Soren Bjornstad's attopublish stream

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This is the microblog of Soren Bjornstad. When I publish something interesting on the web, want to share someone else's interesting thing, or just have a thought that doesn't feel like it should stay confined to my head, it makes its way here. You might also be interested in Random Thoughts, which has similar content but a different audience (the audience is me, and I publish it in case it's useful to someone), my Zettelkasten, and my formal blog, Control-Alt-Backspace.


My favorite dream title ever

In the score of a choral work I was looking through in the dream, a movement title: “O pants go another way, our Godless figure.”

(Pants are inherently funny. I think that carries over to their use in a title.)

Lutheranism / typography crossover joke

I thought of this one in church this morning:

A scholar was preparing a new edition of the Catechism and, at long last, it was ready to publish. She sent the manuscript on to the printer with a sigh of relief. A few days later she got the proofs in the mail for a quick check – but when she opened up the envelope, she found that, while the layout was beautiful overall, the alignment of nearly every paragraph was messed up, with random ragged edges on both margins all the way down the page. Irritated, she called the printer and asked how they thought they could skip doing half the job.

“Ah!” the printer said. “Well, we talked about it, and we thought in this case you would prefer to have the text justified not by work, but by faith alone.”

Ringing off the hook

In thinking about #171, I was reminded there is also the idiom “to ring off the hook,” meaning to get so many calls the phone is ringing constantly. (Confusingly, if your phone is ringing off the hook, you might have to take it off the hook so you can relax!) But I couldn't explain exactly what this kind of ringing had to do with being off the hook – after all, the intended result of the phone ringing is that it ends up off the hook because somebody answers it, right? Why is that any different when you get a lot of calls compared to just one?

It seems nobody else knows for sure either, but I found at least two plausible theories:

Being off-hook is no more

I was playing a cover of Billy Joel's song “Vienna” for a friend the other day, and we came to this line:

Slow down, you crazy child,
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.

I remarked that if you didn't grow up with landlines, this line now makes absolutely no sense, only a few decades later. We still say “pick up” and “hang up,” which often don't correspond to anything you're physically doing with the phone anymore, but at least there the metaphor is transparent; even if you've never “hung up” a phone, you can imagine how that would work and figure out what it meant.

“Take the phone off the hook” is a different kind of datedness. First of all, in its physical interpretation, it would seem to mean the opposite of what it actually means: surely you would take the phone off the hook if you were getting ready to make a call. You need a lot more context to figure out what the phrase means, and I don't think the song is enough. You can understand from the lyrics that it somehow means you're going to be taking time for yourself, but I don't think you'd be able to explain why if you'd never used a landline.

A picture of a phone taken off the hook.

For those reading this who in fact fall into this category (now I feel old): when you're not using a landline, the handset rests on a little spring-loaded tongue called the “hook”. When you pick up the phone to dial a number or answer, the hook pops up and opens the line so you can listen and talk. While the hook is raised, your phone won't ring and anyone calling you will hear the busy signal, because normally when the hook is raised, you're talking to someone already.

Consequently, if you, intentionally or unintentionally, leave the phone off the hook when you're not actually making a call, the phone will never ring. Because it's a dumb mechanical switch, this is true even if, say, the last person you were talking to hung up an hour ago and you got distracted and left the phone sitting on the coffee table.

Beyond that, though, the original phrase is basically untranslatable into modern terms. Imagine: “Put your phone on Do Not Disturb mode and disappear for a while”? It's much harder to make software menu choices sound poetic than physical objects. Even more importantly, there's a way in which taking the phone off the hook felt a little subversive, because it wasn't something you were supposed to do. Both by design (the phone exchange would scream at you with that obnoxious tone through the earpiece) and by social convention (in the late 20th century, if a phone was ringing, someone was expected to answer it, and intentionally making the phone impossible to answer doesn't really meet that obligation!). Now that we have a purpose-designed do-not-disturb mode, you can't really evoke this feeling anymore – turning it on, or just deciding not to answer the phone, is completely normal.

Interestingly, that comes at the same time as our boundaries around disconnecting have gotten even worse than they were at the time this song was written. I'm not sure what to make of that. Maybe it's that our enemy in staying calm and relaxed used to be other people bothering us, and now it's us searching for novelty.

Just no

Websites that rebind Ctrl+T to something else so that you can't open a new tab while you have their tab focused are the absolute worst. No, your site is not so important that I never want to go to some other website while I have yours open.

Injury lawyer injured in effigy
A bus bench with an ad for a personal injury lawyer on its back, unanchored from the pavement and tipped over so the lawyer is sprawled on his back.

(Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas.)

Banishing cheap plastic from my workspace

I recently came to the realization that things that are unnecessarily made out of cheap plastic don't just feel cheap themselves, but can also make a whole space feel less pleasant when there are too many of them (at least to me). I'm currently working on making my workspace a bit more sparse, as I think it helps me focus, and have been trying to pay attention to this rule, too.

Some things, of course, can't reasonably be made out of other materials: plastic makes great keycaps, for example, and it's hard to think of another material that would do well. But you have a choice with a lot of the things that you handle. Wooden pencils or metal drafting pencils, not semi-disposable plastic mechanical pencils. Plexiglass Post-it note dispenser, not smelly black plastic. Wooden trays. Ceramic plant pots and pencil cups. Brass page markers. Glass and porcelain drinking glasses and mugs. Metallic braided cables. Leather phone case.

The desk somehow feels more real and serious.

Please go see a total solar eclipse sometime in your life

I made a crazy trip to go see the total solar eclipse in the US last week. I intended to watch from the lower Midwest / South, but after I'd settled in at Little Rock and started killing time for a couple days (having come from seeing family at Easter nearby), the cloud forecast looked so bad that I hopped on a flight to Albany and drove to cloudless skies in Quebec instead, not wanting to take the chance of having to wait another 20 years for the next one in the US. (Why Quebec? It was the only place in the Northeast in the good-weather zone where I could still find a hotel room at the point that I re-booked. Good thing I happened to bring my passport on a trip to Arkansas.)

But I digress. Guys, you have to go see one of these if you ever have a chance. It was totally worth even this action-packed itinerary. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it was both the most beautiful and the most awe-inspiring thing I've ever seen. People don't seem to talk about this much for some reason, but about half of people cry; personally, I was laughing uncontrollably and crying at the same time.

(And just to be clear: people often mistakenly think a partial solar eclipse is very similar to a total solar eclipse and they've already basically seen one. Even a 99% partial solar eclipse is nothing at all like a total one; it's an entirely different set of phenomena. Annie Dillard famously wrote that it's like the difference between kissing a man and marrying him: one precedes the other, but in no way prepares you for it. A partial solar eclipse is worth going outside and looking up at the sky to see, but ultimately a curiosity; a total one is among the best spectacles this planet has to offer.)

I don't have any pictures of totality, even bad ones, because it was such a crazy experience I completely forgot I had intended to quickly take a couple! But here are a couple from the hilltop where I watched:

Me with eclipse glasses on a hill, looking up at the sun. Pinhole projection through my travel blanket, showing crescents from the partial eclipse. Eclipse observation app showing my chosen location.
Powdered dishwasher detergent is the only reasonable kind

For some reason, people persist in making and buying other kinds, and I don't get it.

The little packs are supposedly more convenient, because you don't have to measure them. But how hard is it to measure dishwasher detergent? Step one, open the cap and pour into the reservoir until the reservoir is full. Step two...there is no step two, you're done. Do you drink individually bottled water at home because it's too hard to measure the water when you fill up a glass? It's the same thing! Meanwhile, if the packs get even slightly damp or your hands are wet when you pull the packs out, they get messy; they sometimes don't dissolve and spread out properly; if you have a non-standard dishwasher size, you get the wrong amount of detergent; and if your dishwasher has a pre-rinse function and you can't fit the pack inside the flip-shut door, the detergent gets used up before the proper cycle starts. Also, they're more expensive. All that because it's too hard to pick up the box of dishwasher detergent, open the spout, and pour detergent into the dishwasher?

Meanwhile, gel makes even less sense. If you spill powdered detergent, you can just sweep it up; if you spill gel, it's incredibly messy. Gel is also heavier, less compact, and more expensive because you're paying to transport water, which, in case you didn't notice, is going to fill the dishwasher in just a moment anyway. And you don't even get to skip thinking about how much to pour.

🔗 Places I've been

I spent a few hours putting together a map of everywhere I've ever been. The resolution varies somewhat, but it at least includes a pin for every city, town, or major natural feature I've visited, and sometimes some more detailed points. This was a really fun project to put together! I intend to keep it updated going forward.

In which incorrectly calculates unit prices

I was buying some Kleenex on Amazon and was about to select a pack of 8 because that was about how many I needed, when I looked at the quoted unit price and was slightly surprised, because the unit price was less than half that of the 3-pack:

A 3-pack, 120 count: $4.16 per 100 sheets. An 8-pack, 120 count: $1.70 / 100 sheets.

A quick multiplication by 3 in my head in an attempt to resolve the dissonance set off alarm bells. The unit price on the left is more than double the unit price on the right, but when you multiply it out, if you buy 3 of the 3-packs you get 9 boxes of tissues for a couple cents less than $15, which is less than the price for 8 boxes shown on the right!

Closer inspection yields the unavoidable conclusion that the first unit price is just plain wrong:

It appears that somehow the “pack of 3” part didn't get included in the first calculation, but did in the second (if there were 120 sheets total in the pack of 3 it would be correct).

This is the listing for Kleenex on Amazon – hardly an unpopular product – so it's kind of shocking this could be left wrong for any significant amount of time. I reported an issue, so we'll see if they fix it:

Correspondence to Amazon complaining.

Never thought I'd be telling one of the world's largest retailers that they can't do math.

What problem is the thing you're explaining trying to solve?

Yesterday I ran across David MacIver's “How to Explain Anything to Anyone,” which makes the interesting point that it's often more helpful to explain new ideas beginning with the problem they're solving, rather than the solution.

This helped me come up with a much better elevator speech for RemNote; I've always been dissatisfied with my explanation, and I get a lot of time to be dissatisfied with it because people ask me what I do for work all the time! I tell people that it combines notes and flashcards, uses learning science to help you remember more efficiently, etc., but I can't help but think it sounds incredibly boring and not really novel in any way.

We're solving two important cascading problems at RemNote, so we can explain it better like this:

One reason learning and being creative is hard is because we constantly forget earlier things we've learned and have to relearn them. There's already a highly effective way to solve this problem called spaced repetition, which presents flashcards to you at optimal moments and lets you remember anything for your whole life with only a couple minutes' effort.

However, right now making flashcards that work well is too hard. RemNote aims to address this problem and make better learning accessible to everyone:

  • We allow you to efficiently write flashcards right within your notes, so you can create them as you're reading a book or listening to a lecture without any extra steps.
  • We use AI to help you automatically create flashcards, then understand why flashcards you're struggling with are hard and fix them.
  • We'll eventually provide well-designed flashcards – maybe with associated learning materials – off the shelf for common topics or courses of study.

About a year ago, in #70, I noted that I'd been stumped on explaining what TiddlyWiki was to someone I had just met – and I had just written a book on TiddlyWiki! I think part of the issue here is that TiddlyWiki doesn't solve a unified problem; it's a general enabling environment that solves different problems for different people. For me, I think it solves some problem like this:

A key way I think is by writing. But traditional ways of organizing writing-as-thinking, like journals, have a major problem in that you lose track of everything you've written on a previous topic; writing helps you get material out of your brain, but in some sense your record is write-only. TiddlyWiki offers a highly customizable wiki-like work environment, so I can link my thoughts together in a way that prevents them from getting lost, and make the workspace and organization work exactly the same way as my brain.

This still feels underwhelming, though. It may be that the tools for thinking don't wow problem is stronger with TiddlyWiki. And we have lost a great deal of generality. Oh well, it was a nice try.

I've changed my mind about listing your pronouns

In other words, in the signature of an email to someone I don't know, I might write, e.g., “Soren Bjornstad (he/him)”, and I think this is a good idea.

To be clear, this is not, like, something I decided yesterday, it's been my opinion for a while, but today I realized that I didn't currently have mine on my landing page and added them, and I noted that a couple of years ago I definitely wouldn't have seen that as worth doing, so here I am saying this.

I used to suppose that the only reason to list your pronouns as a cis person was that it was nice, because it made people who needed to list them to not get misgendered all the time stand out less. Then I reasoned it was just too much to ask (at least among general audiences) for everyone to take up a bunch of extra space when introducing themselves to slightly improve the lives of a small minority of people.

Is that true? Maybe, maybe not? It's going to depend on your values, and probably on who you know. (I'm happy to admit that I care a lot more now than I used to because I've gotten to know a lot more people for whom this is a big issue – the phenomenon of caring more about problems you're closer to is just part of human nature I'm afraid.) But I kind of don't care, because there's a much better argument: this is actually a classic universal design situation, where a change benefits everyone, not just the minority. Online and in writing, pretty frequently, even if someone has a completely normative gender presentation in real life, you still can't tell their gender or pronouns! You're relying on having a name that's gendered, and all of your readers being familiar enough with the name to know that. (Soren is never a female name as far as I'm aware, but it's unusual enough where I am that once in a while I get someone who thinks I'm a woman.) And in writing, your eyes will just skip right over the pronouns if they're what you expected, once you have some basic familiarity with the idea.

I remember once reading an entire novel and then flipping to the back page and seeing a picture of the author, and realizing that I had thought the author was a man for all 250 pages and she was actually a woman. That feeling is shocking!
🔗 200-foot AM radio tower disappears (Ars Technica)

This might be the most impressive thing I've ever heard of someone stealing: an operational AM radio tower. Should someone try to sell you a radio tower, please get in touch with the station.

Do lots of mid-to-high-income households really have no savings?

There's a common narrative that you can be living paycheck-to-paycheck at any income level, and that this is shockingly common – some ridiculous percentage of people with $100,000 household incomes still can't pay for a modest unexpected expense out of savings!

But when I went to look up this statistic recently, something gave me pause. The Bankrate article linked shows this chart:

Shoulder bag. Contents of images are described below each.

It struck me that, though I have perfectly adequate emergency savings, if presented with this survey, I might well choose “reduce your spending on other things,” which means Bankrate would count me as part of the (implicitly financially unprepared) “majority of U.S. adults [who] wouldn't pay for an emergency expense...from their savings account,” and which often gets rounded in discussions surrounding this issue to “people who couldn't pay for an unexpected $1,000 expense from their savings.” But while borrowing money to pay for an unexpected expense is a last resort that you want to avoid, reducing your spending on other things is an even better response than paying from your savings, if you can do it without major discomfort. After all, if you want to bring your emergency savings back to whatever comfortable level you had set it at before, you're going to have to divert some money into there eventually anyway; why not just do it right away, if you can?

I usually handle unexpected expenses by charging them to my credit card and moving some money from other categories in my YNAB budget to cover it. If I have to, I might take some of that money from a savings category, even the “emergency savings” one, but I'll be aggressively filling it back in starting with my next paycheck. If I stop channeling new savings into whatever I'm currently saving for and point it to refilling the loss here instead, chances are I'll cover it by the time the credit card bill actually hits my bank account, which will take upwards of a month from the expense. (Getting ~45 days to pay by using a credit card is a free service as long as you pay your bill in full every month!) So in some sense, even if I took money out of the “emergency savings” category – which I might not do at all; maybe I'd just delay another major purchase for a month or two – I only “used my emergency savings” on paper.

This got me curious, and I dug into the rest of their data. They say that 70% of households with a yearly income of at least $100,000 or more would pay with savings, which does seem fairly bad for that level of income, but then lower down they find that 75% of such households had enough savings to cover three months of household expenses. I'm quite sure that three months of household expenses for a $100,000-per-year household is sufficient to cover a $1,000 expense! Clearly these households just wouldn't want or need to pay the expense from their savings, perhaps for reasons like mine. Unfortunately, the exact details of the survey don't appear to be publicly available, so we don't know much about what they say they'd do instead.

It is true that this still means 25% of $100K+ households don't have three months of expenses saved, and the survey finds that 5% of them have no emergency savings, which is bad, sure. I'm not saying that I now believe it's impossible to be paycheck-to-paycheck on a high income; obviously it is. But a single-to-low-double-digit number of $100K+ households being financially irresponsible doesn't really seem shocking.

Minor Gripe: In the survey question, they count “car repair” as an unexpected expense. If you own a car, I can all but guarantee it's going to need $1,000 of repairs at some point (if not, can I buy your car?), so this hardly seems unexpected. Car owners should be saving separately to fix their car; when you need repairs, you pay out of your “car repair” money and barely even notice.
In which I make flashcards to remember where I put my glasses

This is probably the most creative use I've ever made of my SRS. I'm going to try to see the April solar eclipse in the US, so I bought some eclipse glasses ahead of time, as they tend to become difficult to find if you wait to buy them. However, I couldn't figure out where to put them in the meantime so I don't have to tear the house apart looking for them come April; I don't own anything else much like them, and I don't have a specific place for items I want to take on future trips.

My solution: Put them in the box with my clothes iron in my bedroom (purely because it was distinctive and there was plenty of space), then create a flashcard asking where I put my eclipse glasses. Even in the event that I don't remember the actual answer, I'll for sure remember that I made a flashcard about it and can go search my knowledge base for it.

