Nathan Hwang

Transcript 7X-2: A Zoothropological Perspective

Thank you all for coming to today’s seminar on the Zootopia artifact, recovered during our excursion on planet 7X. I’ll be diving a bit deeper into the implications of the recording, especially those clues that might reveal the reason for their civilization’s demise.

You should have gotten a copy of the translated recording last night, but for those that skipped viewing it, the story matches our own “cop buddy” movies, with unlikely partners pairing up to right wrongs and become friends. Additionally, the recording conveys a message of tolerance, even to those highly unlike yourself.

However, there are hints throughout the recording that there exist multiple conflicts and instabilities brewing beneath the surface of society, any of which might have been the cause of the end of their civilization.

(Of course, everything must be taken with a grain of salt. I will interpret the recording in earnest, but the recording may be presenting a biased/utopic/dystopic view of Zootopian society. However, given the extreme degradation of the other artifacts recovered, I will simply have to assume that the recording reflects Zootopian reality.)

A Malthusian World

The most obvious problem is the looming Malthusian trap. We catch a glimpse of Bunny Burrow’s population near the beginning of the film, and can extrapolate an approximate growth rate. Pegging Bunny Burrow at the visible 8,143,580 individuals, and growing at 1-2 people per second, this rural farming town is almost as large as New York City, and growing around 2 to 4 times as quickly in terms of births assuming no deaths or immigration. Once we include deaths into the population counter, then the birthrate must be even larger.

Humanity dodged predictions of a Malthusian trap in the latter half of the 1900s with a green revolution and a novel tendency for rising standards of living to lead to lower birthrates. However, it’s not clear that either of these did or could happen on 7X. Bunny Burrow is 211 miles from Zootopia, a large and apparently wealthy city (for comparison, Boston is around 200 miles from NYC). Even though the town appears rural, the area is connected to the city with high speed rail, which practically puts Bunny Burrow right next to Zootopia. If Bunny Burrow is selling food to Zootopia, then Bunny Burrow almost certainly has a relatively high standard of living, and yet growth rates are still much greater than replacement. We don’t know what the bunny death rate is like, but unless there’s some system of bunny birth restriction just off screen, each couple giving birth to 275 children will not yield a low enough birthrate to avoid explosive population growth.

On the other hand, it is not apparent there has been a green revolution yet. There are 3 million farmers within the present-day USA, but 8 million farmers on the doorstep of Zootopia, which implies that Zootopian agriculture is closer to America in the 1870s, when half the country was involved with agriculture. It’s also implied that botany or science education is still in its infancy: no one seems to know about “Night Howlers”, an unrestricted plant that elicits an aggressive response in a wide range of species. If botany was underdeveloped relative to the rest of their apparent scientific advancement, then it is possible they could pull off their own green revolution and raise food yields and agricultural productivity. However, the apparent tendency of at least one species (sub-species?) to maintain birthrates in the face of prosperity simply means a massive yet finite increase in agricultural output would only forestall the inevitable.

To fully sketch a bleak world, once 7X nears carrying capacity, any change in agricultural productivity (say, a volcano dusting up the stratosphere) would cause famine. Human responses to famine are varied, so we can’t rule out responses such as violent revolution, widespread debt enslavement while people try to raise the funds to buy increasingly expensive food, or even simple mass death. It’s possible that any of these contributed to the ultimate desolation of Zootopia.

Divisions in Society

Contrary to the main message of the movie, another source of strife would be the highly heterogeneous nature of Zootopian society.

It is unclear how old the accord between herbivores and carnivores is; the introductory skit doesn’t elaborate beyond “thousands of years ago”, which is ambiguous. “There was war thousands of years ago” does not preclude “there was war tens of years ago”. There are hints, though, that the accord is a recent event.

By our eyes, Zootopia looks like a new city: high technology abounds, and there is not much creaking infrastructure of the sort you might find in an NYC subway. On the other hand, there are hints that the city is not brand new: the jungle superstructure presumably had to grow while the city provided climate control, and the city has been around for long enough that it has older low-cost housing (which Judy lives in). However, 50 years is more than long enough for a city to develop those sorts of signs of aging, and the overall veneer of the city reflects a shiny new Singapore instead of an older NYC or Paris. Since the accord was signed in Zootopia, the relative youth of the city implies that the accord is also young.

More circumstantial evidence suggests a young accord: predators easily enter a hyper-aggressive state with barely any chemicals applied (the skin is a good barrier against random chemicals entering the bloodstream). If the accord had happened thousands of years ago, one would expect predator aggression to be more easily kept in check, due to thousands of years of study on an important public relations matter.

(To be fair to the inhabitants 7X, it is likely that Zootopia exaggerates or imagines problems in society. In particular, the “Night Howlers” drug is curiously similar in nature to our own tales of zombies, serving as a fictional boogeyman. Along with the other problems I will detail about “Night Howlers” later, it seems unlikely that it is a real substance, or as dramatic as portrayed. However, as stated before, until a future expedition uncovers contrary evidence we can only take the recording’s word at face value.)

