My Interview with Byrne Hobart for The Browser

In No One is Even Trying, I wrote:

…take a look at Byrne Hobart. He’s published 5 days a week, every single week since he launched his newsletter. His last 5 posts are 1968, 2281, 3352, 2535 and 2586 words, so 12,722/week, times 52 weeks, is 661,544 words each year.

Byrne is simply the most productive writer I follow, possibly the highest earning, and among the people who has influenced me the most.

In the 91 posts I’ve ever published, there are 46 references to Byrne Hobart. (To my credit, this blog has show up on The Diff a few times as well)

I was fortunate enough to be asked to interview him for The Browser, some excerpts:

ADS: 13 years ago you were living in a former crack den eating rice and beans. What was that a mistake? Instructive? Would you do it again? Recommend it to a colleague?

Byrne: Some amount of suffering is good for moral development and gives you better stories to tell, but it’s hard to recommend it.

…It’s probably healthier to pursue some edifying level of suffering either a) through some kind of structured belief system that tells you when to suffer and what it means, e.g. religiously prescribed fasting, or b) by working out, which is painful but has good physical effects in addition to the character-building ones.


Byrne: …If you think about the Internet bubble, for example, the hype around e-commerce and online entertainment told ISPs that if they gave people Internet access, there would be things on the Internet for those people to do; by the same token, the fact that ISPs stepped up their capital expenditures told website operators that they’d have a big target market to sell into.

…This means that FOMO is actually a perfectly good action-guiding thing to feel: in the rare circumstances where feedback loops will accelerate progress, you really should fear that you’re missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because it could be true! Google, Microsoft, Ford, Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, Facebook, Shopify—these companies could only get build once, and only during particular circumstances.

It might be a good filter to apply to opportunities: was this crazy five years ago, will be be crazy five years from now, and are you part of the tiny minority of people who think it’s right on the cusp of sanity right this minute? If so, jump in.

You can read the entire conversation on The Browser.

One Year of Applied Divinity Studies

When I first started writing, I had no intention of making any of it public. I read internet blogs, and sometimes penned emails in response. Scattered thoughts never meant to see light.

Eventually, this put me in contact with Alexey Guzey, who urged me to work in public. He personally reviewed every post for the first several weeks, leaving detailed comments, vetoing drafts, and helping to craft the style and format my writing has since matured into.

Those of you who have followed my blog for this last year know that I remain reluctant. I am often, in a melodramatic and self-pitying way, threatening to quit and leave it all behind.

In one of my first posts, I mourned the the coming death of the blogosphere I so deeply loved, “lamenting”, I wrote, “the last days of a community.” I have been overjoyed this last year to learn, time and again, just how wrong I was. There are more good blogs now, than perhaps there ever have been in the history of humankind. That is a poor proxy for some forms of progress, but it is a robust demonstration of the growing community of people who have chosen to think critically, express the thoughts important to them, and subject those thoughts to debate in the public forum.

Of course, once public, the comments are often found to be lacking in quality. It is often clear that respondents have not actually read the piece, but merely seen the title, skimmed a couple paragraphs and seen the opportunity to share a tangentially related opinion they already held.

On the other hand, the emails I now receive are the single greatest joy of having a public presence. I am blessed to read, on a regular basis, thoughtful correspondence from readers who not only read my blog, but often know far more than me on the topic at hand, and are eager to point me down new and exciting roads. Overwhelmingly, these emails are not merely polite, they are friendly and warm.

I sometimes imagine what a good life would look like if I were much wealthier. Though I share the now trendy distaste for formal academia, I like to imagine a future where I fund my own personal intellectual circle. I could have researchers on a variety of topics engaged to write on the latest developments in their respective fields, share their own insights, and occasionally answer whatever questions I might be able to formulate. This would be more than an aristocrat’s intellectual harem, it would be a genuine community of interlocking minds and co-evolving perspectives. A kind of utopia for strange and novel ideas to blossom, compete, and flourish.

The joke, of course, is that this already describes my life fairly well. And I don’t have to spend a cent. There is already a community, already researchers, writers, and analysts available to contact and eager to engage in discussion, and already I get to be a part of it. Not merely as a patron or external observer, but as a participant in my own right, active in the middle of it all.

It is difficult to imagine a more fulfilling or humbling existence.