The expectation that things won't last

I was at Home Depot today picking up a few things, and an employee came up to me in the trim aisle trying to pitch their spring sale, 25% off all HVAC equipment and installation. He asked me if I needed anything replaced in this area. I told him no, and he persisted, “Well, how old is your heating and air conditioning?”

I told him my co-op's steam boiler was 102 years old. He mumbled something about how old equipment lasts, then still insisted on clarifying that I'm not solely responsible for deciding to replace it before he wandered off.

But that got me thinking: that boiler is original to the building (which is how I know its age to the year). It was originally coal-fired; at some point it was retrofitted to run on natural gas, and it's still working great today, needing only occasional regular maintenance (one of my neighbors learned and became a licensed boiler technician to take care of it on the cheap). All the radiators are original, too. One of mine kind of needs a new coat of paint, that's about it.

Of course, nowadays you're lucky if your new furnace lasts 15 years, maybe 10, so this seems remarkable. But isn't it actually more remarkable that we think it's reasonable that an expensive climate-control unit only lasts for ten years? This is wild. The original heating systems in early 1900s buildings usually outlived the building, and that shouldn't even be that hard, because most buildings get torn down or changed beyond recognition long before they reach the end of their usable life. We've just decided that it's normal to buy things that suck and can't be maintained and repaired.

Do we have better heating nowadays? I'm not even sure about that! Steam heat is way more pleasant to live with than forced-air heat or electric baseboard heat, though roughly equivalent to hydronic systems. Most steam systems do lack per-unit thermostats, but surprisingly this doesn't prove to be much of an issue; when I first moved into a building without them, I thought it was going to be terrible, but after the first few weeks, I just shrug on the occasional days when my apartment is slightly too hot or too cold (we're talking like 5°F maximum), go “It's a little cold today!” and put on a sweater. Some natural variation is good for you; it's almost like pleasant changes in indoor weather.

And sure, newer boilers and furnaces are more efficient, but you know what's inefficient? Buying an entire new furnace every ten years. I'm sure we could save money on the gas bill if we ripped out the entire steam-heating system and replaced it with a modern hydronic system, but that would be insanely expensive and I guarantee you that one wouldn't last another 102 years. If, on optimistic assumptions, we managed to redo the nineteen-unit-plus-basement building with a whole new HVAC system for $100,000, and this cut our winter energy bill in half for a savings of about $2,500 per year, I still don't think we'd ever make it back – even before discounting, it would take 40 years to break even, and good luck getting a modern commercial HVAC to last 40 years. Far better to invest the difference and have it ready when the old one at long last becomes unrepairable – and who knows when that will be? Maybe it'll last so long the point will be moot by then (e.g., maybe the building burns down or we sell it and it's no longer our problem).

Anyway, I want to choose more things that last for my apartment, so please tell me off if I try to get vinyl flooring or whatever badly-aging material or appliance is fashionable.

Tangent: The folks who installed the heat here also made the brilliant design decision not to put a radiator in the bedroom. Because you can't just go turn the heat up and down when it's the wrong temperature, the people who laid out heating systems used to have to think very carefully about things like the wind direction, where the sun would shine during the winter, the number of windows in the room, how heat would spill from and to adjacent apartments, and the ideal air temperature for each activity, so the temperature would end up right. So here the bedroom is automatically about five degrees cooler, matching most people's preference for a slightly cooler sleeping area, and you can adjust it anywhere from about three to seven degrees depending on the weather and your personal preferences by deciding how far open to leave the door when you go to bed. Only the most expensive heating systems today have an effective way to set a different temperature in one room than another, and here with 1920s technology it happens automatically!
Topic: Anti-ennui

Mark Forster's Autofocus productivity system is a method of working through a to-do list where you identify the task to work on next by scanning through one page of your list at a time and doing the task that “feels right” at that moment. This is intended to ensure that you're doing something you feel motivated to do and capable of doing at all times, and in my (at this time limited) experience, it works extremely well.

The challenge here is, what do you call this feeling? The closest thing I've come up with so far is the ridiculous compound anti-ennui. I think everyone knows the feeling, and as the name suggests, it's somewhat the opposite of ennui. Rather than a vague feeling of tiredness and boredom (or even internal resistance), it's a sharp, focused sense of energy, excitement, and well-fittedness: the task feels important, tractable, and suited for your current mood, and you actively want to do that task, specifically.

Salience is also not bad, and is a normal, recognizable word, but I don't think it evokes the complete emotional picture.


I occasionally offer awards to internet strangers who send me recommendations I love. If I am so moved, your choice of:

  • $10 USD sent via PayPal
  • a personal thank-you note via snail mail
  • grab a drink with me sometime you're in Minneapolis (or I'm near you) and talk about the recommendation or anything else
Gratitude and brownie points awarded in all circumstances!
Departure alarm tone

Apple quietly added a bunch of pleasant new ring/alarm tones to iOS 17. My favorite is “Departure,” which I selected more or less at random when I recently had COVID and wanted my medicine alarms to be easily distinguishable from any other alarms or timers I might set (see also #151 on differentiating phone alert tones).

I knew this was my new favorite tone when an alarm rang and I found myself pausing some music I was listening to so I could listen to the alarm tone. Hear for yourself:

Problems I can't believe nobody has solved, part one

Here's a problem that one would think the internet would straightforwardly solve, but apparently doesn't. Suppose I feel like taking a short leisure trip in a couple of weeks. Where should I go? Maybe I have some ideas about when and where, but I'm flexible, and I don't particularly care how I get there (plane, train, bus, maybe driving; some itineraries would be a deal-breaker, of course, like 24 hours on a bus with 3 transfers, but many options would be reasonable). I want to find something that's cheap and convenient. Maybe it could also watch fares for places I'm interested in and let me know when it finds something particularly cheap (there are some sites that do this with flights specifically on a somewhat limited basis, so this is clearly possible).

Of course, some people claim to have a solution, but every attempt I've seen utterly fails at one or more obvious requirements, e.g.:

Even Google Flights, with a somewhat restricted problem to work on, sometimes does a bad job at this; the pricing calendar lists the absolute cheapest fare it finds, which sounds like what you want until you realize that, instead of giving you the price for an obvious direct flight, it gave you the price for a 24-hour flight on Spirit that goes clear across to the other side of the country and has a 15-hour layover, and all the even slightly sensible flights are twice that and might not be the cheapest on the same day.

Maybe this is a much harder problem than I realize, but it seems like plenty of individual companies' booking sites do a good job at most of this, and solving the full problem seems like merely that plus aggregation (which isn't trivial by any means, but other places do it fine on its own), so I'm not sure I believe it.

Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati

Who decided it was acceptable to start the name of all the largest cities in Ohio with the letter C?

🔗 Too smart for your own good

Sometimes knowing more can make you less efficient at solving a problem. For instance, I recently tried to replace a lightbulb in my closet and the new lightbulb didn't work. I then spent half an hour trying to figure out if the socket had been wired backwards, only to find that in fact the tab at the end of the socket was physically bent and I could easily move it back. I wouldn't have gotten stuck on this wrong guess at the problem if I had known less about electricity!

🔗 The Unusual Category Tax

Making life choices that are slightly off the beaten path forces you to repeatedly explain what they are (pay the unusual category tax), leading to substantial annoyance. How does this work?

Identifying who texted you using Morse code

If you don't have a smartwatch – and maybe even if you do but you don't always want to look at it whenever you get a notification – it's often useful to be able to tell what source a notification came from without having to look. If you're getting a calendar notification and you didn't remember you had anything scheduled, you'll probably want to look at that right away. If you're driving and you get a marketing text, you don't need to look at that, but if you get three texts in a row from someone you're on the way to pick up, you probably want to stop and see if you need to change plans.

On iOS, you can set custom tones and vibration patterns for many events in Settings > Sounds & Haptics. In addition, you can set ring tones and text tones for individual contacts inside the Contacts app. I've attached custom audio tones to a few of mine, but I differentiate my notifications almost entirely using the haptic (vibration) pattern options, because that's usable whether the phone is on silent or not, so you always have the information and you only have to learn it once. I also find it's much easier to make mnemonic tones this way; more on that in a moment! (For this to work, you need to have “Haptics” set to Always Play in Settings > Sounds & Haptics, so that even if your phone is off silent mode you'll get the vibration.)

The remaining piece of the puzzle is learning the patterns for all the people you frequently text and want to be able to distinguish. I've found using Morse code makes this vastly easier: you might already know a little bit of it, and it was designed to be easily distinguishable in a noisy environment. Usually I use the first one or two letters of the person's name (add a second letter if the first one is so short in Morse code that it might cause you to miss the notification entirely, or if it conflicts with some other existing tone). I record these as new custom haptic patterns as I need them and name them with whatever they spell in Morse code (e.g., “C”). As a bonus, you learn a little bit of Morse code!

I assume there's a way to do this on Android as well, but I've never tried, so I don't know where the options are.

🔗 2024 Areas of Exploration

I've compiled a list of eight broad ideas I'm fascinated by and trying to explore this year – some intellectual, some experiential, some creative (although really, the path to understanding any idea involves all three). The ideas are as follows, expanded upon in much more detail in the linked Zettelkasten tiddler:

Counterintuitive density

Quick, what's the densest metro area in the US? I'll give you a hint: It's almost certainly not what you think.

The most natural answer would probably be New York, but I bet you didn't pick that because that would be the obvious answer. Maybe San Francisco? Or Miami?

Answer and discussion

Believe it or not, the answer is Los Angeles at 7,476 people per square mile, well ahead of San Francisco at 6,843 and New York at 5,981. (San Jose is a separate metro area in the statistics and squeezes in between them. Honolulu, of all places, is fifth – makes sense once you think about it, but definitely comes as a surprise.) That's mighty odd because LA is known for its sprawl. The trick is that we're measuring populations within full metro areas, not city limits (LA would certainly not win if we did city limits!). While the most built-up areas of New York and San Francisco are much larger and denser than those of LA, LA has medium-high density throughout almost the entire metro area, while NY and SF are composed of dense but relatively small cores surrounded by comparatively low-density areas.

Averages are confusing sometimes!

Design Hall of Shame: YNAB's Payee List

YNAB is a fantastic budgeting tool, excellently designed...which is why this dialog box really makes me mad. The purpose of the dialog is to manage the list of payees in your account. A straightforward thing to want to do here is to select a bunch of payees and then merge them together (you often end up with duplicates if you accept the default name that comes in on your credit card) or delete them. You can do this by selecting the checkboxes to the left.

But witness: if you click even a tiny bit to the left of the checkbox itself, your entire selection comes undone, selecting only that item and losing all the work you did so far. And you can't click on the name instead, which presents a larger target, because that selects only that item.

Also, when you actually do delete or merge the items you've selected, your scroll position doesn't adjust at all, so you lose track of your place in the list. This makes the above problem even more aggravating, because if you stop selecting a bunch of payees somewhere in the middle and merge or delete them (so that you don't have to start over from the beginning if you click in the wrong place), you have to memorize what item you stopped at before clicking the button, then find it again in the list:

Telling someone they don't have to answer makes them want to answer

I was talking on the phone with a friend yesterday and they asked me a somewhat personal question, preceded by something to the effect of, “This is a personal question and you don't have to answer if you don't want to!” I said, no, no problem at all, and proceeded to answer in detail.

I realized after hanging up half an hour later that I don't think I've ever not wanted to answer a question phrased in this way, and I'm not exactly the world's most forthcoming person when it comes to sharing the details of my personal life, so that seems surprising. (Certainly I can recall cases where someone asked a similar question phrased in a different way and I felt very uncomfortable.) And it's not that, on any occasion I've gotten such a question, I didn't want to answer, but felt pressured into doing it; I always actually wanted to. It's like there's some reverse psychology here: when someone insists on an answer, you don't want to give one, and when they tell you you totally don't have to give one, you want to.

This reminds me of something Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (of 37signals) say in their book It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy At Work. When you interact with a customer having a problem, there are two tokens on the table: “it's no problem” and “it's the end of the world.” One side picks one of the tokens, and then the other almost inevitably takes the other. You want to take “it's the end of the world” token right away, because then your customer is forced to take “it's no problem” – if support starts apologizing profusely and offering all sorts of solutions, you can't stay angry at them! And importantly to the comparison, it's not that the customer just pretends not to be angry on the phone, they actually end up becoming less angry.

I think the same thing is going on here. When someone starts by saying you don't have to answer their question if you're uncomfortable, they're taking the “it's the end of the world” token, and you naturally follow up with the “it's no problem” token. When someone doesn't do that and just asks like they're entitled to the answer, they're taking the “it's no problem” token, and if you feel sensitive about your answer, you end up taking the “it's the end of the world” token.

It's worth analyzing this one level deeper. I think the key is that most people want to be vulnerable and serious with others, but oftentimes we're unsure whether it's safe to do that. When someone says “it's the end of the world,” that they understand the question might be difficult and it's OK to end the conversation, they're also implicitly saying that they care about and are paying attention to how that question might make us feel – which more or less means it's safe. This is analogous to the support situation; when the company says “it's the end of the world,” you see that they are taking the problem seriously and will figure out how to make it right, so there's no need to display your frustration anymore to get what you need.

Of course, in either scenario one could fake caring, but this doesn't seem to happen very often, perhaps because the result if discovered would be very costly (interlocutor loses trust in you, more or less permanently) and discovery is likely.

It should be noted that, as an intentional technique, this works in reverse, too: if you need to start a difficult conversation and you feel uncomfortable about it, saying that you do will usually make others much more careful about your feelings, making the conversation less difficult.

Pepper pricing

I noticed today that my local grocery store prices green bell peppers by count, but yellow bell peppers by weight.

Peppers- Green: $1.79. Peppers-Yellow Bell: 0.45 lb @ $4.49/lb = $2.02.
Mill City Museum

Minneapolis exists because of the Saint Anthony Falls located downtown on the Mississippi River, which were a convenient source of power before electricity was widely available. First they were used to process timber coming from the northern parts of the state, and later wheat from all over the Midwest.

Milling in Minneapolis ended in the mid-1960s due to a variety of factors preventing the location from being cost-effective relative to other options. The mills then sat empty, taking up prime riverfront space, for several decades. In 1991, the General Mills mill at Washington and Park Avenues caught fire in the early morning and was severely damaged. The city used this as an opportunity to clean up and revitalize the riverfront – which is now delightful – and as part of that project, they stabilized the ruins, added a glassed-in portion, and built a museum. I hadn't been yet, so I stopped over on a recent weekend.

The location of all pictures shown here. The Mill City Museum from its front.

Looking down into the courtyard from the observation platform in the museum:

Looking into the ruined courtyard from above.

Looking across the river towards the Stone Arch Bridge from the river side of the museum. The bridge formerly carried rail traffic into downtown Minneapolis. Intercity passenger rail now stops exclusively in St. Paul, and there is no more industry next to the river downtown, so in the nineties the bridge was converted into a pedestrian and bicycle path with a stunning view of the river and the skyline. (See also #43.)

Looking across the river towards the Stone Arch Bridge from in front of the museum.

Looking back at the museum from under the bridge:

A view of the museum from beneath one of the arches of the Stone Arch Bridge.

The museum itself was solidly good, if not amazing, and is worth seeing if you're in town and interested in history.

1e+225 licenses

Found this one in the archives today: I was buying some software licenses at work, and noticed that there was no validation on the “number of licenses” field. I typed some zeroes until I got bored and ended up with this:

$2.9499999999999996e+227 for 1e+225 licenses, excluding VAT

For scale, that's approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 licenses for each and every atom in the universe. If you tried to pay in $100 bills, it would be physically impossible to print enough cash even if you had unlimited time to do so – there isn't enough matter in the universe.

I notice that despite my clearly being their best customer ever, not only do they only give me a 19% volume discount, the rotters are still going to charge me VAT on top of it! I guess I'll just have to pirate my \( 1 \times 10^{225} \) licenses instead.

Design Hall of Shame: Viewing Code

Riddle me this: what is a “Viewing Code” and where do I find it? Some kind of password found in the email where I received this, or in a separate message, maybe? (I couldn't find one.)

Enter Viewing Code

Nope. Here's what you do with this field, as clarified over the course of several confused emails with the company that sent me this form: type the number 4049, displayed in the gray box, in the white box to its left.

The purpose of this task is not explained.

Pro tip: Send earnest money only for the property you're buying

Apparently it's not recommended to pay for someone else's home purchase:

Please verify the property displayed is the property you are purchasing.
🔗 What is causing the mysterious “Longfellow Boom”? (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

For several decades, people in southeast Minneapolis near the Mississippi River have reported hearing loud, explosion-like booms, sometimes strong enough to shake houses, at night, especially in the summer. Despite investigations by the police, the City Council, the Health Department, the public utility company, curious residents, and even the FBI, nobody has been able to figure out what is causing the noises.

Rough area of the booms: The location of Longfellow in Southeast Minneapolis.

Random tire spikes

The progression of one's urban planning opinions, according to xkcd, and very accurate:

Not pictured beyond random tire spikes: if you do a good enough job designing a city for people, driving can paradoxically become more pleasant when you actually do need to drive, because making other means of transportation more convenient gets most of the cars off the road. Good design helps everyone!