It seems that the accord is young. This means that the peace is more uncertain: institutions that have proven themselves over thousands of years in hundreds of civilizations, like the concept of courts, have shown themselves to be stable across many different circumstances. The accord seems more an uneasy peace that hasn’t had enough time to solidify into an alliance, more like the latest Israel-Palestine ceasefire than today’s peace between pre-Bismarck Germanic states. A societal shock might cause enough strife to break the accord, and the intervening peace would mean both predator and prey are prepared with better weapons.

(On the other hand, coordinating any peace at all between such different groups should be commended. Perhaps the inhabitants of Zootopia have a different enough neural architecture that negotiating and keeping a peace comes easy to them. However, the societal strife caused by Judy’s mid-recording revelations imply that isn’t the case.)

Subsistence Inequality

Another source of instability stems from the inequality coded into the genes of the different Zootopians, with vastly larger inherent differences between Zootopians than between any two humans.

Assuming that the city is relatively young, and that Zootopian society has only recently attained their technological level (much like our own world), it is only recently that smaller animals have gained access to machines with which they could do the work of much larger animals. Since they’re smaller, they don’t have large fixed costs: an elephant has to eat 300 pounds of food a day on an open savanna, while a gerbil has to eat 10 grams of food a day in a square foot cage. If the elephant wants to work at a high frequency trading firm downtown, he has to work remotely with the communication costs that entails, or pay out the trunk for a large city apartment that is still never large enough, but could serve as an outsized mansion for 20 gerbils.

If their society is still moving towards an information technology base, as it seems it is, (mobile phones included), then the smaller animals gain more and more of an advantage. And small animals are demonstrably not dumb: a shrew is a successful mafia don, and the employees at the financial institution Lemming Brothers are, well, lemmings. The situation is analogous to Robin Hanson’s virtual person emulation scenario, where the ease with which minds can be replicated and the low cost of virtual living drive wages through the floor, far below human subsistence costs (defined as maintaining the minimum caloric intake needed for living). Back on 7X, the low cost of gerbil living drives wages through the floor, far below elephant subsistence costs[1]. With this discrepancy in living costs, the tendency of smaller animals to have more children becomes more pronounced: it’s easy to support several deadbeat siblings as a gerbil, but a burden to support a deadbeat elephant. Even if the heritability of IQ doesn’t hold for the inhabitants of 7X, this means that it pays to pursue a r-selection strategy as a small animal. The more children you have, the more breadwinners you might have as children who can support all their siblings and then some. Over time, gerbils will vastly outnumber elephants.

In other words, tiny animals can eat the lunch of much larger animals. However, there is an existing peaceful integration of animals that literally eat each other: perhaps it is possible to also integrate animals with vastly different subsistence rates. One approach would be to impose a species-specific tax structure, similar to a skewed basic income, or provide a subsidy, like a housing subsidy for larger animals, or normalize different wages for different species[2] (it seems like these schemes aren’t already in place, since Judy doesn’t balk at paying for an elephant-marketed popsicle). Or coming at the problem from a different angle, perhaps their society would implement growth restrictions on faster growing populations, although it’s clear that such restrictions are not in place at the time of the recording.

Additionally, we do not know how long each animal species lives. If gerbils and elephants live as long as their terrestrial counterparts, then the shortness of gerbil lives leaves room for elephants to take on a long term Elder role, acting as a valuable repository of institutional knowledge for teams of short-lived gerbils. However, without more knowledge of Zootopian physiology, we can’t know for certain how their institutions would be structured to take advantage of different species, and if those would naturally counteract the problem of subsistence inequality or exacerbate them.

Balancing on a Knife Edge

In addition to the other concerns raised, it seems clear that there generally is a lot of destructive potential energy is stored in Zootopian society, but it is unclear how much of it is actively contained by their governments.

The first hint is the availability and easy-going concern with dangerous drugs, like “Night Howlers”. Previously, I pointed out that this meant that botany probably wasn’t advanced, but the advanced technology of the rest of 7X society means that oversights such as this are increasingly dangerous. Drawing a rough analogy, it’s as if knowing that ammonia fertilizers could be used to create explosives was freely available but specialized knowledge, and when a random farmer orders 10 tons of fertilizer over the internet and blows up an orphanage, the government blames the orphanage for being an old creaky building, and says so for months. “Night Howlers” have been an uncontrolled substance for so long, and city police so unconcerned with copycat terrorist attacks after the events in the Zootopia recording (mass aerosol or water supply attacks leap to mind) that 7X society seems woefully unprepared for what our colleagues in that Three Letter Agency[3] call “independent actors” leveraging all the power a technological society grants them, without any of the checks.

