Every Sunday, I send out an email with seven magnificent things from the past week. Books, articles, blog posts, projects, graphics, ideas, excerpts, videos, songs, tools, artists, art, creators, software, hardware—things that elicit a “Whoa!”, a “Wow!”, a “Huh?” or a “Hmmm.”
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The Magnificent Seven #26: Ice Stupas – 17/01/21
- The Ice Stupa Project: Can human ingenuity address increasingly extreme climate change events faster than those events occur? I don’t know, but projects like this make me a little more hopeful. I recommend watching the video. Else…
Quote: “The idea is very simple and needs no pumps or power. We all know that water maintains its level. Therefore water piped from 60m upstream would easily rise close to 60m up from ground when it reaches the village. For simplicity we can imagine that the pipe is mounted on a mobile-phone tower of that height, and then it is made to fall from that height in cold Ladakhi winter nights when it is -30 to -50°C outside (with wind chill factor). The water would freeze by the time it reaches the ground and slowly form a huge cone or Ice Stupa roughly 30 to 50m high. In reality we won’t even need a tower structure since we can let the piped water first freeze at the ground level and then mount higher meter by meter as the thickness of the ice grows, finally reaching close to the height of the source. The idea is also to conserve this tower of ice as long into the summer as possible so that as it melts, it feeds the fields until the real glacial melt waters start flowing in June. Since these ice cones extend vertically upwards towards the sun, they receive fewer of the sun’s rays per the volume of water stored; hence, they will take much longer to melt compared to an artificial glacier of the same volume formed horizontally on a flat surface.”
- Work Cycles: This week I adopted something that has been on my radar for a while: Ultraworking’s work cycles. Work cycles involve a short work session sandwiched between a rapid planning and review session, and followed by a break. I’ve opted for the standard 30 minutes on/10 minutes off. There’s some additional complications that can be built-in (nesting cycles within a larger prep and debrief structure, accountability practices) but I’ve ignored them for now. Currently, I’m using a large percentage of the breaks to do some Original Strength resets, mess around with a kettlebell I keep behind me, or roll around on the floor.
- 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2021 by Robert Malley: Quote: “The last of 2020’s legacies may be the most ominous. The final months of the year grievously injured that favorite adage of diplomats and peacemakers – that there is no military solution to political conflict. Tell that to Armenians, forced in the face of superior Azerbaijani firepower to relinquish land they had held for a quarter-century; to Ethiopia’s Tigrayans, whose leadership promised prolonged resistance against advancing federal troops only to see those forces ensconced in the regional capital of Mekelle within days. Tell that, for that matter, to the Rohingya forced to flee Myanmar in 2017; to Palestinians, who have remained refugees or under occupation since the 1967 Arab defeat; or to the Sahrawi people whose aspirations to self-determination have been snuffed out by Moroccan troops and a transactional U.S. president, to mention only a handful of recent conflicts seemingly resolved by force.”
- Technology Holy Wars are Coordination Problems by Gwern Branwen: I finally got around to reading some of Gwern’s work. I settled on this because it’s recent. I’ll likely poke around and explore more, though.
Quote: “The flip side of bitrot is what we might call bitcreep: because there is only so much time and energy to go around, a system which avoids bitrot will also experience ‘bitcreep’, where other programs begin to ‘bitrot’ in that they increasingly assume, depend, and are tested only with that system, and that gradually creeps through the ecosystem. In a system with heavy bitcreep, getting things done in any way other than the dominant way means thrashing around in what is not so much a ‘Turing tarpit’ as a La Brea tarpit, diverting new programs towards it. It becomes a black hole, bending space around it; once a program has built in enough implicit and explicit dependencies, it has passed the event horizon, and it can no longer escape (because it would be easier to rewrite the program from scratch). And because the alternatives are not being used, they are not getting maintained, which means that as bitcreep spreads, anyone interacting with older programs in a way that used to work will discover their program has suffered bitrot, without having changed at all; all past investments are jeopardized, rotting away invisibly. (This suggests there are two evolutionary strategies for systems: to be so simple that no one would replace them, and to be so complex no one could replace them.)””
- Epistemic FOMO by Dr. Rachel Fraser: Quote: “Muirhead and Rosenblum are not starry-eyed ingenues: they know that political parties are often power-hungry factionalists. Nonetheless, parties play a crucial democratic role, for they embed the ideology of legitimate opposition within the frenzy of political struggle; thus, in our political context, to attack the institution of the political party is to attack the possibility of legitimate opposition to the ruler. Without political parties, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue, democracy takes on a radically anti-pluralist form: ‘The one homogenous “true” people stand behind their leader without the party as an intermediary institution.’ Parties are thus, for all their flaws, the unlikely guarantors of political pluralism: by mediating between a populace and government they ‘translate the pluralism of society into organised political conflict’. Without an institution to affect this translation, political conflict becomes illegible except as sedition. The decoupling of treason from political conflict is foundational to democratic politics; and parties act as a wedge, cleaving the two apart. They make it possible to oppose a regime without being made a traitor. Contemporary conspiracism tries to undo this decoupling — ‘Lock her up’, it says.”
- Kludges: This week I learned about kludges: “…a workaround or quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, difficult to extend and hard to maintain.” The linked Wikipedia page has a good example of a large scale kludge (or kluge); a collapsed bridge made usable. The term itself has debated origins, as I found from The Appropriately Messy Etymology of ‘Kluge’. The following quote reminded me of Gwern’s evolutionary strategies for systems, cited above… “Arbesman also quotes Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, who describes the kluginess of 21st-century life thusly: “Typically, outdated legacy systems make themselves so essential over the years that no one can contemplate the prolonged trauma of replacing them, and they cannot be fixed completely because the problems are too complexly embedded and there is no one left who understand the whole system.””
For more fun words and phrases–such as Godzillagram, leaky heap and baggy pantsing–check out Eric Raymond’s Jargon File.
- When Photographers Get Too Close, Wildlife Pays the Price by Annie Roth: Whilst working, I keep a pretty picture from Unsplash open in a browser tab. I have dual screens, one for direct work and one for comms–emails, Slack, calendar etc. The Unsplash image sits open on the comms screen. It’s much more pleasant that an email inbox. A few days ago, I had an image of a shark underwater loaded up. Which reminded me of Ocean Ramsey’s Instagram. So I searched for it and ended up on this article instead. Quote: “For example, female harbor seals have been known to abandon their pups if their haulout sites are disturbed. Similarly, Atlantic puffins may discard their eggs if disturbed while nesting. For nomadic species, such as caribou and manatees, even one disturbance can cause them to leave safe areas and venture into dangerous territories. And in many parts of the world, animal control agencies are required to euthanize any animal, regardless of whether it is captive or wild, that attacks a human—even if the attack was provoked. In the end, whether an animal is harassed or habituated because of ignorance or willful disregard or in the name of raising awareness, it’s the animal that pays the price.”
The Magnificent Seven #25: Back-of-the-Envelope Calculations – 10/01/21
- How to make back-of-the-envelope calculations by Ron Milo and Rob Phillips: From Cell Biology by the Numbers “…if we wish to estimate the length of an airplane wing on a jumbo jet, we can begin with “is it bigger than 1 m?”. Yes. “Is it bigger than 5 m?” Yes. “Is it bigger than 10 m?” I think so but am not sure. So we take 5 m as our lower bound. Now the other end, “is it smaller than 50 m?” Yes. “Is it smaller than 25 m?” I think so but am not sure. So we take 50 m as our upper bound. Using 5 m and 50 m as our lower and upper bounds, we then estimate the wing size as √5mx50m ≈ 15 m, the approximate square root of 250 m2. If we had been a bit more bold, we could have used 10 m as our lower bound with the result that our estimate for the length of the wing is ≈22 m. In both cases we are accurate to within a factor of 2 compared with the actual value, well within the target range of values we expect from “order-of-magnitude biology”.”
- Cognitive bias cheat sheet: I revisited this article due to an in-progress end-of-year review post. I’m not sure how solid the foundations of the included biases now are–see the replication crisis–but this article is a good starting-point/reference for exploration of human cognition.
- Your ‘Surge Capacity’ is Depleted: Feeling like everything is out of control? That’s because it is. And it’s okay to feel utterly depressed/burned-out/panicked/sad as a result. Quote: ““This is an unprecedented disaster for most of us that is profound in its impact on our daily lives,” says Masten. But it’s different from a hurricane or tornado where you can look outside and see the damage. The destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing. So many systems aren’t working as they normally do right now, which means radical shifts in work, school, and home life that almost none of us have experience with. Even those who have worked in disaster recovery or served in the military are facing a different kind of uncertainty right now. “I think we maybe underestimate how severe the adversity is and that people may be experiencing a normal reaction to a pretty severe and ongoing, unfolding, cascading disaster,” Masten says. “It’s important to recognize that it’s normal in a situation of great uncertainty and chronic stress to get exhausted and to feel ups and downs, to feel like you’re depleted or experience periods of burnout.””
- Nanopore DNA Sequencing: Yes, progress is real. Real-time DNA sequencing is now trickling down to near consumer level. I’ve wondered at the effects of the democratisation of simulation tech before; what about the democratisation of sequencing tech? (Also worth noting that Rene Girard views humanity’s ability to manipulate the human genome as one of three existential threats; the other two are ecological collapse and nuclear weapons.)
- Louisiana Channel: Their tagline–“videos on the arts, featuring the artists”. I first came across LC’s Umberto Eco mini-doc. Since then, I’ve watched a few more, mostly about people I’m completely unfamiliar with. Recently, I watched Shahrnush Parsipur’s Developing Literature in Iran is Difficult, Matias Faldbakken’s An Element of Vandalismand 12 Artists on Childhood.
- Polar Stratospheric Clouds by Hordur Kristleifsson: Startling visuals. Unlike anything I’ve seen before. Upon further investigation, it turns out that polar stratospheric clouds are something of a femme fatale. From NASA: “Scientists recently discovered that polar stratospheric clouds, long known to play an important role in Antarctic ozone destruction, are occurring with increasing frequency in the Arctic. These high altitude clouds form only at very low temperatures [and] help destroy ozone in two ways: They provide a surface which converts benign forms of chlorine into reactive, ozone-destroying forms, and they remove nitrogen compounds that moderate the destructive impact of chlorine. In recent years, the atmosphere above the Arctic has been colder than usual, and polar stratospheric clouds have lasted into the spring. As a result, ozone levels have been decreasing.”
- Cult Creation by Steve Newcombe: I decided to read this because Roam Research co-founder, Conor White-Sullivan, consistently references it. My favourite part: ” In 2005, when we founded Powerset, we realized Ruby was the new Python, so we went after some A-level people in the Ruby community. The top two we went after were first, Kevin Clark (a 20 year-old wiz-kid who we were trying to convince to quit school) and second Tom Preston Werner (now the founder of GitHub). We got both of them, and within a matter of months, we had one of the largest Ruby teams on the planet. Anyone who wanted to code in Ruby knew about Powerset simply from the Ruby meet-ups which were dominated by either Powerset or Twitter people. We then did the same thing in the ﬁeld of computational linguistics. At one point we estimated that of the 200 or so people that really understood computational linguistics in the world, we had about 40 of them. What’s the beneﬁt? Once we knew we had this level of talent market share penetration, we had almost a guaranteed worst-case scenario that most startups would dream about. We knew that our talent pool was so strong, that even in the event that we just ran out of money, one of the big three search engines would simply buy us for our team.”
