At the beginning of the year, Eli and Jerry asked if I would write for an online magazine they were going to launch. The Ümlaut launched at the end of January with a piece I wrote on the long tail. I reread Chris Anderson’s book for the piece, which was a fun exercise as I was really just beginning to explore the digital landscape when the book was originally published.
It was very humbling to be asked on board by Eli and Jerry, as, if I may say so, those guys are a way bigger deal than I am—they’ve drawn more attention to themselves, they’re known in the technology and policy space, and they have an institution like Mercatus behind them. I’m just a guy writing about the stuff I’m interested in when I’m not at my day job.
When I started writing for The Ümlaut, I wondered if I would be able to keep it up for the once a week pace that they originally had all the initial authors stick to. I also wasn’t too sure if I could be disciplined enough to write 600 to 1,000 word pieces. At the time, my writing had slowed down to once a month at most, and it usually came in the form of 2,000 to 3,000 word pieces, and beyond—like this one.
It’s actually surprised me how easy it has been. I have questions on my mind, I always have. I deal with such questions by reading, talking with people online and in person, and then writing about them. Churning out a piece week after week has allowed me to follow lines of thoughts much further than I otherwise would have, in the space of a year. Writing pieces between 600 and 1,000 words long has forced me to focus; what might have been a 2,000 word piece might work fine as two or three shorter pieces. In fact, so far, it has been better.
In fact, I ended up writing more than necessary. My natural state this year has been, for the most part, two or three weeks ahead of where I need to be. And I’ve still written the odd longer piece—I just bring it back over here to do so. And I write personal pieces over here, and some geeky things that wouldn’t really be appropriate even for The Ümlaut’s very broad mandate.
Writing pieces like this has become like second nature to me. When I burn through my queue and only have a day or two left before Monday, I’ve found that I can usually churn out a first draft of a 600 or more word piece in less than an hour. It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about and talk about this stuff fairly constantly, with Twitter being a perpetual conversation machine in this regard. So I usually have two or three partly baked ideas that I can get something from in a pinch.
I had such an easy time that I thought it might be high time to start working towards getting to that same point for fiction writing. My idea for doing this was fairly straightforward: writing nonfiction four times a month had been a great experience, maybe doing that for fiction would help me develop in that area.
I’m not really satisfied with the results. I didn’t think I was being very demanding of myself—I told myself I could write literally any length of fiction, even a single paragraph, as long as I did it four times each month. But in practice since I didn’t give myself a set time when I’d do it (since I didn’t give myself a set time for writing nonfiction) I just put it off and then it started to feel kind of like a burden. While I’m glad I finally did get myself to write some fiction, the fact is that I didn’t write anything of the sort in November or December.
I’m not going to give up, though. I’m actually OK with a creative process that has fits and starts, I just also think that I need to build good habits if I want to get anywhere. So I’m going to be drawing some inspiration from Austin Kleon and change things up a bit in 2014.
I can’t overstate how happy I am with the experience of writing at The Ümlaut, though. I’ve got 49 pieces and growing over there. Some questions I’ve looked at:
Is mankind tending towards more diversity or more homogeneity, and if the latter, does this mean that we are globally becoming a single point of failure? Pieces in this topic:
- My first piece on the long tail and mass production
- My piece on the Amish as a source of diversification; I went through something of an obsession with the Amish when I was reading up on them for this piece. Poor Catherine was sick of hearing about them.
- Why I think filter bubbles and the daily me are rubbish, and we actually have more common ground than we used to.
- The Academic Schools, a piece on how lower levels of cross-discipline work actually creates a greater diversity of perspectives in scholarly fields.
- A look at Taleb’s point of view on GMO, and the followup piece on risk in social change in general. The Twitter conversation around these pieces was half the fun!
This year I also struggled with the question of what role stories play in human affairs—and under “stories” I also put things like theory and ideology.
- A Race of Storytellers is, if I’m being honest, a rehash of stuff I’ve said elsewhere.
- Institutional Spamfighting makes the case that formal rules matter very little relative to unarticulated practical knowledge.
- The Dogma of Central Banking basically says the same thing as the previous post, but applies it specifically to macroeconomics. Macro theory is just a bunch of storytellers, central banking is a practice that bears little relationship to the theory. I’m honestly not sure if I believe this as strongly as I worded it.
- This piece claimed that ideology and headline politics have nothing to do with electoral outcomes, next to big things like movements in the economy or catastrophes. It’s my Mandate of Heaven theory of democracy, which I’ve wanted to write about ever since I learned about the concept in Chinese history.
