The Triumph Economy and other solutions

“Remember that you are mortal”

It was the sole goal of the Roman Auriga slaves to repeat those words for the commanders celebrated by the Roman Triumph so that they don’t start equating themselves with gods.

The triumph was the absolute pinnacle of achievement and the goal of any ambitious Roman Citizen. For a day, the whole Roman Empire celebrated your contributions to the empire’s power, wealth, and safety. You were the most important person for that day, and your descendants would look up to that moment when spending time in Lararium – the household shrine.

In Rome, money was only a tool to fund armies and conquests, not a goal in itself. Roman Empire was a Triumph-based economy, in which noblemen worked hard and gave everything to the empire.

I am really fond of the idea of money.

Specifically, rolling in it.

Money is infinitely composable – you can sell three goats and exchange it for half a cow, 2 weeks of work, or help with turning your grain into flour. This composability has enabled billions of us to somewhat work together on creating the modern world. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens:

Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

As much as I want to roll in a bathtub full of twenty-dollar bills, I have to admit that amassing money has become a bit of a problem. Wealth disparities are widely publicized, with Jeff Bezos earning 3 average American yearly salaries every minute, and [insert another wealth disparity example here].

But what is an ambitious and effective person to do? Amassing money, fame, and power is celebrated and presented as a worthy goal since high school (especially for boys). Young adults are full of energy, grit, and determination. There are hungry for greatness, but we offer them Netflix, collecting sneakers, and amassing a fortune instead.

What if we brought back the triumph economy?

A triumph for crushing your enemies, a triumph for curing cancer, a triumph for solving social media addiction, a triumph for emission-free energy sources, a triumph for solving supply chain problems… Money and power would again be only the tools meant to help humanity, not divide it.

What would you throw a triumph for?

Think like an engineer

The chat between Tim Ferriss and James Dyson is such a spectacular ride and validation for any engineer. You can feel the sheer joy of a breakthrough, of making somebody’s day a tiny bit better by technology.

Dyson’s big break was making a vacuum cleaner that does not clog from dust. It took 3 years and 5,127 prototypes because he was convinced people to spend a lot of time annoyed at their vacuums. He was right, and the only one who cared enough to solve the problem.

“Whenever I look at anything, I wonder how it works and then I wonder how it could work better. Could I make it better”

Now, James Dyson is releasing a new book, and creating a University, because he thinks engineers can solve the problems at hand:

Partly because I just wish there were more engineers, I just wish that more young people would find engineering fascinating interesting and worthwhile. And I think it’s particularly true now because everybody is talking about global warming and what he’s talking about using fewer resources, recycle ability and all these sort of things using less energy less water and its engineers that can make that happen

Couldn’t agree more – listen to the conversation between Dyson and Ferriss here.

Can you create your own country?

Continuing the topic of unorthodox solutions to the problems of today, Scott Alexander (of Slate Star Codex fame) wrote a prospectus on Prospera – an experimental city-state growing in Honduras.

The idea behind charter cities is: Shenzhen, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the rest of the rich world aren’t rich because their citizens are morally superior to those of their poorer neighbors. They’re rich because they have better legal systems, less corruption, stronger rule of law, and more competent administrators.

Prospera and other experimental communities can try out unorthodox legal and governance systems to better face the modern challenges. The experimental country created in 1776 dominated all the previous powers, so maybe it can happen again?

Warsaw, Climate Care, and Pierogi

I love October.

Sure, the days are getting shorter, but that makes you appreciate every ray of the sun so much more. Every warm-ish (by that, I mean 13 degrees celsius) weekend feels like the last day of summer prompting you to use it well. Soft light and falling leaves add a romantic appeal to even the most mundane street that happened to have a plant. Or maybe my sentiment comes from the fact that I was born in October. Who am I to know.

Warsaw is great

As part of my Solarpunk research bender, I joined an online InterIntellect salon about planning livable, sustainable, and inspiring cities. (“Inter Intellect is like a remote Parisian cafe where you can meet smart people and chat about complex things. But bring-your-own-coffee.”)

We had a strong representation (including some urban planning professionals) of Londoners and San-Franciscans interested in transportation, food availability, supply chain management, cycling, density, and green space availability. We had a great chat, but I was surprised to leave the call blown away by how fantastic Warsaw scored on those dimensions. For example, on the topic of reducing food waste, we came to an interesting point:

Cantine-style bars would be more sustainable than cooking because they can optimize for seasonal or abundant produce, and benefit from the economies of scale. Restricted choice, but flexibility in portion sizes will result in less food waste than at restaurants, or even your own kitchen (RIP multiple celeries that we didn’t use up in time. We have failed you). Plus, by eating together, you get to create a sense of community.

People from around the world have reinvented Polish “Milk Bar” in front of my eyes. From Eater’s article accurately titled “Your First Stop in Poland Should Be a Milk Bar”:

Warsaw’s traditional, dairy-focused cafeterias dole out nostalgic charm and plump pierogies in equal measure (…) When Communist rule took root in Poland and inexpensive food for the masses became a must, these accessible eateries flourished. Though the Iron Curtain has long since fallen, the traditions and tastes of these often government-subsidized eateries remains

I never thought I’d live long enough to hear people from San Francisco and London dream of what I took for granted in my hometown. I know the grass is always greener, etc, etc, but Warsaw is becoming quite a hidden gem. Founder of Nomadlist compares it to Berlin. We have some way to go, but it’s genuinely cool here.

The Climate Care Industry

In The Climate Care Industry I propose a new term for all activity aimed at helping the climate:

An entire industry is sprouting around mitigating effects of the climate change, capturing CO2, and creating sustainable technology. We need a term that will help establish these efforts as their own domain to help them succeed. I propose we start referring to this industry as Climate Care, similar to Healthcare.

Current phrasing is either combative (“fighting the climate change”), confusing (“negative emissions” vs “climate-positive”) or easy to argue against. You can read more about the climate care industry here.

The need for maintenance

Stewart Brand is an inspiring citizen of the Internet. His The Clock of the Long Now remains one of my favorite books, blaming our short-term orientation for landing us in trouble repeatedly. Currently, Stewart is writing a book about maintenance, and the need for an honest conversation about it.

The first chapter is on Audible, and tells a story of the first race to sail solo non-stop around the world, and how maintenance played a crucial part in the success, failure, and death of its participants. Stories like these should be mandatory for everybody working with the software. Other disciplines have millennia of experience dealing with stuff breaking, but we just shrug it away. We are so proud of our cleverness and layers of abstractions, but we almost always over-prepare for the problems we’re familiar with and under prepare for anything else.

Old systems break in familiar ways. New systems break in unexpected ways

In my 15 years of software development, I learned the hard way, that maintenance has to be a part of the design, not an afterthought:

  • Always choose simplicity
  • Don’t try to impress your engineer friends
  • Plan your maintenance if you want your stuff to work.

What is complicated will always lead to problems

Would you like some adulthood with that order?

We have built a culture of permanent adolescence, with nobody really steering the ship. Inability to perform basic human maintenance is sometimes celebrated (“LOL, adulting is hard”).

My wife will be hosting an Inter Intellect salon (that Parisian cafe with your own coffee), where you can meet interesting folk debating rites of passage, visions of adulthood learned from our parents or school, and the secrets of successful adults.

The usual badges of adulthood are either out of reach or completely lost their appeal. We don’t know what else could be put in their place. Without a shared narrative that explains what is even the point of growing up, or experienced elders who could guide the candidates through this process, a lot of us don’t feel like proper adults even in our 30s.

Go get your ticket here.

Ambient Allure and Spectacular Sights

The Piszek family has just returned from a 1.5 month RV trip through Europe. The Grand Tour of Europe was a customary coming-of-age ritual for 17th and 18th-century noblemen, and naturally, we concluded that our 6-month baby has to start early.

Consumption shrinks or expands in proportion to available square footage

After getting home, we were ecstatic to finally get our hands on our favorite takeout after a month of, well, Italian Pizza. The Baby got new toys from grandma, we opened some Amazon packages, and one thing led to another and within 2 days we were under a pile of stuff.

Somehow in the RV we managed with the basics and we lacked nothing, but as Made In Cosmos theorem stipulates:

“Consumption shrinks or expands in proportion to available square footage”

Life on the road was simpler and tidier. Life in our apartment is more comfortable and convenient. It is really nice to be able to oscillate between the two. This dynamic equilibrium helps to appreciate the benefits of another lifestyle.