I hoped that someday soon, the United States of America might have intercity rail service that rivals countries like the Philippines or North Macedonia.

Bill Lindeke, “Restoring Twin Cities–Duluth train service should be a big success” [rt] [source]
Excessive Complaint Fee

Found in the member handbook for Evie/Hourcar, a Minneapolis non-profit car-sharing service:

Excessive Complaint Fee: Up to $50 per incident
The best part of remote work

…for me, once the pandemic finished up, was entirely unexpected. As a fairly introverted person, I have a fixed budget of energy for spending time with other people, and if I exceed that I get tired and cranky. Getting to spend most of my work hours at home, or in public places that I choose based on my mood and where I can come and go as I please, and only do some occasional video calls and otherwise not have to talk to people at work at all, means I can use almost all of that budget on hanging out with people I choose, rather than more-or-less randomly-selected coworkers. This results in far more interesting social situations and happiness created per unit of that energy budget!

Of course, it also means I have to take on responsibility for planning meetups and going places, or I'll end up spending all my time at home alone being sad, because I am not automatically forced to interact with other people at some point during the week. But that's definitely worth it.

Incredibly basic questions we can't answer

A perfect number is one whose factors, less itself, add up to itself. For instance, the first perfect number is 6, and its factors are 1, 6, 2, and 3; 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. The second is 28, and its factors are 1, 28, 2, 14, 4, and 7; 1 + 2 + 14 + 4 + 7 = 28.

Both of these numbers, as well as the next few, are even, so one naturally asks, are all perfect numbers even? The answer turns out to be, unbelievably, we don't know. Isn't that bonkers? This feels like the kind of basic question that I – mathematically literate but no theoretical whiz – ought to be able to sit down for a couple of hours and figure out, maybe with a couple of hints. But over the entire course of human history, nobody has managed to answer it. We can completely change the landscape, eradicate diseases, study the behavior of impossibly small particles, and send people to the moon… but we can't figure out if all perfect numbers are even.

Relevant xkcd (as always) points out that there are also questions which sound almost impossible to answer but are actually pretty easy.

I'm staying in Minneapolis

For the last couple of months, I've been commenting to anyone who will listen that I love Minneapolis and I can't explain why. (I like Minnesota in general, especially when I'm out in nature, but I think I particularly like Minneapolis.) Being out in the city reliably makes me feel happy and in my element. And it feels like home to me in a way that nowhere else I've lived has – I remember remarking just a few weeks after arriving that it already felt like home, and it'll be two years next month.

I still want to try to explain what I like about this place as best I can. But I also had the realization this week that this is what Adam Mastroianni calls “irreducible woo”: an experience where trying to use reason to understand is not just ineffective but actually a category error. Loving a place is just like loving a person, even if it feels a little less intense: you can sit there and list out what's so great about it all you want – and sometimes this is a useful exercise – but you have to realize it doesn't get you any closer to understanding. Thinking about some people I love, I can make my list and then look at the list and realize that if every statement on that list magically became false overnight, I would still love them. Love just isn't about something's enumerated set of good qualities and fitness for you.

So I love it here…but what if there's another place I could love even more? My last home, in Owatonna, Minnesota, was a place I quite enjoyed living, but I left with high confidence I was making the right choice because I knew it was limiting me and there were obviously better opportunities to explore elsewhere.

But the Twin Cities feel entirely different. This is a place big enough and varied enough that I can change and need and want almost entirely different things, and still find them without moving again. It's a place that can grow with me. It's a place that doesn't just feel like a nice enough place to be, but also one that's made for me (however you choose to interpret the agency there). And Owatonna – like everywhere else in my childhood and young adulthood – pretty much always felt like a temporary stop on the way to a permanent home. This feels like it can be the end of the line if I want it to be.

Granted, there almost certainly exists, somewhere, a “better” place for me, and it's plausible I could find it if I made that my goal. But it's also entirely plausible, perhaps more likely, that I could spend my whole life floating from place to place hoping the next one was slightly better, maybe even without getting anything better in the end – and meanwhile I'd be missing out on the chance to make the long-term commitments that make a really good life good. It's much smarter to say you know what, this is good on an absolute scale, and it's about as good as I expect to get, and even though there probably is a better place somewhere else, it's not worth the cost of trying to find it, because making a serious commitment here and now improves this place, and investing earlier is worth more in total.

For me, the exploration phase is over and the exploitation phase is on. While on the micro level people tend to underexplore, people are so mobile nowadays that I think on the macro level they tend to overexplore. Personally, I've never had a friendship that lasted more than five years or so, or gotten to know every restaurant and institution in even a small neighborhood. Isn't that worth doing? You can get arbitrarily deep, and many of us have never gotten past the very highest levels. Not only do you run out of time to get deeper if you leave in the middle, you often can't even muster the energy to try to do it in the first place if you think you're going to be leaving soon. When I believe I have two-thirds of a lifetime ahead of me here, things that are valuable but require serious commitments of time and energy to realize become obviously worth it.

At this point, I'd leave the Twin Cities if I got an unsolicited, truly amazingly awesome, job offer somewhere else that I couldn't reasonably refuse or negotiate to remote, or if I fell in love with someone who had no choice but to go somewhere else for their own reasons (I'm going to try to avoid getting attached to someone in such a situation, but sometimes the universe has other plans!), or of course if the metro somehow became vastly less livable, for me or for everyone. Otherwise, this is my home now and I don't plan on leaving. I don't know what 30 years from now will hold – or for that matter really even 5 years from now – so I am not going to claim to know that I won't, but I am going to confidently say that I don't foresee anything changing my mind. And I'm going to make it as hard as practically possible to change my mind, to make it easier to stop second-guessing myself.

I've never lived in a place I've taken this seriously before; it's always felt, at best, like I was a guest who might with a small chance decide to stay for a long while. So this is a little bold and scary, but it's worth it.

Today I took the practically trivial but psychologically significant step of releasing the cell phone number I've had since 2007 and getting a new one in the 612 area code. Over the next few months, aside from looking for more social ties, I'm going to be deeply exploring a number of neighborhoods and looking for a semi-permanent home, ideally something I can buy and keep until and unless my life circumstances change enough that what's now appropriate no longer is. (If you, by some bizarre chance, have any interesting leads on moderately priced, old-construction, central-core condos or similar opportunities for a single person, hit me up!) I might also end up continuing to rent where I am – I did quite a bit of research to place myself here, too, and it's a perfectly fine option, I'm just not sure yet if it's the best spot to commit to.

Publishing this is, of course, part of the commitment.


Seen at Flying Pig Thrift, St. Paul, Minnesota:

Prices have been pre-haggled for your shopping convenience
14th anniversary of Random Thoughts

I've been compiling a giant commonplace document called Random Thoughts since October 9, 2009. As of yesterday, I had collected 13,205 items, or about 2.6 per day on average, and have been doing it for almost half my life (I'm 28 years old and was 14½ when I started, so the true halfway point will be in a couple of months).

I wrote about this discipline a couple of years ago in How and Why to Create a Commonplace.

🔗 Minimalist packing scorecard

In #126, I explained what I was planning to take with me to Bali. Here's how it actually went.

Streets of Bali

One of the days I was in Bali, I took a morning to go out along the beach and then around the streets in Changgu, Denpasar and grab some pictures.

Alleyway with plants, trash cans full of rubbish, and a broken handwritten sign lying on the ground: PEMULLING DILARANG MASUK, maybe? A stray dog sleeping in front of a shop door. Giant gilded statue on a beach, presumably a Hindu deity. An almost fake-looking blue boat sitting high on the grass near the beach. A striking large, white three-story villa behind a grass field with a low fence covered in colorful graffiti, mostly in English. A home of some kind with an enormous mosaic wall, behind banana trees and other foliage.

Mathematicians found a way to distinguish between any knot and the unknot by simply setting an upper bound on the number of Reidemeister moves needed to connect them. If you check all sequences of Reidemeister moves up to that number, you can prove if the knot is the unknot or not. There's just one problem: that upper bound was \( 2^{100,000,000,000n} \) moves.

Veritasium, “How the Most Useless Branch of Math Could Save Your Life" [rt] [source]

Meta-analytic averages are not (meaningfully) capturing what happens at the center of some platonic distribution of “dishonesty in coin-flip tasks”, because that distribution does not exist. They are (meaninglessly) capturing what researchers happened to do. And if they happened to do different things in coin-flip tasks than in die-roll tasks, well, then you’re likely to find different results in coin-flip tasks than in die-roll tasks. And that meta-analyzed difference has no meaning.

Data Colada, “Meaningless Means #3: The Truth About Lies” [rt] [source]

I'm alive! I was traveling for most of September on three separate trips interspersed with two crazy weeks at home. I'll be making a few catch-up posts and should be back to a more regular schedule soon.

Rabies goblins

When you get exposed to rabies, the standard prophylaxis is composed of a series of four vaccine shots against rabies, plus a shot of antibodies given directly next to the wound – rabies immunoglobulin.

When I went to a travel medicine clinic today, the nurse pronounced this “human immunogoblin” (and did not correct herself or, apparently, even notice).
Minimalist packing challenge

I'm about to head to Bali for two weeks for an off-site with my startup. I'm flying on Sun Country and then EVA Air, both of which have wildly strict carry-on baggage policies: Sun Country allows you only a personal item (although a pretty large one) and no overhead bin space at all unless you pay an extra $50, while EVA Air caps carry-on bags at 7 kg / 15 lbs (!) and allows only extremely slim personal items of up to 4 inches tall.

I hate checking luggage when I fly, and this looked like a straight challenge to me (what could possibly be the point of a 7 kg carry-on limit except to force people to unnecessarily check bags so you earn more money?), so I went down a bit of an ultralight packing rabbit hole, and I'm delighted to report that I succeeded at packing everything I need under these constraints! (At least, I think so; my bag is just a tiny bit larger than the Sun Country personal item size, but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to cram it into the sizer since it's soft-sided. I can probably get away with taking my camera or water bottle out first and holding or putting it in my pocket, too, in which case it would definitely fit.)

EVA, incidentally, stands for “Evergreen Airways,” which means they suffer from RAS Syndrome. Everything about them is designed to annoy me, apparently.

I bought a few luggage items and clothes for this, but they were all things that I wanted for other purposes or future trips anyway, so this was just a convenient excuse.

The key to beating the significantly different constraints of both airlines was this handy little bag which is designed to double as a packing cube and organizer and a shoulder bag. I put a bunch of the heaviest stuff in there and then put it in the backpack, and when I transfer from Sun Country to EVA Air, I'll take it out and carry it separately as a personal item.

Shoulder bag. Contents of images are described below each.

In here I put my camera (I could just use my phone, but I came out significantly under the size and weight limits without it, so figured I might as well bring it), Kindle, mouse, a deck of cards, some KN95 masks (yay pandemics), elbow straps (yay tendinitis), a pencil and eraser (I didn't even bring paper except my mini pocket notebook, but figure I might want to use some somewhere else, and the eraser doubles as an amazingly excellent fidget toy if my fingers get antsy on a flight or car ride), the cute little puck hairbrush, and a pouch of hair ties and clips and other miscellaneous teeny items.


My main bag is this Tom Bihn Synapse 25 backpack I recently bought for multi-purpose use as a daily bag around town and as a small travel bag. It lists a 25L volume, but I swear it's a Bag of Holding; maybe because all the compartments were designed so thoughtfully, it comfortably fits more stuff than I can fit in bags I've owned that were advertised as 30 or 35 liters. I threw the modular hip straps on for this trip since it's going to be a little heavy for a day pack.

Contents of main pocket spread on the floor.

In the main pocket, I have most of the clothes I packed: a T-shirt, a wool undershirt, a short-sleeved linen button-down, a pair of khaki shorts, a swimsuit, and a baseball cap. (I'll wear a light sweater and a pair of jeans, and one more of everything else, on the way. That keeps the heaviest stuff out of the bag; plus anytime I fly to a warm place, the plane seems to be fifteen degrees cooler than anything else I experience on the entire trip, so I definitely want the sweater!) Also a travel blanket (I love this thing – as a thin square piece of wool, it can also double as a bathrobe, beach towel, sun shield, scarf, carrying bag, etc.); a manila folder with my itinerary, visa, immunization records, and so on; a toiletry bag; a fancy liquids bag to make airport security happy; and a computer. The MacBook Air is by far the heaviest item in my bag, tipping the scales at 1.38 kg, fully a fifth of my weight limit – but you can't go to a startup offsite without a laptop! Plus it means I don't have to also bring a notebook, tablet, etc. The laptop sleeve, which is sold with the backpack, is metal-free and slides out, as you can see in the picture, so in theory you don't have to remove it and put it in a bin at airport security; we'll see if the TSA drones actually accept that.

In addition to that stuff, in the one-bag configuration the shoulder bag goes in this pocket on top. Main pocket, everything packed. Water bottle sticking out of pocket.

The center water bottle pocket on this bag is brilliant; it allows the side pockets to be extremely deep and way more useful than on most bags, and means you don't need those stupid mesh pockets on the side which make the bag go off-kilter when you put a full bottle in one. Obviously, bottle empty if the bag is getting weighed!

Contents of front pocket on top of the bag.

In the front pocket, passport, money pouch, more masks, safety pin for wardrobe malfunctions, and AirTag (just in case I somehow manage to lose my only bag!).

Contents of side pocket laid out. Contents of the pouch (in side pocket) on the floor.

One side pocket has an address tag, 6 feet of paracord, and a cable kit. In the kit, a plug adapter, USB-C power supply, my universal charging cable, a 6-inch USB-C cable to crossfeed from my laptop to another device in case my Kindle or phone dies on a flight while I'm charging the laptop, earbuds, and the usual adapter suspects (for headphones on planes with the old entertainment-system audio plugs, headphones to an iPhone, and USB-A devices to my MacBook; I don't have any USB-A devices or cables with me, but I've been burned by not having this adapter and needing to plug in someone else's device so many times that I won't leave home without it in my laptop bag anymore).

Contents of the other side pocket laid out.

Other side has my boar-bristle hairbrush (a good use of space because it lets me go an extra day in between washes without my hair getting gross) and sunglasses.

Contents of the bottom pocket laid out.

Bottom pocket has a pair of ultralight hiking sandals / water shoes (still tipping the scales at 440 grams), three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and two handkerchiefs (always useful). The underwear and socks are specially rated for travel, although I've been wearing the Ex Officio underwear at home since I learned about them; they're great everywhere. The socks are new merino wool. I wore a pair for three days in a row at home without washing them to test the claim that they could be worn multiple times – you could barely tell they had been worn at all after two days, and after three they were noticeably used but still not unpleasant either on my feet or held up to my nose.

Backpack hanging from a luggage scale. And that's it! 8.2 kg total. With the shoulder bag weighing about 1.5 kg, 7 kg for the backpack is reached with a little margin for error.
Silly, obscure personal records
Universal Charging Cable

I recently learned that they make these cute little adapter plugs for charging cables. Together with the astounding battery life of the newest MacBook Air, I've been able to cut down the cableage that I carry in my backpack to a single USB-C cable with strapped-on adapter plugs plus a 65W Anker AC adapter. All of my electronics can charge from a USB-C, Lightning, or micro-USB connector, so this single cable can charge everything I ever carry with me.

A USB-C cable with micro-USB and USB-C adapters attached to it by flexible rubber cabling, plus a wall adapter for a USB-C cable and a universal international travel plug adapter.

This does save a little space and weight, but not that much; the real benefit is that my cables never get tangled and I can instantly find the one I need, because there's only one of them!

The obvious limitation here is that you can only charge one device at a time, but this isn't really a big deal – if I'm away from home for a while and all my batteries are flat, I can just charge up the laptop when I'm near an outlet and then boost the other devices from there.

If I'm traveling internationally, I throw in the universal AC plug adapter too and I'm all set.

Awkward autocorrect of the month

Text to a friend asking if they minded if I shared something new in their life with someone else:

I don't want to share more wifey than you do right now.
Small fries

This is the result of ordering a “Little Cajun Fries” with your burger at my local Five Guys:

A plate filled almost entirely with fries.

That's a 10-inch plate. I guess it's a pretty good value for calories, at $5 for the fries, if that's what you're looking for. I can't imagine what the standard size looks like at this point!

🔗 San Francisco Travel Journal

I visited San Francisco for a month in January and February. This week I finally got around to finishing up this little travelogue with some photos and explanation of what I did. It's not terribly detailed, but it's something!

Why should the public transit agency help the public?

I didn't know this, but according to this review posted on the training center for the Metro Transit light rail services, the proper role of Twin Cities transit is to intentionally not run extra trains when there is more demand so that residents will have to get gouged by taxi drivers. Now that's why I pay my taxes!

Why would you run the trains late night for the taylor swift concerts? This is taking a significant amount of money away from uber/lyft drivers. If they can afford to pay $1500 for a concert ticket they can pay for a uber / lyft home.......
🔗 StackOverflow Moderation Strike Results (Mithical)

I wrote a couple of years ago about welcome and inclusion in online communities, focusing on a debacle created by the management of Q&A network Stack Exchange. Since then, the company has limped along in uneasy relations with the community, until this June, when a very poorly considered policy on contributions that use GPT-4 made everyone furious again. This time, there was a two-month strike by the volunteer moderators, where they refused to help keep the site running, which ended a few days ago in negotiations between the moderators and the company and appears to have led to some useful policy changes. Only time will tell whether the company will keep their word, though.

