Competence is fractal. Plus transgenic trees.

Imagine being hired at your dream company. Finally, you move from the current pond limiting your potential to an ocean of new possibilities and challenges. You’d get to learn from the smartest people you ever hoped to meet, and challenge yourself in ways you never thought possible.

And yet, after a while, you’d find yourself shocked that in your new peer group not everybody is the smartest fish in the sea. Some of your new colleagues would be less driven, less experienced, or less capable even than you!

How can that be? In my dream job, a pinnacle of workplaces, and the awesomest place on the planet earth™️?

I came to the conclusion that competence is fractal. Companies, rooms (and reservoirs) have a different average competence. But inside those, the competence is distributed unequally – there are people less competent, average, and spectacularly capable. You can also keep “zooming”, and any subset will have a similar distribution.

In the 1960s, Benoit Mandelbrot has observed the same property of chaotic events in financial markets. Inspired by this behavior, he continued the work on what he later named Fractals.

8 MANDELBROT SET IMAGES ideas in 2021 | fractals, benoît mandelbrot, fractal  art
A “Mandelbrot Set” – a particular fractal. Click for a trippy fractal video.

Assuming your dream workplace will be full of superstar players may be caused by the over-prescription of Gaussian distribution. As Nassim Taleb points out in Black Swan, the Gaussian curve only works for properties physically limited to a certain range – like height. In my experience, competence is not such a phenomenon.

Any room you enter will have a broad distribution of competence, and I like to focus on 2 particular consequences:

  1. It’s better to enter the rooms where I have more to learn, but will be at the lower end of distribution at the beginning,
  2. I have every right to be at this lower end. Somebody has to.

Trees!

I know right? Always a good time to talk about trees.

Transgenic Chestnuts

Richard Powers’s “Overstory” inspired me to write about trees previously. One of the heroes of the book is American Chestnut, an iconic and once plentiful tree that sadly is not around anymore. As the Sierra club recounts in “The Demise and Potential Revival of the American Chestnut”:

Between 1904 and 1940, some 3.5 billion American chestnut trees, the giants of the Appalachian hardwood forest, succumbed to a fungal blight called Cryphonectria parasitica.

From the same article I learned that thanks to genetic engineering, there is hope:

The fungus in question attacks only the trunk of mature American Chestnut trees. Roots of these once ubiquitous giants are constantly (100 years later!) producing offshoots, which meet their gruesome fate after few years but still are able to pollinate. The American Chestnut Foundation has a blight-resistant, genetically engineered specimen (“Darling 58”) that could mate and produce healthy (and genetically diverse) offspring of the currently attacked millions of wild trees. Wild.

Aside: The same Nassim Taleb praising Mandelbrottian distribution over the Gaussian one is a huge opponent of GMOs. His argument is that there is too much we don’t know about their interaction with the environment.

Hungry Trees

Yes, more trees. this time swallowing trespassing signs. Because we shouldn’t be telling trees what to (or not to) do.

Go for a walk (preferrably in the forest)

“It’s a Superpower’: How Walking Makes Us Healthier, Happier and Brainier” (The Guardian)

One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.

Read more about the benefits of walking on deliber.at

History is not that Deliberate

History is not only written by the winners. It’s also rewritten by people with an agenda.

Scholars and experts not only scour past events to highlight their favorite version but also according to their own philosophy of history. The most common are:

  • Great Man Theory – Churchill, Lincoln, Caesar, Charlemagne, Stalin. The greats have disproportionate influence over the events, and everything is basically backdrop. These heroes are the causes, and the rest of history is the effect.
  • Parametric Determinism – Geopolitics, class struggle, famines, droughts, and migrations are the lead dominoes causing history to play this way, or the other.

These theories pretend like the history is unfolding neatly, and if there is something the western culture cherishes it’s neatly categorized explanations. But I don’t buy it.

The world is chaotic, messy, and unpredictable. Random shit happens, and I’m here to tell you that it’s ok to subscribe to the random shit school of history, also known as the Butterfly Effect. In a sufficiently complicated system, the interactions between events are often random and tangled. The result is neither the intended outcome nor the best one. Moreover, once something catches on, it’s hard to change, even if the situation is clearly suboptimal.

  • QWERTY keyboard layout is by far the most popular in the world. It’s also objectively the worst. It was designed to prevent ‘locking’ in the mechanical typewriters, so it makes you move your fingers around the most, which is why your wrists hurt. Colemak and Dvorak on the other hand (pun intended) – were modernized for computers and the English language.
  • Tesla had to prove that electric cars are a viable alternative to the combustion engine. But we almost had electric cars since the birth of motorization. Edison thought electric cars are superior technology and Henry Ford was working on prototypes.
  • Recommended daily exercise is 10 000 steps because Japanese character for 10 000 looks like a man walking: 万

Almost everything you see around you is not that way because it’s a final evolutionary stage, but because of the complicated and mostly random history behind it. Except for crabs. Crabs are the final evolutionary stage of everything.

The answer? Be Deliberate. You should accept expert opinion, but dig in, and strive to understand it from the first principles. The world is messy and simple causal relationships are rare. Most explanations you hear in the news make up a good story, nothing more.

