Review: The End Is Always Near

The date is November 10th, 2019. Covid has plausibly started, but I don’t know it yet. I am a huge fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, and have been conducting my own lit review on civilizational collapse. I have been eagerly anticipating Carlin’s upcoming book, The End is Always Near, for months (affiliate link). I am in a coffee shop with a friend, very excited to have a dedicated time to read and Epistemic Spot Check it. 

I do not remember what I read. I remember that I lost all interest in Carlin’s podcast afterward, and was so sure I’d remember the problem that I didn’t write it down, which led to 2 years of awkwardly saying “yeah his book was so terrible I lost interest, no don’t remember why, yes I see how that’s less useful for you.” I never checked any claims it made; I’d have records of that, which means that whatever the problem was, it wasn’t just a factual error

I sat down today to read enough of the book to remind myself of why I so vehemently disliked it, and in the course doing so discovered that I had written down the problems in Goodreads, but had forgotten that along with everything else. (I also got the date wrong: I remember starting it in January, but that doesn’t fit because I know I was reading one of its sources in December). My review, in its entirety:

I went in wanting a meaty history book with many claims I could follow up on. In the first few chapters I could only extract a few claims, always what other historians thought (but without countervailing arguments), and it never coheres into models or cruxes.

Mystery solved, I guess. It’s not actually clear to me I should have given up on the podcast based on this, since I don’t remember it having the same problem. But since I already went through all this trouble, let me read a chapter or two and see if I agree with my pre-covid assessment.

Claim: “In many earlier eras of history writing, a large part of the historian’s or author’s goal was to impart or teach some sort of moral lesson, usually by historical example.” (footnote on page 1)

Ah yes, the before times, when people manipulated nominally factual data to their own ends. So glad we grew out of that in … *checks watch* … hmmm, must be broken.

Claim: Sparta super kicked ass (page 7)

Bret Devereaux spent a long time debunking this and I spent a somewhat shorter time checking his work (it passed). Carlin also repeatedly says “Spartan” when he means “Spartan ruling class”, which is a common mistake but I think a revealing one.

Okay, I have finished chapter 1, which is seven pages long. It is titled “Do Tough Times Make for Tougher People?”, a reference to this meme:

I do not know if Carlin thinks tough times create tougher people. If you put a gun to my head I would say “Probably, except for if literally anything else is involved, perhaps?”  I do not know how he defines toughness. This is dumb. Toughness is easy to define, he shouldn’t have to spell it out, and yet I’m rereading the pages trying to figure out a coherent definition that makes sense and is meaningful all the way through. I feel fuzzy and slippery and then angry that I feel that way.

Contrast that with Devereaux’s 6 part series, The Fremen Mirage, which addresses the same question. Devereaux takes a strong stance (“no they fucking don’t”) and spends only two paragraphs before defining exactly the argument he is making. Then he spends a while complaining about people who cite “…weak men create times…” without strict definitions. 

Devereaux’s Fremen Mirage is full of claims that are both load-bearing (as in, if they were wrong, the argument would collapse) and capable of being resolved one way or the other. It’s tractable to check his work and come to a conclusion. Meanwhile, I did write down some claims from chapter one of The End… but… none of them matter? Of the things that could be called cruxes, they’re all vague and would at best take a lot of work to develop an informed opinion on. But I think that’s optimistic, and most of them are not actually provable or disprovable in a meaningful way.

So there you go. The End is Always Near was not even tractable enough to be worth checking.

Thanks to Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg, Justis Mills, and Daniel Filan for copyediting. Patreon patrons you’re off the hook for this one since it was so short.

Review: Martyr Made Podcast

Introduction

Sometimes I consume media that makes factual claims. Sometimes I look up some of these claims to see how much trust I should place in said media, in a series I call epistemic spot checks. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on how useful this is. Focusing on evaluating particular works instead of developing a holistic opinion on an entire subject does feel perverse to me. OTOH, sometimes non-fiction is recreational, and I don’t think having some of my attention directed by people I find insightful and trustworthy is a bad thing, as long as I don’t swallow their views unquestioningly. Additionally, there’s a pleasant orderliness to doing ESCs, like the intellectual equivalent of cleaning my house. It’s not enough in and of itself, but it can free up RAM such that there’s room for deeper work.

I started listening to Darryl Cooper’s Martyr Made last year as part of a deep dive on cults, but kept going because I found him incredibly insightful. After listening to the 30+ hours of the God’s Socialist sequence, I Googled around and found a few accusations of racism against Cooper. I didn’t believe the accusations then, and I still don’t. People can go through the motions of saying what other people tell them to, but they can’t fake what Cooper does, which is to approach every human being as someone worthy of respect and compassion, whose actions are probably reasonable given their incentives. I value that a lot more than proper signaling.

