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Book: Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez

The truth is we know little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be.

This was a very sad book to read. Humanity has dealt the wolves great injustice, blaming them for everything under the sun (and the moon), and then some more. Barry Lopez shares some context on how wolves actually behave and why they were so vilified.

We tend to compare the to humans, either presenting as the opposite, or a friend. But wolves are proudly themselves. They do exhibit some behaviour we understand, and some that we don’t They are alive, and have the very right to.

Wolves vary their hunting techniques, share food with the old who do not hunt, and give gifts to each other.

The wolf seems to have few relationships with other animals that could be termed purely social, though he apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens. 

Nature was for the most part cruel and dangerous to humans (more on that in Sapiens), so taming it was a sign of virtue, progress, and hope for prosperity. From Factfulness:

There was a balance. It wasn’t because humans lived in balance with nature. Humans died in balance with nature. It was utterly brutal and tragic. (Location 1066)

For most of the civilization, nature was the enemy, and the wolf – the ambassador of the wild.

In a hunter society, like that of the Cheyenne, traits that were universally admired—courage, hunting skill, endurance—placed the wolf in a pantheon of respected animals; but when man turned to agriculture and husbandry, to cities, the very same wolf was hated as cowardly, stupid, and rapacious.

To kill a wolf was to tame the wilderness, to prove the mighty man’s strength can win with the claws and the teeth of the primeval. And men had a lot to prove.

Part of the tragedy—and it was a tragedy—was that wolves who bothered no cattle were hunted down by men who largely wanted to prove to other men that they were no fools.

There is something deep-seated in men that makes them want to “take on” the outdoors, as though it were something to be whipped, and to kill wolves because killing a wolf stands for real triumph.

Barry Lopez lists countless examples of cruelty the wolves received from men. The most gruesome were the “brave hunters” who would shoot machine guns from an airplane to kill hundreds of alaskan wolves per day.

Thanks to the book I understood a little more about my own dog, but the author warns against extrapolating wolf behaviour onto their domesticated brethren.

The habit dogs have of rolling in putrid substances is also found in wolves. It seems possible that odors picked up in this way and carried to other pack members have some communicative function.

Related Books

Recommended on the Tim Ferriss show – somebody said it’s a book similar to The Overstory. I still prefer the Overstory.

