Jamie on Software

This is the blog of Jamie Rumbelow: a software engineer, writer and philosophy graduate who lives in London.

tags: aesthetics ai books climate decentralisation economics effective-altruism ethereum fintech food housing javascript links london music personal philosophy politics productivity progress science space startups statistics urbanism

months: March 2023 February 2023 January 2023 December 2022 November 2022 October 2022 September 2022 August 2022 July 2022 June 2022 May 2022 April 2022 March 2022 January 2022 May 2021 February 2020 January 2020 December 2019

Links, February 2023

My book is out!

The Mom Test is one of those books that I would never have read if I didn’t need to for work, and was instantly thrilled that I had. Having productive conversations is one of those meta-skills that gets way too little attention but underpins basically every other piece of pedagogy. This book helps you have those conversations.

I’ve been working through many, but not all, of the essays in Adventures of a Computational Explorer by Stephen Wolfram. I suspect we’ll know within 15-20 years whether Wolfram’s big, and somewhat esoteric, scientific bet – that the universe is built bottom-up from the emergent properties of simple computational rules – is true. But many of the essays aren’t about that at all. They present an attractive model for the productive life. (Wolfram sits in roughly the same region of my embedding space as Tyler Cowen for this reason.)

Dark Matter and Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe was interesting, clear, well-written, but like so many of these sorts of books it became rushed at just the same moment that its content got interesting.

I’m still digesting C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. I suspect it might be the most important book I will read this year.

Jessica’s work on LLM feature visualisation and the SolidGoldMagikarp token was released to, well, quite some acclaim. Cool to have the Rumbelow name known for something other than failed television retailing, Ripperology, ecoactivism, or pompous tech blogging.

Good Matt Clancy post on productivity and immigration.

Somebody hired a team of people to sit behind him and keep him on task. Panoptiproductivity!

We’re planning on having children soon, and will likely home-school. This post on the childhoods of exceptional people did nothing to dissuade me.

I liked this post about ways to waste your early career.. My big takeaway: you can change things. Matches my more general prior that one should, on the margin, do the thing that cultivates excellence.

Thresholds, everywhere.

The basics of rationalist discourse, cast in the gleefully autistic mold of LessWrong. (Note, for instance, the interlude on the notion of a ‘guideline’.)

Yaml ‘Aint Much Loved.

Ben Reinhardt has announced his new private ARPA lab, Speculative Technologies. (See also the founding document.) Excited about this, and ARIA, and any other attempts to create institutions from the ingredients of skill, hope, operational excellence, and just the right amount of hubris.

Rohit is smart. Question remains whether

Smart approach to nudging semantics into the type system.

Ken Shirriff opens up an 8086 and looks at its processor flags.

A superb SwiftUI technical video, zoomed in on a piece of UI from The Browser Company. And more excellent content from the same team, this one a live design review. The format works well: a short segment of meeting, followed by talking-head commentary after the fact by the participants. TBC have nailed their content. I watched these videos and wanted to work for them.

Progress isn’t zero-sum.

When restaurants win Michelin stars, their menu descriptions get longer and their prices go up. Not surprising but still interesting. Status is performance is status!

Mercury is so dense that an anvil can float in it. Similarly:

Saturn is dense, but the coffee in Peru is far denser

I enjoyed Chasing New Horizons, but I’d like someone to write the How Apollo Flew to the Moon nerd-version.

Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System was also fun.

Electric Warrior by T. Rex was one of those albums that has passed me by, until Spotify blended Life’s A Gas into some Daily Playlist. Since then, it’s been on repeat.

3:38pm. March 7, 2023.

Links, January 2023

A quiet month, beginning new projects, getting back into a routine, ruminating. I have managed to read zero books this month, which isn’t great. I’ll do better in February.

A couple of good best-of-2022 threads: one on economics of growth/firms papers, Davis Kedrosky’s favourite books, and Erik Thorenberg’s favourite podcast episodes.

Zvi on Patrick Mackenzie on VaccinateCA. And the original.

