Month: <span>March 2023</span>

Eschatologist #27 – Golems and Genies

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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.