The Magnificent Seven #24: NASA Prototypes – 03/01/21
- University Students Design Prototypes NASA Could Develop in Missions to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond by Doug Messier: NASA’s eXploration Systems and Habitation (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge has six categories: “1) Habitation; 2) Life Support; 3) In-Space Manufacturing; 4) NASA Platform for Autonomous Systems (NPAS); 5) Space Life and Physical Science; and 6) Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).” This article is a summary of funded entries.
My favourite is Rice University’s In-Space Manufacturing entry: “…a parametric-based repository of 3D shapefiles as a practical tool for just-in-time problem solving. The repository seeks to solve the basic and everyday repair and maintenance needs in space, such as on the space station, the Gateway, or in deep space. The database includes critical items that may be necessary in medical procedures or extreme outside repair need cases and provides the file, visual information, simple use cases, failure modes, end-of-life information, and restrictions on use. Each part also features novel parametric coding that allows the part geometry to be adjusted based on alternate use cases.”
- Negative Utilitarianism: An old post of mine, Stories, post-abolition got plugged on the r/negativeutilitarians sub-reddit. Negative utilitarianism is a morality that prescribes we should act, first, to reduce the aggregate amount of suffering in the world. Negative utilitarianism itself is something I haven’t explored, but I imagine it shares the traits (both strengths and weaknesses) of basic utilitarianism. The post wonders what happens to stories when suffering is removed from existence. The impetus for the post came from the Abolition Project.
- Box breathing: one of the simplest and most useful ideas I got from James Nestor’s book, Breath, is box breathing. A breath has four stages. Alongside inhalation and exhalation, there are the pauses before inhalation and exhalation. Thus: inhale-pause-exhale-pause. Allocate each stage the same length of time (usually four, sometime five, seconds) and that’s box breathing. Supposedly, the Navy SEALS use this procedure to remain calm under pressure. We can do the same. And if you prefer a visual aide to the monotony of counting, check out the replies in this thread.
- Helen Lewis on how Sherlock cracked the case of on-screen mobile phone use: “Smartphones also created a new type of behaviour. Texts were now swooshy and colourful, and they began to seem less intrusive than the tinny insistence of interrupting someone’s life with a call. You could also access the internet, a great river of never-ending content, scrollable with a lazy flick of the finger. And so we began to live in two worlds at once, one made of shapes and people, and the other made of text. The most acute observation in that Sherlock press conference is that nothing could be so interesting – not even a briefing about a potential serial killer – that you wouldn’t still find yourself checking a new message on your phone.”
- Randall Rudd’s instructions for drawing a single drop of water: something so simple can be so complex.
- I Tried to Block Amazon From My Life. It Was Impossible by Kashmir Hill: Part of a larger series called Goodbye Big Five. Quote: ” “I’d be stunned if AWS product managers aren’t using data from the usage patterns of their platform to decide with whom and how to build competitive products,” said Matthew Prince, who runs Cloudflare, one of the content delivery networks that frustrated my blocker this week. “They’ve done this relentlessly in retail, there’s no reason to think they won’t use the data from their platform to do the same with digital services. Companies that use AWS are feeding critical market data directly to the company that, almost certainly, will one day be their largest competitor.”
Amazon did not respond to an inquiry about how it uses data gleaned through hosting other companies’ web offerings.”
- Double Fine Adventure!: An older, behind-the-scenes documentary series that follows the production of a Kickstarter-funded game. I watched it a few years back, but I’ve been thinking about it this week. I’m learning more about computing, programming and the infrastructure we all rely on in our day-to-day lives; it’s becoming more obvious to me that a tremendous amount of works goes into its creation and a tremendous amount of work is required to maintain it.
The Magnificent Seven #23: Alien Intelligences – 27/12/20
- alien intelligences by Alice Maz: the first piece of Alice’s writing that I’ve actually sat down and read. It was worth it. The most striking part for me was the observation that outsiders are cared for only because of their potential to be re-absorbed as insiders. There’s more than half a truth in that idea.
Quote: “those who exist outside of institutions are ghosts. most discussion, whether compassionate or demonizing, of groups at the margins—homeless, neets, illegal immigrants, the “potentially” criminal and “untreated” insane—centers around how they may be sorted back into institutions and which ones they belong in”
- When life was literally full of crap by Jason Crawford: A post about the use of excrement in the different ages of society. Little things like plumbing are, truly, quite miraculous.
- Joining Apple 40 years Ago by Jean-Louis Gassee: A little Apple history. Quote: “Even if the Mac no longer dominates Apple’s financials — that ended in 2006 when the iPod became Apple’s number one revenue maker — it endures as an iconic product, one that I and many others are sentimentally and practically attached to. The advent of Macs powered by Apple Silicon is a significant milestone along Apple’s road to complete vertical integration that began decades ago… In 1985, Apple engineer Sam Holland convinced us to develop our own 4-processor CPU chip to power future Macs. This was to be done in collaboration with AT&T Microelectronics and led us to buy a Cray supercomputer on which to simulate the future world-beating Mac CPU. Although the project never panned out, it wasn’t entirely a failure: The idea that the Mac could be vertically integrated all the way down to the silicon manifested itself in the 2008 acquisition of Palo Alto Semiconductor, which led to the development of a line of best-in-class iPhone processors, and now MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops running on Apple Silicon M1 SoCs.”
- Why software ends up complex by Alex Gaynor: Quote: “Every feature request has a constituency – some group who wants it implemented, because they benefit from it. Simplicity does not have a constituency in the same way, it’s what economists call a non-excludable good – everyone benefits from it. This means that supporters can always point to concrete benefits to their specific use cases, while detractors claim far more abstract drawbacks. The result is that objectors to any given feature addition tend to be smaller in number and more easily ignored. Leading to constant addition of features, and subtraction of simplicity.”
- Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows: I finished this a week or so ago. I have yet to review my highlights, but I can definitely say that it’s been a good read. One that has given me the seeds of a language and the basis for a different approach to my spheres of activity.
- The Great Conjunction: A high in a 2020 full of not-so-highs. Unfortunately, where I live, we weren’t able to see the GC. But there are plenty of great visuals spread around the net. If you need a break from this reality, take a moment to look out into the universe at large.
- EU vs EU-UK Trade Agreement Infographic: Quite depressing stuff. Fortunately, as many people have pointed out, the start of the UK’s estrangement from the EU is also the start of its journey towards membership. Multiple generations have been stripped of many rights and much potential; that won’t be forgotten. In the meantime, the best thing us residents of Little Britain can do is to resist the brew of hatred, spitefulness and incompetence that is in danger of becoming the UK’s chief export, and oppose it with stances of compassion and courage.
The Magnificent Seven #22: Israel Galván – 20/12/20
- Israel Galván: From a young age, I’ve been active and movement-focused. Now, I consistently try to expand my movement-related inputs. Not just kettlebell masters and Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenoms. Flamenco dancers, too…
Galván is a flamenco dancer and choreographer. I learned about him through the Netflix documentary, Move. Each episode tells the story of a dance tradition through the lens of an individual deeply embedded within it. In an episode I watched this weekend, Galván, especially whilst dancing in a coffin and performing in Sevilla’s most prestigious bull-ring, is mesmerising.
- Floating Signifier: Startups attempt to find product-market fit. Social causes must search for a “floating signifier”– or pre-frontal-cortex-movement fit.
Quote: “For activists, a well-crafted floating signifier can be a powerful tool for catalyzing broad-based action. Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, for example, deployed the concept of the floating signifier masterfully. Marcos described the masks the Zapatistas wore as a mirror in which all who struggle for a better world can see themselves. The Zapatistas’ iconic black balaclava was not just a necessity for personal security, but became a powerful statement of unity and universality. “Behind our black mask,” they declared, “we are you.”” H/t to Samuel Ludford.
- On the Medium of Thought by Andres Gomez Emilsson: This post explores the idea that the medium of thought both constrains and enables its content. Bias is never eradicated. It is just swapped for something different, both qualitatively and quantitively.
I was also intrigued by the idea that truth requires a helper, a hand-maiden to be able to stumble into the light. It rarely walks unaided. Perhaps, a more apt expression is that truth requires a cloak, woven of story or power, to be recognised by an observer.
Quote: “Next time you have an intense emotion, introspect on the ways it influences your imagination. In a great mood, do you not have, perhaps, much more access to soft, regular, and manageable textures of thought you can use as building blocks for your field of imagination? And when in a depressive mood, aren’t thoughts, perhaps, more likely to be built out of nauseous, gloomy, starved, or self-loathing building blocks? It is thus why in a sense it is so hard, for the most part, to “think yourself out” of a depression. This is because the thoughts themselves are the ways the depression expresses itself!”
- Skipping Ropes: Most of the time, my warm-ups follow the GPS protocol: general, person and session-specific. Ten minutes of general activity followed by a few rounds of activity that target specific issues (e.g. tight hips), and then some practice of movements that relate to the session at hand. However, it’s winter here in the UK, which makes warming up for at-home movement sessions more problematic. Especially the general part. Fortunately, I have a skipping rope. Given a meter or two squared and a rope, I can get hot, even in near-zero temperatures. More importantly, habitual use of a jump rope seems to do good things for the brain. It’s a mental challenge as much as a physical one.
- The Strategic Theory of John Boyd by Tasshin Fogleman: a useful introduction to some of the key components of Boydian thought: tempo, morality, leveraging people, ideas and hardware (“in that order”) to disrupt systems, and interconnectedness. The last is the most important. If you like Tasshin’s overview, check out Venkatesh Rao’s Use and Misuse of the OODA Loop or Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.
- Meta-rationality: An introduction by David Chapman: I’m not a rationalist, either in the Less Wrong sense or in the sense that Chapman describes here–possessing mastery within a technical domain. But I have heard of meta-rationality, as a concept, being thrown around. Now, I have a marginally better understanding of what it is.
Quote: “They meta-rationalists produce these insights by investigating the relationship between a system of technical rationality and its context. The context includes a specific situation in which rationality is applied, the purposes for which it is used, the social dynamics of its use, and other rational systems that might also be brought to bear. This work operates not within a system of technical rationality, but around, above, and then on the system.”
- Pictures of the Year 2020: A heart-rending tour through 2020. If I had to summarise the collection in a single word (a foolish task, I know) I’d opt for “resistance”. The other option would be to emphasis the pain, the sorrow, the heartache. I don’t want to do that; given a choice between focusing on humanity’s ability to inflict or endure pain versus its ability to show strength in response to it, I’ve learned to choose the latter.
The Magnificent Seven #21: Future Frontiers – 13/12/20
- Future Frontiers by The Yak Collective: YC’s latest public project is live. Nanosatellites, consumer-priced submersibles, human hibernation; exciting stuff.
Quote: “In the 14th century, around the time of the Black Death, citizen explorers like Ibn Battuta and Petrarch planted the earliest seeds of democratized exploration culture. The Age of Exploration witnessed the voyages of explorers like Zheng He, Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan, who relied on royal patronage. By the 20th century, exploration had become accessible to the educated middle classes, and institutional and state support catalyzed a vast increase in exploratory activity, culminating in the space programs of the U.S. and USSR, as well as efforts like the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958).
While mass participation in frontier exploratory activities is still not a reality, more, and cheaper, enabling technologies are appearing than at any time in history.
In the wake of Covid19, could an era of democratized access to frontiers be the key to a renewed sense of larger purpose in the universe for humanity? In this continuously evolving project, members of the Yak Collective ponder our future as an exploratory species.”
- Now Reading: Probably my last Now Reading thread of 2020. It includes three fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary) and three non-fiction (computing-focused, human-focused and systems/ecology-focused) books. I was going to say which I’m most excited about digging into but I realised I’m pretty psyched about them all.
- How Dictators Control the Internet by Eda Keremoğlu and Nils B. Weidmann: A quick introduction to the basics of internet-interference run by autocratic regimes that, in turn, reminded me of Kranzberg’s first law of technology.
My favourite part: “Moreover, particular digital tactics employed by the government may even backfire and undermine autocrats’ rule in the long run. When autocrats exclude certain groups from the internet, they establish new “digital divides” in the population, which in turn could increase grievances and motivations to mobilize.”
This, I think, hints at a trend towards decentralisation that is already underway. See Venkatesh Rao’s Extended Internet Universe. The result is (or will be) a more secure and private internet, achieved by unconventional means–not by encryption or tricksy identity-protection mechanisms, but by the sheer mass of fragmented presences and distributed activity. Think of the security and relative solace achieved by the implausibility of computational demands associated with brute force hacking. Now apply that to social interactions across the web.
- Britain’s Warfare State by Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis: London is already renowned as the most illustrious jewel of the world’s launderettes. Just ask Roberto Saviano, George Monbiot or Nicholas Wilson. Dirty money is dutifully cleansed with the aide of prestigious professional services firms, banks and property conglomerates. Worse, the playbook of innovative accounting and legal acrobatics grows each day, remaining impenetrable to those with the will to decipher it and ignored by those with the capacityto intervene but not the motivation. With Brexit imminent, there’s an opportunity to further extend the popular laundering services. There’s also seems to be designs to cement the UK as the world’s foremost no-questions-asked arms dealer for the wealthy and murderous.
- How Ertugrul resurrected the Muslim imagination by Azad Essa: “Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), created by Mehmet Bozdag, told the story of a young warrior in 13th-century Anatolia who embarks on a mission to find a permanent home for his Turkic tribe, known as the Kayi, who lived as nomads on the steppes of central Asia. There, they seek shelter from the elements, navigate food shortages during harsh winters, and battle marauding Christian Crusaders and Mongols.”
I doubt I’ll commit to watching the marathon that is Dirilis: Ertugrul but it was interesting to read about its foundations and, more importantly, about the impact it is having on audiences around the world.
The most interesting part of the article, for me, begins thus: “The allure of Dirilis: Ertugrul, its rampant success, raises deeper questions about the established ideas of the social and economic structure of our lives. During the 1980s and 1990s, just as the Cold War ended and Muslims became the overnight scapegoats for the failings of the West, we were told that we had reached, as Francis Fukuyama described it, the end of history. We were either for consumerism or against western civilization. But Dirilis: Ertugrul upends these assumptions in three ways.”
- Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of Self-Portrait by Jason Farago: Never did I think I’d pay as much attention to Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait. The piece begins: “In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands.
But the premise that an image can be an authentic representation — that you are a unique individual at all — is not self-evident. It is a historical development. It had to be invented.”
- The Gig Economy is White People Discovering Servants by Indi Samarajiva: I’ll be honest. I usually avoid articles like this as they tend to generate more heat than light. But, having recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer (recommended) I took a dip.
Quote: “The gig economy is just white people re-discovering servants. That’s really all it is. It offers the same conveniences as centuries past, or ‘developing’ countries now, but also comes with the same economic and ethical issues. As much AI or even automation as you throw at it, you still have poorer people doing stuff you don’t want to do for not really enough money.
The real disruption would be something that renders the gig economy or servant class empty, because it lifts living standards for so many. Something that creates actual middle class jobs and lifts real family incomes across the board. In the past these have been government infrastructure programs, or opening up to free trade, or allowing more free movement of people. But those policies aren’t sexy and they don’t have an app.”
At the article’s end, the author links to a more expansive post built on a similar foundation: The Servant Economy. Which also reminds me of the main issue I have with the idea that your should hire a cleaner if you earn more per hour than a cleaner costs. It points to a fundamental issue in our civilisational structure, actually. I’m gonna save that discussion for later, though.
The Magnificent Seven #20: Making Zithers – 06/12/20
- Making Zithers by Nick Sousanis: The visual story-telling on display here really bends my brain. I’m used to stories being related procedurally, line-by-line, even if the actual story is more chaotic and disordered. Composition in comic format must be a lot of fun. Perhaps I should actually read some comics—any suggestions, let me know. Also worth checking out is Sketching Entropy, a comic creation behind-the-scenes.
Quote from Making Zithers: “So the assignment I came up with a few years ago around this idea is called “Zithers” – essentially, I draw for my students (and anyone can do this for themselves) a circuitous reading path, and then ask them to “solve” it. That is, design a comics page in which the reading path follows the drawn curve by using whatever affordances of making comics that you can bring to it: panel layout, word balloons/captions, sound effects, figures crossing panels/outside of panels, background imagery – whatever they come up with. I do stress I would prefer it not to be a snake/chutes and ladders gameboard sort of thing – that’s a little too easy. What surprised me the first time we did it was not just that students solved it creatively, which they did, but the sort of stories that it generated. Yes, we had jumping figures that made the reading paths, but we also had totally novel stories, things that weren’t on their mind to create, but the prompt itself sent them in new directions.”
- Augustine and institutional resilience by Michael Uhall: I read Uhall’s An introduction to gray sky thinking before the linked piece. The talk of Augustine’s “salvage practice” reminded me of Hawken’s discussion of the “waste = food” idea in Blessed Unrest. From what I can see, this is equivalent to the second law of ecology: everything must go somewhere. It also reminded me of Venkatesh Rao’s charting of civilisational waste flows in The Zeroth Mile.
Quote from the piece: “Consider, then, the work of salvage. Salvage (verb): the recovery of elements from the battlefield or the deep in order to repurpose wreckage, in order to craft new artifacts or new architectures from debris or detritus, from rubble or ruins. A salvage project is never just about stripping down something old so as to make something new, for repurposing salvage materials always integrates some functional elements from those materials into the new creation itself. In this sense, the world is made of salvage, its elements pressganged and rewired into alien service by impersonal processes.”
- How to resist the new totalitarianism by Niall Gooch: I follow Niall on Twitter, in large part because I’m often not sure if I agree with what he tweets, or tweets about. This piece is one such thing. “Soft totalitarianism” is an intriguing idea but I do wonder, at what point does regular ol’ culture morph into it?
Quote: “All of these occurrences illustrate Dreher’s central thesis: that inhabitants of Western countries are seeing the development of a new soft totalitarianism. Under this dispensation, interpersonal freedoms — those related to sexual expression and sexual self-definition, to the actualisation of a Self created by an individual for themselves — are sacrosanct, whereas old-fashioned concrete liberties of speech and thought and assembly and debate, are up for grabs. This is Philip Rieff’s “triumph of the therapeutic”, where the state will protect us from disapproval, challenge and criticism — even if that requires the destruction of proper freedoms.”
- How the World Gave Up on the Stateless by Udi Greenberg: I read this because I’ve authored a short story called Stateless, which posits the concept of “statelessness” as a choice and opportunity rather than a burden and a misfortune.
Quote: “This meant that the trauma of World War II did little to curtail states’ ability to determine their populations’ lawful status. The tragedies at Auschwitz and Hiroshima were not followed by international cooperation and human solidarity but by a harsh world order premised on national sovereignty, one in which statelessness continued to flourish. Few recognized this fact more viscerally than officials at the newly created U.N., who in 1945 were tasked with handling the massive number of refugees produced by years of global violence. Unlike their predecessors at the League of Nations, they did not even consider issuing international passports. Their efforts instead focused squarely on relocation and nationalization: Poles were sent to Poland, Italians to Italy, and so on, where local authorities were to decide their fate.”
- AlphaFold: A Solution to a 50 Year Old Grand Challenge in Biology: I’m trying to expand my technological consciousness, to better understand what happens at both the very bottom and the very top of the tech-stack. Thinking about yet-to-be-realised real-world applications for such technology is an intriguing activity, and will continue to be so for as long as fundamental deep learning tools continue to be democratised and adopted en masse.
- Alan Watts on Death: A provocative Alan Watts lecture dubbed over an animation. It made me realise that I’ve thought about death less often than I once used to, especially post-death scenarios. Of course, thoughts of death summon feelings of fear, doubt, sadness and loss. But, to me, thinking of death also brings a little comfort. I’ve found few better summary of this idea thus far than a quote from the His Dark Materialstrilogy: “ “But now this child has come offering us a way out and I’m going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing, we’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves, we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze, we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was.” ”
- Now Roaming: I’m ninety-five percent certain that I’m going to dig into Roam Research(and utilise RoamBrain). The difference this time, in comparison to other attempted adoptions of second brains and notation systems, is that it won’t be totalitarian in nature. I’m constraining the use-case upfront so that, if I think it’s a bust, I don’t feel too bad about sunk costs. If you have any constructive advice to offer, let me know.
The Magnificent Seven #19: The Octopus and the Machine – 29/11/20
- The Octopus and the Machine by Samuel Ludford: A tonne of interesting ideas here. Otto the octopus’ “blurring of the scientific frame” reminds me of a book I’m reading, titled Blessed Unrest. It’s about convergence of the environmentalism, social justice and indigenous protection movements. Samuel’s blog, divine curation, is also worth a look.
Quote from the article: “What, then, of the warmth felt for Otto [the octopus] by the wider audience? I have suggested that the agency of the technological bureaucracy is masked by transferring it onto Otto. On neither side of this transference are humans considered significant actors. As such, the situation represents a certain kind of powerlessness of the humans involved, a diminishment of their own agency. As representatives of the aquarium defence of its technological systems is axiomatic, so any actor that interferes with them is necessarily a bad actor. But for anyone who is not professionally invested, there is no reason why this must be so. The aquarium is in many ways a microcosm for a much larger technological bureaucracy, one which encompasses and permeates the whole of human society. It includes computers, everyday gadgets, cars, industrial machinery, scientific apparatus, the machinic ideas guiding scientific thought, targeted advertising algorithms, cybernetic motifs in cultural products, and so on. These things come with their own demands, their own agency manifesting as unintended and often undesirable effects, disrupting and confounding human ends. A sense of powerlessness in the face of this is hardly surprising, and nor, for that matter, is the welcome of a creature that appears capable of defying the regime.”
- Athena Thriving: A guide to combating gender discrimination in the US army. Naturally, it throws up a whole kaleidoscope of scenarios that I would never have thought of. This pairs well with The Woman Who Built Beethoven’s Pianos and a quote from Nahla Valji: “Our formal economy is only possible because it is subsidised by women’s unpaid work.”
