Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — Johann Hari

Here is a typical narrator in a Michel Houellebecq novel—in this case, François from Submission, but most Houellebecq narrators express similar sentiments:

My life was marked by real intellectual achievements. In a certain milieu—granted, a very small one—I was known and even respected. Financially, I had nothing to complain about. Until I died I was guaranteed a generous income, twice the national average, without having to do any work. And yet I knew I was close to suicide, not out of despair or even any special sadness, simply from the degradation of “the set of functions that resist death,” in Bichat’s famous formulation.

One could posit various reasons for François’s feelings, ranging from the literary to the psychological to the spiritual, but Hari offers another explanation, or set of explanations.

Many people are suffering from crises of meaning. Man’s Search for Meaning addresses one set of possibilities for making meaning. Lost Connections offers another, more systematic but complementary to Frankl. It’s a fantastic book, but ignore the subtitle, which makes Lost Connections sound more like clickbait than it actually is; I’d not properly considered loneliness until I read this book, though I thought I had.

He gives context to problems I’d not fully perceived: “If you can be everywhere—in vehicles, or online—you end up. . . being nowhere.” That’s something artists know. Many, maybe most, of the best novels are set somewhere very particular, and perhaps that isn’t by chance. Even The Lord of the Rings is set somewhere very particular, albeit imaginary, and the provincialism of the Shire is necessary to offset the grandeur of many other locations.

He takes his own advice and sees specific people living specific ways—like the Amish. Hari also grew up not far from Orthodox Jews and scorned them, but, when he goes to visit the Amish, he finds himself “reflecting on some of the flaws in how we live,” and he “wondered if they might have something to teach me after all.” Maybe religion is underestimated by a lot of modern secularists, myself included. Tyler Cowen has been saying that the top thinkers of our age are or will be religious thinkers, and, although I’m skeptical, I’m less skeptical than I used to be.

Hari cites nine causes of depression, while stating that they’re not exhaustive, including disconnection from meaningful work; other people; meaningful values; childhood trauma; status and respect; the natural world; and a hopeful or secure future. If you counted the preceding list, you’ll notice that it has only seven items; eight and nine are “the real role of genes and brain changes.” These causes are linked with potential solutions. The chapters themselves are detailed. For example, he tells stories about the research into what makes work depressing; a number of factors exist, including indifference:

If these tax inspectors worked really hard and gave it their best, nobody noticed. And if they did a lousy job, nobody noticed, either. Despair often happens […] when there is a ‘lack of balance between effort and rewards.’ It was the same for Joe in his paint shop. Nobody ever noticed how much effort he put in. The signal you get from the world, in that situation, is—you’re irrelevant. Nobody cares what you do.

Ignore the slightly awkward shift into second person narration and attend to the idea: indifference can actually be worse than constructive criticism. If someone is trying to help a person improve, their job matters. If no one tries, it doesn’t. We think of depression as a disease of the mind, but it may be impossible to separate mind, body, and social environment.

Another possible solution, or piece of the solution? Psychedelics. Here is a current review of psychedelics research. Psychedelics are not a panacea, but neither are prescription antidepressants or the many other things currently being used to deal with depression/loneliness.

Loneliness is everywhere, but it’s striking how little I read or hear about it. It’s improper to admit deep loneliness on Facebook, or all those other repositories of digital loneliness. Loneliness is effectively enshrined into law through our building codes, which prevent us from constructing housing that encourages people to talk to each other. Yet it’s often felt and rarely discussed. Lost Connections could easily be named, Loneliness: Causes and Consequences. But loneliness is often a second-, third-, or fourth-order consequence of many other decisions, so we never get to it—we stay at the surface level, not the deeper levels, as Hari does. Lost Connections can be seen as an indictment of the way we live and the way we’ve built our society. But how many people are listening? I’m not sure the answer. The book is easy to read, in the sense of having a normal vocabulary and being wrapped in stories, but it’s hard to read, in the sense that many of us will recognize ourselves and our own life mistakes in it. It’s akin to Deep Work, another book about the mistaken ways we live.