My Kindle Highlights

  • The truth is we know little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be.
  • If someone says big males always lead the pack and do the killing, the Eskimo shrug and say, “Maybe. Sometimes.” (Location 85)
  • Wolves vary their hunting techniques, share food with the old who do not hunt, and give gifts to each other.
  • once saw a wolf on the tundra winging a piece of caribou hide around like a Frisbee for an hour by himself. (Location 89)
  • For example, wolves do not kill just the old, the weak, and the injured. They also kill animals in the prime of health. And they don’t always kill just what they need; they sometimes kill in excess. And wolves kill each other. The reasons for these acts are not clear. No one—not biologists, not Eskimos, not backwoods hunters, not naturalist writers—knows why wolves do what they do. (Location 94)
  • they once roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere above thirty degrees north latitude. (Location 167)
  • Irremotus (Northern Rocky Mountain wolf) means something like “the wolf who is always showing up there.” (Location 197)
  • By placing muzzle and unprotected nose between the rear legs and overlapping the face with the thickly furred tail, wolves can turn their backs to the wind and sleep comfortably in the open at forty degrees below zero. (Location 278)
  • One observer followed two wolves who broke trail through five feet of snow for 22 miles in British Columbia. The animals paused in their tracks but never lay down to rest. Taking wolves on Isle Royale as an example, they average 30 miles of travel a day in winter. (Location 337)
  • The animal can develop a crushing pressure of perhaps 1,500 lbs./in2 compared to 750 lbs./in2 for a German shepherd. (Location 345)
  • As a rule, only one female becomes pregnant. The pups are born sixty-three days later. (Location 360)
  • The social bond between them is so obvious that in 1576, in an age when people believed the worst of wolves, a sportsman wrote in a book on hunting: “If the pups chance to meet their sire or dam anytime after they leave the pack they will fawn upon them and seem in their kind greatly to rejoice.” (Location 384)
  • With respect to females, who have largely a subordinate standing in Western human societies, the analogy, I think, is poor. Female wolves may not only lead packs but outlast a succession of male alpha animals. It is females, moreover, who decide where to den and thus where the pack will have to hunt for five or six weeks. (Location 423)
  • The male hunter-male leader image of the wolf pack is misleading but, unconsciously, I am sure, it is perpetuated by males, who dominate this field of study. (Location 428)
  • Social structure in a wolf pack has been observed in greatest detail among captive wolves, which makes extrapolating to wild wolves risky. (Location 432)
  • Alpha animals do not always lead the hunt, break trail in snow, or eat before the others do. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason, and, it should be noted, is alpha at the deference of the other wolves in the pack. (Location 446)
  • Human beings, particularly in recent years, have grown accustomed to speaking of “dominance hierarchies” in business corporations and elsewhere, and the tendency has been to want wolf packs (or troops of chimpanzees) to conform to similar molds. The social structure of a wolf pack is dynamic—subject to change, especially during the breeding season—and may be completely reversed during periods of play. (Location 449)
  • To place a heavy emphasis on such supposed facets of behavior as “intimidation,” “pulling rank,” and games of psychological cruelty based on social structures, however, is simply to confuse the tools of human analysis with the actual behavior of wolves. (Location 454)
  • Daily activities center around the mouth of the den until the pups are about eight weeks old, at which time the adults move them to the first of a series of rendezvous sites where they remain while the others hunt. (Location 469)
  • Adolph Murie wrote that the strongest impression he was left with was of the wolves’ friendliness toward each other. (Location 493)
  • Even as adults, wolves play tag with each other or romp with the pups, running about a clearing or on a snowbank with a rocking-horse gait. They scare each other by pouncing on sleeping wolves and by jumping in front of one another from hiding places. They bring things to each other, especially bits of food. They prance and parade about with sticks or bones in their mouths. (Location 495)
  • They can howl lying down or sitting on their haunches. I’ve even seen a wolf, with an air of not wanting to miss out, howl while defecating. (Location 507)
  • In chorus like this, each wolf chooses a different pitch. The production of harmonics (see chart, page 42) may create the impression of fifteen or twenty wolves where there are in fact only three or four. (Location 539)
  • The habit dogs have of rolling in putrid substances is also found in wolves. It seems possible that odors picked up in this way and carried to other pack members have some communicative function.
  • The animals may be marking things they consider dangerous to other wolves, especially pups, for wolves also mark traps and poisoned baits by defecating on them. (Location 643)
  • Wolves commonly go without food for three or four days and then gorge, eating as much as eighteen pounds of meat in one sitting. Then, “meat drunk,” they may lay out in the sun until digestion is completed (in two or three hours), and then start again. (Location 684)
  • All wolves eat grass, possibly to scour the digestive tract and remove worms. Consisting mostly of cellulose, the grass itself is never digested. (Location 692)
  • The latter point should be well taken: in the past, it was assumed that wolves were basely motivated and bloodthirsty; then in an environmentally enlightened age, it was suddenly assumed that they were noble and wise. So, (Location 836)
  • For my own part, I mean to suggest that there is more to a wolf hunt than killing. And that wolves are wolves, not men. (Location 839)
  • Wolves have a curious dependency on caribou to act as snowplows. It seems clear that tundra wolves do not follow caribou in winter solely to feed on them but because the herds open the way and pack the snow down. (Location 914)
  • The wolf seems to have few relationships with other animals that could be termed purely social, though he apparently takes pleasure in the company of ravens. 
  • (The set of steel nubs on a leather strap seen on dogs today is a gentler version of the spiked collar dogs once wore as protection against wolves.) (Location 937)
  • A common practice in captivity is to allow wolf pups to establish a bond with an older dog. The relationship gives humans an intermediary, and makes handling the wolves easier. (Location 939)
  • The mistake that is made here, with consistency, it seems, only by educated Western people, is to think that there is an ultimate wolf reality to be divined, one that can only be unearthed with microscope and radio collar. Some wolf biologists are possessed of the idea of binding the wolf up in “statistically significant” data. They want no question about the wolf not to have an answer. (Location 1045)
  • “The more reflective Nunamiut do not search for a primordial cause, a complete explanation or order of the nature of ultimate destiny.” (Location 1054)
  • we do not know very much at all about animals. We cannot understand them except in terms of our own needs and experiences. And to approach them solely in terms of the Western imagination is, really, to deny the animal. (Location 1149)
  • What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all—resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness—to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance. This (Location 1288)
  • Just as intriguing is the idea that some game animals assent to a chase-without-death with wolves. Caribou and yearling wolves, for example, are often seen in harmless chases getting a taste of death. Building spirit. Training. Wolf and caribou. (Location 1379)
  • It should be understood, however, that the Indian did not rank-order animals. Each creature, from deer mouse to meadowlark, was respected for the qualities it best seemed to epitomize; when those particular qualities were desired by someone, that animal was approached as one who knew much about that thing. (Location 1391)
  • To fit into the universe, the Indian had to do two things simultaneously: be strong as an individual, and submerge his personal feelings for the good of the tribe. In the eyes of many native Americans, no other animal did this as well as the wolf. (Location 1427)
  • The inclination of white men to regard individual and social motivations in themselves as separate led them to misunderstand the Indian. The Indian was so well integrated in his environment that his motivation was almost hidden; his lifeway was as mysterious to white men as the wolf’s. (Location 1438)
  • There are no stories among Indians of lone wolves. (Location 1442)
  • The Ahtena Indians of southern Alaska brought a wolf they’d killed into camp on their shoulders, chanting: “This is the chief, he is coming.” The dead wolf was taken inside a hut, where he was propped up in a sitting position and a banquet meal was set before him by a shaman. Each family in the village contributed something. When it was felt the wolf had eaten all he wanted, the men ate what was left. (Location 1503)
  • This person then might explain to the dead wolf that he had been hired by some other village so the wolf would take out any revenge at the wrong place. The Chukchi Eskimo of northeastern Siberia routinely told any wolf they killed that they were Russians, not Eskimos. (Location 1509)
  • At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one’s own nature. In its headiest manifestations theriophobia is projected onto a single animal, the animal becomes a scapegoat, and it is annihilated. That is what happened to the wolf in America. The routes that led there, however, were complex. (Location 1949)
  • In Europe at the same time the subjugation and ordering of shabby wilderness had reached its exaggerated apotheosis in the excessive neatness of the Versailles gardens. (Location 1974)
  • Roderick Nash writes: “In the morality play of westward expansion, wilderness was the villain, and the pioneer, as hero, relished its destruction. The transformation of wilderness into civilization was the reward for his sacrifices, the definition of his achievement and the source of his pride.” (Location 2000)
  • If a horse kicked a pestering child and the child died, the horse was to be tried and hung. (Location 2035)
  • To clear wolves out of the forest so man could raise cattle was perfectly all right. It was not only all right, it met with the approval of various religious denominations who admired such industry, and of the state, whose aim was a subdued, pastoral, and productive countryside. (Location 2054)
  • Descartes articulated the belief that not only were animals put on earth for man’s use but they were distinctly lowborn; they were without souls and therefore man incurred no moral guilt in killing them. (Location 2058)
  • There is something deep-seated in men that makes them want to “take on” the outdoors, as though it were something to be whipped, and to kill wolves because killing a wolf stands for real triumph. (Location 2264)
  • Men in a speculative business like cattle ranching singled out one scapegoat for their financial losses. (Location 2628)
  • Part of the tragedy—and it was a tragedy—was that wolves who bothered no cattle were hunted down by men who largely wanted to prove to other men that they were no fools. (Location 2673)
  • do not think it comes from some base, atavistic urge, though that may be a part of it. I think it is that we simply do not understand our place in the universe and have not the courage to admit it. (Location 2837)
  • They wanted the attention and respect they used to get in a township, young boys tagging after them, men their own age cheering their shenanigans with the game wardens. It was all slipping away from them now. That afternoon (Location 2876)
  • We killed hundreds of thousands of wolves. Sometimes with cause, sometimes with none. In the end, I think we are going to have to go back and look at the stories we made up when we had no reason to kill, and find some way to look the animal in the face again. (Location 2884)
  • cannot, in the light of his effect on man, conceive of the wolf as reducible. (Location 2904)
  • The Roman Church, which dominated medieval life in Europe, exploited the sinister image of wolves in order to create a sense of real devils prowling in a real world. During the years of the Inquisition, the Church sought to smother social and political unrest and to maintain secular control by flushing out “werewolves” in the community and putting them to death. (Location 2951)
  • The Greek for wolf, lukos, is so close to the word for light, leukos, that the one was sometimes mistaken for the other in translation. Some scholars have argued that Apollo only came down to us as both the god of dawn and a god associated with wolves because of this etymological confusion. (Location 2981)
  • Saint Francis was trying to get the animal to desist. He and the wolf met one day outside the city walls and made the following agreement, witnessed by a notary: the residents of Gubbio would feed the wolf and let him wander at will through the town and the wolf, for his part, would never harm man (Location 3005)
  • Seventeenth-century Europeans commonly referred to a lump that might announce breast cancer as a wolf. They similarly called open sores and knobs on their legs (and on the legs of their animals) wolves. In nineteenth-century medicine a type of general skin disorder characterized by ulcerative lesions and tubercules was called lupus vulgaris, the common wolf. A related disorder was lupus erythematosus unquium mutilans, literally “the mutilated red talons of the wolf,” a disease that attacks the hands and so disfigures the skin and nails that they look like the paws of a wolf. The (Location 3055)
  • Today, systemic lupus erythematosus is recognized as one of the most puzzling disorders in medicine. (Location 3059)
  • Middle Ages. At a time when no one knew anything about genetics, the idea that a child suffering from Down’s syndrome—small ears, a broad forehead, a flat nose, prominent teeth—was the offspring of a wench and a werewolf was perfectly plausible. (Location 3239)
  • Civilization was not as precious as it is to us today. The temptation to strike back at a painful world must have been strong. (Location 3242)
  • In Africa there were werehyenas, in Japan there were werefoxes, in South America there were werejaguars, in Norway there were werebears. In Europe there were werewolves. (Location 3282)
  • In a hunter society, like that of the Cheyenne, traits that were universally admired—courage, hunting skill, endurance—placed the wolf in a pantheon of respected animals; but when man turned to agriculture and husbandry, to cities, the very same wolf was hated as cowardly, stupid, and rapacious. (Location 3326)
  • a wolf is wounded and a human being is later found with a similar wound—was the basis of proof in many werewolf trials.) (Location 3343)
  • And it was a general belief in Europe that those unfortunate enough to be born on Christmas Eve would be werewolves. (Location 3390)
  • evidence. The idle word of a neighbor, the gibberish of a village idiot, a shaving cut that showed up the morning after someone claimed to have driven off a wolf with a sharp stick—for these reasons and less thousands died at the stake. (Location 3419)
  • People wanted society to work smoothly, to be rid of whatever ailed it. (Location 3422)
  • Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487. Its title, Hammer of Witches, derives from a title sometimes bestowed on Inquisitors, Hammer of Heretics. One of the purposes of the book was to refute in tedious scholastic fashion every objection to the existence of werewolves. The Malleus (Location 3437)
  • Because the wolf children described by various writers were all probably autistic or schizophrenic, suffering either congenital or psychological problems or both, the issue of whether authentic wolf-raised children ever existed seems a hopeless, not to say pointless, inquiry. (Location 3522)
  • The earliest Aesop in Greek is one from the second century by Babrius, but it shows the effects of his having lived for a while in the Near East. The influence of fable collections from India, called the Fables of Pilpay or Bidpai and taken from the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa, and stories of the Buddha in animal form from the Jatakas, show up more clearly in Aesopian collections after 1251, (Location 3653)
  • The possibility has yet to be realized of a synthesis between the benevolent wolf of many native American stories and the malcontented wolf of most European fairy tales. At present we seem incapable of such a creation, unable to write about a whole wolf because, for most of us, animals are still either two-dimensional symbols or simply inconsequential, suitable only for children’s stories where good and evil are clearly separated. Were we to perceive such a synthesis, it would signal a radical change in man. For it would mean that he had finally quit his preoccupation with himself and begun to contemplate a universe in which he was not central. (Location 3928)
  • AT THE SOUTHERN END of the Acropolis in Athens stand the ruins of the Lyceum. Philologists argue about the origin of the name but it seems probable that the building was once used as a place of worship for Apollo, the Wolf Slayer. (Location 3935)
  • DURING THE TIME I was researching this book, my wife and I raised two hybrid red wolves at our home in the woods in Oregon. (Location 4038)
  • They often sought out ridges, high on the slopes of the mountain valley where we lived. I assumed at first that it was for the view but later it seemed it was for another reason as well. Here the air currents that moved strongly upslope in the afternoon reached them intact, not broken up, with the olfactory information they carried scattered, as happened when the winds blew through the trees. (Location 4080)
  • someone let them out. We never found out who. I think it must have been someone who believed all wild animals should be free but who did not know that wild animals raised in captivity are no longer wild. River was shot and killed by a man who told us later he wasn’t sure what kind of animals they were but they looked wild and were trying to play with his neighbor’s dogs, (Location 4099)
  • “There could be more, there could be things we don’t understand,” is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right. (Location 4122)

