Emergent Order

Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity.

Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop to consider how remarkable it is that our local supermarket always has enough bread on the shelves. Suppose an alien landed from outer space and you had to explain that there were two possible systems for ensuring that there’d be enough bread in the supermarkets to feed a local population. One system involved a “bread czar” who’d be totally focused on making sure every store got the right amount of bread from farmers; the other system would involve a bunch of chaotic, self-organized activity between and among all the farmers and market owners in the world and somewhere it’d all work out. Logically, the bread czar carefully overseeing everything should carry the day. But alas!

Here’s Russ Roberts, from his blog post on Emergent Order:

Understanding and appreciating emergent order, and understanding when it works well and when it doesn’t and it does not always work well, is for me, the essence of economics and the deepest idea that we economists can contribute to helping normal human beings understand the world around us.

Economists call the interaction between buyers and sellers of bread a “market,” but our charts of supply and demand, while often very powerful, don’t get at the richness of how we as human beings manage to cooperate without top-down coordination and do it so peacefully.

Indeed. The post is a companion to a short video titled It’s a Wonderful Loaf, which Russ produced, which tells the story of the would-be bread czar. I had the pleasure of seeing it debut in San Francisco.

Inducing awe is something I’ve written previously about. It’s a powerful habit to cultivate. I love being in the presence of real expertise or real impressiveness and marveling at what happened behind the scenes to manifest the expertise in front of me. Free markets and capitalistic mechanisms — while hardly perfect — for me induce a different but related sense of awe and wonder.

Thanks, Russ, for sharing your passion and sense of wonder with others. It’s infectious.

John Stuart Mill’s Life, In a Sentence

“Mill’s [life story] is of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.”

That’s from Adam Gopnik’s wonderful account of Mill’s life. The opening paragraph of the piece contains this: “Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill.”

Mill made it onto my icons list of 2009.

How Romeo Stevens Improved His Life

He first describes how his life has gotten better. And then attributes it to the below actions. My favorite is #6.

  1. Movement. Sure, having an exercise habit, but also just physically altering my state when I am not functioning well gets things working more often than not. Weights, cardio, yoga, but also just walking and sit stand desk ($30 from Ikea parts).
  2. Info triaging. Reading many things at a coarser level and prioritizing more ruthlessly based on what seems valuable, alive. This is a rather pithy description for something of such vast value. It is probably worth a post. (huge ht to Alex Ray for finally finally convincing me to actually do this.)
  3. Developing exobrain systems that work for me in a pleasant rather than onerous, virtue based way. eg I use workflowy, pomodoros, and konmarie like systems a lot. I find many other systems for organizing my priorities to be unpleasant, so I don’t use them. Note I said organize my priorities, I don’t use such systems in order to try to make myself work. Once I stop thinking of these as ‘productivity systems’ I started getting tons of value out of them. That frame is propaganda for an internal fight that it’s better to get a ceasefire on rather than developing ever more powerful weapons for.
  4. Noticing negative self talk and not putting up with it. Internal parts that are motivated to get something can engage respectfully with other parts/values or they can be ignored. This got more subtle as I got better at it. I went from noticing explicitly violent internal moves (yelling, shaming, etc.) to noticing that parts use things like hypnotic binding, misleading choice of words to frame issues etc. Your parts are as smart as you because they are you. (sometimes they seem smarter because systems arrived at via selection don’t have to stick to a particular abstraction level the way explicitly planned ones do)
  5. Internalizing the core framework of coherence therapy and Immunity to Change by Kegan: that your current bugs/negative emotions/etc. are trying to help you and if you don’t acknowledge the important job they are doing any fighting you do against them likely won’t work. Or in other words, akrasia is self healing unless you figure out the ways your current coping strategies are helping you get your needs met and you find alternate ways.
  6. I don’t know what to call this one that won’t induce an eye roll. To paraphrase Lama Yeshe: ‘I am not telling you to help others as some sort of virtuous commandment. I am saying that from a 100% selfish standpoint you should try out focusing on the needs of others. Try it for 3 weeks, and honestly evaluate if your life is better. If not, you never have to do it again. But it will likely be impossible not to notice how much better things go when you get in the habit of keeping a lookout for ways you can assist others in their positive goals. No one is telling you to give up your critical faculties and be taken advantage of. And you’ll find that your paranoia was unwarranted.’ I’ll note that if you are secretly keeping a tally of how people owe you you are not doing the thing. This might be semi-involuntary and take conscious effort to drop. Others might be wary as they suspect you of angling for some advantage. Let them in on the secret that you are being selfish. Those you genuinely enjoy helping and those you don’t will work itself out naturally.
  7. My attention span has improved dramatically as a result of significantly reduced use of super stimuli (news feeds, video games, pornography, super stimulating foods, hero’s journey fiction, hyper attention grabbing style music, frequency of hamster pellet checks (fb, email, messaging, etc.), video binging) and the resulting free time is shocking.
  8. Schematizing everything. This is an improvement not to normal mental tools but to the mental toolbox. Collecting schematic workflows that other tools can be plugged in to for specific tasks. There are far fewer of these and they assist in the mental availability of the correct mental tools because they have what Eugene Gendlin calls a ‘specific’ or ‘sharp’ blank. ie a blank that knows what it is looking for (what was that word? no that’s not it etc.). Ever wonder why you can remember thousands of words but not 100 mental tools? Because you have a rich associational web for your words (connotation space) but not one for mental tools. This starts fixing that. The sooner you start the better.
  9. Noting (outlined here)
  10. Rituals make your life more like Groundhog Day. Mainly used for the meta-habits of setting intentions around other habits and doing reflection. A morning and evening routine is very worth it. It will repeatedly fail, you have to keep iterating so it fits your current life.
  11. Climbing out of the valley of bad meta of believing if I just installed the correct set of mental tools and habits that things would magically fall into place at some indeterminate point in the future. Realizing that I can’t use the outputs of other people’s processes as my process (as you would be doing if you tried to instantiate this list as a set of processes rather than using it as inspiration to examine your own life more closely)
  12. Meta: carefully investigating motivation, prioritizing, meaning, the concept of ‘carefully investigating’, goals, systems, mental tools, mental states, search strategies, what counts as an explanation, tacit vs explicit, procedural vs declarative, and others.

