Category: Commentary

My Greatest Foible

I talk too much.

The thing that makes this different from other weaknesses (like impatience, for example), is that I don’t get more productive when I ignore it and play to my strengths.  Shoring up most weaknesses is a waste of energy for the returns, where doubling down on strengths is better.  Not so with talking too much.

It often reduces the value of meetings, conversations, and relationships in ways I am aware of, but only ever realize fully after the fact.  A conversational vacuum to me is like a plump, juicy jugular to a vampire.

I can get away with it most times now, because I’m young and energetic and just quick enough to catch it before it goes too far.  What makes me cringe is thinking of when I’m old and less socially aware.  Your traits amplify when you get old and filters wear away (aging is like alcohol in this regard), and I’d hate to be the grandpa no one wants to hang out with because he won’t ever shut up.

Awareness of the problem and desire to fix it aren’t enough to make significant headway so far.  I’m trying to think of some exercises to help me talk less.  It’s especially hard on the phone with people I don’t know well.  Those pauses….they must be filled!

Maybe I’ll try giving one-word answers for a whole day, and only asking questions for everything else.

Ideas I’m Consuming Right Now…

A Burglar’s Guide to the City – About halfway through and I’m stalled.  Can’t decide if I’m going to finish or not.  Love it, have gotten a lot of ideas and entertainment from it, but not feeling compelled to pick it up lately.  Recommended by Venkatesh Rao on Twitter.

Breaking Smart Email Newsletter – Also by the aforementioned Rao.  These Tweetstorm formatted emails are always a treat and force me to think in new ways.

Pi is a Rational, Finite Number – Steve Patterson makes the case for a radical new foundation for mathematics.  I’m not a math nerd, but this article fascinates me and it’s intuitive and clear.  I love the implications of this debate and it sends my mind in infinite directions (or maybe it’s actually a definable number of directions…)

“Ultra Spiritual”, or, “Actually Spiritual?” – Another Patterson piece, this one a podcast interview with JP Sears, internet famous for satirical videos about college degrees, vegans, Millennials, and much more.  A soothing, thoughtful sort of episode, great for going on a walk in nature and contemplating existence both seriously and satirically.

Masters of Scale – Podcast series hosted by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman.  Highly produced with (sometimes cheesy) sound effects and transitions, and an incredibly clever and engaging ad strategy baked in.  This series has been really great for me the last few weeks, as I think through scaling pain-points for Praxis.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Re-reading this top-notch book by top venture capitalist and former tech CEO supreme Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz.  I lost or gave away my hard copy (full of notes!), so reading it on Kindle this time.  Interesting observation, I see things differently based on the format I read.  This book would have been worthless to me prior to founding Praxis, but now it’s one of my Bibles (along with Peter Thiel’s Zero to One).

Steemit – This is a social media platform that (inexplicably to me so far) employs blockchain technology to create a reward system for content creators and curators.  I’m endlessly fascinated by this Wild West moment in crypto tokens and applications (though the actual Wild West wasn’t so wild, a compelling case why in one of my all-time favorite books, The Not So Wild, Wild West), and I decided to spend 10 minutes a day scanning, reading, upvoting, and posting to Steemit for a few weeks and see if there’s a ‘there’ there.  I’ve watched a few videos and read a few articles claiming it’s everything from a Ponzi scheme to the future of social.  Neither of which seem true thus far.  TBD.

“Would You Press The Button?” – Phenomenal paper by William Nava that posits the concept of a Collective Interpretive Framework (CIF) as the underlying foundation for all governments.  William put into a clear and cogent system many ideas I’ve struggled for years to define about the nature of social change, and the role of beliefs, arguments, experience, and legitimacy.  (I give my version here, but I’d revise to explicitly describe it in terms of the CIF if I did it over again).  I’m re-reading Will’s piece in preparation of an interview with him for my podcast.

Fearful Symmetry – A study of William Blake, recommended by my friend Michael Gibson, partner at the awesomely radical 1517 Fund and a true gentleman and scholar.  He’s a huge fan of Blake (even adopting his name for a Twitter handle), and I keep seeing intriguing Blake quotes pop up everywhere, so I decided to go deeper than Wikipedia and ask for a good starting point.  Just arrived and I haven’t cracked it yet.

The City as Liturgy – A fascinating correspondence between an Orthodox Priest and Jane Jacobs, sent to me by philosopher-developer Vince Graham as a followup to our recent podcast episode about cities and living.  I’m only partly through, because it’s in PDF format on my computer and I get easily distracted this way.

The Blog of NL – My son started a blog yesterday and posted an article about memes.  It’s incredibly fun to find out how he thinks about things via reading his blog, compared to conversations.  I didn’t know he was so down on meme culture (which I love!).  Don’t know if he’ll stick with it, but today he’s working on a post called “Humor is Not Subjective”.  Sounds like I might have to disagree with him again.

Young People: More/Less Mature Than They Used to Be?