This was interesting: people who are born poor and become rich tend to be less sympathetic to the poor than those who are born rich. See also Nadia Asparouhova on, inter alia, aristocratic social norms.

Dwarkesh has enabled paid subscriptions, a tribe of which you should become a member.

Aella wrote something smart on statistics and Twitter polling.

Francis Galton tried to perform arithemetic by smell. Reminds me somewhat of Chapter 2 of Strawson’s Individuals, where Strawson manages to derive spaciotemporal concepts from auditory input alone. (In fact, it’s a useful mental trick for idea generation: does some context C’ have the resources to support some activity X that is normally performed in context C?)

More Zvi, this time on bullshit jobs and AI.

Fantastic thread on the Korean Jeonse system. (File this under the category of ‘social/legal systems very different from our own’)

I’m really enjoying using the Arc Browser, so much so that it’s now my default browser. It’s one of those rare pieces of software that rethinks, successfully, something basic to the computing experience. There just aren’t many people innovating at the Browser level, and Arc are doing an amazing job.

Black Holes was an excellent audiobook. So was House of Cards.

9:38pm. February 2, 2023.

Links, December 2022

December passed by in a blur, with our wedding, my birthday, a lot of travel, and more champagne than I care to mention. I had plenty of time to read and relax, and have found myself in January with a newfound sense of focus and purpose. I am a part of something bigger now. The boundaries of my responsibilities extend beyond myself. I now owe myself, my ambitions, my successes, fully to another person. A conspiracy of two.

Project Hail Mary was fun, although I think it tried to be too smart – the science was a little too complicated in a way that felt unbelievable – which made it a poorer book than the Martian. The Man Who Solved The Market was just interesting enough to get me through a four-hour flight.

A very short guide to planning reform, a useful resource to lean on when YIMBY-proselytising. Addresses a lot of the common misconceptions. And gentrification without displacement.

Jatan curates some photos of the Moon. The Apollo Remastered book is astounding. And Andrew McCarthy gives us the following gift:


ChatGPT can invent a fairly consistent, heavily inflected language. A fun example use, but I’ll be more impressed when it develops some irregular verbs from some sort of environmental or phonetic pressure.

Guesstimate is a really good little tool for generating Fermi estimates.

Science has been doing an experiment on itself for the past 60 years. That experiment is called ‘peer review’, and it failed.

Rohit performs a Fermi estimate for scary AI.

Gastro Obscura on pot-au-feu.

Gavin Leech’s papers of the year list.

2022’s Twitter trends. A brilliant reminder of how ephemeral most of the discourse is.

Lowell projects his own eyeball onto Mars and Venus.

Simon Sarris develops a diet I can relate to.

Nabeel argues for reading slowly and deeply.

1:36pm. January 9, 2023.

Links, November 2022

Finished the first draft of my book, Building With Ethereum: Products, Protocols, and Platforms, which is now available to pre-order from Amazon. Some minor edits to do and then to production. Other than that, I’ve been enjoying drinking again – more on that soon – and reading, relaxing, resting. I’m taking the rest of the year off to plan and scheme.

Heavy fiction month. The Rest is History prompted me to start reading some Agatha Cristie, so I sat down over the weekend and read And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Sleeping Murder. The writing is charming and lovely, and funny, even when grim. You truly get the sense that she’s building these tropes as she goes along, that the structure of the whodunnit genre was falling out of her pen as she went. Totally gripping. I’ve not enjoyed fiction this effortlessly since Station Eleven.

I also read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, a good novel but about 200 pages longer than it needed to be. I find the same problem with most scifi and fantasy. Something about world-building lends itself to self-indulgence? I don’t know.

Reread David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter in preperation for my Joni Mitchell Interintellect salon, which went well. I put that book down liking her much less as a person and much more as an artist.

Upload a paper, highlight confusing text, get an explanation.

An interesting approach to price iteration and programmable pricing structures: theory and practice.