Oldschool Internet & The Blockchain

Oldschool Internet and Open Standards are under assault from big corporations. Blockchain can help.

Aren’t you tired of typing your passwords over and over again? About wondering which email did you use to sign up for this particular site? Was it Facebook login? Oh no – you got another notification that another site got hacked. Jon Stokes, The author of “The Billion User Table” predicts that these problems could soon be over, with identity moving on the public blockchain.

the public blockchain amounts to a single, massive users table for the entire Internet, and the next wave of distributed applications will be built on top of it.

He presents a future where the equivalent of “Google Login” will be baked into the fabric of the Internet in a safe, distributed (not owned by any corporation) and secure fashion.

When you’d visit a service you want to sign up for, you click a button, the browser already knows who you are, and BAM, you’re there.

There’s no on-boarding or sign-up friction

If you are not creating software, this may not seem that important, but you’d be surprised how effective removing a single step is for helping users join. When I was working on monetization tools for WordPress.com customers, simplifying one step in checkout resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the creators on our platform.

Jon summarizes it succinctly, and I love this phrasing:

Adding rows to your platform’s users table is how you win at software.

He also presents this outcome as inevitable, since the companies using the protocol would benefit from the network effects of this protocol being already present in our digital lives:

My guess is that the temptation to take advantage of blockchain-sized network effects will be so great, that companies will default to putting data on-chain rather than keeping it siloed.

The idea of an interoperable, distributed user table sounds very appealing to me as a programmer/hacker. That is also why it sounds very scary to me as a user. Let’s explore how can we make it safer, and why we need to.

We’ve already been there

The first thing that came into my mind is that we’re already there. We have email, an open standard that is effectively a distributed “user table” – when you sign up for a new service, they will most likely ask you about your email address.

  • The addressing system ( user@domain ) is distributed between domains.
  • It’s an open standard, not owned by any one corporation
  • It has built-in messaging, so at least one level of interoperability
  • One-click sign-ins are possible with email. Slack and WordPress.com will sign you in to your account with one click by sending you a “magic link” to your email. I have implemented this functionality myself and wish more services used it
  • It can be even turned into a “Social Network”, with built-in DMs and distribution – something that newsletters take advantage of
  • Tangentially: The biggest gripe that people have about email – long reply-all threads – have a few characteristics of the blockchain itself

In the 2000s, we have regressed from Email and other (like XMPP and RSS) open protocols. I remember being able to respond to Facebook Messenger messages over email. Now, the consumer internet seems to have fractured into private data silos, requiring a separate app for each simple thing I’m attempting to do. Ben Thompson points it out in “The Web’s Missing Interoperability“:

That, though, points to Web 2.0’s failure: interoperability is nowhere to be found

Sometimes this interoperability is removed on purpose, in an effort to bootstrap a gatekeeper that could reap all the network benefits:

The Facebook Cannibalisation manouver

Facebook also used to support XMPP – an open messaging protocol. I think it was the key to bootstrapping their Messenger platform in what I call The Facebook Cannibalisation Maneuver:

  1. Support wide access to your platform by supporting open APIs
  2. Attract technically sophisticated early adopters because they have nothing to lose – the platform already supports their apps
  3. These technical users help convince more people to join the platform
  4. Reach a critical mass to start seeing network effects on the platform internally
  5. Turn off the open APIs that were previously supported. Technical users are disappointed, but it’s not an issue anymore.

That’s why I’m skeptical about this assertion from the Billion User Table:

My guess is that the temptation to take advantage of blockchain-sized network effects will be so great, that companies will default to putting data on-chain rather than keeping it siloed.

I’m sure big players would welcome this protocol with open arms, suck any data out of it, and turn off support later, citing privacy issues.

Privacy&security concerns

The author does not go into privacy concerns too much, and I think these are all solvable problems that will be worked out in time. But I’m going to list them regardless because we don’t want to escalate problems to the level where the federal government has to step in, like in Europe with GDPR.

  1. We need to prevent users from being tracked across sites without their explicit consent. You probably don’t want every service you use to know you have a Tinder account, for example
  2. There needs to be built-in pseudonymity (as explained by Balajis) and a mechanism to switch “contexts.” People need burner identities and a mechanism to transfer data or “karma” to those,
  3. We need mechanisms for permission levels.
  4. We need a better mechanism for retrieving access than a private key. People will lose access, or fraudsters will steal them,
  5. At some point, governments will need to be involved, and this will create a whole new set of issues,
  6. We need to solve the spam

The Apple problem

The biggest obstacle to adopting a distributed, interoperable data store will be Apple. They deserve recognition for their effort in keeping your data private, but it’s downstream from their business model – lock you inside their ecosystem and prevent others from challenging their position.

