We’re at the end of another year that feels like a decade. A year of tumult and a year of reckoning, the continuation of what seems the unending 2020. It’s also been two years since I started writing. When I started Strange Loop Canon I had made two promises to myself. One was to write what I wanted, to keep it fun. Second was to never try and optimise any actual metric or even measure it, at least for a couple years.
Well, that deadline has come. And with it, some metrics. Two years, 124 essays, 360k words, and a lot of good friends. That’s slightly more than one ~3k word essay a week, with an average writing time of c.8 days. I wouldn’t have expected this, and the only reason it happened was because this was interesting! That’s thanks to you all. Sincerely, thank you!
There's a journey we made together through economics and investing and satire and conspiracy theories and grant making and epistemology and more. And there is so much more to write about yet. Looking at the map we've traversed though, even with the large number of tributaries there have been a few major themes that kind of organically emerged.
The first year was mostly a meditation on the rise and fall of the modern organisation. The second year has been obsessions with the topic of curiosity and innovation and its emergence. I wrote a fair bit about the three mainstays of progress - energy, materials and knowledge - and how in machines a la AI we seem to be making strides on the third.
To make things a tad easier for everyone I’m thinking of adding a few sections which I think capture the gestalt of this blog and solve the infinite archive problem. By substack fiat I have to do these as new newsletters (I think) so y’all can subscribe to specific essays only if that strikes your fancy. (Edit: I don't think this is necessary, just a choice, but will let you know once I find out)
Progress, building successful organisations
Technology, AI and distilled knowledge
Investing & philosophy of business
Let me know what you think, am thinking through this and will do it sometime early Jan.
And now, the future.
Since we’re still (hopefully) near the end of the long 2020, I also feel there’s a sense of fundamental dislocation in our collective psyche. I see this in the markets, in people’s jobs, in technology itself, in science, everywhere. And in times of dislocation what survives are experiments to try and uncover the nature of the new normal.
This site started as an experiment too, one that I feel has been a modest success in what it set out to do. Which was to make the experimenter better even as he learnt from his experiments. In continuing that vein here are a few experiments I want to run in 2023, in no particular order.
I’d like to start creating an actual community around the reader base here. You guys are great, and I’ve learnt far more on things I thought I knew, and far more about things I never knew, and expanding the boundary of my ignorance has made this great.
I want to take a whole lot more reader suggestions on things to write about. Two of the areas I had the most requests so far were around investing and economics. Is that what y’all like? I’d seriously love to know. I could do a poll, or you can literally just email back or write in the comments and I think that’s easier.
I’ll start thinking, writing and doing more on investing, and at some point start operationalising it somehow.
I wrote a book for fun a while back, imagine P G Wodehouse meets a modern caper. I don’t know what I want to do with it yet.
I wrote a story for my sons and have been figuring out how to use AI tools to make it into a picture book.
I have a longer running research project mapping all historical innovations and their “DNA”. It started with my essay on combinatorial innovation, and the end form is unclear, but I’m incredibly proud of it and this will continue the coming year.
I have another long running research project on the rise, decline and fall of the modern organisation. I wrote The Canon on this last year, but it’s been weighing on me that I haven’t fleshed this out into one coherent piece of work.
There’s an ongoing effort to create a glass bead game and connect some of the dots of various fields, creating consilience.
Most recently something that’s been obsessing me, which is the creation of a philosophy of business. And before I leave you, next section is a partial view of what I’ve been thinking on this here.
One of the odd things about writing online is the persistent question of whether I should narrow down and find a niche. I love finance, and startups, and crazy sci-fi tech, and culture, and general organisational shenanigans, and economics in an applied sense, but none seemed like something I wanna go all in on.
Anyway, right now it seems a chunk of the next year’s essays are likely going to be on how we create systems to help create the future we want. The systems part feels important, because that’s how we move from a pre-paradigmatic era to something a bit more sustainable. And create part is important too, so it’s not entirely just interesting but potentially useful.
