Month: <span>February 2022</span>

Eschatologist #14: The Fragility of Peace

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This newsletter is an exploration of how big things end, and just four days ago something very big came to an end. Depending on who you listen to, it was the end of “peace on the European continent for a long time to come”, or the end of the post cold-war era, and the reintroduction of force into foreign affairs, or the end of all hope that humans are capable of change. And it’s possible that the invasion of Ukraine may be the end of all three of those things. Only time will tell what this event ended, and what it began, but in my opinion people’s chief reaction has been an overreaction, and these quotes are great examples of that.

This is one of the reasons why I spent the last few newsletters talking about randomness, black swans, fragility and its opposite: antifragility. If you put it all together it’s a toolkit for knowing when things might break and then dealing with that breakage. This is not to say that it enabled me to know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine in February of 2022, but it does put one on the lookout for things that are fragile. And it’s been apparent for a while that the “Long Peace” was very fragile. I wish it wasn’t, but that and a dollar will get you a taco. 

Certainly, now that it’s broken, it’s easy to say that peace was fragile, that it would inevitably break and we shouldn’t lose our heads about it. But how do we identify fragile things before they break? And in particular how do we make them less fragile, even antifragile? In simple terms things that are fragile get weaker when subjected to shocks, with antifragility it’s the opposite, they get stronger, up to a point. A teacup is fragile: the more you jostle it, the more use it gets, the more likely it is to end up in pieces on the floor. The immune system is antifragile: when you expose it to a pathogen (or a vaccine) it gets stronger. 

So how does all of this help us deal with the invasion of Ukraine? That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is either simple or straightforward. But, as evidenced by the initial quotes, I think that we’ve had peace between the great powers for so long that we become unhinged at the idea of war. We’ll do anything to prevent it. Unfortunately prevention can turn out to be just postponement.

I’ve written a couple of essays where I used the analogy of fighting forest fires. The forest needs periodic fires to clean out the deadwood, but when you fight every fire the deadwood accumulates and eventually you end up with a fire that has so much fuel that it ends up wiping out the entire forest. You take an antifragile system and turn it into a fragile one. 

Obviously coming up with a clever metaphor for the situation doesn’t get us very far. But it does illustrate what I’m most worried about, that we’ve become so unused to fires (which used to happen all the time) that when the first one comes around we’re going to mishandle it and turn it into an inferno.

I see lots of people saying that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine, that this is the beginning of WW III. First off, it’s only been four days. Acting too hastily almost certainly has far more downside than upside, because if we’re not careful then, yes, this could be the beginning of WW III. Immediately losing our heads and declaring it to be so on day one could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is because of another topic I talk about a lot, and part of why it’s difficult to draw on what happened in the past: the modern world has changed all the rules. War is now very different. Hanging over any decision to intervene, in the background of every war room, haunting every discussion of force, is a fear of nuclear war. And Putin has already upped the ante, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert.

I hope the Ukrainians humiliate the Russians, and it’s nice to see that the war is already not going as smoothly as they expected. But in the end if this escalates into a full on nuclear war, it’s not going to matter who started it, or whose cause was just, because the inferno doesn’t care.

If peace is fragile, is war antifragile? That’s a scary assertion, though one I have toyed with in the past. Perhaps historically it was, but we’re at the end of history, and no one knows how it’s going to turn out. If that scares you as much as it scares me consider donating.

What If Things Are Changing Faster than We Can Adapt?

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At some point, in some post (and probably several posts) I asserted that:

The world is changing faster than we can adapt to it

Then (and now) this statement seemed obvious, so I remember being surprised when I got some pushback on it. But upon reflection it was also illuminating. Many disagreements come down to core values and assumptions which are so deeply embedded that we’ve forgotten they’re there. It’s what makes these disagreements so intractable. We’re arguing from different, unseen foundations. I decided it was past time to unearth this particular foundation, and examine its various parts. What do I mean by “the world” and “change” and “speed” and “adaptation”? And if we can come to an agreement on all of that, what are the consequences of change moving faster than our ability to adapt?

