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Personal Genomics and Internet Intellectualism with Razib Khan

Razib Khan is a geneticist, blogger, and man about the internet. Razib is the kind of extremely online intellectual we like here at Other Life. Razib has written for publications including The New York Times, India Today, National Review Online, Slate, and The Guardian. You can find him at razib.com, Gene Expression, and the podcast The Insight.

Razib and I talked about the present and near-future of personal genomics; why Razib thinks Elizabeth Warren's genetic claims are reasonable (though Razib is a conservative); is 23andme worth it?; how sperm banks work; why skilled immigrants don't want to stay in the US anymore; why Razib doesn't like science videos on Youtube, etc. We also discussed academia vs. the internet, and different monetization models for intellectual work.

This conversation was first recorded as a livestream on Youtube. You can subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the bell to receive notifications when future livestreams begin.

As always, big thanks to all my patrons — I really could not keep all this running without you.

Download this episode.

Student debt is worse than a bubble

I've often thought about higher education today as a kind of economic bubble, though I've always wondered if that's quite right. It seems to have the traits of a bubble: It seems overpriced, herd behavior and social conformity appear operative, and there's good data suggesting it doesn't do what it claims to do. But "bubble" is a fancy word easily deployed to describe anything that looks or feels vaguely unsustainable, so its informal usage as a term probably tends to overstate the economic significance of many phenomena. Student debt kind of feels like a bubble, but it's probably not quite that bad, right?

Well, I've recently learned that "bubble" is not quite the right way to understand the higher education problem. It understates the severity of the problem.

One problem for applying the bubble term to higher education is that you can't sell off student debt. The boom-and-bust pattern of the bubble phenomenon, requires that at the unsustainable breaking point of the boom, people realize the thing is overvalued and ditch it. Once this starts, others start selling off as they fear a continued collapse of the price, and they will sell at a loss if necessary (in the bust period, taking a loss now is at least better than taking a loss tomorrow).

I got this from Marshall Steinbaum of the Roosevelt Institute, who recently made this point in a Vice interview. Vice paraphrasing Steinbaum:

"…student debt couldn't explode in a traditional "bubble" because it tends to be unsecured… That piece of paper might become worth way less than you paid for it, but ultimately you're stuck with it."

So it's not that "bubble" is a naïve and fear-mongering metaphor for the problem of higher education: It's an overly generous and insufficiently alarmist metaphor for the problem of higher education.

The second reason higher education is not a bubble is that there is no path to relief for student debt. You can't default or go bankrupt from student debt, so even if nobody can pay their student debts, there is no mechanism for this to translate into a market crisis. The basic problems can be every bit as severe as a bubble, but we may never learn this like we ultimately do with bubbles because, ultimately, everything is held together by the US government. Though the US government is not holding this all together by absorbing losses, it's holding it all together by law enforcement on college graduates.

"You're not going to see the entire market bottom out, I don't think, like we did in the foreclosure crisis, because you won't see everyone default and then the bank is left holding the bag… Here, everyone defaults and the government just takes their wages, tax refunds, or Social Security benefits."

Persis Yu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center

There's a sad irony here. People want the US government to provide financial aid for higher education in order to spread opportunity among young people, but the US government's involvement is precisely one of the reasons why the student debt catastrophe is an inescapable nightmare for so many young people, rather than just a bubble that might have popped long ago.

Suicide should be slightly stigmatized

For people on the brink of suicide, struggling with excruciating suffering, no good would ever come — and wanton cruelty would certainly result — from stigmatizing their difficult situation. I wish for all such people to be treated with nothing but compassion. For instance, compassion makes me hope that no such person would ever browse the open internet, for the internet is filled with toxic and unwholesome content certain to aggravate suicidal tendencies. So if this describes you, then I would kindly beg you to not read further. I guess that's a trigger warning.

