Monthly Archives: March 2020

A week in review, 2020-W13




  1. Clancy Martin, Diary: The Case of the Counterfeit Eggs, London Review of Books (2009-02-12). Walking among the crowded jewellers’ benches I realised that with the right marketing I could make millions. I would have no competitors. The upfront costs of the deal could be financed quickly and easily if we made a few eggs that, so the story would go, I had managed to ‘purchase’ while I was in Russia: a couple of lost Fabergé masterpieces. As in the art and antiquities business, and among philatelists, tricks like these are not unheard of in fine jewellery. I had counterfeited before.
  2. Jerry Useem, How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All, The Atlantic (2017-05-01). (notes) Simply put: Our ability to know the price of anything, anytime, anywhere, has given us, the consumers, so much power that retailers—in a desperate effort to regain the upper hand, or at least avoid extinction—are now staring back through the screen. They are comparison shopping us.
  3. Kristin Iversen, Men Explain Fiona Apple to Me, Nylon (2019-04-29).
  4. Michael Hogan, OK Boomer: How Bob Dylan's New JFK Song Helps Explain 2020, Vanity Fair (2020-03-27). Maybe he is doing the same thing Allen was doing: trying to use his favorite songs and movies as shields against the idea that life is absurd and meaningless. And maybe—I have no idea but maybe?—Dylan is trying to break the chain of political evil by building a chain of artistic goodness. Several of the lyrics suggest that the JFK assassination was the beginning of something very bad. Something that is still plaguing us today
  5. Alex Tabarrok, Sicken Thy Neighbor Trade Policy, Marginal Revolution (2020-03-29). The second reason why export bans are a mistake is that when there are economies of scale banning exports can decrease local consumption. A company that knows that it cannot export will be less willing to invest in building new plant and infrastructure, for example. We see exactly this phenomena in the brain drain “paradox”. Brain drain proponents argue that developing countries need to ban exports of human capital (i.e. don’t let people leave) to keep skilled workers at home. But in fact places like the Philippines, which export a lot of nurses, also have more domestic nurses.


  1. Brian Cox, actor, Desert Island Discs (2020-03-29).
  2. 697: Alone Together, This American Life (2020-03-22).
  3. The Pixies, Where Is My Mind?, Surfer Rosa (1988).


working hard from home, or hardly working from home


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at

A week in review, 2020-W12


  1. Inconsistency vs uncertainty (2020-03-20).
  2. To what nature leads thee (2020-03-17).
  3. Breathe more deeply (2020-03-16).


  1. Jon Methven, Effective Immediately: We Are Closing Our Homeschool, McSweeney's Internet Tendency (2020-03-18). We know there are parents out there who can both love their children unconditionally and also teach them Common Core mathematics. If this global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are not those parents. Just because we chose to close our homeschool, it does not mean your mother and I do not love you. It means we love you enough to know we can either love you or teach you algebra, not both.
  2. Seth Godin, Public health, Seth's Blog (2020-03-16). Often, it’s only coordinated action that can help the entire community. And coordinated action rarely happens without intentional coordination. Don’t do it because you finally got around to it. Don’t do it because it is in your short-term interest. Do it because we all need it done. It’s difficult to overinvest in building and running competent public health systems and management. And sometimes we don’t realize how important the system is until we see how unprepared we are. [Which is why, alas, today is a good day to stay home].
  3. Jeff Huang, My productivity app is a single .txt file, (2020-01-31). My daily workload is completely under my control the night before; whenever I feel overwhelmed with my long-term commitments, I reduce it by aggressively unflagging emails, removing items from my calendar that I am no longer excited about doing, and reducing how much work I assign myself in the future. It does mean sometimes I miss some questions or don't pursue an interesting research question, but helps me maintain a manageable workload.
  4. Jason Kottke, Some People, (2020-03-20). Some people lost their jobs. Some people can’t sleep. Some people are watching free opera online. Some people can’t work remotely. Some people have contracted COVID-19 and don’t know it yet. Some people can’t concentrate on their work because of anxiety. Some people can’t afford their rent next month.
  5. Marc Weidenbaum, Taxonomy of Speakers at MoMA, Disquiet (2020-03-01). When you enter a given space, you may hear something, but excepting rooms dedicated to individual works, it can be unclear which piece correlates with the sound. Speakers are everywhere. Room after room you enter has audio; the question becomes: From which of these many pieces in front of me is it emanating? This isn’t a puzzle. It never takes long to sort out. But in the process of untangling several such circumstances, patterns begin to form and cluster, and in turn a taxonomy of the speakers comes into shape.


