 99’s technology and give it to Eagleton. In support of this accusation he gave them all of the emails which referenced Pawnee, claiming that Pawnee turned into Eagleton. The emails obviously didn’t mention stealing tech, because we’d never even conceived of such a thing, but if you were of a suspicious mindset you could imagine that they were just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s my understanding that Jean-Ralphio swore up and down that we had said such things in person.

Beyond these accusations I’ve always thought that there was another powerful motivation for the lawsuit beyond the supposed violation of our contracts. As I mentioned the 99 was basically out of money. They’d burned through several million dollars and didn’t have much to show for it. One assumes that the investors would be pretty upset about this, but suddenly, in what must have seemed like a gift from heaven, Jean-Ralphio shows up and gives them a convenient set of scapegoats. The idea that the 99 only failed because the tech team sabotaged it sounds a lot better than squandering millions of investor capital. 

The script writes itself: “Yes, it’s very unfortunate what happened, but we’re suing the people responsible and justice will be done. Of course the management team and I did everything we could, and the company would have been a success if we hadn’t been stabbed in the back.”


I expect that somewhere out there in the universe of lawsuits, there are lawsuits which are fairly painless. But most of them are Lovecraftien monstrosities which threaten not only to destroy your life, but saddle you with such deep existential doubt that you start wondering if you ever had a life. Our lawsuit was definitely in this category.

Though I can’t cover every kick in the nuts I suffered over the course of the lawsuit, I’ll give you a good overview and close with a miscellaneous collection of lessons and particularly painful kicks. 

In the immediate aftermath of getting sued and terminated my two partners and I each came up with different strategies to deal with being out of a job and facing an expensive lawsuit. Boyle figured he’d start a new business, Peralta, as a ridiculously gifted developer, immediately got a new job, while I vacillated between the two. Certainly my initial plan was to get a job, but I’m not a full-on programmer. My last real job had been as a server admin, and during the course of our various misadventures in entrepreneurship I was the guy who did all the things no one else wanted to. Legal, finances, project management, taxes, etc. I believe the formal term is operations… As a result I had kind of a weird resume. Another thing which militated against getting a job was my utter lack of desire to do so. I didn’t want to work for “the man” again. As such, my heart wasn’t really in it. Consequently, I decided that I would go with whatever happened first. If Boyle landed some business he needed my help with I’d do that, and if I got a job first I’d do that. Also the opening moves of the lawsuit were keeping me pretty busy.

We were three or four  months into the lawsuit when Boyle landed a small amount of new business and I stopped looking for a job. In retrospect this was a pretty dumb move. Four months is not that long to be looking. Yes, my experiences hadn’t filled me with optimism about my hireability, but also I had a bad attitude. Instead of getting a job to help me deal with the twin costs of normal life and the lawsuit. I chose to do something very risky which ended up not making enough money to even cover normal life, let alone the additional cost of the lawsuit. I ended up spending two years making next to no money, in a constant state of self-doubt and anxiety. As you can imagine this was hard on my marriage, and I flirted with the idea of declaring bankruptcy, more because it would probably end the lawsuit than because I was completely out of resources. But, even so, it was definitely on the table. 

So that was my professional life, or lack thereof, but what about the actual lawsuit? I should mention that Haverford, Linetti and Eagleton were all co-defendants in the lawsuit. We hoped that Linetti, as a wealthy investor, would do most of the heavy lifting and we could take a secondary role, but we were not to be so fortunate. She was useless. 

On our side of things, we were interested in settling the lawsuit quickly and moving on. In fact, on that day in December we’d spent three hours in the conference room trying to convince them that Jean-Ralphio was full of it. Looking back I’m not sure if that was a mistake to talk to them for so long before we had an attorney or if it was a mistake not to talk to them more without an attorney. I wonder if we’d had a followup meeting if we could have brokered a deal right out of the gate. It’s also possible that we could have made it a lot worse. It was probably sensible to get an attorney, and I really liked the one we ended up with, but lawyers inevitably complicate things. 

The first big part of any lawsuit is discovery. They give you a list of things they want to see, and you give them a list of things you want to see, and there’s a deadline for this exchange to take place. And a stern injunction not to destroy or dispose of anything. We figured a deadline was a deadline, so we had everything extracted and placed in a PDF with Bates numbering at the bottom when the deadline came. The whole process was a giant pain in the butt. Our co-defendants (mostly Linetti) and the plaintiffs kept requesting and getting extensions. Which I guess are pretty easy to get because no judge wants the trial to end on a technicality.

The original deadline for discovery ending was in March and they ended up extending things three times until the end of the year. At least the judge kept imposing stricter injunctions on them (So while she gave the plaintiffs more time to respond, they couldn’t ask us for more discovery.) 

Not only did they take forever to deliver the documents we requested but I am 99% sure that they withheld some, which is of course illegal. Why am I so sure? First off there are obvious gaps. For example they claimed that there was no written communication (of the sort they would have to turn over) between the Commissioner or the Vulture and any of the other investors in the 99 during the entire time we were at the company. 

Second, when pressed, their lawyer suddenly “found” a bunch of documents which were on an old computer and hadn’t made it over to his “new system”. This seems pretty suspicious. And finally, the 99 used some questionable financial practices (which I was very much opposed to) and during the lawsuit they circulated a document claiming that this was all my idea. I managed to get a hold of this document through back channels (i.e. some of the other investors gave it to Linetti who gave it to Haverford who gave it to me.) But it never appeared as part of the documents they submitted as part of discovery. 

You would think that this would be game over. We’d take the document to the judge. The case would be dismissed and we’d be victorious. This is another thing I learned. It doesn’t quite work this way. (Same for the promise in writing from the Vulture that he would never sue us.)

When I talk to people about the lawsuit everyone always asks if I tried to get my attorney’s fees back, if I counter-sued, or if I tried to get the plaintiffs in trouble for withholding documents. I could have done all those things, but they all cost thousands of dollars if you’re going to do them right and all of these tactics have some chance of failure. Apparently getting a single document from person A who got it from person B who got it from person C is not an incredibly solid foundation on which to file a motion. Nor is the observation that there are suspicious gaps in what they produced. Which is not to say it wouldn’t have worked, merely that it would be spending $15k we didn’t have on a coin flip and if it came up tails that money was just wasted. Another consideration we had to keep in mind was there was a real danger of pissing off the other side who had MUCH deeper pockets than us.

During this time we hoped that their delays were a sign that they weren’t interested in wasting money on the case, and that eventually they would come back to us and want to settle. The thing we dreaded the most was depositions because they’re horribly time-consuming, and as a result horribly expensive. Doubly so because if they deposed us we felt like we had to depose them. Unfortunately at basically the 11th hour, actually after the deadline our attorney had given us for when they could request to schedule a deposition, they did just that. Once again we could have protested to the judge that they’d waited till the last minute, but recall certain cost/uncertain probability point I just made. What this meant is that I ended up getting deposed between Christmas and New Year. Traditionally my extended family takes a winter vacation between Christmas and New Year at a place a couple hours north of Salt Lake. So I ended up having to leave in the middle of it. Drive back to Salt Lake and get deposed for eight hours. This was a year into things at the end of 2015.

Here’s another thing I learned: Depositions where you are the defendant are awful. If you haven’t had the pleasure, imagine the most stressful job interview you’ve ever had. Imagine that the stakes are even higher than that and that it lasts for eight hours. It was pretty bad, and I actually hadn’t really been hiding that much other than that fact that I didn’t like working at the 99, I didn’t much like the Vulture, and I wanted to be somewhere else. 

It turned out to be good that we decided to depose them. This is the point when, much to our surprise, the Vulture, in his role as Darth Vader, decided to have a last minute change of heart, and metaphorically throw the Commissioner/Emperor into the abyss. As part of his deposition he said he was 90% sure we had never taken any technology, that the 99 failed due to market forces, not anything we had done, and that he thought we were great and he would love to work with us again. All things that were directly opposed to their narrative of events and the case as a whole.

Once again you would think that would mark the end of things. But it didn’t. The Commissioner was deposed a couple of weeks later and he tried to repair some of the damage the Vulture had inflicted on their case. This would have been early in 2016. A few months later they submitted a hilariously bad expert report. (It demonstrated that you could multiply numbers by percentages, and that was it. And no I’m not kidding or exaggerating.) A year after the depositions, so early 2017, they settled with Linetti and company. Somewhere in all of this, in between the Vulture’s positive testimony, and settling with the other co-defendants you would think it would be over. But no it actually languished for another year.

In order to save money we were waiting for the judge to call a status conference at which point we would push for dismissal. The alternative would be to pay a few thousand dollars to have our attorney file a motion to dismiss. But waiting for the status conference would probably get us the same thing at 1/10th the price. But the judge never called a conference. So after nearly a year of waiting we reached out to the court and that’s when we found out that it had already been technically and accidentally dismissed. See, it turned out that when they settled with Linetti, the clerk recorded that the entire suit had been settled, for all defendants not just the ones who had been party to the settlement. When we asked to see something in writing the clerk sent us three words “it’s all done”. Also the words were in lowercase, blue, and comic sans font. Which seemed like an appropriately ridiculous way to end what even our attorney described as one of the strangest cases in which he’s been involved.

We notified the opposing attorney of this fact and he was incredulous. (Apparently neither he nor our attorney had ever seen a mistaken dismissal like this.) Initially he was determined to file a motion to reopen the case. But somehow reason prevailed and the Commissioner agreed that it was in fact over, and we signed a notice of dismissal with prejudice. They wanted to include a clause where we stipulated that we never stole any tech, but in the end they dropped even that. We totally won. But I’ll tell you it definitely didn’t feel like winning.


