Should You Really Read More Books This Year?

The new year and the new decade are upon us, and with them have come the inevitable resolutions to live better in some way or another. One of the most common such resolutions is to read more books–either left with that vague wording or given a specific target like 30 nonfiction books total or 10 books written by women. I’m no exception to this–one of my goals for 2020 is to read 30 books (excluding research deep dives). But fulfilling this goal, without consideration of the what, why, and how, doesn’t really ensure that you’ll be better at the end of the year the way you really want to. I’m going to explore some of the ways reading more books can be beneficial–and some of the ways it can divert valuable attention away from more important things–and finish by going against the grain and suggesting that (maybe) you shouldn’t read more books this year.


Reading often has a reputation for being a more sophisticated pastime than other forms of media consumption like TV or movies, especially when we’re talking about reading books instead of shorter media like magazines or blogs. In order to talk about the relative benefits of reading, though, we have to separate the value of reading as a form of entertainment from the value of reading as a tool for making you better, because reading’s superior reputation relies on providing more of the latter type of value compared to other media. When people establish reading goals for themselves, it’s usually because they believe that reading more books will bring benefits to their life beyond momentary entertainment.


Making the distinction between those two kinds of value is important because it’s easy to implicitly tie them together, especially when reading is our preferred form of entertainment. If we get a lot of enjoyment from reading, or closely identify with “being a reader,” it’s easy to find ourselves looking for reasons to believe that reading books isn’t just a form of entertainment, but something that actually makes us better. While “better” doesn’t necessarily have to imply an immediate, tangible improvement, if there’s nothing to point to besides the feeling that a book gives you, you’re still ultimately just referring to entertainment value. To determine if books truly have anything to benefit you, their reader, beyond entertainment, we’ll need to dig deeper into why reading does (or doesn’t) enrich people. To do that, we’ll first have to distinguish between reading fiction and reading nonfiction.


Does Fiction Really Improve Empathy?


Fiction’s most obvious value is in providing entertainment–romance novels and thrillers routinely outsell other genres for a reason. But reading fiction may also improve your life in a more lasting way according to some research; most commonly, it is claimed that reading fiction can make you more empathetic. A widely-cited 2013 study by Kidd and Castano sought to establish whether literary fiction could lead to increased “theory of mind”–the ability to understand minds other than one’s own. Kidd and Castano defined literary fiction as fiction that, among other things, “engages their readers creatively as writers” and “triggers presupposition… subjectification… and multiple perspectives,” and created a scale to quantify how literary a work of fiction was. To determine subject’s theory of mind, they used the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), a test requiring subjects to “identify facially expressed emotions.” 


Kidd and Castano concluded after their research that “reading literary fiction may lead to stable improvements of [Theory of Mind].” This conclusion got repeated over and over again by respectable media outlets like TimeThe Guardian and Scientific American. Words of caution could sometimes be found later in the articles, but the headlines, of course, abandoned nuance and suggested that reading fiction made you a better person. An entire mythology seemed to spring up around this idea, and it’s become nigh-unquestionable wisdom among many readers.


But the study, which has been cited over 1,000 times according to Google Scholar, buckled under the increased scrutiny that followed. Panero et al. tempered Kidd and Castano’s conclusions when they attempted a replication and concluded that “the most plausible link between reading fiction and theory of mind is either that individuals with strong theory of mind are drawn to fiction and/or that a lifetime of reading gradually strengthens theory of mind, but other variables, such as verbal ability, may also be at play.” Still optimistic, but cautious. A more serious blow came when the journal Nature published a 2018 paper titled “Evaluating the replicability of social science experiments inNature and Science between 2010 and 2015.” Kidd and Castano’s study, published in Science during that window of time, fared quite poorly; by every metric used by the 2018 paper, the study failed replication.


Research on the connection between empathy and fiction has come from a variety of sources, not just Kidd and Castano, and many researchers have studied other positive effects of reading fiction like narrative reasoning and self-experience. But caution is warranted when research seemingly promotes a simple narrative like “reading fiction = good,” especially when such a narrative supports what you’d like to believe anyway (be honest: did you click the links in the previous sentence hoping to affirm that reading fiction is good? Have you ever looked for evidence to the contrary?). This applies doubly to a field like psychology, which speaks to many people’s deeply-held beliefs about themselves, but has been hit particularly hard by the replication crisis.


The Hidden Costs of Reading


Even if reading fiction brings modest psychological benefits, a key question is whether those benefits are ends or means. For instance, even if you assume that reading fiction improves your ability to empathize, that increase in empathy will do no good unless you apply it. The value of empathy is tied to the practice of interacting with others; increasing empathy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Interaction with others can take many forms–from close personal friendships to more distant business relationships–but without it, it becomes nonsensical to argue that becoming more empathetic has made you better. “Being more empathetic” is meaningless unless you can alternatively express it as “acting more empathetically toward others.”


Now, consider that every action carries an opportunity cost–the lost time you could have spent doing something else. This means that every hour spent reading a novel is an hour not spent doing something else. If you’re reading for entertainment, that’s not a problem. But if you’re reading a novel with the goal of improving yourself, you may want to ask if your life would be more improved by actually doing the activities that reading is supposed to help you with.


A Little Bit of Learning


On the surface, nonfiction is much harder to attack as impractical than fiction is. Nonfiction conveys information about the world around us, the story goes, and we can use that information to guide our actions. But depending on your reading habits, this may not actually be the case the majority of the time–for instance, did the last true crime book you read influence your life in any way besides adding an extra dose of paranoia? Even a more cerebral tome such as Gödel, Escher, Bach or Guns, Germs, and Steel, while offering plenty of mind-blowing insights into the nature of reality, will often be rather short on practical applications.


One upside to vacuuming up as much knowledge as possible is that it can help reduce the impact of unknown unknowns in our lives–the broader you read, the more you expose yourself to fields you otherwise wouldn’t have and remove the possibility of getting blindsided by something you came across in your reading. It can also help you realize just how much you still have to learn about a topic you’ve just started dipping your toes into. From this point of view, voraciously reading from a variety of disciplines is beneficial even if you don’t necessarily know what the benefits will be in the future. 


Skimming the surface can backfire, however; not for nothing did Alexander Pope write “A little learning is a dang’rous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain / And drinking largely sobers us again.” The first phase of learning something new is often when our confidence most outweighs our knowledge. If we know literally nothing about a subject, it’s hard to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, but if we’re familiar with the basics, it’s easy to inflate our familiarity into expertise in our minds. To use a simple example, it would be hard to form an opinion on why veins appear blue under our skin if you know absolutely nothing about human anatomy. If you’ve started learning some basic facts, however, you might start to think you know the answer to that question–you might learn that hemoglobin is what gives blood its red color, that hemoglobin carries oxygen, and that veins carry deoxygenated blood, and suddenly the common misconception that the blood in your veins is actually blue makes perfect sense. Compounding this particular falsehood is the fact that many anatomy textbooks actually portray veins as blue out of convenience, meaning that the false information in your head has now been “confirmed,” and that “confirmation” may actually make it harder to accept the truth if you encounter later on. 


In cases like this, the little bit of knowledge we do have can cause us to fill in the gaps with our imaginations where we previously would have humbly recognized ourselves as ignorant. “A little bit of learning” truly is a dangerous thing–not bad, necessarily, but dangerous. It can expose blind spots, and create them. Reaping its benefits while avoiding its pitfalls requires a sharp eye and a skeptical mind.


Can Acquiring More Knowledge Be a Bad Thing?


Even knowledge that could be a positive influence in theory may not necessarily be so in practice. As with fiction, every hour spent reading nonfiction is an hour that can’t be spent doing something else. While writing this essay, for instance, I’ve pulled from numerous sources to back my case. Learning more about the topic might be good, but not at the expense of actually writing the essay. While it’s good to keep your eyes peeled for new possibilities as you work on a project, chasing those possibilities gets less and less valuable once you’ve already gotten an idea of the big picture. Researching diminishes in importance relative to simply doing.


Not only can reading take time away from productive work, it can turn into a feedback loop that pushes you to actively avoid productive work. Every writer (yours truly included) knows the experience of telling themselves they just need to do a little more research before they have to face the dreaded blank page. Researching thus becomes a form of procrastination; while writing requires creativity, action, and a little bit of guts, researching is comparatively noncommittal and stress-free. You wind up endlessly reading to avoid the hard job of putting one word after another.
Even outside of creative endeavors, more knowledge can lead to worse outcomes. The CIA, for instance, has found that “once an experienced analyst has the minimum information necessary to make an informed judgment, obtaining additional information generally does not improve the accuracy of his or her estimates. Additional information does, however, lead the analyst to become more confident in the judgment, to the point of overconfidence.” In business culture, Lean Startup methodology emphasizes that action and experimentation are the keys to establishing a successful business, not crafting the perfect plan with perfect information. Not all information is true, and not all true information is relevant; sometimes it just decreases the signal-to-noise ratio.


The Decay of Knowledge


Let’s say you’ve found a book with (as far as you can tell) true, relevant, actionable knowledge and need to decide whether it’s worth your time to read it (remember opportunity cost!). The final step to determining whether it will be worthwhile is to compare when you will need this information with how quickly it will decay. “Decay,” in this context, can mean a few different things. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street compares decaying knowledge to radioactive decay, in which well-established facts regularly become irrelevant or proven false with time, and prescribes the pursuit of knowledge with as slow a decay as possible. “Whenever new information is discovered,” he writes, “we can be sure it will break down and be proved wrong at some point. As with a radioactive atom, we don’t know precisely when that will happen, but we know it will occur at some point.  If we zoom out and look at a particular body of knowledge, the random decay becomes orderly. Through probabilistic thinking, we can predict the half-life of a group of facts with the same certainty with which we can predict the half-life of a radioactive atom. The problem is that we rarely consider the half-life of information. Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true years or decades later. [emphasis his]”


Parrish also describes a few indicators to help identify expiring information: “Expiring information is sexy but it’s not knowledge. Here are a few telltale signs you’re dealing with expiring information. First, it’s marketed to you. Second, lacking details and nuance, it’s easily digestible. This is why it’s commonly telling you what happened, not why it happened or under what conditions it might happen again. Third, it won’t be relevant in a month or a year.” A cursory glance at the publishing industry reveals that a massive amount of the books published in any given year, including (perhaps especially) the ones that hit the bestseller lists, meet these criteria. The incentives of working in media push writers to spread expiring information at the expense of durable knowledge.


