Unicycle #17 - Chess and Progress

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Hello dear friends :-)

Life is quiet this week. Our house feels very spacious now that construction is over, and we’re slowly settling in. The kids are healthy and happy, work is booming, the election noise has mostly died down, and everyone’s back to our little covid-isolated bubbles. It’s a welcome respite from the recent chaos.

It’s hard to tell if this moment means everything is awesome, or a calm before the storm. This week I watched a discussion between Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel which makes the case for the latter. Filmed in 2013, it follows them as they spend a day in NYC. They play a bit of chess, sight-see at the Empire State Building, swing by the Columbia robotics lab, and mostly chat about how America has made very little progress in the last fifty years compared to the fifty before that. Some of their evidence:

  • The Empire State Building, built in 1933, was the tallest building in NYC at the time of this video. The new World Trade Center had just started being built, over a decade it was destroyed.

  • In 1971 Nixon declared war on cancer, aiming to cure cancer within five years. Almost fifty years later, we’re very far from a cure. Moreover, Nixon was taking seriously in his claim. If our president announced today that he’s pushing for a cure within five years, it would be absurd.

  • The one place we could say we’ve made real progress is in tech. On the other hand, Warren Buffet got rich by betting against tech companies. And the biggest tech companies mostly innovate in the online “world of bits”, much easier than innovating in the physical “world of atoms”.

  • Nuclear proliferation, perhaps the largest existential risk to humanity, is still increasing.

  • The UN is ineffective and losing respect around the world. It was designed to prevent another Holocaust, yet over a dozen genocides have occurred since it was created.

I’m not sure I agree with everything they discussed (I’m under-educated about some of it). However, others I respect (like Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison) have also been making this point lately. It’s a sobering view of our history, and of our future.

Here’s the whole video. I recommend watching at 1.5x speed and fast forwarding through the montages. The chess scene is really good.

This Week’s Threads

I wrote three threads this week: one about parenting, one about a potential culture tweak, and one about why I probably won’t get to 50 threads by New Years Day ;-). So far Twitter’s my favorite format for writing because it’s very low-stakes and low-barrier-to-starting.


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