You could argue that there are alternatives, but the dominant position of the iPhone means that you have to obey their rules if you want your app/service to be successful. And you know Google will eventually copy each one of these rules into the Android ecosystem:

  • If you want to distribute your app to iPhone users, Apple has to review it and agree. There is no other way
  • If you are offering a “federated login” option, like Facebook Login or Google Login, you have to offer the “Login with Apple” as well
  • If you are selling access to any digital goods on iOS, you have to use the Apple In-App-Purchase system, giving 30% of your income to Apple
  • Apps cannot “talk to each other” directly, only through a very small set of APIs. Apps don’t have any access to the filesystem, because of what is called “app sandboxing”.
  • Offering a different version of the experience provided by Apple is often forbidden

Apple’s strategy seems to move all interoperability into the Apple ecosystem and frameworks, making apps themselves interchangeable and commoditized. “The Billion User Table” is unlikely to work on iPhone because Apple effectively monopolized all the exciting benefits.

The app and services developers have to fight back by closing their own gardens and motivating users to stay within their properties. That’s why I think it’s unlikely to see big players participating in this interoperability.

We desperately need it to work

We still have a few open standards left: RSS is still powering podcasting, although Apple and Spotify are making moves to supplant it. The Web is still working, although it wouldn’t be permitted on the iPhone if it was created today. We have to protect and extend them. Working on open standards, and adopting them by “small players” is the only way to protect the Internet against the network effects of big players, and The Apple Problem.

I think we can extend existing “footholds” of interoperability, and work from there:

  • RSS: Sync the state of what podcasts I have listened to, or am listening so I can easily switch between the apps,
  • Email: Earn.com was a nice idea to give you money for replying to messages so people have to be motivated to spam you. Although I’d prefer a karma sytem.
  • XMPP: the open messaging protocol is close to dead, unfortunately and I have no ideas how to save it
  • HTML, JavaScript and CSS are being obfuscated by source minification and precompiling of source code – something that blockchain probably won’t solve and it’s a different story.

I agree with the author of The Billion User Table that we need interoperability, and I’d be happy if we started by bringing back the protocols of the 1990s. Blockchain solves the issue of “who hosts the user data, ” which is a brilliant insight in the original article.

But I’d start with throwaway identities and small stakes. We need to prove the concept before attracting regulator attention and big players’ cannibalization. Starting with extending and protecting existing open standards will let us understand the tradeoffs between privacy and interoperability. And we desperately need the latter – as the current privacy debate favors Big Tech. Per Ben Thompson:

I worry even more about small businesses uniquely enabled by the Internet; forcing every company to act like a silo undoes the power of platforms to unlock collective competition (a la Shopify versus Amazon), whether that be in terms of advertising, payments, or understanding their users. Regulators that truly wish to limit tech power and unlock the economic potential of the Internet would do well to prioritize competition and interoperability via social graph sharing, alongside a more nuanced view of privacy that reflects reality, not misleading ads

Where I disagree with Jon Stokes is that it will upend the present Internet. It is the missing piece of the original Internet, which was correct on so many ideas. I miss it a lot.

Tales To Inspire Climate Solutions, not Tales To Condemn

I found myself continuing the thread started in my Solarpunk newsletter issue: If you want people to change their ways, tell them Tales To Inspire, not Tales To Condemn.

Initially, I wanted to link Mister Money Mustache’s article “Efficiency is the highest form of beauty”, where he extols virtues of a certain extent of frugality not to maximize column D3 in his spreadsheet, but because it appeals to him aesthetically:

The reason I pursue and love the idea of finding new ways to live life in an industrialized world, is the same reason I love music, and art, and writing and all of the beautiful, advanced, inspiring things that people do. It’s because Efficiency is Beauty.

I agree with MMM, and it’s easy to laugh at us both as engineers, but this is very close to the classical conception of beauty:

The classical conception is that beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and similar notions.

Mister Money Mustache points out, that the opulent spending of the western world is not only in bad taste, but it also has a huge environmental impact:

Look at me! I can afford to grow all these impractical colorful feathers! Or dump water on this big green lawn and pay servants to water it, and I’m not even here because I’m in Monaco this month. Now, come have sex with me because you know you want some of these superior genes.”

But what appeals to me the most in MMM writing is that he does not dwell too long on condemning overspenders, nor the listing of 937 ways to cut your coupons, but focusing on a bright vision. Where most FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) advice consists of sprinting to retirement, leaving you with the Now What?! question, he presents the beauty of simplicity and the environmental benefits. His master plan is (was?) to use his influence and promote the desirability of being mindful with your resources:

you can fix the whole problem by doing just one thing: demonstrating and celebrating efficiency in your own life. (…) Start by attracting the top of society, allow them to demonstrate that your idea is desirable, then watch the rest of the world follow. 

This reminded me of Tesla’s fantastic Master Plan from 2006. It lays out a strategy of starting with an expensive car for rich people, and use these high margins to invest into lower-margin offering:

“The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium” (…)
Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

But what Elon omitted from the memo is that by entering at the high end of the market, and convincing the influential customers, he proved that it is desirable to own an electric car. The only people who were able to afford the Roadster (Tesla’s first car) were celebrities and rich folk. By riding this wave of hype (and I think we all agree that Tesla does create hype), he popularized electric cars, so that every major car manufacturer is switching away from the combustion engine to a more efficient electric engine.

On a more directly environmental note, Arnold Schwarzenneger has recently pointed out that constant alarms don’t make people act. They make them tuned out. From the Austrian World Summit:

Climate activists have succeeded in persuading many people that we’re on our way to human extinction and picking up speed, but people “tuned out” the climate change activism movement because it is “stuck in despair and confusion.” (…) 

Schwarzenegger warned that with the onslaught of news coverage of potential flooded cities, burning forests, and rising seas, “Is it any wonder people are confused or tuned out?”

I care deeply about the trees, climate, and environment. But I find myself tuning out as well. After all – I have to focus on my daughter, job, and life, and the constant climate anxiety does not help. If I devoted my whole life to doomscrolling, that wouldn’t help either. If we want to have a better future, we have to present a cool and compelling vision to work towards. The beauty of efficiency, sexy and insanely fast cars, and fresher air (what Arnold proposes as the first step) are all attacking climate issues indirectly but more effectively because they are easy to get behind.

Let’s kickstart the cool future with more tales to inspire. Maybe we’ll have the boybands back.

Maybe you have tales to inspire you’d like to see in these emails? Let me know!

Interesting things from the Internet

Inside the imaginarium of Solarpunk Architect

Continuing with the Solarpunk theme, I urge you to check out the work by Luc Shuiten:

since the 1950s, Luc (now 77 years old) has been designing for the future urban landscape based on his concept of “archiborescence,” blending organic and manufactured elements for homes, commercial buildings and even entire cities of tomorrow.

There is no evidence of office meetings boosting innovation

Whenever the discussion about Remote Work comes up, somebody cries

“Yes, but you need to collaborate in person”

The argument that usually follows is that these magical brainstorming sessions with the whiteboard are the fuel for innovation, and the only reason the economy still keeps going. The funny part is that we still have no hard data that this is the case.

This New York Times article with a self-explanatory title “Do Chance Meetings at the Office Boost Innovation? There’s No Evidence of It.” takes a closer look at this myth, and found no evidence of “chance office meetings” boosting innovation, nor productivity:

Yet people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration

It is true, that being in the physical office can be beneficial for some, but at the expense of other workers, and the interests of the business itself:

The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

In fact, when I worked in the “Open Office” space, I remember doing everything in my power to avoid my coworkers so I can get some job done:

Contemporary open offices led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions, a study found. People found it distracting, so they wore headphones and avoided one another

The Potato Paradox

From Wikipedia:

Fred brings home 100 kg of potatoes, which (being purely mathematical potatoes) consist of 99% water. He then leaves them outside overnight so that they consist of 98% water. What is their new weight? The surprising answer is 50 kg.

