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This is a microblog for frequent, shorter thoughts, interesting links and shaping ideas before they become full posts. The best way to follow is via my RSS feed.
While doing a bit of research for another post, I was surprised to learn there was an actual technocracy movement in the US. While it never amounted to much, some of the key tenants are deeply embedded in today’s political culture.
Like similar movements in revolutionary France and later in the Soviet Union, there was a desire to destroy the Judeo-Christian week. Sabbath rest is antithetical to a productivity obsessed consumerist society.
And that’s why values and true democracy are so important. We need to be able to say that, no we won’t automatically do something because it’s more productive or “rational”. Productivity and everything surrounding it how to be subservient to our values.
What I’ve noticed is that arguments for a less productivity-consumption society are still usually made within the paradigm of technocracy. A four-day work week means that workers are more well rested and thus more productive overall. Long parental leave leads to a net productivity boost in the long term. Not being glued to your phone means you can be a better employee. None of this is wrong, but it’s still missing the point.
A related bit from the book Stolen Focus that recently read:
In a society dominated by the values of consumer capitalism, “Sleep is a big problem,” he told me. “If you’re asleep, you’re not spending money, so you’re not consuming anything. You’re not producing any products.” He explained that during the last recession in 2008…they talked about global output going down by so many percent, and consumption going down. But if everybody were to spend [an] extra hour sleeping [as they did in the past], they wouldn’t be on Amazon. They wouldn’t be buying things. If we went back to sleeping a healthy amount it would be an earthquake for our economic system, because our economic system has become dependent on sleep-depriving people. The attentional failures are just roadkill. That’s just the cost of doing business. I only really understood how significant this point was towards the end of writing this book.
So yeah, I don’t want to sleep more because it will make me more productive and focused. I want to sleep a healthy amount because I’m a human being.
Of Gods and kings
Taleb can be hit or miss, but when he’s right, he’s really right.
On Gods and kings:
The main purpose of religion, I wrote in the Incerto, is not to affirm that there is a God, but to prevent humans from thinking they are Gods.
Likewise the purpose of a modern king is not to rule, but to prevent politicians & office climbers from thinking that they are kings.
Science vs. knowing something
This is a Twitter thread from last year about why so many international relations academics have gotten nearly everything wrong about Ukraine and Russia.
A short thread here about why so some scholars including in intl relations are saying useless things about the Ukraine war.
Nearly thirty years ago, political science as a field became obsessed with being “scientific.” That is, one of the human sciences got tired of humans.
This was the great wave of quantification, when meaningless… equations and graphs and “broadly comparable studies” became the fashion.
Add to this the dominance of “realism” in international relations, the idea that states (and I am simplifying here) are basically alike and act based on how many of them there are and how much power they have. It’s a theory that’s never explained much, but entrances scholars.
Why are these two emphases - math over on one side, realism on the other - so powerful and destructive? They are seductive because they relieve scholars of knowing anything about the areas they’re talking about. No need to learn languages or master cultural knowledge.
So you have studies like “Let’s examine sectarian violence! I’ll compare Bosnia and Ireland - never having been to either of them - and I shall code ‘incidents of violence’ to create neat spreadsheets.” Many articles published; not much knowledge gained.
It matters because people who study the world lost touch with culture and ideology. Everything was sacrificed to the pretense of universality. You could either explain it with math, or you could say “realism tells us…” and then pontificate.
Authenticity and restoration
We somehow managed to get ticket to the Vermeer exhibition, and even better it included an hour-long lecture about the works in the exhibition beforehand.
It wasn’t touched on, but there’s some dispute whether each work in the exhibition was actually painted by Vermeer. For example: Girl with a Flute.
The lecture did touch on the fact that all of the paintings had gone through some level of restoration, and thus many of the paintings were shiny and bright. For example: View of Delft.
In a few cases older parts of the paintings were uncovered and “restored”. For example: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.
This all raises questions that I’ve been thinking about for a long time about tradition, continuity, and the particular Western obsession with finding a pure, primordial version of things.