This has gone pretty long, but below are six lessons-cum-observations that are worth including which didn’t fit anywhere else.

  1. Lawsuits are expensive. You probably knew this, but I figured I could at least provide you with my numbers. In the end we spent $90k on our attorney. I’m guessing about half was directly attributable to the depositions. During the deposition the Commissioner reported that he had already spent $250k and given that this didn’t include all or part of his deposition cost I imagine it ended up being closer to $300k or $350k.
  2. Lawsuits are hard on friendships: Boyle, Peralta, and I are still good friends, but there were moments when I wanted to strangle Boyle. He’s a talker and an idea guy; there are few things more painful than watching someone talk at great length to your $350/hour attorney about some crazy idea that’s never going to work.
  3. It is said that in Tsarist Russia, the serfs believed in the goodness of the Tsar, and figured it was just the ministers who were bad. That if the Tsar ever found out everything would be set to rights. We had that same idea with the Vulture and the Commissioner. We assumed the Vulture was the incompetent bad guy and that once the Commissioner came back sanity would be restored. In the end the Vulture, just by being honest, put the first nail in the coffin.
  4. An opposing lawyer—who’s simply doing his job—may still seem like Satan incarnate. That said, truly corrupt attorneys do exist. Of the two attorneys who ended up as opposing counsel in this case, we had one who was a little bit amoral and one who was a lot amoral. I regret we didn’t have the money necessary to try to bring them to account.
  5. Though the person with the deepest pockets doesn’t automatically win, you have to have quite a bit of money in order to not just forfeit right at the start.
  6. Finally if I hadn’t been sued and left for two years without a real job I doubt I would have started this blog. Proving that if you look hard enough, everything has a silver lining!

The primary point of this post is to educate, but the secondary point is to make you feel sorry for me. If that worked and you’re thinking what an awful experience, what could I do to help? Well I think you know what you can do

The 13 Books I Finished in March

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  1. What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies by: Tim Urban
  2. The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism by: David Friedman
  3. The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown by: Various
  4. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by: Edwin H. Friedman
  5. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass by: Theodore Dalrymple
  6. Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us by: Russ Roberts
  7. Darkness at Noon by: Arthur Koestler
  8. The Horse and His Boy by: C. S. Lewis
  9. Prince Caspian by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Voyage of the Dawn Treader by: C. S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair by: C. S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle by: C. S. Lewis
  13. Till We Have Faces by: C. S. Lewis

In March I once again failed to get out two essays, to my eternal shame. But I did finish Part One of my book. It’s currently at 63 pages as a Google Doc (not including endnotes), but it would be 92 pages at 300 words a page, and 118 pages at the Amazon nonfiction average of 233 words per page. Basically it’s an incredibly in depth expansion of my post Fermi’s Paradox As a Proof of the Existence of God with lots of extra stuff thrown in. I have a few people who are going to read the whole thing and tell me how it hangs together in its entirety, but I could use a few more, let me know if you’re interested.

(That’s one of the problems with writing is you’re in the weeds so often that there’s always a risk you’ll step back and find out that the entire garden looks awful. Even if the individual flowers are all pretty.)

One of the reasons why I didn’t get two essays out last month is that I went to Gary Con. The annual celebration of the life of Gary Gygax put on by his son Luke. It’s been attracting some celebrities. Joe Manganiello has been coming for a while, but there are others as well. A quick story, the game I was playing was taking a break, and I ran to the concessions stand to get a drink and some chips. The guy in front of me had just ordered a cheeseburger and I was debating whether I should see if I could quickly check out ahead of him while he waited for the cheeseburger, and I was so wrapped up in my ruminations that I just about didn’t realize that the guy I was preparing to cut in front of was Vince Vaughn. Even had I remained oblivious I don’t think I would have ended up cutting ahead of him because his cheeseburger arrived pretty quickly. But it’s too bad I didn’t realize earlier that I was standing next to him. I would have told him I was a big fan of Brawl in Cell Block 99. (Definite content warning on that movie by the way, It’s brutal!) That’s the trick. I assume everyone mentions Dodgeball and stuff like that. You have to go for the deep cut.

I- Eschatological Review

What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies

by: Tim Urban

Published: 2023

746 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The answer to the question posed by the title, which for Urban boils down to adding a vertical axis to politics on top of the horizontal one we’re all familiar with. The horizontal axis is the left vs. right, Democrats vs. Republican continuum. The vertical axis goes from “primitive minds” on the bottom to “higher minds” on the top. The primitive mind consists of all the urges built into us by evolution. Urban refers to it as “our idiot ancient programming”. It’s the innate drive for food, sex, and power. The higher mind is built out of reason, science and open debate. Urban defines it as “our magical thinking brain”. Our problem is that people are spending too much time at the bottom of the vertical axis (irrespective of whether they’re on the right or the left) and not nearly as much time at the top. (Also see my last newsletter.)

What’s the author’s angle?

There’s rarely been a book where the author’s angle or in this case his journey, has been talked about as much as with this book. Urban decided to write a post about this topic. That post became a series of posts. Then midway through the series he announced that it would be a book, and six years after deciding to write about the subject it finally arrived. In other words no one can say he didn’t think long and hard about this topic.

Who should read this book?

Urban’s thought process is interesting. And his dissection of Social Justice Fundamentalism (his term for what others call wokeism) is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. But overall I found the book to be on the naive side. I think if you were previously a big fan of Wait but Why you would appreciate the book. But if you’re on the fence, or if you’re looking for a reason to say no to this book (or no to more things in general) I would just read a good review instead. I would start with mine of course, but if that leaves you wanting more, consider this one from Astral Codex Ten.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned above this book started out as a series of posts. It was called The Story of Us. At the time I was reading along, and I had decided to review those posts in this space (once he was done). It was a rare instance where I was actually working ahead. And of course I was punished for it because he never finished the series, and the book is actually pretty different. But it’s interesting to look back at what I wrote down in December of 2019 and January of 2020, to compare his initial run at this subject with the final book. It’s different enough that he has taken down those posts, so I only have my notes and what I remember.

In both the book and series of posts he starts with the idea of the “primitive mind” and contrasts it with our “higher mind”. In addition to the attributes I mentioned above in the summary, the primitive mind engages in power games, which are bad. In power games the people who win are just those who have the most power. In contrast to the primitive mind, the higher mind engages in contests of ideas. This involves debate and discussion where the best ideas win. In the series he calls these contests “value games” but in the book they’re called “liberal games”.

It’s curious that he decided to make this change, but I have a theory. One of the things that really stuck out to me about the initial series was that he basically went all in on freedom of speech. I’m a big fan of it myself, and I particularly liked that he differentiated between just laws protecting freedom of speech and an actual culture of free speech. But it’s also abundantly clear that in the age of social media, an “anything goes” approach to speech generally results in horrible cesspools. But, on the other hand, when organizations restrict speech it also leads to all sorts of problems. In the series, he didn’t acknowledge this tension which struck me as naive.

Therefore I assume that changing it from “value games” to “liberal games” is an attempt to shed some of his naivete, by framing free speech within classically liberal norms. (Not progressive norms, that’s a whole different thing.) Accordingly, I see a lot of places in the book where it looks like he dialed back some of his naive absolutism — where he acknowledged that it was complicated. But I don’t think he went nearly far enough. For example the idea that our primitive brain is “our idiot ancient programming” is a direct quote from the book. So while the book is better than the series in many respects it still has a naive idealism that significantly undermines its utility. I talked about some of this in my end of month newsletter. Let’s consider yet another example.

Eschatological Implications

For Urban, the load bearing member of his whole framework is the higher mind. The book’s fundamental claim is that if we can get people to use their higher mind as opposed to their primitive mind, and ideally with groups of other people who are also using their higher mind, all our problems will be solved. In the series he claimed that the higher mind “values truth above all else.” (Not only a direct quote but it was bolded in the original). The series also gave one the general feeling that the higher mind is some kind of transcendental, salvific force which resides in the hearts of all men.

This was one of the things he dialed down in the book. But you still get the feeling that the higher mind is something within everyone and they just need to make the decision to flip the switch on their brain from “idiot[ic] ancient programming” to “magical thinking”. He gives some mild suggestions for how best to do that, but it never sounds, on the individual level, that it should require any massive outpouring of willpower.

Whether turning on the magical thinking brain is straightforward or not, my biggest problem is with his characterization of the primitive mind.

Even in the book he has the tendency to frame the primitive mind as being irretrievably evil, and the higher mind as being entirely benevolent. That if we could just squash the primitive mind and embrace rationality, utopia would be realized.

The problems with this framing are legion. To begin with, it assumes that because our primitive mind is stuck in a world that disappeared thousands of years ago that nothing it prompts us to  do will be a good idea. And it further assumes that deciding everything on the basis of pure reason will give us better answers and better outcomes than anything we do instinctually. This is patently untrue, and the last dozen or so decades have provided numerous examples of how monumentally untrue it is. 

He spent more time attacking the primitive mind directly in the series. In the book he pivots to offering an in depth examination of how the primitive mind is currently ruining everything. He spends 75% of the book talking directly about the populist right and the woke left. But out of that 75%, 10% is the populist right, and 65% is the woke left. (I actually didn’t realize how big the disparity was until I just ran the numbers.)

