14. The EU’s DMA and Chat Interoperability

I am not a computer security or cryptography expert.

I’ve been doing some research on this thing the EU recently passed, called the Digital Markets Act (DMA). Among other things the new law wants chat platforms like WhatsApp and iMessage to interoperate. This sounds great! There are too many different chat clients and everyone I’ve ever talked to about this is annoyed by them and only uses some subset of them. There’s the plethora of products (all of which are pretty jank and bad) trying to give consumers a single frontend. People want this. 

And we want it with ‘end to end encryption’ (E2EE), which just means that nobody other than you and the people you’re talking with can read your messages. WhatsApp, iMessage, and so on implement this within their platform already–when you send a WhatsApp message (supposedly) it’s E2E encrypted and Facebook can’t read your messages. But you can’t use WhatsApp to send a message to someone on iMessage–yet. That’s what’s being discussed.

There are some extremely hysterical loud voices against this DMA:

> This is a mind numbingly foolish, privacy-destroying, encryption-busting, innovation-killing proposal, dressed up in clothes of anti-monopoly.

Alec Muffett, security industry veteran and expert


> A cynic might say that this is a way to effectively outlaw E2EE while framing it as an antitrust move against tech.

Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook

Double yikes! These are both qualified people who probably know what they’re talking about, and they’re decrying this as the end of secure messaging and maybe the end of everything as we know it!?

Arguments look like:

  • it’s impossible to achieve interop on a technical level while preserving E2EE
  • it stifles innovation because standards are slow to update

Why, though? What makes this so complicated? Why is having standards for encrypted messaging going to ruin security for everyone forever?

The innovation claim is a little boring. What we’re talking about is chat apps. The biggest new feature any of them have implemented in the last 5 years is emoji reactions and inline ‘reply’ messages. Isn’t the gain offered by having interop between the clients worth a lot?

Interop is clearly something the various chat providers are disincentivized from doing. Meta benefits by having WhatsApp or Messenger lock-in, Apple benefits by having iMessage lock-in, etc. It’s hard to disentangle doomsayers with good pro-security intentions from the corporate incentives–both of which are at play here.

Regulation requires developing a deep technical understanding of the issues at stake, and discussing them with experts in public. So far, the EU hasn’t shown much evidence of doing either

Casey Newton via this tweet

There needs to be cooperation between the technical side and the legislative side to craft good legislation. But, there’s an adversarial element here that’s hard to disentangle. Private companies are quick to shout that the EU or other government is not consulting them, all while simultaneously lobbying against those lawmakers.

In war you might first start off fully adversarially by trying to win outright and with the goal of annihilating your enemies. Then, if you see things aren’t going to go your way, you might shift towards trying to soften the blow and direct the outcome as best you can so things go well for both parties. It seems to me like both the governments and the tech companies in reality have the adversarial stance… but the above quote is stone-throwing that the governments should have the cooperative stance.

Here’s a writeup from someone at Matrix about potential paths forward. This strikes me as much more sober, compared to the hysterical tweeting about literally the end of all encrypted chat. The piece mentions some solutions to the key exchange problems at hand, including some that Matrix has already been exploring. 

The suggestions are running a client-side bridge on the user’s device, which would allow crosstalk between the different chat platforms. Or switching to a decentralized / federated protocol at the interface between chat providers. Or to worst-case notify the user when they’re talking to an untrusted participant. Though, I worry that this last suggestion could lead us to more things like the annoying GDPR-mandated cookies notifications. It’s clear that care needs to be taken in crafting responsible legislation that actually does what we want it to do.

Zuckerberg has previously stated that he wants interoperability between Facebook chat and WhatsApp, but this person on twitter states that since they’ve been working on this problem since 2018 it’s too hard to solve. This is a good point! Why is Facebook having such a hard time unifying Messenger and WhatsApp?

The EU is running the show with respect to tech legislation. Meanwhile, American lawmakers are on the sidelines, as Casey Newton puts it. 

Sure, these are hard problems, but they matter! Rather than a lot of excuses, I’d like to see if any experts can actually draft proposals on how to solve them. We want unified secure chat!

13. Hiatus – One Month Retrospective

Pictured is the stained glass I made in my class

This is Monday of week 5 of my hiatus. Things are going well. I’d like to explain why I wanted to take a hiatus, what I wanted to get out of the time, and give a general update.

I’d gotten burnt out at work. This was partially due to covid fatigue, working from home is great in some ways but low social interaction, not seeing friends and coworkers and so on really dragged on. The months of October through December were exceptionally busy for my team at work, and we were seriously understaffed. The way I described it to myself and others at the time was that by december i had been doing work that was at the same time boring and stressful, for over a month. We’ve since beefed up the team significantly, and while that was really great to see and be a part of, I was at the end of my wick.

I like a lot about my job, I love my coworkers, I think we work in an interesting domain that’s quite action packed, and I have a high-ownership high-knowledge role on my team. I’d joined the team at an early stage of growth and since things have expanded so significantly I was in a tech lead role of speccing out projects, mentoring new devs, reviewing code, all while expanding existing systems and writing my own code. That’s at least how January and February went. October through December was more of a story of barely staying above water, fielding urgent feature requests from teammates without having time to optimize the overly manual processes related to getting those features implemented. Things have gotten a lot better since then, but like I alluded to above, I was tired. I’m still tired.

In total, it’s been a lot: My dad is sick with cancer, my girlfriend was halfway across the world for 3.5 months, all through the stressful work times. Covid drags on. Work was high stress for months. I’d been moving around and hadn’t had a permanent place to live since moving out of my NYC apartment in July 2020, either staying in subleases or at my parent’s place. It all added up.

So I asked for a six month hiatus. Work was extremely supportive and understanding. I was surprised! It’s unpaid leave, but still we don’t have an official policy for it. Sometimes you get what you ask for.

My goals for the hiatus are to rest, to allow myself to slow down, to do art, to spend time practicing guitar, to indulge in flights of fancy, read what I want, write what I want, to see what grabs my attention and pull on that thread. To write it all down.

I signed up for a stained glass class, a basic drawing class, a pottery wheel ceramics class, and guitar lessons. I’m still doing my Fireside Project volunteering. And I’m spending time with my girlfriend and family and friends.

It’s been going really well! My schedule still feels really packed, to be honest. The stained glass class ended, and over time as ceramics and drawing classes end that’ll leave more empty gaps. I plan to keep doing guitar lessons, and at this point I think I’ll stick with ceramics for a bit longer too.

It’s really nice to have physical creative outlets. Very very different from code as a creative output. I still feel like I’m learning the tools and getting a basic understanding of how to get the results I want, especially with ceramics. You have to learn how to do what you want in order to be able to do what you want, otherwise you just try to do things and aren’t able to do much. Less abstractly, if what I want to do is make a bowl that looks a certain way, but I don’t know how to get anything to look like a bowl in the first place, I can’t do what I want. Embodied learned skill is a prerequisite for creative liberty.

Guitar is like this, but in a way such that the outputs aren’t physical. I’m really excited about getting to the point of being able to noodle around and improvize and ‘express myself’. Gotta learn how to, first 🙂

All of this is very different from writing code. I have no programming projects right now. Sometimes I think of some ideas, and I try to write it down. But overall, really enjoying not writing any code. For now, at least.

One of my goals has been to try to allow myself to not plan for the future, just for a brief moment of time, to not have to make any decisions about where to live or what to do. A friend told me that “It’s okay to slow down”, and that’s really resonated in my mind over the last month. This palladium post too.

I’m grateful for the good Berkeley weather. For my loved ones. For my art. For my economic flexibility to be able to take unpaid leave and not be strapped for cash. For myself for giving myself this chance to take rest and slow down.

12. Games the Buddha wouldn’t play

Wikipedia link that inspired this: List of games that Buddha would not play

Gautama Buddha believed these games to be a “cause for negligence”. What does that mean, how does it interpret through a modern lens, and what does it mean in the context of games we play today?

Here’s the list, copy-pasted from wikipedia:

  1. Games on boards with 8 or 10 rows. This is thought to refer to ashtapada and dasapada respectively, but later Sinhala commentaries refer to these boards also being used with games involving dice.
  2. The same games played on imaginary boards. Akasam astapadam was an ashtapada variant played with no board, literally “astapadam played in the sky”. A correspondent in the American Chess Bulletin identifies this as likely the earliest literary mention of a blindfold chess variant.
  3. Games of marking diagrams on the floor such that the player can only walk on certain places. This is described in the Vinaya Pitaka as “having drawn a circle with various lines on the ground, there they play avoiding the line to be avoided”. Rhys Davids suggests that it may refer to parihāra-patham, a form of hop-scotch.
  4. Games where players either remove pieces from a pile or add pieces to it, with the loser being the one who causes the heap to shake (similar to the modern game pick-up sticks).
  5. Games of throwing dice.
  6. “Dipping the hand with the fingers stretched out in lac, or red dye, or flour-water, and striking the wet hand on the ground or on a wall, calling out ‘What shall it be?’ and showing the form required—elephants, horses, &c.”
  7. Ball games.
  8. Blowing through a pat-kulal, a toy pipe made of leaves.
  9. Ploughing with a toy plough.
  10. Playing with toy windmills made from palm leaves.
  11. Playing with toy measures made from palm leaves.
  12. Playing with toy carts.
  13. Playing with toy bows.
  14. Guessing at letters traced with the finger in the air or on a friend’s back. (letters in the Brahmi script)
  15. Guessing a friend’s thoughts.
  16. Imitating deformities.

Let’s apply categories

Would the Buddha disapprove of the game of categorizing the games he’d refuse to play?… I’d guess no, the Buddha loved lists and categories and stuff.

Seems like the rough categories are:
A. Gambling/dice games
– 1, 2, 5
B. Games which imitate real work
– 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
C. Games that are you just being a dick
– 16
D. Guessing games
– 6, 14, 15
E. Other?
– 3, 4

(A) is gambling games, games of chance. Plenty of us already have a morality which implicitly knows gambling to be toxic. Potentially most card games fall into this category, drawing from a shuffled deck is also tapping into randomness in the same way as a dice roll.

Gautama would probably disapprove of something like Pacheesi, which doesn’t involve gambling in the sense of betting, but does involve dice throws. I tend to get pretty upset when playing Pacheesi, and have refused to play before out of the limited self-knowledge that I’ll get upset. Probably just not playing games which make one upset is a good idea!

One counterargument might be that games allow one to explore emotions in a safe context and handle the process of feeling and ideally not-reacting to the emotion in the heat of the moment, all without any real stakes involved. This is a reason that reading fiction, and certain movies/TV can be really useful for emotional development: they bring us through the emotions involved in the story in a safe and constrained way. This is especially the case with children’s and young adult fiction but that same utility doesn’t go away. We get older but not necessarily more grown-up.

(B) seems to avoid doing things that are direct simulacra of real-world activities, whether productive or otherwise. Don’t pretend to do the labor of a farmer, don’t pretend to do (or glorify!) the act of killing with a toy bow-and-arrow. Maybe Gautama would say that it’s better to find an adult and actually go learn and do those activities in a non-derivative way, rather than playing make-believe. Maybe the pretend-version then breeds pretend misconceptions, or returning to the stated reason breeds negligence either in respect to those actually doing the work (ie mocking a farmer because you totally know how to do play-farming), or negligence when later you go actually do that work.

For me, the glorification of war that comes with violent video games fits into this category. They’re fun games, but they also abstract away the reality that they’re seeking to virutally replicate, that these are weapons used in real life to kill real people. There’s no glory to war. Call of Duty is basically a US army propaganda tool, suckering poor young men to thinking going off and killing people is going to give them the same rush as killing someone in a game, or the same sense of victory that it seems to in the movies. Fast forward several years and you’re suffering from PTSD, at the mercy of an underfunded VA and you’ve wasted your youth for a government military apparatus that doesn’t care about you at all. It’s a trap!

(C) is just you being a dick. Could analyze this more but don’t feel like it.

(D) seems to be the category of imposing language on the void, trying to spot shapes in a cloud. Or trying to name one’s psychedelic visuals (as discussed in my agreement section of this post).

(E) is a non-category, ‘other’. One element includes hopscotch/twister, which involve abitrary restrictions on the physical environment. The other includes jenga and pick-up-sticks. I don’t really grok E, I can’t quite attach it to a higher meaning yet at least

What games would he be okay with?

  • Grand strategy games like Civilization? Historical simulators like CK3 or EU4?
  • Pacman! Doesn’t involve guessing thoughts or a simulation of reality in any way
  • Tic tac toe- has fewer rows/columns than he specifies
  • Mario and puzzle platformers
  • Racing games! Foot races and car races
  • Bop-it: not a simulacra of anything at all
  • Exercising: jumping jacks and lifting weights and stuff
  • Dancing (not really a game). DDR? A dance-off?

What games would he not be okay with?

  • Uno, since drawing from a shuffled deck is isomorphic to rolling the dice
  • Bananagrams and Scrabble, with the stronger interpretation of randomness-games. In these games we’re randomly picking tiles from a bag so those would be forbidden.
  • Word games like Pictionary and Taboo. Charades is called out by “guessing at a friend’s thoughts”
  • FPSs like Halo or Call of Duty, or even action roguelikes like Hades. These seem like evolutions of “playing with toy bows”.
  • Speculating in the stonk market
  • Chess wasn’t invented at the time but probably chess given it fits the 8 or 10 rows thing
  • Go. Interesting, because usually I think of go as having a lot of philosophical ‘observe the gestalt’ kind of teachings
  • The floor is lava (directly called out by #2)
  • – Playing House (like kids do)? Maybe this is called out by category (B)
  • Football, tg. Soccer and Tennis etc too.
  • Chinese checkers? it’s a hexagonal grid but i think still is caught by rules 1 and 2
  • Twister. Falls into the category of “3. marking diagrams on the floor such that the player can only walk on certain places”

11. Interpretation of Art

I read this excerpt from Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. She’s discussing whether art must be interpreted, and has a pretty negative view of interpretation.

