Skepticism, optimism, truth and an updated writing review

Skepticism, optimism, truth and an updated writing review

I last did a review of my writing in June and since then, I’ve published two dozen new “Securities” newsletters and podcast episodes. Here’s a recap.

One blockbuster piece that drove a lot of email was on a theme I dubbed “Vaporware Skepticism,” partially inspired by a line from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (“And that’s how they know what’s going on inside a person’s head — by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance”). The piece explored the well-financed hopes of new technologies including decentralized finance, nuclear fusion, and lab-grown meats, arguing that VCs flush with undisciplined capital are investing earlier than the science in these fields allows. We all want progress of course, but there is a pace to these innovations that capital often can't accelerate.

The year of 2022 has been a tough one for optimism — a deep economic recession in tech, Russia’s war on Ukraine, China’s unending Covid-19 lockdowns, de minimis progress on climate disruption — but that doesn’t mean there were no developments showcasing the enlightenment of humanity. In Scientific Sublime, I explored the James Webb Space Telescope and the broader impact of new scientific instruments on optimism. Progress certainly feels like it has been halted, but wondrous sci-fi moments remain possible when the best of global humanity comes together to push the frontiers of knowledge forward.

This has been a year of falls downward and somehow upward for a variety of notorious founders, politicians and bureaucrats. Reputations are rebuilt as past failures subside from minds. So where does reputation end and truth begin? In “Truth and Reputations,” I briefly surveyed the landscape of our fallen "heroes" to explore what really lies below the sheen of some of the most spotlighted people in our society.

One of the bywords

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Marginal stupidity, decadence, and more writing

Marginal stupidity, decadence, and more writing
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I haven’t done a writing review in a very, very long time (almost 6 months)! So I figured it was time to aggregate my collective output and highlight some of my favorite pieces.

First of all, most of my writing energies these days are devoted to the “Securities” by Lux Capital newsletter, and the identically-named podcast series, which is produced by Chris Gates. I’ve been covering science, technology, finance and the human condition since we officially launched in January, and so far, I’ve published 23 weekly newsletters and 20 podcast episodes.

I’ve covered a huge amount of ground given the openness of the overarching theme, but among my favorite newsletter issues:

  • American Civil War 2.0 — on the perilous state of civil society in the United States and why a new Civil War seems to be closer than it appears.
  • AI, dual-use medicine, and bioweapons — on the complexities of regulating technologies in the biotech space, and why bioweapons are so hard to stop.
  • Easternization of media — on the massive growth of media emanating from East Asia these days to the West, from pop music to manga.
  • The ESG Mirage — on the multiple scandals that the Environmental, Social and Governance investment management industry is facing right now, and why quantification in the industry is a lost cause.
  • America’s gambling fetish — on why online sports betting, crypto, decentralized startup investing and more have taken American culture by storm.

Meanwhile, over on the “Securities” by Lux Capital podcast, we’ve had a star-studded list of guests and some great conversations. Among my favorites are:

  • A four-part series on “Risk, Bias and Decision Making” with Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman, famed securities and portfolio researcher Michael Mauboussin, and World Poker champion and cognitive psychologist Annie Duke.
  • We had a great
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Is “decadence” even a useful concept?

Is “decadence” even a useful concept?
Image Credit: Wikimedia / Public Domain

How does one experience an era? How much can we “feel” the time and place we are in? In the post-Covid world, it feels as though we live in a time of fear, a time of caution, a time when the future is diminished and each day is a fight through some path-dependent consequence of the last two years of pandemic-induced change.

It’s also a time of decadence, for those inclined to certain strains of analysis such as Ross Douthat’s 2021 book The Decadent Society. There’s a feeling of listless purposelessness, of everyone walking on autopilot from one Saturnalia to another, all while the core foundation of a strong nation is left unattended to crumble. Or so Douthat’s theory posits, along with a whole wing of the bookstore haranguing the intentional decline of the once great nation of America.