Ambient Allure and Spectacular Sights

We did more in Italy than eat pizza. We also ate pasta and pesto. And we did even more than that! We were able to travel at our own pace, visiting small towns without a hurry. I tried to capture the surrounding elegance of this old Italian architecture, but none of the shots really captured the essence.

It’s like everything was built to create a vibe of ambient beauty, not to feed my Instagram.

My wife told me, that the Zen Gardens have the same quality – they are designed as an environment for you to be in, not sit outside with your camera.

Other lessons from life on the road

There are other lessons from our trip:

  • 3G/LTE performance is just amazing and dealing with free WiFi is tedious and unreliable. Just buy a local SIM Card instead of waiting for Starlink to save you,
  • Our Dog will always steal food and the best chair,
  • When you see a lake, you have to swim in it. This is my new personal rule and it has never failed to bring me joy.

I published a few things

Alexander von Humboldt: the first Solarpunk

In Alexander von Humboldt: the first Solarpunk, I curated some of Humboldt’s ideas about Nature, and Humanity’s place in it.

Alexander von Humboldt served as a role model for Goethe’s Faust and helped Thomas Jefferson build the agricultural power of the United States. He inspired Charles Darwin to hop on the beagle to follow in his steps, Thoreau to seek close connection to nature at the Walden Pond, and Muir to create the national park system.

The essay got a discussion going on Hacker News.

Computer Science and Psychology? How does that work?

In Computer Science and Psychology? How does that work? I recount the story of my dual degree, and how these disciplines are more aligned than it may seem. But I also call for a more transdisciplinary approach to solving problems:

Our most pressing problems started small but have been allowed to grow unhindered due to their transdisciplinary nature. They didn’t land in the purview of any single discipline, so we all ignored them as long as possible. The challenges of the future are in the seams of things.

Crypto is not an alternative to Capitalism

Crypto and DAOs are sometimes hailed as the alternative to the current market systems. I don’t think that is the case.


Weird thing this week: What’s with all the skulls?

The photo in this email is taken in Hallstatt, Austria. The town is apparently famous in Asia for being “the most Instagrammable place in the world” (apparently not one of the “Ambient Allure” ones), and China has a replica of the whole city. The mayor of the Town has asked tourists to just stay away, but the weirdest thing about this place is the crypt with painted human skulls.

Solarpunk Art Contest

Last week, I transferred $1000 worth of magical Internet money (Ethereum) to an Internet stranger (@Yishan), so he can award it to artists inspiring a sustainable future (aka Solarpunk Art contest). How was your week?

Why Solarpunk?

Artist: Imperial Boy

I have written about Solarpunk in a previous issue of this newsletter – it’s a trend focusing on inspiring a sustainable future through art, and finding a way for modern technology to coexist with lush nature.

Solarpunk focuses on tales to inspire, not tales to condemn. Unlike the current debate about climate, it’s not anti-anything. It’s not shaming you for using your car, nor scaring masses with the warnings of the terrible outcomes of our habits. This is not the way out of this mess.

Chill with the dystopias

The original points of Cyberpunk, Mad Max, Black Mirror, and other dystopian stories were to warn us about the slippery slopes, so we can avoid dire consequences. It all backfired, inspiring creators and technologists to make that vision a reality because the aesthetics accompanying the message were compelling.

Please tell me if you know the original source.

Technologists live to create things that they fell in love with as children. Star Trek should be credited for the invention of the iPhone more than Steve Jobs because it sent millions of engineers onto the paths that resulted in technology combined in the slick monolith you hold in your hand today.

Art inspires, and technology follows.

I want the future to be hopeful

The lovely Solarpunk-inspired Chobani commercial

I believe the future is good and humanity’s best days are yet ahead of us. Technology has the potential to not only help the climate (which it did harm before), but continue providing improvements to longevity, health, and education.

We need to point technologists towards respecting nature, and all species on planet earth, creating sustainable habitats, walkable cities, and clean energy sources. We need artists to lead us, so technologists can follow. So lead us somewhere nice.

This is where you come in.

The Solarpunk contest I helped fund is running until November 1st, 2021. The format can be any visual medium (digital, ink, paint, 3D, animated, etc). It should be original art, not published elsewhere. Winners will be chosen by the CEO of Terraformation (@Yishan).