It’s striking, too, that the Internet was supposed to connect us and make loneliness easier to cure. But if it’s had that effect on net, we’re not able to see it show up statistically or in depression data. There are obvious advantages to the Internet: I know lots of people who hooked up through online dating. I myself have met other nerds (or “intellectuals” if one prefers) through this blog. But:

The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing—Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that “every status update is just a variation on a single request: ‘Would someone please acknowledge me?'”

It turns out the Internet is just a tool, and like so many tools it can be used well or poorly, to facilitate or attack loneliness. Or maybe, as Hari writes, it’s neither countervailed nor enhanced trends that “had already been taking place for decades.” Maybe the Internet has actually arrested the social isolation trends already at work.

There are many further insightful passages I could cite, at the risk of merely summarizing it, but I’ll say that I’m keeping the book and look forward to rereading it. In the last sections of Lost Connections, Hari lists possible solutions, and most seem wildly implausible—which is why anti-depressants are so popular. Anti-depressants are easy, cheap, and uniform (at least in formulation). Hari’s solutions are hard, expensive, and difficult to scale (from the perspective of a society or organization).

But hard things are often worth doing. It’s hard to build social networks and meaningful relationships. Rejection stings. It’s tempting to stop trying. Most of our world, from the way we zone cities to the way we get around the world in cars, is designed to cut social connections rather than build them (no one asks about the psychological cost of mandating single-family houses in suburban areas). To rebuild lost connections takes a lot of time and effort. Scanning Facebook is easier than getting a drink. The alternative to doing hard things is worse. Advertising and marketing cultures seduce us with promises of ease and convenience. We’re reluctant to embrace the difficult and inconvenient, which is to say the human and humane.

I don’t have final answers for creating a meaningful life, but I do think there are parts of the U.S. educational and cultural systems that are systematically misrepresenting what’s important in life. We spend 12 – 16 years in school and yet often never take a financial literacy class or psychology of meaning and satisfaction class. Sometimes psychology or English classes may accomplish the latter, but they do so on an ad-hoc basis and rely on instructor charisma and passion that is hard to systematize and reproduce. Instead, those of us curious about such topics have to learn about them on an ad-hoc basis, through books like Lost Connections. Lost Connections is good. Don’t expect to understand all of it during the first read. It’s a book that may grow with your life.

Kolyma Stories — Varlam Shalamov

Tyler Cowen praises them, justifiably, and links to a good review of them, albeit one that’s somewhat difficult to access. Despite that praise, though, I sense that I’ve read “enough” stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the gulag experience and the madness of totalitarianism; after The Gulag Archipelago and Darkness at Noon and others, do I need another?

If you’ve not read about this period and these systems, go ahead and get a copy and trust the praise. The stories are brilliantly realized, and yet I feel like a little reading about the gulag goes a long way, and my feelings about gulags are unlikely to change much.* So this is probably a book for some of you, and it’s extremely good for a book of its kind, and I hope it is not a timely book (even as China rounds up and forcibly encamps members of at least one ethnic minority—you saw that in the news, right?).

Still, as with reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers or similar books, it can be useful to remember just how rich we really are in the modern United States. In the day-to-day, that’s easily forgotten; it’s also easy to forget how adapted we are to a particular environment. Do you know how to salt-cure meat? Especially from a freshly shot bear? Me neither. Yet a group of prisoners does just that. I could look up a how-to on the Internet, but if you stuck me in a prison camp tomorrow, I’d have to learn from others or suffer or die.

The prose has been described as straightforward, but I am not always so sure:

Time spent under interrogation in pretrial prison slips from your memory, leaving no noticeable sharp traces. For anyone who is detained there, the prison and its encounters and people are not the main thing. The main thing is what all your mental, spiritual, and nervous energy is spent on in prison—that is, the battle with your interrogator.

