Archive for the ‘The Fate of Humanity’ Category

The easiest exercise in the moral philosophy book

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

Peter Singer, in the parable that came to represent his whole worldview and that of the effective altruism movement more generally, asked us to imagine that we could save a drowning child at the cost of jumping into a lake and ruining an expensive new suit. Assuming we’d do that, he argued that we do in fact face an ethically equivalent choice; if we don’t donate most of our income to save children in the Third World, then we need to answer for why, as surely as the person who walked past the kid thrashing in the water.

In this post, I don’t want to take a position on Singer’s difficult but important hypothetical. I merely want to say: suppose that to save the child, you didn’t even have to jump in the water. Suppose you just had to toss a life preserver, one you weren’t using. Or suppose you just had to assure the child that it was OK to grab your life raft that was already in the water.

That, it seems, is the situation that the US and other rich countries will increasingly face with covid vaccines. What’s happening in India right now looks on track to become a humanitarian tragedy, if it isn’t already. Even if, as Indian friends tell me, this was a staggering failure of the Modi government, people shouldn’t pay for it with their lives. And we in the US now have tens of millions of vaccine doses sitting in warehouses unused, for regulatory and vaccine hesitancy reasons—stupidly, but we do. We’re past the time, in my opinion, when it’s morally obligatory either to use the doses or to give them away. Anyone in a position to manufacture more vaccines for distribution to poor countries, should also immediately get the intellectual property rights to do so.

I was glad to read, just this weekend, that the US is finally starting to move in the right direction. I hope it moves faster.

And I’m sorry that this brief post doesn’t contain any information or insight that you can’t find elsewhere. It just made me feel better to write it, is all.

On standing up sans backbone

Monday, February 15th, 2021

Note: To get myself into the spirit of writing this post, tonight I watched the 2019 movie Mr. Jones, about the true story of the coverup of Stalin’s 1932-3 mass famine by New York Times journalist Walter Duranty. Recommended!

In my last post, I wrote that despite all my problems with Cade Metz’s New York Times hit piece on Scott Alexander, I’d continue talking to journalists—even Metz himself, I added, assuming he’d still talk to me after my public disparagement of his work. Over the past few days, though, the many counterarguments in my comments section and elsewhere gradually caused me to change my mind. I now feel like to work with Metz again, even just on some quantum computing piece, would be to reward—and to be seen as rewarding—journalistic practices that are making the world worse, and that this consideration overrides even my extreme commitment to openness.

At the least, before I could talk to Metz again, I’d need a better understanding of how the hit piece happened. What was the role of the editors? How did the original hook—namely, the rationalist community’s early rightness about covid-19—disappear entirely from the article? How did the piece manage to evince so little curiosity about such an unusual subculture and such a widely-admired writer? How did it fail so completely to engage with the rationalists’ ideas, instead jumping immediately to “six degrees of Peter Thiel” and other reductive games? How did an angry SneerClubber, David Gerard, end up (according to his own boast) basically dictating the NYT piece’s content?

It’s always ripping-off-a-bandage painful to admit when trust in another person was wildly misplaced—for then who else can we not trust? But sometimes that’s the truth of it.

I continue to believe passionately in the centrality of good journalism to a free society. I’ll continue to talk to journalists often, about quantum computing or whatever else. I also recognize that the NYT is a large, heterogeneous institution (I myself published in it twice); it’s not hard to imagine that many of its own staff take issue with the SSC piece.

But let’s be clear about the stakes here. In the discussion of my last post, I described the NYT as “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization” [alright, alright, American civilization!]. What’s really at issue, beyond the treatment of a single blogger, is whether the NYT can continue serving that central role in a world reshaped by social media, resurgent fascism, and entitled wokery.

Sure, we all know that the NYT has been disastrously wrong before: it ridiculed Goddard’s dream of spaceflight, denied the Holodomor, relegated the Holocaust to the back pages while it was happening, published the fabricated justifications for the Iraq War. But the NYT and a few other publications were still the blockchain of reality, the engine of the consensus of all that is, the last bulwark against the conspiracists and the anti-vaxxers and the empowered fabulists and the horned insurrectionists storming the Capitol, because there was no ability to coordinate around any serious alternative. I’m still skeptical that there’s a serious alternative, but I now look more positively than I did just a few days ago on attempts to create one.

To all those who called me naïve or a coward for having cooperated with the NYT: believe me, I’m well aware that I wasn’t born with much backbone. (I am, after all, that guy on the Internet who famously once planned on a life of celibate asceticism, or more likely suicide, rather than asking women out and thereby risking eternal condemnation as a misogynistic sexual harasser by the normal, the popular, the socially adept, the … humanities grads and the journalists.) But whenever I need a pick-me-up, I tell myself that rather than being ashamed about my lack of a backbone, I can take pride in having occasionally managed to stand even without one.

A grand anticlimax: the New York Times on Scott Alexander

Saturday, February 13th, 2021

Updates (Feb. 14, 2021): Scott Alexander Siskind responds here.

Last night, it occurred to me that despite how disjointed it feels, the New York Times piece does have a central thesis: namely, that rationalism is a “gateway drug” to dangerous beliefs. And that thesis is 100% correct—insofar as once you teach people that they can think for themselves about issues of consequence, some of them might think bad things. It’s just that many of us judge the benefit worth the risk!

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!


Back in June, New York Times technology reporter Cade Metz, who I’d previously known from his reporting on quantum computing, told me that he was writing a story about Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex, and the rationalist community. Given my position as someone who knew the rationalist community without ever really being part of it, Cade wondered whether I’d talk with him. I said I’d be delighted to.

I spent many hours with Cade, taking his calls and emails morning or night, at the playground with my kids or wherever else I was, answering his questions, giving context for his other interviews, suggesting people in the rationalist community for him to talk to, in exactly the same way I might suggest colleagues for a quantum computing story. And then I spent just as much time urging those people to talk to Cade. (“How could you possibly not want to talk? It’s the New York Times!”) Some of the people I suggested agreed to talk; others refused; a few were livid at me for giving a New York Times reporter their email addresses without asking them. (I apologized; lesson learned.)

What happened next is already the stuff of Internet history: the NYT’s threat to publish Scott’s real surname; Scott deleting his blog as a way to preempt that ‘doxing’; 8,000 people, including me, signing a petition urging the NYT to respect Scott’s wish to keep his professional and blog identities separate; Scott resigning from his psychiatry clinic and starting his own low-cost practice, Lorien Psychiatry; his moving his blog, like so many other writers this year, to Substack; then, a few weeks ago, his triumphant return to blogging under his real name of Scott Siskind. All this against the backdrop of an 8-month period that was world-changingly historic in so many other ways: the failed violent insurrection against the United States and the ouster, by democratic means, of the president who incited it; the tragedy of covid and the long-delayed start of the vaccination campaign; the BLM protests; the well-publicized upheavals at the NYT itself, including firings for ideological lapses that would’ve made little sense to our remote ancestors of ~2010.