The second hint is the absolutely mind-boggling availability of energy. Creating city-sized micro-climates? It’s an HVAC nightmare, an energy black hole to shovel electrons into. How bad might it be? Let’s do a Fermi estimate: since the climate outside the city is reasonably temperate looking, we might estimate that it is similar in latitude to the farming zone in Western Europe, which means it gets around 50% less direct sunlight than the equator. If the desert climate requires HVAC to make up the rest of the energy usually injected into a more equatorial desert by the sun, then a Manhattan-sized area would require 120TWh of energy over a year [4]. Keep in mind that all 5 boroughs of New York City used around 60TWh in 2009: it requires a city-sized energy budget just to keep one of these climates stable. With 2 more climates to control, the energy expenditure must be staggering. There are some energy savings to be had by the fact that the cooling systems for Tundratown can just dump waste heat directly into Sahara Square, but we’re neglecting to account for the fact that none of these climates are enclosed. It’s well known that you should close your windows when your AC is running under pain of using and paying for more energy than necessary, and the same principle applies here: we never see an enclosing dome dividing the different climates, including the temperate climate in the surrounding area. It’s tough to say exactly how much heat leakage happens between each borough, but it’s likely that the already high energy expenditures become astronomical.

This loose attitude towards energy usage probably means that energy is dirt cheap. However, where is this energy coming from? There’s so much of it, there’s a distinct possibility it’s coming from somewhere unsafe. Certainly, the Zootopians may have access to liquid thorium reactors, fusion reactors, or more exotic forms of energy generation, but we don’t know that they did, and many of the high-output energy technologies we have access to have dubious trade offs.

Fossil fuel sources have the downside of undoing their careful climate control (but we do know their world ended, so maybe that played a role). Nuclear energy needs strict controls to ensure it doesn’t aid nuclear proliferation, and with their lax approach to “Night Howlers”, it isn’t out of the question that they would have problems down the line.

Even if it’s safer green energy, the amount of energy in play can still be dangerous. If there are multiple booming populations like Bunny Burrow, and agricultural efficiency isn’t advanced, the rest of the world likely favors farms, not solar panels. However, we know Zootopia had orbital launch capability, since children want to become astronauts when they grow up, which opens up solar energy farms in space. Getting the energy from vast regions of space, though, has some problems. If there’s an orbital laser beaming down energy from an orbital solar array, that’s another opportunity for something to be hacked and aligned with great destructive power. Same with using gravitational potential energy, such as using falling asteroids as an energy source. It’s not worth belaboring the destructive potentials of even higher density energy mediums, like antimatter.


From the moment we arrived on planet 7X, we knew that we arrived on a dead world. With the end of their journey fixed, we can only look to the past and ask who lived on planet 7X, how they lived, and what brought their civilization to a smoking ruin. We can only hope that by learning more about this one of many civilizations that was caught by the Great Filter, we can hope to avoid their fate.

That’s it. Thank you for coming. Now, are there any questions?

(And in case there is any doubt: this is not an allegory for the current human condition, or any portion of such. This is a crazy no-holds-barred extrapolation of a children’s movie.)

[1] In case you were wondering, humans aren’t subject to the same problem: on a logarithmic scale, there’s barely any difference in size between small and large humans, and size does not correlate to appetite.

[2] This last suggestion seems straightforward, but probably introduces more knock-on effects. For example, a law enforcing different wages per species likely makes their version of Mechanical Turk vulnerable to illegal competitors: if there are dark web enabling technologies like Tor and Bitcoin, then carrying out “human” intensive tasks will be much cheaper in the black market, since smaller animals could mask their identity and charge rates undercutting large animal rates, but higher than small animal rates.

[3] Hint: all three letters are different. Sorry if you thought I was referencing the FAA.

[4] A back of the blog calculation: sunlight provides 1120W/m2. Manhattan is 59.1km2 large. Assume 10 hours of sunlight a day and 365 days a year. Divide by half due to latitude. Arrive at around 120TWh/year.

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How to Succeed in Business by Playing Video Games: An XCOMedy of Learning

It’s no secret that I have a love-hate relationship with video games. On the one hand, games whisk you off to enchanted worlds optimized for fun. On the other hand, any sense of accomplishment is illusory at best: congratulations, you’ve learned how to press buttons better than before!

However, I’ve found that one particular game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, ended up teaching me some valuable lessons. The lessons are post-facto obvious in the way many lessons seem to be, but my system one needed something experiential, and it turns out that games are all about experience. First, I’ll explain the bare minimum of how XCOM works and a bit about the community surrounding it, then lay out the lessons I learned, and then talk about why this doesn’t change my ambivalence towards gaming.

I. The Review

If you like videos, then you can watch this walkthrough of XCOM’s tutorial mission, and then watch Beaglerush play a mission of the Long War mod. Or, keep reading…

Imagine: an alien force is invading earth, abducting humans and waging a shadow war against Earth’s militaries. You are the leader of the international anti-extraterrestrial task force, XCOM, and tasked with responding to alien threats around the globe. Outmanned and outgunned, you must uncover the alien’s secrets, take their technology for your own, and destroy them before the governments of Earth surrender to the aliens and shut down the XCOM project. Oorah.

So that’s the story. How does the game play?

