The Best Articles of 2018
16 Articles that Changed the Way I See the World
Making an impact in the world is a function of how often you work with your metaphorical office door open.
If you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done… But 10 years later you don’t quite know what problems are worth working on. All the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions… but there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder.
~ Richard Hamming “You and Your Research”
I find that the marginal hour reading an old book that has stood the test of time (door closed) is almost always better spent than reading a recent article (door open). The infotainment we label “news” tends to be noisy, biased, and unlikely to actually drive behavioral change. It can be very tempting to ignore the siren song of the ephemeral, slamming our office doors shut to bury our heads in the sand.
We must resist this temptation.
Overindulgence in the path of Lindy leads to irrelevance. If we quarantine ourselves from the stream, we lose our place of reference. We must seek a middle way, striving to cultivate information diets with sufficient servings of Now.
The following articles are my favorites from 2018, organized into Long Reads (deep journalistic reporting), Red Pills (insight-porn-laden blogs), and Personal Development (principles to improve your life).
For more reading recommendations:
The Best of What I Read in 2017 (Top 15 Books, Top 10 Articles)
Blood and Oil: Mexico’s Drug Cartels and the Gasoline Industry — Seth Harp (2018)
Cartels are emulating modern governments: optimizing the returns from violence by using politics as a cover to seize natural resources. Organized crime only exists with the consent of the people, i.e. in places where the modern government has failed.
The wild gun battles may be only a superficial symptom of a free-for-all that mostly takes place in air-conditioned boardrooms. “Everyone has their hand in the cookie jar,” says one former Pemex official who asked not to be named. “You’re touching the Achilles’ heel of Mexico.”
The drug war has morphed into a broader armed conflict for control of natural resources, with multiple criminal militias and a weak central state vying over mines, ports and oil fields. It’s a dangerous escalation that only makes the cartels more entrenched because they no longer rely on a single income stream.
They call it organized crime because it’s very organized.
Prime and Punishment: Dirty Dealing in the $175 billion Amazon Marketplace — Josh Dzieza (2018)
From the perspective of an individual seller, the threat of Amazon marketplace removal is akin to their business losing life support. Cases are often instigated by competitors and treated as “guilty until proven innocent” by low-level employees who treat individual sellers as interchangeable parts within the inscrutable black box machine.
For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email…can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.
Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business.
Amazon’s judgments are so severe that its own rules have become the ultimate weapon in the constant warfare of the marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of intricate schemes to frame their rivals…They impersonate, copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even bribe Amazon employees for information on their competitors.
The [appeal] workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them. When they fall behind, they’ll often “punt” by sending [endless] requests for more information.
Down and Out at the Hotel Providence: Scenes from a Bowery Flophouse — Guy Lawson (1999)
The author spends a month living at the only $10/night flophouse left in NYC. What is life like for those constantly treading water, one misstep away from being back on the streets? What are the traits of someone who ends up in this situation and what are the systemic failures that continually perpetuate it?
There is rarely a vacancy at the Providence; the place has 224 boxes crammed into four small floors, and every night the joint is packed… The men went by first names, nicknames, jail names, aliases; the point of staying in the hotel was to be left alone, to hide from the law, family, creditors, the past, and oneself.
For the permanent residents, there was routine — eat, sleep, try to hold down a minimum-wage job maybe, wait for a welfare check to arrive at the front desk, somehow get the money to cop drugs, watch game shows and ball games in the lobby. One night, a man died in his sleep. He was an old alcoholic who had been at the Providence for years, and his death was the subject of conversation for an evening and then forgotten.
“We’ve seen a psychiatrist about this,” Stevie’s father said, “because I had always heard that eventually people hit bottom, and when they realize they’ve hit bottom they work themselves up, they try to come up. And he told me ‘An awful lot of people hit bottom and never do come up.’”
The playbook for any totalitarian regime calls for the scapegoating (and eventual sacrifice) of the Other. Mass extermination is not in humanity’s past.
Repression of the Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang Region has reached levels unheard of since the Cultural Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been arrested and placed in so-called reeducation camps. Millions of people in the region have fallen under the constant watch of a state-run video surveillance system. Their social status and even their overall path in life depend on points acquired in a “social credit” system.
Uyghurs had been forbidden from contacting people from outside the borders of the province even if those people were their own relatives… Messaging apps had already been blocked years earlier, but now, those who used them faced the threat of prison time.
In Beijing, officials no longer claimed that the opposition was composed of a small number of extremists. “It’s impossible to tear out weeds one by one,” said one party official in Kashgar. “We need chemicals that can deal with all of them at once.”
