Friday 9 February, 2024

Writing by candlelight

In memory of E.P. Thompson.

Quote of the Day

I loathe writing. On the other hand I’m a great believer in money.

  • S. J. Perelman

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Violin Sonata, Op.1 No.13 | Henryk Szeryng with Huguette Dreyfus on harpsichord


!2 minutes, but — hey! — it’s Friday!

Long Read of the Day

The Vicious Spiral of Political and Economic Inequality

Terrific essay by Valentino Larcinese of the LSE and Alberto Parmigiani of the Free University of Bolzano, who are both participants in the impressive Law and Political Economy project.

Their basic argument is that the increasing intrusion of private wealth into political campaigning in liberal democracies (to a pathological extent in the US, but in Britain also in recent times) leads to a vicious cycle.

Summed up in a neat diagram”

Books, etc.

Chris Dixon’s Read Write Own

Molly White’s scarifying takedown of the latest BS screed to emerge from the Andreessen-Horowitz (aka A16Z) fantasy factory. Here’s a couple of samples. Footnotes (at the end of this edition) are Molly’s.

Exhibit A

It’s profoundly weird to read RSS’s obituary as a person who checks her very-much-still-alive feed reader several times a day to get everything from cryptocurrency news to dinner ideas, and who rarely encounters a website that doesn’t provide a functional feed.1 And does Dixon somehow not know that much of the thriving podcasting industry is built on RSS, or that many other apps and websites build features on top of RSS without their users ever even knowing it?2

Anyway, fear not, says Dixon, because he has found the solution to the internet’s Big Tech sickness: blockchains. “While plenty of people recognize their potential—including me—much of the establishment disregards them,” complains a general partner at one of the most powerful venture capital firms in the web space. Now, if we would all just be so kind as to ignore the last fifteen years since blockchains’ inception — during which innumerable companies have flailed around trying to find any possible use case beyond the manic speculation that has enriched a few at the expense of many — he’s got an idea to sell us.

And I mean “sell” quite literally: the book is peppered with glowing references to companies a16z has backed, but is completely devoid of any disclosures.

Exhibit B

After three chapters in which Dixon provides a (rather revisionist3) history of the web to date, explains the mechanics of blockchains, and goes over the types of things one might theoretically be able to do with a blockchain, we are left with “Part Four: Here and Now”, then the final “Part Five: What’s Next”. The name of Part Four suggests that he will perhaps lay out a list of blockchain projects that are currently successfully solving real problems.

This may be why Part Four is precisely four and a half pages long. And rather than name any successful projects, Dixon instead spends his few pages excoriating the “casino” projects that he says have given crypto a bad rap,4 prompting regulatory scrutiny that is making “ethical entrepreneurs … afraid to build products” in the United States.5

You get the idea. Molly White is not a woman to tangle with if you’re a tech fantasist.

My commonplace booklet

 A quote from A Project of One’s Own by Paul Graham.

The team that made the original Macintosh were a great example of this phenomenon. People like Burrell Smith and Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson and Susan Kare were not just following orders. They were not tennis balls hit by Steve Jobs, but rockets let loose by Steve Jobs. There was a lot of collaboration between them, but they all seem to have individually felt the excitement of working on a project of one’s own.

In Andy Hertzfeld’s book on the Macintosh, he describes how they’d come back into the office after dinner and work late into the night. People who’ve never experienced the thrill of working on a project they’re excited about can’t distinguish this kind of working long hours from the kind that happens in sweatshops and boiler rooms, but they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s why it’s a mistake to insist dogmatically on “work/life balance.” Indeed, the mere expression “work/life” embodies a mistake: it assumes work and life are distinct. For those to whom the word “work” automatically implies the dutiful plodding kind, they are. But for the skaters, the relationship between work and life would be better represented by a dash than a slash. I wouldn’t want to work on anything that I didn’t want to take over my life.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

  • As my friend, the novelist Isle McElroy, so aptly put it, “so weird when people read a novel looking for answers. novels are questions. question after question after question.” Reading does not guarantee moral certitude, nor will any individual book be able to undo systemic problems. But being able to sit with nuance and contradiction and complexity can make readers become more discerning consumers of media, and coming up on the 2024 election that could only be a good thing.

Maris Kreizman, “Against Disruption: On the Bulletpointization of Books”, Literary Hub, 1 February, 2024.

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  1. As it happens, Dixon’s very own website has a functioning RSS feed. He may not even realize this, as RSS is so ubiquitous that many website and blog software products either build it in by default, or make it easy to add with simple plugins. 

  2. It was in one of those very same RSS-delivered podcasts where I recently heard Eric Silver talking about powerful tech companies bashing RSS because it doesn’t fit the extractive, moneymaking model they desire: “They’re so mad that the RSS feed doesn’t harvest data! They hate it!” This, I suspect, is the real reason Dixon describes RSS throughout the book as “dead”, “failed”, “fizzled”, “doomed”, and “fallen”. 

  3. Dixon speaks of how in the early days of “web1”, or the “read era” (a period he defines as 1990–2005), “anyone could type a few words into a web browser and read about almost any topic through websites”. This completely ignores that few people — hardly just “anyone” — had access to a computer, much less a computer with internet access, in that time. By 2005, around 16% of people globally were online. 

  4. The “casino” thing is a16z’s version of No True Scotsman that I’ve mentioned before. All the good projects that they like are “crypto computers”; all the failed, embarrassing crypto projects get the “casino” label and aren’t “real” crypto projects. 

  5. For this, he cites two crypto firms (Coinbase and Paxos), who have both been using the “if you don’t write us friendly, bespoke regulations, we will be forced to take our business elsewhere!” threat as a lobbying tactic.