Saturday, January 28, 2012


I have spent very little time in San Francisco for living in such close proximity. So I am spending some time with it to get to know it better. It's dirty, it's smart, and it's expensive. I have no idea how the townies make ends meet.

Tonight I am hanging out in Noisebridge, a community hacker space in the Mission district.

The Game

I watched “The Game” on Netflix with some friends this week. It’s an entertaining movie, but something about Michael Douglas’s character bugged me.

Hollywood writers like to portray successful businessmen as lonely, misanthropic creatures. Call it the “Scrooge” archetype. Of course, writers only do this because audiences lap it up. Average people like to believe that we have something that makes us superior to wealthy folk. They may have lots of expensive possessions, but we assuage our envy by telling ourselves that their lives are cold and loveless.

Unfortunately, this story is mostly false. In my personal experience rich people for the most part have abundant social circles. Success is attractive and successful people are constantly surrounded by family and friends.

Even rich people who fit the abrasive, nasty Hollywood stereotype have crowds of people around them who look past the insults in hopes to befriend them. You may think that you would never suck up to a rich asshole, but you probably would if given the opportunity. Do it well enough and you will get invited to their opulent house parties. And maybe your kid will get an internship at their firm.

Remember, there is no justice in the world. The universe doesn’t balance the scales. Having great fortune in one area of one’s life doesn’t generate corresponding bad fortune in another. And although being an asshole hurts your chances of success as a practical matter, it doesn't make them zero. Especially if you're incredibly talented. The talented successful asshole is common enough in Silicon Valley to be cliche.

There is good news, then, for us entrepreneurs. You don't have to give up your emotional and social well-being for material wealth. You can have it all.

Atheist Sermon #2

The idea of God is a picture painted with negative space. He is the man that is missing, the things we wish for that do not exist. We hunger for justice, love, and purpose, so these are the qualities we give to God. But there is no god and these ideals are not intrinsic qualities of the universe. So if we want them, we must fight for them. We must build them ourselves.

Religion crystalizes these ideals in the personage of God and keeps them in the forefront of our mind. It provides a pedal tone, a fixed point that permeates the symphony of our lives. It reminds us of what we ought to be striving for.

Our hearts burn for justice. They cry out for love. They bleed for purpose. So when you are confronted with the Christian gospel, what else is there to do but to think "of course"? Of course, this is the religion that humans would create. This is the shape of the hole in our hearts.

We should all be more godly. Even atheists like me.

Friday, January 27, 2012

There Ain't No Justice*

Justice is a tasteless dish, fibrous and unfilling.

The wise seek mercy, not justice. It is not given unto humanity to see perfect justice in this lifetime. Religions know this and promise it for the next. They know the hunger for justice in people's hearts and they know it cannot be sated.

The cost of justice is too great. Some people sell their entire future for a single morsel. Only seek it if the hunger is so unbearable that it is worth everything to you.

Some of history's biggest winners were terribly unjust. Murdering the families of your enemies turns out to be a spectacularly successful strategy.

If you love goodness, you must pick your battles and take the long view. Seek to spread the love of goodness in the hearts of men. The nihilists are too powerful to face in a set-piece battle. They are far more cunning and effective than those constrained by morality.

Every age has its evil. It is the task of the righteous to work towards its lessening over time, not its immediate elimination. Preserve the goodness that exists in the world. Cut your losses. And never give up.

*Editor's note: This is adapted from a series of tweets. Don't forget to follow me on twitter.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Tyler Cowen TEDx talk on why you should be skeptical of stories people tell you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Power of Perspective.

A man living in a box thinks box-shaped thoughts. The tiny rip in the corner, the stain on one side - these are the stuff that occupy his mind. If a mold starts to grow on a piece of the box then the highly-evolved calculating machine in his skull will run in endless loops on the topic of mold.

You will not be able to teach such a man any thoughts about the world outside his box. He will not care to think them. The box is the world. If you want to get through to him, first you have to get him to step outside of the box.

