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A World Without Email

Cal Newport’s new book goes well with David Graber’s Bullshit Jobs (about which more to come). Newport may have in fact provide a good, if partial, answer to one of Graber’s main questions — why have jobs that workers themselves see as useless proliferated in the last 50 years? No, it isn’t just email, but rather this: supporting structures of large institutions (think IT, HR, accounting, etc) have taken a life of their own and behave as if their own performance metrics — rather than the instituion’s primary reason for being — are all that matters. Enter thousands of survey requests, daily updates, weekly newsletters, calls for feedback… from dozens of departments all shouting about their contribution to the “core mission”.

So one way to get out of email hell is to work at a smaller place, having anyone completely dedicated to human resources being a good surrogate for being too large. But even that won’t completely save you: as long as you work in a team there will be need for internal communication, and as long as the primary mode of that communication is via email, the hyperactive hivemind — Newport’s preferred phrase — will ensue. Much of the book talks about how this came to be, and how to avoid it. While none of it is revolutionary (some of it even covered on this very blog, twice!), it did point me to Asana, Trello, and other collaborative task/project management apps with file storage and messaging capabilities as good alternatives that I tended to disregard.

As for external communication, well, if the email is longer than five sentences, better make it into a call, preferably the old-fashioned kind.

A World Without Email could easily have fit into the blog post in book form category but for the need to persuade key people that too much email is in fact a bad thing, said people being ones with power to save their employees from email hell yet not being aware that their employees need saving, as they themselves tend to be protected form the onslaught with layers and layers of administrative assistants1. Judging from the reception in the types of newspapers “key people” tend to read, he has their attention.

  1. On-demand administrative assistants for the regular schmoes being another one of Newport’s proposed solutions. I remain sceptical. 

The Demon-Haunted World

How times change. What in the 1990s was fluff about the importance of learning, thinking, free speech, and civility for America’s continued progress now bounces between prophetic and controversial.

Of course, it wasn’t fluff. It was as true then as it is now, only this time there is no background hum of optimism to drown out the warning sirens. The country, subsumed by ignorance left, right and center — each stupid in their own way — went from being haunted by Demons to being run by them. We are living through Carl Sagan’s nightmare, brains turned off, phones in hand, fingers at the ready. So it goes.

Understanding Nonlinear Dynamics

It is a good thing for intellectual humility — particularly in middle age into which yours truly has stepped a few years ago1 — to open an undergraduate textbook for a field that is just outside one’s area of expertise. A series of reviews on gene regulatory networks led me down a rabbit hole of vector fields and attractor states that was interesting-yet-unscrutable enough to get me to Understanding Nonlinear Dynamics.

It is very much a textbook, info-boxes, end-of-chapter exercise, and all. It also presupposes a grasp of mathematics which I may have had just out of high school but have long since lost. This is fine: at Mortimer Adler’s suggestion I zipped past the equations and derivations, deciding to trust the authors that they are indeed correct, and went to the meat. Which, in nonlinear dynamics, as a nice bonus, also has pretty pictures of fractals and vector fields. Alas, not as artistic as Charles Waddington’s, but nevertheless striking.

What surprised me the most was how much of the field resulted from mathematicians fiddling around with parameters to see what happens. Going to a textbook to learn this was overkill — the Wikipedia article on experimental mathematics may serve the purpose just as well — but knowing the context does make it memorable. There is a pleasing symmetry here: mathematics is usually thought of as purely theoretical, yet its most interesting aspects, Lorenz attractors to Wolfram’s (not so) “new kind of science”, have relied on experimentation. Biology has been purely experimental ever since Watson and Crick, aborted attempts at theoretical biology notwithstanding, and was even a decade ago producing more data than it can handle. Would it not be neat if the answer to this biological data overload wasn’t machine learning but instead a framework for theoretical biology? If there was one, nonlinear dynamics would play a big part.

  1. What constitutes “middle age” in the 2020s is a matter of some debate. Is it a matter of birth date, life style, state of mind, a combination thereof? Taking the last thing first: I have been in a middle age state of mind since I was twelve; am as much of a 2.5-child nuclear family man as a geriatric millennial can be; and am well into the third quintile of life, as foretold by the life expectancy tables for a man of my age. No red convertibles planned for purchase, though a new decked-out Mac Pro — once it comes out — would probably cost just as much and is something I would actually consider having. 

Station Eleven 👍

It was a brave move, to release a TV show/limited series set in the aftermath of a world-ending respiratory virus pandemic right at the tail end of covid. Good thing that the execution was flawless, from the dream-like cinematography,1 through casting, to Satoshi Kon-like editing. Notes of Watchmen, too, in how the source material is to be taken seriously but not literally when converting a book into something else.

Importantly, Station Eleven is set in, but is not about, a post-apocalyptic Earth, in much the same way Titanic was set in, but was not about, a sinking ship. Less romantic love and more parent/guardian/child love/hate relationships here, which is why it takes 9+ hours instead of 3+ to tell the story; but a full, rich, meaningful story is told, and told well. Kudos.

  1. Almost every shot reminded me of the dream sequences from The Leftovers, which were in fact its best part. And it is here that I realize with horror that I never wrote about The Leftovers, which is in my all-time top 5. A rewatch and a writeup are due. 

Back to microblogging

A brief experiment with Drummer reminded me how fun it was to write short, untitled, tweet-like posts throughout the day without having to be exposed to social networks. Drummer itself was too high-maintenance for the 2020s me, but is a (paid) service whose focus is — and the name does give it away — short, untitled, tweet-like posts with a light layer of social networking.