Knowledge can decay in another sense, namely, by forgetting. Memories have been observed to decay in an exponential fashion going as far back as Hermann Ebbinghaus, who first coined the term “forgetting curve” to describe the rapid initial decline of memories and slowly flattening later decline that follows it. The good news is that simply recalling the information you’ve recently learned can help solidify the information better than re-reading, and that each review session allows you space out the interval until your next review session longer than the last one. The bad news is that almost no one does this, either within the education system or when left to study on their own. Most people, no matter how thoroughly they may read a book, are left with nothing but a vague, possibly misremembered impression of the overarching points a year later. The arguments, sources, and practical applications are almost guaranteed to be completely forgotten without maintenance, to say nothing of the fine details. If you want the knowledge you gain from reading to be durable, it’s essential to start your reading with a plan for retaining what you learn after you’re done. This can be done by using a spaced repetition system like Anki, but effectively using such systems requires putting in the time to transfer the knowledge you want to remember, then sticking to a tight review schedule as the system prompts you.


The decay of knowledge means that if you don’t have a plan to remember what you read, you can’t rely on your ability to recall information accurately or productively more than a few months or even weeks into the future. It also means that even if you do remember it, you must account for its half-life and assume that it may be outdated soon, if it isn’t already. 


Answer the Damn Question


So is reading more books a good goal? Maybe. Reading has brought much joy and enlightenment to my life. But the main takeaway I want to instill is that reading about life is ultimately inferior to living it. If reading helps you build better relationships, fulfill your ambitions, or change the world around you, then read on! But if there is an ultimate point to life, I’m fairly certain it isn’t to lie on your deathbed looking back at all the books you finished. Consumption of others’ work–even consumption that may be beneficial like reading–fundamentally cannot leave a mark on the world by itself. It takes action to do so.


What and how should we read in light of this? First, it suggests that we should be more selective about the books we read for anything other than entertainment. If we’re reading purely for pleasure, then it ultimately makes little difference what we choose. But we should be more cautious about the books we read not just allowing, but hoping to influence our life. The decay of knowledge, the surprising shakiness of supposedly solid sources, and the opportunity cost of reading itself mean that we must be choosy about the books we spend our time on. 


Next, it suggests that we may find unexpected value in two places: a) books that have deeply influenced the course or culture or society, and b) books that offer an underappreciated inside “edge,” though this edge need not be of the competitive variety. Books that fit the former description could include the classics, the canons of major world civilizations, or the major religious texts of the world, or perhaps more recent but timely works of science like The Selfish Gene or The Feynman Lectures on Physics. It may seem strange to say that you’d find “unexpected value” in this category of books, since they by definition have indirectly influenced millions or billions of people. But they also tend to have the strange quality of being read about more than actually read. By engaging with these books directly, you can participate in what philosophers and historians have called “The Great Conversation” of thinkers throughout the ages and get an unfiltered look at how the world as we understand it came to be. These works can also help you avoid the pitfalls of decaying knowledge by existing outside the myopic world of bestseller lists and book clubs. Their long-standing relevance in the past strongly implies continued relevance in the future, a principle known as the Lindy Effect, which Nassim Taleb explained like this:


“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”

Antifragile (Taleb, 2012)


Unlike the former source of unexpected value, the latter source (books that offer an inside edge) is by definition tricky to find. If these books were easy to locate, they wouldn’t be underappreciated and they wouldn’t offer an inside edge. The key, then, is to look for information and insights that are relevant to your life that most people overlook. This could mean simply getting reading recommendations from on friends, writers, or organizations that you trust but are less visible to the general public. Slate Star Codex, for instance, while not quite obscure, is totally unknown to most people but is a reliable source of high-quality writing, including plenty of book reviews and analyses. This source could also take the form of cross-disciplinary writing, in which a thinker from one field applies insights from their profession to a totally different field and introduces a massive paradigm shift. These thinkers are usually treated with extreme skepticism by the establishment of their targeted discipline, often with good reason, but their fresh perspectives as outsiders often help them produce profound insights that go undervalued by most people who could stand to benefit from them.


Reading great books means opening yourself to being changed by them. Mortimer Adler, one of the men who coined “The Great Conversation” referred to above, wrote a deceptively useful guide titled How to Read a Book (it was not, unfortunately, preceded by How to Read “How to Read a Book”). Adler used his book to explain his system of “reading for understanding,” his term for reading with an eye for changing the way you think about something instead of simply acquiring information or entertaining yourself. While explaining his position, he also noted that reading this way requires humbling ourselves before the works and people we hope to learn from–that “we can only learn from our ‘betters.'” By this, he meant that in order to read a book for understanding, it has to offer value that you don’t currently have, and that gaining this value from the author necessarily involves stretching past the point of comfort:


“You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn. [emphasis mine] Thus, it becomes of crucial importance for you not only to be able to be able to read well but also to be able to identify those books that make the kinds of demands on you that improvement in reading ability requires…We have said many times that the good reader makes demands on himself when he reads. He reads actively, effortfully. Now we are saying something else. The books that you will want to practice your reading on, particularly your analytical reading, must also make demands on you. They must seem to you to be beyond your capacity.”

How to Read a Book (Adler, 1940)


Adler may have been explaining How to Read a Book, but he could not do so without also addressing what to read and why to read it. The how, the what, and the why are all intertwined, and the last of those questions has to be answered for the other two to make sense. To fully answer the question of whether you should read more books this year, you must go several steps back to asking exactly why you believe reading to be “good.” This question, which can only be answered for oneself, may still lead some to read many more books this year. But it may lead others to focus their attention and prune their reading lists to the essential few, and perhaps even lead some to overturn their relationship with reading altogether. Whatever the answer, the question will have accomplished its purpose.

Miscellanea: March 2019


The Weird World of Vegan YouTube Stars Is Imploding – Emily Shugerman at The Daily Beast.

Does Homework Work? – Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic

Inside the Secret Facebook War For Mormon Hearts and Minds – Kevin Poulsen at The Daily Beast. “At at time when the nation is focused on Facebook’s whack-a-mole game against covert influencers, MormonAds offers lessons from a quieter kind of Facebook manipulation, a campaign of much smaller scale but equal consequence for those involved. Jones took advantage of the same commodities market in consumer attention that Russia inhabited so effectively in the 2016 election. But MormonAds throws a novel new question into the mix. We may be resigned to faceless corporations buying their way into our thoughts, but are we ready for a world where our neighbors and in-laws can do the same?”

The Reckoning of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center – Bob Moser at The New Yorker.

Fake Outrage Machine on the Right Also – David French at National Review

Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate was once a paid GOP operative – Holly K. Michaels at Helena Independent Record. See also GOP Donors Funded Entire PA Green Party Drive.

Could fake news create fake memories? – Dean Burnett at IAI.

This month in China news: China’s Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population and No Exit: China’s Growing Use of Exit Bans Violates International Law.

How I Would Cover the College-Admissions Scandal as a Foreign Correspondent – Masha Gessen at The New Yorker

Crowdfunding research flips science’s traditional reward model – Holly Else at Nature.

Polarization in Poland: A Warning From Europe – Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic. “Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession. What’s more, the refugee wave that has hit other European countries has not been felt here at all. There are no migrant camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind…More important, though the people I am writing about here, the nativist ideologues, are perhaps not all as successful as they would like to be (about which more in a minute), they are not poor and rural, they are not in any sense victims of the political transition, and they are not an impoverished underclass. On the contrary, they are educated, they speak foreign languages, and they travel abroad…What has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? My answer is a complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.”


Why Cosmic Horror is Hard To Make – Screened at YouTube. Especially interesting in light of the movie Annihilation, which I reviewed in January’s Miscellanea and still consider one of the most thought-provoking movies in recent memory.

The Future of War, and How It Affects YOU – SmarterEveryDay at YouTube. One of the most important videos you’ll see all year, and the prelude to a still-incomplete series on social media manipulation and disinformation campaigns.


Can’t Hurt Me, by David Goggins (3/5). Goggins’ story is an inspiration: raised in an environment of abuse, extreme poverty, and racism, a young man wallows in self-indulgence and feeds his worst tendencies before reaching the breaking point, deciding once and for all to push past the limits that society has placed on him—and that he’s placed on himself. As a memoir, Can’t Hurt Me is at least a solid 4/5. If you struggle with feelings of victimhood or self-limitation, you may get a lot out of Can’t Hurt Me. As a self-improvement manual, however, it didn’t do a whole lot for me except provide a jolt of motivation.

The Science of Intelligent Achievement, by Isaiah Hankel (4/5). Hankel’s book starts and ends with solid, actionable advice that applies to nearly everyone. The only flaw is that the middle third is packed with solid, actionable advice that applies to at most 1% of the population. The middle act is where Hankel takes a detour from psychological research and organizational skills to promote a very specific type of “intelligent achievement:” content marketing. While I’m all in favor of people learning the skills he describes in this section, it’s a weirdly specific path to success for an otherwise general-audience book to prescribe. It’s as if a book titled The Science of Health and Fitness spent the middle 30% describing all the ins and outs of deadlifting—deadlifting is great, and more people should do it, but it’s incredibly out of place.