You command a small squad of soldiers, giving them orders to move and shoot, and then allowing the aliens to move and shoot in turn. Most soldiers or aliens need to hide behind cover, or else the enemy can shoot at them with high chances to hit or even score a critical shot. Cover is directional, so moving units to the exposed flanks of enemies means shooting those exposed enemies becomes much easier. Overwatch is an ability that allows units to defer shooting at enemy units until they move during the enemy’s turn, which is useful for discouraging the enemy from moving, especially if the enemy can flank (and then kill) one of your soldiers. Outside of an individual battle, soldiers gain experience by killing aliens and participating in battles, and gain more perks as they gain more experience. Perks, you say? Yes, abilities like “Lightning Reflexes”, which means a soldier can’t be hit by alien overwatch shots, or “Double Tap”, which allows a soldier to shoot twice in a turn, or “Smoke Gernade”, which lays down a defensive smoke screen. Each soldier adopts a class, like a long range sniper or an explosives focused heavy weapons expert, which determines which perks are available.

So that’s vanilla XCOM, but there’s a incredible XCOM mod called Long War (LW). It’s partly incredible because XCOM was never meant to be modded, so the mod itself is technically impressive. The interesting part lies in LW’s design choices. Vanilla XCOM is geared towards a more casual crowd; players only have to make a few choices at any one time, and the flow of the game is straightforward. The LW modders stood back and asked themselves, “yes, XCOM is a pretty good game, but how can we take every element of the game and make it tactically deeper?” For example, vanilla has 5 main types of weapons across 3 technology tiers; LW has 10 weapon types across 5 tiers, with an attendant expansion of possible trade-offs. Vanilla has 4 soldier classes, each with 32 possible combinations of perks; LW has 8 classes with 729 combinations each. Then, there are additional strategic concerns like soldier fatigue, where soldiers have to rest after a mission. This prevents the Vanilla strategy of sending your best squad on every mission, putting the focus on leveling up all your soldiers. Then there’s the fact that the aliens are stronger, more devious, and scale up over time (sometimes literally — I’m looking at you, 2-story-tall chryssalid). And the modifications keep going. This all adds up to a tougher game, and for a certain person, a more engaging and fun game.

There’s one final ingredient that completes the XCOM picture for me. I’m not big on watching people play through games: if I wanted to watch something, then better a movie than watching someone else interact with some interactive media. However, I’ve made an exception for the Australian gaming streamer Beaglerush. He would play through XCOM campaigns, both in Vanilla and LW, and commentate while playing with humor and wit, breaking down his tactical analysis, all while playing on the toughest difficulty. This format neatly side steps the “fitting narratives to RNG outcomes” problem suffered by other sports, both physical and electronic: XCOM is not nearly as fast-paced as other games, so the players themselves can talk about their decisions instead of having commentators guess at their intentions. Pretty much all turn-based games meet this criteria, but XCOM also breaks up gameplay so chunks fit into a person’s attention span, unlike some games that take at least 8 hours to complete (looking at you, Civ). Even when I don’t credit him directly below, Beaglerush had a hand in how I thought about each concept.

Fair warning about Beaglerush, though. If you want to follow along with the furthest-along LW campaign, it is 100+ hours long. The mod is not kidding when it says it’s a Long War. If you do watch it, remember there’s a 2x speed option on YouTube.

II. The Lessons

So that’s enough of me fawning over the game, what are the lessons I learned?

First, I feel like I better understand why strategies, in business or otherwise, are allergic to risk. In the words of Beaglerush, you want a boring game[1]; you want to play to win, you want to stack the deck as far in your favor as the game will allow, you want to have won before fighting. This is counterintuitive in a gaming context, where boredom is the true enemy. However, a well designed game like LW has a way of upending the best laid plans, throwing unexpected curve balls on a regular basis, and that’s where things get uncomfortably exciting. Bringing a “best case-only plan” or no plan at all will get your squad killed, so it’s up to you to make your own luck instead of letting the game give you some ready-made luck[2].

In a business context, I wondered why my team leads would obsess about pinning down possible sources of variance. It only became clear after I had underestimated the difficulty of my first projects (even while taking Murphy into account): translating back to a gaming model, the team leads were managing an XCOM firefight, and wanted to guarantee each shot would connect, to have worst-case contingency plans laid down before committing. Now, no one is going to die if a deadline slips a month. There’s some room for risk and subsequent outsize reward, which I presume is the reasoning behind strategies like Google trying to make sure they meet only 70% of their goals. A different attitude to risk is apparent when people really can die, like the NASA software shops that have layers of review for each line of code. But coming from a loose attitude towards risk, XCOM was instructive in showing me how quickly things could go wrong to the little digital soldiers I had gotten emotionally invested in. And just as important, I would just as quickly have the chance to try again.

Second, XCOM taught me about the value of having a crack team of max-level soldiers for any mission. The A-team makes the easy missions easy, and the hard missions possible. However, LW then taught me about scarcity and the need to ration and stretch soldiers: you can’t take your A-team on every mission because of fatigue, so you need to weigh the downsides of taking less useful lower level soldiers on this mission against the upsides of having a greater number of experienced soldiers in later missions, as well as having more experienced troops ready if the game throws a string of really hard missions at you right after the current mission. Once I started thinking about my troop deployments this way, I then subconsciously started applying it to work: “ah, my manager wants me to take these lower level troopsdevelopers on this mission because she needs them to level up, but all the more experienced developers are fatiguedworking on more complicated projects. Welp, guess I better not screw this up.”[3] It’s one thing to know that businesses are profit optimization engines: it’s another to virtually lead a dead-alien optimization engine, and then come to work and have some empathy for your boss.