I- The World

This first idea is pretty simple. By “the world” I mean nearly everything. Certainly I’m not arguing that continental drift has sped up, but depending on how apocalyptic you are about climate change and the environment (and there is evidence in favor of being pretty apocalyptic) just about everything outside of geology has been touched by progress and modernity: oceans, weather, other forms of life, nations, institutions, people, gadgets, technology, etc. 

My own interests and writings have been about things at the end of that list, societal issues, the impact of technology, but as I’ve said I think the issue is broader. Nearly everything has been affected. Nearly everything is worthy of study, nearly everything is changing more quickly now than in the past. But in this post I’m mostly going to focus on societal progress and new technology.

II- Change

As we get deeper into the discussion things get tricker, and it’s important to recognize that while some things have changed a lot, some things haven’t changed very much at all. So let me start by acknowledging things that haven’t changed. While I fear we may be coming to the end of it, there’s been remarkable political stability for many decades. Compare the last 100 years in America with nearly any other 100 year period anywhere else and you’ll be amazed by how calm the last century has been. Yes, there was World War II, but the US came through that relatively unschathed. Additionally there was the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam, but again as these things go it could have been a lot worse. Should you decide to limit it to the last 50 years then things really look good because everything I just mentioned, other than the Cold War, falls off the list, and even the Cold War has been over for 30 years.

As a comparison, take France between 1775 and 1875. The period started with them assisting the American Revolution, then they had their own quite dramatic revolution in 1789. Shortly after this the Revolutionary Wars started. Napoleon took power in 1799, and turned them into the Napoleonic Wars. These wars reached a nadir for France in the disastrous Russian campaign, which was the first step in Napoleon’s eventual abdication and the restoration of the monarchy. He was sent to Elba, then he came back and was defeated again. After this the French had 15 years to catch their breath before undergoing another revolution in 1830. Then a democratic revolution in 1848. This democracy only lasted three years before Napoleon III pulled a coup-d’etat and declared the second empire. This limped along until 1870 when the French were abjectly defeated by the Prussians. If all of this is too messy, you could cut to the chase and just consider France during the 50 years between 1900 and 1950, which included both World Wars.

All of this is to point out that things have been remarkably calm in the US for the last 100 years. No invasions, no wars actually being fought on home soil, peaceful transfers of power every four years, etc. But what’s interesting is that this period of peace is also an example of change. As I have argued in previous posts perhaps wars are necessary to reveal inefficiencies, to shake up scloretic institutions. Perhaps conflict is necessary if you want to bind nations together into a common cause. Historically we’ve had an overabundance of wars and conflicts, at the moment they’re so scarce we’re almost forced to invent them. Obviously the world, and in particular the Ukrainians, would be a lot better off if Russia didn’t invade, and this should not be ignored, but given that our involvement will probably only increase the risk of the conflict escalating into something truly dangerous it’s not clear why we think we have a dog in this fight. Which is to say we’re inventing conflicts.

I could go on and on listing things in 2022 which are different from 1922, 1822 and 1722. And the list gets even longer if we start talking about differences between 2022 AD and 22 AD or 1522 BC or 10,000 BC. There has been an enormous amount of change. I am sympathetic to those people who think that most of this change has been good. Certainly I’d be unwilling to abandon most of it. But change, by definition, has consequences. Some of these consequences are beneficial, some are harmful, but amenable to mitigation. However, some are harmful in non-obvious ways. Ways which may not initially seem linked to the underlying change . If harmful consequences are rare, or obvious or tightly linked, then mitigation might be straightforward (and then again it might not). But if harmful consequences are numerous, subtle or difficult to link back to a cause then mitigation becomes nearly impossible. The next idea increases the likelihood that change will possess all of those properties

III- Speed

The word “speed” carries a lot of weight in my original statement. It not only covers how rapidly technology advances, but how rapidly it spreads. Also speed is relative. There are few people left who remember pre-war America, and so it seems like a long time ago, and yet from a historical perspective the transition from frequent wars between the great powers to no wars between the great powers happened mere moments ago. All of these factors must be considered when we’re speaking of how fast things have changed.

