Book: The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han
Book: This is How You Lose the Time War
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:
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
Book: The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
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
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
Book: Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Book: The Sabbath by Heschel
Book: Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips
Links for November 2022
- Why Did Comedy Die? (Kvetch) — The genre of comedy movie appears to have peaked in the the 1990s; perhaps it's a regression to the mean, maybe comedy movies are hard to translate for a global audience, or perhaps it's "sequelitis" and Marvel movies sucking all of the air out of the room, or perhaps the author is getting old and curmudgeonly?
- Arabic and Islamic Themes in Frank Herbert's "Dune" (The Baheyeldin Dynasty) — From the transparent analogy between spice and crude oil, and the stylings of the Fremen, Herbert's masterpiece was prima facie inspired by Middle Eastern themes. Khalid digs deeper into an etymological tour of the series revealing more Arabic influences than a typical westerner could glean.
- Simone Weil’s Radical Conception of Attention (Literary Hub) — Weil drew a distinction between two kinds of attention: the first involving "muscular effort", where we perform for our interlocutor, demonstrating that we are heeding them through social cues, and the second which she dubs "negative attention", where we blot out all distractions, dilate our minds, and wait selflessly for insights to come to us.
- The Good Delusion: Has Effective Altruism Broken Bad? (The Economist) — As Sam Bankman-Fried's crypto empire collapses, the public eye turns critically towards the earning to give and existential risk strains of the Effective Altruism movement which inspired his activity and nudged him to use destructive means to achieve questionable ends.
Book: The Timeless Way of Building
Book: The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile
Links for October 2022
- What if Russia Uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine (The Atlantic) — What to do about a Russian tactical nuclear attack on Ukraine led to two very different responses from two groups tasked with this morbid scenario; a stark reminder about the contingency of history.
- Russia Wants to Lock Ukraine Back in the Soviet Cellar (Time) — Pomerantsev describes a flourishing civil society in Ukraine, which comes at a time of great fear, evocatively describing the primal feeling of being alive triggered in the face of existential risk, looking upward, "like some medieval villager, the sky seems full of portents, danger, hope and symbols".
- Why Deception Is Probably the Single Most Important Leadership Skill (Fortune) — Argues that deception, not candor is a key quality in leadership because of reinforcing feedback loops: convincingly displaying confidence can attract the support that makes the confident posture become true, and similarly, projecting high expectations of employees leads to them performing better.
- Why No Roman Industrial Revolution (Bret Devereaux) — Bret argues that the Industrial Revolution could have only happened in Britain in the late 18th century because of a very specific set of contingent events: the centuries-long arms race for the best cannon led to pressure-resistant cylinders, which enabled nascent piston steam engines; steam power found a killer app: pumping water out of coal mines, and it happened to be easy to run steam engines on coal, leading to a virtuous cycle of efficiency improvements until finally the steam engine was good enough for use in textile production, which through serendipity was also centered in Great Britain.
- Possibility Space (Gordon Brander) — "You don’t need to be creative. The creative breakthrough already exists out there in the space of possibility. It’s just waiting to be discovered."
- Why Practice Judaism? (Misha Saul) — Misha writes vocatively about aspiring to connect with thousands of years of communal observance by leaning on religious rituals (na'aseh v'nishma). Like the commitment of marriage, religion is a covenant to fall back on when life becomes too complex and tumultuous.
- Model Metropolis (Logic Magazine) — Kevin describes how Jay W. Forrester's complex modeling influenced the creator of Sim City to build a game that promulgates similar biases to its players, but more generally explores the limits to modeling, and the built-in assumptions that models carry in them. While itself flawed, this article is a healthy reminder that a model is just a map, and possibly a faulty one.
- Simulation Games Might Be What The World Needs Now (Dan Grover) — Simulated models of reality, argues Dan, aren't useful because they provide a perfect map of the territory, but because they can facilitate a grounded, concrete conversation without the "scaffolding of narrative". Almost always, they reinforce that the world is always more complicated than it looks.
- They Are Stealing Russia: Hyper-Capitalism Wrecked a Nation (Adam Curtis) — Curtis' BBC documentary takes the viewer into unique footage of late USSR and early modern Russian life, showing the chaos, rampant corruption and trauma which three decades ago sowed the seeds for Russia's current path.
- Xi Jinping's Party Is Just Getting Started (BBC) — Wingfield-Hayes chronicles Xi Jinping's contingent rise to consolidated power in China, from his fight against corruption under Hu Jintao, to a purge of the old party and its replacement with "Yes" men, to an inculcation of his ideas in everyday Chinese life. Strong echoes of Mao, Stalin, and Putin.
- Scintillation Points (Venkatesh Rao) — Rao suggests that sceniuses (scenii?) form around preferred topics that he calls Scintillation points (after Schelling points), which serve as nebulous attractors for the group to make steady progress on clarifying, but also provide social validation for each individual that their exploration is worthwhile.
- John Boyd’s Roll Call: Do You Want to Be Someone or Do Something (Art of Manliness) — John Boyd's life story is an example of a man who chose to do something meaningful with the time given him instead of taking the comfortable path of being a well liked careerist, chasing accolades and ranks.
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: