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Great comments from the last year
Last May was the first outgoing email of The Intrinsic Perspective, sent tentatively. And a mere year ago in October, TIP was still under 1,000 subscribers. My goal for this year was reaching 10,000 subscribers, so I was delighted when TIP blew past that goal a few days ago.
In the past year I’ve had innumerable conversations on TIP and read countless responses. It’s a level of interactivity totally absent from traditional publishing, and it’d be an understatement to say I love it. Oh, and some people said some really smart and interesting things.
So in celebration I wanted to share that experience, at least in part. What follows is a small curated selection of what’s been said on TIP over the past year, including some cameos by writers and names you might recognize. Don’t read my quoting these comments as automatic agreement with all of them, rather, these were some of the ones that, over the year, caught my eye by making thought-provoking points. They’re also all self-contained enough that you needn’t have read the piece upon which they’re commenting. Consider these comments independent bon mots—little mind snacks. And thank you so much to everyone who formed this community, it means the world to me. Here’s to another year!
By Sherman Alexie:
I grew up as a Spokane Indian on the Spokane Indian Reservation—a salmon tribe—and gossip and social shaming in major and minor ways is very prevalent. My tribe is renowned in our region for being "mean." We tease and tease and tease. In many Native tribes now, including my own, the humor and teasing can be very risqué, very blue. I've lived away from the reservation for thirty years but recently spent time with some tribal members and family and immediately fell back into domestic social custom and speech patterns. Of course, I still express myself in this way among non-Indians and that has aided me as a writer/performer. But I think I tease non-Indians and my audiences less than I tease tribal members and family.
By Laura Creighton:
Infinite Sets are a source of interesting paradoxes. "What is larger," wondered Galileo Galilei in Two New Sciences, published in 1638, "the set of all positive numbers (1,2,3,4 ...) or the set of all positive squares (1,4,9,16 ...)?"
For some people the answer is obvious. The set of all squares are contained in the set of all numbers, therefore the set of all numbers must be larger. But others reason that because every number is the root of some square, the set of all numbers is equal to the set of all squares. Galileo concluded that the totality of all numbers is infinite, that the number of squares is infinite, and that the number of their roots is infinite; neither is the number of squares less than the totality of all the numbers, nor the latter greater than the former; and finally the attributes "equal," "greater," and "less," are not applicable to infinite, but only to finite, quantities.
See 'Galileo's Paradox' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo%27s_paradox .
Which brings us to the utilitarian's favorite hobby horse -- trolley problems. Each person tied to the tracks represents an infinite set of possibilities of things that that person could do, in the future, if the train doesn't run over them. Because I am a longtermist, I care about depriving the future of all these possibilities.
The people who think that killing 5 people is 5 times as bad as killing only 1, are reasoning in the same way as the people who believe that the set of all numbers must be larger than the set of all squares. They are flipping the train switches because the results align with their ignorance of the properties of infinite sets. . .
'Mound o' Dirt' Utilitarianism is thus dead in the water. Infinite sets are not fungible, and neither is moral worth.
By Flávia Schiochet:
As someone who worked in a newsroom for eight years and have been working home office for some big digital papers outlets the last year, all I can say is that the volume of news we have to publish is huge comparing to the amount of journalists working (in Brazil. But it's probably the same in anywhere's newsroom). It's not a defense, I hate when I have to do that. Most of the days, we get the stories we have to write about, but the source does not replies in time (24 hours or less – it's common to have a couple of hours to finish) and if that story is not the major one, the special one, we copypasta and move to the next story. If we don't do it, we don't get traffic. The lack of information such as the name of a scientific article or the issue is laziness, bad journalism or "trying to clean the text" so people can read it quickly. Or all this reasons combined.
