11: Super soakers

My brain is dry as a desert these days. I've been holding an uncut gem in my hand, turning it over and over, trying to figure out the best way to make it sparkle. It's hard to think about anything else. Occasionally, I contemplate throwing it back into the sea.

It's easy to get lost in the hallucinogenic fractals swirling before your eyes, their blue-green shapes breathing, sighing, and collapsing into one another, before someone nudges you and goes: ...dude, you've been staring at your hand for forty-five minutes. Right. Perhaps there are infinite worlds contained inside one’s hand, but also, there are so many other adventures to get to.

My whole life has been about maximizing freedom, both personally and professionally, but too much freedom becomes its own sort of weight, making it hard to move lightly across the earth. [1] It turns out that constraints are just as important for producing good work: they give you something to grind against, a grain of sand slipped into an oyster that eventually causes it to produce a pearl. Otherwise, you’re just swallowing endless mouthfuls of seawater.

Anyways. This wasn’t really meant to be about me, just a half-formed apology for not writing something pithier this month. In the meantime, while I zip myself back to shore, here are some shiny baubles I've collected along the beach for you.

[1] Thank goodness for super soakers.

Posts I’ve written this month.

  • “The tyranny of ideas”: I wrote about how the world is run by ideas, not people, and how reputation can become a blessing and a curse for creators.

  • “Advice on starting a microgrant program”: I decided to put Helium Grants (a microgrant program that I ran) on hiatus to free up mental RAM for new ideas. For those who want to start similar programs, I wrote up my takeaways here.

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

  • (from a convo with a friend) “All the work we deeply pursue is basically therapy”

  • Twitter is kind of like a virtualized library/librarian: ask for recommended reading on a topic, get a whole stack of interesting stuff back

  • Thinking about how “developer” is both an actual role in an OSS project, and also a personal identity. Not everyone’s role in an OSS project is that of a developer (as in, they might not write code for the project). But pretty much everyone in an OSS project probably personally identifies as a developer

  • Do we read/enjoy/get less out of fiction as we grow older, possibly bc our mental models of the world are more fully formed?

  • Is there a term like freemium, but pay-what-you-want? You’re not paying for a different product, but some ppl are more willing to front the costs for ppl who don’t care enough (eg. “patrons” vs. casual consumers), so that the content is freely available for everyone

Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “On Subtlety” (Meghan O’Gieblyn): Subtlety as a mode of interacting with the world. One of my favorite things I’ve read all year. I think we assign too much value to bravado.

  • “Speedrunning with Omnigamer” (Eric Koziel): From Henry’s new Maintainers Anonymous podcast. Speedrunning is where you play through a game as fast as possible -- often by exploiting loopholes -- and compete for best times. Eric thinks of each game as its own "scientific field”, where people contribute their knowledge to help others play through faster. But they also have to balance collaboration against the status gains of being “first” or “best”. Lots of parallels with other knowledge fields!

  • “Bringing An Inuit Language Into The Digital Age” (Jennifer Kingsley): Fun read about the process of incorporating an Intuit language into Microsoft products, which required creating new words. The most striking aspect to me is that they felt Inukitut was otherwise “complete” in a pre-digital age. Much like any other knowledge system, however, languages (like software), are never done, because the world evolves around them.

  • What comes after ‘open source’” (Steve Klabnik): Steve makes the case that “open source” doesn’t serve developers today, because it focuses on the distribution/consumption side, whereas what most developers care about today is the production side. I'm biased, but I think this tension basically defines the most pressing questions around content creation today.

  • “What comes after open source” (Denis Nazarov): Two blog posts, same title, different takes! Denis looks at where we’d expect to see innovation in open source, through the lens of services and networks. I particularly like his distinction between logic (code) and state (ability to remember) as a means of pinpointing value.

  • “Fortnite and the Good Life” (L.M. Sacasas): Loved this piece tackling the question of “Do video games have harmful social effects?” Rather than trying to measure whether our behaviors cause “quantifiable harm”, we should start with the question of whether they contribute to our idea of “the good life”. It reminded me of that Louis CK clip about cell phones: they may make you feel neither strong joy or sadness, but it’s still sort of a subpar experience. For the record, I still think video games are part of the good life ;)

Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-Makers (Hortense Powdermaker): I’ve been looking at ethnographies as inspiration for the longer piece I’ve been writing on open source. This one is an ethnography of 1940s Hollywood and how movies are made. One thing that struck me is how bewildered she -- a self-described outsider -- seemed by the movie industry. It’s absurd, it’s memetic...and yet, it keeps growing. Similarly, I think many people are bewildered by the tech industry, which keeps thriving despite its missteps. Personally, I’m delighted by the idea that Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the American dream itself all continue to persist, despite eternal predictions of their impending deaths. Long live the dream factories, which gleefully defy all logic.

  • The design and evolution of C++ (Bjarne Stroustrup): A book about the design decisions, influences, and growth of C++, written by its author. I wish there were books like this for every programming language! I loved that he covers everything from his favorite philosophers, to the effect of writing on blackboards, to his colleagues at Bell Labs. (There’s also a deeper technical dive for those of you who actually use C++.)

  • Invisible cities (Italo Calvino): This book reads like a hazy solipsistic opium dream, hovering somewhere between poetry and prose. Highly recommended if you’re fascinated by cities; its expansive, wandering style, crawling along the stones and streets of imagined cities like fingers stroking Braille, reminded me of Sohrab Sepehri’s The Lover is Always Alone, which is one of my favorite books of all time.