A review of Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond.
It's not Guns, Germs and Steel, but he does put forth an interesting list of factors for how nations successful navigate crisis. My assessment of these factors is that they're useful, but that they also serve to illustrate the depths of the current crises faced by the US and the world.
Lots of trends associated with the modern world seem to be increasing at an exponential rate. This includes things like energy use, CPU speed, and even scientific publications. But what if rather than being a exponential curve, all of these trends are really the bottoms of S-curves? Curves that start out looking like exponential curve, but which taper off at the top and plateau as constraints kick in. What would that mean for the ongoing progress people have come to count on, and what might be some potential examples of this?
I review a bunch of books:
I had not intended to revisit abortion so soon, but the previous post generated some interesting comments on a wide range of issues, so I decided to collect them and answer in the form of a post. In particular I should have paid more attention to the actual women involved in what is objectively a horrible decision to have to make. But there are other nuances as well that deserve more space.
I was reading the Iliad recently and I was struck by the fact that while there were a lot of horses that no one rode them, they were all used to pull chariots. Horses had been domesticated for thousands of years but no one thought to ride them. And it would be another couple thousand years before someone came up with the idea of a stirrup. This illustrates that a technology can be around for a long time and then suddenly someone will figure out a new way of using it which ends up being incredibly effective. Could this happen with Nukes?
Abortion is back in the news, and perhaps unwisely I've decided to give my two cents on the subject. I think most of the things that annoy people about the recent laws are tactics in the larger game of getting the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Though I'm of the opinion that it won't happen regardless, unless Ginsburg dies, which would bring its own level of craziness. But most importantly I think there are genuine disagreements about the morality of abortion which are not going away, and that unless we figure out a way to "agree to disagree" things are going to get ugly.
I review the book Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick, with a particular focus on the way the history of walls has been misinterpreted and distorted by recent examples of wall building. This is a problem, because it's actually more important than ever to understand the correct history of walls as we enter a second age of wall-building. Though most modern walls are built to keep out immigrants not invading armies.
At the moment it seems like nothing can stop the Democratic nominee from beating Trump and nothing can stop Biden from being the democratic nominee. But what are they going to do about immigration? Trump has done two things, made the issue impossible to ignore and also utterly toxic to rational discussion. There are only good people who want de facto open borders and evil people. But any rational assessment of the situation leads to the inevitable conclusion that some restrictions are needed, and not only that, but that the majority of the country wants greater restrictions. What's a Democrat to do? Are they trapped?
When people think about AI Risk they think about an artificial superintelligence malevolently and implacably pursuing its goals with humans standing by powerless to stop it. But what if AI Risk is more subtle? What if the same processes which have been so successfully used for image recognition are turned towards increasing engagement? What if that engagement ends up looking a lot like addiction? And what if the easiest way to create that addiction is by eroding the mental health of the user? And what if it's something we're doing to ourselves?
I was recently listening to some old episodes from 2016 from my daughter. There were parts where I felt like I had done pretty well in taking the temperature of the world and parts where I cringed. Knowing how much certain of my listeners like to see my cringe I thought I'd share the experience with all of you. Accordingly in this episode I review my comments from immediately before and after the 2016 election and see how they look with the benefit of hindsight.
If you have high cholesterol the doctor will tell you you're at risk for heart disease and prescribe statins. If your society is poor, a sociologist will tell you that your population could be happier, and suggest that you raise the standard of living. At some point we expect that drug companies will prove the connection between their drug and lowering deaths from heart disease. Shouldn't we also expect that our sociologist will prove the connection between standard of living and happiness? What if while focusing on standard of living we actually ignore things that actually do improve happiness?
The race to defeat Trump has begun in earnest. There are 19 notable candidates in the Democratic primary race already and that doesn't include some big names that are expected to enter the race, but haven't yet. Why are there so many? There were only six in 2016. One theory is that Trump appears vulnerable so it's anybodies race. Even people who were traditionally to radical or progressive to win a nationwide election feel like they could beat Trump, but can they, and what does the moderate progressive split mean for the primaries?
I admit that as I discuss things there is some emotion involved. A lot of stuff is my subjective sense of how the world is going. And in this episode in the interest of transparency I toss a few of those things out. Stories and trends where, maybe there's no cause for concern, but which viscerally really make me question, "What is going on?!?!?"