Whether it’s investing or policy work or technological progress or our shared culture, they kind of revolve around this question, of how do we learn the skills to coalesce ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities in front of us.
Sometimes it’s retrospective, sometimes it’s speculative, and oftentimes it’s mixing a few domains together. Let’s see if this can’t help us discover a better world through techno-utopianism, an appreciation for human culture, and the glass bead game.
Philosophy of business
Having read much of the feedback to my post and a not insignificant number of books, I think the best way to see it is that Business is pre-paradigmatic. Kuhn talked about sciences in their pre-paradigmatic phase, where they’re immature, “lacks consensus”, has a wide variety of theories and procedures, and little opportunity for collective progress.
Thales, in ancient Greece, to prove the value of learning and philosophy, once cornered the market for olive presses and made himself unimaginably rich. 2500 years later, our business ideas are in the same place. This is no different to how Hunt brothers cornered the silver market in 1970s or Cornelius Vanderbilt and the railroad markets in early 1900s.
Among all the professions, if you brought a businessman from an older century to the current era, they would probably have the least difficulty slotting back in. Doctors would have decades of studying to do, as would scientists of all stripes, but merchants would be mostly fine. Our richest investor follows, roughly, the same guidelines as laid out in a text from close to a century ago. Our businessmen follow the same tactics that anyone from the previous centuries would follow, even if they couldn’t make head or tails of the technology underneath.
Scientists and businessmen both try to identify something accurate in nature. Scientists generally try to find things that replicate, and business folk generally don't care about replication, only whether something works. Science grows by creating paradigms that can build on top of each other, while business grows by creating something that someone else values.
Business remains pre-paradigmatic.
Which also explains the obviousness or unreliability of much of the business pablum you get to read. Whether it’s HBR or old school books or modern blogs, they make you feel you know something, which quickly evaporates when you try and do something. The best of them act as sort of a signpost of where all to experiment, or what learning something might feel like, but they’re a far cry from the “here’s the equation” learning that physics traffics in.
For instance, the much maligned question of why economists were not much richer. This is part of it. They’re trying to define a paradigm that can actually help interpret what they’re looking it, but the paradigms keep shifting soon as they're identified. Except for foundational models like supply and demand, which seem stable, but which are so far removed from specific decision making that knowing it isn't a competitive advantage.
Unfortunately the world they’re examining turn out to change based on the results of their examinations. Ideas, once discovered, rarely settle down as facts about the world, as much as strategies that quickly get outdated.
Which means the philosophy of business today is much like alchemy. Sometimes it works, there seem to be hints of universal truths or at least repeatable hypotheses, but it remains mostly outside an actual repeatable process.
Can we create such a systematisation for what’s essentially destined to be trial and error? It’s unclear. Business at its core is an endeavour meant to help us collectively satisfy our desires both seen and unseen.
But we'll try and see if we can't make one. Until then, I love you all. See you next year!
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Personally I’m intrigued by the “letters” feature that Substack introduced a little while ago. I would love to see some correspondences / long form dialogues on here, or from any other writers. Have you given this any thought?
Thanks for posting this!
On the specialization question: I'm personally more interested in seeing you explore a variety of topics. I care for the thought and ideas that you bring to a topic more than the topic itself. In fact, I think I'd rather see an *interleaving* of posts; something about economics one day, then AI another day, then business, then maybe back to economics..
I agree that business is a desert of shifting sands, which makes theories about it both easy to formulate and difficult to implement. One reason: businesses are actually quite diverse, but folks tend to recommend organizational structures similar to what they're familiar with. The owner of a small customer service business recommends practices only appropriate for a small customer service business, while Jack Welch tells you how to run GE. I presume that launching a 5-person indie video game company requires very different processes than starting a 5-person electronics repair shop.
Which is not to discourage you from writing about it! Just agreeing that it's difficult to create a Grand Unified Theory of Business. ;)