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:
Book: The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury
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
Book: Forever Flowing by Vasily Grossman
Book: The Goal - A Business Graphic Novel
Links for August 2022
- 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.
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.
Links for July 2022
- 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.