Here are Romeo’s other posts on LessWrong. Thanks to Andy McKenzie for the pointer.

Knowledge Accumulates Over Generations

One of the central takeaways from Chuck Klosterman’s book is that throughout history many well-verified “truths” about how the world works have, in time, been proven wrong. He provocatively asks: Which assumptions about the world do we hold dear today that subsequent generations, benefitting from greater scientific discovery, will laugh at?

You can learn this lesson vividly in the arena of building engineering and home repair, as I have.

Consider a building structure that was originally built 100 years ago but has been updated over time. An engineer will inspect the building and say, “Oh, that foundation work utilized a technique that was common in 1980.” Or: “That way of supporting a second story addition was popular in the 70’s.” A specific building technique is easily timestamped based on the prevailing knowledge at that time. With the punch line being: There’s a different best practice today. “In 2017, we do it differently.” And, usually (but not always) — it’s a better technique.

It’s inspiring to see how building engineers continue to iterate their approach. And it occurred that it’d be amusing if management consultants similarly couched their advice in before-and-after timestamped language. “That way of doing performance management was popular in the 80’s, but we know better now.” “Structuring your decision making that way was popular in the 90’s, but we know better now.”

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Related, somewhat of a counterpoint: The always provocative Robin Hanson says one of the big neglected problems in the world is that each generation has to re-learn lessons during its individual lifetimes.

Neglected Big Problems

Heleo Interview Part 1

Here’s a six minute video excerpt (part 1) of a recent conversation I did with business site Heleo. We cover how adaptation is a business and life skill; how to get feedback on how you should adapt; what one might need to unlearn from school; and why there IS such a thing as a dumb question in a meeting.

“There Are No Shortcuts”

A few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard to get some attention; to generate some controversy. But to make your name mean something and to have it stand for dignity and integrity — that’s rare. It’s not something you can buy. There are no shortcuts. Video below (start at minute 13).

Product Hunt Podcast with Brad Feld

Epic wisdom from Brad Feld on life and business in this conversation with Erik Torenberg on the Product Hunt podcast. I make a cameo at minute 17.

Schedule Your Free Time

A quote from Mihayl Csikszentmihalyi of Flow fame:

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

As found in Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Cal suggests we more rigorously schedule our weekends instead of leaving Saturday wide open and figuring it out once we wake up. This doesn’t mean working all weekend, but scheduling your leisure like you schedule your work.

Product Hunt Podcast and AMA

I did an hour long podcast with Erik Torenberg on the Product Hunt podcast. Embedded below. We cover a range of topics. I also did a text-only Ask Me Anything on the Product Hunt site where we cover a lot of ground as well. That link has the full transcript.

Also check out Tyler Cowen’s interesting AMA on Product Hunt as well. I asked him a question about reading books and he had an interesting reply.

From Communal to Individual. From Future to Present.

Two paragraphs that I think capture the current milieu quite nicely, by Lionel Shriver in the book of essays Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.


To be ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lowercase gods of our private devising. We are concerned with leading less a good life than the good life. In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we are happy. We shun self-sacrifice and duty as the soft spots of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture, or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and we’re not especially bothered with what happens once we’re dead. As we age–oh, so reluctantly!–we are apt to look back on our pasts and question not did I serve family, God, and country, but did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat? We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but would whether they were interesting and fun.

If that package sounds like one big moral step backward, the Be Here Now mentality that has converted from 60s catchphrase to entrenched gestalt has its upsides. There has to be some value in living for today, since it any given time today is all you’ve got. We justly cherish characters capable of living “in the moment” — or, as a drummer might say, “in the pocket.” We admire go-getters determined to pack their lives as much as various experience as time and money provided, who never stop learning, engaging, and savoring what every day offers — in contrast to dour killjoys who are bitter and begrudging in the ceaseless fulfillment of obligation. For the role of humble server, helpmate, and facilitator no longer to constitute the sole model of womanhood surely represents progress for which I am personally grateful. Furthermore, prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.