“Leaving no noticeable sharp traces” makes you wonder: does it leave noticeable but not sharp traces? Or noticeable dull traces? And that “anyone:” with it, the narrator attempts to speak for everyone, and maybe he does. It’s another of the moments when the stories oscillate between the universal and specific.

Yet, as I said, there are many, many passages I call relentlessly grim:

Those who’d been badly beaten under interrogation and whose souls had been reduced to dust by a thousand interrogations, while their bodies were wrecked and exhausted by unbearably heavy work, prisoners with sentences of twenty-five years plus five years’ deprivation of rights, sentences that were unsurvivable, which you could not hope to come out of alive…. All these people were trembling, yelling, and cursing Fedorenko, because they were afraid of catching leprosy.

The sentence keeps going, perhaps in imitation of the prison lengths, until its sudden end. Perhaps it isn’t relentlessly grim, as that last clause may be a bit of humor, however dark.

The details are good:

He was, of course, a cardsharp, for an honest game among thieves is a game of deception; you have the right to watch and catch out your partner, and you have to be just as good as he is at cheating and at holding on to your dubious winnings.

And here, again, the microcosm of the cheating game reflects the macrocosm of the cheating legal and political systems. Those systems have changed since Stalin’s day, but Russia’s legal system remains a tool of the Putin apparatus. There are no apparent mass murders—but the mass repression remains.

Which raises another point, at least in my mind: for the last two hundred or more years, the smartest thing a Russian person could do is leave Russia. Certainly that’s true over the past hundred years. It was true in 1918 and remains true today. The amazing thing is that Russia still has 140 million people living in it. That may be testimony to the power of the human spirit and body to suffer, as well as the difficulty of emigration.

In the introductory essay, the translator writes that “Shalamov disapproved of novels as elaborate structures that falsified their material.” Yet that is precisely what I like about them! Novels need to be structured by plot; if they are not, they tend to be boring. Kolyma is disconnected in most ways, which may be truer but can also, at least in my view, be numbing. Which, again, may be appropriate to the material.

Next up is The Seventh Function of Language, which looks supremely entertaining and unrealistic, based on this review. Like Kolyma, it features people behaving meanly to each other.

* I’m opposed.

Thoughts on an encounter with Rene Girard

That encounter is through a couple of his books but mostly Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World; in grad school I started Deceit, Desire, and the Novel a couple times but could never get past some of the more ridiculous assertions in it (more on that later). Cynthia Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard is the impetus for the latest bout of reading, and I find the biography more satisfying than the primary reading: it softens and contextualizes the kind of claims that make me quit a book. But it’s still suitably inscrutable and koanic as to be interesting: “For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth; it is the archive of self-knowledge.” Which is great! But I’m not entirely sure what it means or if it’s true—which is descriptive, not critical.

He is an intellectual: “I once asked Girard what the biggest events of his life were. Oh, he assured me immediately, they were all events in his head. His thoughts were what mattered.” Haven isn’t fully convinced, maybe rightly, but I’m attracted to that idea—that it’s about the mind more than the environment. Girard’s method is also unusual, among social scientists, at least:

He studied human behavior as reflected in the greatest works of literature, and found in them a recurring analytical observation of the serious consequences of mimetic behavior. This discovery opened his eyes to the hidden dynamic of group violence.

Is literature the right place to look? To me, literature is the exceptional, bizarre, and unusual; the usual is too boring to include. I wonder if Girard is suffering from selection bias. (Haven does find a fun quote from Milan Kundera: “The art of the novel is anthropology.” Is the same true of film?)

Anyway, when I read Girard, I usually have the same problem I do with most philosophers: there are some interesting passages but too many ridiculous claims that make me close the book and go read someone else. Or I think too much about what’s true. Consider this, with Chris Blattman:

The only reason I’m aware of the René Girard worldview is because I glanced at the “What should I ask Chris Blattman?” questions. [laughs] I saw that name, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know who that is.” My 10 minutes of investigation suggests that I find nothing about this idea resonates with my personal experience in particular wars.