Someone once said that "All you need is love." This episode disagrees with that. I feel that love is overemphasized and that particularly from a Christian perspective, we should be more concerned with repentance.
It's an article of faith that there is no safe levels of radiation. Recently I read a paper which suggested otherwise, and pointed out that survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a greater life expectancy than the Japanese average. But these days, it's not merely with radiation where people feel that there is no safe level. Current opinion holds that there is no safe level of danger, comfort, shame or suffering. In this episode I examine whether that is in fact the case. And provide evidence that it's exactly the opposite that low levels of harm are not only safe, but actually beneficial.
It's easy to put together an analogy, tie it to some recent anecdotes and call it wisdom, but is it? That's the question I address in this episode. After examining it more generally I examine the specific example of chemotherapy as a metaphor for modern discourse. We may in fact have certain societal cancers which need to be rooted out, but just as chemotherapy kills healthy cells along with bad cells, is it possible that we are being too aggressive with our metaphorical chemo?
In my first reposting, I go back and revisit my review of the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger. In particular an examination of how stress and struggle can improve mental health, and how by removing both struggle and community modern society creates a situation where psychological problems, particularly in the military, become more acute.
The hygiene hypothesis holds that by missing out on the normal infections of youth leaves the immune system with nothing to do, and as a consequence later in life it over-reacts to normally benign things like peanuts. What if the same thing is happening psychologically? What if an absence of certain forms of trauma and stress when young lead people to overreact to things later in life which aren't particularly traumatic. In discussing this I bring in the writing of Brene Brown who points out that we're the most addicted, medicated, in debt, overweight adult cohort in history. Given how objectively untraumatic modern life is, why would that be?
I open by discussing, in great detail, a car accident my son was recently in. (Don't worry, he's okay.) I noticed that the story the other driver was telling had some inconsistencies. I'm suspicious because he has an incentive to lie, and from there I turn to a discussion of incentives more generally and bring in the recent hate crime hoax involving Jussie Smollett. And ask the more general question, are we focused too much on what people should do, and not enough what they might do, particularly if the incentive to do so is great enough.
There's been more and more attention paid to the size and power of tech giants, and whether that size and power means they should be treated as a monopoly and subject to anti-trust scrutiny. In this episode I combine that discussion with the recent efforts of a Gizmodo reporter to cut these tech giants (Specifically Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft) out of her life. She claimed it was "impossible" to cut out Amazon. Does this revelation strengthen the case of those who claim Amazon is a monopoly. One would think it would but how many people truly realize how ubiquitous Amazon and the rest truly are?
The challenges we face today are vastly different than challenges we faced historically. Accordingly the tools we have built to deal with historical challenges may not be up to dealing with more modern ones. And of course this all assumes that the tools are in good repair and still working the way they should, but anyone looking at the present scene might be forced to conclude that they are not. That political conventions and compromise are things of the past, perhaps right at the point where we need them the most.
I've gone a long time since I started this podcast and it may be difficult to know where to start at this point so I decided to take a break to reground things. If you've been listening for a long time most of this will be familiar to you, but if somehow you just stumbled on things, this is a great place to start.
Technology allows us to optimize around very narrow criteria. If we turn that optimization ability towards changing society. We can end up emphasizing one potential future, based around a narrow set of values over other potential futures with other values. Conceivably abandoning many long standing values regardless of how useful they are. This is analogous to the transit systems of many large cities, in particular the Bay Area, where all the lines stay together for awhile and it doesn't matter what value you emphasize, but introduce technology and suddenly optimizing one value over another results in radically different results.
Last week I compared life to a video game. A video game where the number of players continues to increase, meaning that our collective knowledge of how best to play the game should also be increasing, except that at the same time the version of game we’re playing is also changing. As an aside I also mentioned that it’s becoming harder to know if we’re winning. This week I’d like to take that thought and expand upon it. What does it mean to be winning the video game? Or, to go a step further why are we even playing the game?
If humans gradually figure out how best to live, then we should give a lot of weight to what has already been figured out over the years. But what if we end up with more humans? Do the behaviors of a billion current people count more than a million historical people? At first glance the answer is an obvious yes, but what if we add in the complication that current conditions are rapidly changing? Is it possible that behavior can't keep up? In this episode we examine the question and compare years of experience vs. human experienced years.