Black Stone Cherry – Soul Machine

Devin Townsend Project – Deadhead

Tiamat – Cain

Twenty-One Pilots – Jumpsuit



Game of Thrones, Seasons 3-4: Two of the best seasons of the entire show, especially the absolutely incredible season 4. As of this writing, the first episode of the final season has already aired, and I didn’t get to finish my rewatch before viewing that episode, but going through the previous seasons was worth it anyway.

Analysis: The Doomsday Machine, by Daniel Ellsberg

With the possible exception of Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg is probably the most famous whistleblower in American history, responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers that revealed the extent of the US government’s deceptions regarding its involvement in Vietnam. No one aside from a few of Ellsberg’s confidants, however, knew that while he was risking his liberty and reputation to give the public the truth about Vietnam, he was actually sitting on yet more revelations gleaned from his time working as a government contractor—revelations of apocalyptic importance.

The Doomsday Machine is Ellsberg’s part-memoir, part-jeremiad about what he learned working for the RAND corporation as a nuclear planner, why he decided it was important enough to share with the public, and what he believes can be done about it. Many go about their lives blissfully unaware of the precarious history of the world’s collective nuclear systems (the “Doomsday Machine”); others may fancy themselves rather enlightened about the subject. The unsettling truth, though, is that however bad you imagine it to be, the reality is almost certainly worse. The Doomsday Machine is a nonfiction cosmic horror novel, a tale of humans flying too close to the sun and very nearly burning not just themselves, but all life on earth.

My own commentary will be able to add little to the central points Ellsberg makes, so much of this analysis will be comprised mainly of extended quotes from the book.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Looser control and faster responses have been prioritized over safety

Page 63: “Throughout the Cold War such priorities reflected a command environment in which…it was regarded as overwhelmingly more important to assure a Go response when required than to prevent a false alarm or an unauthorized action; and there was a tremendous emphasis on a fast, immediate response to warnings of a nuclear attack and to a high-level Go command…

“…Effective safety catches, whether in the form of rules or physical safeguards, meant potential delays in response. And delays were anathema, dangerous to the mission—of disarming the enemy—and to the survival of the weapons, the command system, and the nation…In the face of an enemy believed to be Hitlerian in savagery and armed with a nuclear force believed (incorrectly) to be superior to our own, all these concerns and considerations of safety and high-level control gave way.

“And there was a further reason…for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to tolerate the shortcomings of the control system, to put up fierce and prolonged resistance to measures that would tighten control of nuclear weapons up and down the line. That was their distrust, above all in a crisis, of the judgment of civilian commanders and their staff and advisors, especially their willingness to launch nuclear attacks when military commanders believed them to be urgently necessary.”

Many hands hover over the Doomsday button

Page 69: “It seemed obvious once I thought about it. The public’s impression of exclusively presidential or even high-level military control, which I’d shared up until that moment, could not be valid. That applied all the more to the notion that only the president himself could ‘push the button.’ Could a single assassin’s bullet, or a temporary separation of the ‘football’ from the president…open a window of total inability to respond to a nuclear attack?

“Not really. The theatrical device represented by the president’s moment-by-moment day-and-night access to the ‘football,’ with its supposedly unique authorization codes, has always been exactly that: theater…Whatever the public declarations to the contrary, there has to be delegation of authority and capability to launch retaliatory strikes, not only to officials outside the Oval Office but outside Washington too, or there would be no real basis for nuclear deterrence.

Page 73: “…it was clear that the same incentives that influenced the president existed for further delegations by lower commanders [emphasis mine].

“Each level of command had reason to worry that during a crisis, an outage of communications, whether due to atmospheric or technical difficulties or an enemy attack on that command headquarters, could paralyze the nuclear capabilities of subordinate units unless they’d been delegated authority to act under such conditions…”

Page 75: “I accepted, as inescapable, the idea of Eisenhower’s delegation of authority to execute war plans to a handful of four-star admirals and generals outside Washington. But I had growing unease, to put it mildly at the prospect that this delegated reverberated downward in a widening circle that permitted authorized launch by more and more subordinate commanders, not to mention the physical possibility of unauthorized action by control officers or by crews of alert nuclear vehicles, whether planes or submarines.”

Deterring strikes against civilian targets counterintuitively requires preserving the enemy’s cities and command/control structure

Page 122-123: “This latter goal required both deterring—if possible—an opponent from launching strikes against the cities of the United States and its allies, even if nuclear war was initiated by one side or the other, and at the same time inducing the opponent’s command authority to stop operations short of expending all his weapons.

“Both of these sub-goals called for three characteristics in our own planning and operations. First, it meant avoiding enemy cities altogether in our own initial strikes: what came to be known as a ‘no cities’ approach. We would have to announce that intention long before hostilities began. Right away, this would be a marked departure from a policy of indicating beforehand and then carrying out our intent to destroy cities in all circumstances, a policy that removed any restraint on the enemy from targeting our own cities.

“Second, it required maintaining protected and controlled US reserve forces under virtually all circumstances, thus preserving a threat capability in order to terminate the war. That might also deter enemy preparations to destroy our cities as an inevitable and automatic wartime strategy.

“Third, it called for preserving on both sides a command and control system capable of both controlling reserve forces and terminating operations. We would need a survivable command system capable of more than a simple ‘Go’ decision; and we could not afford to deprive the Soviets of the same cabability.”

Page 305: “Each side prepares and actually intends to attack the other’s ‘military nervous system,’ command and control…This has become the only hope of preempting and paralyzing the other’s retaliatory capability in such a way as to avoid total devastation; it is what must above all be deterred by the opponent. But in fact it, too, is thoroughly suicidal unless the other side has failed to delegate authority well below the highest levels. Because each side does in fact delegate, hopes for decapitation are totally unfounded. But for the duration of the Cold War, for fear of frightening their own publics, their allies, and the world, neither side discouraged these hopes in the other by acknowledging its own delegation.”

The Pentagon’s presumed nuclear war plan predicted one hundred holocausts would result

Page 136-137: “…275 million would die in the first few hours of our attacks and 325 million would be dead within six months…this was for the Soviet Union and China alone…

“…Another hundred million or so would die in the Eastern European satellite countries from the attacks contemplated in our war plans…

“Fallout from our surface explosions in the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China would decimate the populations in the Sino-Soviet bloc as well as in all the neutral nations bordering these countries…These fatalities from US attacks, up to another hundred million, would occur without a single US warhead landing on the territories of these countries outside the NATO and Warsaw pacts.

“Fallout fatalities inside our Western European NATO allies from US attacks against the Warsaw Pact would depend on climate and wind conditions. As a general testifying before Congress put it, these could be up to a hundred million European allied deaths from out attacks, ‘depending on which way the wind blows’…

“…The total death count from our own attacks, in the estimates supplied by the Joint Staff, was in the neighborhood of six hundred million dead, almost entirely civilians…And these were solely the effects of US warheads, not including any effects from Soviet retaliatory attacks on the United States or US and Allied forces in Europe or elsewhere.”

Intent is not enough to avert nuclear damnation

Page 201: “The fact is that on Saturday, October 27, 1962, a chain of events was in motion that might have come close to ending civilization. How close? A handbreadth.

“That is despite the fact, as I have come to believe, that both leaders, Khruschev and Kennedy, were determined to avoid armed conflict—that both, in fact, were prepared to settle on the other’s terms if necessary, rather than go to war. And yet they hoped, by threatening war, to achieve a better bargain. For the sake of a better deal they both were willing to postpone by hours or days the settlement that each was willing to make. And meanwhile, during those hours, their subordinates (unaware that they were supporting a pure bluff in a game of bargaining) were taking military actions that could unleash an unstoppable train of events, ultimately pulling the trigger on a Doomsday Machine.”

Page 219: “Yes, the world of humans came very close to ending in October 1962…This was not because the two opposing leaders were rash or reckless or insensitive to the potential danger. Both, in fact, were cautious to a degree that neither could know, more cautious than the world or most of their associates could realize. Furthermore, they both shared an extreme abhorrence for the idea of nuclear war, which they recognized as potentially the end of civilization and even of humanity.”

“What a true history of the Cuban missile crisis reveals is that the existence of masses of nuclear weapons in the hands of leaders of the superpowers, the United States and Russia—even when those leaders are about as responsible, humane, and cautious as any we have seen—posed then, and still do, intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization.”

Top 5 Disagreements

Page 219: “A primary lesson I draw from [the Cuban missile crisis] is that the existential danger to humanity of nuclear weapons does not rest solely or even mainly on the possibility of further proliferation of such weapons to ‘rogue’ or ‘unstable’ nations, who would handle and threaten them less ‘responsibly’ than the permanent members of the Security Council, nor does it rest merely on the vagaries of the smaller and more recent nuclear weapons states of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea (though these do enhance the dangers).”

Ellsberg’s belief that nuclear weapons are just as dangerous (or even more so) in the hands of superpowers as in the hands of terrorists and rogue states is plausible, but could be disproven should a rogue actor strike first. This could occur due to a few reasons:

To start, a nuclear deployment by a state by any legs of the nuclear triad will leave that state with almost no deniability whatsoever, while a rogue actor (either working independently or with the surreptitious support of, e.g., North Korea) could act with some measure of anonymity, at least in the short term. Additionally, the size and cohesion of a nation like the US or Russia makes nuclear retaliation plausible, while a decentralized group would almost certainly have to be dealt with using more targeted methods, meaning the risk of escalation to all-out nuclear war decreases when the initial detonation results from rogue/secret actors rather than directly from a nation-state’s nuclear arsenal.