- The Good Law Project: I came across Jo Maugham on Twitter during the UK election last year. The Good Law Project came onto my radar during the ongoing Brexit fiasco and because of its investigations into the multi-billion pound corruption enabled by Covid19. Since reading The Secret Barrister’s Fake Law, I’ve taken more of an interest in the UK government’s structure generally and folded sources concerned specifically with the British judiciary into my info-streams. The latter occurred because I wanted some more insight into why (and how) the rule of law fails to apply to the ruling classes.
- Your Computer Isn’t Yours by Jeffrey Paul: Quote: “These machines are the first general purpose computers ever where you have to make an exclusive choice: you can have a fast and efficient machine, or you can have a private one. (Apple mobile devices have already been this way for several years.) Short of using an external network filtering device like a travel/vpn router that you can totally control, there will be no way to boot any OS on the new Apple Silicon macs that won’t phone home, and you can’t modify the OS to prevent this (or they won’t boot at all, due to hardware-based cryptographic protections).”
- So, I listened to that list of 1001 Albums by David J. W. Bailey: I don’t think I’d ever try this, so I’m glad someone else has. Quote: “We now listen to things that would simply have been considered “outside of music” in the 1950s and 1960s. The boundaries have moved. The book does a great job of showing you the precise moments at which those boundaries changed, sometimes gradually, and sometimes in huge leaps. It explains who moved them, and what the consequences were. One or two albums are still outside the boundaries of what 99.99% of listeners would ever consider to be anything even close to “music”. Yet they are there in the book for a reason, and that reason makes sense at the end.”
- Watched Walker: If, like us in the UK, you’re currently under lockdown and missing ambient human noise, Watched Walker is a good resource. It’s exactly what it sounds like–recordings of a person walking various locales from around the world. Fun fact: I used the Holland Park video whilst writing Stay (a short story from Ss) in order to get a feel for the environment of a particular scene.
- How is software development different in China and India? Reading the comments/answers, I discovered that there isn’t a tremendous difference. Software, hardware and networking conventions converge more than they diverge. Some helpful links within the AskHN thread include a StackExchange thread (How do programmers in the East see programmers in the West?), an Alibaba article titled 25 Things You Should Know about Developers in China and a paper titled The Future of Chinese Software Development.
During this (very) small scale exploration of alternatives to the web-tech stack, I think I’ve realised that true alternatives require a doctrine-level difference in perception. A good overview of what doctrine-level differences look like comes from a Ben Thompson/Stratchery article which examines the “four internets”. But even these “four internets” build atop the same fundamental technology…
The Magnificent Seven #18: Until You Wake Up – 22/11/20
- Until You Wake Up by Martin Stranka: I came across this striking image on Twitter, of all places. Strange has more arresting imagery collected on his site, too. Another I enjoyed was Circle of Life. Sticking with the visual theme, I ended up reading an article about Monet’s paintings of trees.
- The Mattereum Big Deck by Vinay Gupta: Vinay is one of a handful of people I’m aware of who is a planetary-scale thinker (if you know others, message me). This deck represents a synthesis of a lot of his work and contains many, many things for all of us to think about. I didn’t think I’d ever say this about a powerpoint, but this deck is an important artefact. From the first few slides: “Remember, sustainable means 2 tons of CO2 per person per year, or 16 gigatons for the entire planet. … Every path we have out of poverty massively increases people’s resource consumption. … More or less the entire human population is trapped in either poverty or climate destruction.” For more, follow Vinay on Twitter.
- How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet by David Pierce: A quick tour of Discord’s rise. The element I found most interesting was the inevitable slide from non-intervention to a policy of strong and proactive moderation.
Quote: “Now they see it differently. “Discord is like a country with 100 million inhabitants, living in different states and towns,” Li said. “We make the rules on what is allowed to help shape the society at large, and we empower server moderators and admins to help us enforce and expand upon them based on the needs of their communities.” He wants to help moderators create whatever kind of community they want, and Discord’s also getting better at giving moderators the tools and knowhow to do so, but only within the boundaries set by the broader platform. Those didn’t exist for too many years. Now, Discord’s trying simply to be clear and forceful about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and to enforce those rules consistently. It’s investing in bots and other automated mod tools, but the Trust and Safety team now makes up more than 15% of Discord’s staff. While there’s still plenty of bad stuff on the platform, progress seems to be strong.”
- An Engineering Argument for Basic Income by Scott Santens: Yes, I am pounding the basic income drum once again. It is a good drum. A worthy drum. Quote: “Bang-bang design is like the way thermostats typically work. You set the temperature at what you want, and when the environment gets too far above or below that setting, bang, the air conditioning or heat kicks on to bring the room back to the desired temperature, and then, bang, it turns off again. … Proportional control means that the further a system strays from the desired setting, more force is applied to bring it back. It doesn’t wait to do anything until a point is reached. It adjusts at all points. … Right now, our safety net uses bang-bang design. If you lose your job, bang, the safety net turns on, that is if you satisfy the necessary conditions, and you may or may not still fall to your death because of the holes in the net. If you do get help, it’s temporary and then, bang, no more help, or if you don’t satisfy the conditions, bang, no more help.”
- Butterick’s Practical Typography: This is an incredible resource, especially for people who work with words. I’ve used it many, many times and the Summary of key rulespage is definitely worth the tiny time investment.
- The labyrinth challenge: I drafted some more of my novella and it threw up a challenge: the creation of a labyrinth with two particular constraints. Fortunately, I posted about it in the Yak Collective Discord, where Venkatesh directed me to Daniel Schmidt–his ProductLogic site has a tonne of useful ideas that will soon prove useful to me, but more importantly he’s a maze-master. Dan came back with an immediate prototype that will form the basis for further riffing. I also ended up reading Dan’s guest post on Ribbonfarm: Mazes as Mirrors of Creation.
Quote: “Satisfying Gutenberg’s vision requires traveling from “start” to “end” in the maze. While the start and end points are close together spatially, there is no open path within the inner region of the maze. Gutenberg, at first, is creatively blocked. Instead, you must travel to different domains until you find that the discipline of coin making holds the key breakthrough Gutenberg needed to execute his vision.”
The Magnificent Seven #17: Faces of Assassination – 15/11/20
- Faces of Assassination: A macabre cousin of the Humans of New York project. I’m including this because while most of us would understand that there is much resistance that takes place in the shadows, comparatively few of us appreciate that many die resisting in the shadows, too.
Quote: “In the years the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has spent documenting and researching the criminal ecosystem, we have seen that, increasingly, criminal groups around the world are targeting those whom we can broadly categorize as civil society – people who choose to make social justice and the promotion of equality their life’s work. Such individuals are being assassinated because theirs are goals and aspirations and missions that confront and challenge the power, authority and local legitimacy of criminal interests the world over.”
It’s also worth noting that a PDF of all the bios is available and a paperback version is available by request.
- EDC Showcase: As a human and bearer of various tools, I find it interesting to see what things others use, why, and how. The linked site has a ton of pocket dumps and short accompanying blurbs.
Thinking of EDC reminds me of a post by Venkatesh Rao, titled The Things You Carry. Quote: “Taking an inventory of the things you have carried through your life so far is a very good way to introspect systematically. A significant change in the things you carry is a very reliable indicator of a new chapter beginning. If you actually go through the exercise, you’ll probably end up, as I did, with a list of distinct sets of items for every few years of your life. At 40, I seem to have lived a 7-8 chapter life, going by the things I’ve carried.”
- Sam Hinkies’s Resignation Letter: I’m trying to get better at appreciating good writing, no matter the domain it hails from. I came to the letter via a post titled, Trust the Process by Packy McCormick and I certainly enjoyed it. Quote: “Maybe someday the information teams have at their disposal won’t require scouring the globe watching talented players and teams. That day has not arrived, and my Marriott Rewards points prove it from all the Courtyards I sleep in from November to March. There is so much about projecting players that we still capture best by seeing it in person and sharing (and debating) those observations with our colleagues. What kind of teammate is he? How does he play under pressure? How broken is his shot? Can he fight over a screen? Does he respond to coaching? How hard will he work to improve? And maybe the key one: will he sacrifice—his minutes, his touches, his shots, his energy, his body—for the ultimate team game that rewards sacrifice? That information, as imperfect and subjective as it may be, comes to light most readily in gyms and by watching an absolute torrent of video.”
- Ārya Prajñā: Artificial Intelligence according to Indian ethical values – Part I (and Part II) by Kiran Varanasi: This one is connected to the mention of Conway’s Law (“Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure”) in Alex Danco’s postfrom the last issue.
Varanasi provides a tour of certain aspects of Indian philosophical thought and certain aspects of Christian thought before exploring how the two approaches relate to the development of AI. He concludes by proposing: “Interconnectedness of Sacrifice (Yajñabandha) instead of Causality (Kāraṇatva)”, “Prosperity of refined flowing language (Āryabhāshāsaṃvṛddhi) instead of regulation by law” and “Environmental awareness instead of Isolation”.
Whilst reading, I was also reminded of Tom Holland’s Dominion, which argues, “Even the increasing number in the West today who have abandoned the faith of their forebears, and dismiss all religion as pointless superstition, remain recognisably its [Christianity’s] heirs.”
- Wanderlust: Rebecca Solnit on How Walking Vitalizes the Meanderings of the Mind by Maria Popova: Some of the most peaceful, contented moments of my life have come whilst walking. Whilst walking my old Labrador Bailey, whilst walking our little Daxi-Jack, whilst walking with people I love, or simply walking on my lonesome. Walking is therapeutic, restorative and energising, and this article (along with all the linked sources) attests to that. It’s the opposite of “the faster one goes, the less one sees“; slowness empowers perception and experience.
Quoting Solnit: “Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.”
- Curvahedra: As a relentless fidgeter, this is appealing: “Currvahedra is a construction puzzle system consisting of sets of identical cut pieces which link together in an ingenious way, without the aid of glue or tape, to build a variety of 3D structures; many different balls, cones and even more complex three dimensional tilings can all be made.”
- Down to the Atoms by Derek Lowe: I won’t lie. Most of this went over my head. I’m certainly not a structural biologist, and I definitely know next to nothing about cryo-electron microscopy. But I’m including it because the article reminded me of something that Adam Elkus tweeted (no I can’t find the link): he speculated that progress in the various sciences is due to developments in instrumentation more than anything else. Counter-intuitive but mostly right, I think.
The Magnificent Seven #16: Six Lessons – 08/11/20
- Six Lessons from Six Months at Shopify by Alex Danco: I’m anticipating my own experience at an imminent new job to be something like this: “So far it’s going basically on schedule: as I was told, “Your first couple months you’re going to have zero idea what’s going on. Then around month three you’ll come up for air and think, ok, I got this; and then you’ll try to start doing stuff. Then you’ll really struggle, because you won’t be in that happy new float-around-and-learn-people’s-names mode, you’ll be in oh-shit-can-I-really-do-this mode. It’s actually a little scary. But then around month five or six, you start to actually figure some things out for real. And then it starts to feel fun.” ” I also really liked the discussion of point two; Conway’s Law.
- Human Rights: What are the questions that really matter? by Jonathan Rowson: A post that displays the seeds of a new approach, especially because it seems willing to transcend the normal collection of civilisational fisticuffs that continues to restrain progress.
Quote: “Here are the kinds of living questions that need to be asked to make sense of today’s context for human rights:
1. In a world increasingly defined by transnational forces of ecology, technology, and finance, are existing forms of governance premised on sovereign nation states fit for purpose?