Some good housing stuff this month too. Much more energy toward this issue in my little corner of the internet. Auckland upzoning reforms working well, causing a meaningful decrease in real rents and an increase in affordability.

Public misunderstanding of housing and measuring the impact of ‘supply skepticism’; YIMBY campagining is evermore important.

Good interview with Habiba Islam on the Left and Effective Altruism. I’d like to see something similar for the Scrutonian right.

Why has nuclear power been a flop?

How much goes in tax, and how much goes to the winemaker, when you buy a bottle of wine?

Good introduction to LLMs.

An excellent set of simple statistical checks to apply to analyses in academic papers.

The new UK census maps are great.

The excellent Ethan Mollick on survivorship bias,

Jamie on Software is a big fan of book lists. Here’s a good thread from Hacker News on books that made topics finally ‘click’. A reading list on the Philosophy of Astrobiology. And a Borges reading list.

The excellent Nabeel wanted to learn more about SARS-CoV-2, so he decoded the genome. And Nabeel with some productivity advice.

Some more decent productivity advice, most of which cashes out to ‘JFDI’. “I’ll finish it up tomorrow”, I mutter to myself, as I gaze at the sticky, bulbous pile of washing up.

Very good paper on the social sciences, science funding, and research taste.

David Shor on the 2022 midterms.

More evidence on pollution.

Tom Forth raises an excellent question: why do we in the UK chose, so often, in so many ways, to be less productive? (One answer is, of course, NIMBYism, but the question is deeper and the answer more cultural than that.)

Smart little visualisation of a two-layer neural network learning to classify.

Working my way through this list of excellent posts on UK science and R&D.

Wikienigma: a Wikipedia for things we don’t yet know.

Benjamin Reinhardt on management styles in research.

A valiant effort, and worth it for the (very funny) write-up.

Ben Kuhn on overconfidence.

10:50am. December 1, 2022.

Links, October 2022

Writing lots this month, finishing up the manuscript for Building With Ethereum: Products, Protocols, and Platforms. Decided to restructure it all halfway through the first draft, which has meant a lot of rewriting. I’m learning a lot about how to sustain an argument over ~300 pages, and what makes for clear, technical exposition.

Managed to dash out something small on AlphaTensor and research taste. Since I noticed this taste dynamic, it keeps popping up everywhere. It’s certainly not a new insight, but it’s something I see addressed an unfortunately small amount in the philosophy of science literature. The scientist is taken as some a priori given to most philosophical models of science, which, if my observation is correct, is skipping over perhaps the most important part of the analysis. Feyerabend gestures towards it in Against Method, but, again, doesn’t quite get there.

I’ve also been reading a lot. Winston Churchill’s My Early Life was a delightful, charming piece of Kipling-hued imperialism. His world-view is so remote from ours, so free of moral ambiguity. It’s a decidedly Victorian book, of heroes and adventures, a sort of anti-Le Carré. He is a wonderful writer and a gifted storyteller. Well worth a read.

Charles Petzold’s Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software was also extremely good. He builds up an intuitive model for digital computing, from the very basics of Morse code via flashlights to complex microprocessors. This was a fill-in-the-gaps book for me, something I could read quickly – I finished it in two days – but has meaningfully added to my basic understanding. I didn’t, for instance, have a clear idea of a CPU’s clock cycle, which this book has changed superlatively. It was funny, too.

Just finished Simon Morden’s The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars, which I’m reading in a cluster with some other Mars books. More top spacey content! Good passages on competing theories of crust formation and covers the basics of the protoplanetary disc super well. Makes me want to write something similar on Saturn (an infinitely more mysterious and beautiful planet.)

And, of course, Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It has taken me 27 years to read a book that I should have read in my early teens. I felt a flickering rememberance of days past, that wide-eyed, ambitious, weird young boy, trying to understand who he was and why he was so unhappy. If I had read this book then, I suspect I’d be a scientist now – and would have become much more content with my weirdness.

My first Interintellect Salon, Freedom and Love in the Music of Joni Mitchell is later this month. Should be wonderfully self-indulgent and fun.

