A Cautionary Tale

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I forget when Mark first told me about Becky. (All names have been changed for reasons which will shortly become obvious.) They met at work, I know that much. Mark didn’t have many friends, and he definitely didn’t have many, or perhaps even any, female friends, so Becky appeared to be a positive development.

It was early summer or maybe late spring of last year when Mark said that Becky was moving in with him. I was told that it was completely platonic, and she had a boyfriend. (I later found out that his name was David.) At the time I had no reason to doubt the platonic part, or the boyfriend part. Though the arrangement still struck me as being a little bit weird. The story was that she wanted to sell her home while the market was hot, and consequently she needed a place to stay. Mark’s house isn’t very large, two bedrooms, one bath, definitely less than a thousand square feet, so it was going to be tight, but I was told it was just temporary, while she waited for her boyfriend to finish a job in Canada.

As the months passed I heard rumblings that whatever the boyfriend was doing in Canada was taking longer and costing more than it should have, and, as a result, he was delayed. This annoyed Mark, because it prolonged the inconvenience, but otherwise things seemed to be okay. Over the last few weeks I got the feeling that tensions were starting to simmer but I assumed it was related to the stress of trying to cram two adults and two households worth of stuff into too little space. But supposedly it would all be over soon. Becky had sent her boyfriend some money to finish off the last of the job, and it would all be wrapped up any day now. 

The true nature of the situation was finally revealed to me last week. Mark approached me asking for advice, but what he really needed was money. The story he told me appeared plausible at first glance. The boyfriend had contracted with Suncor Energy to build an oil rig, and in between the pandemic and the subsequent supply chain issues, he was over-budget, and out of money, but if he could just finish the job he would get paid the remainder of his fees and he could make everyone whole. And all it would take to finish the job was $15,000 so he could purchase one final diesel generator. Mark came to me because it was urgent, David was being sued, and was facing jail time. 

I immediately questioned the idea of jail time for a civil matter, but when Mark assured me that he had looked it up, I let the matter drop. It’s very common for people to offload their critical thinking to other people. No one has the time to critically examine every piece of information. This is why doctors, lawyers, scientists and republican governments exist. And I assumed that Mark had already done significant due diligence, particularly when he mentioned that he had given David (via Becky) a considerable sum of his own money. So while a couple of warning lights were active, my entire dashboard wasn’t lit up, at least not yet. Fortunately those couple of warning lights were more than sufficient to keep me from handing over any money without documentation. But, honestly, I kind of expected it would be a formality. 

In response they sent me this:

And this:

Okay… apparently it wasn’t a formality, apparently we have some very lazy scammers on our hands. The letter has all kinds of typos, and what on Earth is “Please accept our congratulations” doing in there? As far as the second document, I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to represent. Also I have had the unfortunate experience of being sued and nothing about the process ever amounted to a single page.

Still there was part of me that resisted the obvious conclusion because if I was right, and I had stumbled onto the last stages of an advance-fee scam, it meant that my friend Mark, and his friend Becky were out a LOT of money. Even with changing the name, “Mark” would rather I didn’t reveal how much money it was, but between the two of them it was well into the six figures. Also I was under the impression that David and Becky had met before he went to Canada, which didn’t seem to fit the fraud narrative. I later found out that they had in fact met on the internet. Which cast everything in a completely different light.

It was in fact a tragedy of colossal proportions. Becky was retired, and on social security. She had already sent “David” and his “attorney” all of the proceeds from the sale of her house, plus every last dime she could beg, borrow, or steal. Which is how she ended up convincing Mark to do something similar, including taking out a HELOC on his house, which, previous to this, had been paid off. 

I resisted immediately saying it was a scam, and instead took the tack with Mark and Becky that if David really was being sued they ought to be able to bury me in documents. Just the initial complaint ought to be 20+ pages. Becky said she would see what she could do, but she really needed the money that very day. David and his lawyer were desperate, and kept calling her. No problem, I told her, have them call me. In response I was texted the attorney’s name, Brandon, and number, 813-551-1668 along with the caution that he had an accent.

I tried calling the number. It rang, and rang and rang, never even going to voicemail. I finally hung up. A few minutes later the “attorney” called me back. His number came in as “Scam Likely” and from the second I got on the phone whatever hopes or doubts I had vanished. Just from the way he answered the phone I knew this was no attorney, and yes there was an accent. I didn’t talk to him long enough that I could place it, but it wasn’t the accent of a native English speaker (Becky claimed he was British). He may have mentioned diesel generators, but I immediately asked for his last name so I could look him up on the internet. There was silence on the other end of the line. I asked him again more forcefully. He hung up. The following text conversation ensued:

I forwarded that to Mark. I’m not sure how much he told Becky, but she promised she would get me more documents, but that David and his lawyer were super busy in court, and that’s why they couldn’t send me stuff…

In the end I got three more documents:

There’s lots that could be said about these documents, but my point is not to dive into the minutia of the scam. Though I did find it interesting that all the “court” documents, despite only being a single page in length, always make sure to mention that the money is just out there waiting to be paid the minute the job is finished. 

Also while I couldn’t find anything on the internet about the people or the case or the job (which is to be expected) Paul-Jean Charest, the signer of the last document, is an actual employee of the Cour du Québec, and I located his email. I sent him the document and asked him if it had been issued by his office. I wasn’t sure if he’d respond. Having your email on the internet probably attracts a lot of spam, but he did, the next day with an emphatic “No”. He wanted my number so he could call and talk to me. He has yet to do that, but perhaps I’ll call him at some point. I haven’t done so already because I’m very doubtful he’ll be able to do anything to help.

Given the disaster it represents it’s not surprising that Mark was somewhat resistant to completely giving up hope, but the email from Monsieur Charest was the final nail in the coffin. Becky unfortunately still believes. This is the last text message I got from her:

I don’t share this message to in any way mock Becky, but as a further illustration of the tragedy, and as bad as this tragedy is, as you might imagine, there’s more to come. There’s the obvious point at which Becky realizes it’s a scam, that she never had a boyfriend, only a very wicked person pretending to love her so he could take all of her money and then some. And what is Mark to do about Becky? She’s living at his house and now doesn’t have any money with which to move out. I’m not sure her SSI would even get her an apartment (particularly given that she has a dog.) So the story will continue, but we’ve reached the end of it for now.

Is this one of those stories that ends with a moral? One would hope so. I’d like to think there’s some lesson we can gain from the disaster. Some small benefit we can pluck from the carnage.

And one that goes beyond just “There are bad people out there doing bad things. Watch out!” I’m aware that this is an N=1 situation (or maybe N=3 if you count Mark, Becky and myself) so to the extent there is a moral, it’s based on one anecdote, not extensive data, but hopefully it will carry some utility regardless. With that caveat in place here’s a few things that stand out to me.

I’d obviously like to talk to Becky and get more of the details on how things began. How long before “David” asked for money. One of the documents mentions 2019, and I think they said it had been going on four years at some point, but obviously the pandemic and the supply chain issues were huge gifts to the scammers. Suddenly whatever they claimed as far as delays and cost overruns made perfect sense. 

But even without the gift of the pandemic, the narrative and story behind this particular advance fee scheme strikes me as being far more sophisticated and believable than the ones I’ve heard about in the past — the traditional Nigerian Prince scam, and the one’s which just claim that there’s a huge amount of money locked up in an account. Those traditional schemes seemed so ridiculous on their face that you could imagine that only greedy people would fall for them. Such that we might comfort ourselves by saying that they got what they deserved. This scheme wasn’t driven by greed, but by love. At no time did Becky ever offer me double my money back, or something like that. It was always “Help my boyfriend and I’ll promise to pay you back. Even if I have to do it myself.” That said, I’m sure the romance angle isn’t new, still it seems more pernicious, and also easier to pull off now that online dating is far more common. 

Speaking of which, is this scam easier to pull off in general these days than it was in the past? The documents she sent look reasonably authentic. It’s mostly only the content (or lack thereof) that is suspicious. They have watermarks, logos and stamps. Obviously the technology required for this level of fakery has been around for a couple of decades, but what about new technology? How long before ChatGPT or something similar could have given me the 20+ page complaint I expected? Or craft a believable news story with pictures? Headline: “Provo business man secures lucrative $17.5 million dollar contract.” Perhaps the resources available to detect such scams is also greater? Maybe so, but Becky would have had to choose to avail herself of those resources. Or even know they exist.

A quick internet search would seem to indicate that such scams are in fact on the rise. Here’s a headline from CNBC: Consumers lost $5.8 billion to fraud last year — up 70% over 2020. A 70% year over year increase is huge. Also of note, the article reveals that the average amount lost to an imposter scam is $1000, so Mark and Becky are giant outliers in the amount they lost. 

If we allow ourselves to get even more speculative, I have to wonder if there’s something about the modern world that made Mark particularly vulnerable. Some background: he had a career in tech, but it got derailed by the dot-com bust. I’m sure he could have resurrected it if he’d worked hard enough, but instead he drifted into a series of service sector jobs. This was mostly fine. Being single he didn’t need much money, and up until he got enmeshed in this scam he was doing pretty well. His house was paid off, and he had enough money to avail himself of all the comforts of modernity (streaming services, eating out, pursuing his hobbies) and have a surplus on top of that. In other words, Mark didn’t fall prey to the scam because he was bad with money. He was great at living within his means. So how did this particular scam end up being his Achilles heel?

As I said we’re in more speculative territory. I think having few friends and fewer family contributed. Mark’s parents are both dead. He cut off his brother for being a conspiracy-obsessed Trump supporter, and his remaining sibling, a sister, lives out of state, nor are they very close. One imagines that if Mark hadn’t been so atomized, if he had had a large community, that it would have helped. Though perhaps I’m wrong about that. Mormons are famous for having strong communities, and also for their susceptibility to affinity scams. Maybe Mark had precisely the wrong amount of community, enough to be snared by Becky, but not enough that anyone cautioned him. 

What about marriage? If he had been married to Becky, or married, period, it wouldn’t have happened. Instead he ended up deep in white knight mode, another thing modernity seems to have made far more common. This first started when he agreed to let Becky move in, but it then progressed to the point that he gave her all his money. One also detects something of Richard Hanania’s Women’s Tears observation, and by Mark’s report there were a lot of tears shed. 

If anyone out there has any ideas for recovering the money I’m all ears. But I’m guessing it’s gone, and shortly “David” and the “attorney” will disappear as well. Leaving only a wound that will haunt Mark and Becky for the rest of their lives.


It doesn’t feel like the time for jokes, but it does feel like a time where it might be appropriate to ask for money. I am helping Mark out somewhat, but if anyone also feels like helping, I will take any pledges which come in over the next couple of weeks and give them entirely to Mark, for the duration of that pledge. (So if you sign up for $3/month on patreon, I’ll make sure Mark get’s $3 every month as long as it lasts.) 


Polycrises or Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

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There are people who are optimistic about the future. I am not one of them. (I do have religious faith, but that’s different.) I am open to the idea that I should be more optimistic, but that doesn’t seem supported by “facts on the ground” as they say.

Some might argue that I have a bias for ignoring the good facts and focusing on the bad ones. That’s certainly possible, but I have put forth considerable effort to expose myself to people making the case for optimism. Here are links to some of my reviews of Pinker, perhaps the most notable of our current modern optimists. Beyond Pinker I’ve read books by Fukuyama, Deutsch, Yglesias, Zeihan and Cowen, and while these authors might not have quite the optimism of Pinker, they nevertheless put forth optimistic arguments. Finally if any of you have recommendations for optimists I’ve missed, I promise I’ll read them. (Assuming I haven’t already. That list of authors is not exhaustive.)

After doing all this reading, why do I remain unconvinced and expect to remain that way, regardless of what else I end up coming across? To understand that we first have to understand their case for optimism. It generally rests on two pillars:

First, they emphasize the amazing progress we’ve made over the last few centuries and in particular over the last few decades. And indeed there has been enormous progress in things like violence, poverty, health, infant mortality, minority rights, etc. They assume, with some justification, that this progress will continue. Generally it is dicey to try predicting the future, but they have a pretty good reason for believing that this time it’s different. Through the tools of science and reason we have created a perpetual knowledge generation machine, and increasing knowledge leads to increasing progress. Or so their argument goes.

Second, they’ll examine the things we’re worried about and make the case that they’re not as bad as people think. That certain groups are incentivized, either because it attracts an audience or there’s money involved, or because of their individual biases to engage in fearmongering. Highlighting the most apocalyptic scenarios and data, while downplaying things that paint a more moderate picture. Pinker is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for his optimism about global warming. Which is not to say that he doesn’t think it’s a problem, merely that he believes the same tools of knowledge generation that solved, or mitigated, many of our past problems will be up to the task of mitigating, or outright solving the problem of climate change as well.

In both of these categories Pinker and the other’s make excellent and compelling points. And, on balance, they’re entirely correct. Despite the pandemic, despite the war in Ukraine, despite the opioid epidemic, and a lot of other things (many of them mentioned in this space) 2023 is just about the best time to be alive, ever. Notice I said “just about”. Life expectancy has actually been going down recently, and yes the pandemic played a big role in that, but it had been stagnant since 2010. Teen mental health has gotten worse. Murders are on the rise. This is a US-centric view, but outside of the US there’s the aforementioned war in Ukraine, but also famine is on the rise in much of Africa. With these statistics in mind it certainly seems possible that as great as 2023 is that 2010 was better. 

Does this mean that we’ve peaked? That things are going to get steadily worse from here on out? Or are we on something of a plateau, waiting for the next big breakthrough. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of commercializing fusion power, or of widespread enhancements from genetic engineering, or perhaps the AI singularity. 2023 does have ChatGPT which 2010 did not. Or are our current difficulties just noise? If they look back on things from the year 2500 will everything look like one smooth exponential curve? This last possibility is basically what Pinker and the others say is happening, though some are less bullish than Pinker, and some, like Deutsch, are more bullish. 

And, to be clear, on this first point, which is largely focused on human capacity, they may be right. I’m familiar with the seemingly insoluble manure crisis of the late 1800s. And how it suddenly was a complete non-issue once the automobile came along. Still, evidence continues to mount that things are slowing down, that civilization has plateaued. That science, the great engine powering all of our advances, is producing fewer great and disruptive inventions, and resistance to innovation is increasing. If it is, that would mark the big difference between now and the late 1800’s. Back then science still had a lot of juice. Now? That’s questionable. And we might be lucky if it turns out to just be a plateau, the odds that we’re actually going backwards are higher than they’ll admit. But this isn’t the primary focus of this post. I’m more interested in their second claim, that the bad things people are worried about aren’t all that bad. 

In general, albeit in a limited fashion, I also agree with this point. I think if you take any individual problem and sample public opinion, that you will find a bias towards the apocalyptic. One that isn’t supported by the data. As an example many, many people believe that global warming is an extinction level event. It’s not. Of course this assumes that people know about the problem in the first place. There’s a lot of ignorance out there, but it’s human nature that those who are worried about a problem, likely worry more than is warranted. And Pinker, et al. are correct to point it out. That’s not the problem, the problem arises from two other sources.

First, and here I am using Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now as my primary example, there’s an unwarranted assumption of comprehensiveness. In the book, Pinker goes through everything from nuclear war, to AI Risk, to global warming, and several more subjects besides. And when it’s over you’re left with the implication of: “See you don’t need to worry about the future, I’ve comprehensively shown how all of the potential catastrophes are overblown. You can proceed with optimism!” If you’ve been reading my posts closely you may have noticed that on occasion (see for instance the book review in my last post of A Poison Like No Other) I will point out that the potential catastrophe I’ve been discussing is not one covered by Pinker.

Of course, if Pinker just missed a couple of relatively unimportant problems then this oversight is probably no big deal. He covered the big threats, and the smaller threats will probably end up being resolved in a similar fashion. The problem is we don’t know how many threats he missed. Such is the nature of possible catastrophes, there’s not some cheat sheet where they’re all listed, in order of severity. Rather the list is constantly changing, catastrophes are added and subtracted (mostly added) and their potential severity is, at best, an educated guess. Some of them are going to be overblown, as Pinker correctly points out. Some are going to be underestimated, which might end up being the case with microplastics. I’m not sure how big of a problem it will eventually end up being, but given that it didn’t even make it into Pinker’s book, I suspect he’s too dismissive of it. But beyond those catastrophes where our estimate of the severity is off, there’s the most dangerous category of all. Catastrophes that take us completely by surprise. I would offer up social media as an example of a catastrophe in this last category.

As I said, the problems of the optimists arise from two sources. The first is the assumption of comprehensiveness, the second is the ignorance of connectedness. To illustrate this I’d like to go back to a post I wrote back in 2020 about Fermi’s Paradox.

At the time I was responding to a post by Scott Alexander who argued that we shouldn’t fear that the Great Filter is ahead of us. For those who need a refresher on what that means. Fermi’s Paradox is paradoxical because if the Earth is an average example of a planet, then there should be aliens everywhere, but they’re not. Where are they? Somewhere between the millions Earthlike planets out there, and becoming an interstellar civilization there must be a filter. And it must be a great filter because seemingly no one makes it past it. Perhaps the great filter is developing life in the first place. Perhaps it’s going from single celled, to multicellular life. Or perhaps it’s ahead of us. Perhaps it’s easy to get to the point of intelligent life, but then that intelligent life inevitably destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust. In his post Alexander lists four potential great filters which might lie ahead of us and demonstrates how each of them is probably not THE filter. I bring all of this up because it’s a great example of what I’ve been talking about.

First off he makes the same assumption of comprehensiveness I accused Pinker of making — listing four possibilities and then assuming that the issue is closed when there are dozens of potential future great filters. But it’s also an example of the second problem, the way the problems are connected. As I said at the time:

(Also, any technologically advanced civilization would probably have to deal with all these problems at the same time, i.e. if you can create nukes you’re probably close to creating an AI, or exhausting a single planet’s resources. Perhaps individually [none of them is that worrisome] but what about the combination of all of them?)

Yes, Pinker and Alexander may be correct that we don’t have to worry about nuclear war, AI risk, or global warming, when considered individually. But when we combine these elements we get a whole different set of risks. Sure, rather than armageddon there’s an argument to be made that nuclear weapons actually created the Long Peace through the threat of mutually assured destruction, but what happens to that if you add in millions of climate refugees? Does MAD continue to operate? Or, maybe climate refugees won’t materialize (though it seems like we’ve got a pretty bad refugee problem even without tacking the word climate onto things). Are smaller countries going to use AI to engage in asymmetric warfare because nukes are prohibitively expensive and easy to detect? Will this end up causing enough damage that those nations with nukes will retaliate. And then there’s of course the combination of all three things: Are small nations suffering from climatic shifts going to be incentivized to misuse new technology like AI and destabilize the balance created by nukes?

This is just three items which produces only six possible catastrophes. But our list of potential, individual catastrophes is probably in the triple digits by this point. Even if we just limit it to the top ten, that’s 3.6 million potential combinatorial catastrophes. 

Once you start to look for the way our problems combine, you see it everywhere:

  • Microplastics are an annoying pollutant all on their own, but there’s some evidence they contribute to infertility, which worsens the fertility crisis. They get ingested by marine life which heightens the problems of overfishing. Finally, they appear to inhibit plant growth, which makes potential food crises worse as well.
  • You may have seen something about the recent report released by the CDC saying that adolescent girls were reporting record rates of sadness, suicidal ideation, and sexual violence. Obviously social media has to be suspect #1 for this crisis. But I’m not sure it can be blamed for the increase in sexual violence. Isn’t the standard narrative that kids stay home on their phones rather than going out with friends. Don’t you have to be with people to suffer from sexual violence? I’d honestly be surprised if pornography didn’t play a role, but regardless this is definitely a case where two problems are interacting in bad ways.
  • If you believe that climate change is going to exacerbate natural disasters (and there’s evidence for and against that) then these disasters are coming at a particularly bad time. Lots of our infrastructure dates from the 50s and 60s and much of it from even before that. But because of the pensions crisis being suffered by municipalities. We don’t have the money to conduct even normal repairs, let alone repair the additional damage caused by disasters. And most projections indicate that both the disaster problem and the pension problem are just going to get a lot worse. 
  • I’m not the only one who’s noticed this combinatorial effect. Search for polycrisis. There are all sorts of potential crises brewing, and most of the lists (see for example here) don’t even mention the first two sets of items on my list, and they only partially cover the third one.

You may think that one or more of the things I listed are not actually big deals. You may be right, but there are so many problems operating in so many combinations, that we can be wrong about a lot of them, and still have a situation where everything, everywhere is catastrophic all at once.

Pinker and the rest are absolutely correct about the human potential to do amazing good. But they have a tendency to overlook the human potential to cause amazing harm as well. In the past, before things were so interconnected, before our powers were so great. Just a few things had to go right for us to end up with the abundance we currently experience. But to stay where we are, nearly everything has to go right, and nothing, very much, can go wrong.


If you’re curious I did enjoy the Michelle Yeoh movie referenced in the title. I’d like to say that I got the idea for this post from the everything bagel doomsday device. But I didn’t. Still I like bagels, particularly with lox. If you’d like to buy me one, consider donating


The 9 Books I Finished in January

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  1. A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies by: Matt Simon
  2. Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by: Helen Thompson
  3. The Captive Mind by: Czeslaw Milosz
  4. Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer by: Scott P. Scheper
  5. The Farthest Shore by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by: Martha Wells
  7. The Mind of the Maker by: Dorothy L. Sayers
  8. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by: G. K. Chesterton 
  9. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by: Alex & Brett Harris

January is the time for resolutions, for changing course, and doing better. My essay consistency was not great in 2022, but I’ve already talked about the various reasons why that was at some length. It’s time to look forward. What am I hoping to accomplish in 2023?

I really want this to be the year that I publish a book. It may not be the greatest book, or the longest book, but I want there to be a book. I know some of you following along at home have every reason to doubt that such a thing will ever happen, let alone soon, but I’ve decided to always spend at least the first fifteen minutes of my morning writing block working on a book. 

This is not the first time I’ve made this commitment, but hopefully it will stick this time. The problem is that it will be going great but I’ll get behind on my normal blog posts, and end up deciding to skip working on the book for a few days “just until I catch up”. But if I go for too long then it becomes hard to get back into things. So no matter how far behind I feel my new resolution is to never skip this writing.

Of course it would be great if I never felt like I was behind, and as you may have already figured out, being more consistent about getting essays out, and being more consistent about working on my book are contradictory. I’m hoping the structure of all of this helps somewhat, but also I am once again resolving to try and keep at least some of my essays shorter. I mean there’s my newsletter, which is always short, but I think there’s also some space for pieces between that and the 4500 word pieces I seem to have drifted into. Ideally each month I would do my newsletter, my book review round-ups, one or two short essays and one long essay. And perhaps by doing this I can improve the quality at all levels.

In the end there is always going to be a tension between building and keeping an audience’s attention — putting out content frequently — and creating something which really deserves an audience — a fully formed book length treatment of some interesting subject.

In any case, regardless of what happens in 2023 I hope you’ll stick around.


I- Eschatological Reviews

A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies

By: Matt Simon

Published: 2022

252 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way in which we have covered the Earth in microplastics, the potential effects of that, and the possibility of mitigation.

What’s the author’s angle?

Simon has been on the environmental beat for awhile, mostly as a writer for WIRED. You get the feeling that he’s pretty passionate about the subject.

Who should read this book?

If you’re a doomer and you want something else to worry about, this is a great book. If you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of things you can get a good sense of the scale of the problem just reading this WIRED article Simon adapted from the book.

General Thoughts

I’ve been aware that there’s a potential “problem with plastics” for quite a while, but I hadn’t really read very deeply on the subject. Thinking back, I feel like I assumed that it was connected to the worry about disposing of all the trash we create. Since that disposal problem is overblown I guess I kind of figured the plastics problem was as well. This is not to say I was unaware of the problem of BPA and endocrine disrupting chemicals, but I put that in a separate bucket, when in reality it’s just one big catastrophe. As you can tell the book caused me to “update some of my priors” as they say, the question is by how much? To put it another way, I have become convinced that the plastic problem is serious, but I’m still not clear on exactly how serious. At this point I think I’m somewhere between “definitely causing some harm, but mostly around the edges” and “from an environmental perspective it’s worse than global warming”.

Yes, we do have plenty of space for new landfills, but plastic waste is different from conventional waste in three key ways:

  1. It can last for thousands of years
  2. Despite its longevity, small bits of it are breaking off all the time. You’ve probably heard the term microplastics, the book also talks about nanoplastics.
  3. Each of these bits may contain potentially 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which, according to the book, “scientists consider to be of concern”.

The book opens with a trip to the top of Beaver Mountain in Utah, past the ski resort where I happen to go skiing every year, to collect rainwater and see how much plastic it contains. And as Janice, the person doing this collection says, “what the hell, there’s so much plastic in here”. And it’s not just on mountaintops in Utah. 

Everywhere scientists look, they find plastic particles, from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the tippy top of Mount Everest and every place in between.

Simon spends much of the book putting numbers to the “what the hell?” amount. The thousands of particles we ingest each day, the millions of threads shed by our synthetic clothes every wash. The billion particles a formula fed baby ends up consuming just because of the plastic bottles and that’s on top of the microplastics they ingest by crawling around on the floor. An amount 10x higher than what adults ingest.

Even if we stopped producing plastics right now, the plastic that is already in the environment would keep shedding microplastics. But obviously that’s not about to happen, our appetite for plastics continues to grow. 

Eschatological Implications

So we’ve got a situation where we’ve covered the planet in microscopic plastic particles that contain “concerning” chemicals. And it’s just going to get worse for the foreseeable future. How are we supposed to decide on the scope of that problem? 

At first glance it seems tractable. We can do science. We can collect data. We can pass laws. Sure, the absolute ubiquity of plastic makes it impossible to have a control. And, to play off the title a bit, the dose makes the poison. You could have some chemical that is no big deal below a certain threshold and worse than smoking at a somewhat higher level. Also if someone were to argue that, by the time we get a grip on the problem, we’ll be too late to do anything about it, I wouldn’t immediately accuse them of alarmism. But all those issues aside, there are people trying to get a handle on this problem. 

Simon includes studies of plastics’ effect on fishes and coral reefs and plants, and speculation on the effects it might be having on fertility, along with a host of other studies. And it’s all bad. (Though I guess some of the potential problems could cancel each other out. If we’re heading into Children of Men territory with fertility, then it might not matter if microplastics start reducing crop yields.) But we’re still left with the question of how bad? Where does it fall on my aforementioned continuum between some harm around the edges, and worse than global warming? I don’t know that this comparison is actually productive, but CO2 went from 320 to 420 ppm since 1960. Plastic production went from around zero to 420 million tons in the same period. And it’s projected to hit 1.5 trillion tons in 2050. And remember this is not the amount of plastic in existence, this is new plastic being added. Which is to say the curve is massively more exponential. 

I know this is a big number, and the book is full of big numbers, but what sort of harm are we talking about? Is this a forget global warming, forget Ukraine and potential nuclear armageddon and focus entirely on plastics? Or is this, yeah as long as we stop using plastic shopping bags and require better filters on washing machines and dryers we’ll be fine. Simon seems to lean towards the latter, but I’m pretty sure that he figures if he makes the problem sound too intractable that people will just give up. 

It does sound pretty intractable, so I guess I hope it’s one of those things where the curve goes straight up, but it’s fine. Though we have a lot of things where the curve is going straight up and they can’t all be fine…


II- Capsule Reviews

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By: Helen Thompson

Published: 2022

384 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book has three sections: oil and geopolitics, economic craziness post Bretton Woods, and modern democratic weakness. Thompson ties these things together in a complicated source of our current difficulties. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Thompson is a Cambridge professor, so while written for the masses, it is still pretty dense. Which is to say there is a degree to which she wants to display her erudition, which is significant. 

Who should read this book?

If it sounds interesting then you might want to read it. It adds a lot of detail to our current problems, but I don’t know that it brings any really fresh perspective. Thompson’s command of the details is amazing, but if you don’t care about every twist and turn, then you probably won’t enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

For me, the first section covered the ground I was the most unfamiliar with. Of course I knew that oil had played a major role in the world, but Thompson lays out, in rigorous detail, how access to oil drove nearly all major geopolitical decisions in the 20th century. Even if it was one or two steps removed, it was always in there if you dug deep enough. Certainly, it’s possible that she overemphasized oil’s role in some respects, but I wouldn’t want to get into a debate with her about it. I think she would slaughter me.

The second section was interesting, though I came across one review that was pretty critical of it. The review was in Foreign Policy, and the guy seemed to know what he was talking about. (This all gets back to the hard job of deciding between experts I brought up in my last set of reviews.) He didn’t have a problem with the details, rather he felt that Thompson placed too much emphasis on structural factors and not enough on avoidable mistakes made by individuals in power. Otherwise he seemed broadly on board with Thompson’s prognosis. Which is that the Euro-zone is a mess, and that it’s only gotten messier. (The reviewer did say he thoroughly enjoyed the first section however.) 

The third section was the one I was the most interested in, and it sparked the thinking that led the second essay of last month, The Optimal Dosage of War, or at least the conclusion. (Though to be clear it was written before the invasion.) I was particularly intrigued by her idea that you need a strong national identity in order to maintain a democracy within that nation. When one nation is trying to destroy another nation through the medium of war, it automatically provides that. But where does it come from in the absence of war, when the country has ceded decision making to ephemeral international organizations? When it’s mostly seen by its citizens as the provider of spoils to be fought over? 

Having read section three I was somewhat disappointed, she once again gave a very detailed recounting of recent events, but I found those details more distracting than illuminating. This is almost certainly something that reflects poorly on me.  I have a tendency to prefer grand philosophical theories, and balk at the hard work of fitting the details to those theories. And if I were going to use one word to describe this book, it would be “detailed”. And my criticism would be that the details come too quickly. But in a sense that just illustrates her point, the modern world is a complicated structure. And more and more it looks like we’re unequal to the task of managing it.


The Captive Mind 

By: Czeslaw Milosz

Published: 1953

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Milosz defected from Poland to the West in 1951. This book is something of a post mortem of his time there both as a writer and as a close observer of other writers., both under the Nazis, but more importantly under the communists.

What’s the author’s angle?

Milosz is attempting to explain some of the paradoxes of communism to people in the West. And he can’t help but add a dash of apologetics in there. “Yes, me and my fellow intellectuals did stupid things, but here’s why.”

Who should read this book?

When I read books like this I end up noticing parallels between how things worked under communism and how they work today in America. I’m sure that this is in large part due to my particular biases, but even for people without those same biases I think it might be useful to see both the strangeness and the similarities between now and the Eastern Bloc in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned there did appear to be some similarities between the things Milosz described and things that are happening now. Obviously one doesn’t want to make too much of these similarities — 2023 is a vastly better place than the Eastern Bloc during the time of Stalin — but I still think there is some wisdom which might be gleaned. In particular this book dovetailed and illuminated a couple of other books I read recently. The first was Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. Milosz spends quite a bit of time talking about socialist realism, for example:

“Socialist realism” is much more than a matter of taste, of preference for one style of painting or music rather than another. It is concerned with the beliefs which lie at the foundation of human existence. In the field of literature it forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task—to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

It’s hard to be knowledgeable about everything and before reading Capitalist Realism I was unfamiliar with the idea of socialist realism, now that I’ve had it explained by someone who lived through it, I have a better sense of what Fisher was going for. Not to get too far off track, but Milosz was saying that socialist realism channeled all art into a very specific groove, you could only speak about one thing (the awesomeness and power of socialism). Dissent and rebelliousness were unthinkable. Fisher was making an analogous point, that capitalism, despite not having the top down dictatorial nature of socialism, nevertheless seems to similarly funnel everything into a specific groove. It does this not by disallowing dissent and rebelliousness but by absorbing and neutering it. I’m not claiming that Fisher was correct, but I understand where he was going much better now.

The second book it helped to illuminate was The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet. Milosz describes two totalitarian systems, the Nazis and the Communists. In both cases the desire to impose order was very overt, and explicitly ideological, and the order thus imposed was pretty awful. Desmet argued in his book that the desire to impose order is a property of modernity, not something specific just to certain ideologies. Certain ideologies move more quickly in their attempts to impose order, but all modern systems are headed in that direction.

As I read Milosz’s descriptions of the narrowing window of acceptable art, and the pressure being placed on authors and artists to conform, it did feel like that situation and our situation now bore some depressing similarities. Again, I’m sure I’ve got some biases on this front, but I would nevertheless argue that we’re dealing with similar impulses.


Antinet Zettelkasten: A Knowledge System That Will Turn You Into a Prolific Reader, Researcher and Writer

By: Scott P. Scheper

Published: 2022

594 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The one true method of notetaking. It’s Analog, Numeric-Alpha, Tree, and Indexed (thus the acronym ANTI). Based on Niklas Luhman’s actual system, not a modern digital bastardization of it!

What’s the author’s angle?

The “one true” part is a big deal. Scheper spends a lot of time (as in probably 70% of the book) explaining why the true Zettelkasten has to be done his way and how everyone else working in the space has perverted and undermined Luhman’s initial genius

Who should read this book?

If you are mostly convinced that digital is the way to go, but before you go all in you want someone to steelman analog. Or if you want to take good notes, and you want to understand analog note-taking down to its roots. If you just want an overview of Scheper’s system then you can probably do that more efficiently by watching his videos.

General Thoughts

I’ve been using Roam for the last couple of years. It’s pretty cool, but I have a hard time finding time to really take advantage of it, and thus far I haven’t gotten much benefit from old notes. I will think something is worth recording for future use, and then it will never come up again. I imagine that it might end up being useful for writing books (refer back to the intro) but overall I don’t think I’m currently great at taking notes. The question is why? Am I a bad note taker inherently? Is it just an issue of time? Or am I using the wrong system?

I feel like I have an above average memory, and that I’ve probably coasted on that for long enough that at this point I’m disposed to be a bad note taker. As far as time, Scheper confidently asserts that his system only takes two hours a day, which includes the associated reading. I think it’s clear that I read more than average, and I’m still very lucky to get 30 minutes a day where I’m reading an actual book with pen in hand — more often it’s closer to 10 minutes. Obviously I can work on my desire, or I can try to carve out more time, but it seems my best bet is finding a more efficient and effective system, which is why I read this book, and as you can imagine his two hour assertion was already a strike against it.

On the positive side, I definitely came away from the book with some ideas on how to improve things. In particular he had three recommendations that I’m going to try:

  1. He placed a big emphasis on selectivity, and it is easy with modern tools to just dump in everything and let search sort it out.
  2. Closely related to that, he also talked me into the idea of creating a network of knowledge, that rather than just throwing out tags willy-nilly you should carefully consider where to attach a given insight, and that if it attaches to everything it attaches to nothing.
  3. Finally, his idea of having a system that encourages review and re-engagement resonated with me. I re-read old journal entries and the daily notes I took in Roam already and that has been very illuminating. I think a directed subject matter review could work even better.

That’s the good. Here’s the bad. He is a huge advocate for analog, as in writing everything down on cards that get put in actual file drawers. I would guess that 80% of the book amounts to an analog polemic. And despite hundreds of pages of this advocacy I ended the book unconvinced. Sure if I had all the time in the world I would probably do analog, but I don’t. 

He understands that analog is a big ask, and he promises that if you really can’t do it he will tell you how to create a digital version.  And eventually in one of the appendices he does. It takes up all of five pages, and he spends a page and a half emphasizing that the whole thing is a dumb idea and you really should do analog. He then spends two pages offering examples of analog notes as part of the process of establishing a character limit (see step 2 below). Which leaves the final page and a half for actual instructions. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Don’t do it.
  2. Establish a character limit.
  3. Disable editing and deleting.
  4. Make sure it mimics his analog rules as closely as possible.
  5. Disable copy and paste.
  6. Disable tags and backlinks.
  7. No really, don’t do it. Delete the whole thing and go analog.

So his advice is to take everything that might save you time, everything that’s an advantage of digital, and dump it. And then pretend it’s analog, only you’re typing not writing.

The book has some good ideas that I’m actually going to try out, but I had to wade through a lot of “The one true way to take notes is precisely the way I’m doing it” to get to it.


The Farthest Shore

By: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1972

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. This time around he and his young companion, Arren must sail to distant lands to investigate the disappearance of magic.

Who should read this book?

This is another classic of children’s fantasy literature. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything that fits into that category you will probably enjoy this, though you should start with A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Atuan

General Thoughts

The book opens with Prince Arren arriving on Roke, the Isle of the Mages. He bears a disturbing report from his father, the king: wizards and sorcerers are forgetting how to perform magic. By this point in the series Ged is the Archmage, and he decides that he needs to investigate, and invites Arren to accompany him. They soon discover that someone has overcome death, and that in the absence of death magic gradually ceases to function.

The relationship between Ged and Arren is well told, and after spending two other books with Ged it’s nice to see him at the point of maximum wisdom. But what I most enjoyed about the book was Le Guin’s description of what the world looks like in the absence of death and magic. 

I am almost certainly overfitting the events of the novel into my current preoccupations, but the novel felt prescient. The world Le Guin described felt very similar to our own. The lack of death led to a lack of striving, and from there a lack of art and accomplishment. We haven’t conquered death, but we’ve certainly eliminated a lot of it. We’ve also been marinating ourselves in comfort, something I’ve touched on in the last couple of posts. Out of this we seem to be suffering from a malaise similar to what’s described in the book. 

As I said I’m almost certainly overfitting, but it still gave the book a deeper sadness than it had for me on previous readings.


All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) 

By: Martha Wells

Published: 2017

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A security cyborg manages to hack its governor module, which allows it to finally experience something resembling freewill. Because of an unfortunate incident in its past, it calls itself “murderbot”.

Who should read this book?

This was actually a novella, not a novel, and thus only 3 hours on Audible. Most of us listen to podcasts longer than that. (The latest Hardcore History anyone?) At that length a book doesn’t have to be a classic for the ages. It just has to be entertaining, and this definitely was.

General Thoughts

This book won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for the best novella, and I’m not sure what to make of that. As I’ve already said it was definitely entertaining, but it wasn’t out of this world. I felt like Wells could have done more with the premise, and the plot was relatively light weight. As a result it actually could have benefited from a greater length. I mean, you could almost double the length and it still would have been a really short book. 

As usual the question now is whether I should continue with this series. The other entries are equally short, so perhaps I will. 


III- Religious Reviews

The Mind of the Maker 

By: Dorothy L. Sayers

Published: 1941

246 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that the creative process illuminates the nature of the Trinity and vice versa.

What’s the author’s angle?

Beyond being a devout Christian, Sayers was a devout defender of the various creeds (Athanasian, Nicene). This book is a defense of their verity from an unconventional angle. Though one Sayers had experience with since she was best known as a mystery writer.

Who should read this book?

I’m not a trinitarian, and I nevertheless enjoyed the book. I think it’s applicable even if you’re an Arian heretic, but I valued it mostly for the great advice she dispensed on creativity and writing. 

General Thoughts

The book is written in a denser, some might even say, old fashioned style. And while I enjoyed nearly all of it, Sayer seemed to really hit her stride only in the last third of the book. But as I said if you’re a writer, and particularly if you’re a Christian writer, I definitely think this book is worth reading. 


The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare 

by: G. K. Chesterton 

Published: 1908

330 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Scotland Yard detective, who has been tasked with combating negative philosophies, ends up being elected as one of seven members (each named for a day of the week) of the governing council of anarchists. And then strangeness ensues.

Who should read this book?

Chesterton’s writing is always delightful and this book is thought to have inspired Kafka and Bourges. Which I did not expect. Kingsley Amis called it “The most thrilling book I have ever read.” 

General Thoughts

I have a bad habit of reading plot summaries of books. If you’re reading as many books as I do you need all the help you can get keeping things straight. That was a mistake with this book. If you’re going to read it you should definitely do it unspoiled. That said, even knowing how it ends I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Chesterton is one of those people that I would enjoy reading even if he were just describing an average day at the office. 

As something of an example of that, he has his main character defend the poetry of train schedules, and it’s brilliant. I wonder that more neoliberals haven’t adopted it as something of a motto. 

As I said, this is definitely one you should go into unspoiled, so I won’t say anything further, except that it was a great book.


Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations 

By: Alex & Brett Harris

Published: 2008

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A case for getting teenagers to take on bigger tasks and more responsibility. With a particular emphasis on finding a “holy calling” and doing what it takes to fulfill that.

What’s the author’s angle?

At the time the book was written the authors were teens themselves, running a very popular Christian youth website. I’m assuming that the book was, in part, written to promote their wider efforts.

Who should read this book?

If my kids were still teenagers I would have them read this book. There are probably better books than this one if you’re approaching things as a parent. But overall I found it very worthwhile.

General Thoughts

This came up as I was writing my blog post Challenging Children, and since it seemed directly on point to my discussion of hard things, I decided to read it before publishing. In the end I didn’t use very much from it since that post was trying to make the case largely without recourse to religion and as this book was explicitly religious. It was a great book, but I wanted to make the point in a different fashion. 

Beyond that, most books like this fall on a continuum. On the one end are hard facts, studies and data. “Teens who take on greater responsibilities are 50% less suicidal than teens who play video games all day.” (That’s an example I made up btw, not a real statistic.) “These are some proven steps which have been shown to increase children’s ability to be responsible.” Etc.

On the other end of the continuum are inspirational stories. “Fifteen year old Connor, inspired by a magazine showing the lack of clean water in Africa, decided to raise money to dig wells. In the end he provided clean water for twenty thousand people and saved hundreds of lives.” (That is a real story from the book by the way.)

This was pretty firmly on the latter end of things. Lots of great stories, some specific recommendations for how to act but mostly lacking in hard data. Which to be clear is fine, but that’s part of why I think it’s more geared towards teens themselves than their parents. You’re not looking to prove to teens that it’s a good thing to be responsible, you’re trying to inspire them, individually, to choose to be responsible and do hard things.

As I mentioned I already did a whole post on this subject, so I obviously think it’s tremendously important, and this book is a great addition to the effort. If you have teenagers I think you should get them to read this book.


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Eschatologist #25 – Spiritual Health and Suffering

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

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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…


The Optimal Dosage of War

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


My sense is that, ever since the 2009 Eurozone Crisis, opinions about the long term prospects for Europe have tended to be pessimistic. This pessimism ebbs and flows, but it always seems most acute when people look at really long term trends. If you want an incredibly detailed breakdown of the structural and economic reasons for that pessimism I would suggest reading Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by Helen Thompson. (Review coming in the next roundup.) If you want a right-wing, immigration-skeptical case for pessimism I’d recommend the Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray. And if you don’t want to have to read a whole book, here’s an article from Politico which provides a decent snapshot of Europe’s problems at the beginning of 2020. 

The point of this essay is not to get into the specific reasons for this pessimism, though everyone seems to agree that the financial union is a mess, migrant assimilation is not going very smoothly, and even if they figure those two things out, low birthrates will doom Europe eventually regardless. 

This was the primary reason given by Richard Hanania for assuming that Ukraine wouldn’t put up much of a fight if Russia did invade:

Even setting aside the geography of the country, there is no instance I’m aware of in which a country or region with a total fertility rate below replacement has fought a serious insurgency. Once you’re the kind of people who can’t inconvenience yourselves enough to have kids, you are not going to risk your lives for a political ideal.

That, along with everything I’ve mentioned thus far was written before the invasion. So where does that sense of pessimism stand now? How are the people who couldn’t inconvenience themselves enough to have kids doing against the might of Russia? Pretty well all things considered, nor did the rest of Europe decide to sit things out. Sure, Germany dragged its feet quite a bit before eventually agreeing to send 14 tanks, and there are certainly pockets of people who think that the war is either a money pit or risks nuclear escalation, but by and large the governments in Europe have done a good job of coming together. Enough so that you almost detect a spirit of optimism, or at least a can-do attitude that appeared to be missing before the invasion.

I’m not saying that level of optimism is huge, or even durable, but after 11 months of fighting people seem to be working together better, and moving towards something. And it always helps to feel like your side is doing well. And whether Ukraine is winning or not, they’re definitely not losing which is what everyone expected. Russia turned out to not be as scary as people thought. Also, the winter has been unusually mild so there hasn’t really been an energy crisis. Lastly, it feels like the financial mess has also receded into the background. For me at least it feels like there’s a vitality which wasn’t there before the invasion.

It’s not just in Europe that we’ve seen this switch. Here in America, we allocated $40 billion in aid, and while federal spending has reached a point where it’s hard to tell what a truly significant sum is anymore, that is still a lot of money. And the biggest miracle of all, basically 85%, in both houses, voted for it. It was that rarest of all things in politics these days, a significant piece of legislation that didn’t boil down to a straight party line vote. Beyond that I have it on reliable authority that Ukrainian flags are flying outside not only homes in upscale urban neighborhoods, but also in trailer parks in the deep south. 

You genuinely get the sense that after years of the two sides racing apart and only thinking the worst of their opponents. That a spirit of optimism and cooperation has taken root. To the extent that I’m correct (and I think I am) it’s still very limited — it’s entirely located with things related to the war in Ukraine. We’ve yet to come together on much of anything else. Still maybe it’s a start. 

More importantly, from my perspective I think it’s evidence of the thesis I laid out in my post The Solution to Conflict Is More Conflict. For those who aren’t familiar with my entire back catalog, here it is:

The chief reason for the current level of conflict within the nation is the lack of external, unifying threats to the nation. 

In the post I spent a lot of time laying a foundation for that thesis, bringing in the book American Carnage by Tim Alberta, and his discussion of the tension between individual liberalism and democratic homogeneity, really it was good stuff, but for our purposes I said that the Long Peace was an undiscussed phenomenon when considering why politics had gotten so nasty. From that post:

[T]he question I started with was how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently? With this [thesis] in hand, the answer boils down to: war.  Or to look at it from the other direction, the Long Peace. The lack of wars between the great powers since the end of World War II and the development so beloved by people like Steven Pinker, has, somewhat paradoxically, led to another kind of war, the current internal political war. Just as Pashtun Tribesmen will stop fighting their cousins in order to fight the Americans, Republicans will stop fighting Democrats in order to fight the Nazis. But go back to this fight once those external enemies are defeated.

You may argue that the problems with unity didn’t start in 1946, and that’s a fair point, but even though the Cold War didn’t feature any direct hostilities between great powers, there were lots of proxy wars and as someone who grew up while the Soviet Union still existed, I can tell you it definitely felt like they were a threat. As further evidence of unity I offer up the Cold War policy that politics stops at the water’s edge. Something which definitely is not in effect now, and which can’t all be blamed on Trump either.

With the invasion of Ukraine, war returned, and just as I predicted, when we began to focus on fighting Russia, we focused a little less on fighting each other. But this is a very risky and expensive way to achieve that outcome. And our first question, after noticing the connection, is can we achieve this effect without war?

There have been various progressive attempts to frame things this way; to frame things as a war to get the benefits of unity and mobilization without the downsides of the destruction and death that accompany an actual war. There was Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty and Carter declared that the energy crisis was the “moral equivalent of war”, though the phrase first appeared in a William James speech given in 1906. At the time he was considering the same problem we are: maintaining unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or some other credible threat. I’m not sure if progressives, who now use the language of war and mobilization with respect to global warming, are concerned about the same thing that James, but if the war framing works it won’t matter. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to. In fact, if anything, these efforts have seemed to deepen the disunity between the parties.

If we can’t achieve unity in the absence of war through conventional means, perhaps there are more exotic options. I mean basically this is a problem with the way humans are wired right? What if we could change that wiring? We use immunosuppressants to dial down overactive immune systems. Could we do something similar with the humanities overactive threat detection? We’ll call this the transhumanist answer to the problem, and in addition to rewiring humans, we should also toss AI based solutions into this bucket. Perhaps an AI would be able to fine tune the information we receive in the perfect way, allowing us to feel just the right level of threat for just the right reasons, but no more.

Interestingly enough this was the solution offered by the book War What Is It Good For, by Ian Morris (see my review here.) He expects that war will inevitably return once the US Hegemony collapses, which he expects to happen no later than the 2050’s, but as many people are predicting the singularity to arrive in the 2040’s, he hopes that just as the Long Peace ends AI will be ready to take over.

I agree that the possibility of a transhumanist solution is not entirely ridiculous. One of them certainly could happen, but rewiring humans at the scale required would be a gigantic problem with insane logistics that are still mostly in the realm of science fiction. The AI solution seems closer — though I continue to maintain that it’s farther away than people think — but we still have to solve the alignment problem, or the AI could easily be making war against us.

If war is in fact the only potential solution to this problem, we should at least check to see whether it carries any other benefits. I covered this in a previous post, so I’m not going to go too deep here, but many people have theorized that, in addition to political unity, wars turbocharge innovation, act to cull dysfunctional regimes, lessen overall violence, and result in larger nations with greater economies of scale.

One benefit I didn’t cover in that previous post was war’s effect on the aforementioned fertility rate of the belligerents. The most famous bump in fertility, the baby boom, happened in the immediate aftermath of a war. Perhaps we’ll see a similar increase in Ukraine and Russia either after or during the current war? Is it possible the increase will be big enough to replace all the casualties and then some? Most nations experienced a baby boom similar to America’s immediately following WWII, and while I didn’t actually work through the math, if I eyeball things, it looks like the excess births were vastly greater than the deaths caused by the war. You may have noticed I said most nations. Russia was one of the exceptions, but WWII was immediately followed by a famine, and despite this one-two punch, their population had recovered to pre-war levels by 1953. The causal relationship is very speculative, but it should be mentioned that Russia’s population has been flat since the end of the Cold War. It will be interesting to see if the war in Ukraine moves the needle at all. Obviously we’re pretty far into hypotheticals at this point, but if that were the case it would pose an interesting quandary to those whose biggest concern is demographic collapse. 

I mentioned innovation and it’s worth going into that a little bit deeper, given that many people have started to worry that our rate of innovation is slowing. And, if you don’t want to regress to a lower level of technology, continued innovation is required to solve the problems innovation has already created. The big example of this for most people is global warming. While there are some who advocate retreating to a less resource intensive lifestyle, the political will simply isn’t there. The only solution that is both effective and politically palatable is to keep pushing forward with new technology. Of course many would argue, myself included, that we already dropped the ball when we stopped building new nuclear reactors. It’s interesting to imagine how that might have played if we’d been involved in an actual great power conflict. You may disagree, but I think we would have never ended up being derailed and eventually consumed by safetyism.

To return to the topic we started with, it seems increasingly likely that wars may be bad for the health of dictatorships, but good for the health of democracies. I mentioned the renewed optimism, but on top of that war is one of the few things that reduces inequality. You may not be worried about inequality as such, but democracies are always vulnerable to being gutted out by an oligarchic elite. Wars serve to prevent that. Not only do they defuse the power of the entrenched interests. (If you don’t prioritize efficiency over connections you eventually lose wars.) They also help to tie groups of selfish individuals into nations. If you have a strong national identity democracies can work, if you don’t they begin to collapse (as we’re starting to see.) War is the best way of creating that identity, and Ukraine is a powerful example of exactly this process. 

Finally there’s the question implied by the title of the post. Is there some optimum level of war? We have long imagined that the answer was zero, and I think most people, including myself, would hope that that’s the case. But just because you want something to be true doesn’t mean that it is. There comes a time when you have to deal with the world as it is, not the world as you wish it to be. But if we decide that some level of war above zero is optimal, how would we ever manage that?

A theme I keep returning to (see my last post) is that in the past the world naturally provided all the challenges necessary to keep us healthy, but that’s no longer the case. These days the idea of intentionally starting a war would be considered barbaric, even if we were doing it in order to get our “recommended annual dosage of war”. If we were able to surmount those monumental objections we would need to ensure that these wars didn’t escalate into an out of control exchange of nukes. If we were able to navigate all of these challenges, one final challenge remains, would people react the same to artificial war as they do to actual war? Would it provide the unity, the desired sacrifice, and the necessary innovation? Probably not. 

This is one of the reasons why past examples of this effect have been fleeting. Certainly there was a vast amount of unity in the wake of 9/11, but how long did it actually last? A couple of years? We didn’t really get any major boost to unity out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ukraine might be the exception, but how long do you expect the unity generated by the invasion to actually endure? Polling would indicate that we’re already starting to tire of it. Even if we’re not, it’s impossible to imagine that we won’t at some point. 

What is to be done? Certainly one tactic would be to hope that I’m overstating things, or entirely wrong. That is one way to bet, but it doesn’t seem to be the way the evidence points. Though, such evidence will always, by necessity, but mostly anecdotal, there are not enough wars and not enough nations for it to be otherwise. Beyond that I’m not sure. It does appear to be a particularly thorny problem, to be added to the vast collection of thorny problems we’re already dealing with.


An example of another thorny problem created by modernity: the issue of getting paid for content when things can be copied trivially and distributed freely. I don’t know that I’m any closer to solving that than I am to solving the problem of unity in the absence of war, but while I’m thinking about it consider donating. Maybe it will help…


Challenging Children

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I.

The story of Adam and his father in my last essay, The Ineffability of Conservatism, generated a lot of pushback. The negative reactions mostly came from people who were never religious or who had left religion in a fashion similar to Adam. None had taken that journey when they were quite so young, but some wished that they had. And while I think religion had an important role to play in the story, a role I’ll be returning to before the end, I also think that its inclusion may have obscured the fundamental message. (Though using the word “ineffability” in the title probably didn’t help.)

Actually, I take that back. The fundamental problem is still somewhat opaque to me, which means that the fundamental message must necessarily be as well. But, the presence of religion made some points less clear than they could have been. So I decided to take another stab at the topic from a different direction. 

For those unfamiliar with the previous essay, I told the story of Adam, a young man who had decided he no longer believed in the religion of his family and local community. In an attempt to influence him towards staying, the bishop/pastor had arranged for Adam’s father to teach his Sunday School class. Adam, upon seeing that his father was going to teach, very publicly left, despite his father’s entreaties to stay. Much of the post was a reflection on how it would have never even occurred to people of my generation to do such a thing. 

As you can see the story had a very heavy religious angle. It was clearly about young people leaving the faith of their fathers. Which is happening a lot. But it’s also a story about raising children, and parenting. So I decided to write a follow up post where I approach it from that side of things. I think doing so might make certain points easier to get to.

Perhaps there’s something in the water because the minute I made that decision I came across some other people making points similar to the ones I would like to make. Let’s start with Freddie deBoer. Freddie opened the new year with a post titled, Resilience, Another Thing We Can’t Talk About. As you may or may not know, Freddie is no fan of religion. (His second post of the year bemoaned the fact that Richard Dawkins style atheism/skepticism has fallen out of fashion.) But, despite our diametrically opposed religious views, his discussion of resilience is definitely heading in the same direction I plan on going:

If I know one thing is true about every single person reading this, it’s that at some point in 2023, they will suffer. Teaching people how to suffer, how to respond to suffering and survive suffering and grow from suffering, is one of the most essential tasks of any community. Because suffering is inevitable. And I do think that we have lost sight of this essential element of growing up in contemporary society, as armies of helicopter parents pull the leash on their kids tighter and tighter and as harm reduction has eaten every other element of left politics.

Suffering is a big topic, and while Freddie seems mostly focused on involuntary suffering, people also choose to suffer. In my extended family, we frame this latter form of suffering as “doing hard things”. And it’s my contention (and perhaps Freddie’s as well) that teaching children how to do hard things is one of the central tasks of a parent. Your children are definitely going to be confronted with hard things once they’re adults, and if they haven’t mastered that skill or at least practiced it, they’re likely going to fail — maybe catastrophically.

Even if someone agrees that it’s useful to have children do hard things, they may balk at putting all suffering in the same bucket. There is an argument to be made that the challenge of studying hard enough to get a scholarship is a completely different thing than being bullied at school, and that the challenge of attending church when you would rather not, is yet a third sort of challenge. Part of the purpose of this post will be to demonstrate that there’s less difference than you might think, and I will further argue that, even if there is, the skills developed to deal with voluntary suffering can help with involuntary suffering as well. 

Unfortunately, as Freddie points out, a large part of society does not even agree with the need for voluntary suffering. Freddie asserts that everyone will end up suffering at some point during the next year, and this is true, but suffering isn’t guaranteed the way it once was. And while the effect has been gradual, this has led some to decide that suffering can and largely should be eliminated — both the involuntary and the voluntary. Often these people are parents. Freddie calls them “helicopter parents”. I prefer the more recent term “snowplow parents”, parents who clear the path in front of the child, pushing aside all obstacles. Obviously some examples of such parents are more extreme than others. But it’s gotten to the point where lots of these attitudes have spread to society at large and become the default. The question is how did this happen? And can anything be done?

II.

One of the major themes in my previous post was the difference between the conditions teenagers experience now and the conditions I experienced when I was a teenager. These differences are numerous and run the gamut from really large things, like the internet, to small things, like the proliferation of memes. We’ll examine some of the bigger things in a moment, but I would also argue that simply making a list doesn’t do justice to the profound difference between now and 40 years ago. First, we’re almost certainly overlooking some of the things which have changed, because they’re either too small to measure or no one has bothered to measure them. But more importantly, I think that we’ve yet to fully grasp the way changes combine and feed off one another. 

Out of all this, clearly one difference is a broad reduction in the amount of material suffering: The infant mortality rate in the US has nearly halved just since 1990. The child poverty rate has been reduced from 20% to 5% since 1983. And, while these numbers are harder to quantify, childhood injuries appear to also be declining. The obvious progress we’ve made has encouraged parents, who were already predisposed to do everything they can for their kids, to look for ways to eliminate all the suffering which still remains. Given our previous successes, it’s worth asking, “What’s the harm in that?” Unfortunately the answer might be “substantial”.

Obviously I’m not the first person to make this argument, nor will I be the last, but it’s worth reviewing the arguments in light of the different ways suffering can manifest. Probably the best known book to tackle this subject is The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. We don’t have the space to go into everything but a few years ago I did spend a couple of posts talking about it. The Coddling of the American Mind puts forth the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system, and society as a whole. As part of our current discussion we’re just going to look at the first one:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

Freddie calls this untruth the quest for “harm reduction [which] has eaten every other element of left politics.” Lukianoff and Haidt argue that it really kicked in on college campuses starting around 2013, so children born starting in 1995. They mention that this maps to the cohort Jean Twenge labeled as iGen, in her book of the same name. On the opposite side of things from these college kids there is, of course, Nietzsche, from whom the authors adapted their label. And, as you might imagine, since they call it an untruth, Lukianoff and Haidt, who make the case that college students (and humans in general) are antifragile — exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger, up to a point.

That last bit “up to a point” is where most of the fighting takes place. My guess is that most people reading this, and indeed most people, period, agree that children need some challenges. (If you don’t think children need to be strong and resilient this post is not for you.) The fight is over where to draw the line. Which sorts of stress and suffering should be put in the beneficial bucket and which sorts of stress and suffering should be put in the garbage? Obviously involuntary suffering, by definition, can’t be disposed of. So, taken together, we’ve identified three buckets: 

  1. Challenges you can’t avoid.
  2. Challenges you can avoid but choose not to.
  3. Challenges you can avoid and choose to.

Some people would argue that the greater ability to move things from bucket one to bucket three is the whole point of progress. And while humans have been moving things from one to three since at least the dawn of agriculture, lately we’ve gotten a lot better at it, to the point where some would argue that we’re within shouting distance of emptying bucket one. (Which might be a serviceable definition of transhumanism.)

While this movement from one to three is interesting, the subject of this post mostly hinges on whether, if the challenge is in fact voluntary, we should ever place it in bucket two rather than bucket three. And beyond that, under what circumstances the parent should be empowered to put a challenge in bucket two when the child really wants it to be in bucket three.

As I mentioned, our ability to move things out of the first bucket has been increasing for a long time, but Lukianoff and Haidt are arguing that the desirability of moving things from backet two to three has dramatically increased in just the last ten years. There are certainly lots of reasons why this has happened, and getting into the actual causes would take us too far afield, but what Lukianoff and Haidt, and for that matter deBoer are arguing is that it’s spread far and wide enough to have become a societal expectation. Particularly when you’re making the choice between bucket two and three for someone else, i.e. your kids. 

To put it in more blunt terms: it would be insane to argue that we should be maximizing the suffering of children, but on the other hand it seems equally obvious that they need some amount of resilience, some ability to do hard things. So where do we draw the line? If we need to put something into bucket two, what criteria should we use? And perhaps more importantly what criteria should be culturally acceptable? Because if there’s a disconnect between the criteria we “should” be using and the criteria society finds acceptable then society is eventually going to win.

III.

At this point we’re still dealing with fairly crude divisions. If we’re going to get to the heart of the issue we’re going to have to start slicing things more finely, if at all possible. We need to start differentiating between various kinds of stress and suffering, and specific sorts of challenges. 

