Review: “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons”

One of my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions was to teach Dan to read that year. He was due to turn 3 in April, knew a bunch of letters, and seemed to have a fair amount of verbal intelligence. It worked. By that Christmas he could read Dr. Seuss. Then we worked him up through a variety of chapter books and got him reading increasingly independently. This year, he got a Kindle (e-reader, not tablet) for his 5th birthday, and its stats show he’s been reading 30-50 hours/month, on top of everything he reads on paper. He enjoys reading books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory under his own power. How did this happen? Phonics, folks. And specifically, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, the one phonics book to rule them all.

(This is a book that is near and dear to my heart, hence I’ve distilled my stock rant about it into this post.)

Dan came to reading with some advantages; his mom has read to him regularly since birth, he sees his parents reading all the time, our house contains something like forty linear feet of books working their osmotic magic, I’d like to think his genetics are favorable, etc. But starting him very early, on this specific phonics program, has been a huge component of his success.

The book takes a pretty regimented, common-sense approach to reading instruction. It assumes the child starts knowing nothing but how to talk, not even the alphabet. It assumes the parent knows how to read, how to make their child sit down and pay attention, and not much else.

With those prerequisites fulfilled, it provides completely scripted phonics lessons. The parents’ lines are in red. Stage directions and the desired learner responses are in black. Material the child will read or interact with is in a larger font.

Did I mention it is completely scripted? The book starts by directing the parent to read the child a paragraph-long prepared speech that starts with “I’m going to teach you how to read.” Then Lesson 1 starts off:

And so on. Thus it requires essentially no lesson planning – it’s worth looking over the lesson in advance, especially for the first few, but no originality or creativity is required.

The book relies on building up skills in little chunks, in the Isaiah-approved “precept upon precept, line upon line” manner, with a great deal of review. First the child learns a few individual sounds. Separately, they learn to repeat words slowly, and how to speed up words after saying or hearing them slowly, e.g. “mmmooommm” vs. “mom.” They separately learn how to string sounds together, e.g. “mmmooommm” not “mmm [pause] ooo [pause] mmm.” They separately learn how to move their finger under letters and say the sounds the letters make as they do. Then all these skills are combined to let them sound out simple words.

The sequencing of concepts has obviously received a lot of thought. There are no capital letters until near the end of the book—after all, this sentence contains only one capital letter. Early in the book, all of the letters are continuant sounds (mmm, sss, rrr, etc.), where the child can hold the sound indefinitely while they think about the next letter. Stop sounds (p, t, k, etc.) are harder to sound out without pausing or introducing extra vowels, so they show up later. The names of the letters are taught as an afterthought, well after the sounds, since the child doesn’t really need to know letter names. You can easily read well without ever knowing the name of the letter “h.”

The book goes to great lengths to avoid generating confusion from special cases. Initially, each vowel has a single pronunciation; an “a” is always soft, as in “apple.” The hard “a” as in “able” is introduced later, initially with a line above it so that it’s clearly distinguished. The early examples avoid words with silent letters. Then silent letters appear, but in miniature to make clear they are silent. Then by the end of the book, the silent letters get bigger and the diacritical marks disappear.

The book says it’s for “bright three-and-a-half-year-olds, average four-and-five-year-olds.” Based on my experience, that is about right. I figured Dan is every bit of “bright,” and I was happy to challenge him, so I periodically tried going through some lessons him, starting perhaps a little before his third birthday. The first two or three times, we could get through six or ten days of lessons, but his attention span was a major challenge, and he struggled with certain concepts, notably stringing together sounds and rhyming. In August, when he was about 3 years and 4 months old, we made another attempt, and that time we ran through the program to completion. Elissa and I each did some of the lessons.

The hardest thing about the “learn to read” program was keeping Dan on task. (Somehow we ended up referring to both the process and book as “learn to read,” as in “I don’t want to do learn to read!”) He’s a pretty active, energetic kid. Sometimes I literally had to hold him down, to keep him from running off or squirming into a position where he couldn’t read. There was a lot of “Sit! Point! Read!” – and this is actually an effective pedagogical technique, relying on short reminders and directions rather than lecturing on misbehavior in a way that distracts from the lesson. When that failed, there was a fair amount of “learn to read” becoming “learn to time out.” We’d normally do a lesson right when I came home from work, and sometimes the nominally 20-minute-long lessons stretched to more like an hour.

But it was clear that Dan could do it, and that he’d be happy once he could, so I was willing to fight the battle of wills and make it happen. After all, a parent ought to be able to outlast a three-year-old. We finished up in early December, and he could read Dr. Seuss with Grandma that Christmas. And he was proud that, as a good reader, he would not end up “living in a box under a bridge in Beaumont,” one regularly reiterated purpose of the whole endeavor.

Our one modification of the program was that we ignored all the writing practice; we didn’t think Dan’s fine motor skills or attention span were going to make that a success. Elissa has since taught him to write.

Obviously finishing the “100 Easy Lessons” wasn’t the end of the effort; we continued to practice reading with him—notably by having him help read scripture stories every night—and encouraged him to read on his own. By sometime around four and a half, he was regularly reading for fun under his own power. Now, I just have to get him new books periodically.

One key technique for maintaining this is starving him of electronic entertainment—he gets to watch some movies and TV, but he absolutely does not get to play games on phones or tablets, ever. If he’s bored, he is pretty much boxed into reading or playing creatively with toys. Or whining, but you can only get sent to time out so many times before that loses its luster for a given afternoon.

The other keys are that he has quiet time in the afternoon, and a firm bedtime at night. For quiet time, which normally runs for a couple hours, he has the option to nap, play quietly (and alone) with non-electronic toys, or read. Whatever adults are home are unavailable to him except in emergencies, often themselves reading or writing. He often chooses to read. If you can hear him laughing maniacally, he’s probably reading “Calvin and Hobbes,” which we’ve had to remind him is humor, not a source of role models. Then at night, we have held his nominal bedtime at 7:00 since he was weaned. He’s old enough that he doesn’t truly need that much sleep, but we let him read his Kindle in bed, and he enjoys it. So the post-bedtime period provides another hour or so of time where he doesn’t have to read, but normally does.

But it all started with Teach Your Child to Read, which I thought was extraordinarily well-done. (I promise, they are not paying me to write this review; it’s just that good.) Unlike many professional teachers, I have no desire to be unique or be creative or encourage creativity or have fun while teaching my kid to read. I want efficiency. Teaching a child to read is fundamentally a rote task, and I just want to get it done! And the child also just wants to get it done! I don’t want to develop my own lessons or find some niche method to use; I want to deliver lessons that have been painstakingly optimized for efficiency, by professionals, across years of testing. As legendary refinery operations manager Kelly McKeehan says, “all we like is finishing!” The book is 100% aligned with this. Indeed, that’s why it’s Direct Instruction—a pedagogical philosophy sympathetic to the idea that the best way to teach students is to directly tell them things!

This has some common-sense appeal. Beyond that, Project Follow Through, one of the largest educational studies ever performed, found that Direct Instruction beats a variety of alternatives—it even helps kids’ self-esteem more than self-esteem-centric methods do. Of course, it has been pretty obvious since at least the fifties that phonics-based methods are optimal, as this book (written 1983) notes in the preface, but here we are. The Amazon reviews are also pretty compelling—as of this writing, 4.5 stars on over 8,000 reviews—and I think that’s actually how I found the book initially.

So go forth and wreak phonics on your unsuspecting three-year-olds! They will thank you in a year or two, and also as grown adults when they don’t have to live in a box under a bridge in Beaumont.

Will is coming up on three-and-a-half, so his turn starts next week.