A concrete vision of the liberal democratic future from Noah Smith, and a more pointed piece on the abundance agenda. This quote from Noah stuck with me:

The final thing that the liberal democratic vision needs is a way to accommodate conservatives. The divisions within the democratic world are the primary reason why the autocratic powers are able to make their case at all. But a great many people within any society, including liberal democratic ones, are socially conservative to a greater or lesser degree. If the vision of the future that liberal democracies present is one where conservative values have been wiped from the Earth, then conservatives will feel they have no choice but to embrace reactionary illiberalism.

Also from Noah, why per-capita emissions is a bad framing for the carbon debate.

Lots of anti-EA discourse began in our little corner of the Internet this month. Liam Kofi Bright made a fair point that the evaluative standards of the movement’s critics seem radically out-of-whack. David Shor gave a good reply about the psychology of the median EA member (via Nadia). And Nathan put together an attempt at a minimal set of EA axioms that is worth reading.

Really enjoying the Pedestrian Observations blog, another good example (along with Construction Physics) of the single-issue blog that Patrick and Tyler discussed back in 2017:

COLLISON: What kinds of blogs should there be more of in the world?

COWEN: Single-issue blogs on issues of importance. If you take something like penal reform, an underrated cause. Prisons, I think, are barbaric, but it’s not an easy problem to solve. There’s not a quick fix. Some people do need to be constrained in some way. The idea that there should be more blogs that track that and persistently deliver the message, “Something is wrong here.”

I would love to hear more about your single-issue blog ideas.

A good list of economics bloggers.

Zvi is working on Balsa Research, an attempt to reimagine the think tank. Why it is worthwhile. And an FAQ on the same.

A great paper on The Economic Costs of NIMBYism:

Using hedonic methods I find that wind projects can impose significant external local costs, while solar projects do not. I then show that planning officials are particularly sensitive to local costs in their area. The resulting misallocation of investment may have increased wind power deployment costs by 10-29%.

Nearly-incredible AI-generated interview with Joe Rogan and Steve Jobs. We are months away from the uncanny valley.

Remote Collaboration Fuses Fewer Breakthrough Ideas. Across 20mn research articles and 4mn patents, Lin, Frey, and Wu find that, on average, the farther away the members of the team are from one another, the less likely the paper is to be disruptive.

Using drones to represent the destroyed architecture of ancient monuments.

Jatan on the pre-Apollo lunar photography missions.

Judah on the problem of too much money.

Lachy’s bleeding edge AI history project.

ACX on the lens through which the world judges your predictions.

Another example of fast/slow public infrastructure.

Galbraith on forecasting:

There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.

And Bagehot on confidence:

Every banker knows that if he has to prove that he is worthy of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone.

11:10am. November 2, 2022.

Links, September 2022

Wrapped up my work with Fei Labs this week, and am now unemployed again, poking around the edges of opportunities and building a stronger sense of what I want to work on next. My book on product engineering with Ethereum is coming along well; I should have the first draft done in the next few weeks.

I’ve been rewatching The Crown, partly in preparation for the new season, partly to revisit the life of Elizabeth II, and most of all because I have had several casual conversations with friends on various topics in 20th-century British political history, and I wanted a lightweight set of touch points, nudges toward various prime ministers and political events that I might read into more deeply. As a result, almost all of my reading time has been taken up with television. It’s amazing how easily that can happen!

I did, however, manage to reread Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen. It was much less surprising and enjoyable on rereading, but I suppose that’s a sign of a book whose ideas seem to be more mainstream, whose arguments are more familiar and plausible, whose memes have sunk in to my brain. If I have any criticisms now, it’s that it isn’t ambitious or controversial enough; he caveats the demand for growth by demanding sustainable growth; he builds a broader normative pluralism into a notion of ‘Wealth+’; both of which feel more like a concession to the zeitgeist rather than a serious commitment.

Somebody fed the lyrics of ‘Imagine’ into an AI and asked it to write new verses.