Second thing I wanted to comment, you figured out the newsroom culture in this phrase: "they dissemble in order to appear more authoritative than they actually are". There's this idea of we-should-not-link-to-anywhere-outside-our-website to ensure the reader is not leaving your page – actually, you insert links to your own website. Why are we still thinking like this in newsrooms? I don't know, I blame the elders, the directors, the owners of newspaper, that only see an empty metrics (and always quantitative) such as pageviews. Sometimes, if you mention the "indirect competitor" such as independent media outlets or smaller newspaper, you get it removed or changed by the editor, because there is pressure to…
One hypothesis - the 12th grade happiness largely tracks perceived economic opportunity (see also the dip following the dot-com burst). As someone who graduated high school in 2006, even though I was a nobody from a nowhere town, I felt like the world was at my feet. This doesn't require 12th graders to have a particular awareness of macroeconomic factors, but it's reflected through what you see your slightly older peers accomplishing. Everyone I knew who had bothered to go to university got a great job. On the cultural level, technology seemed net positive and like it would drive continued growth and progress (also true for late-90s / pre-dot-com-bust).
I'll admit my bias here - I think we often reach for abstract cultural explanations for things that could have, alternatively, pretty straightforward material causes (I think a *lot* of millennial angst can be traced back to the housing market, and would love to see studies controlling for homeownership when surveying millennial attitudes).
By Clayton Davis:
For me, the biggest tell on Substack's changing nature is how many accounts are shifting from read-only to reading & writing. A year ago, when the site was first blowing up and you looked at the comment section of a popular post, only a few people would have their own writing account. As I write this, there are 20 comments on the post and almost everybody has their own newsletter or blog pinned next to their name. There's a growing middle layer between absolute superstars and anonymous lurkers, and that's *huge* for the long-term success of any social media platform.
By Mark Baker:
I have long thought of art (including both literary art and art art) as one mind reaching out across the void and asking one poignant question: do you see it too? And the appreciation of art is of the same character; it is the mind of the viewer seeking an expression that validates or enhances what they see in the world.
Lovers can hold hands. Minds cannot touch each other in the same way. Art is how minds hold hands. By which analogy, AI art becomes a kind of sex doll. However lifelike you make it, there is no soul there, not acceptance, no affection, no loneliness reaching out to meet your loneliness.
By Charlotte Dune:
From my understanding also, after a conversation with a dev at Twitter, the Twitter algorithm is so complicated that even the people at Twitter don't fully understand how it works, or how changes will work until they release the updates out into the world and reverse study them... so good luck, Elon...
By Alex S. Garcia:
1) "The Sopranos" invented nothing. The first show to be 'literary' like that was really Steven Bochco's "Hill Street Blues" in the early 80's. It was a revolutionary show in many ways that had a huge influence on the medium, to the point that most shows on air today owe something to HSB.
2) Likewise, if you look back at the history of video games, you'll find that many of the earlier 'adventure games' were quite literary. Especially the text-based ones in the very beginning. With the addition of graphics, the literary aspect started to lose focus, though it took some years (look at "Mask of the Sun," for instance, for a graphical adventure game that is quite literary).
All that said, the early 2000's did see a significant shift happen, with more content going back in that direction. It just was more like a "return to form"
By Gary Arndt:
There are billionaires who are not hiring this sort of tutor for their children. Rather, they will spend $50,000+ annually to send them to a private school.
I think it is because actual knowledge and learning really don't matter. The role of education has become one of signaling and class status.
MIT and Stanford literally give away access to their courses online for free. What other business gives away their core product??
The answer is, it isn't their core product. There is nothing you will learn at MIT or Stanford that you won't learn elsewhere. It is all about the credentials. Nothing else matters.
Will a private tutor improve your access to Harvard or Yale? If not, most people who can afford a tutor simply don't see the point.
You attend a prestigious grade school to get into a prestigious prep school so you can get into a prestigious college. Test scores matter only insofar as it will help achieve this goal. Actual learning and knowledge doesn't really play a part.
By Scott Alexander:
I'm slightly more optimistic about modern home-schoolers than you are (my neighbors are home-schooling their kid in a way that looks more like aristocratic tutoring than like a religious education or set curriculum, but they come from the same intellectual milieu we do so that might be less common than I thought).
Some people in my post suggested Oxbridge still does something tutor-y (see
) but I don't know enough to compare it to past practices.
I agree that the exact proportion of geniuses who were tutored depends on how far we are willing to go in accepting parents, one-room-schoolhouses, etc, and that it could plausibly be a big part of the effect, and that AI scraping of genius biographies would be a valuable cause.
