Hello Universe!

Is everything okay where you are?

I’m a bit astonished that you’re here. It’s an honor.

I’m not sure what shape this newsletter will take, which is evidenced by the fact that it’s taken me over a year to write my first post. Better to send than to be perfect. I am content for this to be a joyful, fragmented, and infrequent shout into the void.

The pandemic has made everything seem slightly smaller, closer, more intimate. I have the sense that I know where you’re reading this, and you know where I am.

I’ve been thinking about US & China science and technology competition. I spent 6 weeks working on this question at the Future of Humanity Institute (what does one think about, exactly, after the future of humanity?). Two interesting tidbits:

  • China does systematic reforms of its science funding system on a cadence of roughly every decade, whereas as far as I’m aware the NSF/NIH has not undergone a large systematic review in its entire history. We can expect their system to be much more flexible and responsive to critique, although Chinese academics have plenty to complain about.

  • America culturally has many hypomanic traits - the model of the American entrepreneur is an exaggerated version of the archetypal American: cheerful, almost naively optimistic, confident, inventive, creative, energetic. Think Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, Elon Musk.

    John Gartner attributes this to self-selection for hypomania as an immigrant nation - “only 1/100 of people emigrate, and they tend to have special drive, ambition, and talent”. There are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, and the USA has higher rates of mania than every other country w/ possible exception of New Zealand (which topped USA in one study); the top 3 countries with the most people with mania (USA, NZ, Canada) are all nations of immigrants. Asian countries (Taiwan, SK, etc), have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder. Europe is in the middle.

I’m happy to share more notes and hot takes if you’re interested!

I’m in a fantastic Philosophy of Technology working group with five other wonderful technologists. We’re tackling the ambitious project of untangling the ideological edifices technology engages with. I’m very lucky to be working on deconfusing Utility/Progress with Matthew Jordan, a very cool musician and Rhodes Scholar who among other things read for a master’s in HPS. We’re currently working through The History of the Idea of Progress by Robert Nisbet.

Some questions we’re tackling: 1) what is a ‘good life’ for the technologist? and 2) to what extent can we quantify and compare the ‘good’? Light questions.

I’ve also been pre-occupied with digital death. I’ve watched both death tolls tick up on the screen as well as my own beloved grandmother in China pass away on a plugged-in laptop. Our family frantically disconnected the WiFi in the house when the video started glitching. It’s so hard to remember when I’m on Zoom and my background is the glowing moving digital aurora, that I’m real and embodied and can die and will die.

a wail echoes in cyberspace / every glitch a small death

On a much lighter note, I accidentally deleted my Twitter, erasing years of history, thousands of followers, and a carefully curated information ecosystem in one missed calendar reminder. I had felt that my Twitter presence was becoming stale, that my identity was not well-formed and stable enough to withstand the status games of Twitter, that I’m far too Agreeable (95th percentile on Agreeableness on the Big 5) to be in such a public arena. Twitter no longer felt generative for me, but I still mourned accidentally losing that small self-catalogue. My new Twitter has the same handle but feels very much discontinuous from my past Twitter self. I hope that this new identity is more context-invariant and that the death of my old self turns out to be a noble sacrifice.

Oh, and if you’d like to hear shorter thoughts from me, I’m there.

Here’s some light. Have you witnessed magic lately?

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