America over-incacerates and under-polices.

Another preposterous and charming post from Randall Munroe: how much of the Earth’s mass would you have to relocate to space in order to lose 20lbs of weight?

Reminder that YouTube has some 400 episodes of Buckley’s Firing Line interviews, and they’re still extremely good. (Has anybody put the audio into a podcast stream yet?)

The top five papers assigned in economics classes since 1990. Might look into producing a similar list for philosophy.

Simon Sarris’s series on building a home continues to be a delight.

Noah Smith interviews Vitalik, mostly on proof-of-stake.

Some boring statistics.

2:22pm. October 1, 2022.

Links, August 2022

Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb was the highlight this month, a detailed and incredibly scientifically literate story of the agglomeration effects of genius and the construction of the atomic age. A long and detailed book but interesting ideas and stories on every page.

Continually impressed by Stripe Press and thoroughly enjoyed Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall. We need more techno-optimistic books. Hope and ambition are technologies too, and should be developed and promoted.

Also finished The Anarchy by William Dalrymple. Had the chance to chat to Dalrymple last month and his enthusiasm and perspicuity for this subject is astounding. The EIC was a violent and predictable and transformative institution, but it was at the same time path-dependent and its success subject to utterly unpredictable chance. Every time I read history I’m taken aback by the fragility of the world we’ve inherited.

I wrote a short post on state-adjacent institutions.

The US approved a small nuclear reactor design.

Noah Smith on CHIPS and chips, and four reasons why GDP is a useful number.

Vision papers in science.

Regress Studies on how to choose books and why you should allow yourself to be dragged into books you suspect you won’t finish.

An older thread from Arnaud on books on the history of modern computing.

The best of Scott Aaronson.

From Knowledge spillovers in Silicon Valley:

Our IV approach estimates substantial returns to face-to-face meetings with overidentification tests suggesting we are capturing the returns to serendipity that play a central role in the urban theories of Jane Jacobs.

Types of barcodes

Some good Visa threads on a cluster of related ideas: do what you want to do, do it a lot, and tell others to do what they want to do. I had a great chat with Visa at Future Forum, and his temper and mode and writing is lovely in a happy-go-lucky, auto-optimistic kind of way. His blog is also excellent.

Nuño Sempere on decomposing quantitative problems into simpler questions.

2:43pm. September 1, 2022.

Links, July 2022

ETHCC Paris, The Idler Festival, dinners at the Liberal Club, work on the book, actual work, and learning to fly; it’s been a busy month in which I deadlifted 100kg for the first time, only read a couple of books, submitted the first few chapters of Products, Protocols, and Platforms, and have found myself exhausted. I am more energised when I am productive, and more productive when I am energised, so ascertaining how to bootstrap myself into either productivity or energy is I think a high-leverage activity with which I’ll be experimenting for the rest of the year.

Perhaps the most important thing I read this month was Eichmann in Jerusalem. I didn’t quite realise how much of a journalist Arendt was, and look forward to reading more of her political theory in the future. It’s rare, nowadays, to go from in-the-trenches journalism to academic theorising. (Counterexamples: Gramsci, sort of? Maybe Robert Caro? Anne Applebaum, perhaps?)

Also supplemented Arendt with Richard Evans’s Third Reich in Power, the second volume in the series. I read the first volume maybe a decade ago and enjoyed it. The second was more of a slog.

Just finished Hard Drive, a book about Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. Gates was a lot more competitive and ruthless than I thought – and I thought he was pretty competitive and ruthless!

Also read All Out War by Tim Shipman. Fantastic political journalism, no agenda, just the steady beat and the sporadic bursts of a battle unfolding.

Political science is horribly underpowered. I am in a cynical mood right now, so don’t expect these findings to change much.

A logarithmic map of the entire universe.

A good post from Tanner on the decline of history majors and the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Also a very well-written letter on decolonising the curriculum and the contradictions inherent in it.

