14: For the love of war

I recently spent a relaxing week in Utah climbing rocks, splashing around lakes, and exploring canyons. Breaking out of my daily routines reminded me how all the things that had previously hardened into stone could come to life again.

Instead of the $4.50 + $1 tip Ethiopian blend served in artisanal earthenware at a third-wave coffee shop, I sipped strong black liquid from a hefty mug every morning and watched horses amble by my front door. Instead of the 4.7-star Uber Eats order I get delivered to my house every day, I ate watermelon, tomatoes, and burrata. Instead of the hyperoptimized 19- and 32-minute daily walks between cafes, I wandered into gas stations in the hot dry desert middle of nowhere and scavenged for Sour Patch Kids and Gatorade. I chewed on jerky and stared out the window at sand and rocks. Lots of sand and rocks.

Driving for hours across Nevada, I looked at my phone to see what music I wanted to play and realized that all my music is now “productivity music”: the stuff I play to strap in to writing sessions, or alternately to cool down between sessions without losing focus, or to turn my brain off after sessions. I enjoy it, but I don’t listen to music for “fun” anymore. It's more like a drug, a cheap form of wireheading to induce my brain to finish the work I need to get done.

It’s not just music, either. So many things I used to do for fun are now just props for getting things done. AirPods in, Spotify on, coffee and pastry in hand, PAX to numb off extraneous thoughts, medium-length walks in the park to process ideas, books to keep the rhythm going, Mario Kart to squeeze my pupils down into tiny, focused dots. My body is a marionette, and I’m my own puppetmaster.

Some years ago, I watched a standup special from Iliza Shlesinger called War Paint. The title comes from a line where she says: “This isn’t a bra, it’s body armor. And this isn’t makeup, it’s war paint!”. That line stuck in my head over the years, because I think it so wonderfully encapsulates the female experience: how these symbols, often mistaken for weakness or deference, are actually declarative acts. If you do them right, people don’t even realize how hard you’re working, like a duck paddling below the surface, and that’s kind of the fun of it. (Hence the age-old debate: “You don’t need to wear makeup!” “That’s because you’ve never seen me without makeup before.” “Wait, are you wearing makeup right now?” “YES.”)

Writing by myself, six hours a day, for the better part of a year requires transforming all the beautiful things around me into stone, then grinding it into dust. During World War II, phonograph records were commandeered into tires, bacon fat melted into bombs, nylon stockings pulled apart and refashioned into parachutes. Music, games, and walks through the park are not really enjoyable to me anymore, even they appear to be indulgent vices. They’ve been repurposed into body armor and war paint to help me get through my day.

Creative people tend to shy away from war metaphors. They talk about “following your heart” and “expressing yourself”, with the occasional, insolent lapse into hedonistic nihilism. But if making things were light and happy all the time, creative people wouldn’t be so infamously miserable. Making things might be an act of love, but it’s also an act of war.

I guess this might be read as a sort of sad reflection, but I don’t really think there’s room for emotion during wartime. You just do the things you need to do to get through it, and then you pick up the pieces and figure out how to get back to civilian life.
There’s a scene in the first episode of Sherlock where Dr. Watson is captured by a stranger in a suit who calls himself Sherlock’s “arch enemy”. They’re squared off in a dark warehouse, silhouettes illuminated by floodlights. You’re meant to feel afraid on Watson’s behalf. He’s just returned from war, he’s seen some terrible things, and now he’s found himself compromised once again in London. But then Sherlock’s arch enemy points to Watson’s hand. We realize that Watson isn’t afraid at all: quite the contrary. He’s not suffering from trauma, he’s suffering from withdrawal. His hand is steady now, because he craves the feeling of war. This is exactly what he wants.

The danger of war is that it’s fun. We lie to ourselves during wartime, telling ourselves that when this is over, everything will go back to normal, and that’s when we’ll finally relax and enjoy all the things. But after one war ends, another always begins. We're addicted to its taste, the oily way it slides around and clings in our mouths.

On our first day in southern Utah, we went through a difficult canyon: squeezing through walls, shimmying into dark passages, rappelling into quicksand and murky pools up to my waist. I ended up covered in mud, elbows scraped, clothes torn and wet, my shoes squishy and smelling faintly of animal poop. When we finally made our dizzying ascent out of the canyon and began the two-hour hike back to the car, I felt weak with relief, legs stumbling beneath me.

The next day, we unanimously decided to do a shorter canyon to even things out. The canyon was enjoyable, but walking effortlessly between its narrow walls and clambering over the rocks, it felt...easy. Too easy. So much so that the person who was most afraid during our adventure the day before remarked, “You know, something is missing. I’m missing my adrenaline.”

Why do writers write, when it makes them so miserable? Maybe it’s because they feel the need to express themselves. That’s the spiritual answer, anyway. The carnal answer, muffled between sinewy bites of flesh and bone, is that they like it.


Posts I’ve written this month.

  • “Being basic as a virtue”: I wrote about the joys of being basic, and wonder whether it will eventually become a status symbol for knowledge workers.


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

  • Theory around why open source software has succeeded where open science seems to have stagnated (haven’t deeply thought this through, but it’s an idea): software developers don’t tend to directly make money off the code they release, they have day jobs. Whereas in science, in the end you’re judged by your publications / citations. Your value is directly tied to continuing to buy into this closed-off system. So they can’t really make the choice to do things differently, unless it’s stuff they’re doing just for fun (is there an equivalent of weekend projects for academia? Research that ppl do just for fun, in addition to their day job?)

  • Twitch / gaming figured out moderation faster than other social platforms for a lot of reasons, one I think being that e.g. Twitter etc started out as a many-to-many use case and then slowly is trying to backwards adapt to the one-to-many use case. Whereas livestreams were one-to-many from the beginning, with a more clearly defined space to moderate (eg. rooms or streams), vs this big wild frontier of e.g. all of Twitter

  • Two social use cases that I want to see more of: 1) “One-way mirror” (creators put stuff out there, but audience doesn’t participate back) - YouTube videos / Insta w/o comments, newsletters, etc. 2) “Fly on the wall”: Conversations bw mutuals in public (audience doesn’t participate in the convo, but they get to witness a conversation they wouldn’t otherwise be able to join) - podcasts, twitter mutuals, wechat, etc are examples of this

  • I think what I find cool about the antilibrary thing is it shifts the idea of books from being a conduit of information -> being an asset. You can value a book for the ideas it contains, and/or, you can value it for its aesthetic appeal, social signaling, etc. Books don't need to be consumed to transmit value


Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “Intellectual Dark Matter” (Samo Burja): A piece about knowledge (lost, proprietary, and tacit) that we know exists, but isn’t necessarily visible for various reasons. "What is knowledge" is maybe one of my favorite topics that I feel guilty spending time on because I worry it has no obvious practical application, but I can’t stop thinking about it anyways.

  • “Building a Memex” (Andrew Louis): After I wrote about thinking out loud last month, a friend shared this cool project with me, where Andrew is building software for an externalized brain. I’m not sure what the project’s status is, but I had fun digging through his newsletter archive. It’s a treasure trove of trivia and interesting thoughts about externalized brains. (So meta!)

  • “Why I’m Stopping the Fan-Supported Podcast Experiment” (Tim Ferriss): Tim experimented with donations instead of ads for his podcast, but switched back to ads. In a funny way, his audience prefers ads for the same underlying reason that subscriptions often work elsewhere. Tim has a close relationship to his audience, and they want his product recommendations, so they love ads. I think this experiment highlights how there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to funding content. It's easy to hate on ads, but what works for a given audience really just depends on their underlying motives and behavior.

  • “The Reality of Depending on True Fans” (Kevin Kelly): You’ve likely come across KK’s “1,000 True Fans” essay, where he argued that creators don’t need a mass audience to make a living off their work. I hadn’t seen this related post before, which includes a statement from a musician named Robert Rich about what it’s like to have a thousand true fans. While Robert agrees that creators can survive with small audiences, he also talks about the downsides, and how it can be not-so-great to feel like “a tadpole in a shrinking puddle”. Thought it was a good, honest reflection to balance out the optimism of micro-scale patronage mechanisms.

  • “We are in a golden age of illegal sports streaming and it’s showing us how copyright infringement can result in better content” (Ryan Regier): I don’t watch sports, but I’ve been secondhand witness to the pains of streaming sports online among my peers (ok, ex-boyfriends). Anyways, don’t ask me how I ended up on this Medium post, but I liked the conversational style. It felt like sitting at a bar and asking a Canadian dude about his views on illegal sports streams. I particularly enjoyed reading about Velocityraps, a mysterious person in Egypt who streamed NBA games internationally to hundreds of thousands of people and took Bitcoin donations. To the author’s point: “This is a fascinating revelation about illegal streamers. Even though people can acquire content for free from them, they still give them money.”


Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • Closure (why the lucky stiff): A wonderful compilation of essays, vignettes, and drawings from a Ruby developer who unexpectedly quit programming and disappeared from the internet overnight, returning only once to transmit this book. Told through some very amusing, autobiographical-but-not-true stories. I referenced it in this month’s blog post,

  • The Crowd (Gustave LeBon): The back cover tells me that this book influenced such “masters of crowd control” as Freud, Hitler, and Mussolini. Hmm. Yikes. I’ve been feeling sort of bored with the “mobs are bad” narrative, though, so I tried to learn something new from this book. Here are two unexpected takeaways that I had: 1) In addition to great evil, crowds are uniquely capable of great heroics (ex. space race, railroads, cultural norms and traditions). 2) It’s not that “smart people” manipulate the masses. Everyone regularly switches modes between individual and groupthink, regardless of intelligence, and nobody is above crowd behavior. (P.S. This book pairs well with Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer.)

  • The Ph.D. Grind: A Ph.D. Student Memoir (Philip Guo): I never cease to be amazed by how much Philip’s publicly recorded about his life and work process. It's so delightful to peer into someone else's brain. This is a book he wrote about his experience getting a Ph.D., and a cathartic read if you’re in the midst of a long and lonely grind.