Farmers always Worked From Home

As the gripping cold conceded to the heatwaves in July, we moved to the countryside for a few weeks. There, we have a good view of our neighbors’ farm. While those small farmers are still around, we’re ecstatic to observe the rhythms of the rural lifestyle.

When the cow moos full of milk, my neighbor has to milk her. When the rye is ripe in July, he works 16 hours a day to scythe, sweep, and rake. He collects his chickens’ eggs at 5 am and waters the vegetables at 8 pm when the sun is not so scorching anymore.

Countless articles recommend keeping “Work-Life Balance”. Leave your job at 5 PM, turn off the work phone/email and enjoy your “Life”. It is crucial to set proper boundaries – the articles state in unison. Keep your mental hygiene.

My neighbor is too busy to sit in the office scrolling articles on the Internet, so he hasn’t heard about Work-Life Balance. He does what he needs to, and he rests in between. He sees the fruits of his labor and spends hours watching the rye grow. I envy him sometimes.

He lives on that farm. Farmers were working from home long before COVID. 

In the 1800s, 90 percent of the US population lived on a farm, rocking their WFH setups. How did they all survive without mental breakdowns and Harvard Business Review articles praising strict Work-Life Balance?

I believe we have the work-life balance debate wrong. Instead of introducing more rigid walls between Life and Work, we should focus on keeping a dynamic equilibrium – just like my neighborhood farmer.

Do things that need to be done, and stop sitting in place just because the clock tells you to.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff from Ness Labs touches on that issue in her article “The problem with work-life balance“, starting with the phrase itself:

“That’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance.”

I don’t have such issues with the phrasing, but I think we have it wrong where we think “balance” means tall walls between parts of life. But balance may mean a dynamic equilibrium (as in “Power of Full engagement“) – when one side of your work+life pie gets outsized, you compensate – from Anne-Laure’s article:

One day, one of your kids may get sick; another day, you may need to replace a colleague on the spot; yet another day, you may feel a burst of productivity and get so much done you can take a really nice break. It feels different to work in the summer than in the winter; it feels harder to work when you lack sleep; it feels easier when your colleagues are being helpful. These are ever changing factors you can’t control,

Demand more Life from your Work

Time is a bit cruel. It flies by when you’re having fun, and drags on forever when you’re counting minutes for your shift to end. So you can just decide to have a little more fun, and work will be less exhausting. Any workplace can provide:

  • Fulfillment and Challenge
  • Working on something bigger than yourself
  • Coworkers that can be turned into Friends.

If you’re trying to introduce strict boundaries between work & life, you’re going to treat your job as the enemy and something to run away from the first chance you’ll get.

Avoid BS (As in BuSywork) like the plague. You shouldn’t do constant overtime just to “prove your loyalty”. But if you get a chance to do something awesome, don’t throw it away just because it’s 5 PM.

A thing I wrote

Learn to delegate by hiring a Virtual Assistant

Before becoming a Team Lead, I hired a VA to train my delegation muscle. It has taught me to let go of micromanaging tendencies. It paid off for my Team and my Family.

Interesting things from around the web

The Most Precious Resource is Agency

Simon Sarris has articulated one of my talking points much better than I ever could: The school teaches children to be passive consumers of life.

We seem to have a political (public) imagination so shallow that it cannot conceive of what to even do with children, especially smart children. We fail to properly respect them all the way through adolescence, so we have engineered them to be useless in the interim.

But it does not have to be this way. In fact, we can teach them BOTH agency, and knowledge from the curriculum:

The secret of the world is that it is a very malleable place, we must be sure that people learn this, and never forget the order: Learning is naturally the consequence of doing.

Thanks to the Internet, you can undo years of school trauma today:

You don’t have to wait for professionals to tell you how to make stuff, you can just make stuff. Start typing

Owner of Gail.com refuses to sell the domain to typosquatters

Typosquatters register domains similar to known, existing ones hoping that somebody misspells the address and end up on their site instead.

The owner of Gail.com received the domain from her husband, and it turns out many people end up there instead of gmail:

In 2020 this page received a total of 5,950,012 hits, which is an average of 16,257 per day. Looking at just unique hits, we received a total of 1,295,284, for an average of 3,539 unique hits per day. Occasionally, we get Twitter-bombed and may get several tens of thousands of visitors a day. As an example, on July 21st 2020 we received 109,316 hits.

This person, an outstanding Internet citizen refuses to pollute the common good:

Q: Are you interested in monetizing gail.com?
A: No, but thanks for asking.
Q: Don’t you know that you could throw some ads up and make money?
A: Yes, I know, thank you. For those who feel they need more advertising in their life, please have a look at our swanky Electronic Frontier Foundation ad below. If you believe in a free Internet, please consider clicking on the link and donating to the EFF.

Be like the owner of gail.com.

Lego Lost at Sea

On Feb 23rd 1997, nearly 5 million bits of Lego fell into the ocean when a huge wave hit the cargo ship Tokio Express, washing 62 containers overboard. We’re still finding it 24 years later. Among the pieces lost were green dragons, highly prized among beachcombers.

Lego Lost at Sea project documents those findings but has since expanded to all plastic debree washing out on Cornish beaches.

Solarpunk is the future I want

Singapore and Tokyo captivated me with hopeful modern architecture. It seemed like European buildings scream “everything good has already been”, while Asian architecture looks toward the future and tries its best to make it compelling.

This turn towards gloom seems to be present in all aspects of western culture. We are going overboard with all the Black Mirror Mad Max Social Networks, and these “warnings” seem to be hastening the precise future we do NOT want. So much so that in 2020, Cyberpunk’s creator had to publish a reminder that “Cyberpunk was a warning, not an inspiration”.

It seems that humans don’t do very well with warnings (DUH if you’re following what’s happening with the climate). A better frame seems to be “Tales to inspire, not the tales to condemn” or “focus your time + energy on what you want to see more of.

So how does this compelling future look?

This week I stumbled upon the term Solarpunk, and I love it. It’s simultaneously tying techno-optimism, respect for nature, self-reliance, frontier aesthetics, and positive-sum games.

The pillars of Solarpunk

  • Focusing on designing a compelling future, not warning against possible problems.
  • The strong position of the art, capturing the imagination, and making the positive outcomes irresistible
  • Designing cities from first principles to be lush, bright, hopeful, and above all – nice places to live.
  • Technology coexisting with nature. Humanity finally curing its medieval god complex and giving up taming the dangerous forces of nature but working with them instead.

3 articles and 1 video about Solarpunk you should check out

Solarpunk manifesto (Regenerative Design)

Solarpunk is a bottom-up, unorganized movement held together by common beliefs. This manifesto is not a canonical set, but most of the points are addressing perfectly my disappointment with the mainstream vision of the future. Here are my favorite ones:

Solarpunk is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question “what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?”

It is a counterculture that is actually constructive:

Solarpunk can be utopian, just optimistic, or concerned with the struggles en route to a better world ,  but never dystopian.

Humanity loved to tame nature. But it’s clear that we won. What now?

We’re no longer overlords. We’re caretakers. We’re gardeners.

I love the Aesthetics of Bioshock Infinite. No other game has had me just standing and staring at the visuals.

1800s age-of-sail/frontier living (but with more bicycles)

Drawing Pictures of Cities (Noahpinion)

Noah Smith has recently published a Substack Essay focusing on the urban design aspect of the Solarpunk movement. He analyses the art of Imperial Boy and lists why this urban design seems to work – check out the post for a deep dive.

