Three months ago, in a post entitled "Below the Surface", I started a habit of posting in my weblog at least once a week. Although it's been a good run, I've cleared out my backlog of topics to write about. More importantly, I have a big project to finish (The Upland Farm, my forthcoming book on Thoreau) and another one to restart (more on that in the coming weeks), not to mention the need to focus intently on building the team at Filament and bringing our products to market. Because all of these initiatives will require a lot of deep work, my weblog will likely be fairly quiet until mid-summer. See you then.
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Someone I know who is an avowed socialist told me he'd be much more sympathetic to libertarian views if we didn't need big government to protect us from big business.
This set me to thinking: are large corporations a necessary feature of a free society?
Big business didn't become a dominant presence in the economy until the 19th century, so something must have happened to make that possible.
While doing some research and thinking on the topic, I think I found the fulcrum: limited liability.
What limited liability does is prevent someone who is harmed by corporate activity from seeking unlimited damages from the owners and directors and managers of the corporation. In effect, limited liability means that losses are limited but profits are theoretically unlimited.
That doesn't sound like a recipe for personal responsibility, does it?
Indeed, the artificial legislative construct of limited liability enables the owners and directors and managers of a corporation to do pretty much whatever they please, secure in the knowledge that they won't be held accountable.
Oh, and the first limited liability legislation was passed in 1811 in New York State (I'd bet at the behest of crony capitalists), followed over the next few decades by other U.S. states, England (in 1855), etc. So the timing works out, too.
In the absence of such legislation, would extremely large corporations exist? I have my doubts, because the owners and directors and managers would not want the organization to grow so large that they could not have direct, personal oversight of its operations (without such hands-on management, they wouldn't understand their potential liabilities).
Thus it seems to me right now that in a completely voluntary society, individuals would not willingly cede their right to seek appropriate damages against organizational activity and thus that our current regime of limited losses and unlimited profits (with its attendant huge corporations) would not exist.
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Recently I got to talking with a friend about personality assessments, especially in relation to hiring and talent development. It took me awhile to figure out why we were not in agreement: he was thinking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) whereas I was thinking about assessments based on the five-factor model (also called the "big five") of personality traits.
Although your Myers-Briggs results can be a fun conversation-starter, they're not based on science but on Carl Jung's fanciful ideas about psychological archetypes. Specifically, the MBTI is not reliable (people get different results depending on when they take it), it's not valid (it's not predictive of behavior and it's not based on a large set of data that's tied to a falsifiable model), it's conceptually muddled (e.g., it claims that thinking and feeling are opposites, but in fact people with good thinking skills also tend to be better at understanding emotions), and it doesn't provide comprehensive insights into its subject-matter (e.g., it doesn't assess key personality traits like emotional stability and conscientiousness).
In other words, it's junk.
It's unfortunate that so many people continue to put stock in Myers-Briggs, when we have a scientific model of personality that's based on tons of evidence and solid theory.
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Most people seem to believe that their thoughts are right, and that this is so because they are righteous people. Those who disagree with them are wrong and have bad intentions; those who agree with them have the truth on their side and have good intentions.
Sadly, this attitude is incredibly naïve.
I've held some strange and unpopular opinions, and I continue to do so. However, I've also changed my mind on certain topics.
For instance, once upon a time I was a virulent defender of intellectual property rights, but over the course of many years I became a strong advocate for the public domain. This change of heart was caused by my experience in the open-source / free software community, as well as significant reading in the history of copyright.
I was once quite opposed to religion of any kind (I suppose I was a militant atheist), but over the years I have become much more tolerant of other people's religious commitments.
Politically, although I've always been quite libertarian, I've bounced around from right-libertarian to left-libertarian, and to some extent I appreciate some of the criticisms and concerns of both the left and the right. These days, I'm pretty much anti-political and I actively doubt if government even exists (speaking of strange and unpopular opinions!).
Above I said that I've changed my mind. Yet sometimes I wonder if it's possible to change my mind: from the inside, it feels like my mind changes on its own. It's not that I actively, rationally decide to change my mind - it's something that bubbles up over time.
When I trace my intellectual history, much of it derives from my early immersion in Ayn Rand, whose books I started to read when I was 12 years old. Yet I was primed for her worldview because I had experienced a crisis of faith and had stopped believing in god when I was 9 years old. The more I reflect on this, the crazier it seems. Was I consciously choosing any kind of intellectual framework at the age of 9? Depending on your point of view, was I right/good or wrong/bad at such a young age? It seems more likely that because various synapses just happened to fire in my brain so early in life, I came to the conclusion that we live in a godless universe. But it's not as if I really chose that thought. (Indeed, it caused me much anguish at the time and for years afterward.)
So I wonder: to what extent are people responsible for the contents of their minds?
It feels to me as if much of what people think comes from habit, tradition, peer pressure, personal advantage, and the general environment in which they live. Sometimes those environments can be quite localized: the nation or religion or family you grow up in, where you go to school, the friends you make, the jobs you take, the books you read, etc. Because of in-group psychology, it can be difficult to break out of the bounds within which your mind operates.
For myself, I know that I have had to deliberately expose myself to viewpoints I would not otherwise encounter; I have done this especially in the field of philosophy (where I'm currently learning about both the Stoics and Vedic/Yogic ideas). Yet even here my explorations began as curiosity about secular philosophies that bear a family resemblance to Rand's ideas in the sense that they respect rationality, individuality, and human liberty. I suppose we all need to start somewhere, but even now I don't deeply challenge many of my mental assumptions or seek out encounters with intellectual traditions that I don't find congenial (say, existentialism, Marxism, skepticism, or hermeneutics). In part this is because life is short and I'd rather spend my time and energy on viewpoints that I'm more likely to apply in my own life and write about in a compelling way (I'll let others write about what they find congenial). However, I try to be aware that my philosophical explorations, although fairly wide-ranging, are also limited - and I try to not assert that I'm more right and righteous because I seem to have a bit more self-discipline (not to mention free time) for expanding my knowledge in a rather small field of intellectual endeavor.
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Someone who knows that I'm writing a book on Thoreau sent me a link from BrainPickings.org about Thoreau's views on the topic of genius. Drawing on the "Thursday" and "Friday" chapters of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the author focuses her brief essay on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.
Although that's fine as far as it goes, the word "genius" meant something more significant - and more ancient - for Thoreau than it does for us. When we think of geniuses, we think of really smart and inventive people like Albert Einstein. Yet for Thoreau, every person has a genius: "There has been no man of pure Genius; as there has been none wholly destitute of Genius." The key is a derivation from the Roman idea of your good genius, which borrowed directly from the even older Greek notion of your daimon - that is, your conscience, your higher self, your inner god, the aspect of your personality that partakes in the divine.
Consider a few quotes from Walden. In "Higher Laws", Thoreau writes:
If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.
And in "Sounds":
I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.
In "Economy", Thoreau makes explicit the connection between genius and independence:
I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.
At root, then, for Thoreau genius is not a matter of intellectual brilliance but of following your own path to the higher ground of your upland farm.
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One unfortunate byproduct of shutting down my VPS and moving my websites to GitHub Pages is that I'm no longer hosting the stpeter.im domain via HTTPS. Although I'm not overjoyed about this, I'm also not deeply disturbed by it given that my personal website isn't exactly the kind of information that needs to be encrypted in transit (and someone could retrieve it over HTTPS from GitHub.com if they really wanted to). Mike Linksvayer helpfully pointed out to me that there are some solutions, and I'll look into those soon. In the meantime I've modified all the cross-links within my websites so that they use http instead of https URLs.
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