Tag: <span>Politics</span>

The 8 Books I Finished in April

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  1. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by: Eric Schlosser
  2. Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less by: Alex Epstein
  3. The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 
  4. Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment by: Yanis Varoufakis 
  5. Apollo: The Race to the Moon by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
  6. Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1) by: Orson Scott Card
  7. The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3 by: Matt Dinniman
  8. Faith, Hope and Carnage by: Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan

April continued to be crazy busy with my business. I’ve hired some people, but in between the time it takes to manage them and the steady increase in the number of clients, thus far adding capacity has not reduced my workload. But I’m optimistic that eventually it will

Also I had a weird medical problem. This may be a case of TMI, but the whole thing was interesting. 

Both of my big toes have been tender and occasionally painful for several months. The problem didn’t seem to be getting worse, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better either. Also I eventually concluded that the nails of both had stopped growing, so I figured I’d better see a podiatrist. I expected him to prescribe some kind of cream, or for him to be mystified (as doctors frequently are.)  Instead, he knew exactly what was going on and determined that at some point I had traumatized my two big toes enough that my body had decided that the nails were no longer viable. I couldn’t remember any taxing toe trauma and told him that. He said he often saw severe shock among skiers because of the squeeze — of the boots. I had been skiing once this winter, but I thought the toenail truncation started thereafter.

In any case, because of the trauma my body had decided to give up on the old nail and switch to a new nail, but since the old nails were still there there was a good chance that the new nails would get blocked. If this happened then the body would start trying to grow a third nail, which would almost certainly also get blocked and at some point things get really backed up. The solution was to just yank out both of the old nails. 

This solution was way more dramatic and potentially painful than I expected. My immediate response was to squeak out “Right now?” I honestly didn’t feel psychically prepared — it’s not like the nails were loose or anything. Fortunately, except for a brief moment of discomfort, the removal was painless. The shots to achieve that condition were another thing entirely…

It’s interesting that the initial injury was so mild I can’t even remember it, but the resolution was dramatic enough that I’ll never forget it. Recovery hasn’t been too bad. Though occasionally a wave of pain will emanate from the top of the toe, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what sets things off.

One final update: I’m 90% sure I’m going to move to Substack in May. A few things pushed me over the edge: 

  1. The referral feature is nice. I have some fans who are also Substack writers and it will be easier for them to recommend me. 
  2. I like the idea of Notes. I think that might be more my style than the Hobbesian world of Twitter. 
  3. Finally the Substack team can apparently port over my entire domain, so links to old posts will continue to work. This is a MAJOR deal. 

I mention all this, so that if at some point in May you can’t get to my site, you’ll know why.

I- Eschatological Review

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

by: Eric Schlosser

Published: 2013

656 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The development and integration of nuclear weapons into the military structure, Cold War deterrence strategy, and the numerous accidents involving nukes, many of which avoided being an accidental detonation only by luck.

What’s the author’s angle?

Schlosser is an investigative journalist, so he’s after the juicy stories. I’m not saying he juiced this particular story up, but keep in mind that he has very little incentive to moderate the juiciness.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, there’s a sense in which this is a sequel to that. More generally, anyone interested in nukes should read the book.

General Thoughts

This was a great book. It uses the common non-fiction structure of using a single incident to provide narrative momentum. Schlosser then builds off that incident into a larger examination of the general subject and its history. 

The momentum comes from the story of the Damascus Accident. In 1980, a two-man crew was servicing a Titan II missile. In order to do that they needed to use a very large socket. Unfortunately they subsequently dropped that socket. It slipped through a narrow gap, and dropped 80 feet where it ricocheted off the thrust mount and into the side of the missile. This punctured the fuel tank and the missile began spraying fuel into the silo. (Here’s a link to a YouTube video with a recreation of the accident.) The book recounts all of the events that followed, events which eventually culminated in the silo exploding and the nuclear warhead being ejected. Fortunately it did not detonate or break apart. In fact it only traveled a short distance. Nevertheless it was still an enormous disaster. Twenty-one people were injured and one person died.

On top of this story of disaster experienced and apocalypse avoided, Schlosser lays out the history of nuclear weapons and how they were handled politically and militarily. As you might imagine, he spends a lot of time talking about the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

In all this history I found the immediate post-war period to be the most interesting. I obviously can’t cover everything, but here are two facts to whet your appetite:

President Truman’s [vow to contain Soviet power was tough words [his vow to contain Soviet Power was] not backed, however, by a military strategy that could defend Western Europe. During the early months of 1947, as Truman formulated his anti-Communist doctrine, the Pentagon did not have a war plan for fighting the Soviet Union. And the rapid demobilization of the American military seemed to have given the Soviets a tremendous advantage on the ground. The U.S. Army had only one division stationed in Germany, along with ten police regiments, for a total of perhaps 100,000 troops. The British army had one division there, as well. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Soviet army had about one hundred divisions, with about 1.2 million troops, capable of invading Western Europe—and could mobilize more than 150 additional divisions within a month.

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I often heard that NATO was outmatched conventionally. Still, I always imagined that the disparity wasn’t that great. And by the end of the Cold War it probably wasn’t, but I never realized that the disparity started out at 100 to 1! When that’s the starting point it’s going to take a long time to reverse, and the impression of being outgunned will probably last long after the actual situation starts changing.

Given this disparity, it is only natural that Truman would turn to nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The problem was that no one, not even the president, knew how many nuclear weapons the US had. 

In April 1947, David Lilienthal visited Los Alamos for the first time after becoming head of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was shocked by what he saw: rudimentary equipment; dilapidated buildings; poor housing; muddy, unpaved roads—and plutonium cores stored in cages at an old icehouse… Nuclear weapons were now thought indispensable for the defense of the United States; Lilienthal had expected to find them neatly and safely stored for immediate use. “The substantial stockpile of atom bombs we and the top military assumed was there, in readiness, did not exist,” Lilienthal subsequently wrote. “Furthermore, the production facilities that might enable us to produce quantities of atomic weapons … likewise did not exist.”The number of atomic bombs in the American arsenal was considered so secret that it could not be shared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff—or even recorded on paper. After visiting Los Alamos, Lilienthal met with President Truman in the Oval Office and told him how many atomic bombs would be available in the event of a war with the Soviet Union: at most, one. The bomb was unassembled but, in Lilienthal’s view, “probably operable.” The president was stunned. He’d just announced the Truman Doctrine before Congress, vowing to contain the worldwide spread of communism. Admirals and generals were fighting over the atomic stockpile, completely unaware that there wasn’t one. “We not only didn’t have a pile,” Lilienthal recalled, “we didn’t have a stock.” The threat to destroy the Soviet Union, if it invaded Western Europe, was a bluff.

You can imagine my reaction to this. After reading the first quote, I was surprised that the USSR hadn’t invaded Western Europe. One imagines that had they been aware of the information in the second quote, they certainly would have. 

As everyone knows, the number didn’t stay at one for very long, and in our haste to assemble an actual stockpile, safety was often a secondary concern. These efforts were further stymied by the state of readiness SAC insisted on. Bombers had to be prepared to take to the air with nukes at a moment’s notice, and they frequently flew training missions with actual nukes as well. Unfortunately, planes sometimes have accidents, and if you insist on loading actual nukes onto those planes they’re going to get into accidents as well. Accidents like a fire which might set off the detonators, and trigger a full or partial nuclear explosion.

It would be unfair to say that SAC completely ignored the problem of safety, but they strongly resisted numerous proposed enhancements because they worried it would make the weapons less reliable. When you combine this with the frequent handling these weapons received, there were thousands of accidents. Most were not serious, but dozens were, and that’s a conservative estimate. Since the end of the Cold War things have gotten better, but there are a lot of nukes still out there, and they’re getting older. It’s unclear what the future holds. Speaking of which…

Eschatological Implications

For many people nothing is more viscerally eschatological than nukes. Their vision of armageddon is nothing more nor less than all-out nuclear war. Command and Control makes it clear that we came very close to mutually assured destruction several times. We came even closer to accidentally detonating one of those weapons, which might have served to trigger an all out exchange — the accident could have been mistaken for a deliberate act. The book quotes General Butler, head of SAC at the end of the Cold War. He was tasked with revising our nuclear plans.

I came to fully appreciate the truth … we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.

Regardless of how, we should surely be grateful that we did escape. But is that escape permanent? There are still thousands of nuclear weapons and just a few weeks ago the NYT reported that China is massively expanding its nuclear arsenal with a goal of becoming the third nuclear superpower. Lots of people imagine that because we survived the last 75 years with nukes that the danger is past. But it seems more likely that the danger is just beginning. Despite the dreams of pacifists and presidents, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is as far away as ever. 

Even if we can avoid war, what about accidents? As Schlosser points out, accidents are common, and while none has resulted in an actual detonation, it seems to only be a matter of time before one does. Obviously this book was written from the standpoint of the US. What would a similar book written from the standpoint of Russia and the USSR look like? Would it be even more alarming? And is there not a second book to be written about China? One where most of the pages are yet to be filled?

We are not out of the woods. We’re not even close to the edge of the woods. By all accounts, we’re actually journeying deeper into the darkness. 

II- Non-Fiction Reviews

Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less

by: Alex Epstein

Published: 2022

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the downsides of fossil fuel use are overstated and upsides are understated.

What’s the author’s angle?

I’ll get to a charitable interpretation of his “angle” below, for an uncharitable interpretation all you need to know is that he spent seven years as a fellow at the Ayn Rand institute.

Who should read this book?

If you want a steelman of the case for increasing the use of fossil fuels or if you want someone to reassure you that staying on the current course isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

General Thoughts

In a past post on climate change I pointed out that there are several stages/questions to any discussion of climate change:

  1. Is the Earth getting hotter?
  2. Are humans causing it?
  3. Is that a bad thing?
  4. If so, how bad?

While much of the discussion remains confined to questions one and two, this is a book about levels three and four. In particular, Epstein points out that the effects of climate change will be much easier to deal with if we have lots of energy. Of course the way we get lots of energy is by burning fossil fuels, so it’s a vicious cycle, but Epstein mostly argues that the ship has sailed. Climate change is already locked in, and dealing with it, while also dealing with an extreme lack of energy is going to make things very bad.

Climate change is such a contentious issue that I am not going to attempt any kind of deep dive on his arguments. Though I would be interested in reading something from the other side of this issue. What is the gold-standard “climate change is going to be a massive disaster” book? 

