2013 Meta

Time for the annual 'meta' indulgence: writing about the writing process, blogging about the blog itself.

Summary of the year

In last year's meta post I set myself the (v. reasonable) goal of publishing one essay per week in 2013.

I'm sure you can guess what happened. I made it through February.

Still I ended up shipping 68,000 words (spread out over 26 posts), which is twice as much content as I produced in 2012. I covered a ton of interesting topics and advanced my understanding of the world further than in the previous ~5 years combined. So... nothing to sneeze at.

I've also been a blogging resident at Ribbonfarm, which has been hugely rewarding. A lot of my best work has come out of writing for the Ribbonfarm audience. I'm especially fond of Venkat's tagline, "Experiments in refactored perception," and the kind of thinking it inspires. Watch for my final essay to be published there in mid-January.

Full list of posts

(Arranged by topic.)

Consciousness and cognitive archaeology:

Personality and personal identity:

Brain and body:


Economics and politics:

UX and software design:


Public feedback

Please forgive the blatant self-promotion to follow.

Overall I’m very happy with the reception my essays have been getting. I don’t have a huge audience, but it’s good-sized and keeps growing as people continue to share links on social media.

I'm especially encouraged that my longer pieces seem to get more traction. The correlation coefficient between word count and social-media 'likes' for each essay is 0.64. Along those lines, my longest piece, The Economics of Social Status at 4900 words, also happens to be my most popular. It's followed closely by:

I was also very pleased to get nods from some of my professional and intellectual idols: Kent Beck, Alan Cooper, Tyler Cowen, Chris Dixon, and Eric Falkenstein.

A lot of other folks have been tweeting about my work. "Not bad," one of them opines. "Plausible," says another with (appropriately) high standards for accepting wild new claims. Occasionally a remark is downright discouraging, e.g., "facepalm."

But by far the majority of comments have been flattering. Here are some of the nicer things readers have said about my work this year:

Interesting. Really interesting. So. Interesting.

Very Hansonian but (if that's a but for you) also very worth reading. — Nikhil Punnoose

Intriguing. Fascinating. Thought-provoking. Absorbing. Intoxicating.

*My god* this is interesting stuff. — Vijay Gupta

Wow. Whoa. This is very good. Insightful. Thorough. Sharp. Really extraordinary. This is just brilliant.

Kevin Simler... has turned my rationalist materialist perspective inside-out. — lukifer

That last one is my favorite because it nicely captures what I'm trying to do here. I'm not trying to discredit or undermine the materialist worldview in any way. But at the same time I'm not perfectly satisfied with it. Something's a little off. I guess it just needs to be turned... inside-out. (Thanks Luke.)

You can find a lot more tweets here if you're curious.

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, two stand out as particularly mind-blowing:

Both books attempt to piece together ancient mentalities. The former covers our extremely distant ancestors (c. 2mya) while the latter covers our Neolithic ancestors (c. 10,000 to 1000 B.C.). Both authors present theories that help explain a lot of otherwise-inexplicable facts, but which are so uncanny and wild that they're hard to take seriously. And yet they repay — handsomely — all efforts to engage with them. I wrote about both of these books, here and here.

In the papers category:

  • The weirdest people in the world? (2010), wherein Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan show how psychology is biased toward WEIRD populations: those that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. These populations are outliers in a bunch of interesting ways. The paper is pretty important for understanding what's 'normal' for a human creature, once you account for the full cultural and cognitive diversity of our species.
  • Why do humans reason? (2011), wherein Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber explain all the pathologies of reasoning in one elegant swoop. So why do we reason? What function does our reasoning faculty serve? Is it to seek the truth? Ha. Ha ha. No, the function of reason is to support pre-desired conclusions, i.e., to win arguments. This is fairly obvious (in hindsight), but somehow it took the world until 2011 to produce this beautiful paper.

In the blogs category, I've added three new ones to my must-read list. Coincidentally(?), the authors of all three blogs are pseudonymous — perhaps because they all deal with sensitive subjects:

  • Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander is a truly gifted writer with a wonderful sense of humor, but his real superpower is his ability to penetrate the fog-of-war surrounding politically-charged topics. I have trouble keeping up with SSC, but whenever I fall behind, I feel I've missed out on some serious insights.
  • gwern.net. Not so much a blog as a collection of essays and theses. gwern, like Scott Alexander, has a mind that seems to go straight to the truth, biased neither by hewing to convention nor by veering overly contrarian.
  • The Last Psychiatrist. It's hard to say why I find TLP so enjoyable. Perhaps it's that intoxicating mixture of fun and challenging. The author deploys a cynicism so deep and twisted that after reading an essay it's hard to know which way is up. Sometimes I get what he's saying and agree with it; other times I'm left completely bewildered.

In the blog post category:

  • Patterns of Refactored Agency by Mike Travers. Sublimely thought-provoking. 'Agency' is one of those high-leverage concepts — one that immediately suggests important questions that, without it, I wouldn't even know how to ask.
  • Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind by Venkat Rao. "To understand any chapter in the story of humanity, it is not enough to ask, what is the plot? and what were the archetypes of the day? We must also ask, what were they smoking?"
  • Book of Lamentations by Sam Kriss. This piece works in a different register. It's satire, but also beautiful, in its way, and haunting: a review of the DSM-5 as a piece of dystopian fiction.


(This section is for writers, tool-nerds, and the otherwise curious. Feel free to skip.)

So I made a few improvements to my writing toolchain this year. I'm pretty happy with my current setup:

  1. Workflowy for brainstorming and outlining. This is where I collect all my ideas until they reach critical mass. Then I take a first stab at an outline, also in Workflowy.
  2. Keynote or Google Presentations for industrial-strength outlining. This has been weirdly awesome, especially the ability to reorder slides so easily. My ideas flow effortlessly into Keynote.
  3. Atlas for the actual writing. Atlas is a GitHub-backed authoring tool capable of producing full books, but I'm just using it for its slick web-based editor, which is distraction-free, looks great, and emits clean HTML.
  4. Paper, Concepts, or Brushes for diagrams. These are iPad apps capable of producing beautiful sketches and diagrams with a hand-drawn feel — even if, like me, you have no artistic talent whatever.
  5. Apple's text-to-speech tool for copyediting. I'm pretty proud of discovering this one actually. I just highlight my essay, press the appropriate keyboard shortcut, and OS X speaks it out loud to me. This engages my ear, which can catch most of the typos and awkward phrasing that my eyes would simply gloss over.
  6. WordPress and Quora for publishing. Still pretty happy with both of these platforms, for their respective merits — WordPress for control over content and presentation, Quora for distribution.

Special thanks

This blog wouldn't be the same without:

  • Venkat Rao, for the opportunity to write at Ribbonfarm and for a few key pieces of advice.
  • Lee Corbin, once again, for teaching me how to think.
  • Alex, Diana, James, Kyle, and Mills, for valuable pre-publishing feedback on some of these essays.
  • The many intriguing people I've met this year (my new writing and/or thinking buddies), many of whom I would count as friends. But I wanted to specifically thank a few people for their encouragement, beyond just the exchange of ideas: Darcey, Emilio, Justin, Mayeesha, and Nakul. Thanks guys.

See you all in 2014!


P.S. drawing of a bagel

(Made with Paper.)


Originally published December 31, 2013.