Strong Towns: Do You Want to Know What Works?

“The building of cities shifted from being a co-creation of the people who lived there to a technical undertaking by professionals. The method of change shifted from a painstaking craft to more of an assembly line. The mature city was assembled incrementally on a continuum of improvement; in contrast, the places we’ve built since about 1945 tend to be built all at once to a finished state.

A cornfield is complicated, but not complex: it requires a lot of technical expertise to maximize yields and account for such things as soil characteristics and weather conditions, but ultimately it’s a monoculture. A rainforest is complex, co-created by countless interactions among thousands of different species that couldn’t possibly be reduced to a formula.”

Why Are the Prices So Damn High?

“The price of services relative to goods has been rising because productivity in services has increased more slowly than productivity in goods. At the same time, the services sector has been growing as a share of the economy. […] Because society is moving more resources into lower-productivity sectors, the inevitable result is slowing net productivity growth.


A slowing rate of productivity growth also means a decline in the Baumol effect. The Baumol effect is driven by increasing productivity in the progressive sector. As the progressive sector becomes a smaller share of the economy, it can no longer drive price increases elsewhere in the economy.”

The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet

“Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.

This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.


It’s possible, I suppose, that a shift away from the mainstream internet and into the dark forests could permanently limit the mainstream’s influence. It could delegitimize it. In some ways that’s the story of the internet’s effect on broadcast television. But we forget how powerful television still is. And those of us building dark forests risk underestimating how powerful the mainstream channels will continue to be, and how minor our havens are compared to their immensity.”

Clemens on minimum wage

“But let me express a doubt. Why do we discuss minimum wages so much? I think they irritate free-market economists because they are such a clear, simple, and paradigmatic stupid idea. The first insight of your Econ 101 class is that price controls destroy markets:

We see it over and over again, in centuries of experience boiled down to this simple graph. Price controls, rent controls, wage controls all have led over and over again to the same sorry story. And when supply is greater than demand, who gets the good, apartment, or job gets all screwed up. Don’t try to transfer income by screwing up prices. Along with tariffs and disincentives of 100% marginal tax rates, there isn’t much more essential to the basic canon of economics.”

Civilisational collapse has a bright past – but a dark future

Civilisational collapse has a bright past – but a dark future

“Finally, it’s significant that the world has become more networked and complex. This enhances our capabilities, but makes systemic failures more likely. A mathematical-systems study in Nature in 2010 found that interconnected networks are more prone to random failure than isolated ones. Similarly, while interconnectedness in financial systems can initially be a buffer, it appears to reach a tipping point where the system becomes more fragile, and failures spread more readily.”

Rules for wrongdoers

Rules for wrongdoers

“On the one hand, Cicero says we can organize our interactions with words; and on the other, we can organize them through force. The Kantian thought is that this distinction from Cicero gives us the resources not only to see the difference between war and peace, but to see how both the characteristic wrong of starting a war can be characterized in terms of making a transition from a situation of peace, one in which human interactions are governed by words, to one of war in which they’re governed by force.”

Going Critical

“But as much as I’ve thought about networks over the years, I didn’t appreciate (until very recently) the importance of simple diffusion.

This is our topic for today: the way things move and spread, somewhat chaotically, across a network. Some examples to whet the appetite:

  • Infectious diseases jumping from host to host within a population
  • Memes spreading across a follower graph on social media
  • A wildfire breaking out across a landscape
  • Ideas and practices diffusing through a culture
  • Neutrons cascading through a hunk of enriched uranium”

Knausgaard’s Secular Confession

“In Buddhism, on the contrary, absolute detachment is an end in itself. Since all attachments entail suffering, only absolute detachment can bring about the elimination of suffering that Buddhism holds out as your salvation. What ultimately matters is not who you are or what you do, what ultimately matters is that you attain a state of consciousness where everything ceases to matter—so that you can rest in peace.

The aim of Knausgaard’s mindfulness is the opposite. By attending to the struggles that emerge from his attachments, he seeks to identify more deeply with them: to become more attached to the life he is living. This is the third sense of his imperative. You must attach yourself to what you see—even at the cost of suffering—because without attachment there is no meaning: nothing to care for and no one who binds you to the world. To counter such nihilism is the animating ambition of Knausgaard’s secular confession. “Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life,””

The Tyranny of Ideas

“Lately, I’ve amused myself by operating through the lens that the world is run by ideas, rather than people. We tend to discuss mimetic effects in relation to mass consumption – its distributive effects – but less-frequently discussed is how mimetics affect creators themselves.