  1. E338.我在澳门赌钱,被高利贷囚禁, 故事FM (2020-03-16).


The Beatles, "Hey Jude", David Frost's Frost on Sunday (1968)


ok, we'll stay inside


There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at

Inconsistency vs uncertainty

I would much rather deal with uncertainty than inconsistency—in the short term, at least[1].

Uncertainty is, in simplest terms, not knowing. You can start to append attributes like probability and subjectivity and so on[2], but "not knowing" is good enough. Recognized uncertainty is certain—you know what you don't know. As a result, when faced with a situation that I don't really understand, it's possible to feel comfortable. Internal tension is low—the situation is unknown, and this squares with expectations.

Segue: There is no substitute for a good I don't know. This is important in leadership. It's unfair and unreasonable to expect a leader to have all of the answers; it's unfair and unreasonable for a leader to behave as if they have all of the answers. I don't know. Smells like weakness. But that's just pride. I don't know.

Saying I know when you don't leads to inconsistency in direction—something that is excusable in a fool-me-once kind of way, but eventually signals unreliability and, ironically, more weakness than just admitting to the fact.

Where do we go?

I know. [Order #1]

[gets to work]

I know. [Order #2. Inconsistent and contradictory to Order #1]

OK so we'll go that way then, but that seems a little off.

Actually it isn't off, it's just that you don't understand the nuances. I know. [Order #3. Contains elements of Order #1 and Order #2, with fresh inconsistencies]

Now it appears that we're back at the starting line, heading backwards. I'm not sure that

I'm in charge here, OK. I know. [Order #4...]

Enough. For want of someone nailing down what they know and don't know the initiative was lost.

A needlessly complicated definition of inconsistency might be: oscillating aggregated uncertainty over time. The first direction is certain—or at least appears to be so. The second direction is issued in a certain tone and gives off a smell of subjective certainty—but the contradiction betrays objective uncertainty. And on and on.

Too many words. If you don't know, say so. If the situation changes and a new direction inconsistent with the prior is needed, explain it and move on. The difference between uncertainty and inconsistency is frustration and loss of trust.

[1] In the long term, inconsistency and change can be a virtue—examine the paths you take every day and decide for yourself if it's a principle or a rut. See also:
Mark Twain. "Party Allegiance: Being a Portion of a Paper on 'Consistency' Read Before the Monday Evening Club in 1887". The Writings of Mark Twain, Volume 33

[2] Come for the discussion about knowledge; stay for the igloo of uncertainty.
Tannert, Christof, Horst‐Dietrich Elvers, and Burkhard Jandrig. "The ethics of uncertainty." EMBO reports 8.10 (2007): 892-896.

Some other things that seemed interesting (the first one has been cited over 10,000 times) but I haven't read yet, but to maintain overall behavioral consistency I'll just pass them along with a look-how-smart-I-am-I-brought-papers wink:

  • Kydland, Finn E., and Edward C. Prescott. "Rules rather than discretion: The inconsistency of optimal plans." Journal of political economy 85.3 (1977): 473-491. (pdf)
  • Hsee, Christopher K., et al. "Lay rationalism and inconsistency between predicted experience and decision." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 16.4 (2003): 257-272. (pdf)

To what nature leads thee

From Book 7, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (George Long translation) (Goodreads|review|notes), one of the several thoughts along the lines of "the world outside of you cannot affect you unless you let it":

Everywhere and at all times it is in thy power piously to acquiesce in thy present condition, and to behave justly to those who are about thee, and to exert thy skill upon thy present thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined. Do not look around thee to discover other men’s ruling principles, but look straight to this, to what nature leads thee, both the universal nature through the things which happen to thee, and thy own nature through the acts which must be done by thee.

The last half brings to mind a bit from Thoreau's Walden, in "Economy":

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man,—you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind,—I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.

Feel that tension between doing what you're told and explicitly not doing what you're told. The former is what we get paid to do, most of the time, most of us. (In my opinion, etc.) That's OK. The world needs people like that—most of the time, and most of us. The latter is some kind of spectrum, perhaps from laziness to rebellion. (What axis is that?) You need a bit of this as well, but not too much, not from too many people. Surely we play different roles from time to time, but it's not unreasonable to say that we're typically one or the other.