To start with, homework and other associated educational activities seem to be pretty mainstream, bucket two items. Beyond that some people feel that forcing kids to take music lessons is entirely appropriate. Still other parents are going to very strongly encourage their kids to play sports. By looking at activities like these we should be able to extract some attributes that allow us to differentiate between challenges that should be in bucket two versus those that should be in bucket three. Though, before we do so, it’s sobering to note that even within these broadly unobjectionable categories the expectations we place on kids have been eroding over the last few decades. A trend that was only accelerated by the pandemic.

As a final thought, It’s probably worth mentioning a subcategory of challenges within the preceding examples that involve having children confront their fears, particularly if those fears are irrational, like performing in front of people. Thus the phenomenon music recitals and actual competition with sports. 

We’ve covered, however briefly, forcing or at least strongly encouraging kids to do certain things. What about the flip side of that, restricting kids from doing things? The challenge we’re giving them here is not to do hard things, but to avoid pleasurable things. (Though such avoidance can certainly end up being a hard thing to pull off.) Here again we notice a cultural and societal shift. Certain restrictions against pleasurable things are as old as time itself, but recently both the number and the availability of pleasurable things has increased. Which means we have to implement broader restrictions, starting much younger than in the past. The expanded scope of this task has made the problem much larger than it was in the past.

We’ve already mentioned antifragility in this space, and I think most of the things we’ve mentioned can be placed in that framework. What does this framework look like? Well as it turns out you can graph it:

Antifragility comes from paying small fixed costs which cumulatively increase the chances of massive returns. (For the purposes of our discussion the variable is time.) So if a teenager pays the cost of being a diligent student they increase their chances of getting into a good school and from there landing a great job. On the other hand if the teenager spends all of their time on social media or video games, that’s the bottom graph. They get small fixed amounts of pleasure, but that path leads towards the greater likelihood that they’ll incur some large cost in the future. Perhaps they won’t go to college at all, and end up in a crappy job, or, worse, living at home and unemployed. Obviously none of this is guaranteed, and outliers abound, but remember we’re trying to have a discussion at the level of the entire society. 

Every parent who cares about doing a good job recognizes these trade-offs instinctively. We don’t make our children do hard things because we’re gunning for them. We make them do hard things and avoid short term pleasures because over the long run we think it will make them happier, more successful people. This is what all of the things I listed, and many more that could have been listed, have in common. They require short term pain but provide long term benefits. If your children do challenging things now they’ll be able to do challenging things later, and challenging things are rewarding, both monetarily and psychologically. On the other side of things we counsel against indiscretions, even small ones, because there’s always a chance they’ll lead to irreparable harm. No one tries drugs for the first time thinking they’re going to end up hopelessly addicted to opiods, but yet that does happen. (These days far more often than it should.) 

We’ve managed to spend a lot of time giving examples of antifragile challenges, and even offering up charts, but we’re still a long way from defining at exactly what point exposure to stress and suffering goes from making kids stronger to harming them. Also it’s tempting to imagine that we can separate actually suffering from challenging activities when we seek to encourage resilience. And perhaps you can to a very limited extent, but while involuntary suffering may help you deal with voluntary challenges, I don’t think the inverse is true. I think there’s a danger in trying to move too much out of bucket one. This is the whole basis of the hygiene hypothesis with its connection to the rise of asthma and potentially fatal allergies.

As far as this post is concerned, we may have gone as far as we’re going to in defining the perfect amount of stress and suffering, and as I said, that isn’t very far. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that this is a new problem. It’s only been very recently that we’ve had the option to adjust the level of stress and suffering across a broad enough area for it to make a difference. Accordingly we haven’t accumulated a lot of wisdom on which to draw from. 

Historically the environment was challenging enough to give children all the stress and suffering they could ever possibly need in order to be strong — in order for them to be antifragile. And then in far too many instances went beyond that point to cause them harm or even death. Though it is interesting to note that from what we can tell psychological harm appears to have been rarer during those times. So it is good that we can now dial it back, but our tendency is always going to defer to the person who wants it to go the lowest. Which is to say advocating for more suffering — more things in bucket two, and especially bucket one — is always going to be difficult to defend. 

This tendency to err on the side of suffering mitigation might not be so bad if our control and understanding of the nature of challenging children was more precise. But we don’t have the ability to fine tune challenges, particularly anything in bucket one, which as deBoer points out, continues to be a thing. And even voluntary challenges vary quite a bit in difficulty as a result of individual differences. There are a few kids who love learning to play the piano, most find it difficult and boring. All of this means that efforts to calibrate how challenging we make things are going to be very crude for the foreseeable future. Given this and our natural proclivity to lessen suffering, we should probably consciously create a counter-bias towards erring on the side of greater difficulty. Instead society has done the exact opposite, and in a way that largely overlooks the complexity and ramifications of this decision.

IV.

As we adjust the dials of suffering — using technology to move suffering from bucket one, or challenges from bucket two, into bucket three — we’re playing with a machine we scarcely understand. The goal is easy to understand: make the world better. And it’s obviously admirable. But our understanding of how moving the dials relates to achieving that goal is crude and incomplete.

This ties into another piece I came across recently which appeared to be making a point similar to mine:. The Social Recession: By the Numbers by Anton Cebalo. I ended my previous post by talking about the incel phenomenon and the staggering number of people not having sex. He uses that to open the piece and ties it to a larger phenomenon:

…a marked decline in all spheres of social life, including close friends, intimate relationships, trust, labor participation, and community involvement. The trend looks to have worsened since the pandemic, although it will take some years before this is clearly established.

The decline comes alongside a documented rise in mental illness, diseases of despair, and poor health more generally. In August 2022, the CDC announced that U.S. life expectancy has fallen further and is now where it was in 1996…even before the pandemic, the years 2015-2017 saw the longest sustained decline in U.S. life expectancy since 1915-18. While my intended angle here is not health-related, general sociability is closely linked to health. The ongoing shift has been called the “friendship recession” or the “social recession.”

What he describes fits under the broad definition of suffering. The decline in sociability robs us of tools to mitigate suffering. And the rise in poor mental and physical health, causes suffering we are therefore ill-equipped to deal with. 

So how is it, if we’re turning down (what appears to be) the suffering dial, that actual suffering is going up? Are we sure we understand how the machine works? Could it be that we have no clue? To be clear I’m not claiming I understand the machine either. I don’t. But that’s precisely why I think we should be very wary about messing with the dials.

To take things from another direction Cebalo is arguing that our culture has become more fragile, and correspondingly less antifragile. Also that our fragile culture appears to be composed of fragile individuals. Of course, fragile things eventually break, which is what Cebalo is worried about, but given that our culture hasn’t broken yet, it must not have been fragile for long. What was the quality of culture before all the things Cabalo describes started happening?

The whole concept of antifragility comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and for Taleb there are only three categories. Something can be antifragile, robust, or fragile. Fragile things, by their nature, don’t stick around for very long. Things that do stick around for a long time are therefore either robust or antifragile. In practice very few things are robust — neither harmed nor helped by stress — so long standing elements are generally antifragile.

Children have been around for a long time, and, as Haidt and Lukianoff point out, they’re antifragile. Much of what falls under the heading of culture, particularly as it stood 40 years ago, has also been around for a long time and is also probably antifragile. When something persists for a long time it evolves, a process that’s great at producing things that are antifragile. When this happens with culture we call it cultural evolution, and while we understand how it works, we don’t always correctly identify which elements of culture are antifragile products of this process and which are just dumb ideas some person in power came up with. To be more specific, when your thinking about something that used to happen but no longer does it can fall into three categories:

  1. Barbaric relics of the past which never served a useful purpose.
  2. Practices which are still useful, but we’ve incorrectly identified them as barbaric relics of the past, and dispensed with them.
  3. Practices which were useful, but through progress and technology we have ended up duplicating their utility in some other way. 

To take an example (as discussed in the previous post) dragging your disrespectful kid outside and walloping them, i.e. corporal punishment. Does this practice belong in category one, something that was never appropriate or useful? Category two? It’s still useful, but temporary cultural fads have incorrectly identified it as barbaric? Or category three? It was useful, but is no longer because we have different ways of punishing kids and/or the need for obedience is not life or death, like it used to be?

You may also notice some parallels between these three categories and the buckets we’ve been discussing, though it’s not perfect. But just like with the buckets, I think we’re bad at deciding what things should be in categories two vs. category three. We’re convinced we’ve grown beyond certain things, but in reality we might just be temporarily tired of them. 

As to the separation between categories one and two, I’ve talked about that in the past, and this post has already taken way longer than it should to write. But perhaps you’re familiar with the case of manioc and cyanide. It’s a great example of cultural evolution. Tribes in South America who lived off manioc did things that seemed completely unnecessary (category one) but when the cyanide content of the manioc was actually tested it turned out that those, seemingly unnecessary steps were absolutely critical (category 2). Finally we can presumably eliminate the cyanide through industrial processing (category 3). 

The point of the discussion of categories and manioc is the idea that it can be difficult to identify practices and behavior which result in antifragility. This is both the danger of turning dials and the ineffability of conservatism. We often sense that things are important without having the data to back it up. And from all of this we finally return to religion and church attendance. Which many people, including myself, strongly feel the importance of. Though also, fortunately, we also have some data. Returning to Cebalo’s post he makes a special point of highlighting the precipitous decline in church membership since the turn of the century:

As you can see from the caption he relates this decline to the larger point Robert D. Putnam brought up in his book Bowling Alone, but I think the decline in church membership has a larger impact than just one factor among many for the increase in loneliness. Though that’s certainly a non-trivial consideration.

Even if you think I’m misinterpreting the data. It would seem foolish to dismiss the trend in the chart above as inconsequential. Something big is happening. I suppose it could be because religion was always in category one, or that it has recently been successfully moved to category three, but given the incredibly long time it’s been around, I think it’s far more likely that it’s part of the culture that has evolved to make us antifragile. I.e. it’s in category two and society has dispensed with it to its detriment. 

The chart is interesting and even startling, but it’s not the best evidence for the connection between religion and better mental health. There’s actually quite a bit of more direct evidence. To take just one example I recently came across a working paper titled: “Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion”. Here’s the abstract:

In recent decades, death rates from poisonings, suicides, and alcoholic liver disease have dramatically increased in the United States. We show that these “deaths of despair” began to increase relative to trend in the early 1990s, that this increase was preceded by a decline in religious participation, and that both trends were driven by middle-aged white Americans. Using repeals of blue laws as a shock to religiosity, we confirm that religious practice has significant effects on these mortality rates. Our findings show that social factors such as organized religion can play an important role in understanding deaths of despair.

So religion helps us deal with despair. I understand the leap I’m taking when I make that assertion. But perhaps as we draw things to their conclusion you’re willing to entertain the idea that religion is an important source of antifragility. That in making us do small hard things it enables us to do large challenging things, and moreover to survive the intense, involuntary suffering that is still humanity’s lot. Religion doesn’t just provide practice at attending long, boring meetings, though I understand that it often gives that impression, it’s part of a whole network for doing challenging things, and mitigating suffering. It’s how we used to do hard things as a community, and through its transition to civic religion it’s how we still occasionally do hard things, though that form of religion is fraying as well. 

Sure, as many people brought up, it’s also a hard thing to leave a religion, and that probably gives an individual a certain amount of toughness, but we’re not interested in individual toughness, eventually any truly great endeavor requires societal toughness. And here, at the very end, I would like you to take a moment and reflect on how tough your ancestors were. And how much they probably suffered for their religion. Why? Because however much they suffered, religion offered relief from even greater suffering. It helped them deal with despair. It’s part of what made them tough. And yes it’s a good thing that we’ve been able to move things out of bucket one, that our children no longer die, that plagues are mild, and famine is rare. But in exchange, is it too much to ask that our children sit still for a couple of hours every week and do their best to understand the faith of those incredibly tough ancestors?


Paying for writing is one of the many things which got moved out of bucket one by the internet. Now you can choose whether to bear a cost for writing. You get to choose whether it should be bucket two or bucket three. I think the mere fact that I explained the buckets to you should make it a bucket two item


The 6 Books I Finished in December

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  1. The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left by: Garett Jones
  2. The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self by: Michael Easter
  3. Infinite Jest by: David Foster Wallace
  4. What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by: Randall Munroe
  5. The Sandman: Book One by: Neil Gaiman
  6. Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 by: Craig Alanson

It’s the start of 2023, so it’s probably a good time to look back at 2022. It was pretty crazy. To start with, I moved. Two words shouldn’t be able to conceal so much effort, but the process was ridiculously disruptive and time consuming. Then, the minute that was done, I went to Ireland for two and a half weeks, which was fun, but also quite time-consuming. 

In a somewhat unfortunate coincidence (I applied before deciding to move) this was also the year that I got accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business program, a 14 week intensive business course, entirely paid for by Goldman. I think it can best be described as a mini-MBA. Not only did the course itself take a lot of time and attention it encouraged me to make some major changes to my business which took still more time and attention. 

Despite all that, I ended up setting a record for the amount I read: 113 books, clocking in at just over 38k pages (so an average of 336 pages per book). It was not my intention to set a record, in fact at various points when I was buried by stuff, I thought I should do less reading. I’m way ahead. And I sort of did, but I mostly didn’t.

Of course, I need to acknowledge the contribution to the total made by the Expeditionary Force series. That was 15 books out of the total, so definitely a non-trivial contribution. I finished the final book this month so I guess it’s time to pass judgment on whether that reading was beneficial or a waste of time.

I’m hoping that 2023 will be significantly calmer. Will that result in even more books? You’ll have to keep following along to find out.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move To a Lot Like the Ones They Left

By: Garett Jones

Published: 2022

228 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That some immigrants are of a higher quality than other immigrants, that this quality persists across multiple generations, and corresponds very closely to the technological history since 1500 of their nation of origin. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Jones definitely has a controversial streak. This is the third book in what he calls his “Singapore Trilogy”. The first book was about national IQ. The second book made the case for “10% less democracy”. This is the third book and it might actually be the least controversial. Since Jones is basically pro-immigration, he just thinks some immigrants are better than others and we should prioritize the better ones.

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in heterodox opinions in general will probably benefit from this book. If however you’re looking for something comprehensive, this isn’t it.

General Thoughts

This was the December pick for the local SSC book club. A couple of the members of the group are alums of GMU where Jones teaches, so one of them invited him to participate. We expected that, if he did so, it would be remotely, but he actually flew out and attended in person which was very generous of him. In addition to coming to the book club we also had dinner with him beforehand which was very enjoyable. Obviously none of this has much to do with the actual content of the book, but the whole experience of meeting the author in person did introduce certain biases. But enough about Jones, what about his book?

As I already mentioned the book makes some controversial claims and several people, including Jones’s colleague Bryan Caplan, have been pretty critical of these claims. In the process of preparing for Jones’ visit members of the book club came across these criticisms and decided to bring them up. I wasn’t entirely sure how this was going to play out, but I imagined that things might get heated. They did not, instead Jones effortlessly answered all of the criticisms though in a somewhat technical fashion. This is probably the way criticisms should be answered, particularly in writing, but when you’re having a discussion it makes follow up hard. When Jones says that he analyzed the same data and got a different result, what else can you say but “interesting…” Whatever problems it presented for the questioners, Jones’ responses made him very convincing in person.