There’s something very distinctive about the ‘long-form interviews with macho men for a predominantly working-to-lower-middle-class white male audience that leans right’ format, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It’s far from anti-intellectualism: the hosts and their guests are smart and eager to grapple with complicated ideas. It’s not quite one-sidedness, because they can surprised you. It’s almost an aesthetic property, a flavour of self-assuredness, the eschewing of the effete. Whatever it is, this interview with Erik Prince was swimming in it.

Wonderful lecture on the F-22 Raptor and the engineering decisions behind it.

Justin E. H. Smith reviews his two years on Substack.

Brie Wolfson wrote on the work culture early-days Stripe. A reminder that hard work is a feature, not a bug – and the symptom of a thriving culture, not the cause of it.

Ordinary citizens have essentially no influence over government in the United States. What the elites want, they generally get. It’s amazing that US society is generally so stable.

End degrowtherism now.

There are some good old episodes on the PricedOut podcast, covering planning reform, the commercial incentives of house building, etc.

11:35am. August 3, 2022.

Links, June 2022

Found myself in somewhat of a funk this month, low on energy and motivation. My usual menu of neuroses bubbling up and my usual response; fits-and-starts of bouyancy followed by lethargy. Unhappy with my work. I think I need a holiday. And twenty more IQ points.

Anyway, not much writing, just Wallets As Identity, a rough first draft of a chapter from the Ethereum book.

I began five books but only finished one: Feyerabend’s Against Method. I intend to write in more detail about it, because it was both very good and also rather illegible. After some effort, I think I have a clear idea of what he is trying to do, but I can’t see how his arguments don’t collapse into a much broader scepticism. Here’s a Twitter thread with some quotes I enjoyed.

The unabridged edition of Simon Schama’s History of Great Britain series is wonderful – Schama writes so well – and it’s currently included with any Audible subscription, although that will change this month.

A collection of memos ‘written for an internal audience’, mostly business and technology but some politics too. Diaries and letters and other documentary on how the sausage gets made gives you a good sense for 1. the trade-offs involved in absolutely everything, something that is easy to consider intellectually and much harder to feel intuitively, 2. how chaotic and unregimentable progress is a priori, and 3. the sheer variability of approaches and styles of success and failure.

Michael Nielsen writes on effective altruism and his take on its problems providing a moral core for an individual’s life.

A friend pointed me to this Dylan B-side, from the Blood on the Tracks sessions. Lovely and sad and detached. Dylan’s narrator is always at arm’s length from his subject, even when he’s singing about himself.

Two useful reviews of The Future of Fusion Energy, one from Martin Kleppman, the other from the Astral Codex Ten book review contest: the former reviews the book, the latter reviews its content.

Toby Ord on the knowability of the Edges of the Universe; and a fun lecture from Stuart Armstrong on how we might get there.

For a bit of context on the jurisprudential questions that underly the Roe v Wade debates, a chat between Scalia and Breyer.

And here’s a beautiful photograph of a new(-ish; May 2020) impact crater found on Mars:

Impact crater on Mars

8:30pm. July 2, 2022.

Links, May 2022

May was a fine month with lots of social engagements, less writing than I wanted, but quite a lot of reading. I ran the Edinburgh Marathon, my first marathon ever, in four hours and 33 minutes. I wrote a piece on Decentralisation as a trade-off space.

To prepare for a debate with my friend David, I read two books on the history of housing development: All That is Solid and Municipal Dreams. The latter was very good. The former descended into Tory-bashing in the key of Owen Jones, which might be righteous but is also a little tiresome. I also read bits of Order Without Design, which was truly excellent; it’s good to see urban theory that grounds itself in, and has respect for, economics.

I also read the second volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, covering 1997-1999 and the first few salvos of a triumphantly New Labour. The diary format is excellent, since you get an obviously singular perspective as it unfolds. I hadn’t realised quite how little communication mattered in the civil service prior to Blair; lots of Campbell’s agonies involved getting various govt departments to coordinate messaging, routing comms through Number 10. I also had very little idea of how much work went into the Good Friday agreement, or how tenuous it was. Many many chances for it to fall apart. Had Paisley or Trimble or Adams woken up on the wrong side of bed on the wrong morning and the whole thing would have been doomed. From inside government policy seems much more chaotic and stochastic than I had suspected (which might be a reason to be less worried, at least on the margin, about Moloch tendencies.)

