Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Pros and Cons of Being an Insider vs. Outsider

A striking section of Elizabeth Warren’s memoir is about advice she says Larry Summers once offered her:

After dinner, “Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes. “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

This gets at one reason why powerful people tend to become less intellectually honest as they accumulate power: they begin protecting fellow insiders instead of speaking truth.

At various points of my life, in various contexts, I’ve been an outsider and I’ve been an insider. As an outsider, I relish the opportunity to think independently and speak my mind. But as Summers suggests, my outsider status relegates me to the margins of the “conversation.” As an insider, I tend to feel muzzled — i.e. countless blog posts drafted and then deleted. But I have the most impact on the world when I’m on the inside of a power structure, exerting influence.

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

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.

Burning Man 2015: Impressions and Lessons

“Burning Man is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” – Elon Musk

I’ve heard variants of this sentiment from many friends over the years. So I’ve intended to go to Burning Man when the opportunity presented itself. 2015 was that year.

I should preface my impressions of Burning Man with one important qualification: I was only on the playa last week for 24 hours total. Due to the last minute decision to go, I didn’t have time to prep, arrange proper sleeping accommodations or fix my schedule to enable a proper multi-day stay. All I brought fit in a school-sized backpack which contained two Whole Food sandwiches and some cliff bars. I “slept” in a friend’s mid-size rental car. Most important, I didn’t have time to go to any of the famous lectures, classes, and other one-time events that tend to require a bit of pre-planning over a few days. So me commenting on Black Rock City (the name of the pop-up city that the festival represents) is like someone commenting on what a major city is like based on a short layover in the airport in between flights.

Me on the playa

Me on the playa

All that said, I did spend a full dozen hours walking around amid dust storms during the day and night. I did talk to a bunch of burners. I did check out dozens of camps and art installations and I did my time on an art car. I think I earned the right to have at least a few impressions.

First impression? Awe. The awe was felt most acutely at night, standing atop an elevated platform at the “altitude camp,” looking out at the city beyond. It really is a city: 80,000 people who have set up tents and RVs and camp sites, with their pop-up structures and art installations. At night, the lights on each camp shine for as far as the eye can see. It reminded me of driving to Las Vegas and seeing all the hotel lights as you approach the city. Except at Black Rock City the lights go on forever and ever in every direction.

Anyone with libertarian sympathies can’t help but be in awe of the scale of self-organization and self-reliance. Tens of thousands of people show up, build an entire city, and then take it all away, not leaving a trace. To be sure, there is a central power structure — the founder and a “committee of six” who make key decisions — along with some full time staff in San Francisco and a $10mm+ annual budget. But there are also thousands of volunteers who, in my conversations with them, did not appear to be all too coordinated with the powers that be. And of course 95% of the work that makes Burning Man what it is — the art structures, the supplies, the events, and so on — is voluntarily offered and coordinated by the 80,000 participants who derive meaning, not money, from their efforts.

Second impression? Hardship. Dust storms make challenging those mildly important tasks of breathing and seeing. Dust particles pollute your lungs and eyes; wind bites at your face and chafes your lips. The desert climate means you sweat during the day and shiver during the night. Pilots who charter planes to Burning Man call the area “Afghanistan.” What’s remarkable about Burning Man, as others have said, is you have some of the nicest people on earth populating one of the most inhospitable places on earth for a full week. And because you’re not allowed to buy or sell anything on the playa, all you have to deal with this hardship is what you bring with you, including food and water and face masks and lotion for chafed feet. Oh — and your cell phone won’t get service, so forget about calling your loved one for help. There are several moments where you ask yourself, “Why on earth did I come here?” Then you see a Pacman art car driving around in the desert night and you think, “Oh yeah, to see that.”

Third impression? The values. Radical inclusion. Radical self-expression. Leave no trace. A gift economy. They’re stated values but as we all know, stating values is easy. After all, one of Enron’s core values was integrity. Walking the walk on values is harder. Best I could tell, the Burning Man values really do permeate the behavior of those who attend. The Burning Man values are good values: the world would be better if more people adopted them.

Would I go back for longer? Yeah, I’d go back. I’d sleep in an RV. I’d coordinate in advance with friends to meet up. (Because of how you must dress to deal with the wind and sand, and the sheer scale of the place, serendipitous social occasions with friends doesn’t happen unless planned.) I’d schedule time to go to different lectures. And I’d spend at least 3-4 nights in order to get the full experience. To do it this way, it’d be expensive. Several thousand dollars, probably. I get the irony in that. As one friend put it, Burning Man is, in a funny way, an homage to capitalism: it’s sufficiently expensive to participate that it’s people spending their fruits of capitalism to participate in what otherwise feels like a non-capitalistic experience.

I’ve said it before after certain trips and I’ll say it again here: awe is an amazing emotion. Burning Man induces awe: at human creativity, at people’s willingness (including your own willingness) to push themselves amid harsh conditions, at the power of cultural norms and values to shape an entire population. Burning Man is worth seeing for yourself. I know there’s more for me to see.

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.