Category: <span>Newsletter</span>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well… Have you considered religion? 

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

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

Eschatologist #26 – A Crisis of Change and Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatologist #25 – Spiritual Health and Suffering

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If you’re one of those masochists who read my overly long winded essays in addition to my newsletter you may have noticed that recently I’ve been fixated on the idea of healthy suffering.

When discussing suffering, you inevitably end up also discussing what makes a good life, since for most it’s synonymous with a lack of suffering. The many defenders of modernity will argue that this is its chief benefit. Technology and progress have reduced the level of material suffering for billions. But is a reduction of material suffering all it takes to give someone a good life? Or do people have needs other than the material, and might it take some amount of constructive suffering to fulfill those other needs?

There is an ongoing debate around this subject, and many people increasingly feel that whatever success modernity has had with the material, it has been an abject failure elsewhere. As evidence they will cite deaths of despair, the loneliness epidemic, and a general worsening of mental health

As is frequently the case, over time the discussion has been simplified down to two qualities: spiritual health and material health. I would argue that a lot of things which aren’t technically spiritual are getting dumped into that bucket — that it’s more “problems that can’t be directly solved with money” like the social, emotional, and psychological. But, with that caveat in place, I’ll also use the term spiritual going forward. And, to lay my cards on the table, I agree with the diagnosis of spiritual malaise in both the specific and the broader sense.

Certainly there are some who grant that modernity has not improved our spiritual health, but they will quickly follow up by saying that it was never meant to. That the two things are separate magisteria. Isn’t it enough that it’s done so much for us materially? Can’t we handle spiritual health on our own? This seems like a reasonable position, but it assumes that if modernity has not benefited our spiritual health, it has not damaged it either, which is not something I’m ready to grant. Still this argument is not the one that concerns me. Rather, my beef is with people who argue that progress and technology have done just as much for spiritual well-being as they have for material well-being. 

The other day I came across this very claim in an essay titled The spiritual benefits of material progress, by Jason Crawford. And it was very interesting to see the case stated so plainly. Crawford’s essential argument is that the modern world allows us greater opportunity to do whatever we want, and being able to do whatever we want is more likely to result in spiritual health than having less opportunity to do that. But is this actually true? Crawford doesn’t offer any proof. I can only assume that he feels it’s axiomatic that being able to act on your desires equals spiritual health and happiness, and being prevented from doing so equals suffering.  

His evidence consists of listing the opportunities afforded by the modern world: you can live wherever you want and do whatever work makes you happy. You can spend time “grasping the abstract truths revealed by math and science” and “correspond with other people for business or pleasure”. His list ends up reading more like instructions for winning a video game, than general advice for being spiritually healthy. Particularly since the vast majority of people do not get to live wherever they want, work at whatever they feel like, and spend their leisure time grasping abstract truths. Yes, I understand that more people get to do this than historically, but if this is what’s required for spiritual health, is it forever going to be the preserve of the top 1% globally?

For those of you that know people who are wealthy enough to live wherever they want and do whatever they want to do, are they paragons of spiritual health? Of emotional, psychological and social well being? You can have money, time, options, and the whole world at your feet, but still live a meaningless, mechanical life. And on top of everything else you’re still going to die. 

On the other hand there are people out there who have faced death, who have suffered, and come out the other side. Who not only despite this, but because of this are happy and healthy. Perhaps you know people like this. Their spiritual health did not come from playing life on god-mode. They were playing a game, but it was the grubby, high-stakes poker that the vast majority of us play. And like most us they had a crappy hand, but they played the hell out of it.

I should mention that I actually spend most of my free time “grasping the abstract truths revealed by math and science”. I’m not very good at it, but as it turns out you don’t need to be in order to be happy. You’d probably like to know my secret. Well it is a secret but perhaps a small donation might convince me to spill it…

Eschatologist #24 – ChatGPT and a Lack of Genius

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In the past this has been the time of year when I made predictions. Those predictions were somewhat different from those given by other people. I’m far more interested in being prepared for black swans than I am in predicting whether some mundane political event has a 90% or a 95% chance of happening. But one of the qualities of black swans is their rarity. As such everything I’ve predicted has yet to occur. In fact, for most of the predictions, there hasn’t even been movement over the last year towards making them more or less likely. There is however one notable exception: artificial intelligence.

In my very first set of predictions I asserted that:

General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.

Though I continue to maintain the accuracy of that prediction I’ve gotten a lot of pushback on it. More so than for any of my other predictions. This pushback has only gotten more intense as the amazing abilities of large language models (LLM) have become increasingly apparent. You may have heard about these models, particularly the one released just a month ago: ChatGPT

If you’ve had the chance to play around with ChatGPT it is pretty freaking amazing. It seems to possess some real intelligence, So am I wrong? And if I’m not wrong, then I have to at least be less certain, right? Well, I don’t think I’m wrong, yet. But it would be foolish not to update my beliefs based on this new evidence, so I have. Still… I don’t think the evidence is as strong as people think. 

We’ve got plenty of evidence for ChatGPT’s ability to produce writing that’s around the average of writing fed into it. But where’s the evidence of it producing far better content than that? Where’s the evidence of genius?

A post from Freddie deBoer sent me down this path. He asked ChatGPT to recreate the “to be or not to be” speech in vernacular African-American English, and it was profoundly mediocre. This by itself isn’t damning, the technology is still very young. But how does ChatGPT get from mediocrity to brilliance?

There are plans to throw even more writing at it, but unless there’s some cache of superlative writing they’ve been holding back on, won’t more writing just be a way of more deeply entrenching the average? 

If more writing samples isn’t the answer, then another possibility is training. If we have users provide feedback on when it’s being brilliant vs. when it’s being mediocre, then, in theory, it will become more brilliant. In the same way that they’ve trained it to avoid controversial positions. Unfortunately this sort of reinforcement training doesn’t work great even if the goal is straightforward, and identifying brilliance is anything but straightforward. Also it would seem that “be brilliant” and “avoid controversy” are going to end up being contradictory mandates much of the time.

None of this is to say that ChatGPT and similar technology isn’t going to be terrifically disruptive. It will be. (You may add that to my list of predictions if you wish.) There will be huge changes in the way writing is done, particularly required writing. We may have already seen the effective end of assigning essays as homework. But if AI is going to be as consequential as its proponents claim, it’s not enough for it to produce average work. It has to be able to produce brilliant work.

To distill it down, I have all the faith in the world that a LLM will eventually be able to do 80 or even 90 percent of what humans can do. But it’s that last and top 10% where all the magic is. And it’s not clear to me how we get genius outputs from mediocre inputs, regardless of how voluminous that input is. 

I asked ChatGPT to “write a clever appeal for patreon donations to append to the end of an article about chatGPT’s lack of brilliance”. The first result was long and mediocre, so I told it to shorten it. Then it was short and mediocre. Finally I told it to make it funny. Here’s what it came up with:

Hey there! If you enjoyed reading about chatGPT’s lack of brilliance, you might be wondering how we keep coming up with new material. The answer is simple: we have a team of highly skilled monkeys typing on old typewriters. But seriously, if you want to support our team of human writers and keep the monkey-typing to a minimum, consider becoming a patron on Patreon. Every little bit helps, and with your support, we can keep bringing you the most hilarious (and accurate) AI and NLP content around. Thanks for your help! 

Eschatologist #23 – Avoiding Risk

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I’m going to talk about FTX. I know, you’re sick of hearing about it, and you’re sick of Sam Bankman-Fried’s face and seeing his name abbreviated as just SBF. But out of the thousands of “hot takes” this story has generated, this is the “hot take” you needed, but didn’t know it. Though, as with all examples of greatness, I’ll be standing on the shoulders of giants. Let’s start with Tyler Cowen, the noted economist who observed that:

Hardly anyone associated with Future Fund saw the existential risk to…Future Fund, even though they were as close to it as one could possibly be.

Future Fund was also called FTX Future Fund, and was wholly funded by “profits” from FTX. Their primary focus was on preventing future risk, so you can see how Cowen might find the situation ironic. I also think it’s super ironic, though I’m inclined to cut them a little bit of slack. Risk detection and mitigation is hard, and technology has only made it harder. 

Of course thievery predates humans by tens of millions of years, and even Ponzi schemes have been around since at least 1920 when Charles Ponzi started his. (You can see why I’m only cutting them a little bit of slack.) But the crypto-specific version of the scam was brand new. Being able to privately mint something that is half currency/half asset and then sell a small portion of it to create a scandalously inflated mark to market value for that currency/asset is an innovation. An innovation in evil but an innovation nonetheless. 

So yes, as has been pointed out, this lack of foresight is perhaps not quite the abject failure Cowen makes it out to be, but it’s still a good illustration of how difficult it is to avoid risk. You can have an organization where that’s their entire purpose, and they can be blindsided by something because they were only looking for specific kinds of risk. 

The Future Fund was focused on exotic risks, which is a fascination many people have recently developed. But in their focus on exotic risks they missed a very common risk. They could imagine a malevolent all powerful AI. (It’s the first item on their Areas of Interest list.) But they couldn’t imagine that SBF was a common criminal (or they could but didn’t do anything about it). 