I’m guessing that he feels like his average reader will have no problem seeing the primitive mind in action among the MAGA crowd, but they need significantly more persuasion to see it among their own beliefs. As I said above his deep dive into the left provides the biggest payoff of the book. But when he exempts the higher mind from what has happened and lays it all at the feet of the primitive mind, I think he’s engaged in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. By this I mean that he ignores how many people think that they arrived at woke ideology through using their “higher mind” i.e. how much intellectualization was involved in the process. But for Urban the higher mind is only the intellectualization that leads to reasoned debates and the search for truth. By taking this framing he ends up placing all the blame for postmodernism, intersectionality, and transgender maximalism at the feet of the “primitive mind”, which seems bizarre.  

I think Urban and the woke left are both making the same mistake and ignoring the wisdom provided through cultural evolution. Both assume that through the exercise of pure reason that you can arrive at a better society than what we had historically. In this journey the woke left has descended farther into tribalism, and Urban is right to point that out. But they both start from the same place: a rejection of tradition and an embrace of “reason” as the answer to everything. In the end the book is complaining about the inevitable outcome of the policy it recommends. We can start over, which is basically what Urban recommends, but I fear that no matter how many times we do, pure reason will continue to take us to places which are similarly ridiculous. 

II- Capsule Reviews

The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism

by: David Friedman

Published: 1973; Additional chapters added in 1989 and 2014

378 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of anarcho-capitalism, that attempts to cover all the bases: providing solutions, answering objections and discussing benefits.

What’s the author’s angle?

Friedman has been working this angle for a very long time (as evidenced by his repeated and extensive revisions of the book). It is something of a manifesto.

Who should read this book?

Many years ago (according to Amazon. 13 years ago) I read Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian. This book isn’t strictly a defense of libertarianism, but it seems worth comparing the two. Friedman’s book got into far more specifics and grappled with problems more directly. Based on that small sample size, I would say if you want to read a book about this corner of the political spectrum. I would recommend this one over Murray’s.

General Thoughts

This was the SSC/ACX selection for March, and we actually managed to get Friedman to attend the club (virtually). I asked him a couple of questions. The first was what sort of science fiction he would recommend as being representative of this ideological space. I guess Vernor Vinge wrote a short story called The Ungoverned, which was directly inspired by this book, so clearly it doesn’t get much closer than that. Other than that he had a couple of recommendations. I thought perhaps he would mention Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, but he hadn’t read it, which seems like a pretty big oversight. But what are you going to do?

My second question concerned whether he felt the world had gotten more or less free since he wrote the first edition of the book in 1973. His overall assessment was that it had gotten less free, though certainly there are areas where things have gotten more free, or I guess technically more anarcho-capitalist, but mostly he felt the trend has been in the other direction. I was glad to hear that he was seeing more or less the same thing I was, even though this would be bad news for him and his ideological allies if everything they hoped for is getting ever more out of reach.

Though perhaps I’m too pessimistic. It seems hard to imagine a straight path from where we are now to the world he proposes, but I can imagine a few ways in which ancap could still triumph. Perhaps in the short term things are getting worse, but what we’re seeing is the final gasp of the old system—the frantic application of more and more laws, regulations and government control, before liberty finally breaks free. I get the sense that, if you squint, it looked something like this in the immediate lead up to the American and French Revolutions, but, overall I think the comparison is weak. 

Alternatively perhaps technology will allow a segment of the population to opt out of state control and into political structures of their own devising. One of which will be the anarcho capitalist utopia Friedman describes in this book. Certainly I get the feeling that some of the big crypto advocates imagine that this will happen, but some of the big internet advocates imagined the same thing, only to end up mostly disappointed. 

What I just described might be termed a soft technological transition. You could also imagine a hard transition, some kind of singularity, perhaps positive, perhaps negative. In the former case we can imagine that a well-aligned, friendly AI, like Mike from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (another book Friedman mentioned) creates the conditions under which the state is no longer necessary. On the negative side of things lots of people imagine ancap springing up in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Friedman himself thinks getting there through violent revolution would be a very dumb idea. So that’s good.

When I was young, I was very libertarian, and I still find ideas like these very appealing, but the older I get the more improbable and naive they seem.

The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown

by: Various

Published: 2017

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of stories which were initially told live and in person as part of The Moth, an organization dedicated towards precisely that activity. 

Who should read this book?

If you like a good story told well, you’ll probably like this book. Though I don’t know that they had quite the punch I would expect. None were so engaging that I felt the need to retell them to anyone, nor do I think I’ll remember 90% of them a month from now. (And before you blame it on me listening to them at 3x I actually read the physical book in this case.)

General Thoughts

All the stories were good, a few were great, but none were timeless. And as is often the case these days, the message of many was too on the nose. If you listen to The Moth Radio Hour, or have enjoyed previous compilations, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one, but if you’ve never heard of The Moth, then I don’t think this book is strong enough to carry the brand all on its own.

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

by: Edwin H. Friedman

Published: 2007

260 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That in order to be a successful leader you have to have nerve. This comes from being mentally healthy and principled, but also from ignoring the anxious and mentally unhealthy in your organization. Nerve can also be dissipated by relying too much on data. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Friedman was a Rabbi, a therapist and a leadership consultant. This book, which was unfinished at his death, is an attempt to synthesize his observations about anxiety and dysfunction in families with a similar phenomenon in organizations. 

Who should read this book?

It’s got a lot of gems, and I highlighted numerous passages, but those gems are buried under a lot of meandering analogies, and poorly edited prose. The latter almost certainly stems from the unfinished nature of the book, which also causes it to trail off at the end. It’s possible that a strong conclusion could have entirely redeemed things. I’m not really prepared to recommend this book.

General Thoughts

This book was published in 2007, and it predicts a lot of the intra-institutional dynamics (i.e. fights) that have become so prevalent recently. It also does a pretty good job of anticipating woke capital, so on that front, Friedman deserves to receive credit for his foresight. And I expect that this foresight is a big part of the book’s appeal.

Beyond that I thought his observation that “The pursuit of data, in almost any field, has come to resemble a form of substance abuse.” was also something that was worth pointing out. I don’t accept it unreservedly, but I do think this is accurate for quite a few people. 

Probably the best part of the book for me was when he pointed out that self-assurance, which is critical to good leadership, has come to be seen as narcissistic selfishness, when in reality there’s quite a bit of difference between the two. Here’s one of the passages I highlighted:

How are parents and presidents to value, indeed treasure and preserve, self without worrying that they are being narcissistic or autocratic? To resort to being only an “enabler” for others or to try to concentrate on building teams instead simply fudges the issue. Someone still has to go first!

I think this is related to the data issue, because it’s felt that if you have the data to back up your position then it’s okay to go first. But unless the decision is straightforward you’re never going to have sufficient data. On the other hand if we allow self-reported data of individual harm, then we’ll be deluged by it. Meaning that confident and visionary leaders are being outflanked because they don’t have enough competing data. Or, as Friedman puts it in another passage:

The herding instinct in chronically anxious America has the same effect of furthering adaptation to the least mature, to those who are most unwilling to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Its influence on leaders is several-fold. It discourages them from expressing “politically incorrect” opinions and encourages them to play it safe generally; it undermines excellence by encouraging society to organize around its most dysfunctional elements; it forces leaders to engage in countless arguments that are dilatory; and it makes it more difficult for leaders to be clear, much less decisive.

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

by: Theodore Dalrymple

Published: 2001

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of essays chronicling the author’s encounters with the underclass of England in his position as a physician at City Hospital and Birmingham Prison. With particular emphasis on their appalling behavior and misguided ideology.

What’s the author’s angle?

There’s a fine line between being well-informed and biased. I think Dalrymple is more the former than the latter, but there is a selection bias to his sample (most of the people he saw had attempted suicide) and that probably colors his observations.

Who should read this book?

Collections of essays never cohere quite as well as actual books, and it’s possible that the episodic nature of things will not be to your liking. That aside I really enjoy Dalyrmple’s prose, and the people he writes about are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.

General Thoughts

I imagine that if I had read this book when it first came out that I probably would have concluded that England was a few short years away from a complete meltdown. At least among the underclass, yet more than two decades on I’m not aware of any such meltdown. What happened?

I can think of at least five possibilities.

  1. Computers and the internet saved the underclass. Rather than acting out their bad behavior in the streets and at night clubs, they ended up increasingly staying at home. Here they binged Netflix, played computer games, and got into virtual fights rather than physical fights.
  2. It’s still just as bad if not worse, but it basically goes unreported because no one cares. And it’s particularly hard to get a clear view over here. But stories like the Rotherham grooming scandal give us occasional glimpses into the continuing awfulness.
  3. My reference class is flawed. Yeah it’s bad, but the conditions Dalrymple describes have been going on for decades. I just have very little experience with the true underclass so I assume that what he describes in this book is some kind of radical departure, but it’s actually business as usual. 
  4. It was so bad that there has been negative selection pressure. They’re essentially killing themselves off. Perhaps they’re suffering from an opioid crisis similar to the US.
  5. Dalrymple is lying.

I’m sure there are others possibilities, but those are the ones that occurred to me. I listed them according to my assessment of their likelihood (most to least). I suspect there’s some truth to options 1-3. There’s a bit of evidence for 4, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s happening in the US. Finally, I think I would have come across evidence of Dalrymple’s perfidy if any such evidence existed. 

I guess if it’s mostly the first option, then that’s good, right? Even so, I wish it were better.

Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

by: Russ Roberts

Published: 2022

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Russ Roberts is an economist, and host of the well known Econtalk podcast. This is a book about how, for the really important stuff, economic reasoning is insufficient. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Since, on some level, he seems to be undermining his entire profession, I’m not sure what his angle is. But I confess I’ve only heard maybe one or two episodes of his podcast. I’m definitely a Russ Roberts neophyte. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re struggling with big decisions, this is a useful book. And it’s pretty short. I think it also makes a solid case for getting married and having children.

