The Ruffian's Greatest Hits 2023
This Year's Top Ten Posts As Voted On By Me
I know we don’t like to get sentimental here, guys, but I’ve loved writing The Ruffian this year and I’m so happy that so many of you read and appreciate it.
In no particular order, here are ten posts from 2023 of which I’m particularly proud - and after that, a rattle bag of Christmassy links.
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This post and the following one (The End Of History) were both inspired, if that’s the word, by a very strange history paper, which made me reflect on the danger of stories.
Stories act like an anaesthetic on our sceptical, questioning faculties. It can be valuable and pleasurable to subdue that part of our brain, and immerse ourselves in an imaginary world; I love reading stories, including non-fictional ones. But if you come across a history book, or a scientific study, or a news report, which tells a great story, or which slots neatly into a master-narrative in which you already believe, you should be more sceptical of its truth-value, not less.
I wasn’t intending to return to the same subject but I was so shocked at how bad the journal’s response was, that I felt I had to.
Whole fields of historical study seem to have turned into competitions for who can generate the most eye-catching narrative of identity-based injustice, and if that means making blatantly implausible empirical claims, so be it. To me this seems a very bad thing for the authority of history as a discipline.
On why the slogan “trans women are women” has done more harm than good. One of the good things about Substack is that you can take on controversial subjects that are hard to discuss intelligently on Twitter without getting a stupid bomb dropped on you. The responses to this piece were calm and mostly positive.
“Trans women are women” is true in the sense that trans women should be treated as we treat women wherever possible; in the sense that we should respect the sensitivities of anyone who identifies as such. But it passes over and obscures the question of what kind of woman is a trans woman - that’s to say, what are the meaningful differences between trans women and female-born women, and what do those differences imply for how we organise society. It suggests a perfect identity between two categories which only overlap.
After listening to a revealing podcast interview with Starmer, I knew I had to write about it. So much of the commentary on him is shallow and repetitive.
Starmer is a slow learner who improves gradually and erratically. That is why those of us who follow politics will always be frustrated by him, at any given point, yet also surprised by how much progress he makes. When I say he’s a slow learner, I don’t mean he’s dim; of course he’s not. It’s more that he relies heavily on his analytical brain because he can’t make the short cuts offered by strong intuitions. He has to run through all the computations, the costs and the benefits, before arriving at an output.
Putting these two posts together, for obvious reasons.
Something we should admit to ourselves is that there are no good answers here, only bad ones, albeit ones that must, by someone, be ordered by degree of awfulness. This conflict is a hard, hard problem, a “wicked problem” in every possible sense of that term. Of course, we outsiders desperately want to believe there is a simple, good solution available, if only Israelis would accept it. But in truth there are no solutions, only painful trade-offs. (In a weird way, accepting that truth takes away some of the futile and counter-productive stress about the whole thing.)
One of my favourite descriptions of The Ruffian came from a reader who said something like, "It’s about all sorts of things, but really it’s about how to think”. This one is about how to think about happiness.
So much of society seems organised around a blurring of the distinction between hedonic and eudaemonic happiness; between having a good time and a good life. We’re slow to recognise that the absence of negative feelings is not the same as happiness. Or to put it another way, we’re quick to conflate “well-being”, in the Gwyneth Paltrow sense, with well-being in the sense of a life well lived.
Another topic it’s impossible to discuss on Twitter, and as much about how to think as it is about Allen.
The null hypothesis of those who believe in Allen’s guilt is that when a man has been accused of doing a horrible thing by a woman, he probably did it. This is by no means a bad starting place. I agree that Dylan’s testimony is serious evidence that Allen is guilty. But I think there’s a different null hypothesis, which for me precedes that one and subsumes it. It’s this: it’s extremely unlikely that anyone with Allen’s track record would commit such an unspeakably appalling crime, as a one-off.
I see this illusion at work in many areas but particularly the post-pandemic discussion of working-from-home.
Companies were able to cope with lockdown unexpectedly well because they had two forms of infrastructure to fall back on, only one of which was visible. There was online videoconferencing - and there was company culture. By the latter I mean an existing stock of relationships and ways of doing things that were formed in the office and which are much harder to form, learn, or refresh, over video. If you’re a new employee it’s harder to bond with your company if you’ve only worked remotely. It’s harder to pick up the skills you need, or to assimilate its unspoken norms.
I did a few Flashpoints conversations this year and hope to do a few more next year. I’d seen a lot of coverage of A.I. as an existential threat to humanity, but very little clear explanation, in layman terms, of why some experts consider it to be one. So I asked the excellent Tom Chivers to help me fill the gap.
So the fear is not that the AI becomes malicious, it’s that it becomes competent. It does exactly what you wanted it to do, but not in the way you wanted it to. It’s just maximising the number that you put in its reward function. But it turns out that what we desire as humans is hard to pin down to a reward function, which means things can go terribly wrong.
Please share this post! After the jump: a Christmasy rattle bag of delightful links, including:
- How to make perfect roast potatoes
- A truly revelatory podcast conversation on Israel
- Interview with a Swiss Travis Bickle (but less evil)
- In the studio with Bob Dylan
- The novel I most enjoyed reading in 2023 yet somehow left off my 2023 review.
- #AccidentalPartridge, American edition
- A gorgeous duet featuring two of our most singular singers.
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