Third, having more skills is awesome. Sometimes it’s obvious: in LW, the scout soldier class gets the Concealment perk in the middle of their experience progression, and it changes the class from a mediocre jack-of-all-trades soldier to the only soldier you need to scout, ever. Or, the medic class can choose to specialize into a combat medic with Rapid Reaction, which turns the class from a “healing and shoot once in a while” class to “shoot everything all the time, and healing once in a while I guess”. It’s not clear which real-world skills map to these sorts of game-changing skills, but I can guess that learning to study effectively, becoming better at public speaking, writing concisely and clearly, or learning how to lead a team would be the sorts of skills that would lead to a bump in effectiveness and power, even if they are boring.

Fourth, what about combining those skills for an effect greater than the sum of their parts? You know… synergy? Yeah, that bullshit corporate-speak word. However, in-game the concept makes total sense, especially in LW: it made so much sense, I sat down and planned out builds for each soldier class, and then printed them out and put them on the wall next to my gaming computer, like a giant nerd. But it’s worth looking like a giant nerd if you can stack sniper perks until you can roll shots dealing over 40 damage (the starting assault rifle with no perks averages 4 damage), or if you design a combat medic that can shoot 4 times a turn, or if you design gunners that essentially shoot infinite mini shredder rockets.

However, it isn’t clear how to map synergy back to the real world. It seems that the technical/business startup duo works pretty well (Jobs/Woz, Gates/Allen), and having an expert writer and expert in anything else team can write fine books (for example, Peak was written in this way), but it’s unclear to me what else “synergy” can be generalized to without immediately stepping into pools of bullshit. I don’t think the concept is worthless, though. “Synergy” traded well enough in the idea marketplace that there was even a buzzword bubble to pop, and I’ve had the run ins with the concept (like this science fiction story) that can’t help but pique my interest. My bullshit-meter is still going off, but XCOM has convinced me that “synergy” might be something worth paying attention to.

This last idea is not directly related to management-like concepts like everything else, but I found it instructive. We know that people don’t have a good gut understanding of chance, partly because they seem to follow prospect theory and because numbers are hard. Given this, it’s quite the experience to play LW, because the modders took out all instances of cheating in the random number generator on behalf of the player. It doesn’t hit home that you also are subject to the gambler’s fallacy until you take a 75% chance to hit shot, miss, and say to yourself “surely this next 75% chance shot will connect!”, and miss again. At once I was enlightened: optimism is not a viable strategy. You could probably get the same experience with probabilities by working on calibrating yourself or betting in a prediction market, but it was helpful for me to get emotionally involved in the outcomes and receive lots of feedback in a tight loop.

III. Conclusion

This analysis might raise a question about whether video games are a waste of time by coming down hard on the side of “video games are not only fun, but educational”, and then just continually extract lessons from games. Unfortunately, I don’t think that works: as noted before, some games are all about twitching your way to victory, and others, like in the 4X genre, are so slow it becomes difficult to link mistakes and consequences together. Additionally, the ideas I got a better handle on within LW aren’t ideas I need to be reintroduced to. There might be another game that can clarify other ideas for me, but it seems any given game is unlikely to do so.

TLDR: XCOM is pretty good. You should try it if you’re going to play video games anyways; maybe you’ll also learn something.

[1] Unfortunately, I can’t find where Beaglerush says this: I have a sinking suspicion that it’s in one of his LW beta 14 videos on Twitch, which are saved for a short time but ultimately ephemeral. That, or it’s hidden in the middle of hundreds of hours of video and I just missed it. So unfortunately you’re just going to have to take my word that he said it.

[2] A particularly egregious example of ready-made luck served to the player on a silver platter: vanilla XCOM would invisibly adjust shot success probabilities upwards if you missed a couple times in a row, which allowed sitting in good cover and taking a bunch of low-probability shots at the enemy to be a workable strategy. Of course, LW removed this mechanic.

[3] Is this sort of approach to human resources dehumanizing? Probably!

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Surely You’re Hamming It Up, Mr. Feynman!

I was talking to friends about Deep Work, a book about doing, well, deep work, when I realized that I had two conflicting models of how to choose what to work on, and how to work on it.

The more straightforward approach is sketched by Richard Hamming in You and Your Research, which simply asks (paraphrased) “What are the important problems of your field, and if you’re not working on them, why not?” It’s an extraordinarily dense mantra, packing lots of decision power into a simple sentence: if you’re not focused on your field, then focus on your field, and if you’re not focused on the most promising area of your field, then focus on that area, and if you’re not focused on the most important problem of that area, focus on that problem. Everything else? Strip it away as much as possible, because the rocket equation is hell[1] and we are going to Mars!