Some time later I found an archive of Cooper’s deleted Twitter logs, and, uh, I get where people are coming from on the racism thing. I still absolutely believe in his respect and compassion for everyone except members of the USSR leadership (and even then, he’ll say very nice things about the intentions of early communists).  However, the thing about doing that genuinely instead of choosing a side and signaling allegiance is that it doesn’t compress well to 140 characters, and he said a bunch of things that were extremely easy to round to terrible beliefs. I might also have mistaken him for racist, if all I had was his Twitter. But given the podcasts, I am very sure that he respects-and-has-compassion-for every human being.

[Between when I started listening and when I published this Cooper returned to Twitter, which I have mixed feelings about. Namely “I think this is bad for him intellectually and emotionally” vs. “He’s talking to me! Hurray!”]

I’m not a big fan of emotion in my history podcasts. Martyr Made is an exception. Cooper goes hours out of his way to make sure you understand how something felt, without ever coming across as dishonest or manipulative. Some of that is that he often uses himself as an example and is very upfront about his flaws. Some of that is the aforementioned respect and compassion seeping into everything he does. Some is good writing. 

For example, God’s Socialist is nominally about Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, but Cooper doesn’t believe Jonestown makes any sense unless you understand the 60s, hippies, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement. The prologue consists of a description of various race riots/race wars, the contemporary and just-pre-Civil-Rights-movements, and easily 15 minutes on his interactions with some homeless people in his neighborhood. For the last of these, he observes that though he’s occasionally kind, he mostly just ignores the individuals in question, and that sometimes he thinks that on Judgement Day the only thing that’s going to matter is how he failed to really help those men- whatever he did, it was for the wrong motives and much too little. I wrote a bunch of angry notes about how virtue ethics was bullshit while listening to this part, but by the end it became clear that he wasn’t making a call to any particular action, it was just an honest accounting of suffering in the world. He was walking me through it because he felt it was necessary to understand Jim Jones, whose first acts as an adult were taking care of people most of society was stepping over. 

All of this is to say: Martyr Made is one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction in the world. I’ve learned so much from it both factually and emotionally, but I felt vulnerable talking about that until I was absolutely rock solid on the author’s epistemics. I finally had time to do an epistemic spot check on the start of God’s Socialist (still my favorite sequence in the series), and I’m extremely relieved to announce that he nailed it, although just like my ESC of Acoup, it is not so amazingly perfect that the follow up wasn’t worth doing (and I assume Cooper would agree with that, just like Bret Devereaux did).

A word on ESCs: there’s a range of things it can mean to check someone’s epistemics. Sometimes it means checking their simple concrete facts. You would be amazed how many problems this catches. Another is to check leaps of logic: they can have their facts right but draw wildly incorrect inferences from them. Finding these requires more cognition, but is also fairly easy. Cooper did great on both of these, which was not surprising. My concern was always that his facts were literally true but unrepresentative. Accurate-in-spirit representation is one of the hardest things to judge, especially about really contentious issues like racial violence where second opinions are just another thing to fact check. What I can say is that everything I checked I was either able to concretely verify, or was extremely consistent with what I was able to find but was open to other interpretations, because it’s a contentious area with motivated record keeping.

The God’s Socialist sequence of Martyr Made is 30 hours long. I have ESCed the prologue, which is 90 minutes long, and some especially load-bearing claims I remembered from later in the podcast. I also happen to have already read one of Cooper’s most quoted sources, The Warmth of Other Suns (affiliate link), back in 2014. 2014 is a long time ago and I didn’t ESC Warmth at the time, but what Cooper quoted was generally in accordance with my memory of it, on both a factual and model level.

Without further adieu…

The Claims

Claim: A 2007 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on Latino-on-Black violence in Los Angeles (1:02)

He reads this report very nearly word for word. All the differences I caught were very minor wording issues that didn’t change the meaning. I also checked some of SPLC’s claims

SPLC: “Since 1990, the African-American population of Los Angeles has dropped by half as blacks relocated to suburbs”, “Now, about 75% of Highland Park residents are Latinos. Only 2% are black. The rest are white and Asian.”  (8:17)

This was shockingly annoying to verify because I could find stats by year for LA county but not LA the city, and the county includes the suburbs. I did verify that:

  • In 2000 (seven years before the SPLC report came out), Highland Park was 72.4% Latino and 2.4% black (source). 
    • Note that if you read the Wikipedia article it says 8.4% black, but it cites my source above. This is plausibly an issue of how to assign mixed-race people (since Wikipedia’s percentages add up to >100%), or the ongoing confusion about how Latino is an ethnicity, not a race.
    • However, that particular neighborhood was already 2.2% black in 1990, although it was a little whiter and less Latino (source).
  • An LA time article also describes South LA shifting from an approximately 1:1 ratio of Latino and Black residents to 2:1 (Highland Park is in northeast LA).

