Time again for the annual indulgence: blogging about the blog itself.
Main points for 2014:
- Fewer posts... but higher quality(?). I published only 8 full essays this year. Granted, most of them were long — 3500 words on average — and involved a lot of work: research, thinking, writing, and re-writing. But still, 8 essays is a pretty meager output.
- Solid growth in popularity along all metrics: total views, views per post, subscribers, and social media shares/likes/etc. Made the front page of Hacker News three times this year.
- Finished my Ribbonfarm residency. Thanks again to Venkat Rao for such a great opportunity.
- Site makeover. About six months ago I completely redesigned the site. My main goal was to make the content (i.e., the body of each post) more prominent — to give it that special "premium" feel. Not sure how well I succeeded, but I like the way it turned out. I also made it much easier to read on mobile screens.
List of essays
Hallucinated Gods. Here I completed my 4-part series on Julian Jaynes's cult classic, The Origin of Consciousness. Usually my attempts at doing multi-part series fall flat, but I'm happy with how this one turned out, and it ended up being pretty popular.
Technical Debt of the West. The last post in my Ribbonfarm residency.
A Codebase is an Organism. A distillation of some of the ways I've matured as a developer over the past 10 years.
Boundaries of Your Body and Your Oddly-Shaped Mind. In these two posts I explored some weird ideas — probably too weird — about personal identity.
Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players. Musings on what it means to be a person in addition to being a human creature. Bonus: comic strip illustration.
Ads Don't Work That Way. My attempt to refute the standard story about how advertising works, i.e., by manipulating our emotions. I probably overstated the case — some ads do seem to work by emotional manipulation — but overall it was a worthy argument to make, and applicable to a lot of different types of advertising. This has been my most controversial post to date, with comments ranging from "Of course!" to "Uh... no."
Tears. An investigation into the evolutionary depths of the human psyche.
Despite my lax posting schedule, public feedback was overwhelmingly positive this year. Some milestones:
- I made it onto Slate Star Codex's map of the broader rationality community. Somehow I ended up in the "post-rationality" camp, though, which is a bit of a nose-scruncher (both the term itself and my being labelled with it). But I'm tickled pink to be included, not least because SSC is my favorite blog right now.
- Two of my posts were shared (or upvoted) over 500 times apiece: Personhood and Ads Don't Work That Way.
- Made it to the front page of Hacker News three times (1 2 3). The commentariat there was characteristically skeptical, especially of my Ads post.
The audiences on Twitter, Reddit, and Quora, meanwhile, have had some very nice things to say about my work. I appreciate the encouragement, especially since I don't really know what I'm doing with my life right now (... well, I'm writing a book, but is that really a good idea?). Here's a sampling of the more flattering comments:
Read-worthy. Well worth reading. Worthy of a close read. Great read. Amazing read. Must read. Damned damned good reading.
Why didn't anyone ever explain it like this before? — manateetanam
Interesting. Thought provoking. Makes you think. Fascinating. Provocative. Illuminating.
This is the best essay on this topic I've ever read. — Eivind Kjørstad.
This one is good. Very good. Particularly good. REALLY good. So great. Pretty excellent. Awesome. Rad. Fantastic. Spectacular. Just wonderful.
That was a great fucking essay. — drawmeasheep
Perhaps the most balanced comment comes from mrfungfung, referring to my ads essay:
Slightly hokey cokey with no data or stats to back it up but good read
I think that's a fair summary.
Most important reading
Here I recap my favorite books, papers, blogs, and blog posts from the year. These are the ones that had a disproportionate influence on my thinking and writing.
In the books category:
- Jean-Louis Dessalles, Why We Talk. An unconventional approach to studying the evolution of human language. Unlike most other thinkers, Dessalles focuses relentlessly on the question of why humans talk, i.e., why we're eager to be speakers rather than just listeners. The answer Dessalles gives to this question is surprising, but it explains a lot of otherwise-puzzling human social behaviors, including prestige status and even morality. His explanation, to be unforgivably brief, is this: The same way that many species engage in fitness displays (like the peacock's tail) to advertise themselves in the game of sexual selection, humans (an intensely social and political species) developed fitness displays to advertise themselves in the game of coalition politics. And talking, according to Dessalles, is one of the most important of these fitness displays.
- George Gopen, The Sense of Structure. Not an "ideas" book (like most of what I discuss on this blog), but rather a book about the craft of writing. Much more useful than Pinker's The Sense of Style, in my opinion. Gopen's book focuses not on prescriptive rules or heuristics, but rather on training one's ear (as a reader) in order to understand the structure and flow of sentences and paragraphs. It definitely helped me "level up" as a writer.