Though no deep dive, I do want to nibble around the edges. At its core the debate over climate change is a debate about impact and how it should be evaluated. (This book was a big part of the inspiration for my recent post on harm.) Consider an example:

There’s a lot of talk about ocean acidification. I frequently see it brought up as an argument against geo-engineering, because even if that serves to mitigate the temperatures we will still have irreparably harmed the oceans. Epstein discusses this at some length and puts forth a lot of different counter arguments. The one I found the most interesting was the fact that historically carbon-dioxide levels have been much higher. (Nota bene: Here historically means hundreds of millions of years ago.) But during those times when the carbon-dioxide level was several times higher than it is today, the ocean had more life in it than it does today. Historically, a more “acidic” ocean was arguably more hospitable.

This does not mean that there’s no impact. Even if the ocean is more hospitable to life, that life might be significantly different than what currently lives there. Changes to the ocean may kill off numerous species that were adapted to the current ocean. This is a very large impact, and a large part of Epstein’s book is dedicated to pointing out that zero human impact is an impossible goal, but it’s precisely the goal at the heart of the environmental movement. Zero human impact equals zero humans, so this leads them, at their core, to be anti-human. This observation is both interesting and, on some level, true.

In general Epstein makes a pretty convincing case. But I think his confidence that if we just continue to use fossil fuel that we’ll definitely be better off has a couple of very large issues. I think the speed of change has been pretty slow thus far, but that need not always be the case. Things could speed up and outpace our ability to adapt even if we don’t forswear fossil fuel (though I take his point that in the absence of fossil fuel our ability to adapt is even more limited). Just because carbon-dioxide was much higher historically doesn’t mean that the transition happened as rapidly as it is now. 

More perniciously I worry about visible effects vs. invisible effects. I think we have lots of ways to mitigate the visible effects of climate change: rising temperatures and sea level, climate refugees, droughts, etc. (whether we’ll actually use them is a different story.) But I’m certain that out of all of the effects it’s going to cause, there are some we’re not going to know about until it’s too late. While we’re busy building dikes and spraying sulfur-dioxide into the upper atmosphere, other catastrophes will be brewing and we won’t realize it until they’re too late to stop. 

The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion

by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Democracy requires free and open communication — a loose system of control. But this same system, because of its lack of control, can easily go off the rails, and be exploited. Or, as the book says, “Hence the paradox: the more open the communication we enjoy, the more endangered democracy finds itself.”

What’s the author’s angle?

Most people think that “the default state of democracy is stability, and periods of disruption are the exception.” The author’s want to demonstrate that it’s the exact opposite.

Who should read this book?

The authors demonstrate the aforementioned disruption with a survey of democratic instability throughout history, if you’re interested in such a survey you should read this book. That said, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have read. I frequently point out that my reading is far too skewed towards recent books, that I should cut some of the more recent books in favor of older books. This is a recent book that should have been cut.

General Thoughts

There are people who are surprised by the idea that democracy isn’t being subverted, that it is in fact doing the subversion. I am not one of those people. I have long known that democracy can just as easily lead to illiberalism as liberalism. I’ve been warning about it in this space for quite awhile. This is another reason why I probably should have skipped this book, it was preaching to the choir.

Though the preaching was tiresome, some of it was quite trenchant. A few quotes demonstrate this:

We’re now confronting the greatest structural challenge to democracy we’ve ever seen: a truly open society. Without gatekeepers, there are no constraints on discourse. Digital technology has changed everything. Consequently, reality is up for grabs in a way it never has been before.

Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, sensed, far better than political scientists or sociologists, that our media environment decides not just what we pay attention to but also how we think and orient ourselves in the world.

We’re confronting the true face of democracy: a totally unfettered culture of open communication. Nearly all democracies up until now have been democracies in name only; they’ve been mediated by institutions designed to check popular passions and control the flow of information. 

I would disagree that we lack gatekeepers and that there are no mediating institutions. Their power has been weakened and the culture of open communication has made their interference far more transparent, but they are still there. Nor do I expect them to go away anytime soon, but what we are seeing is a fracturing into tribes and camps. The left has their institutions. The right has theirs. And even the centrists have splintered off into their own camp. As I have repeatedly said, it’s not institutions we lack, it’s a civil religion.

To their credit the authors recognize this:

All democratic communities are held together not by a shared conception of truth but by a commonly recognized experience and a commitment to active dialogue.

We have no commonly recognized experience. No universal myths we all agree on. When you combine that with unfettered democracy, that’s when you really have a problem.

Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment

by: Yanis Varoufakis 

Published: 2017

516 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An insider’s account of the 2015 Greek Debt Crisis written by the finance minister at the time, so, not just a little bit inside, very inside. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Varoufakis is at pains to show how ridiculous the process was and how intransigent the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) was. I have no doubt that his account is largely correct, nevertheless I would dearly like to read something written from the other side.

Who should read this book?

This book portrays a very narrow slice of the modern world, but cuts deeper into that machinery than probably any book I’ve read. If you want a look at the modern world which descends into the deepest depths of the ocean, through the crust, past the mantle and into the core. This is your book.

General Thoughts

This book was by turns gripping, tragic, and, most of all, damning. But I hesitate to pronounce damnation on anyone without hearing their side of the story. The functionaries and bureaucrats in this book, from Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, through Wolfgang Schäuble, German Minister of Finance, to Varoufakis’ own allies within the Greek Government, all do some really dumb things, and I can’t help but imagine that if told from their perspective that these things wouldn’t appear quite so dumb. 

In particular, I wonder what Varoufakis would point to today to prove that he was right all along. The Greek economy does seem to be growing, albeit slightly. The debt hasn’t gone down and in fact it continues to increase, but it’s so huge compared to the Greek economy that it almost doesn’t matter. Varoufakis made a big deal about the devastation austerity wrought on the poor. The poverty rate seems to have fallen in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but then started rising again, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find recent numbers. 

I’m inclined to take Varoufakis’ account as the truth, but that’s precisely why I want to know more because it’s a truth so amazing that I’m curious to know as much as possible. 

Apollo: The Race to the Moon

by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox

Published: 1989

506 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A behind-the-scenes look at the technical and engineering side of the Apollo missions: building the rocket, coming up with the idea for a lunar lander, building the Cape and Houston, etc.

What’s the author’s angle?

Murray is best known for his social science books. He wrote this one with his wife, and I think it was because the story was so amazing he couldn’t help but write it.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in the moon program or engineering, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s fantastic. 

General Thoughts

Like many great books, this one is out of print. I don’t know why because it’s fantastic. It’s not even available as an ebook to say nothing of audio. You can get a decent copy for around $40, which isn’t great, but it was totally worth it.

As far as the book itself, I never considered myself to be a deep student of the Apollo program, but I figured I knew more than most. There was obviously Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, and of course Apollo 13. And I knew there were several missions after 13.

I was also dimly aware that there were missions before 11. I knew they had circled the moon before landing on it. But these pre-Apollo 11 missions were where my knowledge was the most lacking and this is where this book excelled. Obviously just getting to the first launch was a ridiculously difficult endeavor punctuated by the enormous tragedy of Apollo 1’s fire, which killed three astronauts.

One of my favorite of these endeavors was the launch of Apollo 4. It was an unmanned launch and the first full test of all three stages. They had the rocket together for the very first time, a million pieces from countless vendors. They would start at the top of the countdown checklist, come to something that couldn’t be checked off, stop everything, fix it, and then start over. This went on for seventeen days where people were working nearly twenty-four hours a day, but when they finally fixed all of the problems, the launch went perfectly. None of the stages had been independently tested, but it all worked. No one thinks of Apollo 4 these days, but it was a massive engineering accomplishment. 

I know one shouldn’t long for the past, as things are much better on so many fronts today. But when you read about those amazing men, the challenges they overcame, and what they were able to pull off in less than a decade, it does feel like we’ve lost something. That whatever else we might be able to do today, we couldn’t do that again.

III- Fiction Reviews

Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1)

by: Orson Scott Card

Published: 1985

324 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ender Wiggins, a child prodigy, is taken from his family and sent to Battle School to be trained as an eventual fleet commander. Meanwhile his equally prodigious siblings, Peter and Valentine, engage in their own machinations back on Earth.

Who should read this book?

I expect the vast majority of people who read this blog already have. If for some reason you haven’t, you should. This is probably my sixth or seventh time reading it.

General Thoughts

Ender’s Game was originally a short story, which is how I first encountered it. My father maintains that this is the superior version. If you’re curious to compare the two, you can find the short story version in volume 1 of Jerry Pournelle’s There Will be War series (available on Kindle for $5). My personal opinion is that each version harmonizes with its respective format. The short story is more plot-driven and focuses on the twist ending. While the novel is more character-driven and focuses on the interaction between the siblings. 

One of my readers convinced me that I had to read Children of the Mind, the fourth book of the saga, because it contained some interesting ideas about unembodied intelligences, a topic in which I’ve expressed some interest. I figured in order to do that I needed to reread books 1-3, so here we are. You should expect reviews of Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide shortly.

And yes, the book was just as good as I remembered.

The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3

by: Matt Dinniman

Published: 2021

534 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you may recall, this is a series where aliens show up, take possession of the Earth, kill most of its inhabitants and make the rest participate in a real life fantasy dungeon crawl computer game. The series revolves around Carl and his sentient, talking cat, Princess Donut. In this book he has to defeat level four which, much like the internet, is a series of tubes

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for mindless escapist fantasy. And you enjoyed books one and two.

General Thoughts

Of the three books I’ve read thus far, I thought book two was the strongest. I suspect I’m going to tire of Carl continually triumphing over impossible odds by being very lucky and coming up with crazy ideas. But I guess that’s what I signed up for when I started the series. My grumbling aside, this series has been a very enjoyable diversion. I plan to continue reading it and I believe I’ll start book 4 right…now!

IV- Religious Reviews

Faith, Hope and Carnage

by: Nick Cave, Seán O’Hagan 

Published: 2022

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Cave and O’Hagan had several long conversations during the COVID lockdowns which they recorded and turned into a book. It covers a lot of territory, music, God, and, of course, all the words in the title. Carnage refers to many things, but mostly to the loss of Cave’s fifteen year-old son Arthur, who accidently fell to his death in 2015. 

Who should read this book?

My wife recommended this to me after reading it with her book club. Despite all the reviewing I do, I rarely reach out to someone and say, “You should read this book.” I did with this one. This is one you should almost certainly read. (Or at least listen to the authors re-narrate their conversations.)