Claim: A number of specific incidents of Latino-on-Black violence in Los Angeles, and some nebulous statistics

I Googled several of these as they came up and they always checked out, although LA’s a big city and Cooper is looking over a long time period, so it would be easy to cherry pick.

Cooper also gave some statistics on hate crime. However, these were always either for a particular neighborhood (too small, data liable to be noisy), or not quite as damning as his tone suggested they were. I found some statistics that came out the same year this episode did that support the general concept that Latino-on-Black violence happens, but I don’t trust the LAPD’s truthseeking on hate crimes. 

Which is to say, Cooper’s claims are well sourced and completely consistent with the available data, but the data is poor and his opinions are more controversial than he acknowledges. I’m sure someone with different motivations could use the same data to make the opposite case, or a different one entirely. Here’s an article published the same year as the SPLC report, calling the claims ridiculous. My tentative take on this is that racial tensions were high and spilling over into violence, but the claims that “all black people in LA were greenlit” (meaning, gang members had the okay from leaders to shoot them) and “all black people in Latino neighborhoods in LA were greenlit” are clearly insane; the murder rate would be much higher if that were true. 

Claim: Quote from Warmth of Other Suns: “In 1950, city aldermen and housing officials proposed restricting 13,000 new public housing units to people who had lived in Chicago for two years. The rule would presumably affect colored migrants and foreign immigrants alike. But it was the colored people who were having the most trouble finding housing and most likely to seek out such an alternative.” (23:00)

This quote is accurate, but my memory of it wasn’t: I had in my notes that this proposal was enacted, and only rechecked the recording when I couldn’t find any such record and wanted to see if he cited a source. His source, Warmth of Other Suns, cites a 1950 newspaper article that I couldn’t find online (it probably exists in ProQuest’s Historical Newspaper archive, but I lack access despite trying ProQuest via multiple libraries).

Claim: Description of the Cicero Riots of 1951 (31:00)

Everything he says is in accordance with the Wikipedia article: it was a horrific multi-day riot and lynching episode triggered by a black family moving into a white neighborhood. 

Cooper doesn’t mention this, but fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the landlord allowed the family to move in not for any noble anti-racism or even free-market motivations, but to punish the neighborhood for fining her for something else. 

Claim: Southern white people did not want black people to leave during the Great Migration, because they needed them as labor (35:00)

Warmth of Other Suns says the same, although that’s not independent confirmation because it’s at least one of Cooper’s sources as well. Wikipedia agrees.

Claim: Northern union leaders were resistant to black migrants because they reduced labor’s power (43:00)

I could not find a smoking gun on this, which makes sense because labor is not going to want to admit it. However I found a number of articles, modern and contemporary, on companies bringing in black workers from the south as strikebreakers, and it would be extremely weird if that didn’t upset union leaders. 

Claim: Jim Jones began as a dynamic and promising civil rights movement leader, branched out into communism (1:05:20)

Yup.

Claim: Jonestown residents were mostly poor and black, and disproportionately children (1:17:00)

Yup and yup.

Note that this was not true of the leadership of Jonestown, which was overwhelmingly white. Cooper gets into this later in the sequence.

Claim: Jim Jones led successful efforts to integrate businesses in Indianapolis (memory)

This claim came later in the sequence. It and the similar claim below were very significant to me and a number of changes in my own models rest on them, so I expanded the scope of the project to include them.

There are many sources repeating this claim, including Wikipedia, some book, and r/HistoryAnecdotes, and none denying it. I am a little suspicious because everyone seems to agree on exactly how many restaurants he integrated, but no one names them. They do name a hospital, but it seems like maybe “integrated” means “he accidentally got assigned to a black ward (because his doctor was black) and refused to leave”. But it’s not surprising that restaurants he integrated either no longer exist or don’t want to be remembered as “the place that excluded minorities until forced to change by the guy who later led America’s largest simultaneous suicide”.