  1. First Place: $2,740 + $100 reprint purchase offer to publish the winning entry as cover art on one of the six first year issues of Solarpunk Magazine$1,000 payable in SOL (Ryan will help you claim).
  2. Second Place: $2,140
  3. Third Place: $1,740
  4. 7 other winners: $1,540

Submission procedure and more details are in this post.

Show us a nice future so we can build it. My future grandchildren are counting on you.

In other news, to match the growing nature-inspired focus of this newsletter and the blog, I redesigned piszek.com to match. Tell me what you think!

When are these nomads working? Travel productivity surprise

The Piszek family is on the road. We decided to escape the Polish cold and head south through Germany, Austria, and Italy. Check out my Instagram if you want to follow our route.

Bamberg, a charming small town in northern Bavaria.

One truism about travel states that it takes going halfway across the globe to discover who you really are. As it usually is with the cliches, it’s both cringy and true. The period of my biggest personal growth happened while I was studying abroad in Sweden, too far from my habits and friends to fall into the old patterns.

The same holds for work. While I am on parental leave and driving, wrangling the baby or the dog, my wife is working remotely. I’m quite impressed with her resolve and ability to do some actual work while sitting at the table of our RV when we’re on the motorway between Austria and Italy.

It’s bizarre that with ancient cities to visit and high mountains to scale, somehow we are usually both able to be more productive than in the comfortable, “perfect environment” of home. When you have something worthwhile to do, you don’t spend a moment procrastinating nor a minute longer than necessary to get ready. You do what you have to and somehow manage to achieve more.

One explanation would be Parkinson’s Law. It states that the work expands to fill all the time it has available. So when you really have a 3-hour task but have to fill the entire 8-hour workday, you’ll do that with ease and probably will clock in some overtime if you don’t have plans that day. The other reason is that we are underestimating the role that focus plays in our productivity. We still tend to count hours, disregarding their value. In my career, I had 5 hours of focused work more productive than 5 weeks of bumbling around in the office.

The value of each thing you’re doing follows a positively skewed distribution – 75% of the things you can focus on don’t really matter, and the value of the few important ones outweighs all the other ones. When you are driven to make progress, you focus on what matters.

The Deadline forcing function

I’ve known these things intellectually for a while now, yet I have trouble replicating the travel productivity surprise at home. I take too much time to make coffee. I browse the tasks to be done and nibble at the less important ones instead of boldly grabbing the meanest and toughest ones to gain progress.

Deadlines attempt to fabricate a similar productivity spike. Even if you’re moving them further and further before the launch, it motivates people to focus on the actual problems, not the vaguely relevant “nice to haves.”

Like all the other negative motivation tools, the deadline forcing function only works for a time. If your team learns that the deadlines don’t matter, they lose their effect. It’s called learned helplessness.

As a positive motivational tool with variable reinforcement, Travel productivity surprise doesn’t seem to lose its appeal the longer it’s in effect. I guess that explains how Nomads are able to achieve anything.

If you have an idea how to replicate this at home, please let me know. We’ll be traveling until then.

Deliberate Remote

In “High Quality Audio Makes You Sound Smarter” Thomas McKinley describes an experiment where people rated the online presenter as more intelligent, competent and likable when he had a good streaming setup.

In an experiment, people rated a physicist’s talk at a scientific conference as 19.3% better when they listened to it in high quality audio vs slightly distorted, echo-prone audio.

When audio quality is high (vs low), people judge the content as better and more important. They also judge the speaker as more intelligent, competent, and likable.

The one cheap fix is to focus on the microphone. Airpods pro may make you look better with no cable at all, but they gather sound from all around you. Headsets with boom microphones like Sennheiser SC-160 will be most portable and versatile. Matt Mullenweg (creator of WordPress) has a great comparison here.

Continuing the remote streaming topic, SP&X explores how fashion (particularly business fashion) may transition to the remote-first world. As the entire scene in your Zoom window is the equivalent of a 3-piece suit, your personal style extends beyond your attire (minus pants). Will fashion companies fill that need?

I want to see Gucci deliver a home studio build for their elite clients, that fully and completely ‘guccifies’ their space. Again, this is not reducible to the physical objects ordered in the visual field. It extends to the optics, to the lighting, maybe even the film grain of their digital feed, evoking 8mm film cameras, or anamorphic cinematograph

Until you have a ready Gucci streaming setup, invest in a good headset and put a little thought into your Zoom frame. You’ll look (and sound) like a pro!

We need people who know what they are talking about

Let’s face it, you usually hear advice from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

Do you see Elon Musk listing 10 plants he’d like to see on Mars, or Tim Cook raving about his favorite apps of the week? No, this is preposterous. Their time is better applied elsewhere – solving actual problems.

The same principles reverberate down to less busy people. Real experts and doers typically have more leverage doing stuff than writing articles. Where does it leave the professional advice-givers? Their core competence is giving advice, but the advice they give is not backed by real-world experience – how could they be experts in all they write about?

Hola, hola Artur! I am hearing a lot of advice from you. Does it mean that you don’t know what you are talking about?

This principle applies also to fields other than advice-giving. For example, programmers usually have no idea what the thing they are building is supposed to be doing. They get requirements, but the people who write those requirements have no idea how to write requirements. They can sometimes hire experts in writing requirements, but those, in turn, have no idea about the problem domain AND have no idea how to program.

Most software is unfortunately terrible, and it’s a perfectly implementing programmers’ understanding of how it should look like.

What’s the solution then?

Do you ever wonder how is that small startups with few people can compete with behemoths like Google or Microsoft? Even when their products are direct alternatives?

One explanation is of course the tremendous inefficiency of the corporate world. The other is that a person who knows and cares about the problem space AND can translate this into code is unstoppable.

We need more people who know what they are talking about:

  • We need programmers with experience in what they are coding.
  • We need writers with experience in what they are writing about.
  • We need teachers with experience in how the knowledge can be applied, not talked about.

Democratizing access to publishing has enabled an entire class of bloggers who can write in addition to (and about) things they do. You can read essays by scientists, farmers, construction engineers, and other professionals. Even if they are not experts, they know how to make things happen, which is not the case for career advice-givers.

In my previous email about Monism, I pointed out the perils of a world where everybody is narrowly focused on their fields and this feels like a continuation. The best software is by people with experience from outside programming and the best writing is by people who have something to say about the real world. If that’s you – write about it.

Deliberate Work

In an essay scarily titled “How to Work Hard”, Paul Graham explains why it’s valuable to apply your time effectively, how to do so, and how to enjoy it.

One thing I know is that if you want to do great things, you’ll have to work very hard. I wasn’t sure of that as a kid. Schoolwork varied in difficulty; one didn’t always have to work super hard to do well. And some of the things famous adults did, they seemed to do almost effortlessly. Was there, perhaps, some way to evade hard work through sheer brilliance? Now I know the answer to that question. There isn’t.

Strangely enough, the biggest obstacle to getting serious about work was probably school, which made work (what they called work) seem boring and pointless.

Subjects get distorted when they’re adapted to be taught to kids — often so distorted that they’re nothing like the work done by actual practitioners

Hard Work may sound like something to avoid at all costs, but strategic bursts may be the laziest way to do great things. Check out my previous essay “The lazy way to being outstanding: go after hard things.”

the hard work I am urging you to tackle is the task that is unknown, complex, and emotionally challenging. Your Ego can be hurt, you can be ridiculed, and you can fail. That is the hard part. Copy-pasting spreadsheets or tackling something that should never be done in the first place is safe but tedious and time-consuming. This is dead-end, laborious, and unfulfilling work. Avoid that. Or Automate

Climate tales to inspire

Stripe Climate is an initiative of the payment provider Stripe to help remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

There is a lot to admire about their particular approach, but what caught my eye is that they are using capitalism effectively to enact a real change instead of rolling out another corporate responsibility effort.

  1. Stripe’s mission is to grow the GDP of the Internet, and they recognize climate change as a direct threat. By tying the climate efforts into their main objective, they commit.
  2. Instead of funding companies directly removing CO2 from the air, they act as early purchasers of their carbon removal services (aka offsets). The goal is to help the companies reinvest proceeds into cheaper unit costs and push technology down the innovation curve for next customers. Stripe may purchase removal of a ton of CO2 for $2000, but that purchase will help lower the cost to $200 for future customers.
  3. By purchasing instead of donating, they ensure the economic viability of the technology. When the cost of removing a ton of CO2 from the air drops under $100, then it makes sense to involve government subsidies.
  4. Stripe has committed $11 million to the effort. If you are using Stripe as your payment provider, you can set aside a portion of your earnings to pitch in.

