On a science of discontent

October 31, 2022


Before I update you, I just want to mention to the less active readers that this is the last time I’ll use the old website name in this newsletter: The Armchair Collective. If the change surprises you, you haven’t been on the website in a while! That’s now the membership community of btrmt. But this email will keep coming and it’s still me writing it! Enjoy.

New Articles

A Science of Discontent

We regularly create ‘psychic predators’, choosing to concentrate on the uncontrollability of events or concentrating on events we can’t control. A far better way of approaching this is to exercise our ‘psychic muscles’.


On the value of religion for liberalism:

Anti-anti-theism helps to protect liberalism from jejune invocations of ‘utilitarianism’ and from an anti-spiritualism that can hardly uphold the dignity of the human person


Ten types of arguments commonly used by advocates of fringe concepts (from Wikipedia editors). Very interesting.

At the present time, Wikipedia does not have an effective means to address superficially polite but tendentious, long-term, fringe advocacy. Some contend that this is a main flaw of Wikipedia; that unlike conventional encyclopedias, fanatics can always get their way if they stay around long enough and make enough edits and reversions.[3] In this sense, Wikipedia’s ‘commitment to amateurism’ does not always work for the best interests of the project.


On the North Pond Hermit:

For nearly thirty years, a phantom haunted the woods of Central Maine. Unseen and unknown, he lived in secret, creeping into homes in the dead of night and surviving on what he could steal. To the spooked locals, he became a legend—or maybe a myth. They wondered how he could possibly be real. Until one day last year, the hermit came out of the forest.


On multiple chemical sensitivity. An interesting piece I wonder if would be as interesting pre-long-covid:

People within the online MCS community call themselves ‘canaries’, a species historically used as sentinels in coal mines to detect toxic levels of carbon monoxide … The question for people with MCS is: will anyone listen?


Why are we in Ukraine:

Vladimir Putin and the Russia he rules cannot stop fighting. As long as the United States is involved in arming Russia’s enemies and bankrupting its citizens, they are quite right to believe themselves in a war for their country’s survival. The United States, thus far in a less bloody way, is also involved in a war it chose but cannot exit—in this case, for fear of undermining the international system from which it has drawn its power and prosperity for the past three quarters of a century.


Givers think that conversations unfold as a series of invitations; takers think conversations unfold as a series of declarations. When giver meets giver or taker meets taker, all is well. When giver meets taker, however, giver gives, taker takes, and giver gets resentful (“Why won’t he ask me a single question?”) while taker has a lovely time (“She must really think I’m interesting!”) or gets annoyed (“My job is so boring, why does she keep asking me about it?”).


Kin-based institutions as an inhibitor of economic growth. Once again, a throwback to Parsons and Murdock: community should be secondary to civilisation. One is always left wondering whether the happiness trade-offs are worth it. Effective Altruists certainly seems to think so.

little attention has been paid to the oldest and most fundamental of human institutions: kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, clan membership, post-marital residence and family organization … we establish a robust and economically significant negative association between the tightness and breadth of kin-based institutions—their kinship intensity—and economic development


All History Is Revisionist History. A useful reminder.

many people are … offended to learn that at least some of what they were taught early in life as “history” is no longer fully accepted by historians and is instead taught in different ways. Like all humans, families, peoples, and nations—like many historians, too—they want to believe what they learned when young, especially since it long served as an adhesive of their identity.


Taleb on Christianity. Interesting ideas on the moral authority of religion as bound up in the mystery of the thing. There is an adage, ‘beauty is truth’. Perhaps things are less true when they are less beautiful and they are less beautiful when we can understand them better.

Effectively, Catholicism lost its moral authority the minute it mixed epistemic and pisteic belief –breaking the link between holy and the profane … For once religion exits the sacred, it becomes subjected to epistemic beliefs.


