nihal's stream

A really cool stream.

As for how to write well, here's the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can't get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut; have friends you trust read your stuff and tell you which bits are confusing or drag; don't (always) make detailed outlines; mull ideas over for a few days before writing; carry a small notebook or scrap paper with you; start writing when you think of the first sentence; if a deadline forces you to start before that, just say the most important sentence first; write about stuff you like; don't try to sound impressive; don't hesitate to change the topic on the fly; use footnotes to contain digressions; use anaphora to knit sentences together; read your essays out loud to see (a) where you stumble over awkward phrases and (b) which bits are boring (the paragraphs you dread reading); try to tell the reader something new and useful; work in fairly big quanta of time; when you restart, begin by rereading what you have so far; when you finish, leave yourself something easy to start with; accumulate notes for topics you plan to cover at the bottom of the file; don't feel obliged to cover any of them; write for a reader who won't read the essay as carefully as you do, just as pop songs are designed to sound ok on crappy car radios; if you say anything mistaken, fix it immediately; ask friends which sentence you'll regret most; go back and tone down harsh remarks; publish stuff online, because an audience makes you write more, and thus generate more ideas; print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen; use simple, germanic words; learn to distinguish surprises from digressions; learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.

Writing, Briefly by Paul Graham

If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking. This may be inevitable because no statement of an ideal that is likely to sway men’s minds can be complete: it must be adapted to a given climate of opinion, presuppose much that is accepted by all men of the time, and illustrate general principles in terms of issues with which they are concerned.

― Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

the wealth of nations lies not in gold or coins, but in their productive capacity

‘Politics on the Edge’ presents an account of British politics that is self-assured in its mediocrity. I found much of his accounting stunning and incredible. Surely, they know that an aircraft carrier is not much good without a carrier battle group. Liz Truss really cannot be as batty in private as she appeared in public. No, she really was that batty. ‘The problem with you, Rory, is that you are always trying to be interesting.’ “Never be interesting.”

Stewart has the profile-writer’s facility for instantly recognisable one-sentence descriptions. Brown makes policy ‘brooding like a vast spider with melancholy ferocity, late into the night’ whereas Cameron is ‘chair of a 1980s stockbroking house – appropriately dressed, brisk on the agenda, not pretending to obsess over detail, conscious of other pressures on his time.’

I do not care to play the part of Monk; I will not play it myself, and I do not choose that others shall do so. But those Paris lawyers who have got into the Directory understand nothing of government. They are poor creatures. I am going to see what they want to do at Rastadt; but I doubt much that we shall understand each other, or long agree together. They are jealous of me, I know, and notwithstanding all their flattery, I am not their dupe; they fear more than they love me. They were in a great hurry to make me General of the army of England, so that they might get me out of Italy, where I am the master, and am more of a sovereign than commander of an army. They will see how things go on when I am not there. I am leaving Berthier, but he is not fit for the chief command, and, I predict, will only make blunders. As for myself, my dear Miot, I may inform you, I can no longer obey; I have tasted command, and I cannot give it up. I have made up my mind, if I cannot be master I shall leave France; I do not choose to have done so much for her and then hand her over to lawyers.

Conversation at Turin, as quoted in Memoirs of Count Miot de Melito (1788 - 1815) as translated by Frances Cashel Hoey and John Lillie (1881), Vol. II, p. 113

You want to do something in pursuit of your religious beliefs, and the state prohibits that thing. You go to court and assert your fundamental right to φ under the right to religious freedom. [Note: φ is the symbol for the Greek letter Phi, and in philosophy, it indicates a generic act.]

Completely separate from this, denominations and sects of religions sometimes sue the state claiming interference in 'matters of religion.' (Article 26) The question now is the meaning of 'interference.' What can it possibly mean, if states literally control the finances of temples, set guidelines as to who can be a priest, and decide which language the prayers are to take place in?

There’s also a third category of parties that show up in disputes. Sometimes, the state isn't limiting your religious freedom -- your community is doing it instead. What happens when the right to individual religious freedom contradicts the right of the religious denomination to manage their own affairs 'in matters of religion.' The parties here are not individual/group v. state, but individual/subset v. group. This is sometimes called an internal dispute. As Bhatia states the question in his paper, 'in what manner should a Constitution that guarantees the freedom of religion to both individuals and communities, mediate the claims of religious groups against the claims of their constituents?'