The new party chief promised to “bury the bodies of terrorists in the boundless sea of a people’s war.” Within three months, the arrests had begun, and by April 2017, one could be repressed for displaying excessive religiosity, wearing [a robe], having a beard, wearing excessively traditional clothing more generally, publicly interpreting the Koran, and even giving one’s children Arabic names.
Xinjiang is where the majority of the 20 million CCTV cameras at work in the country are located. Chinese government spending on internal security now exceeds spending on external defense… Now, Chinese police can find and arrest any suspect in a crowd whose facial features correspond with existing data in the country’s grandiose central database in the course of seven minutes or less.
By far the greatest loss has been the disappearance of Kashgar’s old street life…At the food market, the buyers are now all Chinese, and the sleeves of the Uyghur sellers are now graced with yellow text on a red patch testifying to the fact that the wearer has received a government license.
Financial debt, traffic tickets, reprehensible behavior online (including “harmful shopping”), and smoking in public can all affect a person’s social credit score. One can earn points by donating blood, volunteering, or writing an ode to the Communist Party. But they are also easy to lose — playing too many video games or visiting the mosque too often is enough. Visits to unstable regions are also taken into account, as are conversations with less desirable people that are recorded on surveillance video.
Someone with fewer [social credit] points might have a hard time finding a job or renting an apartment. As Chinese citizens continue to lose points, their problems steadily become more serious: freedom of movement becomes limited… There have been reported cases of children being turned away from desirable schools due to the low scores of their parents.
The artificial intelligence system that analyzes personal data about people divides society into “safe,” “average,” and “dangerous” citizens. Age, religion, previous convictions, and contact with foreigners are all taken into account… Almost all those who have fled the country speak of threats made to their relatives: universal DNA sampling opens up very broad possibilities for authorities to monitor the relatives of those they condemn.
Four Days Trapped at Sea With Crypto’s Nouveau Riche — Laurie Penny (2018)
Look upon your gods and weep. It seems that only two categories of people go to conferences: suckers and those looking to profit from them.
You can tell a lot about someone’s politics from the parties they throw. For a lot of the men on this floating shindig… freedom simply means freedom from consequences.
John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but — crucially — not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder.
Most blockchain events have a gender balance problem. The cruise organizers have allowed the decentralized free-market to solve that problem the best way it knows how. Not enough women? Just hire some.
Screwing over other people for your own gain is not just a side effect of economic philosophy or proof of concept. It is a sacred calling.
There are people of all genders and political persuasions looking to walk the plank of the good ship Reality before they’re pushed, but I’ve never met so many so transparently trying to con as many fellow travelers as possible on their way down.
The Gig Economy — Zero HP Lovecraft (2018)
True story: 94% of U.S. net employment growth since 2015 has occurred in “alternative work arrangements”. The tide of the API Layer (those who subsist at the whim of the algorithm) is quickly rising, emerging through crypto-based micropayments, reputational systems, location omniscience, and a populace that is all too happy to outsource cognitive resources.
It turns out we’re pointless argument vegetables growing in walled gardens, harvested for the benefit of robots that serve us ads. Corporations are organisms, not city-states; they signal to each other via markets; they build interfaces into human social protocols through brand identities; they occupy slots in our Dunbar rings.
There is something addictive about the feedback loop of getting a contract, fulfilling it, and watching my wallet get an anonymous transfer. The immediacy and the tangibility of it are very satisfying. It’s like making money: the video game. A direct feedback loop with a variable payout is all it takes to turn a moment of reward into a habit.
The most common contracts appear to be for verification of other jobs; if one man is asked to visit a certain location at a certain time, there will be two more to visit the same location and upload a photo that shows him to be there. Each of those will, in turn, be followed by another contractor whose job is to verify the identity of the man in the photo, and perhaps even another to verify the verification.
Capital will not be ultimately unmasked as exploited labor power; rather, humans are the meat puppet of Capital, their identities and self-understandings are simulations that can and will be ultimately be sloughed off.
Deep learning systems aren’t magic; they’re just eyes that see hyperplanes of relatedness in high-dimensional vector spaces. We live in the placid shadow of an egregore of unimaginable cunning who drinks from a bottomless sea of information, and it is slowly waking up.
You put some money into fake numbers on the internet and they get bigger and bigger until society collapses. In order to make this happen giant warehouses of graphics cards are set up in inner Mongolia where they burn cheap coal 24/7.
The Information: How The Internet Gets Inside Us — Adam Gopnik (2011)
In all of the recent books written about the impact of the Internet, there are three primary schools of thought: the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers.