At this point I assume you want me to provide a specific example. Well, I wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I can speak a little bit about his rebuttal of the Caplan criticisms I mentioned earlier, but before I do I need to lay out Jones’ model. He uses three attributes to quantify immigrant quality:

  • State History since 0 AD
  • Agricultural History in thousands of years
  • Technological History since 1500

Together this is the SAT of a country (not to be confused with the test). The book focuses on presenting data that these three factors have predictive power for the amount of prosocial behavior the immigrant and his descendants will likely possess. But of the three, the attribute with the most predictive power is T, the technological history of the country of origin.

Jones’ rebuttal to Caplan is that Caplan only considers S and A, while neglecting T. Now I read Caplan’s book, and in addition to the initial review I did another whole essay about it. But at the moment, sitting there with Jones, despite these efforts, I had no idea whether Caplan had neglected to include T in his analysis. Nor, you will be sad to hear, have I had a chance to confirm it since then (mostly because the Caplan book is in a box somewhere.) Now, I had a couple of big problems with Caplan’s book, so I’m inclined to believe Jones, but talking to him in person just illustrated how difficult epistemology has become these days. A point I’ll return to in just a second, but before I do I’d like to bring up one final point.

If you’re using Jones’ SAT to evaluate different nations, China comes out very near the top, and indeed Jones spends quite a bit of time talking about all of the SE Asian countries who have benefitted from Chinese immigration. Many of his critics have pounced on this to discredit his thesis. If China has such a high SAT and if so many countries have benefited from Chinese immigrants, why is China itself such a basket case? This is an excellent question, but it once again illustrates the epistemic difficulties. China has been a rockstar for most of the 3000+ years of its existence. Should it be disqualified because it’s had a rough patch for the last 5% of that period? Maybe? How would you answer that question? What countries would you compare China to? What hard data would you assemble? I completely understand that this is a point that bears discussion, but how could you ever be certain one way or the other?

Eschatological Implications

This, then, is the problem. “How much immigration to allow and from where?” is one of the many large questions facing the world. Everyone seems to agree that the effects of policies which implement one answer over another will be large and consequential. The problem is that there is vast disagreement on whether the effects will be large, consequential and positive, or whether they will be large, consequential and negative. So how are we to resolve this? How does one decide between Bryan Caplan and his book showing that unlimited immigration will be awesome and Garett Jones and his book showing that unlimited immigration would devastate innovation and make the country’s culture unrecognizable?

I think the answer is that people largely decide based on their biases. And you probably can’t blame them, because there doesn’t appear to be any other way of deciding. Certainly I haven’t had any luck with other methods.

I’m not saying that I put forth the maximum amount of effort I possibly could to answer the question of how much immigration to allow, but I’ve put forth a lot. I’ve read and reviewed multiple books. I interacted with Caplan on Twitter and Jones in person. I’ve asked questions, and gotten answers. I’ve read at least a hundred essays, and the abstracts of at least a dozen papers. Beyond all that I’ve thought long and hard about it. In short I’ve done probably 100x as much as one could reasonably expect out of the average individual, and yet I suspect that whatever certainty I feel about my opinions is largely based on my initial biases, and only a small amount on the data. And I’m running out of ideas on how to change that.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self 

By: Michael Easter

Published: 2021

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That our pursuit of comfort and convenience has led, at best, to an unprecedented experiment in changing our environment, and, at worst, to a huge array of harmful second order effects.

What’s the author’s angle?

Easter is an editor for Men’s Health, and a writer for Outside Magazine, so he’s obviously predisposed to be a proponent of “uncomfortable” outdoor activities.

Who should read this book?

This is very close to being an “everyone”. The way in which he summarizes research in a broad array of fields makes it both generally applicable and interesting. But if you’re already mostly on top of your health you could probably get by with just listening to one of his podcast appearances. I heard him on Peter Attia’s, but he was also on Rogan. (Which I haven’t listened to.)

General Thoughts

A full review of this book will appear in the second issue of American Hombre (Subscribe today!) So I’m leaving the meat of my discussion for that space. I will however steal one paragraph from that review:

Before we get to the actual content of the book, I have to say something about the subtitle: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self. If you’re anything like me, it might be giving you second thoughts about reading the book. It shouldn’t. I have to assume that this phrase was added at the insistence of the publisher. No version of that phrase occurs in the actual text (not even “healthy self”) and even the word “reclaim” only occurs once, and it’s unrelated. The subtitle isn’t wrong exactly, but I don’t think it strikes the right tone. If I had been in charge of subtitling the book I would have gone with: Wrestle Discomfort to Salvage Your Life Before You Die of Depression or Diabetes. But who knows if that subtitle would have sold as well.


Infinite Jest 

by: David Foster Wallace

Published: 1996

1079 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where it’s impossible to give a brief summation. But if you were looking for a main theme “addiction” would have to be near the top of the list.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a gripping plot, if tangents annoy you, or if you’ve never read a 1000+ page book then this is probably not the book for you. On the other hand if you’re looking for a deep, beautifully written, discursive magnum opus that’s also full of wisdom, then you might decide this is one of the best books ever.

General Thoughts

For me Infinite Jest seemed pretty daunting. Not merely because it’s long, it also seems pretty dense. And then there are the legendary footnotes, some of which go on for pages and have footnotes of their own. As a result I ended up taking three stabs at it:

My first attempt was last year, and my plan was to listen to the audiobook while walking with a physical copy of the book, so that whenever a footnote came up I could stop listening, pull the book out of my satchel, and read the footnote. The difficulty of coordinating all of this plus the length of some of the footnotes created enough friction that I stopped doing it for long enough that I felt like I needed to start over.

The second attempt was earlier this year, and this attempt flamed out when I realized that despite listening to the first 8 hours of the book a second time, and reading all the footnotes that I was still confused. This is when I picked up A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest (which I finished in September and reviewed here). That book helped, and it was nice, but in the end I’m going to say it was unnecessary. 

This takes us to the third attempt. Armed with a knowledge of all the characters and a plot summary I could refer to I set off again, from the beginning. And having made it all the way to the end here’s what I would recommend. Just listen to the book and focus on enjoying it. The footnotes are interesting, but you can also safely ignore them. Knowledge of the characters is helpful, but all of the important character information will become clear.

As is so often the case, if you’re going to tackle a really long book, audio is the way to go. Infinite Jest has numerous different styles and having a great narrator who can switch between these styles and do all the voices made listening a delight. And that’s really what this book is, a series of delightful stories with a moderate level of connection, but each scene is a gem, and you should just enjoy them.

I was accused recently of assuming that length is automatically a bad quality. The idea being that if you really enjoyed something wouldn’t you want it to go on as long as possible? The answer is that of course I would, but it’s pretty rare for that to happen. Well, it happened here. I would have been happy if the book had been 25% longer (but probably not more than that. It is a super long book.)


What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by: Randall Munroe

Published: 2022

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle gives a pretty good description, though I would also mention that the book is full of delightful stick figure illustrations.

Who should read this book?

I assume that a significant number of you are already familiar with Randall Munroe and his webcomic XKCD. In which case you’ve probably already made up your mind. If you aren’t familiar with it, well then what’s wrong with you? As penance you should probably read this book.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I would have been totally fine if it were longer. It went by all too quickly. Here are some of the questions Munroe answers:

What would happen if the Earth’s Rotation were sped up until a day only lasted one second?

What if I want to heat my house using toasters. How many do I need?

If the universe stopped expanding right now, how long would it take for a human to drive a car all the way to the edge of the universe?

The last one includes illustrations of the moon-sized quantity of gasoline that would be required, along with an illustration of the 10^17 tons of snacks which would be required, but he spends most of the space talking about how difficult it would be to fill the time. It would be a very, very long road trip.


The Sandman Book One 

by: Neil Gaiman

Published: The comics were originally published starting in 1989.

560 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The strange adventures of Dream/Morpheus/Sandman, starting with his decades long imprisonment and escape and then continuing on with his efforts to rebuild his domain. 

Who should read this book?

Sandman is everywhere at the moment. There’s the Netflix series and the Audible adaptation. But the comic books came first, so if you’re interested in things perhaps this is where you should start.

General Thoughts

I have long had the goal to read comic book series. I even bought the nice leatherbound collections, but that actually slowed me down because those seemed too nice to just read, and procrastination was easy and low cost. But then suddenly, as I already mentioned, it was everywhere, and the task became more urgent. I take great pleasure, when someone asks me about a TV show or a movie, of being able to archly respond, “No, but I’ve read the book.” And I was in danger of losing that small joy. So I bought this, less fancy collection, and read it.

It was good, but not revelatory. I think over the years I’d built it up too much in my mind. Which is not to say I’m going to stop reading it, merely that it might not be the greatest thing ever. So far the main character is cool, but kind of one-dimensional. The supporting characters are where it’s at. And really the best part of all is the world-building. The alternate universe Gaiman lays out here is really rich and interesting.

It is very definitely for mature audiences, unlike most of the stuff I review, so keep that in mind. 

Having read the book, the question then becomes do I watch the series and/or listen to the adaptation? That’s always been a tough question for me. If I enjoy something then it’s nice to go deep, but on the other hand surely there are better things to do than hear the same story told slightly differently for a third time? 

I guess I’ll finish all the books first and then see where I’m at.


Failure Mode: Expeditionary Force, Book 15 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2022

697 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The conclusion to the Expeditionary Force series where the cliffhanger of Book 14 gets resolved and everyone, hopefully, lives happily ever after.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first 14 books, then you should definitely read this one. The bigger question is that now, knowing how it all ends, should you start the series in the first place? Well…

General Thoughts

I listened to this series, and if you add it all up (including books 3.5 and 7.5 which I also listened to) it comes to 286 hours. Now, of course, I didn’t listen to it at normal speed. R.C. Bray, the narrator, isn’t the slowest narrator out there, or the best at enunciation (he’s fine, just not exceptional) so I think I ended up dialing things in at around 2.7x, maybe 2.8? We’ll go with 2.8 which would put me at just over 100 hours — two and a half weeks of full time work. Obviously I was doing other things while I listened: walking, driving, cleaning, etc. And early on, the series was so enjoyable that I was listening to it even when I normally wouldn’t bother. Like during the five minutes it took me to go upstairs to get some food. In other words the initial 30 hours of the series went faster than 30 hours of listening normally would.

As part of that, the series made me realize that I could and probably should be reading more books just for the enjoyment of it. I think over the last few years, as I’ve publicly reviewed every book I read, that the amount of reading I do strictly because I enjoy it has declined. So if nothing else the series made a positive improvement on that front. And I appreciate it for doing that, but it also illustrates why, in the end, it wasn’t a good use of my time, and it’s probably not a good use of your time. This isn’t a hard and fast warning, if you really want to read the series you shouldn’t let me talk you out of it. But just based on that standard I know that there are several books I could have re-read that would have provided more pleasure than the 286 hours of Expeditionary Force. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is only 111 hours and I know I want to re-read that. 

You might now be wondering if there’s some portion of the series that’s worth reading. A stopping place where the expected value is positive? Possibly the first four books? But that’s a very weak suggestion. I think the middle books get pretty repetitive, and the final books, while slightly less repetitive, end up being more ridiculous. But it’s not as if the first four books are masterpieces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all fun, but even if you stop early I’m not sure that fun vs. time spent is ever definitely positive.

I might be singing a different tune if he had stuck the landing, but he didn’t. Part of what kept me reading was the world building, and the mysteries he hinted would eventually be revealed. On this front he did better than some. I don’t think he left any of the mysteries unresolved, but the reveals were underwhelming, particularly the very biggest mystery. I don’t want to oversell how bad it was. Ending things is very difficult and more often than not I end up feeling let down by them, so on that front the EF ending was average. Not especially bad, but not especially good either. If it had been exceptionally good, then perhaps that 100 hours would have been worth it. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and if you’re already eight books in, and I had something to do with that, then I apologize. I’m not saying that reading the final seven books won’t be enjoyable, I’m just saying that it will be time consuming.


Speaking of time consuming endeavors followed by mediocre endings, here we are closing out another long post, though this one was on the short side for one of my book review round ups. I keep saying I’m going to try to keep them shorter, and look at this! I kind of, sort of, succeeded. If you’re impressed by my kind of, sort of victory, then you should kind of, sort of consider donating.


Eschatologist #24 – ChatGPT and a Lack of Genius

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

Or download the MP3


In 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! 


The Ineffability of Conservatism

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.

I heard a story a while ago that I’m still trying to process. The story was related to me by a friend of mine who’s also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He said that in his congregation there was a young man, who we’ll call Adam. (Details have been changed to protect the identity of “Adam”.) Adam is fourteen, and he had been reading some anti-LDS stuff on the web and because of the things he’d uncovered he decided he didn’t want to attend church any more. A combination of inertia and parental expectations had kept him coming, but it was clear that the situation was only temporary. 

His parents and the Bishop (for people who aren’t LDS bishops preside over local congregations), who were hoping to figure out some way to rebuild his faith and keep him in the church, hit upon the idea of getting his father to teach his son’s Sunday School class. The idea was that if they could shift the context somewhat, that perhaps his father’s words would be more effective than they had been. Also, while my friend wasn’t aware of all the details, he speculated that perhaps the son refused to engage in any kind of discussion at home, and they were hoping he’d be more likely to sit through it in this setting with peer pressure and what have you.

So there Adam is, waiting for Sunday School to start when his dad gets up to teach. Adam, apparently sensing where this is heading says something along the lines of: “No way. I’m not doing this”, and he stands up to leave the room. His father, in a kind of pleading voice says, “I would really like you to stay.” But Adam refuses and walks out of the room. My friend says that since this happened Adam hasn’t been seen in church. Though he still lives at home with his folks, does all the normal stuff, and even has the latest iPhone which, again according to my friend, his parents can scarcely afford.

My friend told me this story because he was struck by the difference between this event and what would have happened if he had tried the same thing forty some odd years ago when he was Adam’s age. First off he doesn’t think it would have ever even occurred to him to walk out on his dad. Given that he can’t imagine doing it, he has an equally difficult time imagining what his father would have done if he had, but he’s pretty sure that it would have gotten physical. I had to agree on both points, I never would have conceived of doing that nor can I entirely imagine the wrath that would have descended, but it feels like things would have bordered on the apocalyptic. 

II.

What are we to make of this story? Of the difference between what happened recently and what would have happened 40 years ago? And of the underlying issue: Should kids have some obligation to the “faith of their fathers”? Should they have any obligations, period, to their parents? Particularly if those parents are still feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their head? Is it a good thing that Adam discovered the truth, or at least “his truth” as early as possible? Or is it a bad thing because whatever you think about God’s actuality, religion provides a cultural grounding that will later be very beneficial? Is it a good thing that his dad acquiesced so easily? Does it represent a better and more enlightened form of parenting? Or is filial piety important, separate from the benefits of religion? Given that teens are pretty dumb might a large amount of deference to adults be a good thing on the balance?

You might already be able to guess my answers to these questions. But these days I feel like my answers are significantly different from the modern consensus. So while I’ve certainly talked about subjects like these, I’ve never been entirely sure if people appreciate such posts or if they merely endure them. I was encouraged to think that it might be the former based on some comments I got on my recent survey. Which is part of the reason why I choose to write on this topic. 