So maybe “the greatest works of literature” are not a great guide to the real world or analyzing it. And I say this as someone who reads all the time. The great works may be more time-, technology-, class-, and culture-dependent than many of us literary types want to admit.

That said, when Girard’s ideas get in the head, one starts to see them in many places. I listened to Jon Ronson’s podcast / Audible series “The Butterfly Effect,” which is “sort of about porn, but it’s about a lot of other things. It’s sad, funny, moving and totally unlike some other nonfiction stories about porn – because it isn’t judgmental or salacious.” And that got me connecting. In Girard’s cycle of scapegoating and social cohesion, it may be that porn stars are the best examples of a modern group that are hated, loved, sacrificed—and reborn. They provide a service or set of works that are widely consumed but also widely reviled. People oscillate among extreme feelings regarding them. Most of polite society disparages what they do, even as they have a broad, though largely ignored, impact. The highly regulated, highly PR-driven healthcare, education, and government sectors largely revile people who do or make porn, but that’s in part because of a vague but pervasive social feeling about what is “appropriate.” Should we look first at what people do and want, then look at what is “appropriate?” Or should we try to imagine what’s appropriate? If we do that, we may be entering the separation and scapegoating cycle Girard posits.

That being said, to get to the point of connection, you may have to wade. Things Hidden, for example, as with most “philosophy,” is at least twice as long as it needs to be and half as clear, if that. I would’ve liked more footnotes and a style closer to Cowen or Thiel than to a style like academic philosophy. Long-time readers know that I have a certain fascination with and derision for philosophy (see here or here or here) for examples. Philosophy often seems to be a search for broad, generalizable rules that in my view don’t exist or rarely exist; I’d rather start with situations and dilemmas and attempt to reason from there, which may be why I like novels. Indeed, rather than start this essay from first principles I began from an encounter with a book and then reasoned forward.

Overall, very interesting, though Girard’s life was not, particularly. He lived in and for ideas, as near as one can tell, which is fine; my life is probably pretty boring, viewed from the outside. If exciting is World War II, boring and well-fed is pretty good. There are many problems today, and those problems are worth remembering, but many of us don’t think historically and forget what yesterday was really like.

Maybe this says something bad about me, but I feel like I’ve read enough Girard without reading much Girard.

Still, this post is too negative. There are many things to admire, like this, from Haven:

Girard told me that our judicial system is the modern antidote to the mob, with its cycles of accusation and vengeance, its contagious fears and ritual denunciations—and on the whole it works. It has an authority to impose a final punishment of its own—vengeance stops at the courtroom.

The judicial system is, to use a Kahneman term, very system 2—that is, it is slow, deliberate, and often not our first choice. We’d rather make instant heuristic decisions, then allow our internal press secretary to justify those decisions. The judicial system may attempt to short-circuit that fast and unconscious process.

There are also amusing moments in Evolution of Desire that reveal historical change, as when we find this, about the University of Indiana just after World War II: “While the expenses of a sorority were normally beyond the reach of a fatherless student, the local chapters were eager to bolster their academic reputation, so she was recruited to Delta Gamma.” “Academic reputation” does not appear to be a key factor in current college fraternities or sororities.

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

Everybody Lies — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Stephens-Davidowitz is right:

One more important point that becomes clear when we zoom in: the world is complicated. Actions we take today can have distant effects, most of them unintended. Ideas spread—sometimes slowly; other times exponentially, like viruses. People respond in unpredictable ways to incentives.

Yet we seem to like simple stories and seem to believe that our actions will have simple, easy-to-understand consequences. Data complicates or invalidates many of those stories, so we ought to seek it whenever we can. Stephens-Davidowitz does just this in Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. An alternate sub-title could be, “Why most of us are full of shit.” You may suspect, intuitively, that most of us are full of shit, but it’s nice seeing it confirmed. The miracle of aggregation gives us a lot of new tools to look at human nature.

