The following Paul Graham tweet has been making the rounds recently:
Unsurprisingly, I think this tweet is wrong. Moreover, I think it’s laughably wrong, but not in quite the same way everyone else seems to. The general thrust of the dunks has been “has Paul Graham ever met a mathematician?” Well, I have met mathematicians, and I think Graham is basically right about them. Sure, if a single mathematician can’t get a research job, they might stop proving theorems and find other vaguely-technical work—think of a mathematician or physicist you know who didn’t get a job in academia. But if no one were proving new theorems, I would be shocked if hobbyists didn’t take up the mantle. The progress of the field would suffer massively (though more on the theory-building side than the problem-solving one), but it wouldn’t stop. Graham’s error is in thinking the same isn’t true of gender studies.
With that out of the way, there are several more things I could say about this tweet:
I could point out the abysmal state of the faculty job market in the humanities—certainly worse than in math—which ensures that roughly zero people go into gender studies because there are “jobs to be got by it.”
I could suggest that framing gender studies scholars as cynical rent-seekers reflects an internalization of right-wing culture war narratives (corporate diversity consultants are another matter, but the tweet is about academics).
I could bring up 2010s Tumblr culture, which is proof that people will devote staggering amounts of their spare time to debating the ontology of gender.
I could point out the well-established fact that Paul Graham reads Slate Star Codex, so he should know better than to make this argument. Say what you will about Scott Alexander, but you can’t deny he’s written many essays—including some extremely good ones—that fall under “gender studies.”
I could point out how this is at odds with the standard techie critique of humanities majors—that they’re stuck in a state of arrested development, “majoring in a hobby,” and need to realize that life isn’t all fun-and-games and learn some valuable skills.
And lastly, I could argue that Graham, having amassed millions of dollars and established a loyal internet following, is has become too insulated from the consequences of his ideas. That he just farts out half-baked and inconsistent statements that anyone (including Graham himself!) could debunk with 30 seconds of thought. This reading would be well-received by many people, would get me a lot of likes on social media, and would be promptly forgotten after everyone scrolls past it. Regarding authorial intent, it might even be correct.
But I there’s a better, more artful, more uplifting reading of this tweet—one which paints a very different picture of Graham’s actual thoughts on gender studies. To understand why, we need to talk about Leo Strauss.
Strauss was a German-American political theorist who taught at UChicago in the 50s. Today, he’s primarily known for two things: his work on “esoteric writing,” and an academic genealogy with more conservative intellectuals than a Bozell–Buckley family reunion. The latter will have to wait for another time (oh man, will we get to the Straussians), but for now I’d like to discuss esotericism. Strauss was interested in writers living under oppressive regimes that would subject them to ostracism, censorship, or violence if they expressed their ideas outright. According to Strauss, such writers often crafted texts with an exoteric meaning—a banal thesis chosen to maintain plausible deniability—and a more controversial esoteric meaning, which is never stated explicitly, but hidden between the lines for attentive readers.
There are several ways to accomplish this goal. An esoteric writer might make an obviously bad argument for their stated thesis. They might frame their piece as a refutation of heresies, but state the heresies with lively, passionate prose and cutting arguments, before retreating to a dull and pedantic style for the refutation. They might fail to make a refutation at all, ending bluntly with “but this goes against the wisdom of the church and must therefore be wrong.”
This all reminds me of an old SNL sketch, in which Steve Martin plays a medieval barber. From 5:39 in the linked video:
Wait a minute. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps I’ve been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a “scientific method.” Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance!
An esoteric reading of Paul Graham’s tweet requires two things: a concealed argument, and a reason to conceal it.
The first is obvious. Graham stakes out an exoteric thesis: that math and related fields are “better” than gender studies. He defends it by establishing a criterion for the quality of a field (whether amateurs would care enough to produce new work), and stating by fiat that it applies more to math than gender studies. But any reader—crucially, even one who agrees with Graham’s exoteric thesis—would concede, if they thought about it for a moment, that the criterion is at least as true of gender studies as it is of math. And it’s certainly more true of gender studies than applied fields like software engineering!
So Graham’s esoteric thesis must be that gender studies, and the critical humanities in general, are more socially valuable than his own discipline.