2. In a world where the law is often broken with impunity, without shame, should we seek to renew commitment to the rule of law at scale, and if so, how?
3. In a world where democratic processes are used to consolidate plutocratic power, what do we want government of the people, for the people, by the people to mean?
4. In a world of data-driven surveillance and psychographic manipulation, is it credible to think that people know their own minds and act in their own interests?
5. In a world of filter bubbles, disinformation campaigns and the loss of epistemic shame, is it feasible to reclaim a public realm grounded in shared intelligibility?
6. In a world of cascading, ecological breakdown caused by human behaviour shaped by a tenacious economic model, where should we focus our attention?
7. In a world of zero-sum economic games (own property, extract value, aggregate profit, accrue interest) and privately owned and potentially harmful exponential technologies (e.g. contagious viruses created through synthetic biology), how might collective action mitigate catastrophic and existential risk?
8. In a world of planetary-scale trolley problems, where billions may watch millions die and all available options necessitate a breach of principle, how can we help eight billion people internalise the conception of human dignity?
These are daunting questions because they speak to a new political reality we don’t have the tools to make sense of or act on. Yet the human rights movement, historically often ahead of the curve, may have a role to play in changing that.”
- Digital Sovereignty by Simon Wardley: Quote: “Unfortunately, the field (in the West) seems to be dominated by management consultants and other gurus telling stories and trying to define what ‘digital sovereignty’ is as though the general who wins the war is the one who comes up with the best name for it. Our responses all seem to include a slide into protectionism with claims that we need to build our own cloud industries. We seem to have decided to forget that we don’t produce all our own food and cross border trade is an important part of life. Lastly we do like a good moonshot and yes, an artillery barrage can do wonders but it’s a really good idea to look at the landscape before you press fire.” Bonus link within the post: Beijing AI Principles.
- Pass the Pablum by Steven Erikson: Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a breath-taking monument. I recommend it; I’ve read it twice; I’m planning another re-read (complete with additional materials) next year; it’s GOOD. The linked post is a short essay/rant in which Erikson responds to critics who tag him as writing weak characters. He has more posts about writing on his blog. I also listened to three interviews with Erikson over the past week or two. One was with Daniel Greene and one was with Books with Brittany–both review SFF fiction on their respective YouTube channels. I also listened to an Erikson interview on the Ten Very Big Books podcast. I enjoyed them all immensely, mostly because it’s fascinating to hear a master storyteller talk about writing. All of them reminded me of how much joy I myself find in writing, too. I was also pleased to discover GURPS–the Generic Universal RolePlaying System. I expect I’ll make use of it in the future…,
- Adapting online exams for pandemic conditions by Carl T. Bergstrom: A remarkably compassionate Twitter thread overview of developing trends in teaching, and their consequences. Quote: “26. So what can we do instead? // As I mentioned in the first tweet of this thread, writing our tests as before and using these software packages is the “simple” solution. // We don’t have to do things that way. // We can take it upon ourselves to do the heavy lifting needed…” Bergstrom also mentions Bloom’s taxonomy, which is itself a nice construct.
- certainties.append: There aren’t many certainties in the world. For a while, my list has totalled exactly one item. This post includes an addition–what are your certainties?
- The master programmers of Eastern Europe by Tom Ball: I’m trying to learn more about non-Western conventions for software, hardware and networking tech/infrastructure. Most of the foundational material I’ve come across is (understandably) Anglo-centric. I want to know whether that’s plain ol’ bias or actual absence of historical significance. If you can help with that question, email me.
For now… Quote: “If you were in any doubt about the computing excellence of young people from the nations left in the rubble of the Soviet Union’s collapse, consider those nations’ performance at the International Collegiate Programming Contest over the last 15 years. At this annual competition—where teams of young computer scientists from around the world go head-to-head in answering a series of programming problems—there is no competition. Since 2004, the gold medal has been won by teams from either Russia, Ukraine or Poland in every year without fail. You wonder why anyone else bothers to turn up.”
The Magnificent Seven #15: Voices – 01/11/20
- Voices by Max Richter: This has become the de facto soundtrack for my slowly-growing novella. A recent review gave it a 6.6 and included this paragraph: “Voices’ most transportive moment comes during the 11-minute centerpiece ‘Chorale.’ At first, Layne oddly recites the opening articles of the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] again, but when she recedes, a wordless choir takes her place. Their assembled voices eschew language altogether yet speak to the lofty themes of the Declaration. They present the curious entity that is humanity joined as one, stronger together yet always at risk of splintering. Such a beatific sound speaks to our angelic aspects, even when the music of Richter also suggests human fragility and our fallible nature.”
Fun fact: I wrote Barker to the accompaniment of Richter’s Sleep album. That album is marvellous (and it’s also a film?!).
- MJD 59,143 by Venkatesh Rao: Quote: “Lost-decade pauses typically feature anti-grand-narratives, like H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the 1920s or the more restricted Godzilla mythos from post-World War 2 Japan. Such anti-grand-narratives induce shrunken rather than extended universes in the imagination. They center human helplessness in the face of larger powers, rather than human agency and universe-denting powers. It’s not that extended universes cannot be imagined, but that they cannot be anthropomorphized and imagined as belonging to humans. The human sphere is temporarily reduced to a footnote in larger cosmic dramas starring non-human forces. Spiritual tendencies get amplified, new religions and cults form, new artistic and literary movements take off. These last are disposed to take a very hard look at the assumptions of the receding age.”
- I am an Uighur who faced China’s concentration camps by Victor Jack: Quote: “Prisoners are constantly warned about 48 characteristics considered hostile to the Chinese state, which include growing beards, praying and religious charity-giving, according to Ӧmir. The aim of these drills is clear, he says: ‘become Han Chinese … forget your religion, forget your culture’.
‘[If] you don’t listen to them, or cannot recite Mandarin songs, or roll your eyes, or show just a little bit of discontent with this process,’ he argues, then the guards respond with torture.”
- Unsplash Awards 2020: Unsplash offers “Over 2 million free high-resolution images brought to you by the world’s most generous community of photographers.” I’ve used the site in my own work and often browse it to get away from the walls of text I usually spend time gazing at. They’re currently soliciting new submissions for their 2020 awards. Here are the finalists from previous years: 2019, 2018, 2017.
- MPs Against Free School Meals by Jacob Heppleston: A list compiled after a controversial (read: cruel) UK parliament vote to deny free school meals to children during the holiday periods. Worth noting that those that voted against free school meals benefit from heavily-subsidised (and top quality) food and drink in their own workplaceand can claim “expenses” that approach (and in some cases exceed) their actual salary. On the surface this is heartless. But remember, this takes place in a state whose capital is mostly owned by sheikhs, hereditary aristocrats and organised crime syndicates, where Excel spreadsheets and deliberately sub-standard PPE costs billions, and whose current ambition is to become a haven for the parasitic elements of the financial services sector and a hell for any and everyone else outside of that domain.
- ErgoDox EZ: I’ve had cause to reevaluate my computer setup. I’ve looked into standing desks, mice, keyboards, screens and a rather large (and random) assortment of things adjacent to the field of ergonomics. This is one of the more remarkable finds from that exploration. While I understand the concept behind it, I’m not quite ready to go Full Ergo. Maybe in the near-future…
- Everything plus one: I wrote about the idea of habit formation in a scenario where everything is already changing. I also updated my About page to include a more thorough account of the various things I’ve done/tried/experimented with.
The Magnificent Seven #14: Strength – 25/10/20
- Strength by Pejac: “On the campus of University Hospital Marqués de Valdecilla in Santander, Spain, a trio of interventions by street artist Pejac simultaneously responds to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and offers potential paths for healing. The new series, titled Strength, is Pejac’s direct response to the 50,000 people who have died from the virus in his home country. ‘The idea of the Strength project arises as a gesture of gratitude to the health workers of Valdecilla, for their work in general and during this Covid crisis in particular. Offering them what I do best, which is painting,’ the artist says.” There’s a short video on Pejac’s YouTube, too.
- Ethical Life by Liam Kofi Bright: Quote: “We experience things as having a moral valence, as accompanied by a sense of whether they are right or wrong. This is plausibly a result of our evolutionary circumstances selecting for some pro- social traits, though this should in no means be taken to imply that all that results from this will be viewed to be desirable or pro-social on reflection. This native moral thinking is primarily realised through emotional reactions colouring our actions and experiences, or driving us to will as desirable certain ends or states of affairs. Anthropological evidence confirms that the precise content of our moral attitudes, what we resultantly will and do, is rather malleable indeed and susceptible to cultural formation. Once we become aware of this possibility of variation it becomes a problem for us how we may express and harmonise our own values to ensure they may be coherently expressed – and hence how we may decide when faced with conflicting moral sentiments. Bringing these sentiments into alignment both within oneself and along with other people, and expressing them through that which we will and do, is the problem of ethical life.”
- Three Lex Fridman Podcasts: Over the past couple of weeks, I managed three episodes. The first was with James Gosling, lead guy on the Java programming language (amongst other things). The second was with Brian Kernighan, co-creator of C, AWK and AMPL and prolific author–I’m just about to start his book, Understanding the Digital World. The third was with Donald Knuth, who’s even harder to summarise. All the episodes were great and left me with more questions than answers.
- Politics and the English Language by George Orwell: A classic. Also, makes for unpleasant reading for those that, like me, trade in words. I’ll say no more for fear of embarrassing myself.
“To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’. On the other hand it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them.”
- Exciting/ambitious desktop OS work by Patrick Collison: This links to a tweet by Collison calling for the above. I took a look at the replies. There’s questions around what constitutes innovation in the space–paradigm shifts, integrations with a wider range of technologies, usability, aesthetics?–but I’ll list some examples… (Note: some are desktop OS adjacent instead of OSs themselves.) PC-over-IP (PCoIP) protocol; Mercury OS; Urbit; Qubes OS; Elementary OS; Haiku; Redox OS; Genode OS. Bonus historical read that came up in the replies: Systems Software Research is Irrelevant(written in 2000).
- Skyrim rendered in text by Filip Hráček: I wasn’t expecting an overview of a procedurally generated text game. It was intriguing, though, to see how big an influence the concept of abstraction has in interactive media. I ended up playing a complete run-through of Insignificant Little Vermin. Fun stuff. It should be noted that this is a somewhat old article, too. See egamebook for its progression.
Quote: “The form factor that Insignificant Little Vermin ended up with is a great fit for casual play, especially on mobile. It’s not taxing in terms of skill. It can be consumed in short bites of gameplay, or as a whole. It provides an element of chance. It lets you read a story that is unique to you, and lets you explore a world at your own pace. It doesn’t require you to squint to see what’s going on on the screen — it’s just text and a few static paintings.”
- I Called Everyone in Jeffrey Epstein’s Little Black Book by Leland Nally: A lot of themes running through this one–power, influence, money and the mundanity of the previous trio; the human mind’s ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance, craft narratives and engage in meaning-making; injustice and inequality.