Review of “The Book of Mormon in One Hour”

Brennen Ricks, a guy from my ward, had the interesting idea of putting together a ~20K word cut of the Book of Mormon. I usually prefer to read complete works, and particularly with the Book of Mormon I wish other people would too. But at the same time I recognize there are readers who don’t share my preference, and this type of cut can have value. Here’s my review of the result, as posted on Amazon with the headline “Good stuff, if not 100% representative of the Book of Mormon as a whole:”

This is a pretty well-done attempt at selecting a short set of Book of Mormon readings. There’s a bit of intro and context for each of the selections, but it mostly lets the text speak for itself. It consists primarily of complete verses, generally in less-than-chapter-length sequences, often with digressing or amplifying verses removed. Verse numbers are provided, so it is clear when this has occurred, and it’s generally done in a way that keeps the reading experience relatively smooth. The result is a reasonable introduction to the Book of Mormon. I would love for thousands of people to read it.

However, there are a lot of possible cuts of the Book of Mormon where the above statements are true. So what type of cut is this?

The Book of Mormon contains some accessible material that would strengthen whatever faith contemporary readers already have, and also contains material that would challenge many contemporary readers’ assumptions. This set of selections consists primarily of what I’d consider to be accessible material. This cut also focuses primarily on doctrine, much of it the relatively straightforward doctrine of Christ. It isn’t a random sample or a fully representative sample.

This is both good and bad.

A casual reader with vaguely Protestant beliefs might get the incorrect impression that there isn’t much to distinguish the Book of Mormon from what they already know. Specifically, the Book of Mormon identifies some contemporary sins and false doctrines that many new readers of the book are likely to share in, despite their avowed Christianity, but those passages were not selected for this book (e.g. 2 Nephi 25-30 discussion of apostasy).

The cut also preserves little plot material (as distinct from doctrinal material) or dialogue. Few of the significant miracles make it. None of the anti-Christ figures (Sherem, Nehor, Korihor) or related doctrinal discussion make it in. Nothing of military or political interest makes it: no Captain Moroni, no Anti-Nephi-Lehi pacifism, no rejection of monarchy by King Mosiah, etc. Nephi’s experiences are trimmed; for example, Laban and the related moral dilemma do not appear. Chastisement and calls to repentance are possibly under-represented relative to the Book of Mormon as a whole.

So it’s sort of like a cut of the Gospels that gets part of the sermon on the mount, excerpts from John’s account of the last supper and intercessory prayer, and trimmed-down nativity and crucifixion stories. That would not be an unreasonable approach to take, and it would be an extremely valuable thing for people to read. But no one ought to read it and feel they truly got the full experience of reading the work of scripture.

So by all means, read this for a sampling of Book of Mormon doctrine; there is great stuff here. And then go read the full book, which is available for free in a variety of formats (audiobook, ebook, hard copy, etc.). “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text” is a great reading edition (and a beautifully bound hardcover), or the standard issue version is heavily footnoted for study.

Disclosure – I received a $5 Amazon gift card from the author, to buy myself a copy with.

Persuasive Art and Schiller’s Aesthetics

Also Tolkien, Peter Kreeft, Inception, Jordan Peterson, and the relative value of fiction vs. nonfiction.

One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to read a Harvard Classics volume after every few other books. As part of this, I read “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man,” a 1794 piece by German literary figure Friedrich Schiller. Aesthetics has always struck me as a pie-in-the-sky area of philosophy—yes, I’m an engineer—but Schiller made it fascinating by convincingly relating aesthetic experience to persuasion. In getting me to think about how art can persuade, he raised my relative value for fiction vs. nonfiction (reading and writing).