Some absurd stuff to keep you on your toes

One

In 2006 the Scottish government set out to rename their fleet of de-icing trucks (gritters), and they asked the most capable crowd for help: they ran a competition in primary schools. The result was glorious, as you can see on the live map. Some of my favourite trucks are named:

  • Lord Coldemort
  • David Plowie
  • For Your Ice Only
  • Gritney Spears
  • I Want To Break Freeze
  • Ice Breaker
  • Luke Snowalker
  • Sir Grits A Lot
  • Yes Sir Ice Can Boogie

Two

Soviets planned to build a fleet of nuclear-powered Zeppelins because what the Hinderburg catastrophe clearly lacked is an atomic bomb.

Three

After Home Offices became the mandatory workplace of no choice in 2020, Fisher-Price decided to also teach the new reality to the young ones:

Four

There is an official international standard for brewing tea – ISO 3103

Roam TODO exploder

If you use Roam Research, you might enjoy the plugin I made that makes your TODOs explode when you complete them. Here is a video.

Welcome to the talent wars

I believe (and hope) that the war as we know it is fundamentally an outdated concept. Jurisdictions (like Miami) will compete to attract talent, but that is not good news for unskilled labor, like gig workers.

  1. When we were fighters, we were fighting over herds of game and their territory,
  2. Then, the agricultural revolution came. The most important asset became fertile land, and the wars were fought over that.
  3. After the Scientific Revolution, we learned to process raw resources like metals, coal, and later oil.
  4. We are now experiencing the digital revolution. The new resource is going to be talent and talent is not easily captured in traditional warfare.
ValueAfter RevolutionWhat are wars fought overCountries that benefit
Fertile landAgricultural revolutionLand & peasants
You want to conquer easily arable land
Fertile Crescent, Mediterranean
Mined Resources (Metals, Oil)Scientific RevolutionResource-rich landColonial powers, plus resource-rich countries like Germany and the USA
TalentDigital revolutionNo wars, but hostile takeovers of talentAnybody who started educating in STEM like crazy 10 years ago

Two classes of employees.

Remote Work transition is certainly accelerating, but not everybody is benefitting from this situation. It has also lead to a new sort of class divide:

  • Talent” – highly skilled, and specialized experts that are constantly honing their craft and navigating the changing demands of the job market. During lockdowns, these people are known as the “Zoom Class” (because they can ride out the pandemic while working over zoom).
  • Gig workers“, who we treat as a utility, and depend on to provide us with the endless stream of Amazon purchases and Uber Eats orders. Also known as the “Heroes

Nick Rimedio, who serves on the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the lockdowns had widened a class divide. While quarantine has been almost relaxing for what he called the wealthy “Zoom class,” it has been a nightmare for the poor and middle class who have storefronts or work service jobs in businesses in the area, he said.

New York Times

Talent is the new Oil

Automation is coming after our jobs, and I have written before how to protect yourself against that. But in the meantime, workers take time to train. With technological progress, complexity in many industries is unfathomable and requires highly trained labor. Which takes time, and can be rushed only to a point.

Training somebody to do basic programming tasks can be done in 6 months, but the way of thinking about the world needed to succeed in the information economy takes years to acquire.

We are post-scarcity on almost everything else, and I believe the talent will be the new frontier.

On the commodity metaphor

While drafting this newsletter, I wanted to compare “Gig Workers” to commodity and “Talent” to differentiable products. But I don’t think that’s entirely correct. There is a huge pool of the talent group that has commodity-like properties.

The majority of tech workers are uniform and replaceable enough. I’m sure that’s the case in many other specialized fields – creme de la creme will be irreplaceable, but the others will eventually be automated away.

The promised talent wars

War is a bit of a clickbait, but various initiatives around the world are trying to capitalize on the location independence of the “Talent” group.

  • When you bring together talented people who like to create things, Startups & new industries will take care of themselves. We have seen this in Florence, Venice, Paris, and later New York and Silicon Valley
  • These people tend to be compensated well (an argument can be made that unfairly so), which means higher tax revenue
  • They also have more discretionary income, some of which they will spend locally,
  • Children of educated&motivated people tend to turn out the same way. This is a flywheel for the community.

Miami

For a while now, Silicon Valley is downright hostile to the tech industry, behaving like an abusive partner that took your passport. Lockdowns took away any benefit of staying in San Francisco (meetups, conferences, and chance encounters), and multiple tech giants have adopted Remote Work (latest big news is Spotify pointing out that “Work isn’t something our people come to the office for, it’s something they do”).

Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami jumped on the chance of turning the city into a tech hub and his efforts are inspiring. He is personally helping tech influencers move to his constituency, and now he’s reaching out to SV employees by the means of a billboard. In San Francisco.

“Thinking about moving to Miami? DM me”.

I’m not able to put together a coherent sentence about how transformative can it be to have supportive, effective, and accessible local legislation. Books will be written about the emergence of the Miami tech hub.

It’s not only about talent. It’s a fight for taxes

Municipalities seeking tax revenue is of course nothing new. But traditionally, the way to do that was to create jobs, which would both provide income to residents and attract talent.

Remote Work is changing that. Having a job in one place, and living in another is now possible, and something I myself practice. But in this new world, how do cities fight for taxes? Are they even entitled? The problem is already here.

Japan’s home tax

Every country with a “superstar” city has this problem: smaller towns are investing in family-friendly infrastructure and education, only to see its citizens move to the one superstar city and continue paying taxes there.