General Thoughts

For me the book can be summed up in the following excerpt:

Let’s start with Persi Diaconis, a chaired professor of mathematics and statistics at Stanford University. He’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His research is on chance, risk, and probability. He’s presumably a pretty rational guy who you’d think would have a lot of tools for making a good decision in the face of a wild problem. Yet when he faced his own wild problem, he confessed to abandoning the rational approach from his own research, a story he told in a talk on decision-making.

Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, “You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “Come on, Sandy, this is serious.”

This book is an examination of the limits of making “serious” decisions solely on the basis of their expected utility. Or rather the difficulty of really getting to the true utility a given decision is going to provide. That important things are difficult to measure and those things you can measure are often misleading. 

One wonders if most of our problems these days don’t suffer from these issues. But that we keep doubling down on the idea that we just need more measurement, more data, all to our detriment. 

Darkness at Noon

by: Arthur Koestler

Published: 1940

254 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A fictionalized account of the Moscow Trials when Stalin purged the Soviet leadership of anyone who was disloyal to him, particularly the Trotskyites.  

Who should read this book?

I really liked this book. It’s pretty heavy, but if you have any interest in seeing the underbelly of a dictatorship, but also one that’s not a caricature, where real philosophy is discussed, then you should read this book.

General Thoughts

I don’t want to give too much away, but this is not a simple novel, and Rubashov is not merely a victim of totalitarianism, but for many years he carried it out. When it comes for him, he gets to reflect on all that he has done and the brutal logic he has espoused all these years. It’s a great book, and rather than try to describe it’s greatness any further, I’ll turn it over to Orwell, who said it best:

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened—for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society—but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them. 

III- Religious Reviews

The Chronicles of Narnia

By: C. S. Lewis

The Horse and His Boy

Published: 1954

199 Pages

Prince Caspian

Published: 1951

195 Pages

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Published: 1952

223 Pages

The Silver Chair

Published: 1953

217 Pages

The Last Battle

Published: 1956

184 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

The adventures of British children, and others in the magical realm of Narnia. Adventures that generally end up being Christian allegories. 

Who should read this book?

Given how short the books are and their status as classics, it’s hard for me to not recommend that everyone should read all seven. But, if you’re not sure you can commit to that, I think there are two other groupings that make sense:

  1. Just read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and stop there
  2. Read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what might be called the Caspian Trilogy, so Prince Caspian, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

General Thoughts

On this read through of the series I ended up focusing mostly on two things. The standout characters (which were mostly not the children who had been transported from Earth to Narnia) and the Christian allegories embedded in the books. (Some more deeply embedded than others.)

On the character side of things, I really liked Reepicheep, but of course I’ve always liked Reepicheep. Bree, the horse from The Horse and His Boy was more fully formed than I remember. But the one who really stood out to me this time was Puddleglum from The Silver Chair. I think he barely registered when I was a kid, but I quite liked him this time around. 

Turning to the allegories they seemed mostly well thought out, interesting, slightly opaque, but not excessively so. That is until I got to The Last Battle. Lewis’s message here left me confused. Much of the plot hinges on the fact that Aslan is not a tame lion. In previous books I really appreciated this sentiment, particularly as it related to Jesus. At some point (evidently at least as far back as Lewis) people started to imagine Jesus as being infinitely meek and tolerant. Which seems to be a distortion of the scriptural record. One that Lewis is combating by having his Christ figure be a lion, and not a tame one at that.

That’s how it played out in previous books. In The Last Battle this idea that Aslan is not tame is used to excuse the idea that he could be infinitely erratic and contradictory. I sort of see how that might work in the context of the book, but I’m not sure what phenomenon of actual Christianity it’s supposed to represent. I guess it could be a representation of the opposite point, that Aslan being untamed could be analogous to Jesus being non-judgemental, and both lead to an unmooring of doctrine and expectations? But of course if it is then in our world they use it to excuse disobedience whereas in Narnia it’s used to compel a disturbing level of blind obedience. As I said I’m not sure what Lewis was going for there at the end of things… 

Till We Have Faces

by: C. S. Lewis

Published: 1956

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of Psyche’s aggrieved half-sister.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book better than any of the Narnia books, though the difference was not extreme. It’s his last novel, and generally acknowledged to be his most mature as well. It was recommended to me by a couple of other people in my writing group who also really loved it.

General Thoughts

This post is already long and late. But, on the other hand, when you read six books by Lewis in a single month you want to have something deep and worthwhile to take from the experience. Something you can pass along. Perhaps I do. Consider this quote from the book:

Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.

This is a book about holy wisdom. About denying what is actually True, for what is understandable (much like the theme of Wild Problems above, though told in a completely different fashion.)

We’ve adopted an almost entirely data-driven approach to interacting with the divine and the mysterious. We demand that it give straightforward answers and simple solutions. That we can look at the statistics and see that religious people are happier, or that they have more children. But there’s so much more:

It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.

In addition to dropping the ball last month, this post was late because I had still another trip at the beginning of April where I went completely off the grid for three days. It was simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. If that reminds you of my writing, consider donating.

Eschatologist #27 – Golems and Genies

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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This is a newsletter about the problems brought on by modernity, and the potential cataclysms they might spawn. Consequently, you might imagine that I’m very interested in any book that claims to identify not merely a problem but the problem. This is a daunting task, but it’s precisely the one Tim Urban takes on in his book What’s Our Problem?

I’ll do a full review in my upcoming book roundup, but I’d like to spend a moment in this space talking about his concept of golems and the genies.

For Urban a golem is similar to a mob, but more permanent, and not quite as “in your face”. It’s a tribal construction with a message that appeals to “the primitive brain”. Golems are selfish and destructive.

Genies are also large groups of individuals but they’re composed of people using their “higher mind”. Individuals who believe in reason and science, along with free speech and open debate. Genies are responsible for all the progress we’ve experienced over the last several centuries.

For Urban, our problem is that society’s golems have become terrifying and powerful, while its genies have gradually weakened to a point of virtual impotence. The golem of populism has wounded the genie of deliberative democracy and the golem of wokeness has deranged the genie of academia. Urban fears that the wound is fatal and that the derangement will lead to permanent insanity. 

Urban wants to heal the wound and soothe the derangement. This is a laudable goal. Unfortunately Urban’s divisions are too simplistic. But beyond that he overlooks the deep trends that have undermined the genie’s ability to grant wishes, while energizing the golem’s ability to destroy.

Genies are great for gaining knowledge through science and using that knowledge to create innovation. Unfortunately they’re the victims of their own success. Newton didn’t even need other people; he came up with the law of gravity and calculus all on his own. Now it takes dozens if not hundreds of scientists to make even small advancements. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Our genies are basically out of wishes.

This is not to say our genies are entirely out of wishes. We got a vaccine for Covid, but when you look beyond that we’re still arguing over whether the shutdowns worked, how much harm was done to children and whether widespread masking was effective. There are no similar arguments about gravity. (If you want a closer comparison, consider the smallpox vaccine.) Genies need more people in order to form, and they’re weaker when they do form.

On the other side of things, many forms of technology are designed to turbo-charge the “primitive brain” and by extension our golems. Urban points out that our evolved behaviors are adapted to a different time and place. Not only does this cause us to sometimes act inappropriately, but it has also provided a hook companies can use to manipulate us. Urban mentions the way that social media takes advantage of this by feeding us only opinions we already agree with, creating ideological echo chambers. But it goes beyond that.

The best example of how this works is junk food. The primitive mind craves sugar and fat. Both are rare in nature, and they almost never occur together. But with technology companies can make abundant and delicious foods which contain both — for example Twinkies. In the environment we were adapted to there was never a danger of getting too much sugar and fat, there was only the danger of getting too little. As such our primitive minds are adapted to crave things like Twinkies, and it has no protection against eating too many, because historically that was never possible. Companies have taken advantage of this fact — not because they’re necessarily malicious, but because that’s what companies do — in just about every area you can imagine: food, entertainment, sex (i.e. pornography), tribalism, and social interactions.

Urban’s desire to empower our genies and defeat our golems is a good one. But recent technology has changed the rules putting genies at a fundamental disadvantage, even in the absence of populism and social justice fundamentalism. Meanwhile, it’s taken golems and turned them into Godzillas, unstoppable engines of destruction which ignore all our pathetic attempts to stop them.

Perhaps stopping Godzilla can be done, but if so it won’t be cheap. If you want to help in that fight, consider donating

What Should One Do About Conspiracy Theories?

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You may or may not have been following all of the twists and turns in the “Who blew up the Nord Stream?” blame game. The whole thing kicked off when Seymour Hersh published an expose claiming that the US was responsible. It got a lot of attention but not a lot of press

What got less attention was a thorough debunking, written by Oliver Alexander. He meticulously pointed out the numerous problems with Hersh’s story. I skimmed both and in the end I think the debunking succeeded. I came away convinced that the specific story Hersh outlined is most likely (90% confidence) false. But, by Alexander’s own admission, just because you’ve falsified one version of events, doesn’t mean that you’ve verified another. We’ve eliminated one possibility, hundreds more remain. As it turns out, a Sherlockian process of eliminating all the impossible things until the only thing remaining is the truth, is exceptionally difficult to pull off.  