And now, as an awkward coda, the New York Times article itself is finally out (non-paywalled version here).

It could’ve been worse. I doubt it will do lasting harm. Of the many choices I disagreed with, I don’t know which were Cade’s and which his editors’. But no, I was not happy with it. If you want a feature-length, pop condensation of the rationalist community and its ideas, I preferred this summer’s New Yorker article (but much better still is the book by Tom Chivers).

The trouble with the NYT piece is not that it makes any false statements, but just that it constantly insinuates nefarious beliefs and motives, via strategic word choices and omission of relevant facts that change the emotional coloration of the facts that it does present. I repeatedly muttered to myself, as I read: “dude, you could make anything sound shady with this exact same rhetorical toolkit!”

Without further ado, here’s a partial list of my issues:

  1. The piece includes the following ominous sentence: “But in late June of last year, when I approached Siskind to discuss the blog, it vanished.”  This framing, it seems to me, would be appropriate for some conman trying to evade accountability without ever explaining himself. It doesn’t make much sense for a practicing psychiatrist who took the dramatic step of deleting his blog in order to preserve his relationship with his patients—thereby complying with an ethical code that’s universal among psychiatrists, even if slightly strange to the rest of us—and who immediately explained his reasoning to the entire world. In the latter framing, of course, Scott comes across less like a fugitive on the run and more like an innocent victim of a newspaper’s editorial obstinacy.
  2. As expected, the piece devotes enormous space to the idea of rationalism as an on-ramp to alt-right extremism.  The trouble is, it never presents the idea that rationalism also can be an off-ramp from extremism—i.e., that it can provide a model for how even after you realize that mainstream sources are confidently wrong on some issue, you don’t respond by embracing conspiracy theories and hatreds, you respond by simply thinking carefully about each individual question rather than buying a worldview wholesale from anyone.  Nor does the NYT piece mention how Scott, precisely because he gives right-wing views more charity than some of us might feel they deserve, actually succeeded in dissuading some of his readers from voting for Trump—which is more success than I can probably claim in that department! I had many conversations with Cade about these angles that are nowhere reflected in the piece.
  3. The piece gets off on a weird foot, by describing the rationalists as “a group that aimed to re-examine the world through cold and careful thought.”  Why “cold”?  Like, let’s back up a few steps: what is even the connection in the popular imagination between rationality and “coldness”? To me, as to many others, the humor, humanity, and warmth of Scott’s writing were always among its most notable features.
  4. The piece makes liberal use of scare quotes. Most amusingly, it puts scare quotes around the phrase “Bayesian reasoning”!
  5. The piece never mentions that many rationalists (Zvi Mowshowitz, Jacob Falkovich, Kelsey Piper…) were right about the risk of covid-19 in early 2020, and then again right about masks, aerosol transmission, faster-spreading variants, the need to get vaccines into arms faster, and many other subsidiary issues, even while public health authorities and the mainstream press struggled for months to reach the same obvious (at least in retrospect) conclusions.  This omission is significant because Cade told me, in June, that the rationalist community’s early rightness about covid was part of what led him to want to write the piece in the first place (!).  If readers knew about that clear success, would it put a different spin on the rationalists’ weird, cultlike obsession with “Bayesian reasoning” and “consequentialist ethics” (whatever those are), or their nerdy, idiosyncratic worries about the more remote future?
  6. The piece contains the following striking sentence: “On the internet, many in Silicon Valley believe, everyone has the right not only to say what they want but to say it anonymously.” Well, yes, except this framing makes it sound like this is a fringe belief of some radical Silicon Valley tribe, rather than just the standard expectation of most of the billions of people who’ve used the Internet for most of its half-century of existence.
  7. Despite thousands of words about the content of SSC, the piece never gives Scott a few uninterrupted sentences in his own voice, to convey his style. This is something the New Yorker piece did do, and which would help readers better understand the wit, humor, charity, and self-doubt that made SSC so popular.  To see what I mean, read the NYT’s radically-abridged quotations from Scott’s now-classic riff on the Red, Blue, and Gray Tribes and decide for yourself whether they capture the spirit of the original (alright, I’ll quote the relevant passage myself at the bottom of this post). Scott has the property, shared by many of my favorite writers, that if you just properly quote him, the words leap off the page, wriggling free from the grasp of any bracketing explanations and making a direct run for the reader’s brain. All the more reason to quote him!
  8. The piece describes SSC as “astoundingly verbose.”  A more neutral way to put it would be that Scott has produced a vast quantity of intellectual output.  When I finish a Scott Alexander piece, only in a minority of cases do I feel like he spent more words examining a problem than its complexities really warranted.  Just as often, I’m left wanting more.
  9. The piece says that Scott once “aligned himself” with Charles Murray, then goes on to note Murray’s explosive views about race and IQ. That might be fair enough, were it also mentioned that the positions ascribed to Murray that Scott endorses in the relevant post—namely, “hereditarian leftism” and universal basic income—are not only unrelated to race but are actually progressive positions.
  10. The piece says that Scott once had neoreactionary thinker Nick Land on his blogroll. Again, important context is missing: this was back when Land was mainly known for his strange writings on AI and philosophy, before his neoreactionary turn.
  11. The piece says that Scott compared “some feminists” to Voldemort.  It didn’t explain what it took for certain specific feminists (like Amanda Marcotte) to prompt that comparison, which might have changed the coloration. (Another thing that would’ve complicated the picture: the rationalist community’s legendary openness to alternative gender identities and sexualities, before such openness became mainstream.)
  12. Speaking of feminists—yeah, I’m a minor part of the article.  One of the few things mentioned about me is that I’ve stayed in a rationalist group house.  (If you must know: for like two nights, when I was in Bay Area, with my wife and kids. We appreciated the hospitality!) The piece also says that I was “turned off by the more rigid and contrarian beliefs of the Rationalists.” It’s true that I’ve disagreed with many beliefs espoused by rationalists, but not because they were contrarian, or because I found them noticeably more “rigid” than most beliefs—only because I thought they were mistaken!
  13. The piece describes Eliezer Yudkowsky as a “polemicist and self-described AI researcher.”  It’s true that Eliezer opines about AI despite a lack of conventional credentials in that field, and it’s also true that the typical NYT reader might find him to be comically self-aggrandizing.  But had the piece mentioned the universally recognized AI experts, like Stuart Russell, who credit Yudkowsky for a central role in the AI safety movement, wouldn’t that have changed what readers perceived as the take-home message?
  14. The piece says the following about Shane Legg and Demis Hassabis, the founders of DeepMind: “Like the Rationalists, they believed that AI could end up turning against humanity, and because they held this belief, they felt they were among the only ones who were prepared to build it in a safe way.”  This strikes me as a brilliant way to reframe a concern around AI safety as something vaguely sinister.  Imagine if the following framing had been chosen instead: “Amid Silicon Valley’s mad rush to invest in AI, here are the voices urging that it be done safely and in accord with human welfare…”

Reading this article, some will say that they told me so, or even that I was played for a fool.  And yet I confess that, even with hindsight, I have no idea what I should have done differently, how it would’ve improved the outcome, or what I will do differently the next time. Was there some better, savvier way for me to help out? For each of the 14 points listed above, were I ever tempted to bang my head and say, “dammit, I wish I’d told Cade X, so his story could’ve reflected that perspective”—well, the truth of the matter is that I did tell him X! It’s just that I don’t get to decide which X’s make the final cut, or which ideological filter they’re passed through first.