Japan has an interesting solution, called ふるさと納税 (Furusato Nouzei or, roughly, the Hometown Tax System). In an interesting quirk, a taxpayer can select a town at her discretion, and the towns started to compete on “gifts” they would send to incentivize choosing their municipality for the ‘donation.’ From Patrick Mckenzie:

The three farming communities we’re using all had a monthly subscription option for things produced locally, and they sound like e.g. “A rotating box of seasonal fruits produced in our town. Here’s the schedule: January, 500g of… February, a box of… The aesthetics of that are brilliant; fruit on our table will have come *from a place.* The economics are brilliant; probably half of the fruits are things we, like a typical Japanese family, wouldn’t generally choose to eat in a year.

For a while, cities even offered a “kickback” in the form of travel vouchers and other cach equivalents. Government had to put a stop to it in 2019. Read more in this essay and Tweetstorm for an incentive-exploration filled ride.

Furusato-tax.jp is a comparison site that lets you browse the best offers for the “thank you” tokens. Caviar? Wagyu beef? Sushi? They got you covered. This wouldn’t be possible without the Internet.

Specialized cities

Just as Japan’s towns are specializing in Wagyu-beef-for-tax-donation schemes, other cities are seeking to attract Nomads and professionals:

What will happen next?

Each of the revolutions outlined at the beginning of this post has shifted economic opportunities from incumbents to new countries:

  • The agrarian revolution has brought prosperity to those with fertile land and water access
  • The industrial revolution brought demand for steel, potassium, and eventually, oil, which meant prosperity for Germany and the USA
  • The Digital revolution will shift the production centers to places abundant in highly educated and motivated workers,

Two countries in particular are well positioned to benefit from this new world order:

  • China, which has a head start because the industry has already shifted here,
  • India, which I’m especially optimistic about, because of their proficiency in English. Programming languages are all modeled after English grammar and English is already lingua franca. For better or worse.

Since I like having skin in the game, I’m investing in the Indian stock exchange. I started this thread on Reddit, and people shared great pointers. One thing I took away from GameStop is that Reddit has sold financial advice.

While the world order will be reshuffled, cities will specialize in attracting a certain kind of worker, with unique preferences. The concentration of artists and professionals in cities like Florence has led to Renaissance, and I hope it will lead to something good this time as well.

And I also hope we’ll find a way to trickle down these benefits to gig workers too. Wars may be over, but revolutions can turn out bloody too.

Penguins and Effective Advice.

Last week’s deliberate newsletter issue about Tesla, Bitcoin, and Ducks turned out to be a spectacular success, so I have an important update to share with you today. Did you know how flamboyant Northern Rockhopper penguins are? Well, now you do.

Image courtesy: @kaleybrauer

Another important piece of information about penguins is that there are penguins in Africa! I had the privilege to swim with them in Cape Town.

Best Advice is what NOT to do.

My mom loves sharing unsolicited advice with me, and my grandpa is a master mansplainer. He would ask me for help on something I do for a living and later interrupt me to explain a detail I just told him. (I think I may have inherited some of this advice-giving enthusiasm since, well, here is another email from me.)

We live in a post-scarcity world of information. The shortage of opinion is not a problem we have to solve. Quite to the contrary – we are bombarded with options and would gladly defer to someone to remove some of the choice.

And yet, people still act as if “just another idea to consider” is something we crave. My personal pet peeve is googling an article full of general non-information ending with “you should act in accordance to your personal situation and consider other sources.”. I know that, but JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

If you want to be most helpful, here is my advice-giving algorythm™️ (also on Twitter):

  1. Ensure that the other party is indeed seeking advice. It’s very likely that they’re seeking support or encouragement. Professional problem-solvers tend to skip this step.
  2. Good advice is NOT a truckload of other things they could worry about. People seeking advice are overwhelmed already. The best help is curing that overwhelm.
  3. The best advice is: “at your stage skip all this and all that. Here is the step you should focus on. Here is how you start”.
  4. The best way to know is to ask “What have you tried?
  5. Remember that advice is about helping THEM. Not giving you an opportunity to finally regurgitate all you know about a topic and prove that you haven’t wasted 5 years studying it. Give them a starting point. The simpler the better and don’t overwhelm them with information.
  6. The best advice is “don’t worry about these 10 things. It’ll sort itself out, or you can look at this later”.

Julia Evans, in her article “How to Answer Questions in a Helpful Way” recommends prefacing the answer with even more prompts:

  • Rephrase a more specific question back at them (“Are you asking X?”).
  • Ask what prompted their question.
  • Ask, “Did that answer your question?

Surprising Consequences of the Internet

Superstar Cities Are in Trouble (the Atlantic)

The Remote Work experiment of 2020 has caused a massive exodus from the world’s biggest cities. Employers had no choice but to permit working from home, and that has allowed deliberate choice about where this home should be.

Beyond anecdotal accounts of bankers fleeing Manhattan and tech workers saying sayonara to the Bay Area, we have loads of private data to back up the story that superstar cities are in trouble.

Redistributing workers (and tax revenue) to smaller towns is the most exciting consequence of Remote Work. I have been betting on this outcome for a few years and I’m really happy to see it start.

Superstar pain could be America’s gain—not only because lower housing costs in expensive cities will make room for middle-class movers, but also because the coastal diaspora will fertilize growth in other places.

Working From Bed Is Actually Great (New York Times)

Continuing the trend of surprising consequences, it’s now socially acceptable to work from your bed! Mostly because nobody cares. What you do in your bed is your business, even if that means business.

Working from bed is a time-honored tradition upheld by some of history’s most accomplished figures. Frida Kahlo painted masterpieces from her canopy bed. Winston Churchill, a notorious late riser even during World War II, dictated to typists while breakfasting in bed. Edith Wharton, William Wordsworth and Marcel Proust drafted prose and verse from their beds. “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote told The Paris Review in 1957. “I can’t think unless I’m lying down.”

