Tragedy vs. Comedy Modes

As Brown notes, Meeker argues that Western Civilization is mostly founded on the “tragic mode,” inspired by the great tragedies in which a “larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image.” The character’s success “is also his undoing,” and tragedies end in bloodshed, death, and a funeral of some kind. Our civilization has been built on the tragic idea that we can bend nature to our will, the result of which has been complete ecological catastrophe.

Meeker proposes an alternative for surviving our disastrous times: the “comic mode,” inspired by comedy:

Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer. Its mode is immediacy of attention, adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances, joy in small things, the avoidance of pain wherever possible, the love of life and kinship with all its parts, the sharpening of intelligence, complexity of thought and action, and strategic responsiveness to novel situations. It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us make the best of the messes around us and within us.

Upon reading this, I was immediately struck by how well the tragic and comic modes map to Brian Eno’s concept of genius vs. scenius, with one being a egosystem and the other being an ecosystem. Our world is an ecosystem inwhich our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.

Comedy and scenius show us a way forward. A chance at survival that, in Meeker’s words, “depends upon our ability to change ourselves rather than our environment, and upon our ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting us.” Comedy, like scenius, gives all the characters in the story a surviving role and a chance to live to see another day.

-Austin Kleon, “The comedy of survival.” austinkleon.com November 19, 2020

Make the best of the messes around us and within us is great advice. Recommend the whole bit.

A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures

“During Involution phase, many counterelites are trying to slice off adherents and resources at the same time. Some people even become meta-counter-elites, complaining that the counterelites themselves have strayed from the true principles, etc. The actual elites realize their status is also precarious, and some of them side with the counterelites in order to get a new base, bringing the conflicts to the highest levels. The overall tone of the movement becomes darker. Ordinary rank-and-file members hear so much criticism of the movement that it’s hard for them to stay optimistic about it. They stop talking about it as The Amazing Movement That Will Change Everything, and become defensive: “I’m not, like, one of those members of the movement, I just sort of think some of their ideas make sense sometimes.”

-Scott Alexander, “A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures.” Astral Codex Ten. August 9, 2022
  • Phase One: Pre-Cycle, niche
  • Phase Two: Growth, moving to mainstream
  • Phase Three: Involution, complexity, sub-groups, elements shrink
  • Phase Four: Post-Cycle, established institutions, final form or return to Phase One

See also  Giambattista Vico‘s La Scienza Nuova which posits a civilization cycle and is described in Wikipedia as follows:

“Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era. Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages – common to every nation – constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna or ideal eternal history. Therefore, it can be said that all history is the history of the rise and fall of civilizations, for which Vico provides evidence (up until, and including the Graeco-Roman historians).”

Pretty straight-forward parallels, with the post-cycle indicating a frozen state where institutions persist for some period before descending back into Phase One or dissolution.

Let Go With Grace

“Once you accept that as a fundamental boundary on your capacity as a manager, it’s going to set you free. Free from centering on the self-serving anguish over what you could have done differently, and on to the acceptance that these outcomes are inevitable when dealing with the opaque potential of strangers.

The redeeming realization is that this is a great, big world. The human pieces that don’t fit into your puzzle will complete someone else’s. And in fact, if you refuse to let go of a piece that doesn’t fit on your end, you’re keeping someone else from making theirs. Besides, nobody wants to be the piece that doesn’t fit.

So learn to let go with grace. You’re not here to save anyone. It’s an illusion of grandeur to believe that you can.”

-David Heinemeier Hansson, “I can’t save you, nobody can.” world.hey.com. August 5, 2022

This reminded me of a conversation with a neighbor I had several years ago. They were trying to get involved in the lives of heroin addicts in order to “save” them. I said it was a mistake. It’s a rare circumstance where you can “save” anyone. Moreover, the most likely outcome is that they would negatively impact her, not the other way around.

There are acute situations, where an intervention at a key moment, might change the outcome. They happen. But, they are rare.

But more than 99% of the time, people interesting in “saving” others are not focused on these moments because they have a different agenda. They feel broken and in saving others they are trying to save themselves. Or, more generally, if others can be saved, perhaps they can be saved. And much of that time, they doom themselves because they are busy trying to solve someone else’s problems rather than working on their own.

But, of course, that also sounds selfish. You don’t want to save others? You only want to save yourself.

The reality is that I can only control what I do. The key point is that we are interconnected. We cannot solve only our problems. But, we cannot solve the world’s problems. Nor can we solve the problems of a large group. Our effective influence is a few people, who we have enough interaction with to see those rare moments when an opportunity opens. We need to prepare ourselves to meet that moment, which means working on our own shit and keeping good relationships with people – building our relationships – so we trust one another when the storm hits. The reality is that trust often isn’t fully cemented until after the storm, when you rose to an occasion and you could have left.

But, the only way to get there is to spend the time and do the work. Even then, it may not be enough. It won’t be enough if you are with other people that aren’t spending the time and doing the work. I guess the net on that is make sure you choose your relationships wisely.

Shadow Libraries: Library Genesis, ZLibrary & Sci-Hub

I’ve never seen the term “shadow libraries” mentioned in this blog post before. I had heard of Sci-Hub. But, I’m not a scientist, and I have never needed to access it. But, I does make me wonder.

Open Question: How does one balance how copyright helps to foster an environment where people conduct research and against the negatives associated with restricting access to that information?

In a print paradigm, the medium is a bottleneck. So, you need to provide incentives for publishers to publish a work. But, in a digital environment, the material costs have largely been eliminated or transferred to the reader.

Of course, there are costs of selection, peer-review, editing and the other functions of a publisher. But, it seems to me that capitalism is a horrible system for an information architecture, particularly in the sciences where much of the funding for foundational research is either paid by governments or are channeled through public universities. Research that cannot be accessed is no different from research that was never conducted at all.

Custom, Off-The-Shelf or DIY

  1. Quality and custom work is expensive, but it can be tailored perfectly to your needs.
  2. Off-the-shelf is cheaper, but a pretty good fit for the typical use case.
  3. Adapting an off-the-shelf product costs less than custom but it will never be a perfect fit.
  4. Do-It-Yourself, if you want to do it well, is going to take up much more time than you imagine, at least an order of magnitude more time.

A generalization of Eliot Peper’s The Four Laws of Making a Website*

The Corruption of Apology

True apologies are precious. They’re a secular process of remediation, drawing on moral intuitions shared by many religious traditions. They encourage membership in one’s moral community because they are fundamentally relational: They heal the bond between wrongdoer and wronged. By temporarily humbling the perpetrator and vindicating the victim, they pave the way for both sides to make up. 

Apologies presuppose that there is some sort of moral community that shares a sense of right and wrong to which both the wronged and the wrongdoer belong. By apologizing, the wrongdoer embraces the norm that he violated. By doing that personally, ideally face to face, he works to heal his wounded relationships. And so he invites his victims to forgive, release their resentment, and move on. 

We all depend on apologies and forgiveness to go on living with one another. Husbands and wives admit their faults and patch up their differences. Kids on playgrounds say they’re sorry and then get back to recess. Coworkers talk through misunderstandings. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Human Condition, we wrong one another every day, and we learn to forgive constantly so that we can start afresh. The alternative is trapping ourselves in endless cycles of vengeance. 

Stephanos Bibas, “The Corruption of Apology.” persuasion.community. July 27, 2022

What I found interesting about this commentary was how it explicitly lays out what is necessary for an apology to have meaning, i.e.:

  1. A shared norm that was violated.
  2. A person who violated the norm and a person effected by the violation.
  3. Discussion and acknowledgment to observe the norm in the future.

A shared norm implies membership in a community, or at least a relationship between two people. Of course, some norms are universal, or nearly so. Murder, stealing, lying and so forth are generally disapproved of. However, the norms may be different between members of a community and The Other, or outsiders. However, a morality that has double-standards, one for the in-group and one for the out-group, is a dubious morality. Yet, they exist and are common.

The enumeration is interesting. It really cuts to the heart of a common class of problems in our modern world. The article focuses on the fact that norms are in dispute in different communities, but I think there are more interesting aspects of this problem.

Some people are toxic. They have no regard for norms. They will not acknowledge that they have harmed anyone. They will not discuss it beyond making excuses, like those you see in A Narcissist’s Prayer. You will never get a real apology from such a person.

The other side of it, that the article does discuss, is that our online environments pretend to community, but they aren’t actual communities. We have “friends” that aren’t really our friends. There are people trying to enforce norms without community and often on behalf of others. It turns it more into blood sport, where we are allies promoting the agenda of different teams.

For example, I believe in equal rights for women. I would like to see structures of institutional racism broken down. I think we should broaden our acceptance of the various sexualities between consenting adults. I think there are serious problems of class than need to be addressed, and we need greater opportunities for success for people living in poverty. But, as a white, male, heteronormative person that is not living in poverty, what are my responsibilities to forward those various agendas?

Is a country a community? A state? A city? Or even a neighborhood? And when I think about the communities and norms I subscribe to, does believing in a norm make a community? It can. You can forge a community based on a shared norm or values. But, you need both. If you want to promote values – or norms, it needs to be done in the context of a community. You cannot impose them from outside. And, even a community is not enough, you need to promote them in relationship with other people that you know. Values that abstract out real people, with real flaws, aren’t much of a value, just as getting people to apologize, not to some person, but to the world, isn’t a real apology.

Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations

“The Forer Effect is a trick used by astrologers, psychics, and social psychologists…What statements show a Forer effect? Wikipedia just says they should be vague and somewhat positive. Can we do better?…

…Or you could phrase them as affirmations, or arguments for self-compassion…

– Scott Alexander, “Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations.” astralcodexten.substack.com. July 26, 2022

I found the concept of the Forer Effect and the exercise or turning it around interesting. But, I think where it fails for me is I think trying to compare ourselves to the internal states of other people, an experience we do not have direct access to and can only guess at, is rarely an exercise that has value. We do not know what other people’s lives are like. And, for those whom we have a lot more interaction and might be able to guess, it’s largely irrelevant.

My wife is someone who seems genuinely happy as a default state. Does it make any sense to use what I imagine her experience is of the world as a comparison for my experience? I assume I am different from her and from most people. I think the real question here is whether a given behavior is adaptive or maladaptive. Is my self-criticism, on net, a positive or a negative in my life? Is my sense of being different from other people a positive or negative force in my life?

When you reframe this discussion and try to get away from comparison and think instead of other ways of being, or perhaps other times in your own life, you are at least interacting with your lived experience and trying to do something to improve it. Personally, ‘I find questions like: does anyone else experience/believe/whatever X?’ to be in the same category. Whether other people have similar experiences is largely irrelevant, isn’t it?

We live in an environment where we are constantly being manipulated and influenced. Of course, everyone feels critical of themselves and awkward because we are products of that environment. If we lived as hunter gatherers 500,000 years ago, the uncertainty and doubts we have would be completely different. So, the fact other people have the same outlook and behaviors that you do is not surprising. It would be surprising if they were much different.

So, perhaps the more interesting question is: how am I different than most people? Or, as Scott Alexander puts it:

“These affirmations aren’t foolproof. 50% of people are in the top 50% of most-sexually-awkward people, and 1% of people are in the top 1% most sexually-awkward. When I read these, I feel like most of the time I can think “Ah yes, this is a Forer Effect, good thing I caught myself before I believed it”, and then for one or two of them I think “No, I am just literally objectively in the top 10% of the population on that trait.” This is why I’m calling these “potential updates” instead of “absolutely correct articles of dogma”.

-ibid.

To me, this is the more interesting question. If you are going to engage in comparison, which I don’t think you should – i.e., comparison is the thief of happiness, wouldn’t it be more interesting to focus on where you are truly different from others?

Scam World

“Despite growing out of the 2008 financial crisis, Bitcoin has led to the creation of a faster, leaner and crueler crisis of its own, an unregulated hellscape where the elites have found yet another way to get rich off of the backs of regular people’s money. Whatever “noble” goals Bitcoin and cryptocurrency allegedly has or had are irrelevant – cryptocurrency does not generate freedom, it does not democratize finance, it does not create wealth for the majority of people that interact with it, and it has – this is not a “might” – led to billions of dollars of regular people’s money getting burned so that wealthy people can extract liquidity from them.

I do not care if you think this is “like the early days of the internet” or that crypto “might” do something cool someday – this is not a quirky startup with a niche audience, but unregulated and lethal financial software that functions only to take money from retail investors and send it upwards. Every time the media has humored these concepts as cute, or early, or acted as if the scams are “rare” and the majority of the industry operates in good faith, they have been complicit in creating meaningful financial harm to millions of people.” 

-Ed Zitron, “The Consequences of Silence.” ez.substack.com. July 25, 2022

I find this piece interesting for a whole host of reasons. But, I think the thing I find most interesting is this idea that regulation is, primarily, serving the interests of regular people.

To start from a personal example, my father-in-law, in his last few years of life, developed autoimmune encephalopathy. So, I had to review his finances. A disproportionate portion of his finances were in annuities making less than 1% interest that had been sold to him by a major financial institution. The annuity products locked up his money for some period of years, so it took time to get it out and put it into something that might cover the cost of inflation, such as an index fund.

But, even an index fund is a bit of a scam, isn’t it? Isn’t the whole point of index funds to tap “regular people’s money” and put it into a stock market? Isn’t that the goal of 401(k)s or even the idea of “private accounts” for Social Security that was floated during the George W. Bush presidency?

Yesterday, I received yet another “extended warranty” offer in the mail for a vehicle. Scam calls are a daily occurrence. There are ads on every medium asking for money for every conceivable purpose. Switch your electricity provider. Buy a goat for a family in Africa. And so on.

The question that occurs to me is whether cryptocurrencies are worse in some special way than the larger environment of scams we are all subjected to daily. Are cryptocurrencies worse than say, pay day loans? Or the gigantic markup charged by hospital systems for medical care? Are they worse than a system that advocates for taking on significant college education debt as the path toward middle-class respectability?

I don’t mean to create a false equivalency. Cryptocurrency is full of scams. I’d even say a large part of the cryptocurrency is just get rich schemes cloaked in innovation. But, that said, there are obvious applications where cryptocurrencies are better than the alternatives. You don’t have to think too hard about examples.

For one, there will invariably by a Digital Dollar. The United States government needs to create one in order to fill the demand for a global reserve currency for cross-border payments. If they don’t do it, then something else will fill that role, and it will be some other, probably a “basket”, of currencies. That’s a fact.

It’s also a fact that remittance payments, where someone is part of a diaspora sending money back to their country of origin, is an obvious place for disruption. Moneygram, Western Union and other services of that sort charge a significant amount for their service, which could be dramatically improved with cryptocurrencies.

This is even true for standard bank transactions. It takes anywhere from between 5-8 days for an ACH transaction, where one bank is making a payment to another on your behalf. With a cryptocurrency, it could be done in seconds.

Of course, there are other areas ripe for disruption, from rights on property (real estate, intellectual and others) to new forms of organization, such as decentralized autonomous organizations that can leverage the resources, skills and so forth from people around the world to accomplish some action based on some shared interest. Ordinary people being able to pool resources to positively impact the world around them is something new, and it is something enabled by cryptocurrencies.

Which leaves me to wonder what is really going on. Is it really just about wanting to regulate the “hellscape”, even though there is every indication that regulation only helps the status quo continue, which presents its own set of problems? Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing the government step in for “regular people” and do something about some of the problems indicated above. Yet, somehow government is going to regulate cryptocurrencies when they are doing such a poor job with everything else? Color me skeptical.

The Invitation to Critique

“To build a prototype and expose it to critique is to make yourself very vulnerable…But you invite people in because you know that you can’t do the thing you want to do without their honest response…

…By contrast, Davey worked very hard on restoring that little Norfolk church, but he also sought help of every kind along the way. He gave up complete control of the project in order to draw friends and strangers into his endeavor. His motto seems to have been that great phrase from Wordsworth: “what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” He made a bet on mutuality.

That surely meant having to hear other people tell him “You’re doing it wrong” — something Justo, it seems, couldn’t bear to hear. But if we want to repair the world, or any part of our little corner of it, we’ve got not just to accept but invite that possibility. We have to discipline ourselves to welcome it. And we have to encourage those others to stick with us through multiple iterations of whatever we’re prototyping. 

-Alan Jacobs, “the invitation to critique.” ayjay..org. July 23, 2022.

This strike me as a skill that we all desperately need to cultivate. But, the challenges are often insurmountable.

As people, it is often difficult to admit that we are wrong, or even admit the possibility of it. Some of that is a function that so much of our modern lives are controlled by others. We want to feel, at least where we are making decisions, that we are in control. We are operating independently and that we are in control of our lives. We don’t want to hear criticism because criticism is everywhere. We have had our fill of it.

Further, I think “honest response” is a key issue. Often, in a social context, people are trolling. They are not giving an honest response, but one that is designed to serve some agenda, whether that is create social boundaries, create differentiation of status or what have you. There’s even the unintentional. There are people that are too busy thinking about what they are going to say next or trying to guess what you are trying to say that they are not even responding to you, but half formed conceptions or their own mind.

How does on open oneself up and invite critique when this is the social and cultural environments most of us live in?

And, it makes me remember this bit from John Cleese quoting another (below), “If people can’t control their own emotions, they they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.” And, I think this points to a larger issue is that in order to open ourselves up to critique and in order for that critique to have value, everyone involved has to be both able to control their emotions and be invested in the improvement of whatever is the object of critique. Whenever you add in some other agenda, such as trying to control the behavior of others, relative prestige, or what not, you cannot have honest critique and their is no point inviting it.

The question is: how do we get to a place of constructive critique, or a constructive dialogue, with the people in our lives about the things we care about?

Success: Deserve Has Nothing to Do With It

“It’s fashionable now to object on principle to the idea that writing is hard. Writing isn’t hard, this camp says; working in coal mines is hard. Having a baby is hard. But this is a category error. Writing isn’t hard the way physical labor, or recovery from surgery, is hard; it’s hard the way math or physics is hard, the way chess is hard. What’s hard about art is getting any good—and then getting better. What’s hard is solving problems with infinite solutions and your finite brain.

….The thing about success, good fortune, and maybe even happiness is this: You can see that there are people who “deserve” whatever you have as much as you do but have less, as well as people who “deserve” it less or equally and have more. So, at the same time, you want more and feel you don’t deserve what you have. It’s a source of anxiety, guilt, and resentment and troubles the very idea of what one “deserves.” In the end I believe you don’t deserve anything; you get what you get.”

-Elisa Gabbert, “Why Write?The Paris Review. July 6, 2022

A number of nice nuggets in this piece. The second paragraph reminded me of that scene from The Unforgiven.