I have mixed views about trigger warnings because when writers address the public, they must assume the type of reader they hope to produce through their writing. That's how writing works. That's how writers contribute to culture, rather than merely giving it more of whatever it already is. If independent writers on the internet considered themselves at all responsible for not triggering a tiny minority of suicidal depressives, almost by definition we would tend toward a culture fit for suicidal depressives. But would we really want a public culture fit for suicidal depressives? Would a public culture fit for suicidal depressives not be, essentially, a culture of death — or even a culture for death? I don't think anyone would want that. I have nothing but sympathy for the suicidal, which is why I hope they have the support networks necessary to keep them off the internet. I would sooner ban the suicidal from the internet or forcibly remove my friend or family member from the internet, than discourage public thinkers from reflecting frankly about suicide. For some reason, the former options are seen as tyrannical and hurtful, and the latter is seen as humane, but I see these normative charges in reverse.

Compassion and sensitivity to those currently on the brink of suicide is certainly reasonable, but what about people who are already dead from suicide? I believe the dead should be respected, generally, but surely the present and future of life should also be respected. Should the compassion we extend to accomplished suicides really be unlimited, as seems to be the case now? This is now the norm, explicitly or implicitly, for nobody ever seems to speak ill of the suicide decision. Whether they were friends or foes, suicides are almost always seen as honorable casualties of mental illness and/or political neglect. In the case of infamous evil-doers such as mass shooters, suicides are typically not criticized because it's seen as useless or because the suicide pales in comparison to the other evils committed.

Suicide should be slightly stigmatized, for the person who commits suicide abandons us. There are many among the living who have been tempted to leave us, but don't, often because somebody needs them. This is good of them, and they endure their suffering to be good. You cannot affirm the goodness of those who bear the burden of their own suffering in order to serve others, without affirming that many suicides must therefore possess some kind of negative ethical charge. Suicide is quitting, and sometimes quitting is an unavoidable necessity and sometimes quitting reflects weakness, impatience, disloyalty, and other dimensions of poor character. Quitting is slightly stigmatized, in the sense that it's vaguely discouraged and its opposite is generally admired ("determination", "perseverance", etc.), but we also understand there are cases in which it's unavoidable or even the correct decision. Suicide should be stigmatized in this way, but currently it is not. If we spoke of parents who abandon children with the same unconditionally solemn generosity we apply to suicides, we'd sound like monsters (and the suicide abandons far more people than an absent father).

One reason why someone might be unconditionally generous toward past suicides is if they don't really mind being abandoned, perhaps because they never really cared about the life that chose to end itself. If I wish to stigmatize suicide slightly, it is because I value the lives of those who would consider quitting. Indeed, their quitting feels to me like abandonment precisely because I value their lives, because I rely on others to keep going, to keep me going. Our collective tolerance for past suicides makes the living feel like nobody would mind if they quit, which is depressing enough to make one suicidal. Whenever someone quits, I do mind, and I think we all should — at least slightly.

Two kinds of hustle

To get the kind of life I want, or anywhere close to it, I realize I'm going to have to hustle like crazy. But one thing that's become immediately clear to me is that working hard has profoundly variable effects on well-being, conditional on what the work means to the worker. This is, of course, Nietzsche's observation in that famous line from Twilight of the Idols:

"If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how."

Academia can be quite cushy after you work hard to secure yourself there, but if I now want something better, I have to hustle again in a way that I thought was behind me. Even after I got "the British version of tenure," I was still hustling more than I needed to, just because of how I am. For the next twenty years, I would probably hustle like crazy regardless, whether I'm in a cushy institutionalized environment or doing some weird combination of intellectual work and entrepreneurial activity. In academia, I was constantly irritated and depressed while hustling to get various tasks done, so that I could have some time each day to do the work that mattered to me. Since my academic employment was thrown into question and my time opened up, especially because we are trying to have a child, I am now hustling harder than I ever have to ensure we come out of this okay. But now, it actually feels great, because at least 50% of my effort right now, while I'm still getting a paycheck, is trying to figure out any possible way I can make my intellectual work on the internet financially sustainable enough to be my primary occupation. I have no idea what my chances are, and if it's not possible then whatever — I'll just get some new job — but basically I have like a 1-2 month(s) period where I can afford to test out every harebrained scheme I've ever had for achieving financial sustainability via independent intellectual work. I've brainstormed a lot of ideas over the past few years, but never had the time or energy to test them seriously. So now I have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by testing them all. It all boils down to the question of how I can leverage my new intellectual independence from academic institutions to create new kinds of value.