Before we get too deeply into things we should once again consider the opposite side, the many arguments for stagnation—that change isn’t speeding up, it’s slowing down. I certainly acknowledge that there has been some degree of stagnation. I wrote a glowing review of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, in which stagnation is a major theme. But while I agree that stagnation is happening, I don’t think it undermines my point as much as you might think. To begin with, we could be stagnating quickly, going from an expanding, culturally rich society with a great economy, to a society that’s shrinking, recycled and impoverished in just the space of a few decades.

One example of stagnation provided by Douthat is our falling birth rate. Whether you agree with him that this is a sign of decadence and a bad thing, it’s indisputable that it happened very quickly. The US’s total fertility rate has recently been cut in half, going from 3.58 at the height of the baby boom to 1.77 in the space of 20 years (1960-1980). And on this measure the US is doing better than most developed countries. South Korea went from a total fertility rate of 6 to 1.5 in the space of just 30 years (1958-1988) and is now hovering at just over 1. All of this speaks to a degree of stagnation, but also illustrates the speed with which things change in the modern world. Speed isn’t just about new technology arriving, it’s about old ways of doing things disappearing.  

Beyond this, most stagnation arguments end up referencing big visible things. For example, we rarely build new skyscrapers and when we do it takes forever. Big infrastructure projects are also rare and hideously expensive. We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters (now 280 characters). I agree with most of these arguments, but even if such efforts are slowing down rather than speeding up, I think the consequences for the world of slowing in these areas are entirely swamped by the speedup in other areas. Even when things were moving fast in the realm of infrastructure they were still moving pretty slow. There’s a limit to how fast you can build the interstate highway system, or construct the infrastructure necessary to send a man to the moon. By shifting our focus online changes happen much, much faster. To take the example I just mentioned, the interstate highway system took 35 years to build, while it only took Facebook four years to become the dominant social media platform and a similar amount of time for Google to become the dominant search engine. And of course they were becoming dominant in industries that didn’t even exist more than a handful of years before that. 

While virtual changes happen much faster, one might still argue that material changes have a bigger impact. Which is to say, that even though it took 35 years, the interstate highway system had a far bigger impact than the rise of Facebook. Well, insofar as they both brought about massive changes both feed into my point about the speed of modernity, but those making the materialist argument would go on to say that because we’ve stopped “building things” that we’ve stopped the biggest source of change, and here I’d have to disagree. The change of being able to easily travel from one side of the country to another is a big one, don’t get me wrong, but, depending on how you define “easily”, we’ve been able to do that since at least 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed, and if you didn’t mind more hardship, for decades before that as well. Yes, it’s true, we had never previously sent anyone to the moon, but we’ve been spending lots of money to send explorers to dangerous places for centuries. 

What we haven’t ever done is create echo chambers where millions of people whip their political co-religionists into ecstatic frenzies of hate and distrust. We haven’t ever used machine learning to optimize the process of turning young people into zombified status-scrollers. And we’ve never flooded the world with information, much of it wrong, nearly all of it stripped of nuance. Returning to my central point, all of these new and unprecedented things have happened with unbelievable speed. 

I ended the last section by claiming that speed made negative consequences numerous, subtle, and difficult to link back to a cause. The “numerous” part should hopefully be uncontroversial, as things speed up more things happen in less time. “Subtle” and “difficult to link” probably require more explanation, but perhaps some examples might help. The harms I mentioned in the last paragraph (echo chambers, zombification, information overload) seem pretty clearly to be harms wrought by social media. But it took many years for that connection to be made, long enough that it’s going to be difficult to unwind. Also here again we see the difference between the virtual and the material. When someone dies in a car crash the role of the car in the whole affair is pretty obvious. When the rate of teenage depression goes up by 59% over 10 years, the causes are harder to untangle. 

