Confidence Tricks

I. Accidentally Correct

In Principles, Ray Dalio describes his earliest investing experience as a kid. He bought some cheap airline company stock during a bull run in the 1960s. He bought it precisely because it was cheap, with no further information. He didn’t know that the business was fundamentally struggling, and he had no inside information that it would soon be bought out, but as it happened both were true and he tripled his investment. Winning for bad reasons increased his confidence in his competence and in the sanity, simplicity, and benevolence of the world. It may have provided him with the energy to actually learn more about investing and later pursue it as a career choice- but it also reaffirmed false beliefs.

Privilege is a function of how much of your social reality you can safely ignore. Sometimes, though, you also need Gri-Gri (also sometimes referred to here and elsewhere, often discouragingly, as ‘koolaid’).

II. Disparate Contexts

Like many people, I lived near Actually Existing religious fundamentalism as a kid. From that position, the New Atheist critique made a lot of sense to me. It took time to realize that the success of Rationalist/Atheist Youtuber’s critique was somewhat accidental: their literalism in interpreting texts and creeds is a shared hermeneutical preference with actual fundamentalists, but was an obvious misfire to many modern theists [and casual non-theists] operating in a ‘richer’ context (or at least a different episteme). The Rationalist’s outside view only just happens to be a mimic of the fundamentalists’ inside view. They were ‘right’ against evangelical fundamentalists for reasons that didn’t apply broadly, and seem silly in some other contexts.

I checked up on to some of those old channels recently, and sadly several of them have not developed their thinking any further. Some of them have taken the same rhetorical weapons onto new targets, applying the same over-simplistic outsider takes (posing as disinterested objectivity) to social justice and feminism, for instance. While this was not necessarily inevitable, it is sort of clear how their hermeneutical tools would lead them here- once again, they wield a pure naive Outside View, they are clearly unable to pass an Ideological Turing Test on their targets, and so their straw-men only connect with the most specious versions of their perceived opponent. It’s the same technique that they’ve always used, supported by youtube algorithms and an outrage economy that we have a better vocabulary for now than back in 2006.

“Generals still fighting the last war” is a common pattern of behavior. Often how the last war was won is not so clear, anyway.

III. Storytelling

Americans tend to overread Presidential elections. It’s not that the results aren’t consequential. It matters which party, and which person in which party, is in the White House. The mistake is to interpret the election as an index of public opinion (itself something of a Platonic abstraction).

In close elections, such as those of 1960, 1968, and 1976, the vote is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. If the voting had happened a week earlier or a week later or on a rainy day, the outcome might have been reversed. But we interpret the result as though it reflected the national intention, a collective decision by the people to rally behind R., and repudiate D. Even when the winner receives fewer votes than the loser, as in 2000 and 2016, we talk about the national mood and direction almost entirely in terms of the winning candidate, and as though the person more voters preferred had vanished, his or her positions barely worth reporting on.

Millions more Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and in 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than voted for Donald Trump, but the Trump voter is now the protagonist of the national narrative. People talk about how Americans want to roll back globalization—even though most Americans who voted appear to want no such thing. The United States is one of the few democracies that does not have a coalition government, and a winner-take-all electoral system breeds a winner-take-all punditry. 

Political and rhetorical legitimacy is often a bit of a confidence trick. The View From Nowhere is not accessible to us.

27

Personally, I don’t mind MBTI as a way to arbitrarily self-label. It has no scientific validity, but I figure if an MBTI type speaks to you then use it- others can see it as a shorthand to grasp something about what you see in yourself. I’m a consistent INTP, and perhaps it’s the Barnum Effect but I don’t mind adopting that identity.

I don’t have a huge problem with entertaining ideas that aren’t actually ‘true’ if they have some other use (in this case, in an expressive way). I enjoy stories and I enjoy the randomness of voluntarily submitting to a system of rules or fictions (a game type Caillois calls “Alea”). I’ve adopted my girlfriend’s brother’s occasional decision-making method of rolling dice occasionally. At upscale restaurants I like to take the waiter’s recommendation. I do not believe in horoscopes but I find them to be a fun tool to break out of inclinations in the day’s choices. I am not threatened by their cosmic meaninglessness.

I’m 27 today. The big 3^3.

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(It’s Personal.)

I have quit my job, and I’m moving to Mumbai for at least six months.

In the future, I’m sure I’ll spend more time talking about the project that has captured my imagination and compelled me to do this. There are also a number of other factors that have pulled (& pushed..) me towards this decision. It has been a whiplash of a year, politically, financially, and in a hundred other ways.