General Thoughts

The conversation between the Cave and O’Hagan is so wide-ranging that it would be wrong for me to try and summarize it further. I’ll just end things with one of Cave’s numerous amazing observations:

Yes, but Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person – and, Seán, when I use that word ‘religious’, you do understand the way that I am using it, right? We’ve talked about that enough for you to understand I am not talking about being a traditional Christian or something like that. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt on a profound level a kind of deep inclusion in the human predicament, really, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled.

I messed with the categories a little bit this month, and it made me wonder if I should stop ending with religious reviews. They have a tendency to be heavy, which makes joking about donations more difficult. And yet I soldier on regardless of how tasteless it is. If you appreciate that brazenness, 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.

If I had a nickel for every particle of microplastic you breathed in while reading my blog, I wouldn’t be a wealthy man, but I might be able to quit my day job. I’d take even a penny per microplastic particle. If for some reason this strange logic appeals to you, consider donating

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…

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.

Finding “The Answer”

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I just finished the book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge. I’ll obviously provide a review of it in my monthly book roundup at the beginning of December. If, for some reason, you need to decide before then whether or not to read it I will say that it spends more time than I would have expected on the history of meritocracy. But if history is precisely what you’re looking for then you should enjoy it.

This post is not going to be a review—though it may end up being one incidentally—rather I bring up the book because it was the inspiration for this post. The book helped illuminate a broader category. A category which contains many possibilities, of which meritocracy is only one. For thousands of years people have been asking, “What is the best way to organize society?” Meritocracy is one of many answers to that question, though up until fairly recently most people thought that it was not merely an answer, but The Answer. As I mentioned this has recently changed and people have started to have doubts, assuaging these doubts is one of the reasons why Wooldridge wrote his book. He still believes it’s The Answer. He even calls meritocracy the “Golden Ticket”. But as I said this is not a review, nor is it the place to dissect Wooldridge, rather I want to fit meritocracy into the broader search for “The Answer”. 


Somewhat hypocritically, after accusing Wooldridge of focusing too much on history, that’s where I’m going to start as well. After all he does have a point, in order to understand current conditions it’s critical to understand how we got here. In order to understand The Answer of the present we need to understand how people answered this question in the past.

The most obvious answer for how to organize a society and the one underlying all other answers is “survival”. You must first organize your society such that it survives, because, as I often point out, if it can’t survive it can’t do much of anything else. 

Closely related to survival is The Answer of “power”. Anyone who has the power to organize society will almost always organize it such that it benefits them. Or to put it another way, imagine that everyone, individually, gets asked, “How should society be organized?” To which everyone naturally answers “To my benefit!” And those who have or can acquire power are the ones who are able to turn that answer into reality. As you have probably already deduced, power is another thing which ends up being foundational to structuring how the world works.

Unfortunately for those exercising power, and perhaps fortunately for those who are powerless, organizing society for the benefit of the powerful often conflicts with organizing society such that it survives—particularly over the long term. Thus, in order for societies to continue, checks on the powerful must necessarily become part of the system by which the society is organized. This can, perhaps, be seen most clearly when it comes to warfare. The powerful can’t win wars on their own, and any society better able to marshal all of its resources will have an advantage in such conflicts. As a consequence of this, societies evolve systems and traditions that work towards these ends. It might be a culture which encourages child-bearing. Or an ideology which inspires people to feel pride in their tribe or nation, and to sacrifice for the benefit of those close to them. Or a hierarchical system designed such that the most powerful can grant power to others in a structured and useful fashion.

Eventually all of this gets packaged up and turned into something that might be called a religion, though one that only loosely resembles modern religions. But for the purposes of our topic the comparison is a useful one, since for modern religions providing The Answer is the whole point. And we see something similar here, though early on most religions were regional, and they didn’t aspire to provide The Answer, just answers. Which is to say that at the time there wasn’t a lot of zeal for evangelization, a point which will become important later on.

Obviously any discussion of religion puts us at the top of a very deep rabbit hole. We’re going to go some of the way down that hole, but in order to keep things manageable I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the civic role played by religion rather than its supernatural claims. 

At this point in our story, the various societies were still mostly focused on balancing power and survival. As they did so each society ended up with its own answers. These answers weren’t all encompassing, but rather very specific—relating to local challenges of geography, resources, and the threats posed by neighboring nations. Out of this attempt to balance power and survival, combined with all of this regional specificity, there emerged an interesting menagerie of systems. As time went on the systems grew more sophisticated, but there was still a Roman answer on how to organize things and a Chinese answer, and both were very different. 

However both were successful enough that it started to feel like their answers to the question of how to organize societies might be The Answer. This is certainly one of the reasons the end of the Roman Empire has seemed so consequential down through the ages. After being in existence for hundreds of years it seemed clear that they had The Answer and when, after centuries, that turned out not to be the case, it was a big blow. Because if the Roman empire wasn’t the answer, what was? Obviously people moved on to a reliance on Christianity, and it clearly provided The Answer to millions of individuals, but from a civic perspective its organizing powers never reached the heights achieved by the empire. More recently, one can see a very similar arc with China, and that’s where I’m going to focus. Rome is interesting, but it was long ago, and if I was going to go down that path at some point I’d have to talk about how Byzantium fits into things, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that.


For China, unlike Rome, The Answer had a label, it was called Confucianism, and Confucianism had a very conspicuous manifestation: the imperial examination system. Now obviously neither the exams nor the underlying ideology turned China into some kind of utopia. There were plenty of bumps in the road, some of them very large, but for over a thousand years— two thousand if we’re liberal in our assessment—even as dynasties changed and wars raged, Confucianism acted as a lodestone for the Chinese, and indeed most of East Asia. Whether it actually was The Answer seems far less important than whether people believed it was the answer. (One detects a significant amount of secular faith in this whole undertaking.)

At some point one would think that Confucianism would inevitably fall out of favor for any number of reasons, very few ideologies survive very long, and in the end it took decades of China being humiliated by the West (part of what the Chinese later labeled the “century of humiliation”) before they officially abandoned the imperial examination system in 1905. And while the examination system has not returned, Confucianism more broadly returned almost as soon as it was able. The first conference aimed at rehabilitating it was held just a few years after Mao died. (Mao having been one of its chief opponents.) Confucianism’s hold was such that it was only out of favor for around 100 years—and that only happened under extreme pressure—before it came roaring back

The abandonment of Confucianism seems to have been largely driven by a sense of survival. During the late 1800s and early 1900s China was facing an existential crisis. Which leads back to one of my original points, if you can’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. But once China’s survival appeared to no longer be threatened it was back in the picture.

This rehabilitation of Confucianism is not my primary focus, though it is interesting evidence of its staying power. I’m more interested in the way people handle things when they think that they have The Answer. That they have unlocked the secret of building a flourishing society. 

The Europeans seemed to also feel that Confucianism might be The Answer for them as well when they first encountered it. As Wooldridge points out in Aristocracy of Talent the Europeans were particularly fascinated by the Chinese exam system and the mandarins it produced. There were immediately attempts to create something similar back home. 

But, to be clear, we’re not interested in any specific answer for how society should be organized, we’re interested in the idea that there should be one answer, The Answer, a system which is better than all the rest. And it may be that hearing about the Chinese system was when this idea started to take root in the modern imagination, though by 17th century, when this was happening, lots of ideas were taking root, and it seems clear that one way or the other Europeans would have started experimenting politically just as they were beginning to be more serious about experimenting in other areas. 

Before we leave China it’s interesting to ask how they felt about this bigger idea. Separate from the virtues of Confucianism, why should it be so important or attractive for them to discover The Answer? Important enough that once the Chinese had it they held onto it for a thousand or more years? Even as conditions, leaders and the external world changed. Attractive enough that even when Confucianism was out of favor, they always landed on another candidate. If it wasn’t going to be Confucianism then it would be something else. Historically Legalism was the primary competitor, and there were also dalliances with Taoism. And we can’t forget the eventual zeal with which they embraced communism. 

One presumes that part of this tendency had to do with effectiveness. They’d seen how transformative having an answer could be, and by “they” I’m mostly talking about the rulers. Clearly if those in power had not noticed some ongoing benefit these various systems wouldn’t have been around for 2500 years. If you’ve read Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott you might be thinking of the benefits which would accrue to them from the legibility it imparted to the population. A population that was always quite massive, generally hovering at around one-fourth of the entire global population as far back as you want to look. If every part of China works the same way, that makes the country as a whole easier to manage. But perhaps the most interesting reason to adopt and seek an answer is that it gives you a goal, something to shoot for. It basically amounts to an early form of political science.

If you have arrived at a system. If you have The Answer. Then you also have a list of things you can try to make the country better. You can implement The Answer more completely in those areas which are lagging. You can refine The Answer, figure out what parts are working and what parts are unnecessary baggage, and then you can do more of the former while jettisoning the latter. You can compare slight differences in implementation and decide which of them works best. At some level all of these things happened in China, particularly with regards to the exams. One of my favorite examples is the procedure whereby all of the exams were recopied by someone else before being submitted to the judges, eliminating any potential bias that might occur if they recognized the handwriting. They also added various features to make cheating more difficult, and the exams as a whole got progressively more brutal.

As you can imagine the importance and brutality of the exam system had obvious side effects. Here’s how Wooldridge puts it:

The examination cult imposed a terrible strain on its devotees – not just on the young but on all those middle-aged and indeed elderly candidates who continued to put themselves forward. The examination halls that littered the country were widely known as ‘examination prisons’ and were sometimes subjected to riots and arson. Many of the greatest works of Chinese literature were devoted to demonizing the system.

Wooldridge even claims that my candidate for the biggest recent event no one knows about, the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, was “driven in part by frustrations with the civil service exam”. Which is a pretty big side effect. 

All of this is relatively easy to identify retrospectively as we look back on China, but is something similar happening today? Have we taken one answer and pushed it too far? Is it possible that it’s the quest for The Answer itself that has gotten out of hand?


The first thing we should consider as we move from an historical examination to the present day is what do we currently think The Answer is? Here, as is so often the case, we turn to Francis Fukuyama. The central claim of his book The End of History and the Last Man was that after centuries of trial and error, and contests between various systems that we had finally, and definitively answered the question of how best to organize society. The Answer turned out to be: liberal democracy. This was in part because of the many advantages of liberal democracy, but perhaps more importantly because, Fukuyama asserted, there were no remaining contenders. 