It began as a question in the Praxis team Slack, spilled over to Facebook, and generated a fascinating stream of comments and counter-comments.

“Claim: people take longer than they used to to become independent adults.  True?”

I’m fascinated by generational shifts.

I’m also skeptical of any claim that smacks of, “Things used to be better”, because nearly all of those claims fall apart upon examination (wealth is greater, crime is lower, lifespan is longer, wars are fewer, etc.), and because every generation for all of history has believed the next generation to be degenerate.

Still, progress is not inevitable, nor is it uniform.  Some things that once required great struggle come easy today (navigating a new city), some that used to be easy require struggle now (getting enough exercise).

The Facebook comments, predictably, leaned heavily toward the conclusion that people are taking longer than ever to “grow up”.  They are more child-like and dependent for longer than they used to be.  I’m inclined to believe this is only true in some areas, and the opposite is true in others.

For now, here’s my hypothesis: individuals today develop independence at a younger age than previous generations in thought, communication, values, meaning, belief, identity, and goals.  They develop independence at an older age than previous generations in work/finance, ability to handle hardship or monotony, ability to create structure, and ability to be alone.

These things probably relate to and feed each other.  For example, less ability to handle loneliness and monotony without the help of others means you’re more likely to search for a career that’s not lonely or monotonous vs. settle for the path laid before you.

I’ve got a lot more thinking and observing to do.  I’m an individualist, so I don’t see any determinism in generational traits, but shared experience is real and generations definitely have common characteristics worth comparing.

Over on Steemit, a new platform I’m playing with, I assume the claim that young people take longer to mature is true, then offer possible causes.  Check out the post and comments here.  Hint: it’s about schooling and technology.

The Two Worst Assumptions in Political Economy

The Hobbesian “state of nature”, as a war of all against all, and the social contract theory, which romanticizes the origins of state monopolies in a way utterly incongruent with logic and history.  These are the worst assumptions in the study of political economy.

I’m thrilled because I just pre-ordered two new books by two of the clearest thinkers that land big punches against these dumb assumptions.  Both released in the same week!  Something must be in the air.

The first is a new book by James Scott, whose work is a devastating blow to the social contract story of the origin of states.  States originate in conquest, subjugation, and slavery.  They require massive violence beyond the scale of any mere criminal, and propaganda and ideology to sustain.  No one holds hands and peacefully agrees to form a state for some notion of the greater good.

The second is a new book by Peter Leeson, whose work is a devastating blow to the Hobbesian idea that, absent a central monopoly on violence (“Leviathan”), humans would be in perpetual violent conflict.  Leeson “pokes Hobbes in the eye” over and over with his phenomenal examinations of the myriad ways humans have sought peace and harmony over violence in the absence of central control.  Hobbes is wrong.  Humans choose cooperation to violence whenever possible, and peaceful exchange is a more natural social behavior than armed conflict.  It requires a massive indoctrination effort to normalize mass violence as states do.

What makes this all so fun is that the mechanisms that emerge to reduce conflict are often bizarre and unlikely, which drives rationalist central planners nuts.

Once you scrap the assumption that humans would all murder each other absent a state (note: this doesn’t require humans to be naturally “good” or naturally “bad”, just self-interested), and that states emerged in some magical kumbaya contract that you signed before you were born, you realize institutions that monopolize violence are as unnecessary as they are evil.

This is a trip worth taking.  Check out these new books to dive in.

I Love it When I Don’t Understand New Stuff

I’m on Steemit now, and I don’t get it.

After several years, I finally get Twitter.  Facebook took me a little while too (I thought Myspace was better, granted that was when you needed a .edu email address to get on Facebook, and I was no longer a student).  Instagram doesn’t do anything for me.  Reddit is great, but like scanning a fun newspaper in a foreign language.  Snapchat feels like the worst user experience I’ve ever seen and no plausible use case I can find for myself.

I love it when I don’t get it.  It means there are entire sections of society and culture in which others are fluent and I’ve yet to understand.  It means there are trends and changes I need to scramble to see.  It means the world is bigger and more interesting than what’s in my head.

Sometimes I eventually get it.  Other times I don’t.  Sometimes the things I don’t get end up being dumb anyway.  Other times they’re world-changing.

I’m always up to dabble, even if the result is total confusion.

Are You Better off Than You Were a Decade Ago?

In every single area of life dominated by market exchange and civil society, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

WiFi is better.  Smartphones.  Slack.  Uber.  More and better food options.  Podcasts.  Kindle paperwhite.  Nearly every daily activity, productivity tool, information, entertainment, work, exercise, and leisure experience is better.

The only things worse than ten years ago are those dominated by monopoly governments and their protectionist crony regulations.  Health care is worse.  Air travel is neutral.  Buying a car at a dealership is as awful as ever.  Banking is a joke.  Policing is more ominous.