Claim: Jim Jones helped members of his racially-integrated church tremendously (memory)

I found many secondary or tertiary sources saying this and no arguments against, but the only primary sources I could find joined the church in California. I couldn’t find any reports from people who joined while the church was in Indiana. That doesn’t seem damning to me; it’s kinda hard to tell people your lights got turned back on by Jim Jones before he was famous. This interview with a woman who joined in California and narrowly escaped the mass suicide confirms everything it can: she was a true believer in a bunch of good things but also kind of a joiner who ping-ponged between organizations until she found peace with People’s Temple. Another CA joiner talks about joining because her sister needed a rehab program and was recommended to People’s Temple’s program. 

Claim: Jim Jones adopted multiple children of color (memory)

True. The Jones family adopted three Korean children, one part-Native American child, and one black child, who they named James Jones Jr (they also had one biological child and adopted a white child from a People’s Temple member. There are also some People’s Temple kids of unclear paternity).

I recognize that transracial adoption is contentious and actions that were considered progressive and inclusive 60 years ago are now viewed as bad for the children they were supposed to benefit. I also get that lots of adoptive white parents were unprepared to deal with the realities of racism, or harbor it themselves, and that harmed their kids. The whole mass suicide thing casts some doubt on Jim Jones as a parent too. Nonetheless, a white man naming his black son after himself in 1961 was an extraordinarily big deal for which he undoubtedly paid a very high price, and from all this I have to conclude that fighting racism was extremely important to early Jim Jones.

Summary

Overall all of the claims were at least extremely defensible. I wish Cooper acknowledged more of the controversy around his interpretations, but I also appreciate that he comes to actual conclusions with models instead of spewing a bunch of isolated facts. I also wish he provided show notes with citations, because he’s inconsistent about providing sources in the audio.

Doing this check reinforced my belief that having one source for any of your beliefs is malpractice and processing multiple sources is a requirement, however I will very happily continue to have Cooper as a significant source of information, and if I’m totally honest I’m not even going to check all his work this extensively. 

Thanks to Eli Tyre for research assistance, my Patreon Patrons for financial support of this post, and Justis Mills for editing.

Review: Dark Souls is basically Candy Crush

I am not a good sport when it comes to video games.  When playing games where suboptimal moves affect you later, I tend to quit and restart as soon as I realize I’ve made one.  It’s not a need to win exactly, more like I care more about building a thing than winning and once the foundation is cracked, the building is worthless.

This would seem to make me a poor candidate for Dark Souls, a game known for killing you a lot.

three-hoursinto-dark-souls-kids-you-tried-your-best-and-13967254.png book-cover-01.pngthumb_tutorials-in-other-games-press-x-to-move-your-legs-20564453.png

 

 

But there’s a kind of game that doesn’t have this problem: matching games like Candy Crush. I refuse to give them money, so for me Candy Crush is basically an exercise in pulling the lever until I happen to get a winnable configuration.  For hard levels this can take days and occasionally weeks. Fun is the wrong word.  It’s relaxing, it occupies my hands while listening to podcasts, and it helps me think by powering up the sort-and-organize modules of my brain without occupying them.

Dark Souls turns out to just as good for this if not better. You run around, you kill some zombies, you die, you kill the same zombies again.  Three days later you kill enough to actually clear the area and find the boss, who you spend another three days attempting to kill.  Then you get mauled by rats before you can make it to a save point, and die again at the hands of the same zombies you’ve killed 40 times, thus removing any chance of using the XP you received for killing the boss.

This could be incredibly frustrating, but I found it zen. My bad moves couldn’t poison the game because I was meant to die every 5 minutes. Even losing my boss XP was a non-event, it just meant I had to spend some time farming.

Or so I thought. Watching some playthroughs, I learned that interactions with NPCs could have permanent consequences. I didn’t consciously choose to quit then, and there were other factors like “my friend stopped playing” and “nothing is as fun as Blighttown”, but it played a role. The same thing happened with Stardew Valley- I thought I was playing a fun game about farming I could play at my own pace and then I learned I was on a timeline to get married and build a house and I didn’t get the energy to pick it up again until it was updated to let you continue after judgement day.

Anyways, Dark Souls:Remastered is currently 40% off at Humble Bundle (sponsored link). If this very specific kind of zen appeals to you, now is a good time to check it out.

 

 

 

Kencko Fruit Powder: Better Than Anything I’m Actually Going to do

UPDATE: As much as I love the concept of Kencko, if I drink them too fast they make me vomit, even when very diluted. I reluctantly withdraw my seal of approval.

 

Sometimes the modern economy really delivers.

As longtime readers know, I have two strikes against me when it comes to food: it requires both chewing and digesting. Chewing is painful for me due to nerve damage in my jaw. Digesting… well some of the problems with digestion are caused by insufficient stomach acid, but those are easily treated with a pill. I still have problems when I take the pills and no one knows why. So I eat a lot of things that require minimal chewing and are easy to digest. This set of things has very little overlap with the set of things my nutritionist wants me to eat, such as produce. I eat some fruits and veggies, especially in the summer, but not nearly enough.