Schiller posits a dichotomy between sensory pleasures and rational imperatives. Some things (think chocolate) appeal primarily to the senses, in a pretty direct way, without much rational engagement. And some things (think mathematical proofs or moral imperatives) appeal to logic, without much sensory engagement. Neither sphere involves freedom; you don’t really make a conscious choice of whether to enjoy chocolate or not, nor can you choose whether a logical proof is valid or not. So working purely in either sphere doesn’t give scope for human freedom. It also isn’t likely to lead to lasting change, as sensory responses are fickle, and people tend to resist or ignore cold logical argument. As he says (full book free on PG here),

This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation, and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic.

This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation, and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic.

So art, in Schiller’s telling, operates at the intersection of the two spheres. The viewer (reader, listener) is not bludgeoned into submission by the argument, nor are they just passively consuming a sensory experience. The art blends sensory appeal and rational messaging in a way that results in something greater. When confronted with a work of art, someone can simultaneously appreciate the sensory experience, think about the rational argument, and freely react to both. So great art tends to be thought-provoking and ultimately persuasive. Thus Schiller:

In vain will you combat their maxims, in vain will you condemn their actions; but you can try your moulding hand on their leisure. Drive away caprice, frivolity and coarseness from their pleasures, and you will banish them from their acts, and at length from their feelings. Everywhere that you meet them, surround them with great, noble, and ingenious forms; multiply around them the symbols of perfection, till appearance triumphs over reality, and art over nature.

This is one answer to the question: how can you persuade someone to change their world view—actually change their mind on questions of basic importance? Obviously this question is of interest to anyone who thinks they have knowledge or insight worth sharing with the world. Many people proceed as if logical or empirical argument is the trick, but that rarely seems to work (even a little bit) for deep issues like views of human nature, belief in God, core political beliefs, etc.

Schiller’s answer is that you change someone’s view by appealing to them on multiple levels, without compelling them on any. You can open their mind with beauty while also suggesting something to their logical faculties.

To come at this from a different angle, the movie “Inception” (which is art in my book) discusses how to durably implant an idea in someone’s head: basically the question we are talking about here.

The protagonist’s key trick is doing it in such a way that the subject thinks they came up with the idea. This happens in the context of an experience, the multi-layer dream, that combines sensory and argumentative elements. The target wouldn’t buy a purely argumentative appeal (dismantle your father’s business empire because it would probably be better for you, not to mention for the world) or a purely sensory appeal (step 1: trippy dream, step 2: …, step 3: dismantle father’s empire/profit). But when the subject doesn’t realize he is being persuaded, the argument wrapped in a sensory experience works, like Schiller says.

Going deeper, consider that the movie “Inception,” as a work of art, is also itself an act of inception that durably spreads Christopher Nolan’s thinking, using exactly the technique the protagonist in the movie uses. It’s a movie where YOU are meant to dream about a reality where people have dreams within dreams within dreams, and just like Leonardo DiCaprio is planting ideas partway down that stack without his target noticing, Christopher Nolan is slipping in ideas all along the stack without you noticing. This works, again, because of the blended sensory and logical information. And so millions of people came away from the movie with a slightly deeper subliminal theory of how people change their minds. And of course Christopher Nolan’s answer is much the same as Schiller’s.

But does artistic inception work? Artists think they are influencing people, and people think they are being influenced by artists, but it’s hard to nail down. In principle you could do a study where a bunch of undergraduates’ positions on various philosophical questions are evaluated before and after experiencing various works of art, and thus hack your way to p=0.05, a PhD in psychology, and a haunting suspicion that your findings will not replicate. But what I’m really interested in are long-term subconscious effects from freely encountered artistic experiences, on a margin where quality (production value) is held constant but philosophical orientation varies. That’s not really a scientifically accessible question. However, I humbly assert that Schiller is right, and art does influence people.

I offer The Lord of the Rings as a classic example. (Obviously the book, not the movies.) I recently read Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings. Kreeft marshals a book’s worth of examples to show that LotR is shot through with Christian themes: its heroes are Christian heroes, its events follow Christian patterns, and so forth. And thus without ever preaching, it has relevance to a host of topics. Kreeft quotes C. S. Lewis: “It is a master key; use it on what door you like.” Few readers will explicitly consider the underlying philosophy, but nonetheless, they’re subliminally absorbing it.

And if the artist has philosophical depth, that tends to leak into the story regardless of authorial intent. Kreeft gives one example:

If the reader at first does not realize the centrality of death to the story, and then later, upon reflection, does, Tolkien himself seems to have gone through the same two stages of awareness. He writes that “it is only in reading the work myself . . . that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death” (Letters, no. 208, p. 267). Aware not only of death but of immortality, and the contrast between true and false immortality, “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity” (ibid.).

There is subliminal philosophy leaking all over: from the writer into the book, and from the book into the reader. This may also be how “Inception” ended up with the themes I discussed above. I don’t suppose that Christopher Nolan sat down and wrote on his notepad “todo: communicate my philosophy of aesthetics and cognition via a blockbuster movie,” but I do imagine that he is more thoughtful than your average guy, and that his musings about all sorts of things are working their way into his movies.

The whole idea of subliminally absorbing a worldview from art feels a little bit squishy. But where else do worldviews come from? Obvious suspects include physical environment, genetics, family environment, school, peers, and the broader cultural environment. If we’re thinking about how to convince people, a genetic component (however large or small) can be set aside. Wholesale modification of others’ physical environment has been tried, but I don’t think many individuals wield great influence through that channel, and those who do very often generate adverse side-effects (think Robert Moses). There are impersonal aggregate factors like demography and economic change, but again, tough to influence others by changing them, at least in any predictable, specific, positive way.

The other cultural and interpersonal factors largely reduce to “people get their worldviews from other people,” so where did those people get them? Ultimately from some combination of art and direct argument. So now you’re back to picking between direct argument and art, and it isn’t so hard to imagine that art has a great deal of influence.

I also believe that God influences human affairs. From the not-yet-struck-down status of various humans, I conclude that God does not intend to dispense cold, logical proof of his own existence. His methods are more along the lines Schiller proposes. Beauty in the world, in scripture, and in art opens souls to the influence of the Holy Spirit, and related truths (true knowledge of the world, true scripture, truth expressed in art) then suggest His existence. Thus we read that “all things denote there is a God,” and that the word of the Lord is given “line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” Without compelling anyone to believe, he draws people in. Great religious art works the same way; I have felt God’s influence through the work of Jorge Cocco, for instance. I view all this as further support for the idea that art and beauty are powerful influences.

Obviously this is not just a descriptive theory; it has implications for how we ought to try to influence. Thought experiment: consider person 1, who engages with the Bible almost wholly on a logical or imperative level, and person 2, who engages with it almost wholly on an aesthetic level—mentally playing around with the stories. Who would be more influential? Person 2 is Jordan Peterson. Person 1 is the pedantic missionary who expects to convert someone by argument, one Biblical verse at a time.

And of course to really convince in Schiller’s method, art really has to be art. Browbeating allegory doesn’t work for this purpose; a certain degree of playfulness is required. And the artist need not necessarily insert any particular theme; if he has interesting knowledge in his soul, it will tend to end up in his work. Aiming at influence is not necessarily a good way to make art, but aiming at art can be a good way to influence.

Internalizing all of this, I have become more interested in reading fiction relative to nonfiction. I’m also more interested in maintaining high standards for the fiction I read, as I increasingly recognize that reading a work of fiction lets its author pull on you in all sorts of ways. Since the most important influence could be exactly the one I don’t realize is happening, picking worthy authors also gains importance. I’ve also become even more enthusiastic about my wife’s writing, and more tempted to try my own hand at writing fiction. Finally, this experience helps validate my original Harvard Classics goal; I would not have picked up Schiller’s work if it hadn’t been part of the Harvard Classics bundle, but I’m glad I did.

Book Review – “Willful: How We Choose What We Do”

If you want to know what Chicago PhD economist hedge-fund-guru-cum-academic Richard Robb has concluded after pondering deeply the intersection of personal agency and rational choice economics, this book is for you.

This book may not be for you.

But I really liked it!

So let’s talk about it. This tightly written, brief book sits at the intersection of economics and philosophy. It will be very interesting to a very specific set of readers: people who have a decent grounding in rational choice and behavioral economics, and are troubled by those fields’ implied imperative to optimize life in a utilitarian, mechanistic way. I believed in the great importance of personal agency before this book, and I also believed that rational choice economics has very broad applicability, and this helped me mesh those ideas together and relieve some dissonance between them.

The book picks a few key cracks in the utilitarian model and wedges them open to show that even a perfectly rational, optimizing, calculating homo economicus will necessarily exercise personal agency. He will tend to choose “for-itself” (author’s term) to e.g. take on challenges for their own sake, show uncalculated mercy, occasionally act out of character, and so forth. The book also explores practical implications for policy: situations where a standard economic approach explains a lot, but recognizing people’s agency does more.

One centerpiece is an interesting, difficult to summarize discussion of optimizing utility over time. Unlike in an economics model, we don’t sit outside time and make a single strategy that then executes. As we continuously make strategies, our time horizon is constantly shifting, and our strategy is constantly being evaluated against the new horizon. Given this, you need implausible assumptions in order to build a model where people will both adopt, and then maintain upon future re-evaluation, a single fixed strategy to maximize expected utility. At the end of the day, the justification for doing any given thing will contain an element of personal choice—not just choice to optimize based on preferences, but choice to do it “just because” or “for-itself.”

Another interesting discussion centers on the parable of the Good Samaritan, who doesn’t necessarily succeed at being an “effective altruist” along the rational economic lines: potentially a lesser degree of care for a greater number of people might have resulted in a higher benefit measured in quality-adjusted life years. Did he have to pay the innkeeper so much, with an open-ended commitment to pay more? And obviously the Samaritan can’t lavish this degree of care on every beggar he meets; he would never have made it out of town onto his journey. But he chose “for-itself” to care for the man, and it seems obvious that this was a good thing to do.

I think this book has some fascinating implications for theology as well. (Not explored in the text, but here goes.) God, as an omniscient being with a perfect ability to calculate utilitarian courses of action, might seem to be in a very tight box: since he can determine the optimal course, he would execute it; end of story. Reasoning along those lines you tend to end up with a Deist clockmaker god, who initializes the system and then lets it run, without a lot of room for e.g. answering specific prayers. But God, acting as a personal being, is within scope for many of the book’s arguments, which tend towards the conclusion that he not only can but must exercise agency. So then you end up with a God who can act in a “for-itself” manner, showing mercy for its own sake, as in Isaiah 48:11—“For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it: for how should my name be polluted? and I will not give my glory unto another.”

Similarly the Holy Ghost typically inspires people to for-itself action, as in John 3:8—“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (I have not heard many reports of the spirit inspiring people to re-parameterize their utilitarian calculations.) And Christ originated the parable of the Good Samaritan and lived accordingly. At the same time, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost obviously smile on institutions that help people (e.g. consider your favorite faith-sponsored charity—mine being Latter-Day Saint Charities) and it seems hard to deny that all else equal, they would like these to be administered in a cost-effective way. So their actions fit well within Robb’s framework that respects rational choice, while limiting its scope. End of theological aside.

I guess most of this seems sort of obvious (of course people just do stuff sometimes!); it takes a special kind of economics education to get to where it isn’t. But this book sketches out a nice synthesis where the importance of “for-itself” choice is still clear on the far side, after broadly accepting rational choice economics, not just on the near side.

I heard about the book on EconTalk and felt sort of inspired (in a for-itself way, retrospectively) to pick it up. Glad I did.