On reflection, then, I’ll continue to talk to journalists, whenever I have time, whenever I think I might know something that might improve their story. I’ll continue to rank bend-over-backwards openness and honesty among my most fundamental values. Hell, I’d even talk to Cade for a future story, assuming he’ll talk to me after all the disagreements I’ve aired here! [Update: commenters’ counterarguments caused me to change my stance on this; see here.]

For one thing that became apparent from this saga is that I do have a deep difference with the rationalists, one that will likely prevent me from ever truly joining them. Yes, there might be true and important things that one can’t say without risking one’s livelihood. At least, there were in every other time and culture, so it would be shocking if Western culture circa 2021 were the lone exception. But unlike the rationalists, I don’t feel the urge to form walled gardens in which to say those things anyway. I simply accept that, in the age of instantaneous communication, there are no walled gardens: anything you say to a dozen or more people, you might as well broadcast to the planet. Sure, we all have things we say only in the privacy of our homes or to a few friends—a privilege that I expect even the most orthodox would like to preserve, at any rate for themselves. Beyond that, though, my impulse has always been to look for non-obvious truths that can be shared openly, and that might light little candles of understanding in one or two minds—and then to shout those truths from the rooftops under my own name, and learn what I can from whatever sounds come in reply.

So I’m thrilled that Scott Alexander Siskind has now rearranged his life to have the same privilege. Whatever its intentions, I hope today’s New York Times article draws tens of thousands of curious new readers to Scott’s new-yet-old blog, Astral Codex Ten, so they can see for themselves what I and so many others saw in it. I hope Scott continues blogging for decades. And whatever obscene amount of money Substack is now paying Scott, I hope they’ll soon be paying him even more.


Alright, now for the promised quote, from I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

… Even in something as seemingly politically uncharged as going to California Pizza Kitchen or Sushi House for dinner, I’m restricting myself to the set of people who like cute artisanal pizzas or sophsticated foreign foods, which are classically Blue Tribe characteristics.

Once we can see them, it’s too late

Saturday, January 30th, 2021

[updates: here’s the paper, and here’s Robin’s brief response to some of the comments here]

This month Robin Hanson, the famous and controversy-prone George Mason University economics professor who I’ve known since 2004, was visiting economists here in Austin for a few weeks. So, while my fear of covid considerably exceeds Robin’s, I met with him a few times in the mild Texas winter in an outdoor, socially-distanced way. It took only a few minutes for me to remember why I enjoy talking to Robin so much.

See, while I’d been moping around depressed about covid, the vaccine rollout, the insurrection, my inability to focus on work, and a dozen other things, Robin was bubbling with excitement about a brand-new mathematical model he was working on to understand the growth of civilizations across the universe—a model that, Robin said, explained lots of cosmic mysteries in one fell swoop and also made striking predictions. My cloth facemask was, I confess, unable to protect me from Robin’s infectious enthusiasm.

As I listened, I went through the classic stages of reaction to a new Hansonian proposal: first, bemusement over the sheer weirdness of what I was being asked to entertain, as well as Robin’s failure to acknowledge that weirdness in any way whatsoever; then, confusion about the unstated steps in his radically-condensed logic; next, the raising by me of numerous objections (each of which, it turned out, Robin had already thought through at length); finally, the feeling that I must have seen it this way all along, because isn’t it kind of obvious?

Robin has been explaining his model in a sequence of Overcoming Bias posts, and will apparently have a paper out about the model soon the paper is here! In this post, I’d like to offer my own take on what Robin taught me. Blame for anything I mangle lies with me alone.

To cut to the chase, Robin is trying to explain the famous Fermi Paradox: why, after 60+ years of looking, and despite the periodic excitement around Tabby’s star and ‘Oumuamua and the like, have we not seen a single undisputed sign of an extraterrestrial civilization? Why all this nothing, even though the observable universe is vast, even though (as we now know) organic molecules and planets in Goldilocks zones are everywhere, and even though there have been billions of years for aliens someplace to get a technological head start on us, expanding across a galaxy to the point where they’re easily seen?

Traditional answers to this mystery include: maybe the extraterrestrials quickly annihilate themselves in nuclear wars or environmental cataclysms, just like we soon will; maybe the extraterrestrials don’t want to be found (whether out of self-defense or a cosmic Prime Directive); maybe they spend all their time playing video games. Crucially, though, all answers of that sort founder against the realization that, given a million alien civilizations, each perhaps more different from the others than kangaroos are from squid, it would only take one, spreading across a billion light-years and transforming everything to its liking, for us to have noticed it.

Robin’s answer to the puzzle is as simple as it is terrifying. Such civilizations might well exist, he says, but if so, by the time we noticed one, it would already be nearly too late. Robin proposes, plausibly I think, that if you give a technological civilization 10 million or so years—i.e., an eyeblink on cosmological timescales—then either

  1. the civilization wipes itself out, or else
  2. it reaches some relatively quiet steady state, or else
  3. if it’s serious about spreading widely, then it “maxes out” the technology with which to do so, approaching the limits set by physical law.

In cases 1 or 2, the civilization will of course be hard for us to detect, unless it happens to be close by. But what about case 3? There, Robin says, the “civilization” should look from the outside like a sphere expanding at nearly the speed of light, transforming everything in its path.

Now think about it: when could we, on earth, detect such a sphere with our telescopes? Only when the sphere’s thin outer shell had reached the earth—perhaps carrying radio signals from the extraterrestrials’ early history, before their rapid expansion started. By that point, though, the expanding sphere itself would be nearly upon us!

What would happen to us once we were inside the sphere? Who knows? The expanding civilization might obliterate us, it might preserve us as zoo animals, it might merge us into its hive-mind, it might do something else that we can’t imagine, but in any case, detecting the civilization would presumably no longer be the relevant concern!

(Of course, one could also wonder what happens when two of these spheres collide: do they fight it out? do they reach some agreement? do they merge? Whatever the answer, though, it doesn’t matter for Robin’s argument.)

On the view described, there’s only a tiny cosmic window in which a SETI program could be expected to succeed: namely, when the thin surface of the first of these expanding bubbles has just hit us, and when that surface hasn’t yet passed us by. So, given our “selection bias”—meaning, the fact that we apparently haven’t yet been swallowed up by one of the bubbles—it’s no surprise if we don’t right now happen to find ourselves in the tiny detection window!