Why would Graham want to conceal this point? Certainly he’s not afraid of Twitter censoring a defense of gender studies. I think there are a couple possible answers. First, he might assume many of his followers won’t be sympathetic to such a defense, and wants to prevent them from dismissing it out of hand. Second, he might want to conserve his social capital in the tech world, as any explicit praise for gender studies would brand him a social justice warrior in they eyes of his VC friends. Esoteric tweeting allows him to make his case to a learned few, while maintaining plausible deniability to everyone else.
But if Graham think gender studies is more valuable than the things he’s devoted his entire career to, what does that say about his future?
I have a guess. At some point, possibly this decade, possibly the next, Paul Graham will exit Y Combinator (he has, IIRC, stopped handling day-to-day operations but still retains an advisory role). He’ll cash out most of his holdings. And then he’ll publish a groundbreaking work of feminist theory, one which transforms our understanding of gender. Berkeley will hold seminars like “Paul Graham in conversation with Judith Butler,” undergrads will discuss him in their philosophy classes, and the time when everyone called Paul Graham an entitled tech bro will be relegated to a historical footnote.
A more magical world is possible. All you have to do is believe.
I had a half-written post on optimizing Wordle guesses with Shannon entropy. Apparently Grant Sanderson had the same idea and presented it better than I could’ve hoped to, so I’ll just link to his video instead. Check it out!
I’ve posted my own code on Gitlab. I’m sure it’s suboptimal in many ways, but I had a lot of fun writing it. “SOARE” seems to be the highest-entropy first guess against the provided list of answers, followed closely by “ROATE” and “RAISE”.
“Substack” sounds like the sort of algebraic structure that would be far more interesting than anything posted on Substack.
Your theologians were so preoccupied with proving the existence of God, they didn’t stop to consider uniqueness.
There was a physicist named Wendell H. Furry! Why is no one talking about this?
Yeah, you might say I’m into BDSM:
Nick Land is to cyberpunk what the fascists were to Italian futurism.
Yale grad students always love to eating at” Junzi” but they do not care of, “Gen Z”
Does submitting jobs to a supercomputer count as “operating heavy machinery”? Asking for a friend.
I’ve seen a lot of internet arguments where someone referenced the xkcd comic below. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way, and one day I opened a blank file to articulate why, so now you get this close-reading.
[Note that this comic was written in 2011, long before Biden was president. If you’d like, you can substitute a mostly-inconsequential public figure of your choice.]
Are the views expressed by second stick figure the same as Randall’s? I think it’s highly likely: the guy in the white hat is usually written to have bad opinions, and he expresses his point in the snobbiest possible way. Plus it would fit with this later comic). So for convenience, I’ll assume the comic’s thesis is that opinions on wine are mostly pointless.
Before we proceed, I should make three things clear about my thoughts on taste:
- While price and quality can be correlated in some regimes, equating the two is paranoid posturing at best and rank classism at worst.
- Furthermore, quality is not objective, and different people can and should enjoy different things.
- If you happen to be a nerd about something inconsequential, “how do you stand [inferior thing]” is generally the worst way to share it.
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s move on:
This comic is usually trotted out as an argument against thinking too carefully about the contents of your glass. It’s the “let people enjoy things” of food and drink. It promises to stand up to snobbery, but replaces it with smarm. So as someone who enjoys tasting new wines (and new coffees, and new beers, and new burgers), I should reject it, much like caring about negative reviews should compel people to reject “let people enjoy things”. Right?
Well, here’s the thing: I think Randall’s point is basically valid. If I spent even a week staring at photos of Joe Biden eating a sandwich, of course I’d notice things about them and start to develop opinions. And the thought process I use to figure out why I like something is similar for wine, fonts, landscapes—anything subjective, really. It’s all just drawing boundaries in a large parameter space (though it’s a bit less true for art, which is made with the goal of communicating something).
This leaves us at an impasse. Either we can admit that caring about details is pointless and stick to surface-level impressions, or we can twist ourselves into ad hoc rhetorical knots to justify why the things we care about are truly special and worthy of our evaluation. What should we choose?
…The correct choice is to take a step back, and admit that arguing about Biden sandwich photos would be fucking awesome.
Imagine if you had strong opinions on Joe Biden sandwich photos, and what’s more, that this were a normal thing in American society. Every week or two, a White House photographer posts a new sandwich frame, and the internet erupts with hot takes about the lighting, or the choice of mustard, or why everything’s been going downhill since the ciabatta era. You find a gem from the archives and text it to your friend, who agrees with your assessment and thanks you for the recommendation. You get to have an opinion on whether the Lettuce-Pattern Tie of ‘15 was clever or just gauche, and you occasionally attend dinner parties where people are interested in what that opinion is.