Some Summary

Setting the stage: we interpret art when it’s feeling obsolete, but it’s a dishonest act

The story of the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s emancipation, tribulations, and final deliverance. Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

It’s an act which dissipates the emotions caused by art, it tames the art

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.

It’s applied everywhere

But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.

And we shouldn’t do it

From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.

I agree, kinda

It’s interesting bc when people tripping attempt to name or interpret their visuals at least in a very first-order kind of way (it looks like hair! it looks like a fuzzy sheep that’s running through waves of grain!), i generally feel an aversion to that and would try to encourage without alarming the person to expereince it for what it is and to not try to label it, or to enforce that external form or expectation on it. I think Sontag would agree with this.

But also, I have never actually suggested this (“don’t label it!”) to someone while they were in the midst of their experience: My sense is that it would be too jarring, too authoritarian. And I can’t find a way to communicate it in an encouraging way. After the fact or when in a mode of analysis or impersonal speculation I can and have shared this thought… but perhaps the analyst of art Sontag is writing about is also in the midst of their experience. How to do this gently, if it’s worth doing at all!

But also I don’t, really

Alongside all this, I think the project of articulating what one finds important or meaningful about art is a valuable one, and worth pursuing. One reason we haven’t developed this until the 1900s is simply that language and theory had not caught up to the kinds of piagettian game-rules being played. We didn’t have the tools to examine our experience. But now we do! So why not use it?

CJ the X speaks in this video about the ability for one to grapple with meaning an interpretation of art, while maintaining that art is a subjective experience. He frames it as an escape-hatch: if the tools of objectification and analysis are no longer serving us in the project of better articulating our understanding of the art, we simply exit into subjectivity via the escape hatch. It’s true that all art is subjective. It’s also true that we can analyze it with some objectivity–we can play the game of analysis.

And… why be so upset about it

Sontag frames avant-garde art as a defense against interpretation. It’s a very hostile-minded framing, as if the artists themselves demand their art remain un-interpreted. They’re going around shushing people, saying: no no don’t talk about it, you’re enjoying the art wrong.

Art as having a goal of evading interpretation, Sontag posits an arms race:

But programmatic avant-gardism—which has meant, mostly, experiments with form at the expense of content—is not the only defense against the infestation of art by interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being perpetually on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.) Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be…just what it is.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time, a matter of developing a vocabulary for putting into words that which we’re seeing…. But why is Sontag so against this?

The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.

I suppose Sontag believes art is being ruined, or lost in the noise, or at the very least tarnished by the abundance of analysis and criticism and interpretation

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

She longs for a ‘returvrn’ to the way art used to be, back when we had good art, back before we had a language of interpretation and analysis. Back when people knew how to just understand art.

Pasted image 20211228093851.png
Look at all those people, just living in the moment. Not a cell phone an art interpretation in sight

Surely, Sontag has encountered things which have hurt her, here. This is coming from a place of trauma. For her, art has been tarnished, maybe her art.

Uh Oh

Me, having written an interpretation of a piece which is against interpretation

But… wait… am I allowed to say that thought? Is this not also simply layering on the hurt by engaging in interpretation? Oh dear what have I done!?

10. Cities

I read this thread today by Michelle Tandler, expressing a lot of frustration that San Franciscans feel.

It says a lot of things which make sense: she’s expressing anger and discontentment with our leaders, disappointment in our inability to solve the problem, an exasperation as to the reasons why.

I don’t live in San Francisco, but I do live in the Bay. I don’t want to live in San Francisco, partially because of the horror stories that have been coming from here recently. This isn’t what I’d like to think. I care a lot about building and encouraging beautiful places to live, about building enough housing for everyone, and about making the best cities in the world. It’s really important we figure out why we have these issues

Specific points that Michelle makes:

  • SF has a $13B budget and 8000 homeless
  • Supposedly this is what progressives are trying to tackle, right? What’s the give
  • Progressives are more concerned with word policing than actual solutions
  • Progressives have absolute power
  • Progressives blame republicans for anything, but there arent’ any here so what’s the deal
  • https://sf.curbed.com/2018/10/26/18028576/united-nations-rapporteur-homeless-farha-human-rights-violantion
  • Listened to a board meeting where countless called in to say ‘defund the police’
  • San Franciscans believe they are righteous because they pledge allegiance to the righteous tribe of Democrats
  • Overfocused on policing wrongthink rather than actually fixing things
  • Overfocused on gerrymandering rather than actually fixing things
  • “Why have I never learned about the case for gun rights? Or about the values of Islam?”

A lot of her claims seem right to me: What gives, why isn’t SF able to be the shining city on the hill?

A lot of the replies basically say: Republicans would fix this.

Some of her claims are clearly just irrelevant–if you want to learn about gun rights or islam just read about it online, that has nothing to do with SF politics.. Or are you saying we should teach that in school? Isn’t this the same conversation the Right loves to have about CRT and whether we should teach slavery in schools? This is all off-topic, but it does give away her kind of red-pilled tendencies.

Some thoughts:

  • We need to look to successful cities to see what our cities can do better. The claims that republicans would fix this are hard to verify, because there are no dense cities in the country run by Republicans.
  • Most european governments we’d look to as having good cities are examples of more left-leaning governments, especially who have constructed more public housing and offer more social services than ours.
  • Republicans would fix this… how, exactly? Genuine question. By not focusing on lanugage policing? Sure. By throwing offenders and homeless in jail? Uhhh. And then what. Has that ever worked in the past? We know jailing huge swaths of the population leads to more broken families, more community decline, continuation of cycles of criminality (you get out of jail, don’t have anything in this world, and then do another crime because it’s what you know), more state expenditure on prisons (or regulatory capture of prison and judicial systems by private prison complexes)… is this what we want? Maybe we should just take all the homeless and shoot ’em? Is that what’s being proposed? Obviously not. Real problems demand real answers, not simply ‘the other guy would fix it’
  • Gerrymandering and voter suppression are not sexy issues but they are important. Especially at the national and state level, minority populations have outsized power and rulership because of sclerotic structures such as the senate. This isn’t democratic. It allows a few people in Wyoming to dictate the lives of millions living in NYC. It’s absurd.
  • It’s very possible that just threat of competition would lead the democrats or progressives to improve their game, so to speak. This I could believe. But the question would still come back to: improve their game how? Do what, exactly.
  • There are a lot of problems, with California and with the US, and it’s important to get to the heart of these problems rather than simply asking “why is nobody fixing it”.
  • Some of these problems are restrictive zoning laws, restrictive building construction regulations, homeowner-dominated politics, stagnant and regressive tax structures.
  • Another more fundamental problem is the precarious position of the working class. If your car breaks down, and you don’t have $2000 for repairs, you can’t get to work the next day, you lose your job, you can’t pay rent, you’re homeless. If you have surprise medical bills, you can’t afford them, you can’t stay home sick, you lose your job, you end up homeless. This is really what happens. Most homeless people are living in tents in the same zip code they were born. This is an inherently unstable game, if you deviate from the steady path, you immediately spiral into chaos. That’s untentable for a society. The role of a social safety net is to avoid situations like this.
    • Medical/medicaid and a single-payer system seek to eliminate the medical bills case
    • Worker rights and unions seek reasonable employee leave and wages
    • Public transit investments seek to eliminate the individual car-ownership mandate that we’ve constructed. Car ownership is often not a freedom but a curse.
  • Homelessness is about housing, and housing is about supply and demand. If you don’t build more houses, you don’t get to house people. Supply and demand problems are best solved by well-regulated markets. Why has the market failed?
  • In the past and outside the US, governments engage in public housing projects to supplement these numbers. These were largely successful in NYC and still account for a large percentage of the housed low income population.
  • In California, Prop 13 halts any market influence on homeownership, because if you ‘got while the getting was good’, your taxes never change to reflect the changing value of the land.
    • Prop 15, which would’ve tried to impose market conditions on land ownership
    • The “not a Republican in sight” claim runs exactly counter to this situation, prop 15 was clearly opposed by republicans and large corporate interests. We live in a state which does have a surprising amount of Republican power.
  • San Francisco zoning is also a function of homeownership: People don’t want to see their property values go down, so they oppose any kind of upzoning which would allow for increased density.
  • People want to move to SF, but we make it impossible for them to do so… or we make it impossible for those who’ve been there to continue to live there and also afford rent
  • I think a big reason people are nimbies is aesthetic, rather than home-value-concerned. People want to live in beautiful places, and so far even in my opininon, most of the higher-density balloon frame construction is pretty ugly and soulless. Why is this? How do we fix this?

9. What’s the point of these posts?

I want to get better at communicating ideas in writing. I decided to concretely ramp up on this by setting a challenge of writing 100 blog posts, of which this is one.

I’ve always felt myself drawn in many directions at once and been interested in many things. Over the course of 100 posts (and more!), I want to write about things I find interesting, things that have grabbed my attention, and things that have been on my mind. Patterns will emerge. The general noise and chaos of being caught up a ton of different things will dissipate. I want to have posts that serve as stable artifacts, things that I can point to and say: This is what I think about that. I want posts that serve as ephemeral signposts: I used to think this, but you can see my unsureness, and my thoughts have evolved since then. I want to see what I come back to over and over again.