- Science is a Bourgeois Pastime was probably the ultimate form of this line of thought—draws heavily on Taleb and McCloskey, and looks at this material again from a less hostile perspective.
Last year I intended to write a paper that combined ideas from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Life got in the way, and I didn’t end up writing that paper. But writing at The Ümlaut gave me the opportunity to following related trains of thought.
- It all culminated, really, with this post over here. Along with the thinkers mentioned above it threw in stuff I had gleamed from Paul Adams’ Grouped and Oakeshott’s writing, as well as writing about Oakeshott’s philosophy. I’m still in the process of fleshing this out further for a paper, drawing on developments in network science from giants such as Albert-László Barabási.
- The probabilistic stuff is highly inspired by Nassim Taleb, and Chris Reid has a great roundup of my Ümlaut pieces applying this framework and his thinking to policy and analyzing the structure of government.
- Institutions Matter is pretty self-explanatory. Too many people talk in generalities like “government” or “markets” or “society”. Let’s talk about the common law, or the NOAA, or supply chains.
How do you live with the knowledge that you’re fundamentally biased and flawed?
- A Cathedral of Their Own was inspired by a post by Jordan, and was about the futile but never ending craving for certainty, but also how fun it is to wrestle with the uncertain.
- Portrait of an Irrational Mind is much more about the theory of self that emerges from familiarity with the behavioral economics and cognitive science literature.
- This followup post is highly naval gazing, mostly coming to terms with the fact that I became very libertarian in a very short period of time, and now feel myself drifting from that somewhat. Includes a They Might Be Giants song and the statement “I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism”.
There’s a bunch of posts that fall under the header of—what is a good life? How can we improve our lot, make the most of what we have? Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’m finding this question increasingly more interesting than larger, ideal-policy type questions.
- Break the Cycle of Web Addition offers the best advice that I’ve been terrible at following. It boils down to: limit the time you dive into rapidly updating sources of information like Twitter, but when you do dive in, dive deep. Then spend long periods of times reading long essay, or writing, or working on something that requires your absolute attention for extended periods of time—it can even be video games. I like to think I’m much closer to this ideal than I was when I wrote it, but I’m still not very close.
- How to Survive a Major Media Event was written after I saw people hurting themselves by following every tiny detail (true or false) that came out about the Boston marathon bombing the day the event happened and the day the perpetrators were being hunted down. Not worth it. This is advice that I do stick to, and always have.
- Better Living Through Video Games makes the claim that video games can be rewarding. I stand by this.
- The Option Value of Satisfying Work is based on an ethic passed down to me from my parents, who said that the point of work was the provide for yourself and your family, and you can always devote yourself to what you love in your free time. I’m proud of this piece and wouldn’t change a word of it.
- The Universe is Indifferent to Your Illusion of Control is something I want to scream from the rooftops sometimes. Too many of my news and policy minded friends immiserate themselves by focusing intensely on things that they cannot control. You are only ever a small part of a larger whole. Pretending otherwise is no more wise than swallowing a porcupine.
- This post over here is about improving your life by paying attention to and participating in the right conversations. This includes treating the sort of news you consume as part of ongoing conversations—it’s why I read industry publications but don’t read CNN, why I read Marginal Revolution but don’t read The New York Times.
- Virtue is a Desire Modification Technology is the result of a seed that was planted over a year ago when I read Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues but wasn’t quite sure what I had read. The next step came when I read Seneca, who Taleb had recommended. Now I’m kind of diving into Virtue Ethics head first, seeing where it takes me.
There were also a couple of one-off pieces I was proud of that don’t quite fit neatly into the threads above.
- Death in the Modern World is probably the piece I am proudest of writing, perhaps ever.
- The Matt Bruenig piece I’m also proud of, for different reasons. He and I have very different points of view, but I wanted to represent him both fairly and correctly, so I asked for his help, which he freely gave. I had to scrap my first draft entirely (I actually turned pieces of it into two short posts) because I got him completely wrong. Then I wasn’t sure how to even write about him in an interesting way. I returned to one essay by Oakeshott and it turned out to be the perfect response to Bruenig’s thinking. Most of all, I was happy to write about someone I disagreed with in a constructive way.
Writing has always been a part of my life, since I was a little kid. But very lately I have begun to feel the payoff of having spent so many years on it, and it makes it so much more enjoyable to invest yet more time into it.
I can’t wait to get started writing stuff for 2014.