What is a true Vermeer painting? He wasn’t particular popular in his lifetime nor in the generations immediately following his life. And Girl with a Pearl Earring certainly wasn’t his most popular work until quite recently. Thus any perception of a work of Vermeer, or the mere fact that almost 400 years after the fact we’re looking as his artwork rather than someone else’s, carries with it more of the history of the painting than a connection the “pristine” original.
And so if people for generations, even centuries appreciated Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window with a plain off-white wall, it’s an odd break with continuity to “restore” the original when we’ll never be able to experience the original as the original.
For what’s it worth, my favorite work on display was Woman Holding a Balance. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all understated and very much open to interpretation. A lady is holding a small scale, seemingly weighing her gold jewelry while a painting of the Last Judgement overlooks her. Is this a contrast between a material, secular person opposed to the spiritual weighing of Christ? Or is her weighing somehow complimentary to His? Perhaps the appeal of Vermeer over later, more well-documented artists is that we just don’t know that much about him or his motives, making it much easier to impose our own on his work.
Excerpts from Dropping the SAT Requirement Is a Luxury Belief:
Elite colleges are eliminating standardized tests before they eliminate legacy admissions. Tells you all you need to know.
The chattering class is using poor kids as pawns to eliminate standardized testing. Which helps their own kids. Rich kids who “don’t test well.” But they know how to strategically boost their GPAs, get recommendation letters from important people, stack their resumes with extracurriculars, and use the right slogans in their admissions essays. They have “polish.”
Applicants from the most affluent families excel at these games. A study at Stanford found that family income is more highly correlated with admissions essay content than with SAT scores. Applicants from well-to-do backgrounds are especially adept at crafting their essays in ways that please admissions committees.
Interestingly, despite the chatter about getting rid of the SAT and the GRE, there is no talk of eliminating the ASVAB military test. No one says that it’s biased, unreliable, or discriminatory.
There are two reasons for this.
In the military, actions have real consequences. People want service members to be held to a high standard. For military recruits, a pencil and paper test is a reasonable requirement. But for those interested in studying at a place of higher learning, it’s a bridge too far.
The military is viewed as a lower middle-class organization. Influential members of society know their kids won’t be joining. So they don’t care about military entry standards the way they do for college and grad school.
More people are starting to realize many of these doctrines, for lack of a better term, are “luxury ideas”. These ideas are made by those in power as a means to retaining power, just like all the nonsense with the the recent medical hysteria that wiped out small business, kept working class children out of schools, and severed communities — all while major corporations consolidated their power.
The Mandalorian Creed
I really like The Mandalorian and watched a few episodes to catch up with the start of season 3.
There’s a lot of reasons to like the entire concept, but the Mandalorian Creed stands out. When Mando says he has to do something completely illogical and nearly impossible, the response is simply This is the way.
Despite a certain brutality, there’s a deep compassion and honor in the Creed, and Mandalorians uphold the Creed over expediency.
That’s one thing lacking in modern society. Everything is optimized for expediency, self-interest, and coming out ahead. There’s something inspiring in seeing people chose a difficult route for the sake of their values instead of mere expediency.
Focus, discipline, and motivation
I tend to not like tough sounding self help articles, but the title is enough to get the point of this one: Screw motivation, what you need is discipline. Let me save you the read:
If you want to get anything done, there are two basic ways to get yourself to do it.
The first, more popular and devastatingly wrong option is to try to motivate yourself.
The second, somewhat unpopular and entirely correct choice is to cultivate discipline.
It’s obviously not that simple, but it’s still a valid point. In reality, motivation and discipline are linked. The right motivation at the outset helps you set up the discipline to be successful at something.
I’ve been through way too many job interviews in my life, and most of them focus on motivation. You simply could never say “Look, I’m ambivalent about what the company does, but here’s how I plan to use deep work, my skills, background, and knowledge to make a large contribution.” That’s a bit extreme, but talking about the habits that will make you successful is a faux pas at job interviews. Perhaps not surprisingly, interviews have become ridiculous as companies seemingly have no ability to connect the dots of cause and effect when hiring (that link is worth a look, it’s truly baffling).
The other key is focus. Aptly enough, a coworker got me interested in the concept of Stolen Focus — this interview with the author is really good.
I’ve seen it in my own life and watching others: there’s a complete inability to do what needs to be done, whether that be concreting on studies, putting in the time and effort of a relationship, finishing work tasks well, or something as simple as getting enough sleep before something important, all because you don’t have the ability not to check telegram, facebook, reddit or whatever. Stories of people who threw away great lives because they couldn’t stop drinking have long been cliche, but there are many untold stories of relationships severed, jobs lost, and lives ending in misery because people couldn’t put down their phones.
So yeah, motivation is a good starting point, but discipline and focus are what matters.
A year ago
It was a year ago that I sat staring at my computer screen at 4 AM watching Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine.
Needless to say, this has been one of the most difficult years of my life. There’s survivor’s guilt as I go on with my life from the calm and safety of Amsterdam, where Tetiana and I had moved to from Kyiv just three months before. There’s frustration at how little I can really do to help.
It’s hard to comprehend everything that’s happened. I think of the hundreds of thousands of people in Mariupol that led normal lives on February 23rd, but there’s no real way to comprehend that many of them are forever gone from this world.
I can’t imagine the fear and anxiety that my friends go through each day during airstrikes, power outages, and the looming threat of occupation.
The heroism and dedication of friends that have volunteered to serve, whether on the front or in humanitarian relief is something I that I can only admire from afar.
Alas, this pain won’t soon heal. While my life has gone on outwardly, there’s a part of me that will always grieve.
Taliesin and censorship
Yesterday we went to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter camp. It’s certainly one of the highlights in the otherwise bleak suburban sprawl of greater Phoenix.
One thing that struck me as odd is how sanitized the standard tour is of any mention of spirituality. Wright was clearly a spiritual man, and his spiritual values influenced his architecture. But, anything outside of the tame, confined to an hour a week mainline Protestantism, tends to be censored in America. Or, if spiritual seeking is mentioned, it has to be ridiculed as part of a cult or as a sort of thing to be ashamed of.
I would have liked to hear more about how Gurdjieff’s ideas influence Wright, how the very idea of a fellowship came about from Wright’s own spiritual journey, and what Wright thought of the direction society was taking at the time of his death in the late 50s. Alas, such questions make a commerce driven society uncomfortable.
State sponsored radicalism
From The Economist:
Gonzalez v Google was brought by relatives of a woman killed by Islamic State in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. They say that YouTube, Google’s video platform, shares blame for her death as its algorithm fed radicalising clips to potential IS recruits. Google contends that without the protection of Section 230 sites will lose the capacity to help users find “needles in humanity’s largest haystack”.
From another perspective, Google is arguing that its business model has no hope of being profitable without the government shielding Google, and other tech companies, from the negative impact of their products. Other industries don’t get this sort of protection.
Perhaps this means that the entire concept of YouTube shouldn’t exist, as there’s no way to allow people to watch and upload massive amounts of video for free without having to resort to prodding viewers to ever more extreme forms of “engagement”.
It’s interesting that podcasts as a still largely decentralized thing are thriving. If you want to upload a podcast, you have to pay for the hosting. There isn’t a need for dodgy engagement schemes as the platforms aren’t making more money by endless engagement. Yes, individual podcasts can make more money by being dramatic, but it doesn’t look like this leads to the sorts of extremism as when platforms incite divisive content.
That said, most podcasts are rubbish. But that’s fine. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
What is good about them, is that podcasts show that decentralization may just be the key to content moderation. Without the huge financial incentives for engagement by platforms, it’s a lot harder to stir the pot.
You’ve reached the end, kind of
Notes are meant to be fleeting, so I only display the last 10 of them. Older notes are still accessible either via their respective permalink or the random note link.