The Never-Betters believe that we’re now on the brink of a new utopia. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the Internet had never happened. The Ever-Wasers insist that for all of modern history we lamented the disassociation and fragmentation seemingly caused by our latest technology.
If you’re going to give the printed book, or any other machine-made thing, credit for all the good things that have happened, you have to hold it accountable for the bad stuff, too. The Internet may make for more freedom a hundred years from now, but there’s no historical law that says it has to.
A sense of vertiginous overload is the central experience of modernity... Our new confusion is just the same old confusion. At any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity.
What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind — sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes — are now out there: you click once and you can read about them But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment — above all, our interactions with other people — are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own.
Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers. TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. What made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user.
Why The Culture Wins: An Appreciation of Iain M. Banks — Joseph Heath (2017)
The world is converging towards a monoculture. In recent history, American culture has maintained dominance because of its role as supportive scaffolding for our primary exports of capitalism and democratic government. As institutional constraints are lifted by technological advances, the need for cultural differentiation will disappear and cultural dominance will be determined by ability and desire to assimilate other cultures within the same semantic umbrella.
In Thailand, they have this thing called the Dog. You see the Dog wherever you go, hanging around by the side of the road, skulking around markets. The thing is, it’s not a breed, it’s more like the universal dog. You could take any dog, of any breed, release it into the streets, and within a couple of generations it will have reverted to the Dog. That’s what the Culture is, it’s like the evolutionary winner of the contest between all cultures, the ultimate basin of attraction.”
The dominant trend has been significant convergence with respect to institutional structure. There has been practically universal acceptance of the need for a market economy and a bureaucratic state as the only desirable social structure at the national level… This has led to an incredible narrowing of cultural possibilities, as cultures that are functionally incompatible with capitalism or bureaucracy are slowly extinguished or transformed.
All that is left are the memetic properties of the culture, which is to say, the pure capacity to reproduce itself. The culture that emerges will be the most virulent, or the most contagious.
If we reflect upon our own lives, the significant choices we have made were all in important ways informed by the constraints we are subject to, the hand that we were dealt: our natural talents, our gender, the country that we were born in. Once the constraints are gone, what basis is there for choosing one path over another?
This is what makes the Culture the ultimate memeplex, with the largest, deepest basin of attraction. It exists only to reproduce itself. It derives its entire sense of purpose from seeking out and converting all societies to its own culture. Of course, this is not how people of the Culture themselves perceive it. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just “doing the right thing.” This self-deception is, of course, part of what makes the Culture so effective at reproducing itself.
Things Fall Apart (Part 1 of 3) — Epsilon Theory — Ben Hunt (2018)
The tails are coming apart and there are no longer any winning centrist politicians and no stable centrist policies. Instead, we will have a steady stream of extremist candidates, each very attractive to their party base, pull the overall electorate into a greater and greater state of polarization. Each side argues different motivations for inflicting chaos (left: anti-capitalism, right: anti-globalism) but each has similar aims of tearing down the entire system.
Now we’ve got a choice. Do we settle with the guy we hate? Do we voluntarily pay the heavy price for breaking the “norms” of conflict with a guy who we suspect wouldn’t hesitate to break any norm at all? But what if the choice has already been made for us? What if we are immersed in a competitive equilibrium of a competitive game, where the only rational choice is to go to the mattresses? To do unto others as they would do unto you … but to do it first.
And so it came to pass that in the late days of empire, both Rome and America waged remote control wars through vassal states and provincial “citizens”, wars that were no longer debated by the Senate but were announced by administrative fiat alongside a schedule of entertaining games and pleasing economic distributions, wars that could last for decades in farther and farther flung corners of the empire, wars that were all about naked commercial interest even as they were gussied up with strong words of patriotism.
The shape of the Democrat and Republican is no longer a single-peaked bell-curve but is instead a bimodal distribution. This means a centrist politician (someone between the median Democrat and the median Republican) can win neither a national nomination nor a national election in a two-party system.
A bimodal electorate preference distribution doesn’t just go away on its own. It doesn’t just get better over time. It is a widening gyre. It gets worse over time, as more and more extremist candidates, full of passionate intensity, strut and fret their hour upon the stage.
That’s how this widening gyre ultimately resolves itself, too. In a big war. Not another Civil War… we’ll need a big war with an Other to get out of this.
There Are No Laws of Physics. There’s Only the Landscape. — Robbert Dijkgraaf (2018)
Our knowledge of physics is condemned to be progressively more accurate descriptions of iceberg tips. As we are only entitled to three of the many dimensions which constitute our physical universe, our map of the landscape will always be incomplete. The fundamental forces we consider to be building blocks of our universe are actually emergent properties from the vast and intractable territory below.