Of course, it’s interesting to describe the zeitgeist of a country of 330 million people. Who determines the zeitgeist? Where is it centered? Does it apply to the urban centers or the hinterlands on the periphery? Just exactly how do you “average” the feelings of so many people? In much the same vein as Benedict Anderson famously described a nation as an “imagined community” since no one can meet everyone else in the nation, is there such an imaginary as zeitgeist? Does this “feeling” or “sense” of an era have any purchase?

I recently read Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, and while the 1988 book is mostly on societal collapse per its title, one aspect of his analysis that I felt was sizzling was his denunciation of any of these squishy feelings of zeitgeist, which he assails as “mystical factors.” In his analysis, such factors are completely undefinable, and entail value judgments

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The subplots of China

The subplots of China

The syllabus — when properly written — is one of the greatest instruments of human knowledge transfer available. Syllabi can turn an impenetrable pile of papers and books with similar-sounding titles and synthesize all of it into a well-structured hierarchy and prioritization of knowledge. It’s an important enough construct that William Germano and Kit Nicholls even wrote a recent book on the subject titled, appropriately enough, “Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything” (part of the excellent Skills for Scholars series from Princeton University Press).

So it was something of a treat to grab a copy of Megan Walsh’s new book “The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters.” It's a brief overview of the Chinese literature scene, including everything from the Nobel Prize-winning works of Mo Yan and the “fan fiction” on sites like China Literature (阅文集团) to the edges of literature like worker's poetry and LGBT writing.

At 136 pages, it’s a Herculean task to compress thousands of years of literary history and the world’s largest literature market into a slim volume. Walsh does am admirable job though, compiling what ultimately is an extended syllabus that structures many of the patterns and trends that affect Chinese literature today.

Throughout the book, there are capsule summaries of many different works, plus the occasional extended commentary on a topic of interest. While brief, Walsh has among the most sophisticated takes I have seen in print on the opportunities afforded by China’s comprehensive surveillance and censorship state, and the contours of where the lines are drawn (or just outlined since no one ever really knows where the lines are). Such constraints, while deeply disconcerting, offer room for creativity, or at least propel Chinese authors to explore other genres overlooked in the West.

Necessarily, The Subplot

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How disposable is Miami?

How disposable is Miami?
Photo by Danny Crichton

I’ve always been a believer in the quip that “America has three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” It gets at the uniqueness of some terrains and urban centers and the infinite monotony of others. Having grown up in the Midwest and later moved to the coasts, I find the quip stands up extremely well.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Miami for the first time. It’s a dichotomy of a city — a place unique in culture and people and history and its attachment to Latin America, but with an architectural style and urban plan that is just brutally, concretely, boring. And frankly impossible to use — every single trips around the city ended up requiring an Uber, and every single time that Uber was surging 2.0x or above. A single two mile trip downtown that took about 9 minutes cost $26 with fees, tax, and tip. This is a fanciful place.

The weather was absolutely pristine and enviable though, and I can see the allure. April sells Miami unlike any place I have ever been — the music, the breeze, the beaches, the polyphonies — just the vibe. I get it.

Connected to the trip, I delayed read Mario Alejandro Ariza’s recent book “Disposable City: Miami's Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe.” Given a lot of the work I have been doing around disaster response, it seemed the perfect antidote to the positivity that emanates from the Magic City.

It’s a negative if not dreary book, and positively among the global warming library, it tries to expand the panorama of people who are acting and reacting to the rising tides that threaten to subsume Miami back into the swamp. Given Ariza’s cultural background from the Dominican Republic, we

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Can the delocalization and deglobalization of American news ever be undone?

Can the delocalization and deglobalization of American news ever be undone?
Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Promenande. Image Credits: Danny Crichton

One of the most important trends in American politics and media is the concentrated attention that national politics gets from voters and journalists. In book’s like The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized by Daniel J. Hopkins, there is overwhelming evidence that American voters are increasingly choosing their votes based exclusively on national issues, rather than local ones.