Experiment 1 is testing if there's greater demand in the public for these monthly seminars I've been doing for patrons. The patrons seem to value it so far, so it's not unreasonable to think there might be a handful of people floating around out there who would also want something like this. If I could get even, say, 6 new signups in the next couple of months — I'd take that as a very promising signal that that could become one part of a viable independent work model for me. It'd only be a start but I could reasonably expect to build it out and grow it. Experiment 2 will very likely be a self-published book. I've been reading about publishing trends and the subreddit r/selfpublishing and I've been watching many interesting self-publishing experiments over the past couple of years, and so I've been very excited about eventually trying something. Now seems like as good a time as any! As I discussed in my recent livestream, I would like to try writing and self-publishing a book about academia and the internet — compiling all my observations and experiences, telling my whole recent story (which I'm being told to keep confidential), weaving it with larger theoretical and empirical reflections on the semantic apocalypse, reality forking, etc. I would like it to be fairly short and punchy, fun to read, not a big serious tome or anything. I am excited about theorizing and strategizing a launch plan (entrepreneurship is pretty fun to be honest). I think I would either plan a Kickstarter campaign, or possibly just write the damn thing and sell it via Amazon or Gumroad (like Eli). What's a good title for such a book? Please reply if you think of one. I plan to do some A/B testing, but if you make a suggestion I like then I'll include it in my A/B tests. Here are titles I'm currently toying with:

  1. Retard Vacation
  2. How Academia Got Pwned
  3. How to Pwn Academia
  4. 12 Rules for Ruining Life (To Get a Better One)

This got me wondering if it'd be a problem for a book to have the word "retard" in the title. It's kind of fashionable to have curse words in book titles nowadays, but they usually use an asterisk for one of the letters. Would I have to do that if I called it Retard Vacation? I searched Amazon and it seems: no. The results are kind of funny.

It's a little frightening and uncomfortable, because I don't have much experience with entrepreneurship and I'm not strongly motivated by money, but despite the anxiety and ego-fear of failure it's really quite refreshing. As an academic, what you're "up against" is a thick web of arbitrary norms and social games, and your value is contingent on pleasing particular dispensers of cultural capital. One can be ruined if

retard vacation

a certain person simply dislikes you. What feels really great about my current moment of impending entrepreneurial experimentation is that I'm only "up against" the open market of cyberspace. The downside is that, if what I'm capable of producing does not provide enough value to people, then there's no way to paper over this unfortunate fact. I could be forced to get a normal full time job, and face the risk of losing a long-term intellectual life. But the upside is a most fantastic dream, the dream that perhaps everything I've invested into the constitution of a radically independent intellectual life is somehow worth it , not just to me, but on the brutally honest open market. That there might even be a 10% chance of this being true is how and why I'm now hustling harder than ever before while also enjoying greater well-being than ever before.

I am operating at the height of my powers, intoxicated by a dream, though aware that I'm dreaming. If it fails and I'm forced to work full time away from my research agenda and creative visions, well then perhaps I will be at peace with the brutal truth: that in fact my delusional obsessions have only ever been egotistical and anti-social wastes of energy. Perhaps the open market will teach me a hard lesson that academia never had the guts to teach me: that everything I know and everything I think and everything I can make is actually worthless. And if that's the lesson I learn from the open market, then maybe finally my grand visions would be destroyed but maybe then I could finally learn how to be a normal person and keep my mouth shut and just get on with a normal career. If that's what it would mean to fail, then it'd still be a huge blessing and a net gain relative to carrying on my intellectual fixations with the false insulation of academic prestige.

In short, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by testing what are my honest intellectual capacities really worth? And then I realize that I'm so intoxicated by this dream — my engines are humming so smoothly at full throttle just by virtue of trying 100% for my ideal — that even if my intellect fails to float on the open market in the first 1, 2, 3, 4 test runs, and I have to get some other job, I can always keep trying what I'm currently trying. When I think about this — that on the open market there is no social authority that can end one's ability to try — it really comes home to me how insane it is to hang one's entire livelihood on an insular bureaucratic hierarchy, and I am reminded how good and true and necessary is my current line of flight.