Imperial Boy via Noahpinion

He concludes with the same sentiment mentioned in the Solarpunk manifesto – we need to first envision the future in order to start building it. It seems like (popular) art has turned from serving as an inspiration to priding itself in warnings.

But only by drawing a bunch of these futures can we convince the people of our cities that density and transit and mixed-use development won’t turn their cities into Manhattan clones or dystopian superblocks or whatever else their fevered imaginations run to whenever they hear someone say the word “density”.

To create the future we must first dream the future. Private foundations that are interested in pro-density politics should give a bunch of money to people like Christopher Hawthorne, who should then scour the country for a hundred different Imperial Boy type artists to draw pictures of the futures of American cities.

Solarpunk Is Growing a Gorgeous New World in the Cracks of the Old One (Singularity Hub)

This article on Singularity Hub echoes the same message:

The job of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.

But it also lists examples of Solarpunk sprouting in the world already, as “Gardens by the bay” in Singapore, or Golden Bridge in Vietnam.

The solarpunk credo is to grow the new world in the soil exposed by the widening cracks of the old world.

Dear Alice

This Chobani comercial captures Solarpunk perfectly:

A thing I wrote

Organic Governmental Disruption

I published an article unrelated to Solarpunk, where I try to predict how Decentralized Autonomous Organizations managed on the blockchain will be used in governance.

I mentioned we have seen enough dystopias, but I have heard the warnings, and I make a case for an auto-expiry system of any autonomous rules.

Check out the full text on Piszek.com

Learn to delegate by hiring a Virtual Assistant

What kept me from pursuing a Team Lead role in the past was my tendency to micromanage. I like things done in a particular way, and I used to get annoyed where they weren’t.

Naturally, what got you here won’t get you there. Your expertise, ease of problem-solving, and familiarity with the domain field (say a codebase) become obstacles to delegation. You’re thinking to yourself

I can solve this in a pinch and they’re messing with it for a week“.

That was my main reason to doubt if I can be a capable Team Lead. I decided to test this self-narrative and maybe improve. I hired a Virtual Assistant that would charge me money. I’d lose this money if I didn’t delegate.

Sure enough, in the beginning, I questioned that decision. It was more work to explain to my VA how I want stuff done than doing it myself. Quite often, she would do something different than I’d like. Other times – It would be too slow.

It made me work on my communication, expectations, and, most importantly – the inner game of delegation. I learned to let go and trust her, and I’m delighted now.

I still have a lot to learn about being a great Team Lead, but without these lessons, it would be even more traumatic for my team.

More about hiring a Virtual Assistant

How much does it cost?

I pay ~$15/hour, $200 monthly minimum, but that’s in Poland. I have a contract with a small VA “shop.” I have 1 point of contact, but there are other people managing my affairs.

Why?

Being a better TL was not the only reason I wanted to hire a VA. Because of my specific family situation, I have to manage particular affairs of my grandparents and my mom, which was intruding on my work time. I also value time more than I value money, and buying back some of it seemed like a good way to live a happier life.

There are certain things I hate doing and tend to put off. It’s awesome to be able to delegate that.

What sorts of tasks do you delegate?

Dealing with calling businesses, quarterly checklists of all the utilities for me and my broader family, research of the baby gear (try to hunt used ones where possible), scheduling doctors & home repairs, getting Turkish Airlines to refund me tickets, sort stock photos I bought for the blog, manage online shopping returns, repair my mom’s printer, finding me a local donate-to-a-park scheme, sort my dog’s bark sounds for the ML model, etc.

Highly recommended.

How do you find a great Virtual Assistant?

I took Ramit Sethi’s course “Delegate and Done” about hiring a VA, and not everybody is prepared to go to such lengths (Do you see now why I may have micro managerial issues? 😀 ).

  • I prepared a Google doc with a couple of questions and typical tasks, and I asked candidates to describe how they’d tackle them
  • I Googled VA’s, went on Facebook groups to find VA groups
  • I’ve read what they wrote, sent the doc to ones that sounded good
  • Set up a Zoom call, to see how we chat in person
  • Signed a contract

Organic Governmental Disruption

I rarely meet a person happy about their government. Complaining about legislation seems like a universal bonding experience comparable to football. What if we could improve this situation?

Voluntary Governments makes a case for utilizing blockchain and DAOs to run governments. The main benefit would be a fast pace of iteration, the ability to test different policies quickly, and the dream of curbing the identity politics cesspool. This essay is a review of that post in which I make a case for allowing the government to be disrupted instead of actively working to replace it.

In the original piece, the author argues that if only we were able to A/B test fast enough, we would be able to run our cities and countries with the efficiency of startups.

Why can’t nation states be disrupted or rapidly improved? Because the mechanisms in place don’t allow sufficient A/B testing

The author points out, that the current American 2-party system allows for change, but not improvement. It’s running in circles, and you are only allowed a “narrative flip” every 4 years.

Test option A. Don’t like it? Test option B. Don’t like it? Back to A, and hope it got better since the last time we tried it.

So what’s the alternative then?

Imagine the first digital political party. Supporters contribute money on the Ethereum blockchain, and as long as their donation is more than ten dollars, they receive a voting token. If you join any other parties, you lose your token. Voting controls all decisions of the political party, and the money supports those decisions. Majority vote controls presidential candidate and VP. Majority vote hires campaign manager and sets salary. Majority vote decides campaign trail. Majority vote chooses best logo design. Think that’s the worst way to set up a political party? Okay, you should build one too. Write your own rules into your party’s code. Let’s see who gets elected.

What I love about this proposal is that’s not designed to be disruptive. It’s using the existing system (introducing a new party) with its own rules. That party can, of course, codify those rules into the new default system, if they have enough support, but that’s not required for the plan to work.

The proposed solution is essentially bootstrapping Direct Democracy onto a Representative Democracy system.

But I think the future of governance is different than just more of the past. Once things are digital, we are dealing with exponentials.

The 6 Ds of exponentials

Peter Diamandis, in the book “Bold” has outlined the six forces underlying exponential growth of organizations, technologies, and products:

  • Processes get digitized,
  • Initial small growth is deceptive, so the entire thing is dismissed,
  • Monetary barriers get demonetized, allowing zero marginal cost economy,
  • Physical processes get dematerialized
  • The market forces start being disruptive to the status quo,
  • Once everything is digitized, demonetized and dematerialized, then all the barriers are removed, and things are truly democratized

DAOs and cryptocurrencies are digitizing, dematerializing, and demonetizing both governance, and finance. If we are to believe Peter and follow the exponential framework, disruption and democratization is the only logical outcome.

Demonetizing finance sounds like a contradiction, but keep in mind that transferring money, banking, and transactions have their own cost. Removing even that small friction can lead to a zero-marginal-cost revolution in finance.

Are we trying to disrupt the government?

The word Disruption has recently become a running joke in tech circles and for good reason. True disruption happens when the market spontaneously shifts into a reality where the old rules don’t apply anymore.

But this is not a planned process, despite what pitch decks claim. The disruption does not come from “I don’t like these rules so let’s throw them out and put something else”. Disruption is an organic, bottom-up process. Everything just changes, because few trends work in tandem and create a self-reinforcing societal shift.