I have been grappling with this decision to move forward with this project abroad for a while. This project has been at the back of my mind all year, and I think it seeps into my writing here. One common theme on the blog this year was about comfort and complacency, and my own life script. There is another theme that shows up particularly in some [unfortunately] unfinished posts, about wicked problems and inadequate equilibria.

A broader through-line on this blog has been about thinking more broadly about institutions and alternate technology trees. I went to Mumbai last April to dip my toe in the water and to see my options. I’m now excited to jump into a new environment and have my maps and ideas thoroughly invalidated.

Aside

It’s not personal.

“I’m a traffic cop. It’s a job. Somebody’s got to do it. I don’t even represent myself when I’m working. If I was representing myself, I’d let everyone off with a warning. I represent a system. Did I design the system? No. I just enforce it. It’s not for me to decide the system. We elect the people who decide the system. When I write a ticket, everyone tells me a reason that they don’t deserve it. If I gave a warning to everyone with a reason, I wouldn’t give any tickets, and the system wouldn’t work. I don’t get any joy by giving a ticket. And I’m not upset if you beat it in court. It’s not personal. It’s my job.”

Police Officer, Humans of New York caption

Old one, just stuck out in my notes.

Solastalgia in the 2020s

a/n: I don’t think the idea is fully fleshed-out yet, but I can always add and revise.

TL;DR

  • According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness. This is the topic of the preceding post.
  • The tone of Sterling’s speeches in the past couple of years has moved on from anxiety to exhaustion.
  • Solastalgia is the feeling of dislocation without having gone anywhere, as a result of damage (natural or artificial) to your ecosystem.
  • Cultures can learn and adapt, which is why Sterling is a short-term declinist but not a doomsayer, fitting in the “Stagnated Future” category in this old taxonomy I used a few years ago.

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Dark Euphoria in the 2010s

Bruce Sterling has a knack for coining/adopting rich phrases to describe cultural sensibilities. I watched some of his recent (2017) talks, and I wanted to record some notes on them to share. I figured a good place to start would be on his earlier talks on the current cultural moment.

Bruce Sterling’s talks on “Dark Euphoria” span from roughly 2009 to 2012 or so. During this era,  he coined some unique categories about our cultural moment and the activity of the Stacks (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), and while I won’t go into the Stacks bit here, a Youtube search on his name will bring up hours of engaging rambling.

I start with some concepts he has been tossing around for about a decade now, to set the scene, with some personal annotation and some tie-in to some great Ribbonfarm addenda. In a sequel post I’ll share notes on his more recent talk.

Transcript of Reboot 11 speech by Bruce Sterling, 25-6-2009

 

TL;DR

  • According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness.
    • I associate this temperament with the opening of a torrent of alternative narratives that undermine the authority of our traditional information gatekeepers, h/t Martin Gurri‘s book.
  • Sterling defines four broad demographics, the two larger narratives about the “Shock of the Old” (Crisis Capitalism among the old+global rich, and Development without Progress among the emerging semi-poor) and two new generational demographics under Dark Euphoria: Gothic High-Tech and Favela Chic. 
    • I tie these ideas to a thread from Ribbonfarm about life scripts that spoke to me, and a thread from Gurri about the Nihilist, which I think is still an underrated archetype.
  • Within this cultural sensibility, it is worthwhile to examine our relationship with our work, with our government, and with our belongings.

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Idiots Are Not Necessary

“It’s hard to grasp that other investors have different goals than we do, because an anchor of psychology is not realizing that rational people can see the world through a different lens than your own.”

 

I have held positions that are at odds with my position now. I think I can still pass the Ideological Turing Test on those ideas, but I’m less sure of that than I used to be- when you’re settled in a way of thinking, the uniqueness of that framing becomes harder to see. Your set of assumptions feel true and unalterable. Making your foundational beliefs genuinely alterable is uncomfortable and taxing.

 

One difference I can grok about my mindset now versus maybe a decade ago is that back then I could see failure around me but couldn’t really appreciate Chesterton’s Fence. As a result, I lived with an assumption that behind persistent problems were probably just dumb people. This is a bit of a straw man, but I didn’t have the hands-on experience to understand the sheer hairiness of even pretty common problems. Andrew Sullivan’s blog introduced me to Burkean conservatism. Over time, and especially through my work, I’ve discovered that really smart people are behind many many more large-scale shitty things than I had previously supposed, often because nature is indifferent, communication is unreliable, incentives are misaligned, and fighting chaos is generally exhausting. I think that was the theme of my earliest musings on this blog, really- for me, it was fertile ground for metacognition back in 2012-2013, and now has cooled into just another set of ‘true things about the world’ that frame how I see almost anything.

 

To be clear, there is plenty of arational/irrational behavior out there. But irrationality is not always a sufficient condition for large-scale, persistent problems.

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Notes on ‘The Complacent Class’

Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class” isn’t a big book, but it is spawling, touching on a thousand different angles on the same idea. Subtitled “The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream”, it’s easy to draw a clear line from Cowen’s previous book, The Great Stagnation. 

You can think of this book as detailing the social roots for the resulting slow growth outcome and explaining why that economic and technological stagnation has lasted so long and why, for the most part, it has failed to reverse itself.

Cowen’s succinct self-summary of The Complacent Class [brackets mine]:

I’ve discussed a number of main elements driving the trend toward a more static, less risk-taking America. These include the collapse of fiscal freedom [e.g. the growing share of government expenses that are non-negotiably directed towards entitlements programs, reducing overall flexibility of the government to deploy resources] and democratic process, lower residential mobility, less building in America’s most productive cities, more segregation by income and status, a much greater concern with safety and risk, the coddling of our children, and fewer start-ups and slower growth in living standards, among others. These forces have led to an America that is calmer, safer, and more peaceful, at least in the short run. But it is also an America that is losing the ability to regenerate itself, reinvent itself, and create new sources of dynamism. And as the years pass, it seems increasingly obvious that the social and economic stagnation of our times is more than just a temporary blip; instead, that stagnation reflects deeply rooted structural forces that will not be easy to undo by mere marginal reforms.

The first section below is more about something a couple of asides that Cowen made that connected to some of the ideas already recorded in this blog. The second section are more direct notes from the text, detailing who the Complacent Class is and why they may have become complacent.

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The Horror of ‘Fuller House’

I.

This is not a review of Netflix’s “Fuller House”. You knew when you first heard about it whether you would like it or not. It delivers exactly what it promises, although maybe from a slightly more left-leaning tribal allegiance than I would have guessed.

I took a heavy dose of the show one Friday evening with my girlfriend. There is something eerie about it.

Part of this eeriness is easy to identify- it’s the old sitcom conventions, the laugh tracks, the cringeworthy catchphrases, etc.. But even within the world of the characters, there’s something creepy about the idea of a confluence of events sucking the Tanner family back into this huge (but unsellable?) house and forcing them to persist nearly 3-decade-old relationships exclusively. The opening credits are nearly shot-for-shot with the original. There are even shot-for-shot scene recreations. I did not know Full House well enough to know this, but luckily the show brought it to my attention by providing the original scene to juxtapose at least once.

This is a world where whoever you thought you were and whoever you met in high school were your destiny, and your childhood neighbors never move away. Everyone on the social graph just collapses into one isolated, self-referential net. It is probably how I thought of the future as a kid- all of the same people, same values, but with better technology and a chain of related personal and professional successes. Myopic. Cringe-y. It now sounds to me like a horror show.

I almost wish the new-generation children had the names and attributes of their grandparents One Hundred Years of Solitude –style.


II. 

In his recent work, Francis Fukuyama argued that [functional] humans come pre-installed with two main pro-social mechanisms: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. These behaviors (trusting cousins and taking care of those who take care of you) reliably result in band- and tribe-level societies. The technologies that enable organizational capabilities beyond that were not ‘natural’ in the biologically-developed sense: languages, cultures, and other cognitive tools adapted us to survive at a rate beyond what our biological toolkit alone could equip us with. The case is made that humans are animals [indisputably] and the “tyranny of cousins” is our default social situation [probably], barring cultural technologies.

Although our feelings about it being an unhealthy obsession makes some sense, social media seems almost like a return to normalcy. On the scale of human behaviors across time, “sitting alone in an apartment reading a book by yourself” is a weird, sterile, clinical act. Technical considerations aside, there is something very natural about swimming in stream of social media and allowing yourself to be bombarded with whatever ideological pathogens your hometown and college friends and coworkers are coughing up. The big unique thing about ‘social media’ over the old band-level societies is the sheer quantity of potential pathogens available. (Well, that and the fact that with ‘social media’ our bonds are more intentional and less incidental.)

Much in the same way that my cultural cohort has grown from monolithic “germs are bad” sentiments to a more mature appreciation for a well-cultivated microbiome, I suspect that we will collectively come to terms with this aspect of our lives in the near future.