That trend leads to vignettes like this section of a recent profile of J.D. Vance in The Washington Post Magazine by Simon van Zuylen-Wood at a campaign stop in Ohio:

One thing that struck me as I checked out Vance’s campaign events was how rarely voters wanted to talk about topics of local relevance. … Yet nobody in the room — or any other event I went to — asked about drug addiction. It’s not that voters didn’t grill Vance. They just preferred to ask about his past anti-Trumpism, or his relationship with Thiel, or any number of more unexpected national concerns, such as term limits.

There are a myriad of causes for this “nationalization,” the largest of which is shifting media coverage. As local news has dried up and so-called “news deserts” have become widespread, the only sources for political and civic news is often national-focused publications or broadcasts.

While causality is often assumed here, I find it quite complicated. It’s assumed that because local news has disappeared, voters have migrated to national voices and that’s influencing their vote and behavior. The opposite though could be true: voters have lost interest in local issues, stopped reading and watching local media, and therefore local media has lost its audience and therefore profits over time?

For instance, take this profile piece in The Atlantic by Scott Nover about Bklyner, a local-news startup founded by Liena

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A 2021 Retrospective from Danny Crichton

Hello! This weekly newsletter was last sent out according to MailChimp on Thursday, Dec 31, 2020 at 4:40 pm ET. Well, 53 weeks later, it’s now Jan 8th, 2022, and that means it’s time for another weekly edition of this annual report (I believe the British call this a fortnight or something).

The personal news from me: I departed TechCrunch as managing editor in November to become head of editorial at Lux Capital, a multi-stage, deep-tech venture firm based in New York City and Menlo Park, CA. I’m mostly writing on the same subjects, but they’re now on the Lux Capital homepage and our new newsletter “Securities.”

But with another year down, here’s my annual wrap-up of the best articles I wrote and read as well as my favorite books from 2021. As always, feel free to reach out anytime!

Best Articles I Wrote (2021 Edition)

Full listing and explanation are on the web, but the summary:

  1. The Future of Technology and Disaster Response series
  1. RapidSOS EC-1

Plus

  1. Labs over Fabs: How the U.S. Should Invest in the Future of
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Best Articles I Read (2021 Edition)

Best Articles I Read (2021 Edition)
Image Credits: Anthony Vicente / Flickr / Creative Commons

Another year, and another extraordinary period of in-depth journalism, voluptuous profiles, and incisive analysis. The news media is under constant vituperative attack, so I’m always astonished at the immense quality and erudition writers bring to bear on their work. Writers might suffer from economic percarity, but we live in an era of bold and limitless imagination.

Every year, I go over all the articles I saved and read (this year, a bit more than 1,600 essays and pieces) and pick my favorites. Unlike my slightly plangent note last year, I found that writing in 2021 returned to some semblance of “normal” — the daily history being made has become quotidian, and writers ventured outside the news obvious beats to explore interesting subjects.

All choices here are capricious and arbitrary. As always, New Yorker pieces (which there are many great ones this past year) aren’t included since I read it entirely on paper and never save the links.

First Place: The Anxiety of Influencers by Barrett Swanson

This was a gorgeous and original piece on well-trodden territory. Swanson travels as a “foreign correspondent” to Los Angeles in order to explore the rise of hype houses and the influencer world, running into a cast of teenagers whose antics and psychologies become enmeshed with those of our society at large.

It’s not just a good yarn, delightfully told. It’s also the kind of deeply-layered piece that allows for re-reading and pondering over many months. It’s about individuals and the pursuit of happiness and wealth. It’s about the clash of personalities between kids as well as kids and their parents, the latter of whom are often the driving force behind some of these influencer careers. It’s a comment on culture, marketing, narcissism and the exchange of “high”

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