Author: <span class="vcard">Jeremiah</span>

The Conspiracy Against Gawker: Things Have to Be More Than Just True to Be Newsworthy

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A couple of posts ago I reviewed (in my own idiosyncratic fashion) Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. This was a book about the many crimes and falsehoods of Theranos, a healthcare startup which got away with the aforementioned crimes and falsehoods for far longer than they should have. They accomplished this mostly through a combination of influencing powerful people and intimidating anyone who tried to expose them. As a country (and a civilization) we take a dim view of this sort of behavior and have set up various failsafes to protect us against it. In the case of Theranos all of our failsafes… failed… (I’m pretty sure that despite the name that’s not what they’re supposed to do.)

Of course, this failure didn’t last forever. Theranos was eventually exposed, by the press. Though even this exposure took a lot longer than it should have, given that Theranos was around for more than a dozen years. Now, it wasn’t the hottest startup in the valley, with a valuation of nine billion dollars for all of those years, but the red flags started appearing as early as 2006 when Elizabeth Holmes (the Theranos Founder) fired the CFO for questioning her ethics. (And if there’s any moral of the Theranos story it’s that Holmes did have questionable ethics.) Also from the very beginning Theranos was claiming to have technology which was entirely too good to be true. It really shouldn’t have taken as long as it did for Theranos to be exposed.

I mentioned in my previous post that Theranos was very liberal with the threat of lawsuits, and that this went a long way towards keeping their various misdeeds secret for so long. Also Silicon Valley is a weird place for news. You have hundreds of startups who want coverage, but probably only a few who actually deserve to be exposed in the way Theranos deserved to be exposed. Given this, I assume it takes a certain amount of specialization to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. What was really needed during those years that Theranos was at the height of its wickedness was a Silicon Valley specific publication, with zero fear of being sued.

If only such an outlet existed…

A few days ago I was browsing the Slate Star Codex subreddit, as I sometimes do. And I started reading a post by youcanteatbullets where he mentioned that he had just finished reading Bad Blood (“Much like me,” I thought) and that the book he had read just before that was Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday (“Interesting, that’s the book I’m currently reading,” I thought) and that his big question was if Gawker was so intent on uncovering Silicon Valley gossip that they felt the need to out Peter Thiel, (as gay in case that isn’t clear) which then led to the whole vendetta which eventually lead to the lawsuit that brought down Gawker, how is it that they completely missed the Theranos story? (“That is an a terribly interesting question!” I thought. “One which never occurred to me.” I thought.)

As it turns out such an outlet did exist, it was Gawker. One of the major takeaways from Conspiracy, is that they viewed lawsuits with total disdain, going so far as ignore the explicit orders of judges. As scary as David Boies is, I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have made much headway with Gawker had they decided to publish a Theranos expose. And as part of the Gawker network there was a site, Valleywag, specifically devoted to Silicon Valley news.  Or as youcanteatbullets puts it, a little more directly:

Nick Denton also liked to say that “todays gossip is tomorrows news”. SO WHY THE HELL DIDN’T GAWKER BREAK THE STORY OF THERANOS?! Their dedicated silicon valley beat Valleywag had its ups and downs but was active from 2013-2015; certainly other Gawker properties covered SV as well. The Carreyrou story was published in October 2015. I checked the Gawker site, the only stories I could find on Theranos were after that original WSJ piece. If Gawker played any socially valuable role at all, it would be exposing a company like Theranos.

Nick Denton was, of course, the owner of Gawker (and Valleywag) and a specific target of Thiel’s anger. And to understand things we need to backup a little bit. Particularly if you’re not familiar with all the details surrounding the lawsuit and the vendetta.

It basically all started in 2007 when, as I mentioned, Valleywag/Gawker outed Peter Thiel. You may or may not know who Thiel is, but you’re far more likely to know who he is now than you were to know who he was then. For those that still don’t, Peter Thiel is a billionaire investor who was one of the founders of Paypal, and one of the earliest investors in Facebook. Even now it’s a stretch to call him a public figure, but back then it would have been especially difficult to make that argument. But if there’s one thing you should know about Gawker, such fine distinctions rarely troubled them. Also I know even if he wasn’t a public figure that doesn’t automatically make what Gawker did illegal, I’m just saying, it’s clear from the book, that the question almost certainly never crossed their minds.

Thiel was not especially closeted at the time, but it still annoyed him because he wanted to be known as a great investor, not a great gay investor. (Also if you have followed Thiel at all, you’ll know he’s pretty conservative, which almost certainly plays into it.) But beyond the annoyance he felt at the violation of his personal privacy, he also felt that an organ specifically dedicated to spreading gossip about the valley was bad for the health of the startup ecosystem, and at one point he compared Gawker to terrorists. (I suppose this means he would have been opposed to Gawker using gossip to bring down Theranos. And I’ll get to that.) These feelings hardened until eventually Thiel decided to figure out a way to take Gawker down. Eventually forming the conspiracy from which the title of the book is taken.

After some years of working at it, the conspiracy finally got their chance to strike when Gawker made the ultimately fatal error of publishing the Hulk Hogan sex tape in October of 2012. At this point I should mention that if you’re anything like me, you might have heard that in addition to all of the embarrassment associated with a sex tape, that this was a sex tape involving Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) and his best friend’s wife. As it turns out, that’s true, but incredibly misleading. His best friend apparently had an open marriage, and the best friend was the one who suggested it, and filmed it. Also Hogan’s wife had, that very day, finally, and irrevocably ended their marriage. This information isn’t necessary to the point I want to make, but I thought it was interesting.

When the tape was posted, Hogan had his attorneys immediately send a cease and desist letter. When Gawker not only ignored the letter, but sent a disdainful response, Hogan said he would sue. Thiel offered to fund the suit. Of course this was a conspiracy, so Thiel didn’t make this offer directly. In fact Hogan doesn’t find out about Thiel’s involvement until after the verdict. Essentially at the same time as everyone else.

The lawsuit drags on for several years before finally going to trial in March of 2016. And in the end the jury delivers a $140 million dollar judgement against Gawker and Denton, which drives both Denton and Gawker into bankruptcy. (Gawker ends up being sold to Univision in the bankruptcy sale.) As part of the bankruptcy proceedings Hogan ends up with $31 million. And Denton actually ends up with $15 million, so it could have been a lot worse. But one assumes, if nothing else, that people are going to be more careful about posting sex tapes. Or outing people as gay.

In retrospect it’s easy to look at things and point out all of the mistakes Gawker made. Many of them driven by pure arrogance on their part. But if you peel away all the arrogance, there’s an argument to be made that Gawker fought for a somewhat noble and idealistic reason.They fought because they had a philosophy that the “truth” was an absolute defense. Of course as it turns out, it wasn’t, and Conspiracy is mostly a story of the limits of that ideology. Though, I can certainly see its attraction. It’s clean, easy to understand, and the first priority of Superman! It’s hard to imagine prioritizing something above the truth, and I confess, particularly when I was younger that I probably held a very similar ideology to Denton, but as I’ve gotten older, and as Holiday points out, I’ve realized things are more complicated.

This kind of purity is childish, the domain of people who live in the realm of theory and words and recoil from the real world where someone can punch you in the face if you say the wrong words to the wrong person. There is always a defense necessary; discretion is the responsibility of freedom, the obligation that comes along with rights. If not in court, then in life. If not to other people, then to yourself. But that’s only part of it—Nick was the leader. He had allowed that to happen. He had allowed them to proceed closer and closer to trial without really bothering to think through these hard issues, without facing the hard truths about his company. Even the hard truths about how other people would see his company.

If truth isn’t an absolute standard, what should the standard be? I plan to spend most of the space remaining to me examining that question. (To be clear, I’m not sure I have an answer.) But, before I do, I’d like to go on a brief tangent.

When one reads about Thiel’s conspiracy, the obvious question is why don’t more people conspire in this fashion? Thiel is certainly not the only individual with money and power. Nor does he come across as particularly machiavellian. (Though Machiavelli is referenced a lot in the book.) There have to be people more conniving than him. Leading to the obvious question, is Thiel an outlier for engaging in a conspiracy? Or is he only an outlier for having his conspiracy exposed? When you think about it, Thiel’s conspiracy was (comparatively) legal and benign, and while the people involved did take steps to keep things a secret, you got the feeling they could have done more. The stakes if they were found out weren’t enormous, i.e. they weren’t going to go to jail or anything like that. You would imagine that if conspiracies are common that the stakes for most of them are a lot higher, and consequently the incentive to keep things secret is much greater as well. This line of thought inclines me to believe that Thiel is more likely an outlier for having been exposed, than for having done it in the first place.

Of course there are people who see conspiracies everywhere. We call them conspiracy theorists. And I happen to know a few of them. I was talking to one just the other day, and he said that he wasn’t necessarily sure of anything, but that, preceding from the idea that you can’t trust the government, and that people do conspire, you would expect there to be government conspiracies, and further you would expect word of them to leak out. I don’t see any obvious weaknesses in any of these assertions, though also, I should hasten to add, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and would have a hard time offering up a “conspiracy” that I thought had a greater than single digit chance of being true.

The reason I am not a conspiracy theorist is Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I prefer to replace the word stupidity with the word incompetence, and I also like the theory that Hanlon is a corruption of Heinlein, who had one of his character’s say, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” In any event, when I mentioned this, the conspiracy theorist admitted that was a pretty strong rebuttal (though one he had heard) but that he detects more malice, perhaps, than I do in the world. And perhaps the story of Thiel and his conspiracy should lead me to update my own assessment of the probability that certain conspiracy theories are true.

The existence of conspiracy theories was a tangent, but it also gets back to this idea of what should be our standard for saying something, or more accurately publishing something? As I’ve mentioned I don’t think we can rely on a pure standard of “anything that’s true”. (In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned there are significant difficulties in even determining what is true.) Instead it appears the courts have, in part, pivoted instead to a standard of newsworthiness.

I should make it clear up front that this isn’t a horrible standard, I know how hard it is to come up with standards in the first place, and as standards go this is not bad. That said, it has some definite weaknesses. First it’s mostly only applicable to news making organizations. It doesn’t help very much with the current crisis, which seems to largely concern big companies kicking individuals off of their platforms. I’m not necessarily saying that a company should never be able to kick someone off their platform, I’m saying that I don’t think applying a standard of newsworthiness helps very much in making the determination of who should stay and who should go.

Second, newsworthiness can easily devolve into a tyranny of the majority or of money. If ten million people want to see something does that automatically make it newsworthy? Gawker seemed to be advocating for essentially exactly this position. And both Bad Blood and Conspiracy illustrate that with enough money you can make something not newsworthy. To be clear I’m far more sympathetic to Thiel than I am to Holmes and Theranos. Also, while Thiel probably changed the definition of newsworthy going forward, it’s difficult to say exactly how. Further, I assume that the inverse, making something newsworthy through money is probably even easier.

Finally, newsworthiness let’s us know what we can cover, but I’m not sure it does a very good job of telling us what we should cover. This is of course part of the reason it devolves into a popularity contest or an auction. Those both seem to be telling us what we should cover, but I think at best it’s a skewed signal, and at worst it may lead us in completely the opposite direction, which takes us back to the story of Gawker and Theranos.

Imagine for the moment that there are things which it would be beneficial for the public to know. (Perhaps this is the definition of newsworthiness?) But the public isn’t aware of them. Someone has to uncover them, probably an organization we would think of as “The Press”. I would argue that Theranos is a perfect example of this, but beyond that I’m sure there are other things being done by big corporations or especially the government, which also fit this criteria. (Watergate is the classic example of this, and I’m sure many people would argue that the current president is doing things which also fit this criteria.) As we consider this we need to ask two questions.

First, are there more of these things now than there were in the past? Are corporations and governments doing more things which need to be revealed, the same amount or less? My sense is that they’re probably doing more. Government is bigger. Corporations are bigger. There’s also simply more people, period. On the opposite side, it may be that these things are harder to hide and easier to expose, but this takes us to the second question.

Are we better at finding out about these things now than we used to be? Or are we worse? This question is both harder to answer, but also more important. I’m not sure what the answer is, but  part of the reason why Gawker completely missing the Theranos fraud is so interesting is that it’s one large data point in favor of the argument that we’re worse at it. Gawker was the quintessential new media company. They were a news organization built for the internet. If “The Press” was going to be more effective when moved to the internet than Gawker should be the number one example of this increased effectiveness, and yet what important news did they end up breaking? Their motto was that today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news. And in the book it mentions that this was sometimes the case, but unless I missed it, it never provided an actual example of this transition. I’m sure if you talked to Denton, he would have a list, but I also assume if there was something of the level of Watergate or Spotlight or Theranos, that it would have been mentioned prominently in the book. If there was such a thing I missed it.

All of this is to say that Gawker certainly used a newsworthiness standard (a very, very broad one) in terms of what they could cover. But appeared to have a skewed view of newsworthiness when it came to what they should cover. In fact the book makes the point, repeatedly, that Gawker was almost exclusively driven by page views. (The Hogan sex tape ultimately racked up seven million.) And I think we can all agree that whatever the definition of newsworthiness (or whether it should even be our primary criteria) that it is not a concept which can be directly exchanged for page views.

Of course, what Gawker was really optimizing for was even worse. They were optimizing for page views/hour of effort. And salacious, but ultimately unimportant gossip ends up being very high on that measure. Which is why they missed the one piece of Theranos gossip which would have been right up their alley. The fact that Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos President Sunny Balwani were in a secret relationship, despite the fact that he was 20 years her senior. Would this have broken open the story by itself? Probably not, but it does illustrate that they weren’t driven to get gossip per se. They were only interested in gossip that required very little effort to get. (Recall that the post that started it all, outing Thiel, was a revelation of something a lot of people already knew.)

The biggest example of Gawker’s weakness was that they were unable to uncover the conspiracy to destroy them. A story that held existential importance for them.

I think the lesson we can draw here is that if we do want to be better at uncovering things that are actually newsworthy, then the centralized, page-view driven model of Gawker is the wrong way to do it. Obviously we can’t put the genie of the internet back in the bottle, we can only work with the wishes we’ve already been granted. One of which is the sheer number and diversity of voices on the internet. (Arguably the opposite of Gawker’s emphasis.)

I said earlier that it’s naive to use the fact that something is true as an absolute standard for what can and can’t be said. I also mentioned that Gawker missed the most important story at all. Perhaps newsworthiness is truth, combined with importance. And on both measures I think that by encouraging a diversity of opinion we stand the greatest chance of encountering both those things. Does this mean we allow people to post (seemingly) crazy conspiracy theories? Well let’s look at those for a second through the lens of importance. Does it matter at all that Hulk Hogan had sex with his best friend’s wife? Not really. Not to anybody beyond the few dozen people directly involved. Does it matter if Theranos was giving out wildly inaccurate test results? Yeah, it does. It doesn’t imperil the country, but it’s important to the thousands of people who did blood tests using their technology. Does it matter if the government was behind 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with it? Definitely. It matters a huge amount. It might be the most important story of the century. Now, for reasons I already explained, I give that a very, very low chance of being true. And I certainly don’t agree with any associated harassment. But if they just want a forum to make their case, I kind of think they should have it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I also think people should be given a space to air their seemingly outrageous theories about Trump’s crimes as well.  (Though, honestly, I think we are in less danger of any censorship there.) All of which is to say, I understand there are trade-offs, and I understand most people aren’t trying to optimize for newsworthiness or truth or importance. But, if you take nothing else from this post, remember, in theory Gawker was trying to do all three, and, as far as I can tell, they kind of sucked at it, and it might be important, if we want to understand where things are going, if we figure out why.


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How Much Ruin Is in a Nation?

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It is said that after General Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga during the Revolutionary War that a young nobleman, named Sinclair, came to Adam Smith, and declared that the surrender would be “the ruin of the nation.” To which Adam Smith reportedly responded, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Meaning, one supposes, that nations are sturdy things, and it takes more than you probably think to kill them off, or even cause them long term inconvenience. And certainly the UK remained a great power for many, many years after this.