This basic proposal, it turns out, is not original to Robin. Indeed, an Overcoming Bias reader named Daniel X. Varga pointed out to Robin that he (Daniel) shared the same idea right here—in a Shtetl-Optimized comment thread—back in 2008! I must have read Daniel Varga’s comment then, but (embarrassingly) it didn’t make enough of an impression for me to have remembered it. I probably thought the same as you probably thought while reading this post:

“Sure, whatever. This is an amusing speculation that could make for a fun science-fiction story. Alas, like with virtually every story about extraterrestrials, there’s no good reason to favor this over a hundred other stories that a fertile imagination could just as easily spin. Who the hell knows?”

This is where Robin claims to take things further. Robin would say that he takes them further by developing a mathematical model, and fitting the parameters of the model to the known facts of cosmic history. Read Overcoming Bias, or Robin’s forthcoming paper, if you want to know the details of his model. Personally, I confess I’m less interested in those details than I am in the qualitative points, which (unless I’m mistaken) are easy enough to explain in words.

The key realization is this: when we contemplate the Fermi Paradox, we know more than the mere fact that we look and look and we don’t see any aliens. There are other relevant data points to fit, having to do with the one sample of a technological civilization that we do have.

For starters, there’s the fact that life on earth has been evolving for at least ~3.5 billion years—for most of the time the earth has existed—but life has a mere billion more years to go, until the expanding sun boils away the oceans and makes the earth barely habitable. In other words, at least on this planet, we’re already relatively close to the end. Why should that be?

It’s an excellent fit, Robin says, to a model wherein there are a few incredibly difficult, improbable steps along the way to a technological civilization like ours—steps that might include the origin of life, of multicellular life, of consciousness, of language, of something else—and wherein, having achieved some step, evolution basically just does a random search until it either stumbles onto the next step or else runs out of time.

Of course, given that we’re here to talk about it, we necessarily find ourselves on a planet where all the steps necessary for blog-capable life happen to have succeeded. There might be vastly more planets where evolution got stuck on some earlier step.

But here’s the interesting part: conditioned on all the steps having succeeded, we should find ourselves near the end of the useful lifetime of our planet’s star—simply because the more time is available on a given planet, the better the odds there. I.e., look around the universe and you should find that, on most of the planets where evolution achieves all the steps, it nearly runs out the planet’s clock in doing so. Also, as we look back, we should find the hard steps roughly evenly spaced out, with each one having taken a good fraction of the whole available time. All this is an excellent match for what we see.

OK, but it leads to a second puzzle. Life on earth is at least ~3.5 billion years old, while the observable universe is ~13.7 billion years old. Forget for a moment about the oft-stressed enormity of these two timescales and concentrate on their ratio, which is merely ~4. Life on earth stretches a full quarter of the way back in time to the Big Bang. Even as an adolescent, I remember finding that striking, and not at all what I would’ve guessed a priori. It seemed like obviously a clue to something, if I could only figure out what.

The puzzle is compounded once you realize that, even though the sun will boil the oceans in a billion years (and then die in a few billion more), other stars, primarily dwarf stars, will continue shining brightly for trillions more years. Granted, the dwarf stars don’t seem quite as hospitable to life as sun-like stars, but they do seem somewhat hospitable, and there will be lots of them—indeed, more than of sun-like stars. And they’ll last orders of magnitude longer.

To sum up, our temporal position relative to the lifetime of the sun makes it look as though life on earth was just a lucky draw from a gigantic cosmic Poisson process. By contrast, our position relative to the lifetime of all the stars makes it look as though we arrived crazily, freakishly early—not at all what you’d expect under a random model. So what gives?

Robin contends that all of these facts are explained under his bubble scenario. If we’re to have an experience remotely like the human one, he says, then we have to be relatively close to the beginning of time—since hundreds of billions of years from now, the universe will likely be dominated by near-light-speed expanding spheres of intelligence, and a little upstart civilization like ours would no longer stand a chance. I.e., even though our existence is down to some lucky accidents, and even though those same accidents probably recur throughout the cosmos, we shouldn’t yet see any of the other accidents, since if we did see them, it would already be nearly too late for us.

Robin admits that his account leaves a huge question open: namely, why should our experience have been a “merely human,” “pre-bubble” experience at all? If you buy that these expanding bubbles are coming, it seems likely that there will be trillions of times more sentient experiences inside them than outside. So experiences like ours would be rare and anomalous—like finding yourself at the dawn of human history, with Hammurabi et al., and realizing that almost every interesting thing that will ever happen is still to the future. So Robin simply takes as a brute fact that our experience is “earth-like” or “human-like”; he then tries to explain the other observations from that starting point.

Notice that, in Robin’s scenario, the present epoch of the universe is extremely special: it’s when civilizations are just forming, when perhaps a few of them will achieve technological liftoff, but before one or more of the civilizations has remade the whole of creation for its own purposes. Now is the time when the early intelligent beings like us can still look out and see quadrillions of stars shining to no apparent purpose, just wasting all that nuclear fuel in a near-empty cosmos, waiting for someone to come along and put the energy to good use. In that respect, we’re sort of like the Maoris having just landed in New Zealand, or Bill Gates surveying the microcomputer software industry in 1975. We’re ridiculously lucky. The situation is way out of equilibrium. The golden opportunity in front of us can’t possibly last forever.

If we accept the above, then a major question I had was the role of cosmology. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the present cosmological epoch is special for a completely different reason than the one Robin talks about. Namely, right now is when matter and dark energy contribute roughly similarly to the universe’s energy budget, with ~30% the former and ~70% the latter. Billions of years hence, the universe will become more and more dominated by dark energy. Our observable region will get sparser and sparser, as the dark energy pushes the galaxies further and further away from each other and from us, with more and more galaxies receding past the horizon where we could receive signals from them at the speed of light. (Which means, in particular, that if you want to visit a galaxy a few billion light-years from here, you’d better start out while you still can!)

So here’s my question: is it just a coincidence that the time—right now—when the universe is “there for the taking,” potentially poised between competing spacefaring civilizations, is also the time when it’s poised between matter and dark energy? Note that, in 2007, Bousso et al. tried to give a sophisticated anthropic argument for the value of the cosmological constant Λ, which measures the density of dark energy, and hence the eventual size of the observable universe. See here for my blog post on what they did (“The array size of the universe”). Long story short, for reasons that I explain in the post, it turns out to be essential to their anthropic explanation for Λ that civilizations flourish only (or mainly) in the present epoch, rather than trillions of years in the future. If we had to count civilizations that far into the future, then the calculations would favor values of Λ much smaller than what we actually observe. This, of course, seems to dovetail nicely with Robin’s account.

Let me end with some “practical” consequences of Robin’s scenario, supposing as usual that we take it seriously. The most immediate consequence is that the prospects for SETI are dimmer than you might’ve thought before you’d internalized all this. (Even after having interalized it, I’d still like at least an order of magnitude more resources devoted to SETI than what our civilization currently spares. Robin’s assumptions might be wrong!)