In the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Joseph Freer tells us what he would do if he were the minister of health (Freer 2021) Freer is opposed to the pro-market, privatising impulse in UK Health Policy. If he were health minister, he would change the constitution, establishing a separately elected legislature, along with a separate and expanded executive for health. Well, not just for health; under Freer's constitutional structure, the Ministry of Health would subsume three or four portfolios in the modern cabinet, with ministers under it having separate responsibilities for housing, welfare, social care, the NHS, public health, and patients. Each of these seven "health" ministers would now have a seat in cabinet.

Now, I am somewhat suspicious of those who tell me that their policy goals require a permanent constitutional revolution. Since Freer does not want to go to the trouble of securing the health budget and ensuring more collaboration between ministries, he has decided that he will turn over the table instead. Freer would be running in an election in which the sole purpose was the promotion of health, instead of a budget that balances investment, growth, or defence with social spending. One must appreciate Freer's candor; unlike many other first-time ministers, he is open about his desire to tell the Prime Minister to sod off and to consolidate all available power under his portfolio. I am only surprised that he did not bother to annex the Ministry of Defence; what with cruise missiles and landmines being somewhat deleterious to a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

But this is expected. Freer is, of course, being modest when he suggests that he would consolidate in the Ministry of Health every aspect of human life from conception to death. He has small, incremental ambitions, like creating a legislative assembly separate from Parliament. Freer is an academic and a researcher of some standing, and I cannot help my bemused affection for his approach. I sometimes suspect that if they made a lepidopterist the minister for endangered species, he would quickly abolish the Magna Carta to preserve some speckled blue wing-flapper of unknown origin.

"Now, come, soyons raisonnables," you say? Alright. Let us be reasonable.

There exists a limit to the force even the most powerful may apply without destroying themselves. Judging this limit is the true artistry of government. Misuse of power is the fatal sin. The law cannot be a tool of vengeance, never a hostage, nor a fortification against the martyrs it has created. You cannot threaten any individual and escape the consequences.

Muad’Dib on Law, the Stilgar Commentary

There are persons of known integrity — so overwhelmingly trusted that legislation is written on their assurance and governments lose majorities on their indictment. The basis of their right to govern is their virtue — their moral standing. It gives them credibility in rooms where decisions are made. It gives them legitimacy in rooms of people smarter than them.

Identify the most minute dishonesty in your speech and correct it. Be willing to go to the tower for your conscience. Refuse your blessing for the King’s divorce. Give up the chain of office without complaint the moment it requires you to depart from your ethical code. Be faithful and reliable. Obey the spirit of good laws and follow their letter. Tell the court the weaknesses in your case. Take great pains to return the lost wallet. Cross the street to help the man being harassed by the mob.

Above all: Never lie. Never, ever, ever lie. Lies, even small ones, destroy trust. And trust is the coin of the realm. Trust raises GDP, cures disease, writes constitutions. It is the accepted currency for every transaction in statecraft, the basis of the state’s authority; it is how surgeons excise tumours and lawyers make complex arguments. It is how work gets done.

Don’t do too many things at once. Do a few things, do them well, do them quickly. Finish things, one after the other, and move on.

Surprisingly, completing projects is fairly difficult. Completing a draft, for instance, means doing a variety of things that must necessarily happen slowly. These include fact checking, proofreading, or in other words, making sure your sentences say exactly what you mean. These tasks cannot be completed in a burst of activity.

This is precisely the moment where the temptation to switch projects or tasks is greatest. But being able to wait until you’re done is what gets things done. In other words, you need patience. Impatience means you put off finishing things because you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Ben Kuhn is very good on this:

As a programmer, I tried to make sure that I was only ever working on one thing at a time. Even if I got stuck on that one thing—say I was blocked on waiting for a tech partner to give me API documentation—I’d let myself stay stuck instead of sliding off to work on something else.
In the short term, this made me less efficient, because I’d spend less time programming and more time staring vacantly at the ceiling. But if I stared vacantly for long enough, I’d eventually get mad enough to, e.g., reverse-engineer the partner’s API in a fit of rage. This resulted in me shipping my most important projects faster, hence getting faster compounding growth.

Set aside large spaces of time to write and think during the day and the night. Think of your senior colleague and how he sits in front of a large screen patiently: looking at each clause, evaluating each word, weighing them slowly, and rearranging their order.