Enter Kencko.

 

 

Kencko produces small packets of powderized fruits and vegetables. This requires no chewing and substantially less digestion. They taste fine. Not amazing, but fine. You could probably make them taste better by adding sugar or honey. Because they’re produced by freeze drying, they’re better nutritionally than other preserved fruit. Not as good as fresh, but, in the words of my nutritionist, “better than anything you’re actually going to do.” 

Nutritionists are hit-or-miss, so I double checked the nutrition claim myself. Based on a rushed review (primary source), I find that freeze drying has some nutritional loss, exact amount depending on the nutrient, but within the range that could conceivably counterbalanced by the increased digestibility of powder (this also means the sugar hits faster), and also the fact that I’m eating them at all. I suspect the biggest loss is the absence of probiotic flora in the sterilized powder packets.

There’s the issue of price. I was originally going to apologize for the price, chalk it up to convenience, and plead necessity for myself, but it turns out the packets are not that expensive relative to comparables. Ordered in the largest size, Kencko is $3.07/ounce. I spent 45 minutes finding prices for other freeze dried fruit powders, and that’s as good as you can do short of wholesale (spreadsheet). There are cheaper powders, but they’re inevitably something other than freeze-dried.

How about compared to actual fruit? It takes .44 lbs of fruit to produce one 20 g Kencko packet (price: $2.16-$3.30, depending on quantity ordered). According to this USDA report (chart on page 3), .5 lbs is $0.66-$0.90 cents worth of apples, $2.16 worth of blueberries, or $2.10-$2.85 worth of cherries. Note that those are advertised prices, so probably less than what you’d pay on average and certainly less than what you’d pay out of season, and for conventional produce rather than the organics Kencko uses. Kencko is definitely more expensive than in-season, on-sale produce, but not ridiculously so. Plus it never goes bad so you’re not paying for produce you throw away.

The worst thing I will say about Kencko is that their mixer bottle sucks. It mixes less well and is harder to clean than a Blender Bottle (affiliate link), buy one of those or use a spoon.

Obviously if you can just eat a vegetable you should do that. But if you find that untenable for some reason, Kencko is a reasonable way to turn money into consumed produce. This is an incredibly good trade for me and I’m really happy it exists.

[Kencko has not paid me for this post and I’m not in contact with them beyond ordering the product and following them on Twitter.]

Review: SOMA

I said I wanted to get this done while the game was still in a Humble Bundle, and technically I succeeded, but it turns out it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to recommend it.

SOMA was sold as “Like Amnesia but sci-fi and underwater” and I love all of those things, so I had very high hopes. Hopes that were dashed. I don’t know if my tastes have changed since I played Amnesia or SOMA just wasn’t as good, but I stopped playing two hours in.

If we’re assuming the former, the problem is I’ve played a lot of puzzle games since Amnesia and my standards have gone up. Both Amnesia and Portal have puzzles so you have something to do while running from monsters and…eh. I thought I was cheating myself by looking up solutions so often, but then I solved a few myself and there was still no sense of satisfaction. It’s more just testing what the environment will let you do until the problem somehow goes away.

I was intrigued enough by the story to look up the ending. If you’re looking for something with similar themes, less terror, and better puzzles, I strongly recommend The Swapper, which remains one of my favorite games of all time.

Product Endorsement: Secret Stuff Chalk Cream

This is strictly for the climbers and other friction-ey athletes in the audience.

Chalk Cream is a lotion you rub on your hands, then air dry so that the alcohol evaporates and the chalk remains. I did not realize how amazing it was until I tried regular chalk. Regular chalk comes off in maybe three holds. Chalk Cream is still present at the top of very tall belaying routes. Yes, it is harder to reapply, but you need to do so so much less often.

I have no idea why this stuff hasn’t gone to fixation because it’s eons better and not that much more expensive than traditional chalk- possibly cheaper, if you go by dollar per time with chalk covered hands.

Tim Schafer Videogame Roundup

On one hand, I try to stay away from negative reviews.  Insulting things is easy, creating things is hard.  On the other hand, mentioning a game on this blog makes its purchase tax deductible to me.  You see my dilemma.

So let’s talk primarily about Psychonauts, which is an excellent game.  It is one of those nebulous “puzzle platformers”, meaning it involves both jumping and carrying things around until they can be used as keys.  But where it really shines is the meta game: most levels take place inside people’s heads, and reflect their inner damage.  For example, the drill sergeant camp counselor’s brain is a fairly standard 3D platformer.  Occasionally you have to knock a wall down, but there aren’t even real enemies.