However, as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all of its own; the sheer number of nukes possessed by the world’s nuclear powers increases the surface area for accidents (of which there have been many), cowboys, and ideologues within those nations’ militaries. Also, as Ellsberg points out, crises can escalate due to internal pressures on the leaders even when external incentives (deterrence) and the leaders themselves are pushing for de-escalation. Nations can’t be trusted to act in a collectively rational way.



  • Should a nuclear detonation occur at the hands of a rogue group or state, it would deal a severe blow to Ellsberg’s claim that they are a less severe threat than the more stable superpowers and other members of the Security Council.
  • I am unaware of any factually incorrect statements made by Ellsberg, but by his own admission most of the documentation for his claims was washed away in a flood decades ago. Most of his claims are dependent on his honesty and memory.
  • Increased communication between powers may lead to a situation where the benign intent of the leaders does translate more clearly to policy and decision-making. Part of the reason the famed ‘red telephone’ connecting Moscow and Washington was set up was to avoid a situation like the ones Ellsberg describes in the book and allow the two leaders to communicate more rapidly and directly, avoiding some of the game-theoretic traps inherent in a situation like the Cuban missile crisis.


Connections to Other Works

  • The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb:
    • “No other formulation of a decision problem—this one, the most important in human history!—could have caught my attention so forcefully. ‘Ambiguity’ was not a term then used in academic discussions of risk and uncertainty. I was especially struck to see it in a classified study, because I was in the process of introducing it academically as a technical term, referring to subjective uncertainty when experience was lacking, or information was sparse, the bearing of evidence was unclear, the testimony of observers or experts was greatly in conflict, or the implications of different types of evidence was contradictory. (I conjectured—as was later borne out in many laboratory experiments—that such uncertainty could not be represented by a single, precise numerical probability distribution, either in subjects’ minds or as reflected in their behavior, even though they did not regard it as ‘totally uncertain.’)” (pg. 42)

Closing Thoughts

Scott Alexander opens his essay Meditations on Moloch with an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, a free-form lamentation on the destruction that Moloch, Canaanite god of child sacrifice, brings upon humanity. “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” the excerpt begins. “Moloch!” Ginsberg answers himself. Moloch the “loveless,” the “heavy judger of men,” whose “poverty is the specter of genius,” in whom “I dream angels.”

Alexander goes to work untangling Ginsberg’s metaphorical language and contradictory imagery to find what Moloch is, at the very bottom. Moloch, he concludes, is essentially why humans do what they do even when they don’t want to—the perverse incentives created by distrust, competition, and fear; one hypothetical example cited is Nick Bostrom’s “dictatorless dystopia” in which there are just two rules:

“First, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

“So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.”

Moloch is all the wicked traps the universe laid for humanity before it ever evolved; in a way, it would be comforting to take all the things Moloch is responsible for and say human nature caused them instead. That way, we could say that if we could just change some piece of ourselves—our genetics, our institutions, our cultures—Moloch could be overthrown. But there was nothing that could have been done in the past to avoid him, and nothing in the future; Moloch is necessary, not contingent, in any universe with evolving, competing organisms. It was Moloch that gave rise to human nature, not the other way around.

Moloch is why this book is so critical; as Ellsberg and many others have repeatedly pointed out, we already have one glaring historical example where every decision-maker involved desperately wanted to avert Armageddon but crept ever closer anyway. The Doomsday Machine, it seems, is Moloch’s handiwork.

I finish with yet another extended quote from The Doomsday Machine that sums up the central message better than anything I ever could, and leave you to consider its implications:

“What is missing—what is foregone—in the typical discussion and analysis of historical or current nuclear policies is the recognition that what is being discussed is dizzyingly insane and immoral: in its almost-incalculable and inconceivable destructiveness and deliberate murderousness, its disproportionality of risked and planned destructiveness to either declared or unacknowledged objectives, the infeasibility of its secretly pursued aims (damage limitation to the United States and allies, ‘victory’ in two-sided nuclear war), its criminality (to a degree that explodes ordinary visions of law, justice, crime), its lack of wisdom or compassion, its sinfulness and evil.

“And yet part of what must be grasped—what makes it both understandable, once grasped, and at the same time mysterious and resistant to our ordinary understanding—is that the creation, maintenance, and political threat-use of these monstrous machines has been directed and accomplished by humans pretty much the way we think of them: more or less ordinary people, neither better nor worse than the rest of us, not monsters in either a clinical or mythic sense.

“This particular process, and what it has led to and the dangers it poses to all complex life on earth, shows the human species—when organized hierarchically in large, dense populations, i.e., civilization—at its absolute worst. Is it really possible that ordinary people, ordinary leaders, have created and accepted dangers of the sort I am describing? Every ‘normal’ impulse is to say ‘No! It can’t be that bad!’ (‘And if it ever was, it can’t have persisted. It can’t be true now, in our own country.’)

“We humans almost universally have a false self-image of our species. We think that monstrous, wicked policies must be, can only be, conceived and directed and carried out by monsters, wicked or evil people, or highly aberrant, clinically ‘disturbed; people. People not like ‘us.’ That is mistaken. Those who have created a continuing nuclear threat to the existence of humanity have been normal, ordinary politicians, analysts, and military strategists. To them and to their subordinates, Hannah Arendt’s controversial proposition regarding the ‘banality of evil’ I believe applies, though it might better have been stated as the ‘banality of evildoing, and of most evildoers…’

“…Perhaps reflection on these political, social, and moral failures—preceding though amplified by current premonitions of disastrous decision-making during the tenure of Donald Trump—will lend credibility to my basic theme, otherwise hard to absorb: that the same type of heedless, shortsighted, and reckless decision-making and lying about it has characterized our government’s nuclear planning, threats, and preparations, throughout the nuclear era, risking a catastrophe incomparably greater than all these others together.”



Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!


Final Score: 5/5

Miscellanea: February 2019


99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2018 – Angus Hervey

There’s a Problem With a Bunch of Psychology Textbooks – Jesse Singal at The Cut. “In a paper published last month in Current Psychology by Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University and Jeffrey Brown and Amanda Torres of Texas A&M, the authors evaluated a bunch of psychology textbooks to see how rigorously they covered a bunch of controversial or frequently misrepresented subjects. The results weren’t great.”

The financial world and the magical elixir of confidence – Matt Seybold at

Mic shuts down, a victim of management hubris and Facebook’s pivot to video – Mathew Ingram at Columbia Journalism Review

Dymaxion Chronofile – Wikipedia. “The Dymaxion Chronofile is Buckminster Fuller‘s attempt to document his life as completely as possible. He created a very large scrapbook in which he documented his life every 15 minutes from 1920 to 1983. The scrapbook contains copies of all correspondence, bills, notes, sketches, and clippings from newspapers. The total collection is estimated to be 270 feet (80 m) worth of paper. This is said to be the most documented human life in history.”

The option value of civilization – Tyler Cowen quoting a commenter at Marginal Revolution

Four in-depth pieces on various facets of callout/victimhood culture:

Right Wing Nerds vs. the New Common Sense – Dain Fitzgerald at Splice Today. “’If I see someone in a Batman t-shirt, I no longer assume they’re a sensitive soul,’ laments Jennifer Wright at The New York Times. ‘Instead, I wonder if they harassed women during Gamergate or hang out on incel message boards talking about how Elliot Rodger was right to kill “blonde sorority sluts.”’

A Batman shirt did this.”

White Progressives Shifting Democratic Party to Left and Polarizing America – David French at National Review. “Whites jumped from 34 percent liberal to 54 percent. Only a minority of black and Hispanic Democrats call themselves liberal. Moreover, the liberal surge is driven primarily by college-educated white progressives — the exact people who occupy the commanding heights of American media, the academy, and pop culture. This white-liberal surge dovetails with other data, including the comprehensive “Hidden Tribes” study identifying left-wing polarization as being primarily driven by a “progressive activist” class that is disproportionately white, disproportionately college-educated, and disproportionately secular…And, again, white progressives aren’t just any American constituency. They’re the most culturally powerful people on the planet. This increasingly rapid secularization and liberalization makes national unity far more difficult. There are times when progressives can win and yet get more angry.”

A Witch-Hunt on Instagram – Kathrine Jebsen Moore at Quillette. Believe it or not, knitting is super problematic.

RIP Culture War Thread – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex. Scott has shut down the weekly Culture War thread at /r/SlateStarCodex: “During the last few years of Culture War thread, a consensus grew up that it was heavily right-wing. This isn’t what these data show, and on the few times I looked at it myself, it wasn’t what I saw either…Whatever its biases and whatever its flaws, the Culture War thread was a place where very strange people from all parts of the political spectrum were able to engage with each other, treat each other respectfully, and sometimes even change their minds about some things.

“People settled on a narrative. The Culture War thread was made up entirely of homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis…All these people definitely existed, some of them in droves. All of them had the right to speak; sometimes I sympathized with some of their points. If this had been the complaint, I would have admitted to it right away…But instead it was always that the the thread was “dominated by” or “only had” or “was an echo chamber for” homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the subreddit was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that the SSC community was dominated by homophobic etc neo-Nazis, which always grew into the claim that I personally was a homophobic etc neo-Nazi of them all. I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans people and votes pretty much straight Democrat. I lost distant family in the Holocaust. You can imagine how much fun this was for me.”



Aliens under the Ice – Life on Rogue Planets – Kurzgesagt on YouTube

Slaughterbots – Stop Autonomous Weapons on YouTube



God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert (2/5): I tried. I really did. I wanted to like this book so much, and I intend to give the series another shot at some point in the future. But after a legendary first book and unsteady second and third books, God Emperor of Dune finally broke my spirit. I just don’t give a shit about breeding programs and lonely worm-gods and thirsty Amazon bodyguards anymore. I will hand in my nerd card at the earliest possible moment.

The Pocket Guide to Action, by Kyle Eschenroeder (4/5): Exactly what it says on the tin, a good collection of motivating meditations on doing.

