People Who Shaped My Intellectual Growth

I came across Tracy-Gregory Gilmore’s list of people who have influenced him, and I found the idea really charming. Exposure to a few different people’s ideas has been incalculably valuable to me, and I want to publicly thank them in the same way Gilmore did.

These are people I consider “remote mentors” (a concept I wrote about in August, 2016). Two writers in particular have profoundly shaped how I see the world: Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex and Ben Thompson of Stratechery. Their names are repeated on the list below, but they deserve special recognition.

In chronological order:

  • Vladimir Nabokov, who penned the infamous novel Lolita, is my favorite author. That book in particular turned me onto postmodernism and moral complexity.
  • Ben Thompson of Stratechery is a business analyst who writes about the tech industry. Reading his articles got me interested in business and economics, and I learned a lot from his commentary on incentives and the structure(s) of markets.
  • Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex is… well, professionally he’s a psychiatrist, but online he’s sort of a cultural philosopher. His essays on identity, community, and politics have been very illuminating. Everything is virtue-signaling!
  • Venkatesh Rao, creator of Ribbonfarm and Breaking Smart, is a writer in a similar vein to Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. The label “cultural philosopher” once again feels like it fits. His area of expertise is breaking people’s mental models and then helping reconstruct them.
  • Meredith Patterson and Alice Maz are both programmers who wrote essays that helped me become more empathetic. Patterson wrote “Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy” and “When Nerds Collide”. Maz wrote “Splain it to Me”.
  • Adam Elkus and David Auerbach are two polymath scholars who incisively understand the meta-politics of the cyber age (which is only just dawning, I might add).
  • Lou Keep’s Uruk Series is a phenomenal tool for understanding modern discontent and the failure cases of social control systems. Start with the essay on Seeing Like a State and then skip to the essay on witch doctors.

Last updated 8/13/2018.

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Favorite Quotes from “Shuffleboard At McMurdo”

“Shuffleboard At McMurdo” is a charmingly biting essay about visiting the National Science Foundation’s research station in Antarctica. It was written by Maciej Cegłowski, the entrepreneur behind no-nonsense bookmarking service Pinboard. Cegłowski raised $37,936 on Kickstarter in August, 2015, to fund his journey to the South Pole.

Even those of us who didn’t contribute to the Kickstarter (or weren’t aware of it at the time) can enjoy the written results. Here are my favorite quotes from “Shuffleboard At McMurdo”:

“The point of building McMurdo was to get Americans to the South Pole, part of an unpublicized Antarctic base race with the Soviet Union. No one had been back to the Pole since the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1911, and it was the obvious prestige location in Antarctica. Whoever controlled the Pole would control — well, a tiny area of featureless ice cap.”

“The courteous Russians have hoisted an American flag, which the wind is trying to send back to New Zealand. Like blasting your car defroster on a cold day, wind is the price you pay for ice removal in Antarctica. Anywhere there are bare rocks, you’ll find unspeakable gales keeping them that way.”

Photo of Antarctica's McMurdo Station by Eli Duke.
Photo of Antarctica’s McMurdo Station by Eli Duke.

“I have learned that people willing to spend a fortune on Ross Sea travel share a love of grandeur, remoteness, and filling out forms. During our trip south, the passengers have sometimes seemed more interested in the official names of things than in the things themselves. They fight over the map instead of looking out the window. Their idea of heaven would be completing a tax return on Mars.”

“There is a profound connection between Antarctica and space, not just because polar exploration is a great analogue for the space program, but because all kinds of stuff falls onto the ice cap and then gets caught on promontories of rock as the ice narrows and flows down glaciers into the sea. Like bacon bits scraped off a griddle, space rocks accumulate at glacier edges and make life a breeze for collectors, except for the part where they have to come to Antarctica.”

If you enjoyed those quotes, go read the full essay. I also recommend another piece that Cegłowski wrote about the coldest continent, “Scott and Scurvy”:

“Somehow a highly-trained group of scientists at the start of the 20th century knew less about scurvy than the average sea captain in Napoleonic times. Scott left a base abundantly stocked with fresh meat, fruits, apples, and lime juice, and headed out on the ice for five months with no protection against scurvy, all the while confident he was not at risk. What happened?”

Sign up for occasional updates on Sonya Mann's writing and other creative endeavors.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you).