Desiderata #1: links and commentary
And blogger drama. Lots of blogger drama.
‘Tis the age when GPT-3 assisted essays are included in the Best American Essays anthology. But in this brief interregnum between AI’s development and its deployment to Earth-shattering consequences, here’s some good writing by actual humans (all of whom are on Substack).
1. First, while we’re on the subject, Substack itself did an interview with me, where I discussed how to grow subscribers while still emphasizing quality over quantity, and also how to build an aesthetic for your newsletter using art and themes. They even offered help from the official Substack design team to three writers who commented, which I thought was a nice touch.
2. Why is anything involving Masters of Fine Arts (MFAs) a lightning rod of controversy? Natasha Joukovsky wrote an interesting essay on this, and her jumping off point was the (dumb) controversy that swirled around my essay last year, “How the MFA swallowed literature.” For a relatively anodyne read my essay provoked outrage on Twitter among, well, mostly just professors of creative writing (although enough of them it prompted the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature to call for a better code of conduct on “literary Twitter”).
Luckily, I hadn’t actually said anything controversial, in fact, I had hedged a bunch of statements instead of writing a blistering polemic, so there was nothing for the angry mob to grab ahold of. But the experience was jarring, like watching a bunch of demons scramble to climb up a sheer cliff. Concerned over how easy it was for so-called professionals to lose their heads in the incident, Natasha writes:
In the aftermath of Erik Hoel’s essay, for instance, pro-MFA tweets escalated from the realm of “I disagree with this” to ad-hominem attacks by people (and I almost want to use the word “users” here) who, by their own admission, had not read the piece at a frankly alarming rate. Why?
We apply for everything: scholarships, internships, jobs, promotions, apartments, loans, grants, clubs, conferences, prizes, and even dating apps. A kid today might apply for every school they ever attend, from preschool to graduate school. Even if they get in, they’ll find they’ve merely entered the lobby, and every room beyond requires another application. Want to join the student radio station, take a seminar, or work in a professor’s lab? You’ll have to apply. In undergrad, being unpaid tour guide required an application—and 50% of people were rejected!
4. Happen to be interested in cooking blogs and food news? Happen to also speak Portuguese? Check out Flávia Schiochet’s gastonomy newsletter (she also publishes an English language version, like this take on how “all dinner parties are political.”)
When I was about 17 or 18, I did something that I now regret. I had noticed the success of a few websites like Zen Habits, and thought that I could probably make something similar without much effort. So, I started a website called The Daily Zen. . . filled with all sorts of bullshit about how to improve your life. I wrote posts called things like ‘I gave up my smartphone and I’ve never been happier’ (a lie), or ‘Better sleep leads to better breathing’. They were depressingly successful—one post did very well on /r/meditation, and others got thousands of hits from other sources. I could write three or four of these posts a day with basically no effort. . . I gave up the project after about a month I think, and probably made under £100, but I feel like I did learn a lot about how easy it was to convince people you were being insightful when you were just making stuff up. I remember sitting on the sofa with friends trying to think of stuff to write about. Someone would suggest writing about how giving up coffee makes meditating easier, another would chime in that I should write about the mindful advantages of ad blockers, and so on. The comments were generally extremely positive . . .
This sort of thing is why I think GPT-3 (or more likely its next-gen AI ilk) will put many writers out of business: a lot of successful content really is just pablum.
6. Writing in Atlas of Wonders and Monsters Étienne Fortier-Dubois examines a question close to my heart, which is what separates the Two Cultures of science and the humanities. He alights on this distinction:
there’s one thing that the humanities students spend far more time on than the science types: they read old texts. If you’re interested in philosophy, you have to read Plato and Aristotle — and Kant, and Nietzsche, and Sartre, and so on and so forth. If you’re interested in English literature, you have to read Shakespeare and others. If you’re interested in religion, you have to read the old sacred texts as well as theologians from centuries ago. It’s fine to read about all these famous philosophers and poets and thinkers, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. In science, this doesn’t apply. A physicist needs to know about Newton and Einstein’s ideas, but doesn’t need to read the Principia Mathematica . . .
7. Young blogger Dwarkesh Patel officially decided to switch his blog, The Lunar Society, over to Substack (he asked me before deciding and I was very supportive, in fact, I’m pro every single blogger moving to Substack for the network effects and legitimacy it lends the platform). Shortly thereafter I caught this incredible interaction on Twitter, right after Jeff Bezos chose Dwarkesh to be his 42nd follow on the platform, to Dwarkesh’s confusion.
I’ll be honest and say I appreciate that Jeff Bezos took the time to support an early-career blogger (Dwarkesh’s followers increased by an order of magnitude in response). It came across as kind and unscripted. Perhaps such things shouldn’t be influential in shaping my opinion of someone, since it’s just some tiny slice of Bezos’ actual behavior that happens to be intersecting with the circles I care about, but listen, I’m human, that’s how we make our stupid primate judgements about people. It also indicates to me how important the newsletter/blogosphere has become—even for smaller accounts, some of the lurkers are billionaires.
Not everyone was happy for Dwarkesh though. Secretum Secretorum wrote about the terrible jealousy that comes along with seeing the out-of-the-blue success of someone else, and that tiny voice whispering to lean into the popular stuff (even if you think it’s vapid). He narrated his own self-doubt following the Dwarkesh/Bezos incident in a way that had me laughing:
You want to be a public intellectual like Sam Harris or Tyler Cowen or Scott Alexander. Shit, you’d even settle for being Erik Hoel. Didn’t he just get a grant from the FTX future fund for his blog? Man, that would be pretty cool. Remember when you wrote that predictions for 2050 post and he wrote about one of your predictions? Yeah that was pretty cool too, brought some good attention to your blog. . . maybe write something about how changing incentives can save science (or how new incentives will not save science), people love that shit.
8. Bryan Caplan, who I mentioned in “Follow-up: Why we stopped making Einsteins” as an example of someone who raised his kids in an “aristocratic tutoring-like” manner, has recently moved to Substack, and experienced what by now is a common pattern: