Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Book: The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile

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Semantic Similarity for Note Taking

Days after capturing a "new" insight, it can be humbling to realize that you are repeating yourself. This might not be a bad thing, as you mull over a complex idea in its various forms over the course of many weeks. But what if your note taking app could act as a co-pilot? It could surface similar notes that are relevant to your current writing, and if you use such a system for long enough, help you synthesize across your own thinking over many years. You might want to link to the semantically related note, or to merge with it entirely. Building on a previous technique, I implemented this idea as an Obsidian plugin:

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Book: The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury

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Links for September 2022

  • Can Russia Execute a Gas Pivot to Asia? (CSIS) — Shines a light on some difficulties Russia will be facing as it tries to send most of its gas exports east rather than west, including the challenge of breaking into a brand new market full of much larger players, the need to build new pipelines, all while selling its product at a discounted rate.
  • Addition vs Subtraction (Molly Graham) — Graham argues that corporations (like people) tend to add new processes, and rarely remove existing ones, which leads to a steady march towards the overly complicated. Rather than simply complain, Molly offers some interesting ideas for combating this trend, like declaring a yearly calendar jubilee, or for large companies to hire a full-time employee dedicated to looking for things to stop doing.
  • Not So Wicked (Tetradian) — Tom Graves digs into the term "wicked problem", which in contrast to tame or kind problems do not have a definite answer, and are highly complex. He prefers the term "wild problem", which is also the term Russ Roberts uses in his eponymous book.
  • Other People's Problems (Camille Fournier) — Fournier emphasizes the importance of picking your battles in a corporate setting, and underscores just how difficult solving problems is, especially if they have a cultural element. "There’s always going to be something you can’t fix."
  • On Extending Human Understanding of Animal Sensory Worlds Through AI (David Gasca) — Inspired by Ed Yong's latest book, Gasca observes that just like animals experience the world in a way that we cannot, AIs might do the same. An engaging summary of "An Immense World", which seems like a worthy read.
  • Instagram, TikTok, and the Three Trends (Stratechery) — Ben Thompson describes the current transition from social media where you consume content from your friends (Instagram), to algorithmic media, where you consume extremely engaging content created by others (TikTok) to a speculative near future where AI generated content is the most engaging.
  • Failure to Cope "Under Capitalism" (Gawker) — Clare Coffey criticizes the quickness with which we are prone to blaming the system rather than looking inward. Then again, I am a sucker for any call to think seriously about the good life and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the struggles and inevitable failures along the way.

Book: Wild Problems by Russ Roberts

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Book: Forever Flowing by Vasily Grossman

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Links for August 2022

Generated image of an Origami fold of Rodin's Thinker.