Tools of Titans, by Tim Ferriss (4.5/5): My second time reading this was just as fulfilling as the first. There’s just so much information packed in this book that it’s impossible to use even 10% of what you come across in one reading, so if you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the sheer quantity of useful life hacks that you’d forgotten between reads.



The Dear Hunter – Wait

Puscifer – Rev 22-20

Scotland the Brave



Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-2: In an effort to get my nerd card back after the Dune debacle, I’m rewatching Seasons 1-7 of Game of Thrones in preparation for the eighth and final season. This is a very rewarding show to rewatch; so far, I’ve picked up on missed jokes (“cut off his manhood and feed it to the goats”), forgotten characters, and some big themes that I had lost in the details of episode-to-episode viewing. The biggest idea I’ve settled on so far is how much the violence and suffering in the show isn’t random, contrary to popular opinion. Rather, Game of Thrones enforces cause-and-effect so ruthlessly that many viewers, conditioned to expect good consequences from foolish actions, believe their favorite characters are being punished by a capricious creator. The seeds for the middle, however, were sown in the beginning, and if the showrunners did their job, so were the seeds for ending.

True Detective, Season 1: Easily one of the best single seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Everything I can think of is flawless: the casting, the acting, the pacing, the Southern-Gothic, fever-dream setting. Even better, it transcends the usual boundaries of hard-boiled mystery to ask provocative questions about religion, power, and why people—the good and the bad—do what they do.

Miscellanea: January 2019


The Carbon Footprint of Superheroes and The Geology of Game of Thrones – Miles Traer

How to Lose Tens of Thousands of Dollars on Amazon – Alana Semuels at The Atlantic. Also see Inside the Strange Yet Profitable World of Retail Arbitrage.

How to Eat an Elephant – Tamara Winter on Medium. Helpful tips include “Before dinner, write down tomorrow’s priority list” and “Try not to use your cellphone in bed.” The stuff all (most?) of us know we should do, but don’t.

What a Newfound Kingdom Means for the Tree of Life – Jonathan Lambert at Quanta Magazine

The war over supercooled water – Ashley G. Smart at Physics Today

Defenders of Human Rights Are Making a Comeback – Kenneth Roth at Foreign Policy

‘I’m Petitioning … for the Return of My Life’ – John Leland at The New York Times. “I feel as if I have absolutely no rights at all in the country in which I was born, and therefore in the rest of the world,” Ms. Funke said. She compared her situation to being in prison, then thought better of it. “It’s worse than incarceration,” she said. “At least in prison you have rights.”

In the Fake News Era, Native Ads Are Muddying the Waters – Kat J. McAlipine at Boston University. “Even though her online survey divulged to participants that they were viewing advertisements, many people—more than 9 out of 10 participants—thought they’d been looking at an article.” Study here.

Econ Envy – Julia Rohrer at The 100% CI.

Why the Left is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson – Caitlin Flanagan at The Atlantic. “There are plenty of reasons for individual readers to dislike Jordan Peterson. He’s a Jungian and that isn’t your cup of tea; he is, by his own admission, a very serious person and you think he should lighten up now and then; you find him boring; you’re not interested in either identity politics or in the arguments against it. There are many legitimate reasons to disagree with him on a number of subjects, and many people of good will do. But there is no coherent reason for the left’s obliterating and irrational hatred of Jordan Peterson. What, then, accounts for it?”

Brexit: A Test for Humanity – Tyler Cowen at Bloomberg

A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less – Jenny Anderson at Quartz

The Covington Scissor – Ross Douthat at The New York Times, referencing Scott Alexander. See also I Failed the Covington Catholic Test by Julie Irwin Zimmerman.

Why Ex-Churchgoers Flocked to Trump – Timothy P. Carney at The American Conservative

Go to More Parties? Social Occasions as Home to Unexpected Turning Points in Life Trajectories – Alice Goffman at Social Psychology Quarterly


Why Are There So Few Smartphones In Popular Movies? – Nerdwriter at YouTube

Non-Invasive Brain Surgery – Veritasium at YouTube

How Much of the Earth Can You See at Once? – Vsauce at YouTube

Why Our Villains Are Different Now – Wisecrack at YouTube


Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari (4/5). Sapiens is one of those books that, even if you don’t come away with anything specifically new or exciting or impressive, you just have to respect anyway for its sheer ambition. Covering five figures’ worth of human history in a few hundred pages, Sapiens didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know so much as place a bunch of things I already knew right next to each other and provoke question after question about why those things lined up the way they did.



Ben Howard – Promise

Chris Stapleton – Parachute

Fink – Looking Too Closely

Philip Glass – Six Etudes for Piano – q = 108



Annihilation (4.5/5): I’m still not sure what to think about Annihilation. But I think I think I really like it. Its only real shortcomings were excesses of jump scares and squishy science, but I think the latter still fell within the constraints of the plot and the former is a trivial reason to dislike an otherwise excellent movie. The very fact that I’m still processing this film is testament to how multifaceted the story was and how truly alien its portrayal of an otherworldly visitor was.

Aquaman (3/5): It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s enjoyable to watch and continues the trend of steadily improving post-Wonder Woman DC movies.

I Love You, Man (3.5/5): A sweet and mild bro-comedy. This movie had been recommended to me many times and I’m glad I finally broke down and watched it.

A Knight’s Tale (4/5): You can trash old-fashioned good-vs-evil stories all you want, but it’s hard to dislike them when they’re done as well as A Knight’s Tale. Paul Bettany and Alan Tudyk very nearly steal the spotlight from Heath Ledger.



Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (3/5): So far, I’ve gotten five different endings (SPOILERS AHEAD). While I enjoyed the experience and admire the creators’ willingness to push the envelope, I did come away feeling cheated by the way the different endings effectively retcon their own stories—depending on the choices you make, Stefan may be starring in a movie, he may actually be in the middle of a giant conspiracy, or he may just be bonkers all along. This changing meta-narrative relieves the storytellers from the burden of having to maintain any in-narrative consistency, drastically reducing the payoff as the viewer-storyteller on the other side of the screen.

Miscellanea: December 2018


Climate Solutions: Is It Feasible to Remove Enough CO2 from the Air? – Elizabeth Kolbert at Yale E360

Witches Now Outnumber Presbyterians In The United States – Jonathan Turley.

The national security adviser who colluded with foreign powers — decades before Michael Flynn – Shane O’Sullivan at The Washington Post

Russia’s Secret Weapon? America’s Idiocracy – Michael Weiss at The Daily Beast. “When, exactly, does an unemployed coal miner in Lackawanna already wary of immigrants and the “mainstream media” become convinced that his interests are best served by voting for Trump over Clinton? Will a Pizza-gate ad purchased in rubles or an “Obama Created ISIS” meme cooked up in St. Petersburg be his tipping point, or just more proof that his original prejudices were correct all along? At what point does a millennial democratic socialist in Detroit decide to skip voting altogether to put the finishing touches on her long-awaited Jacobin essay about the Zionist hegemony encoded in Seinfeld? Is it before or after spending 20 minutes reading Sputnik’s slippery summary of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs executives? I doubt even Nate Silver would be able to tell you.”

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself – Nathaniel Rich at Harper’s. “Nobody ever joins a cult. One joins a nonprofit group that promotes green technology, animal rights, or transcendental meditation. One joins a yoga class or an entrepreneurial workshop. One begins practicing an Eastern religion that preaches peace and forbearance. The first rule of recruitment, writes Margaret Singer, the doyenne of cult scholarship, is that a recruit must never suspect he or she is being recruited. The second rule is that the cult must monopolize the recruit’s time. Therefore, in order to have any chance of rescuing a new acolyte, it is critical to act quickly. The problem is that family and friends, much like the new cult member, are often slow to admit the severity of the situation.”

Meet the Double Agent Who Now Controls House Conservatives – Andrew Desiderio at The Daily Beast

Does political party trump ideology? – Andrea Christensen at

Republicans have become their own caricature of postmodernism – Ryan Cooper at The Week

How Russian Trolls Used Meme Warfare to Divide America – Nicholas Thompson and Issie Lapowsky at Wired

How Did the Republican Party Get So Corrupt? – George Packer at The Atlantic

Crossing The Aisle Didn’t Save Republicans This Year – Geoffrey Skelley and Gus Wezerek at FiveThirtyEight. Ahem.

Global Warming Is Setting Fire to American Leadership – Stephen M. Walt

A Preview of Your Chinese FutureBruno Maçães at Foreign Policy

China’s penetration of Silicon Valley creates risks for startups – Heather Somerville at Reuters

The Digital Maginot Line – Renee DiResta at Ribbonfarm. “In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory.”

I’m Sorry But This Is Just Sheer Propaganda – Nathan J. Robinson at Current Affairs

How Much Does Climate Science Matter In A World Run By Politics? – FiveThirtyEight Team.


The Roman Triumph – Historia Civilis at YouTube

Biotechnology and Brain Computer Interfaces – Siraj Raval at YouTube

Slow Motion Suppressor Physics at 150,000 fps (Schlieren Imagery) – Smarter Every Day at YouTube

What is Federal Land? – CGP Grey at YouTube

The Artificial Intelligence That Deleted A Century – Tom Scott at YouTube


The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss (3.5/5): Many years ago, this was my introduction to the works of Tim Ferriss, like it was for many people, and I hated it. I couldn’t believe so many people fell for such obvious snake oil sold by such an obvious douchebag. It wasn’t until several recommendations for his podcast led me to give it a listen, and while I still think 4HWW is far from perfect, I’ve since come to appreciate its unconventional pragmatism.

Zero to One, by Peter Thiel (4.5/5): While I’ve expressed my disagreements with Thiel on AI before, it’s hard to deny Thiel’s genius as an entrepreneur and social critic. Zero to One emphasizes the importance—no, the necessity—of nonconformity and creativity to anyone who wants to make a difference in the world, particularly through business. Highly recommended.

How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler (5/5): Exactly what it says on the cover. While written in 1940, it is possibly even more important in the 21st century as information literacy plays a greater and greater role in the survival and prosperity of democratic societies. Clear and practical.



Katatonia – Ambitions

Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Blue on Black

Mechina – Anathema



Mary Poppins Returns (3/5): The plot was rather thin (mouseover for spoilers), but the acting, spectacle, and overall spirit of the movie are exactly what you’d expect from a new Mary Poppins movie. Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are particularly outstanding as the two leads.

They Shall Not Grow Old (4.5/5): Engaging, technically impressive, and respectfully attentive to detail. My only wish was that it went deeper; with all the archive video and audio they had and the relatively short runtime of 1:39, it seems it could have done so if they wanted it to.



The Vietnam War (5/5): One must always be cautious when comparing real-world events, particularly ones causing such deep wounds as the Vietnam War, to fiction, but I couldn’t help thinking of Greek tragedy when watching Ken Burns’ impeccable documentary series. Tragic irony bleeds from the screen at every turn; the sense within each leader, soldier, and civilian that their hands have been forced and they simply have to take each brutal next step clashes with their (and our) later regret, their recognition that things could have—must have—gone differently. The Vietnam War is a masterpiece. You will almost certainly feel more somber and less sure of yourself after watching it, and that’s why you should do so.

Miscellanea: November 2018


‘Good guys’ in superhero films more violent than villains – Science Daily. “The researchers tallied an average of 23 acts of violence per hour associated with the films’ protagonists, compared with 18 violent acts per hour for the antagonists. The researchers also found the films showed male characters in nearly five times as many violent acts (34 per hour, on average), than female characters, who were engaged in an average of 7 violent acts per hour.”

What the New Sokal Hoax Reveals About Academia – Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic

The Dystopian Future of Facebook – Mark Kernan at Counterpunch

May You Live in Epic Times – Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm

Trump is going to escalate his attacks on American democracy post-election, no matter who wins – Evan McMullin at NBC

In China’s Xinjiang, surveillance is all pervasive – Adrian Brown at Al Jazeera. The first personal account I’ve read of life in Xinjiang, from a reporter who tried to dig deeper and was blocked at virtually every avenue.

What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick? – Gary Greenberg at The New York Times

Strategy Without Politics is No Strategy: A Lesson of World War I for the Trump Era – Kori Schake at Lawfare

Non-Conformist Influence – Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias. See also Hanson on world government.

The Secretive Puppetmaster Behind Trump’s Supreme Court Pick – Jay Michaelson at The Daily Beast. “When President Donald Trump nominates a justice to the Supreme Court on Monday night, he will be carrying out the agenda of a small, secretive network of extremely conservative Catholic activists already responsible for placing three justices (Alito, Roberts, and Gorsuch) on the high court…At the center of the network is Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, the association of legal professionals that has been the pipeline for nearly all of Trump’s judicial nominees…Directly or through surrogates, he has placed dozens of life-tenure judges on the federal bench; effectively controls the Judicial Crisis Network, which led the opposition to President Obama’s high court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland; he heavily influences the Becket Fund law firm that represented Hobby Lobby in its successful challenge of contraception; and now supervises admissions and hires at the George Mason Law School, newly renamed in memory of Justice Antonin Scalia.”

Are Killer Robots the Future of War? Parsing the Facts on Autonomous Weapons – Kelsey D. Atherton at The New York Times

Here Comes ‘The Journal of Controversial Ideas.’ Cue the Outcry. – Tom Bartlett at The Chronicle of Higher Education

How much did the housing shock drive political polarization? – Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution

Fertility fraud: People conceived through errors, misdeeds in the industry are pressing for justice – Ariana Eunjung Cha at The Washington Post

In China, The Communist Party’s Latest, Unlikely Target: Young Marxists – Rob Schmitz at NPR

First analysis of ‘pre-registered’ studies shows sharp rise in null findings – Matthew Warren at Nature

Everything You Know About State Education Rankings Is Wrong – Stan Liebowitz and Matthew L. Kelly at Reason. “…mainstream rankings confirm the biases of many media outlets and the self-serving interests of education functionaries who only gain from higher spending—while also giving short shrift to minority students in predominantly white states. As a result, we suspect that the usual narrative based on those flawed state rankings will continue to predominate.”

Should Evolution Treat Our Microbes as Part of Us? – Andrew Rae at Quanta Magazine

Remember that study saying America is an oligarchy? 3 rebuttals say it’s wrong – Dylan Matthews at Vox. Referring to this study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

Why You Shouldn’t Study Psychology – Maple, Maypole. “A great deal of psychology literature is pretty similar to my first job out of university: Totally pointless, but it’s considered bad form to point this out and get everyone in trouble. A huge amount of the research in psychology does not replicate at all, and many of the most popular claims are obviously ridiculous. However, careers depend on us pretending they aren’t ridiculous, so there is a culture of simply pretending that everything works and ignoring inconvenient results. I’ve even met a lot of psychologists that have managed to successfully self-delude themselves even though they know they can’t understand the statistics involved.”

“They Say We’re White Supremacists”: Inside the Strange World of Conservative College Women – Nancy Jo Sales at Vanity Fair. “She didn’t believe Trump was a racist, she said: ‘I think [his racist comments are] a mix of what he actually feels and political theater. Being a businessman, I think, he knows how to sell something, so he’s trying to create this brand, because he knows if he keeps saying these things, people will keep watching and wondering what is he going to do next and that will intrigue some to vote for him.’” Hmm.

The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg – Duff McDonald at Vanity Fair



End of Space – Creating a Prison for Humanity – Kurzgesagt at YouTube

How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems – NYT News at YouTube

Instant Messaging and the Signal Protocol – Computerphile at YouTube

AI in China – Siraj Raval at YouTube

The kg is dead, long live the kg – Veritasium at YouTube

Visualizing turbulence with a home demo – 3Blue1Brown with Physics Girl at YouTube

Who Owns The Statue of Liberty? (New Jersey vs New York) – CGP Grey at YouTube

Special mention goes to The Great War, a standout YouTube channel that, for the last four years, has uploaded a video every week detailing what was going on in the First World War 100 years before, as well as uploading supplementary videos exploring individuals, countries, and topics in greater depth. With the passing of the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, the channel is wrapping up its namesake project and moving on to new horizons. Indy Neidell, the entertaining and informative host of the channel, has started his own project exploring World War Two.


Radicals Chasing Utopia, by Jamie Bartlett (3/5): Jamie Bartlett wanders from fringe to fringe, rubbing shoulders with everyone from transhumanist biohackers to right-wing anti-Islam activists. It was interesting enough, and I learned something new with just about every group he embedded himself with, but it felt episodic. Analysis of the common threads between these radical groups—or lack thereof—was hard to come by.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg (5/5): Masterful and terrifying. Nuclear war has taken a backseat to newer threats like AI and bioterrorism in many people’s minds, but in this book, Ellsberg reveals just how precarious the post-nuclear world was when he worked as a high-level planner at the RAND Corporation—and how the Doomsday Machine operates on a more sensitive trigger today than it ever did in the height of the Cold War.

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson (2/5): A disappointingly thin work from a historian/author who can do better. Normally I’m all in favor of concision, but The Great Degeneration simply doesn’t have enough meat on its bones. Ferguson doesn’t give himself enough ammo to back up his major claims, even where he’s correct, and in my opinion he heavily relies on faulty readings of Francis Fukuyama and Nassim Taleb.


Bing & Ruth – Starwood Choker

Collapse Under the Empire – The Last Reminder

Oh, Sleeper — Oxygen

Slipknot – All Out Life

Two Feet – Love is a Bitch

Miscellanea: Threefer Madness

Someone forgot to turn the internet off while The Next Five Minutes was away, and links have been accumulating at an alarming rate. They’ve been found scurrying all over the server rooms and internet tubes, even threatening to overrun the blog itself. It was only after an arduous week-long hunt that we managed to collect all three months’ worth of articles, videos, books, and music and corral them all in one long post.


In With the Out Crowd – Steve Lagerfield at The Hedgehog Review. Reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Lonely Dissent.

Future Dystopias Are Our Past and Present Human Nature – Tom Ruby at Bluegrass Critical Thinking Solutions. See also The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tinfoil Hat Gun Prepper from April’s Miscellanea.

The Bro Code – James Palmer at ChinaFile.

It Took a Village to Raise Kavanaugh – David Brooks at The New York Times. “The conservative legal establishment is fully mature. Trump bucked the conservative foreign policy establishment and the conservative economic establishment, but he’s given the conservative legal establishment more power than ever before, which is why there are so few never-Trumpers in legal circles… It’s a lesson for everybody. If you emphasize professional excellence first, if you gain a foothold in society’s mainstream institutions, if you build a cohesive band of brothers and sisters, you can transform the landscape of your field.”

What the West Is Becoming — Bruno Maçães at National Review. “To understand what the West is becoming, travel to Turkey, Egypt, or Pakistan. These are countries that, while never admitted to the club, were always of enormous strategic importance for Western powers, whose constant involvement created a culture of suspicion and resentment. What has been taking place in the U.S. since the 2016 elections would look strikingly familiar to Turks or Egyptians. Some episode or other of foreign involvement in the democratic process is reported. That is bad enough as far as it goes, but it gets worse. Once the fatal virus of suspicion enters the political bloodstream, it will never leave.” Tyler Cowen riffs on similar themes of trust and the international order in his column for Bloomberg.

India’s Biometric Database Is Creating A Perfect Surveillance State — And U.S. Tech Companies Are On Board – Paul Blumenthal and Gopal Sathe at The Huffington Post.