In our own day we have a lot of Sinclairs running around saying that this or that will be the ruin of our nation. In the past I think it’s fair to say that most of the Sinclairs came from the right side of the political spectrum. But, lately, global warming and the election of Trump, among other things, have given the Sinclairs on the left greater visibility. Despite all this panic from both the right and left, I think Smith’s statement is still essentially correct, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” And I think we’re a long way away from the US collapsing in spectacular fashion, if indeed it ever does. Most nations go out with a whimper, not a bang.

There is one possible exception to this: nuclear weapons. As usual they’re a huge wild card. I don’t think some limited exchange would cause the nation to collapse (though given the extreme reaction to 9/11 who knows.) But certainly if there was all out war between the US and Russia you’d be shocked if the US wasn’t fundamentally altered in some critical aspect. (Loss of territory, change in system of government, etc.) And to be fair to the people panicking over Trump, we have foolishly given the current president absolute control over the nuclear arsenal. All of this is to say, that I’m not going to rule it out, but that’s a subject for a different post (one I’ve already written.)

On top of this, there are also of course natural disasters, the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano, a new Carrington Event, etc. But I want to talk about what might happen in the normal course of things, in fact I want to talk about what might happen without any huge black swans. Which is not to say there won’t be black swans, there definitely will be (positive and negative) but to look at how bad things can get even without them.

I was prompted to write on this topic when I read a recent Bloomberg article by Tyler Cowen: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, where he essentially takes the same approach. He lists numerous challenges America will soon be facing. None of these challenges are surprising, or especially dramatic, but neither are any of them simple to solve, or easy to avoid. I’ve decided to go through his list, make some of my own comments, and then, at the end, add one item of my own as well.

He starts off by assuming that we get through the Trump presidency without a major constitutional crisis. I think that’s the way to bet, but he’s already assuming a rosier outlook for the future than many people, who can’t see farther than 2020. And it’s after 2020 when things start to get difficult, because it’s only then that recent financial trends really start to reach a tipping point. Cowen’s summation of the problem is excellent:

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

This takes us back to the question of whether national debt matters. I have argued strongly that it does, and Cowen seems to think so as well. Though as he mentions, if economic growth was better this might not be a problem, and indeed GDP for the second quarter of this year was a blistering 4.1%. Which Trump took credit for of course, and maybe he should, I don’t see many other great explanations for it out there, and certainly it’s the opposite of what many economists predicted would happen after Trump was elected. But for the majority of people who don’t believe Trump is going to usher in a new era of consistently high growth, and who also believe that the debt does matter, then the problems Cowen point out appear to basically be inevitable.

What effect will this have? Well it depends on what ends up getting cut. Cowen already mentioned infrastructure maintenance, but even if we cut that to zero it wouldn’t get us very far. To make any significant dent you have to cut spending from military or entitlements. Cowen is of the opinion that entitlements will mostly survive, meaning most of the money will come from the military. I generally agree with this assessment, though I’m not sure it’s the right choice, at least from the perspective of avoiding big negative black swans. Allow me to explain.

If you cut entitlements, then you have a lot more poor people, and presumably these people suffer more than they would if they were not as poor. More alarmingly you might end up with people dying who otherwise wouldn’t have. So it is bad, potentially very bad. Though I think in the end it wouldn’t be quite as bad as people predict. And I would even predict there would be some long term positives in there as well.

If you cut the military, then suddenly rather than having the umbrella of US global hegemony keeping regional conflicts below a certain level, you end up with a re-ordering of regional spheres of influence. Here’s how Cowen imagines it playing out:

Over a period of less than five years, China will retake Taiwan and also bring much of East and Southeast Asia into a much tighter sphere of influence. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons and become dominant players in their regions. Russia will continue to nibble at the borders of neighboring states, including Latvia and Estonia, and NATO will lose its credibility, except for a few bilateral relationships, such as with the U.K. Parts of Eastern Europe will return to fascism. NAFTA will exist on paper, but it will be under perpetual renegotiation and hemispheric relations will fray.

I’m not sure where Cowen starts his five years. From today? From the minute we start cutting the military? Regardless, the China scenario he outlines is becoming increasingly likely regardless of what the US does, and a reduction in our military would only hasten it. But it’s his next claim that’s more alarming, that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nukes. Though, once you assume the decline of American hegemony, than the rise of regional powers would seem to naturally follow. And it’s hard to imagine how someone can be taken seriously as a regional power if they don’t have nukes, particularly if their rivals do. People always talk about India and Pakistan in the same breath and yet India is eight times as wealthy and has seven times as many people. Yet they both have nukes, which gives Pakistan an equality it could otherwise never hope to claim. On top of the two countries Cowen named, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, I would add the usual suspect of Iran, but there’s also a good possibility Japan would develop nukes.

Here, we can finally see why I’m not sure that cutting the military in preference to cutting entitlements is the right choice. Yes, cutting entitlements would almost certainly cause some suffering, but it’s hard to imagine how a nuclear war, even a limited one wouldn’t cause a lot more. Though in reality the end of American hegemony has to come eventually, I’m sympathetic to people who think it might be replaced with some kind of global government which will keep the peace. But nothing in the current geopolitical landscape leads me to think that has the remotest chance of happening. All of this is to say that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of good options.

Cowen moves on to talk about drugs, and while he thinks the opioid crisis will eventually abate, he worries a lot about drugs which can be whipped up in a “home lab”. I’m not sure I share his optimism about the opioid crisis, I agree it’s hard to imagine that it will continue at the same rate. Overdose deaths from Fentanyl increased at an annual rate of 88%(!!!) from 2013 to 2016. Were that rate to continue, the entire country would be dead by 2030. But even if everything were to freeze where it is we’re still looking at 64,000 deaths from overdosing on drugs per year, which is now nearly twice as many as die in car accidents every year. As far as “home lab” drugs, also called designer drugs, I’m not sure how big of a problem they will be. Obviously I’m inclined to caution, but my initial impression is that so far they (fortunately) haven’t lived up to the hype. A search on designer drug danger turns up a lot of articles from 2013, and the number three hit is from 2003, so I’m not sure what to make of that. At a minimum it doesn’t seem like we’ve reached a crisis point yet.

There was an article just recently in the Atlantic claiming that marijuana is a lot more addictive than people claim. And I feel like I should mention it in this section. Though fortunately it’s basically impossible to overdose on marijuana, it does seem like when you pull all of this together that there’s a real danger that we’re turning into a nation of lotus eaters.

Cowen goes on to talk about technology, but rather than talking about benefits of it, he chooses to focus on the potential downsides. Many people are optimistic about the future precisely because of technology, but Cowen points out that in the near term we’re more likely to see technology being used to create a dystopian police state, than a transhumanist paradise. He doesn’t mention China in this context, but that’s an example worth considering.

Those, like me, who were around during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, can probably remember thinking that the fall of the Chinese communists seemed inevitable. Recall that 1989 also saw the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, the fall of all Eastern European communist regimes and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Change was definitely in the air. (Negotiations to end South African apartheid began the next year in 1990). And yet amidst all that change the Chinese Communists hung on. How they did that is a post unto itself. (One I’m almost certainly not qualified to write.) The important point is that somehow, despite all the technology that has come along since 1989, in particular the world wide web, the Chinese communists have continued to hold on.

It’s unclear how much technology has hindered the ability of the Chinese communists to hang on to control up until this point, but going forward there is a lot of technology which promises to greatly assist them in that endeavor. And here we turn back to Cowen:

Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

As you may have noticed, he’s talking about America, but you know that however bad it is here, it will be ten times as bad in China.

From there he goes on to touch on global warming, and much like myself, argues that “The very worst fears about climate change won’t come true.” Though, he argues that it will still be a significant drag on the economy, making the growth necessary to avoid cutting the military (or, less likely, entitlements) that much harder to achieve.

Cowen decides to end the article by tossing in some of his own petty gripes. Which include the fact that as more and more of current media is being driven by what is or isn’t available to stream, that fewer people are going to end up seeing classic movies. (Though one would think that once the copyright expires everyone will have old movies available for streaming, but maybe the cost of digitizing say, Battleship Potemkin, is prohibitive.) He also predicts that live performance of classical music will become less and less common. I can certainly sympathize with both of these complaints, though if I were to list my own petty annoyances I would probably come up with something like the proliferation giant ear gauging, or the vacuity of social media, or how the Hollywood regurgitation loop just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  But that’s just off the top of my head (and my first annoyance is almost certainly due to some giant gauging I saw just yesterday.)

The point of all of this, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that there are a lot of current trends which suggest ways in which the future could go poorly, without going catastrophically, and Cowen has done an admirable job of explaining many of the ways this could happen, but he did miss a few. This is entirely understandable. He made no claim to being comprehensive. But there’s one in particular that I think deserves a mention, and it’s one which might end up being as, if not more, consequential than the things he did mention.

This is the population growth trend in Africa. Most people will automatically translate this into a claim that there are “too many Africans”, which is not the sort of thing one talks about in polite society (and probably one of the reasons why Cowen didn’t mention it.) For myself, I certainly hope that how ever many people there end up being, both living in Africa and elsewhere, that they will grow up happy and well fed, and that they will all be blessed with the same opportunities and advantages as people born in the United States or Europe. But, I also hope that I’m wrong about the dangers of the national debt and that medicare and social security and Pax Americana will last forever. And, unfortunately, just because I hope for all these things doesn’t mean they’ll happen, though of course they might.

All of this is to say that Africa might have problems with overpopulation, just as all the things Cowen mentioned might happen as well. And this is certainly the way the trend is pointing. if you look at the official UN predictions for the population of Africa their most conservative estimate still has Africa reaching a population of just over 3 billion (up from 1.2 billion right now) with the most extreme estimate being that it will end up north of 5.5 billion (both estimates are for 2100). Now there has already been a lot of panic about overpopulation which didn’t end up coming to pass. And I hope that my fears will prove to be overblown again, but there are a lot of ways for things to go wrong and only one way for them to go right.

As far as ways for things to go wrong, well we’ve already gotten a first taste of one way they could go poorly with the recent European refugee crisis. Whether the Europeans should have been more welcoming is somewhat beside the point. Their welcome was what it was, which was somewhat mixed to say the least. And if that’s their reaction to the flow of refugees when the population of Africa is 1.2 billion what will it be like in 30 years when the best guess of the UN is that it will be twice that?

The reaction of Europeans and other people in the developed world to the refugees is what many people are focused on at the moment, and will probably be the thing most people are interested in for the foreseeable future, but in the long term what I’m really just trying to show is that we probably can’t assume that the “riches” of the developed world will be redistributed in such a fashion that all of the additional people will be taken care of. It might be nice if they could all come to America and Europe, find a place to live and a job, or if we could just increase our foreign aid, but that seems very unlikely. The people living in Africa are going to have to figure out a way to support themselves, specifically they’re going to have to figure out how to grow enough food to feed a lot more people, potentially three or four times as many people. I’m going to be honest, that seems like a hard problem, even if all of the energy of science and technology is brought to bear on the problem.

Accordingly, another way in which the future could go poorly just based on current trends (though catastrophic may be a better word) is for there to be widespread famine in Africa. As I said, it may not happen, everyone thought there would be widespread famine in India before the Green Revolution and there wasn’t. I hope that essentially the same thing happens with Africa.

It’d be nice if at the end of it all I could point out some simple things that we could do to solve the problems Cowen mentioned, but there aren’t any, which is of course why he’s worried about them. In fact one would be inclined to think they’re unavoidable. They may be.

I can offer only two pieces of consolation. First, there is of course the advice of Adam Smith, which I started the post with. There is a lot of ruin in a nation, or in a continent or in a civilization, and I’m sure we’re all farther away from catastrophe than people think. Though that’s part of the point, catastrophe may be far away, but a situation where things are just kind of “sucky” (if you need an example think, the 70s) might not be that far away.

Second, the technology optimists, of whom Steven Pinker is the best example (particularly his book Enlightenment Now, which I talked about in a previous post) will argue that technology has solved all of the problems we’ve had so far (this is debatable, but also not the time to get picky.) This has often happened through means we couldn’t even imagine a few years beforehand, and there’s every reason to think that technology will do so again. I certainly hope that it creates another Green Revolution and that there isn’t widespread famine in Africa or anywhere else. I’m less clear how technology will solve regional conflict in the absence of American power, or the related problem of US government spending, but despite that I hope it solves those problems as well. As I have often said, I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that I’m not. Or as Cowen says in closing his article:

So what in this description sounds so implausible? Is it that you think productivity growth will come in at 3 percent? That it will all be worth it because advances in medicine will allow us to stick around in decent form until age 135? That technological breakthroughs will extend the reach of the U.S. military further yet? That the Mars colony will be awesome?

Just how lucky are you feeling?

In answer I would say, I think our luck might be running out. Or to put it a different way. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.


You may be thinking, “But there must be something I can do? Maybe I could contribute to something? Maybe something which calls attention to these problems? Maybe a blog or something like that?” Well you’re in luck. You may not have heard, but I just drew attention to it, and I accept donations!


Review: Bad Blood (Theranos)

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I just finished reading Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Actually, I should correct that, I didn’t read it, I listened to the audiobook. Which, now that I’ve decided to do a review, is kind of unfortunate, because it makes it a lot more difficult to go back and find passages I might want to quote. For that reason, and others, the review I’m going to write will be more focused on the broad lessons of Theranos, than a recap of the story or an examination of specific events. If you’re looking for that, here are some other excellent reviews which you might want to check out.

One of the reviews I just linked to starts off by mentioning a quote from the back of the book, “No matter how bad you think the Theranos story was, you’ll learn that the reality was actually far worse.” I can say, having finished the book, that was definitely my impression as well. I first heard about Theranos in 2015 from of friend of mine who works at a clinical laboratory (ARUP, which was actually mentioned in the book.) He was very suspicious of Theranos’ claims, but it was still several months before the scandal broke. Still, his suspicions stuck with me, so when the story did break, I followed along as it happened. What I’m trying to get at, is that I already thought I had a pretty good idea of what Theranos had done. But no, the quote is right, in reality it was “far worse”.

So the book paints a disturbing picture, but to truly know how disturbed we should be we need to know whether Theranos was some kind of extreme outlier. Something entirely unique, and not similar at all to other Silicon Valley startups, or if it was broadly similar to every other startup, and it was unique just in that it happened to be the one that got caught. The fact that Theranos was more of a healthcare company than a software company, certainly contributed to the way things played out, but this shouldn’t make us complacent, there are more and more non-software startups, for example Uber and Airbnb.

At this point, I should mention that I do have some experience in the startup world. I spent over a year trying to raise money for my own startup, and I worked for three years in a startup that had raised several million dollars.

In the first case, we were 16 hours away from signing the paperwork on our initial round of funding when a key angel dropped out and the deal collapsed. This was in the middle of 2008, a couple of months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the country was already in a recession, so I’ll let you guess how well things went after that.

As disappointing as it was to work like crazy on something for a year only to have it ultimately amount to nothing, the experience of working at a startup which had actually raised money was a hundred times worse. It was bad for basically all the reasons Theranos was bad, enough so that reading the book (okay technically listening) was somewhat uncomfortable. Now this is not to say that the startup I worked for was anywhere near as big as Theranos. Also, as I said, Theranos was a healthcare startup, which added a level of craziness and potential harm above and beyond the craziness of a software startup. But I would nevertheless say that the difference between the startup I worked for and Theranos was more a matter of scale than of kind. (Don’t worry, there will be examples.)

On top of this, I’ve had friends who did startups and their experiences were also broadly similar (i.e. horrible). When all of this is put together (and I admit it’s not a huge dataset) it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Theranos was not unique. That there are lots of companies operating in a very similar fashion. That if, as Mark Zuckerberg said, startups should move fast and break stuff, that Theranos’ mistake may have just been moving slightly faster and breaking slightly more stuff (and, being in healthcare, the stuff they did break was more consequential.)

Determining an answer to this question is important, because if Theranos was unique than we can marvel at the story of their mendacity and subsequent downfall and then go back to business as usual. But if Theranos was not unique then there are probably other startups who are similarly playing fast and loose with the law, and most especially the truth, and we need to worry about what the consequences will be when it eventually comes to light. In support of the argument that it’s a broader problem, in addition to the points I’ve already made, there is a history of corporate hubris occurring in clusters. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the hubris which lead to the 2007-2008 crash, and the hubris associated with the dotcom bubble. Going farther back you have junk bonds in 1989, and the savings and loans crisis in the early 80s.

