#59: Art that make you think differently
Read good books and watch good movies over and over again
Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.
- John Lennon
Perhaps this post will be less spicy than my last few. I hope not. Spicy is authentic, vulnerable, and fun, wouldn’t you say?
I woke up this morning and thought about Scott Alexander, the writer of the blog Astral Codex Ten. Finding it strange to wake up thinking about this man, I decided to let me brain do what it wants, and continue to think about him some more.
Scott and I have a good relationship. I don’t know him personally, nor do I think he knows me, but I enjoy his writing…sometimes. Other times, I find him annoying and I stop reading his blog for months on end. By the way, I think this is totally normal and I will not be offended to find out that you, too, have this kind of relationship with my blog.
To quote Walt Whitman:
We are vast. We contain multitudes.
Sure, I find Scott to be annoying at times, like when he vents, or when he writes really long sentences connecting what I find to be disparate and strange topics. But I recognize this may be a symptom of my small brain and Scott’s large brain…I’m, of course, only kidding. Scott is probably double my age. He deserves to have more information in his brain.
Anyway, my brain sometimes tells me to not like Scott and to stop reading him.
Maybe I’m intimidated. Okay, I’m probably intimidated.
I find Scott to sometimes be annoying, just like I find most people, at one time or other, to be annoying.
It’s normal. Don’t judge me. Your ego is not your amigo!
Scott and I have similar writing styles - we both write conversationally, although I have never heard Scott talk. Maybe he is one of those quiet Zen types, or maybe he is flagrantly bombastic, I don’t know, I really hope not, but I think people like others who can speak in a conversational, easy-going, free and playful way.
Scott has the talent of covering an immense breadth and depth of information. A psychiatrist by trade, he can write circles around anything, from the healthcare system, to flaws in our decision making, to AI and machine learning, to our legal and justice system. He seems to have a pulse on everything interesting and he can go deep on most topics.
Let me give you some examples.
Here’s Scott offering his two cents on the future of AI:
For transhumanists, this debate has a kind of iconic status, like Lincoln-Douglas or the Scopes Trial. But Robin’s ideas seem a bit weird now (they also seemed a bit weird in 2008) - he thinks AIs will start out as uploaded human brains, and even wrote an amazing science-fiction-esque book of predictions about exactly how that would work. Since machine learning has progressed a lot faster than brain uploading has, this is looking less likely and probably makes his position less relevant than in 2008. The gradualist torch has passed to Paul Christiano, who wrote a 2018 post Takeoff Speeds revisiting some of Hanson’s old arguments and adding new ones.
And here’s Scott putting on his science fiction author hat, making up his own legal system as a thought experiment:
The Slovirian Radical Party is even more enlightened than Sloviria as a whole, and opposes social punishment. They believe that such punishment prevents rehabilitation, since criminals and at-risk youth find it impossible to make the connections they need to succeed, and are forced to hang out with other people as criminal as themselves. They propose a complete inversion of Sloviria’s justice system; when anyone commits a crime, the people closest to them are rewarded. They envision a future where, once somebody shows any sign of being at risk for antisocial behavior, they are love-bombed by dozens of people hoping to get rich off their acquaintance, people who want to employ them, adopt them, date them, or just serve as mentors and parental figures. But wouldn’t all these people encourage the potential criminal to offend? The Radicals debate this among themselves, with one solution being that this could just be a perfectly normal crime punished by jail time.
Scott has an enormous following, and for good reason. He deserves it!
You’ll notice that Scott’s writing is not academic, meaning it’s not dull. It’s also not scrupulously proof-read and edited. He clearly reads a ton and is able to connect a whole bunch of ideas together in a meaningful way. He presents different research and perspectives, sometimes offering his viewpoint, but never being a jerk. His writing is not forceful. He has a nice gait, and an artistic beauty and style to his sentences. He just kind of builds ideas one on top of another and doesn’t seem to care if they always make sense to plebs like me.
Scott has this one incredible post called Meditations on Moloch that the Ethereum community revels in. It has made an enormous impact on projects and even led to the formation of the first-ever DAO, Moloch DAO. As far as I know, Scott is not into crypto, but his ideas have spread far and wide.
I read Meditations on Moloch at least 3 times before I fully understood it. And even now, if I were to read it again, I’m sure I would catch new tidbits. I’m also a different person now, not in some weird transformational way, but simply that I am a different person today than who I was yesterday, or the day before that, or last week. So reading the post again will reveal new insights that I missed before. That’s just how our brain works.
Okay, and now for the crux of my argument, which I had to write all of the above mumbo jumbo for and take you on this journey with me, to share this: read good writing over and over again. Watch good movies over and over again.
Don’t waste your time with the vast trove of bad writing and bad movies out there. Read the good stuff - the deep, the meaningful, the thoughtful and the vulnerable.
Any joe schmo can write about the five steps to success or the 10 ways to be a better parent. Don’t fall for that clickbait.
The good stuff will connect different idea and it will not be prescriptive. It will make you think for yourself and it probably won’t be linear, clear, crisp, or concise. The good stuff will make you think deep thoughts and give you insight into another person’s humanity.
Sorry, here I am being prescriptive when I just told you to not read the prescriptive stuff. I can’t help myself! I’ve been programmed in this same culture that we all have. A culture that is intensely focused on objectives, measurements, and metrics. On the magic pill that will solve all of our problems, if only we follow these 10 easy steps…
If you’re confused by a piece of writing, it means you haven’t thought about the topic enough, or in the novel way that the author presents it. Bravo! Read it again. You’ll probably be less confused. And you’ll come out a better thinker.
Take care, friends. I will be on vacation the rest of the week, so expect another email from me on Monday. Cheers!