Quote: “This urge to make Epstein’s power sophisticated and complex serves a similar purpose as the elites’ insistence on Epstein’s extraordinary genius–both are ways of squaring the evident smallness of the man himself with the vastness of the world he built and the seemingly outsized influence he possessed. Both of them betray a collective lack of imagination when it comes to just how ludicrously rewarded dumbasses can be in this country. Epstein didn’t have to be anything special to become a key player in an evil conspiracy. He had to be rich, and he had to be useful to people richer and more powerful than he was. The very real possibility is that Epstein was both a rich dumbass and a key player in an evil conspiracy, because evil conspiracies require nothing more.”
The Magnificent Seven #13: How Gödel’s Proof Works – 18/10/20
- How Gödel’s Proof Works by Natalie Wolchover: My ongoing stack entry (read; learning about computing) has revealed a huge and monstrous gap in my knowledge: mathematics. I suspect I’ll have to plug the gap in a more systematic manner in the near-future. But for now I’ll supplement by info-diet with pieces like this.
Quote for the uninitiated (like me): “We’ve learned that if a set of axioms is consistent, then it is incomplete. That’s Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem. The second — that no set of axioms can prove its own consistency — easily follows.”
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems seems like a quantitative version of the Münchhausen trilemma; both are comments on the fundamental limits of human understanding.
- Evolving Floorplans by Joel Simon: Quote: “Evolving Floor Plans is an experimental research project exploring speculative, optimized floor plan layouts. The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc. The creative goal is to approach floor plan design solely from the perspective of optimization and without regard for convention, constructability, etc. The research goal is to see how a combination of explicit, implicit and emergent methods allow floor plans of high complexity to evolve.”
The floorpans themselves have a strange beauty to them. They also seem to correlate with the ideas of Léon Krier and other scholars/actors of the New Urbanism movement.
- Let’s hire people randomly by Paul Millerd: Quote: “I want to make a proposal that companies experiment with using lotteries to select entry-level employees at their company. I picked entry-level hiring because the potential perceived cost is lower and companies might be interested in re-allocating large recruiting budgets elsewhere in the company.”
I like this idea, even though the company’s that can most benefit from it will never implement it. First: Sonya Mann suggests that hiring processes are actually optimised for “hoop-jumping inclination and skill” instead of talent or potential. Second: even if hiring processes are demonstrated to yield an outcome no better than random selection, they’ll still be clutched tightly because humans need a narrative to intertwine with their perceptual and decision-making processes.
- Stalin, Putin and the Nature of Power by Lex Fridman/Stephen Kotkin: I’ve read the first volume and half the second volume of Kotkin’s biographical trilogy about Stalin. Fascinating works. This interview is good, too. Some standout ideas/moments… Marx wasn’t a theorist of inequality, he was a theorist of alienation; the use of the nuclear bomb as an analogy for Communism; incremental changes in the current (US) political system are better than attempting to break and rebuild the system as a whole.
- Geneva adopts what’s believed to be the highest minimum wage in the world: Interesting stuff, and part of an emerging trend in the most civilised parts of the world: raising the floor. These pair well with a Slate Star Codex post titled, Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs. The article argues against a now outdated policy proposal but actually provides a good summary of the many benefits of a universal basic income. FYI, I totally support the idea of basic income. The veil of ignorance is the key to understanding why.
- The Playbook: My second favourite sport, behind Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is basketball. That’s why I watched episode one of this series, featuring coach Doc Rivers. The segment that most resonated concerned how “pressure is a privilege”; playing for high stakes is an opportunity to be embraced, not shied away from.
- China Sells Minorities Into ‘Forced Labor’ to Benefit Apple, Foxconn, Others by Joel Hruska: Harrowing reading. Quote: “The report details how this massive system of relocation and forced labor has been built up under the guise of an aid program known as “Xinjiang Aid.” What appears superficially as a targeted aid program for the poor and undereducated people in the province is a relocation and reeducation program meant to destroy their culture and religious practices. Companies all over China have been encouraged to provide “industrial Xianjing aid” by building factories in the province to absorb what China terms “surplus labor capacity” or to hire Uighurs for other tasks in factories across the rest of China.”
The Magnificent Seven #12: The Fremen Mirage – 11/10/20
- The Fremen Mirage Series by Bret Deveraux: Frank Herbert’s Dune is experiencing a resurgence. Likely because of the recent movie trailer drop. This series by Deveraux offers a counter-point to one (amongst many) of Dune’s (and other cultural artefact’s) background assumptions; that, “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times.”
- An enabling act could happen here by David Allen Green: Green received A LOT of flak for posting this. The opposition he faced was totally unwarranted. This is a calm, collected discussion of an actual possibility. And I am not overstating the case. The UK is a country whose Home Secretary and Prime Minister publicly claim to oppose “do-gooders and lefty lawyers”. That is, the highest levels of UK government are opposed to those who assert the right of all people, EVERYONE, to be treated according to established human rights conventions. This is 2020: an enabling act could indeed happen here.
- Crime Ops: The Operational Art of Cyber Crime by The Grugq: This is exactly the sort of document I could’ve made use of while working on Barker. The Voice and the Hand of the Silent are clandestine groups of cultural activists/terrorists, respectively, and they share some of the characteristics of FIN7.
- The Duhem-Quine Thesis: “The Duhem–Quine thesis argues that no scientific hypothesis is by itself capable of making predictions. Instead, deriving predictions from the hypothesis typically requires background assumptions that several other hypotheses are correct — that an experiment works as predicted, or that previous scientific theory is accurate. For instance, as evidence against the idea that the Earth is in motion, some people objected that birds did not get thrown off into the sky whenever they let go of a tree branch. Later theories of physics and astronomy, such as classical and relativistic mechanics could account for such observations without positing a fixed Earth, and in due course they replaced the static-Earth auxiliary hypotheses and initial conditions.”
I was reminded of this during the Slate Star Codex review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions–specifically the section starting with: “Can we separate the fact around which a paradigm is based (like “the Earth orbits the sun”) from the paradigm itself (being a collection of definitions of eg “planet” and “orbit”, ways of thinking, mathematical methods, and rules for what kind of science will and won’t be accepted)?”
I’m also wondering whether these “paradigm bases” are analogous to hyperpriors (or conjugate priors)?
- “Why We Sleep” is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors by Alexey Guzey: I read this a while back and found myself revisiting it. Quote (absent some links and formatting): “In the process of reading the book and encountering some extraordinary claims about sleep, I decided to compare the facts it presented with the scientific literature. I found that the book consistently overstates the problem of lack of sleep, sometimes egregiously so. It misrepresents basic sleep research and contradicts its own sources. … Walker’s book has likely wasted thousands of hours of life and worsened the health of people who read it and took its recommendations at face value (Section 7).”
- State of GORUCK 2020 by Jason McCarthy: I keep an infrequent eye on GoRuck because I like their products (despite not having sufficient justification to buy much from them… Yet…). And I like their ethos. The latter is encapsulated in this post, which touches on the meta and the minutiae of GoRuck as a company. In general, I’m a fan of annual round-ups and addresses. WordPress does one each year. Ribbonfarm does one. Others obviously do them too. But GoRuck’s seems particularly open and honest.
From a competitive standpoint, this appears nonsensical. Aren’t objectives, stratagems and trajectories meant to remain obscure to one’s competitors? Not necessarily. Enter Josh Waitzkin explaining Marcelo Garcia’s tendency to upload videos of his BJJ sparring: “[Marcelo] was visually showing these competitors what he was about to use against them at 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks [away from competition], and his attitude about this was just completely unique: ‘If you’re studying my game, you’re entering my game, and I’ll be better at it than you.'”
- NBD: I tend to read multiple books simultaneously. This means that, when new book day comes around, I purchase multiple books simultaneously. This short post lists my most recent acquisitions (all of which I am so far enjoying).
The Magnificent Seven #11: Quarantine Fitness – 04/10/20
- Quarantine Fitness by Victor: To me, this is normative fitness–a mode of being that I aspire to yet am unlikely to reach. If I had to distil this article to a sentence it would be: Do what you can, where you are, with what you have*. The asterisk: You always have more, and can do more, than you think.
- The Business of SaaS by Patrick McKenzie: I found my way to the Stripe guides via Slava Akhmechet’s Go-to-market strategy for engineers. I’m glad I did; I suspect the guides will come in useful in the near-future.
- Seeking the Productive Life by Stephen Wolfram: This came up in an email convo with a friend. I ref’d it because of the Full Nerd Mode images. On a more serious (less jackass-y) note, though; it’s fascinating to look into how different people approach their work. In this case, Wolfram is typically comprehensive.
- Red Team Rules: I find myself referencing these, or returning to them, every now and then. It’s no so much the letter of the law that I enjoy. It’s the spirit; it aligns with multiple instances of how I choose to perceive and try to act within the world. Example: “Simple and light equals freedom, agility and mobility.”
- Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden: I can see why my partner recommended this Russian fairy-slash-folk-tale trilogy. I finished it a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s possible to read deeper into the book’s themes–gender roles, paganism, and so on–but it’s also enjoyable as a good ol’ fantastical romp.
- The Cartel Trilogy by Don Winslow: I’ve read a few books about the drug troubles in Mexico–Saviano, Grillo etc.–but none drove home the heart-rending nature of this particular slice of reality like Winslow’s Cartel trilogy.
- Bikepacking vs Cycle Touring by Tom Allen: I am no hardcore cyclist. But as we transition into the darker and colder half of the year, I find myself reading about two-wheeled expeditions, odysseys and overnighters, as well as the difference between bikepacking and cycle touring. Hint: the difference is what’s emphasised by the two “tribes”.
The Magnificent Seven #10: The Nature of Reality – 27/09/20
- Joscha Bach: Artificial Consciousness and the Nature of Reality with Lex Fridman: An IMMENSELY enjoyable conversation. So much ground is covered here and Joscha is an eminently wonderful guest and thinker. The transcript for the interview is available here. I also listened to Fridman’s talk with Daphne Koller (co-founder of Coursera who’s now getting into machine learning x biomedicine) and I’m making way through Ryan Hall’s appearance too. Hall is a BJJ maestro and an interesting guy in his own right.
- The Magnificent Archive by me: I finally got around to compiling the content from all previous editions of Mag7 and dropping it in an archive. In other news, I’ve entered a definite “cut” phase in my life. Certain constraints have re-imposed themselves (aka I’ve gone back to work) which means less time and energy to share around. As a consequence, expect to see a little less surface output (blogs etc.).
- Olight i3T: Yes, this is a torch. Back when I worked in security, I wielded a trusty LED Lenser T7. It was my companion as I crawled around perimeter fences in an attempt to ambush fence hoppers and as I searched a hilly woodland for a naked body hanging upside down from a tree–fortunately, I stumbled upon no fence hoppers and no bodies. Since then, I’ve had a Lenser P3 on my person most of the time. It died recently, however, and I made the switch to an Olight. I’m impressed thus far.
- The Prophet of the Revolt by Antonio Garcia Martinez: A Q&A with Martinez, author of Chaos Monkeys (which I have just added to my reading pipeline) and Martin Gurri, author of The Revolt of the Public. My favourite excerpt (among a few): “We are fractured creatures, trapped in a subjective perspective, but we are also symbolic animals, viscerally craving a meaning for our individual lives that is universally acknowledged and so transcends individuality. The purpose of the stories I mentioned before is to meld personal experience with social existence, and in this way make possible the production of shared meaning. The obvious question is why anyone should believe such stories. Well, William James, one of my favorite thinkers, and a psychologist, spoke of a “will to believe.” We are programmed to accept those stories that connect us, and our society, with the cosmic order. If you visit Jerusalem, you’ll find large crowds by the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Mosque of the Dome. That’s 2,500 years of belief guiding billions of individuals. And if you ask most Americans, myself included, they will tell you they believe all persons are created equal. Jefferson found that proposition “self-evident,” but really it’s a powerful act of faith in the face of a lot of contradictory evidence.”