I listened to In the Shadow of the Moon while falling asleep most nights, a very thorough set of biographies and history of the Gemini missions, up to Apollo 11.

As for other links, and continuing on the theme of housing, I also read a few good papers worth reading if the subject appeals to you. Anthony Breach’s Capital Cities: How the Planning System Creates Housing Shortages and Drives Wealth Inequality was extremely clear and thorough, UK-specific, and perfect for preparing for an argument with David. The Housing Theory of Everything helps drive home why this matters so much. YIMBY is a moral argument as much as an economic one.

Campbell’s diaries got me on a bit of a New Labour kick, so I watched last year’s excellent series on Blair and Brown and the 13 years of New Labour government. I’ve also been enjoying The Rest is Politics podcast, hosted by Campbell and Rory Stewart.

Dwarkesh Patel wrote a good post on applying the ‘Barbell Strategy’ to everyday life: reframing habit formation and intellectual projects in terms of oscillating between intense focus on one thing and the simplest, lowest-effort thing possible –– which is often nothing at all.

Ken Shiriff is writing some truly excellent, deep work on the technical substrate of the Apollo missions. This is a post on the premodulation processor, the signal combinator and splitter in the command module.

We can now make clocks so sensitive that they can detect the relativistic difference caused by being one milimetre deeper in the Earth’s gravity well.

Facebook open-sourced a logbook documented while building and deploying one of their NLP models. More companies and people should do this sort of stuff.

Finally, I signed a contract with Apress this week to publish a book on Product Engineering on Ethereum. My aim is to raise the relative status of product engineers – those of us who build everything around smart contracts, UIs, tooling, infrastructure – and explore how the unique processing model of Ethereum puts important constraints on the way we build software. I’ll be posting some pieces here as I work through the first draft, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

3:26pm. June 2, 2022.

Links, April 2022

April has been busy and changeable – mirroring the weather, I suppose – I began a new role at Fei Labs and am getting settled. I wrote three pieces on this blog: something technical on HD wallets and network switching, something equally technical about Safari iOS extensions, and the aforementioned notes on the t11s episode of Solidity Fridays.

Notwithstanding my own contributions, this was a good month for interesting reading. The Star Builders is a very accessible and fast read on the why and how of nuclear fusion. It’s a contribution to the – I think underrated – genre of “here’s a plausible pathway to some major scientific discovery, and a set of good reasons to be optimistic we’re on that pathway” science writing. One for the techno-optimists’ bookshelves.

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Sea of Tranquility, is out, and is splendid. I found some of the science fiction elements a little bit hamfisted, and this is definitely Mandel finding her voice and her groove. But it’s worth reading, especially if you’ve read Station Eleven (one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years) and The Glass Hotel.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was enjoyable, too. Best supplemented by something more technical, I think.

Finally, I just finished London Under by Peter Ackroyd. I loved Ackroyd’s biography of Sir Thomas More, but hadn’t read any of his other books. He’s an excellent writer. There were a handful of places where I thought he made non-sequiturs – the sort of non-sequiturs quite common in a certain style of proto-academic culture writing – but I’m being really picky.

The excellent Noah Smith did an interview with the excellent David Roberts on climate change, climate tech, climate activism, writing in public. Both combative and thoughtful throughout.

A challenging post on child abuse videos and a global coordinated effort to bust a specific site and its clients. A long and difficult read but very worthwhile.

Something to keep an eye on – an economics lab imaginging systems through science-fiction.

In case you’ve woken in a sweat, panicked that you’re not subscribed to enough substacks (subsstack?), here’s a list of good, subject-specific newsletters.

