I present a metaphor for technology and progress as an ancient temple with thousands of knobs. Technology allows us to turn the knobs, but we're never quite sure what they do, and we generally decide to turn the knobs as far as we can without this understanding. In the metaphor they control the weather, but in reality they control the weather of civilization, which just like the actual weather is a chaotic system where small changes can create massive effects. Effects like the hurricane of change and disruption which is currently bearing down on us...
The recent Netflix series "Murder Among the Mormons" bills itself as a true crime drama, but really it's a multi-faceted philosophical inquiry into questions of epistemology. Most notably through the central role fraud and forgery plays in the story, but the inquiry goes beyond that into issues of divine revelation, the reconstruction of history and the role of mercy when truth becomes difficult to pin down.
Scott Alexander recently posted a study showing European municipalities which had the Napoleonic Code imposed upon them did better economically than nearby municipalities which didn't. He uses this to support a contention that radical reform is better than traditional institutions at delivering positive outcomes. My contention is not that we should be looking at narrow metrics of success but rather how radical reform deals with complexity, as opposed to other methods of dealing with complexity like cultural evolution, which seems to be the primary contender to expert led reform in the form of technocracy. All of which is to say that yes, the subject of this episode is very similar to the subject of my previous episodes (book reviews excepted).
Prediction is tough. You never know if things are about to get a lot worse, as was the situation with Polish Jews in 1937. Or if they're going to get a lot better, which was the situation of East Germans in 1988. But there are signs...
The problem of political unity weighs heavily on people's minds. But as with most problems technocrats imagine that if they just implement the right policy that unity will follow. In reality people only unify around myths, and historically myths have been assembled into religions. Both things that technocrats are generally opposed to. But can they survive without them. A survey of the literature says... no.
Technocracies have been much in the zeitgeist recently, at least in the corners of the internet I frequent. And there appears to be significant disagreement as to how effective they are. While I understand the idea behind them and the way in which they're supposed to work, I'm not sure they actually work in the way people expect. Or perhaps more importantly I don't think they're the best tool for dealing with the current crisis. I offer some alternative epistemological frameworks and suggest that technocracies might be missing something important.
As you can see this is a much shorter episode. I'm trying out the newsletter format. The idea is that I'm going to send out a short bit at the end of every month, something that offers an easier entry point to my writing. Something people might be more inclined to share. But I obviously couldn't leave out my loyal podcast listeners, so just as with everything else I write, it gets recorded and also goes out there. That said, number of subscribers is something of a success metric these days so if you wouldn't mind singing up for the newsletter I would appreciate it!
Two episodes ago I covered the disasters which can occur when we try to exercise too much control over natural systems. In the last episode I talked about how systems can be too controlling, and how it's better that a system be legible than that it attempt perfection. In this episode, much like peanut butter and chocolate, I combine these two great ideas into one fantastic idea, and explore how the way we combat wildfires in many ways resembles the way we fight political fires, and that both methods fail in similar ways.
In a recent newsletter, Matthew Yglesias suggested three steps for creating effective policies:
These are great, but I think they could be applied far more broadly, which is exactly what I do in this episode.
This is the second half of my book reviews for books I finished in December. It contains reviews for:
This one was long enough, and book reviews sit poorly with podcasts in any event, that I decided to split it in two. This one has my monthly short personal update along with reviews for:
Back at the beginning of 2017 I made some long term predictions, at the beginning of 2020 I made some short term predictions and the time has come to see how I'm doing on the long-term ones and how I did on the short term ones. Along with that is a reminder of my philosophy of predictions, lots of additional predictions for 2021, and then finally I announce some minor changes I'll be making going forward. Start listening to see what I got wrong, keep listening to see what I'm going to be wrong about this time next year, and then end the whole thing on a cliffhanger!
The number of teenage girls identifying as transgender has skyrocketed, by as much as 4,400% in the last decade by some accounts. What explains this staggeringly rapid and precipitous increase? Abigail Shrier thinks that these girls are falling pray to a peer contagion. A combination of the typical confusion and discomfort associated with puberty combined with a culture that celebrates transgender individuals. That in essence going through puberty is tough and being trans allows these girls to put that out of their mind while also gaining the approval of the peers and in many cases mimicking their peers who have already transitioned. In this podcast we examine the arguments and the evidence. Might she have a point?
In politics there's always a choice between extremism and moderation. In this episode I discuss all the reasons for making moderation the default, and under what circumstances it might be appropriate abandon it and pursue extremism instead. My general conclusion is that there aren't many, but that it's a very difficult problem where clear lines are hard to draw.
Most people understand that voting is a way of making decisions via consensus, what people have forgotten is that voting is also a proxy for power. A much better proxy than those which have existed historically, and positively fantastic when compared to directly matching power via bloodshed and violence.
If people have decided (as Trump supporters) evidently have, that the proxy of voting is no longer working then they can either decide that they have been outmatched in these different arenas, or they can seek other proxies of power to even things out. Up to and including a direct exercise of power, through resorting to bloodshed and violence.
I think many people expect too much out of the election. Trump supporters expect that if he manages to get reelected that he will do all the things he's been promising since 2016, while Biden supporters expect that their long nightmare of political dysfunction will finally be over. But political dysfunction has been around for a lot longer than Trump and so much of what seems wrong with the world has nothing to do with him. He does have the talent of making everything seem like it's about him, but if Biden is elected (and I think he will be) it will quickly become apparent that most of our problems had nothing to do with Trump...
Any rational assessment of the effect of your vote on the presidential election is bound to conclude that there is no effect if you're not in a swing state and that even if you are in a swing state the effect is still infinitesimal. But what other option do you have? Well that's what this episode is designed to reveal. I would argue that there's a great option which is almost entirely overlooked, voting for a third party candidate or writing someone in! I'm writing in General Mattis, and if you want to know why you'll have to listen.
In this episode we discuss China, and the various opinions about what they're up to, and what we should do in response to whatever that is. There are numerous opinions and while I don't try to cover them all, I cover a lot of them, and it's safe to say opinions are all over the place. But beyond all of the opinions of others I provide my own unique theory, which is not the theory I find most likely, but it may be the most frightening theory. What is it? You'll have to listen and find out.
In the book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama spends quite a bit of time talking about the idea of legitimacy, in particular how the End of History represents a time when only liberal democracy has any reserves of legitimacy. But two questions occur, first where does a nation go if liberal democracy starts failing? And second does that failure happen, does it end up just like all previous systems, if it no longer provides reserves of legitimacy? Recent events seem to indicate that the answer to those two questions maybe no where, and yes. In other words liberal democracy is suffering a crisis of legitimacy and unfortunately, at this point, there's no where left to go.