Month: <span>April 2023</span>

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

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well… Have you considered religion? 


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


The Modern Landscape of Harm

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

Or download the MP3


I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

(4) Against Safetyism

Byrne Hobart and Tobias Huber for Pirate Wires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Silly Startup and the (Law)suit It Spawned

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

Or download the MP3


I’m going to try something different. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I.

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

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

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

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

Actually that was basically it. 

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

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

Stage 1: Hand-off:

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

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

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

II.

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

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

And our Parks and Rec cameos:

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

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

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

Eagleton: The deal Haverford created with Linetti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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


The 13 Books I Finished in March

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Review

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

by: Tim Urban

Published: 2023

746 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

The Machinery of Freedom – Guide to a Radical Capitalism

by: David Friedman

Published: 1973; Additional chapters added in 1989 and 2014

378 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by: Various

Published: 2017

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


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

by: Edwin H. Friedman

Published: 2007

260 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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


Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

by: Theodore Dalrymple

Published: 2001

263 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

I can think of at least five possibilities.

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

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

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


Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

by: Russ Roberts

Published: 2022

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

What’s the author’s angle?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


Darkness at Noon

by: Arthur Koestler

Published: 1940

254 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


III- Religious Reviews

The Chronicles of Narnia

By: C. S. Lewis

The Horse and His Boy

Published: 1954

199 Pages

Prince Caspian

Published: 1951

195 Pages

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Published: 1952

223 Pages

The Silver Chair

Published: 1953

217 Pages

The Last Battle

Published: 1956

184 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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


Till We Have Faces

by: C. S. Lewis

Published: 1956

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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


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