Still, even though areas dominated by monopolized state violence are worse almost across the board, and even though a higher number of areas are touched by the tentacles of politics, the growth in all other areas of life still outpaced them.  The growth in the rest of the real, voluntary world was faster.  The influence of the state on my daily life is less, or at least I have more ability to make it less with physical and digital mobility.

Progress is not inevitable.  It’s ultimately determined by the dominant beliefs of the population.  But beliefs are shaped by more than argument.  They are shaped by experience more often than not.  Whether arguments for freedom and peace are winning, experiences of freedom and peace are.

That’s worth celebrating.  Let’s keep building the free world.  While the political clowns bloviate about dividing pies, making threats, and picking losers, we’ll bake new pies, create win-wins, and relegate them to the dustbin of history with serfdom and slavery.

Action as a Path to Knowledge

“If you think, you’re dead.” — Maverick

Sometimes the best path to knowledge – especially self-knowledge – is just doing something.  The demand of producing something forces epiphanies from your depths.

You have a lot of information, ideas, opinions, and insights inside that aren’t easy to access.  Retrospection is a useful tool, but your head can get in the way of your gut, where the best stuff lives.  Your gut kicks in when things move too fast for your conscious mind.  Your gut is what lets you shoot a basketball without thinking (playing “out of your mind” is a phrase for being fully in that zone).  It’s what comes to the surface in a crisis, when time and thought are too dangerous to risk.

I apply this often.  I blog every day, and so far, nothing beats the demand of a daily post for getting my own thoughts out of my head.  I rarely think before I write, because I don’t have time.  I open a new post in WordPress and start typing.  I write not just to say what I think, but to find out what I think.

Questions are a good way to spur action and learning.  An open ended assignment to share thoughts might cloud the mind.  A demand to tell me everything you think when I say “City planning” (or any other phrase) in 60 seconds will unearth something.  A good starting point at least.

Even physical action can produce results.  I take walks as a way to jostle my brain.  I build LEGO with my kids by grabbing the first piece I see and attaching it to the second.  The vision comes together as a result of building, then feeds it in a virtuous cycle (practice-practice-theory).

Action is often juxtaposed with analysis, but the relationship is more knotty than a simple dichotomy.  I don’t act to avoid thinking, I act in order to think.

If You Want Clear Answers, Avoid Appeal to Identity

You’ve heard of the logical fallacy appeal to authority.

There’s another bad way to approach arguments (if what you want is the truth) I call appeal to identity.  A great way to spot this approach is to look for two simple words: “As a…”

If a question begins with, “As a…”, it’s an appeal to identity rather than a direct inquiry into an argument.  You see this in Q&A sessions and internet comments all the time, and it does nothing but reduce the odds of a good answer.  Compare,

“Do you think your strategy would work for someone with ADD, or would that require a different approach?”

To,

“As a person with ADD, I’m wondering if you think your strategy would work for people like me?”

The question is the same, but the second is embedded in an identity framing that puts the responder on guard.  There’s an implied skepticism, or eagerness to be offended or have a “gotcha!” moment.  It smells of a subtle threat, that if you bullshit me, I’ll know it because of my identity.

There’s nothing unfair or out of bounds about that way of asking.  But it reduces the odds that you’ll hear and be able to glean from a clear answer.  It turns an argument about propositions into a game about status.

Most, “As a…” questions are much worse than the example above.  Most aren’t even questions.  How many Q&A’s have you been to where someone says something like,

“As a student of Greek history, I’m familiar with many epochs of conflict between cultures, and it seems perhaps your argument could be applied to the early wars between city states just as easily as modern nation states.”

It’d be merciful if they were all this short.  These non-question identity flexes are abhorrent.  They make the asker look like a fool and everyone else uncomfortable.  If they really want the speaker’s opinion on whether city states and nation states require different arguments, they could have asked.  Maybe a real curiosity is buried in there, but it’s clouded over by appeal to identity.

If you want to understand arguments and find logical validity and truth, leave your identity at the door.  Unique knowledge you have because of it is valuable, but where and how you got that knowledge are irrelevant distractions.

If you want truth or practical value, don’t approach arguments and ideas as anything but a seeker of answers.  Truth, like justice, is blind.

Work You Don’t Want to Escape

Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from. — Seth Godin

This has been my goal for most of my life.  I never put it in such explicit terms, but my approach has been the negative version, Don’t Do Stuff You Hate, and what I’m left with is the same – a life I don’t want to escape from.

I thought about this when I awoke today and remembered the whole Praxis team is taking the day off.  I suggested the off day as more of a challenge than a holiday, because most of the team is like me and we live and breath our work.  I will certainly enjoy going to the pool with the kids, barbecue with friends, cigars and fireworks.  But it’s a little sad to think of not popping onto my phone every so often to check on Slack, Gmail, Voxer, etc.  When I deliberately take a day off of work, I’m reminded that the line between work and play is hard to find.  I love this stuff.

I’ll try not to do anything worky today, but it’s hard to distinguish so I might open a file in Google Drive in between beers once or twice.