By this am I implying that Theranos is just the first taste of an eventual startup apocalypse? Perhaps, and if you’re in a position to do so I would recommend making financial hedges against that possibility, but that’s as far as my prediction extends. Rather what I’m more interested in is how the various, what you might call, hubris failsafes, built up in response to past blow-ups and crashes, performed in the case of Theranos.

To begin with you would assume that the founders and company executives themselves act as a failsafe on things, at least to a certain degree. You might expect that they’d be concerned with whether they actually have a product that will work. You might further expect that they would be wary of lying or doing something illegal, because they don’t want to get caught in those lies and they definitely don’t want to go to jail. And as it turns out both of those things did happen with Theranos, not only were the lies eventually exposed, but Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani (Theranos President and Holmes’ boyfriend) have been charged with wire fraud, and could conceivably spend 20 years in jail. And yet this possibility seemed to have not deterred them in the slightest. This seems to be the trend recently and maybe I’m imagining that it used to be different, that leaders used to admit wrongdoing, even if they weren’t directly involved, and resign. But now everyone seems to fight in the most vicious fashion possible and to the bitter end. Certainly Trump would appear to be an excellent example of this.

Speaking of politics, I think founders and politicians suffer from a similar problem, in that the type of people who are attracted to being a startup founder or executive, are not necessarily the kind of people you want to be a startup founder or executive. It takes a level of rapacious greed and delusional confidence to believe that you’re going to be the next Steve Jobs, as Elizabeth Holmes clearly did. And, of course, Holmes’ story is the heart of the book, but Balwani’s involvement is, if anything even more interesting, and where things resonated the most with my experience.

One of the most interesting things about Balwani’s involvement, which I already mentioned, but which basically very few people knew about (not the board, not the investors, and not even many of the employees) was that he was Holmes’ boyfriend. This is in spite of a 20 year age gap (and recall Holmes was pretty young). This is creepy on its face and many people have tried to spin the narrative that Balwani was some sort of svengali figure for Holmes, but Carreyrou points out that many of the most egregious acts committed by Holmes were committed before Balwani came on the scene. In any event, a creepy May-December romance is not something I experienced during my time in startup land. But Balwani did remind me of some other things I encountered.

First, you’re going to run into a lot of people with money in the startup world: Angels, VCs, entrepreneurs with a previous successful exit, etc. And most of them are going to assume that they got that money by being skilled. Sometimes that’s the case, more often they got it by being in the right place at the right time, or as most people would say, they got it by being lucky. As you might imagine those who were lucky tend not to think of it that way. They assume their money is a direct result of their skills, skills which other people don’t possess. Balwani was apparently a great example of this and the CEO of the startup I worked for also fit this profile, and based on the stories I’ve heard from others it’s pretty widespread. I won’t go into the details of my CEO lest I get sued (again, but I’ll get to that.) But Balwani made his money by creating an unremarkable company and selling it for a bunch of money at the height of the dotcom boom. That’s luck, not skill.

For the people I’m talking about, imagining that they acquired all this wealth via skill rather than luck goes a long way towards creating the delusional confidence I mentioned earlier. As far as the greed part of it, while you might expect having a lot of money to reduce that, on the contrary it appears, rather, to inflame it. If they made 10 million in a single year, then surely, someone of their evident talent can be a billionaire, if they just put in a few more years.

As I said, you might hope the founders or the executives themselves would be one of the failsafes, but clearly we have created a process which basically selects, as founders, the people least likely to have any inherent checks on their ambition. This is not to say all founders are bad, but we should be more surprised when they’re not than when they are.

Of course, the company is more than it’s founders and executives. There is also the board of directors, who have, as their primary job, keeping an eye on the, aforementioned, executives and founders. In other words they are designed to be yet another failsafe. How did they do in the case of Theranos? Not great. The story of George Shultz, the former Secretary of State and his grandson Tyler was particularly fascinating. Tyler went to work at Theranos, saw how bad it was and tried to become a whistleblower, his initial hope being that his grandfather would back him up. But in the end, the elder Shultz essentially took Holmes’ side over his grandson’s. As an aside this does illustrate Holmes’ significant charisma, which as long as we’re talking about the board of directors, allowed her to change corporate by-laws to give the shares she held 100x the voting power of normal shares. Meaning, even if by some miracle the board had turned against her they would have had no power to do anything even then.

As you may have already heard, George Shultz was not the only former politician, or politically connected individual on Theranos’ board. Here’s how Fortunate Magazine described it:

We have former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Senators Sam Nunn and Bill Frist (who, it should be noted, is a surgeon), former Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, former Marine Corps General James Mattis, and former CEOs Dick Kovacevich of Wells Fargo and Riley Bechtel of Bechtel. There is also one former epidemiologist—William Foege, and, in addition to Holmes, one current executive, Sunny Balwani, who is Theranos’ president and CEO.

It’s quite an impressive group, isn’t it? But here’s what it’s not: an appropriate board of directors for a company that is valued at $9 billion. There are no sitting chief executives at other companies—a basic tenet of board best practices. There is but one still-licensed medical expert, Bill Frist (Foege, age 79, is retired). And while it’s probably useful to have a retired government official or two to teach and offer good leadership skills, when there are six with no medical or technology experience—with an average age, get this, of 80—one wonders just how plugged in they are to Theranos’ day-to-day activities.

Interestingly Fortune was the same magazine who put Holmes’ on their cover the year before this. And at that point they called the Theranos board of directors, “the single most accomplished board in U.S. corporate history.” And this illustrates the problem, not only was the board not equipped to act as a failsafe on Holmes’ and Theranos, but until Carreyrou broke the story, no one took the obvious step of pointing out that Holmes’ board was great if you wanted to skirt regulation and intimidate people, but awful if you were actually interested in designing an effective medical device. The article I just quoted from was only published after Carreyrou’s initial WSJ Piece. But it is only in light of that reporting that Fortune finally makes the same point I just made.

[The Theranos board] was assembled for its regulatory and governmental connections, not for its understanding of the company or its technology.

Of course now it’s arguably far too late. Interesting how quickly people decided that what was once thought of as a major strength of the company should have been regarded as an early warning sign that something was very wrong.

To be fair, there wasn’t much evidence of Holmes using the board to directly subvert regulations. (Though I suspect indirect influence played a large role.) But regulations are, of course, another failsafe, and eventually laws and regulations are what killed Theranos, the question is should they have done that sooner? A discussion of regulations will often devolve into a partisan fight over whether Republican antipathy towards regulation is really at the root of the whole problem. I don’t think that argument can be made here. Lots of very prominent Democrats were big supporters of Theranos, and this support extends beyond the board of directors. (Obama made Holmes one of his business ambassadors and Biden was visiting and praising the Theranos facilities just a few months before the scandal broke.) Meaning I don’t think it would have made any difference which party was in power, nor is there some repealed law one could point to as a smoking gun which enabled the whole disaster.

Actually if there was any single thing which empowered Theranos to continue for as long as it did, that thing was lawsuits, and more broadly the threat of lawsuits. And if there was any person to hold responsible for that it was David Boies, known for Bush v. Gore (he was on Gore’s side) and US v. Microsoft. For my money Boies is easily number three on the Theranos villain list and given that he escaped relatively unscathed (his role at Theranos is barely mentioned in his Wikipedia article.) And that of all the people involved he’s the one who really should have known better. Perhaps he deserves to be number one on that list.

As I alluded to earlier, my experience working for a startup also led to me being sued. The case has been settled and dismissed with prejudice. Also you can see I’ve tried to be careful to not mention any names, but it still makes me nervous to talk about. At the time I was sued I kind of figured that it was exceptional, that the guy paying for the lawsuit had made a bad decision based on bad information. But having read the story of Theranos, I get the feeling that lawsuits are more common than I thought in Silicon Valley.

The lawsuit side of the equation is interesting for several reasons. First it’s interesting to speculate how it interacts with the failsafe of government regulation. Would having more laws just give Boies more laws to sue people under? Or would it have made it easier for the government to crack down on Theranos. I strongly suspect the former, particularly given that once the appropriate agencies were made aware of what was happening, they had no problem shutting them down via the laws that were already on the books. But getting to the point where they were aware of the problems took a lot longer than it should have because of Theranos lawyers. Second, as far as I can tell, lawsuits have way more to do with how much money you have than whether you’re right or wrong. This is not to say that the side with the most money always wins, but to even play the game costs tens of thousands of dollars (in my case) and hundreds of thousands of dollars (in Tyler Shultz’s case).

Finally lawsuits, as I already alluded to, act as the opposite of a failsafe. In that they make all the other failsafes more difficult to trigger. As it turns out, despite however unethical the people at the top of Theranos were, Carreyrou tells the story of dozens of employees who wanted to make the world aware of what was happening, but were kept from doing so by the fear of a potential lawsuit. The story of Tyler Shultz facing down David Boies was one of the most gripping parts of the whole book, and if he hadn’t been the grandson of a member of the board and had parents who were willing to spend $400k to keep them at bay, it’s unlikely that he would have persisted either. Also once Boies turned on Tyler, even $400k was not enough to allow him to continue to talking to Carreyrou. He had to immediately shut up AND pay $400k.

This takes us to the failsafe which finally brought Theranos down, the press. One would imagine that once the Wall Street Journal got ahold of the story that it was all over. But it’s surprising how much effort Holmes, Balwani and Boies put into trying to quash the story even then. Carreyrou was constantly hounded by attorneys (and followed everywhere he went by private investigators). More interestingly, Holmes, aware of the story, managed to convince Rupert Murdoch (the owner of the WSJ) to invest $125 million in Theranos, and then proceeded to use that to try to leverage him into killing the story. I know lots of people don’t like Murdoch, but to his credit he apparently not only refused to kill the story, but refused to involve himself at all, and eventually lost the entirety of his investment (a drop in the bucket for him, but still.)

The final failsafe is supposed to be the most reliable of all, money, and by extension self-interest. How did Theranos raise $700 million dollars, and secure lucrative contracts with both Walgreens and Safeway despite not having anything close to the technology they claimed? Carreyrou’s answer was FOMO, or fear of missing out, which of everything I’ve mentioned so far may be the most modern phenomenon of all. And also the one I’m the least sure how to solve. It’s clear that FOMO is a major driver of bubbles, as everyone sees the upward spike and rushes in, never pausing to think if the growth is sustainable or if they’re just the greater fools. But what should be done about it? It’s a big problem, but in the very specific case of startups, I think it needs to be much easier to bet against them. And one of the things that has made that harder is the decline of the IPO.

All of this is a fairly large topic, and I’m out of space, but I will say that if I was one of the investors in Theranos, or one of it’s board members, or Walgreens or Safeway, that I would be taking a long hard look at how I ended up being so thoroughly duped and how to prevent it in the future.

As I said in the beginning, it’s not clear if Theranos is an extreme outlier, but I suspect it’s not, and I further suspect that if the many lessons of Theranos are not learned, we’re in for a lot more of this sort of thing, and I predict some of it will make Theranos seem quaint by comparison.


Much like Theranos, there are many areas where I’m incompetent. In their case it was worth $700 million. I’m not expecting my incompetence to be worth that much, but if you think it’s worth anything consider donating.


Pornography and the Time Horizon of Uncertainty

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As technology advances, new innovations are periodically introduced. Sometimes these innovations are so obviously beneficial (think the smallpox vaccine) that there is very little objection to them. On other occasions, the innovation might encounter significant resistance. A group of people may assemble who feel that this new innovation is harmful, or potentially harmful. And, if the influence of this group is large enough, this resistance might get classified as a moral panic.

Past examples of this include birth control pills, television and even heavy metal music. (You may not think that technology had anything to do with panic over music, but I think you’ll find it had more to do with it than most people think.) And of course there are plenty of panics happening right now, as just one example many people are intensely concerned about the potential negative effects of social media.

Reading this introduction one might almost assume that I’m preparing to dismiss the current panics by pointing out that past panics didn’t amount to anything and thus current panics probably won’t either. And certainly there is something to that, but I think if you look deeper at past panics, and current panics, you’ll find that the people who panic aren’t so misguided after all. What do I mean by this? Well, I would argue that many, if not most, of the things people feared did come to pass, it just took a lot longer than they predicted, their very worst fears did turn out to be unfounded, and, most importantly, by the time they did come to pass, very few people cared anymore.  

To use an analogy, you might say that the kick was accurate, but that the goalposts were moved. And true, a miss is a miss, but most people end up, incorrectly, blaming the kicker without mentioning that the goal posts were moved. Which is to say that people assume all of these panics were misguided. That over and over the forces of reactionary intolerance are always being proved wrong. And that anyone who worries about something like, social media increasing teen suicide risk, is just a neo-luddite puritan who blindly opposes all progress. Rather than someone who will turn out to be, on the whole, correct, just not quite as dramatically as they would have hoped and long after anyone cares enough to do something about it

At this point examples would probably be beneficial. Of course the problem is that, as I said, while I believe a lot of the predictions have come to pass, they rarely come to pass in a dramatic, undeniable fashion. Also, as I mentioned, to the extent that they have come to pass, people may no longer view it as a bad thing, and in some cases, people will even think it’s a good thing. For all of these reasons, I confidently predict that people are going to quibble with the examples I provide, which is fine. But I think if you start by setting aside your modern prejudices and really try to get into the head of historical people and their moral panics. You’ll realize that most of them, upon seeing the world of today, would not only feel entirely vindicated, but probably, that they had not panicked enough.

To start with, let’s look at one of the items I mentioned above: birth control pills. At the time of this panic, people confidently predicted that widespread availability of birth control pills would lead to more extra marital sex. Is there any doubt that this is exactly what happened? Now you can argue that it was not as bad as they thought, or that it’s actually a good thing, or that this came to pass, but some of the other things didn’t, but this is exactly the goalpost moving I was talking about.

There have been countless government programs passed on the idea that, whatever the costs associated, they would not end up being excessive. And since at least the days of Ross Perot, people have predicted that the costs would end up being much greater than the politicians said, that the debt would just keep growing, with an associated panic about what happens if it gets too big. Now we can argue (as we have in this space) about how harmful the deficit/debt is, but is there any doubt that it is WAY bigger than any politician could have imagined even a few decades ago? As one example of this process, Social Security was never envisioned to be a pay as you go system. From an article in the Washington Post titled, Would Roosevelt recognize today’s Social Security?

When Roosevelt proposed Social Security in 1935, he envisioned a contributory pension plan. Workers’ payroll taxes (“contributions”) would be saved and used to pay their retirement benefits. Initially, before workers had time to pay into the system, there would be temporary subsidies. But Roosevelt rejected Social Security as a “pay-as-you-go” system that channeled the taxes of today’s workers to pay today’s retirees. That, he believed, would saddle future generations with huge debts — or higher taxes — as the number of retirees expanded.

Discovering that the original draft wasn’t a contributory pension, Roosevelt ordered it rewritten and complained to Frances Perkins, his labor secretary: “This is the same old dole under another name. It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit for the Congress . . . to meet.”

A great example of a prediction which came to pass, but by the time it did the goal posts had been moved.

We’ve covered examples of morality and bureaucracy. This next example combines them. People have long argued that you “get what you pay for”. Leading many people, stretching all the way back to the New Deal, to predict that welfare might act as an incentive for various behaviors we don’t want to encourage: joblessness, a decline in marriage, etc. and disincentivize things like being resourceful and personal ambition. I understand there’s an argument to be had about how much welfare contributes to the current levels of all of those things, or if welfare and these trends act entirely independently. But imagine showing someone who opposed the War on Poverty the current figures on the number of poor, welfare spending and the increase in single mothers. Can you imagine this person experiencing any emotion other than vindication?  Particularly when you consider our society’s relative affluence.

I could go on, but at this point you’re either nodding your head in agreement, or you’ve already dismissed me as a hopeless reactionary, attempting to disingenuously fight battles which were already long ago decided against me.