Fortunately Alexander is not just in the business of shooting down theories. In a subsequent post he offers his own theory for what might have happened. He points out that only one of the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipelines exploded and that happened 80 km away from the site of the Nord Stream 1 (NS1) explosions and 17 hours beforehand. I had not heard this bit of information, and it does raise a lot of questions. Based on this discontinuity in number, time and space Alexander theorizes that someone had already rigged the NS1 pipeline with explosives, and when one of the NS2 pipes exploded accidently, these people figured that would prompt an inspection of NS1, which would uncover the explosives which had already been placed. This potential forced the hand of the saboteurs and they decided to detonate the two NS1 pipelines while they still could rather than risk detection.

The next question is who would want to rig the NS1 pipelines to explode, but not the NS2 pipelines. Alexander claims that this would be in the interests of Russia. That US/NATO would want both blown up, but Russia would be the only one that would want just NS1 to blow up. I’m not sure I entirely buy his explanation, and he doesn’t go into a lot of detail. Apparently it’s something along the lines of the NS1 being in bad shape and difficult to repair. Here’s the relevant section from his post:

Destroying Nord Stream 1 would allow Russia to increase pressure on Germany, while at the same time not being a massive loss, as they stated that it was “out of commission”. Russia had stated that the decreased flow and eventual shutdown of Nord Stream 1 was caused by European Union sanctions against Russia, which had resulted in technical problems they could not remedy.

I had kind of assumed that when they said the NS1 was having technical problems that this was just a cover. I imagine, if I dug around some more, that Alexander gives a more detailed explanation for these problems. Nevertheless I don’t find his description of motivation entirely convincing. Still motive isn’t his only evidence linking things to Russia:

I believe explosives were planted on the two lines of Nord Stream 1, possibly by the Minerva Julie. This ship had a very strange track directly above the location of the NS1 explosions from the 5th September to 13th September while on route to Saint Petersburg. This was also directly after Russia cut gas supplies through Nord Stream 1 on August 31st 2022. The Minerva Julie left Rotterdam on September 1st.

An interesting Twitter thread suggests that the owner of “Minerva Marine”, the company that owns the Minerva Julie has connections to Putin, Shoigu, Medvedev and other high ranking Russian officials.

This is all very suggestive, but hardly conclusive. And this is where things stood at the end of February when I first started working on this piece, (I took a break to do the Cautionary Tale piece) but then a couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a story claiming that a pro-Ukrainian group was responsible for the sabotage. I was, of course, immediately curious what Alexander would have to say about this claim. I was not disappointed, the NYT didn’t provide a lot of details which could be corroborated, but Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper, did. From this Alexander was able to pin down the actual yacht they suspect of participating, and from there comes to the conclusion that it’s unlikely that this yacht could have pulled it off on its own. Which is to say, he’s not buying it. You would expect that Russia would jump all over the idea that it was pro-Ukrainian forces, but apparently not. According to Alexander:

It is interesting to note that the Russian government is strongly denying this series of events and sticking firmly with the Seymour Hersh story that I have previously debunked. Today Dmitry Peskov [the Russian Press Secretary] was quoted saying “As for some kind of pro-Ukrainian” Dr. Evil “, who organized all this, it’s hard to believe in it.” This raises some questions as to why Russia is so keen to completely dismiss a scenario that implicates Ukraine in the destruction of Nord Stream.

We see in this all of the standard elements associated with controversial events. Some unexpected, consequential event happens. Given that it’s unexpected people start searching for explanations. Perhaps a generally accepted explanation quickly emerges: Osama Bin Laden was behind 9/11, Trump lost in 2020 because he got fewer votes. But occasionally, as is the case of Nord Stream, we don’t end up with a generally accepted explanation. (Though previous to the NYT story a lot of people figured the Russians did it, which never made sense to me.)

Whether there’s a mainstream explanation or not, if something is consequential enough then competing explanations are going to emerge. To the extent that a specific explanation is outside of the mainstream, people will label it a conspiracy theory. You can choose to engage with the various explanations — dive into the conspiracies — or you can ignore them and go on with your life. Should you choose to engage you will quickly discover that in the age of the internet there are fire hoses of information available, and within that deluge there are lies, misrepresentations, fake evidence, biased reasoning, insinuations, overconfidence, things that look suspicious but aren’t, things that look suspicious and might be, and things that are, in fact, definitely suspicious. If you’re lucky, tenacious and search long enough you will find data that is actually illuminating, but even so, it’s rarely conclusive. Which is to say the variability is a lot greater, both accurate and inaccurate information are much easier to find, and it’s hard to tell whether we’re better off.

Still, when you do come across accurate information, and I would say that Alexander’s site falls into this last category — it’s actually kind of amazing. His newsletters contain an impressive amount of good data. His secret weapon appears to be publically accessible route information on all the ships in the North Sea above a certain size. (Which unfortunately does not include the yacht implicated in the recent pro-Ukrainian explanation.) But despite this wealth of data (and the wealth of data we have in general these days) and the feeling that you’re getting closer to the truth, we still haven’t reached it. We still don’t know who blew up the pipelines.

Also Hersh’s story which, after considering Alexander’s debunking, seems likely to be false, has 12,000 likes on Substack. Alexander’s has 112 (including one from me), and I assume that it wouldn’t even have that many if it wasn’t linked to Hersh’s. His alternative explanation (which seems far more solid than Hersh’s even if I personally remain unconvinced) has all of 14 likes. His rebuttal to the NYT, pro-Ukrainian story has 30. 


So where do we go from here? How are we to handle all of the competing explanations, all the information we have available in the age of the internet? Even if we’re attempting to simplify we still have three radically different theories: Hersh’s, Alexander’s and the NYT’s. Our first question might be to ask: does it even matter? And by this I’m not asking whether it matters on a geopolitical level, of course it does, and we’ll get to that, but does it matter for the normal individual if they figure out who blew up the pipelines? Probably not. You might counter that it could be important when it comes time to vote, and still I would argue, not really. First, your vote carries so little power at the national level, even in a swing state, that it’s arguably not even worth the time it takes you to cast a vote to say nothing of the time you might spend researching this one issue. Secondly, even if one candidate wanted to continue helping Ukraine and one wanted to stop, the pipeline explosion would be just a tiny part of deciding whether that’s a good idea or not, and your vote an even tinier part of the process for selecting who gets to make that decision. 

Certainly these sorts of things are interesting, and as a way to pass the time it’s probably better than a lot of activities you could engage in, but it’s important to remember that the people in power are mostly going to do what they’re going to do and the fact that you’ve decided the NYT is wrong because you read something in a blog, isn’t going to change that.

Okay, so getting to the bottom of the Nord Stream explosions may not be all that consequential for any given individual, but are there other conspiracies where it is important for you to get to the bottom of them? If not, is having a correct world view about the possibility of conspiracies in general important? I would say the answers to those two questions are “mostly no” and “mostly yes”. Allow me to elaborate.

On the first question, we can imagine that any given conspiracy theory has both a level of impact (if true) and a level of acceptance. Theories like the moon landing being fake or the Earth being flat have huge potential impact but very low acceptance. They’re both well outside the Overton Window. On the other hand the theory that Oswald didn’t act alone in assassinating Kennedy has a low impact (now, probably not then) and very high acceptance. For it to be important for every individual, or indeed any individual to “get to the bottom of things” it has to be high on both counts. It has to have a broad impact enough for it to affect the individual, and a broad enough acceptance that there’s sufficient backing to do something about it. And I’m not really seeing much in that category. Conceivably the idea that the 2020 election was stolen? If true (it’s not) it would certainly be impactful, and given that as of the midterms, 40% of people believe that it might have been, there’s no lack of allies. But even if you are in this 40% your time is better spent changing election laws and volunteering as an observer than it is trying to really “get to the bottom” of whether it’s true or not. 

As a less controversial example perhaps Jeffrey Epstein falls into this category. In one of his recent mailbag’s Matt Yglesias was asked “Which widely despised conspiracy theory do you believe in, or at least find most intriguing?” Yglesias answered by holding forth on Jeffrey Epstein, though mostly from the angle that there are far more suspicious circumstances linking Epstein to Republicans than there are linking him to Democrats. Epstein might just be that rare conspiracy where both the impact and the support are high enough that it is worth it for an individual to try to get at the truth. Additionally some of the proposed remedies are small enough to be tractable. And indeed when I just looked, one of those remedies is already moving forward. Apparently they are going to release the names of all of his associates, and some of the allegations.

However, you may have noticed that Yglesias ducked the question. I don’t think anyone would claim Epstein conspiracies are “widely despised”. Which leads me to my second question, if it’s not worth it to investigate any individual conspiracies, does that mean you should dismiss the very idea of government conspiracies? No. I don’t think so. In fact I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there are shenanigans happening behind closed doors all the time. I just don’t think they’re as sophisticated and pervasive as the hardcore theorists want to imagine. As we saw from the Nord Stream example, at a certain point there’s very little additional knowledge to be gained by digging ever deeper. Which is to say that it’s probably not worth diving super deep on any one conspiracy theory, but it’s definitely worth doing a deep dive on the presence of conspiracies and the quality of information in general. 


In addition to the back and forth over the Nord Stream pipeline explosions, two other things made me think about this topic recently. The Twitter Files and reading America and Iran by John Ghazvinian (see my short review here). 

Starting with the Twitter Files we see all kinds of shenanigans happening, and I certainly don’t have the time or space to cover even a fraction of them in this post. (See here, here, and here if you want a list of takeaways. Or just read the actual info dumps on Twitter itself.) But a couple of things stand out:

First, the government clearly has a lot of influence behind the scenes. So to the points that many people make, yes the government does bad things and it’s not always immediately obvious that they are. The Twitter Files is proof that there are shadowy things afoot. But what they also illustrate is that, once revealed, these efforts look less like a cleverly wielded scalpel and more like a sledgehammer.