By Stan the Man:
The original Jurassic Park had 58 CGI shots. 58. And it told a story better than any of the sequels. The latest Jurassic movie had about 1,800 CGI shots. . . When Peter Jackson had unlimited funds we got The Hobbit. When he had to prove himself & scrimp and save we got Fellowship. . . Or look at Harry Potter. The last movie revisits a set from the 2nd movie. The Chamber of Secrets. The 2nd movie built the actual set. The last one? All green screen CGI and boy can you feel the difference. But even the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix sequels pale in comparison to what’s happening now with the Marvel movies. Nothing feels remotely real or tangible. . . These movies cost hundreds of millions. They do well internationally because eye Candy sells in foreign markets. But Raiders of the Lost [Ark], a movie that featured top of the line VFX in 1981, still holds up over any action movie made in the last 15 years. . . I love visual effects. Heck, I love a lot of the movie[s] you mentioned like the Star Wars prequels and even The Matrix sequels. But CGI is 100% hurting movies. Ask yourself this: If Jaws were made today, would be as terrifying and as good/successful? No. Why? Because we’d see the Shark ALL THE TIME. We didn’t see the Shark back in 1975 because the prop didn’t work. Out of that limitation Spielberg came up with the barrels and John Williams did the rest. Look at Star Wars. Sure Lucas wasn’t fond of the compromises he had to make for that original film. But I’ve read the drafts he didn’t use due to cost and limitations. Thank god he was held back by the times. Han Solo would’ve been a green alien.
'Armchair filmmaking' benefits from the legibility and outsourcing of digital SFX rather than practical. Studio bureaucrats, as well as the directors, can treat it as much more of a black box: “money goes in, reliably decent effects come out.” If you don't like one, you can go get another, or buy two in parallel if need be. Since it's all digital and post-production, you have the option. Very different from practical effects or on-set work, which is opaque, unpredictable, reliant on individuals and prima donnas and an indefinable alchemy, not repeatable or replaceable, or put into a spreadsheet. As budgets increase, can film studios even afford the risk of non-digital SFX?
By R. Sal Reyes:
. . . the fiction world would be wise to heed your warning, because I’ve seen the future of what you are describing and it has a name: poetry. The academic suffocation (or the “MFA-ing”) of poetry seems to be about 30 years ahead of fiction—the last generation of culturally-relevant (outside of academia) poets probably had its heyday in the 70s, and that particular species of poet is now functionally extinct. (There are occasionally the shooting star celebrity poets who get thrust into the national conversation, but none of these people are the next Frank O’Hara or Sylvia Plath.) Many of the conditions that led to serious contemporary poetry becoming a complete non-factor in the cultural landscape today are the same as the conditions you describe in fiction today.
By Justin Ordenoz:
I think there are many writers who would feel a deep urge telling them otherwise—that they must not rock the boat, that they must behave. I do not have an MFA, nor do I have an English degree, nor have I attended a writer's camp or workshop, etc, but I will agree I can see how problematic they become when you consider that a writer should be a wild animal. The writer should be reckless and dangerous, to herself and others. An editor should have to fight the writer to the bitter-end trying to tame this wild beast . .
A few years back, for a specific reason (improperly managed side-effects of medication withdrawal) and time frame (perhaps a month), I went through an extremely intense depression, like nothing I'd ever experienced. Even having had smaller spells of natural depression in the past, it was a perspective-altering experience that left a lasting impression on me. When I read what you wrote above, the bell rang for me, as well. This—an inability to withdraw from Brahman into the shelter of Maya—feels so perfectly like what happened to me.
One of the strongest features of that depression, in particular, had been a nearly ceaseless awareness of my own existential dread. I could not escape from it or retreat in any way. It was a psychic pain as real as any physical pain I've ever felt, if not moreso. Despite being a solid atheist and raised irreligious, I spent significant portions of those days curled in the fetal position in the bottom of my bathtub, with the shower running, sobbing and pretending that God was real and was holding me. . .