Which is to say, my old domain is now resurrected as a micro blog with a snazy Edward Tufte-inspired design. The RSS you get there should include updates from this blog, so subscribe to either but not both.

Turning Red 👍

Bao meets The Mitchells… to produce something less artistic then either, but at least fun to watch. Mid-March release sounds about right.

Where Good Ideas Come From

There is no clearer sign of us entering a new era than reading a book from 2010. Not so long ago, wide-eyed journalists still described the Internet — note the capitalization1 — as a force for good, an incubator of ideas whose capacity to connect people will lead to an exponential growth of innovation and prosperity. If one was to build a case against journalisitc blindness to externalities, Where Good Ideas Come From would make for a good exhibit.

The case against journalistic ignorance of patent law, too. The author, Steven Johnson, describes patents as means of rewarding inventors — and surely we can find a better way to reward them than a device that restricts the all-important distribution of knowledge. Only, that is not why the patent system was introduced, as described clearly if not succinctly by Vannevar Bush. Why a science journalist would straw-man a crucial factor of western technological superiority before attacking it is beyond the scope of this brief review.

The third feather in Johnson’s cap of muddled thinking is his conflation of discoveries and inventions, putting both under the broad category of “ideas”. The problem with that is apparent in the last few chapters of the book, where a series of 2x2s of ideas distributed according to the number of people involved (individual versus networked) and whether the enterprise is commercial (market versus non-market) “proves” Johnson’s case that non-market networked operations are superior, and should be supported above others. After all, from the 1800s onwards, most of the dots have been in their quadrant!

But here is a random2 sample of the 54 ideas listed in the non-market/networked quadrant: electron, RNA splicing, chloroform, cell differentiation, EKG, cosmic rays, universe accelerating, genes and chromosomes, atoms form molecules, radiocarbon dating. Only one of those ten, EKG, is now a physical product being sold and used. Two more, RNA splicing and radiocarbon dating, are methods that could be commercialized. Those three I would describe as inventions, and all three have a rather limited scope of use. Everything else are discoveries, telling us things about how the world works but not directly improving our lives in any meaningful way, other than satisfying our thirst for knowledge.

Now here are 7 ideas randomly selected from the 35 listed in the market/networked quadrant: contact lenses, washing machine, plastic, elevator, steel, television, radio. If Johnson’s quadrants prove anything, it is that having market forces involved is strongly associated with invention. We can, of course, discuss the direction of that particular arrow, and whether markets co-opt inventions they deem useful rather than actually developing them. The distinct lack of inventions in parts of the world where market forces aren’t in play hints at my preferred answer.

Having said that, there are some good ideas in this book about good ideas. One of them, the adjacent possible, a mental model for both discovery and invention, is also the name Johnson now uses for his (rather … good) newsletter. That is the concept that made me remember the book fondly after my initial reading, 10 years ago, and it is the newsletter that made me re-read it. And a good thing too — because even though the book is the same, both I and the world have changed enough to make it irrelevant. It won’t be in my re-read list.

  1. Also note that the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press both revised their stylization to lowercase in 2016, Year Zero of the New Era. This was not, of course, the year’s only notable event. 

  2. Randomization was performed by my hovering a pencil above the page and dropping it with eyes closed. If the pencil hit an empty space, the first idea straight down from the spot was chosen regardless of distance. 

The French Dispatch 👍

The Wes Andersoniest of all Wes Anderson movies, at least the live action ones. Every frame is a painting here, or a New Yorker front page, and in that regard this is also his most artful work. But The Grand Budapest Hotel is still a better movie.

Pieces of the Action

Old men and their tales are good for many things: knowledge, inspiration, amusement, and, occasionaly, ridicule. Vannevar Bush provides all four in this series of (mostly war) stories about innovation and how to kill it. The anecdotes are loosely grouped into themes, and are even more loosely chronologically arranged; an opportunity for a joke, a pun, or a humble-brag trumps any attempt at organization. The feeling is very much like sitting crossed-legged on the carpet next to your grandfather’s airmchair as he — pipe in one hand, tumbler of scotch in the other — spins you a yarn.

Quite a yarn, though. Bush spent time as a leader in academia, government, and industry, in that order, and has good and bad things to say about all three. His preference is for strict hiearchy; his favorite part of government is the military, his most hated subordinates are those who don’t follow chain of command. One doesn’t win a World War without gaining some appreciation for epaulets and funny hats, I suppose.

That said, his is the most convincing case for patents that I’ve come across: they should be seen as a way to secure a return on investment for the venture capital, not a monetary incentive for the inventor. Having a few patents in his name, he knows an idea by itself is worthless without the resources to implement it, resources which won’t come unless there is a guarantee someone else won’t be able to come and lift the final product, bypassing the costly process development. Fifty years after this clear and concise explanation, people still make the mistake of describing patents as rewards (more on Steve Johnson’s book — which if we are being pedantic came out 40-some years after Pieces of the Action — some other day).

So an intelligent, wise, industrious man in the twilight of his career retells his life’s story — all well and useful — but he also gives some predictions: that American politicians are becoming more leader-like and that we should expect to see even more leadership in high-quality politics in the coming days, possibly thanks to that new darling of American intellectuals, the television set. Pieces of the Action came out in 1970, two years before the Watergate break-in and four years before Nixon’s resignation. The difference between metaphorical peaks and real ones is that you don’t know you are on the former until you are well on your way down, and if you spent your life inventing the modern world, running corporations and fighting Nazis, the way down is hard to imagine.

January reading

So far so good. If the first month is anything to go by, I will have the 2022 reading list licked by September.

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