In light of the season, I’ll share 12 maybe-humorous things I’m grateful for, which also could possibly be of some use to others:
1. Feed Eradicator
For years now, I’ve used the browser extension
I can still get messages, and I can navigate to profile pages. So most of my Twitter use in the last couple years has consisted of directly going to Robin Hanson’s Twitter page and seeing what innovative/brilliant/crazy ideas he’s thinking of, and then going to Aella’s Twitter page and seeing what novel/bizarre/gross surveys she’s running. It greatly reduces my wasted time on social media.
The Feed Eradicator also works on Facebook, Insta, YouTube, and other sites.
2. The Stoic Philosophers
Lately I’ve gotten in the habit of always carrying a book in my jacket pocket, which is great if you’re ever waiting around and don’t want to mindlessly scroll on a phone.
There’s something about a physical book that forces one to slow down and put some deep focus into things.
Lately, I’ve been reading the ancient stoic philosophers for the first time, and I think they’re great.
In particular, I read all of Epictetus’ surviving works. I’ll post some highlights on this blog later.
For now, here’s one clip of ancient gossip that I found hilarious:
But, more seriously:
— The biggest thing the stoics get wrong is that they minimize the positives of life. They do this intentionally because they do not want to fear death, which is important to them because fear of anything puts one in the power of that thing, and they want to be totally free. Fair enough, but I think that dark lens is not worth it, and that a more positive lens of accepting the beauty of life, and then also acknowledging the bravery of risking it despite fear of losing it, is the healthiest approach.
— The biggest thing the stoics get right is you should try hard to be indifferent to external events you cannot control, and instead focus on what is under your control, which is your thoughts, actions, and reactions. Then judge yourself only by whether the latter are appropriate, and not the former.
3. Sci Hub
As someone who’s not with a university, sci-hub is critical to doing good research without spending tons of money on journal fees. It allows one to get around paywalls at academic journals.
Is Sci Hub in violation of copyright law? Yes.
Is the Sci Hub crow also holding a hammer and sickle in its beak? Yes. OK, that’s less defensible.
More seriously, though, copyright laws can be good. But a case can also be made that overly-strict copyright law, combined with the largely-taxpayer-funded university cartel, has led to an unacceptably-gated flow of information.
It is blatantly obvious that the top journals are successful thanks to their social reputation from prior centuries and decades, and not because they are actually great at discerning a good paper from a bad one, nor at detecting errors/fraud in data. Should they really get the money they are trying to extract through the copyright system?
Having such gated academic papers is particularly ironic since academia has always claimed to be about shining light on the truth, and these days it also claims to be all about helping the downtrodden — while actually they’re putting their work behind $199 paywalls.
Whatever you think about the ethics of accessing gated journal articles, the tool exists, is useful, and has evaded shutdown for years.
4. Astral Codex Ten
I’ve long joked to some friends in academia that the blog “Astral Codex Ten” has “replaced academia.”
They find that very annoying — and of course it’s not literally true.
But subjectively I feel like I’ve gotten as many insights from Scott Alexander’s blog as from a lot of academia combined, in the last decade. He even (a bit humorously) takes “peer review” comments from subscribers before publishing some of his most empirical posts.
I recommend subscribing (free) if you haven’t already. Here are some highlights:
— “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup,” explaining modern political tribalism
— “Against Murderism”, pinning down why modern discussions of racism always seem to fail.
— “Welcome Polygenically Screened Babies,” about a new technology just hitting the scene.
— “A Guide To Asking Robots To Design Stained Glass Windows,” about AI.
5. Motivational Speakers
“Self help” kind of gets a bad rap, and one reason is that the ideas usually aren’t very innovative. Epictetus already laid out 90% of the principles in modern self-improvement books, nearly 2,000 years ago.
But I think there is still utility in motivational speakers. It’s not rational, but the reality is that for some people (like me) listening to David Goggins shouting about his crazy workout and “stay hard!” gets me to actually work out more and to push through more discomfort, without having to hire a trainer for that.
Other less fitness-specific speakers along these lines are Mark Manson and Jordan Peterson, who both have self-narrated audiobooks (and are of course not perfect.) Perhaps you have more, or better, suggestions.
This blog by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok gets a special gratitude mention because:
Their posts on Covid have been second-to-none in providing quick updates on the science, whether that was news about the importance of ventilation, about doing first doses first, about human challenge trials, or about the effects of masking. Their site made me significantly more informed about Covid than I’d have been otherwise.
They blaze a moderate-libertarian path that is particularly positive. In a world with endless complaining and talk of what doesn’t work, the authors instead try to find things that do work, with for example a focus on identifying talent and getting real-world money to people who can innovate with it. They have a “progress studies” mindset, which is productive.
We all know that nature is calming, fascinating, and awe-inspiring, but it’s still worth mentioning.
8. Earth’s diversity of cultures
While the world has flattened greatly in the last few centuries, it’s still the case that you can travel to a capitalist democracy, an Islamic theocracy, a shaky “communist” experiment, a decadent social democracy, an impoverished kleptocracy, or even a Buddhist hermit kingdom.
It is a great privilege to be alive at a time where such cultural exploration is possible.
It is also a reminder that there’s not one single good way of living. There are legitimately many ways of life in which most people will still be happy-ish.
9. Ryanair (and Norse Air, and more)
I think Ryanair is the long-forgotten 8th wonder of the world.
This summer, I took an $8.10 trip from Oslo, Norway to Katowice, Poland — a trip of well over 500 miles.
I had no extra bag, so it was literally $8.10 (taxes and fees included.) Amazing.
Similarly, Norse Airlines is a new airline that flies across the Atlantic. I took a flight from New York to Oslo for $135.
I’m grateful to these airlines for figuring out how to do that. In an inflationary world where a 20-minute Uber ride can now run you $70, it’s impressive.
How do they do it? One answer is that other passengers often pay for extra bags and buy upgrades.
Another is innovative models. For example, the Warsaw Modlin airport, about an hour outside of Warsaw, is extremely bare-bones, and RyanAir is the only carrier that routinely flies out of it. They seem to have optimized it for their use.
You do have to walk out to your airplane on the runway.
I’d say that’s totally worth it for an $8 fare. Honestly, some fresh air with airplanes floating around is more fun than lining up in a crowded airplane bridge hallway.
Tolerance can be seen as a spectrum, from fundamentalists (secular or religious) who fly into a rage upon simply hearing a blasphemous word, to those who are “so open-minded their brain falls out.”
Tolerant people are idea-inducing, creativity-fostering, and fun to be around, so I’m grateful for all of them.
11. Christmas music
A lot of modern Christmas music is trite and cheesy, but other Christmas music conveys deep and authentic emotions.
For just one example of that, see this religious Christmas song. The powerful emotions come through. Your results may vary, but probably there is some holiday music that really cuts through for you.
But I think songs like that are not considered “cool”, which I suspect is because people are a bit scared of too much actual emotion.
12. Commitment Pacts
This post was brought to you by a commitment pact I made with a brother of mine, where I offered to pay him money every week that I don’t post something here.
That helps me align my short term habits (doing easier things than writing and statistical deep dives) and my long-term / life-fulfillment desires (doing statistical deep dives and actually answering unanswered questions.)
More to come.
Hope you found this either useful or humorous. Have a great Christmas!