Very very good and comprehensive and thorough guide to direct carbon renewal. We need to do more here; Stripe and others have launched an advanced market commitment to help.

Stripe have also launched crypto payments.

The beginning of the conversation, not the end of it, but some reflections on SpaceX’s technologies and warfare.

Really enjoyed this article on the urban history and development of London’s planned and, blisfully, abandoned Ringways, the persistence of political structures and the perversity of political incentives, and the pitfalls of top-down urban planning. Works in Progress is putting out a lot of excellent stuff.

On top of my normal reading, I listened to three audiobooks this month, all spacey or science-related content. Another for the techno-optimist bookshelf, The Case for Space by Zubrin was good fun, opinionated, rigorous and rather inspiring.

Forces of Nature, from the same authorship of The Planets (mentioned last month), was also splendid. The narrator is truly excellent.

Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 by French and Burgess is part of a broader series of histories on various topics in spaceflight. The whole series is pretty good, with only a few exceptions, and this isn’t one of them. Meticulous and narrative-driven, I learnt a lot about Gagarin, Leonov, the Mercury Seven, and the politics that made it all happen. I’ll be continuing this series.

I also finally got a Calendly set up, so if you’d like to chat, feel free to book in a call.

9:10am. May 1, 2022.

Links, March 2022

A lot of spacey content this month, and a lot of crypto, as I left my old job at Pactio and moved into crypto full-time:

Finally got round to reading Values by Mark Carney. Seesaws from economic theory to memoir in a not-uninteresting way. Carney writes well, but sets things up in such a manner as to make his premises seem more interesting than this conclusions. A very safe book. I imagine he’s going to run for public office in Canada some time soon.

Also enjoyed The Power Law by Sebastian Mallaby. Clean writing, thoroughly researched.

Curricula for self-teaching maths and physics from Susan Rigetti.

I wrote a couple of posts on being an enthusiastic amateur.

The first test image from the James Webb Telescope, of the star HD 84406 is pretty spectacular (and even more so the more you learn about it.) You can clearly see the spiralling of the galaxies in the background, each one comprising on average 100 billion stars, and many of them billions of lightyears away. The scale of space is very hard to comprehend.

Nadia Eghbal is writing again, which is always a joyous event, this first new essay a gesture toward a broader project on philanthropy and the tech industry. Her prose is both incisive and imagistic, twisting and deforming ideas in the best way possible, finding their veins, snapping them like kindling.

An essay on infinite ethics, an approach to ethics that takes the existence of infinites seriously, and how infinity fits into the logical structure of existing mainstream ethical theories.

All of physics in nine lines. I’m surprised the basic theoretical scheme of physics is so parsimonious. (Although it might not actually be that parsimonious and this is expository slight-of-hand. What, for instance, explains why there are 27 constants?)

A fun collection of weird ERC-20 contracts, mostly exploits or incompatibilities with conventions.

I enjoyed watching this episode of Solidity Fridays with transmissions11. He articulates trade-offs very well. I took voluminous notes that I’ll type up soon.

On top of my normal reading, I listened to three audiobooks this month. The first, Spacefarers by Christopher Wanjek, is freely available to Audible subscribers, and a smart and deeply technical look about the next thousand years of spaceflight.

The second, The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox, is a book about the history and physics of the Solar System, a companion to the 2019 BBC television series (which is itself really excellent.) Samuel West’s narration is extremely good, and Cohen is a talented science writer.

The third, also available for free on Audible, was a collection of Scientific American articles about Exoplanets. The article format is helpful, and the narrator’s voice is just monotonal enough to fall asleep to.

Emily St. John Mandel wrote a series of notes on GoodReads, discussing various passages from her excellent novel Station Eleven.

Vitalik on the roads not taken.

The user experience problems of quadratic voting. It’s easy to evaluate an approach to some problem in terms of its technical feasibility, or how attractive it is with respect to various theoretical constraints. A lot of the time, its success hinges simply on whether people can understand it.

A very, very good blog post on NHS performance. We need more LessWrong-style analyses of British government policy.