  • Self-Reliance (Ralph Waldo Emerson) — A classic essay from the transcendentalist 19th century philosopher, reminding to think for yourself, avoid conformity, be open to changing your mind, and worry less about being misunderstood.
  • "JOOTSing": The Key to Creativity (Farnam Street) — Jootsing, a term coined by Douglas Hofstadter, means Jumping Out Of The System (JOOTS). First you must become intimately familiar with the system and its rules, and only then can you create something new by breaking some of them.
  • The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (Ursula K. Le Guin) — Referencing the Carrier Bag Theory of Evolution, in which Fisher suggest the primacy of the bag over the knife, Le Guin questions the idea that the proper shape of a narrative involves conflict. Instead, Le Guin argues that "reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd"; instead, the natural shape of a novel is one of a bag of words carrying meanings, far less prescriptive than the hero's journey.
  • Notes Against Note-Taking Systems (Sasha Chapin) — A forceful reminder that getting lost in your knowledge management system is a fantastic way to avoid creating things. Keep it simple!
  • Death Is a Master From Russia (The Oxonian) — Pomerantsev: "I am a writer and I love my mother tongue. Today my love is still valid, but it has become difficult, dramatic. Evil is polyglot. It speaks hundreds of different languages. It has its favorites, though."
  • Sprezzatura: The Art of Making Difficult Things Look Simple (Louis Chew) — The ability to display a certain nonchalance while performing a great feat was the hallmark of the ideal courtier. To the untrained eye, the performer is a genius, and this is magical; but the trained observer sees sprezzatura as a sign that the individual has put in the work. Fortune favors the prepared.
  • June Huh, High School Dropout, Wins the Fields Medal (Quanta) — A portrait of a poet turned mathematician whose character is charming and in many ways the polar opposite of a prototypically successful person who moves fast and gets things done. So many ways to be.
  • "You Know Nothing”: A Conversational Mindset (David Gasca) — David suggests a stance for having better conversations: resist the urge to make assumptions about your interlocutor and start from a place of curiosity. From this place, it's easier to initiate and have a good conversation.
  • I Should Have Loved Biology (James Somers) — James recalls how little he enjoyed learning Biology, which despite its interestingness as a field, felt like a "lifeless recitation of names". What if instead of focusing on seemingly arbitrary facts, Bio was taught historically, by acquainting students with real biological questions, the scientific processes biologists used to answer them, to give students an opportunity to put themselves in the scientists shoes and wonder? What if it involved more inspiring and beautiful illustrations and explorable explanations?
  • The World Is Awful. The World Is Much Better. The World Can Be Much Better (Our World in Data) — For many issues all three statements can be true at the same time. Take child mortality where 5.2 million children, or 3.8% of their population dies every year (completely awful), this number was 43% in 1800 (so we are making progress), but if the whole world was like the EU, this number could be reduced ten-fold (room to improve).
  • What I Miss About Working at Stripe (Brie Wolfson) — A nostalgic piece about a time when the gravitational pull of work was strong. The author does a good job of capturing the feeling that a kind and balanced working environment may be at odds with the latent desire to do the best work of one's lifetime.
  • The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters (The Atlantic) — In a large scale study of children's outcomes as a function of many variables, recent studies indicate that the effect of nature on a child is far stronger than nurture, but one parenting factor stands above the rest: the location of the childhood home. See The Opportunity Atlas for more details.

Book: The Goal - A Business Graphic Novel

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AI note garden: Dreamer, note collider

The process of interconnection is critical for creativity and divergent thought in general. Synthesis is how many new insights are generated. We humans have a knack for doing this, even in bed. Sleep intelligently interconnects newly gleaned information with prior memories. Matt Walker describes this as “a form of informational alchemy”. A study he cites has shown that discovering a hidden pattern in a problem set is thrice more likely during sleep.

In this post, I describe my early attempt use GPT-3 to emulate this nightly synthesis. A python script takes two randomly selected notes from my note corpus, and tries to divine a connection between them. The results are often nonsensical and surreal, and sometimes funny.

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Links for July 2022

Generated image of Putin up to no good.