But a second consequence is that, if we want human-originated sentience to spread across the universe, then the sooner we get started the better! Just like Bill Gates in 1975, we should expect that there will soon be competitors out there. Indeed, there are likely competitors out there “already” (where “already” means, let’s say, in the rest frame of the cosmic microwave background)—it’s just that the light from them hasn’t yet reached us. So if we want to determine our own cosmic destiny, rather than having post-singularity extraterrestrials determine it for us, then it’s way past time to get our act together as a species. We might have only a few hundred million more years to do so.

Update: For more discussion of this post, see the SSC Reddit thread. I especially liked a beautiful comment by “Njordsier,” which fills in some important context for the arguments in this post:

Suppose you’re an alien anthropologist that sent a probe to Earth a million years ago, and that probe can send back one high-resolution image of the Earth every hundred years. You’d barely notice humans at first, though they’re there. Then, circa 10,000 years ago (99% of the way into the stream) you begin to see plots of land turned into farms. Houses, then cities, first in a few isolated places in river valleys, then exploding across five or six continents. Walls, roads, aqueducts, castles, fortresses. Four frames before the end of the stream, the collapse of the population on two of the continents as invaders from another continent bring disease. At T-minus three frames, a sudden appearance of farmland and cities on the coasts those continents. At T-minus two frames, half the continent. At the second to last frame, a roaring interconnected network of roads, cities, farms, including skyscrapers in the cities that were just trying villas three frames ago. And in the last frame, nearly 80 percent of all wilderness converted to some kind of artifice, and the sky is streaked with the trails of flying machines all over the world.

Civilizations rose and fell, cultures evolved and clashed, and great and terrible men and women performed awesome deeds. But what the alien anthropologist sees is a consistent, rapid, exponential explosion of a species bulldozing everything in its path.

That’s what we’re doing when we talk about the far future, or about hypothetical expansionist aliens, on long time scales. We’re zooming out past the level where you can reason about individuals or cultures, but see the strokes of much longer patterns that emerge from that messy, beautiful chaos that is civilization.

Update (Jan. 31): Reading the reactions here, on Hacker News, and elsewhere underscored for me that a lot of people get off Robin’s train well before it’s even left the station. Such people think of extraterrestrial civilizations as things that you either find or, if you haven’t found one, you just speculate or invent stories about. They’re not even in the category of things that you have any serious hope to reason about. For myself, I’d simply observe that trying to reason about matters far beyond current human experience, based on the microscopic shreds of fact available to us (e.g., about the earth’s spatial and temporal position within the universe), has led to some of our species’ embarrassing failures but also to some of its greatest triumphs. Since even the failures tend to be relatively cheap, I feel like we ought to be “venture capitalists” about such efforts to reason beyond our station, encouraging them collegially and mocking them only gently.

To all Trumpists who comment on this blog

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

The violent insurrection now unfolding in Washington DC is precisely the thing you called me nuts, accused me of “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” for warning about since 2016. Crazy me, huh, always seeing brownshirts around the corner? And you called the other side violent anarchists? This is all your doing. So own it. Wallow in it. May you live the rest of your lives in shame.

Update (Jan. 7): As someone who hasn’t always agreed with BLM’s slogans and tactics, I viewed the stunning passivity of the police yesterday against white insurrectionists in the Capitol as one of the strongest arguments imaginable for BLM’s main contentions.

Distribute the vaccines NOW!

Saturday, January 2nd, 2021

My last post about covid vaccines felt like shouting uselessly into the void … at least until Patrick Collison, the cofounder of Stripe and a wonderful friend, massively signal-boosted the post by tweeting it. This business is of such life-and-death urgency right now, and a shift in attitude or a hardening of resolve by just a few people reading could have such an outsized effect, that with apologies to anyone wanting me to return to my math/CS/physics lane, I feel like a second post on the same topic is called for.

Here’s my main point for today (as you might have noticed, I’ve changed the tagline of this entire blog accordingly):

Reasonable people can disagree about whether vaccination could have, or should have, started much earlier. But now that we in the US have painstakingly approved two vaccines, we should all agree about the urgent need to get millions of doses into people’s arms before they spoil! Sure, better the elderly than the young, better essential than inessential workers—but much more importantly, better today than tomorrow, and better anyone than no one!

Israel, which didn’t do especially well in earlier stages of the pandemic, is now putting the rest of the planet to shame with vaccinations. What Dana and I hear from our friends and relatives there confirms what you can read here, here, and elsewhere. Rabin Square in Tel Aviv is now a huge vaccination field site. Vaccinations are now proceeding 24/7, even on Shabbat—something the ultra-Orthodox rabbis are grudgingly tolerating under the doctrine of “pikuach nefesh” (i.e., saving a life overrides almost every other religious obligation). Israelis are receiving texts at all hours telling them when it’s their turn and where to go. Apparently, after the nurses are finished with everyone who had appointments, rather than waste whatever already-thawed supply is left, they simply go into the street and offer the extra doses to anyone passing by.

Contrast that with the historic fiasco—yes, another historic fiasco—now unfolding in the US. The Trump administration had pledged to administer 20 million vaccines (well, Trump originally said 100 million) by the end of 2020. Instead, fewer than three million were administered, with the already-glacial pace slowing even further over the holidays. Unbelievably, millions of doses are on track to spoil this month, before they can be administered. The bottleneck is now not manufacturing, it’s not supply, it’s just pure bureaucratic dysfunction and chaos, lack of funding and staff, and a stone-faced unwillingness by governors to deviate from harebrained “plans” and “guidelines” even with their populations’ survival at stake.

Famously, the CDC urged that essential workers get vaccinated before the elderly, since even though their own modeling predicted that many more people from all ethnic groups would die that way, at least the deaths would be more equitably distributed. While there are some good arguments to prioritize essential workers, an outcry then led to the CDC partially backtracking, and to many states just making up their own guidelines. But we’re now, for real, headed for a scenario where none of these moral-philosophy debates turn out to matter, since the vaccines will simply spoil in freezers (!!!) while the medical system struggles to comply with the Byzantine rules about who gets them first.

While I’d obviously never advocate such a thing, one wonders whether there’s an idealistic medical worker, somewhere in the US, who’s willing to risk jail for vaccinating people without approval, using supply that would otherwise be wasted. If anything could galvanize this sad and declining nation to move faster, maybe it’s that.


In my last post, I invited people to explain to me where I went wrong in my naïve, simplistic, doofus belief that, were our civilization still capable of “WWII” levels of competence, flexibility, and calculated risk-tolerance, most of the world could have already been vaccinated by now. In the rest of this post, I’d like to list the eight most important counterarguments to that position that commenters offered (at least, those that I hadn’t already anticipated in the post itself), together with my brief responses to them.