This book can be read as part of a series, as it’s congruent with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and especially Jon Birger’s Date-onomics, which doesn’t discuss data from porn, as Stephens-Davidowitz does, but it could have (albeit at the risk of making it longer and perhaps turning off some of its readers). We’re going to see a lot more books like Everybody Lies as the Internet allows us to aggregate huge amounts of data that tell us something about what we do—as opposed to what we say. What we say seems to be a very poor guide to understanding what we really think; while this has been obvious on some level for a long time, it’s useful to see the specific ways action and speech are mismatched.

Take one sensitive area:

Somewhat surprisingly, porn data is rarely utilized by sociologists, most of whom are comfortable relying on the traditional survey datasets they have built their careers on. But a moment’s reflection shows that the widespread use of porn—and the search and view data that comes with it—is the most important development in our ability to understand human sexuality in, well . . . Actually, it’s probably the most important data ever.

“Ever” might be an overstatement (what about Masters and Johnson’s live observations?), but calling it “very important” and perhaps most importantly “novel” is legitimate. While the observation is useful, it’s also useful to remember that what people want in a fantasy setting may be different from what they, or we, want in a reality setting. Many people like watching people get shot in movies without thinking we should shoot more people in real life.

Or, in the same domain, there is this, with the data from the General Social Survey:

when it comes to heterosexual sex, women say they have sex, on average, fifty-five times per year, using a condom 15 percent of the time. This adds up to about 1.1 billion condoms per year. But heterosexual men say they use 1.6 billion condoms every year. Those numbers, by definition, would have to be the same. So who is telling the truth, men or women?

Neither, it turns out. According to Nielsen, the global information and measurement company that tracks consumer behavior, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year. So everyone is lying; the only question is by how much.

A meta lesson may be, be very wary of survey data.

(If you recognize some of these ideas, you’ve probably read A Billion Wicked Thoughts or my essay on it.)

Other problems, this time outside the realm of sexuality, include estimation:

When relying on our gut, we can also be thrown off by the basic human fascination with the dramatic. We tend to overestimate the prevalence of anything that makes for a memorable story. For example, when asked in a survey, people consistently rank tornadoes as a more common cause of death than asthma. In fact, asthma causes about seventy times more death. Deaths by asthma don’t stand out—and don’t make the news.

Still, I wonder what would happen if researchers paid survey respondents for right answers. In surveys, people have little incentive to try to be right. In some other parts of life, they do.

Much of the data comes from Google, and we should remember something important: “Google can display a bias toward unseemly thoughts, thoughts people feel they can’t discuss with anyone else.” Which makes sense: before Google or the Internet more generally, many of those thoughts would never have left the mind in a way that in turn left a residue on the rest of the world. Now they do. Perhaps one lesson of Everybody Lies is that more of us should use Duck Duck Go, the search engine that famously doesn’t record its users’ search terms. I infer, from the prevalence of Google search and Gmail, that most people don’t give a damn about privacy—regardless of the numerous article about privacy one sees in the media. People’s revealed preferences seem to indicate they want convenience and familiarity far more than privacy.

Then there is this, which may be most useful for people doing Internet marketing:

The lesson of A/B testing, to a large degree, is to be wary of general lessons. Clark Benson is the CEO of ranker.com, a news and entertainment site that relies heavily on A/B testing to choose headlines and site designs. “At the end of the day, you can’t assume anything,” Benson says. “Test literally everything.”

By the way, the school(s) you attend also seems to matter little for any measurable life outcomes. The money spent on expensive private schools seems to be largely wasted, or, if not wasted, then at least should be considered a consumption expense, rather than an investment expense. The entire education industry has worked hard to convince you otherwise, but the papers Stephens-Davidowitz cites are convincing and congruent with similar research I’ve seen on the issue.

Stephens-Davidowitz ends by saying that data from the Amazon Kindle indicates that few people read to the end of books. This one is worth reading in full.

Skin in the Game – Nassim Taleb

Skin in the Game is congruent with Tom Ricks’ book The Generals. Almost all generals and high-ranking officers in the U.S. military are now exempt from real risk, as Ricks argues—they are exempt even the risk of being fired or reassigned for simple incompetence (or being ill-suited to a role). Almost all enlisted men and junior officers, however, are heavily exposed to real risk, like being killed. That risk asymmetry should give pause to someone contemplating joining. The risk profile for generals prior to the Korean war, while not as a great as the risk profile for regular soldiers, was more reasonable than it is today. Military contractors are arguably the greatest beneficiary of the military today. If more people knew (and acted like they knew) this, we might see changes.

In Skin in the Game Taleb has many, many unusual examples, many of them good; he reads more like an old-fashioned philosopher (that is: one who wants to be read, heard, and understood, as opposed to one who wants tenure), and I mean that as a compliment. One of his rules is, “No person in a transaction should have certainty about the outcomes while the other one has uncertainty.” I wonder how this rule could be applied to colleges, especially under a student-loan system, in which the college is certain to be paid by the student, the student’s family, or the student’s bank (which is really to say, the bank’s student), while the student may see a variable return on investment—especially if the student is ill-equipped in the first place. Colleges may be selling credentials more than skills. But almost no one thinks about those things in advance.

Skin in the Game will, like Antifragile, frustrate you if you demand that every single sentence be true and useful. Some of Taleb’s micro-examples are bad, like his thing against GMOs:

In my war with the Monsanto machine, the advocates of genetically modified organisms (transgenics) kept countering me with benefit analyses (which were often bogus and doctored up), not tail risk analyses for repeated exposures

This view is incoherent because virtually every food eaten today has been “genetically modified,” inefficiently, through selective breeding. If you wish to learn just how hard this is, see The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Transgenics speed the process. See this sad tale, and the links, for one researcher in the field who is giving up due to widespread opposition. He points out that, over and over again, transgenic have been shown to be safe.

Taleb is right that there are tail risks to transgenics… but that’s also theoretically true of traditional cross-breeding, and it’s also true of not engaging in transgenics. The alternative to high-efficiency transgenics is environmental degradation and, in many places, starvation. That’s pretty bad, and there’s a serious, usually unstated, environmental trade-off between signaling environmental caring and opposite transgenics (nuclear energy is the same).

Despite incorrect micro-examples, Skin in the Game is great and you should read it. It is less uneven than Antifragile. It’s also an excellent book to re-read (don’t expect to get everything the first time through) because Taleb gives so many examples and is overflowing with ideas.

Like: “If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life.” Something easily and frequently forgotten, or never considered in the first place. Look at what people do, not what they say. One of the many charming parts of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy is the apparently wide gap between what many philosophers wrote and how they appeared to live. Maybe the truest philosophers don’t write but do.

Or consider:

the highest form of virtue is unpopular. This does not mean that virtue is inherently unpopular, or correlates with unpopularity, only that unpopular acts signal some risk taking and genuine behavior.

A very Peter Thiel point: he asks what popular view is wrong and what unpopular views a given person holds.

Or consider:

The only definition of rationality that I’ve found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is the following: what is rational is that which allows for survival.

This may be true, but most of us in the West now survive, unless we do something truly stupid, dangerous, or brave. So our wealth and comfort may enable us to be irrational, because we’re much less likely to pay the ultimate penalty than we once were. Darwin Awards aside, we mostly make it. We can worry more about terrorism than the much more immediate and likely specter of death in the form of the car, which kills far more people every year in the United States than terrorism.

To his credit, though, Taleb does write:

The Chernoff bound can be explained as follows. The probability that the number of people who drown in their bathtubs in the United States doubles next year [. . .] is one per several trillions lifetimes of the universe. This cannot be said about the doubling of the number of people killed by terrorism over the same period.

He’s right that the number who could be killed by terrorism is massive, especially given the risk of nuclear and biological weapons. But the disproportionate focus on terrorism takes too much attention from risks that seem mundane, like getting into cars. Everyone expects to get into car crashes. Perhaps we should be thinking more seriously about that. Too bad almost no one is.

Junkyard Planet — Adam Minter

I wish I’d read Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade when it came out: it’s both informative and, sometimes, strangely lyrical, which I wasn’t expecting in a book about the scrap metal business. You may think a book titled “Junkyard Planet” is boring, and I anticipated precisely that and was proved wrong. For Minter the scrap business is tied up with his family: he grew up in in the industry, so, like a writer from a restaurant family, he gets things most journalists don’t, or wouldn’t (“Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of wandering among the family junk inventory, often with my grandmother, finding treasures:” a sentence few of us can utter).

He’s also refreshingly direct about costs and benefits; many writers want to condemn the global recycling trade because of the obvious pollution produced in China. But Minter goes the extra step and asks: why do things exist as they do? Will exist this way in the future?

This book aims to explain why the hidden world of globalized recycling and reclamation is the most logical (and greenest) endpoint in a long chain that begins with the harvest in your home recycling bin, or down at the local junkyard. There are few moral certainties here, but there is a guarantee: if what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

It turns out that “Huge, mind-bending, Silicon Valley-scale fortunes have been built by figuring out how to move the scrap newspapers in your recycling bin to the country where they’re most in demand.” Did you know that? Me neither. I learned from every page. It also turns out that for a couple decades following World War II, most dead cars were simply discarded in vast junkyards or chucked wherever they could be concealed. It took China decades in turn to go through all that American scrap (“the world’s most recycled product (by weight) isn’t a newspaper, a notebook computer, or a plastic water bottle—it’s an American automobile, most of which is metal”).

By the way, there are many important reasons to choose electric or plug-in electric cars, but one of them is the car’s valuable battery. Even in a decade or two, when the battery is likely to be too depleted for automotive use, it’s still likely to be valuable as grid storage. Seriously: “
Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future
.” Individual choices today are going to matter a decade or two from now.

For now, though, there are two major ways to get raw materials for new goods:

Digging mines was one way to obtain those raw materials; the other was to go to the United States, the place that many scrap traders call the Saudi Arabia of Scrap, the land where there’s more scrap than the people can handle on their own. It’s a funny nickname, Saudi Arabia of Scrap, but it’s not meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s an opportunity to exploit.

Think about this quote, too, every time you hear about a “shortage” of some commodity (nickel, cobalt, poorly named “rare earth” metals). A “shortage” usually means that someone doesn’t want to buy at a given price. You’ll know there’s really a shortage of something when you can sell old laptops, phones, or computers to Best Buy for a couple bucks. Right now, it’s not profitably enough to pay for out-of-date electronics. If and when it is profitable enough, you’ll be able to sell them—and profit will likely motivate more than green signaling.

By the way, what China is doing now is what the U.S. did more than a century ago; in the nineteenth century,

The U.S. was not yet scrapping its old infrastructure, [. . .] so it looked abroad to Europe [. . .] for raw materials. According to data culled by Carl Zimring, U.S. imports of scrap iron and steel grew from 38,580 tons in 1884 to 380,744 tons in 1887—a tenfold increase during, not coincidentally, a railroad building binge.

There are many more points of interest in the book. The total amount of recycling going on is much greater than I imagined, but it’s primarily happening behind the scenes and far behind the headlines.

In some ways, Junkyard Planet tells a circular story: each developing country goes from poor and a tremendous importer of “junk” (which is not actually junk), then moves up the value chain towards wealth and producing more apparent junk than it consumes. The obvious question is, “When will the world run out of poor, developing countries?” One hopes the answer is, “Soon.”

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