At the time Fukuyama was making this claim the strengths of liberal democracy were obvious, its weaknesses less so. As an example of one of these weaknesses, liberal democracy is not as well defined as Confucianism. Liberal democracy has no text that compares to the centrality of the Analects, and no activity that is as pivotal as the imperial examinations. Rather liberal democracy is more the assemblage of numerous good ideas, which Fukuyama defines directionally rather than absolutely. Liberal democracy is the endeavor of “getting to Denmark”.  

Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.

It’s less of a definition than a goal, but with that goal to aspire to, and no remaining contenders we should basically be done, right? We’ve got The Answer, the rest is just implementation? 

Unfortunately, no. First implementation has proved to be more difficult than expected, but more importantly, not everyone agrees with Fukuyama. Certainly, as you might already have guessed, the leaders of countries like China and Russia definitely don’t agree with Fukuyama. But nor do all the citizens of the liberal democracies. Meritocracy is a great example of this. While it was not mentioned in the description of Denmark, people like Wooldridge, and many others, would nevertheless argue that it’s a central component of the liberal democratic/getting to Denmark package. But the whole reason Wooldridge wrote his book is not everyone agrees that it should be. The idea is under attack from both the left and the right. 

Nor is it the only liberal democratic idea under attack. Free trade and globalism are similarly under siege, and there are people who feel just as strongly about the centrality of these ideas as Wooldridge feels about meritocracy. Part of the reason people have turned against free trade is that it didn’t work as advertised. Back in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO it was an article of faith for many that this opening would inevitably lead to China adopting the rest of the liberal democratic package. This was even more true when Fukuyama made his initial assertion. It was assumed that if you had true representative government, it would lead to meritocracy and free trade. Or that if you free trade and capitalism, it would lead to liberal speech norms and democracy. As we discovered to our sorrow with China this is not the case. We may have to settle for a world of free trade with illiberal nations. Or choose a system which minimizes inequality, or one which maximizes meritocracy. 

This is why people like Wooldridge have started picking pieces of the package to defend. If liberal democracy writ large is not The Answer perhaps meritocracy is. Or maybe it’s immigration. Perhaps we just haven’t given free trade enough time. Or perhaps it’s none of the above and we need a successor ideology. I’ve even seen more people moving back to communism. (Though because of the connotations they generally identify as hardcore socialists.)

In all of these efforts they are borrowing the evangelizing spirit that came about when people first thought they had The Answer. If you really have uncovered the one true way to organize society, why would you not want to spread it as widely and as deeply as possible? We can see this impulse playing out at least as early as the French Revolution. And down through the decades since then. It’s impractical to list all of the examples, but certainly Wilson, and his call to make “the world safe for democracy” comes to mind. You can also see it in Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, continuing up to and including our support for Ukraine in the current conflict. But this idea of evangelization wasn’t limited to liberal democracy. If anything communism had an even bigger evangelical urge, not only desiring to spread throughout the world, but going farther in their claims that it was inevitable. This was part of what made the Cold War seem so important. It was a contest between two sides that both thought that they had The Answer. 

Now, even as the liberal democratic package is fracturing, the evangelizing, if anything, is getting more intense. It’s proving difficult to be semi-meritocratic, but even more difficult to be completely meritocratic. It’s also difficult to be a semi-protectionists, but free trade has its own large set of issues. And no one says we should be semi-democratic, but everyone has their own definition of what democracy should look like, and oftentimes populism isn’t included in that definition. Don’t even get people started on the idea of being semi-unequal. 

In closing I’d like to include a long quote from a recent post from Ross Douthat. I’ve been talking about the fracturing of liberalism, he’s talking about the prospects for it’s renewal, but the underlying diagnosis is the same:

…liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.

Douthat gets to the heart of the problem, but I don’t share his implicit optimism that liberalism can be reinfused and thereby revived. And one of the sources for the chaos of our time is that people have recognized that. Thus the fracturing. And from that fracturing a landscape where rather than having one answer there are dozens. People aren’t trying to save liberalism, they’re trying to save what they feel is the critical piece. They’re rallying around their version of The Answer. Whether it’s meritocracy or social justice or globalism or Christianity. Personally I lean towards the last one, but I also don’t see any path forward to a workable Christian Nationalism or any path back to the “liberalism plus mainline Protestantism” spoken of by Douthat.

But perhaps the beginning of any path forward is to acknowledge that we haven’t found The Answer, at least not yet.

This post didn’t come together as easily as I hoped. And then there was the whole FTX/SBF explosion in the middle which I spent way too much time reading about. This not only slowed me down, it made me reluctant to give money to anyone. If you had a similar reaction, let me reassure you. If you donate to me I won’t use the money to power an elaborate fraud. I’ll probably just use it to buy a book.

The 10 Books I Finished in April

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  1. The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracyby: Taylor Dotson
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by: Mark Fisher 
  3. The Age of AI and Our Human Future by: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher
  4. A Confederacy of Dunces by: John Kennedy Toole
  5. Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation by: Roosevelt Montás
  6. Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen by: Steve Sims
  7. The Thursday Murder Club by: Richard Osman
  8. The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands by: John Michael Greer
  9. Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) by: Craig Alanson
  10. Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9) by: Craig Alanson

The next few months are going to be pretty busy. As I mentioned in the epilogue of one of my essays in April, we’ve decided to move. My house is old, we’ve lived in it a very long time, and I like to collect things, particularly books. (At this point we’ve used 80+ boxes just on them.) So getting ready to show and sell the house has already been a pretty laborious process, and will continue to be so for the next couple of weeks. Once the house is sold, which hopefully will be the matter of a weekend since the market, while cooling, is still pretty hot (my timing for selling the house has not been perfect, but I’m hoping it’s close enough) then we need to find a new house, which will also be time consuming. Once a new house is acquired we’ll need to move, unpack, and reconstruct things. Hopefully this will all happen before July 10th, because that’s when I leave for Ireland for two and a half weeks. As I said, the next few months are going to be busy.

I bring all of this up because there’s obviously a chance it will affect the time I have available to write. (It already delayed the second half of my drug post so that it was almost on top of my end of month newsletter.) There’s a chance I just won’t put out two essays one of these months (the best candidate being July) but my plan is to focus on trying to write some shorter essays. These will hopefully take less time, and as my post lengths have been creeping up, it’s probably a good idea to try to exercise some restraint in any case. That said sometimes shorter pieces require just as much, if not more effort than longer pieces. All the way back in 1657 Pascal apologized for the length of one of his letters because he “had not the time to make it shorter”. The more I write the more true I realize this is. 

In any event we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure how much shorter I can make my reviews, but I guess we’re about to find out. Making things more difficult, I’m going to immediately undermine this effort by adding a new section for non-fiction books, and the occasional fictional book: “What’s the author’s angle?”

I- Eschatological Reviews

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy 

By: Taylor Dotson

Published: 2021

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another examination of political polarization. This one focused on pointing out that science is not nearly as prescriptive as people claim, but also neither is “common sense”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Dotson describes himself as a leftist, and his primary thrust seems to be urging other leftists to re-engage with pluralist, discursive democracy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone sick of people telling them that we just need to “follow the science” or anyone who suspects that the value of an epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) has been oversold.

General Thoughts

I found this book to be appealing but flawed. Let’s start with its appeal. I have noticed, particularly since the pandemic started, that the admonition to “follow the science” has gotten ever more insistent. These admonitions preceded the pandemic, but that was what really put the idea to the test and found it wanting. I have previously discussed why this is so. Why determining the correct action is not nearly so simple. But some people imagine that it is precisely that simple, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

Tyson and Nye are not generally at the top of anybody’s list of “people who are destroying the world”, but Dotson is pretty hard on them. This was definitely part of the book’s appeal for me. Not because Tyson or Nye are bad people, but precisely because they’re not. This allows us to clearly identify the bad idea as something separate, not part of other biases which might attach to the person, something which is impossible with people like Biden and Trump. 

So what is this bad idea? Let’s start with Nye:

“On his Netflix program, Bill Nye tackles controversial issues such as alternative medicine, antivaccination, and climate change primarily by presenting one side as in line with science and the other as beset by cognitive biases and ignorance. Yes, people are often misinformed about the issues they care about, but narratives like Nye’s and the others mentioned here portray disagreement as if it were always the result of cognitive deficiencies and conspiratorial thinking on one side or the other. The historian Ted Steinberg describes this tendency to blame political opponents’ opinions on an underlying psychological ailment as “the diagnostic style of politics.”

The problem with the diagnostic style of politics is not simply that it is rude and condescending but that it encourages a fanatical approach to political disagreements. Opponents are no longer people who see the world differently but instead heretics who refuse to think “rationally” or accept objective science.”

Tyson takes this “diagnosis” and runs with it:

In a recent viral YouTube video, for instance, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims that America’s problems stem from the increasing inability of those in power to recognize scientific fact. Only if people begin to see that policy choices must be based on established scientific truths, according to Tyson, can we move forward with necessary political decisions. 


Tyson’s call for a world government called “Rationalia,” whose one-line constitution requires that policy decisions simply be settled by “the weight of the evidence,” went viral on Twitter. 

It’s hard to express how breathtakingly naive these ideas are. Particularly given Tyson’s reputation for intelligence. Which, bears repeating, is not the same as wisdom. But perhaps you think I’m being too hard on him and Nye. I don’t think so, and as I mentioned, that’s the appeal of the book. It points out all the ways these recommendations won’t work. 

  • Collecting evidence has proven to be far more difficult than people expected, leading to a vast replication crisis.
  • Different scientists weigh evidence differently. An ecologist may be concerned about evidence that genetically modified crops are more fragile. While a geneticist may be entirely concerned with evidence of pest resistance. 
  • “Scientizing policy privileges the dimensions of life that are easily quantifiable and renders less visible the ones that are not.”
  • Science as it is conducted is not apolitical. Scientists not only have biases in how they weigh the evidence, they are biased in which studies they conduct, and the recommendations they make. 

I could go on, but perhaps at this point it’s more useful to apply it to an actual problem we’re currently grappling with. I’m sure everyone’s excited that the controversy over abortion is once again dominating the news. What does science say about how to decide that problem? 

Back in 2018 The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost”. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. I’m sure there is some other science, that weighs in on the opposite side (though I expect it would mostly apply to very early abortions). But my point is not to get into the actual debate, my point is that there is a debate. A debate where there’s significant evidence for the pro-life side. The side Nye and Tyson are almost certainly opposed to. 

To put it another way, forget about the morality of the situation. Forget about bodily autonomy or choice, or anything like that. And just consider, what the “weight of evidence” says about abortion, what science says about it. Using nothing but science would every person arrive at the same conclusion? Obviously not. Of course this gets into the is-ought problem which I’ve mentioned before.  And Dotson’s whole point is that when Tyson advocates for Rationalia and other people advocate for an epistocracy, they have no idea how to overcome this problem. The question we’re left with is, does Dotson?