Why write in public?

This is part of the journey for me. I hope that writing in public will help me find others on the same journey, with similar interests and directionality. Writing in public will help me be prolific, to look back and see how silly some of my earlier writing or thinking was. To take things a little less seriously. To favor publishing over polishing, at least at this stage in the process.

Some of my role models and inspiration in the space are people like Gordon Brander and Applied Divinity Studies. These are people with incredibly well-researched and well-reasoned posts, carefully crafted delivering the cutting edge of their well-developed thinking in a space. I aspire to write like these people. This essay encourages daily writing practice. This is part of the work, for me. Michael Ashcroft writing expresses vulnerability in public, as a means of self-exploration and development as well as a means of finding the others.

Idk who this guy is but he seems pretty smart

You view it as a dirty tap. When you switch the dirty tap on, it’s going to flow out with shit water, but after a substantial amount of time you’ll get clean water flowing. The more and more you write, the more and more you experience, and you start getting better and better and better. Now and then you’ll still have a shit song, but that’s alright because you got it out of you and that’s alright. Be nice to people.

Ed Sheeran

I’m in the dirty tap phase, and that’s OK.

8. Atlantis Needs Good Cities

Balaji Srinivasan and Parag Khanna wrote an excellent set of takes about how the internet will affect politics and the world in the 21st century.

read this first

However, the internet is adding a new dimension to this. It is not merely a passive data layer that states enable and contest but a new kind of geography comparable in scope to the physical world. Think of it as a digital Atlantis—a new continent floating in the cloud where old powers compete and new powers arise. Within this cloud continent, the unit of distance between two people is not the travel time between their positions on the globe but rather the degrees of separation in their social networks.

This whole list seems basically true to me. Internet is taking over, and US hegemony is waning. China is obviously up and coming, but it’s not going to be another US. So the paradigm is fundamentally shifting, and it’s shifting to this kind of more-online more-network driven more-dispersed and overlapping kind of world.

In a world where anyone can be and work anywhere, what’s going to matter most is quality of life. That means livable cities. There’s a small but vocal minority of people who don’t want to live in cities, but fundamentally 80% of the population is urban, and people who have the option to not be in cities will choose to be and stay in a city rather than in the suburbs or rural areas. The great morning busing from SF to offices down the peninsula is a perfect example of this. Cities are great, people want to live in them.

The best cities are going to win.

Maybe we’ll see that best city within a given time zone (or band of time zones) is going to win. People will pick the place with the best weather, the best livability, and just work for their same job from there. If you could be anywhere of vancouver, seattle, portland, SF, LA, san diego… where do you choose? What if we expand to the neighboring time zones including phoenix, denver, austin, calgary, mexio city?

Or maybe this whole attitude is too winner-take-all. People will move to 2nd and 3rd tier cities that do the best job skating to where the puck is. The 1st tier cities are too overpoliticized and sclerotic, but the maybe smaller places still have that youthful malleability.

The current era in architecture has been one defined by the idea that art needs to challenge your emotions and sense of the aesthetic. This experimental avant-garde era is over. People don’t want to live in a place that challenges their aesthetic sense, they want to live in a place they find beautiful. Art can and perhaps should be challenging (not making policy decisions here either way), but architecture and our built environment is not the place to be messing around with this kind of experiment, it’s irresponsible and megalomaniacal.

The US is wasting our resources and our current (waning) advantage, if we fail to invest extremely heavily in our cities. This means more walkability, more human-scale architecture, more public transit. More beauty in cities. We need to think about beauty as a first class design goal rather than an afterthought.

The best cities in the western hemisphere might not be in the US at all

7. VRChat is the coolest thing I’ve seen all year

I did not make this video:

Actually makes me want to get a Quest

VRChat is true to the original Snowcrash vision of the Metaverse. It’s a bring-your-own multi user chat space where avatars, code, assets, and shaders can all be imported by individual users, and everything is customizable. You can make your avatar whatever you want it to be with whatever models, textures, and shaders you want. You can build whole rooms that other can explore and hang out with you in, again with whatever Unity/C#/assets/textures you can think of.

The emphasis on the video on customizability of one’s avatar seems critical, and also just super fun. It’s fun to wear fun clothes that you like, that feel true to you, and having an avatar is the maximized version of that, where your entire form is an elaborate masquerade costume completely up to what makes you feel good.

Why does the interviewed guy at the end say it feels like the “beginning” of the internet, what did the internet lose that this online space is able to tap in to?

Throughout the video CN touches on the open-ness of it, the way it feels like the early, pre-corporate internet. What happens when the big players come in? Is the hardware going to get locked down? Is the entire concept going to be limited or somehow purged from the system (ie banning this one app)?