This is what I mean by “subtle” and “difficult to link”, but in many respects, social media is actually one of the easier places to draw conclusions. To move on to another example consider the opioid crisis. Obviously something had to change in order for drug overdose deaths to increase by nearly 600% in only 23 years (17,000 in 2000 to 100,000 in 2021). But you certainly can’t point to just one change as being at the root of everything. (And to be fair blaming teenage depression on social media is also probably an oversimplification.) Many people want to put the blame entirely on the introduction and aggressive (some would say illegal) marketing of Oxycontin, but as I have previously pointed out, upstream of the introduction of Oxycontin there was a broad change in the opinion of the medical community that pain should be treated much more aggressively. This opinion was progressive and compassionate, and the modern world, in the form of Purdue Pharma, was able to capitalize on this change far faster than society or government could adapt to the consequence brought on by the change. As I mentioned in my book reviews at the beginning of the month a drug crisis post is on it’s way, but it’s worth adding that the Oxycontin change was followed by a heroin distribution change, followed by a switch to fentanyl, followed by the craziness of P2P meth. And as far as I can tell we haven’t been able to adapt to any of these changes. 

Choosing to talk about opioids is relatively safe. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that it’s something which hasn’t changed fast, or that we have dealt with that change well. So let’s talk about something more controversial, something which also moved very fast, but where, at first glance, adaptation appears to have been equally fast. We have a tendency to think that if something was easy to adapt to, it’s natural, and by extension good. Unlike the opioid crisis, an enormous number of people think that this change has been good. What is this change? LGBT rights, encompassing both acceptance and identification. 

Once again it’s hard to argue that this didn’t move really fast. And again, it’s hard to point to some single background change which lies at the root of the expansion, but the hardest task of all is to imagine that it could have happened this fast or at all 100 years ago. But of course whereas everyone views the opioid crisis as unquestionably bad, nearly the exact opposite view is held with it comes to LGBT rights, most people view their expansion as something which was unquestionably good. That said, I’m not one of them. I’ve talked about this before and I don’t think this is the space to rehash all the details, nor does it seem time to relitigate that argument. So let’s take something where opinion is more divided: the rising number of people identifying as transgender and in particular the concept of gender self-identification. Regardless of what side you take, it’s clear that this is another example of things changing far faster than we can adapt. Everyone agrees with that, where the disagreement lies is on where the adaptation needs to happen. On one side you may think adaptation is being slowed by bigotry and outdated beliefs, on the other side you may think adaptation is being slowed because the demands are incoherent and disconnected from reality, but in either case speed is presumably a problem. Either we need to slow down the changes, or we need to speed up adaptation, which takes us to:

IV- Adaptation

When you hear the word adaptation, you are most likely thinking of people adapting to their environment. But of course it can go the other way as well, we can adapt our environment to people, make it a better fit for human nature, as it already exists. We can view the first as fixing the people who are broken while viewing the second as fixing the things that are broken

We think we’re focused on the latter, but in practice we put most of the weight on the former. The opioid crisis is a great example. One of the reasons Purdue pharmacy got away with it for so long was the claim that their time-release formula had fixed the thing that was broken. That yes, in the past, lots of people had abused or become addicted to opioids, and presumably they still would, except Purdue changed opioids so that people wouldn’t abuse them. When confronted by evidence that people were abusing it in spite of this “fix” they claimed that they had already fixed the thing so that it worked with normal human nature, anyone who was still having problems had an “addictive nature” and these people were broken in ways beyond what Purdue could be expected to deal with. 

This example also illustrates the big problem with adaptation as it is practiced by the modern world. We have this expectation that our technology is powerful enough, and our scientists smart enough, that all things ought to be fixable. We ought to be able to finesse our technology in such a way that we are only left with the good bits: opioids with all the pain relief but none of the potential for abuse; social media that improves mental health and acts as a bastion of facts and reason without devolving into ideological echo chambers; unfettered expressions of identity that always end up being healthy without ever being dogmatic, or bundled into a harmful social contagion. 

One further element gets thrown into this mix, humans actually are pretty adaptable, particularly over the short term, so while the ideal is fixing things, we often end up leaning on the idea that humans can fix themselves. Is social media a problem? Then just stop using it. Addicted to opioids? You should have been more careful. You want to identify as a different gender? Oh, well in that case we’ll just have everyone else do the adapting. 

When you combine these two things together—the expectation that we can get technology to do anything we want, with human’s innate adaptability—it’s easy to slip into an assumption that when something is broken it’s people not technology. 

