About / Best Of / FAQ
Last updated January 23, 2019.
I’m Byrne, and I write about things that don’t mean-revert. The world is full of phenomena that move in cycles — countries rise and fall, economies speed up and slow down, ideas come in and out of fashion, people dig new trenches in the culture wars. And then there are times that the world changes, and it’s never the same again.
The first time somebody used coal to power a steam engine that pumped water out of a coal mine is a wonderful example: from that point on, productivity growth in the Western World was on the order of ~1% per year, instead of the previous standard of 0.1% per year. Changes that would have taken centuries happened in a generation. For the first time ever, progress happened so fast it was visible.
Technology is full of non mean-reverting phenomena, but so is social technology. Sometimes there’s an idea that’s potentially good but not worth implementing, until somebody — usually somebody who combines both charismatic fanaticism with a modicum of executive talent — suddenly organizes enough people to make it feasible. Every startup that was a joke in the 90s and is a billion-dollar company today works that way.
I use Medium as a way to think out loud about changes like this. (And less significant stuff, too.) My themes:
- Productivity growth is the most important variable for ensuring that people can do the stuff they want, broadly defined. Productivity growth gets you rich, it gives you money to raise kids and take care of your parents; and if your ambitions lean to the spiritual or the artistic, it’s perhaps more important. The only way the economy can support people who aren’t trying to get rich is if a lot of people find it easy to get rich.
- Finance is full of useful metaphors for other aspects of the human experience. Since finance is all about uncertainty, expectations, and disagreements, it gives us a rich vocabulary for describing other instantiations of these behaviors. For example, a huge number of risky activities are, in finance terms, a form of put-writing: doing things at the last minute, living paycheck-to-paycheck, making excuses when you’d rather not tell the truth — all of these things have the same payoff function as selling insurance against disaster. Since we have a lot more data on the finance version, we can get a lot more theoretical knowledge out of it.
- On the other hand: reifying imperfect theories is the single biggest source of avoidable trouble in the world.
- Opinionated beats objective. Your allies will be more likely to read you; your enemies will want to correct you.
And the biographical details:
- I’m 32, married, two kids with a third on the way in June.
- I live in New York.
- Yes, we can get coffee some time. Email me.
My most-read stories include:
- How I got hired at a top hedge fund without a college degree. This is not a how-to guide; it’s a how-I-did-it guide that should make it clear that I took advantage of a lot of luck.
- How Robots From The Future Will Kill Your White-Collar Job. Including: the science of Bloomberg HQ’s fast elevators, why non-AI-experts are experts on the impact of AI, and how technology companies discover and privatize the commons.
- How Filter Bubbles Will Save the World. In praise of weirdness and eccentricity.
- The 30-Year Mortgage is an Intrinsically Toxic Product. The American mortgage system is pathologically ill-suited to every single one of its explicit goals, and the story gets worse from there.
Some other pieces I’m particularly proud of, that didn’t get quite the same traction as the hits (yet):
- Financial Bubbles are the Gnostic Heresy: The Voegelin-Minsky Synthesis. A deep dive into applying the philosophy of Eric Voegelin to financial bubbles, complete with a mini-history of the late twentieth century’s many, many financial bubbles.
- Fracking: The Alchemy of Turning High-Yield Bonds into Low-Inflation Growth. Fracking has completely changed the oil industry, but its macroeconomic effects — and its macro dependencies — are underappreciated.
- That’s a Bus. You Identified the Sweeping Implications of a Staggering, Generational Technological Change, and Reinvented a Bus. Clapping back at the world’s worst tech news headline.
- The Tyranny of the Long Generation. Science is not the only field that advances one funeral at a time.
- Optionality is for Innumerate Cowards. I don’t like “optionality.”
- The Social Network Was The Most Important Movie of All Time. Also, the soundtrack is great work music.
- “Passive” as a Factor. What bet are you making when you bet on an index?
- CFA sans BA: The Case for a Barbell Approach to Education. I doubt I’m literally the only CFA charterholder without a bachelor’s degree, but I couldn’t find any other writeups on how or why to do it.
How do you find the time to write all this stuff?
This is by far the most common question I get. There are no easy answers, but here are some of the things that work for me:
- Set a very, very early alarm. 4:30 is a good time to shoot for. That gets me a solid 1–2 hours every morning for reading and writing.
- Read a lot. Or, if you want the negative version: never watch TV, and put strict limits on your social media time.
- Use airplane mode when you write.
- Bang out rough drafts at maximum speed. My rule when I’m writing draft one is that if anything slows me down, I write “TK” followed by a quick note about what I need to add, and then move on to the next topic. Then once I’m done with the draft I can quickly search through all the TKs and fill things in. This also works for links; nothing breaks up your flow like trying to find that one story that was on Hacker News last month about logistics in Kenya (or was it Nigeria? Was it Hacker News, or Marginal Revolution?). I can usually finish 1k-2k words of a draft in 45 minutes. Some things take longer, though; the Voegelin piece took a whole day.
- Keep a running list of ideas in a physical notebook. A notebook is good because it’s a) something you can grab and doodle in when you’re bored, but b) not something with an Internet connection, so you won’t accidentally waste an hour.
- Economize on other stuff. I watch about two movies a year and never do cardio; some things just take a ton of time.
Why don’t you write about X?
There are a bunch of topics that I avoid writing about. My rough rule is that I’d like to write stuff that will still be worth reading in five years, and ideally stuff that will be more relevant a year from now. Because of the way news site algorithms currently work, that’s the opposite of what everybody who writes for a living does.
For example, is there something worthwhile to say about the Gillette ad kerfuffle? (For anyone reading this in the distant future, like February 2019: in January 2019, there was a lot of controversy over a Gillette ad that addressed the topic of toxic masculinity.) There might be something useful to say about it, but I’d naturally end up taking a side, and then the whole thing would be an exercise in either validating preconceptions or trying pointlessly to rebut them. And what is there to add to The Last Psychiatrist’s take: “If you’re watching, it’s for you.”
Basically I’d like to choose topics where nobody has picked a side yet.
You’re completely wrong about X.
Who are you writing for?
In order of importance:
- Me. I’m writing the kind of stuff I’d like to read. I wanted there to be a good article on the social impact of The Social Network, so I wrote one.
- My friends.
- My general target audience might be described as “median Matt Levine or Hacker News reader.” i.e. probably someone who works in finance, technology, or both; someone who is generally interested in pulling on intellectual threads; not somebody who is trying to find Five Amazing Hacks To Improve Your Whatever.
Why do you write?
- Writing is a good way to rigorously explore ideas. Try it. The next time you find some weird similarity between the Nixon presidency and the way your last employer handled crises, or between the spread of sail technology in the Renaissance and the rise of the shipping container, I highly recommend exploring it at length. (Send me a link.)
- I hate to tell the same story twice, and a lot of the stuff that I end up writing about starts as some point that I make in three separate conversations in the space of a week. Instead of delivering the same lecture to the same person twice, which is awkward, I’d rather be able to say I wrote it up in more detail and point them to a link.
- Writing is a good way to meet interesting people. Since I sometimes write about obscure stuff, anyone who searches for that topic and finds my writing is, almost by definition, someone I’d enjoy hanging out with.
- I want to set a good example for my kids. My wife and I plan to homeschool, and that will work best if the kids are used to the idea that everybody has demanding academic side projects.
- I hate the feeling of looking back on a month, a year, or a decade, and worrying that I haven’t accomplished anything. Writing is a tangible way to avoid this.
Should I drop out of college?
Probably not. While the higher ed system in the US is broken, it’s usually a difficult move to fight the system as opposed to working with it. That said, dropping out temporarily is a pretty low-risk proposition, especially if you’re dropping out to work on something specific. Worst-case, you fail and finish school a year late, and you’re definitely not the first person to take five years for undergrad.
Should I have kids?
Wow, you really want me to help you make all of your important life decisions all the sudden. Yes, you probably should: kids are surprisingly fun, and although they’re a lot of work, the work usually comes at the expense of things that turned out to be unimportant. Bryan Caplan makes a strong case.