“Being in bed is great,” he said. “I wish, in general, there were fewer norms and standards around where it is and isn’t acceptable to work.”

Almost a Jurassic Park (Traveller)

Clive Palmer wanted to build a hotel resort in secret, so he disguised it as a “dinosaur park” in documents. He thought he’d get less attention that way.

“…Then, in Paris and London and Frankfurt and Beijing, they started writing these articles to say that we were going to clone dinosaurs here.”

“We had 500 scientists applying for jobs, which got me thinking – there must be something in this dinosaur thing,” he said.

Bitcoin, Tesla, Bears, and Ducks

Bitcoin and Tesla.

Yeah, I know – such a tech bro topic, right? I’m only going to mention this to squeeze in “I told you so”. I concluded last week’s Deliberate Internet issue with:

Maybe this all will accelerate cryptocurrency adoption similarly to COVID accelerating Remote Work? We’ll see.

Turns out Tesla has bought 1.5 Billion USD in BTC this January. Here is the Bitcoin price over the last week (32% increase):

Despite being a finance guru, and a clairvoyant to the future, I am more skeptical of BTC than your average tech industry worker. I don’t understand how debt is supposed to work in a Bitcoin-first economy, and it’s bugging me.

Debt is an integral element of the economic cycle and small or big “busts” are both expected, and necessary. You can learn more in this 30-min video by Ray Dalio.

Since Bitcoin has a “hard limit”, it cannot be inflated and in consequence – disallows Quantitative Easing. If you have an idea how QE will work in a BTC world, let me know (also let me know if you want me to expand on this question). Until then, I’m going to treat Bitcoin as a speculative investment vehicle.

A few things I wrote

I have drafted all these pieces some time ago, but haven’t found the time to publish them before. Enjoy!

Amazing things other people wrote

  • The Town That Went Feral
    I’ve mentioned one argument why I am careful around Bitcoin. The other being that it sounds a little too libertarian. People have learned to cooperate via social norms for a reason, and hard libertarians tend to learn that lesson a little too late. The Town that Went Feral is a story of Bears and Men. Particularly, libertarian Men.
    A group of libertarian activists attempted to take over a tiny New Hampshire town, Grafton, and transform it into a haven for libertarian ideals (…) Enter the Bears (…) Free Town Project began to come apart. Caught up in “pitched battles over who was living free, but free in the right way,” the libertarians descended into accusing one another of statism, leaving individuals and groups to do the best (or worst) they could. Some kept feeding the bears, some built traps, others holed up in their homes, and still others went everywhere toting increasingly larger-caliber handguns.
  • The Career Page Crisis
    Paul Millerd has browsed corporate career pages and has found claims ranging from unsettling to hilarious to cult-like.
    Companies started to market working at their companies and use language like “find your calling” or “do the most important work of your life.” AirBnB’s page tells people that they can “life their best life” at AirBnB.
  • Australian Duck Fashion Show
    Nuff said.

Composability is the only game in town – Roam, shipping containers, Lego and Twitter.

Lego Blocks, Shipping Containers, Roam Research, Open Source, and any other unreasonably successful endeavor follows the fractal design of composability.

Epistemic confidence: 3/5. I intend to return to this post in the future.

Shipping containers

The current iteration of global capitalism is built on the backbone of a shipping container. Not the car nor the plane. As much as I do think the washing machine is transformative (and do check out this TED talk by Hans Rosling), it didn’t have an impact as huge as the shipping container.

From vgr’s “The Epic Story of Container Shipping”:

At the beginning of the story, total port costs ate up a whopping 48% (or $1163 of $2386) of an illustrative shipment of one truckload of medicine from Chicago to Nancy, France, in 1960. In more comprehensible terms, an expert quoted in the book explains: “a four thousand mile shipment might consume 50 percent of its costs in covering just the two ten-mile movements through two ports.” For many goods then, shipping accounted for nearly 25% of total cost for a product sold beyond its local market. Fast forward to today: the book quotes economists Edward Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase: “It is better to assume that moving goods is essentially costless than to assume that moving goods is an important component of the production process.”

Shipping containers are standardized and composable. Much like the most successful software.

Open Source, and UNIX philosophy

As much as the container is the backbone of the current economy, the software will be the backbone of a new one that we all help to build. If we take the “evolutionary” definition of success, the most successful piece of software will be some obscure low-level library or a Unix tool running on every modern device. Here are the first two Unix principles according to Wikipedia:

  • Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new “features”.
  • Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don’t clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don’t insist on interactive input.

As you can see, these are interlocking – do one thing well, and build “higher” when connecting more things that do one thing well. In my mind, Unix philosophy, Open Source, and building an information economy go hand in hand. Each next iteration can stand on the shoulders of giants, using the abstractions built by previous developers. We don’t have to sync time anymore, allocate memory, or deal with disk I/O operations. We can use ready tools to do just that, to focus on building something more complex.

Roam Research

You may have heard about Roam Research – a Note-Taking app that has gained a cult-like following, and a $200 million investment at a $900 million valuation. If you have not heard about Roam before – Anne-Laure has a good introduction. If you feel like note-taking is suddenly hip without any reason, I have an explainer here.