Thankfully, I knew that there was a very likely endpoint to my suffering (my body adapting itself to the absence of the medication), and I clung to that thought like a life preserver in the empty ocean. It became almost a mantra, repeating to myself that this state was impermanent, and I just had to get to the other side of it. But I remember thinking, more than once, that if this was what some people's lives were like with no endpoint in sight, I could understand suicide. I was firmly convinced that I would not have been able to endure even one year of that level of almost wholly unremitting anguish, if there were no end in sight. Nighttime, right before bed, was most bearable, but waking up was the worst part of my day, each morning a dreaded fresh hell. I'd feel a crushing weight in my chest the instant I was conscious, almost as though I couldn't breathe, though physically I absolutely could. I would clutch my pillow to myself, waiting for the sensation to relent enough that I could even try to get out of bed. . .
Two of the most tangible results of having had this experience are that I changed my position on mental health euthanasia (like they have in the Netherlands) and that I am much more sympathetic to drug addicts' experiences of withdrawal. . . The type of depression I experienced then could be aptly characterized as an overabundance of Brahman and/or an insufficiency of Maya.
By Peter Watts:
Dude, you make Schopenhauer look like Pollyanna. Given that half the world is on fire and the rest is underwater, I’m kinda surprised by your reliance on linear tech projections. Even a car two meters from a cliff’s edge could have been following a linear trajectory for miles. Don’t know how far into the future I’d feel comfortable extending that line.
Here are a few additional projections that might be worth considering. By 2050, the world’s arable land will be exhausted (we thought we had until 2070, but like most of our worst-case scenarios, that turned out to be delusionally optimistic). Malaria will be resident in the Baltic. People will remember Covid as the Good Old Days, back when there were these things called “coral reefs”; Nipah, after spending a few decades on local tour around Bangladesh and Indonesia, will finally hitch a ride to the EU and start racking up higher kill rates than smallpox. This will actually be just as well, since a new strain of wheat rust, immune to all known fungicides (and currently spreading quietly through the Middle East) will have decimated the planet’s grain supply so there won’t be a lot of food to go around anyway. Nipah will be but one act in an ongoing festival-o’germs; it’s estimated that we haven’t even identified 99% of the zoonotic diseases out there, much less developed countermeasures.
. . . Species will continue going extinct at a rate of 130,000 per year, and climbing. The Powers That Be will continue to not do anything significant to rein in emissions . . . but there’s not much they could do anyway since even cutting our emissions to zero tomorrow would still result in a 3-5C temperature rise in the Arctic by century’s end, thanks to methane tipping points.
Granted, that’s looking ahead past 2050. But I’d argue that even 2050 is probably too farsighted, given that business-as-usual models suggest global societal collapse ten years earlier than that. That’s roughly the point at which our population peaks, after which it will crater by 40-50% over the following seventy years or so. . .
By Sean Sakamoto:
I’ve been writing for a living for most of my professional life. I’ve written columns, documentaries, novels (unpublished), scripts, screenplays, marketing copywriting and more. I’ve studied writing at school, in workshops, and attended conferences. It’s fair to say writing has been at the center of my life.
Something I recognized in your piece about Mark Baumer was a sense of desperation and expectation that I see in myself and that I’ve seen in other writers.
The intersection of art and commerce is well-known as a source of frustration for writers. That's where agents and publishers live. But what is less discussed is the intersection of craft and the desire to be recognized, or even celebrated, that can torment writers. . . The matter of audience, money, accolades, the desire for recognition. Fantasies in the shower of speeches and notable mentions in the New Yorker and reviews in The New York Times. With every rejection I receive, there is a growing feeling of being left out of a conversation, and an endless, clawing need to be invited to the party, any party.
This insatiable desire is really not writing at all. In fact, it has nothing to do with writing. This is the fantasy of getting in and out of limousines. . .
The more I feed the endless need to be recognized and praised for my work, the harder it becomes to write. . . This state of helplessness is built on the premise that I’m miserable because nobody is reading my work, and that if I had literary success I would be happy. This is the fatal lie, I believe, that drives writers to early deaths. . .
So, in answer to your question, “What killed Mark Baumer?” I posit that his misconception that getting a book deal would kill a pain that comes from elsewhere is what killed him.