Later on you enter the mind of a woman who clearly has bipolar disorder, and you work her through her abandonment by her stage mother by enacting a series of plays.  Then you shoot down the real villain, her inner critic. You also help a guy with multiple personality disorder defeat his inner Napolean by entering a ~chess board to run errands for medieval peasants.

It’s hard to convey how much this works in context, but it really does.  The gameplay is fun (most of the time.  Don’t judge by the first level), the puzzles are solvable (most of the time), the narrative is rich, and they all go together really well.  I might occasionally look up the solution to a particular puzzle and I will definitely look up where to find the collectibles because I’m an adult with a job work to do, but this feels more like hacking the game to my style.

FYI, this game is currently available on HumbleBundle.com for free until 9/16.

The creative power behind Psychonauts is Tim Schafer.  Schafer made himself famous making point and click adventure games for LucasArts.  My older friends regaled me with tales of Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, but they were old and unavailable, even on gog.com.

I contented myself with new Tim Schafer games.  Stacking‘s movement mechanic made me motion sick but otherwise it was reasonably fun.  And eventually Shafer’s old games were not only remastered and released, but I waited them out until they appeared in Humble Bundles, which is very nearly free (although not entirely, IRS).  And even more eventually, I had time to play both Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango.

Sadface.

I tried with these, I really did. I was afraid they were hidden gems I was failing because I couldn’t give them enough attention.  But ultimately?  They’re not fun.  It’s not that the puzzles don’t make sense- they don’t, but I’d forgive that if exploring the solution space was cheap.  Then I’d get to feel clever for figuring something out.  No, both games’ sin is that they are slow.  Walking across a room to pick something up is slow.  Moving between environments is slow.  Going through dialogue trees is extremely slow. Retrying a strategy with a slight variation requires going through the first six steps over again.

I thought maybe I just didn’t have the attention span for games anymore, which was a little terrifying. Then I played Massive Chalice, from the same studio but a different lead designer.  MC is great.  It’s a tactical RPG, where you move your dudes around to shoot things, but also a creepy eugenics simulator, where you breed your heroes to produce better heroes next generation.  This game was frustrating and unfun at first, but in a way I immediately recognized would become fun if I put enough thought into it.  So I did the natural thing and recruited my friends to play it too, so we could talk about it and share the burden of finding out how to play.  This was a mixed success as far as “learning to play” went, as people disagreed violently over the best strategies, but it was fun.

Massive Chalice’s breeding minigame is not what one might hope.  Inbreeding is disallowed, there aren’t many families, and the long period of reproductive senescence creates big gaps in the ages of your heroes in each family.  You end up throwing in whoever is least bad, rather than carefully crafting a strategy.  Also, I don’t like hard choices.  I make enough hard choices in my day, when I’m playing games I just want to build things.

Recognizing how creepy this sounds: I spent a long time looking for a game with the breeding elements of Massive Chalice or Crusader Kings 2, but where that was the entirety of the game.  There’s nothing. There are some pet reproduction games but not with the depth I want.  Basically I’m looking for AKC: The Video Game.

 

Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy (Mari Kondo)

I read these books not because I planned on following them literally, but because I was moving and I wanted to bias myself towards getting rid of stuff rather than keeping stuff.  This was a good plan that I recommend to anyone with similar goals.  Having a little voice in the back of your head saying “If it doesn’t spark joy you are morally obligated to throw it out” is a great counterpoint to your inner hoarder.  Now on to the epistemics.

These books are weirdly calming, because they’re so confidently wrong.  There’s no hedging, no complications, no conception that other people might operate differently than her, just her opinion/the right way to do things, which are one and the same.  I spend all day around people with very complicated models they are very tentative about, and it was relaxing to see someone fully commit to something.  Plus if something is almost true, it’s stressful to disagree with it.  If it’s so clearly wrong and not considering other options, disagreeing feels easy.

Kondo actually walks back a lot of the wrongness in the second book.  For example, she acknowledges that there are practical things you need to keep even if they don’t fill you with delight.

I think I also enjoyed the books because Mari Kondo and I have the same ultimate goal: human flourishing.  She has fixated on tidyness as the base of the pyramid that ends in utopia, and she’s doing what she can to make that happen.  Aside from her initial assumption that tidyness will fix everything wrong with your life, I agree with all of her logical steps.

Epistemic Spot Check: A Guide To Better Movement (Todd Hargrove)

Edit 7/20/17: See comments from the author about this review.  In particular, he believes I overstated his claims, sometimes by a lot.