But what if that get-along kind of behavior isn't really part of one's nature? How does one cope? Jazz seems to me, an ignorant outsider, to be some kind of intelligent, thoughtful, controlled anarchy. Do jazz players like to play from sheet music? Boxy 4:4 beats? But that's where they have to start, right? Students learn the music as some kind of structured heritage—the how the what the why—and then, over time, you have the music in you and you can bend it. So if you can drag or pull yourself through the things that aren't you in the conscious pursuit of who you really are, maybe knowing that you're on the way somewhere is how you can handle the parts of the trip you don't want. (And there's plenty of things in Meditations that say you should just deal with the world gladly, whether you're going somewhere you want to or not.)

More, and further afield: from Gary Klein, "Seeing the Invisible", Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (Goodreads|review|notes):

Knowing how to violate procedures is a type of tacit knowledge

Tension: you can't go off-plan without knowing how and what and why the plan is the way it is. You can't thoughtfully reject something until you understand the thing you're rejecting. (A future post, maybe, about Chesterton's Fence, but in the meantime: Vicky Cosenzo, "Chesterton's Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking", Farnam Street Blog, 2020-03-09)

One more line arises, somewhat unlike the rest, but getting at the point, and I've been waiting for ages to get it out there—Del The Funky Homosapien, "Check It Ooout", from No Need for Alarm:

I love to peep a rhyme / First of all I'm seein' if my man can keep the time / If he go off beat, and it's on purpose / He gotta come back on beat / Or the effort is worthless

Breathe more deeply

I feel comfortable and collected in the chaotic times, although I do not ever wish to experience them.

In quiet times, peaceful times, and so on, when quiet and peaceful people appear to be going about their quiet and peaceful lives—although who can really judge that from the outside looking in, maybe they're just barely holding it together—I myself find it to be something of a struggle to hold it together. It's like sitting in a quiet clearing in the forest, staring up at the leaves and boughs, with a mad dose of tinnitus ripping through the sky. It's not like any kind of hyperactivity where I feel the urge to move on to something else, there's just an underlying disharmony. It's not often destructive, but there are times, there are times.

Contrast that: chaos is calming. For me, anyway. The adrenaline flows and the eyes focus and the world shrinks to the size that it needs to be to get the job done. It's as if all that distracting noise in the larger universe is masked by the commotion of the battle. I wonder if that's what it's like to be a boxer--are those punches coming in at a fraction of the speed that we see them from the audience?

The Virus is unnerving. The Stock Market is unnerving. The Uncertain Future of an engineering company that made its wings out of finance and wax before flying to close to the sun is unnerving.

Breathe more deeply.

I started reading the George Long translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius recently (Goodreads|review|notes), in part, I suppose to help deal with those moments of unpressing uncertainty, when things get crazy but there's really nothing to you can do to affect the situation—to be, as Jules exhorted Yolanda, like three little Fonzies. One line stands out from the end of Book 4:

Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

Unhappy am I because this has happened to me.- Not so, but happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future. For such a thing as this might have happened to every man; but every man would not have continued free from pain on such an occasion. Why then is that rather a misfortune than this a good fortune? And dost thou in all cases call that a man's misfortune, which is not a deviation from man's nature? And does a thing seem to thee to be a deviation from man's nature, when it is not contrary to the will of man's nature? Well, thou knowest the will of nature. Will then this which has happened prevent thee from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent, secure against inconsiderate opinions and falsehood; will it prevent thee from having modesty, freedom, and everything else, by the presence of which man's nature obtains all that is its own? Remember too on every occasion which leads thee to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.

Maybe a little less fancy, but a little more true to my taste, from Ed Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang:

"When the situation is hopeless, there's nothing to worry about."

A week in review, 2020-W11


  1. Drop database (2020-03-10).
  2. Now reading: The Brothers Karamazov (2020-03-11).
  3. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be (2020-03-12).