For those of you nodding along, (and those who are inexplicably still reading despite dismissing me) all of this is leading to a discussion of a current panic, one which is being dismissed in the same fashion as all the previous panics.  But one where I think, eventually, the predictions of harm being made will once again, turn out to be true.

The battle in question is over pornography, and I was inspired to revisit this issue by a recent article in Slate, Why Are We Still So Worried About Wat­­ching Porn? subtitled: “Decades of fearmongering almost got porn addiction added to the International Classification of Diseases. Thankfully, the World Health Organization got it right.”

To begin with I should point out that they’re not dismissing all worry. But they seem to think that harcore porn videos should engender about as much worry as watching TV.

Even if sex-film viewing has been grossly exaggerated as a national problem, might it still be a problem for some people? Of course, just as there are excellent interventions to help reduce television viewing without invoking mental illness labels, you might want to reduce your sex-film viewing in favor of other activities you value more.

I read that as, sure it might be nice if people didn’t watch five hours of porn every day in the same way that it might be nice if people didn’t watch five hours of TV every day, but there’s nothing which makes pornography worse than binging Stranger Things. I would disagree.

As you can tell from the subtitle the article was prompted by a recent decision by the WHO to not add porn addiction to the list of official diseases. Right off the bat the article talks about, “…the shock when journalists learn that ‘pornography addiction’ is actually not recognized by any national or international diagnostic manual.” My immediate question is why are they shocked? Surely no journalist would be shocked to be told that there’s no entry in the DSM for being addicted to broccoli, and they probably wouldn’t be shocked to find out there’s no entry for TV addiction, and yet according to the authors of the article it would be basically the same thing, and yet one is obviously shocking and the other isn’t.

I would argue that they’re shocked because they know people who consider themselves addicted to pornography, and have heard stories about behavior that certainly seems like addiction. That they are shocked because it does not match what they’re seeing with their own two eyes and hearing with their own two ears. This is why it makes sense that they’re shocked, and in fact within the article they mention that a non-trivial percent of people consider themselves addicted.

Amazingly, the first nationally representative peer-reviewed study on sex-film viewing was only just published in 2017 in Australia. This study found that 84 percent of men and 54 percent of women had ever viewed sexual material. Overall, 3.69 percent of men (144 of 3,923) and 0.65 percent of women (28 of 4,218) in the study believed that they were “addicted” to pornography, and only half of this group reported that using pornography had any negative impact on their lives.

Several things jump out from this quote. First, 3.69% is not 0%, and certainly as a percentage of males it has to be higher than some of the other things which did make it into something like the WHO disease guidelines or the DSM. On top of that I think the numbers from the study are low. You’re saying, in this day and age, that 16% of men and nearly half of all women have never viewed sexual material? That doesn’t pass the smell test. And other numbers disagree with the Australian study. This survey (admitted conducted by a Christian group) claims that 13% of men admit to being addicted to porn, with another 5% are unsure (they did interview both religious and non-religious individuals). Add those numbers together and you’re in the ballpark with the number of men who smoke (16.7%).

Finally and most interestingly, they mention that this is the “first nationally representative peer-reviewed study on sex-film viewing” and that it was only published in 2017. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the replication crisis, and the other problems with social science studies of exactly this kind, but I’m loath to take a single study and carve it into stone, as they appear to be doing. Also the self-reported aspect of this study raises a lot of red flags as well. We have one self-reported study with a male addiction rate of between 13-18% and one with a male addiction rate of 3.69%. Yes, you can certainly point out the bias of the first, but how sure are you that the second is bias free? Also, how likely is someone to self-report that they’re addicted to porn and that it’s having a negative impact? It would make sense for all the bias to be towards under-reporting on those questions.

Why would this be? Because people are ashamed of course. Why are they ashamed? Well according to the article:

Speaking to the heart of the issue, one of the biggest problems for some porn users is shame. Shame about viewing sex films is heaped on the public by the sex-addiction treatment industry (for profit), by the media (for clickbait), and by religious groups (to regulate sexuality). Unfortunately, whether you believe porn viewing is appropriate or not, stigmatizing sex-film viewing may be contributing to the problem. In fact, an increasing number of studies show that many people who identify as “porn addicted” do not actually view sex films more than other people. They simply feel more shame about their behaviors, which is associated with growing up in a religious or sexually restrictive society. Further, labeling behaviors as a mental disorder is often stigmatizing and harmful in itself, so it should only be done when strongly warranted by evidence. If we really wanted to help such people, one of the most direct ways to do it would be to normalize and validate their sexual desires, including their interest in sex films.

They appear to be suggesting that shame would be nearly non-existent without unscrupulous external organizations. Who create shame for their own selfish reasons. From this they go on to say that the elimination of shame is the best way to deal with the issue, or as they say it, we should, “normalize and validate their sexual desires, including their interest in sex films.” But if this is really what we should be doing, why is shame so deeply embedded on this issue? Even if we believe the authors and grant that there are bad actors out there using shame for their own ends (The vast sex-addiction treatment/religious-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about!) why is shame so easy to invoke? Is it all cultural? A left over from the Victorian era, which, somehow, 50 years into the sexual revolution we still haven’t gotten rid of? Or is it more deeply embedded? Perhaps genetic? And if so, could it be that it’s been built in for a reason?

I would argue that it is genetic or common to all humans through some other mechanism. (For example, how many societies can you name where individuals have sex in public without any attached shame?) Maybe it is cultural and not genetic, just particularly tenacious culture. But in any event, from this, it follows, shame is probably there for a reason.

I have talked in the past about pornography being a supernormal stimulus. To refresh your memory, supernormal stimuli are phenomena where a species’ evolutionary preferences are unbounded in a certain direction, allowing technology to create a situation where this preference becomes counterproductive. The classic example is a species of bird which prefers large eggs, and scientists were able to get the bird to incubate artificial eggs almost as big as the bird itself, eggs which couldn’t possibly be natural. And most alarming, to prefer these eggs to the eggs they’d actually laid, eggs which might actually produce chicks.

The big question is, why would the bird do something so counterproductive? Well the bird could never lay an egg as big as she was, so there was no reason for evolution to cap this preference. (Brood parasites are obviously a possible exception to this, but outside the bounds of this post.) Turning this to humans, it obviously increases our evolutionary fitness if we have a strong urge to have sex. One aspect of this appears to take the form of an urge to see people naked or engaged in sex acts. In the millions of years humans and proto-humans wandered the African savanna there was a limit on how much of this someone might have access to. This is no longer the case. We have created giant eggs, and it’s not inconceivable that people will incubate these eggs in preference to incubating eggs with actual offspring.

As I said the big question is why do the birds do this? Obviously if this became common enough you would expect them to eventually adapt. Through language, memes and culture humans have the means to adapt to things more quickly than other species. Is it possible that shame is humanity’s adaptation to this supernormal stimuli? Recall that things like prostitutes and similar erotic “technology” has been around for a very long time.

To be clear about all this, I’m not saying that pornography is definitely a supernormal stimuli. I am saying I think that’s the way to bet.

I’m not saying that porn addiction is definitely a thing, and equivalent to smoking in its harmful effects, and something which should be included in the DSM and the WHO’s lists of diseases. I am saying that I am very doubtful that pornography isn’t a problem for a lot of people, even after you eliminate the supposed effects of externally generated shame.

I’m not saying that the authors of the article aren’t trying to be genuinely helpful. I am saying that they overlook several very large factors, which should make them far more cautious in jumping to the conclusion that “pornography” is essentially harmless.

I’ve already mentioned several factors they’re overlooking. First there’s the issue of the shifting goalposts. People say something will happen, it does, but it takes so long that no one cares anymore. We touched on how important this goalpost shifting is, which is a big topic, but if nothing else, in the here and now, we should give more weight to the predictions of those who are alarmed.

I also mentioned how little data there is. The article admits that one of the first studies done (certainly the first study they find credible, there was the other survey I mentioned) was done in 2017. Viewed in light of things like the replication crisis and the other problems currently affecting social science I don’t think their data is as ironclad as they want you to believe.

This all leads into another issue I think they’re overlooking. Not only was the first study done in 2017, but the entire phenomenon is incredibly recent. They specifically mention “sex films”. Well as I argued in another post, the ubiquity of “sex films” is basically 10 years old. Are they really saying that they can accurately predict the long term consequences of a technology that’s been around for less time than Gray’s Anatomy and NCIS?  And speaking of TV, what would predictions made after it’s first 10 years of existence look like? How closely would those predictions match what TV actually became?  The answer is, “not very close at all.”

I think in the case of pornography our predictive power is going to be even worse, when you consider things like VR pornography and sex robots (which came up during the recent discussion of incels.) And to be clear, I personally have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of sex robots becoming very common, but it is a wildcard, and if the authors get their way and manage to banish all shame, maybe that’s all that stands in the way of their widespread adoption.

When you consider all of these things, it takes an exceptional amount of hubris to dismiss all of the concerns about pornography as groundless. And all of the associated shame around the topic as counterproductive and existing only because of external actors with harmful motivations.

In the final analysis it comes back to a consideration of costs. What does the situation look like on the balance? Does the pornography status quo, with the ubiquity of porn on one side, and the shame on the other side cause more net harm or more net benefit? The article appears to be making the argument that there’s no downside to the ubiquitous porn and only the current and potential harm that comes from the associated shame. First, as I argued, I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that shame is a useless, entirely negative emotion, with no long term benefits. And I’m inclined to believe further that even if there is some short term limited harm, that in the long run there could be big benefits.

Maybe there are some people who react negatively to shame and instead of improving their life they just sink into a deeper funk, but my guess is the number of people who don’t do a bad thing because of something like shame vastly exceeds the number of people who just get worse.

In the end what I urge most is caution. I understand that eliminating pornography from the internet is beyond quixotic, but I think that declaring all activities related to “sex films” to be “normal and healthy” (as the article does) after a scant handful of years is similarly insane.


Just like all those people in the past, eventually I’m going to be right. And yes, by that point people might not care, and also, I may no longer be around. So if you suspect that I’m right, you’re only choice is to donate now.


Random Stuff Tossed Together at the Last Minute

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As I mentioned, this week on Thursday and Friday, I gave two presentations at the Sunstone Symposium, and when the week began, I was not quite as prepared for those presentations as I would have liked. What this meant is that time I would normally have spent on my weekly post ended up getting spent on preparing my presentations instead. Accordingly, I considered skipping this week’s post, but I’m skipping next week to go to GenCon and also skipped a week not that long ago, so as a compromise I decided that I won’t skip this week, but I will take the somewhat easier option of putting together a few short pieces on some things I’ve been thinking about recently, rather than taking the time to construct a single, more involved piece.

Also, related to that, I apologize that I didn’t engage at all with the comments from last week’s post. It was a good discussion, but I didn’t have the time to contribute to it, which is sometimes how it goes.

With the grovelling apologies out of the way, let’s move on to the actual topics.

The Sunstone Symposium

Obviously it would be odd if I went to something like the Sunstone Symposium and then had nothing to say about it. But before I get into that I imagine some people are curious about my presentations, and might even appreciate a link. Unfortunately the presentations weren’t filmed, though they were recorded, but buying a recording is $12/presentation, which may be an entirely appropriate price for the other presentations, but it’s way too much to pay for mine. However, I did the presentations in Google Slides and I made pretty extensive notes to go along with them, so I will link to that. Here are the links for the AI Presentation (slideshow, notes) and for the Fermi’s Paradox Presentation (slideshow, notes). Also, you should put the slideshow into presentation mode for the full effect.

With that out of the way, what about the rest of it? I don’t think I’m going to do a blow-by-blow of things, though there were a couple of moments of note which I’ll mention at the end. Instead, what I mostly want to focus on is a higher level discussion of things. I want to start with discussing ecclesiology. As with so many things I first encountered this term in a blog post by Scott Alexander on SlateStarCodex, though it’s one of those things I should have known about earlier.

Technically it’s the study of theology as it applies to the nature and structure of the Christian Church. But Alexander was using the term in a somewhat broader sense, as a study of the trade-offs between the level of agreement you have in a group, and the number of people in that group. Basically, if you require that everyone agree about absolutely everything you’ll have a very focused and ideologically united group with exactly three members (if you’re lucky). If, on the other hand, you have very few requirements for what someone should believe before they join your group (or religion). Then you’ll have a very large but very unfocused group.

Every group has to deal with this problem, and religions are no exception. Though if you came up with a score based on multiplying the number of adherents by the strength of their beliefs. You would find that religions generally score higher than any other kind of group. Additionally the relationship between the rigidity of beliefs and the number of adherents is not entirely linear. After a certain point, the further watering down of a religion’s beliefs leads to fewer adherents rather than more. Otherwise Unitarian Universalism would be the world’s largest religion. All of which is to say that there’s a bunch of factors which go into getting a high “score”. Further you’re perfectly within your rights to argue that the score doesn’t matter. And if it does matter, it’s still probably not a direct correlation to power and influence, but it is nevertheless something all groups and religions are going to be affected by.

All of this is a long-winded lead-in to saying that Sunstone is an example of what gets created at the intersection of this trade-off between strengthening (or in this case holding fast) to beliefs and having more adherents. As an aside, talking about ecclesiology in this context ignores, of course, whether the religion is actually true, because if it’s true, then this mostly shouldn’t matter (though I suppose there some wiggle room around the edges where it still would.) But it’s hard to get a read on how much truth the average Sunstone attendee feels is contained in the Mormon Church (and all of its various offshoots), which is why I choose to focus on the question of ecclesiology. And what I find interesting about this question is that despite Sunstone being right in the middle of it, all of the presentations I went to either entirely ignored it, or came out 100% in favor of watering down the doctrine in order to attract more adherents, without speaking at all about how this might affect the overall cohesiveness and unity of the church.

To be fair watering down some of the prohibitions is a strategy, and a straightforward one at that, but it’s not without its consequences, even if you set aside any claims of truth. The world already has one Unitarian Universalist church, it doesn’t need another one, and even if it did that’s not some guaranteed path to success. Essentially every religion (particularly in the developed world) is bleeding members, and it’s not clear that the LDS Church is bleeding members at a faster rate than other churches, in fact it might even be slower…

As I mentioned these are all going to be short topics, so I’m not going to say anything beyond that, but maybe in a future post I’ll circle back and talk more about Sunstone, or the subject of ecclesiology. Though, before I leave the subject of Sunstone entirely, I did say there were a couple moments from the Symposium that were worth relating.

The first was Thursday night. The program suggested that people might be eating at Joe’s Crab Shack. I didn’t necessarily have anyone to go to dinner with, but I thought I’d wander over to Joe’s and see if I could crash someone else’s group. I arrived at the same time as a couple of gentleman, and asked if I could join them, they said sure, and we sat down for dinner along with four other individuals. It was only after I was seated that I found out that I was with a bunch of Community of Christ leaders including two Apostles and one of the Presidents of the Seventy. If you don’t know much about the various sects of Mormonism (according to them I’m a Brighamite and they’re Josephites) this won’t mean much to you, but trust me it was a big deal. It was also delightful. I had a great time chatting with them about all manner of things. And it it ended up being a fantastic bit of serendipity.

The second moment was Friday morning. I decided to go to a presentation entitled “Transfeminist Critique” (in this case it was a Transfeminist Critique of the LDS Church). I obviously assumed that I would disagree with the presenter on just about everything, but I was interested in the current arguments going around in this space. That said, I confess I didn’t listen as closely as I might have. Partially that was my fault. I had my computer open and I was catching up on all the email I’d neglected while doing last minute prep on my presentation (this presentation immediately followed mine). But in part it was because the presenter just read her paper (she was a transwoman) without any accompanying slides or even standing up, which, I’m going to be honest, made things somewhat monotonous.

Those caveats aside, the overwhelming impression I came away with was that this person was putting forth a worldview completely incompatible with reality as I understand it… I know that’s a strong statement, and as I said it was just an impression. Also I hope I’m wrong, I hope there is some way to peacefully integrate her worldview with all the other world views out there. World views which have existed for an awfully long time and don’t have much room for extreme and widespread gender ambiguity. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this presentation was another example of the world fracturing into numerous groups with competing values that appear entirely irreconcilable.