Even if people are willing to admit that technology is broken, frequently the answer is that we just need more technology: tamper proof Oxycontin, better algorithms to detect questionable content on social media, gender reassignment surgery to get rid of dysphoria. Of course, for some people the eventual goal is to transcend human nature entirely, uploading our consciousness into a computer, then people will be things and we’ll be able to indulge in unlimited tinkering.

I haven’t done anything to tie this back to the speed at which things are changing, but you can see where if the answer to the problem is more technology, that in a sense the answer to the problems of adaptation is to change things even faster. In the final analysis, I think we are expecting both too much out of people and too much out of technology. Just because we can do something with technology doesn’t mean that we should. 

V- Consequences

I would hope that the examples already provided would give an adequate sense of the consequences of speed outstripping adaptation, but if not let me make one last attempt to pull it all together. When technology advances faster than society a chasm is created between the two. Or more specifically between the consequences of the technology and the tools available to deal with those consequences. The differential between the speed with which those two develop—tools vs. tech—determines the size of the chasm. Additionally until the speed of adaptation equals or exceeds the speed of technology the chasm just keeps getting bigger. I have no idea when our tools will catch up to our technology, but my worry is that before it does the chasm will grow so large that it will swallow us. 

For those who think I’m being alarmist or unduly apocalyptic, I’m going to conclude by telling the story of a previous time when technological speed outstripped societal adaptation:

In 1452 Gutenburg invented the printing press. By 1500, 236 towns had printing presses, and an estimated 20 million books had been printed for a population of perhaps 70 million. This was an explosion in the availability of information similar to what we’re seeing today. Similar, but still far slower. This explosion in information was shortly followed by the Protestant Reformation, this went through various twists and turns but eventually culminated in the Thirty Years’ War. On a per capita basis this war was almost certainly the most deadly European War ever. Overall 20% of the population of Germany died, and in some areas it was as high as 50%. I heard someone compare the present day to the period preceding the Thirty Years’ War. There are definitely similarities. Am I predicting something as awful as that? No. But if you’re looking for a worst case scenario for when technological change outstrips society’s ability to adapt, the worst case is really really bad. 

I don’t know where things are going to end up. I don’t know what sort of technology has yet to be invented. Maybe it will make things worse, maybe it will make things better. What I am confident in predicting is what we’re experiencing now is only the beginning. 

Of all the changes wrought by new technological advances, information dissemination may be changing the fastest. I suspect that by continuing to maintain a patreon backed blog, rather than pivoting to tiktok videos that I am not adapting quickly enough. Perhaps the next time I post it will be to direct you to my tiktok channel, but until then consider donating.

In Defense of Listening to Audiobooks at 3x (And of Reading a Lot in General)

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I. Supposedly I’m Doing It All Wrong

My last post was my monthly round-up of book reviews. I mentioned that at 12 reviews it was the second longest collection of reviews I’d ever done. What I did not mention was that if we are actually judging it based on the more significant criteria of the most books I’ve read in a single month then it’s number one. This is because the 13 books I finished in December of 2019 included four books which I had read over the course of an entire year, and at the beginning of January I always start fresh. Acknowledging this record seems an appropriate occasion to go “off topic” and do a whole post on the business of reading, and how it should be done.

(Also I’m leaning into the “Look at me! Aren’t I so amazing!” angle for reasons which will soon become apparent.)

I should start off by saying that I have no strong feelings on how it should be done. If your ideal life includes reading a hundred or more romance novels every year, then, assuming this endeavor doesn’t lead you to neglect your family or your job, it would sound like you have a hobby which is no worse or better than binging TV shows. Where I do have strong feelings is when people tell me that I’m doing it wrong. And in part this post was engendered as a reaction to many people doing just that

All of these people make the argument that when it comes to reading quality is more important than quantity. As such anyone who prioritizes quantity, has obviously missed the point. Here’s how David Perell, the noted writing guru, describes such people:

Mike boastfully reads 100 books per year. He listens to audiobooks at 3x speed whenever he drives and swears he can remember it all. His browser has a plugin that lets him speed up YouTube videos, and for a while, he listened to podcasts on a special app because of its unique “Smart Speed” feature. All around, his strategy for learning is simple: shove as much information into the mind as possible. 

