Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Book: Wild Problems by Russ Roberts

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Book: Forever Flowing by Vasily Grossman

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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.

Book: Grand Transitions by Vaclav Smil

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March Links

Generated image of nuclear ice breaker as depicted by leonardo davinci in his sketchbook

  • Pacific Northwest's ‘forest gardens' were deliberately planted by Indigenous people (Science) — It took a long time for researchers to recognize these forest gardens as a human-created landscape at all. A hopeful peek at how "humans have the ability to not just allow biodiversity to flourish, but to be a part of it". Perhaps the dichotomy of hunter-gatherers vs. farmers is overstated?
  • Is Earth Smart (The Atlantic) — Building on the notion of a biosphere (life), the noosphere (intelligent life) and technosphere (technological systems created by intelligent life) present major challenges to survival. Just like the immature biosphere did not really hit its stride until the Great Oxygenation Event, our immature technosphere is actively destructive until an equivalent transition, argue the authors.
  • Anti-Anti-Semitism (2010) (Tablet Magazine) — A bizarre foray into World Without Nazism, a Kremlin-flavored Anti-Defamation League for the post-Soviet realm. This is especially sinister given the denazification propaganda used to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
  • Vaccine Emoji Comes to Life (Emojipedia) — In response to increased discourse about vaccinations and COVID, the blood-filled syringe emoji (💉) was updated to remove the blood to make it more universal. This raises a bunch of different questions: why is there only a white wine glass emoji, only a red one (🍷)? Famously, Apple changed its pistol emoji into a toy water gun (🔫) in 2016, causing widespread upset. When is it OK to repurpose existing emoji, and when is it not?
  • Amazon Shareholder's Letter (2005) (Jeff Bezos) — Bezos explores the limits of math and data, conceding that many important decisions cannot be made in a math-based way, lamenting "math-based decisions command wide agreement, whereas judgment-based decisions are rightly debated and often controversial, at least until put into practice and demonstrated". Alas, Complexity!
  • How Zelensky Gave the World a Jewish Hero (The Atlantic) — In addition to a quick recap of Zelenskyy's unlikely path from Russian comedian to Ukranian president, and an aside into the sorry state of Jewish intolerance in Europe, I was heartened to learn that the Jewish community in Ukraine is recovering, for example the newly built Menorah center in Dnipro reportedly serving 40,000 people a day.
  • Еврейство президента Зеленского как символ (Detali Israel) — A look into the outsized impact of Ukraine on Jewry, including atrocities like Bogdan Khmelnytsky's attempt to eradicate Ukranian Jews, and the Holocaust massacre at Babyn Yar. At the same time, Ukraine has a long history of relative tolerance to Jews, and was the birthplace of many greats: politicians like David Ben-Gurion, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, writers like Isaac Babel, Sholom Alechem, Chaim Bialik. Many American greats descend directly from Ukranian Jews: Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Noam Chomsky, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart.

February Links

Generated image of Georg Cantor contemplating infinity

  • Against longtermism (Aeon) — Torres argues that an over-focus on the long term is dangerous because it ignores shorter term existential threats, and encourages endless growth, which itself might be the cause of our problems. As a fan of long term thinking, I found this very provocative. What is the synthesis between pollyannaish beliefs in technology and degrowth?
  • Web3 is Self-Certifying (Jay Graber) — Graber describes the concept of self-certifying data, which "enables trust to reside in the data itself, not in where you found it, allowing apps to move away from client-server architectures." Examples of protocols that enable this include git, BitTorrent, IPFS, and SSB.
  • What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? (David Graeber) – In a rambling article, Graeber highlights Kropotkin's argument that species that cooperate most effectively tend to be the most competitive in the long run. Kropotkin argues that animal cooperation often has nothing to do with survival or reproduction, but is a form of pleasure in itself.
  • Feynman and The Connection Machine (Long Now) — A sometimes touching vignette of Richard Feynman, as seen by Danny Hillis, who founded Thinking Machines to build the world's fastest parallel supercomputers in the 1980s. Nobody really knew how to build computers back then, so the problem was left to amateurs like Hillis and Feynman.
  • The Internet Is Just Investment Banking Now (The Atlantic) — Argues that Web3 is “the most honest turn of the internet epoch”: many things in our everyday life have become financialized, and while Web2 entrepreneurs have tried to hide that behind a facade of idealism, the new world of crypto at last makes the financialization explicit.
  • Why Cisco’s ‘spin-ins’ never caught on (Financial Times) — In the 90's, Cisco pioneered the model of 'spin-ins': a group of employees would leave Cisco and form a new company with well defined short-term goals, which if achieved, required Cisco to acquire the venture and possibly breed resentment from less entrepreneurial peers. On the other hand, the downside for the entrepreneurs was also quite high, since they would end up with nothing if no acquisition took place.
  • Is Old Music Killing New Music? (Ted Gioia) — Top 40 charts, Grammy Awards, and other incarnations of mainstream pop culture seem to be losing their cultural cache. Instead, songs most in demand are by musicians in their 70s and 80s, if not already dead.
  • Can You Warm Yourself with Your Mind? (New Yorker) — Studies in Nature show that advanced practitioners of g-tummo meditation can raise their core temperature by 1-2°C, or their extremities by around 10°C. This is done by contracting abdominal and pelvic muscles and visualizing a flame rising from below the navel to the top of the head.
  • Why the Web Won't Be Nirvana (1995) (Newsweek) — A cantankerous skeptic dumps on the future of the web, producing a litany of predictions which are wrong to various degrees. Revisiting pundits from the past is a useful exercise that reminds us just how difficult the future is to predict.
  • A Moment of Clarity (Noah Smith) — In addition to astute observations on the eve of Russia's war on Ukraine, Smith describes a clear headedness on shared American values that surely must have been felt internally, even by adherents of "warmed-over Chomsky".

January Links

Generated image of a space shuttle in Leonardo Da Vinci's sketchbook

  • Buy Things, Not Experiences (Harold Lee) – Common wisdom suggests that having a lot of stuff will not bring happiness, but advocates of this "new minimalism" often live in modern houses in expensive neighborhoods. In general, Lee argues that there is no real boundary between things and experiences, and in fact we may have erred too far and are now over-consuming experiences.
  • Speaking in Tales: conversing in Chinese means constantly alluding to folklore (Michelle Lim) — Lim describes chéng yǔ, commonly used 4-character phrases in Chinese, which are allusions to classical Chinese folk tales. This introduces unique challenges to translations, which lose their evocative impact when you don’t know the story.