Which takes us directly to our next point.

Irreconcilable Values

I’ve already mentioned Scott Alexander and SlateStarCodex in this post, and it’s somewhat embarrassing to mention him again, but recently one of the interesting debates which has raged over there (actually does Alexander ever rage? Maybe “simmered over there”?) is whether there are values which are completely irreconcilable. Whether when everything is said and done it’s as Justice Holmes said, “Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.

Alexander, ever the peacemaker, argues that they’re aren’t. And I mostly agree with him. And I think the point he makes that tradition, and evolution are actually better at accomplishing certain things than being really intellectual about it, is exactly the point I’ve made over and over again. And his example is worth quoting:

A natural interpretation: people with explicit modeling are smart and good, people who still use metaphysical heuristics are either too hidebound to switch or too stupid to do the modeling.

I think this is partly right, but since our goal is to make value differences seem less clear-cut and fundamental, I want to make the devil’s advocate case for respecting metaphysical heuristics.

First, the heuristics are, if nothing else, proven to be compatible with continuing to live; the explicit models often suck.

Soylent uses an explicit model of nutrition to try to replace our vague heuristics about “eating healthy”. I am mostly satisfied with the quality of its research; it generally avoids stupid mistakes. It does not completely avoid them; the product has no cholesterol, because “cholesterol is bad”, but the badness of cholesterol is controversial, and even if we grant the basic truth of the statement, it applies only at the margin in the standard American diet. If you eat only one food item, you had better get that food item really right, and it turns out that having literally zero cholesterol in your diet is long-term dangerous. This was an own-goal, and a smarter explicit modeler could have avoided it. But explicit models that only work when you get everything exactly right will fail 95% of the time for geniuses and 100% of the time for the rest of us.

And even if Soylent had avoided own-goals, they still risk running up against the limit of our understanding. Decades ago, doctors invented a Soylent-like fluid to pump into the veins of patients whose digestive systems were so damaged they could not eat normally. These patients tended to get a weird form of diabetes and die. After a lot of work, the doctors discovered that chromium – of all things – was actually a really important dietary nutrient, and nobody had ever noticed before because it’s more or less impossible to run out of chromium with any diet except having synthetic fluids pumped into your veins. After years of progress on nutritional fluids, the patients who need them no longer die; we can be pretty sure we’ve found everything that’s fatal in deficiency. But these patients do tend to feel much worse, and be much less healthy, than people eating normal diets. How many mildly-important trace micronutrients are left to discover? And how many of these are or aren’t in Soylent?

This all relates to a discussion where certain people seem like hateful bigots, but are really just following a heuristic. And they don’t differ in values with those who have an explicit model as much as we think.

Okay, so I agree with Alexander, enough to include a huge quote from him. (Though partially that’s me padding my word count.) Why did I even bring this issue up? Well first, it’s an interesting debate, and it wouldn’t be a horrible use of your time to read the three posts I linked to above. But second, because I think he misses two things:

First, technology lets us refine things to a degree we never could before, meaning that while previously, humanity was a giant mishmash of values which mostly evened out in practice. These days we can take a naked value and turn it up to 11. Alexander points out that even people who are adamantly against foreign aid, might still donate to tsunami relief for Japan after the 2011 earthquake. This is probably not the case with a naked value turned up to 11, there would be no room for exceptions. I’ve talked about the tension between survival and happiness. As Alexander points out, no human is going to entirely ignore either, but we could create systems which do. And even if the system is set up not to ignore a value, by explicitly defining values, as is the case with Soylent, you could overlook some critical part of how that value actually works in practice.

Second, Alexander could be entirely correct, but it may not matter, because people think there are irreconcilable differences. The perception of those differences may be all that matters. It is conceivable that in this day and age people might not put in the hard work to understand the other side. Speaking of which, let’s move on to discuss Trump, the greatest current flashpoint of irreconcilable values, whose summit with Putin was very much in the news recently.

Trump and Russia

There are people who think Trump is a master strategist, despite the fact that to all appearances he looks like a bumbling, mercurial, ill-tempered oaf. That rather, this apparent oafishness is all part of a master strategy playing out at a level most people (including myself) can’t understand. That Trump is playing 4D chess. Interestingly enough, it’s apparently not just his supporters who think this, it’s also the Chinese according to a recent article in the Financial Times:

I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician…He [Yafei] worries that strategic competition has become the new normal and says that “trade wars are just the tip of the iceberg”.

…In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington. Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong…

My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the first US president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skillful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

I am still inclined to think he’s an oaf, but this seemed worth sharing. Though I still haven’t talked about Russia. Well, I bring up the report from China to introduce the idea that even if you think he’s an oaf (as I do) that things still might not be as catastrophic as you’ve been lead to believe.

If you go back far enough into my archives, you’ll encounter the idea that what we should really be paying attention to at the level of the Federal Government is preventing big black swans, and I gave the example of the Sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols. In the current world our Sack of Baghdad would be a war involving nuclear weapons. Accordingly if we strip away all the talk of Trump as traitor, and what he may or may not have said about Russian election interference or however much he may have stabbed the American intelligence agencies in the back, did the Trump-Putin summit increase or decrease the chances of this particular black swan?

I haven’t spent as much time as I probably should have reading about the summit, part of the problem is that the anti-trump hysteria is so widespread that it’s hard to wade through. But my impression is that very few people are focused on this angle. And that those who have mentioned it can’t agree on whether the summit increased or decreased the chances of nukes being used. People who think it’s made the problem worse argue that the summit increased Putin’s confidence, which makes him more expansionist, which leads to wars which leads to nukes. People who think it’s made the problem better, think that the friendlier we are with Russia, the less likely they are to nuke us, and that this policy is definitely better than the policy of encirclement which preceded Trump and almost certainly would have continued had Clinton won. (Specifically I’m talking about the policy of continuing to add more nations to NATO.) Which boils down to: is a confident, expansionist Russia or fearful, hemmed in Russia more likely to used nukes?

I’m going to argue strongly for the latter, that if you’re worried about nukes, creating a fearful Russia through encirclement is worse. Sure in the past, expansionist impulses have often led to war, but recall that nuclear weapons are a completely different type of weapon. You don’t nuke someone and then take over their territory, because once you’ve nuked them you probably don’t want it. You nuke someone when you don’t care anymore, when you’re out of other options.

Now to be fair, reasonable people could disagree on this point. And insofar as Trump has empowered Putin to be worse to the people in Russia than he already was, that’s unfortunate, but when just considering whether the Trump policy of being buddies with Putin, or the assumed Clinton policy of encircling Russia is better at avoiding that which must be avoided at all costs. I think I’m going to have to go with Trump. Maybe the Chinese are right…

Moving to Word Press

Finally, I’m not sure if you noticed, since I am posting this in both places. But I have started to move everything over to a new domain: rwrichey.com. This, is as people say, my real name (more or less).

I start blogging under the handle Jeremiah, first because I fancied I was a modern day Jeremiah (maybe I am, maybe I’m not, certainly if I am then I’m not the only one or the best). Second because of the theme of the blog (which I’m mostly still keeping). And finally because I was worried something I posted would end up being controversial and inflammatory enough that it would bleed over into my business or personal life, and I could limit the chances of that happening if I blogged under a pseudonym.

That could still happen obviously, and maybe I’ll look back on this switch with bitter regret, but I’ve decided it’s a huge hassle to maintain anonymity, and that even if you do a really good job, if someone goes to enough effort, they’re going to figure it out.

The big upshot of this is that if you have a comment you should post it at rwrichey.com. And of course let me know (via email or the blogspot comments) if you run into any problems. I am definitely going to move all the posts over, hopefully very soon. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to move the comments over, we’ll have to see, but if it’s not too difficult I will.

Finally, I probably don’t say this often enough, but for all those reading this, I really appreciate it. And I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.


As I mentioned I’ll be at GenCon next week. You know how some websites ask you to buy them a cup of coffee? Well being Mormon I don’t drink coffee, but if you would be willing to by me a pentagonal dodecahedron (d12) then consider donating.  


Moving

For anyone coming here after seeing one of my Sunstone presentations, I will be shortly moving everything over, but for now you’ll have to go to http://jeremiah820.blogspot.com to find stuff. I decided it was time to move to my own domain right before Sunstone, which may have been poor timing on my part…

In the near term there’s not going to be that much difference between what I did there and what I do here, and in fact I’ll probably double post for awhile at least until I’m sure that people have made the transition, but at some point I want to do more cool stuff. We’ll see what actually happens, and of course I make no promises as far as when that might happen.

 


Humanity on the Cusp of Eternity

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Nietzsche claimed that, “God is dead” (or for the purists “Gott is tot”). When I first heard this (I’m guessing in high school?) I assumed that it was just a particularly direct version of what atheists have been saying for decades. Notable only in that it was an early example of this sentiment, but not otherwise especially unique or interesting.

Since then I have come to understand that Nietzsche was making a deeper point. Though in claiming this I am wandering into the deep weeds of philosophy and it’s entirely possible that I am about to vastly over simplify Nietzsche’s point, or mis-represent it entirely, similar to Otto in a Fish Called Wanda, though this possibility has never stopped me before, so with that caveat out of the way…

As I understand it Nietzsche was saying that progress and technology and the enlightenment had ruled out the possibility of God, and in doing so had removed one of the central pillars of Western-Christian Civilization. And without that pillar, which includes God as a source of absolute morality, that we were inevitably doomed to nihilism. I think you get a sense of this just from considering a more extended selection of what Nietzsche said, which is frankly pretty powerful.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

These are all important, if heavily metaphorical questions, and, of course, to that last question the transhumanist would reply, “Maybe so, maybe we do have to become gods, fortunately that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

Two of the topics I come back to over and over again, Artificial Intelligence and Fermi’s Paradox, relate to this question of the absence of God. And next week I’m going to be doing an hour long presentation on both of them at the annual Sunstone Symposium.

(If you happen to be attending the symposium, I’ll be doing my AI presentation at 11:30 am on Thursday the 26th in room 200-B, and I’ll be doing my Fermi’s Paradox presentation at 10:15 am on Friday the 27th in room 200-D. Please stop by and say, “Hi!”)

Given that I was already doing a bunch of work to prepare for these presentations, I had initially thought that this week’s post would be on AI and then next week’s post would be Fermi’s Paradox. But as I got into things, I realized that for those who have actually read the blog there’s not much point in posting the stuff I’m preparing to present at Sunstone, which is understandably going to be more introductory, and probably a repeat of a lot of things I’ve already said, and which you’ve already read. I’m still hoping they film both presentations, and put them online, so that I can post links to them. I guess we’ll see. It’s my first time so I’m not sure what will happen.

Instead I thought I’d look for a subject which combined the two topics in an interesting way, and I believe the quote from Nietzsche does exactly that, though at a pretty high level (which is to be expected when combining these two subjects.)

It may not be apparent what the quote from Nietzsche has to do with Fermi’s Paradox. Well, if Nietzsche is correct and we have metaphorically killed the traditional Christian God, (and given the similarities probably the Muslim God as well.) Then there’s still the possibility that there might be other god-like beings out there, specifically god-like extraterrestrials. I have not encountered any evidence that Nietzsche considered this possibility, but his statement obviously doesn’t preclude it, and for obvious reasons even if Nietzsche didn’t consider it, we should. One could imagine that if the two main things that Christianity supplied were morality and salvation, that sufficiently advanced aliens could provide both, or perhaps just one or the other.

The first thing that’s evident once we turn to consider this idea is the possibility that if god-like extraterrestrials are going to provide morality it may not be a morality we particularly like. Many people, when considering Fermi’s Paradox have come to the conclusion that the universe is a dark forest. A place of incredible danger. This theory takes its name from the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin where it was the title of one of the books. Here’s how it’s described there:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds another life—another hunter, angel, or a demon, a delicate infant to tottering old man, a fairy or demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.

Liu is not the only person to put forth this theory (he just gave it the catchiest name). Years before Liu wrote his books other people were arguing that we shouldn’t engage in Active SETI for very similar reasons (this included the late Professor Hawking). For myself I wrote a whole post explaining why I didn’t think the Dark Forest explanation of the paradox was very likely, but for those that do think it’s likely, it entirely undermines the idea of a universal morality, or at least posits that if there is a universal morality, it’s a morality of universal violence. Which takes us to a place not that much different than Nietzsche’s original thought. Instead of being alone, bereft of morality and adrift in an uncaring universe, we could be surrounded by genocidal aliens, gifted with a morality of unceasing violence, and adrift in a malevolent universe. I think most people would actually prefer the first option. But either way, the eventual nihilism Nietzsche predicts is just as likely, if not moreso.

Of course there are a broad range of possible moral codes which extraterrestrials might possess. But within all the speculation it’s very hard to find anyone arguing that there is some universal system of morality which all aliens must, by necessity embrace. And of course my argument is, that if such a system exists, Occam’s Razor would suggest that we already have it, even if we’ve been given the basic, “early reader” version of this morality. And, once we add Fermi’s Paradox to Nietzsche’s observation. If we take that further step and place ourselves outside a human frame of reference, universal morality, or a morality which easily replaces Christianity, becomes impossible to imagine. With this in mind, what makes atheists and similar individuals so certain that there is morality outside of the concept of God? Certainly Nietzsche didn’t think so:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.

Nietzsche argues that even if you maintain the rest of Christianity (and certainly it could be argued that we mostly did, at least initially) that without “faith in God…nothing necessary remains”. And indeed, it certainly appears to me that once people abandoned the lynchpin of “faith in God” that it began a slow erosion of everything else which was once considered Christian morality. Further, as I pointed out, while there’s no evidence that Nietzsche considered the possibility of god-like extraterrestrials, even if we add them to our consideration, there’s no reason to think that they would halt this erosion. Aliens, at least as they are typically imagined, don’t solve the problem of God’s absence, or at least I think we can conclude that they don’t solve the problem of morality. That still leaves us the problem of salvation. Will god-like extraterrestrials come along and save humanity?

Here, before going any further we have to acknowledge that salvation looks different to different people. In its most minimal sense it’s just a synonym for survival. Being saved just entails not ceasing to exist. On the other side of the spectrum salvation is used interchangeably with exaltation. Not only do you survive, but you achieve a state of perfect happiness. On the survival end it makes sense to talk about humanity surviving, and that being a good thing, regardless of whether any individual human survives. But on the exaltation end of things, it’s much more common to look at things from the level of an individual, is any given person immortal and happy. Is that person saved?

In a world which largely acts as if God is dead, it’s interesting that as the rest of Christian morality has eroded away, the two remaining pillars of moral high ground, of terminal value, end up falling into these same two categories with survival on one end and happiness (or technically hedonism) on the other. I discussed the tension between these two values previously and argued, that if we were going to try to construct a morality in the absence of God that it’s better to build it around the value of survival, if for no other reason that happiness is impossible in the absence of survival. I’ve already hopefully shown where aliens are unlikely to be able to help us with morality, and it seems equally unlikely they would be able to do much for our happiness, leaving only helping us to survive. This idea has appeared in science fiction, though far less often than the opposite trope of aliens looking to exterminate humanity. That said, there are still plenty of interesting examples. For myself I quite enjoyed the book Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

However, if being rescued from extinction by aliens is a possibility, then, as I pointed out in another recent post, they need to have either saved us already (perhaps through means we can’t detect?) or they probably aren’t going to save us. And of course this applies to everything I’ve said thus far. If god-like extraterrestrials are going to step in and take the place of Nietzsche’s dead god, in any capacity, they need to have done so already.

Thus far we’ve been looking at what the ramifications would be if god-like aliens do exist, but more and more people feel that’s the wrong way to bet. That odds are we’re entirely alone. As examples of this, I just talked about the paper which claimed to “dissolve Fermi’s Paradox” and previously I discussed a book dedicated to the paradox which concluded, after offering up 75 potential explanations, that the most likely explanation is that we’re all alone in the visible universe. If this is the case, then it would appear that Nietzsche was entirely correct about the essential emptiness of existence despite completely ignoring potential god-like extraterrestrials who could step in and fill the gap. Accordingly, we are left with two possibilities. There are aliens, but they almost certainly won’t provide either morality or salvation, and definitely not both, or there are no aliens, god-like or otherwise. Meaning that after a long detour through Fermi’s Paradox, the reality of Nietzsche’s claim has not been significantly altered. We’re still in the same situation we were before, and possibly worse, since, in my opinion, if it did nothing else, the detour provided good reasons for doubting that any sort of universal morality exists in the absence of God.

I should interject here, again, that personally I think there is a God, and I think assuming his existence, along with the existence of religion and all that entails, is the best way to answer all of the issues we’ve covered so far, but I think this puts me in the minority of people with an interest in the paradox.

The main thrust of Nietzsche’s argument, from my limited understanding, is that people have not sufficiently grappled with the implications of there being no God. Now, according to polls, this doesn’t necessarily apply to most people, who still believe in God, and would therefore, presumably, be exempt from any need to “grapple”. Rather, Nietzsche appeared to mostly be talking to intellectuals. In his day and age they occupied the salons and drawing rooms of Europe, and discussed things like evolution and emancipation. In our day and age they occupy the internet and discuss things like Fermi’s Paradox and artificial intelligence. And just as Nietzsche accused the intellectuals of his day of not coming to terms with the ramifications implied in their discussions, I’m accusing the intellectuals of our day of the same thing. Particularly those people who believe that Fermi’s Paradox has been dissolved, who believe we are all alone in the universe. Which, let’s be clear, is a pretty big deal.

If you are one of those people who don’t believe in God, and who further believe that we’re all alone in the universe (or if that we’re not alone that it doesn’t help.) What do you do now? This is where Nietzsche may be at his most impressive. Lots of people pointed out that the decline of religion was going to cause unforeseen issues, though perhaps with less panache than Nietzsche, but when he goes on to say, “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” He manages to precisely describe the transhumanism movement a century or more in advance of its appearance. (Interestingly, his big prediction, a descent into nihilism, has mostly not happened. But maybe it just hasn’t happened… yet.)

I mentioned up front that I was going to be discussing AI, which is the subject we turn to now. And which is less us becoming gods than us creating gods, but the basic principle remains the same. And the question I had with Fermi’s Paradox remains essentially the same was well. If there are no god-like extraterrestrials to step into the gap Nietzsche noticed, is it possible we could create a god-like AI to fill that gap?

Once again those who have abandoned a belief in God are looking to this “substitute god” to provide them with morality or salvation or hopefully both. Though in this case they do have one very important advantage, instead of being required to accept what the universe offers, as is the case with aliens (should they exist), in the case of artificial intelligence we get to design our deity. (I’m actually a little bit surprised no one has started an AI company with the name “Designer Deities”.)

This means, first off, that we’ll almost certainly combine the morality part with the salvation part. Or, to put it another way, we’ll do our best to make sure that whatever morality the AI ends up with, that one of the values is human salvation (definitely in the survival sense and if possible in the exaltation sense as well.) Which means that a century after Nietzsche pointed out the problem, we’ve come up with a straightforward solution: All we have to do is figure out how to teach computers to be good. (They would, of course, also need a certain amount of power beyond that, but most people assume that this is just a matter of time.) All of the problems Nietzsche describes can be reduced to the single problem of AI morality. Unfortunately even though it’s only one problem it’s an extraordinarily difficult problem.

As you may know from reading other posts of mine, or from following the subject in general, no one is exactly sure how you get a computer to be good. In fact no one is entirely sure what good means in this context, and there are lots of things which seem like a good way to implement morality, which could, in practice, turn out to be very bad. I’ve given numerous examples elsewhere, but let’s briefly consider Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which are often mentioned in this context. The first of these is:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

It’s not hard to see where taking all humans and locking them up in a padded room with a set number of optimally healthy calories delivered every day would conform with this rule, and fit the survival definition of salvation. This is one of the reasons why some people contend that it’s not enough for our AI deity to ensure our survival, they really need to exalt us.

(It’s interesting to note here the general principle, that survival is easy, exaltation is tough. Which may end up being the subject of a different post…)

We’ve once again arrived at a place where it becomes apparent that no one is 100% confident that we can formulate a universal system of morality, particularly if it needs to be defined with enough precision to feed into a computer. Now I’m sure there are some atheists out there that will scoff at the idea that religion provides a universal system of morality, but they’re missing the point. Religious people don’t think you can just give the Bible (or the Koran) to your new AI and grant it instant perfect morality. In other words, they don’t think it provides a perfect system of morality applicable in all times and all circumstances. (Though maybe some do.) It’s that they have faith that religious belief combined with God’s omnipotence, creates a perfect system. Which is why, I believe, Nietzsche felt that “By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” That faith is the critical component.

I understand people who don’t have faith, or think they shouldn’t have to have faith. Or who scoff at the very idea of faith. But I think these people will also find that it’s difficult to universalize morality without it. That becoming gods or creating gods is a difficult project.

Not too long ago, someone close to me came and told me that he had decided to leave the Mormon Church. The person said that he was now an atheist, or at least an agnostic. (I suspect the latter term is closer to the truth.) And he mentioned that one of the turning points was when he encountered something Penn Jillette had said, that you could be an atheist and still be good. I agree with this statement, and I would also agree that the horrible nihilism Nietzsche predicted would accompany the decrease in religion has also largely not come to pass either. But I think, as we examine the various developments in the realm of replacing god (if he is in fact dead, remember I argue that he’s not) it becomes clear that there isn’t some alternate system of morality which slots into the spot once occupied by Christianity. That when Penn says that you can be good and be an atheist, he’s largely saying that you can continue to maintain religiously derived morality without believing in God.

But, the neo-christian morality which seems to dominate these days, and which I assume Penn is referring to, is obviously getting farther and farther away from its core, and when it comes both to morality and nihilism it’s entirely possible that all of Nietzsche’s worst predictions will come true, it’s just taking longer than he expected. That people really haven’t grappled with the Death of God, and that as morality continues to erode, as it becomes more difficult to define, as we seek to replace God, that the reckoning is coming. Yes, it’s slower than Nietzsche expected. And yes, it’s very subtle, but the reckoning is coming.


You may think that it’s easy doing a cursory and ill-informed survey of one philosophical statement, taken out of context, but it’s not, it takes a certain bull-headed determination, and if you appreciate that determination, regardless of how misguided it is, then consider donating.


Divorce Is Better Than Murder

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Recently there was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Steven F. Hayward, titled, Climate Change Has Run Its Course. The article starts off by clarifying that:

No, I’m not saying the climate will not change in the future, or that human influence on the climate is negligible. I mean simply that climate change is no longer a pre-eminent policy issue. All that remains is boilerplate rhetoric from the political class, frivolous nuisance lawsuits, and bureaucratic mandates on behalf of special-interest renewable-energy rent seekers.

Okay, so it hasn’t run its course as a phenomenon, it’s run its course as something that politicians care about. The obvious next question is, why? I have seen no evidence that the underlying problem is getting any better. (At least not from any source a politician is likely to pay attention to.) Public attitudes seem all over the place, but not especially low. I found an article from 2016 which says that concern in the US is at an 8 year high, so it’s not like public worry has cratered. (Which is not to say the public isn’t fickle.) So why has it run its course? The article offers the following speculation:

A good indicator that climate change as an issue is over can be found early in the text of the Paris Agreement. The ‘non-binding’ pact declares that climate action must include concern for ‘gender equity, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity,’ as well as “the importance for some of the concept of climate justice.

This assertion immediately put me in mind of a quote from Scott Alexander of Slatestarcodex, discussing something very similar (h/t to Escapement over on Reddit for helping me track this quote down.)

I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not going to impose our values on anyone else…except these seven values which we think are incredibly important and breaking them is totally beyond the pale.” Sometimes I wish universal culture would just establish a couple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slavery” and “no eye-gouging” – and then agree to bomb/sanction/drone any culture that breaks them while leaving other cultures alone. On the other hand, I also understand universal culture well enough to know that two minutes after the first set of Noahide Laws were established, somebody would propose amending them to include something about how every culture must protect transgender bathroom rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to prevent this, or if preventing it is even desirable. This seems like the same question as the original question, only one meta-level up and without any clear intuition to help me solve it. I guess this is another reason I continue to be attracted to the idea of Archipelago.

I’ll be returning to his idea of the Archipelago later, but for now, let me just say I’m not nearly as conflicted about the benefits of preventing the sort of value creep Alexander and Hayward describe. Stripped of the emotion and contention people normally attach to these issues the diffusion of focus they describe is exactly the kind of thing that can undermine any effort, from creating change on a global scale to an individual working on a project for his boss. And if we add emotion and contention back in, losing focus is even more fatal, since the lack of focus is precisely the thing any opposition will seize on. (Which is almost certainly what Hayward is doing with his article.) And it is exactly this lack of focus that I want to talk about, not whether there’s any political will left in the fight against climate change. But insofar as we started with the subject of climate change it’s worth examining how a lack of focus could be undermining that effort.

It’s certainly possible that the very best way of reducing climate change, is also the way which does the most to “empower women” and also includes perfect “gender equity”. And it’s also possible the very best way of ensuring the elimination of slavery as a global value is to include the value of “transgender bathroom rights” as well. But it’s far more likely that including those principles involves some sacrifices in effectiveness elsewhere. That an initiative to reduce climate change while also paying attention to female empowerment is less effective than one which only has to worry about reducing climate change.

As part of the WSJ article Hayward ends up citing political scientist Anthony Downs‘ 1972 article for Public Interest, Up and Down With Ecology: The ‘Issue-Attention Cycle,’ Which describes five stages of a political movement:

 

  • Stage 1: Experts and activists call attention to a public problem.
  • Stage 2: The “alarmed media and political class discover the issue” and often stir up “euphoric enthusiasm … as activists conceive the issue in terms of global peril and salvation.”
  • Stage 3: The “hinge,” characterized by “a gradually spreading realization that the cost of ‘solving’ the problem is very high indeed.”
  • Stage 4: The “gradual decline in the intensity of public interest in the problem.”
  • Stage 5: A “prolonged limbo—a twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest,” which often involves “painful trade-offs” that activists simply aren’t willing to make.

 

I was particularly struck by that last bit, the painful trade-offs that activists aren’t willing to make. With climate change, we see this most clearly with the issue of nuclear power, which I’ve already discussed in this space, but I think Hayward is correct to include things like “gender equity” language in this category as well.

Now, it’s unfair to place all the blame on activists for their inability to make painful trade-offs. As Alexander points out, it’s more accurate to describe this as a near universal trend of our day and age; People in general and politicians in particular are less and less willing to make trade-offs, even trade-offs which aren’t particularly painful.

At this point I’m going to pivot to another, related news item. Last Wednesday Justice Anthony Kennedy announced that he would retire at the end of the current session, and of course things immediately got kind of crazy. The Republicans wasted no time in moving to replace him with someone who is even more reliably conservative, and the Democrats, even more quickly, declared that it was the literal apocalypse. In particular they seem worried by the possibility that Roe v Wade will be overturned.

To be honest I think this is unlikely, first there’s still a long road between where we are now and the nomination and they need Collins and Murkowski to get anyone on the bench and Collins is already making noises about voting against anyone who she thinks might overturn Roe v Wade. On top of that, my prediction is that Roberts gives too much deference to precedent for him to vote to overturn Roe v Wade (have you seen how narrow many of the recent rulings have been?) Thus my prediction, absent Ginsberg dying or being forced to retire, is that Roe v Wade will not be overturned. However much I might want it to be. (Also see my posts on the inevitable leftward drift of society.)

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think it will happen, let’s imagine that it was overturned. It’s important to remember that if Roe v Wade is overturned that doesn’t mean that abortion is suddenly illegal everywhere. It means the legality goes back to being decided on a state by state basis. (Which is not to say that the Supreme Court couldn’t make it illegal everywhere and in all cases, but I would REALLY bet against that.) Now for people who support the right to abortion, this still seems pretty apocalyptic. In other words they would argue that overturning Roe v. Wade has no upside. Now as I said I don’t think it is going to get overturned, but I’m here to argue that if it was that might be a good thing, even for those people who support abortion rights.

My claim is that you have to prioritize things, and that some things are more important than others. Alexander talks about having seven immutable values/laws. Given the philosophical morass of morality that is abortion, if it is necessary to prioritize things, if it is really better to have five or seven or ten core values, is access to abortion really so important that it needs to be one of those core values?

To get more pragmatic, let’s replay the 2016 election, but imagine that this time we’re in an alternate reality where some of the things which are currently decided at the federal level are instead decided at the state level. Imagine if abortion rights had always resided with the states. Imagine that there was no Obamacare, that each state had come up with it’s own solution for out of control healthcare spending. (And out of 50 solutions surely there has to be one that works, right?) On the other side, imagine that, at the federal level, they had really focused on things that can only be done at the federal level, like borders and immigration. Also, with so many things decided at the state level, in this alternate reality, the Supreme Court doesn’t end up being the de facto rulers of the country.

Given all of this, does Trump still win? I don’t think he does. Not only are people who might vote for him less angry, and less energized, but he also loses all the people who held their nose and voted for him strictly on the basis of the Supreme Court. (Because, for these people, whatever else you may say about Trump, his Supreme Court nominees were going to be way better than Clinton’s. ) On net is this a better world? I would argue that it is.

Similarly to turn to the topic we began things with, does the Paris Accord get more support, is it more effective if they remove the “social justice” language? I certainly can’t see how it could have been made less effective by the removal of that language…

Now of course I could be wrong, and also it’s somewhat pointless to speculate like this. We live in a world where Trump did win and where the fight over who will replace Anthony Kennedy is going to be one of the defining moments of his presidency. But we also live in a world that is increasingly in the grip of a cold civil war between various competing ideologies, and the fact that the Federal Government generally and the Supreme Court more specifically is the ultimate battleground for this civil war makes the battles at that level, metaphorically, very bloody, and I worry ultimately it won’t be a metaphor.

Fortunately, for now, other than a few isolated incidents here and there, things have not gotten bloody, but they have started fracturing, we see examples of nascent fracturing all over on the internet, but you can also see it in things like Brexit, and Catalonia, and of course the ballot initiative to make California into three states. Obviously this last bit is the least likely to happen, but increased polarization and fracturing are everywhere you look these days. So what happens now?

There appears to be three ways for things to go at this point:

1- We can figure out how to get along

2- One side can utterly triumph

3- We can separate

Let’s take them in order:

It is entirely possible that, similar to the period just before the Civil war, and more promisingly the late 60s and early 70s, that what we’re in right now is a phase. Specifically it’s a phase that will eventually pass. Trump will lose in 2020. Roe v. Wade will not be overturned, or it will be and people will realize that most states have the abortion policy their citizens want. Dialogue will become more respectful. The internet will calm down. Economic growth will continue, and people will stop being enraged by politics because everything else is so great. Some kind of compromise will be reached on immigration which everyone can agree on. Both sides will pull back from their extreme positions, and peace and harmony will triumph over all the face of the land…

I don’t see anything on that list that doesn’t seem incredibly unlikely (except, perhaps Trump losing in 2020, but I wouldn’t even count on that). And if they’re individually unlikely when you add them all together, you start to enter the realm of the impossible. Meaning I’m not very hopeful that we’re going to figure out how to get along anytime soon.

Next is the possibility that one side will utterly triumph. I’ve already mentioned the rancor which was present before the Civil War, rancor far worse than what exists currently. And it did go away, but not because they figured out how to get along, but because one side utterly triumphed. Both sides took up arms, hundreds of thousands of people died, and one of the sides said, “Uncle!”

I don’t know that hundreds of thousands of people are going to have to die again in order for one side to utterly triumph in the current cultural war, but neither is it inconceivable. And even if one side or the other wins in a comparatively bloodless fashion, that doesn’t mean there won’t be significant pain. Finally, even if you’re on the side that wins, I’m positive it’s not going to be as awesome as you imagine, and if you’re not on the side that wins? Then it’s really not awesome.