Eschatological Implications

In any discussion of this topic almost no one questions Dotson’s premise. Everyone agrees that there’s a divide. Furthermore, most people, even Tyson and Nye, would go on to agree that  there’s too much fanatical certitude. (Though they would point to the other side as the one where this is a problem.) Which is to say everyone grants the title/thesis of the book. What they want to know is: what do we do about it? What does it mean for the future of civil society? How will America survive this widening divide? Or will it not survive it? If “following the science” isn’t the solution, what is?

As I mentioned the book is appealing but flawed, and it’s when we get to Dotson’s solutions that the flaws emerge, but as I pointed out at some length in a past post, solutions are oftentimes where great thinkers stumble. I’m not sure that I would classify Dotson as a great thinker, but his proposed solutions are better than most. He doesn’t put together a list, but he seems to offer up three solutions:

1- Better, and more civil discourse: This is something of a free speech argument. That we need more speech, not less. That this is the problem with the left, they use appeals to “science” to shut down discussion, and while I haven’t focused on his criticisms of the right as much, he claims they use appeals to “common sense” in a similar fashion. Dotson is not a free speech absolutist, but he believes we have abandoned the “pluralist process of negotiation at the heart of democracy”.

This all sounds great, but it’s easy to make the case that social media has made “pluralist negotiation” basically impossible. Dotson doesn’t ignore the problems of social media, but he doesn’t have any innovative suggestions for fixing the problem either. Here’s as close as he comes:

It is difficult to imagine exactly what a better net might look like, but a reasonable first step would be to hold information distributors to the same standards we would want information producers to abide by. News aggregators and social media sites should be forced to protect against outright fraudulent claims and libelous speech and perhaps be incentivized or encouraged to prioritize material from multipartisan public media.

2- Demarchy: Dotson spends much of the book advocating for democracy over epistocracy, but when it comes down to what most people think of as democratic he’s against it. He doesn’t like representative democracy because politicians are entrenched and oligarchic. He doesn’t like direct democracy, like California’s ballot proposition system, because it leads to bad outcomes. instead he proposes the creation of a demarchical system. Demarchy is “randomly selecting a representative sample of citizens to serve as legislators.” This is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea, and it was used in Ancient Athens, so that’s something. And in many ways it’s interesting, but it’s a very big jump from where we are to there, and I expect that there are lots of ways it might go wrong that we haven’t even imagined.

As one example, he mentions that demarchy can be thought of as similar to how juries are selected. And they seem to work out okay. That may be true, but other than the random selection part, everything else is very different. They are impaneled to consider a single issue. It’s expected that they frequently won’t reach a decision. And there’s a whole additional process of jury selection after the random selection. Will we have something similar where given sufficient grounds potential legislators could be dismissed or not seated? If so, that puts us back in the same position we’re already in. My favorite version of demarchy imagined that the people selected would remain anonymous. In conclusion this proposal is interesting, but embryonic.

3- Civic religion: I bow to no one in my appreciation for the benefits of civic religion, and you would think that appreciation would extend to anyone else who also chooses to extol it’s virtues, but Dotson’s advocacy is the strangest I’ve come across. Most people who think civic religion is important will pine for a return to the civic religion of patriotism, with its veneration of the founding fathers, the constitution, and the Revolution. Even though our former civic religion did all the things Dotson says he wants, he not only doesn’t wish to revive it, he doesn’t even acknowledge its existence!

It would be one thing if he had a different definition of civic religion, but when he says things like, “For pluralism to blossom, the next generation may need to be brought up within a democratic civic religion.” That sure sounds like the kind of thing I experienced in the 70’s and 80’s, but he never once draws that connection…

I’m not saying that returning to the old civic religion of patriotism, 4th of July parades, and secular saints like Washington and Lincoln will be easy, but if civic religion is going to save the country it will be a heck of a lot easier to return to what we already have, than to invent some new civic religion out of whole cloth.

II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 

By: Mark Fisher 

Published: 2009

81 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek or perhaps both, said “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This book discusses how capitalism grew to encompass the whole of our imagination, and the brief glimpses one receives of potential alternatives. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Fisher has been described as a Marxist pop-culture theorist, a description I would agree with after reading the book.

Who should read this book?

People looking to steelman communism. In particular the author does a good job of showing how the Marxist concept of ‘Late Capitalism’ foretold much of the craziness we’re currently experiencing.

General Thoughts

I have many thoughts about this book, but I’d rather not go off half-cocked, which is to say, my plan is to re-read this book on my Kindle where it’s easy to highlight things and only then do I intend to opine deeply on what it’s saying. 

As I have mentioned in the past, I’m part of a book club, and one part of my plan to re-read this book is hoping to use my substantial influence (that’s a joke) to convince them to read it along with me. If I’m successful I will return here and report on not only what I thought, but what others thought as well. 

I realize that this is something of a cop-out, so I’ll leave you with a quote. This is from the section of the book where I first was prompted to sit up and think, “Wow, this is powerful stuff!”

In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, [Kurt] Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that [Fredric] Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.

The Age of AI and Our Human Future

By: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher

Published: 2021

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The changes that are likely be wrought by increasingly advanced AI, with a particular focus on near term changes.

What’s the author’s angle?

They’re hoping to bring greater awareness to the geopolitical changes which will be brought by AI and to urge the US to take the lead with AI.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in AI, but all your attention has been dominated what’s happening now (i.e. GPT-3, DALL-E, AlphaGo, etc.) or what may eventually happen (AI risk, Superintelligence, Age of Em, etc.) then this is a great book for covering the territory in between. 

General Thoughts

Yes, the lead author is that Henry Kissinger, who is apparently still writing (or at least contributing to books) at the age of 98. We should all be so lucky.

While Kissinger is well known for foreign affairs in general, his initial interest was “nuclear weapons and foreign policy”, which ended up being the name of his first book. His experience with nuclear weapons is one of several interesting things about this book, because it contends that national AI programs pose similar threats to world peace, and require similar thinking. But in all other respects they are vastly more difficult to manage. They are more difficult to create international agreements around, to defend against, to collect intelligence on—more difficult along just about any measurement you can imagine.

As I already alluded to, another interesting thing about the book was its focus on the near-term. The vast majority of the people working on AI are either fixating on developing or improving something which currently exists, or on being ready for the Singularity. As an example of the latter, my sense is that Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that we’re already too late. This book spends a lot of time looking at what’s going to happen on a 10-20 year horizon. One byproduct of this, is that the authors seem to largely dismiss the idea that the singularity is going to arrive unexpectedly sometime in that period.

As a follow-up to reading the book I listened to Schmidt being interviewed by Sam Harris, and as you can imagine the question of AI Risk came up. Schmidt confidently predicted that the next generation of AI researchers would be able to come up with a “run amuck” button, as in if an AI starts to “run amuck” you just press that button and it stops them. You could forgive a blasé answer about the future if it came from Kissinger, what does he care, he’s 98, but I expected better from Schmidt.

According to my notes, which are never as good as they should be, Schmidt said he wasn’t worried about AI running amuck, he was worried about them changing what it means to be human. They spend a lot of time talking about this aspect of things, and I think the authors believe that this is really their main contribution to the discussion. Enough so that they included it in the title. Their approach to this question mostly seems curious and neutral, avoiding conclusions of doom and utopia that seem so common in other books of this sort. But I think doom might be warranted. AI can’t really change what it means to be human, too much of that meaning is encoded in our genes, but it can manipulate those built in attributes, and sow an enormous amount of confusion. Which is not only something to worry about happening in the near term, it’s something we should be worried about right now.

A Confederacy of Dunces 

By: John Kennedy Toole

Published: 1980

405 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The misadventures of the overweight, overeducated and overwrought Ignatius J. Reilly, and fleshed out with similar misadventures from other eccentric personalities of 1960’s New Orleans.

Who should read this book?

This is rightly judged to be a modern classic, and you should probably read it just for that reason, but as Ignatius is the original geek who spends most of his time in his bedroom declaiming his superiority into the ether, I think it has a lot to say about our present moment as well. 

General Thoughts

I enjoyed this book. The plot was nothing to write home about, but the characters, dialogue, writing and setting were all fantastic. Also for a book written in the late 60’s it seemed unusually prophetic. But of course there’s an argument to be made that we’re replaying the 60’s only with the addition of the internet, so perhaps that’s why it feels so timely. 

I can’t emphasize enough how eccentric the characters are in this book, but again that’s another way in which it somehow nails the current moment.

Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By: Roosevelt Montás

Published: 2021

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Montás’ journey from poor kid in the Dominican Republic to undergraduate at Columbia, to Director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the pivotal and empowering role “Great Books” played at every stage of that journey.

What’s the author’s angle?

Montás’ has been the head of Columbia’s “Great Books” effort for many years, so in part he’s defending his job.

Who should read this book?

Anyone looking for a defense of including great books as one of the foundations of a liberal education, in particular a first person defense. 

General Thoughts

I remember a time when the “Great Books” still had a lot of cachet. I’m sure it was already fading by the time I came along, but it was still there. In the decades since then they’ve taken a beating. The most common accusation is that they were all or mostly written by old white guys, and that privileging them crowds out minority authors and academics. So I was very interested in reading the story of one of those minority academics who claimed that a traditional “Great Books” course dramatically, profoundly, and positively altered his life. 

Of course these days we have expanded the Great Books canon to include books by Gandhi and other non-european authors, but as Montás points out, these new books have not replaced the old books, they are an addition to the canon. All of the books that were great in 1920 are still great today. Montás covers four authors in particular: Augustine, Aristotle, Freud, and the aforementioned Gandhi. He spends one chapter on each of them detailing how they impacted his life in positive ways. I liked the first person aspect of the book, but as this was a book giving a defense of the Great Books as a general tool for educating everyone, it would have been nice if he had included more examples of people benefiting from them beyond just his own story.

Still as someone who is engaged in his own laborious path through the Great Books, it was nice to read someone urging me to continue.

Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen

by: Steve Sims

Published: 2018

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A self-help/business book written by a guy who specializes in making seemingly impossible dreams into realities. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I assume he has enough money, and that he genuinely wants to help people turn their dreams into reality, but I assume the money from the book is a nice bonus.

Who should read this book?

This does not break any new ground in the self-help/business book genre. If you haven’t read the 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, I would read that first, but after a certain point these books are more about motivation than knowledge and this book provides plenty of motivation.

