I haven’t been posting enough. Once a week seems like a fair minimum, especially now that a significant amount of people are paying subscribers. Since a few of my recent posts were a bit higher effort, I ended up taking a lot longer on them than I initially expected. In recompense, I’m going to try and feed in a few bonus articles here and there until I’ve paid off my word-debt. This week I’m doing something on walkability that’s almost done, but I wanted an extra night to work on it, so now seems like a pretty good time to drop one of the catch-up posts so you get two this week.
For this article, I wanted to give quick updates on what I think now of various articles I’ve written; on some of them I’ve refined my thinking a little, while on others I’ve had significant criticism. One fun thing about poor long-term memory is that I almost immediately forget the details of any given article I’ve written, so some of the older articles are pretty fresh to me now.
I’ll be moving through these in reverse chronological order, going from the oldest to newest. For the sake of everyone I’ll mostly confine myself to articles I either particularly liked or that did particularly well - if it got crickets and I thought it was so-so, I’ll spare you.
Kendi vs. McWhorter
If you are here after following a link from Andrew Sullivan’s Weekly Dish, this article is probably why. I have a fairly long-standing internet friendship with Dish Co-founder and really-solid-guy Chris Bodenner, hearkening back to his days at The Atlantic. I sent him this article to get feedback, and he put it in the eyeline of thousands and thousands of people, because he’s rad.
This was the first real traffic I got - other articles since have done much better, but without this early boost I’m not sure how well I would have done at keeping things going.
When I wrote this, the idea was still to make 100% of the articles about picking apart other people’s bad arguments - Kendi’s arguments are very, very bad and he was going after a person (John McWhorter) that I generally like so this seemed like a warm-up. John McWhorter is still great and Kendi is still generally a hack, so there’s not a ton of update there. Case in point:
This man will die of old age in bed, having never worked a day in his life, and never having said anything more thought-rich than this. That’s some kind of racket.
On the Exciting Subject of Earwax and Unsupported Medical Arguments
When I first conceived of this article, I was pretty sure it would get zero hits. I had a conversation with my wife that went something like this:
RC: Wife, I think I’m going to write about that thing I talk about all the time - how there’s not actually any real evidence that Q-tips are bad for your ears.
Wife: Is that a good idea? Would anybody care?
RC: Not a chance in hell. But I don’t have any better ideas this week.
A few days after the article went up, I became aware of Tyler Cowen’s grant for up-and-coming blogs and figured it was a low-risk high-reward kind of thing to send him an email; I included this as one of the links. I didn’t get the grant, but he did link this out, which gave me some access to both his audience and, by proxy, the Hacker News/Y Combinator set.
I also expected that at some point a very well educated ENT would show up and mention all the evidence I had missed showing that Q-tips cause impacted earwax, rather than just being associated with it. I was wrong. At least in terms of feedback I was able to find, it all stopped pretty firmly at the “well, we all know this is true, even if it isn’t substantiated” level of criticism.
That’s not nothing; the accumulated experience of a bunch of doctors does count for something - I’d trust it more than the accumulated opinions of a bunch of circus clowns or trial lawyers talking on the subject of occluded eardrums. But in terms of “oh, we’ve observed this happening with cameras or something” or better studies than what I put forth, there wasn’t much. Whatever opinions you had on this article before, there’s not much reason to update that I’ve seen. With that said, if you see anything on the subject that should change my mind, please let me know; it’s not the kind of thing I want to keep being wrong on if I am in fact wrong.
On Being Poor-ish, For People Who Aren’t
If you are reading this update post, there’s a very good chance that it’s because of the Poor-ish article. By my standards, it blew up in a huge way; It sat on top of Hacker News for the better part of an afternoon and I just got a massive, massive amount of traffic from it (again, by my standards, which are modest). I’m the kind of person who likes watching numbers going up, to the point where I have to be careful not to play games in the “Idle” genre lest I waste an entire weekend on nothing. This was a dream version of that - a ton of people were reading something I wrote, and that felt nice.
Then the feedback started rolling in.
I heard from other people who were on the poorer side of things or had been in the past, who offered a lot of solidarity and sympathy. One thing I want to emphasize is that so many people have had it significantly harder than me - I talked to some people who were living on very limited disability, or who had grown up in a kind of poverty as distant (for the worse) from mine as mine would have been from, say, a successful graphic designer. I have had difficulties, but some people have had hell; it helped put some stuff in perspective.
There were a few people who had little sympathy, basically saying that the kind of challenges I had were the result of poor planning and choices. These people, frankly, were at least partially right. In the long view, I certainly could have planned for better career paths and more education; I didn’t then and don’t now want to blame anybody else for that. In the short view, they were still partially right - there are always ways to economize or better manage resources than what you are doing now, and I don’t want to pretend I had maxed out all those options.
The biggest surprise for me were all the people who wanted to help. The first type of this I saw were people who just offered money, flat out; they had extra and wanted to share. If you were one of these, thank you; it was very nice. For what it’s worth, I turned all of these down. At the time we were paying our bills and didn’t have any emergencies to deal with. It didn’t seem right to take charity where I didn’t really need it, especially when there are people doing worse, as I noted above.