Many people assume that if the right utterly triumphs it will look like the Handmaid’s Tale. (I am on record as doubting both that the right will ever utterly triumph or that if it does that it will be that bad.) But these same people assume that if the Left utterly triumphs it will be awesome. I doubt it. I think the rest of my blog entries identify why, but if you want one clear example of the potential awfulness, then I would direct you to look at any of the many stories of the left eating it’s own.

Finally there’s the possibility of separation, a subject I’ve already alluded to and what I’ll be spending the rest of the post discussing. There’s obviously many ways this could play out, but to start with we have the example I already used, the idea that we don’t try to decide all values and laws at the highest level possible. That it’s okay for abortion to be decided at the state level. That if Anthony Kennedy’s replacement is instrumental in overturning Roe v Wade that it’s not the end of the world. That it may in fact serve to calm things down a little bit. That people who are opposed to abortion will congregate in states where it’s illegal, and contrariwise people who are in favor of the right to an abortion will congregate in states where it’s legal. And people who don’t care will stay where they are. And people who want to change the law will petition their local representatives, rather than engage in a metaphorical fight to the death every time the balance of power on the Supreme Court looks like it’s going to change.

It’s entirely possible that I’m being hopeless naive about all of this, but option three seems far easier to pull off than option number one, and far less violent than option number two. Is there some reason why it’s relegated to obscure blogs, and crazy initiatives? I understand that breaking up California is unlikely to happen, but we already have 50 states in place. How hard would it be to devolve a little bit of power back to them? Particularly if our other options are unlikely (everyone suddenly getting along) or violent (one side utterly triumphing).

At this point it’s useful to recall that when the framers wrote the Constitution that separation was something they went out of their way to encourage. You can find it written into three of the initial ten amendments (four if you’re really hardcore about the second amendment).  Now, of course this doesn’t prove my point about the value of separation, but, at least, you can’t say I’m the only one who’s had the idea. In fact the most recent post from John Michael Greer on Ecosophia, who I’ve mentioned in this space before, makes a similar argument. And I already mentioned Alexander’s idea of a political Archipelago, which, as promised, I’m returning to.

For the full nitty gritty of his idea I suggest you read the post, but in short Alexander puts forth a plan of radical freedom of association. If the objectivists want an “island” of their own where they can practice pure Randian selfishness they can have one. If the communists want an island where the workers own the means of production they can have that to. And even the white separatists can have island free of minorities if that’s what they want. He includes some rules to prevent abuse in his system like one that requires children raised in the Archipelago to be informed that there are other “islands”, but beyond that if you want to live in a community with a certain culture, and with laws to enforce that culture, then you can.

Alexander’s proposal is the most radical example of the separation I’ve been talking about, and consequently, unlikely to be implemented, but even less radical proposals, like Greer’s or the one actually baked into founding document of the country have largely been cast aside. The trend towards less separation marches ever onward, in spite of things like Brexit (which in any case is more notable for what it hasn’t accomplished than what it has.) So where does that leave us?

I don’t know, but here at the end I’d like to offer a few observations, some more radical than others.

First, I do think that more separation is the only option that keeps things from ending badly. As I said in the title, divorce is better than murder, particularly since I’m reasonably certain the marriage is over. But I agree it’s going to be tough.

Second, there is value to high level coordination. There are things that can only be done at the level of a large nation or at the level of the entire world. But there are not many of these things. And much like Alexander I think they need to be narrowly defined, few in number, and mostly reserved for eliminating massive, clear injustices, or existential threats. Taleb talks about barbell investing, where 80-90% of your money is in super safe investments, and 10-20% is in high risk stuff. This is a similar idea and you might call this Barbell governing, where 80-90% of everything happens at the state and local level, and 10-20% of stuff happens between international bodies… With nothing in the middle.

Finally, and this is my really radical observation, and I toss it in here because it’s been on my mind for awhile, and it hasn’t really fit in to any of the other posts I’ve done.

As I’ve said there’s a trend towards less separation, but one place has bucked the trend, one place has remained separate, with it’s own culture and it’s own eccentric way of doing things despite enormous pressure. Of course, I’m talking about North Korea. How has it done this? The answer would appear to be, “It has nuclear weapons.” Will this end up being a model for other countries? Is this a way in which the trend is reversed? In the future are we going to have many little nations that can do what they want because they each possess a handful of nuclear weapons?

I think it’s conceivable, and we might call this separation the hard way. Which leads to the possibility that we may be choosing between a voluntary archipelago with a few, very important high level values or a horrible archipelago carved out with weapons of mass destruction, and with only one value, that of the mushroom cloud.


I’ll be taking next week off to go to the Utah Shakespeare Festival with my wife. and in honor of that:

To donate, or not to donate, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to contribute to

The posts and diatriabes of an outrageous talent,

Or to take arms against a sea of horrible writing

And by not donating, end it.


Fermi’s Paradox: Mistake of Dramatic Timing and Other Errors

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I just finished the Bobiverse Trilogy. If you haven’t heard of the trilogy it’s a relatively new science fiction series by Dennis Taylor. The premise is that the consciousness of a guy named Bob is put into a self-replicating spacecraft (also known as a Von Neumann Probe), and sent out to explore nearby stars. As I said it’s self-replicating, meaning he can make more Bobs, thus the Bobiverse.

Like most current science fiction it has to grapple with Fermi’s Paradox, and, if I’m going to be honest, it did not do a very good job of this. Now this is not to say these aren’t good books. I thoroughly enjoyed them, they’re a quick, fun read. And despite having some major problems with how he approaches the paradox, he does tackle some other big ideas in an interesting fashion, just not that one. Also, he is not the first to make the mistake I’m about to describe, but he is the example I encountered most recently, so I’m going to be picking on him a little bit. I’m going to call the mistake that he, and others, have made, the “Mistake of Dramatic Timing”.

I’m not going to be able to discuss this mistake without a few spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them as mild as possible. In the books, the Bobs encounter aliens, and as it turns out the tech level of these aliens is basically within a few hundred years of human tech, and perhaps more importantly the aliens were within a few hundred years of encountering Earth regardless of what the humans did. This is the Mistake of Dramatic Timing, and it’s present all through science fiction. I’m sure you can probably think of numerous examples. Though once again, to be honest, I’m not sure I can immediately summon an example as egregious as the Bobiverse. (It’s actually worse than it looks, but I’d have to get deeper into spoilers to explain why, feel free to email me if you’ve read the books, but aren’t sure what I’m talking about.) Which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to point it out.

Hopefully the term “dramatic timing” is descriptive enough that people already know what I’m talking about, but even if that’s the case, putting some percentages to things helps clarify how unlikely it would be to encounter aliens in the exact fashion the Bobs did. Though, for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, and in order to avoid more spoilers, let’s switch to one of the other examples of this mistake, the movie Independence Day. In Independence Day the aliens are after our natural resources. You can make an argument, given the insane logistics of space that this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Regardless, the point is, with this goal they don’t care if there are humans around or not. In fact it would have been much better if they had shown up 50 years earlier (before the Macbook…)

This means the only reason for the aliens to show up when they did was dramatic. They (and any other potential aliens) could have conceivably visited Earth at any point during its existence. Meaning the chances of them coming during any specific 500 year period (roughly the period from Galileo to the present day, the period during which we’ve actually cared about astronomy) is 0.00001% (500/4.543 billion).

The further probability that when they arrive, their technology will be only a few hundred years in advance of ours, is a little less straightforward to calculate, since it’s unclear whether technology will stagnate, or whether, on the other hand, it will continue to grow exponentially, but either way you’re looking at another very tiny number. For the sake of the example let’s once again use 500 years as our window of matching, and assume a modest average lifetime for a civilization we encounter of 250,000 years (it could in reality be in the billions). If we then assume that they would contact us on average 125,000 years into their existence, then we’re still looking at only a 0.4% chance of having technology that’s within 500 years of the aliens, and a 500 year difference is still pretty bad. I doubt Renaissance Florence would be very eager to fight the US Sixth Fleet. What this means is that the chance of both happening is so improbable as to be effectively impossible. Particularly given how conservative I’m being on the estimates in the differences in our technology.

I’m sure that some people are going to argue that using the entire existence of the Earth as the denominator in our equation is unfair, since there are certain conditions which need to be met before intelligent life could could arise anywhere. In particular most people argue that it’s limited by the metallicity of the universe, and because that takes time to build up (through supernova) and because that limits the number of terrestrial planets on which life could evolve. But as it turns out, terrestrial planets don’t depend nearly as much on metallicity as we thought, In fact, somewhat ironically, it actually appears to have more of an effect on gas giants. The upshot of all this is that we’ve recently discovered rocky planets that are more than twice as old as the Earth. Meaning that life on another planet would have as much time as life on Earth has had before Earth even came into existence. Accordingly, without bringing other factors into play, there’s every reason to believe that there should be civilizations out there which are billions of years ahead of us. Whether it’s exactly 4.543 billion or just a couple of billion doesn’t materially affect the percentages above.

Now of course we know exactly why Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day), and Dennis Taylor, and all of the others did it, because despite being a mistake it’s a dramatic mistake. Having the aliens show up and stomp the living daylights out of us before we’re even aware of what’s happening (imagine the Sixth Fleet vs. Renaissance Florence only worse) doesn’t make a very good story, and consequently very few people decide to write that story. This would be fine except that everyone has absorbed these stories as the way it’s most likely to happen, and so when they imagine contact with some kind of extraterrestrial it’s science fiction aliens with better, but not ridiculously better technology (and ideally an Achilles’ Heel.) This thinking is the most obvious distortion, but as I have argued in other posts, I believe it distorts even the thinking of those scientists and academics who are paid to think deeply about this problem. In any case the key thing I want you to take away from the “Mistake of Dramatic Timing” is that IF aliens were going to show up, or more technically if aliens are ever going to be aware of us, than it’s almost certain that it’s already happened, that nothing dramatic will happen in the next few hundred years.

We have to deal with one final argument before we move on. The point I’m making is that nothing has changed in the last few hundred years as far as what aliens might be out there and what they might want from us. However, to be fair, some things have changed recently in terms our ability to detect potential aliens. And it is possible that this is a place where something might change soon. But with every year that passes this becomes less and less likely. Also as I have argued before, if aliens are out there and they want to be detected they could almost certainly figure out how to make that happen. Much harder is not being detected, and that task is much easier if you’re aware of what’s trying to detect you, which takes us back to where we were. Either aliens are aware of us now, or very probably they never will be.

As I said I enjoyed the Bobiverse, (I even enjoyed Independence Day, probably because I was less jaded back then) and they are fiction, so I entirely forgive them for getting this wrong. But fiction is not the only place where people are proposing solutions to the paradox. There are academic papers doing the same thing, and recently one was released which claimed to dissolve the paradox. Obviously this is the sort of thing that needs to be taken more seriously.

The paper doesn’t actually center on the paradox. It takes as its focus Drake’s Equation, which will hopefully be familiar to readers of this blog. If not, basically Drake’s Equation attempts to come up with a guess for how many communicating extraterrestrial civilizations there might be by determining how many planets might get through all the hoops required to get to that point (for example all planets, multiplied by the percentage with life, multiplied by the percentage of that life that’s intelligent, etc.).  And it turns out that if you multiply the average of all the terms in the equation, that you get an expected average of quite a few communicating civilizations, and yet there aren’t any, which then brings in the paradox.

The authors of the paper point out that if the distribution of the estimates is narrow, and if it looks like a bell curve, multiplying the averages would give you a pretty good idea of what the overall probabilities are. You could say something like, “We think with 68% certainty, that the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy is between 1 and 11. With an average of 6.” Which would imply that there probably is a paradox. But if the distributions are ridiculously wide (they are) and on top of that not normally distributed (and apparently they’re not that either) then you can end up in a situation where the most probable situation is that we’re alone, even though the average number of expected civilizations is greater than one.

If we are alone, that means that there’s something which keeps other civilizations from getting to the point where they can communicate. This has come to be called the Great Filter, and what this paper and other’s claim is that, “Good News!” the filter is most likely behind us. I don’t have the time to digest all the math in the original paper, but I’m inclined to take it’s conclusions with a large grain of salt, for a few reasons:

Reason 1- As uncertainty decreases it almost always points to life being more common

The authors point out that there’s a large degree of uncertainty for all of the terms in Drake’s Equation, fair enough. But one assumes that as time goes on and our knowledge increases that uncertainty will get less. One great example of this are the exoplanets that have been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This has vastly reduced the uncertainty in the number of stars with planets. (Which is the second term in the equation.) The question is, as uncertainty is reduced, in which direction will things head? Towards a higher estimate of communicating civilizations or towards a lower estimate? The answer, so far as I can tell, is that everytime our uncertainty gets less it updates the estimate in favor of communicating civilizations being more common. Let’s look at three quick examples of this:

  1. There’s the one I just mentioned. According to Wikipedia when Frank Drake first proposed his equation, his guess for the fraction of stars with planets was ½. After looking at the data from Kepler, our current estimate is basically that all stars have planets. Our uncertainty decreased and it moved in the direction of extraterrestrial life and civilizations being more probable.
  2. I also talked about number of rocky planets, which relates to the term in the equation for fraction of total planets which could sustain life. As I mentioned above we used to think that rocky planets would only appear seven billion years or so into the lifetime of the universe. Now we know that they appeared much earlier. Once again our uncertainty decreased, and it went down in the direction of life and civilizations being more probable.
  3. Finally there’s the existence of extremophiles. We used to think that there was a fairly narrow band of conditions where life could exist, and then we found life in underwater thermal vents, in areas of extreme cold and dryness, in environments of high salinity, high acidity, high pressure, etc. etc. Yet another case where as we learned more, life became more probable, not less.

The trend is clear and I think it will continue.

Reason 2- The wildcard of panspermia

The next area where I have reason to doubt that the paradox has been “dissolved” is the idea of panspermia. And from where I sit, it appears that the evidence for that is increasing as well. On the off chance that you’re unfamiliar with the term, panspermia is the idea that life, in its most basic form, started somewhere else and then arrived on Earth once things were already going. Of greater importance for us is the idea that if it could travel to Earth there’s a good chance it could travel anywhere (and everywhere). In fairness, there is some chance life started on say, Mars and travelled here, in which case maybe life isn’t “everywhere”. But if panspermia happened and it didn’t come from somewhere nearby, then that changes a lot.

Further, it’s important to remember that panspermia is not accounted for in Drake’s Equation, and that makes it a wildcard for this entire question. Given the tenacity of life I’ve already mentioned above, once it gets started, there’s good reason to believe that it would just keep going. This section is more speculative than the last section, but my gut says that panspermia is probably more likely than people think. That said, I’ll lay out my reasons and you can decide for yourself.

  1. Certain things double every so many years. The most famous example of this phenomenon is Moore’s Law, which says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. A while back some scientists wanted to see if biological complexity followed the same pattern. It did, doubling every 376 million years. With forms of life at the various epochs fitting neatly onto the graph. The really surprising thing was that if you extrapolate back to zero biological complexity you end up at a point ten billion years ago. Well before the Earth was even around (or Mars for that matter). Leaving Panspermia as the only option. Now the authors confess this is more of a “thought exercise” than hard science, but that puts it in exactly the same category as the paper which “dissolves the Fermi Paradox”. (I would actually argue that the Moore’s Law analogy is probably less speculative.)
  2. There’s a significant amount of material travelling between planets and even between star systems. I mentioned this in a previous post, but to remind you. Some scientists decided to run the numbers, on the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And they discovered that a significant amount of the material ejected would have ended elsewhere in the Solar System and even elsewhere in the galaxy. Their simulation showed that around 100 million rocks would have made it to Europa (a promising candidate for life) and that around a 1000 rocks would have made it to a potentially habitable planet in a nearby star system (Gliese 581). Now none of this is to say that any life would have survived on those rocks, rather the point that jumps out to me is how much material is being exchanged across those distances.
  3. Finally, and I put this last because it might seem striking only to me. I came across an article recently that said the very first animal had 55% of the DNA that humans have. They ascribe this to an “evolutionary burst of new genes”, but for me that looks an awful lot like support of the first point in this list. The idea that life has been churning along for a lot longer than we think, if the first animal had 55% of our DNA already half a billion years ago.