  1. Faster approval wouldn’t have helped, since the limiting factor was just the time needed to ramp up the supply. As the first part of this post discussed, ironically supply is not now the limiting factor, and approval even a month or two earlier could’ve provided precious time to iron out the massive problems in distribution. More broadly, though, what’s becoming obvious is that we needed faster everything: testing, approval, manufacturing, and distribution.
  2. The real risk, with vaccines, is long-term side effects, ones that might manifest only after years. What I don’t get is, if people genuinely believe this, then why are they OK with having approved the vaccines last month? Why shouldn’t we have waited until 2024, or maybe 2040? By that point, those of us who were still alive could take the covid vaccine with real confidence, at least that the dreaded side effects would be unlikely to manifest before 2060.
  3. Much like with Amdahl’s Law, there are limits to how much more money could’ve sped up vaccine manufacturing. My problem is that, while this is undoubtedly true, I see no indication that we were anywhere close to those limits—or indeed, that the paltry ~$9 billion the US spent on covid vaccines was the output of any rational cost/benefit calculation. It’s like: suppose an enemy army had invaded the US mainland, slaughtered 330,000 people, and shut down much of the economy. Can you imagine Congress responding by giving the Pentagon a 1.3% budget increase to fight back, reasoning that any more would run up against Amdahl’s Law? That’s how much $9 billion is.
  4. The old, inactivated-virus vaccines often took years to develop, so spending years to test them as well made a lot more sense. This is undoubtedly true, but is not a counterargument. It’s time to rethink the whole vaccine approval process for the era of programmable mRNA, which is also the era of pandemics that can spread around the world in months.
  5. Human challenge trials wouldn’t have provided much information, because you can’t do challenge trials with old or sick people, and because covid spread so widely that normal Phase III trials were perfectly informative. Actually, 1DaySooner had plenty of elderly volunteers and volunteers with preexisting conditions. It bothers me how the impossibility of using those volunteers is treated like a law of physics, rather than what it is: another non-obvious moral tradeoff. Also, compared to Phase III trials, it looks like challenge trials would’ve bought us at least a couple months and maybe a half-million lives.
  6. Doctors can’t think like utilitarians—e.g., risking hundreds of lives in challenge trials in order to save millions of lives with a vaccine—because it’s a slippery slope from there to cutting up one person in order to save ten with their organs. Well, I think the informed consent of the challenge trial participants is a pretty important factor here! As is their >99% chance of survival. Look, anyone who works in public health makes utilitarian tradeoffs; the question is whether they’re good or bad ones. As someone who lost most of his extended family in the Holocaust, my rule of thumb is that, if you’re worrying every second about whether you might become Dr. Mengele, that’s a pretty good sign that you won’t become Dr. Mengele.
  7. If a hastily-approved vaccine turned out to be ineffective or dangerous, it could diminish the public’s trust in all future vaccines. Yes, of course there’s such a tradeoff, but I want you to notice the immense irony: this argument effectively says we can condemn millions to die right now, out of concern for hypothetical other millions in the future. And yet some of the people making this argument will then turn around and call me a callous utilitarian!
  8. I’m suffering from hindsight bias: it might be clear now that vaccine approval and distribution should’ve happened a lot faster, but experts had no way of knowing that in the spring. Here’s my post from May 1, entitled “Vaccine challenge trials NOW!” I was encouraged by the many others who said similar things still earlier. Was it just a lucky gamble? Had we been allowed to get vaccinated then, at least we could’ve put our bloodstreams where our mouths were, and profited from the gamble! More seriously, I sympathize with the decision-makers who’d be on the hook had an early vaccine rollout proved disastrous. But if we don’t learn a lesson from this, and ready ourselves for the next pandemic with an mRNA platform that can be customized, tested, and injected into people’s arms within at most 2-3 months, we’ll really have no excuse.

The case for moving to a red state

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

Update (Dec. 23): This post quickly attracted many of the most … colorful comments in this blog’s 15-year history. My moderation queue is overflowing right now with “gas the kikes,” “[f-word] [n-words],” “race war now,” “kikes deserve to burn in hell,” “a world without [n-words],” “the day of the rope approaches,” and countless similar contributions. One commenter focused on how hilarious he found my romantic difficulties earlier in life.

The puzzle, for me, is that I’d spent years denouncing Trump’s gleeful destruction of the country that I grew up believing in, using the strongest language I could muster. So why am I only now getting all the hate-spam?

Then a possible explanation hit me: namely, the sort of person who’d leave such comments is utterly impervious to moral condemnation. The only thing such a person cares about—indeed, as it turns out, feels a volcanic need to shout down—is someone articulating an actual plausible path to removing his resentment-fueled minority from power. If this is right, then I’m proud to have hit a nerve. –SA