In the last few years there’s been a wave of energy of returning some of that magic of the early web, in the form of the fediverse and indieweb projects and related projects like spaghetti directory. People are tired of supercorps making all the rules of online engagement. The people who make web3 and VRchat interesting are the people who are the most tired of Facebook and Instagram.

I’m pretty scared of Facebook’s ability to ruin all the fun. Zuck has really terrible opinions on the idea of online identity. Specifically, pseudonyms are illegal in the Zuck empire. This is the big misstep. People like being able to have pseuds, and there’s more value and richness to pseudonymity than just the downsides of spam. It’s good to be able to have an online identity that is not your meatspace identity. The magic of online avatars is wrapped up in being able to choose which aspects of yourself you present, rather than being locked into a decision by the platform.

With Meta, and as the biggest megacorp investor in the space, does Zuck’s half-baked ideology get to break this part of the internet? Or will Meta and companies making new VR tech allow this just to get better and better, with better technology improving FoV and resolution and compute and pose estimation and immersion? VRChat does already exist by Facebook’s good graces. Maybe they’ll just kill it once Meta drops it’s hot new thing.

Most likely, it’ll coexist with whatever FB produces, the official Horizon app will be more like google docs–work focused, the way you talk to your parents, and so on. And VRChat will be a place for friends.

At any rate, the ‘chaotic good’ energy being harnessed in VRChat is really exciting, and I think will continue to get more developed and broader over time. Really really excited to see where this goes.

6. We drastically overestimate how much of the universe we understand

Every civilization in history has thought that they have it about 85% figured out, that there’s just some small cracks and gaps in their knowledge which have yet to be filled it, but generally they have it in the bag

Me, apparently

I read a quote to the effect of the above, once. I couldn’t find it today. Not being able to find it led me on a rabbit hole of figuring out how to make my browser history fully searchable, so maybe I’ll write about that soon.

The “it” I’m referring to in the quote is something like “understanding of the universe”, or “scientific knowledge”, or “general sense that we understand how things work”.

There’s a sort of civilizational hubris that I find pretty funny… yet also inescapable. We have confidence in our systems, in our science and research and mathematics. The bits we don’t have right yet seem smallish in comparison. Like, does it matter whether loop quantum gravity is right, or that string theory isn’t verifiable? Probably not, right? We broadly understand and are making incremental developments everywhere across science and technology.

But.. every civilization has believed this. The Romans believed this, and the Spanish believed this, and the people of the Qing Dynasty believed this, the British Empire believed this. And now we do too. Why are we different, what did they have wrong?

I think the scope of the problem changes. Like, the Romans lived without electricity, and probably circa 200 AD thought their civilization was basically reaching the global maximum of the possibility space of civilization. They had roads, plumbing, sewers, ice, exotic spices and fruits, games, baths, theater, music, etc. You could get on a ship and travel from one end of the (known) world to the other thanks to the Mediterranean, and you could be drinking wine from Spain and olive oil from the Levant on the journey. They did have it figured out. Rome and Byzantium fell apart for a bunch of reasons but skipping a few hundred years it turned out gunpowder was a thing, and there was a whole set of optimizations that could be made around that. Or eventually that electricity was a thing, and that created a whole new playground of R&D and understanding of the world that nobody thought could have existed. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.

What do we not know that we don’t know. We don’t know plenty of stuff that could turn our understanding of the world pretty sideways, at least in hindsight. We don’t know how to ‘do’ economics, for one. We can’t account for 85% of the mass-energy of the universe. We know relativity and quantum mechanics are true but can’t reconcile the two, so probably something is up, there. Definitely some paradigms to be shifted.

Probably the universe is at least understandable. But maybe even that’s wrong. Maybe it’s understandable but unfathomably incommunicable. The dao which can be spoken is not the eternal dao.

I’m part of the universe, can I communicate myself? How about you?

It seems to me that the “purpose” of us, of life, of this self-recursive component of reality capable of observing and understanding itself is to do exactly that. To bear witness. To introspect as to the nature of reality and experience, in not only the individual sense but also the cosmic sense, in a way that the sum total of all awarenesses introspecting forms a large cosmic awareness introspecting. By purpose I mean the धर्म (dharma), like the धर्म of a light bulb is to produce light. It’s what we gotta do if we’re doing what we gotta do.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this line of thinking. Maybe we figure it out.

5. The Mental Landscape, Research, Notes, and Not Answering the Question of Whether It’s Good to Store Knowledge Outside Your Brain

A friend asked this question recently and it prompted a really interesting discussion. This post doesn’t really answer that question, though. I’m not sure what “good” means.