Now, of course, even if panspermia is happening, that doesn’t necessarily make the dissolving-the-paradox guys wrong. You could have a situation where the filter is not life getting started in the first place, the filter is between any life and intelligent life. It could be that some kind of basic life is very common, but intelligence never evolves. Though before I move on to the next subject, in my opinion that doesn’t seem likely. You can imagine that if life itself has a hard time getting started, in any form, that out of the handful of planets with life, that only one develops intelligence. But if panspermia is happening, and you basically have life on every planet in the habitable zone, a number estimated at between 10 and 40 billion, then the idea that out of those billions of instances of life that somehow intelligence only arose this one time seems a lot less believable. (And yes I know about things like the difficulty of the prokaryote-eukaryote transition.)

Reason 3- To little accounting for the data we do have i.e. Earth

The final reason I have for being skeptical of the conclusion of the dissolving-the-paradox paper is that as far as I can tell they give zero weight to the fact that we do have one example of a planet with intelligent life, and capable of interstellar communication: Earth. In fact if I’m reading things correctly they appear to give pretty low probability to even the Earth existing. My sense is that when it comes to Fermi’s paradox this is the one piece of evidence that no one is quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, the history of science has been inextricably linked to the mediocrity (or Copernican) principle. The idea that Earth and humanity are not unique, we’re not the center of the universe or of the solar system or what have you. Humans are not special, we’re just another monkey, etc. And yet on this one point we are currently unique. We are the only example of intelligent life for which we have any evidence.

You might think there is no, “On the other hand”, but there is. It’s called the anthropic principle. And let’s just say I’m not a huge fan. This is not the first time I’ve talked about the anthropic principle and I would point you at one of my previous posts for a more detailed criticism, but basically it says that conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking.

As I said, I’m not a fan. I think it’s a cop out. And in order for us to be as unique as this would imply, there would have to be something entirely unique about Earth, or a series of very improbable things that combined to create an entirely unique Earth. And so far while there’s a lot of speculation, there is no smoking gun. And, again, remember, every other time we thought we were unique, we ended up being wrong. It’s my firm belief that this time isn’t any different.

In case you’ve missed my central point, which is entirely possible, since I’m not sure I actually mentioned it, and it’s more of the central point that runs through all of my posts about Fermi’s Paradox. The point is, there’s numerous, very good reasons to think that there should be other intelligent species out there, despite people claiming to dissolve the paradox. And if there are aliens out there then there should be some evidence of it. This is unlikely to change in the next 100 years. We either already have the evidence or we never will. Based on all of this, the simplest explanation which fits everything we do know, is that we do have evidence of something beyond this earth, and we have labeled it God.


Life isn’t the only thing that can get spread really far in tiny amounts. Money can do that as well. Perhaps if instead of asking for donations, I should ask for money panspermia. That makes it sound awesome!


The 100th Post

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Many, many years ago, someone described a framework for categorizing knowledge about an individual. As with so many of these things there are two axis and four quadrants. The X axis is what the individual knows about themselves, with one column for things that are known and one column for things which are not known. The Y axis deals with what other people know about us and, similarly, there’s one row for the known and one for the unknown.

A little googling revealed that this framework is called the Johari Window. And each of the quadrants apparently has a label:

  • The Known Self: Things both the individual and others know about themselves. A preference for sarcasm for example…
  • The Hidden Self: Things the individual knows about themselves which other people don’t know. Deep dark secrets are obviously in this category.
  • The Blind Self: Things others know about the individual which the individual is unaware of. Spinach in the teeth is the classic example. But I assume that lots of self-sabotaging behavior also falls into this category.
  • The Unknown Self: Things that neither the individual or others are aware of. I once watched a whole movie which was essentially all about this. It was called Force Majeure and it involved the fallout after a father runs away from an avalanche, abandoning his wife and children. (They ended up being fine.) His cowardice had previously been part of the unknown self, and when it was revealed it surprised both the individual and his family.

As I mentioned I heard about this framework quite a while ago, but I hadn’t thought about it in many years. But as I was thinking about my topic, I was reminded of it. And what is that topic you might ask?

Well, this is the 100th post and it will be published within a few days of the two year anniversary of my first post. And thus it seems like this would be a good time to step back somewhat and take a look at where I’ve been and where I’m going. Do something of a meta-post, so to speak. My suspicion is that it will mostly end up being unreadable navel gazing (more so!) but I think I can manage, at a minimum, to move some things out of the “hidden self” category into the “known self” category. Even better would be if this post ended up moving something out of the “blind self” category. My ideal would be if someone came into the comments section and said, “Actually you’re fantastic at X! You should do more of that!” (On the other hand someone telling me I’m terrible at everything and should just give up, would also count, though it might be less useful.)

Okay now that we’re done with the psychobabble, I know that many of you are already well aware that a meta-post is a post about posting. But I actually want to go a little bit deeper. At the most basic level, the first question I have to grapple with is what does someone do who has some discretionary time on their hands? What’s the best use of that time? (For the curious the time directly involved in creating both the blog and podcast every week averages out to around 9 hours.)

Obviously I could use this time to read more, though I already read quite a bit. Another option would be to use it to play more video games. Unlike reading, this is something I actually don’t do that much of, though lately I have been thoroughly enjoying Slay the Spire. Still another option would be to watch more TV. Certainly I’m below average in my TV viewing. The list of really good TV that I haven’t watched is extensive. (I have not seen Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars, The Wire or The Sopranos.) To a greater or lesser degree, all three of these options provide very little value, particularly for people other than myself.

Reading, playing video games or watching TV aren’t my only options (though sometimes it appears that way when I look at how other people spend their discretionary time) there are, of course, more impactful options. Things like exercise, spending more time with my family, volunteering at a worthwhile charity, or doing genealogy (something which is obviously big for Mormons). If I was greedy (or maybe just prudent) I could use the time to work another job (it wouldn’t be hard to find something that paid better than blogging). Or, I could spend all of that time expanding my current business, or seeking investment opportunities.

I could go on and on but I assume that you get the idea. I have lots of options for how to spend the nine hours of discretionary time I currently spend on maintaining a weekly blog. Accordingly out of all the things I could be doing with this discretionary time, why did I decide that I should start a blog? (Eventually deciding to record that blog and release it every week as a podcast.) What was it that made me decide that this would be the best use of that time and if, in the course of this post I decide to re-examine that decision am I going to end up making the same decision again?

Before we get too far we need to establish some criteria for making a decision. Perhaps I really do want to make the best use of my time, but best according to what standard? Of course there’s the utilitarian standard, what could I do with my time that would bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number? If this is the standard I’m going for then I evidently possess that special sort of hubris which leads one to think that the greatest total benefit they could bring to the world is to let everyone know what they think, and by extension how utterly wrong they are if they don’t think the same way. We should not discount the possibility that I had exactly this much hubris, but for the moment let’s set that aside.

Instead of a utilitarian standard I could be going for a hedonistic standard. Perhaps I felt that writing a blog is what would bring me the most pleasure. There have been a couple of posts recently where I criticized people for prioritizing hedonism, so if the value system I ultimately used to decide to start a blog consisted of what made me feel good there would be a certain amount of irony there. But if it was just one factor among many, then perhaps I could be forgiven.

In what might be viewed as something halfway between the first two standards. I could be doing it because I felt an internal compulsion to do it. Many writers talk about being driven to write without necessarily getting much enjoyment out of it. Thus I may feel compelled to write but without the hubris of thinking that the world would be hugely benefited by listening to what I have to say. And I may experience relief from giving into my compulsion to write, but this relief isn’t necessarily me hedonistically seeking out the greatest amount of pleasure. This standard being that I started a blog because, ultimately, it was easier than not starting a blog. And I should mention that the pressure to start something is of an entirely different flavor than the pressure to continue something.

Possibly rather than experiencing internal compulsion, the impetus was actually external. Maybe I was feeling pressure from something or someone. And my standard was, “I just need to get these people to stop bugging me!”

I don’t want to turn this into a list of 30 reasons why I write, there are enough of those out there, And as you may have guessed I write for all of the reasons I just listed, or at least I started writing for all of the reasons just listed, but as I alluded to, the reasons someone might have for starting something may be completely different than the reasons someone might have for continuing something. Also out of the four reasons I listed, I’m the only person who can judge the success of three of them (well maybe two and a half of them). And in the spirit of unproductive navel gazing this post was always going to descend to, it’s appropriate to briefly examine whether, in my own judgement, those reasons still apply. Whether I have met any of these standards.

As far as the first standard that’s the one thing I can’t judge, so we’ll return to it once the navel gazing is over.

The second standard for starting a blog was enjoyment. Do I still enjoy it? I’d have to say that I do. In fact, I think in the long run it might actually be the most enjoyable way I can spend my discretionary time. (There are things with more short term enjoyment, but they make me feel guilty over the long run.)

The third reason was that I felt compelled to do it. Here is where there’s the biggest difference between a reason for starting and a reason for continuing. I do not feel as compelled to continue as I felt to start. Doing 100 posts has definitely lessened the compulsion. That said it’s not entirely gone, and in fact I would say that it’s stronger than I would have thought at this point. In the past I’ve had a real problem getting bored with things, and while that has happened, it’s happened to a much lesser extent then I would have thought.

The fourth standard/reason was the external one. In my case it kind of felt like a commandment. There has been a fairly consistent theme in many of the recent statements by LDS leaders (specifically General Conference talks) that Mormons need to be more active in announcing and espousing their beliefs, particularly on social media. These statements always struck me with quite a bit of force. (Though I think I may have come up with one of the least straightforward ways of following that counsel.) This is the one where, technically, I can only judge the success of my half, do I feel like I followed the counsel of the brethren? To which I would answer mostly. The other half would be whether the brethren (or just other Mormons in general) feel that I’ve followed it. That I’m less sure about.

Well then, what about the first standard? As I already said, if my standard for writing a blog is that I have decided that it’s the way in which I can be the most help to the world, then there’s a significant amount of hubris involved in that. This is somewhat mitigated by my other reasons, but not something I can ignore, so do I feel that this is really the most impactful thing I can do with my time? Is this really my area of greatest contribution to humanity?

To which I guess I’d answer, “Maybe?”

I do feel that I have something novel to say: I do think there’s some weird intersection of religion, antifragility, rationalism and futurism where there’s an enormous amount of untapped wisdom. Which is not to say I’m any good at imparting it, or even that I’m necessarily correct about its existence. And those are the two issues in a nutshell, how do I know whether I have anything worthwhile to say? To say nothing of whether spending my time in this fashion represents my area of greatest leverage? And if it is how do I get better at it? What’s the best way to spread this wisdom? (If, as I said, that’s what it is.)

I decided right at the beginning to do a weekly blog, and I wouldn’t claim that I gave these two questions much thought when I did. Fortunately, it turns out that an ongoing weekly blog is not a horrible way to go about answering those questions. If I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. If, as the expression goes, I’m “full of it.” Then putting my crap out there is the best way to have someone come along and smell it and tell me it stinks (okay this is not my greatest metaphor, I admit). As to the other question, at a minimum, I assume the more I write the better I’ll get at it.

Of course what I’m describing is basically just practice, practice in public, but if there’s one thing that’s come out from all recently in self-help literature, it’s that there are different kinds of practice, and that to get better you really need deliberate practice, and if there’s any point to this post other than naval gazing, it would probably be something along the lines of deciding that I need to be more deliberate in what I do.

What then, does deliberate practice look like when you’re talking about blogging? When I Google the term I’m informed that:

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

Which I must say, seems to strike pretty close to home, and not in a good way. It is certainly possible that a weekly blog is more in the “mindless repetition” category than the “purposeful and systematic” category.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about doing something different. Many of the blogs I admire the most, post when they feel like it, and only post when they have something really worthwhile to say. It’s not hard to imagine that there have been a few times (many times?) when I would have posted something better if I had posted it when it was ready rather than posting it because it was Saturday.

That said, I’m honestly worried that if I allowed myself the freedom to post when I feel like it, that I won’t feel like it very often. Also I have this Idea that perhaps someday, some publication which works on the principle of having a given writer post on a given day every week, will express interest in my stuff, and the thing that will interest them the most is that I have a steady track record of posting every week. (Perhaps rather than imagining this as some far off possibility I should start approaching these people now, particularly now that I have 100 articles under my belt.)

Also there’s this whole school of thought which says it’s better to produce day in and day out (or at least week in and week out in my case.) Then to wait for inspiration to strike. So perhaps I’m not being as mindless as it seems…

Of course whether I could be more deliberate in my writing “practice” that’s almost certainly not the place where there’s the largest room for improvement, particularly if we’re talking about “getting it out there”. The area with the most room for improvement is certainly marketing, for lack of a better term, and I’m actually pretty awful at it. Accordingly if there’s any place where I’m open to suggestions this is it.

Part of the problem surely lies in the enormous number of options for drawing attention to something, and I’m sure there’s a whole blog post to be written about how attention is now the major currency in the world (at least the first world.) I’m not sure if there’s much point in reviewing those options, but maybe doing so will spark something (either for me or for my readers.)

One thing I’ve meant to do for quite a while is create a Facebook page for the blog and cross post everything there, with perhaps some pithy observations thrown in. The primary problem there is that I kind of hate Facebook. And I’m trapped in something of a purgatory where it’s necessary for some things and yet at least once a week I think I should delete my account and never return. A possible middle option would be to go on Facebook and then spend the bulk of my time talking about how awful it is. But I can’t decide if this is edgy or a transparent and overused ploy by people who think they’re edgy .

I could say something similar about Twitter. Though I guess if I had to rank them I would rank Twitter as slightly less awful than Facebook. Or perhaps awful isn’t the right word, maybe Twitter is slightly more useful. More the sort of thing I should be doing as someone with a blog. But of course regardless of how I decide to use them both seem to require quite a bit more time and attention than I really want to spend on them. Or rather they seem exactly like the kind of constant interruption that anyone with anything to say about productivity warns you about.

The concept of time has brought us full circle. If I have nine hours a week to spend writing, why can’t I spend seven hours writing and two hours on social media, or whatever the ideal balance would be? Well first based on what I’ve seen of some people’s social media habits, it might take all nine hours and then some, but also certain things are easy to do and certain things are hard. There’s a post on SlateStarCodex that talks about how heroin addicts can find $200+ a week to support their addiction, but can’t find $100 to pay for treatment if they’re off heroin. He compares that to finding time to write, if you want something bad enough you find the time (or the money). And while I don’t think I have nearly the “addictive drive” that Scott Alexander does, I assume that something similar is going on here. Finding nine hours to write is comparatively easy, finding any time to promote that writing on social media is impossible. Which is not to say that I’m going to ignore the problem, just it’s obviously not something that comes naturally.

Okay, maybe I can’t summon the motivation to play the social media game, but I do have nine hours a week of writing, maybe I could use that more effectively, or differently? Maybe I could write shorter posts more often, with really long posts once a month? Or maybe I could shift some of my writing from blog posts to books? Or maybe my thematic focus could be tighter?

Changing things up is interesting to think about, but honestly, I’m probably not going to do any of those things, at least not soon. In fact my guess is that you won’t notice much difference between the posts which preceded this one and the posts following it. That said, to return to the topic of deliberate practice, I should be more deliberate, I should experiment more. Be more adventurous. Try some new things, even if they’ll probably fail. And hopefully you will see some of that going forward. To begin with while not a huge thing (baby steps!) I think it is time to move this blog to wordpress and a custom domain. I’m hoping to do that within the next 30 days. It’s not much, but perhaps it will shake some things up.

Finally to return to Johari’s Window. If you have anything to contribute to this discussion, any suggestions, criticisms, ideas, things I appear to be overlooking, etc. Please don’t hesitate to drop me an email or leave a comment.

For those of you reading this whether it’s your first post (which would be weird) or if you’ve actually, and inexplicably read all 100, thanks. I still have much more to stay, and the world continues to provide things to comment on even if I didn’t so hopefully we’ll both still be around for post 200 and maybe post 500 and maybe even post 1000.


One wonders if I’m going to run out of clever ways of asking for donations before I get to post 200, to say nothing of post 1000. (One could argue that I already have.) One way to ensure finding out the answer to that question is, you guessed it, to donate!