Quantum physicists have found many examples of two completely different descriptions of the same physical system… wondering how different recipes lead to the same outcomes.
The universe seems to be one of an infinitude of possible worlds. We have no clue why this particular combination of particles and forces underlies nature’s structure. On the one hand, particle physics is a wonder of elegance; on the other hand, it is a just-so story.
In string theory, certain features of physics that we usually would consider laws of nature — such as specific particles and forces — are in fact solutions. They are determined by the shape and size of hidden extra dimensions.
It’s helpful to visualize the landscape as a largely undeveloped wilderness, most of it hidden under thick layers of intractable complexity. Only at the very edges do we find habitable places. In these outposts, life is simple and good. Here we find the basic models that we fully understand. They are of little value in describing the real world, but serve as convenient starting points to explore the local neighborhood.
The conclusion that many, if not all, models are part of one huge interconnected space is…an astonishing change of perspective telling us that instead of exploring an archipelago of individual islands, we have discovered one massive continent. In some sense, by studying one model deeply enough, we can study them all.
All traditional descriptions of fundamental physics have to be thrown out. Particles, fields, forces, symmetries — they are all just artifacts of a simple existence at the outposts in this vast landscape of impenetrable complexity.
Tales from Underwater — Meredith L. Patterson (2018)
Perhaps the best description I have seen of what clinical depression feels like from the inside. All perception and communication are distorted and normalized and all decision-making is biased towards acute pain avoidance. The exit sign is invisible and the need to seek an exit would not even occur to you.
Being underwater is different. You can move; you can see and hear things above the water, even if rippled and distorted by the motion of the medium. You can react to them in nearly any way you like, though the same distortions will garble your responses. You are not a fish; you know you are underwater, even if being there doesn’t trigger your drowning reflex. But you cannot break the surface, any more than the mute can break the glass.
Whatever part of your brain it is that keeps you underwater, it does so to cushion you from the chaos and din above, all the things you’d have to confront at once if you came up for air or to communicate. It’s only forestalling the inevitable, of course, but this is near mode brain’s domain, and planning is not its strong suit. The derealisation is only it trying to help, bless its shortsighted little heart.
“What would make you feel better?” is really hard to answer when you honestly can’t think of anything that would, even after giving it your best effort. Besides, does it really count as feeling bad if nothing you’re experiencing internally seems to register as a feeling at all?
If you’re wondering whether it feels a little weird to have had someone you don’t clearly remember being make potentially life-altering decisions about you, the answer is yes.
All I know is that I saw the net, I grabbed at it on the way down, and it caught me. Not everybody has a net under them. Not everybody can see it when it’s there. Not everybody can bring themselves to reach out, even if they see it. Some people who reach out will still slip through the cracks anyway.
Happiness & the Gorilla — Scott Galloway
Profound and rich advice for living a great life compressed into formulas. I am admittedly a big sucker for these “ultimate life lessons” posts but this is the only one I have ever considered sharing.
The ratio of time you spend sweating to watching others sweat is a forward-looking indicator of your success.
The most important decision you’ll make is not where you work, but who you choose to partner with. A spouse who is not only someone you care for and want to have sex with, but is also a good partner, softens the rough edges and magnifies the shine of life.
We have a caste system in the US: higher education. Economic growth is increasingly clustering around a handful of supercities… While young, get credentialed and get to a city.
The definition of “rich” is passive income that’s greater than your burn.
Market dynamics trump individual performance, so your successes and failures aren’t entirely your fault… Your limited time here mandates you hold yourself accountable. But also be ready to forgive yourself, so you can get on with the important business of life.
Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual: Outlines of the Life of the Mind — Paul J. Griffiths (2018)
When stuck on a piece, write to an audience of one. Griffiths removes any preconceived notions of prestige and inherent moral value to the intellectual life — the vocation is a calling born out of an obsession with truth-seeking in one particular area. The main principle for intellectual success transfer to any pursuit: give that pursuit the primary and central place in one’s life.
What do these intellectuals have in common? Obsessive energy and focus: the intellectual work was central. They return to their themes, their questions, like dogs worrying over bones...as long as they lived.
Most people who’d love to be novelists don’t write novels, and that’s because they’re not really interested in doing so. They’re infatuated with an image and a role rather than with what those who play that role do.
There’s as much intellectual red meat to chew on in something unlovely as there is in something lovely…analyzing what’s wrong with something may be more intellectually productive than showing what’s right about it. The advice here is: Don’t follow your loves but, rather, what provokes thought in you.