 

This is part of an ongoing series assessing where the epistemic bar should be for self-help books.

Introduction

Thesis: increasing your physical capabilities is more often a matter of teaching your neurological system than it is anything to do with your body directly.  This includes things that really really look like they’re about physical constraints, like strength and flexibility.  You can treat injuries and pain and improve performance by working on the nervous system alone.  More surprising, treating these physical issues will have spillover effects, improving your mental and emotional health. A Guide To Better Movement provides both specific exercises for treating those issues and general principles that can be applied to any movement art or therapy.

The first chapter of this book failed spot checking pretty hard.  If I hadn’t had a very strong recommendation from a friend (“I didn’t take pain medication after two shoulder surgeries” strong), I would have tossed it aside.  But I’m glad I kept going, because it turned out to be quite valuable (this is what triggered that meta post on epistemic spot checking).  In accordance with the previous announcement on epistemic spot checking, I’m presenting the checks of chapter one (which failed, badly), and chapter six (which contains the best explanation of pain psychology I’ve ever seen), and a review of model quality.  I’m very eager for feedback on how this works for people.

Chapter 1: Intro (of the book)

Claim: “Although we might imagine we are lengthening muscle by stretching, it is more likely that increased range of motion is caused by changes in the nervous system’s tolerance to stretch, rather than actual length changes in muscles. ” (p. 5). 

Overstated, weak.  (PDF).  The paper’s claims to apply this up to 8 weeks, no further.  Additionally, the paper draws most (all?) of its data from two studies and it doesn’t give the sample size of either.

Claim:  “Research shows the forces required to deform mature connective tissue are probably impossible to create with hands, elbows or foam rollers.” (p. 5). 

Misleading. (Abstract).  Where by “research” the Hargrove means “mathematical model extrapolated from a single subject”.

Claim:  “in hockey players, strong adductors are far more protective against groin strain than flexible adductors, which offer no benefit” (p. 14).

Misleading. (Abstract) Sample size is small, and the study was of the relative strength of adductor to abductor, not absolute strength.

Claim: “Flexibility in the muscles of the posterior chain correlates with slower running and poor running economy.” (p. 14).

Accurate citation, weak study.  (Abstract) Sample size: 8.  Eight.  And it’s correlational.

[A number of interesting ideas whose citations are in books and thus inaccessible to me]

Claim:  “…most studies looking at measurable differences in posture between individuals find that such differences do not predict differences in chronic pain levels.”  (p. 31). 

Accurate citation.  (Abstract).  It’s a metastudy and I didn’t track down any of the 54 studies included, but the results are definitely quoted accurately.

 

Chapter 6: Pain

Claim: “Neuromatrix” approach to pain means the pattern of brain activity that create pain, and that pain is an output of brain activity, not an input (p93).

True, although the ability to correctly use definitions is not very impressive.

Claim: “If you think a particular stimulus will cause pain, then pain is more likely.  Cancer patients will feel more pain if they believe the pain heralds the return of cancer, rather than being a natural part of the healing process.” (p93).

Correctly cited, small sample size. (Source 1, source 2, TEDx Talk).

ClaimPsychological states associated with mood disorders (depression, anxiety, learned helplessness, etc) are associated with pain (p94).

True, (source), although it doesn’t look like the study is trying to establish causality.

ClaimMany pain-free people have the kinds of injuries doctors blame pain on (p95).

True, many sources, all with small sample sizes.  (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4, source 5)

Claim: On taking some cure for pain, relief kicks in before the chemical has a chance to do any work (p98)

True.  His source for this was a little opaque but I’ve seen this fact validated many other places.

Claim: we know you can have pain without stimulus because you can have arm pain without an arm (p102).

True, phantom limb pain is well established.

Claim: some people feel a heart attack as arm pain because the nerves are very close to each other and the heart basically never hurts, so the brain “corrects” the signal to originating in the arm (p102).

First part: True.  Explanation: unsupported.  The explanation certainly makes sense, but he provides no citations and I can’t find any other source on it.

Claim: Inflammation lowers the firing threshold of nociceptors (aka sensitization) (p102).

True (source).

Claim: nociception is processed by the dorsal horn in the spine.  The dorsal horn can also become sensitized, firing with less stimulus than it otherwise would.  Constant activation is one of the things that increases sensitivity, which is one mechanism for chronic pain (p103).

True (source).

Claim: people with chronic pain often have poor “body maps”, meaning that their mental model of where they are in space is inaccurate and they have less resolution when assessing where a given sensation is coming from (p107).