Second, the reason they don’t get talked about, or revealed sooner is not because it’s a secret conspiracy known to only a few, but rather because it’s a legal and bureaucratic nightmare that scares away the peons and implicates the higher-ups. It’s clear that there were lots of people at Twitter who could have made similar allegations to those found in the Twitter files, but they would be risking their job, and tangling with the government, and it’s unclear, after all of this, if they’d even be believed. Fear of repercussions, not elegant conspiracies, is how the government gets away with stuff. 

Of course we don’t have the same level of access to the internal workings of other social media companies like Facebook and YouTube, though, based on the Twitter Files, it seems safe to infer that similar things were happening. But what does the world look like in the absence of the Twitter Files? Would the government have gotten away with it? That seems doubtful. Certainly I think they would have gotten away with it for longer, but when you look at the scale of the operation, and the number of people involved, there’s no way they would have kept it secret forever. In fact it was already starting to leak out, you just had to dig a little bit. 

We see these same things when we consider the United States meddling behind the scenes in Iran. Three events are worth considering:

First, the 1953 Coup: Clearly the US and the UK worked behind the scenes to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister. It was a bad thing, and it was done in secret. But it wasn’t an enormously complicated undertaking, nor did it remain secret forever. Consequently this should encourage us to update our view on how complicated a real conspiracy can be (certainly faking the moon landing seems way too complicated). And also how much effort we should actually spend trying to get to the bottom, if the truth will, eventually, end up being widely known and accepted anyway.

Second, the 1979 Revolution: One reason to doubt that governments are pulling off masterful conspiracies behind the scenes is to look at the far more numerous examples of their massive incompetence. If someone were compiling such a list the lead-up to the 1979 Revolution would have to rank pretty high. The total blindness of the US intelligence community, State Department, and the Executive Branch to the building unrest is just breathtaking. In Ghazvinian’s book he titles the chapter about the revolution “The Unthinkable” because that’s what it was. The American government didn’t think revolution was a low probability outcome, they didn’t think about it as a possibility, period. 

Third, the release of the hostages: Here we have an actual conspiracy, one where details have emerged in the period since I started writing. You may have missed it, but we got new information over the weekend. The NYT ran a story wherein Ben Barnes confessed to accompanying his mentor John B. Connally Jr., on a trip to the Middle East where Connally made it known to Middle Eastern leaders that the Iranians should delay releasing the hostages until after the election. Barnes’ story checks out, as much as such a thing can 43 years after the fact, but even so we’re still not looking at definitive proof. This particular example has some instructive features. The scale of the conspiracy is interesting. It was a small effort, not a lot of moving parts, and not a lot of people involved. Also I don’t think the truth was that far off from actual mainstream opinion. The timing of the release was always super suspicious, and had you asked the average American if such a deal was conceivable they probably would have answered in the affirmative.


After considering all of this I return to my initial advice. I don’t think it’s especially important or impactful to spend lots of time trying to get to the bottom of any particular conspiracy theory — to uncover the truth behind a specific event. But I do think it’s important to get a feel for the potential of conspiracies, what governments (and individuals) might be capable of pulling off. And on the flip side of that, while I haven’t spent a lot of time on it, to get a feel for the range of their incompetence as well. 

This is all well and good, but how does one go about it, and does the modern firehose of data make this effort more or less difficult? I would say “Both”. It makes it very difficult to be deeply educated about more than a few theories, without completely giving your life over to it, which has its own dangers. And, if you let your guard down it’s easy to get drowned by the colossal deluge of bad information.

On the other hand — to completely mix metaphors — while they are deeply buried, there are nuggets of truth in that firehose. Truth of a purity undreamt of before the internet. But you’re going to have to wade through a lot of shit to get to it. 

I suspect that somewhere in this post was a fact you hadn’t previously come across. If so consider donating, and if not consider telling me the secret of your expansive wisdom. Perhaps it is I who should be donating to you.

The 12 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by: David Graeber and David Wengrow
  2. America and Iran: A History 1720 to the Present by: John Ghazvinian
  3. Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It by: M. Nolan Gray
  4. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by: Ben R. Rich
  5. The Hedonistic Imperative by: David Pearce
  6. Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health—and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More by: Christopher M. Palmer MD 
  7. Nicomachean Ethics by: Aristotle
  8. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction by: Jonathan Barnes
  9. Dungeon Crawler Carl: A LitRPG/Gamelit Adventure by: Matt Dinniman
  10. Carl’s Doomsday Scenario: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 2 by: Matt Dinniman
  11. The Magician’s Nephew by: C. S. Lewis
  12. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by: C. S. Lewis

February I turned 52, and I felt the need to do something epic. Something that showed that I still have it. So I and a boon companion (who ended up being almost a sherpa) set off to camp in The Maze, down in Southern Utah, which has been labeled the most remote area in the lower 48. (I’m not sure how they arrived at that, but I’m going with it.) It was a crazy treacherous road which was only passable with a truly tricked out Jeep. But it was beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures:

Make sure you can spot our tent in the second one.

Beyond that it was kind of a crazy month (see my Cautionary Tale post). And the trip made things even crazier, but I’m glad I did it. I guess I’m not dead yet.

I- Eschatological Reviews

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

by: David Graeber and David Wengrow

Published: 2021

704 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The multitudinous variety of pre-modern societies, and the way in which modern political scientists have incorrectly imposed a teleological interpretation on history, making assumptions which are clearly refuted if you look at the anthropological record.

What’s the author’s angle?

Graeber, who died right as the book was going to print, was a noted anarchist, and if you read this book as an attack on modern state power you wouldn’t be far off. 

Who should read this book?

This is a fascinating book, and the details it gives about pre-modern societies are startling and surprising. If you like expansive and deep non-fiction, then I think you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

Midway through chapter one, the book references a quote from Benjamin Franklin, one I’ve talked about before in this space

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

A French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur, writing in 1782, made a similar observation:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

In a sense the rest of the book is dedicated to showing why this might be. It does this along three major routes.

First the book shows that there was a huge variety of social organization in the past. There were slave-holding tribes next to tribes that considered slavery an abomination. There were tribes which were loose, nearly anarchic groups during some parts of the year, and absolute dictatorships during other parts. And there were tribes where on some subjects they were strictly patriarchal and on other subjects strictly matriarchal. 

Second, the fact of this huge variety suggests that we ought to be more open to experimentation. The authors go so far as to ask:

…is not the capacity to experiment with different forms of social organization itself a quintessential part of what makes us human? That is, beings with the capacity for self-creation, even freedom? The ultimate question of human history, as we’ll see, is not our equal access to material resources (land, calories, means of production), much though these things are obviously important, but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together. Of course, to exercise that capacity implies that there should be something meaningful to decide in the first place.

Finally, they take issue with the idea of political progress in general, that we’re continually advancing from worse to better political systems, and that we’re at or near the end of that process. And to the extent that modern systems possess admirable qualities like a respect for freedom and equality, these ideas represent pale imitations of concepts that were originally introduced to the Europeans by Native Americans. 

To return to the quotes, if people never willingly choose the European option, then is it not possible that there’s a form of government that’s better than what we have and we should be experimenting more in an attempt to find it? Should we not be less attached to the idea that we’ve reached some kind of pinnacle?

There’s definitely quite a bit more to the book than these points, though I think they’re the main ones. The authors talk a lot about agriculture, arguing that it wasn’t an invention which, once created, locked us into spiraling misery and inequality, but rather something that was picked up and put down many times by groups, and often used in combination with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They also put forth a theory for societal control which involves three elements: control of force, control of information, and charisma. And then there’s the concept of schismogenesis, which posits that cultures often define themselves in opposition to surrounding cultures. All of this is very interesting, and they do a good job of exploring it.

To return to their central point, I’m totally on board with the idea that there was far more variety among human societies historically than we imagine. And that we’ve papered over this variety because it serves our interests and plays to our biases. This point has been minimized or ignored by people like Pinker and Fukuyama (who are singled out for condemnation by the authors), and this book does good work in bringing attention to it. But when they try to apply all of this to the present day as some vaguely aspirational, anarchic project I think they go from being wise and insightful to being irrational and naive. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

I’ve become something of a reluctant apologist for Fukuyama, and his claim that we have reached the “end of history”. Not because I think we’ve actually reached the end of history, but because I think Fukuyama (at his best) was making a subtler point, one that I kind of think Graeber and Wengrow completely missed. 

They do not make the mistake of claiming that Fukuyama literally said that history was over, that nothing was going to happen, unlike so many. They at least go one level deeper to Fukuyama’s claim that western liberal democracy has no remaining, viable, ideological competitors. Here their retort is that if you look at all of the myriad ways in which humans organized themselves historically that somewhere in that assemblage there must be something that can compete with WLD. I suppose anything is possible, but in order to really grapple with that question they need to go deeper still, to the level that very few of Fukuyama’s critics reach: the reason WLD has no remaining competition, they’re just much better at waging war.

At the moment, when one considers the situation in Ukraine, the ability of WLDs to wage war is looking pretty good. Just the assistance of WLDs has changed something that nearly everyone thought would be a cakewalk for Russia into a stalemate. And while it is true that China might eventually surpass us, or Russia might flip the table using nukes, that doesn’t do much to support Graeber and Wengrow’s point. Because while neither is exactly a WLD, they’re a lot closer to that, than the sorts of societies described in this book. Which is to say that on some level Graeber and Wengrow might be right, there might be some other form of government, some different way of organizing society that’s better for some definition of “better”. But how does that government stack up militarily with a modern nation state? How does it avoid being conquered, pillaged, or just annexed? And while it may have once been true that no one voluntarily chose to be a European if they could be an Indian. These days very few people choose to live in a less-developed country when they can live in a WLD. 