The second category was different - some people wanted to employ me. If my count is right, I think I got three offers at this time. One of these came early and was a really decent offer, allowing me to do more interesting work than I’ve done before at a much improved level of pay (more on this in a moment) and I’m incredibly thankful for it. It was a lifechanging thing that’s made a large amount of things in my life much, much easier/better/less stressful.
Two came a bit later, after I had already accepted the first offer. One, amazingly, got caught in my spam filter and I didn’t notice it until basically yesterday. Those two are no less appreciated; I keep in contact with the one I didn’t accidentally ignore because of my spam filter, and he’s an incredibly nice person and someone I’m glad to know (thanks, ML). The other seemed like a great guy as well (thanks and sorry for losing track of you, KO).
When I started this blog, I was pretty substantially depressed, and I had an awful lot of stress on top of that. I asked my wife to make me a logo for a blog I hadn’t made any content for because I figured it would make me feel obligated to put out at least a few posts, and I hoped that would help shake me out of what wasn’t a very good emotional state.
A few months later, I found myself in a really cool job with a very surprisingly reduced amount of stress. It turns out that when you can pay all your bills without contorting yourself in crazy ways, it’s a lot easier to let the small things slide. What’s almost weirder is the amount of stress that remains - I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop and for things to get harder again.
You’ve probably heard of imposter syndrome; that’s the feeling some people get where they feel it’s only a matter of time before people figure out they are faking competence or worth, and that some point someone is going to figure it out and everything will crash down around them. I have that. It’s getting better over time, but it’s going to take some time before I feel really secure. That’s not to say things aren’t much, much better - they are - but it did a lot to help me understand how people can have good income and still be stressed.
Assuming this brave new world doesn’t explode around me any time soon, I’m eventually going to write something on being middle-class-ish and the unexpected differences in lifestyle from the perspective of someone having them for the first time. I need to accumulate a few more of them before that will be an interesting article, but keep an eye out.
The FDA Could Be Better, But Nobody Will Ever Ask Them to Be
I haven’t really updated my opinions on this. Although it wasn’t referenced directly, I did see a couple different bigger names later on talk about how articles like this bothered them - that the idea that it could have happened faster was silly, and that things like this take time; the idea is that there’s simply no way to do a drug approval process that takes less than ~75% of a year.
I still think these people are very, very wrong. Challenge trials would have let us move faster with better, clearer results per test subject. This is was not and is not without risk, but that was an is counterbalanced by the fact that we knew millions of lives were at stake. I occasionally see this acknowledged, but it’s always with the mindset that there’s not any possible way to proceed besides taking months and months longer than necessary to get to human testing, and then handling the paperwork and approval only slightly faster than we would a novel treatment for warts.
Not that I expected it, but there has been no widespread call for the FDA to create anything like a pull-out-the-stops emergency protocol for illnesses we know will threaten millions. The next time something like COVID pops ups (which with mutations to COVID might be sooner than we think) the FDA has full, complete permission from the people of the world to sacrifice another few million people to institutional inertia and old fashioned CYA tactics.
There are other posts I’d like to re-cap, but I think that covers enough of the “old stuff” that we can wait until the next good timing for a clip-show. I really can’t find adequate words to express how surprised and pleased I am that you all are here, reading actual words I really wrote. I’d like to give something back, to the extent I can.
One thing that I’ve always been thankful for is that people would listen to me complain and offer advice, even when it must have been taxing for them. I want to give back on that front a little. Sometime next week I’m going to launch a section that gives fairly unlimited access to me. I’m not necessarily all that great, and I can’t guarantee that any advice I’d give would be useful or even sane by classical measures, but I’d like to be available if anyone needs me. I’m trying to figure out how to set this up so it isn’t pinging y’all with unwanted emails all the time, but as soon as I get that worked out I’ll have it up.
I mentioned this a bit already, but I also don’t feel like I’m posting enough. Part of this has to do with time - an article I’m happy enough with to post takes several hours, and having a job and family (both of which I want to keep!) takes a lot of my waking hours. As mentioned at the head of the article, a significant amount of you are paying customers now (thank you!) but I’m orders of magnitude from being at the point where I can make this my full-time work yet. I’ll eventually figure out some features that I can pump out on the regular to provide some extra content, but I want to make sure that’s worthwhile for the readers. Once I figure out some options for that, I’ll let you know; until then, suggestions are welcome.
Thanks, and I’ll be back with a full article in a few days!
This is just speculation, but I imagine the most generous reading of "the FDA could not possibly move any faster" is not actually "it is literally impossible from a technical and logistical perspective to make this process faster", but actually "if we tried challenge trials, the amount of public opinion pushback and bullshit we'd have to wade through would actually make the process slower overall".
I came here after seeing your comment at Marginal Rev about its move to facebook, which I thought was pretty good and so wanted to see more of your writing. Really like your one on being Poor-ish. The true measure of a successful life is having one's kids doing ok or better.