Then there’s the more playful way to find problems, which the incorrigible Richard[2] Feynman described in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. Frustrated by his research problems, he decided that he would stop slaving away and just play with whatever problems caught his fancy: “Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything… I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about importance whatsoever.” He goes on to derive equations related to the physics of a spinning plate, because why not? Later, he realizes “The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.” Feynman’s little anecdote is a direct repudiation of Hamming’s strategy, the triumph of play over a conscious effort to work on Important Things[3].

At each work’s core is a different philosophy. Hamming says “if it’s not important, you are wasting your time: by definition, how else can you do important work?”, and Feynman says “if it’s not joyful, you are wasting your time: how can you do your best work when it’s no longer important to you?”.

I flirt with both ways of thinking, but Hamming’s philosophy in particular rings in my ears. Do important work! Revel in the flow, conducting a grand symphony of gathered skills and knowledge into a masterpiece unlike any the world has seen! Though the tears, sweat, and blood blur your vision, behold your work, and see that it is good! Well, your work probably won’t actually end up being world-class, but what does it matter for a shot at glory? And never mind Hamming saying “I did sort of neglect [my wife] sometimes”, just choose a hill, the taller the better, and get ready to die on it.


You know, my current actions most closely fit a Feynman-style strategy, but I’m not even playing and learning in an effective way; instead of going to war against intractable problems, maybe I could consciously pursue a Feynman strategy and deliberately chase those “that’s funny…” moments. The problem is that it’s easier to slip into comfortable zones of thought, easier to craft trivial solutions to trivial problems, easier to wake up with the precursors of dementia and years of work even you don’t care about. And yet, gambling away the years of my life on an Important Problem[4] is a bitter proposition, and it is gambling: Hamming getting at least six different concepts named after him is a highly unusual outcome, not participation points for years of work on the right problems.

Not that we have to choose just one: the Way of the Fox tells us we should keep a stable of models and use each one when appropriate. If we recognize Hamming’s strategy as a primarily exploitative one, and Feynman’s strategy as an exploratory one, then we can just re-use the multi-armed bandit’s mechanism; we start by exploring, and gradually exploit more and more as we get to know the exploration space. Of course, like all models this doesn’t map neatly to real life, but it does indicate that mixing strategies by varying the amount of time one spends on different approaches to problems might be a workable solution. Then the question is how one should balance exploration and exploitation efforts, especially over time, which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

Even refusing to use a mixed strategy might not turn out badly. Wienersmith points out that it’s possible to build yourself into an expert many times within a life, so you can work your way up to working on Important Problems multiple times. But keep in mind that Important Problems are the things one cracks over a career, not right after attaining mastery, so re-training every decade is exploring too often to actually make any deep progress. However, I like to read this instead as reassuring people that they don’t just have one shot at becoming an expert: if you just went to grad school, and it turns out you utterly detest your field’s Important Problems, it’s still possible to refocus. It’s a high cost, but it’s not an infinite one. And that might be the difference between paralyzing yourself with how important the choice of field is, and making a quick partially informed decision before plunging in headfirst and learning more by actually doing things.

I still don’t have an answer at this point. These are just meditations on resolving dissonance between two different respected sources. At this end, these questions remain: who will I be, and what will I do?

[1] Rocketry is hard because you need to carry your fuel: for every pound of stuff you want to put into orbit (or farther), you need the fuel to boost that pound, and then the fuel to boost that fuel, and the fuel to boost that fuel, ad nauseam. This means that if you are carrying anything gratuitous and unnecessary, then you are doing rocketry wrong and you will not go to space today. Hat tip to Sam’s Ra and Kerbal Space Program for helping solidify this concept for me.

[2] Since I’m reading Unsong, this correspondence leapt out at me. Both the scientists are Richards. Both lived from approximately 1910-1990. Both worked in Los Alamos during the war. Both are physical scientists. This Is Not A Coincidence Because Nothing Is A Coincidence.

[3] For a possible follow up, Robin Hanson recently pointed out that play must be important.

[4] Quote: “Trying to do the impossible is definitely not for everyone. Exceptional talent is only the ante to sit down at the table. The chips are the years of your life. If wagering those chips and losing seems like an unbearable possibility to you, then go do something else. Seriously. Because you can lose.”

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Mail It and They Will Come

I’m replacing my moribund social network presence with an email newsletter.

The newsletter is actually three different newsletters, which differ mainly in how often they are sent:

The content of the newsletter is currently a grab bag; I’ll talk about notable life events, announce anything I made, and comment on what I read/watched/played/listened to over the previous time period (the previous month, if you’re signed up for the monthly, etc). Sample emails are linked to on the sign up pages for the monthly and quinquannual newsletters, if you want to take a look at what you’re getting into before you sign up.

Also note that the newsletters are planned to be around the same size, despite being sent at different frequencies. This means the less frequent newsletters will focus on the larger picture and omit smaller tidbits. If you want to know about every mediocre paper I read, then choose the monthly; if you want to know when I get married (ha!), choose the semiannual.