I love unusual labor situations like this; how often do you see volunteers striking? It goes to show how important online communities like this are to people, that they will go on strike rather than just leave.

Webmaster Spam Hall of Shame: How To Keep Mice Out Of Shed

Someone's automated SEO link spam suggester picked up the link to my single-page commonplace book and suggested that I link to their article if I love it. This sounds like such a great proposal!

How to Keep Mice Out of Shed email, annotated
When the letter Q was illegal

I learned today that the letter Q was banned in Turkey from 1928 to 2013, along with X and W. People who used these letters in official documents, signs, their children's names, etc., were actually jailed on multiple occasions.

Evidently this is because these letters are used in Kurdish and not in Turkish, and the Turkish government spent decades trying to wipe out that language and culture.

(More info.)

The surcharge surcharge

As companies keep moving more and more of their actual costs into various fees (including the one for cabin pressurization) to make the headline price look lower, and the justification for each being a separate fee gets thinner and thinner, I've been waiting for the day when someone adds a “Because We Can Fee” or “Extra Revenue Fee” or something to that effect.

Well, the diner near my apartment has delivered, with a 5% “Surcharge Surcharge”:

Subtotal: 23.50. Tax: 1.99. Surcharge Surcharge: 1.26.

(Their justification is that food has gotten more expensive lately, so they've had to add a surcharge to pay for it. Whatever happened to your menu prices accounting for the cost of the food? It's not like for the rest of history food was free and now you have to pay for it!)

Overheard in Minneapolis recently

In a coffee shop:

That was rude of Tracy to make me fall in love with her!

Also, same day:

I use that as an excuse to have bad opinions about pasta.

Phone conversation on the street in East Isles:

But we already had multiple conversations about how we were going to take the chair and trash the lamp!

Someone walking by on the street outside my window:

Multiply that by negative eighteen cents!

One friend to another on the path around Lake of the Isles:

I said, “This is a really hard day.” But we found the papers, and we brought baked goods.


It's like, do you really have to know a lot about Italy to know that's not an appropriate question?

From an adjacent table at a restaurant:

I would not want to see my mortgage broker naked.
Small talk doesn't work over text

I've been having a lot of text conversations on dating apps recently, and I think I've figured out a few ways to make them better.

Most people find texting strangers awkward and difficult. Texting is already a medium that could almost have been purpose-built to amplify miscommunications and social anxiety; it has all the bad aspects of email (inability to read any nuances besides the literal words, looks different on one device than another, asynchronous with long delays in between responses), with the added flaw that you're encouraged to write as little as possible on a keyboard that's hard to use. But at least if you're texting someone you know well, you can make reasonable guesses about the person's motivation and frame of mind when they wrote. With someone you know nothing about besides a few words on a screen and maybe a short bio of varying quality, you're starting out with a massive handicap.

Here's a key result: small talk, far from being important social glue as it is in person, actively works against good interactions in text. Small talk, in person, works because it's not about the content at all; it's a pretext to read the other person's mood and intent and conversational style for a couple minutes before you say anything risky. But over text, you can't read any of this – you only get the actual words the person says, plus a few side-channel cues that are as likely to be wrong as right (e.g., if someone takes a long time to respond, we often conclude they're disinterested or unsure what they should say, but really they probably just left their phone on the other side of the room). The result is that when you engage in small talk over text, you are literally just talking about the weather or how many siblings you have or whatever. That's enough to bore anyone to death, so after a few back and forths, someone almost inevitably wanders away. (In a romantic context, too much of this can actually make the person seem less interesting and attractive, to the point that you no longer care about them, even when you know it was an utterly mechanical problem and you learned no important new information about them from the small-talk conversation!)

The good thing is that with the indirectness of a screen between two people, they usually don't need the period of small talk to be comfortable talking about something more substantive right away. Think about how much more direct office emails are than meetings: it's common to start off a meeting by chatting for a couple minutes, perhaps while people are filtering in, but extremely rare to write this kind of chatter in an email; you'd rather walk over and catch up if you had news to share. (I think this is one of the reasons remote work can feel so isolating; even video calls tend to get much more quickly to the point than in-person interaction.)

So I think it's better to just jump in. In support of this theory, every time I can remember having a good text conversation with a stranger, it has almost immediately gotten either (1) detailed and geeky or (2) vulnerable and meaningful. Try it and see: start at a somewhat higher level of intimacy than you would in person and escalate faster from there.

Another important consideration is that it's particularly important for text-only conversations to have lots of doorknobs. This means making provocative statements, asking deep questions, and, above all and maybe counterintuitively for the medium, trying to keep more than one thread of conversation moving at once. Every topic naturally dies down eventually, and it happens faster than usual over text where responding is effortful and you tend to think harder about each statement and put more ideas into it. If you find you have nothing you particularly want to say in response to a particular message and you have no other topic to fall back on, it feels awkward and difficult to come up with a new one when you can't see the other person and “feel the room” – especially one that's not small talk – to the point that it sometimes feels easier to just end the conversation even if you were enjoying it. Instead, write a couple sentences at a time about two to three different things in each message (or in separate texts that immediately follow each other every time you respond).

Lastly, if your goal in having a text conversation is to get comfortable enough to suggest meeting in person, do that as soon as you can, maybe just a little bit before you feel comfortable doing so. The longer you go on in an impoverished medium, the more likely someone does something that makes the whole thing seem stale.


The only difference between us [a school for kids with learning disabilities] and a “regular” school is that when someone was struggling, we tried to figure out why she was struggling and fix the underlying problem, instead of slapping her a bad report card and leaving it at that. And I have to wonder: is that “special education” or is it just education?

Sarah Constantin, “Errors Vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity” [rt] [source]
Be advised that the timer is a timer

I found this gem in the manual for my new microwave oven:

Note: The kitchen timer is a timer.
The entanglement of badly designed architecture and badly designed societies

In my list of unanswered questions about the world, I wrote:

How can we consistently build places that have what [Christopher Alexander] calls the [quality without a name]? Everyone can immediately recognize places that have it, and most of us are forced to live and work in places that don't, which has a clear negative impact on our quality of life. Does Alexander's failure to consistently create these places despite more or less spending a lifetime studying it mean we're doomed to throw buildings at the wall and see which ones stick, or is there some other reason his pattern language didn't solve the problem?

Recently reading Alexander's A Pattern Language, I've come to realize I've been looking at the problem all wrong, and I'm slightly embarrassed that I didn't figure it out earlier. I've been fascinated by the impact of places on our lives and behavior for a long time, and that, I think, is in itself the answer to the question. The book, and the system of thought behind it, is at least as much a political and social philosophy as an architectural handbook. That's because places don't stand alone and have no influence on our lives (if they didn't, this would be purely an aesthetic problem, while in reality it goes much deeper). Rather, our bad architecture and design – both private and public – is both a cause and a result of a series of social problems: atomization, lack of connection to other humans and the world around us, unbridled capitalism, disproportionate influence of the wealthy, excessive use of debt, bad ideologies, and on and on.

Which makes the problem even more important and more challenging to solve, but it also suggests that improving one's space can provide part of a way out. While some patterns are much larger-scale than others – some can be implemented by moving furniture around your room, while others require the cooperation of an entire society – the whole project can be implemented in a bottom-up fashion. You can make your own spaces better, convince a few people who see the effect, join forces with them, work on the next level, and so on. And if you succeed, even a little bit, you can't help but improve the world.

Another brilliant canine-related excuse

In the 2023 adult version of “the dog ate my homework,” rookie Vikings wide receiver Jordan Addison was cited for reckless driving last week after being clocked at 140 in a 55 zone on I-94 through St. Paul. He explained to the officer that he needed to drive almost three times the posted speed limit in his Lamborghini because his dog was having an emergency:

Driver stated his dog was having an emergency at his residence and that was the reason for his speed.
What if friends became physically more like each other?

I was out walking around the lake with a friend and ribbing her about being habitually unsteady on her feet, when suddenly I tripped on a bulge in the asphalt walkway. She joked, “You're turning into me!”

Which sent me off on this bizarre line of speculation: There's an old saw about how you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. What if this were true not just mentally, but physically? What would the world be like? Suppose it's a gradual effect; every hour you spend with someone makes the two of you look very slightly more alike.

Would people have enough connections and spend sufficiently similar amounts of time with each of them that most people would eventually look alike? Or would the world diverge into little clusters of similar people? Or maybe most people would be the same, and then some people would resist and end up in little cliques of totally different-looking people? (I called this the “Australia theory,” as in, where one group stays geographically isolated for a really long time and ends up totally different from everyone else.) People's jobs might play a big role here; corporate-drone-style jobs would probably become even more dystopian.

I think this would be a nightmare for discrimination of various kinds. Just to start with the most obvious example, if you're not very attractive, you could make yourself more attractive by hanging out with better-looking people; but by doing so you would make them less attractive, so presumably they wouldn't be very interested in spending time with you unless they really cared about you for other reasons. On the other hand, people could essentially selectively breed themselves by making friends with people who had appropriate characteristics. If you had, say, too large a nose for your taste and someone else had too small a nose for theirs, you could join up. Or maybe you have a desirable body type and someone else has a better-looking face, and you're both happy to become a little more average on both counts.

Presumably most of the world would become androgynous, except for a few people who cared so much about preserving their physical gendered characteristics that they were willing to hide from people of another gender. Although – if reproductive organs aren't special-cased, maybe everyone would die out eventually in that case, and people would actually have to spend almost all of their time in sex-segregated spaces just to keep humanity alive? Though I guess we didn't say whether your genes are affected; conceivably this could reset when you have children.

Depending on how fast change happened and whether you actually had to interact to get the effect or whether you just had to be in proximity, you could have people sneaking along behind celebrities or athletes trying to leech off of them.

I suppose the real question is, shouldn't we be thinking about this with our personalities when we choose who we hang out with? Because most of these dynamics could be real, just in a different sphere! Hmm…

Does violence cause video games?

In the “are violent video games bad for society” debate, a unique proposal for the direction of causation this morning:

After riots in France, Macron partially blames video games on violence
Avoid setting off explosives with your walkie-talkie

Of course, excessive numbers of warnings about improbable dangers in product manuals are nothing new. But this one in the manual for a consumer-grade FRS radio was new to me:

To avoid possible interference with blasting operations, turn off your radio when you are near electrical blasting caps, in a blasting area, or in areas posted 'Turn off two-way radio.'

I especially like that they instruct you to turn off your two-way radio in areas posted “Turn off two-way radio,” as if having this warning in the manual would help if you otherwise would have refused when you saw that sign.

🔗 My Stupid Noise Journey (Dynomight)

This is an interesting follow-on to “On Having Enough Socks”, and a fantastic example of refused exploration (newly created Zettelkasten tiddler): the author spent two years in despair trying to find an effective way to muffle the noises their neighbors were making, but never tried off-the-shelf noise-canceling headphones. Sure, they had a theory of why such headphones wouldn't be useful acoustically, but they could also have trivially empirically verified that they wouldn't by buying a pair from Best Buy for $100, trying them on in the living room, and returning them if they didn't help. When they finally tried this…they worked better than anything else they'd tried for two whole years, and more than well enough to solve the problem. As they write:

So let’s review: I had a problem. The ultimate solution to my problem was to do the most obvious possible thing. But I convinced myself that wouldn’t work and spent two years trying everything else.

🔗 Don't Measure the Quality of Your Life Using the Temperature of Your Nachos

It's easy to evaluate experiences or our entire lives primarily based on tiny parts of them that make us feel particularly strongly, especially negatively. This makes it possible to feel bad about an experience that was, overall, good. How can we bring the big-picture perspective into our lives sooner and more consistently?

For kicks, I asked ChatGPT if it could explain what this essay was about, based only on the title. It did remarkably well, about as well as I'd expect a human to do:


While I don't have specific information on this exact essay, I can make an educated guess based on the title. "Don't Measure the Quality of Your Life Using the Temperature of Your Nachos" likely serves as a metaphorical piece of advice.

It could mean that one should not judge their life's quality based on fleeting or trivial matters (the temperature of nachos being an example of something relatively insignificant). Nachos are a consumable item, and their temperature is a transitory quality that changes quickly and doesn't substantially impact the overall experience of having and eating the nachos.

Translating this to life, the essay might be discussing how people often place too much importance on the temporary, fleeting aspects of their lives (akin to the temperature of nachos). These might be material possessions, transient successes, momentary failures, or temporary physical conditions.

Instead, the essay likely argues that we should focus more on enduring and significant aspects of our lives: our relationships, personal growth, achievements, and overall happiness and well-being. It could also suggest that true life satisfaction and success are not determined by ephemeral or superficial factors but by more profound, more meaningful aspects of life.

These are just educated guesses, and the actual content of the essay might differ based on the author's thoughts and perspectives.

(The best part, though, was the auto-generated title for the conversation: “Nachos and Life's Significance.”)

Total economic value

I keep a digital voice recorder on my nightstand to quickly capture stray thoughts I have while I'm falling asleep or right after I wake up. Every once in a while, especially when it's in the middle of the night, I capture something that seems monumentally insightful at the time but is complete nonsense when read back. Often I don't even remember recording these.

I transcribed probably my favorite ever this week (and I've been doing this for a good ten years). No context whatsoever:

“It says here the total economic value of your sexual activity is 350 million dollars per year.”

I gotta admit, I kind of want to know who “you” is now! That's quite the sex appeal.

Why we don't have highly effective, reversible male contraceptives

Will I ever shut up about contraception? Not sure.

Anyhow, random soapbox today: a little while ago I did a RemNote workflow video involving an article that advanced an argument similar to one I've had for quite a few years. I was relieved and encouraged to find a professional had written about this and I apparently am not crazy! The issue here is not entirely limited to contraception, that's just a place where the wrongness of the assumptions involved becomes most clear (and there are a couple of special factors that make it worse).

Problem under consideration: development of any highly effective, reversible contraceptives for men has been repeatedly stymied by ethics boards. The concerns have been over side effects: according to the boards, the side effects are too bad to make continuing the studies ethical.

First issue: if you actually ask the people involved in the studies, large majorities of them have said the side effects were tolerable and they liked the drugs. In the last one I read about, somewhere around 20% of people wanted to stop. But…that's fine? Nobody is forcing you to use any particular contraceptive (or, indeed, any at all). If you don't like the side effects of a drug which serves a function for which there are many other options, you can simply not take it and try something else; because some people don't get along well with it is not a valid reason to tell other people who do that they aren't allowed to have it.

Second issue: the side effects are comparable to those women deal with on hormonal contraceptives. If we're OK with those (and it seems we are), then why shouldn't we be OK with sticking men with similar ones? The problem here is often mistakenly reported as something to the effect of “men are sissies and can't deal with the side effects.” While this certainly might be a factor for some potential users, the evidence is inconsistent with this being a cause of the development problems – as noted above, most men who have taken the trial drugs have been happy with them and wanted to continue, and the discontinuance rate is no higher than for women. The problem is instead that review boards tell people they can't keep taking them. How's that for patriarchy?

The ethical argument for different treatment here goes like this: women can get pregnant and thus suffer various health harms, so the side effect profile of a drug designed to prevent that can be much worse than for men and still be ethically acceptable. But this only sounds like a good argument until you give it even a superficial look. Yeah, (biological) men can't get pregnant, but presumably men would not be trying to take contraceptives unless they were at risk of getting someone else pregnant. Sex is a mutual decision of two people; why is the person who's able to get physically pregnant solely responsible for mitigating risks? In fact, the author of the paper I mentioned above makes a very good argument that men should take on as much of this risk as practical to make things more even – women get the risks of being pregnant, men get the side effects of the contraception. And not to belabor the point, but most users of highly effective reversible contraceptives would be people in long-term romantic relationships. There's something fundamentally absurd about refusing to allow people to share risks and responsibilities in a relationship which is in substantial part defined by the people in it agreeing to share risks and responsibilities as much as possible!

In general, ethics review boards need to take a chill pill. Writ large, they seem to be incapable of considering opportunity costs. Can it possibly be unethical to allow people who, with full understanding and consent, want to continue taking some experimental drugs and participating in a study the results of which could improve the lives of millions of people, to do that? I think it's pretty messed up to not allow that. Yeah, a few people might be hurt a little bit, but they agreed to take that risk. This is not the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and is not at risk of becoming it. If we are only willing to allow things that are 100% safe, or 99.9999% safe, we're never going to achieve anything ever again, even walking to the grocery store to buy some milk. At least knock a couple of those nines off when you have smart, well-informed people agreeing to be part of the discovery process.

Winning at Kavka's and Newcomb's Problems by making extra commitments

Previously, I suggested that winning a million dollars in Kavka's toxin puzzle is impossible because you can never intend to drink poison when you know you can change your mind penalty-free at a later time, and suggested this might call my solution to Newcomb's Problem into question as well. (If you haven't read those posts, do that now, or this one won't make much sense.) But could you make it rational to actually drink the poison by voluntarily committing yourself to doing so, outside of the eccentric billionaire's frame? Then you could rationally intend to drink it as well.

For instance, after receiving the poison and before midnight, you could bet a friend $1,000 that you'll actually drink it. (If you want, you can give yourself bad odds so your friend doesn't owe you a full $1,000 if you do drink it.) Now you'll lose $1,000 if you don't actually drink it, and it's rational to drink it the next day, regardless of whether you intended to at midnight.

There's a straightforward objection to this strategy as stated though: is it rational to drink poison to avoid losing just 1% of your winnings, when you've just won a million dollars? (Another way to frame it: if you have the choice between $999,000 with no strings attached, or $1,000,000 but you have to be horribly sick for a day, would you really choose the second option?) One school of thought says of course, because you wouldn't win anything if you didn't do this, but if you're going to make that argument I'm not sure you've gained anything by applying this betting strategy – it's more or less the same as arguing that you can intend to drink the poison because that makes you win, which might be true but is basically circular and doesn't address the problem of being free to change your mind.

You could try to address this objection by betting enough to bankrupt yourself if you didn't drink it – say, $200,000 – but you might run into practical problems getting anyone to take the other side of this bet. If you make the odds anywhere close to fair, probably nobody would take it. If you make them, say, 1/100,000, so that you pay $200,000 if you lose and earn $2 if you win, nobody would take you seriously and the courts might not enforce the contract if you lost. Maybe another eccentric billionaire with a different take on the problem would be game for even odds, but good luck finding them in the hours you have to arrange a bet.

Maybe we'll actually come off better if we don't bet money, because we tend to think much more objectively about money than, say, social status. What if you just told everyone you knew that you're really going to do it – because it's the winning strategy – and you're a loser if you don't? Or you could try to go viral on Twitter with the story and promise to update everyone when you won. (This is probably a bad idea for the same reason that you shouldn't tell anyone you won the lottery, but I bet it would work.) I'm sure you could come up with similar creative ideas.

In the Newcomb's Problem context: you could agree with a friend now that if you ever play the game and win excess money by two-boxing, you'll give the $1,000 to them and they'll donate it to a charity you hate. Now two-boxing has negative utility compared to one-boxing in all conditions: you'll never end up with more money, and some money might go to making the world worse (in your opinion). Of course, you could still renege on the agreement, but assuming you're a person who normally honors their commitments, I think this would be enough to make two-boxing unattractive.

Did not respond to a request for comment

In the paper's defense, they weren't wrong:

An earlier version of this column said Tom Keep, chair of the Catholic Ministry With Lesbian and Gay Persons, did not respond to a request for comment. Keep died in March. This reminded me of this classic from the NYT: Because of an editing error involving a satirical text-swapping web browser extension, an earlier version of this article misquoted a passage from an article by the Times reporter Jim Tankersley. The sentence referred to America’s narrowing trade deficit during “the Great Recession,” not during “the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks.”
🔗 Justice Department finds pattern of discriminatory policing in Minneapolis (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

The DOJ's report surprised approximately two Twin Cities residents, who are probably 103 years old and live at the bottom of a lake, but is still outrageous and painful to read. Choice quote:

“Shooting a man who is hurting himself and has not threatened anyone else is unreasonable,” the report concluded.

Is it OK to sell more success on dating apps?

The dating app Hinge recently introduced a new subscription tier which essentially gives you priority over other users when it shows profiles to potential matches. As always, the details of their algorithm aren't public knowledge, but essentially if you pay more, your profile gets shown to more people more often, and your messages even get bumped up higher on other people's lists.

I genuinely can't figure out what I think of this.

Argument for this being cringey, weird, and unethical: Why, if Alice has more money to throw around than Bob, should she have more success meeting people? People with less money are already disadvantaged in the success rates of their ongoing relationships; now we're also making it even harder for them to meet people in the first place? Then, this feels uncomfortably close to patronizing some sort of escort service: you're paying extra to get more romantic attention from people.

Also, any mechanic like this on a dating app feels a bit manipulative. Most app makers have to come up with sneaky ways to make their apps feel addictive, while dating apps barely have to do anything because they're already working with one of the most powerful sources of intrinsic motivation most people have. Just pay us a little more and you, too, can find love! (On the other hand, this, as a subscription fee, is still much better on that front than other mechanics where you pay per message, or per short attention boost; at least it isn't, essentially, gambling.)

Argument for this being totally sensible and normal: Dating apps are in the business of selling you the attention of other people who might be interested in you. Essentially, it's just a highly specialized advertising platform. If I want to put an advertisement in the newspaper, I can pay less for a small ad or more for a large ad; that's as expected, because the large ad takes more space and captures more of readers' attention (a limited resource). It doesn't really feel unfair that some people can't afford to take out a larger ad in the newspaper, or seem like (at least without more context) you're being desperate or taking advantage of other people by taking out a larger ad. I certainly don't think the newspaper should only be allowed to sell one size of ad!

To bring this even a little closer to the model under discussion, if I advertise online, I typically pay per view (or sometimes per click). By purchasing a more expensive subscription, I'm essentially just saying I want to pay for more views. Hinge's platform collectively has a certain number of profile-views per day among people I might want to advertise to in my area (I dunno, a couple hundred thousand?), and by paying more I get a larger chunk of those. So unless you think that paying to advertise yourself to others is already cringey, weird, or unethical, this mechanic doesn't seem like it ought to be either.

What about match quality?: There is one other, perhaps slightly darker, thing going on here, though: the highest tier uses a more effective algorithm to decide who to show you. To understand this, notice that the entire incentive structure for all dating apps is fundamentally misaligned, at least if you're looking for something that lasts longer than a hookup. Subscription-based (and ad-supported) apps only make money while you're using them, so they have an incentive to give you just as much luck as will keep you from getting bored and walking away, so you have to spend more time on the app. It's to their direct disadvantage to quickly create successful relationships! (This is the same problem web search has.) So I wouldn't be at all surprised if they essentially have a “goodness” parameter to their model where if you pay less, it intentionally hobbles the predictions and shows you more people who aren't a very good match, so you have to spend more time to get to people you're actually interested in.

On the other hand, is that so bad? Pretend for a moment the highest tier is the default, and they offer you a 30% discount (or whatever it winds up being) if you agree to spend some of your time rejecting bad matches, and thus probably end up spending more time on the platform. This doesn't seem that much different from an ad-supported free version, or from clipping coupons, or from churning credit cards; you're just choosing to pay with time or attention instead of money from your bank account. You can decide you don't like ads, or coupons, and buy the more expensive version, and you might have strong feelings about ads being a bad way to monetize things given their effects on people's attention and happiness – but you probably don't think it's unethical that people are simply offering you the opportunity to pay for the product with a different kind of resource if you so choose.

Maybe the confusion comes from this: If we look at the situation from a consequentialist viewpoint and consider society-wide equity and the ugliness of commercializing intimate relationships (or the effects of omnipresent advertising), the situation looks pretty bad. But nobody is trying to cheat anyone else here or intentionally offer them a raw deal; if you take the system as a given, everyone within it is behaving rationally and even fairly.

I wish we had a better system, but I guess I'll begrudgingly participate in the one we have for the time being!

Does Kavka's toxin puzzle refute my solution to Newcomb's Problem?

In Kavka's toxin puzzle, an eccentric billionaire gives you a vial of poison. Drinking the poison will make you violently ill for a day, but won't kill you or cause any long-term health effects. She offers you $1,000,000 if, tomorrow at midnight, you intend to drink the poison that afternoon.

Unless you're very rich, you presumably think that a million dollars is worth being ill for a day, so this seems like a good deal. But the deal is potentially even better: you don't even have to actually drink the poison to get the money, you just have to intend to at midnight. You're always free to change your mind.

The problem is, is this game winnable at all? Kavka argues that it's unwinnable for any rational actor, because you can never legitimately intend to drink the poison. After midnight, there is no way that drinking the poison can benefit you, so unless you start behaving irrationally after midnight, you will never drink it. So unless you don't think about it very hard in advance (which seems ridiculous given that you're being offered a million dollars if you set your intention correctly), you know you'll change your mind, so you can't be said to intend to drink the poison.

But this suggests my solution to Newcomb's Problem might have an issue: it seems that “after midnight” is logically equivalent to “after the Predictor has made their prediction.” Switching your strategy to two-boxing after the prediction has occurred can only benefit you, so can you actually intend to one-box, as I say you should?

I can only say that one-boxing feels rational to me in a way that drinking the poison doesn't, although I can't quite explain why. And this actually seems relevant; the Predictor's choice doesn't depend on logic, it depends on what I will in fact do. If I fully believe I can get myself to one-box, I win (and, in fact, I win regardless of whether I stick with it or stop believing my strategy and defect at the last minute).

Newcomb's Problem

Here's a fascinating, infuriating, and unsolved philosophy problem. Suppose you are called into a room that has two boxes on the table, which we'll call Box A and Box B. Box A is clear and you can see that it contains $1,000. Box B is opaque, but you know that it contains either $1,000,000 or nothing. You have a choice: you can (1) take only box B, or (2) take both boxes. Whatever boxes you take, you walk away with any contents, no strings attached.

Here's the catch. The contents of box B were determined yesterday as follows: an extremely accurate, although not necessarily infallible, Predictor (this could be God, a computer, or whatever you like) made a prediction about which option you would choose. You have high confidence in the Predictor's ability to predict your behavior; you've seen them do this many times before, and they have never been wrong. If the Predictor thought you would choose option (1), taking only box B, box B contains $1,000,000. If the Predictor thought you would choose option (2), taking both boxes, box B contains nothing.

What should you choose? Most people are sure they know the right answer when they first encounter the problem. The only thing is, people are split about 50/50, and both arguments seem right!

Note that we make the Predictor extremely accurate, rather than infallible, to prevent any questions of whether you have free will from affecting the correct choice; that isn't the point of the problem.

The argument for two-boxing: Whether the Predictor put $1,000,000 or nothing in the box, you end up $1,000 richer if you take both boxes than if you take only box B – so how could it possibly make sense to choose only box B? The contents of box B are already fixed by the time you play, so which option you select cannot change the outcome. Imagine the back of box B is clear and your partner is sitting on the other side; do they really want you to leave $1,000 on the table? If you're tempted to one-box because you might be missing something and $1,000 doesn't matter to you but $1,000,000 would be life-changing, what if we change the problem so there's $500,000 in box A and $1,000,000 in box B? This doesn't affect the logic or causality, but surely you have to take both boxes now?

The argument for one-boxing: Consider the four possible conditions and their payoffs when you play this game:

  1. You one-box and the Predictor predicted you would one-box: $1,000,000
  2. You two-box and the Predictor predicted you would two-box: $1,000
  3. You one-box and the Predictor predicted you would two-box: $0
  4. You two-box and the Predictor predicted you would one-box: $1,001,000

Now you know the Predictor is almost certainly correct, by definition. This means cases (3) and (4) are extremely unlikely to happen; unless you lower your confidence in the Predictor's judgment quite a lot, they won't come significantly into the calculation. This leaves you with cases (1) and (2) to worry about. You exclusively control whether (1) or (2) comes about by deciding how many boxes to take, and (1) has a vastly higher value than (2), so obviously you should choose option (1) and take only box B. Even if you change the payout for box A so that it's, say, $500,000, as suggested above, this logic continues to hold for most values of “almost certainly correct.” (If you have low enough confidence in the Predictor, or you have an insurance-esque mindset where you'd rather have a certain $500,000 than a nearly-certain $1,000,000, the appropriate strategy might change. If you feel like wasting more time on this problem, you could calculate the break-even point!)

My contention: The correct strategy depends on whether you've seen the problem before. If you've never heard of the problem and you're invited to play the game with the Predictor having already chosen, you should two-box: it's too late for one-boxing to buy you anything. But if you've thought about the problem, the winning strategy is to be the type of person who one-boxes, and to legitimately and wholeheartedly plan to take only box B, because at this point you can influence the Predictor's prediction by changing your intended strategy. If you can pull that off, you're nearly guaranteed to become a millionaire should you ever have the opportunity to play this silly game. (Simon Burgess also makes this argument.)

🔗 On Having Enough Socks (Gwern)

Our lives are often made more annoying, less fun, and less resilient by underexploration, or failure to notice simple and low-cost tasks or experiments we should be doing to improve our lives; how can we change this so that we always have enough socks?

This is one of my favorite essays. Once you start thinking about underexploration, you'll see it everywhere, and you might even be able to counteract it and do some more low-cost exploration once in a while.

Save 80% on your Upper Midwest AC costs with one fan and an easy routine

I finally got my window air-conditioning unit installed yesterday, naturally right near the end of the unseasonable heat wave. (Last year I put it in by myself and came uncomfortably close to dropping it out the second-story window, so I wanted someone over to help.)

I was also thinking, though – it seems like a lot of folks around here have no idea how to make the house comfortable without air conditioning. In a moderate summer climate like Minnesota's that usually has large day/night temperature swings, you can be totally comfortable without turning on the AC on 80–90% of days, which will save a ton of money and energy.

To be clear, I'm no climate-control cheapskate. If it gets unpleasant with no AC, I cheerfully turn it on! But you really don't need it most of the time, and this is coming from someone who hates warm weather. So here's the five-minute version…because that's all there is to it.

Note: This works reliably in older buildings that were designed before AC was common. It still works in a lot of newer buildings, but once in a while you get one that was designed so poorly it's very hard to keep cool otherwise. Smart architecture has disappeared over the last couple of decades.

The trick here, if you can call it that, is simple: get a window fan, and when it gets cooler outside than inside in the evening, open the windows and turn on your window fan to draw the cool air inside. Keep them open with the air circulating until the temperature starts to rise again in the morning. (I usually have enough residual heat in my apartment that the indoor temperature doesn't completely equalize overnight, so I instead close up when it gets warmer outside than inside, even if the temperature has started rising somewhat before that.)

Don't stop circulating air earlier than you have to just because the temperature seems equalized. Keeping cool air moving around will ensure that not just the air, but also all the stuff in your home, gets as cool as possible. When heavy materials like wood and tile get thoroughly cooled, they essentially store cool for the day ahead – the heat that later moves into the space during the warm day will warm it up and get trapped in it.

Around here, on a typical day, it usually gets cooler outside at around 8 PM, and warmer again at around 9 AM the next morning. If you have to leave before the outdoor temperature has equalized, close up just before you leave.

That's all you really need to know, but here are some more tips if you're not sure how to accomplish that best:

Using this protocol, on days with highs in the eighties here, it usually doesn't get uncomfortably warm inside until four or five in the afternoon even with still air, and then switching on a fan pointed at my desk or couch will keep me comfortable until evening. I rarely start to need the AC until it hits the nineties, or if the nighttime temperature doesn't fall below 70 for a couple nights in a row, making it hard to store enough cool for the afternoon.


David Cain points out that this word is properly pronounced with a long I, /laɪvd/, to rhyme with dived. This has been corrupted because lived with a short I is a common word – the past tense of the verb to live. But if you stop to think about it, this makes no sense semantically. The word short-lived doesn't mean that something “lived shortly”, but that it had a life which was short. It's not formed from the verb to live at all, but from the noun life (plural lives, adjectival form lived with a long I).

By comparison, if a cutlery set has eight knives, you could say it's eight-knived; that doesn't mean that it has stabbed someone with a knife eight times (past tense of to knife, which, anytime I've ever heard it, would actually be rendered knifed). Or consider a playground with a lot of slides. This is a many-slided playground – surely not a *many-slid playground!

That said, I've never heard a single person say it this way; it's a losing battle.

(Just to make things more confusing, well-lived is properly pronounced with a short I, because here well is an adverb describing how the act of living was done, rather than an adjective describing the life, as in short-lived; you're not talking about a life that is “well”.)

The case of the missing 21st and 23rd Streets

Living in Uptown Minneapolis, I've often been puzzled by this:

Map of Lowry Hill East and Whittier, with east-west streets marked.

Pretend Franklin Avenue is labeled “20th St,” as you learn to do if you live here for any length of time, and you'll see that the streets are equally spaced (an eighth of a mile apart), but 21st and 23rd are missing from the series.

Why isn't it Franklin Street, since Avenues normally go north-south and Streets go east-west in Minneapolis? I haven't been able to figure this one out. Usually when one appears to be named incorrectly, it's because it goes through a ninety-degree turn at some point, like Washington Avenue, which runs parallel to the streets downtown but goes north-south in North Minneapolis, or Hennepin Avenue, which runs east-west in Northeast but goes north-south in downtown and South Minneapolis. But Franklin doesn't make any turns anywhere until it merges with University Ave in St. Paul, unless you count a tiny little dip it does at the very west end to avoid the tip of the “finger” of Lake of the Isles. This is part of the act described below, but they don't explain why: That Franklin street and Grape street shall be known and designated as Franklin avenue. A really irritating fact is that in most of St. Paul, Avenues run east-west and Streets run north-south, exactly the opposite of Minneapolis. I don't think this has anything to do with it, but you never know.

I was able to find this MinnPost article, which explains a good chunk of the puzzle. The streets were not numbered at all until 1873, when an act was passed that attempted to normalize all the names – a tricky undertaking, since the area around Minneapolis had grown pretty haphazardly and there were adjacent communities that used the same street names. The key is this:

“I don’t know where I live now,” complained a man named “Pushit” to the Minneapolis Tribune before the new nomenclature took effect, “but a friend of mine knows where he lives. He formerly lived on Grape Street, but now he lives on Ninth Street west, and the next street to him is Twenty-First Street west.” This particular friend’s confusing new address came into being because when Grape became Franklin, Franklin also took the place of a 20th Street 10 blocks north of Lake Street, or 30th, and the streets on either side were forced to follow that system, however imperfectly. These were called “adjusters.” The greatest evidence of these “adjusters” today is that, except for a few odd stretches in Phillips, there are no 21st or 23rd Streets in South Minneapolis. Those two were dropped because there were only eight blocks between Franklin and Lake, where ten were required to make the system work.

The need for this “adjuster” is most obvious today when you look on the map at how downtown, where the streets are twisted about 35 degrees from the cardinal directions to align with the riverfront, transitions into South Minneapolis, where the streets are a strict, evenly spaced north-south-east-west grid. It's a little harder to see how this works nowadays since the construction of I-35W left breaks in many of the streets there, but it's still visible:

Map of downtown and the north edge of South Minneapolis.

Since these streets have to make a turn to align with the new shape of the grid as they proceed south, geometry forces the realigned streets further east to have lower numbers at the same latitude if the same number is maintained for the entire length of the street.

You might conclude from this that Minneapolis is unusually poorly suited to numbered streets, but actually this weirdness is remarkably invisible unless you live in one of the neighborhoods right next to a discontinuity (like Pushit's friend above, or Cedar-Riverside today; even Cedar-Riverside is probably less confusing than you might think since it's penned in by highways and the area across a highway feels discontinuous anyway). They did a surprisingly good job, and I think the “south of Franklin Street, restart at 21st Street” (er, “skip 21st Street and restart at 22nd Street”) maneuver is a big part of the reason it succeeds.

What's still not entirely clear to me is exactly why Lake Street was indexed to 30th Street, rather than 28th Street, which is what results in the missing blocks; once you're south of Franklin Street there are no more angled streets to screw up the numbering, and there are the same number of streets all the way across. The article claims that Franklin Street took the place of a 20th Street “10 blocks north of Lake Street,” but as they momentarily point out, there just aren't 10 blocks in between old 20th Street/new Franklin Street and Lake Street, there are 8! Maybe the streets were already numbered (incorrectly for the new sequence) in that section? Or they wanted Lake Street to be a round number? Or there were additional streets somewhere that figured into the calculation in 1873 that no longer exist today? Lake Street isn't mentioned at all in the source material; I think it was outside of city limits at the time.

In Ventura Village, 21st Street and 23rd Street get a little cameo, cutting through the middle of the eighth-mile-block pattern:

21st Street and 23rd Street highlighted in a section of Ventura Village.

I don't know if these existed at the time. They're oddballs since they show up at halfway intervals – maybe they're upgraded alleys? If they did, it's possible they had keeping these in the sequence in mind.

🔗 Effective Flashcard Writing: “Still no pill for men?”

I forgot to post this here when it actually came out. This is another unscripted workflow video in which I take notes in RemNote (see also #4), this time focusing on an abstract bioethics and philosophy of science paper. I focus on doing a bunch of Concept/Descriptor cards and using portals to split the concepts over multiple sections.

🔗 The Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus (kanosea)

A classic.


“Grades are for separating the good students from the bad students”: I’m not actually interested in doing this. What am I going to do, send the good students to heaven and send the bad students to hell?

Adam Mastroianni, “I wanted to be a teacher but they made me a cop” [rt] [source]
Press-and-hold keys

Some of the better modern keyboard firmware comes with options to give each key two separate actions: one when it's tapped, and one when it's held for longer than a certain threshold value. Kinesis's firmware actually has a pretty cruddy implementation of this that only lets you use it for certain functions (no macros allowed, and doesn't work on letter keys) and adds latency, but I've still found it remarkably handy. I have three of these mappings:

If you've never used this feature before, know that you need to spend a while tuning the threshold for how many milliseconds you have to hold down the key before it switches to the “hold” action; the right value will depend on how fast you type and the exact finger motions you use for each key. If you set it too high, activating the hold action will slow you down (and if you have crappy firmware like me, your keystrokes will all be visibly delayed). If you set it too low, you'll accidentally activate the hold action when you mean to activate the tap action, which is irritating at best and dangerous at worst (e.g., sending an unfinished message instead of adding a new line can be disastrous!).

A lesser-known issue with the clickiness of Cherry Blue MX keyswitches

I'm a huge fan of the Cherry MX Blue mechanical keyboard switches for general typing; they have a low enough activation force to feel very easy to type on but high enough that you can rest your hands on the keyboard without pushing them accidentally, and they make a delightful clicky noise that makes it easy to tell whether you've activated the key or not, as well as making you sound like you're working.

They are pretty noisy, though. I only use this keyboard in my apartment, so there's nobody to bother…but I've recently noticed that they regularly trigger the mute warning in video call software when I start typing in the middle of a call, sometimes with a passive-aggressive message like “Are you talking?” This is actually really annoying because it often steals the focus from the window where I'm typing and I have to go manually click in the appropriate field again!

Works better when fully assembled

My evaporative humidifier hadn't been working very well: normally it's able to put a whole tank of water into the air in about a day, and it had been three days and the tank still wasn't empty. I was wondering if the wick had become too hardened with minerals to suck up the water well.

So I reached behind to pull it out and take a look, and instead I found...

The humidifier wick sitting behind the humidifier propped up against the wall, instead of actually IN the humidifier where it could work.
🔗 The SM-2 Algorithm Actually Is Too Aggressive on Substantially Overdue Cards

I did an informal study on my 13 years of Anki spaced-repetition history to settle a team question at RemNote: is our “Anki SM-2” algorithm (and Anki’s SM-2 algorithm itself) too aggressive when scheduling overdue cards? Somewhat to my surprise, and also to my embarrassment because I’ve been defending the current behavior without data for many years, the answer appears to be yes; more specifically, the more overdue a card is, the more it overestimates how much of a bonus that should give the card's interval.

Nuances of the present perfect tense

I had a discussion with a colleague who's not a native English speaker some months ago about the perfect tense and realized that I had actually had the wrong impression of the distinction. The line I took exception to in what he had asked me to read for style was something to the effect of, “We worked hard for the last two months to bring you this update.” I pointed out that it should be “we have worked” (or maybe continuous, “we have been working”), and I said this was because “it's complete.”

He asked, “But wouldn't that mean we aren't going to work hard anymore?”

The answer to that, of course, is no, that's just not the impression a native speaker gets from that sentence, but I couldn't square that fact with my explanation, so I spent my next two showers thinking about this, and I realized that my explanation was completely wrong. The distinction isn't about whether the action is “complete” per se, but whether it continues uninterrupted through the present moment. (If anything, I was backwards – the simple past is arguably more complete than the present perfect since its action does not continue through the present.) I came up with two interesting examples demonstrating this.

(A) Life and death: correct tense is mutually exclusive.

  1. I have lived for 27 years.

    Correct: So far 27 years of living have elapsed for me, and I am still living at the present moment.

  2. *I lived for 27 years.

    Wrong: This statement is semantically invalid in any plausible world except the afterlife, because it implies the action does not continue through the present, and thus that I'm now dead. (It would be semantically valid to say instead, “I lived in the United States for 27 years”; this is different because one can cease to live in a place and still make statements. But this would be factually incorrect for me because I have always lived in the United States and still do. I could also say “I have lived in the United States for 27 years”; see (B).)

  3. Mozart lived for 35 years (viz., from 1756–91).

    Correct: This is a true statement and grammatically correct.

  4. Mozart has lived for 35 years.

    Wrong: This statement, while grammatically and semantically acceptable, is factually incorrect, because it implies that Mozart is still living and the 35 years under discussion are an uninterrupted range ending in 2023, while in fact Mozart died about 230 years ago.

  5. Mozart has been dead for 232 years.

    Correct: This is a true statement and grammatically correct.

  6. *Mozart was dead for 232 years.

    Wrong: Semantically invalid because this implies that he came back to life at some subsequent point; either he's still alive now, or he was briefly resurrected and then he died again. (Because death is permanent, it always continues until the present time and thus requires the perfect tense.)

(B) Relationships: both simple past and present perfect are correct, but have completely different meanings.

  1. Alice and I have been together for two years.

    This means we're still dating: that is, the statement also applies today and has not stopped applying since the beginning of the two years. (I could probably still say this if we had broken up and gotten back together, but only if it was a relatively short period of time.)

  2. Alice and I were together for two years.

    This means we broke up (or she died). That might have happened yesterday or 40 years ago, but it was necessarily prior to today, and some period in which we weren't together has intervened.

Because both (1) and (2) are acceptable, just with different meanings, you can even combine them if the situation warrants:

  1. Alice and I were together for two years. Then we broke up over a disagreement about cheesecake. After a couple of months, we realized what a stupid mistake that was. Now we've been together for another year, and we're getting married next month.

    (Hey, we need a happy ending after all these deaths.)

🔗 Supplement on Emergency Contraception Effectiveness

Because I can't leave well enough alone, and because I'm the kind of person who researches some random weird topic and writes about it on the internet when he's home sick, here's everything nobody ever told you about not just Plan B (#83) but all the other standard emergency contraception options as well. (Supplemental to previous: #2.)

🔗 Misinformation Clouds America’s Most Popular Emergency Contraception (KHN)

Since this feed seems to have become a purveyor of contraception information for no apparent reason (previously: #27, #12, #2), two mildly outrageous things you probably didn't know about Plan B, the most popular version of the “morning-after pill” in the US:

  1. A dose typically costs $40–50…for a single pill containing 1.5 mg of levonorgestrel (the amount in a few standard birth-control pills) in a box with some instructions. The raw materials can't possibly cost more than $5, but as with everything in healthcare, the market is screwy and manufacturers can charge people stupid amounts of money for being unlucky enough to need basic healthcare. (The article points out that people are understandably unwilling to buy generics here; emergency contraception doesn't seem like something to take a risk on! But the generics aren't much cheaper anyway.)
  2. For years, the packaging has contained a line indicating that Plan B may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg...but there's never actually been any evidence this was the case. Instead, the manufacturer added it in a short-sighted political move to appease people who either didn't want it on the market for moral reasons or argued that if there was even an impossibly small chance it could happen, then it was causing abortions and should be prohibited (since then, further research has improved the case that it does not). Now many of even the most sex-positive and pro-contraceptive people believe it actually does this. Sigh. (Dense but very interesting paper on the history and ethics of this whole thing.)
Incidentally, in case you ever need to know for yourself or anyone else, as of 2013 anybody can walk into a US pharmacy and buy Plan B over-the-counter without ID or consultation or any other hoops, regardless of gender or age.

The plenitude of trivial facts about life

I was recently reminded that I was in college when I realized that when you stand next to someone and hold hands, there are two distinct orientations and one person has to go “under” and the other has to go “over.” Somehow, every previous time I had held hands in my life – which I don't think was something I did unusually uncommonly – I had gone “under” and the person I was holding hands with had either naturally started “over,” or adjusted without saying anything or making enough of a deal about it that I noticed.

It's fascinating to me how there are just so many random things to know in life, which you don't learn automatically and which are so specific and everyday that nobody writes them down or tries to teach them to you, and because of that you can just completely miss one for years and years.

As always, there is a relevant xkcd.


I'm convinced that nobody can spell the word commitment correctly the first time they write it.

🔗 Wild generativity

Zettelkasten musings on a rare and specific kind of personal relationship and conversation in which everything you say is meaningful, relevant, enjoyable, and, in the words of my source, “helps you become.” What characterizes these relationships and how do you find them?

Easiness bias

You focus all your rehearsal time on the hard piece, and the easy one comes off worse. The hare thinks the race is so easy that she stops and takes a nap. You let a petty administrative task sit on your to-do list for months. This pattern shows up everywhere.

I think we tend to assume that a task being easy means it is neither urgent nor important. Of course, this might be true, but in reality the difficulty of the task says nothing about its urgency or importance. We may need to pay special attention to easy items to ensure they are handled appropriately.

🔗 It's the commodification of attention, stupid

Commodification of attention is a system of organizational, psychological, and financial innovations that enables one to make money and/or curry favor by simply convincing people to spend time looking at things, usually virtual ones. In this post, I explore a variety of modern problems, especially social ones, I think COA is partially responsible for, including the degradation of quality in web searches, many of the negative effects of social media, smartphone addiction, and a decline in spontaneity and general freedom of socialization, as well as how COVID plays into all of this.

Tech superstitions

This afternoon I was trying to watch TV with a friend, and whenever she tried to select something on Netflix to watch, the Roku app crashed and we had to start over again. After several repetitions, she handed the remote to me, suggesting that the TV “didn't like her” and maybe I would have better luck. I didn't, but I realized later that at the time, I think I actually legitimately thought this sounded like a reasonable troubleshooting step!

As dumb as that sounds, we ended up “solving” the problem by going to Target (which we wanted to do anyway) and coming back, then trying again. This time it worked on the first try. It seems to me that this approach has an only marginally larger space of reasonable causal explanations, and yet this one worked.

I'm not sure what the lesson here is, except that software is terrible and I have no idea how anything ever works at all.

In which the MPD does their job and I clean up blueberries left by a heroin addict

Last Saturday, I was busy at home all day, and when I stepped out to take out my trash and go for a walk at around 4:00 in the afternoon, I noticed that my car wasn't in its spot. That's pretty strange, I thought, where would I have left it? It wasn't until I thought for a few more moments that I realized it couldn't possibly have been me being an idiot and forgetting where I parked, as it normally is; I'd gotten home after midnight and gone right into my apartment and not left it since, and there was no conceivable reason I would have parked anywhere other than in my assigned spot. I hadn't been drinking or anything, and I knew I'd driven home.

My upstairs neighbor still had a key from when I was in San Francisco earlier this year (so she could move my car out of the way of the plows as needed), so I texted her to ask if she'd moved it for some reason, but she definitely hadn't. And there was no reason I would have been towed, and no tracks in the fresh snow from a tow truck. Which seemingly left only the possibility it had been stolen. This was all but confirmed when I noticed that two of my car's floor mats had been left on the ground; obviously a tow driver wouldn't have broken into my car and thrown out the floor mats before taking it!

After a frustrating 20 minutes of trying to find a non-emergency number that was open over the weekend, I went ahead and called 911 and reported it stolen. They took the details over the phone and someone from the police department came out basically promptly (they were a few minutes later than expected, but who isn't?) and was very nice and helpful.

Not only that, but they actually found my car Monday morning and brought it into the impound lot. Granted, they didn't have a very hard time; whoever stole it had abandoned it in the middle of the lane during rush hour at 50th and Xerxes (a major intersection in SW Minneapolis).

On Thursday I spent a couple of hours cleaning out all the junk they left in the car, which included, along with a bunch of trash and random items, somewhere around eight used needles (they helpfully provided a portable sharps container in the back seat, although it would have been rather more helpful had they actually put the sharps in the sharps container; I guess that would have made too much sense). There were also a bunch of spilled blueberries on the floor, which doesn't exactly strike me as common junkie food! The car is still at the body shop getting an inspection, a new bumper, and a thorough cleaning, but it got away without much damage for a stolen car and I'll hopefully have it back in a few days.

Surprisingly, they didn't actually steal anything that was inside the car except for my dashcam (unsurprisingly; you'd have to be pretty dumb to leave a live dashcam in a stolen car), the spare key I'd left inside the car by mistake (obviously how they stole it; I must have inadvertently left the door unlocked as well, on the day that this person decided to wander to the back of my apartment building and try the doors on the parked cars, setting up a perfect storm), and, bizarrely, my car's proof of registration and insurance. They didn't even take the cash I'd left inside.

Anyway, my faith that the Minneapolis Police Department isn't completely useless was slightly restored! Of course, it probablydefinitely helps that I'm white…

Revenge of the 20th-century streetcar tracks

In #47, in discussing Lowry Hill Park, I mentioned in passing that Minneapolis used to have an extensive streetcar system that was paved over in the mid-20th century.

This winter has turned our roads into a mess of potholes, probably due to an unusual number of freeze-thaw cycles (to give you an idea of how bad it is, a friend told me they saw a driver in front of them run over a pothole on the I-94 onramp at Hennepin Avenue that gave such a big jolt that the airbags deployed). In a discussion about the roads on the Minneapolis subreddit, someone noted that damage at the intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue had actually exposed the old tracks and brick roadbed that had been paved over, so I took a little detour over there when I walked down to the bank today, and sure enough:

View of the torn-up road looking west across Hennepin Avenue on the northeast corner of Lake Street.

Closeup taken from the other side while crossing (the brick is remarkably well-preserved; I guess being sealed in by asphalt will do that):

Closeup view of the road from the other side.
In which ChatGPT does chord analysis not even wrong

A bluesy song I'm learning includes the following progression in the key of D major:

D – F#7 – G – D – A – D

(Actually, I added the seventh because it sounded better with the mandolin's sometimes-awkward voicing; it was a bare F# major in my source.)

I wasn't, and am still not, sure how to describe the function of the F# dominant seventh. When you play it, you can hear that it plainly leads into the G, which makes some sense to me given that it's built on the seventh scale degree of G and thus acts sort of like a V7/V (D7) would, but I can't quite put a name on it. (I initially suspected tritone substitution, but the relationship is off by a whole step.) In a major key, it doesn't make sense to talk about the seventh scale degree being major, so it must be getting borrowed from some other scale or have some funky name or principle all its own. Please enlighten me if you know!

Anyhow, as part of my search, I decided to see how ChatGPT would do at chord analysis. Here's what I got:

ChatGPT's first response

This actually wasn't a horribly bad first attempt; my initial prediction before looking at the notes was also that the chord was a V/V or something similar. But when I pointed out that this couldn't be correct because the V in D major is A, and F# is separated from A by a major sixth, it produced this delightfully confident nonsense:

ChatGPT's second response

10/10 on matching the form of a harmonic analysis, 0/10 on forming a logical argument.

Temperature-based food preferences

For my whole life, I have strongly disliked iced tea. This wouldn't be particularly weird, except that I love hot tea and drink probably 4–6 cups on a typical day. Iced tea, even high-quality brewed iced tea, tastes gross and bitter and sometimes even makes me gag.

I think there might be something funny going on here where most people's perception of tea strength scales differently based on temperature than mine. Ordinarily people brew iced tea around twice as strong as hot tea because tastes are perceived more weakly when food is cold. Maybe I should try some iced-tea brewing experiments at different intermediate strengths and see if it ever starts tasting good?

Possibly related: I dislike hot drinks that contain alcohol even though I like most cold or room-temperature alcoholic beverages, including strong spirits – the alcohol taste feels quite overpowering in hot drinks. I'm not sure how this fits into that picture, though, since the iced tea/hot tea divide would suggest that I notice temperature-based strength differences less than the average person, while this would seemingly suggest more.

Stupid cold hand dryers

Ever wonder why hand dryers take such a long time to warm up? Turns out…they don't, as xkcd pointed out this week. Hand dryers work by encouraging the water to evaporate from your hands. When water evaporates off something, it cools rapidly – think about what happens when you climb out of a bath or pool. (This is also how both sweating and swamp coolers dissipate heat.) In the case of hand dryers, this cooling effect is strong enough to make the jet feel cold even though it's actually quite hot – until your hands are nearly dry, just in time to make you grumble about how it only managed to get nice and hot when you were already done drying your hands.

I still didn't quite believe this, but you can try this one at home! Grab a hair dryer, set it down sideways on a flat surface with something behind it to prevent it from jet-propelling itself across the table (or, better yet, enlist a fellow householder to hold it, then switch places and enlighten them with this demo), and get just one of your hands wet. Then switch it on at the highest and hottest setting. Sure enough, mine reaches full power – hot enough to be painful on a closely placed dry hand – within 5 seconds after a cold start, yet still feels cold on the wet hand.

Come to think of it, I've been low-grade puzzled for years about why my hair dryer only sometimes seems to take forever to heat up. Once you know all this, of course, the answer is as blatantly obvious as it was mysterious before: sometimes my hair is wetter when I start drying it, which makes it feel colder for longer.

I'm sure some of y'all think this is obvious and are laughing at the rest of us now, to which I can only say, this xkcd appears to be autobiographical, and if Randall Monroe, a former NASA engineer and author of bestselling silly physics books, only recently figured this out, it can't be that obvious, can it?

Metaphor Systems

Metaphor is an experimental new kind of search engine based on an LLM. Rather than typing in keywords describing what you're looking for, you pretend you already have the link you want and are sending it to a friend, and write a brief introduction explaining what it is. Then it supplies a list of predictions for what link you might be talking about.

This works surprisingly well. I find it especially useful if I am thinking of an article I know exists somewhere on the web, but can't remember what it was called; it's challenging to find effective keywords for a traditional search engine in this case, but usually easy to describe the article in enough detail that Metaphor can find it.

Metaphor is currently free and open to the public. Give it a try:

Not to be confused with The fundamentality of metaphor.

What the heck is TiddlyWiki, actually?

The other day I was on a first date and we were talking about our experiences of the early COVID-19 pandemic, and I mentioned that I had used much of my excessive free time to write a textbook called Grok TiddlyWiki. Naturally, she asked what TiddlyWiki was, and I realized, somewhat to my alarm, that I had no effective way to explain it. If anyone in the entire world should be able to give a good elevator pitch for TiddlyWiki, surely it ought to be me, seeing as I recently spent a year and a half writing a book to teach people how to use it! My first reach was “Notion, but more customizable,” but she hadn't heard of Notion, so that didn't help at all, and this seems like a cop-out anyway; it just moves the question to, what the heck is Notion, actually?

Once you get over the immediate absurdity of the fact that I just wrote a book about this tool and I still can't concisely explain what it is, that this is challenging isn't actually all that surprising: a general problem with researching, developing, and promoting tools for thought like TiddlyWiki is that they don't wow. That is, because the really revolutionary ones allow you to think in new ways, the problem of understanding why the tool is useful and the problem of learning the tool are necessarily intertwined; without the habits of thought developed by learning and using the tool, the tool in some way can't make sense. (Paul Graham popularized this line of thought back in 2001 when he wrote about Blub programmers.)

This said, surely I can at least do better than “Notion, but more customizable.” A good start is the front page of Grok itself:

TiddlyWiki is a human-shaped tool for organizing information and taking notes. It stores and relates information in a non-linear but structured way, just like your brain, and it doesn't forget things.

It's helpful to add some use cases, like I do a bit lower down:

People use TiddlyWiki for keeping notes at their jobs, collecting their ideas, keeping track of what they read, drafting books, building static websites, storing recipes, managing genealogical databases, planning tabletop role-playing campaigns, and much more.

The big problem here is that, reading this description, you still don't know anything about how one uses TiddlyWiki to do this. This is not really a problem for Grok TiddlyWiki, since the entire rest of the book is about this, but it's a big problem if you're trying to educate and/or hook people who aren't already interested. It's like we've explained what a car is but not talked about how one uses the steering wheel and pedals to make it move around. If you've never heard of a car or seen someone drive one, it's going to be tough to imagine someone using one without those details, and I find it's difficult to understand the value or purpose of software if you can't imagine the experience of using it.

Here's my best shot at a version that incorporates most of the ideas above. It starts by comparing to a tool almost everyone will know, but doesn't rely on that comparison; it incorporates the “human-shaped” idea and the example use cases, and it tries to give a picture of the actions one takes when working with a TiddlyWiki. Its biggest weakness is that it tends on the formal and dense side. I feel like I should be spending many more days on this problem; it's hard to imagine how the field of tools for thought in general is going to succeed unless we find a way to explain why it's important!

TiddlyWiki is a tool that helps you think in new ways by extending the fundamental ideas of the spreadsheet so that they work effectively with long-form prose. Information in TiddlyWiki has a flexible structure, so you can match the shape of your content within the wiki to the way you think about it. Things can be organized strictly, in tables like a spreadsheet or in hierarchies like an outline, or loosely, in webs of related components with nebulous relationships, and you can show the same data in different formats at different times. You split your facts and ideas into little pieces called tiddlers (much like rows of a spreadsheet) and the tiddlers into fields (much like columns), then add links and tags to describe the relationships between tiddlers. Then you can use custom formulas and formatting options to search, filter, sort, answer questions about the relationships between things, and change the appearance of your wiki to look like almost anything at all.

The amount of flexibility TiddlyWiki affords makes it challenging to learn or even explain – you have to develop a few new ways of thinking to make effective use of the tool – so that's what my book is designed to help with. I use my primary TiddlyWiki as a sort of topically organized journal, keeping track of things I've learned about myself, my life, and the world in a form where I can easily build on previous insights.

Signs of San Francisco

What a difference a space makes (Muir Woods):

I love this diagram of a ferry speeding away while the person holds out their watch with a balled fist. It looks like they're trying to dive onto the distant ferry or something (Angel Island):

As we all know, once you turn 18, you immediately become totally responsible and would never do anything illegal with spray paint or Sharpies (Muni M line):

And when children gather, it's “congregating”. When adults gather, it's “loitering” and illegal (Nob Hill):

Non-binary people, just come right in (Mendocino Botanical Gardens):

Wouldn't want to offend the trash (Nob Hill):

Above the toilet at a group house in Berkeley. Dreadful spelling and grammar aside, I'm so confused by “whenever possib”. Did the person who wrote this forget to finish the word, or figure everyone would get it even though it didn't fit? When would it not be possible to avoid flushing kitchen paper towels down the toilet? When would it be considered possible in America to avoid flushing toilet paper down the toilet?

Windy beach walk

I tried to go for a walk on the beach today. I did not think to check the wind speed, which turned out to be 30mph gusting to 55mph. The Pacific was looking pretty majestic, but I basically got low-pressure sandblasted as I walked along. I also planned to take a shortcut through what looked on Google Maps like a public park but turned out to be a heavily fenced private golf course, and ended up having to walk along the median of a four-lane highway and then vault over a jersey barrier to get to the beach (there wasn't too much traffic and it felt pretty safe, but it wasn't exactly pleasant!).

You know it's windy when your windsockponytail sits at the side of your head pointing forward:

Me standing with the wind at my back, ponytail flying forward in disarray on one side of my face.

(This is my “trying not to lose my balance in the wind or have dust blown in my eyes” face.)

Not a bad day though. Travel is always more fun when unexpected things the time I got stranded at a stranger's house in Austin, MN for two days without my glasses or phone.

Appointment clock

This is a brilliant option on the latest iOS:

iOS showing your next appointment next to the date.

I didn't realize I needed this until I found the option and tried it out of curiosity. Frequently, what you want to know when you check the time and date is really how long you have until the next thing you need to do. This option inconspicuously shows the name and time of the next item on your calendar (or the current item, if it's in progress, as you can see here) next to the date.

You can configure this by long-pressing in the middle of the lock screen, tapping “Customize”, then the lock screen thumbnail, then the date, and selecting the “Next Event” widget.

The Harrow and the Harvest

Now in San Francisco for the month, this weekend I rented a car and did a road trip north on Highway 1 to Fort Bragg, a beautiful drive. I brought with me and listened to (multiple times) all the albums of Gillian Welch, who I recently rediscovered. As funny as it sounds to say this since this was only five years ago, I think I wasn't old enough to appreciate it when I heard it for the first time, just after graduating college.

(Although most of the music they make together is under the name “Gillian Welch”, Welch's partner David Rawlings is as essential a part of it as she is; they write the songs together and he plays lead guitar and sings harmony on everything.)

What I love about Welch and Rawlings – and the reason I think I wasn't old enough to get it before – is that they tell the story of life just like it is. They neither sugarcoat things nor tell unmitigated tragedies; their songs are almost universally about suffering and loss and struggle, often severe, and yet somewhere there's always a tinge of solace and redemption, often so subtle and implied that you can't figure out where it comes from, but you feel it, a testament to the fact that despite all this, people manage to make life not just tolerable but very worth living. There are certainly no promises, but there is hope.

In recent years their arrangements have been sparse, usually just their voices and two guitars, occasionally a little mandolin or banjo or percussion; it sounds like two people sitting on their porch picking, except they're insanely good. Musicians will know these simple arrangements are not the easiest but the hardest to get right, because there's nowhere to hide the mistakes. But the two of them are so perfectly in sync that there aren't any mistakes to hide. Their voices even blend so well that sometimes I don't immediately notice Rawlings has come in, even though he's singing different notes!

I think their finest work so far is The Harrow and the Harvest, published in 2011. The epitome of everything I've said above is the track “Hard Times”, which borrows the title from Stephen Foster but takes the sentiment in a totally different direction. Instead of being comfortable and sparing a thought for those worse off than them, the characters are in the thick of it, dealing with the hard times, and they don't presume to ask for hard times to “come again no more,” but simply promise themselves that the hard times “won't rule their minds no more.” Yet the ploughman, very relatably, fails to take his own advice, falling victim to modernization and ceasing his refrain, even as the audience is exhorted to celebrate in the midst of it one more time.

Greenness and whiteness

In #11, I was searching for terminology related to:

...a pattern I've started noticing, in which someone wants to achieve a particular goal A, or likes a particular process or activity in total, but is incapable of, scared of, or strongly dislikes a necessary component or step of that goal/process/activity A′, creating an infuriating tension and an obstacle to progress.

While I still don't have a clean word I like for it (but thanks to those who have sent suggestions and interesting notes!), I noticed that David Cain has the following enlightening diagram describing more or less this phenomenon in his “How Mindfulness Creates Freedom”:

A diagram of a person trying to cross a local maximum, or necessary component

The greener an area, the more desirable it is. Sometimes, to get to the green A territory, you have to pass through some less-green A' territory.

Topic: A way to describe being happy to do something only if others want to do it

Situation (based on a true story): Three friends, Alice, Bob, and Charlie, are planning on meeting up, but there is heavy snow. Alice writes to say she can't make it because her street hasn't been plowed yet and her car doesn't have enough clearance to drive through the snow. Bob and Charlie thus learn the roads are probably going to be a real pain to venture out on, and Alice can't make it, so they start to consider canceling, but aren't sure. Bob thinks he would enjoy going if Charlie still actively wants to meet up, but doesn't want to bother if they both feel this way.

Is there a concise way to describe Bob's attitude?

Near misses:

  • Abilene paradox: In this one, everyone actively believes they would prefer not to go, and agrees only because they (wrongly) believe others want to. In my example, Bob believes he would legitimately enjoy going as long as Charlie really wants to be there.
  • Responsive desire (mildly NSFW): Too specific and doesn't quite capture the dependence on another person's attitude.


2023-01-08 05:06
Call Bob's attitude "socially conditioned (partial) intent". "Conditioned" comes from "conditional" rather than e.g. "classical conditioning".

I occasionally offer awards to internet strangers who send me recommendations I love. If I am so moved, your choice of:

  • $10 USD sent via PayPal
  • a personal thank-you note via snail mail
  • grab a drink with me sometime you're in Minneapolis (or I'm near you) and talk about the recommendation or anything else
Gratitude and brownie points awarded in all circumstances!

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary effort. Most times are ordinary. Make an ordinary effort.

Zvi Mowshowitz, “Slack” [rt] [source]

People say they're not doing the work because it's hard. But it's hard because they're not doing the work.

Derek Sivers, How to Live [rt]
The remarkable compounding of small amounts of time

The average city dweller spends around four months of their life waiting at red lights.

If this sounds impossible, here's the math: suppose you average about five minutes a day waiting at various red lights. (That's probably eight average lights' worth of waiting? I definitely wait at more some days, but then there are days I don't go much of anywhere since I work from home, so this seems about right. I'd expect it to be more for people who have significant commutes. If you take the subway or grade-separated light rail most of the time, you get to skip most of the red lights, but then you wait for your train to arrive instead.) That makes 1,825 minutes per year. Then we'll say you spend 60 years of your life in the city and traveling around regularly (this is probably an underestimate), for 109,500 total minutes spent at red lights. Divide by 60 again for hours, and by 16 for waking hours per day, and you get 114 waking days spent waiting, or just under four months.

Five minutes a day doesn't seem like much of a commitment. But actually it's a huge one. You can get a lot done in five minutes a day if you're consistent. You can also waste an enormous amount of time in five minutes a day if you're not doing something worthwhile with it. (Exercise for the reader: can you do something interesting while waiting at red lights?)

Rule of thumb: 15 minutes a day is 1/60 of your time. If you spend 15 minutes daily for a year, you will have spent 6 days (or 12 full-time work days) total; for 60 years, 1 year total.
Benefits of asymmetric social rules

Even in a rather feminist-ideology-saturated 2022, it's quite rare for straight women to ask out straight men. People of all genders seem to agree this is silly, then shrug and keep doing exactly the same thing.

It struck me recently that there is at least one reason that expecting one clearly defined person in any potential pairing to be in charge of expressing interest could be functionally useful. Consider that it's quite common for two people to actually be quite interested in becoming friends, but for nobody to ever make a move because they're kind of shy and figure the other person, presumably with better social skills, would do so if they were interested. But when one person has reason to expect that the other will not make the first move even if they're interested, there's much stronger motivation for them to act. My suspicion is that significantly more low-level-interest situations turn into dates under the current expectations than would without them.

I'm not sure if that's worth it (especially because sometimes people don't realize they're interested until another person expresses interest), but it's certainly interesting. This is part of a constellation of struggles playing out in today's world, between having social rules that are unnecessarily limiting and/or don't work for some people, and having so few rules that people don't know what to do. I expect to write more about this later.

See also §NoRulesNoFreedom.

Printers, man

I had to reboot my printer the other day, and it decided not to come back on after I turned it off. Pressing the power button did nothing, unplugging it and plugging it back in did nothing, and so on.

After trying unsuccessfully to start it several times over a few days, I was on the point of deciding it had crapped out on me and buying a new printer, but was stubborn enough to try wading through some terrible troubleshooting advice on the internet first. After several useless attempts, I found someone who recommended unplugging the printer, removing the paper tray, and plugging it back in. Astoundingly, this somehow worked – the printer came on normally again and works as well as always (which is “not that well,” since it's a consumer-grade printer, but I'll take what I can get).