The only difference between sandwich photos in this imagined world, and wine, beer, or coffee in our current one, is that the latter three are Schelling points. Being the only person to care about something is, let’s face it, kind of excruciating, so the natural choice is something which presents a low barrier to finding other opinionated people.
Wait, is that why so many guys are obsessed with sports? I think I get it now.
Coffee is a perfect example of this. Most American adults drink it every day, and while only a small minority ever become coffee nerds, “a small minority” of Americans is still millions of people. Any sufficiently large city has at least one coffee shop with a knowledgeable staff, and for the especially curious, every variable that goes into a cup is meticulously documented online. You’d have a hard time finding a better thing to nerd out about. Wine is similar, but with more cultural cachet—and hey, it gets you drunk!
The internet has decreased the barrier somewhat, which is why we see so many niche fandoms popping up—if you want examples, scroll through /r/HobbyDrama.
Fans of Paul Fussel might argue that strong opinions on inconsequential things are symptomatic of an upper-middle-class status anxiety which seeks to centers conversations around anything but ideas. This may be true for some, but if the your conversation isn’t jumping between beverages, politics, and god-knows-what-else, you’re clearly drinking with the wrong people.
So yes, let people enjoy things. But encourage them to articulate why they enjoy things, or why they don’t. Listen to them. Argue with them. Experiencing another mind’s perspective on a subtle distinction might be the best feeling there is.
I created this site a few years ago with the intent of starting a blog. Life got in the way (probably for the best, as the web is now spared the insufferable thoughts of me-as-an-undergrad), and three years later I’m going to try again.
I promise to start posting for real before the end of the month, lest I fall into the trap of only blogging about why I don’t blog more. But for this post, I’ll limit myself to an introduction.
Why am I doing this, anyway?
We are gathered here today because:
Men would rather start a blog than go to therapy. I’m an insufferable hipster and blogging is finally retro. My opinions are too “real” for the rest of the internet, and goddammit, people need to hear them!
Okay, maybe there isn’t a singular reason.
What am I going to write about?
Everything. That said, I expect most of my posts will be centered around:
A subset of books I’ve read in the past couple years, which I plan to review at some point:
- Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities
- Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Carmen Maria Machado – Her Body and Other Parties
Some books I’m currently reading, planning on reading, or planning on re-reading, and which I may or may not end up reviewing:
- Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
- Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent
- Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
- Steven Weinberg – The Quantum Theory of Fields
My day job is as a physics PhD student, so naturally, I’ll spend some time writing about physics.
I wouldn’t call this a “science outreach” blog, in that I’m not interested in discussing physics non-mathematically. Science writing, when you can’t use terms like “orthogonal” or “isomorphic” or “to leading order”, is an entirely different skill that I’m not very good at (plenty of other people are very good at it; go read Quanta). But when possible, I’ll try to keep things accessible to undergrads, technically minded non-physicists, and precocious high schoolers.
If I had to point to a gold standard for the technical-but-still-conversational type of science writing I’d like to do, it would be these three posts by Scott Aaronson. When I write about science, it’ll be with the conscious goal of imitating his style.
I sometimes hack random projects together in my spare time. Several will be showcased here. Stay tuned.
Politics & Philosophy
I expect political posts will comprise a minority of my writing here, and rank punditry will comprise an even smaller minority of that.
This is not because my political views aren’t important, or because I believe in being “civil” or “apolitical”. It’s because I rarely feel like I have anything to add. Although all writing is to some extent political, most overtly political writing is bad, and the handful who can do it well are more talented than I am.
That said, if I think of a particularly sharp argument or a useful framing, I won’t hesitate to sound off.
Earlier, when I said there wasn’t a single reason for starting this blog, perhaps I was being more pithy than honest. If there is a reason, it’s the memory of a time before I used social media, before everything was about centralization and doomscrolling and reply guys, when the internet seemed to present boundless possibility, when it was a place that people could share things they loved…
…and the vain hope that maybe it could be that way again.
If you’ll permit me a further extension of this embarrassing measure of sincerity, then in the spirit of sharing things we love, I’d like to close with a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.