Of course, opting out is super simple, since I outsourced the actually-send-emails-to-people part to TinyLetter, and sending email is their bread and butter.

Wait, Email? But Why?

There are many reasons to move away from existing social networks, which are afflicted by filter bubbles, rampaging toxoplasmosis memes, an Eternal Summer[3], and trends towards ever simpler content[4].

However, none of these reasons are the ultimate motivation behind moving to a newsletter platform; instead, it’s a selfish concern. When I want to show people a thing I made, then I want to make sure you all see it. However, posting to a social network means an intermediary gets to decide whether anyone will see it in the first place. For example, the YouTube teaching phenomenon CGP Grey discovered that not all of his videos were being delivered to all his subscribers. Here the label “subscriber” used by YouTube heavily implies that one wants to see everything the subscription offers: it’s not expected that a magazine subscription delivers only 9 monthly issues in a year. And yet, YouTube switched to an algorithmic delivery model anyways. What hope do mere “friends” and “followers” have?

On the other hand, it’s obvious the algorithmic approach has good results, since so many services are adopting the model. However, it primarily has good results for casual consumers trying to tame their social media fire hoses. For me, it means I have to think about whether I need to tailor my messages to appeal to a black box in order to make sure even the people that want to see what I’m doing can do so. Even if I resist this tailoring pressure, I might unconsciously fall prey to a simpler trap, with a simple percolation of dopamine upon getting more Likes subtly leading to shorter and simpler messages digestible on the toilet.

It turns out that CGP Grey’s story has a happy ending: he simply made his own email feed to make sure people got updates, a way to let people state “yes, I really do want to see everything Grey makes makes”. I’m skipping past the “become mildly famous in any way” part and going straight to the email newsletter, and optimistically predicting that I’ll be doing enough things to be a fraction as interesting as CGP Grey or Gwern (who also has a newsletter).

To forestall an obvious question, it’s true, an email newsletter isn’t really social. I don’t have a space in which to “engage my followers”, and I think that’s fine. Want to talk about or comment on something in one of my newsletters? Shoot me an email, hit me up on text, or call me up. Let’s grab coffee, perhaps mull over ideas while grazing on lunch (note I mostly expect my irl friends to take me up on this: feel free to ask me otherwise, but temper your expectations).

Perhaps it’s a quixotic quest to wrest control away from the current crop of too big to fail social networks. But, I want to try something different. At least when I rant to my grandchildren about the time before Twitbook mediated all social interactions, I’ll know why only 20% of them see it.

[1] Quinquannual is the correct spelling, which can be derived by analogy from biannual and biennial, which mean twice a year and once every two years respectively. Google currently corrects the spelling of quinquannual to quinquennial, probably because no one actually does things 5 times a year.

[2] A friend jokingly suggested doing it quinquannially, because… honestly, issuing a quarterly report is about the most corporate thing I could do. It’s a heap of pretension on an already pretentious process (I know what people want, and what they want is more of me yelling on top of a non-standard soapbox! And I’ll deliver it to my “mindshareholders” in my quarterly report!). I wouldn’t be surprised if I burst into flame after sending the 3rd such newsletter, because the universe would realize what I was doing and bend the rules to spontaneously combust me. So, what can I say? Gods bless my weird-ass friends.

[3] By analogy to the Eternal September, when the floodgates of the internet opened up and more new people “got online” than could be assimilated into the existing internet culture and etiquette. The Eternal Summer, then, is the constant influx of photos from friends and acquaintances on vacation; with just 52 friends posting pictures from 1 week of vacation each, there’s always a vacation happening in your feed. This is thought to depress people, who measure themselves against a mosaic of their friends and find themselves boring in comparison. Yes, I’m coining a new phrase for an existing concept, sorry.

[4] The super obvious example of social media forcing simpler communication is Twitter limiting messages to 140 characters. Another example, based on personal observation, is that years ago I used to be able to respond to Facebook posts with science fiction short stories I would write on the spot; I tried the same exercise a few months ago, and everything was devoid of creative handles off which I could hang a story. What stories can you pull out of someone’s vacation photos, without layers of plot contrivance, without pissing off someone that just wanted to share photos with his mom?

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E-reader Retrospective and Engelbart’s Bookstand

I’ve had my trusty e-reader for nearly 5 years, but now it’s starting to give up the ghost. The battery is starting to run down, so it isn’t quite free range any longer, and it has started shutting down randomly: waiting for your book to reboot is exactly as annoying as it sounds. After 5 years, any honeymoon effect has surely worn off, but I still think it’s a great investment. E-readers really do enable reading everywhere, even on a bustling subway, and offering an entire library on the go is great. Tough day at work? Some light science fiction is there with you. Fully awake and ready for a challenge? The weighty non-fiction works are there too. It’s a pocket library, and when you consider how small Manhattan apartments can be, compressing all my current books into a slim device is great.