You need a life in which you can spend a minimum of three uninterrupted hours every day on your intellectual work…Undistracted time is the space in which intellectual work is done in the same way that the factory floor is the space for the assembly line.
Attention is a matter of practice by repetition. You’ll get better at attending as you do it, so long as you know you need to get better at it. Every particular is inexhaustible, and boredom’s need for distraction is, at bottom, an inability to attend to what’s in front of you.
How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You — Tony Stubblebine (2018)
As Zero HP Lovecraft puts it, “phones are a mechanism by which the soul leaks from the body.” Watching the drones passively browse their phones on the subway brings out my inner dystopian. I’m endlessly astonished at how little we are willing to work for our own autonomy.
Implementing these recommendations will go a long way to making your phone use more intentional, reshape your behavior so that it is in alignment with your goals.
The iPhone could be an incredible tool, but most people use their phone as a life-shortening distraction device.
Notifications are uncontrolled interruptions from your real goals. Essentially, notifications lead to anxiety and a stunted life.
Most people live life reactively, constantly checking their inboxes for messages to react to. For you to reach your full potential, you need to switch to a batch processing mindset for all of your inboxes.
The phrase “your phone is a tool, not your boss” is implying that you’re the boss. But it’s more subtle than that. We want to set your phone up so that your rational brain is the boss, and your emotional, addictive, worst-decisions brain is asleep or blocked.
Does it really matter if you save one second every time you open your phone? I say yes…those pauses are prime times for you to get distracted. In those cases, a two second pause can turn into a 30 minute break.
Every productivity thought I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible — Alexey Guzey (2018)
It is pretty difficult to find new and actionable ideas in the productivity world these days. Treating all work as habitual (i.e. dependent upon context associations) is a really powerful principle which led to me leasing a private office after years of working at home. All willpower leaks are caused by decision fatigue and are solved by strong intentionality and clear exceptions.
Every productivity trick / system stops working in exactly the same way. Most productivity tricks develop aversion around them. All of them lose salience. The only way to avoid encountering problems with productivity is to make the stuff you want to be doing in the long-term to be the most exciting stuff you can do at any moment in time, which …is untenable in almost every situation.
Context intentionality as the key difference between home and every other place. Home lacks intentionality, which means that sometimes you will feel that “I need to do something” rather than “I will do something specific right now”. The only solution I know is to avoid working from home as much as you can.
Being aware of breaking a rule does not make it ok to break it. Rules are about exceptions. Exceptions are inevitable. If I didn’t have exceptions explicitly written down, then I would break my rules, thereby decreasing their future strength.
A natural solution to the problem of reinstating broken rules: go to an unexplored location and work there until the new location breaks down. You don’t usually go from 0 procrastination to 100 in an instant. If you learn to recognize when you’re at 20 and switch the location preemptively you will save yourself a lot of time.
[When procrastinating], your body/brain is sending you some important information about the tasks at hand, and it’s important that you listen to those signals empathetically. Just notice the behavior and…have an honest conversation with yourself for why you might be unconsciously avoiding these tasks.
The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right — Mark Bittman & David L. Katz (2018)
Proper nutrition has been well understood for decades. Our addiction to new solutions created a massive industry profiting off misdirection. Current diet paradigms (paleo, keto, fasting) have little inherent value outside of the externalities that come from adherence to any discipline: increased awareness of feedback. On that note, my rule for food is simple: listen to what my body tells me. If I feel bad after eating something, I try not to eat it again.
For our health, the “best” diet is a theme: an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and plain water for thirst. The best foods don’t even have labels, because they are just one ingredient: avocado, lentils, blueberries, broccoli, almonds, etc.
There is no evidence that [ketogenic] diets are conducive to good health in the long run, and no evidence they are better than other, more sustainable diets at health transformation or weight loss in the short run. One of the great myths of modern diet is we all need more protein, but in this country, almost all of us get more than we need.
The evidence of every variety overwhelmingly highlights the benefits of plant-predominant diets for the health outcomes that matter most: years in life, and life in years; longevity, and vitality.
Highly processed grains and added sugar are bad, not because they are a carbohydrate, but because they’ve been robbed of nutrients, they raise insulin levels, and they’re often high in added fats, sodium, and weird ingredients. Carbs are not evil; junk food is evil.
Fasting is not more effective than limiting calorie intake every day. Fasting is a way to control average, daily food intake — but not the only way.
There is some evidence suggesting a benefit from smaller meals spaced close together, in terms of total insulin requirements. There is also some evidence that eating earlier in the day is beneficial relative to packing in calories close to bedtime. But these matters are much less important than total daily diet quality and quantity.