  1. David Craddock, Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego?, The Video Game History Foundation (2020-03-08). Research entailed more than making up clues. Lock tackled Government, which meant that if a case led students to Bismarck, the state capitol, she was in charge of devising reasons for the pranksters to be there. Other trivia could be so obscure—such as “gandy dancer,” slang for railroad workers and a term very likely to be unheard of to the game’s target audience—that accompanying history texts, assembled by the committee for inclusion with the game, were practically mandatory. Landsleedle and other teachers had accumulated a wealth of information on North Dakota, but had made most of it themselves. North Dakota was such a small state that even book publishers steered clear of it, certain that publications on the region would lose money.
  2. Sophie Gilbert, Marc Maron’s End-of-the-World Anxiety, The Atlantic (2020-03-12). As Maron cycles through snake-oil salesmen and the Fox News bubble and the discomfiting “dovetailing of late-stage capitalism and Christian end-times prophecy,” he seems to touch on a timely insight. The most natural instinct of humankind is to want something to believe in. Whether that’s the second coming of Christ, the affirmation of asanas, or even just the momentary self-definition that comes with posting a picture on Instagram, the desire is the same: to feel like more than an aberration, more than a squishable bug on a giant shoe. Maron knows this better than most. He’s the rare star who found real fame in his 50s, after an early career defined by bit parts and failed auditions and canceled radio shows.
  3. Tyler Cowen, Don’t Worry. America’s Response to the Coronavirus Will Improve., Bloomberg (2020-03-09). To be clear, Americans cannot count on any of these responses to be automatic. And it is still essential for the president and other leaders to send the right signals. Nonetheless, it is too early to write off the U.S. response as pathetic; being a laggard is an old and dangerous American tradition. It is past time, however, to flip the switch and get moving.
  4. Sergio Pistoi, DNA Is Not a Blueprint, Scientific American (2020-02-06). DNA is not a blueprint: it’s a recipe coding for thousands of different proteins that interact with each other and with the environment, just like the ingredients of a cake in an oven. Whereas a blueprint is an exact, drawn-to-scale copy of the final product, a recipe is just a loose plot that leaves much more room to uncertainty. Open a packet of cookies: each one was made from the same recipe and baked in the same conditions, but there are no two that are identical.
  5. Ben Swire, How a Kid's Perspective Improves Design Research, Ideo Blog (2020-01-16). Our project teams grab Quinn for their brainstorms because she listens to the problem and tries to solve it. She doesn’t think about financial viability or the laws of physics—she just thinks. Eventually, it's our job to add those things back in, but in the divergent phase of a project, she's a superstar. Although she's prone to insert dinosaurs and robots into her concepts, she cuts to the core of an issue and simplifies the needs behind it in a way that can inspire us to develop a dinosaur-free solution.


  1. Eric Nam - Love Die Young, Song Exploder (2020-03-11).
  2. S 6 E 11 Don't Go: On Meetings, Akimbo (2020-03-11).


Chef Wang teaches you from scratch: fundamentals techniques of "Wok Tossing". Let's learn!



  • TBD: Nothing, at the moment, but I bet we're all in the market for a good webinar, eh?

There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at

This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be

It's not precisely relevant (bacteria/virus isn't quite tomayto/tomahto, although they're both very small), but this line came to mind recently nonetheless:

Because we humans are big and clever enough to produce and utilize antibiotics and disinfectants, it is easy to convince ourselves that we have banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don't you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.

—Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything. (2003)

This is still one of my favorite books, though I haven't read it in ages (not bad for someone from Iowa). It's really easy to believe that humans are The End of Evolution—The Pinnacle. Don't you believe it. We're only at the top of the food chain (sometimes) because the things that are smaller than us need us to be alive to feed them.

The one main thing I remember about the book is that the entire premise was something like: I don't know how the universe or the things in it work, so I'm going to start at the top (or the bottom, I don't remember which direction it goes) and ask "what is this—and why?" That's a good approach generally but also specifically, in This Time of Virus, when the loudest and most interesting voices on the internet are epidemiologists (NARRATOR: they are not epidemiologists), to take The Road of Curiosity towards problems. It's so much better than The Road of This Opinion I Have Based on My Tribal Alliances Which I Will Now Justify. Right? Pick one aspect of the situation that interests you (what does the virus look like, how long can a virus live on a railing, what is the optimal way to work from home, how do infections spread across a network (my personal favorite ("favorite")), what are good historical analogs to the current problem, etc.) Much better to think about the thing and learn something from it than to just bray your tribe's war cry.

(Wash your hands and stay away from crowds for a while. Don't be a jerk.)

Another line comes to mind... this time from Hocus Pocus (1990) by Kurt Vonnegut:

Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.

Now reading: The Brothers Karamazov

Now reading: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1879) - translated by Constance Garnett (1922) [Goodreads / Goodreads review / Notes]

I don't know anything about this book. Nothing. It was late. I had recently finished the last book I was reading. (Lu Xun, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun) I wanted to read some more fiction in 2020 because I had been reading more-or-less only nonfiction for the last few years. I didn't want to buy an ebook. I didn't want to pick up a book from the library the next day. That meant: going back to the old 1001 Books to Read Before You Die spreadsheet, picking an old book, and then finding a free copy somewhere on Google Books or the Internet Archive or sometimes a free ebook on Amazon. The Brothers Karamazov is the one I picked.

I expected this book to be just about as interesting as that last paragraph, but 40 or so pages in: it's completely absurd. Not at all what I was expecting--I was really expecting something dusty.