  1. The US is now a failed democracy, with a president who’s considering declaring martial law to avoid conceding a lost election, and with the majority of his party eager to follow him arbitrarily far into the abyss. Even assuming, as I do, that the immediate putsch will fail, the Republic will not magically return to normal.
  2. The survival of Enlightenment values on Earth now depends, in large part, on the total electoral humiliation and defeat of the forces that enabled Trump—something that the last election failed to deliver.
  3. Alas, ever since it absorbed the Southern racists in the 1960s, the Republican Party has maintained a grip on power wholly out of proportion to its numbers through anti-democratic means. The most durable of these means are built into the Constitution itself: the Electoral College, the overrepresentation of sparsely-populated rural states in the Senate, and the gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Every effort to fix these anachronisms, whether by legislation or Constitutional amendment, has been blocked for generations. It’s fantasy to imagine the beneficiaries of these unjust advantages ever voluntarily giving them up.
  4. Accordingly, the survival of the nation might come down to whether enough Americans, in deep-blue areas like California and New York and Massachusetts, are willing to pick up and move to where their votes actually count.
  5. The pandemic has awoken tens of millions of people to the actual practical feasibility of working from home or in a different time zone from their employer. The culture has finally caught up to the abridgment of distance that the Internet, smartphones, and videoconferencing achieved well over a decade ago.
  6. Still, one doesn’t expect Brooklynites to settle by the thousands on remote mountaintops. And even if they did, there are many remote mountaintops, so the transplants’ power could be diluted to near nothing. Better for the transplants to concentrate themselves in a few Schelling points: ideally, cities where they could both swing the national electoral calculus and actually want to live.
  7. There’s been a spate of recent articles about the possible exodus of tech companies and professionals from the Bay Area, because of whatever combination of sky-high rents, NIMBYism, taxes, mismanagement, wildfires, blackouts, and the pandemic having removed the once-overwhelming reasons to be in the Bay. Oft-mentioned alternatives include Miami, Denver, and of course my own adopted hometown of Austin, TX, where Elon Musk and Oracle just announced they’re moving.
  8. If you were trying to optimize your environment for urban Blue-Tribeyness—indie music, craft beer, ironic tattoos, Bernie Sanders yard signs, etc. etc.—but subject to living in an important red or purple state, where your vote could plausibly contribute to a historic political realignment of the US—then you couldn’t do much better than Austin. Where else is in the running? Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Pittsburgh?
  9. It’s true that Texas is the state of Ken Paxton, the corrupt and unhinged Attorney General who unsuccessfully petitioned the US Supreme Court to overturn Trump’s election loss. But it’s also the state of MD Anderson, often considered the best oncology center on earth, and of Steven Weinberg, possibly the greatest living physicist. It’s where the spike proteins of both the Pfizer and Moderna covid vaccines were developed. It’s where Sheldon Cooper grew up—alright, he’s fictional, but I’ve worked with undergrads at UT Austin who almost could’ve been Sheldon. Like the US as a whole, the state has potential.
  10. Accelerating the mass migration of blue Americans to cities like Austin isn’t only good for the country and the world. The New Yorkers and San Franciscans left behind will thank the migrants for lower rents!
  11. But won’t climate change make Texas a living hell? Alas, as recent wildfires and hurricanes remind us, there aren’t many places on earth that climate change won’t soon make various shades of hell. At least Austin, like many red locales, is far inland. For the summers, there are lots of swimming pools and lakes.
  12. If Austin gets overrun by Silicon Valley refugees, won’t they recreate whatever dysfunctional conditions caused them to flee Silicon Valley in the first place? Maybe, eventually, but it would take quite a while. One problem at a time! And the “problems of Silicon Valley” are problems most places should desperately want.
  13. Is Texas winnable—or is a blue Texas like controlled nuclear fusion, forever a decade or two in the future? Well, Trump’s 6-point margin in Texas this November, 3 points less than his margin in 2016, amounted to 630,000 votes out of 11.3 million cast. Meanwhile, net migration to Texas over the past decade included 356,000 to Austin (growing its population by 20%), 687,000 to Dallas, 603,000 to Houston, 260,000 to San Antonio. Let’s say we want two million more transplants. The question is not whether they’re going to arrive but at what rate.
  14. Can the cities of Texas accommodate two million more people? Well, traffic will get worse, rents will get higher … but the answer is an unequivocal yes. Land, Texas has.
  15. Do the tech workers who I’d like to relocate even vote blue? Given the unremitting scorn that the woke press now heaps on “racist, sexist, greedy Silicon Valley techbros,” it can be easy to forget this, but the answer to the question is: yes, overwhelmingly, they do. Mountain View, CA, for example, went 83% Biden and only 15% Trump in November.
  16. Even if everything I’ve said is obvious, in order for the Great Red-State Tech-Worker Migration happen at the rate I want, it needs to become common knowledge that it’s happening—not merely known but known to be known, and so forth. Closely related, it needs to become a serious status symbol for any blue-triber to relocate to a contested state. (“You’re moving to Georgia to help save the Republic? And you’ll be able to afford a four-bedroom house? I’m so jealous!”)
  17. This has been the real purpose of this post: to make it clear that, if you help settle the wild frontier like my family did, then a tiny bit of the unattainable coolness of a stuttering quantum complexity theory blogger/professor could rub off on you.
  18. Think about it this way. Many of our grandparents gave their lives to save the world from fascism. Would you have done the same in their place? OK now, what if you didn’t have to lose your life: you only had to live in Austin or Miami?
  19. If this post plays a role in any like-minded reader’s decision to move to Austin, then once covid is over, they should tell me to redeem a personal welcome celebration from me and Dana. We’ll throw some extra brisket on the barbie.

Huck Finn and the gaslighting of America

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

For the past month, I’ve been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my 7-year-old daughter Lily. Is she too young for it? Is there a danger that she’ll slip up and say the n-word in school? I guess so, maybe. But I found it worthwhile just for the understanding that lit up her face when she realized what it meant that Huck would help Jim escape slavery even though Huck really, genuinely believed that he’d burn in hell for it.

Huck Finn has been one of my favorite books since I was just slightly older than Lily. It’s the greatest statement by one of history’s greatest writers about human stupidity and gullibility and evil and greed, but also about the power of seeing what’s right in front of your nose to counteract those forces. (It’s also a go-to source for details of 19th-century river navigation.) It rocks.

The other day, after we finished a chapter, I asked Lily whether she thought that injustice against Black people in America ended with the abolition of slavery. No, she replied. I asked: how much longer did it continue for? She said she didn’t know. So I said: if I told you that once, people in charge of an American election tried to throw away millions of votes that came from places where Black people lived—supposedly because some numbers didn’t exactly add up, except they didn’t care about similar numbers not adding up in places where White people lived—how long ago would she guess that happened? 100 years ago? 50 years? She didn’t know. So I showed her the news from the last hour.

These past few weeks, my comment queue has filled with missives, most of which I’ve declined to publish, about the giant conspiracy involving George Soros and Venezuela and dead people, which fabricated the overwhelmingly Democratic votes from overwhelmingly Democratic cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee and Detroit (though for some reason, they weren’t quite as overwhelmingly Democratic as in other recent elections), while for some reason declining to help Democrats in downballot races. Always, these commenters confidently insist, I’m the Pravda-reading brainwashed dupe, I’m the unreasonable one, if I don’t accept this.

This is the literal meaning of “gaslighting”: the intentional construction of an alternate reality so insistently as to make the sane doubt their sanity. It occurred to me: Huck Finn could be read as an extended fable about gaslighting. The Grangerfords make their deadly feud with the Shepherdsons seem normal and natural. The fraudulent King and Duke make Huck salute them as royalty. Tom convinces Huck that the former’s harebrained schemes for freeing Jim are just the way it’s done, and Huck is an idiot for preferring the simplistic approach of just freeing him. And of course, the entire culture gaslights Huck that good is evil and evil is good. Huck doesn’t fight the gaslighting as hard as we’d like him to, but he develops as a character to the extent he does.

Today, the Confederacy—which, as we’ve learned the past five years, never died, and is as alive and angry now as it was in Twain’s time—is trying to win by gaslighting what it couldn’t win at Antietam and Gettysburg and Vicksburg. It’s betting that if it just insists, adamantly enough, that someone who lost an election by hundreds of thousands of votes spread across multiple states actually won the election, then it can bend the universe to its will.

Glued to the news, listening to Giuliani and McEnany and so on, reading the Trump campaign’s legal briefs, I keep asking myself one question: do they actually believe this shit? Some of the only insight I got about that question came from a long piece by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, who’s been called one of the leading thinkers of neoreaction and who sometimes responds to this blog. Esoterically, Yarvin says that he actually prefers a Biden victory, but only because Trump has proven himself unworthy by submitting himself to nerdy electoral rules rather than simply seizing power. (If that’s not quite what Yarvin meant—well, I’m about as competent to render his irony-soaked meanings in plain language as I’d be to render Heidegger or Judith Butler!)

As for whether the election was “fraudulent,” here’s Yarvin’s key passage:

The fundamental purpose of a democratic election is to test the strength of the sides in a civil conflict, without anyone actually getting hurt. The majority wins because the strongest side would win … But this guess is much better if it actually measures humans who are both willing and able to walk down the street and show up. Anyone who cannot show up at the booth is unlikely to show up for the civil war. This is one of many reasons that an in-person election is a more accurate election. (If voters could be qualified by physique, it would be even more accurate) … My sense is that in many urban communities, voting by proxy in some sense is the norm. The people whose names are on the ballots really exist; and almost all of them actually did support China Joe. Or at least, preferred him. The extent to which they perform any tangible political action, including physically going to the booth, is very low; so is their engagement with the political system. They do not watch much CNN. The demand for records of their engagement is very high, because each such datum cancels out some huge, heavily-armed redneck with a bass boat. This is why, in the data, these cities look politics-obsessed, but photos of the polling places look empty. Most votes from these communities are in some sense “organized” … Whether or not such a design constitutes “fraud” is the judge’s de gustibus.

Did you catch that? Somehow, Yarvin manages to insinuate that votes for Biden are plausibly fraudulent and plausibly shouldn’t count—at least if they were cast by mail, in “many urban communities” (which ones?), during a pandemic—even as Yarvin glaincingly acknowledges that the votes in question actually exist and are actually associated with Biden-preferring legal voters. This is gaslighting in pure, abstract form, unalloyed with the laughable claims about Hugo Chávez or Dominion Voting Systems.

What I find terrifying about gaslighting is that it’s so effective. In response to this post, I’ll again get long, erudite comments making the case that up is down, turkeys are mammals, and Trump won in a landslide. And simply to read and understand those comments, some part of me will need to entertain the idea that they might be right. Much like with Bigfoot theories, this will be purely a function of the effort the writers put in, not of any merit to the thesis.

And there’s a second thing I find terrifying about gaslighting. Namely: it turns me into an ally of the SneerClubbers. Like them, I feel barely any space left for rational discussion or argument. Like them, I find it difficult to think of an appropriate response to Trumpian conspiracy theorists except to ridicule them, shame them as racists, and try to mute their influence. Notably, public shaming (“[t]he Trump stain, the stain of racism that you, William Hartmann and Monica Palmer, have covered yourself in, is going to follow you throughout history”) seems to have actually worked last week to get the Wayne County Board of Canvassers to back down and certify the votes from Detroit. So why not try more of it?

Of course, even if I agree with the wokeists that there’s a line beyond which rational discussion can’t reach, I radically disagree with them about the line’s whereabouts. Here, for example, I try to draw mine generously enough to include any Republicans willing to stand up, however feebly, against the Trump cult, whereas the wokeists draw their line so narrowly as to exclude most Democrats (!).

There’s a more fundamental difference as well: the wokeists define their worldview in opposition to the patriarchy, the white male power structure, or whatever else is preventing utopia. I, taking inspiration from Huck, define my moral worldview in opposition to gaslighting itself, whatever its source, and in favor of acknowledging obvious realities (especially realities about any harm we might be causing others). Thus, it’s not just that I see no tension between opposing the excesses of the woke and opposing Trump’s attempted putsch—rather, it’s that my opposition to both comes from exactly the same source. It’s a source that, at least in me, often runs dry of courage, but I’ve found Huck Finn to be helpful in replenishing it, and for that I’m grateful.

Endnote: There are, of course, many actual security problems with the way we vote in the US, and there are computer scientists who’ve studied those problems for decades, rather than suddenly getting selectively interested in November 2020. If you’re interested, see this letter (“Scientists say no credible evidence of computer fraud in the 2020 election outcome, but policymakers must work with experts to improve confidence”), which was signed by 59 of the leading figures in computer security, including Ron Rivest, Bruce Schneier, Hovav Shacham, Dan Wallach, Ed Felten, David Dill, and my childhood best friend Alex Halderman.

Update: I just noticed this Twitter thread by friend-of-the-blog Sean Carroll, which says a lot of what I was trying to say here.

Five Thoughts

Saturday, November 7th, 2020

(1) A friend commented that Biden’s victory becomes more impressive after you contemplate the enthusiasm gap: Trump’s base believed that Trump was sent by God, whereas Biden’s base believed that Biden probably wasn’t a terrible human being. I replied that what we call the “Enlightenment” was precisely this, the switch from cowering before leaders who were sent by God to demanding leaders who probably aren’t terrible human beings.

(2) I would love for Twitter to deactivate Trump’s account—not for any ideological reason, simply for Trump’s hundreds of past violations of Twitter’s Terms of Service, and for there no longer being a compelling public interest in what Trump has to say that would override all his Terms of Service violations.

(3) When Biden appeared last night, and then again tonight, it wasn’t merely that he came across like a President-Elect of the US, but rather that he came across like a President-Elect of the US who’s filling a vacant position. Until Biden starts, there won’t be a president of the US; there will only continue to be the president of those who voted for him.

(4) Now that Trump has gone this far in shattering all the norms of succession, part of me wants to see him go the rest of the way … to being physically dragged out of the Oval Office by Secret Service agents on January 20, in pathetic and humiliating footage that would define how future generations remembered him.

(5) I had an idea for something that could make a permanent contribution to protecting liberal democracy in the US, and that anti-Trump forces could implement unilaterally for a few tens of millions of dollars—no need to win another election. The idea is to build a Donald J. Trump Historical Museum in Washington, DC. But, you see, this museum would effectively be the opposite of a presidential library. It would be designed by professional historians; they might solicit cooperation from former members of Trump’s inner circle, but would never depend on it. It would, in fact, be a museum that teenage students might tend to be taken to on the same DC field trips that also brought them to the Vietnam Memorial and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Obviously, the new museum would be different from those bleak places; it would (thankfully) have a little less tragedy and more farce … and that’s precisely the role that the new museum would fill. To show the kids on the field trips that it’s not always unmitigated horribleness, that here was a case where we Americans took a gigantic stumble backwards, seeming to want to recreate the first few rooms in the USHMM exhibition, the one where the macho-talking clown thrills Germany by being serious rather than literal. But then, here in the US, we successfully stopped it before it got to the later rooms. Sure, the victory wasn’t as decisive as we would’ve liked, it came at a great cost, but it was victory nonetheless. A 244-year-old experiment in self-governance is back in operation.

On the removal of a hideous growth

Friday, November 6th, 2020

The title of this post is not an allegory.

At 10am this morning, I had a previously-scheduled appointment with an oral surgeon to remove a large, hideous, occasionally painful growth on the inside of my lower lip. (I’d delayed getting it looked at for several months because of covid, but I no longer could.)

So right now I’m laying in bed at home, with gauze on my lips, dazed, hopped up on painkillers. I regret that things ever got to the point where this was needed. I believe, intellectually, that the surgeon executed about as competently as anyone could ask. But I still wish, if we’re being honest, that there hadn’t been quite this much pain in the surgery or in the recovery from it.

Again intellectually, I know that there’s still lots more pain in the days ahead. I’m not sure that whatever it was won’t just quickly grow back. And yet, I couldn’t be feeling more joy through my whole body with every one of these words that I write. At last I can honestly tell myself: the growth is gone.