The nature of work (and maybe reality) is to train you to filter and discard information all the time. Especially in an environment where information has a short half-life, we end up being optimized (by our environment) for being able to find information. Knowing where to find stuff rather than knowing the stuff. This results in our brains being filled with pointers to information rather than the content itself.

The alternative is a medieval monk, who memorizes things all day. They have everything loaded into their head, but due to the time required to memorize, their information will span an inherently smaller set of say 400 books over their lifetime.

In contrast with the Monk, my information set as a modern webivore maybe spans 400,000 book-equivalents, but the tradeoff is that my brain is full of pointers, snippets to deeper concepts. There’s something unsatisfying about not feeling like an expert in things, though.

Our brains are information caches. Caches are tiered. Thanks to the technology of writing, I can store one level of information in my head, and then ‘page out’ to other external forms of information, my notes perhaps act as an L2, the source material acts as an L3, etc.


Notes are useful for two things, recall and insight generation. Recall is being able to pull things back up in order to support arguments or ideas that I’m trying to ‘call forth’. Paging in things I’ve seen in the past

I can present as an argument a take like “GDP is a bad metric”, but in response you’ll ask “why?” and now I have to do something to go retrieve back the information that I consumed in the past in order to hold this belief. Further, it’s not enough to just have a pointer to “Piketty’s book” (or whatever), because just holding the book or even having full text search over the book is not really going to help me re-generate the convincing argument for why GDP is a bad metric. I need these intermediate tiers of cached distillation in order to operate. The book is the highest volume, followed by large highlighted chunks, then notes I took alongside reading, and then the broadest but lowest volume concept summaries from the book.

Ideal concept summaries contain links into the deeper tiers of information, allowing for quickly getting back to “that one graph which proves my point”, or whatever.

Or, you could be an economics PhD, and have the whole argument and all its content close at hand. There’s something about researching which is inherently about loading all of this information into mind at once.


My friend Charles works on version control related tooling at the place we work, so he’s got a bunch of crystallized intelligence about version control that is boosted by his job but also diluted by all company specifics, engineering miscellanea kinds of things. If Charles were full time researching version control then you’d be maxed out on that one axis. But even working on hg (eg) full time would not max that out, in that world Charles would be diluted on what the Github issues of the day are for his project, and how the hg build and deployment system works, etc.

So it’s a question of how research-y one’s job is, and not whether their title is ‘researcher’ as such. The degree to which your job is research-y is the degree to which you’re an expert in that thing. Research in effect drags you ever closer to just doing ‘core concepts’ things with a minimal spanning set of skills that you need to get the research done.

But… this brings us back to the Monk. If you’re an economics PhD, you’re only an economics PhD. What happens when you’d like to comment on ideas outside your particular field of fully-cached content? You’re back with the rest of us mortals.

It’s not all rosy, though. From real researchers I’ve talked to, it’s not like their jobs are 100% research. Their lives are full of grant writing, for instance. And to reduce the shininess even further, the researcher may be concerned that they aren’t actually able to do anything, given the minimum spanning skillset effect.


By virtue of deep (true?) understanding, you’d be able do rehydrate arguments from first principals, the conceptual equivalent of a memory palace, you can walk yourself through the process of coming up with the idea rather than having simply memorized it. Someone who really understands the derivation of an advanced concept need not actually memorize the rule, they can just re-derive it when needed. So there’s a kind of compression factor to crystallized knowledge, where if you have the structure figured out properly, you can really only have the seed of an idea memorized, and then water it and have it blossom forth when needed.

Seeds are the folding lawn chairs, the telescoping rods, the go-go- inspector gadgets of the mental landscape. Along with being full of pointers, my brain should have a good store of seeds too.

Insight generation

Ideas are good for insight generation. Notes are externalized ideas. Notes are also good for insight generation.

We get dreams for free. One of the speculated features of dreams is that we’re doing this kind of perusal and curation of the thoughts in our head. Our brains are self-indexing.

Notes get messy though. A digital gardener does a good job at this, but I find myself letting my collection of notes lapse and become ‘write-only’.

This lapsing hampers my ability to distill new ideas by interfacing with my collection of notes and thinking in concert with it, the way I think in concert with the ideas in my head.

It seems like there may be technological ways to at least improve the situation here. Roam and Obsidian have exploded in popularity, but suffer from the lapse problem. Maybe something like Subconscious will improve the game?

Trees and Branches

Besides pointers and seeds, another piece of the mental landscape is the scaffolding you hang all this information off of. This is maybe the ‘first’ or ur-piece of the landscape. It’s easier to memorize and learn events from history if you can slot them into the surrounding context and web of ideas of other events in history. If there’s a continuity to plug them into. Without that, the ideas just fall away and are lost.