Wilting of the nation states

Just like the author of “Voluntary Governments”, I am convinced that governments will be disrupted, but the end result won’t be something we can easily predict. I’ll try though – this is only one of possible directions:

  1. Blockchain, DAOs, and cryptocurrencies will be used in pieces of the current paper procedures. Let’s say a country starts keeping real estate deeds on the blockchain.
  2. Parts of administration will slowly start using smart contracts, reducing the ambiguity of “wet code” (aka people interpreting the law, like judges, officials, inspectors, etc),
  3. Due to increased transparency and visibility into administration, whole new business models will be enabled at the fringes of governments’ responsibilities,
  4. Those businesses will take more and more of “governments job”, reducing our reliance on the actual government
  5. What’s left for the government to do? I don’t know. We’ll see the first experiments in the Startup Cities

I don’t really want to disrupt the Government

Author admits, that the slow innovation of government can be a feature:

Some might argue that the amount of time it takes to evolve the government is a feature, not a bug. I would even agree with that, to a certain extent. The Lindy Effect is on the government’s side here, and ensuring that changes take months or years means that we only make changes that are safe

There are multiple reasons to be conservative with your government:

  1. Governance has a disproportionate power to create unwanted results (think war), so introducing untested technologies, approaches, and structures is very risky.
  2. Economy and governance are second-order chaotic systems: They react to predictions about possible reactions, in a self-reinforcing loop. Live experiments on such a system can have unintended consequences. Testing it beforehand is virtually impossible since possible side effects turn up many years down the road.
  3. Government is also the ultimate safety valve for everything else. We can grumble about bank bailouts, but to a certain extent, we all pick up the tab so that a policy failure does not spin out of control. If we start experimenting with our backup plan, what if it goes wrong?

I cannot let you do that: A case for expiry date

Evolution is an unmatched iterator. It created literally a whole world (maybe a universe, we don’t know) of highly-adapted species, perfectly matched to their ecological niches. It also created its own safety valve: Apoptosis. Cells are programmed with a “death protocol” to stop runaway mutations.

I would argue that any autonomous governance system should have a built-in “sunset”, ideally in form of expiry date. Isaac Asimov, Stanley Kubrick, and countless other Sci-Fi authors ran mental experiments and reported that even the smartest well-intentioned sets of rules can (and will) go wrong, given sufficient time.

There is nothing I fear more than Runaway Autonomous Bureuocracy, so I’m careful about DAOs.

Medieval Iceland had an expiry system for the law: Lawspeakers. Every 3 years, where the general assembly gathered, Lawspeaker has recited the entire law from memory. If he forgot about an obscure rule – it clearly wasn’t important enough to pass by default. Relying on memory may not be the best way to introduce stability, but I really love this version of legal auto-destruction.

We now have a technology to bake the expiry date into smart contracts. This would introduce long-term uncertainty about future rules, but it would prevent runaway perversion. The expiry date may not be enough though. The second cause of mortality in the USA is cancer – a failure of the Apoptosis check & balance system. We may need a human oversight after all, precisely because it cannot be coded.

The best outcome may be a weaker government

I don’t believe the biggest value of blockchain-powered governance is running a trustless system. I think the core value is making interactions between policy and outcome explicit. If you remove the meat code from between policy and implementation, then you have more clarity about interventions and their outcomes. You can remove the interfering variables from the equations and run real experiments.

Then maybe governance CAN be just first-order chaos. I don’t think we need blockchain to deal with the top-level organization of the government. I think it’s much more valuable in the messy middle, protecting good intentions from turning perverse.

I think we can trust people to try to do a good thing. If only we knew what exactly that is.

What would you do if you had 5 months off?

Editorial note

I will be phasing out the deliber .at domain from this newsletter, and the blog. Everything will be transitioning to piszek .com, and here is why:

Automatic (the company I work for and have written about) has a very generous parental leave policy. Within the first year of your child’s birth, you can take up to six months of paid leave. That’s what I’m doing since last Monday, and I am exhausted.

This is not a vacation of course. Babies tend to have their own ideas about what to do with your time and my chief concern will be keeping my newborn safe and somewhat entertained. But I cannot help but treat this as kind of a sabbatical. I hope to strengthen the bond between my child and me, but I hope to do other stuff, too.

The case for sabbaticals

When I was studying in Sweden, I learned that it’s quite common to take a gap year between high school and university. I did the opposite – took on the second master’s degree, to get ahead. And it probably did. In the game, I shouldn’t even be playing.

I started contract work when I was 15, and I haven’t had a break longer than 3 weeks since. During that time I got a total of 3 different degrees, and the constant feeling in the back of my head that I have to hurry because the cargo train of obligations is going to catch up with me.

My Friend Paul Millerd has done a fantastic deep-dive exploration of Sabbaticals and their benefits. He concludes that they are essential for knowledge workers to be productive, but more importantly – for humans to live a sane life:

Taking a break is scary but from what I’ve seen it’s probably one of the simplest ways to grapple with one of people’s biggest fears: that they didn’t live a life that they were capable of. Taking a break is a way to take a different perspective of your life, remember the things that mattered to you, and sometimes simply rest and be with the ones that matter to you.

So what are your plans Artur?

  1. Take care of the Baby, of course. I am aspiring to be a lazy parent, and I hope to just go about my own life, with her by my side.
  2. One of the hopes for my newly acquired time is to change my relationship with well, time. I promised my baby not to rush her, but first I need to learn how unrushed time looks like. I know the crying baby is not a perfect catalyst, but we’ll see.
  3. We bought an RV and I hope we’ll roam around Europe soon! Early plans point to Southern Tyrol, Switzerland, and Northern Italy, but that depends on COVID, of course.
  4. Focus on my fitness, particularly nutrition.
  5. Finally, writing. In case you missed it, I was running 2 blogs: deliber.at (pronounced “deliberate”), where I would post about Remote Work and “living the deliberate life”, and piszek.com where I would just explore what strikes my fancy. After COVID, I don’t have to tell anybody about the existence of Remote Work anymore and I struggled to find the new “glorious purpose” for deliber.at.
    As Paul points out in “Case for Sabbaticals”, writing is a common theme amongst the curious folk on leave. That makes total sense – writing helps you think and explore ideas. I am purposefully unbinding myself from the previous shape of this blog and newsletter, and I’m taking you on that journey.
  6. As part of writing, I want to explore my relationship with intellectualism. I am deeply disappointed by the crowds of educated theoreticians’ performance in real-world problems. COVID response has made it abundantly clear that nobody knows anything. I became so tired of “Sitting And Talking About Important World Affairs“™️ that it has interfered with my writing. I still value intellectual curiosity very highly, but mainstream intellectualism has turned into a virtue-signaling circus.
  7. What would you do if you wouldn’t have to work for the next 5 months?

This is the 50th issue of my newsletter, so it’s as good as time as any to change the format into a little more free-flowing. In order to simplify and leave me more space to explore, I’m going to move all my web properties under piszek .com.

Interesting things from around the web

Do you know any good podcasts not about tech?

I am on the prowl for whacky stuff from outside my bubble. I started with “Overheard” by National Geographic. So far, I’ve learned all about the Beavers are moving into the Arctic as the permafrost is thawing, how a group of villagers in Kenya has built a “GiRaft” to safely transport a giraffe off an island, and listened to crazy stories of underwater photographers hanging out with Orcas. I am definitely going to stick with this show. I’m also trying out “Utopian” about failing utopias and Revisionist History

Contemporary Art

My wife has a fantastic thread with contemporary Polish artists, including my favourite Tytus Brzozowski.

Bootstrapping society

1729.com is an interesting project aimed at bootstrapping society of technological progressives with incentivized tasks. I’ve gotten $10 in BTC for working out and writing up my thoughts about habit-forming, and you can win $10 and $100 every week. My favorite task was generating crazy inventions.

Three principles of creating an antifragile plan

Any ambitious endeavor needs a good plan, but they are often either hard to create, hard to get right or damn impossible to execute. Things are changing at warp speed, derailing even the most bulletproof of roadmaps.