Weird stuff

Scientists have found a way to build logic gates from soldier crabs. So, technically, you could build a whole computer that is powered not by electricity, but by crabs. Read more here.

The interconnected mess of it all

Monism

“The Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Edwin Church aimed to present the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, with everything interacting with everything else.

While reading “The Invention of Nature” (a book I’ll definitely reference later), I stumbled upon the concept of Monism.

In a Monistic worldview, there is no difference between organic and inorganic life because they are deeply connected. There is no hard boundary between humans and animals because we’re all part of nature. There is no division into different drawers of sciences just because of some obscure taxonomy. Monism stands in opposition to Dualism, first popularized by Plato, and later embedded in the western culture.

The perils of dismantling the world into even smaller parts and declaring them separate sciences seems to underline many of my talking points. While studying Computer Science and Psychology simultaneously, I couldn’t help but notice how interconnected and similar those seemingly disparate areas can be, but how ignorant experts are to anything outside their precious labels.

The last 2 years (!) of the pandemic have shown how dangerous this mindset can be. Organizations like CDC, FDA, WHO, US Army, and countless other acronym holders did everything according to their own procedures. Still, it ended as an utter fiasco costing millions of lives because everyone focused on their own little slice of reality and missed the big picture.

Samuel Coleridge (a British poet) called the early 1800s an ‘epoch of division and separation,’ of fragmentation and the loss of unity. He was lamenting the loss of what he called the ‘connective powers of the understanding.’ He had no idea.

I’ll read up on Monism some more and report back the findings to you.

Deliberate work

In “Your lifestyle has already been designed,” David takes a closer look at the default workforce lifestyle, observing that it definitely is not aimed at helping the little guy:

For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people don’t feel like they need much they don’t already have, and that means they don’t buy a lot of junk, don’t need to be entertained as much, and they don’t end up watching a lot of commercials.

He also makes an excellent point about the 8-hour workdays:

But the 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

But it all has to be worth it in the end, right? Few decades of slogging through, and you’ll be able to retire happily! Philip, who has reached the Nirvana of early retirement, is documenting his “struggles”:

Americans cannot imagine stopping work before they’ve either (1) purchased everything that they could conceivably want, or (2) collapsed from physical exhaustion

He recommends shifting the mindset before retirement because jumping from worker mentality straight to empty days can be more than a little disorienting:

Suppose that you are retired. At this point, your one job is the pursuit of happiness. If you are not happy, therefore you are a failure at your job and in your life. But how can you be happy 24/7?

Retirement forces you to stop thinking that it is your job that holds you back. For most people the depressing truth is that they aren’t that organized, disciplined, or motivated.

“Worried Denizen” argues that Leisure is the end in itself, and we have to learn to “waste it”:

In the long run, wasted time is indistinguishable from time well spent.

The only viable strategy to make the most out of your time is to make sure that it’s fun

Climate Tales to inspire

Companies like Heimdal are working carbon-negative cement – it means that they suck out CO2 to produce the material, in opposition to the traditional manner, which is a huge contributor to climate change.

Concrete is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions. Cement is usually made from mined limestone, which is one of the largest natural stores of carbon dioxide. Using that to make cement is a bit like burning oil. The world is addicted to concrete, so this problem is not going away. We make synthetic limestone using atmospheric CO2, such that when it is used to make cement, the process is carbon neutral.

This essay is a fantastic resource on the economics and chemistry of carbon-negative concrete.

PS: Yes, this issue of my newsletter is sent late. We are finally on the road, giving our RV a spin, and so far – so good!

Forest rebouncing, modern farmers, and LinkedIn psychopaths

Happy Monday! Today’s issue is going to be a medley of things.

Climate tales to inspire

In line with my previous rant in Deliberate 53 – Tales to inspire, not tales to condemn, I want to share good news from the climate front. Despite all Doom, Gloom, and Drama we are assaulted with every day – there is hope and inspiring initiatives are blooming in the Climate “industry”.

Forests are bouncing back

The world is literally a greener place than it was twenty years ago, and data from NASA satellites has revealed a counterintuitive source for much of this new foliage. A new study shows that China and India—the world’s most populous countries—are leading the increase in greening on land. The effect comes mostly from ambitious tree-planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries.

