Monday, December 18, 2017

Book review: "A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet" by Dorothie and Martin Hellman

We humans dream of meeting our soul mates, someone to be Juliet to our Romeo, Harry to our Sally, Jobs to our Woz, Larry to our Sergey.  Sadly, the odds are stacked heavily against us.  If you do the math you will find that in a typical human lifetime we can only hope to meet a tiny fraction of our 7 billion fellow humans.  And if you factor in the time it takes to properly vet someone to see if they're a suitable life (or business) partner, the set of prospects that you can reasonably expect to screen gets even smaller.

To make matters worse, finding a long-term partner in any endeavor is necessarily a barter transaction.  It's not enough that they be a good match for you, you also need to be a good match for them.  So when against all odds we find a suitable prospect, in order to improve our chances of closing the deal, we dissemble.  We put on our best clothes and our best behavior and engage in courtship rituals.  It is only much later, when the effort invested into a relationship has become significant and the sunk-cost fallacy is fully in play that we are willing to take the risk of revealing our true faces.  At which point, all too often, all hell breaks loose.

This dynamic plays itself out not just in interpersonal relationships, but in business and even international relationships as well (which are, after all, still human relationships).  I've seen more businesses fail than I care to count because the founders got to the point where they couldn't stand working with each other any more.

"A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet" by Dorothie and Martin Hellman is a book about human relationships in the small and in the large.  It is divided into two parts.  In the first, the authors recount how their own marriage very nearly ended in divorce, and how they were able to put it back together again by practicing "compassion and holistic thinking."  In the second part, they speculate on how the lessons they learned from that experience might be extended to help repair international relationships.  The "new map" in the title refers to a literal paper map in the opening anecdote, which one of the authors (I don't want to give too many spoilers) tore to shreds during a dispute over finding directions.  This torn up map serves as a metaphor that binds the book together thematically.  It alternates between jointly-written sections, and passages attributed specifically to one author or the other, presented as dialogs.

This would normally be the point where I go through the book chapter by chapter giving pithy summaries of the content seasoned with my own erudite observations and amplifications.  But that presents me with a problem.  In fact, it presents me with the very problem that this book seeks to address: writing a book review is part of not just one but two human relationships, between the reviewer and the author, and between the reviewer and the audience.  The reason I read this book in the first place is that I met Martin Hellman at a political fundraiser.  We chatted, discovered that we seemed to have a lot of interests in common, and subsequently got together for a more extensive conversation at his home.

One of the reasons I was interested in pursuing this relationship is that Martin Hellman is not just an author, but also one of the founders of the field of modern cryptography.  One of the cornerstones of modern computer security is something called the Diffie-Hellman algorithm, of which Martin is the Hellman part.  For someone like me who is involved professionally in computer security, meeting Martin Hellman is like a physicist meeting Werner Heisenberg or Richard Feynman.

So reviewing this book presents me with a serious conflict of interest because Martin Hellman is famous and influential in my field.  A good word from him could open doors for me, and that gives me an incentive to write a more positive review than I might otherwise do in order to curry favor.  (Not that I would ever dream of doing such a thing!  But it's a theoretical possibility.)

Ordinarily this would be no more than a run-of-the-mill conflict that just comes with the territory of engaging in the academic process.  But in this case what would normally just be an innocent white lie would actually violate one of the central messages of the book!  One of the things the book advocates is committing oneself to a "zealous search for the truth."  So if I thought the book sucked, should I say so?  On the one hand, being straightforward and honest would show respect for this part of the book's message.  On the other hand, it might offend Martin and make him less likely to want to interact with me in the future.  Worse, I might just be *wrong*, and being honest about my (wrong) negative opinion might cause someone not to read this book who might otherwise have read it.  That person in turn might end up being the crucial link in a chain of events that leads to the next nuclear war, a possibility that the book takes very seriously (an entire chapter is dedicated to examining the logic of nuclear deterrence).  Might it be that to best serve the stated goal of this book I need to violate one of its tenets?

Interestingly, the book offers a parable which is almost directly on-point: Martin Hellman co-invented one of the cornerstones of modern computer technology, but he never made any money from it.  Other people did, however, and the book describes how that came about in some interesting (to a crypto geek like me) first-person historical detail.  At one point, Martin is presented with the opportunity to participate in a business deal, a side-effect of which would be to wreak some revenge on the people whose actions deprived him of the financial rewards of his invention.  The deal looks like a good one, but he worries that his reasoning is being clouded: does he want to proceed because it's really a good deal, or because it would serve his desire for revenge?  (If you want to know how it went you'll have to read the book!)

And now, having raised this issue, I face an even more serious problem.  Suppose I tell you now that this book is awesome, that everyone should read it, that it has the potential to pave the way to world peace.  Would you believe me?

This is the fundamental problem with all human relationships: we humans are *complicated*.  We want different things.  Just figuring out what someone's true goals are is really hard.  Heck, just figuring out what your *own* goals are is hard!  This is where many interpersonal relationships fail, because each side makes assumptions about the other's goals, or even their own, that turn out not to be true.  This is indeed one of the central messages of "A New Map..."  But (and this really is my honest assessment now) it doesn't go nearly far enough in heeding its own advice.

Consider the sub-title: "Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet."  This certainly sounds appealing to me, and if you're reading my blog it is very likely appealing to you, but believe it or not it is not appealing to everyone.  Some (self-identified) Christians, for example, don't want Peace on the Planet, they want to hasten the Second Coming of Christ, and they believe that the best way to accomplish that is not to foster peace, but to catalyze the final war that will be the harbinger of His arrival.  These people celebrated Donald Trump's recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, not *despite* the risk that it might derail the peace process, but *because* it might do so.  Hard as it may be to fathom, some people are actually rooting for war (and some of them are influential in the Trump administration).

Another example: radical Islamists want neither World Peace nor True Love, they want a Caliphate.  If war is the means, so much the better, because then they get to die gloriously in service to Allah.  In their minds there is nothing nobler to which a human can aspire.  I could go on and on: some people believe that money and/or power are the ultimate measure of human virtue.  Some people believe that their nation-state has a manifest destiny to dominate the world.  Some people are desperately poor and have nothing to lose.  Some people make their living by selling weapons; World Peace would ruin them.

Achieving reconciliation is hard enough when everyone involved already shares the same goals.  What if they don't?  To this question the book offers no answer [1].  Because of that, although this book has a lot of sound and actionable advice for individuals who share the goal of making a personal relationship work, I am not optimistic that its lessons will find application on a larger scale.

Ultimately, "A New Map..." suffers from the same problem that doomed Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape" in my eyes: both Sam and the Hellmans view the world through the lens of intellectually and economically privileged white western liberalism.  As I said in my review of Sam's book, I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view because I am myself an intellectually privileged white western liberal.  But I grew up in the South, and I've spent a fair amount of time traveling in Muslim countries.  So I'm pretty sure that the people who really ought to read this book, the ones who need to be reached in order to achieve its goals, will not even get past the title before dismissing it as yet another ivory-tower liberal calling on people to sit by the campfire and sing kumbaya.

This book is chock-full of well researched facts, sound reasoning, and actionable advice.  But I am not sanguine that the struggle for world peace will be won with facts and reasoning.

Notwithstanding everything that I've just said, this book is awesome.  Everyone should read it.

[1] In response to a preview of this review, the authors pushed back on this and claimed that the book does have an answer, and that it is presented in Chapter 8.  I won't try to summarize it here because I find their argument unconvincing (which is probably why I didn't consider it when I wrote that passage).  I direct the interested reader to the book, where they can make up their own minds.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Here comes the next west coast mega-drought

As long as I'm blogging about extreme weather events I would also like to remind everyone that we just came off of the longest drought in California history, followed immediately by the wettest rainy season in California history.  Now it looks like that history could very well be starting to repeat itself.  The weather pattern that caused the six-year-long Great Drought is starting to form again.  It is now deep into what would normally be the rainy season, but the last time it rained was over two weeks ago.  The forecast is for zero percent chance of rain into the foreseeable future (which at the moment is through Christmas).

But I guess we deserve it because we voted for Hillary.

This should convince the climate skeptics. But it probably won't.

One of the factoids that climate-change denialists cling to is the fact (and it is a fact) that major storms haven't gotten measurably worse.  The damage from storms has gotten measurably worse, but that can be attributed to increased development on coastlines.  It might be that the storms themselves have gotten worse, but the data is not good enough to disentangle the two effects.

But storms are not the only natural disasters exacerbated by climate change.  As I write this, the Thomas Fire has grown to be the third largest in California history.  It only needs to grow another 10% to get to the #1 spot, and since it is only 40% contained at the moment and a new round of Santa Ana winds are blowing even as I write this, it will almost certainly achieve that dubious distinction.

But you can't draw conclusions about long-term trends from any single data point, so why am I bringing this up?  Because the Thomas fire is not an isolated incident.  It is only the latest in a long string of record-breaking fires in California.  If you look at the list of the twenty largest fires in California history, fifteen of them have happened in the last 20 years.  Nineteen of them have happened in the last 50 years.  The only fire on the top 20 list before 1970 was in 1932.

This increase in fire size cannot be the result of human development.  If anything, human development should result in smaller fires, because development removes wildland fuel.

There is also the national climate assessment, which has additional evidence that human-induced climate change is producing more catastrophic weather events.  This report was published by the Trump administration.  If that doesn't convince you that the problem is real and serious, then you will find kindred spirits among the birthers, the lunar landing denialists and the flat-earthers.  Good luck to you.