General Thoughts

Sims has an inspiring rags to riches story. He started out as a bricklayer in East London, having dropped out of school at age 15. After landing a job in Hong Kong and getting fired five days later he got a job as a doorman, and kind of stumbled into being a concierge as part of that job. As part of that he kept pushing the limits of what a concierge could do, eventually pulling off some truly amazing requests, like arranging for six people to have dinner at the feet of Michaelangelo’s David. My favorite story from the book is how he had a client who wanted to meet the band Journey, and Sims took that request, ran with it, and in the end the guy was able to get on stage with them and be lead singer on four of their songs at a charity concert. 

As far as how to do stuff like that, as I said I’m not sure that Sims gives away any big secrets in this book. His recommendations are the same as the recommendations from a dozen other books like this. But at a certain point it’s not knowing what to do, it’s being motivated to do what you already know you should be doing, and on that count Sims is a very motivational guy.

The Thursday Murder Club

by: Richard Osman

Published: 2020

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four people in a retirement community who meet every Thursday to work over old unsolved murders who are suddenly confronted with an actual murder.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. If you like all those things and you’re starting to feel the melancholia of being old then this book is especially for you.

General Thoughts

Every good novel ideally has great characters, witty dialogue, and a good plot. The latter is particularly important for a mystery novel because it’s a genre that not merely demands good plots, they have to be intricate and surprising. Osman manages to pull off all of those features. The characters are delightful, the dialogue is fantastic, and beyond that he manages to pull off not just one intricate plot, but multiple interlocking, intricate plots. I thought it was especially brilliant to set it in a retirement community. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

249 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fourth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, and here.) This one is set at Miskatonic University, and the titular Dreamlands.

Who should read this book?

As with all series, whether you read this book depends a lot on what you thought of the books which preceded this one. I thought this was the strongest entry in the series since the first one. So if you’re thinking of continuing I would.

General Thoughts

Greer mostly writes non-fiction, he recently described his career as follows:

Over the years… I watched (and joined in) the peak oil movement as it rose and fell, watched (and kept my distance from) the parallel movement of climate change activism as it rose and fell, watched (and dealt in my own life with some of the consequences of) the slow twilight of America’s global empire and the vaster twilight of Western civilization as a whole.

I bring this up because, for Greer, in both the novel and in the real world, the bad guys are those who think that technology and progress are the solutions to everything. That the modern world with its institutions and ideology is somehow special and different. Of all the books in the series I think this one illustrates the bad guys the best, particularly as they appear in academia. Despite the obvious moral of the story, it’s never preachy or heavy handed, it’s just a very interesting, very different view of how the world works, and of course, as always with this series, how Lovecraftian horror is conceived.

Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

6 Hours (Only available on audio)

Briefly, what is this audio drama special about?

As you can tell from the title this is an interstitial piece between books 7 and 8 in the main series. It concerns an unforeseen alien threat which suddenly arrives at Earth, which as I think about it, is the plot of the very first book in the series as well.

Who should listen to this audio drama special?

I’m not sure. It is referenced at the start of book 8, and it’s kind of annoying to not know the story, and it’s also kind of annoying to have to go out and spend an audible credit to get the story. They attempt to compensate for these annoyances by bringing in some big names and doing a full cast production, but I found the full cast recording with sound effects to be more annoying than just having the single narrator, so your annoyance is tripled. If you want my advice, you can skip it. 

General Thoughts

This is basically an attempt to turn Expeditionary Force into an old-timey radio drama. Having only listened to a few old-timey radio dramas I can’t say whether they succeeded or not. But as a general rule every full-cast recording I’ve listened to has been disappointing. If someone has one they particularly enjoy let me know. I’d like to find a good one, but so far, in my limited experience, they have all been mediocre.

Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9)

By: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

398 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As I mentioned in my review of book 8, the Merry Band of Pirates have finally leveled up, this book is about what they do with their new “powers”. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve come this far you should probably continue. By now you will have either given up in annoyance at Alanson’s quirks or come to accept them. I think this book is better than some of the previous books, and ends on a very interesting cliffhanger.

General Thoughts

I’m writing this having already read book 10. And I will say that up until about halfway through book 9 things were getting pretty formulaic. Now it was a good formula, one I mostly enjoyed, but it was still getting old, but about halfway through this book and continuing into the next book, things have been very interesting. I’m hoping they stay that way. 

I also hope my blog stays interesting, which can be tough, since I’ve written at least as many words as 10 novels. This post I started pointing out people’s angles. I have many angles, but certainly one of them is precisely this, to keep things interesting. And obviously another is to try to make you guilty enough to donate

Remind Me What The Heck Your Point is Again?

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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The other day I was talking to my brother and he said, “How would you describe your blog in a couple of sentences?”

It probably says something about my professionalism (or lack thereof) that I didn’t have some response ready to spit out. An elevator pitch, if you will. Instead I told him, “That’s a tough one.” Much of this difficulty comes because, if I were being 100% honest, the fairest description of my blog would boil down to: I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting. Of course, this description is not going to get me many readers, particularly if they have no idea whether there’s any overlap between what I find interesting and what they find interesting.

I didn’t say this to my brother, mostly because I didn’t think of it at the time. Instead, after few seconds, I told him, well of course the blog does have a theme, it’s right there in the title, but I admitted that it might be more atmospheric than explanatory. Though I think we can fix that with the addition of a few words. Which is how Jeremiah 8:20 shows up on my business cards. (Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff your donations get spent on, FYI.) With those few words added it reads:

The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.

If I was going to be really pedantic, I might modify it, and hedge, so it read as follows:

Harvesting technology is getting more complex, the summer where progress was easy is over, and I think we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.

If I was going to be more literary and try to pull in some George R.R. Martin fans I might phrase it:

What we harvest no longer feeds us, and winter is coming.

But once again, you would be forgiven if, after all this, you’re still unclear on what this blog is about (other than weird things I find interesting). To be fair, to myself, I did explain all of this in the very first post, and re-reading it recently, I think it held up fairly well. But it could be better, and this assumes that people have even read my very first post, which is unlikely since at the time my readership was at its nadir, and despite my complete neglect of anything resembling marketing, since then, it has grown, and presumably at least some of those people have not read the entire archive.

Accordingly, I thought I’d take another shot at it. To start, one concept which runs through much (though probably not all) of what I write, is the principle of antifragility, as introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of (nearly) the same name.

I already dedicated an entire post to explaining the ideas of Taleb, so I’m not going to repeat that here. But, in brief, Taleb starts with what should be an uncontroversial idea, that the world is random. He then moves on to point out the effects of that, particularly in light of the fact that most people don’t recognize how random things truly are. They are often Fooled by Randomness (the title of his first book) into thinking that there’s patterns and stability when there aren’t. From there he moves on to talk about extreme randomness through introducing the idea of a Black Swan (the name of his second book) which is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterwards to show how it should have been expected.

It’s important at this point to clarify that not all black swans are negative. And technology has generally had the effect of increasing the number of black swans of both the positive (internet) and negative (financial crash) sort. In my very first post I said that we were in a race between these two kinds of black swans, though rather than calling them positive or negative black swans I called them singularities and catastrophes. And tying it back into the theme of the blog a singularity is when technology saves us, and a catastrophe is when it doesn’t.

If we’re living in a random world, with no way to tell whether we’re either going to be saved by technology or doomed by it, then what should we do? This is where Taleb ties it all together under the principle of antifragility, and as I mentioned it’s one of the major themes of this blog. Enough so that another short description of the blog might be:

Antifragility from a Mormon perspective.

But I still haven’t explained antifragility, to say nothing of antifragility from a Mormon perspective, so perhaps I should do that first. In short, things that are fragile are harmed by chaos and things that are antifragile are helped by chaos. I would argue that it’s preferable to be antifragile all of the time, but it is particularly important when things get chaotic. Which leads to two questions: How fragile is society? And how chaotic are things likely to get? I have repeatedly argued that society is very fragile and that things are likely to get significantly more chaotic. And further, that technology increases both of these qualities

Earlier, I provided a pedantic version of the theme, changing (among other things) the clause “we are not saved” to the clause “we should prepare for the possibility that we won’t be saved.” As I said, Taleb starts with the idea that the world is random, or in other words unpredictable, with negative and positive black swans happening unexpectedly. Being antifragile entails reducing your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. In other words being prepared for the possibility that technology won’t save us.

To be fair, it’s certainly possible that technology will save us. And I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight if you argued it was the most likely outcome. But I take serious issue with anyone who wants to claim that there isn’t a significant chance of catastrophe. To be antifragile, consists of realizing that the cost of being wrong if you assume a catastrophe and there isn’t one, is much less than if you assume no catastrophe and there is one.

It should also be pointed out that most of the time antifragility is relative. To give an example, if I’m a prepper and the North Koreans set off an EMP over the US which knocks out all the power for months. I may go from being a lower class schlub to being the richest person in town. In other words chaos helped me, but only because I reduced my exposure to that particular negative black swan, and most of my neighbors didn’t.

Having explained antifragility (refer back to the previous post if things are still unclear) what does Mormonism bring to the discussion? I would offer that it brings a lot.

First, Mormonism spends quite a bit of time stressing the importance of antifragility, though they call it self reliance, and emphasis things like staying out of debt, having a plan for emergency preparedness, and maintaining a multi-year supply of food. This aspect is not one I spend a lot of time on, but it is definitely an example of Mormon antifragility.

Second, Mormons, while not as apocalyptic as some religions nevertheless reference the nearness of the end right in their name. We’re not merely Saints, we are the “Latter-Day Saints”. While it is true that some members are more apocalyptic than others, regardless of their belief level I don’t think many would dismiss the idea of some kind of Armageddon outright. Given that, if you’re trying to pick a winner in the race between catastrophe and singularity or more broadly, negative or positive black swans, belonging to religion which claims we’re in the last days could help break that tie. Also as I mentioned it’s probably wisest to err on the side of catastrophe anyway.

Third, I believe Mormon Doctrine provides unique insight into some of the cutting edge futuristic issues of the day. Over the last three posts I laid out what those insights are with respect to AI, but in other posts I’ve talked about how the LDS doctrine might answer Fermi’s Paradox. And of course there’s the long running argument I’ve had with the Mormon Transhumanist Association over what constitutes an appropriate use of technology and what constitutes inappropriate uses of technology. This is obviously germane to the discussion of whether technology will save us. And what the endpoint of that technology will end up being. And it suggests another possible theme:

Connecting the challenges of technology to the solutions provided by LDS Doctrine.

Finally, any discussion of Mormonism and religion has to touch on the subject of morality. For many people issues of promiscuity, abortion, single-parent families, same sex marriage, and ubiquitous pornography are either neutral or benefits of the modern world. This leads some people to conclude that things are as good as they’ve ever been and if we’re not on the verge of a singularity then at least we live in a very enlightened era, where people enjoy freedoms they could have never previously imagined.

The LDS Church and religion in general (at least the orthodox variety) take the opposite view of these developments, pointing to them as evidence of a society in serious decline. Perhaps you feel the same way, or perhaps you agree with the people who feel that things are as good as they’ve ever been, but if you’re on the fence. Then, one of the purposes of this blog is to convince you that even if there is no God, that it would be foolish to dismiss religion as a collection of irrational biases, as so many people do. Rather, if we understand the concept of antifragility, it is far more likely that rather than being irrational that religion instead represents the accumulated wisdom of a society.

This last point deserves a deeper dive, because it may not be immediately apparent to you why religions would necessarily accumulate wisdom or what any of this has to do with antifragility. But religious beliefs can only be either fragile or antifragile, they can either break under pressure or get stronger. (In fairness, there is a third category, things which neither break nor get stronger, Taleb calls this the robust category, but in practice it’s very rare for things to be truly robust.) If religious beliefs were fragile, or created fragility then they would have disappeared long ago. Only beliefs which created a stronger society would have endured.

Please note that I am not saying that all religious beliefs are equally good at encouraging antifragile behavior. Some are pointless or even irrational, but others, particularly those shared by several religions are very likely lessons in antifragility. But a smaller and smaller number of people have any religious beliefs and an even smaller number are willing to actively defend these beliefs, particularly those which prohibit a behavior currently in fashion.

However, if these beliefs are as useful and as important as I say they are then they need all the defending they can get. Though in doing this a certain amount of humility is necessary. As I keep pointing out, we can’t predict the future. And maybe the combination of technology and a rejection of traditional morality will lead to some kind of transhuman utopia, where people live forever, change genders whenever they feel like it and live in a fantastically satisfying virtual reality, in which everyone is happy.

I don’t think most people go that far in their assessment of the current world, but the vast majority don’t see any harm in the way things are either, but what if they’re wrong about that?

And this might in fact represent yet another way of framing the theme of this blog:

But what if we’re wrong?

In several posts I have pointed out the extreme rapidity with which things have changed, particularly in the realm of morality, where, in a few short years, we have overturned religious taboos stretching back centuries or more. The vast majority of people have decided that this is fine, and, that in fact, as I already mentioned, it’s an improvement on our benighted past. But even if you don’t buy my argument about religions being antifragile I would hope you would still wonder, as I do, “But what if we’re wrong?”

This questions not only applies to morality, but technology saving us, the constant march of progress, politics, and a host of other issues. And I can’t help but think that people appear entirely too certain about the vast majority of these subjects.

In order bring up the possibility of wrongness, especially when you’re the ideological minority there has to be freedom of speech, another area I dive into from time to time in this space. Also you can’t talk about freedom of speech or the larger ideological battles around speech without getting into the topic of politics. A subject I’ll return to.

As I have already mentioned, and as you have no doubt noticed the political landscape has gotten pretty heated recently and there are no signs of it cooling down. I would argue, as others have, that this makes free speech and open dialogue more important than ever. In this endeavor I end up sharing a fair amount of overlap with the rationalist community. Which you must admit is interesting given the fact that this community clearly has a large number of atheists in it’s ranks. But that failing aside, I largely agree with much of what they say, which is why I link to Scott Alexander over at SlateStarCodex so often.

On the subject of free speech the rationalists and I are definitely in agreement. Eliezer Yudkowsky, an AI theorist, who I mentioned a lot in the last few posts, is also one of the deans of rationality and he had this to say about free speech:

There are a very few injunctions in the human art of rationality that have no ifs, ands, buts, or escape clauses. This is one of them. Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.

I totally agree with this point, though I can see how some people might choose to define some of the terms more or less broadly, leading to significant differences in the actual implementation of the rule. Scott Alexander is one of those people, and he chooses to focus on the idea of the bullet, arguing that we should actually expand the prohibition beyond just literal bullets or even literal weapons. Changing the injunction to:

Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.

In essence he want’s to include anything that’s designed to silence the argument rather than answer it. And why is this important? Well if you’ve been following the news at all you’ll know that there has been a recent case where exactly this thing happened, and a bad argument got someone fired. (Assuming it even was a bad argument which might be a subject for another time.)

Which ties back into asking, “But what if we’re wrong?” Because unless we have a free and open marketplace of ideas where things can succeed and fail based on their merits, rather than whether they’re the flavor of the month, how are we ever going to know if we’re wrong? If you have any doubts as to whether the majority is always right then you should be incredibly fearful of any attempt to allow the majority to determine what gets said.

And this brings up another possible theme for the blog:

Providing counterarguments for bad arguments about technology, progress and religion.

Running through all of this, though most especially with the topic I just discussed, free speech, is politics. The primary free speech ground is political, but issues like morality and technology and fragility all play out at the political level as well.

I often joke that you know those two things that you’re not supposed to talk about? Religion and politics? Well I decided to create a blog where I discuss both. Leading me to yet another possible theme:

Religion and Politics from the perspective of a Mormon who thinks he’s smarter than he probably is.

Perhaps the final thread running through everything, is like most people I would like to be original, which is hard to do. The internet has given us a world where almost everything you can think of saying has been said already. (Though I’ve yet to find anyone making exactly the argument I make when it comes to Fermi’s Paradox and AI.) But there is another way to approximate originality and that is to say things that other people don’t dare to say, but which hopefully, are nevertheless true. Which is part of why I record under a pseudonym. So far the episode that most fits that description is the episode I did on LGBT youth and suicide, with particular attention paid to the LDS stand and role in that whole debate.

Going forward I’d like to do more of that. And it suggests yet another possible theme:

Saying what you haven’t thought of or have thought of but don’t dare to bring up.

In the end, the most accurate description of the blog is still, that I write about fringe ideas I happen to find interesting, but at least by this point you have a better idea of the kind of things I find interesting and if you find them interesting as well, I hope you’ll stick around. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it within an actual post, but on the right hand side of the blog there’s a link to sign up for my mailing list, and if you did find any of the things I talked about interesting, consider signing up.

Do you know what else interests me? Money. I know that’s horribly crass, and I probably shouldn’t have stated it so bluntly, but if you’d like to help me continue to write, consider donating, because money is an interesting thing which helps me look into other interesting things.

Freedom of Religion in 2016

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As is often the case, over the last few posts you may have lost track of the fact that this is ostensibly a religious blog. Well it is, though it might be one of those, if someone accused you of being a religious blogger would there be enough evidence to convict you? I’m sure one of the points which might be used against me is the fact that, before my last post about the election, I spent two posts talking about the first amendment, without any discussion of freedom of religion. What kind of religious blogger is more interested in freedom of speech than freedom of religion? Well in this post I intend to correct that. I think part of the reason why I tackled speech first is that it’s easier. People may disagree with my argument that it’s the best defense against authoritarianism, but the argument is not unreasonable on its face. Also there is not a group of people who feel that free speech is at best a collection of superstitions which should be gutted, if it’s allowed to survive at all, and at worst the cause of all the bad things that have ever happened. Those arguments have been used with respect to religion, which makes defending freedom of religion an entirely different endeavor. Basically it’s hard to argue that the existence of atheists and to a lesser extent agnostics doesn’t complicate things.  For example you’ll note (speaking of atheists and agnostics) that there are no similar terms for people who don’t believe in free speech, except maybe dictator.

Even for people who aren’t atheists or agnostics, part of the muddiness comes from what people consider freedom of religion, and along with that, what counts as an attack on that freedom. True freedom of religion can include things far more concrete than the right to say what you want without fear of censorship. As the old children’s rhyme goes:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

This is largely true, especially from a legal standpoint, if a group of people surrounds someone and yells at them, you might find that behavior annoying, you might even find it appalling, but you’re unlikely to think that those people should be arrested, and if they are, you would be surprised if they were held for more than a day or two. However, if a group of people surrounds someone and stones them to death (as recommended by at least two religions) you would expect a lot of arrests. Now obviously not all examples of religious freedom involve stones and dying, but even a comparatively mild example like not baking someone a cake involves something more concrete than just words. Putting freedom of religion in a significantly different place than freedom of speech.

I’ve mentioned the negative opinions of atheists and agnostics, and maybe someday they’ll succeed at eliminating religion entirely (similar to the Soviet Union and we all know how well that worked out.) But is freedom of religion currently under attack? Unlike with freedom of speech, where you need look no farther than a college campus to see things that, while technically legal, meet no one’s ideal of free speech, freedom of religion is trickier. One commonly cited example of freedom of religion being under attack is the persecution of Christians. (See the aforementioned reference to cake baking.) But there is disagreement on how prevalent or consequential this persecution actually is. With some people going so far as to declare the entire thing a myth. I don’t think it’s a myth, and this post will largely be an argument in favor of it’s existence.

When considering whether freedom of religion is being restricted, two things should be kept in mind. First, to refer briefly back to the Constitution, what it actually says is that the free exercise of the religion shall not be prohibited. The term “free exercise” strikes me as a higher standard than making sure religions aren’t persecuted. Second, it’s important to clarify that religious persecution can take many forms and operate on many levels. If my examples of persecution just took the form of hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, saying mean things about Christians, then this wouldn’t be much of a post. Dawkins, in particular, has been so abrasive recently that he has started to alienate even his fans. If I was going to write a post built around outrageous things Dawkins said, I’d be joining a pretty crowded field, and I would have to share whatever sympathy I could muster with thousands of others.

But I think that persecution is broader than just hard-core skeptics and atheists, and I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t think it existed, in fact I not only think it exists, but I think that it’s a bigger and more widespread problem than most people realize. This is not that uncommon, lots of times big problems aren’t that obvious, or at least their obviousness is frequently not directly correlated to their severity. Some people will claim that lead exposure explains nearly all the social ills that have afflicted America since the time of Columbus (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration). For my part I’d be surprised if lead exposure was quite as consequential as all that, but I would definitely agree that it had an impact far out of proportion to its obviousness. The persecution of religion is in a similar category. A non-obvious problem that’s bigger than people think. Which is not to say that it’s non-obvious to everyone. In the same way that some people have been warning about lead for decades, other people have been warning about religious persecution for just as long.