Justifying moral principles by analogy with Russian roulette

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. Taleb is an entertaining practical philosopher: he has a handful of principles that he has considered deeply, he measures the world against them, and he coaches the reader in how to do likewise, all in an idiosyncratic and readable style. (As a Lebanese-American Orthodox Christian, self-made multi-millionaire, and lover of the Western canon, he’s an interesting guy.) Anyway, he makes a distinction between time probability and ensemble probability, roughly as follows:

Say one hundred people each play Russian roulette one time, with a billion dollar prize for survivors; you get about 83 billionaires and 17 deaths. This is ensemble probability. Some people might choose to play.

Now say one person plays the same game a hundred times. They are 99.99999879% likely to end up dead. This is time probability. Sounds a bit worse. They may have billions of dollars when they die; in a quick few thousand simulations in Excel, average person got $5B or so before dying, and there were at least a couple people who made it into the $40Bs. But then they end up ruined, out of the game.

Assume you are an eternal being, because you are, so you get to live indefinitely with your decisions. Repentance and lasting positive change are possible, but lasting negative change is also out there. There are some deep holes, with sides that are as slippery on the way back up as they are on the way down. Since you are repeating choices many times, you need to think in terms of time probability, not ensemble probability.

In this environment you should be extremely wary of any choice that brings with it a chance of ruin. Put your spiritual pennies in the Vanguard index fund,[1] rather than playing the game of Russian roulette, even if the odds of ruin are one in a thousand instead of one in six. Steady accumulation works better the longer you have—it is positively great over eternity. But if you play Russian roulette occasionally, over the long run of eternity, you will eventually find ruin. And Taleb would probably observe that the long run is shorter than you think, you don’t really know the odds, and they will often be worse than supposed.

There are lot of ways to spin the cylinder. Many vices will not be disastrous for many people much of the time, but any activity that is addictive to a substantial portion of the population and can lead to bad spiritual outcomes[2] ought to be suspect. Some people seem to get away with a lot of questionable choices (e.g. regarding friends, interactions with the opposite sex, entertainment, substance abuse) without obvious immediate consequences. Most people can drink without becoming alcoholics, or gamble without creating problems for their families. But taking the first step down any of these roads makes you fragile.

On the other hand, the strait and narrow way calls for you to accumulate experiences and attributes that will inevitably pay off in the long run. Building a family that will last forever requires some slow, grinding work at times, but you won’t regret it. Missionary and other service to others, such as will tend to your own spiritual development, also tends to be slow, quiet, and rewarding in the end. I’m reminded of Isaiah’s line that “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

So rather than evaluating a single decision, you can ask “would a long series of decisions like this create a possibility of ruin?” Because if there is a possibility, and you play with it for eternity, it is going to be realized.

If you strive to avoid all possibility of spiritual ruin, you sort of arrive in reverse gear at a complete commitment to Christ, because anything else could (and therefore eventually will) lead you astray. Thus “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

My personal conclusion from all this is that I ought to beware of careerism and videogames, each of which has ruined people and has a certain appeal to me. (I distinguish careerism from work—work consistent with supporting a family is praiseworthy; work in pursuit of self-validation and career advancement is where people can go off the rails.) I also want to approach parenting with a duly precautionary mindset.

Finally, if you have made it this far, welcome to the blog. We shall see what happens with it.

Footnotes

1. Taleb would not really recommend the spiritual Vanguard S&P 500 index fund; if I recall his Black Swan book, his recommendation would be more along the lines of 85% spiritual T-bills and 15% exotic spiritual derivatives designed to generate fixed downside but open-ended (and undervalued) upside. And perhaps this does have its spiritual analogy. Missionary work is like Taleb’s derivatives in that it translates fixed-ish costs (hours of effort) into uncertain but potentially gigantic returns: “And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (Doctrine and Covenants 18:15.) But I digress.

2. Chocolate is addictive to part of the population, as anyone ought to be able to see by browsing the cereal aisle, but fortunately it seems to be spiritually benign. (And I can stop anytime that I want.)