Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Book: David: The Divided Heart by David Wolpe

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Book: Every Life is on Fire by Jeremy England

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Telejam: Interplanetary Musical Ensembles

Telejam is a web application for musicians to collaborate online in almost real time. Existing solutions like Sonulus, JamKazam and others attempt to provide live, in-sync musical collaboration over the internet. This sometimes works, especially if specialized network hardware is involved and if your collaborators are nearby. The just noticeable delay for music performance is about 30 milliseconds, and players positioned at opposite ends of the Earth will experience at least a 70-millisecond delay.

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Book: End of the World by Peter Zeihan

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Project Exupery

Exupery was a voice-powered sketching robot. I named it after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry because of the conversation in his most famous book where the Little Prince asks the pilot to draw him a picture of a sheep. You, too, can now ask Exupery to sketch pictures of things, and it will try to oblige. It replicates sketches drawn by real people playing the game Quick, Draw!, and adding a bit of flourish. Try the online demo, and read on to find out more.

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Nine Links for Fall 2023

Here is a small selection of intriguing articles I read online over the last three months.

  • Political Analysis Needs More Witchcraft (The Atlantic) — Beliefs, true or false, rational or irrational, shape politics, and many people self-report a belief in witchcraft (1/6 in US, 2/3 of Latvia), and 85% globally believe in God. Academics and pundits tend to dismiss these views for being outlandish and this is a major blind spot.
  • Metrics, Cowardice, and Mistrust (Ivan Vendrov) — Vendrov describes a feedback loop in which making the wrong call based on intuition, or delegating to someone who does the same can be a firing offense at a corporate job. The result of this cover-your-ass mentality is an over-reliance on metrics at the expense of velocity and good outcomes.
  • A Whole New Cope (Venkatesh Rao) — Most of us have negligible power to do anything about concerning events half way across the world, yet are deeply affected by them. Rao suggests this is because we interpret these events not in isolation but as signs and portents of our entire world beginning to come apart.
  • ‘Ketman’ and Doublethink: What It Costs to Comply With Tyranny (Jacob Mikanowski) — Contra Arendt, who believed that the subjects produced by totalitarianism no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, Miłosz argued that they practiced what he called Ketman, first mastering deception, then practicing it competitively, valuing cunning over all else, and finally losing the ability to "differentiate his true self from the self he simulates".
  • Employees Risk More (Ben Mathes) — VCs invest money into a portfolio of bets, while the startup employee invests all of their time into one risky bet. Investors can raise more money, but employees can't raise more time, so if you're looking to join a startup, do your homework!
  • The Wolf (Rands) — Describes an engineer archetype who works outside well-defined processes and is unburdened by the "encumbering necessities of a group of people building at scale". As a result, he is incredibly effective and appears to suffer no consequences for not following the rules.
  • Old Wards and New Against Fake Humans (Interconnected) — Practical advice for detecting a fake human on the internet: challenge him to say something obscene. On a video call? Have your interlocutor turn sideways and show you her ears, and watch for visual glitches. It's "like shaking hands from the old days, demonstrating that I’m not about to draw my sword."
  • Becoming a magician (Autotranslucence) — Have you reached a plateau? Is your well-worn strategy bringing you diminishing returns? Pause and consider who you want to be next. What are the fears that hold you back? Who are you really impressed by? Surround yourself with those people that look like magicians to you, learn from them, articulate your new goal and find a new strategy to get there.
  • A Tool to Supercharge Your Imagination (Ian Bogost) — In an uncharacteristically optimistic article, Bogost lauds modern image generation models for their ability to quickly "shape unfiltered thoughts" and give them "shape outside your mind", but ignores the downsides. It's a bit like reading a book and then watching the movie: all of the fuzzy but vivid mental imagery in your mind's eye collapses into the images on the screen. Gandalf will never again be an abstract wizard, only the one depicted by Ian McKellen.

Happy New Year to you all!

Book: Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor by Halevi

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Book: Tales from the Ant World by E. O. Wilson

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Book: The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han

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Tools for Thinking in Systems

With this post I aim to synthesize some ideas from the Tools for Thought movement (e.g. Roam) with Systems Thinking (e.g. feedback loops). The result, as advertised in the title, is a tool for helping people think in systems. Let me first explain what I'm talking about, then walk you through some design considerations, and finally show you a prototype which takes a description of a system and converts it into causal loop diagram. Imagine if every news article included a little visual explainer to help you understand the story better.

