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Kevin Marks

Sketches of a History of Skepticism, Part I: Classical Eudaimonia – Ex Urbe

This is exactly what makes so much Covid and vaccine discussion painful. I'm not sure if it is down to naïve Popperian thinking or wilful rejection half the time. 

What we knew about teapots, coral reefs, moths and treesloths, Arthuriana, protons, and the Greek concept daimon, can all be overturned and yet we remain comfortable with the Scientific Method which produced our old false information, and we are still prepared to let it provide us with new information, then overturn and replace the new information in its turn. We do this without thinking, but it is in no way a universal or natural part of the human psyche. When chatting with my father about the proton research he summed it up nicely, that two possible responses to hearing that how we measure something seems to change its nature, throwing the reliability of empirical testing into question, are: “Science has been disproved!” or “Great! Another thing to figure out using the Scientific Method!” The latter reaction is everyday to those who are versed in and comfortable with the fact that science is not a set of doctrines but a process of discovery, hypothesis, disproof and replacement. Yet the former reaction, “X is wrong therefore the system which yielded X is wrong!” is, in fact, the historical norm. Whether it’s an Aristotelian crying “Plato has been disproved!” or Bernard of Clairveaux crying “Abelard has been disproved!” or a Scotist crying “Aquinas has been disproved!” the clear overthrow of a single sub-principle within a system was, for many centuries, sufficient to shake the foundations of the system as a whole, and drive people to part with it and seek a new one.

Kevin Marks

Kevin Marks

Heroics – Lucy Bellwood

The people I admire are mostly moving in spirals, guided by curiosity, poking their heads into things at odd angles, and reporting back with offerings. Often they’re taking the time to think about their values and then embody them through practice. I say “practice” instead of “action” because the latter still feels too close to…the other thing. Most importantly, they’re all in constellation with (and inextricable from) a web of other people who are thinking, wondering, helping, and connecting, too. And so it feels disrespectful to label them as “heroic”.

As Le Guin says:

[…] it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

This combination of words (rabbit/potato) makes me laugh every time.

Kevin Marks

Pluralistic: 01 May 2021 – Political economy vs inflation — Cory Doctorow

For inflation to happen in the wake of the stimulus, the spending would have to lead to too much money chasing not enough goods. Blyth gives some pretty good reasons to be skeptical that this will happen.

Start with the wealthy: they don't spend much, relative to their income. Their consumption needs are already met (that's what it means to be rich). You can only own so many Sub-Zero fridges, and even after you fill them with kobe beef and Veuve Cliquot, you're still rich.

What rich people do with extra money is speculate. That's why top-level giveaways generate socially useless, destructive asset bubbles. Remember, these aren't inflation, which is good, because everyone agrees that inflation is hard to stop once it gets going.

They're speculative bubbles. We have a much better idea of how to prevent bubbles: transaction taxes, hikes to the capital gains tax, and high marginal tax rates at the top bracket.

Kevin Marks

Who We Think Has the Power to Change the World? (transcript) – Ex Urbe

Ada Palmer explains how epistemology actually works (read the whole thing):

So if you were writing a preface to Epictetus, you would write a preface that said “He was a pagan, but he was almost as good as St. Paul!” And then ten years later when there was a new edition and someone wanted to make that edition sound better, and I have all of these editions in Latin and I have the article version of this where you can read the translations of all of these, they’ll say they want to make a stronger claim, so they’ll say “Epictetus’s moral maxims are barely less good than St. Paul’s.” And the next one will say “Epictetus’s moral maxims are just as good as St. Paul’s!” And the next one will say “Epictetus’s moral maxims, even though he was a pagan, were even better than St. Paul’s, because they are simpler and clearer and more effective at teaching ethics.” And by the time you get to the 1700s there’s an edition, which you can tell is copied from these earlier editions, they even plagiarize sentences from each other’s prefaces, it’s direct evolution, that says “Epictetus by the light of Reason alone and without the necessity of scripture or revelation arrived at better ethics than St. Paul.” And that is the kind of book that Voltaire owns when he is a kid.

and brings it up to date:

Real changes in what a society thinks, in what a culture values, come from thousands of people debating something.  It comes from that classroom where people are talking about Epictetus. And the modern equivalent of that classroom where people are talking about Epictetus then is this talk, this convention, blogs and social media spaces, even Twitter, anywhere where people are talking about books and events and thoughts. What’s going to shape the future? It’s people online debating about which actions are ethical or unethical in Game of Thrones. That’s exactly like these classroom discussions of Epictetus, which turn into introductions to Epictetus, which turn into the education of Voltaire, which turn into the pen mightier than all swords. Random conversation is where it happens, not one genius, thousands of people exchanging ideas. And it doesn’t result in the world those people envision.  Renaissance people did try to intentionally re-engineer the world, and they did sort-of have a shared plan, they wanted to make a world that was more ethical, that had a lot of moral education of its elites in those values which both Ancient Rome and Christianity shared, and this would result in an era of peace.


It didn’t.

Kevin Marks

Alec ponders fixing people

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

The internet has brought people together in a way that we’ve never seen before, removing barriers to communication between different races and cultures, and it turns out that if you do that to generations of people who are unused to having to rub along with “the other” then they get rude, offensive (or: offended), and like dogs separated by an online “fence” they bark and snarl and stress-out each other.

But the internet has few advocates, and hardly any of them have “standing” in the public eye. Almost nobody wants to tell positive stories to combat the toxic context.

Kevin Marks

Anonymity saved for now?

“Katie proposes that that British people should sign up for social media accounts using strong identity credentials like driving licenses, passports, or (presumably) bank documents, credit cards, or other strong identifiers; she assumes that this requirement will reduce or eliminate online abuse, because it permits accountability.[...]

In short: Katie’s proposal is the wrong fix, for the wrong problem, and pursuit of that wrong fix will break a bunch of other stuff without ever making anything better.”

Kevin Marks

Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation – Brain Pickings

In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.”

Kevin Marks

Commonplace – Lucy Bellwood

My dad never taught me about Commonplace Books or Zibaldones, but he kept one religiously.1 He was always hunting for quotes and anecdotes to fold into his teaching or add to his column in the local quarterly magazine. He also inscribed them on the collaged, abstract bookmarks he made for everyone he met. A great deal of his creative expression boiled down to this magpie tendency—a delight in gathering raw materials and mashing them together into something new.

Kevin Marks

Piper Haywood on notebooks

“The best personal blogs I've come across feel like a glimpse in to someone's personal notebook, something filled mostly with notes written with the author in mind first and foremost vs notes that have been written with a wider audience in mind.” 

A little more on Rietveld’s crate furniture, discovering Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture, and thoughts about the purpose of a blog — Piper Haywood