Accurate citation (source).  This is a combination of literature review and reporting of novel results.  The novel results had a sample of five.

Claim: The hidden hand in the rubber hand illusion experiences a drop in temperature (p109).

Accurate citation, tiny sample size (source).  This paper, which is cited by the book’s citation, contains six experiments with sample sizes of fifteen or less.  I am torn between dismissing this because cool results with tiny sample sizes are usually bullshit, and accepting it because it is super cool.

Claim: “a hand that has been disowned through use of the rubber hand illusion will suffer more inflammation in response to a physical insult than a normal hand.” (p. 109).

Almost accurate citation (source).  The study was about histamine injection, not injury per se.   Insult technically covers both, but I would have preferred a more precise phrasing.  Also, sample size 34.

Claim: People with chronic back pain have trouble perceiving the outline of their back (p. 109). 

Accurate citation, sample size six (pdf).

Claim:  “Watching the movements in a mirror makes the movements less painful [for people with lower back pain].” (p. 111). Better Movement. Kindle Edition.

Accurate citation, small sample size (source).

Model Quality

Reminder: the model is that pain and exhaustion are a product of your brain processing a variety of information.  The prediction is that improving the quality of processing via the principles explained in the book can reduce pain and increase your physical capabilities.

Simplicity: Good.  This is not actually simple model, it requires a ton of explanation to a layman.  But most of its assumptions come from neurology as a whole; the leap from “more or less accepted facts about neurology” to this model is quite small.

Explanation Quality: Fantastic.  I’ve done some reading on pain psychology, much of which is consistent with Guide…, but Guide… has by far the best explanation I’ve read.

Explicit Predictions: Good, kept from greatness only by the fact that brains and bodies are both very complicated and there’s only so much even a very good model can do.

Useful Predictions: Okay. The testable prediction for the home-reader is that following the exercises in the back of the book, or going to a Feldenkrais class, will treat chronic pain, and increase flexibility and strength.  Since the book itself admits that a lot of things offer short term relief but don’t address the real problem, helping immediately doesn’t prove very much.

Acknowledging Limitations: low. (Note: author disputes this, and it’s entirely possible he did and I forgot).  GTBM doesn’t have the grandiose vision of some cure-all books, and repeatedly reminds you that your brain being involved doesn’t mean your brain is in control.  But there’s no sentence along the lines of “if this doesn’t work there’s a mechanical problem and you should see a doctor.”

Measurability: low.  This book expects you to put in a lot of time before seeing results, and does not make a specific prediction of the form they will come in.  Worse, I don’t think you can skip straight to the exercises.  If I hadn’t read the entire preceding book I wouldn’t have approached them in the correct spirit of attention and curiosity.

Hmmm, if I’d assigned a gestalt rating it would have been higher than what I now think is merited based on the subscores.  I deliberately wrote this mostly before trying the exercises, so I can’t give an effectiveness score.  If you do decide to try it, please let me know how it goes so I can further calibrate my reviews to actual effectiveness.

 

You might like this book if…

…you suffer from chronic pain or musculoskeletal issues, or find the mind-body connection fascinating.

This post supported by Patreon.

How to Handle Bad Examples in Texts?

How harshly should you judge when a scientific work gives a bad example of its point?

For example, I am reading Interaction Ritual Chains (Randall Collins), which focuses on emotional energy during stereotyped interactions between people (this is the scientific sense of stereotyped, meaning rigid or strongly patterned, not racist).  IRC believes that interaction is important and irreplaceable, such that people will shun much more “efficient” solutions to their official goal in order to get interpersonal interactions.  Unfortunately it uses terrible examples to illustrate this.

For example, on page 63 he claims that online shopping will never replace brick and mortar stores, because going to the store amidst other people is an energizing ritual.  At the time the book was published (2004) this was obviously untrue to me, but I can see how it wasn’t in every segment of society.  So while this is a bad prediction, it’s not a factual error.

He also claims that television has had no impact on sports attendance because people want the in person experience so much (p57).  To the extent that is true, it’s because leagues has gone to a great deal of trouble to make it not true, by imposing blackout rules such that you can’t broadcast a local game unless it has sold out.  It’s only since 1973 that the NFL had an exception for sold out games- previous to that, the only way to see a game played in your market was to be there.

How much should I reduce my confidence in Interaction Ritual Chains, given that it made this error? Or two false predictions?  Is it even fair to score them as false? In person stores still exist, although malls are having a hard time of it.  Maybe blackout rules were preemptive strikes and attendance would have stayed high without them.  But this gives me qualms about learning examples I know less about- even if the author is being accurate, if I’m drawing incorrect conclusions.