How has Roam gained this popularity? Is it all a scam? After trying it out – I’ve noticed two aha moments:

The first Roam AHA moment

You discover, that the expected value of your notes grows exponentially. If I have a 1:1 (a 2-person Team-Lead <-> Team member meeting) with David, I can type [[1:1]] with [[David]] and I create notes simultaneously:

  • As my TODO in the daily note
  • On the page called 1:1
  • On the page called David

During the day – to the day I can also create a note [[David]] posted a good post here: (link).. When I later visit [[David]] page, I can see the history of our 1:1s and all data I meant to include in the formal feedback when the time comes.

Even though I have never visited or even created “David” page before.

This “higher expected value of each line of notes” is like crack – gets the thoughts out of my brain faster than any other tool, since it’s rewarding bringing concepts together.

The second AHA moment is all about composability

The real kicker is the second AHA moment. In Roam, not only EVERYTHING is a block, but also the blocks interact with each other sensibly while nested

Table

No interface, I just nest bullets and table appears

KANBAN

I create a Kanban the same way I create a table – since everything is an interplay of nesting, I immediately know how to create this Kanban. Gutenberg is already pretty good at this – we are trying to follow similar patterns across our blocks, but there are a lot of custom interfaces.

How about table in a Kanban?

EVERYTHING is composable

Ok, enough about Roam Research. The message is that composability let’s you be way more creative by knowing a few basic principles. But to call something “composable”, we have to have:

  • A canonical unit of “thought”
  • Multiple nesting levels
  • Lists of things behave differently than things themselves

What about functional programming?

I do realize, that composability is an aspect of functional programming, and nothing new to the fans of closure, lisp, or even a functional approach to writing plain old JavaScript.

  • Roam Research is written in closure, and transpiled to JavaScript
  • Paul Graham (a startup demigod and a very clear thinker) is continuously playing with Bel – a variation of LISP

I do appreciate the elegance of a purely functional language and after realizing the closure-roam-research link I can see how that mindset translates. But nevertheless – relying on the language to translate into a better product is ignoring the messy complexity of the real world.

In the real world (unlike the comfortable world of the algorithms), the program has to interact with the vast spectrum of inputs and outputs – thus npm with its library of packages may be better representing composability than any functional language. In the end, composability’s goal is to achieve real-world results with simple, easy-to-reason blocks. And yes, I credit React’s success to the composability of JSX.

Writing on the Internet

Publishing on the Internet at its core is composable too. We can argue if the sentence, a paragraph, or a blog post is the canonical unit of clear thought, but blogging lets you organize the uneasy mess of “stuff” into coherent blocks you can compose into more and more clear reasoning. The linear structure of the page lets you examine each and every paragraph for doing what they are supposed to be doing. The list of paragraphs is just like a row of containers organized in a higher-order unit (a ship) that makes it easy to move.

Twitter

Twitter is similar to Roam in more ways than one. To the casual user, it’s a hellhole of political arguments and fabricated urgency, but for those who know how to use it, it has almost infinite expression power based on simple rules.

Twitter Threads are composable.

Remember the requirements for composability I have outlined above? Twitter satisfies them all.

  • A tweet is a self-contained complete thought
  • Threads let you organize these thoughts into more complex narratives
  • You can nest and recombine them at will

Sidenote: Follow Visakan (a master of threads) if you want a kinder, more productive Twitter.

WordPress

WordPress has introduced a new, block-based editor for your posts and pages. The underlying premise is that everything will be a block, unlocking new mental models for users of the CMS powering close to 40% of the Internet. I am proud to help make this vision a reality.

Composability succeeds because it enables cooperation

When evaluating a product or endeavor we tend to focus on metrics, features, and shiny checklists:

  • This has more bloblybums,
  • That is soo shiny,
  • The other thing succeeded because it’s just faster,

But over the long term, the thing that succeeds tends to do so, because it makes it easier for people to work together. Composability is a framework for putting new layers of abstraction in a predictable manner.

An average human can hold about seven items in short-term memory and successfully cooperate in a team of seven people. Composability reduces the cognitive load by organizing things into higher-order sets, which in turn – can be reasoned about or reduced further.

Notable mentions

Other, successful composable things include:

  • Lego blocks,
  • Written word (letters -> sentences -> paragraphs -> pages),
  • World Wide Web and HTML
  • Matter in the Universe (The Elements are comprised of the same 3 building blocks)
  • Memes (TikTok in particular)

Notable exceptions

Despite my clickbaity title, there are successful endeavors that are NOT composable:

  • App Stores / App economy – apps usually don’t mix with each other

Anything else?

January 2021: GameStop, Parler, censorship, and crypto.

You thought 2021 is going to be an oasis of tranquility compared to the dumpster fire of 2020? After 31 days, there is A LOT to unpack in the events of January 2021, but I’m going to focus on events relating somewhat to the Internet. Keep in mind that this is all fresh and we’ll likely see consequences in the future:

USA Coup d’etat and subsequent bans.

Image
For a “foreign national” from a country that the USA has been patronizing, I can definitely empathize with the Kenyan national newspaper coverage of the situation.

An angry mob has stormed the US capitol trying to capture votes declaring the victory of Joe Biden as the next US president after Donald Trump. In more than 220 years, the capitol has not seen violence like this. More on Wikipedia.

Attackers coordinated via Parler – a social network with minimal focus on moderation, funded by right-wing activists. They were also encouraged by Donald Trump on Twitter. Following the attack:

  1. Twitter has banned Donald Trump’s account (for some illegally, for some too late)
  2. Parler has been banned by App Store, Play Store, Twilio, and Amazon Web Services. This has sparked a debate about the nature of private censorships and corporate control. Here is an excellent thread by Cory Doctorow.
    But we have a duopoly of mobile platforms, an oligopoly of cloud providers, a small conspiracy of payment processors. Their choices about who may speak are hugely consequential, and concerted effort by all of them could make some points of view effectively vanish.
  3. Researchers have also exposed a slew of security vulnerabilities, and what can only be described as comedy of errors in Parler.
    Leaving location data inside photos, exposing ‘private’ content publicly, and allowing everybody to create an admin account, and so on. Considering that some users (including public officials) were live streaming their insurrection, it’s just a treasure trove of legal evidence that’s going to be very helpful for law enforcement.

The bans and ‘censorships’ have sparked a debate since US Social Media platforms are benefiting from a regulation called “Section 230“. Platforms like Facebook are not liable for the content people post there unless they act as a publisher. An argument can be made that editorial decisions (aka bans) are making them more like a publisher, thus liable for stuff people post there. And there is A LOT of questionable user-uploaded content. We’ll see what happens next.

Stock Market Tea Party (aka Gamestop)

Look at the scale on the right. GameStop has gained over 1000% in the last month. The growth highlighted by Google is 67% TODAY.

We have seen some interesting behaviour in the Stock Market. Here is roughly the order of events:

  1. A company called GameStop is like a BestBuy for games. Since the company is being effectively replaced by the Internet, hedge funds have put bets on it failing,
  2. These bets on failure (aka Shorts) are leveraged – it means that they have the ability to put disproportionate loss or profit. The hedge funds were betting so much on GameStop failing that the sum of these bets was 140% of the stock’s total value. This makes no sense but is not explicitly forbidden,
  3. People on Reddit, in particular, a user named DeepFuckingValue, has figured out that if they can make GameStop stock rise, the hedge funds will start bleeding money because when the stock goes up, shorts expire in a way that makes the stock go even higher. It’s called “a short squeeze.”
  4. Most of the Redditors are trading via an app called Robinhood, which allows trading stocks for free. Their business model relies on selling your trading data before your trades close. The firm which buys that data (Citadel) presumably is doing automated sentiment analysis. Some people speculate that this sudden spike in interest has triggered bots that joined in on the trading, compounding the following issue:
  5. Reddit users banded together, motivated each other with hilarious memes, bought the GME stock, which made it skyrocket and bankrupted Melvin Capital (a particularly nasty group of scoundrels and also a 13 billion dollar hedge fund) in the process. DeepFuckingValue has turned 50 000 USD into 13 million.
  6. Wall Street freaked out. NASDAQ CEO has suggested halting trading for the big institutional players to “recalibrate their positions,” and CNBC has been showcasing a parade of ‘industry experts calling for stopping this.

The problem with “containing” the situation is that Redditors did nothing wrong. They have just beaten hedge funds at their own game. They were even more ethical than the usual crowd since they gambled with their own money, as opposed to somebody else’s.

The trick worked, because Redditors (and everybody who joined them) were not only seeking profit, they wanted to make the suits (hedge fund managers and other members of the financial inner circle) bleed. They were willing to risk a lot only to showcase how rigged the system is against the retail investor.

Since the communication is happening on Reddit, it’s producing some particularly funny memes:

If you want to know more:

As with Bitcoin, I invested a small amount in GME to have a little skin in the game. And as with BTC, it immediately taught me a lot about my own investing psychology. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night to see that I gained 130% and see a 50% loss 15 minutes later. I sold everything a day after buying to stop looking. You may want to play with tiny amounts like this – you will learn surprising things about your own behavior.

What happens next?

Where it comes to interpreting these events I’m torn between two angles:

  • These events have the potential to accelerate decentralization. Parler bans have shown that there is a handful of companies that can control (for better or worse) many other startups. The aftermath of GME-gate highlights that the “free market” isn’t really free. There is a handful of gatekeepers, including SEC and they’re showing utter contempt for the retail investor.
    We finally have viable alternatives, and multiple “tech celebrities” have put #Bitcoin in their Twitter Bios over the last week. Maybe this all will accelerate cryptocurrency adoption similarly to COVID accelerating Remote Work? We’ll see.
  • This is just too much. Humans have limited f*cks to give (or, put in intellectual terms: people have recency bias). Even as I’m writing this, I have trouble remembering the beginning of the month, so I find it hard to care about events from the first week of 2021.

I think that is enough for both January 2021 and this edition of Deliberate Internet. I hope next week I’ll have less to report.

Technically Correct is Wrong

Even though something can be technically correct, it’s quite often an unhelpful or even a wrong thing to say. Not because of social norms, but because reality is more complicated than the one-dimensional model representing adolescent morality.

At any point, there are multiple ‘true’ statements.

Over 2400 years ago, Platon introduced a notion of duality. He drew a rigid distinction between mind and body, good and evil, or truth and lies.

This notion is very appealing because it makes the world easy to understand, less confusing, and less scary.

If only I follow a comprehensive set of rules, I can be confident or even self-righteous in my choices. Furthermore – everybody who opposes me is wrong! What a brave new world!

This line of logic suggests that there is only one truth, and the only reasonable thing to do is to share it.

In reality, we are faced with multiple non-false statements – all of them plausible. The concept of ambiguity is a fundamental feature of physics, not only social interactions.

But scared apes that we are, we feel compelled to make sense of the world and simplify indiscriminately. When faced with inconsistent statements, we want to choose „the truest one.” We accept the one that fits our worldview the most (at this time), discard the rest, and deem them lies.