Thaler speaks about his nudges. He compares his version of libertarian paternalism to giving directions when asked, but of course no one is asking and who is to say his directions are the right ones. He is right that everything is a choice architecture though, so perhaps it doesn’t matter so much whether we like it. Also fun critique of old-school econ theory—rational actors posed as unscrupulous ‘Econs’.

Attribution: Richard Thaler


Solving Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’ with commitment.

In a culture addicted to endless choice, vows offer a higher freedom.

Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To “be modern” means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just “to be,” … but forever “becoming,”

A vow is a declaration not of independence but of a bond. When we vow, we are giving up our future freedom … Our liberty is given us so that we in turn can freely dedicate ourselves to something greater.


Advice for academics. Ten Lessons I wish I had been Taught by Gian-Carlo Rota. Just as useful now as 1996.


Why bother reading the bible?

Attribution: Ari Lamm Link

Why ‘cheap things’ don’t bring happiness.

Our reluctance to be excited by inexpensive things isn’t a fixed debility of human nature. It’s just a current cultural misfortune. We all naturally used to know the solution as children. The ingredients of the solution are intrinsically familiar. We get hints of what should happen in the art gallery and in front of adverts. We need to rethink our relationship to prices. The price of something is principally determined by what it cost to make, not how much human value is potentially to be derived from it. … There are two ways to get richer: one is to make more money; and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already to hand


the Elizabethans … They had a passion for virtue and a genius for cruelty. They had wonderful manners and barbaric inclinations, lovely clothes and terrible diseases. They oscillated madly between the abstract and the corporeal. And among his contemporaries, nobody oscillated more madly than John Donne


Seeing like a state. The start is most thought provoking—the difference between the local legibility needs (this road is Durham Road, because it goes to Durham) and state legibility needs (this road is Route 77 because lots of roads go to Durham). Where once we just went by given names, because everyone knew everyone, we now have at least two so the state can keep track of all the Sarahs and Peters. And so on. These legibility needs have most interesting consequences:

The quest for legibility, when joined to state power, is not merely an “observation.” … it has the capacity the change the world it observes. The window and door tax established in France … Peasant dwellings were subsequently designed … so as to have as few apertures as possible … the effects on the long term health of the rural population lasted for than a century … The window and door tax illustrates something else about “state optics”; they achieve their formidable power of resolution by a kind of tunnel vision that brings into sharp focus a single aspect of an otherwise far more complex and unwieldy reality … making possible a high degree of schematic knowledge, control and manipulation

Finishes with an off-beat example—the development and consequences of monocropped ‘production’ forests.


Collaborative writing project about a shared alternate universe where magic (anomolies) are real. Excellent.


Knitting took a long time to invent. So, in fact, did everything.


Research article: Republicans/Conservatives are not more likely to believe conspiracy theories:

In no instance do we observe systematic evidence of a political asymmetry. Instead, the strength and direction of the relationship between political orientations and conspiricism is dependent on the characteristics of the specific conspiracy beliefs employed by researchers


A plain language AI model tricked into helping plan a drug raid. Amusing.


The incredible resources required to build a Greek Temple. Another reminder how complex civilisations have always been. Makes me think of that extract from World War Z, the complexity implied by a root beer recipe:


molasses from the United States

anise from Spain

licorice from France

vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar

cinnamon from Sri Lanka

cloves from Indonesia

wintergreen from China

pimento berry oil from Jamaica

balsam oil from Peru


Interview with the “last man standing in the floppy disk business.”


Research article: midlife crises are less spectacular and more depressing, now:

This paper documents a longitudinal crisis of midlife among the inhabitants of rich nations. Yet middle-aged citizens in our data sets are close to their peak earnings, have typically experienced little or no illness, reside in some of the safest countries in the world, and live in the most prosperous era in human history.

Evidence take to support Jaques:

in midlife a human being is forced to come to terms, painfully, with the certainty of his or her own eventual mortality.



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Warm regards,

Dorian | btrmt.