Discover more from The Bulwark
Robots, NatCons, and the Zombie Apocalypse
The sum of all fears.
Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
If you find value in this project, do two things for me: (1) hit the Like button, and (2) share this with someone.
Most of what we do in Bulwark+ is only for our members, but this email will always be open to everyone.
We’re running a Fall Special right now (not a thing we do very often) and we’ll give you two weeks of Bulwark+ for free, so you can try it out. I think you’ll like it. But if not, no harm, no foul.
And you can always sign up just to get on the list for our free stuff, of which there is a lot.
1. Joe Posnanski
I link to Joe a lot because he’s tremendous and has a knack for hitting angles on stories most people never consider.
This edition of his newsletter got me thinking:
Because computers are so much better than people at chess now, there’s a big, big problem with cheating. People playing online will often use a chess engine to defeat people and build up their ratings and, I guess, feel powerful. I don’t actually get what the thrill is in cheating at chess, but it’s such an issue that Chess.com has instituted ultra-sophisticated methods of tracking down cheaters and then closing their accounts. . . .
Chess was once an artform, and the greatest players — people with names like Tal and Fischer and Kasparov and Polgar — could create beauty on the board. There were not exactly right and wrong moves; instead there were endless possibilities.
Now, yeah, there are right and wrong moves. The computers tell us so. Sure, the grandmasters still do create art, still bewilder and awe us mere mortals with their creativity and how many moves ahead they can see. But computers can see more moves ahead.
All of which leads to the controversy — a match in St. Louis between Magnus Carlsen and a 19-year-old phenom named Hans Niemann. . . .
Niemann was born in San Francisco, and he left home at 16 to become a full-time chess streamer. He has sort of built a reputation as a chess outsider; a few weeks ago, he was the lowest-rated player at a tournament but on the second day he defeated Magnus Carlsen with the black pieces, a near impossibility.
“Hans,” the interviewer said as he walked out of the room, “yesterday was a terrible day for you and today you start out with a masterpiece. How would you summarize this?”
“The chess speaks for itself,” he said, and he walked off even as the interviewer tried to ask a follow-up question. (“Is this something special to do this against Magnus, Hans?” the interviewer asked Neimann’s retreating back.) The interviewer then broke out laughing.
In the staid world of chess, this was basically like lighting a row of firecrackers in the middle of the Vatican.
After that “Chess speaks for itself” comment, Niemann did not win a single point in the tournament . . .
Read the whole thing and subscribe. You won’t be sorry.
Was Neimann somehow cheating with the help of a computer? That’s not the point. What Posnanski is getting at is something we’ve talked about here before: How technology is running headlong into
life sports and creating problems that go to the foundation of what it means to be human.
Posnanski then moves on to another data point: Devon Allen’s “false start.”
Devon Allen — a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles — was disqualified from the 110-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships a few weeks ago for a false start.
Here’s the problem: You can’t see the false start. Nobody can see the false start. By sight, Allen most definitely does not leave before the gun. . . .
But here’s the thing: World Athletics has determined that it is not possible for someone to push off the block within a tenth of a second of the gun without false starting. They have science that shows it is beyond human capabilities to react that fast. Of course there are those (I’m among them) who would tell you that’s nonsense, that’s pseudoscience, there’s no way that they can limit human capabilities like that. There is science that shows it is humanly impossible to hit a fastball. There was once science that showed human beings could not run a four-minute mile.
Besides, do you know what Devon Allen’s reaction time was? It was 0.99 seconds. One thousandth of a second too fast, according to World Athletics’ science. They’re THAT sure that .01 seconds — and EXACTLY .01 seconds — is the limit of human possibilities that they will disqualify an athlete who has trained his whole life for this moment because he reacted one thousandth of a second faster than they think possible?
We’re moving in this direction with many sports. Tennis with the new robot linesmen. (Linesbots?) Baseball with super-slow motion, 4k replays and cameras that “definitively” determine balls and strikes.
These are the baby steps into a new kind of human experience. And I’m not sure I like it.
2. Damon Linker
It is difficult to write about friends you believe are headed to dark places. Damon Linker does so quite movingly about his old friend, Rod Dreher:
The tweet is telling us, as Rod does so often these days, that things are about to get very, very bad, and far worse than anyone (except Rod and his closest ideological confidantes) realizes. Specifically, the entire world is about to experience hyperinflation as a result of the severe energy crunch in Europe tied to sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s efforts at retaliation against the European Union.
That does sound bad. But then why the chipper headline—“Cheer Up! The World Is Ending”—for the post Rod is promoting with his tweet? Perhaps because the tweet and the post aren’t really about the literal end of the world. They’re about what is supposedly a looming disaster for modern civilization—an economic catastrophe that would make the financial crisis of 2008 look like a minor tremor, followed by falling governments and other forms of severe civic turbulence. That’s what Rod foresees on the horizon and what has put him in a giddy mood.
Clicking on the link confirms this reading. The post begins by telling us that he just finished “a great breakfast in Miami,” that he has good news to share, but that first he will start with some bad news.
“The bad news is that we are all in for very hard times, and soon. I have spoken to several people in a position to know these things, and the consensus is that global hyperinflation is on its way. The energy crisis in Europe is much worse than our media have been telling us.”
People are saying, at the right-wing conference, that the world is about to experience hyperinflation. Who are these people “in a position to know”? Are they economists? Are they sane economists? Economists with a track record of making accurate predictions? Are they government officials? From which countries and parties? Are they privy to information not publicly known or available? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions because Rod tells us nothing about who is saying these things.
Instead, he links for support to a right-wing website, which points to a tweet thread by a “Finnish economist” who writes a column for The Epoch Times, a far-right international newspaper affiliated with the Falun Gong. This economist’s most recent column is titled “Europe is Bound to Collapse.” Two columns before that, he wrote “China’s Economy is Destined to Collapse.” Two before that, it was “Are We Headed for Another Great Crash (of 1929)”? I’m sensing a pattern.
(Shoot me if I ever start talking about “people in a position to know” as my appeal to authority.)
Anyway, Linker continues:
[Dreher] is ready and eager to defer to the supposed expertise of others, to place his trust in what they tell him, provided they attend the same right-wing conferences, write for trusted right-wing media outlets, and/or validate his deeply felt convictions. That’s not just confirmation bias. It’s the active, headlong pursuit of confirmation at the cost of fatally sacrificing his own critical intellect. But he doesn’t just defer to those who tell him what he wants to hear. He amplifies what they’re saying, adding assurances at regular intervals (and sometimes in italics or bold type) that this thing I am saying is true.
Rod has come to write like a prophet bringing the good news of impending apocalypse. Again, this isn’t literal armageddon. It’s merely armageddon for the modern liberal order, which, he insists, will very soon be obliterated in a tsunami of economic immiseration. Rod’s advice, following the tweet thread from the Chicken Little economist from Finland, is to stock cash, food, water, and (for those fortunate enough to possess the right kind of stove) wood.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. Damon is great.
I’m a bit of a catastrophist myself, and guys like Rod are giving us a bad name.
There are times when it’s perfectly reasonable to go full prepper. Hurricane season, for example. Or the start of a global pandemic.
But here’s the thing: We prep for transitory catastrophes. Crises that have endpoints.
Because there is no way to prep for the end of civilization. If the r/collapse stuff hits and governments start falling, having some canned beans, water, and a fistful of dollars buys you, what, a month? And after that, the fires of anarchy will sweep you up, too.
I don’t want to make fun of Rod Dreher, but if the modern liberal order fails, he’s not gonna make it. Because it’s not guys like this who survive the apocalypse:
It’s guys like this:
3. Damian Penny
Damian keeps an eye on Canada for me. And he keeps his other eye on Europe, where he notes that the Overton window on right-wing nationalism keeps shifting. He points to the big gains and mainstream acceptance of Sweden’s right-wing party last week. And:
Meanwhile, in Italy, a bloc led by the “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy looks poised to take power . . .
Some argue that [Giorgia] Meloni (who is laser-focused on the major issues affecting Italians, like Peppa Pig episodes with same-sex parents, just in case you thought meltdowns over “woke” pop-culture was strictly an American thing) may become Prime Minister in no small part because fascism was never as socially unacceptable in postwar Italy as Nazism was in postwar Germany . . .
In France, obviously, we have Marine Le Pen losing, but getting too close for comfort. And then:
Germany has its own established far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland, but so far the cordon sanitaire around AfD has held up. It’s never been part of a governing coalition at the federal nor the state level, and its support appears to have receded since the Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak. . . .
It hasn’t disappeared completely, though, and it still mustered just over 10% support in the 2021 German federal election. At the state level, especially in the former East Germany, it’s finished second with over a quarter of the popular vote in some recent elections.
AfD hasn’t died out like some predicted/hoped, and it seems to have a hard base of support that will win it seats in the Bundestag (Parliament) every time. In a country with proportional representation, where coalition governments are the norm, ten percent of the vote buys you a lot of bargaining power.
Germany is much more conscious of its dark past than other countries on the losing side in 1945, so AfD may never become as popular nor as accepted as its allies outside of Germany.
But they said the same thing about Sweden, not long ago. Just like they said Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National in France had peaked.
I’m hoping this winter won’t be as severe for a gas-starved Europe as some commentators say. But, if things only get one-quarter as bad as the most apocalyptic predictions, everything is on the table.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. Because that last bit should give you a chill. We have no idea what the political consequences of the Russian energy war will be on European politics.
But in general, the demagogues do well in times of economic crisis.
If you find this newsletter valuable, please hit the like button and share it with a friend. And if you want to get the Newsletter of Newsletters every week, sign up below. It’s free.
But if you’d like to get everything from Bulwark+ and be part of the conversation, too, you can do the paid version.