He’s one of those white-collar workers who’s always on the brink of quitting his job. He listens to podcasts while making pivot tables in Excel and stopped taking the subway to work because the train noise made it impossible to hear the audiobook narrators. During coffee breaks, he avoids conversation because he doesn’t like living life at “1x speed.” With a sped-up voice in his ear instead, he looks out of the 32nd floor of his company’s office and dreams of the day when he can finally quit his job and have the time to consume even more information. 

200 books per year, he hopes. 

Kevin Rapp, a guy I met through a writing workshop, is more blunt:

I now understand that telling people the quantity of books you read last year is the dick measuring contest of the pseudo-intellectual.

For example, as younger me plowed through books, it was never really about the “learning”. It was about having some objective measure I could lean on to signal how smart I was.

Every book I binged was about adding another notch in the bookshelf. A +1 to an ever growing number which I would bandy about so I could be showered with validation.

The insinuation in both of these quotes is that if you are reading 100 books a year (I am) or listening to stuff at 3x (I do) or mentioning how many books you’ve read in any kind of self-congratulatory fashion (which I just did) that this is ironclad evidence that you are a “Mike” or an odious pseudo-intellectual who should be barred from polite society. You are obviously prioritizing quantity over quality, and have thereby missed the entire purpose of reading. Basically, you are doing it wrong. Obviously I don’t think I’m doing it wrong, and I’m here to argue that it’s possible to do reading right even if, and especially if, you’re doing a lot of it—that, as the saying goes, quantity has a quality all its own

II. The List of All the Reasons Why I’m Doing It Wrong

As all of the complaints mostly hinge on my practice of listening to stuff at 3x (or as fast as I can understand it, which is sometimes only 2x or 2.5x) we’ll start by examining the various criticisms of that practice. Some of these criticisms are contained in the passages just quoted, some of them are found elsewhere, some of them are implied and some of them are things people have said to my face. Let’s start with mild objections and work up to the major ones.

Listening that fast keeps you from enjoying books: People who know me don’t generally accuse me of not understanding the books I listen to, rather their objection is that I can’t possibly be enjoying them. Those who appreciate audiobooks imagine that at those speeds it’s impossible to enjoy the narration and that good narration is one of the big selling points of audiobooks. I wouldn’t say that there’s zero truth to that, but in my experience it’s far less of an issue than people think. I’m not sure of exactly what adjustments they make in addition to just speeding it up (I know it doesn’t end up increasing in pitch) but in my experience the quality of the narration is persevered. George Guidall still sounds great and having an author read their own book is still a hit or miss proposition regardless of the speed. 

Furthermore, while I very much enjoy reading, enjoyment is not my primary reason for doing it. I do it to learn. But even if I was prioritizing enjoyment, reading serious books quickly allows me the time to read additional books strictly for enjoyment. If you look at the 12 books I read last month, and imagine that by listening more slowly I only was able to read 8 books, which books would have gotten cut? Almost certainly the enjoyable ones, particularly the three pulpy sci fi books I read.  

It puts you in the mode of forever preparing and never executing: There does seem to be a specific and identifiable failure mode where people are stuck constantly creating a plan, but never actually executing on that plan. But some of the people who’ve fallen into this trap read books very slowly and carefully, and some don’t read books at all, but endlessly browse aspirational websites, while some are forever busy trying to get their website to look just so, or perfect their marketing plan. Since the humble ship has already sailed I might as well point out that unlike “Mike” I quit my job to do a startup in 2007. (Which was a horrible year to decide to do a startup by the way, but that’s another story.) So while I have many problems I don’t think a lack of execution is one of them.

It’s primarily about signaling: In Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain they argue that everything is about signaling. So if you buy that, which I do though, not unreservedly, then of course it’s about signaling. Nor do I have any problem admitting it. In my case I’m trying to signal, “You should listen to what this guy says because he’s trying really hard to be informed before he says anything. Yes, he’s biased and wrong and caught in an echo chamber just like everyone else, but he’s trying really hard to lessen all of those things by exposure to lots and lots of books.”

