17: Souvenirs

I left my job at the end of October. With a few weeks free before starting a new gig (more on that in a sec) — enough time to relax, but not quite enough to go full-on feral — I decided to let myself ping-pong haphazardly around San Francisco, wandering into shops and bakeries and cafes that I hadn't seen before, which is how I found myself in a tarot store in one of my old neighborhoods.

The shop was hidden deep in the recess of a city block. I'd lived there for years but never noticed it before. To get there, I first had to walk through a sunny, white-washed, garden-filled alleyway. The brightness and babbling fountains provided sharp relief to the warm, dark cave they led me into. I blinked as I stepped inside, temporarily blinded by the dim light, and was greeted by some stranger’s warm voice: "Welcome!"

The space was small, but filled with curious objects. I circled a slow perimeter, floorboards creaking with each step as I peered at every crystal, every tinkling silver charm, letting the sage and burning incense drift among my brainwaves. As I examined the shelves, I overheard a woman give a tarot reading to a man seated across from her. They were seated right in the middle of the store, making no pretense of privacy. The man was ranting about the high cost of health insurance while the woman spoke in a soothing voice, asking whether he could do this or that differently. Eventually, he abruptly stood up and walked away, disappearing into the alleyway. I felt like I'd walked into a cut scene in a video game.

I'd finished my inspection of the goods, but I wasn't quite ready to leave, didn't want to step back into the rude sunshine. So I crossed back to the front of the store and picked up a tarot deck that had caught my eye. "Cat People", it proclaimed. I strode back to the cash register and confidently set it on the counter.

I'd never used a tarot deck before, but in the midst of my catnip haze, I thought it'd be kind of fun to try. The thought flickered in my mind that if I wanted to buy tarot cards, I should just go home, read up on tarot decks, and buy the best one on Amazon; I didn't. Because I didn't really want the "best" deck, but the deck that would make me feel closer to everything that was like it. I bought the deck so I would remember what it was like to run my hands over smooth leather-bound books, to curl my mind around mysterious altars, to stand in a space so quiet that I could hear my pen scratch across the wooden surface as I signed a hand-written receipt, to overhear mysticism and insurance collide, to sneak furtive glances at the tall orange-haired woman ringing up my purchase, her face made up like a Nordic character from Skyrim.

Talismans are souvenirs of the subjective human experience, a way of dropping physical waypoint markers onto our mental map of memories. Like memories themselves, once talismans cease to evoke meaning, they can be discarded to make room for something else. Sometimes this happens quickly, like throwing away a wristband from a music festival. Sometimes it happens slowly, like throwing away letters from an ex.

While creators make things for everybody to enjoy (tweets, videos, blog posts), the things they charge for (books, workshops, merchandise) are more like souvenirs. People don't buy Belle Delphine’s bath water or a Supreme crowbar because they need the thing itself (except for this guy). They do it for the memory of the experience of paying $250 for a jar of bath water. To stand next to other people eagerly waiting in line for 10 hours to buy a crowbar. The strangeness of these objects set us apart from our peers, but they make us feel closer to not just the object’s creator, but to whomever else out there who we dream is pining, quietly, for the same thing.

So, yeah. I started a new job at Substack this week (the platform I use to send out this newsletter), focused on on helping writers thrive. I'm captivated by the idea of enabling creative people to build their own mini-media empires, and I think of Substack as the kernel that makes it easy for writers to do that: starting with newsletters, but also podcasts, and who knows what else down the line.

Subscription models are having a moment right now. I considered taking some time off, but I've had Substack on the brain pretty much all year, so here I am, trying to rid myself of an Ohrwurm.

With my final week of vacation, I spent some time in Palm Springs, lying alone in the sun and thinking about nothing. I got bored enough to try my hand at my first "Cat People" tarot reading. Honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I put it all together, I was like “hmm, that’s pretty good!". So in lieu of saying anything else about why I joined Substack, here’s my tarot spread on the matter, with a guide to the 10-card Celtic Cross layout (with positions 3 and 4 flipped, because apparently the internet trumps the instruction booklet tucked into my deck), and a guide to the meanings of the cards (although you’re missing out on my cat-specific version). Knock yourself out.

While we're on the topic of New Age divination: apparently it’s getting trendy again. Wandering around the little tarot shop, I wondered whether the renewed interest might parallel "being basic as a virtue", which I wrote about a few months ago. Both seem like a symptom of a deeper desire to be playful with one's identity. Maybe we like astrology and tarot and White Claw for the same reason we like alts and costumes and Burning Man and pseudonymous shitposting. Isn't it fun sometimes to submit to the hive mind, to deliberately occupy the mystic's world, in which "right" and "wrong" aren’t even part of one’s vocabulary?

(P.S. Here's one last clue that there might be more to the astrology trend than meets the eye: I recently learned that Co-Star, one of the most popular astrology apps, is written in Haskell.)

Final thoughts. I still plan on writing this newsletter, but it's likely it will evolve to accommodate my new lifestyle, so excuse the dust as I figure out a rhythm that works for me. I originally switched to the structure you're reading as an accountability mechanism for my research, when I had a lot of mental roaming time. Now that I'm re-entering the land of the living, I might make this a little more freeform, with fewer links and more unstructured writing. As we evolve, so do our artifacts. Stay tuned...


Posts I’ve written this month.

  • “Reimagining the PhD”: I wrote about how I structured the past 4-5 years of my life as an independent research program, and wonder how we might reimagine the PhD outside of academic constraints.


Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • Is infrastructure getting more expensive bc of the equivalent of technical debt? (Infrastructure in e.g. 19th and 20th century was “greenfield”, now anything new has to build upon existing systems, and maintenance is expensive)

  • Ppl talk about religion missing in our lives in terms of community and personal meaning, but what about confessions? What plays the role of confessions, repenting, asking for forgiveness, today?

  • Spaced repetition, but with your own writing / blog posts / etc


Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “No Time” (Mark Fisher): I watched this video maybe a year ago, but I stumbled upon my notes again and am still blown away by how good it is. Mark talks about “communicational parasites” (ex. constantly checking your phone) that serve as “trance inhibitors” (the inability to deeply lose yourself in a moment). It’s a topic we’ve heard plenty about, but Mark expresses it through a certain Lovecraftian quality of horror, where we stare into a void and realize there is nothing there. Our phone obsession isn’t a crisis, then, but a “shocking banality”. “People have always risked their lives for things that they've enjoyed”, but risking it to read a text message while driving...“this is the death drive”. The line I most keep coming back to is this: "How do we articulate this in a way that's not totally reactionary?" I think Mark’s question applies to basically all public discourse today. How do we break out of the culture-counterculture-countercounterculture rubber band to critique our culture in ways that are generative?

  • “Small b blogging” (Tom Critchlow): Tom writes about blogging for the “right” audience instead of blogging for everyone. A friend first articulated this concept to me a few years ago, and it changed the way I think about my writing. (It also takes away a lot of the anxiety!) Tom also paves the way for thinking about how a more widespread approach to blogging this way might look, which reminds me a lot of what’s happening with personal newsletters now.

  • “Portrait of an Inessential Government Worker” (Michael Lewis): A longer piece about a guy named Art Allen, who worked for the Coast Guard for 40 years as an oceanographer, largely alone, trying to map out how people and things get lost at sea. Although it’s not framed this way, Art’s story is the quintessential independent researcher story to me. A few highlights: 1) Art repeatedly boggling that “no one really knew” the answers to the questions that consumed him. I think it’s this aspect of independent research that makes the world feel so small to me (in a good way!); 2) The conscious intertwining of theory and practice as a means of getting to those answers; 3) A certain reverence for the inexplicable curiosity that drives Art, and others, to go deep into a subject. (Art: “I have an aunt who studies the genetics of mushrooms. I don’t know why she finds mushroom genetics beautiful and fascinating, but she does.”)

  • “Memos” (Sriram Krishnan): Speaking of random obsessions, I love this collection of memos that Sriram is putting together, ranging from Starbucks to the 49ers, with a bunch from Microsoft and Facebook specifically. I think of memos as a kind of blog post, just written for a specific audience. The fact that they usually remain internal makes them extra-rare artifacts of knowledge!

  • “Spoken Binary (and Hexadecimal)” (Castedo Ellerman): A system for learning to speak numbers based on powers of two. I laughed out loud when I saw this, because I immediately recognized that delicious, fruity watermelon taste of a weekend project. I don’t actually know how long it took Castedo to come up with this, but you know what I mean: when you get a weird idea in your head and decide you just need to hammer it out, because why the heck not.


Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • Free Flight (James Fallows): I stumbled upon this book because I first read James’s tongue-in-cheek critique of The Economist from 1991, and it made me giggle so much that I was like “Ok I need to find something else written by this guy”. So I picked this one, published just before 9/11, about our commercial flight system and whether light aircraft (i.e. smaller planes) could present a better alternative to travel. I liked this book even more than I thought I would. James is a pilot himself, and his passion for the topic is infectious. From a systems perspective, I think commercial vs. private planes share corollaries with the tradeoffs of centralized vs. decentralized protocols. And the stories of companies trying to build new planes reminded me of Tesla and electric cars. Finally, I loved the stories about pilot culture, and how their stubborn libertarianism can often collide with making improvements to pilot safety.

  • Flatland (A. Square): This book is about a square (yes, A. Square) living in a 2-D world who then discovers the world of 3-D and 1-D. I thought it was fun! It’s like if H.L. Mencken’s In Defense of Women were repurposed for a geometry classroom. Like Mencken’s writing, some parts of Flatland are so ridiculous that its readers are divided as to whether it’s incredible satire or incredibly awful. (Side note: I’m always amused by publishers’ attempts to rebrand controversial writing for mainstream appeal. I once saw a movie poster for Lolita that called it a “hilarious comedy”. I suppose we take the teeth out of uncomfortable subjects by adding a laugh track.)