Meet the Anarchists Making Their Own Medicine – Daniel Oberhaus at Vice.

Did China think Donald Trump was bluffing on trade? How Beijing got it wrong – Wendy Wu and Kristin Huang at the South China Morning Post. An positive take on the Trump administration’s trade war with China, and how while we may lose ground economically, China may lose ground strategically. Compare and contrast with Shannon Mercer and Robert Williams’ negative take at Lawfare, as well as Timothy Heath’s broader analysis of China’s position, also at Lawfare.

A new digital divide: Young people who can’t use keyboards – Toshihiko Katsuda at The Asahi Shimbun.

The Strange Life of a Murderer Turned Crime Blogger – Kenneth R. Rosen at Wired.

Chinese interference in New Zealand at ‘critical’ stage, says Canada spy report – Eleanor Ainge Roy at The Guardian. The arms race over new forms of information warfare have only just begun, and their escalations beyond Russia’s now-confirmed interference in 2016 have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Our doctors are too educated – Akhilesh Pathipathi at The Washington Post.

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW – Jacob Falkovich at Quillette. A sort of self-defense from the IDW, given that Quillette has found itself as the online epicenter of the movement. I’m still broadly positive toward the IDW; with recent revelations on the sad state of left-leaning academic disciplines, the Democrats’ inability to form a coherent worldview, and the ever-intensifying threat of the radical right, I think the IDW—or at least something like it—is more important now than ever.

Paul Singer, Doomsday Investor – Sheelah Kolhatkar at The New Yorker

If the Future is Big – Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias. Examines the implications of long-term thinking on our present actions. See also More Than Death, Fear DecayTwo Types of Future Filters, and Future Influence Is Hard.

Reality Maintenance – Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm.

Exterminate Mosquitoes for the Sake of Humanity – James D. Miller at Quillette

The School Shootings That Weren’t – Anya Kamenetz at NPR. “This spring the U.S. Education Department reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, ‘nearly 240 schools … reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.’ The number is far higher than most other estimates. But NPR reached out to every one of those schools repeatedly over the course of three months and found that more than two-thirds of these reported incidents never happened.”

Why aren’t kids being taught to read? – Emily Hanford at APM Reports.

The Big Myth About Teenage Anxiety – Richard A. Friedman at The New York Times

Russia is quietly seizing territory in Georgia as it warns of a ‘horrible conflict’ if the Eurasian country joins NATO – John Haltiwanger at Business Insider.

Neural Correlates of Four Broad Temperament Dimensions: Testing Predictions for a Novel Construct of Personality – Brown, Acevedo, and Fisher at PLOS One. For years, personality psychology has been dominated by a well-validated system known as the Big Five, which relies on “factors” rather than “types,” i.e. you simply have higher or lower scores on various characteristics rather than getting described in a categorically different manner from someone else. This study suggests that may be changing.

Dissolving the Fermi Paradox – Sandberg, Drexler, and Ord at the Future of Humanity Institute. I think “dissolving” is probably a strong word, but the authors do point out a surprisingly simple reason why there might be a discrepancy between our expectations of alien life and the reality that we haven’t found it. Perhaps the paper downgrades it from a paradox to a mere conundrum.


The State of Brain-Machine Interfaces – YouTube

The World in UV – Veritasium at YouTube

A Beetle’s Beloved Beer Bottle – Brain Scoop at YouTube

Wormholes Explained – Breaking Spacetime – Kurzgesagt at YouTube

Heroism and Moral Victory – The Lord of the Rings (part 1) – Like Stories of Old at YouTube. Part 2 (A Mythology of Hope) can be found here.


Citizen Soldiers, by Stephen Ambrose (3.5/5): Another solid Stephen Ambrose work that found a good balance of engagement and thoroughness.

How to Make a Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie (3.5/5): Tells the story of Peter Diamandis (author of Bold, mentioned in July’s miscellanea), as well as a few other figures from the X-Prize saga I’d never heard of before. Seemed quite partial to the Randian worldview, often explicitly, but given that the book is about a group of frustrated entrepreneurs beating the government at its own game, I can’t judge it too harshly.

Brain Rules, by John Medina (4/5): Straightforward, brief, and practical. Lacks depth, but if you’re looking for a quick-and-dirty guide to brain health you could definitely do worse.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris (4/5): While a long-time listener of Harris’ podcast, I’d never read any of his books until Waking Up, which I found to be an enlightening (no, really) and thought-provoking work of neuroscience, philosophy, and spirituality. Especially recommended for those interested in a) mindfulness meditation without the woo, or b) neuroscientific reasons to be skeptical about souls and dualism.

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens (4.5/5): This was my second time reading Letters to a Young Contrarian, and while I enjoyed it plenty the first time, I think I’m in a better position to appreciate Hitchens now a few years later; see the first two essays linked above for a nice complement. Hitchens’ flowery prose is the only thing stopping me from giving this five stars.

Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert (4/5): Children of Dune is a marked step up from Dune Messiah and very nearly matches the original. Where the overwrought intrigue of Dune Messiah left that work a confused mess, Children of Dune manages to blend deception, action, and character development much more deftly.

The Evolving Self, by Robert Kegan (4.5/5): I just finished The Evolving Self a few days ago and there’s still plenty to digest. The long and short of it is that Kegan (writing in 1982) believed that the most effective way to understand human psychological development is by looking at how people come to see various aspects of life (the physical world, relationships, social structures, etc.) as either subjects (bound to the self) or objects (separate from the self), depending on what is appropriate for a person’s stage of development. Lots to learn—a breakdown is forthcoming (fingers crossed).


Alice in Chains – Them Bones

Auf Der Maur – Followed the Waves

Bonobo – Second Sun

DevilDriver – Sail (AWOLNATION cover)

Dorothy – Who Do You Love?

Max Richter – The Departure

Muse – The Dark Side

TesseracT – Luminary

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – What Comes Back

Analysis: A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question shows a variety of ways that asking better questions can provoke positive change in life, relationships, and business, and provides a broad framework for how to do so in actionable ways. It’s a flawed book, but a worthwhile read with an underappreciated thesis.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 8: A “Beautiful Question” changes the way we think and serves as a catalyst

“A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Page 23: Navigating modern society requires us to retain childlike curiosity

“As expertise loses its ‘shelf life,’ it also loses some of its value. If we think of ‘questions’ and ‘answers’ as stocks on the market, then we could say that, in this current environment, questions are rising in value while answers are declining…We must become, in a word, neotenous (neoteny being a biological term that describes the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood). To do so, we must rediscover the tool that kids use so well in those early years: the question. [MIT’s Joi] Ito puts it quite simply: ‘You don’t learn unless you question.’”

Page 75: Different problems call for different mindsets and different questions

“Each stage of the problem-solving process has distinct challenges and issues—requiring a different mind-set, along with different types of questions. Expertise is helpful at certain points, not so helpful at others; wide-open, unfettered divergent thinking is critical at one stage, discipline and focus is called for at another. By thinking of questioning and problem-solving in a more structured way, we can remind ourselves to shift approaches, change tools, and adjust our questions according to which stage we’re entering.”

Page 133: You’re never quite done questioning; successful inquiry leads to more inquiry

“While the How stage is positioned here as a third and final stage of innovative questioning, there really is no final stage—because the questions don’t end, even when you arrive at a solution. Many successful questioners, having arrived at an ‘answer,’ quickly return to asking questions. Often, they’re questioning the very answers they found, which may not have been definitive. There is invariably room (and the need) to find ways to improve those solutions, to expand upon them, take them to another level.”

Page 183: People avoid questioning primarily because they’re scared they won’t find satisfactory answers

“Among the reasons people tend to avoid fundamental questioning of much of what they do in their lives (especially the important things), four stand out:

  • Questioning is seen as counterproductive; it’s the answers that most people are focused on finding, because answers, it is believed, will provide ways to solve problems, move ahead, improve life.
  • The right time for asking fundamental questions never seems to present itself; either it’s too soon or too late.
  • Knowing the right questions to ask is difficult (so better not to ask at all)
  • Perhaps the most significant: What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise? Fearing that, many figure it’s better not to invite that additional uncertainty and doubt into their lives.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 31: Effective questioning often takes the form of 1) Why?, 2) What If?, and 3) How?

“In observing how questioners tackle problems, I noticed a pattern in many of the stories:

  • Person encounters a situation that is less than ideal; asks Why.
  • Person begins to come up with ideas for possible improvements/solutions—with such ideas usually surfacing in the form of What If possibilities.
  • Person takes one of these possibilities and tries to implement it or make it real; this mostly involves figuring out How.

The Why/What If/How sequence represents a basic and logical progression, drawing, in part, on several existing models that break down the creative problem-solving process.”

Page 107: Knowledge forms the raw material that gets connected by effective questioning

“In particular, if your curiosity has been focused on a particular problem, and you’ve been doing dep thinking, contextual inquiry, questioning the problem from various perspectives and angles, asking your multiple Whys—it all becomes fodder for later insights and smart recombinations.

“So even though it can initially be beneficial to approach a problem with a beginner’s mind, as you progress to imagining What If solutions, it’s useful to have some acquired knowledge on the problem—preferably gathered from diverse viewpoints. It also helps to have a wide base of knowledge on all sorts of things that might seem to be unrelated to the problem—the more eclectic your storehouse of information, the more possibilities for unexpected connections.”

Pg. 112: Deliberately think wrong

“The idea, then, is to force your brain off those predictable paths by purposely ‘thinking wrong’—coming up with ideas that seem to make no sense, mixing and matching things that don’t normally go together.”

