#26

Hey everyone,

I hope you and your families are well. I’m thankful that the company I work for had a strong remote culture before COVID-19, and that not much has changed for me on that front.

Emotionally, I'm feeling more normal now than I did a few weeks ago. I guess the novelty of the pandemic wore off, and my brain got tired of sustaining that high level of existential alertness that so many of us felt when things got real.

Intellectually, I'm a bit shaken. It's as if I have a dislocated worldview. Like most people, I was aware of the coronavirus months before we all finally agreed it was a big deal. I had read the news, and I had seen the exponential curves. I knew, intellectually, that our way of life is vulnerable, that it could be disrupted by unforeseen calamities. But I didn't know this in my core, not really. I interpreted the possibility of a pandemic the same way I interpreted historical events, the news in general, and thought experiments about existential risk: closer to fiction than to real life.

I blame screens. The night of the 2016 presidential election was the first time in my adult life when I had the feeling that I was living through history. In the days that followed, I wondered whether Trump's election would have any physical effects on my life. Would anything at all change, aside from the contents of the words and images that would appear on my phone? Would I witness riots? Would systems around me break down? Would my city get nuked by North Korea? In the end, there were no physical effects. Every effect of the Trump presidency that I’ve personally observed, I’ve observed through a screen.

COVID-19 is different. In the past three weeks, I have only entered two buildings: the grocery store and my home. I haven't been within six feet of anyone except my partner. I haven't been in a car or on the bus. Unlike any other news story I can remember, COVID-19 has changed my physical experience of life.

Even still, I can feel my brain sliding back into its default mode of interpreting news about the pandemic as being essentially fiction. Boris Johnson went into the ICU on Monday. What if he dies? How can I possibly understand such an event except by relating it to a bad movie?

Maybe it's not just screens. The news cycle is to blame too. How was I to know that this story, of all the stories that have been covered since I started paying attention, was one that deserved real attention? There's no Richter scale for the news. It's a constant catastrophe—one alleged earthquake after another. There was no way to know that this time it was real.

You might ask: for someone like me, does it even matter that I didn't take COVID-19 as seriously as it deserved? If I had, could I have shifted the needle in any real way, for myself or for the world? In the case of COVID-19, probably not. I could have been more vocal about the need to prepare for it, or I could have sold some stocks before the market nosedived. That's about it.

But what about pandemics in general? Arguably, I could have watched Bill Gates' TED Talk in 2014, and then spent the next six years contributing to my country's preparedness. Sure, we didn't know about COVID-19 in particular, but we knew we weren't ready for anything like it. And what about tail risks to civilization in general, especially existential risks? Should I be devoting my career to protecting against those?

I don’t know. Before COVID-19, these were all just thought experiments. What happens in philosophy class stays in philosophy class. But now these questions feel much more real, and I have reflecting to do. What I can say is that I now feel on a more visceral level that it's a mistake to read history as if it's fiction, to read the news as if it can't one day reach out and touch you.


Links

Fresh perspectives

Continuous Publishing, by James Yu. This article, along with Patrick McKenzie’s Twitter thread about blogging as a medium, convinced me to restructure my personal website to make it less like a set of timestamped journal entries and more like a personal Wikipedia. I want my writing to last for a long time, and that means I want it to feel natural to go back and edit things I’ve previously published.

The Parable of the Talents, by Scott Alexander. When I cleared my inbox from the past week, I found recommendations to five (!) different (!) essays by Scott Alexander. I often wonder: how on Earth does he write so much, and so well? He has an essay about that too. Here’s the key passage:

I know people who want to get good at writing, and make a mighty resolution to write two hundred words a day every day, and then after the first week they find it’s too annoying and give up. These people think I’m amazing, and why shouldn’t they? I’ve written a few hundred to a few thousand words pretty much every day for the past ten years.

But as I’ve said before, this has taken exactly zero willpower. It’s more that I can’t stop even if I want to. Part of that is probably that when I write, I feel really good about having expressed exactly what it was I meant to say. Lots of people read it, they comment, they praise me, I feel good, I’m encouraged to keep writing, and it’s exactly the same virtuous cycle as my brother got from his piano practice.

How I Build Learning Projects, by Robert Chang. Lots of good advice here. My favorite is the idea of mastering adjacent disciplines:

Eyebrow-raisers

E.M. Forster predicted 2020 in 1909, by me. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops takes only an hour to read, but it’s packed full of passages that made my jaw drop for how accurately they describe modern life, especially in the time of COVID-19.

The Consequences of Treating Electricity as a Right. Depressing if true. The authors of this paper argue that one of the reasons people in developing countries often have no access to electricity is that electricity is treated as a right rather than as a commodity. This creates a vicious cycle where thefts and nonpayment are tolerated, which causes distribution companies to lose money, which causes government-owned companies to ration supply, which gives customers still less incentive to pay.

A Greenland shark has been estimated to be 400 years old. Self-explanatory.

Of notes

I learned to play a short piano piece that I’ve loved for a long time.

The best music I discovered this month, by far, is Ethan Gruska’s album, En Garde. I must have listened to it at least 30 times now. It has such a deliciously smooth sound, and works well both in the background and as the center of attention. My favorite song on the album is Teenage Drug. Here is a gorgeous acoustic performance of it:


All the best,

David


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