this is the occasional blog of jamie rumbelow: a software engineer, writer and philosophy graduate who lives in london.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.