The simple point would be: don’t let shiny new exotic risks distract you from common everyday risks. But the larger point is that we have to have a comprehensive approach to risk. The Future Fund and others are correct, technology has created a host of new dangers. But reality is not some game where when you reach the next level you never again see the monsters from the previous levels. We always have to deal with all the monsters, the old ones, the new ones we’ve created, and a whole host of other monsters lurking just out of sight.

The hard and uncaring universe doesn’t grade on a curve. It doesn’t imagine the answer you thought you were giving and say close enough. It doesn’t care what your intentions were — that technology is supposed to be a good thing. When it creates risk it does so randomly and capriciously. To look at just one more recent example: when you close down schools, the universe doesn’t automatically turn that into a good decision because you did it in the name of safety. Risk doesn’t just emerge from actions that are obviously bad. 

This is particularly important when considering technology. Nearly all of it was developed for the benefit of humanity, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t enabled a host of new risks. There are the obvious risks from engineered pandemics, nuclear weapons and being hit by a comet, but it has also brought a host of subtler risks: risks of stagnation, discord, and narcissism. And, as we discovered with FTX, it’s created new ways to package old risks.

So while it’s understandable that Future Fund missed the rampant fraud, it’s not forgivable. Because there is no forgiveness, there are only consequences. And if your fund, or your nation or your world ends, it doesn’t matter how it happened. And while I personally believe our souls will be graded by a kind and understanding judge and our intentions will matter. As long as we’re still in this life, we still need to be aware of all the risks, the old and the new, the big and the small, the flashy and the subtle, but most of all the thousands of new risks we’ve created for ourselves. We need to step up our game.

After all of this you may be wondering, is anything risk free? Or will we inevitably discover that it all has negative second order effects? Well, there is one thing completely free of risk: donating to this blog. And yes, I know that sounds self-interested, but as SBF once said, trust me here. I know what I’m doing.

Eschatologist #22 – A Survey

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This is my 300th post. It’s only my 22nd newsletter, but given that it’s 2022, that seemed numerologically significant enough for it to also count as a special occasion. An occasion on which to reflect on the whole grubby endeavor. 

Writing is a weird business. To put out any level of content consistently you have to basically treat it as a part time job. A difficult, lonely, job where you mostly work for free. So why do it? That is an excellent question. As I mentioned in a previous post, I suffer from the silly and conceited idea that I have something important to say. But why do I think that?

All of the attributes I’ve already mentioned make it very easy to get trapped in an individual echo chamber. Constantly regurgitating one good idea until everyone is sick of it. And that assumes that I have one good idea. (I actually fancy I have more than that, but once again why do I think that?)

Numerous people have sent me emails over the years, left comments, mentioned me on Twitter, or done some other form of social media shout out. But while such spontaneous feedback is always appreciated (more than you know), sometimes it’s best to be direct.

Given the numerological significance of this newsletter/post/episode it seemed the perfect opportunity to just come out and ask for feedback. In order to make it easy I’ve created a survey. Which asks all sorts of useful questions including a query about the many things I could be doing better, and even a couple about the many things I might be doing right.

Here’s the link: 

For those who might still be hesitating, there are only 15 questions, none are required, but one lucky person who fills out all 15 will get a $100 Amazon Gift Card. And next month we’ll return to your normally scheduled pedantry.

I’m not kidding about the $100 gift card. In fact depending on the number of responses I get, I may give out two of them! So go, and fill out the survey!

Eschatologist #21: But What if They’re Wrong?

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I recently finished reading three different books:

I mention these books together because they all make very strong predictions about the future. 

Dalio predicts that the US will continue to decline and eventually be supplanted as the dominant world power by China. 

Zeihan predicts that the US will return to isolationism, which will be fine for them/us, but an absolute disaster for the rest of the world, particularly China. 

Deutsch predicts an amazing future where everything is awesome for everyone. 

These are wildly different visions of the future, and I’ll get into actual details in a future essay. (If you’re interested in reading it you should sign up for the “Everything I Write” newsletter.) But for now I just want to talk about how an individual should approach these very different predictions. Because my advice is going to be different than most. 

Before anything else you might notice that the first two predictions are essentially pessimistic, while the final prediction is super optimistic. After making that determination most people would move on to trying to determine which of them is the most accurate. The methodology isn’t particularly important. 

They might compare the predictions of the book vs. what’s actually happening. Particularly if the book has been out for a while. They might “go with their gut”. They might look at the opinions of the experts, though that’s basically how we ended up here in the first place. All three of these authors are considered to be experts, and yet despite that, their predictions couldn’t be more different. What all of this illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter which methodology you use. Predicting the future, particularly with any degree of specificity, is impossible.

Consequently, I’d like to suggest the opposite approach. To suggest that rather than asking what the consequences might be if they’re right, that instead you should be asking, “What if they’re wrong?” Or more specifically what if you decide to follow their advice and it turns out to be wrong? (Of course if you follow their advice and they turn out to be correct then you win.)

But you start by following their advice. If you decided to follow Dalio you might mostly divest from the stock market and put a lot of money into gold. In theory you might move to China, but more likely you’d try to live more modestly where you already are. Perhaps search out a strong community. 

With Zeihan, despite the differences between their predictions, you might do something very similar. Though of course you definitely wouldn’t move to China. 

With Deutsch though, things would be very different. He doesn’t have any specific investment recommendations, but I suspect you’d put a lot of money into crypto. Rather than living in America or China you’d probably live wherever it’s cheapest, and not worry too much about embedding yourself deeply in a community. 

And if you’re wrong? With Dalio and Zeihan, it’s not really a big deal. You probably traveled less than you might have otherwise, and you own fewer luxuries. But if they’re wrong you’re still fine. And it should be noted that despite the very different character of Dalio and Zeihan’s predictions, you’re mostly able to prepare for both at the same time. And beyond that you were probably better prepared for a host of other catastrophes as well. 

However if you decided to follow Deutsch’s advice, and he ends up being wrong then your situation is much worse. You might find yourself trapped either in the new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Dalio) or on the other side of the newly dangerous oceans which are crawling with pirates (Zeihan). You might have lost all your money when the tech sector collapses and with it the value of crypto. Or some other constellation of bad outcomes. (As you’ll recall I said predicting the future was impossible.)

The key point is that you need to consider both if someone is right and if they’re wrong, and how bad both of those things are. Because if you’re okay if either one happens then you can’t lose. But if you need them to be right, because you can’t handle them being wrong, well then you may be in for a very nasty surprise. Because they might very well be wrong.

You might be asking “But what if you’re wrong?” Ahh, I have trained you perhaps too well. I’m never wrong, I’m just misunderstood. I know this because of how often I have to repeat the same appeal. You know the one, “Consider donating”?

Eschatologist #20: The Antifragility of Taboos

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We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better.

You might imagine that since taboos are also human creations that they would suffer from the same fragility I described in my last newsletter. But there is a difference between systems which were invented and systems which have evolved. The process of evolution separates the antifragile from the fragile. 

Antifragile things are made stronger by disorder, chaos and other shocks (up to a point). Fragile things are made weaker. Invented things, by nature of their novelty have not been subjected to ongoing shocks or chaos, while evolved things have undergone that evolution in the presence of and in response to such shocks and chaos.

All of this is to say that for something to become a taboo, it must have survived. It must not have broken. Which means, it’s antifragile. More specifically it made the culture as a whole antifragile. 

At this point some of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah. Chesterton’s Fence. I get it.” But I would argue that this is a stronger argument than the one Chesterton was making. Chesterton pointed out that you shouldn’t remove a fence unless you understood the reason it was constructed. But this assumed that if you put in some effort, you could uncover that reason. Probably just by asking around. The fence is an invention, and it’s assumed you could find the reason for its invention.

Evolutions leave fewer clues, but despite that they end up being even more important. You might be familiar with the famous example of how the preparation of manioc evolved in order to eliminate the cyanide. The indigenous people who undertook such preparations had no idea what cyanide was, nor would the connection between chronic cyanide poisoning and the processes of manioc preparation have been easy to discern. Now that we can test for cyanide the reason for the extensive preparations is obvious. But just because we can uncover the underlying reason for one taboo, doesn’t mean we can uncover the underlying reason for all taboos. 

To take an example that’s closer to home, let’s consider the longstanding and very widespread taboo against premarital sex. (Consider for a moment: Why should China and the West, historically so different in most other respects, have this exact same taboo?)

Adherence to this taboo has plummeted since the sexual revolution, and to the extent people think about why it existed in the first place they imagine that sex produces children who need to be cared for, but now that we have numerous methods of birth control we can dispense with it. They might admit that there used to be a reason for the taboo, but that technology has solved the problem—that our inventions have eliminated the need for our evolutions. 

I think this is sheer hubris, and I’m not alone. In her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry makes the case that the taboo solved numerous other problems like preventing sexual violence, which we’re only now grappling with. That “hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women”. 

But does this mean that all traditional taboos are antifragile evolutions that should be maintained absent ironclad evidence to the contrary? And what about traditional culture more broadly? 

