What Sonya Wrote, Summer 2018

Hello everyone! I just switched from MailChimp to an indie newsletter service called Buttondown. It is my dearest hope that everything goes smoothly and this email doesn’t get lost in your spam folder 😓

Life has been busy busy busy since I last updated you in June. Highlights:

If you want to learn way more about the Zcash Foundation’s doings, click here and here.

Outside of work:

Internet idealists talk about how freedom of information opens up opportunity for everyone. You can learn whatever you want, build whatever you want, and communicate whatever you want. For example, instead of needing thousands of dollars to self-publish a physical book and buy ads for it in a magazine, you can make an ebook for free, distribute it however you like, and promote it on social media. Compared to the previous status quo, this is a genuine improvement! The internet idealists are right: Opportunity truly is more broadly available than it used to be.

But what if Amazon bans your ebook? What if Barnes & Noble and Kobo also deem it inappropriate? The unspoken catch of the internet as democratizing force is that if you are weird enough, or aberrant enough, and you either use the wrong keyword or attract the baleful eye of the administrators, you’ll be banished. In that case, it doesn’t matter that there are fewer gatekeepers — the handful of big, flourishing gatekeepers are key, and they have shut you out.

It may be that there is another path. Disenfranchised hackers and crypto-anarchists are building parallel institutions that no one group can own or control, instead of trying to force giant tech platforms to accommodate them. They recognize that any entity that prizes advertising revenue above all else can’t be relied upon for civic neutrality.

  • Expanding on that theme, I explained how cypherpunk politics means choosing exit over voice.
  • And then expanding on that theme even more, I argued in a CoinDesk op-ed that cryptocurrencies can circumvent financial discrimination.
  • My fiancé and I went on a trip to New York City. We visited lots of friends and it was exhausting but wonderful.

I think that’s it! As usual, please reply and let me know what youuu were up to this summer!

However, I have learned from experience that if you send me a long email, I will take forever to respond. It happens because I start feeling bad that I haven’t come up with an equally involved response. Nothing personal! Sorry in advance!

💕 Sonya

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Monthly Shenanigans, Spring 2018

Happy June 👋

Once again, you are reading The Newsletter Formerly Known as Exolymph! Hopefully you’re all aware of that by now and I can stop using the disclaimer.

It’s appalling, but the last time I sent one of these dispatches was during February. In the meantime I wrote seven installments of an experimental project called Sonya Notes, mostly about epistemology. You can read those posts on my website or on Substack.

The biggest change since February is that I quit journalism! In May I joined the Zcash Foundation as its third employee. My job entails messaging strategy, marketing, PR, and general outreach. We’re a small team, so I tackle whatever needs doing, as long as I can pull it off.

A lovely side effect of not writing articles for work is that my creative drive is slowly refreshing. Stay tuned for a handful of essays in the coming months. Perhaps I’ll make a zine again! I miss zines.

What have you been up to? Any interesting projects?

Best,
Sonya

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The Label Is Not the Object

The label is also not the surface, nor the entity, nor [insert appropriate term].

Here’s another map-territory relationship that I’ve been thinking about: Labels and objects. The function of a label is to set expectations. It tells you how you’re supposed to think about whatever underlying thing it has been applied to.

Often this is banal, as with a drawer labeled “forks.” There is no need to devote mental processing power to the full complexity of each multi-pronged implement.

Labels on humans deserve more scrutiny.

Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for categorizing myself. Myers-Briggs (I’m a consistent INTJ), the political compass (I wander around the lower middle), etc. I know that aside from the Big Five, these designation systems don’t mean much. But they’re fun! And comforting, because I can feel like I’ve situated myself relative to other people.

Labels become unwieldy when you fluctuate between multiple categories or when you would need a Venn diagram to properly lay out your position. Think of the hyphenated Ethnicity-or-Country-of-Origin-American — manageable, but awkward.

For a while I described myself as a “cynical optimist” (yes, this coincided with my arguing-about-religion phase). It was cheesy, but I was trying to encapsulate the blend of sardonic and sunny that I wanted to project.

Now I have a hard time summing up my political views. Left-libertarian? Neoliberal? Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, but jkjk I’m only fiscally conservative in a selective way? It’s harder now than it used to be, since I’ve learned to be far more uncertain about any given policy choice. (Generally speaking, I believe in markets and competition, but the implementation details are hard to work out.)

Paul Graham wrote in 2009:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity [because disagreement feels like a personal attack]. By definition they’re partisan. […] If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Graham concluded, “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”

What I like most about Graham’s framing is that it puts you in charge of your identity. Your identity isn’t something that happens to you, imposed by the rest of the world, but something that wells up out of you and is displayed to the world. It’s your job to filter and shape it.

My friend Way Spurr-Chen wrote wrote a lovely, encouraging essay two years ago about the process of identity self-management:

If you think about integrating a new sense of self as simply moving from one place towards another place, it seems less daunting. You can always go back to where you were before (and I don’t know about you, but I reverse my improvements all the time). Instead of being a daunting undertaking, you can turn your identity goals into a sort of play. Why not explore (metaphorically and literally) different parts of your potential? Why not see how you regard yourself when you have certain identity traits?

Circling back to labels: They have a tendency to stay stuck. You might end up adding spoons to your fork drawer but never switching out the label for a new one that says “silverware.” And then guests get confused looking for spoons.

Is it necessary to label yourself? Probably not, if you’re the sort of person who can mentally avoid it. (I’m not.) Other people will continue categorizing you regardless — there’s no escaping that. I suppose thoughtful, self-applied labels can be a kind of defensive maneuver.


Originally posted on Substack.

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Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don’t I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.

“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.
“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.

Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.
  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.


I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.


Originally posted on Substack.

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Performing the Real-Time Self

Talk the talk, even in front of everyone else.

Artwork by Katherine Vinogradov.
Artwork by Katherine Vinogradov.

I’ve created precisely two livestreams so far. Don’t expect me to stop! My once-defunct YouTube channel is supposed to be ready for action within a day or two.

Livestreaming eligibility is not instantaneous on YouTube, because why should anything be easy or straightforward. During the meantime I can take advantage of Twitter’s native Periscope integration.

What I enjoy about livestreaming is that it feels like a casual chat among friends. Actually livestreaming doesn’t just “feel like” that, it is that. My internet friends are the ones who show up to watch and interact.

A handful of people have told me that I should start a podcast. Maybe I will? When I appeared on The Paradox Project and The Menu Bar, the responses were more positive than negative. Aaand my SO might agree to chatter with me (although only with his real name concealed).

Talking is hard. You gotta be charming and coherent at the same time.


Originally posted on Substack.

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