Only one paper stands out this year:
- Paul Bingham, Human Evolution and Human History. (Also: Human Uniqueness: A General Theory.) Bingham argues that the key inflection point in human evolution was when our ancestors learned how to throw sharp and/or heavy objects, and thereby to kill each other from a distance. Other thinkers, notably Boehm and Dessalles, also cite weapons as the key to why our social dynamics differ from those of the other great apes. But I like Bingham's presentation of this idea — specifically, that as remote-killing skill increases, it becomes safer and safer for large groups to coordinate to punish lone transgressors. Without weapons (e.g. among chimps), it's simply too risky to try ganging up on a powerful member of the group, because everything needs to be settled in hand-to-hand combat, where the punishers stand a large chance of getting injured or killed themselves. But weapons make punishment much more feasible. Note that these don't need to be projectile weapons, like Bingham focuses on. They can also be surprise-attack weapons (e.g. hand-held blades), which Bingham seems to ignore, but which entail similar conclusions.
In the blogs category, Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex is a force of nature. Almost every post of his is novel, witty, readable, and spot-on — the kind of thing I'd be overwhelmingly proud of, if it had somehow emanated from my own brain/fingers. And he does this three times a week, give or take. SSC is an unrelenting torrent of insight, and I can't recommend it enough.
Anyway, here are a few of my favorite SSC posts from the past year:
- In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization. "No! I am Exception Nazi! NO EXCEPTION FOR YOU! Civilization didn't conquer the world by forbidding you to murder your enemies unless they are actually unrighteous in which case go ahead and kill them all. Liberals didn't give their lives in the battle against tyranny to end discrimination against all religions except Jansenism because seriously fuck Jansenists. Here we have built our Schelling fence and here we are defending it to the bitter end."
- Social Justice and Words, Words, Words. A description of the "motte-and-bailey" debating tactic, which shows up everywhere once you know to look for it.
- Meditations on Moloch, the god of competitive systems.
- I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup. These epic posts can be hard to summarize, but here Scott is channeling Jonathan Haidt and basically directing the full force of The Righteous Mind at current issues in American "Blue Tribe vs. Red Tribe" partisan politics.
- The Toxoplasma of Rage. I once described Jonathan Haidt's project as trying to explain "how people actually, empirically, think about morality." Here, again, SSC is shining Haidtian light on the darkest corners of the tumblr- and twitterverses.
Other media recommendations
- NOD (News On Demand; iOS). My general attitude toward news is that it's bad for you. But this app has been both addictive and (IMO) useful. It's just the three biggest headlines/stories each day. That's it.
- Monument Valley. An M.C. Escher–inspired puzzle game. Great artwork and storytelling. Simple but breathtaking.
- Crash Course. I've recommended Crash Course to a bunch of my people over the past year, but I always have a hard time describing it (and why I love it so much). It's a series of "courses" on history, biology, literature, ecology, chemistry, and psychology. Each course is broken into 20 to 50 "lectures," ten minutes apiece, covering most of what you'd get in a high school– or (maybe) college 101-level version of the same thing. The lectures are scripted, narrated at a fast pace, and overlaid with images, video sequences, and animations, and as a result they feel lively and information-dense. The style is that of a passionate high school teacher who's trying to make his subject fun and relevant to his students, but without dumbing down the material. Here's the very first lecture which caused me to fall in love with the whole series.
- Minute Physics and Minute Earth. I've learned so much from these little videos. Each is a ~two-minute explanation of some interesting phenomenon. Some of my favorites: Why is it dark at night? Why is all sand the same? Why do rivers curve?
- Love+Radio (podcast). Portraits of real life, similar to This American Life — except that the stories aren't filtered through the perspective of a host/narrator, which makes the whole thing weirdly intimate.
- The Great Courses on Audible. A wide variety of college-level courses, recorded by professors in a recording studio and specifically designed and formatted for listening. It's like iTunes U, but without all the bullshit of course logistics, questions from the audience, and references to slides you can't see. (Also you have to pay for it.) I recommend listening to most of the lectures at 1.5x or 2x normal speed.
I suck at setting goals, but maybe putting something here will give me a little extra motivational oomph — so I'll play along. My one goal for 2015 (for the blog) is to do more shorter posts — basically, the opposite of what happened in 2014. Surely I have some ideas that don't require 3000 words to explain, right?