When you listen that fast you don’t remember anything: If you were paying attention I previewed this subject back when I did the round up of the books I had finished in October. In my intro to that post I took issue with some retention percentages Holden Karnofsky had published for various reading methodologies. He asserted that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but at the time I drew particular attention to his claim that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title.

Setting all of my objections to Holden (which were many) aside I do agree that lots of people read in a detached manner. (I would say that “detached” and “engaged” are better descriptions than “quickly” or “slowly”) And that retention under such conditions isn’t great. I think you have to be engaged with what you read regardless of whether you’re listening at 3x or 1x. In fact, in my experience, listening to something at 3x forces you to be focused and engaged. Still, it’s clear that regardless of the speed and the manner in which you read, engagement would, ideally, also include taking notes (which I do), summarizing the book later (ditto), and having an intellectual landscape in which to place the book. All three of those things are made easier by reading quickly. Allow me to explain:

The problem with taking notes and summarizing is that it takes time. If you read/listen faster you have more time available. For example, let’s assume that you’re able to carve out 15 hours in which to listen to an audiobook, and that, coincidentally, all your audiobooks happen to be 15 hours long. At 1x all you will be able to do is listen to one book, with no time left over for summarizing or taking notes or anything like that. Let’s go on to assume that to really do that would take an additional 2.5 hours. In that case you could listen to the book at 1.2x and fit everything in. The advantages to engagement of increasing the speed even a little bit become apparent! Okay but now imagine that you’re listening at 3x. At this rate, using the same 15 hours you would have time to listen to and take notes on two books. 

But it’s really with the third item on my list, being able to place the book in an intellectual landscape, that the advantages truly start to manifest. Because each and every book you read is part of a larger dialogue, and taking sides in a vast debate. Reading one book, no matter how deeply you engage with it, is like reading one monologue from a Shakespearian play. That monologue might be fantastic, you might even decide to memorize it, but it’s going to lose something if you don’t understand the rest of the play. As an example you might completely misinterpret Polonius’ advice to Laertes, not realizing how much dramatic irony it contains, if you only focus on the advice and not on the plot of Hamlet in its entirety. Reading a lot of books is one of the few ways I’m aware of to understand the whole play.

It keeps you from deeply engaging with really good books: Closely related to the previous point, and perhaps the objection I see the most often, is the idea that you should be focused on deeply engaging with truly great books. That since quality is so important you should spend all of your time on books of the highest quality. I don’t disagree that people should prefer high quality books, and that they should read them in preference to low-quality books, but how does one know which books these are? Obviously you can seek out the opinions of experts, but it’s not as if this will provide you with a list of 10 books that everyone agrees on, rather such an endeavor will provide you with a list of more books than you could possibly read in a lifetime, even at a rate of 100 books a year. Which is to illustrate two things: first the category of “really good books” is huge and ill-defined, and second that it’s something that varies widely from person to person. What this boils down to is that you’re going to be forced to come up with your own list of really good books, and you do that by reading lots of books, and allowing those books to point you at other books. And yes experts can help, but they’re most helpful when you’ve read enough to have some foundation for judging their recommendations. 

III. Having Routed All of the Objections What Should One Know About the Art of Listening at 3x?

None of what I’ve said so far should be taken as a claim that listening to books really fast is without any downsides. First off, It’s something you need to work up to. I first started listening to audiobooks in probably 2007, so 15 years ago. In the beginning I was a little bit wary, in particular I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get through a really long audiobook. So the first book I listened to was Atlas Shrugged, and I did all 52 hours at 1x. After this “proof of concept” I stayed at normal speed for quite awhile. But eventually I started moving the dial up. I remember that I plateaued at 1.5x for a couple of years, and based on anecdotal evidence this is where a lot of people end up. My memory is that I didn’t make it to 3x until about 2017, so ten years of gradually turning the dial up. All of which is to say that it’s like any skill, it takes practice and in this case, probably a certain amount of brain rewiring. As an aside, did you know that congenitally blind people can listen to books at 7x? Presumably this is because their brain has been rewired to be exceptionally good at processing sound. 