- History of Philosophy, Summarised & Visualised: Crafted by Denis Cem Onduygu, Hüseyin Kuşçu and Eser Aygün, this is a remarkable overview of the history of philosophy. REMARKABLE. From the project’s About page: “I like to think that this is not just a historical project, useful for people specifically interested in the history of the field; what is also valuable here is the ability to see, by clicking on a sentence and displaying its connections, what different things can be said on a subject (how many perspectives there can be, which are hard to be all dreamed up by a single person) independently of who said them and when – independently of a direct interest in the history of philosophy (or “the history of ideas” in Bernard Williams’s sense).”
- Sky Ladder: The Art of Cat Guo-Qiang: Usually, I never manage to actually CHOOSE anything on Netflix. Several weeks ago, I did the unexpected; I selected this doc AND watched it all. Not only were that some remarkable visuals, there was also quite the collection of poignant moments.
- Brutality of Life Reading List by Sonya Mann: If you’re in doubt regarding the first of the Four Noble Truths, check out one of the texts picked out by Sonya. The only one of the list I’ve read is Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence. The highest praise I can give a book is that it changed my mind; Miller’s book did that.
The Magnificent Seven #9: Strange Loop – 20/09/20
- The strange loop of super active omittance: I wrote about an idea that’s been noodling me for a few days and riffed about SPOLFs and single wringable necks for Yak Talk.
- Scarcity as an API by Mario Gabriele: Note: I find the article interesting, but I don’t agree. Quote: “As tech and culture further co-mingle, we should expect more startups to follow MSCHF’s lead, using drops to win attention. In the process, programmatic methods may rise to contrive scarcity reliably, at scale, online. … We may live in an age of abundance, but with our sense of self tied to the proprietorship of rivalrous assets, scarcity will need to exist. Even if we must code it ourselves.”
- Terror and Technology From Dynamite to Drones by T.X. Hammes: A brief introduction to technological innovation’s impact on terrorism. The linked books look intriguing. John Robb’s Global Guerillas explores a similar track and is also worthy of inspection by the interested.
- Introduction to Strategy Mapping by Mike Baxter: I encountered Mike via the Yak Collective. Speaking about ideas related to my survey of business analysis, he sent me the linked video. He also has a new book out: The Strategy Manual.
- Dynamic at Home (Pt 2 and Pt 3) by Katy Bowman: I’m in the process of considering an attic/study redesign, so I’ve returned to Katy’s series on building a life around movement, instead of just squeezing it in. For those who struggle with major or minor movement-related issues, Katy is a great resource. In the same vein, she has a gear-guide to going furniture-free, and a post explaining why she did it.
- The Story Diamond by Stanley Williams: Any even remotely aspiring story crafter will look at this diagram and swoon. Not out of excitement but out of fear. “I have to figure all this out?” Fortunately not. My stance in regards to this diagram can be intuited from two successive lines of the Zen of Python: Simple is better than complex. / Complex is better than complicated.
- Fake Law by The Secret Barrister: I preordered this a while back. Reading it now is giving me a despair-induced stomach ache and a rage-induced headache. Chase this bitter brew with The Secret Barrister’s recent assertion that now is a better time than ever to be a criminal in the UK, Charles Stross showing us a German press’ caricature of the UK right now, a Level 2 media freedom alert issued to the UK by the Council of Europe, just one of many instances where the current UK government has leveraged pandemic panic to purchase faulty PPE from companies of chummy companions and The Atlantic’s explanation of Britain’s imminent humbling.
The Magnificent Seven #8: Fat Tails and Boring Edges – 06/09/20
- Fat tails and boring edges: I riffed on “focusing on the fat tails” in the context of tech stack entry and I contributed a piece called Emergent Infrastructure to this week’s Yak Talk. In Elements & Components of Product Management I completed the shortlist of business analysis ideas; now I’m shortlisting ideas from UI/UX. I’m also making my way through the second of Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy; it’s good.
- The CIA and MI6’s Secret War in Kenya (and Part 2): A few things jumped out. The use of language to dehumanise is one. A “capture” mission becomes a “law enforcement end-state” mission; a “kill” mission becomes a “military end-state” mission. The second is the tried-and-true tactic of provoking (or claiming) a threat in order to justify the use of lethal force. This seems to be a basic play in both foreign and domestic US operations. The third was this section: “There are US laws governing which foreign security services US government bodies can partner with. These include the Leahy Law, which requires human rights vetting of units slated for assistance, training or equipment. But the law only applies to the US military, the State Department and law enforcement agencies, former Washington director at Human Rights Watch, Sarah Margon, said. … Robert Etinger, former deputy general counsel at the CIA, told Declassified in an email that the law does not apply to the intelligence community.”
- Guido von Rossum: Python: A 1.5 hour interview with the Python programming language creator, Guido. Lex Fridman wanted to steer the conversation onto more philosophical, metaphysical tracks. Guido, who comes across as a toolmaker and craftsman interested mostly in those things alone, handled it well. I listened to this because I’m making my way through the Python tutorial and wanted some additional context. I got it.
- Preparing for the end of the world as we know it: I don’t really know what to do with this article. It raises a lot of questions, most of them uncomfortable. For example: “Education, in its different modalities (formal, non-formal, informal, higher, alternative, etc.), has historically been tasked with steering learning towards objectives that secure human survival as well as the reproduction of cultural norms and ideals. However, this double mandate becomes paradoxical when the reproduction of dominant cultural ideals poses a threat to human survival. This paradox is illustrated by Luis Prádanos, who asked in a recent piece about the future of education: ‘[I]s it really smart to educate people to technologically and theoretically refine a system that operates by undermining the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival?'”
- When engagement backfired: “It is easy for cosmopolitans like myself to plant themselves on the other side of the Pacific and have a grand time. Early connections with an opening China were sustained on the back of just those sorts of cosmopolitans: diplomats, journalists, exchange students, and adventurers would head to China from the West, and graduate students, the majority of whom were liberal in their sentiments, came to the West from China. But the sort of easy friendships cosmopolitan Chinese formed with cosmopolitans Westerners were poor guideposts for what would happen when more ‘normal’ people from inside and outside of China’s borders were mixed together.”
- Kurt Godel’s Brilliant Madness: I don’t know much about mathematics but I like reading about mathematicians. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, a biography of Paul Erdos, is one of my favourites. The linked article is a long overview of Kurt Godel’s life. My favourite part: “Famously, prior to the examination — which generally regards the American system of government, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — Gödel claimed to have found an inconsistency in the constitution. Worried that expounding on his idea might jeopardize Gödel’s application, Morgenstern and Einstein tried to distract Gödel from his discovery until the hearing began. According to Morgenstern, it did come up during the hearing…” Much of the article is sourced from Logical Dilemmas.
- Digital pregnancy test teardown: A terrific teardown thread by Foone. Favourite tweet: “This thing is probably faster at number crunching and basic I/O than the CPU used in the original IBM PC, and this one is in something you pee on and throw away.” There’s some interesting dynamics in later tweets as a result of the thread going rather viral.
The Magnificent Seven #7: Plain English – 30/08/20
- Plain English: There are lots of how-tos and do-don’t lists for writing. This one is about as simple and as short as they come. I like it. I agree with it. That said, I won’t always comply with it.
- The End of Secularism is Nigh: This article recounts some of the ideas in Tom Holland’s Dominion. The book itself was significant to me. I’d never considered the fact that, though I’m an atheist, I’m Christian by default. Much of the values and beliefs I hold dear are derived from Christianity. The article also got me wondering about the Overton window and how some beliefs constrain action while others un-limit it.
- Excessive standardisation of form: Following my entry into coding, questions about tools have arisen. But I viewed this observation (and the embedded thread) through the frame of writing. Personally, my writing turns out better when I begin with a handwritten outline or diagram/sketch. As a consequence, I’m making an effort to use my notebook more frequently. Bonus thread on physical workspaces and bonus article on upfront design in Agile software development.
- Would you try this? Humans are capable of some amazing things. Whether they should do them or not is an entirely different question. Watch the video. You’ll see what I mean.
- David Blaine on the Joe Rogan Experience: When it comes to podcasts, I tend to listen to none for a while and then watch / listen to multiple. This week, I watched David Blaine’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. It’s probably one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever seen. Blaine’s enthusiasm, insight and awe; how he guides conversations and relays anecdotes; Rogan’s reactions; utterly absorbing. I also listened to James Nestor’s appearance, just to see if he talks about breath-related stuff that didn’t make it into his book. He did: turns out that stress from chewing/masticating doesn’t have the same effect on the nervous system compared to straight-up jaw clenching.
- Books with unusual but brilliant structures: Need something to read? The blog post itself has a tonne of reccs, as does the Twitter thread linked within.
The Magnificent Seven #6: Genius and Collaboration – 23/08/20
- Richard Feynman’s Advice to a Young Stephen Wolfram: I’m citing this because it has me thinking about a genius’ (in)ability to genius in the absence of collaboration. It seems that, no matter how other-worldly a person’s abilities are, we are better together than we are alone.
- Half a House: The pictures got me, as did the concept: building half a house is an innovative way to do affordable housing. I found the conclusion saddening, however: “The biggest hurdle to an incremental building project working in the U.S. isn’t a matter of safety or legality, however. Stoloff believes the U.S. would view it as ‘an embarrassment.’ Even though we might end up providing more people with adequate housing, ‘we couldn’t do it—we’d lose face,’ says Stoloff.”
- Tolkien and the True History of Europe by Robert Kearney: I’ve read LOTR more times than I can count. It’s a work that’s been instrumental in my desire to write at all, and to write fiction in particular. And when I read that Tolkien’s magnum opus may be based on obscure historical literature? I fell in love with Tolkien’s work just a little bit more.
- Strength: This is the afterword to Ss, which I published just because. I wrote about the root of disagreement and I’ve progressed onto the project management section of my latest project. This week’s Yak Talk lays out some approaches to decarbonisation. I also gave my “about” page a much required spruce-up.
- 10 Years and 100 Reads: I’ve read Meditations myself, a fair number of times. Recently, I’ve come back to this passage. “…there are plenty of other things you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer–beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for less.”
- Slate Star Codex Abridged: I’ve read very little SSC. But with the Abridged version being available as a PDF and the Kindle “convert” trick, I can now get around to it.
- The Last of the Hedgehogs: A piece about Rene Girard, inspired by the release of Cynthia Haven’s latest, The Prophet of Envy. I find Girard himself, let alone his ideas, fascinating. He’s a small giant of the last half-century.
The Magnificent Seven #5: abc xyz (I forgot to title this one…) – 16/08/20
- Wrong vs Right Enemies: I came across a diagram from Nassim Taleb’s Principia Politica, a work-in-progress. It says that demonising “the rich” is incorrect; demonising predators, cronies and rent-seekers both rich and poor (as opposed to earners, entrepreneurs and protectors) is a better stance. I’m inclined to agree. I’m also inclined to believe that all of us need to define our enemies and, more mildly, our out-group. Just as Seneca advised us to have a positive model to measure ourselves against, it’s useful to have a negative model to measure up to.
- Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen: I’m halfway through this and it’s already painted a stark picture of the Anglosphere. It confirms that common sense tactics for refuting untruth, exposing incompetence and calling out immorality do not work in the context of 2020. I’m hoping a remedy is introduced later on… If one is not, however, I’ve found a more general approach in James Clavell’s Noble House. Faced with uncertainty, challenge and insider sabotage, tai-pan Ian Dunross decides upon a response: “Laugh and fight.”
- Simple Sabotage Field Manual by The CIA: Pay attention to the final section, titled General Interference with Organisations and Production. In an ideal world, you’ll read it and realise that neither yourself nor anyone you interact with does any of the things listed. Also, in line with the theme of sabotage, here’s a list of 17 disinformation techniques.
- Assumptions About Hunter-Gatherers by Manvir Singh: I’m one of those who assumed that hunter-gatherers lived in small, roaming bands with only basic hierarchies and minimal infrastructure. As Manvir explains, that’s not necessarily true.
- A Simple Plan for Repairing Our Society by Vinay Gupta: Incentivising the long-term over the short-term is perhaps the biggest issue when it comes to politics. As David Roberts has pointed out, the problem is never lack of resources; it’s lack of political will. And perhaps one way to aggregate the will required to begin solving global problems is to adopt Vinay’s suggestion: “You can look, situation by situation, rule by rule, law by law, and ask ‘am I harming these children?’ If the answer is yes, you don’t do that. The kids are profoundly collateral damage in the power struggles of the adults, and we’re using them like hostages all the time. But a cease fire could be arranged.”
- By me: In this week’s Yak Talk newsletter I wrote a speculative what-if that considered a more harmful version of a recent Twitter hack. I’ve also progressed in my Elements & Components of Product Management project. I’m now considering the big ideas associated with the software development life-cycle. Say hi if you can help me out.
- Scholar’s Stage: I haven’t read much of the material on this site (there’s a lot) but I’m plugging it for anyone interested in “the intersections of history, behavioral science, and strategic thought, with an emphasis on East and Southeast Asian affairs.” I’ll also plug two books I read a while ago: The Unspoken Way by Michihiro Matsumoto and Chinese Looking Glass by Dennis Bloodworth. Both provided Young Me with some basic ideas about these respective non-Western cultures.
The Magnificent Seven #4: Movement Matters – 09/08/20
- Waterrower: Someone on Twitter pointed me to these as a replacement for the world famous Concept2s. And oh boy, do I want one.
- Intervention by Dan John: Since the pandemic, I’ve been training at home. But even when I wasn’t this book (and its ideas) have been at the heart of how I approach movement. Breaking movements down into push, pull, squat, hinge, carry and other is a gamechanger. So is the idea of quadrants. And I use that expression lightly when it comes to health and fitness.
- Original Strength: More recently, I’ve rebuilt parts of my movement practice. Specifically, the warm up (prep) and everything that comes after the meat of a session (play). OS has a ridiculous repertoire to mine and combine to make movement fun again.
- Kettlebells: Generic plug here. One of the best investments I’ve ever made is in my own set of ‘bells. I have eight or nine, from 8kg up to 36kg, but having even one or two knocking around is transformative, provided you can make using them a habit…
- Local / Global Maxima: A hint I read concerning meditation; play the game at a level you can win. In meditation, that often means taking it breath by breath. In health, fitness and movement, that means focusing on local instead of global maxima. Terrifically hard to do of course, but it mitigates most of the downside associated with fitness and allows you to access way more of the upside.
- Breath by James Nestor: One of those books which gives me ideas I immediately want to try. Thus far, I’ve tried nasal breathing whilst swinging kettlebells and on a recent cycle. The latter was hard. I’m considering taping my mouth overnight to see if it stops me snoring, too. I’m sure I’ll try other things before the book is over.
- The shape of a story: A snapshot of where I’m at with a current novella project. I’m also continuing to traipse the disciplines of UI and UX for critical ideas related to product management.
The Magnificent Seven #3: Little Books, Feet and Slaveholders – 02/08/20
- Little Black Classics (01-80): A present from my nearest and dearest to celebrate the completion of Ss, my first short story collection. I read the first on Friday (an excerpt from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron) and thoroughly enjoyed it. My intention is to read each of Classic cold, with no advance research of the context, and then do some digging before reading it once more.
- Wild Toes + Lacrosse Ball: I spent years wearing various trainers whilst playing sports as a kid. I spent more years wearing smart, pointy shoes shift after shift in bars and restaurants. I now wear boots for 12+ hours at a time during my day job. Somewhere in the middle of all this I spent a year or so working in a gym, barefoot, and training Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now there’s no going back. If I could, I’d be barefoot (or wear Vivo’s) all the time. I can’t so I use toe spreaders and a lacrosse ball to look after my foot health. (P.s. get a lacrosse ball for a quid on Amazon and instead of buying a beam from TFC, repurpose a scaffolding pole; that’s my plan.)
- How slaveholders in the Caribbean maintained control: H/t to Michael Duda for sending this over. It’s a nice introduction to the tools of control and manipulation in society, but more importantly it reminded me of other locales in time and space. Soviet Gulags; Nazi concentration camps and Jewish ghettos; (aspiring) authoritarian regimes; countless offices and endless factories. Facilitating division, undermining trust, poisoning critical seams of community and connection. The context changes but the content of the playbook remains the same. Fortunately, so do the tools of resistance, rebellion and recovery.
- The Münchhausen trilemma: This is the suggestion that the attempt to prove any truth comes up against one of three impediments–I won’t spoil them here, though. I’m thinking about this in combination with the idea of diminishing returns and in two separate contexts: introspection and decision making. No matter how deep I dig, I’ll never get to the bottom of my self. And even if I do, I’ll run into the munchy-tri. This means that, when it comes to decisions I have to make–and the inputs I have to consider, one of which is me–I will always have to act with faith. I cannot know yet I must still commit; thus I need faith.
- The trauma floor: I remember a quip on Twitter (I can’t find it now, though). It was something like, Do you believe that the mind is separate from the body? Then hadn’t you better work out? A worthy shot at mind-body dualism. Similarly, after reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, I thought of this article as an example that dissolves the persistent myth of cyber dualism (e.g. the “online” world isn’t “real”).
- By me: I co-wrote the first instalment of a series called Chasing Tails for the Yak Collective’s weekly newsletter and I started populating the long-lists of my latest product-management-related project. I put out a public call for contributions here.
- Bel far niente: I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love and I came across this segment: “Bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing.’ Now listen–Italians have traditionally always been hard workers, especially those long-suffering laborers known as braccianti (so called because they had nothing but the brute strength of their arms–braccie–to help them survive in this world). But even against that backdrop of hard work, bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. You don’t necessarily need to be rich in order to experience this, either. There’s another wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi–the art of making something out of nothing. The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich.”
The Magnificent Seven #2: Tech Effects – 26/07/20
- Last Chance U (Part 1): There was much above and beyond this series’ entertainment value. It reminded me of the effects of poverty at the molecular level. It got me thinking about the collapse of the middle class and how it’ll make “getting out” even harder. And it reminded me not to assign individuals the responsibility for structural defects of a system.
- By me: In response to a surprise package, I wrote about tolerating BS. As part of the ongoing pivot into product management, I compared PM’s components to the elements of writing fiction. I also co-wrote a piece about “the democratisation of simulation” for the Yak Talk newsletter.
- India, Jio and the Four Internets: It’s easy to think of the internet as one huge monolithic block. It isn’t. As this post demonstrated, it’s a series of competing ecosystems, a few of which make up the dominant majority. The reason I ended up reading this post was because I asked a friend how much software development traditions differ in the US in comparison to China. If anyone has insight on that question, let me know…
- Dostoevsky’s Notes: I’ve read a few novels by the Great Russian, so I’m not too surprised that his notetakings were bizarre and psychotic. It’s still beautiful to see, though. And it caused me to wonder whether I should move more of my workflow (particularly charting the elements of fiction) back to pen and paper. Not because I think it’ll be as good as Dostoevsky’s notes, but because thinking on paper is strangely satisfying.
- Growing Without Schooling: Austin Kleon’s a good dude and his continued interest in homeschooling (and educational methods in general) isn’t just beneficial to parents. In this post, he talks about the work of John Holt, links to his own favourite excerpts and includes the fully online back catalog of Growing Without Schooling mags.
- Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich: Not long after coming across NRx / dark enlightenment I read this somewhat old piece by Corey Pein. It has me conflicted. True, “visionaries” can just be re-upholstering the ideas and stances of historic dictators. But I’m also not cynical about technology and the developments it can bring (though I wouldn’t class myself as an optimist, either). Additionally, I read this Atlantic piece, supplemented it with a reminder from Vinay Gupta about what matters and explored the links in TV Tropes’ Ubermensch page.
- Be Impatient: Generally, I believe operating at a greater tempo is a good thing. That’s why I like indie publishing. It’s why I like blogging. It’s part of the fun of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Respond fast; act faster. This post has arguments in favour of speed in different contexts. However, there’s also arguments for incredible slowness. Perhaps it’s best to cultivate competence at both extremes.
The Magnificent Seven #1: Beginnings – 19/07/20
- James Clavell’s Asian Saga: due to a self-imposed book-buying embargo, I picked up The Asian Saga once more. I’d already read Shogun and Tai-Pan. I restarted Gai-Jin and finished it a few days ago. King Rat has started strong. The Saga is epic in scope and impressive in its detail. A discussion about it with my father also inspired the title of this newsletter project thing.
- Zeynep Tufecki’s Twitter and Tear Gas: We’re all trying to navigate a post-truth world. And a critical component of this world is the emergent movements enabled by technological advances. This book is about that. Zeynep is also a good Twitter follow.
- The Yak Collective’s The New Old Home Report: I found this report full of ideas and possibilities for reimagining work-home life. I was satisfied to find that I’d already adopted a few in my own life but more satisfied to find additional ideas to experiment with. I particularly enjoyed the segment on “How Homes Work”.
- From Payments to Armaments: this free-to-read article from the Financial Times is about Jan Marsalek, a COO who belongs in a gritty geo-strategic thriller novel. I didn’t read this because I’m interested in the hoo-ha about Wirecard (and cryptocurrencies in general). I read it because, in the theme of this War Dogs article, I was intrigued by just how far sheer audacity can take a person.
- Daniel Sinclair on the Uhgyur deportation video: Three things here. First, the video is terrifying. Second, Daniel’s investigation into the why and how of the video is cool to see unfold. Third, it raised a lot of questions in my mind concerning the dominant “it can’t happen here” sentiment and reminded me of a book called States of Denial.
- Vivo Barefoot’s Ultra III: I’m on to my third pair of these things. They’re great and have made every pair of “normal” shoes virtually unwearable in comparison. Once the toes spread it’s impossible not to notice them being squished together by traditional shoes…
- Paweł Czerwiński: Whilst trawling Unsplash for abstract artwork for Ss, I came across this fellow’s work. It’s mesmerising and beautiful and kind of haunting.