I’m arguing that in both cases this should be the default. That we should be very careful anytime we think we’ve invented our way out of a problem previously solved by cultural evolution. And in particular we should never imagine that our ancestors were silly and superstitious and had no reason for a taboo. And yet both things are far too common. In so many areas we’ve abandoned thousands of years of wisdom because it seemed unnecessary, archaic, or just inconvenient. 

This has been and will continue to be a mistake.

Some might dismiss me as an old man yelling at the clouds, but if old men have been yelling at clouds for thousands of years, I’m asking you to assume that there’s a good reason for it. 

I’m always on the lookout for good band names and this newsletter had a surprising number: Material to Ephemeral, Evolved Taboos, Sheer Hubris, and of course Old Men Yelling at Clouds. To those I’d like to add, Donations Encouraged.  

Eschatologist #19: The Non-linearity of Baggage Systems

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I ended the last newsletter by suggesting that we needed to make things less fragile, but without giving any concrete suggestions for how we might accomplish that.

Unfortunately reducing fragility is neither easy, quick, nor straightforward. It is an exceptionally complicated endeavor. Fragilities only become obvious after they’ve caused something to break, before then they’re easy to overlook. Also many things we’ve come to value, like efficiency and low cost, work to increase fragility. So it’s an uphill struggle.

Considering both the non-obvious and counterintuitive nature of the problem, the first step in eliminating fragility is to identify it. Unfortunately I’ve just had an experience with a fragile system which broke spectacularly, so let’s start there.

I took a big trip to Ireland in July. (I returned just a few days ago.) After arriving in Dublin, I went through customs, and headed to baggage claim. Once there I was greeted by a discouraging sight. There were bags everywhere. Not only were there bags on the carousel (which was to be expected) there were small piles of bags all around them. Beyond that there was a veritable sea of bags (I’d estimate at least a thousand) arranged behind some rope on one side of the room. It was apparent that something about the baggage handling process had broken. 

I got a small taste of that breakage. The display showed the wrong carousel, my bag was on carousel 3, not 6. So when there was an overhead announcement about a “wee mixup” I headed over there and luckily my bag was waiting for me. The rest of my family, who arrived a few days after me, got a large taste of that breakage.

I connected in Atlanta, they connected in Schiphol (Amsterdam). You probably haven’t been following the baggage chaos as closely as we have, but Schiphol has been having serious problems with baggage. At one point, KLM stopped allowing checked luggage altogether. When the flight from SLC to Amsterdam got in late, they made the connection to Dublin, but their baggage didn’t. 

In the past when your luggage missed a connection there was an 85% chance it would be delivered within 36 hours. It took eight days for their luggage to be delivered and that was only after the manager of the delivery company took it upon himself to spend a couple of hours finding it in the sea of bags I mentioned earlier. 

This is one of the hallmarks of fragility, small disruptions can lead to huge catastrophes.

More technically the system is non-linear. In this case the problems at Schiphol appear to be due to staffing shortages, directly due to a shortage of baggage handlers, and indirectly because a shortage of pilots is causing flights to be delayed. I couldn’t find statistics on Schiphol baggage handlers, but the number of pilots is down only 4% from its pre-pandemic peak. That was all it took to cause the delays and cancellations you’ve been hearing about.

I’m guessing the percentage decrease among baggage handlers is also surprisingly low, but let’s assume they have been hit even harder and that there’s been a 25% reduction in their numbers. This does not mean that 25% more baggage gets lost or it takes 25% longer to deliver. It means the amount of lost luggage increases a thousandfold, and you may never get your bags.

As I mentioned, my family got lucky. I sat next to a couple on the flight home whose luggage never showed up in the 10 days they were there. They told me that just recently the airlines have set up warehouses for lost luggage in Dublin where people can actually look through the luggage. (Previously all the luggage was behind security.) They visited the one for Delta/KLM and said there were probably five thousand bags in just that warehouse. (After seeing the picture they took I agreed.) While they were there they talked to people who’d been waiting for their bags for over a month.

This is what fragility looks like in the modern world: complicated systems where minor problems on the backend lead to total disasters on the front end. And the problem is, there are always going to be minor problems, which will lead to more and more disasters. Let’s just hope that when those disasters happen, you’re not in the middle of your vacation to Ireland.

The picture at the top of the newsletter is Kilmacduagh Monastery, or at least the ruins thereof. The tower is the largest pre-modern structure in Ireland. And it’s still standing. That’s the kind of robustness we should be looking for. If you think what I’m doing is helping with that, or if you just like the picture, consider donating.