Write and read more patiently and diligently. Do this every day, with metronomic precision. Paragraphs can be produced in bursts of inspiration but the real work of writing happens with slow forebearance under the meditative spell of the word processor. Ensure that every sentence is composed carefully, slowly, with regard for exactly what is meant.

Let me run, for a while, with an extended simile. Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone twenty-four hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies in their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, nowadays, then he’s likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions. The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care.

Martin Amis, The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 (Vintage International)

One of my favourite writers, Martin Amis, died recently. In a substantial way, Amis taught me to write. On the shelf in front of me, there are three books: Money (1984), The Moronic Inferno (1986), and Experience (2000). While Money is merely a little dog-eared, Experience is brimming with sticky notes, tabs, and etched with pencil underlinings. Amis’s painfully self-aware, precise, graphomaniacal voice gave me a sense of literature, a sense of decorum, and a sense of what it was to be young. When I was a teenager I listened over and over to a video of him talking about The Zone of Interest, undoubtedly one of his best novels. Alongside the always-present playfulness, there was a gravity to him. This was a serious man, and one could not be a serious man without a sense of humour. To quote a devastating footnote from Experience:

By calling him humourless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.

Amis said in *The War Against Cliche *(as a response to then-recent (2000) trends in literary criticism) that [i]n the long term, though, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy. This isn’t the decision of some snob of a belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t.” I have been rereading his work, introducing it to my friends. He has given me great joy over the years. And it is the least I can do to fulfil my obligation, as his ever-grateful reader, to ensure that he continues to be read.

you need to be virtuemaxxing. you need to be identifying the most minute dishonesty in your speech and correcting it. you need to be willing to go to the tower for your conscience, and refuse your blessing for the king’s divorce. you need to be faithful and reliable. you need to give up the chain of office the moment you feel like it requires you to depart from your ethical code. you need to tell the court the weaknesses of your case. you need to obey the spirit of a good law, as well as follow its letter. you need to be a person of known integrity, so overwhelmingly trusted that legislation is written on your assurance and governments lose their majorities on your indictment. you take great pains to return the lost wallet. you cross the street to help the man being harangued by the mob.

I suppose that Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk, and others, have been reluctantly obliged to gain an inkling of how politicians sometimes feel. But more generally a book review is not a plebiscite, a million-man march, a flag-draped casket, a country – perhaps a region – consigned to the flames and the sword.

Martin Amis

“The weakness in the case for integration was that it ultimately rested on a critical mass of white people playing along, either out of their own particular interests or some sense of morality. History has produced few instances for the former and virtually none of the latter. This made sense. If there is a power that has ever surrendered itself purely out of some altruistic sense of justice, I have yet to come across it.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
“The National Health Account (NHA) estimates for FY19 show that there has been an increase in the share of Government Health Expenditure (GHE) in the total GDP from 1.2 per cent in FY14 to 1.3 per cent in FY19. Additionally, the share of GHE in Total Health Expenditure (THE) has also increased over time, standing at 40.6 per cent in FY19, substantially higher than 28.6 per cent in FY14.”
Ministry of Finance (PIB, 31 January 2023)
From Deuteronomy 16 (JPS Tanakh 1917):
18: Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19: Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither shalt thou take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. 20: Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
Tis not therefore upon the uncertain will or understanding of a prince, that the safety of a nation ought to depend. He is sometimes a child, and sometimes overburden’d with years. Some are weak, negligent, slothful, foolish or vicious: others, who may have something of rectitude in their intentions, and naturally are not incapable of doing well, are drawn out of the right way by the subtlety of ill men who gain credit with them. That rule must always be uncertain, and subject to be distorted, which depends upon the fancy of such a man. He always fluctuates, and every passion that arises in his mind, or is infused by others, disorders him. The good of a people ought to be established upon a more solid foundation. For this reason the law is established, which no passion can disturb. ’Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. ’Tis mens sine affectu [mind without passion], written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but without any regard to persons commands that which is good, and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low. ‘Tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible.
Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government
“If you don’t have an opinion, you can hold onto the fantasy that someday, once you figure the thing out, you’ll end up having a right opinion. But if you put yourself out there with an opinion that’s unmistakably your own, you don’t have that excuse anymore.”
From Be secretly wrong (Lesswrong)

My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.

Edward Said

The single most important thing in politics is to have the initiative.

Tony Blair

“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Jack London

We need to transition from a culture of authority to a culture of justification.