Human communication is inefficient, and things have context.

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

The correct attribution of this statement is not helpful.

Logical axioms are an artificial construct that is rarely encountered in the real world. When I say „it is warm outside” on the first day of spring, is the temperature the same as when I said it while vacationing in Dubai?

Of course not.

We refer to reality, hoping that we have a similar context, but that is never true.

If we were to converse, there would be four sides to the exchange:

  • Me
  • My perception of you and your context
  • You
  • Your perception of me and my context

This is all very confusing.

Since we have no way of perfectly synchronizing each other hidden contexts, how can we be sure that the components of our exchange are entirely similar?

During millennia this was aided by non-verbal methods. The tone of voice, gestures, and body language are meant to communicate precisely that – the context of my emotions associated with the statement.

„Technically Correct” is valid only in the first order.

Let’s say I ate three croissants. This is, of course, purely theoretical since I would never, ever do such a thing, but let’s say I did.

Croissants that I made and have not even tried them, of course.

Now, chocolate-filled croissants are good. This is a true statement (there will be NO discussion over this).

  • The first-order consequence of eating a croissant is that I feel good.
  • But the second-order consequence is that my glucose level rises, and my body produces an insulin response.
  • The third-order consequence of a croissant-full diet is that my body gains fat, and
  • the fourth-order result is that I get diabetes or cardiovascular disease, or both.

Is the statement about “croissants being good” a false one? No, it is still technically correct while neglecting higher-order consequences.

These first-order-good and higher-order-bad consequences of the same behavior land us in trouble regularly:

  • Driving a car to work may be more comfortable, but it’s leading to an ecological apocalypse,
  • Scrolling Facebook makes you feel like you are connecting with friends, but it’s eroding your ability to keep these relationships off-line.
  • Praising your kid for good grades now will make him feel better, but if he did not deserve them, he would have real trouble with self-esteem once those straight A’s are harder to come by.

Focusing on higher-order consequences of our choices may be the key to success, and being stuck in first-order thinking can lead to disastrous outcomes.

People don’t appreciate correcting.

They don’t appreciate unsolicited advice either – that is a lesson I am still trying to internalize.

People don’t always remember what you said, but they sure as hell remember how you made them feel. And how do they feel when you interrupt them to point out the dubious nature of a minor detail in the story they’re telling?

„Oh my, how good that Artur just pointed out I was wrong. Thanks to him, I will not be wrong anymore. He is so smart!

HELL NO.

They will remember that you are a prick that cannot sit still for a few minutes without stealing attention back for yourself even if you are right.

Correct is not the goal.

At the end of your life, there is no medal for the # of correct statements you have stated.

Truth matters profoundly, especially in this day and age, but mostly because of the outcome.

Let’s say you’re helping your diabetic grandpa with his groceries, and you witness him replacing cake with oranges. Both of these reactions would be correct:

  • “Grandpa, oranges have a lot of fructose and will spike your blood sugar as well. You should stay away from any fruit.”
  • “Grandpa, this is a smart choice. Keep it up.”

I would say that even though the former one is very technically correct, it is also less helpful. I can imagine my grandpa throwing a tantrum: “to hell with all that, am I only allowed to eat salad like a rabbit?”

Croissants that I made and have not even tried them, of course.

If my goal is to help him, he needs encouragement towards a healthier lifestyle more than my smartass comments. Oranges are still better than cookies and help to build a habit of consuming less processed food.

Also, sorry for my fixation with blood sugar examples.

Is postmodernism the answer?

„Ok, Artur, you made some case against technical correctness. But should we then decide for ourselves what is correct and what is false? Focus only on subjective reality, as postmodernists suggest?”

NEVER!

Instead of focusing on yourself and proving how smart you are, try focusing on being helpful to others.

When you free yourself from the burden of “the one truth,” you can acknowledge many possible interpretations of the same set of facts. Choosing the most helpful one is the only sane option.

The core of the scientific method is the predictive value of a theory. If said theory can predict the outcome of an experiment, it is true. In other words – it is helpful. Ensuring helpfulness will not let you stray away from objective reality.

If you try to be helpful, you have to get rid of your self-righteousness and do the humble work.

Above all, helpful truth will help you make the right choices. Technical correctness can only be used to judge choices. Let’s make some good choices and stop judging.

Most Deliberate reads of 2020. Plus a Baby!

Yes, I know you were missing the weekly Deliberate Internet installments and they have been the only thing that helped you survive 2020. I missed writing them too, but I took a little break to welcome my baby girl to the world.

Yes – I am a dad now, so you may expect a little bit more parenting content, liberally spiced of course by my tech, remote, and post-soviet perspectives.

And Yes – if you want to see something more personal, I’ve published a letter to my girl on Piszek.com, where I share my hopes and fears for this new journey of parenthood.

Ten best things I’ve read in 2020

Artur, wouldn’t it be cool if it were 20? Ha! See – I am a smart parent and resist the urge to be cool, but instead, go with being practical. This is what dads do. I’m so ready, cargo pants and all.

Turns out I didn’t read nearly as much as in previous years. When the Western society’s complete and utter failure in handling the pandemic became clear, I became disillusioned by intellectualism. I’ve read fewer articles and books since apparently being well-read does not necessarily translate to better decision-making.

This theme is also clear from these recommendations below. I spent the entire year (as I suspect many of us did) wondering a bit “where did the things go wrong?”. I’m currently working on a draft titled “All the [postmodern] world’s a stage” where I explore blaming postmodernism – stay tuned (or email me if you have thoughts on the topic).