We feel superior to the poor slob stuck in the box. But each of us lives in our own box. It is made by the boundaries of polite opinion, the range of philosophical and political beliefs held by our peers. It is a strange man who holds a belief not shared by a large portion of his friends. He probably has at least a low-grade mental illness.

If you seek to implant alien ideas into someone's head, then logical argument will not suffice. You first have to acclimate them to the world outside their box or their mental immune system will kick in and their brain will reject the procedure. Start by gently relating new concepts to beliefs they already hold. Patience is a virtue. Eventually they will be ready to consider an idea that lies outside their normal worldview.

This technique - establishing a wider mental perspective before diving into controversial ideas - is a necessary tool for the intellectual radical.

Two works I am currently reading use the trick of widening the reader's perspective to powerful effect. One is John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of the right of free speech from first principles, “On Liberty”. Americans take for granted the right to say or write whatever we wish but it is not the norm in the world today, even in the West, and it is a rare sight in human history.

Mill writes to a devout and conservative audience that is happy to see the law prosecute political and religious heretics. They figure that if Jesus is God and they are completely certain of that, and that it is evil to think otherwise, then why not make it illegal as well? Mill blasts through their mental walls with a mortar shell of historical perspective. He reminds them that Jesus himself was executed for speaking religious heresies and nearly everybody thought it was a good idea at the time. That this great evil was perpetrated because of religious intolerance is a powerful advertisement for the virtue of tolerance.

By linking "intolerance of heretics" (good) with "killing Jesus" (very bad), Mill sews cognitive dissonance in his readers' heads. Their old beliefs don't fit together any more. Now their mental barriers fall down and they are outside the box. Now they are ready to consider Mill's logical arguments without triggering their mental immune systems.

The other political tract I recently wrestled with was Moldbug’s “Formalist Manifesto”. Moldbug primes his readers to consider deliciously heretical political ideas by reminding them how much mainstream political thought has shifted over the years. If the current mainstream once sounded dangerous and crazy, then surely not all ideas that sound dangerous and crazy should be rejected outright. Moldbug writes on the topic of political “moderates”:

Moderation is not an ideology. It is not an opinion. It is not a thought. It is an absence of thought. If you believe the status quo of 2007 is basically righteous, then you should believe the same thing if a time machine transported you to Vienna in 1907. But if you went around Vienna in 1907 saying that there should be a European Union, that Africans and Arabs should rule their own countries and even colonize Europe, that any form of government except parliamentary democracy is evil, that paper money is good for business, that all doctors should work for the State, etc, etc - well, you could probably find people who agreed with you. They wouldn't call themselves "moderates," and nor would anyone else.

No, if you were a moderate in Vienna in 1907, you thought Franz Josef I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. So which is it? Hapsburgs, or Eurocrats? Pretty hard to split the difference on that one.

In other words, the problem with moderation is that the "center" is not fixed. It moves. And since it moves, and people being people, people will try to move it.

A reminder of how wrong the status quo can be is a powerful motivator to shine a light on long-held beliefs that have lived in the shadow of unreflective laziness. It helps guard against a slavish adherence to the popular ideas of our age and our clique.

New Blog Taste

The 1950s gave us working for The Man. The 1960s gave us the cliche of the young person rebelling against The Man. Since then, these things come and go in cycles because kids generally hate their parents and vow to be as unlike them as possible.

FreedomTwentyFive is the chronicle of a 25 year old guy checking out of his day job working for The Man, unsatisfied with the life that our culture offers him. His earnest and wide-ranging search for meaning, his boldness in his personal life, and the several interests and influences he shares with me makes me attracted to his story.

Normally I get bored with earnest 20-somethings doing cliche things like "saving the world", protesting, or rebelling against the man. But Frost (the author) is thoughtful enough to get past my bullshit filter and make me think.

I wish him luck.

Check out the best of his blog.