I would assume that someone could do it far faster than the 10 years it took me. I didn’t have any kind of goal or plan, just a vague desire to get more reading done in a given amount of time, and over the years that meant the speed gradually drifted upward to 3x. The natural next question is whether I think I will go even higher. On average, probably not, in fact these days I’m more likely to dial it down a few notches than to dial it up. Audible will go as high as 3.5 but it’s pretty rare that I’ll take advantage of that. At this point it mostly depends on the book and the narrator. As an example, I remember that when I listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals the narrator talked so slowly that I felt like I could have gotten away with listening at 4x. 

So the first hack is just to train yourself to be able to listen at a faster speed. But the far more important hack is to get in the habit of taking notes, particularly if you’re reading for knowledge and not enjoyment. If you’re not driving you can take notes on your phone. Which is why, to combine these two points, I will often listen to fiction in the car and non-fiction while I walk. And speaking of walking, with particularly meaty books, in addition to buying the audio version I will also buy a physical copy to carry around on my walks. I can save my place with a pen and when I hear something that seems noteworthy, quickly open the book and use the pen to mark that spot. Then when I get home I can quickly skim through the section I just listened to, and translate the marked sections into notes on my computer. (I personally use Roam Research.)

To repeat, it is certainly possible to “do 3x” very badly. Certainly if you didn’t retain anything then you’re just being stupid. But on the other side of things a lot of its critics just don’t don’t do the math. How much of the book do you think gets missed when listening at 3x versus listening at 1x? Particularly if you’ve actually worked up to it rather than just jumping into the deep end? From my experience listening at 3x provides about 90% of the comprehension that you get from listening at 1x. And honestly that’s being pretty conservative, it might be closer to 95%. As in I am distracted, or mishear, or can’t parse 1 in 20 sentences. (And I should mention, since I have plenty of time in hand at that speed, if the sentence seems at all pivotal I’ll rewind.) But let’s use the 90%. So this would mean I get 9/10 of the benefit/knowledge/important stuff from a book in ⅓ the time. Meaning that for every unit of time I spend I get 2.7 times as much benefit out of my reading. 

Now of course these calculations are exactly the sort of thing the critics complain about, a relentless quest for efficiency which tears the soul out of reading, rendering it sterile and without value. Instead they insist that we should be deeply engaging with great books, perhaps reading them over and over again until we’ve sucked out the deep marrow of meaning. But as I’ve been trying to point out, listening at 3x is not mutually exclusive with doing any of this. In fact, it arguably gives you more time to do it, and a greater selection of books it might be good to do it with! How do you know if a book is worth revisiting if you never get around to visiting it the first time? At 3x you visit a lot of books.

As one final point, I would argue that the world needs more generalists. But given the explosion of information this is increasingly difficult to do, and depending on your definition of generalist it might even be impossible. But as breadth of knowledge becomes rarer, that only makes it more valuable. I don’t scream through books at 3x because I want to brag, or because it’s some kind of status marker. I do it because I’m desperate. I’m hoping that somewhere out there, scattered among all the books, and only if someone makes the connection, is the knowledge that might eventually save us.

I suspect asking for donations is another thing I’m supposedly doing all wrong. All the cool kids have substacks with paid and free posts, while everything I post is free. I guess that’s another sign of my desperation. I’m desperate to give whatever crumbs of knowledge I gather to the widest possible audience. If you’d like to help me do that while simultaneously showing me that I do some things right, consider donating

The 12 Books I Finished in January

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

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

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

I- Eschatological Reviews

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty 

by: Patrick Radden Keefe

560 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

Mortimer was Arthur’s brother. 

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

II- Capsule Reviews

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

416 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by: Karl Sigmund

480 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 1: Columbus Day

305 Pages

Book 2: SpecOps

277 Pages

Book 3: Paradise

283 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

by: Dustin Ordway

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The advantages of developing a daily rowing habit.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life 

by: Nir Eyal (A-all)

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Making yourself immune to distraction. 

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by: Andrew Vickers

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Statistics and the many ways they can be abused.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

by: Sam Quinones

432 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

And then he provided this graph:

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

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

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

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

by: S. C. Gwynne

384 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

Heart: The City Beneath

by: Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

220 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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