If you're impatient (who can blame you?), here's a quick demo:

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Book: This is How You Lose the Time War

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Five Links for Summer 2023

Five links that stood out to me over the summer:

  • The Live Oak Playbook (Alex Komoroske) — Invoking a botanical analogy, Alex argues that as our environment gets more harsh, the industry needs to adopt an approach more akin to an oak than to a eucalyptus. An insightful synthesis full of great, FLUX-y ideas.
  • The Circle of Control (Simon Cross) — Elaborating on the Serenity Prayer, a succinct visual metaphor to distinguish between 1) things you directly control, 2) things you can only indirectly influence, and 3) things that affect you, but you have no control or influence over.
  • The Dream of Russia (The Atlantic, 1886) — In this Atlantic article written nearly 150 years ago, Cyrus Hamlin describes Russia's deeply held imperial ambitions, focusing on their desire to control Constantinople.
  • Everything is Cyclical (Morgan Housel) — Mountains grow from tectonic activity and then collapse under their own weight, victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, revolution brings with it counter-revolution, and so on.
  • Death Metal English (Invisible Oranges) — A concise playbook for converting regular English into DEATH METAL ENGLISH. For example, "commuting to work" gets translated into TRANSPORTATION OF THE WAGEBOUND UNTO THE NEXUS OF PERPETUAL QUOTIDIAN ENSLAVEMENT.

Book: Russian Revolutions by Mike Duncan

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Book: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

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Five Links for Spring 2023

Spring has sprung, as have five more links to things I enjoyed reading over the last three months:

  • Being and Time Series (Simon Critchley, 2009) — A relatively accessible 8-part series dedicated to Heidegger's magnum opus "Being and Time", a notoriously difficult but also insightful and influential philosophical masterwork from the mid-20th century.
  • Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback: How and Why Does It Work (Frontiers) — Turns out the pressure wave produced by the heart and breathing are deeply intertwingled. By breathing at a certain frequency (~6 breaths a minute), one can increase HRV temporarily, and also exercise the neuroplasticity in the baroreflex, increasing resting HRV.
  • The Cult of the Founders (Crooked Timber) — Frames the well known distinction between visionary-founder and operator-CEO in terms of prophets who rip up the rulebooks and create an ecstatic cult, and priests who are rule following administrators skilled in the "routinization of charisma".
  • Why Big Companies Keep Failing: The Stack Fallacy (Anshu Sharma) — Explains the Stack Fallacy, in which people believe that it is trivial to build the layer above, but very difficult to improve the layer below. Examples include browser engineers who ridicule web development and pure mathematicians who deride physicists as merely applied mathematicians.
  • Explore/Expand/Extract (Kent Beck) — A well articulated exploration of corporate behavior at different parts of the S-curve.

Book: Boyd by Robert Coram

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Seven Links for Winter 2023

This year, rather than posting a digest of links monthly, I'm doing the same quarterly, aiming for five to ten of my favorite links every three months. I read 128 articles over January, February, and March, and favorited about 30% of them. In retrospect, here are the magnificent seven that really stuck with me:

  • High Variance Management (Sbensu) — Stage actors need to have a great "take" every performance, but film actors have the luxury of multiple takes. Analogously, rather than insisting on perfection every time, managers can embrace en evolution-inspired approach called "creative selection", encouraging multiple teams to tackle the same problem, prototyping and demoing to one another, and then having a decision maker pick the best approach.
  • Why Are There No Empires in Age of Empires (Unmitigated Pedantry) — Strategy games like AoE and Civ put you at the reins of an empire conquering other empires by means of total annihilation. This is misleading, because the point of real empires is to access the resources and labor of a subordinate population.
  • The Tomato Harvester (Boom California) — A well written account of California's rapid tomato farming transition from small individual farms to large industrial farming in the 1960s. The tomato and the harvester co-evolved, and the domestication of both plant and machine was due to the human animal.
  • Time Is a Wheel, Time Is an Arrow (Superb Owl) — Attempts to synthesize linear and cyclic time into a coherent worldview to counteract the modern propensity towards a linear view of time in which our civilization is progressing in some definite direction. What if the question isn't if the road we're on leads to utopia or dystopia, but whether we are on the road in the first place?
  • Annual Performance Reviews Ruin Everything (Elizabeth Ayer) — A long multifaceted post criticizing annual performance reviews for potentially diagnosing challenges correctly, but usually placing responsibility on the individual, rather on the organization itself or larger system. As Deming’s famous quote has it, "a bad system will beat a good person every time."
  • Which Meetings Should You Kill? (Camille Fournier) — Fournier suggests that excessive time spent on 1:1 meetings, not including those with direct reports, should be consolidated into "well-run weekly group meetings to fill the trust and alignment gap, rather than having your broader team go through the combined number of subset 1:1 meetings."
  • ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web (New Yorker) — Ted Chiang critiques generative AI for writing, observing that LLMs serve as a blurring and interpolation tool over large corpora of data they are trained on, employing the analogy of lossy compression. Chiang observes that "your first draft isn’t an unoriginal idea expressed clearly; it’s an original idea expressed poorly", and starting with a blurry copy of unoriginal work isn’t a good way to create original work.

Book: Medieval Robots by E. R. Truitt

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