I do wish that some things were different, though:

  • I originally had high hopes for reading PDFs on e-readers: the fact the Kobo Touch had a marginally better PDF reader than the Kindle weighed heavily on my e-reader choice, but after a while I gave up. It got too frustrating to manually cram a letter sized page onto a 6 inch screen, and the relatively slow redraw rates made scrolling grating.
  • At first I mostly read novels with my e-reader, but at some point I started shifting away from science fiction and towards science fact, so I wanted to start taking notes while reading. The Kobo has an integrated note taking function, but it’s clunky and capturing thoughts takes a long time. Physical books aren’t any better in this regard: writing notes in a book margin while riding the subway might be even more awkward than futzing with a touchscreen keyboard. However, the lack of options doesn’t change the fact that not being able to note on the go hamstrings reading more thoughtfully everywhere.
  • Resources like “How to Read a Book” and “How to Read a Paper” recommend initially focusing on the key points of a work (like the introduction and conclusion) to sketch out a map of ideas in the book, which then lets you cherry pick which parts of the book to read. But, trying to skip through a book with an e-reader is a slow process. Even trying to read the first sentence of each chapter is an exercise in patience, given the handful of taps and redraws required to move to the beginning of each chapter.
  • Similarly, after reading a book once, it’s difficult to browse back through the book quickly while taking notes elsewhere. The Before E-reader era of my life trained me to exploit a spatial sense while reading, letting me know that an idea felt a third of the way through a book. In contrast, the e-reading experience seems geared towards moving in a linear fashion through the latest zombie romance: as noted before, skipping from place to place is slow, while moving forward a page is a simple swipe or tap away. Having full text search does partially make up for these shortcomings, but only when the keyword is unique enough that there isn’t a squall of matching search results.
  • Footnotes are handled terribly: I don’t want to wait seconds for a footnote to come up only to find out that it says “Ibid., p. 205″. Please, give me some indication what’s behind that tantalizingly underlined number! Or even better, just let me flick my eyes down to a footnote, like God the author and publishers intended.

These point towards a common failing: e-readers are not outfitted for a full contact reading experience that starts by surveilling the book with a high powered scope, and ends with a rubber-hose powered interrogation. However, I’ve noted in places that physical books also tend to have these failings. Taking a step back, serious reading seems to simply need a desk and a sheaf of blank paper situated in a remote cabin, and there’s nothing we can do about it.


Okay, I lied. The techno-optimist in me thinks it’s possible to apply enough technology to the problem so we can recreate the remote cabin in the press of Times Square. But first, let’s talk about playing the violin.

Violins are hard to play. Anders Ericsson in Peak explains:

The difficulties start with the fact that the violin’s fingerboard has no frets, the metal ridges found on a guitar’s fingerboard that divide it into separate notes and guarantee… each note played will sound neither flat nor sharp… there are various subtleties of fingering to master, beginning with vibrato… Using the bow properly poses another whole level of difficulty… Violinists control the volume of their playing by varying the pressure of the bow on the string, but that pressure must stay within a certain range… [and on and on]

However, it’s not just the effort and tenacity of a player that produces amazing music. The violin itself is engineered to make music, to be flexible enough to allow a lifetime of effort to be spent learning how to produce all the nuances. In contrast, the kazoo is an amazingly simple instrument, but with a correspondingly low ceiling on musical achievement[1]. To produce great work, human skill is one side of the equation, but the flexible tooling that allows expert expression is the other. And together, there is music.

What about technological tools? Engelbart, presenter of “the mother of all demos”, knew machine interfaces could be molded to man, but thought the best fit could be achieved by simultaneously molding man and machine at the same time. Take stenography as an example: stenographic equipment allows humans to type at 360 wpm, versus the 256 wpm attainable with QWERTY. Using the proper text entry tooling allows amazing performance with practice, which is why the stenograph is sometimes called Engelbart’s violin.

The downside is that key word, practice. Learning to use specialized tools takes longer than learning to use simpler, more general tools. Sometimes, though, you need that extra effectiveness. Consider that there are only 300,000 expected waking hours left in my life. This is not enough hours. However, barring immense technological change, that’s all I have to work with, so the tooling I use is important.

Bringing this back to reading, I’m hankering for a crafted reading machine, Engelbart’s bookstand: not necessarily a machine that allows me to speed read (speed reading probably doesn’t work), but to otherwise quickly understand the written word, even skipping that which does not need to be read: “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. A machine that would help me chart the ebb and flow of ideas, explode a book from a series of pages to the web of thoughts as it existed in the writer’s mind.

Nothing like this exists yet: even the remote cabin requires you to chart your own explorations, to impose your own structure onto blank pages. Looking at trends, though, it seems like the tsunami of data[2] might continue until we need better ways to read, and then we’ll start exploring the space of reading software in earnest. Or, maybe no one cares (people are making a big deal out of watching TV shows at 2x, after all), and I’ll have to find some time to scratch this itch myself.

Until there’s a better way, though, I’ll keep reading along with a trusty e-reader.

[1] When people use kazoos to make something that sounds like music, we applaud them not for making music using a kazoo, but for making music despite using a kazoo.

[2] People are watching TV shows at 2x speed

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