Jamie on Software

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, 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.

The trade-offs are worth it

I’m very prone to greener-grass thinking.

Sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that the grass is greener, because, well it is. Sometimes you’re not in the best possible timeline, and bringing it to your own attention is the first step toward changing it.

But it’s often unhelpful, too, and can trap you into a cycle of distraction and dissatisfaction. You change something, because the grass over there is greener, and you reinforce the preferences you have for novelty. The less you develop the ability to stick with something, focus, persevere, the more difficult it becomes the next time you must.

The more vulnerable you become to your own whims.

The more often you throw away something valuable, because you’re suffering under some sort of novelty bias and what appears to be objectively better is simply fresher.

So it can be useful to reframe how you view your current situation. When I regret some decision because the alternative looks easier, or if I suspect I have made a mistake, I can find solace in the knowledge that:

  1. It can be easy to forget you’re making trade-offs explicitly and knowingly;
  2. and, the tradeoffs are generally worth it.

The beginning of anything requires a first step. A new job, a new purchase, a new skill or hobby, a new relationship. If you’re a thoughtful and goal-oriented person, you will consider whether this the right step for you. Something that might appear to be obvious at the time might be a mistake later, and you know this, so you take your time, weigh up your options. Consider the pros and cons and decide to act.

The next day, you’re in the honeymoon phase. The cons are irrelevant. The pros are even better than you expected. You enjoy the present. You look forward to the future with anticipation, with giddiness, with glee.

Some days later, the pros and cons look evenly balanced. You’re less interested than you once were, but stasis is a powerful force, so you do nothing about it.

Some days further, the cons are now what is salient. What began as small pet peeves or niggling doubts have blossomed. The cons are so overwhelming, so frustrating, that you cannot imagine why you could ever have thought the pros might outweigh them (or, hell, even counterbalance them!)

What seemed like a good idea now looks like a set of inappropriate, naïve preferences borne from the brain of somebody who knew less than what you do now.

But here’s the thing. You made those tradeoffs. You considered the pros, you considered the cons.

You might have missed some of the cons initially; not everybody gets it right first time. But this also applies to the pros. Are there not things about your role, your club, your partner, your commitment, whatever it is, that are unexpectedly pleasant, as well as unexpectedly not-so?

If it appears not, then consider this: even if you were able to predict everything a priori, do you think you’d be weighing the cons and pros appropriately after the cons have become so aggravating that you felt the need to reweigh them in the first place?

People only really reflect on whether their decisions were correct when they have reason to suspect that they weren’t.

People don’t look to upend the boat when they’re enjoying the journey.

So your re-evaluation may be happening from a place of more intimate knowledge, but it’s also happening from a place of discomfort.

There are definitely times when you should re-evaluate. When you are being harmed. When you have good reason to suspect you misjudged it all initially. Or when your preferences have changed significantly since then.

But there are lots of times when you shouldn’t. When, were you to reflect in a pro-dominant phase, you’d conclude quite differently.

The grass is always greener, Jamie.

The tradeoffs are usually worth it.

4:34pm. January 1, 2022.

Book Hour

A while ago, J and I noticed we’d lie in bed, fiddling with our phones for 30, 40, 45 minutes, an hour, many, most mornings, every morning. Sometimes our fiddling was productive, clearing emails, writing lists, researching some topic or other – but most of the time, it wasn’t.

And it’s easy to justify it to yourself if it’s AngelList, or LinkedIn: you’re keeping up with career options. Hacker News is obviously of great professional concern to a software engineer. Twitter keeps you wired into the zeitgeist. And, as for Facebook, what could be more important than friends and family?

The point, of course, is that I’m fickle and distractible and the only thing that can salvage my mornings, whittle and form them out of the chaos, is to leave the matter out of my hands entirely. Leave motivation and bandwidth in the hands of a /system/, and make delivery an inevitability – or at least a reliable expectation – rather than something subject to whimsy and caprice.

So we built a system, and we call it “book hour”. Every morning, we read, at least, a few pages of a dead-trees paper book. Before touching our phone.

A glimpse of analog before our days become digital.

You can turn off your alarm. If somebody calls you, you’re allowed to answer. And it’s flexible: if you both agree on an exemption – early start, late start, got to catch a flight, etc. – then it’s allowed.

But it turns out that we rarely need an exemption, because beginning your day with a few pages of a book is actually a really nice thing to do.

So, incentives:

Carrot: you end up reading more, and, in a relaxed and controlled manner, gradually phase into your day.

Stick: If you touch your phone before reading a few pages, £10 goes in a savings pot in our joint bank account. When the pot reaches some amount, we take ourselves out for dinner.

This is good because it serves the psychological function of an incentive without any great real-terms material loss (we’d probably spend the money on eating out anyway.) It hurts without hurting.

It’s effective, and I urge you to try it out if you too are looking for an easy and fun way to cut down on screen-time.

It’s also, I think, illustrative of a more general approach to productivity, good work, and human happiness:

Build systems that minimise friction, and, where appropriate, align your incentives with your interests.

Research is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can build routines which encourage regular, structured work and limit the possibility of procrastination.

Memory is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can use spaced-repetition to minimise friction and make long-term memory a choice. (As for incentives: how about an Anki hour?)

The shape and structure of data is chaotic, but it’s okay, because we can work with statically typed languages and write unit tests, both of which have all kinds of good upstream effects.

The world is chaotic, but it’s okay, because systems help tame it.