I like thinking of people as vessels, which provides a refreshing counterbalance to the well-trodden “great man theory”. Rather than viewing people as agents of change, I think of them as intermediaries, voice boxes for some persistent idea-virus that’s seized upon them and is speaking through their corporeal form. You might think of this as “great prophet theory”.

Ideas ride us into battle like warhorses. We can witness, participate in, and even lead these battles, but their true meaning eludes us. We don’t really know where ideas come from, nor how to control them.”

Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’

Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’

“A grimmer example might be solitary confinement in prisons. The punishment was originally designed to encourage introspection: to turn the prisoner’s thoughts inward, to prompt her to reflect on her crimes, and to eventually help her return to society as a morally cleansed citizen. A perfect policy for the reform of Cartesian individuals. But, in fact, studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.”

Rent Control Poem

Rent Control Poem

“There is a very long list of documented harms that rent control causes. It provides a strong disincentive to build more rental housing. It drives landlords to reduce spending on maintaining their units until the quality of the housing has drawn down to the point where it matches the allowed rent. And thus by reducing property values, it reduces property tax revenues. It reduces mobility for renters, causing them to stay in their rent-controlled housing rather than move when a better job or the needs of their family require it. It misallocates the total housing stock by encouraging people to stay in housing that doesn’t match their needs. It encourages rental property owners to convert apartments to condominiums, thereby reducing the rental housing stock. It inevitably leads to a “cluster” of regulations piled on top to try to legislate away all of rent control’s problems. And it doesn’t help the people with the greatest need, but rather the people most capable of gaming the system.”

Vimeo: Rough: The Music Video

Rough: The Music Video

Rein in the four horsemen of irreproducibility

“Yet many researchers persist in working in a way almost guaranteed not to deliver meaningful results. They ride with what I refer to as the four horsemen of the reproducibility apocalypse:

  • publication bias
  • low statistical power
  • P-value hacking, and
  • HARKing (hypothesizing after results are known).

My generation and the one before us have done little to rein these in.”

Revisiting Fred Rogers’ 2002 Commencement Address

“It’s not the honors and the prizes, and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted.”

1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled

“To review: population growth increases technological growth, which feeds back into the population growth rate in a cycle that reaches infinity in finite time.

But since population can’t grow infinitely fast, this pattern breaks off after a while.

The Industrial Revolution tried hard to compensate for the “missing” population; it invented machines. [… But …] tractors can’t invent things.


AI potentially offers a way to convert money into researchers. Money = build more AIs = more research.

If this were true, then once AI comes around – even if it isn’t much smarter than humans – then as long as the computational power you can invest into researching a given field increases with the amount of money you have, hyperbolic growth is back on.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

“Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.


One way to look at science is as a system that corrects for people’s natural inclinations. In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.”

‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US

“Americans claiming “no religion” — sometimes referred to as “nones” because of how they answer the question “what is your religious tradition?” — now represent about 23.1 percent of the population, up from 21.6 percent in 2016. People claiming evangelicalism, by contrast, now represent 22.5 percent of Americans, a slight dip from 23.9 percent in 2016.

That makes the two groups statistically tied with Catholics (23 percent) as the largest religious — or nonreligious — groupings in the country.”

What’s Wrong with Moral Foundations Theory, and How to get Moral Psychology Right

“A review of this literature suggests that there are (at least) seven well established types of cooperation: (1) the allocation of resources to kin; (2) coordination to mutual advantage; (3) social exchange; and conflict resolution through contests featuring (4) hawkish displays of dominance and (5) dove-ish displays of submission; (6) division of disputed resources; and (7) recognition of prior possession.

In my research, I have shown how each of these types of cooperation can be used to identify and explain a distinct type of morality.”

The Sting of Meritocracy

“Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as fulfilling an obligation to give back for an unearned privilege but as further demonstrating their own high-mindedness and merit.


The claims to legitimacy of today’s elite are met with skepticism not so much because it is too hard to enter the upper tier of American life (even if it is) as because those in that tier seem to be permitted to do whatever they want. Our elite is increasingly guilt-ridden, and the broader democratic public is increasingly cynical about its leaders, less because too few Americans can get into elite colleges than because those who do too often act as though they are then entitled to exercise power without restraints or standards.”

The Great Miscalculator

“The neoclassical economist sees the economy in a deterministic equilibrium and asks how that equilibrium can be improved. If instead we looked at economic outcomes as contingent, we would ask how catastrophic failure can best be prevented. Instead of assuming that the economy is robust, we would look for sources of fragility. Instead of hunting for market failures to avert, we would look for fragilities to mitigate.”