Introducing monthly seminars

For the past two months, I've been hosting private online seminars for patrons supporting me at $25/month or more. The first one was good, but the second session really took off. Participants became comfortable sharing their projects, raising questions and constructive criticisms with each other, and the whole thing seemed to find its rhythm. After working out some kinks, I'm now opening up the seminar to anyone interested. If you'd like to join, you can now sign up with me directly rather than going through Patreon (although you can still do that). For the moment, I'm only asking for $25/month, which is a steal compared to any other currently existing structure of this kind. (If I get many subscribers I might have to increase this later.) You won't be charged until after your first seminar, so if you don't like the experience you are encouraged to cancel your subscription before it charges. Obviously I am looking to make money, but I'm trying to be as transparent, generous, and generally non-grubby as possible. I don't want your money unless you are genuinely happy with whatever I'm offering you...

So I made a nice splashy landing page that introduces the basic idea and provides an easy, secure payment checkout.

The main rationale behind this experiment is that 90% of the value derived from grad school is just structure, social accountability, and support from someone with a PhD. I know many people who spent a lot of money on a one-year MA program when the honest truth is that they really just didn't know what to do with their life. They needed help finding intellectual motivation, and/or they just needed someone to force them to complete a meaningful project. Those are perfectly normal needs, but it's kind of crazy that so many people enter expensive institutional degree programs just for those things! Obviously I offer no accreditation or degrees, so it's a very bad grad school — but for a certain type of person, I can give 90% of what grad school gives for literally less than .1% of the price. By making groups of no more than 6 participants, participants get a cozy, focused seminar experience akin to what they would get in grad school, and  I can earn a decent hourly rate (less than average consulting rates for PhDs, but enough to make me happy for now!).

Academics privately talk about how guilty they feel even teaching on some MA programs, knowing full well they are cash-cows for universities but of dubious value to students. But we do it anyway, just because if you're an academic it's part of the job. But as I'm increasingly estranged from my moorings in the Academy,  I'm more and more inclined to call bullshit on stuff like this, and at least try — in my own typically experimental DIY fashion — to start building minimalist, independent, digital alternatives. It's already running and working for one group of 6, so it's not unrealistic. The only question is how many other people might like to join. I'm curious to learn. What do you think? If you have questions, critiques, or suggestions, leave a reply below or feel free to email me. And remember if you want to try a session for free, all you have to do is subscribe and cancel your subscription after your first seminar.

For more information and testimonials, check out the seminar landing page. If this is something you know you'd like to try, you are welcome to sign up right now.

When not to go with the flow

The task of identifying the line between good and evil is like infinitesimal calculus. Mere intuitions are insufficient, which is why "going with the flow" so easily ends in evil. Many marriages fail this way, as sincerely innocent intentions to "make friends" or enjoy "a rich private life” all of a sudden become adulterous affairs or irrecoverable distances. To keep innocence from turning to guilt requires strict and formal tools, just as one cannot eyeball the derivative of a curve, but when it comes to good and evil the objects of analysis are typically difficult to measure. This is the genius of socially conservative Christian norms around sex and marriage, which are often seen as stupidly strict prohibitions, e.g. never having alone time with a member of the opposite sex. Secular cosmopolitans today laugh at this norm, but are the scoffers and mockers really doing so well? In the context of this particular example, marriage, one error on the side of adultery does more damage than several errors on the side of foregone other-sex friendship experiences. As a result, some educated cosmopolitans run around with many "friendships" and failed marriages, scoffing at the paranoia of Christian family values, although the latter include some superior, evolved formalities to deal with overly complex identification problems we are incapable of solving intuitively "in the moment." Whenever a fatal point on a map is hard to detect, it makes sense to prohibit any entrance into the smallest definable region around the undetectable point. Unconditional prohibition may be the most sophisticated rule in contexts where many hidden chutes toward the netherworld are known to exist, even if a sizable range of perfectly innocent and desirable experiences must be forgone.

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