I remember off-handedly that Kurt Vonnegut referred to Dostoevsky, so I looked it up. It was a reference to this book in Slaughterhouse-Five:

There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life... it's The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that's not enough anymore.

Plus a quick link now in my read-later pile: Donald Fiene, "Elements of Dostoevsky in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut", Dostoevsky Studies 2 (1981).

Drop database

Lately at work I've been letting others pick up the slack on simple tasks that I had been hoarding to myself for years. Nothing interesting—mostly database maintenance kind of tasks. Nothing intellectually nutritious—mostly things that I had learned to do either because they had to be done and someone had to do it or because someone had done it but not very skillfully and I just don't know when to leave well enough alone. It's work that I know how to do. It's work that I owned, not by any conscious thought rather that I can never get ahead of that default yes that escapes my mouth immediately after someone asks can you help me with this?

I can help with that. But should I help with that?

Death by small tasks. Death by a thousand minutes of a thousand small tasks.

There's a central office that works on these databases in the company anyway, and a smaller one in our division that does the same (but separately, of course). I'm glad I was stubborn enough to avoid all that help for a while—like a drowning man splashing intentionally away from a thrown life ring I taught myself how to swim.

Swimming is a skill. Sure. As is understanding databases. But to what end? Because I know how things work, I know how things work...? It's one thing to practice a skill repeatedly, honing it, respecting it, perfecting it. But this wasn't that. A person could get stuck in that role forever—though not quite forever, really just up until the moment of terminal obsolescence.

Someone stopped by and asked for some help with the database. I didn't answer, not out of pique, not by any strategy, but because my brain was stuffed with cotton balls, couldn't get the thoughts to congeal into words into sentences. And they looked at me with a slightly concerned ok...? before asking if they should ask the database office to take care of it. Yes, please do that.

That database is a monstrosity, and the fools that learn to use it are doomed to keep using it. Say yes until you understand it, then say no. Simple subtraction. Clear out those minutes and use them consciously for something else.

mysql> DROP DATABASE timewaste

A week in review, 2020-W10


  1. Fightflight (2020-03-03).
  2. The bends (2019-03-05).


  1. Giovanni Russonello, Overlooked No More: Valaida Snow, Charismatic ‘Queen of the Trumpet’, The New York Times (2020-02-12). And she often graced the movie screen, helping to bring black music from the vaudeville stage into the audiovisual age. African-American newspapers and the international press celebrated Snow both for her immense skill and for her novelty as a female trumpet master. She encouraged that coverage and bent it to her ends, telling tall tales and making her interviews as much a performance as her stage act.
  2. Deborah Netburn, The flu has killed far more people than coronavirus. So why all the frenzy about COVID-19?, The Los Angeles Times (2020-03-05).
  3. David Lerner Schwartz, How Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Continues to Show Up in Literary Fiction, Literary Hub (2020-03-05). Stories are tools to shape life, providing structure from otherwise chaos. The difference between our lives and narrative is a beginning, middle, and end. I like to think books built for interactivity are less about the linearity of story and more about the power of the cyclical. They prime us to pay attention to interconnection, the possibilities that could be, should be, won’t be depending on factors pre-decided by the author and also chosen by the reader in the moment. Retrospection, too, can be narrative, a looking back at the aggregate. A realization of quantity, a comparison of quality. A gradient instead of a line.
  4. Kate Klonick, What Artificial Intelligence Is Not, BLARB (2020-02-22). Philosophers, ethicists, technologists, and people with blogs have devoted a lot of energy and time to fearing or not-fearing the singularity. The singularity might never happen. Or it might. But if you are in a sinking ship and taking on water, it might be better to spend your time on pumping, fixing holes, and finding lifeboats than worrying about a pirate attack. So too is it perhaps more prudent to spend time on the urgent and knowable problems of AI than those imagined ones that might not ever come to be.
  5. Tracy Mayor, 6 career hacks from Apple VP Kate Bergeron, Ideas Made to Matter (2019-03-14). That said, she tells aspiring managers on her team that they need to be able to let go of a personal sense of ownership on projects. “If it's all about you, stay an engineer. You solved a hard problem. You can take that personal level of satisfaction when the product ships.” Managers, on the other hand, need to be able to draw true satisfaction from the success of others.


  1. E332.代驾司机的夜与欲, 故事FM (2020-03-02).
  2. Starbucks vs Dunkin - A Steamy Culture Clash, Business Wars (2020-03-02).



There might be additional links that didn't make the cut at