Now I bow to no one in my criticism of WLDs. And I think this book makes many very interesting points. But if there is an alternative to WLDs I don’t think we’re going to pluck it from the past. Yes, perhaps there is some inspiration to be had. And yes, I too think that we should be more open to experimentation. But for all their faults and for all that they might not represent the end point of social organization, I think only some kind of singularity will dislodge them, and if anything that’s the opposite of what Graeber and Wengrow are offering.

II- Capsule Reviews

America and Iran: A History 1720 to the Present

by: John Ghazvinian

Published: 2021

688 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A comprehensive history of the relationship between the USA and Iran, with every twist and turn meticulously detailed. In particular it describes how much Iran worked to have a relationship with the US up until the 1979 Revolution.

What’s the author’s angle?

Ghazvinian was born in Iran, though he left when he was one. Still he seems to have a pretty pro-Iran bias, though perhaps it only feels that way because I’ve been marinating in anti-Iranian bias for so long.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty long book, but if you really want an in depth look at one of the most contentious geopolitical flashpoints from the last 50 years, this book is fantastic. It’s also incredibly useful if you’re looking to steelman the Iranian position.

General Thoughts

I can’t possibly do this book justice in this space. I’ve considered doing a comprehensive book review, and I may yet do that, but for now I will just say that, having read the book, I am much more sympathetic to the Iranians than I was previous to reading the book. I don’t think Ghazvinian gets everything right, but he brings up a lot of things I had not previously known.

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It

by: M. Nolan Gray

Published: 2022

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The weirdness of US zoning regulations and the problems they cause.

What’s the author’s angle?

Gray is the Research Director for California YIMBY, so he definitely has a dog in this fight.

Who should read this book?

If you’re already inclined towards YIMBYism, this book isn’t going to add much. And if you aren’t inclined that way then I don’t think this book will do much to push you in that direction. I guess if you were really interested in the history of zoning, and how it came to be, along with examples of how other countries do it, then it might be worth your time.

General Thoughts

This was February’s selection for the local SSC/ACX book club I belong to. It definitely makes a strong case for getting rid of zoning, or vastly curtailing it, but it felt pretty wonkish. As I have mentioned in the past, I have a (some would say) unfortunate bias towards sweeping narratives and big trends. Zoning is not that. It belongs in a bucket with the countless other petty annoyances brought on by bureaucracy and rent-seeking. I totally get that progress is made up of thousands of small victories, and I’m glad that the YIMBYs appear to be making progress. But…

This issue feels like an example of decadence rather than a cure for it. Which is to say, I’m not struck by the benefits which will accrue from zoning regulation, I’m struck by how difficult it is to accomplish even small improvements when dealing with large and entrenched bureaucracies. I didn’t dislike the book because zoning is unimportant, I disliked the book because it shouldn’t need to exist. The case seems pretty obvious. It shouldn’t require a book-length treatment to lay it out. But apparently it does and even the most straightforward laws end up getting undermined. 

When I discovered that the author worked for California YIMBY, I recalled that there had been some laws which were recently passed in California which seemed hopeful. So I looked through their site for details, and I mostly found articles saying things like this:

  • SB 9 aimed to legalize duplexes and fourplexes in residential districts across California. Yet recent research suggests that many municipalities are adopting local ordinances that subvert the law.
  • The data largely reflects this: most of the municipalities surveyed didn’t permit a single SB 9 unit in 2022, while Los Angeles permitted fewer than 40 units—a far cry from the permitting boom we’ve seen with accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

So I guess things have been mixed, at best? For an issue that’s getting a ton of attention, I find that depressing.

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed

by: Ben R. Rich

Published: 1994

372 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An under the hood view of the legendary Skunk Works division of Lockheed, which was responsible for planes like the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-117 stealth fighter

What’s the author’s angle?

Rich’s career straddled the transition in military procurement from the simple, post-war era of Eisenhower to the horribly bureaucratic procurement system which was in place by the end of the cold war. He obviously prefers the earlier simpler version, and the book does a good job of making the case for why.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a military buff, I would definitely recommend this book. I think business people who like to glean management advice from unconventional sources will also enjoy this book. But even if you’re not in either of these two categories it’s still a pretty great book. 

General Thoughts

This was a great book, and it proceeds about how you’d expect. Heroic engineers in the afterglow of WW2 but also with a nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, pull off incredibly innovative spy and stealth planes. That’s the surface level. Underneath are questions of how best to create disruptive technology, government procurement, and speed of innovation.

There’s two ways of longing for the 50’s and 60s. Some people long for the culture, a more conservative time, when kids had two parents, and gender dysphoria was something only spoken of by psychologists. Other people long for the effectiveness of the 50’s and 60’s when we could still get things done. When we had an overhang of optimism and manufacturing capacity left over from the war, and bureaucracy was light. This book evokes that second form longing, and it is interesting to compare the effectiveness of Skunk Work’s various projects from this era with the disaster that is the F-35. The question is can we ever get back to that?

Rich offers some ideas, but he offered them basically 30 years ago, and from my perspective things have only gotten worse. There seems to be an inexorable trend of inefficiency that moves forward regardless of how obviously bad the results are. I suspect that it’s not quite as bad as my worst fears, but when you read about how good it once was —the amazing things a dedicated group of engineers could accomplish on reasonable budgets and in short time frames — it sure makes you want to figure out some way of recapturing it. 

The Hedonistic Imperative

by: David Pearce

Published: 1995

200 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It will shortly be possible to eliminate suffering through genetic engineering, neurosurgery, nanotechnology and drugs. And if it can be done, it should be. Our ethical imperative is to aim for a post-human future of extreme motivation, meaning and pleasure.

What’s the author’s angle?

Pearce is a transhumanist philosopher. This book is his manifesto.

Who should read this book?

It’s definitely an interesting, if fringe, philosophy, so if you’re the kind of person who likes that sort of thing. But if you’re on the fence at all I would recommend against reading it. It’s very tendentious, and the kind of book that’s not very long, but feels super long.

General Thoughts

Pearce imagines a time in the future when we will have completely eliminated suffering. Not merely for humans but for all species who might be said to suffer. I’m just going to focus on humans, but the inclusion of all life should give you a sense of his ambition. 

In place of suffering we would experience benign mania — so the most productive and ambitious you’ve ever been, and then some — and gradations of pleasure, ranging from a deep sense of well-being all the way up to incandescent orgasmic pleasure of an intensity we can barely imagine. So in essence wireheading, but in a fashion that delivers not only amazing pleasure, but incredible productivity as well.

Now if we could flip a switch and place a thousand volunteers into this state to make sure there aren’t any strange second order effects, and if necessary flip a switch and bring them all back, then I would have no problem running this experiment. Unfortunately it’s not possible to jump straight to the conditions Pearce describes. Nor can we easily unwind things.

Rather this destination lies on the other side of a fog-shrouded valley, and to get there we have to descend into that valley, exploring as we go. Pearce seems to imagine that getting halfway to the destination would get us some percentage of the benefits with no additional disadvantages. But in the time since he wrote the book we’ve had the opportunity to descend part way into the valley and it hasn’t worked that way at all.

Exhibit A would be the opioid epidemic. You can read more about what happened in some of my previous posts. But when doctors decided to declare that pain was the fifth vital sign, they were following a weak version of Pearce’s hedonic imperative. And rather than getting closer to utopia we ended up with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of additional dead opioid addicts. 

Arguably video games and porn are lesser examples of the same phenomenon. I’m not arguing that they’re as bad as the opioid crisis, but they’re certainly instruments of hedonism, and I think there’s good reason to believe that, on net, we’d be better off without them. 

In addition to problems which might arise as part of the journey, I’m not sure the destination is going to be as great as he imagines either. At a minimum it’s completely undiscovered territory. As you can see below I read some of Aristotle’s thinking on ethics this month, and it still resonates because we’re basically the same people, grappling with the same problems we had 2300 years ago. But the people Pearce envisions, those who’ve reached hedonic mastery, are entirely different in nearly every way. They might as well be aliens. Now perhaps they’ll be awesome aliens, and everything will work out perfectly, but if it doesn’t. If there are problems. They will be problems the likes of which we’ve never seen, and one’s we’ll be ill-equipped to deal with. 

Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health—and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More

by: Christopher M. Palmer MD 

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A grand-unified theory of mental illness that grounds everything in metabolic disorders, particularly at the mitochondrial level.

What’s the author’s angle?

This theory is basically the brainchild of Dr. Palmer, and this book (similar to the last book) is his manifesto.

Who should read this book?

I suspect what most people want is a list of recommendations which flow from this theory. “Okay, I get it, it’s the mitochondria. So what should I be doing based on that in order to feel better.” And on that front, the book is kind of light. It definitely has recommendations, particularly near the end. But the majority of the book is devoted to looking at the scientific basis for the theory. If you’re just looking for recommendations on what to do, you’re probably better tracking down a podcast appearance. (For example he was on Tim Ferris’ show.)

General Thoughts

I thought Dr. Palmer’s theory made a lot of sense, and the data seems to back it up as well. Whether it will bring about a revolution in the treatment of mental health remains to be seen. Going from theory to practical recommendations can still be difficult. He does come out pretty strongly in favor of intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets, but he also admits that this sort of thing isn’t the answer for all people. Even if we’re vastly simplifying the metabolism it can still be overactive or underactive and different treatments are recommended for each. And if you actually try to dig into what the metabolism looks like there are fantastically crazy flow charts that will make your brain hurt.