  • Aiming to Reduce Cleaning Costs (Works That Work) — A humorous look at the fly targets found in the Schiphol urinals. It turns out that men cannot resist peeing on things, especially if they look as though they might wash away. If it’s something that you consciously don’t like, you’re more likely to pee on it, hence the fly. The first known urinal target was a bee in Victorian England in 1880, perhaps as a high-falutin' joke (Latin for bee is apis).
  • How San Francisco Became a Failed City (The Atlantic) — San Francisco's homeless budget has grown exponentially, committing $1B over 2022 and 2023 to tackle the problem, but people are still selling fentanyl on the streets, petty crime is rising quickly, and school quality is plummeting. The main battle is between leftist idealists who think a perfect world is just within reach and we're on the right track, and liberals who are fed up with psychotic addicts on the sidewalk, and disagree that a merit-based school system is inherently racist.
  • The Legacy of Genghis Khan - The Mongol Impact on Russian History, Politics, Economy, and Culture notes (IJORS) — Medieval Russia (Kyiv) tracked Medieval Europe and its Latin Christian civilization, but the Mongol invasion isolated Russia from the west for nearly three centuries, setting it on a parallel track. Two opposing historical takes on this feature the Westernizers, who were charmed with the values of enlightenment, democracy, and freedom, blamed the Mongols for Russia’s backwardness, whereas the Eurasianists embraced the Mongol legacy, claiming that it strengthened the founding pillars of the Tsarist Russian State such as Orthodoxy and autocracy and thus made a profound contribution to the security and stability of Russia.
  • I Hate Manager READMEs (Camille Fournier) — In her own words: "If you know you have foibles/quirks that you in fact want to change about yourself, do the work." "Keep your bad behaviors to yourself, and hold yourself accountable for their impact". How? Consider getting a coach.
  • The Kekulé Problem (Nautilus) — Legend has it that August Kekulé discovered the ring-like structure of benzene after daydreaming about the snake seizing its own tale, the ancient ouroboros symbol. If the unconscious is so smart, muses writer Cormac McCarthy, why the cryptic messaging? Just tell poor Kekulé directly, using language! Alas, the ancient unconscious predates language, and moves in mysterious ways.
  • Estonia: Warning the World About Russia (Newlines Magazine) — Estonians don't need to be reminded of what Russia under Stalin did to their ancestors in 1941 and 1949. Unlike much of the rest of the world, Estonian PM Kaja Kallas believed that Putin would invade on Feb 24. Today Estonia unequivocally supports Ukraine, donating 40% of the country's annual military budget and more than 0.8% of its GDP.
  • How to Host a Jeffersonian Dinner (Purpose Generation) — By engaging in a single conversation, with only one person speaking at a time, Jefferson and his guests were able to unlock the power of their collective wisdom. The purpose was simple: to listen, learn, and inspire one another through meaningful dialogue around a particular topic.
  • Centralization Is Inevitable (Subconscious) — Gordon leans on network theory to graphs occurring in nature, like the one with airports as vertices and flights as edges, or the internet with nodes as webpages and links as edges. These graphs may start random but converge to be power law distributed if you plot the frequency of nodes as a function of degree, but this makes them vulnerable to attacks on a few high-degree nodes (centers), which inevitably happen.

Book: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

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Book: Parables by Franz Kafka

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Links for June 2022

Generated image of a nuclear icebreaker running into trouble in the north sea. Oil painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