#1 What’s the deal with these new vaccines? [berthub.eu]

Reverse Engineering the Source Code of the BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine is an accessible, fascinating analysis of medical history unfolding before our eyes. The author lists all the clever breakthroughs packed in this new breed of mRNA vaccines and explains why the framework holds promise for other diseases.

For computers, this is RAM, for biology it is RNA. The resemblance is striking. Unlike flash memory, RAM degrades very quickly unless lovingly tended to. The reason the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine must be stored in the deepest of deep freezers is the same: RNA is a fragile flower.

#2 Brief history of the Corporation [ribbonfarm]

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100 sheds light on the corporations through the ages. Following the COVID-19 economic turmoil, we can expect some big government bailouts which will predictably spark discussion around corporations holding too much power. (Currently, we are witnessing that discourse around censorship following Parler bans, but that is an entirely separate topic.).

If we want to discuss this productively, we have to recognize that this is not a new situation, and learn from past mistakes. Venkatesh’s post is an excellent, and entertaining overview of corporate economic history.

Conventionally, it is understood that the British and the Dutch were the ones who truly took over. But in reality, it was two corporations that took over: the EIC and the VOC (the Dutch East India Company,  Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, founded one year after the EIC) the Facebook and LinkedIn of Mercantile economics respectively. Both were fundamentally more independent of the nation states that had given birth to them than any business entities in history. The EIC more so than the VOC.  Both eventually became complex multi-national beasts

#3 Keep your identity small [paulgraham]

We’ve seen some interesting political turmoil recently. Keep your identity small posits that most of the disagreements in today’s world come from attaching too much of your identity to an idea. If your entire self is invested in being from a certain tribe, you will protect that point of view even if it stops serving you.

So it’s not politics that’s the source of the trouble, but identity.

On Paul Millerd’s amazing Substack, I have written a similar piece expanding on the idea in the context of Remote Work.

#4 It’s time to build [andressen-horowitz]

I’m not the only one fed up with the West’s performance over the last year of the Pandemic (YES, it has been a year!). Marc Andressen, creator of the first Internet browser (and a Venture Capitalist now) has published a call-to-arms urging everyone to just start building: It’s Time to Build.

You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.

#5 The Art of Gig [ribbonfarm]

The Art of Gig is an exquisite Cyberpunk-themed corporate satire. If you spent any amount of time around consulting business, this short story will take you for a ride filled with truths so deep your diaphragm will hurt from laughing.

A good leader, when asked, “Do you want to be perceived as a Strong Big Man Leader or a Humble Servant Leader” will always reply “both,” and mean “neither.”

#6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person [cracked]

Were it any other year, my biggest surprise would be recommending an article from Cracked.com. 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person is full of honest, timeless, and BS-free advice that we stopped receiving in Western Society. It’s also a quick read!

The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change.

#7 The Meritocracy Fallacy [princeton]

If you have achieved any modicum of success, it becomes very seductive to attribute that success to yourself. This is known as the “Fundamental Attribution Error” and yet, we have turned this into an ideology – the Meritocracy.

In A Belief in Meritocracy Is Not Only False: It’s Bad for You, Mark Clifton explains why it’s as the title promises – false, and bad for you.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

#8 How to pick a career [waitbutwhy]

I am not sure I’ve read this article in 2020, but it doesn’t matter. Go read “How to Pick a Career” because it may change your work life.

When it comes to careers, society is like your great uncle who traps you at holidays and goes on a 15-minute mostly incoherent unsolicited advice monologue, and you tune out almost the whole time because it’s super clear he has very little idea what he’s talking about and that everything he says is like 45 years outdated.

There are likely dozens of awesome career paths that beautifully match your natural strengths, and it’s likely that most other people trying to succeed on those paths are playing with an outdated rulebook and strategy guide. If you simply understand what the game board really looks like and play by modern rules, you have a huge advantage.

#9 The Internet of Beefs [ribbonfarm]

The Internet of Beefs is a strategic analysis of conflict modes on the web. It provides a framework for understanding how come there is so much vitriol on the web.

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage

#10 The trees. Oh, the trees. [amazon]

My biggest (in every sense of the word) recommendation is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. A beautiful, captivating piece of fiction about Trees and humanity’s place around them. I wrote a little bit about the Trees on the Internet in a previous issue.

What were your favourite reads of 2020?

Do you have something I should read in 2021? Please do share! I’m currently searching for good Parenting-related content for obvious reasons, but I’m very curious about any topic on my mental atlas.

And have a splendid 2021! I know I will.

Roomba having trouble docking? Check the IR sensor.

I’m quite happy with my Roomba 980, but few months ago it started behaving like a blind puppy searching for her mum’s breast.

It managed to return to the vicinity of the docking base, but it could never quite dock. I had to dock her manually most of the times.

The Infrared sensor

When you look at the charging base and virtual walls, it’s quite obvious that it’s using infrared diodes for precision alignment. Roomba has a little dome to capture the alignment beam from the base or the lanterns/walls.

So I resolved to check if maybe a piece of debree blocked the sensor.

After dismantling the robot I found out that the entire cable of the sensor was severed by the bumper repeatedly smashing on the cable bundle!

I’m surprised that it was working as well as it did with that handicap.

I soldered the cable, put it all together and now it’s working fine.

Roomba operating table

Here are the photos of me dismantling the poor thing in case it helps you.