Still, for those struggling with any of the conditions listed in the title (anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD) or any other mental problem, or who has loved one’s who are struggling, this does seem to offer a new and evidence based approach to treating issues that have hitherto been pretty intractable. 

Nicomachean Ethics

by: Aristotle

Published: ~330 BC

171 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How virtue and ethics are foundational to a good life. That good behavior generally is found at the mean between two extremes. Too much courage is rashness, too little is cowardice. Oh, and also friendship is magic

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I think you should check back with me. There may be other works by Aristotle you should read instead of this one. At least to start

General Thoughts

NM started well and was surprisingly readable. The deeper it got, the harder it made you work. Of course Aristotle scholars will point out that most of his extant works weren’t designed to be read, they were probably lecture notes. And an arc — where things get progressively more difficult as the lecture goes on — makes sense. But I also got the feeling that Aristotle had a model and he started with things that easily fit into his model and then gradually worked his way towards things where fitting them to the model was more difficult. 

Of course the hard thing when you’re reviewing something like this is to say something unique, which I’ve probably already failed at. So let me talk about the “great books” project in general.

When you’re reading someone like Aristotle there’s an enormous amount of commentary. This holds for all of the “great books” but it’s particularly true when it comes to philosophy. So if I want to study Aristotle, what percentage of that study should be actually reading Aristotle, and what percentage should be reading what other people have to say about him? And does this ratio differ for different philosophers? Are some philosophers so inscrutable that you should read hardly any primary text and spend most of your time on commentary? While some are so accessible that you should just read the primary text and forget the commentary?

Having read NM I suspect that Aristotle falls somewhere in the middle. Maybe 50% primary text and 50% commentary, which takes me to:

Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction

by: Jonathan Barnes

Published: 2001

176 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A short overview of Aristotle’s life and thinking. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Well let’s just say they don’t hire critics to write these introductory books.

Who should read this book?

I think if you have a goal, like I do, to get maximum Aristotle knowledge with minimum effort, this is a great way to go about that.

General Thoughts

I decided to read this after the Nicomachean Ethics. I think it would have been better to read it before. But also it’s short enough that you can imagine using it to bookend one’s study of Aristotle. Read it first, read a bunch of Aristotle and then read it at the end as a way to cement things in. The book did give me a greater appreciation for Aristotle as an empirical scientist, which was not something I expected.

Dungeon Crawler Carl Series

by: Matt Dinniman

Dungeon Crawler Carl: A LitRPG/Gamelit Adventure

Published: 2020

444 Pages

Carl’s Doomsday Scenario: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 2

Published: 2021

364 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Aliens show up, take possession of the Earth, kill most of its inhabitants and make the rest participate in a real life fantasy dungeon crawl computer game. The series revolves around Carl and his sentient, talking cat, Princess Donut. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for light, pulpy fun, that would be rated R for language and PG-13 for everything else. These books go down pretty easily. (I listened to Book 2 in a single day.)

General Thoughts

This series was recommended to me by the same person who recommended the Expeditionary Force series. And it’s got a similar feel, though at this point I think there are aspects of it that I like better. But caution is in order. I got to the end of EF and decided that it probably wasn’t worth 100 hours. Also this series is probably farther away from being completed. Book 6 has been written, but audio is only available up through book 5. Why do I say it’s farther away? Well the dungeon has 18 levels, and so far book 1 covered two levels, and book 2 covered just one level. I could probably find out how far they are by the end of book 6, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’d hazard a guess that the series is going to end up in a rhythm where each book covers one level. Which would mean we’ve got a long way to go.

For the moment I’m going to continue, but view it strictly as mindless recreation. Similar to playing a video game, and one I can do at the same time as walking… 

III- Religious Reviews

The Chronicles of Narnia

By: C. S. Lewis

The Magician’s Nephew

Published: 1955

183 Pages

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Published: 1950

172 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

The adventures of British children, and others in the magical realm of Narnia. Adventures that generally end up being Christian allegories. 

Who should read this book?

Everyone. Though not necessarily in this order. This is the first time I’ve tried reading The Magician’s Nephew first, and whatever the author’s preference (which is weaker than the publisher claims). The Magician’s Nephew contains spoilers for LWW. Not big spoilers, so it’s not a huge deal, but in my opinion it’s enough to tip the scales.

General Thoughts

One of the reasons I’ve given for being unsure about reading the pulpy books (see the previous review) is that I could be doing something even better with that time. Like re-reading books I already know I like. In what is either an elegant compromise or a way to waste even more time, I decided that I would commit to re-read at least one great book for every pulpy book I read. And since it’s been probably 30 years since I last read the Chronicles of Narnia, it seemed a good place to start. (Also the Narnia books are short enough that I’m going to finish all of them before reading another Dungeon Crawler Carl book.)

First off, they’re just as delightful as I remember. And in some respects even more so, because they’re so different from most modern fantasy. Sanderson can barely introduce a character in 172 pages. And these days fantasy has to include actual scenes of poverty and suffering.

I found myself thinking of this during the amazing dinner provided to the children by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Isn’t it in the middle of winter? Hasn’t it been winter for a really long time? They seem to live pretty well given that the castle of the White Witch is close enough to walk to. 

Initially I found such thoughts annoying, but after a while they just made me appreciate the books more. They make delightful bedtime stories, and the child wouldn’t have moved out before I was done reading them.

Beyond that, being much older and reading them with an eye that’s more geared towards the allegorical nature of the books, I was struck by the differences between my Christianity and Lewis’. In particular the normal Christian doctrine of Original Sin as allegorized in The Magician’s Nephew. I thought Lewis did an excellent job with it, but I still think it doesn’t make as much sense as the LDS version.

12 books in 28 days. At that rate I’m not sure if that’s impressive or a sign that there’s something wrong with me – Probably the latter. If you’d like to make sure that I (and others) get the help they need, consider donating.

Eschatologist #26 – A Crisis of Change and Choice

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

Or download the MP3

In my last newsletter we talked about spiritual health, and a few options for acquiring that health, such as overcoming suffering or, alternatively, gaining material abundance. In this newsletter we’re going to go beyond talking about the merits of different options to discussing the way in which these options have multiplied. 

Go back a few centuries, and there was one religion, one staple crop, and one way of doing things. These days, however, we’re spoiled for choices and options for both spiritual and physical health, and beyond that our emotional and mental health as well. We have countless religions to choose from: some secular, some informal. Beyond that there are a bewildering variety of diet and exercise programs, and tens of thousands of self-help books. We are offered a truly insane number of choices, all backed up by a deluge of data drawing sometimes contradictory conclusions. Everybody wants to be happy and live a good life, but which of the thousands of options best accomplishes that?

I am far from the first person to cover the idea that more options may, in fact, not be a good thing. There was a whole book written about it called The Paradox of Choice. Along with that there’s the associated concept of decision fatigue. Nor am I the first person to point out that acquiring more data can, somewhat paradoxically, make picking the correct path or even any single path more difficult. 

On top of all the complexities already mentioned, technology has introduced new options which seem like paths to happiness but which are actually engineered to hijack that impulse. Perhaps you’ve been following Jonathan Haidt’s new substack where he lays out the way social media has done this  — promising a world of connection that brings health and happiness, but actually delivering a huge increase in teen mental illness, particularly among girls. Nor are the problems created by technology likely to get better as it becomes smarter (AI) and more immersive (VR).

This abundance of change and choice is historically unprecedented. For the vast majority of our existence (the countless millennia previous to the industrial revolution) the choices were simple, and our knowledge essentially static. Centuries could go by without much changing. Now we’re lucky to make it a full year. The ground is continually shifting under our feet. There may have been less potential for health and happiness in all its forms, but more actual contentment, by virtue of the fact that they knew what the limits were.

If you’re anything like me this brings to mind the depression era policies of FDR. (That’s a joke. No one is like me.) In her book The Forgotten Man, Amity Shales points out how bad things still were in 1937 eight years into the depression. She ascribes this in part to FDR’s mania for experimentation with government policy. We normally think that experimentation is good because it’s the best method for arriving at the right answer. But what if we just need an answer? Shales points out that businesses were left in a state of uncertainty by all the changes and felt unable to move forward with plans because at any moment things could change. The experimentation significantly slowed the economic recovery. What the country really needed at that point, Shales contends, was a solid unchanging foundation to build on.

I wonder if we’re in a situation similar to those businesses. I don’t want to discount the benefits of information and innovation, choices and change. But perhaps what we really need right now is a solid foundation, some way of pausing for a moment so we can get a handle on things.

It seems unlikely that the world is going to pause, which means this effort has to be driven by individuals and families, though I wouldn’t discount the importance of religious communities either. Given that they’ve provided a solid foundation for millions of people for hundreds of years. A foundation which the modern world has perhaps been too hasty at casting aside.

Religions are also valuable for the methodological example they provide. In place of conclusions, changes, and choices, they offer faith, solidity and limitations. And the point of this newsletter is not to say that that first list is bad. But rather my point is that they make a good house but a poor foundation. As someone very wise once observed, it’s a foundation of sand, and what we really need is to build our house upon the rock. Because the rains and the floods are coming…

Come for the discussion of religion, stay for the obscure references to FDR’s Great Depression policy. You know who’s also going through a great depression? My friend Mark. Remember that for the next couple of weeks, all donations are earmarked for him.