Faced with this uncertainty, people tend to :

  • Create an elaborate plan, with multiple steps that need to be executed perfectly in order to succeed. Risk can be minimized by more research, so let’s do more of that.
  • YOLO everything. Since I cannot be certain, why come up with any long-term plan?

The latter also tends to be a frustrated reaction to the futility of the former. Any complex plan requires multiple predictions to be correct. But if the success of the entire endeavor hinges on all of them being right, then it’s only a matter of time until it all fails. We’re all doomed. Might as well YOLO it.

Instead of throwing a tantrum, we can recognize that Elaborate Plan <-> YOLO is a false dichotomy. What you really want, is an antifragile plan. How do you create that?

Three principles of creating an antifragile plan:

  1. Feel the Base: What are the immovable requirements of your plan? What are the things you are dead certain about?
  2. Create Alignment: Things are sometimes uncertain, but the broad direction of where they are going is sometimes clear.
    Ensure your decisions will be compatible or better yet – benefit from those trends.
  3. Conserve Optionality. Make sure it’s easy to change implementation details later. Go with simple solutions if you can.

By conserving optionality, you ensure, that the cost of changing a decision you take now is minimal. By creating alignment, you maximize the likelihood of them being correct in the first place. And by feeling the base you make sure that none of them are flat-out wrong.

Go make some decisions, and new antifragile plans. You can always change them.

Deliberate Internet

Let’s send people to Jail, because THE ALGORYTHM can’t be wrong

As you might have figured out by this point, I am quite optimistic about technology. I think it’s a very long lever, that can help lift us up from some of the problems we currently have.

Unfortunately, the virus that is the bureaucracy has learned to use this lever, too. It’s a perfect weapon – Kafkaesque systems of the past have hidden individual enforcers behind a facade of an organization. But now, you can hide behind the almighty algorithm! Not only can you pretend that the mindless drone had to make a certain decision, because of processes – now you can pretend there was no human involved at all!

That’s exactly what happened at the British Post Office: Bad Software Sent Postal Workers to Jail, Because No One Wanted to Admit It Could Be Wrong. The most sickening part of the whole ordeal is that it was a convenient excuse!

There is evidence that the Post Office’s legal department was aware that the software could produce inaccurate results, even before some of the convictions were made. According to the BBC, one of the representatives for the Post Office workers said that the post office “readily accepted the loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people” in its “pursuit of reputation and profit.”

Why can’t we make up our own titles?

Tiago Forte asks:

Is there any reason we can’t just make up letters and put them after our names? In recognition of our own victories and accomplishments. Why should old educational institutions have that exclusive right?

I have to admit, I have trouble coming with a title other than an Engineer (which I formally am not. I work as an engineer, but have only masters’ degrees).

Do you have a title you would like to award yourself? What’s stopping you? Let me know!

Travelling Salesman, Youtube Algorithm and Basecamp Drama

There will be openings at Basecamp

Basecamp is a quite outspoken remote company. So outspoken in fact, that they have published a book called Remote: Office not required. Their main business however is productivity and email software.

Basecamp founders have quite a personality. In past they have been highly critical about a variety of practices in typical tech companies: Venture Capital, and long working hours.

This week, they distanced themselves from the typical tech company a little bit further: They announced a few changes – particularly banning committees, politics at work, 360 reviews and taking away a few benefits.

  • On one hand, they have every right to do so. Tech companies have been inviting employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, with their opinions, needs that company can cater to (Google is famous for a world-class cafeteria), and enthusiasm. Basecamp has been resisting that trend all along, inviting employees to keep a work-life balance, and publicly bashing the trend of replicating the college campus at the workplace.
  • On the other, because the company is so outspoken about social issues, it attracts people that tend to be outspoken too. People who like to be heard listened to and treated seriously.
  • On the third hand (yes, my metaphor is slipping), Basecamp offered 6 months salary severance package and an excuse to take it for everybody who wants it.. Right before the summer after a year of lockdowns.

Reporters estimate that 1/3rd of the workforce has quit. It sounds dire until you realize that it’s 18 people. Basecamp is not a big company, although a very loud one. Just as their employees, their Twitter corner is loud and interested in social issues as well, and it has resulted in some backlash.

If I weren’t happily employed, I would definitely apply to Basecamp now. They will be on a hiring spree, and I bet it’s still an awesome company to work for.

Oh, and check out their resources about going Remote. They are exceptional.

Hacking Youtube algorithm for a better you

Four years ago I watched a few Youtube videos with smartphone reviews to make an informed choice. Since then, Youtube decided that smarthpone reviews and comic origins of obscure Marvel Comics characters are the only things I can ever be interested in and kept suggesting similar content.

Now that I am trying to figure out solar panels for my new RV, I’m thrown into the rabbit hole of electrical wiring suggested videos. That’s an improvement over comic heroes, but this has led me to consider building my own Lithium-Iron-Phosphate battery (the videos make it look so easy!), which my wife advises against.

Youtube algorithm is a powerful reality-shaping force and I’m desperate to wield it. I intend to deliberately teach the Youtube Algorithm to show me more fitness-related content to shape my reality and normalize a healthier lifestyle.

I’m documenting my wrangling of the algorithm here.

The new face (and lack thereof) of a travelling salesman

A classic Computer Science algorithm is called the “Travelling Salesman Problem”. It’s better explained as The “Amazon Delivery Guy Problem”: How do you plot the shortest route between points on a map?

There are no traveling salesmen anymore, are there? This is one of those legacy names that people in the industry accept but is baffling for everybody else.

I guess the new iteration of traveling salesmen are the dropshipping businesses advertising on Facebook or Instagram. The trick is much easier than knocking door-to-door:

  1. Find a product on aliexpress.com or other platform
  2. Create a brand and a small website for the product
  3. Create a targeted Facebook ad that will target people most likely to be interested
  4. Once I buy the product, it’s fulfilled by the manufacturer/distributor instead of the “salesman”. The salesman most likely has never even touched the product, let alone keep a stock. This is a process called dropshipping.

If you see an interesting product advertising on Facebook, check aliexpress for honest reviews. That way I learned I can buy the portable dishwasher 10x cheaper and it’s probably not as great as advertised originally.

Surprising consequences

  1. Hieronymus Bosch’s painting named “Garden Of Earthly Delights” is… a lot. Amazingly, very little is known about Bosh’s intentions, but the masterpiece is so full of symbolism, that somebody created a Twitter account that posts a fragment of the painting every few hours. It has been doing so since 2016. Highly recommended.
  2. Better Air Is the Easiest Way Not to Die is an article about well, you guessed it – Air Quality. I concur that Basics are important to get right, and Air is pretty high on that list. The author was kind enough to attach a quotable summary:
    • If you have an ultrasonic humidifier, kill it.
    • Monitor local air quality like the weather.
    • No incense.
    • Extinguish candles with a lid.
    • Be careful about smoke when cooking.
    • Get a particle counter.
    • Use an air purifier at home all the time. (Move this to #1 if the outdoor air has high particulate levels where you live.)
    • Install a HEPA cabin air filter in your car.
    • Avoid aerosols.
    • Use a mask very carefully when in dirty air.
  3. I learned on Bored Panda that my hometown uses a crazy setup of clams (yes, the crustaceans) to control the water supply for the City Of Warsaw.
    city of Warsaw gets its water from a river and “the main water pump has 8 clams that have triggers attached to their shells. If the water gets too toxic, they close, and the triggers shut off the city’s water supply automatically.” There’s a whole documentary on that, called Fat Kathy