Pg. 146: Use questioning to impose and remove constraints

“History and routine aren’t the only things that can impede a company’s forward movement. Various real-world constraints can also inhibit a company’s ability to adapt and innovate; for example, being overly concerned with practical issues such as costs and budgets tends to limit the scope of creative thinking. That’s why some business leaders (including Steve Jobs when he headed Apple) have been known to use What If hypothetical questioning to temporarily remove practical constraints…

“By temporarily removing these restrictions, people’s imaginations are freed up to find the best idea, cost notwithstanding. You might end up with a ground-breaking possibility that can then be scaled back to make it more affordable.

“Conversely, using What If questions to impose constraints can also be effective. By challenging people to think about creating or achieving something within extreme limits—What if we could only charge ten bucks for our hundred-dollar service?—it forces a rethinking of real-world practicalities and assumptions.”

Pg. 195: Use experiments to act upon your questions

“…experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the way you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment.

“…If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but if you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences—if you take the time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on—it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.”

Top 5 Disagreements

A More Beautiful Question has one overarching problem that appears in multiple contexts throughout the book, and it’s the way the book deals with prior knowledge. While there are some half-hearted caveats (e.g. pg. 107) to make sure the reader knows that no, knowledge doesn’t ALWAYS hamper creativity and questioning, the book frequently claims or insinuates that “the value of explicit information is dropping” and that knowledge may be “obsolete.” But if you have read Make It Stick (or my analysis of it), you know that the often-denigrated “rote memorization” is actually crucial to performing any higher-level cognitive tasks.

Think of everything you hold in your memory—everything from the little facts and figures to the broader conceptual understanding—and picture it as a giant cluster, where each bit of knowledge is a separate piece that contributes to the whole and makes it a little bit bigger. New knowledge comes flying toward it, sometimes missing but sometimes sticking, and the bigger the cluster is, the more surface area there is for new knowledge to stick to. In this way, knowledge has a snowball effect where everything you learn makes it easier to learn yet more things, but only when it’s actually kept in the snowball. If you rely on writing or computers to be substitutes for memory, you lose that extra surface area and that cumulative advantage to learning new things.

Picture your snowball of knowledge again, and picture each piece of knowledge being combined, compared, and contrasted with all the other pieces; this is what it’s like when you exercise higher-level skills like creativity and analysis. Contrary to the “wisdom” that is rapidly becoming conventional in the digital age, it is not sufficient to hold those individual bits of knowledge outside your head with the use of technology. Research has conclusively shown that students who carry more basic facts around in their memory are able to perform better at higher-level tasks. When you create, you need raw material to create with. When you analyze, you need some thing to analyze.

A More Beautiful Question does acknowledge certain circumstances where prior knowledge is helpful, but based on my reading, I’m afraid that uninformed readers will come away with the misconception that they should deprioritize memorization of facts if they want to become better thinkers on complex topics. It’s important that readers understand that the opposite is true: simply having basic, nuts-and-bolts information about a topic readily available in memory dramatically increases one’s ability to perform more complex cognitive tasks.

Connections to Other Works

Outgoing Connections

  • Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel
    • “In the current era of Google and Watson, with databases doing much of the ‘knowing’ for us, many critics today question the wisdom of an education system that still revolves around teaching students to memorize facts. One such education critic, the author Sugata Mitra, made just this point at a TED Conference by tossing out the provocative question Is ‘knowing’ obsolete? Of course, not all knowledge is mere factual information; the TED question, as worded, is overly broad. But if we zero in on a narrow kind of knowledge—stored facts or ‘answers’—then that kind of ‘knowing’ might be better left to machines with more memory.” (pg. 27)
  • Zero to One, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
    • “PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel believes entrepreneurs can find ideas to pursue by asking themselves, What is something I believe that nearly no one agrees with me on?” (pg. 151)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
    • “The author and creativity coach Eric Maisel says that when people ask, How can I find the meaning of life?, they’re asking a ‘completely useless question.’ That classic query is based on the flawed notion that ‘meaning’ is an objective truth to be found out there somewhere. Better to think of it this way, Maisel says: We have to construct meaning in our lives, based on everyday choices—and every one of those choices is a question. Why should I do X? Is it work my time and effort to do Y?” (pg. 185)
  • The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Chef, by Tim Ferriss
    • “…experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the ways you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment…If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but if you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences—if you take time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on—it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.” (pg. 195)
  • Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock
    • “…one other question comes highly recommended from Michael Corning, a top engineer at Microsoft, who said he has relied on this in both his work and his life: What are the odds I’m wrong? As Corning points out, just pausing every once in a while to ponder this question can provide a check on our natural tendency to be overly certain of our own views.” (pg. 206)

Incoming Connections

Closing Thoughts

The question is a woefully underused tool, and Warren Berger deserves credit for exploring it in detail for a popular audience, thereby providing them with the skills to use it in a variety of potentially profound arenas, but stumbles by denigrating prior knowledge and leaving readers unequipped to integrate it into their questions.

Final Score: 3.5/5

Miscellanea: July 2018


Normcore – Jedediah Purdy at Dissent

Europe needs to start planning for a future with no U.S. – Anne Applebaum at The Washington Post

Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web – Bari Weiss at The New York Times. I’m a bit late to the party—the article was written in May—but I’m fascinated by the both the existence of and reaction to the group. I’ve paid attention to various figures in the group for years, primarily Harris, Rogan, Sommers, and Shermer, and have seen them coalesce into what could at one point have generally been described as a center-left reaction against identity politics. I’m a fan of this in principle, but puzzled by some of the strange bedfellows the IDW has created. Ben Shapiro, for instance, strikes me as intelligent and well-spoken, but not quite enough so to warrant his apparent rock-star intellectual status, and his rarely-discussed but open bigotry would in a sane universe be enough to disqualify him from a group desperately trying to establish a third way between the insanities of racism and political correctness.

Napoleon was the Best General Ever, and the math proves it – Ethan Arsht at Towards Data Science. Many asterisks on that statement, but still an entertaining and enlightening approach to the oft-debated topic of who the greatest general in history really was.

All it takes to win McDonald’s Monopoly is a massive, country-wide criminal conspiracy – Randall Colburn at The AV Club

Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia – Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex

Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Putin – Julia Ioffe at National Geographic

How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) – Tim Urban at Wait But Why

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party – The Weekly Sift

Why Being a Foster Child Made Me More Conservative – Rob Henderson at The New York Times

What Happens to the Plastic We Throw Out – National Geographic

Fork Science – Bayesian Investor Blog

The Coming Age of Special Warfare – The XX Committee

Epistemic Spillovers: Learning Others’ Political Views Reduces the Ability to Assess and Use Their Expertise in Nonpolitical Domains – Marks et al. in Harvard Law School, Public Law & Legal Theory, Research Paper Series. “We find that participants falsely concluded that politically like-minded others were better at categorizing shapes and thus chose to hear from them. Participants were also more influenced by politically like-minded others, even when they had good reason not to be. The results demonstrate that knowing about others’ political views interferes with the ability to learn about their competency in unrelated tasks, leading to suboptimal information-seeking decisions and errors in judgement.”

Artificial Neural Nets Grow Brainlike Navigation Cells – John Rennie in Quanta. “’I think with this work, we were able to give a proof of principle that grid cells are used for taking shortcuts,’ Banino said. The results therefore supported theories that grid cells in the brain are capable of both path integration and vector-based navigation. Comparable experimental proof with studies on living animals, he added, would be much more difficult to obtain.”

How to change emotions with a word – The Economist



World Models Explained – Siraj Raval at YouTube

Code vs. Data – Computerphile at YouTube



Endurance, by Alfred Lansing (5/5): Rarely has a book humbled and thrilled me as much as Endurance. Even having read it before, I felt my stomach drop with every failure and my heart soar with every success just as I did the first time I experienced this wonderful work of historical adventure. Lansing did an incredible job of painting such a rich picture of the expedition with such a short volume, always turning just the right phrase to evoke a complete Antarctic landscape and the twenty-eight men who occupied it for hundreds of days before making their escape.

Bold, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler (4/5): Bold was a refreshing dose of techno-optimism, if a slightly dated-feeling one (believing tech is good is sooooo 2015). Diamandis and Kotler demonstrate a variety of ways that an enterprising individual or team can take advantage of hidden nonlinearities in the world even without the resources of big governments or corporations. It did seem as though the authors were a bit too quick to try and draw examples from Diamandis’ own life even when many of Diamandis’ entrepreneurial successes seem to only loosely connect to the specific exponential lessons of the book. This is hardly a slight against Diamandis, however, and reading Bold inspired me to read Julian Guthrie’s biography of him titled How to Make a Spaceship.



Audrey Fall – Wolmar

Delain – April Rain

Foo Fighters – The Line

Nine Inch Nails – 12 Ghosts II

Ramin Djawadi – Codex



Derren Brown: The Push (Netflix) (7/10): A month has passed and I’m still not sure what to think of The Push. Everything it says about human nature, I basically agree with—we’re easily scared, easily manipulated, easily fooled; walking murder machines when coaxed just so. That said, I still found it hard to swallow a lot of this movie. First, remember that all those characteristics apply to us, the viewers, not just the unwitting actors on screen, and realize that even given everything shown to us, the setup of The Push was a highly abnormal scenario, with participants pre-screened for high compliance and then put into a carefully crafted pressure cooker. Second, remember that we probably didn’t even see everything that truly went into the production, and that what was left out could be more telling than what was left in.


TV Shows

Westworld Season 2 (9/10): Ignore the skeptics: Westworld is still one of the best shows on TV. The second season had a few mid-season hiccups preventing it from reaching quite as high as the first, but it recovered well with several strong episodes leading into a dark, poignant finale. If season 3 happens (and it certainly looks that way), the show will be a very different animal going forward; there’s still plenty of room for more storytelling, but the end of season 2 clearly marked the end of a phase.