 

III.

It’s hard for me to say who I spend most of my time with. Like a lot of people, I have a cyborg existence- a good chunk of my social life is online. On the internet, there are groups of semi-strangers whose opinions I read regularly; there are groups of people I’m in regular contact with but who I nearly never see in-person.

As a business traveler, my meatspace life is dominated by weak social bonds on weekdays- coworkers, clients, the set of service workers I see regularly (hotel staff, bartenders, etc). On weekends, I’m home with my girlfriend. I go out for drinks or dinner with closer friends maybe once or twice a month- these are folks I’ve known maybe from college or a bit since then. I have my close friends from the distant past who I might see ‘roughly annually’, but who I try to keep up with through internet mediation.

I turned 26 last weekend. As that cute Wait But Why article demonstrated, in some sense most of the wick of my time with old friends and family has already been burnt up. I’ve been building a life for 30-year-old me who will have even less of that resource. Circumstances in the past few months have had me thinking about that a lot.

I’ve talked before about the idea of institutional “escape velocity” and the idea that for the first quarter-century of our lives, the distance between our institutional life phases is roughly 4 years (elementary school, middle school, high school, college).  It has now been four years since college, so perhaps I unconsciously am looking for some kind of new story.

2016 in Review

Another year gone. I could basically produce a rehash of my “New Year’s Day Message” from last year and it would basically still model my thinking today.

  • I wanted a leaner information diet, which is a resolution that I easily chalked up as a failure back in October– Politics ruined my consumption habits. This year, I am changing my newsfeeds by selectively muting or unfollowing some of the spammier news sources. I’m attempting a sort of ‘barbell’ approach, skimming headlines and enjoy longform content but with less sense of immediacy on either one. I’ve found that the OneTab extension for Chrome is my best friend, because it reduces the anxiety I feel by having a slew of unread browser tabs that drive me to read excessively (which is not as productive as it feels). I think more scheduled and deliberate longform reads should help me get back into writing this year. I’ve learned better than to make promises about writing here, though…
  • My low-hassle approach to investments have been rewarding me so far. At the end of 2015, I set a personal Net Worth goal for the end of 2016, but I blew past it in June(!) and had to re-adjust my end-of-year Net Worth prediction upwards by 30%, which I then surpassed in late December. I recently determined that this year, I’ve invested more money than I have spent on everything else combined. Barring one minor contingency (coming up), I expect to repeat this performance this year. Also, I’m not sure if I’ve promoted this (to, like, all five of you reading this) but Personal Capital (link) is amazing and has drastically changed the way I think about my finances. I’ve been on it since 2015 and now I can’t imagine life without it.
  • There’s still work to be done regarding daily personal habits on basic stuff like eating and exercise. I’ve been exercising regularly, and I think it has improved my energy level throughout the day, but it isn’t terribly intense. I cooked a lot this year to save money, and I have been shifting away from eating pigs and cows regularly, although I am too spoiled to entirely give them up yet. My girlfriend is an ethical vegetarian who has provided some support on this issue, too. Generally, I have been keeping a lot more lists in the past year, sometimes using Trello, Google Calendar, or just notepad to organize my thoughts. At the end of the day, I think community (often ‘virtual community’, in my case- lurking blogs, forums, etc) is the key technology for changing my mind and my habits.
  • I did not go public with most of my tinkering after all. I did wrangle some people into building some fun stuff, but then we largely packed our toys away when the assignment was over. I need to do better about preserving our work. Two good friends and I are thinking about pursuing a potential business venture. That would definitely ruin my investment goals if I went for it, but it’d be a unique adventure to write home about.
  • I’ve been doing implementation-side work with the same client for 12 months. As a consultant who usually does month-long strategy engagements, it has been eye-opening. But no, I don’t think I want to do it again.
  • This past year, I entered a couple of contests, facilitated some workshops, and signed myself up to talk at some smalltime events.  I also officiated a wedding! My girlfriend and I did a little traveling in Europe (Switzerland, France, Monaco). We also spent leisure time in Las Vegas, the Poconos, Chicago, Houston, and my childhood home in Atlanta. This coming year, I expect to vacation in Mumbai for a bit.

My newsfeed is starting to agree with the Archdruid’s belief that civilization is on its way out, but personally life has been good this year (and I maintain that globally, beyond the headlines, last year was the best year on record to be any random human). I want to continue to clarify, simplify, and automate my life because I enjoy the sense of freedom it grants me.

Best of luck this year, or whatever year you’re reading this from.