That’s not to say I’m perennially content or in a state of bliss. To the contrary, I am often frustrated. But it is a frustration not with my helplessness or pain or loneliness, but merely with my inability to think and write as well as I feel I need to. Not for an external purpose, but for my own desire to express the half-formed impressions floating around in my mind. If that is the cost of striving continuously to improve without falling into complacency, then it is a price well worth paying.

When I am at my best, writing without hesitation or fear, writing as I am now at 3am unable to sleep and unwilling to try, the words simply spill out. It is as if there is an autocomplete so sophisticated as to predict not only the ends of words or sentences, but the progression of thought itself. It is simply a matter of considering what kind of idea could even be satisfying, and then evaluating post hoc if it is actually the correct one.

That might sound crazy, but it is far saner than the madness of pure deductive logic. A computer can trivially, given a set of axioms and rules for operating on them, generate any number of true but useless statements.

As best as I can self-reflect and then describe, my writing is largely the product of emulation at a high level of abstraction. Rather than mimic specific ideas, beliefs, or values, I am painting a pastiche of the entire shape of an argument. Drawing from my years spent as a reader, observing and learning from the people I admire, and in some instances, am now fortunate enough to consider my peers.

I am particularly indebted to Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard who were among the first to recommend my blog, and most of all, Alexey Guzey for instigating this project to begin with.

Their writing is a part of mine now. I hope that one day yours will be too.

Ordinary Life Improvements 2030

Air Quality: Despite the continued progression of climate change, and proliferation of wildfires, air filtration is seamless for most indoor environments. A cheap air quality meter syncs with industrial purifiers, regulating PM2.5 intake below the cognitively harmful level. Though the improvement to quality of life is nearly imperceptible, the change adds an estimated $2Tn to US GDP annually.

Pandemics: Similarly, outdoor air quality is managed by cheap 3d-printed negative-pressure helmets which have the side-benefit of preventing essentially all airborne disease in public settings. Privately, we still have to rely on testing, but it’s only $5, relatively non-invasive, and easy to perform from the comfort of your home.

Bluetooth: Bluetooth just works. Not the way XKCD predicted, but actually better. Once opened, the AirPods Mini Pro S simply connect, immediately and painlessly, to your active Apple device.

Food: Improvements in flash freezing enable produce that’s always seasonal, delicious and ripened on the vine instead of in-transit. More general applications mean fully prepared meals, available at a moment’s notice, and designed for your taste. It’s the frozen TV dinner from the 50s, except, you know, actually good. Compact countertop combination air-fryer/microwave/steamers mean that food is always cooked through evenly (no more hot pocket magma). Again, all from the comfort of your home, no need to gear up to go outside, and no depressing Blade Runner 2049 vending machines.

Beauty: A lot of this is just virtual now. You can save your skin and wallet from layers of makeup, with way more freedom than ever before to transfigure your own face. In person, countless hours at the gym have been saved by safety improvements to Brazilian Butt Lift and other cosmetic surgeries, now fully mainstream and destigmatized.

Longevity: Selective androgen receptor modulators are safer than ever, and alongside TRT, mean that no one suffers from premature muscular dystrophy or loses their agency to hampered mobility.

Transportation: Trains remain cheap and safe, and are now ubiquitous as well. For longer international travel, supersonic aircraft have cut transit time by about 50%. Though again, the advent of remote work and improved VR mean that transit is just generally less necessary. For private transit, self-driving cars just work.

Okay, sorry, it’s probably obvious, but the joke is that none of this is the future. It’s now. It’s already happening. Aside from the supersonic planes (which really won’t happen until 2030), 100% of the technology discussed here is functional, just not widespread.

Except that even there I’m sandbagging a bit. The technology is available in China. Trains are good, cheap and ubiquitous. Cosmetic surgery is normalized. Air pollution is rapidly improving. Food delivery is really cheap and consistently delicious. There’s practically no Covid.

China isn’t the future, it’s the present. Whether this is cause for concern or cause for optimism depends on your background, concern about the ongoing human rights violations, and time horizon.

Meanwhile, in the US, commute times are actually going up, air quality is getting worse, fires are getting worse, Amtrak is getting worse.

So okay, one reasonable interpretation of this whole piece is that the US is in decline, but China is in ascension. Another interpretation is that actually, progress is rapid and things are improving. But it’s worth noting, also, how many of these “solutions” are to relatively new problems. So a third interpretation is that all progress happened before 1970, and we’re still paying back debt incurred from environmental problems and the unexpected harms of (sub)urbanization.

I really don’t know. I’m tired, and I just want the future to be decent.

Inspired by Gwern’s My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s.