Maybe you are one of these people, perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but if you’re not, and religious persecution isn’t apparent, what should you be looking for? How am I going to convince you that it’s as big a problem as I say it is? These are all excellent questions, but before we get to them it would help to establish some background by looking at three theories of religion:

Theory number one: God exists and religion is how we interact with him.

This theory of religion was dominant for most of human history. It hypothesizes that there is a God (or Gods) and that one or more of the religions on the earth reflect some greater or lesser portion of God: his divinity, his unchanging truths, or his eternal plan. Most adherents to this theory also believe in some form of afterlife, of infinite duration and happiness, meaning that whatever we do that doesn’t qualify us for this afterlife is a waste of time. Under this theory we shouldn’t be merely promoting freedom of religion the whole point of man should be religion. Freedom of religion, and by extension giving people the ability to find God, isn’t a nice policy it’s the only policy worth having period. Of course there is an alternative to freedom of religion under this theory, if you’re certain that you have the correct religion, then (if God doesn’t object, which he might) you can just make everyone be that religion. This particular scenario of dictating a single religion will be discussed in more depth later.

Theory number two: Religion is stupid

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the idea that God doesn’t exist, and not only does he not exist, but religion is superstitious garbage created by the brain’s over-active pattern matching and it’s garbage that should have been cleaned up a long time ago. The most visible adherents to this theory are the every-bad-thing-which-ever-happened-can-be-blamed-on-religion people, who feel that religion is similar to drinking, something they probably can’t prohibit (and attempts to do so have turned out badly), but which at best is a necessary evil and if we can get people to not do anything important while under it’s influence (to continue the drinking metaphor) everyone would be a lot better off. But in addition to these people we should also include those people who may even have some belief in God, but believe religion to be a waste of time and an annoying topic of conversation; not actively harmful, but not beneficial either, perhaps in their minds it’s similar to World of Warcraft, potentially an amusing diversion, but otherwise pointless.

Theory number three: Religion is just the accumulated culture and traditions of a given society.

Under theory three religion is neither the primary point of our existence, or a vestigial remnant of a superstitious past, and despite being neither of those things it is nevertheless unavoidable. If you have a society you’re going to have a religion, perhaps many of them, but ideas and traditions, taboos and beliefs don’t exist in isolation. They’re always going to end up bundled into a package of some sort. Some people want to label the packages which have been around for a long time as religions, and more recent packages as science, but not only is that division arbitrary, it gives unfair precedence to the science side of things, when, if anything it should be reversed. Societies don’t accumulate culture and traditions as a hobby, they accumulate them because they work. Science works as well (replication crisis aside) but even the best results in social science (the closest parallel to religion) have been arrived at by testing a few hundred people over the course of a few months. Religion is the distilled results of testing millions of people over thousands of years.

I know there are people who will reject this assertion outright, but if you take a moment to engage in some hard thinking, than this idea makes more sense than saying religion is stupid. If that were the case why isn’t the world dominated by non-religious societies and civilizations? Instead, not only is religion universal, but certain taboos, like the taboo against extramarital sex, turn out to have been present in most religions. I discussed this in far more depth in a previous post. But in short you can either accept that religion is universal and useful, or you can assert that all cultures went slightly mad in a very similar way.

Interestingly accepting theory number three doesn’t necessarily preclude theory number one, religion could exist as an extension of God’s existence, at the same time providing a useful store of accumulated wisdom (in the ideal case this would be God’s wisdom). However theory three is incompatible with theory two. For adherents of theory two their modern ideology is an entirely different thing than an ancient religion like Christianity or Islam. But if you believe theory number three, then modern ideologies are just another religion, one that could be better, but also could be a lot worse than the traditional religions.

Of course outside of these three theories, there are obviously many people who hold no theory of religion. Without being able to access people’s deepest thoughts it’s difficult to know how many people there are who truly have no opinion, but there are almost certainly people who really don’t give it much thought one way or the other, except to be annoyed when the Mormon missionaries show up at their door.

With the three theories of religion in place, let’s look at religious persecution through the lens of each theory. Examining persecution by way of the first theory is fairly straightforward. If there is a God and he’s commanded us to do X, and if we do we’ll receive some manner of infinite reward, anything which keeps us from doing X is essentially infinite harm. Now I personally think things can get screwy once you start tossing around infinities, and also I certainly believe that there is a continuum of acts. Preventing someone from praying in school is obviously less egregious than preventing them from praying period. And destroying all the LDS temples would be of greater harm than just banning the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. But still, in essence, any infringement on religious rights under theory number one is pretty bad, and while you may not see same-sex marriage or abortion as an infringement on anyone’s rights, in fact you might view it as a huge expansion in rights. It is certainly conceivable that a religious person might nevertheless view it differently. The same could be said for widespread acceptance of extramarital promiscuity, and the deluge of pornography. The standard argument is that no one is forcing you to engage in same-sex marriage, have an abortion, be promiscuous or view pornography, but all of these things make it much more difficult to for people live their religion and make it particularly difficult for them to raise their children to be religious. Which under theory number one is the whole point of life, meaning that religious persecution is pervasive, ongoing, and unlikely to do anything but get worse if you view things through the lens of the first theory.

To be clear I’m not advocating that this theory should be the dominant theory for interpreting freedom of religion under the first amendment, though it’s arguable that it was the dominant theory for most of the country’s existence. I’m just illustrating how, if this is the theory you’re operating under, persecution and infringement are everywhere.

Under the second theory of religion, the idea that it’s stupid, almost nothing counts as persecution. I mean if you can still meet in your special building once a week and talk about your crazy ideas concerning the existence of a supreme being, for whom no proof exists, then what else is there to complain about? I mean obviously if you do certain ridiculous things like have more than one wife we’re going to smack you down, cause that’s not freedom of religion, that’s insanity. I mean the whole thing is insane, but since we can’t outright prohibit it, we’ll continue to let you meet once a week, and I guess if you want to volunteer at a food kitchen or at a disaster site from time to time that’s cool too, but don’t give us any of this crazy bigoted stuff about same sex marriage being wrong or abortion being murder.

In other words, defining persecution under the first two theories is easy, in the first, persecution is everywhere and in the second persecution is nowhere. Understandably this has made discussion between the two sides difficult. Of course it’s a gross oversimplification to assume that there are just two sides, there are dozens, but hopefully you can see that where you stand on freedom of religion could in large part be determined by what you think the point of religion is.

It’s when we turn to the third theory that things get more difficult and more interesting. If religion is the accumulated cultural wisdom of the ages, there should be significant deference given to those points on which most religions agree (see extramarital sex above). On issues where one religion has something to say and other religions are silent (say the consumption of pork), religions should be given wide latitude since there’s a good chance that there may be wisdom in one religion which could profitably be shared with the society at large. Of course this is not going to eliminate ideological competition, but insofar as we can make it ideological and not violent competition, that would be preferable. In this respect freedom of religion bears a strong resemblance to freedom of speech, which is probably one of the reasons why they’re both in the First Amendment.

Just as speech loses most of it’s value if there is only one viewpoint, religion is subject to all manner of abuses if there is only one religion, particularly if that religion is state-sponsored. The Founding Fathers were very familiar with this potential for abuse, and had seen religion morph from accumulated cultural wisdom into a tool for the powerful to oppress their enemies (the tendency largely responsible for creating adherents to theory two.) Having some guidelines which help society run better is one thing, burning your enemies at the stake is quite another. But the founders could still distinguish between the state acting in the guise of religion and religion free from the influence of the state, and that’s what they tried to encourage.

As you can see theory three leads us to a place that looks very similar to what the founders probably intended, though possibly by a different route. And we end up with two principles for defining religious freedom. The first principle is that freedom of religion should be similar to freedom of speech, with some additional deference for tradition, and the second principle being that we should avoid dominance by a single religion, particularly a state sponsored one.

For most of the country’s history I would argue that these two principles were largely taken for granted. Which is not to say that there weren’t ideological disagreements like anti-catholicism (and that could be viewed as a reaction against domination by a single religion, rather than the opposite) but largely things went pretty smoothly. One of the biggest tests of religious freedom came with polygamy. Which the Supreme Court eventually decided was not covered by the First Amendment. We don’t have the space to jump into that briar patch, but it is important to note that it was prohibited largely because it didn’t match with what people viewed as traditional religion, particularly traditional Christianity. There’s a big debate about whether the recent ruling on same sex marriage will eventually lead to polygamy being legal, but it’s certain that if the issue does come before the Supreme Court that arguments involving what’s “traditional” will play a much smaller role than they did in Reynolds v. United States the original 1878 case which outlawed polygamy for good.

With these two principles in place we can finally consider what religious freedom looks like under theory three. Let’s start with the idea that freedom of religion should look like freedom of speech, with a bias towards traditional religious values. On this count I would have to say that things are not going very well. Regardless of where you stand on the issues I would hope that you could agree that there has never been a time more hostile to expressions of support for traditional religions particularly expressing traditional religious opposition to stuff like extramarital sex, same sex marriage, abortion, etc. Now to be fair this power balance has only recently flipped, and so it may seem like gay individuals still get more grief than people arguing against same sex marriage. In this era of flux it’s possible that both sides are getting a fair amount of censure and hate, ideally neither would.

Turning to the principle that we should be wary of having a single dominant religion, I think we’re doing poorly there as well. It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about the Religion of Progress, but I would argue that it is currently the dominant religion and de facto state-sponsored to boot. Though there would be a lot of people who would deny that it’s a religion. Combined with what I mentioned above the Religion of Progress is crowding out the practice, doctrine and even discussion of traditional religions.

I can certainly imagine that I’m wrong about all of this and all traditional religions need to be supplanted by the Religion of Progress, but even so is it really wise to have all our eggs in one basket? Is it really wise to dismiss everyone who came before us as stupid and superstitious? Are you really so confident that religions have nothing to teach us? That it’s fine if they are pounded down to the point where they barely resemble religions?

I’ve spent over three thousand words illustrating my view of how freedom of religion should be interpreted and whether religious persecution exists. But perhaps in all of the twists and turns the totality of the argument wasn’t clear, so in a somewhat glib summation, which should not take the place to the thousands of words which preceded, here is my argument:

There are three ways of looking at religion. Viewing religion as stupid and valueless (theory two) is, well, stupid. Both of the other viewpoints would strongly suggest that we treat traditional religions and traditional norms with a large degree of respect. In the last few decades we’ve decided against that. This is a mistake.