  • How to Revive Your Sense of Wonder (Psyche Guides) — The childhood desire to ask "how" and "why" usually fades with age, but having children around, being open to embracing their way of thinking, and encouraging their curiosity by asking them generative questions of our own, parents can learn to rediscover the joys of wide-eyed discovery.
  • Please Make a Dumb Car (TechCrunch) — A relatable rant criticizing modern cars for evolving into another overbearing device of which we have too many. The prototypical large touchscreen display in the middle of the console is overloaded for controlling everything from windshield wiper frequency to in-cab temperature to audio volume. Marketed as the next generation in mobility, this is largely a cost-saving measure that cuts down on part numbers.
  • Collapse Won't Reset Society (Palladium) — Identifies "collapse enthusiasts", people that look forward to the end of the current order, so that through a period of difficult anarchy, their ingroup can emerge victorious. Historically speaking there is surprising continuity even through anarchic periods, abrupt shifts don't normally last, and radical resets are pretty much unprecedented.
  • Heightened Dream Recall Ability Linked to Increased Creativity and Functional Brain Connectivity (PsyPost) — The Alternate Uses Task (AUT) is a famous psychological test to measure divergent thinking ability. Doing well on this test appears to be correlated with creative thinking, high dream recall, as well as increased functional connectivity within the default mode network. Which way does the arrow of causality fly? Can these abilities be cultivated?
  • Crisis Mindsets (Ribbonfarm) — Rao argues that "having to face a crisis alone, besides all the obvious practical downsides, has a corresponding subtle downside — wondering why you’re bothering fighting at all". As the world turns and the default mindset shifts from flourishing to crisis, we are reminded to "retain a strong connection to the sublime".
  • Becoming the Boss (HBR) — New managers promoted from IC roles are often stars and haven't made significant mistakes, but learning to manage is a tacit skill, learned through trial and error. The natural question "Who am I becoming?" looms large. A broad ranging article that might resonate with a new manager.
  • The Tsars Like Dust (Hugo Book Club Blog) — Argues that Science Fiction falls back on monarchy as the default form of government, because from a storytelling perspective, it's difficult to make nuanced forms of government interesting, and easier to explain policy decision as a result of one person's choice. These fictional monarchies are often "based on a presumption that there is an inherent superiority to those within a specific lineage", reified even in the latest Star Wars trilogy.
  • Why CrossFit’s founder got crossed up by Floyd protests (RNS) — Burton suggests that the ideology of "best-selfism" embodied by CrossFit, embracing the quasi-religious pursuit of a better body through hard work and dedication, is fundamentally incompatible with the social justice movement which embraces solidarity and mutual support. There is perhaps a deeper truth about both best-selfism and social justice: Neither is out of the reach of the tendrils of capitalism.
  • The Rise of Social Orthodoxy (2014) (Commentary) — A personal account of an as-yet-unnamed splinter movement in the Jewish Modern Orthodox denomination, which seeks to find a new point on the spectrum, closer towards modernity and further from orthodoxy, while still fully embracing the Jewish idea of na’aseh v’nishma: engaging first in religious practices and letting matters of faith come later.
  • George Orwell reviews Mein Kampf (1940) — Reviewed during the period of peace between Russia and Germany, reviewing an "unexpurgated" translation of Mein Kampf edited from a pro-Hitler angle from he was "still respectable", Both socialism and capitalism present positive visions that "assume tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain", Orwell astutely observes that Hitler's ideology appealed to those seeking a valorous path, offering struggle, danger, death and an opportunity for patriotism and the military virtues.
  • Walking the Cotswolds, Walking Japan (Craig Mod) — Craig Mod presents an amazing multi-day meetup format involving walking and talking (a great combination, highly recommended): "A topic is chosen before bed. We chat the next day as we walk, and then we gather for a Jeffersonian-style dinner in the evening. One person talks, then another. Everyone listens."
  • Hopepunk, Optimism, Purity, and Futures of Hard Work (Ada Palmer) — punk = “fight the man” + hope = “we deserve a better world”. Ada observes that hopepunk is a distinct opposites to the grimdark fantasy genre because while it embraces positive aspects of human nature (teamwork, honesty, resilience), unlike the more bland squeecore, hopepunk rejects purity. An insightful read, including a paradoxical insight, suggesting dystopian literature as a "fundamentally optimistic genre".
  • Where Did the Long Tail Go? (Ted Gioia) — A look back at Chris Anderson's starry eyed take on the future of the internet in "The Long Tail" (2006), which predicted that the internet would flourish into a world of endless choices for every fringe interest under the sun. In retrospect, rather than "Selling Less of More", thanks to aggregators and centralization, we are losing the long tail and returning back to normal economics, selling more of less.
  • Why Urban Life Suddenly Got Way More Expensive (The Atlantic) — When interest rates were near zero, VC money flowed easily and subsidized many risky ventures operating at a loss that aimed to "Blitzscale" their way to gaining a monopoly, effectively subsidizing the price for consumers. As the tides turn, Blitzscaling is becoming harder to execute, so prices for food delivery, ride sharing, meal kits should further increase.

Book: Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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May Links

Generated image of The Little Prince surfing and catching the golden snitch

  • The Terrapunk Manifesto (Nasjaq) — A critical look at the Solarpunk movement, which the author argues is fundamentally about stagnation, promoted as harmony. Terrapunk is a more progress-centric bouquet of beliefs, with an emphasis on human ingenuity, nuclear energy, and a multi-planetary future.
  • Elon Musk Is Acting Like Henry Ford (Bloomberg) — After his initial success, Henry Ford purchased a failing newspaper and promulgated his anti-semitic views, and drove a way his most capable lieutenants, replacing them with sycophants. His empire was ultimately dethroned by Alfred P. Sloan, an MIT trained engineer who eventually assumed control of GM and pioneered consumer financing. Will Musk suffer a similar fate?
  • The Department Store That Was Once a Country (Ned Donovan) — Chronicles the rich history of the Hudson's Bay Company, which was given a monopoly over nearly 4 million square kilometers in modern day Canada. The corporation created a new currency: the MB (Made Beaver), fixed prices against it, outlawed private trading, and ran a psyop that their land was horrible and deadly.
  • The Forgotten Stage of Human Progress (The Atlantic) — Derek Thompson continues his clarion call to implement what we’ve already invented, such as more nuclear power plants. Human progress is not just one damn breakthrough after another. It's not a neat tech tree but a messy tangle of invention, refinement, partial implementation, and political negotiation.
  • When Should an Idea That Smells Like Research Be a Startup? (Ben Reinhardt) — Ben argues that venture backed startups are often not a great fit for doing research, which often takes a long and unpredictable amount of time. You either need a "money factory", or a charismatic leader to convince everybody else that there is in fact a critical path long enough to find it.
  • Israel’s Watergen Provides ‘Water-From-Air’ Units to Medical Facility in Syria (Times of Israel) — The Watergen generator, powered by solar energy, converts droplets of moisture from the air into clean water. It's being trialed in Gaza to provide fresh water, since the overused acquifer has been degraded by saltwater intrusion and contaminated by pollutants.
  • Just Stop Apologizing (Freddie deBoer) — deBoer points out a core hypocrisy in many progressive communities: restorative justice is embraced as a core value, yet people that transgress the norms of that community and then apologize profusely are not themselves afforded any restorative justice.
  • Tyler Cowen's Approach to Leading an Intellectually Fulfilling Life (David Gasca) — Cowen is a prolific writer, podcaster, and infovore. His style of being a fox involves an insatiable curiosity, extensive travel, and in general sampling the best offerings from a variety of obscure fields.
  • The Rise and Fall of World's Fairs (Smithsonian Magazine) — Tracks the evolution of world fairs from "the world's universities" in the 19th century to "sites of entertainment". In many ways, mega theme parks like Disney World EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) are spiritual descendants of world fairs.
  • Russia's “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model (RAND Corporation) — Modern Russian propaganda relies on a continuous barrage of invented and inconsistent information. It takes less time to make up facts than it does to verify them, and first impressions are very resilient. This is a wicked problem, argue the authors. Don't expect to "counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth".
  • 103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known (Kevin Kelly) — We don't usually fall for listicles, but Kevin Kelly recently turned 70 and dropped some unique 💎's.
  • Interview: Ramez Naam, futurist, author, and investor (Noah Smith) — A broad ranging interview with Mez, a treasure trove of information about energy and climate and their ramifications on politics, as well as feedback loops involved. Mez also teases emerging technology, like synthetic "electrofuels" and floating wind farms.
  • Why Pebble Failed (Eric Migicovsky) — Almost a decade after it failed, the CEO of a promising smartwatch company wrote a postmortem highlighting the importance of product-market fit, of having a well communicated long-term vision, and the value of a good marketing team.

Book: The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov

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Book: Genesis by ✨ translated by Robert Alter

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April Links

Generated image of a codex with helicopters.

  • We Aren’t Just Watching the Decline of the Oscars. We’re Watching the End of the Movies (NYTimes) — Sensationally titled, Douthat gestures at the declining cultural importance of movies, and speculates convincingly about their likely relegation to a stable but niche role like that of theatre, opera, or ballet.
  • Against Rotten Tomatoes (Aesthetics for Birds) — Matt Strohl argues that crowdsourced movie rankings the Tomatometer are "mostly a bad thing". Designed to punish bad movies, they also punishes bold and distinct ones, reducing creative risk taking.
  • I Can Feel My Heart Hardening as the War Goes on (The Spectator) — Pomerantsev considers the parallels the biblical story of Exodus to Russia's genocidal war on Ukraine as he travels home to celebrate Passover in his hometown Kiev. In particular, he wrestles with the puzzle of how to keep your humanity while killing a genocidal enemy.
  • The insidious cultural relativism of failure (Linotype) — Stefano argues that it's much easier to climb down a hill if you are confident that the world is full of many hills. However if you think it’s not so full of hills it’s insane to climb down from your comfortable perch!
  • Why Elon Musk Bought Twitter (New Yorker) — Twitter is just one of many games Elon Musk is addicted to (we're living in a simulation, right?). Historically, he has created value for his companies by being unhinged on Twitter, but this is a dangerous game since many high-profile people have gotten in trouble for their tweets. Time to fix it!
  • Elon Musk Is Already Grinding Us Down (The Atlantic) — Warzel highlights two dark patterns on twitter, which are likely to be amplified by Musk's changes: 1) The dominance of pithy, short, reductive utterances (memes) over chains of informative tweets (tweetstorms), and 2) The tendency to race to quickly reply to high profile tweets, in order for the reply to be placed in the valuable real estate below.