In fact one person directly requested it:

You at one point mentioned that one of your children was NOT a Mormon, or religious? That to me is a huge story, because as far as I can tell being religious is about as good as it can be done in today’s day and age. How did your boy fall off? Will you ever do an episode on that?

I am not going to speak directly about my son because too many people who read this blog know him, which makes the discussion more fraught and complicated than I want to deal with. Though I may make some general references to it.

This second comment was not directly on point, but similar to the story I lead with it’s something I’ve been chewing on for awhile. 

I sometimes wonder how much of your stances on stuff is simply downstream from having a stable family environment and good fatherly figures. It feels like there’s a very hard-to-bridge gap when talking to religious people who have had good families growing up, and I wish I could explain how helpless most secular/liberal people I know really are in this regard.

Explaining the secular benefits of religion has been a long term theme of this blog. And this comment would seem to indicate that I’m actually underselling those benefits, that I have accrued benefits I’m not even aware of. But this also leads to me underselling the difficulties of “just doing it” as it were. And of course Adam still has a good fatherly figure, even if he’s not inclined to listen to him. But you can probably imagine how it all ties together, which is to say it’s not just me, my friend, and Adam’s father who thinks Adam is making a mistake. There are people, who, having grown up without the benefits Adam had, now wish they could access them. People who wish they were in Adam’s position, and if they were, they would make a different decision. 

It is possible I’m reading too much into these comments, and we still haven’t passed from the level of anecdotes to data. But I’d like to provide one final example that very directly speaks to the situation. One of the friends I made on my mission (I served a two year proselytizing mission in the Netherlands) has since that time left the Church, come out as gay, and now lives very happily with his husband on the east coast. You might imagine from this that he wishes he had stood up when he was 14 and walked out of his Sunday School class, and that he definitely regrets wasting two years on a mission. But in fact it’s the exact opposite. He doesn’t begrudge his mission at all, and considers it a major step in turning him into the adult he is now, even though he stopped attending church or being religious decades ago. And he bemoaned the fact that my son was never going to get that experience. 

None of these examples is going to convince someone who’s strongly anti-religious that Adam is making a mistake, but I’m hoping they might do the inverse, that is, convince people who aren’t strongly religious that despite this being an explicitly religious example that Adam nevertheless screwed up. That, even if you don’t believe in the existence of God, you might entertain the idea that there are benefits to raising children in a religion with strong families and fathers, and the whole package. Or to get more basic, that society, in the form of parents, might have something beneficial to pass along to teenagers. And that there needs to be some level of friction for opting out of this transmission.

The rest of the post is going to run with this assumption. Which to me seems pretty self-evident, but if you disagree with it I’d love to hear why.

III.

So Adam made a mistake, but is he the only person responsible for that mistake, or even the primary one? Certainly we’re all ultimately responsible for our actions, but Adam’s pretty young. If we think he’s too immature to understand the benefits of religion, and spending two years on a mission (even if he does subsequently leave the church) is he also too immature to be allowed to make that mistake? In other words, was this actually the Father’s mistake because he didn’t react more forcefully? Was it a mistake to not yell, or to not ground him? Dare we imagine that it was even a mistake to not take him out to the parking lot and wallop him? 

We can’t entirely discount these possibilities, but they’re all things that parents are strongly encouraged not to do anymore, especially the walloping, but even a father grounding a kid for being disrespectful is something that’s mostly fallen out of favor, particularly if it’s related to “forcing your beliefs” on the kid. To put it another way, many, if not most, of the people who feel that Adam made a mistake, would also be of the opinion that if the father did any of the things I listed, he would have made an even bigger mistake. And all of those who think that Adam didn’t make a mistake would definitely think that. So how is the father supposed to act in these circumstances? 

The current answer is that he should show forth unlimited love and acceptance. And this answer is hard to argue with. Both love and acceptance are very important. (Though love is much more important than acceptance, and it’s important to not conflate the two, though people frequently do.) Additionally, over the short term, this tactic probably leads to the best outcomes. But what about over the long term? Does a world where 14 year olds can abandon the traditions of their fathers with impunity end up better than the one where they don’t? But all this just takes us back to the point I made already. What I really want to know is should the father have handled things differently? 

Perhaps, but it would have been very difficult to act other than he did. A father in 2022 is a long, long way from the near absolute authority exercised by the pater familias in ancient Rome. These days if Adam’s father had been too harsh with him, he could have been left entirely without allies. At that point regardless of how the father wanted things to proceed. He wouldn’t have the requisite support to actually enact his desires, and if he went too far the government might even have gotten involved. 

IV.

If Adam was too immature to have made a mistake, and his father didn’t have the backing to have acted other than he did, where was the mistake? Or rather where would we go to correct the mistake? I believe that the difference between today and 40 years ago — when my friend and I were growing up — points to the answer. Neither Adam nor his father are at fault, rather society as a whole is. Over the last 40 years we changed the nature of the water we swim in. In the past the father would have had allies. On some unexpressed level everyone was on the same page when it came to defiant children. But this also meant that the father wouldn’t have needed allies because Adam would have never done what he did. 

So, yes, it would have been a bad thing for my Father to wallop me in the parking lot, and it would have been a bad thing for me to stand up at 14 and effectively tell him to go to hell. But neither of those bad things happened. We achieved the ideal outcome without effort and without drama. And yes, I realize this is an oversimplification, but within it there is a kernel of truth. I avoided making the same mistake Adam did, and my Father didn’t have to raise his hand against me or even say anything. How did that happen? How did society back then manage to coordinate to achieve this outcome?

I’m not sure there’s a straightforward answer. Certainly there’s not some switch that we can easily flip back to its historical setting. As I said it was basically just part of the environment, the water we swam in. Back then we all knew not to mess with our fathers. And it wasn’t specific. It wasn’t don’t do X or Y will happen. Both the nature of X and the nature of Y were left ambiguous, or at least the border was, but walking out on my father in the middle of Church was clearly deep in the territory of X, and it would bring some unknown and terrible Y. Despite this ambiguity everyone was essentially on the same page. But whatever that coordination was we’ve lost it. And it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to get it back. 

This is the ineffable nature of conservatism. It’s hard to describe the water when you’re in it. What it was that kept things working this way. What it is that we’ve lost. Why Adam made a mistake. And why “secular/liberal people” feel “helpless” as mentioned by the second comment. On the other hand it’s very easy to point to the gains brought by liberalism: women’s suffrage, the repeal of Jim Crow laws, healthcare for the old and the poor, and of course fewer kids getting walloped by their fathers for expressing defiance.  

This is part of what makes the culture war so contentious, and acrimonious. It’s easy for liberals to fall into the trap of believing that conservatives are just a bunch of old people yelling at clouds, because that’s precisely how nebulous their complaints seem. But conservatives know that things are different, that the water is changed, even if it’s hard to describe and even more difficult to solve. How do you get an entire society to all agree to go back to the “old ways” when you can’t even entirely define what those “old ways” were?

V.

All of this leads one to wonder, if it’s impossible to restore the consensus that was lost, how did we arrive at that consensus in the first place? Was it just an artifact of historical barbarism, of a more benighted time when “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, and parents were strong and children were weak? Or is it possible that it evolved as part of culture and society for precisely the reasons I mentioned above. And now that it’s gone we’ve ended up with a bunch of children and young adults who have been cast adrift at the mercy of their immature desires. (This post could be expanded to include statistics on the increase in suicidality and depression among that cohort but I think if you’re not already with me on this point that additional statistics are not going to tip the scale.)

But rather than arguing over the benefits of the old system it might be useful to consider the benefits of the new system. What did Adam get by walking out of church and never returning? Here I’m obviously biased and you should definitely take those biases into account when you consider my answer. With that caveat in mind, I’m not really seeing many. Sure he saves some time, a few hours on Sunday and a few hours here and there outside of Sunday. Additionally he’s spared some aggravation, annoyance and anxiety at the whole situation. There’s also probably some things that I’m overlooking, but overall, when piled up, it doesn’t seem to amount to much in the overall scheme of things. Which is not to say that the entire project of liberalism isn’t positive on the balance, but is there no way to preserve some of the best parts of what it replaced?

The possibility exists that there is no benefit to remaining with the faith of your fathers, even just until you’re an adult. That all the people I reference in Part II are wrong. If so, then perhaps Adam did the wise thing. But that’s not how it seems to be playing out, not just with Adam, not just with people close to me, but with young men everywhere. I understand I’m retreading territory which was already well explored by Pascal, but I think the math might be in favor of religion even if we don’t bring in an eternal and infinite reward.

Moving closer to home, I know a lot of Adams, and for nearly all of them, leaving church, contrary to the desires of their parents, starts a trend of isolation and sloth. This trend does not continue forever, but it continues long enough that most end on a plateau of ambition and achievement that’s well below where they would have been had they stayed. 

If we broaden our focus to all young men, one can’t help but consider the incel phenomenon — both those who identify as such and those who are involuntarily celibate without adopting the label. This problem would also appear to be tightly related. Because you know where there’s a lot more women than men, women who have a higher than average desire to marry? Most churches!

This is only one example of conservative ineffability, and a somewhat disjointed one at that. (Though only part of that is my failings as a writer. Part is the aforementioned ineffability.) There are certainly other examples, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Society has changed in profound and often unseen ways over the last few decades. (It should be noted that the US Christian percentage hovered around 90% as recently as the 1980. And church attendance was at 70% as recently as 2000.) And, because of their subtlety these changes are still being grappled with. There are a lot of Adams, and it’s not clear what to do about them, but I would opine that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. The problem is difficult to define, but that doesn’t mean it’s not consequential and important. 


I’m posting this right before Christmas, which means the connection to donating should be obvious. But instead I’m going to ask for something else, consider reaching out to a young man who seems to be having a hard time. 


The 8 Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Psychology of Totalitarianism by: Mattias Desmet
  2. The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge
  3. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud by: Phillip Rieff
  4. Plato: A Very Short Introduction by: Julia Annas
  5. Jesus’ Son by: Denis Johnson
  6. Tombs of Atuan by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Roadside Picnic by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  8. Purple Days by: Baurus

I finally got a chance to compile all of the survey results. One of the big questions was whether I should move to Substack, and the results there were inconclusive. So if I do end up doing that it won’t be anytime soon, also I can probably achieve most of the same results if I just utilized ConvertKit better, but distribution and promotion have never been my strong suites. Beyond that I did attempt to distribute a couple of $100 Amazon gift cards. One person politely declined, but the other is now the proud owner of more books. (Or more of one of the millions of other things Amazon sells, but I hope they bought books.)

Beyond that another takeaway is that I have been spending too much time on this book review post. Reviewing books is easier than writing essays, but the book review posts have been slowly metastasizing such that frequently they take about twice as many hours to put together as an essay, and while lots of you like my reviews, it’s also evident that they’re not the star of the show. Thus, I’m planning to dial them back a little bit. For example only one Eschatological Review per month, and a greater focus on brevity with the rest of the reviews, shifting the time thus saved over to my essays, or my “always on the horizon”, “will be done someday”, book.  Less “review you might find in a magazine” (though I’m doing some of that, see here) and more “review that you might find on Amazon”. Though I will continue to keep the different sections, unless…

No pressure, but for the few who prefer my essays to my reviews, if you could let me know what you might like to see added to the reviews to make them more appealing. And for those that love the reviews, if you could let me know what parts you would hate to see go, so I don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be great. 


I- Eschatological Review

The Psychology of Totalitarianism 

By: Mattias Desmet

Published: 2022

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very ambitious book, and it covers a lot, COVID, mass formation, mechanistic thinking, etc. but if one were to try to boil it down, the common thread is that increasing technological control (in the broadest sense of that phrase) is no longer the solution to our problems, but rather the cause.

What’s the author’s angle?

Desmet is a professor and a practicing psychologist from Belgium, so the word “psychology” might mean more to him than it means to you or me.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book, but as I said it’s very ambitious, and probably too short to adequately support such ambition. As such, if you demand rigorous support for arguments this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re okay with people creating grand narratives which include a lot of speculation, this is a very interesting book. 

General Thoughts

One of the reasons I’m more forgiving of grand narratives of the sort I just mentioned is that if one is going to explain the dysfunction of the modern world something grand is in fact required. If there was just one small thing wrong then we would have figured it out long ago. Even if there were numerous small things wrong this process would still be effective, and we would notice ongoing improvement. And to be fair that was happening up until say decade or so ago. Only if the problem is deep and complex would we still be grappling with it. Still, in spite of this conclusion, I’m wary of theories, no matter how subtle and complex, which claim to explain everything. Since I think that if there was just one root problem, no matter how intricate it ended up being, that we would have figured that out as well. Though perhaps not, particularly if the problem nestles comfortably within our incentives and biases, which it almost certainly does.

In any event, I found the book interesting, but for most of the phenomena he talked about I didn’t feel like he went deep enough for me to definitively judge whether he was entirely correct, mostly correct, partially correct, or entirely wrong. My sense, which was clearly informed by my own incentives and biases, is that he wasn’t entirely wrong about anything, which means he was at least partially correct about everything. Still the book would have benefited from more depth.

For reasons too lengthy to get into this is the last review I’m writing and I’m entirely out of time, so while I wish I could go into the many subjects Desmet raises, I’m going to limit my focus to just one.

Eschatological Implications

There was one area where I think he was definitely on to something, and this was something new, or at least new to me. We like to imagine that there was this fork in the road early in the 20th century. The fascists and communists went one way, and the liberals and the democrats went another way. The former descended into totalitarianism while the latter group rejected authoritarianism in favor of freedom — free markets, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc. 

The story Desmet tells is a different one. In his telling the Enlightenment and the associated progress both before and after, particularly the increasing importance of science, created a sense of control, a mechanistic view of the world. As a result of this we experienced a constant trend towards increased governmental powers, a trend which eventually ends in totalitarianism. Without democratic norms to slow things down the fascists and the communists got their first, but it’s impossible to have a modern system of government, with a mechanistic viewpoint (which is the essence of technocracy) without following the same trend, and eventually arriving in the same place. Liberal ideas like those embodied in the Bill of Rights and similar documents may slow things down, but ultimately they’re powerless before the appeal of greater control, and the better outcomes that control promises. That, as I said in a previous post, they will have found The Answer.

Lately we’ve seen that science has not quite given us the certainty or control we had hoped. And Desmet illustrates this by opening his book with a discussion of the replication crisis. However these obvious failings haven’t really stopped people. As you might imagine Desmet uses the pandemic as exhibit number 1 for using uncertain science to impose massive, arguably totalitarian, restrictions. The point being, if people think they have or can figure out the best way to run a society (again see my previous post) then it seems immoral to them not run society in exactly that fashion, regardless of who may object or the basis for those objections. 

And who are the people objecting? What power do they have to reverse this trend? Not much. They’ve been labeled as populists and largely ghettoized. Which is to say the greater libertarian streak of Western Democracies has slowed down this trend, but it hasn’t arrested it. Whatever libertarianism there once was is draining away at an alarming rate. 

Desmet’s basic assertion is that “The solution to our fear and uncertainty does not lie in the increase of (technological) control.” On this we agree. Unfortunately it appears to be the only tool we know how to use anymore.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

By: Adrian Wooldridge

Published: 2021

504 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of meritocracy, how it contributed to the modern world, why it has recently come under attack, and how to renew it.

What’s the author’s angle?

Wooldridge is a member of the global elite and a beneficiary of meritocracy (he worked at The Economist for more than 20 years.) It’s also clear that he finds populism to be distressing

Who should read this book?