The research team found that global green leaf area has increased by 5 percent since the early 2000s, an area equivalent to all of the Amazon rainforests.

You can read more in this NASA study.

I wrote a few things this week

In Oldschool Internet and the Blockchain I took a look at how big corporations are cannibalizing open standards the Internet is built upon, and how blockchain tech can help protect what’s left.

If you are using Roam, I have a treat for you (and if you’re not, this paragraph is going to be very confusing). In order to introduce a little more serendipity into my Zettelkasten, I wrote a plugin that will surface old blocks of my choosing into my daily pages. Every day, I enjoy a random block with a “Review” or “Grateful” tag. The plugin is called Troamback.

Using the precious few moments I can scavenge for myself while caring for my toddler, I am frantically typing up my long-overdue book reviews. The Scientist in the Crib is a deep dive into the cognitive framework of children exploring the world and how they closely match the scientific method. Of Wolves and Men is an account of the relations between the titular species.

Deliberate 52 – Farmers always Worked From Home ended up on the front page of Hacker News (New Yorker has a good intro on the social network if you’re not familiar). This is always exciting, but in a predictable Hacker News fashion, it sparked an unrelated and detailed discussion about the state of modern farming. Here are my favorite comments:

This commenter makes a great point how chores are now significally less laborious than in the past. It echoes the sentiment from my favourite TED Talk – Hans Rosling’s “The Magical Washing Machine”:

I think the problem with this debate isn’t about how much people have worked in the past, but more about what actually is work.

For example, in today’s society we do not think of basic chores like laundry as work, but in the past laundry was far more labor-intensive due to the lack of washing machines. Is repairing your broken furniture or clothes work? Is preparing your own food work? Those things are trivialized in today’s advanced capitalist societies, but might have been a substantial part of life for people in the past. Nowadays most people seem to just buy new furniture and clothes, and even food preparing has been substantially trivialized by resteraunts, orders, takeouts, and readymade meals, so we’re probably much more prilvileged than they were. But did the medieval people saw all of this extra work as “work” in today’s sense? (Graeber’s famous book (“Bullshit Jobs”) kinda touches on this aspect in the end chapter, but I wish he’ve delved a bit more on it. There’s a whole anthropology of work that’s left unexplored…)

Farming is much different now than it was in the past:

Modern farmers are polyglot technologists. Hybrid GMO seeds are selected to optimize yield in their specific soil and weather conditions. Tractors are largely self-driving along with a host of technology to rival a race car and harvesters give live feedback on the quality and quantity of grain so that farmers can make decisions about what to do with the grain- sell immediately, store, or take to a specialized storage facility to dry. Crops are rotated seasonally to minimize pests and optimize soil quality, sometimes on complex multi-year patterns of cover crops, cash crops, spring harvests, etc. Underground “tiling” is installed to speed the flow of water away from low-lying sections of fields to maintain consistent soil moisture across fields on rolling hills. And the futures, options, insurance and debt financing decisions to maintain stable income in the face of unpredictable weather and commodity prices rivals what any investment banker in Manhattan is doing. And that’s just for commodity grain producers, meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables have their own unique uses of cutting edge science and technology. A group of farmers in Iowa sitting at a conference about managing soil nitrogen are likely leveraging far more real science and tech than a group of web developers in the bay discussing the latest updates to React.

And this one is just so very Hacker News:

I’m a farmer in southern Colorado. Currently we grow marijuana and potatoes. I’m on HN because because I’m a long time Linux user (20+ years) and free software advocate and this is where a lot of the old boys still lurk

Deliberate Internet

Finally, I want to start your week by recommending “What I Learned from a Week of Shitposting on LinkedIn“. The whole social network is just something else, and Kyle Coberly calls out the particular narrative style:

It’s a special kind of skill to make a post that’s nominally about someone else, but is ultimately all about you.

And then has some fun with it:

How can you tell if the person you’re interviewing is also a GoodPerson? The math is a simple system of equations:

goodperson = you
goodperson = candidate
you = candidate = goodperson

That’s why you should only hire people exactly like yourself.

My LinkedIn timeline could definitely use more fun and a little fewer success junkies.

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.