I found this book to be far more a history of meritocracy than a defense of meritocracy, though it certainly tries to do both. If you’re looking for just the latter then I would skip this book, if you’re looking for both, or just the former, then I would pick it up.

General Thoughts

Part of the problem with doing a deep historical dive into a subject in order to defend your interpretation of that subject is that in the process of laying out all the facts you give people all the tools necessary to arrive at a different interpretation than the one you’re defending. This is the experience I had with Wooldridge’s book. But it may take me a moment to get there. 

I already spent a lot of time on this book in my post, Finding “The Answer”, but that was a higher level view of the entire process of organizing society, now it’s time to examine the specific methodology of meritocracy. In his historical survey Wooldridge examines several cultures and societies. As you might imagine he spends a lot of time on the Chinese mandarins and the imperial examination, which I also spent a lot of time on in that previous post. As an additional example he spends quite a bit of time discussing the Jewish rabbis, and the vast system of Talmudic education. 

…the Jewish people played a prominent role in developing the meritocratic idea. They didn’t develop meritocracy in the narrow sense of selecting people for positions on the basis of their intellectual powers, as Plato did in theory and the Chinese did in practice. But they did so in more indirect ways. They led the world in emphasizing intellectual success as a way of securing the survival of the group. They heaped honour on people who could perform demanding intellectual feats, from rabbis to scholars. They embraced objective measures of intellectual success – particularly examinations – as ways of establishing their credentials and combating anti-Jewish prejudice. Jews played a prominent role in both developing IQ tests and opposing affirmative action: think of Hans Eysenck in the first category and Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer in the second.

After giving these two historical examples along with mentioning Plato (which will be important in just a second) he goes on to discuss how Europe adopted the Chinese exam system and the Jewish mania for learning and went on to dominate the world. Ideologically things started with the renaissance, but practically it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that we start to see large scale movement from aristocracy of birth to aristocracy of talent. As you can imagine the biggest practical changes came with the revolutions. First the American, but most notably the French. 

The French Revolution injected the question of meritocracy, like a shot of adrenalin, into the heart of European politics. Article VI of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (1789) provided the most concise statement of the emerging meritocratic idea:

Law is the expression of the general will; all citizens have the right to concur personally, or through their representatives, in its formation; it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal before it, are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity, and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents [Emphasis by Wooldridge].

This contains echoes of the Chinese idea that the mandarin elite should scour the population for potential mandarins or the Platonic idea that embryonic guardians can be found in every class. But it goes further: it suggests that all citizens are equal before the state and can push themselves forward as potential decision-makers. The onus is on individuals to compete for political positions on the basis of their talents and virtues rather than for the state to micromanage things from on high.

This is very strong evidence for the presence of meritocracy. But I don’t think it does as much to explain European dominance as Wooldridge imagines. For one thing Europe was already pretty dominant by the late 1700’s. It’s not as if Europe and America had these revolutions and only then did they proceed to make their presence felt around the world. That had been going on for hundreds of years. Perhaps you might argue that while this was the full flowering of meritocracy, that other forms of meritocracy were at work in the background. The best candidate for this background meritocracy would be schooling, in particular the universities, but even there it took a long time for full meritocracy to arrive. For example Trinity College, Cambridge, which “led the way”, only introduced written examinations for admittance in 1744 and they didn’t introduce anything resembling scholarships until 1786, which seems pretty important to the operation of a true meritocracy. And as late as 1837 when the future 10th Earl of Wemyss was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, he was asked just one question: “How’s your father?” From all this one gets the sense that while meritocracy was one of the many useful tools a confident Europe grabbed onto as part of their rise that by the time true meritocracy arrived Europe was already near its peak. 

Of course it is possible that I’m creating a strawman, that Wooldridge is not claiming that meritocracy was responsible for the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and all of the other progress which took off in Europe. However his book is subtitled “How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” so if it is a strawman it’s not much of one. 

Of course there are numerous theories for why things “took off” in Europe, with not only numerous different mechanisms, but wildly varied starting points. And I doubt that Wooldridge is claiming that meritocracy is the sole explanation. (Though it seems fair to say he’d put it in the top 3.) But even if we just limit ourselves to the data presented in his book, I think there’s a different, better explanation for the success of the Chinese, the Jews and the Europeans than the one Wooldridge provided. 

Wooldridge’s preferred explanation is that all three used meritocracy to replace rule by inheritance with rule by the most gifted, and that naturally led to better outcomes. This explanation makes sense, better rulers create better rules. Under this interpretation all we have to do is keep our focus on merit and everything will turn out great. But I think Wooldridge overlooked the truly critical component to the story of the Chinese and the Jews and later the West. And here at last we return to where I started. 

Yes, the imperial examination system sought out the most talented and made them mandarins, but it also created cultural homogeneity around a set of very pro-civilizational ideas: the civic religion of confucianism. It wasn’t just that the mandarins thus selected were smart, the system also forced them to rigorously study ideas like: righteousness, sincerity and propriety. Confucianism also includes a set of five relationships, the first of which was prince over subject. (Which fell under the principle of righteousness.) Not only was all of this part of culture. It was the subject of the most intense studying imaginable as part of the preparation for the imperial exams.

We see something similar with the Jews. There it was the rigorous study of an actual religion but with a similarly civic minded and cohesive ideology. For example the idea that Jews were a special people who had been chosen by God. In both of these cases, was it the fact that they were led by proto-technocrats that allowed them to survive as a nation for thousands of years, or was it the fact that they used meritocracy as one part of an intense effort to imbue the upper class with a strong and united national identity?

All of this takes us to Europe and the West. As I mentioned, if you’re looking for evidence of early attempts at meritocracy you need to look at the schools and universities, where giving education to the talented as opposed to those who were just well-connected started as early as the 14th century. But what sort of education was it? Western universities were basically religious institutions, where the Bible was studied maniacally, and when students weren’t studying the Bible they were immersed in the Classics, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Virgil. Up until relatively recently an intense study of Christianity and the Classics was a university education. (I uncovered an article in the Atlantic from 1917 arguing that it was finally time to dispense with mandatory Latin.) 

Again we’re forced to ask the question, did the West succeed because of meritocracy? Or did it succeed because it created a unified ideology — a civic religion — among its upper class. You might point to the Protestent Reformation as a time of disunity, but does fighting over Christianity make you less devoted to Christianity or more?

It could be argued that the focus on Classics and Christianity was not as intense as the Chinese study of Confucius or the Jewish study of the Talmud, but then we still have a long way to go before we last the thousands of years both of them did, and it kind of feels like we’re not going to. 


The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud

By: Phillip Rieff

Published: 1966

325 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the modern world has embraced a “gospel of personal happiness, defined as the unbridled pursuit of impulse, and yet we remain profoundly unhappy.” 

What’s the author’s angle?

Rieff started as a huge fan of Freud and did his doctoral dissertation on him, declaring that he had written “the masterwork of the century”. But gradually came to see that Freud’s ideas heralded the beginning of the end. To understand this transition it’s useful to compare Freud to Marx. Rieff was a fan of both, and both seemed to provide visions of a much better future. But when it came time to implement these visions, the actual result was misery for millions.

Who should read this book?

Those who are really interested in the decline of Western culture and believe that it’s primarily an issue of narcissism… otherwise, probably I would pass on it, it’s super dense and academic.

General Thoughts

There are lots of people who think that the woke have gone too far. Who see the excesses and acknowledge that things have gotten crazy, but despite this craziness they’re not worried. It seems reasonable to argue that the craziness is limited to a few individuals, and that beyond that it’s a temporary condition, similar to the campus unrest of the late 60’s and early 70s which seemed apocalyptic at the time, but which are now only dimly remembered. You might be able to talk them into the idea that it’s widespread (particularly with the advent of woke capital) but if so they will fall back to the idea that it’s transitory. A short blip before we settle into a new normal. 

I think Rieff is a valuable counterbalance to this optimism because he shows that, for those who were far sighted enough, this situation could be seen from as far back as the early 60’s (I know the book was published in 66, but books don’t spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.) In other words all of the really deep and insightful criticisms of modernity were being made by Rieff decades ago.

I won’t be doing much of a review because I’m still digesting the book. It’s dense, and important. If you’re still looking for a review other people have done a good job of distilling it. And you might want to check out my review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman, which is the book that pointed me at Rieff. Accordingly, rather than try to do my own, lesser, distillation. I thought I’d just toss out a half a dozen amazing quotes to give you a sense of his prescience. These are taken largely at random, there are dozens more.

…our presently schizoid existence in two cultures—vacillating between dead purposes and deadly devices to escape boredom.

Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going…he understands morality as that which is conducive to increased activity. The important thing is to keep going.

…clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct.

As new religions are constantly being born, so psychotherapeutic faiths are constantly breaking out of their clinical restrictions.

In Jung’s interpretation, the trouble with Freud was that he had remained a Jew who had merely exchanged ritual obedience to the laws of the Hebrew God, for intellectual obedience to the laws of sexuality. 

If yesterday’s analytic thrust is to become part of tomorrow’s cultural super-ego, it must take on an institutional form, defend itself not only as true, but also as good and dig into personality as a demand system. Yet it is precisely this that the new arts and social sciences, in their very nature, cannot accomplish. They cannot create the ardent imaginations necessary to the forming of new communities.


Plato: A Very Short Introduction 

By: Julia Annas

Published: 2003

144 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where “it does exactly what it says on the tin”.

Who should read this book?

It’s marketed towards those who don’t want to read Plato’s actual writings, but really Plato is pretty readable, and there’s really no reason to read this instead of say “Crito” (which is only 4300 words). But if you’ve read a lot of Plato and you’re looking for some context and some synthesis this is a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This is my second “Very Short Introduction” book, and so far I think they’re useful. My sense was that this was better than the one on Socrates, but neither was particularly elegant. Fitting everything into a short space, where comprehension is at a premium necessitates a pretty dry style. Which is not to say that it was annoyingly dry, more that it provides no opportunity for the book to be delightfully discursive, witty or allusive.


Jesus’ Son 

By: Denis Johnson

Published: 1992

133 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of vaguely autobiographical short stories about Johnson’s time as a druggie and lowlife among other druggies and lowlifes. The title comes from the song “Heroin” by Velvet Underground which was written by Lou Reed

Who should read this book?

This book is close to being an “everyone” book, but I resolved to be more parsimonious. It’s short and it has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever encountered. I will say that the audio version is particularly compelling. Like the saddest, most broken down person you know telling you the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. 

General Thoughts

I read this as part of Freddie deBoer’s book club. Which as of this writing is still occurring, so if you’re interested in the book, and participating alongside someone would make it better, you can still get in on that. Beyond that I’d heard people rave about this book for a long time, and I should have picked it up sooner. Johnson is an amazing writer. Though as you can imagine from the description it’s definitely for mature audiences.


Tombs of Atuan 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1971

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the second book of the Earthsea Trilogy, telling the continuing adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. But he’s not the main character, Tenar, a young priestess to the “Nameless Ones” is. She’s supposed to be the latest reincarnation of all the previous priestesses, and thus the most important priestess to the most important gods, but she’s still just a teenage girl. This tension makes for compelling reading.

Who should read this book?

I will say the same thing I said about Wizard of Earthsea: Everyone. (I know I said I was going to be more sparing.) It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short. I guess if you hate fantasy, maybe not, but even then I’d give it a try. 

General Thoughts

Despite what I just said, the lack of breadth makes this, for me, the weakest of the original Earthsea trilogy, though it’s still really, really good. And as I said this was just me personally, it’s my wife’s favorite of the three, she really loves Tenar, and her whole story. So she was shocked when I told her the audiobook had a male narrator (Rob Inglis who also did the Lord of the Rings) and I can see her point. 


Roadside Picnic 

by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Published: 1972

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Aliens have visited the Earth, but rather than conquering humans or even communicating with us they just left “Zones”, areas full of mysterious artifacts and dangerous forces. Humans are compared to insects emerging after a roadside picnic, examining: ”Old spark plugs…rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind.” (This was published in the Soviet Union in 1972; apparently picnics in the Soviet Union involved a lot of car repair.) The zones are super dangerous and off limits to all but the government. Stalkers are people who illegally enter the zone in search of artifacts to sell. The novel is the story of one of these stalkers, Redrick “Red” Schuhart.

Who should read this book?

I think if you like science fiction at all you should read this book. Particularly if you like the older stuff or if you’re trying to broaden your horizons. This is one of the best known examples of Soviet science fiction, and it’s worth reading just for that.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, though I confess that I expected the book to have more of a “Soviet feel” than it actually did, but this violation of my expectations turned out to be a good thing. The differences between this book and other old science fiction I’ve read were subtle, it was less optimistic to the point of being grim, but not dystopian. It also featured a lower class of people than most English science fiction, at least what I’m familiar with. These differences helped the book to be a great story without being either weirdly foreign or heavy-handed propaganda. 


Purple Days

By: Baurus

Published: 2021

2200 Pages (According to Goodreads, and my rough Kindle calculations)

Briefly, what is this book about?

Game of Thrones fanfiction where every time Joffrey dies his life starts over again — Groundhog Day like — at the beginning of the series. After numerous deaths he starts becoming a better person, eventually saving the world almost in the fashion of a superhero.

Who should read this book?

I thought it was pretty good. But at 2200 pages it’s difficult to recommend to anyone. Though I guess if you view it as a series it’s not that bad, though it’s not written as a series, it’s basically one enormous book. 

General Thoughts

A couple of months ago I was at a Slate Star Codex meetup, and someone mentioned that they were into ratfic (which is short for Rationalist Fiction). The best known examples of this genre would be Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) and Unsong. I had read both of those so I asked him what else he would recommend. This book was his recommendation. I’m not sure if I would classify it as rationalist work, but he did, and people have posted about it in the rationalist subreddit, though the posters there share my uncertainty. 

If I had to classify it, the book spends more time exploring humanism than rationalism, but it spends most of its time just being a straight fantasy novel. I would have actually preferred it if it had been more strictly a rationalist morality tale. All of the added fantastic elements and the discursions into Joffrey recreating the renaissance, distracted from the interesting growth that just comes from trial and error. Which is the heart of rationality.  Also there was a missed opportunity to explore the overwhelming importance of X-Risks. Baurus does some of this, but by the end it’s seriously melodramatic. Those are kind of the negatives. (In addition to the length obviously.) 

On the positive side the premise was incredibly interesting, and with 2200 pages to work with Baurus does some truly amazing exploration of the more obscure corners of the world of the Song of Ice and Fire. And while the writing isn’t as polished as what you would get from a more mainstream book, it was mostly quite good.

I did feel that it started to drag near the end (so the last 500 pages), as the aforementioned melodrama began to predominate, and I ended up partially finishing it out of the sunk cost fallacy. But also, I wanted to see how it ended, he had at least made it interesting enough for that. And while there were some great moments near the end, It cut off pretty abruptly for a 2200 page book, and I’m not sure he really stuck the landing.

Despite all of this, overall I was left with the desire to read more fanfiction. Which is probably not a great idea. Though if this same person recommends something else I might just take him up on it.


This didn’t end up being as brief as I thought, but I did end up using a lot more quotes from the books, which is content I didn’t have to write, so it is a little bit easier. If you think that paying someone to copy from other books is a worthwhile use of your money consider donating.