This reminds me of the time my monitor stopped working and I took it apart to see if anything was obviously wrong. I couldn't find anything, so I put it back together and on a whim plugged it in again. It worked again, and continued working for another 5 years. There was one extra screw that I couldn't find a place for, so I dubbed that the “screw of malfunctioning” and threw it away.

Two songs for 2022

I seem to have accidentally created a tradition of recording a song or two for the internet at the end of every year. Two love songs on the mandolin this year: “Pretty Saro” and “Tell Me True.”

(watch on YouTube)

Topic: Visiting the Bay Area

I'll be in/around San Francisco from January 22 to February 20 (working days, exploring evenings and weekends). I have never been to the West Coast before. If you're nearby and want to meet up, or you have something to recommend to me, shoot me an email or reply below! I have very few plans at the moment.


I occasionally offer awards to internet strangers who send me recommendations I love. If I am so moved, your choice of:

  • $10 USD sent via PayPal
  • a personal thank-you note via snail mail
  • grab a drink with me sometime you're in Minneapolis (or I'm near you) and talk about the recommendation or anything else
Gratitude and brownie points awarded in all circumstances!
Traffic Control Hall of Shame: sign overload and combined YIELD and STOP signs

Among the most confusing intersections I've ever seen:

A yield sign combined with a stop sign because of railroad tracks

These train tracks in Southwest Minneapolis (Linden Hills, next to Lake Harriet) are used only for a low-speed tourist attraction, so there are no crossing arms, and they put a YIELD sign in front of them. So far so good. But then there's an intersection immediately after it, with not even enough space to stop your car past the tracks…and cross traffic has a STOP sign. But only on the right, not on the left, because that street is one-way. Plus there's the post on the corner with 4 extra signs that draw away your attention and can block your view of the STOP sign if you look over there while you're in your car.

Of course, this isn't technically wrong – the YIELD sign is only meant to apply to the train tracks, and then there is no sign controlling the actual intersection, so you can go through and cross traffic has to stop for you. But it's confusing as heck and they definitely should have picked a different approach.

What happened to me, coming up to the intersection from the direction the camera is looking: I yielded to (nonexistent) rail traffic, then started across the tracks and was about to go through the intersection when I saw someone coming from the right and went “Whoa, I had a YIELD sign!” and slammed on the brakes, only to see they had a STOP sign. I had to walk back and look at the intersection again after I parked to figure out what happened.

New stuff update
I stopped updating on new stuff because I got busy, including a new and very important thing covering several weeks that I don't want to share with the internet. Hoping to get back to regular updates here shortly!
The “not actually polite” sign
Someone needs to invent a hand gesture for driving that means “I know you thought that was polite, but it was actually rude, cut it out.” There are times when you can't really flip someone off or act affronted because they weren't trying to be rude (so they would just conclude you're rude instead of realizing they did something wrong), but if you wave or even do nothing, they'll continue to think they're being nice. The number-one use case would be when people yield even though they aren't supposed to, creating unnecessary confusion, but now that I've had this idea, I keep finding other moments I'd like to use it!
🔗 Math's Fundamental Flaw (Veritasium)

This 30-minute video provides a fantastic and accessible overview of the limitations of provability and decidability, including self-referential paradoxes, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and the halting problem. Highly recommended, even if you're familiar with some or all of these ideas.

New stuff: Church lock-in

Today I helped supervise a bunch of high-schoolers at an overnight youth event at my church, which I have not done before. This was equal parts chaos and fun and consisted mostly of (1) staying up until 2 AM and (2) telling the kids not to touch things that weren't theirs, break things, or disappear on us.

I felt about 15 years younger (in a good way) when I found myself and the youth director (the only adults there) lying on the floor in sleeping bags in the dark at 1:30 AM talking. The only difference was that we were talking about getting older instead of high-school gossip!

Gratuitous pedantic note on the newness of this experience: I was technically a chaperone once before, at an event where anyone over 18 had to be registered as one and I was 18 years and 2 months. But this feels like claiming you've been to a country because you connected through an international airport there; technically you were on the ground within the country's borders, but realistically, for any reason you might care about whether you had been there, it makes no sense to count it. Very different experience this time.
New stuff: Fort Snelling

Today I went to the state park and historic site at Fort Snelling, located next to the airport just southeast of Minneapolis, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

The location of Fort Snelling

First I hiked a couple of miles. The trails were nice, many running next to one of the rivers, and I'll definitely come back here; the only major drawback is that it's pretty noisy, as it's right next to both the airport and several major highways. Indeed, the historic area was almost demolished for Highway 5 – after public outcry, they ended up routing the highway through a tunnel underneath it instead. (A substantial part of Fort Snelling was demolished for the airport as well, but it was an area with very little historic value, made up mostly of barracks for temporary residents who were going through training or processing, some of them made of little more than tar paper on frames.)

The highway tunnel discussed above

Because it's midwinter, a lot of the historic site was closed, including the main fort building, but the side museum was open, with a number of volunteers doing little presentations. Normally I find people talking to me in museums really annoying, because the exhibits are designed to be self-paced and then you're forced to context-switch all the time between a carefully designed exhibit and some random person who's telling you stuff. But these folks were good and the exhibits were actually pretty boring without them, so I ended up appreciating it (special shout-out to the woman who had just started yesterday but was already able to talk in great detail for 20 minutes to me and two other people about the complete chronology and function of the buildings on an unlabeled birds-eye diorama of the fort).

I'll have to stop back up next summer to see the rest; they just redid the whole place a couple of years ago and all of it is supposed to be really good.

The restroom account

The other night I dreamed that I was at a public restroom which required me to create an account in order to use the toilet. This seems like the epitome of technological bureaucracy in 2022, and is entirely believable!

New stuff: Tea shop

I missed yesterday because I was busy working and writing a bunch of stuff in my Zettelkasten, but today I got back on the bandwagon with a visit to a little tiny tea store which I've passed by a few times and never gone into. You just stand in front of the counter and tell the lady what you're interested in, and she finds something to recommend and sells it to you.

I haven't actually tried the tea yet (I would do it now, but I don't need more caffeine at 10:30 pm), so I'll come back and update this when I have a report on whether it's any good! (I'm guessing loose tea from a store that sells only tea and that's about $0.50 per cup is going to be pretty good, but you never know.)

Copilot almost groks awk

While I was writing examples for the on-line help of a new feature of Dreamdir, Copilot (quite remarkably) recognized what I was trying to do with the rather hackish awk pattern patsplit($4, arr, /,/) == 1 { print $0 } (split a string on commas, and use this operation's return value, informing us how many splits were made and thus how many commas were in the line, to decide whether to show the line or not – completely ignoring the actual split values). It even drily noted that “this is a contrived example,” which it certainly is!

Copilot can read awk commands!

Only, it's not quite right! The return value of patsplit here is 1 not if there is exactly one person in the column, but if there are exactly two people in the column, because there would be no comma at all, and hence zero splits, if there was only a single comma-separated value. It's interesting that it made exactly the sort of mistake that a human programmer would make here – I didn't even notice the error until I actually ran the command and looked at the output to be sure I hadn't made any syntax errors. Indeed, there's no particular reason awk would have to return 0 if there are no splits; it could easily have chosen to define the return value as the number of elements in the resulting array, in which case Copilot's explanation would be right; it just doesn't. (0 does have the benefit that the return value becomes falsy if the delimiter wasn't found, though, which could be convenient on occasion.)

Incidentally, the { print $0 } isn't actually necessary: if an awk program consists of only one pattern with no body, the body is assumed to be { print $0 }. I left it in here in case people reading the examples don't know this!)

(Previously: #32, #24, #22.)

New stuff: Lowry Hill

Today I went for a walk in the Lowry Hill neighborhood, as prompted by a nifty iPhone app called Randonautica which I use occasionally. This lets you select a radius around your current location, then randomly picks a spot you're supposed to go explore somewhere within it (using some amusingly woo-woo method). Inevitably, you find something interesting in the area it instructs you to visit, not of course because its “method” actually knows where interesting things are, but because interesting things are all around us, and we usually aren't paying attention.

There was a surprisingly nice view of the skyline right at the spot it pointed me to, although my phone camera didn't do the best job of capturing it:

Downtown Minneapolis seen from a high spot in the Lowry Hill neighborhood

On the way back, I went through Thomas Lowry Park, named after the streetcar magnate who made huge contributions to Minneapolis's transportation system (the streetcar tracks have been long since paved over, to the eternal regret of Minneapolis urbanists). I had not been there before, and had read the other day that it has a fountain made up of a series of cascading pools. Presumably these are them, though it was a wee bit cold for any fountain action today:

What is presumably the pools, covered in snow

And a little further on, in the middle of some really cool historic apartment blocks, was this nifty carved lamppost in front of a random house:

This nifty lamppost with animal heads in front of a random house
New stuff: fancy soup

Today there's a winter storm warning, so I'm not going anywhere. Instead I made a really intense mushroom barley soup from an amazing soup cookbook called Dairy Hollow House Soup and Bread, written by a woman named (I kid you not) Crescent Dragonwagon. It's undoubtedly the richest vegan soup I've ever had – mixed dried forest mushrooms, button mushrooms, white wine, the typical soup vegetables (including parsnip for that little bit of bitter zest!) and a homemade roasted vegetable stock with extra mushroom stems.

Every recipe from the book I've tried is good, but many of them are quite a production – being recipes they make at Dragonwagon's inn's restaurant, it's rare to find one with fewer than fifteen ingredients, and there are usually lots of steps. This one had 19, and one of them was the stock, which itself had 10. But if you don't think vegetable broth is good, this one will change your mind! I would have happily sipped a cup of it if I hadn't needed all of it for the soup. Totally worth it.

I'm a mushroom lover, so this recipe couldn't really be bad. It came out a little sweeter than I would have preferred though – next time I'm going to try a very dry wine instead of the medium-dry the recipe called for. (It could be partly the fault of the vegetable stock I chose, which is a touch sweet because the veggies are caramelized.) Met expectations overall, though it only scores that low because I have high expectations of the cookbook.

New coffee shop

When I started working from home (permanently, post-pandemic-restrictions), I had originally planned to go work somewhere else for part of the day most days. As of yesterday, I had somehow managed to do that exactly zero days on which I was otherwise based in my home office. While I'm introverted enough that I don't get lonely from being at home all day as long as I go hang out with other people a couple of times a week, it's definitely still better for me to get out of my apartment most days, so I'm planning to try out a bunch of nearby spots I could work and hopefully find a couple that I can become a regular at.

One problem with working away from home is that there are some tasks I can do way more effectively at my desk, with two 24-inch monitors, access to four different computers running different operating systems, and a whole office setup. I know what tasks I can do well with just my laptop, but I've often done a bad job of block-scheduling them. So in some sense, this will be a task-management experiment as much as a place experiment. (I do have a handy portable 15-inch monitor that folds up to the size of a laptop and can be used as a second screen, but I think it's a bit too nerdy to set up at a table in a coffee shop! You also kind of have to set up an external keyboard and mouse too if you want to run dual monitors without wrecking your ergonomics, which makes it even more impractical.)

In the interest of not allowing a bunch of internet strangers to trivially triangulate my exact home address, I won't say too much about exactly what these places are or where they are in relation to me, but I'll drop in a little. The coffee shop I tried today (I had been once, but not to work, and before I actually lived in Minneapolis) somehow felt simultaneously really nice and not quite the right vibe for me. I could imagine getting used to it, but I'm not sure about it at this point either.

New stuff: Bogart's, Foshay Tower

(For Sunday, the actual publication date.)

When I joined Costco last December, the guy at the customer service desk read my address and told me I had to try Bogart's Doughnut Co., which isn't actually that close to my apartment but was apparently his main association with Uptown. It's right on the way from my apartment to church, but I've never stopped, so today I did on my way home and got their brown-butter-glazed doughnut, which I was told was the classic. It wasn't, in my opinion, astoundingly good, as I had been made to believe from the way he and another woman there talked about it, but it was solidly excellent and I'll definitely go back if I'm craving a doughnut.

In the afternoon I went to the Foshay Tower downtown and went up to the museum and observation deck. I only saw four other people, on a holiday weekend, so the observation deck must be unusually unpopular for one situated in a major city; it's certainly odd that the way to go up is to walk into the hotel and ask at the front desk to pay $9 for an elevator key card (they even make you sign on the screen, on a line that says “I agree to pay all room charges and incidentals”).

The story of the tower, and Foshay himself, is fascinating, but I was a little underwhelmed by the museum as a museum. It lacks any kind of clearly presented story, and has only a couple of small slips of paper written by the curator, so that you have to read all the newspaper articles and artifacts yourself and try to draw your own conclusions, something which is difficult to do reliably given that some of the articles are nearly a century old and you don't know what motivations the writers might have had. I'm still unclear, for example, on exactly to what extent Foshay's company was a Ponzi scheme; he clearly lied about where the dividends he was giving out were coming from, but it seems like he also had a real business that would have been profitable sooner or later?

The observation deck was fun, but you do have to temper your expectations a bit since you're on the thirty-second story smack in the middle of a downtown that has quite a few taller buildings. You get a great close-up view of the buildings around you that you couldn't easily get from any nearby public space, and there are some gaps where you can see quite a long way, including a decent look at the skyline of St. Paul, but if there's a specific area of the city you're hoping to glimpse, or you want a panoramic overview, you're likely to be disappointed. I couldn't see into my own neighborhood at all; the AT&T Tower prevents you from seeing anything to the east of Lake of the Isles and west of Nicollet or so. Also, the telescopes at the corners were a nice touch, but a couple of them were so dirty they were basically useless.

For an hour and $9, it was totally worth it, and I'd definitely recommend it to guests.

New stuff: Stone Arch Bridge

On Saturday, the weather was gorgeous and I rode the bus downtown and tried to visit Water Power Park and maybe read for a while. This is (apparently; as you will soon see I have not yet been there) a projection into the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis near the Upper St. Anthony Locks where you can relax and look out on the water. The park was, however, closed for unspecified maintenance activities, despite showing as open on Google Maps. Fortunately, I had had the idea of combining it with starting on the opposite side of the river and walking across the Stone Arch Bridge, which is a historic rail bridge connecting the former mills on the west side of the river to the mainline on the east side, so the trip wasn't wasted.

The whole area is beautiful and I can't believe I haven't been yet. I grabbed this picture of the skyline and the (being renovated) Central Avenue bridge from the point where I tried unsuccessfully to enter Water Power Park. The Stone Arch Bridge is not visible, but is off a few hundred yards to the left.

The Central Avenue bridge

On the way back, I stopped at a used bookstore that's less than three blocks from my apartment but which I've never been in, partly because it's only open on Saturdays and Sundays, and bought a big stack of books. I'm not sure how fast the inventory rotates, so I'll have to check back in a couple of months to see how often it's worth going.

Doing new stuff: an experiment

In my reflections on living in Minneapolis for a year (see post immediately below), I noted that I want to try doing more different things, and generally drawing more samples across all areas of my life. In the last year, I've done about as many things around me and gotten to know about as many places as I would have in any of the smaller towns I've lived, which makes it seem like I'm not taking full advantage of the opportunities I have here. The new things I've gotten have been mostly minor, like being able to attend concerts fifteen minutes' drive from my home instead of an hour; I'm not sure I've even gone to a whole lot more of them than I otherwise would have.

The world is a really interesting place with a lot of people, places, and activities in it, and living in a city means you get a bunch of those things packed together closely enough that you have more of them available than you'll ever be able to explore within thirty minutes' travel. I'm not saying that I need to aggressively try to do everything I possibly can, constantly for the rest of my life, but especially being only around a third of the way through my expected lifespan, it seems like I should be exploring more than I am.

In an attempt to adjust for this, I'm going to try to do something new every day until the end of the year. At that point, I'll evaluate and see if I want to continue this, maybe in some altered form. I'm not only going to count events or places in the city, though I expect many of the items to fit in there; I'll also count things like cooking a new recipe or meeting someone new online. I won't, however, count reading books, visiting websites, or anything that I would likely already have done without this project.

To keep myself honest, I'm going to write something here every day about what I did under the “New Stuff Experiment” tag.

🔗 A year in Minneapolis

As of today, I've been living in Minneapolis for one year and one day. I wrote up some thoughts on what's been different about living here.

The McCollough effect

The McCollough effect is the creepiest perceptual phenomenon I know of. By staring at gratings made up of horizontal and vertical lines interspersed with red and green bars, you start to see images of the same gratings separated by pure white as having pinkish and reddish tints.

So far, this seems like a pretty normal afterimage demonstration, except that the colors are the same instead of inverted. Here's the weird part: if you do this some day, and then you put it away and come back in several months, you still see the same illusion without doing the induction again! (I just did a several-months-out test. It worked as advertised.) Somehow the simple expedient of looking at some colored images for a couple of minutes can create lasting changes in your visual perception. (If you find this scary, know that retesting yourself repeatedly over a short period of time will eradicate the effect; whatever adaptation occurred will promptly undo itself once you can give your brain enough new input showing that it's really white.)

Phenomena like this seem to me to provide tantalizing clues of a world – and a human consciousness – that's vastly weirder and more interesting than we can imagine.


There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Just you put good stuff into the universe and most of the time the universe will return good stuff to you. And even if it doesn't, you should still be enjoying it.

David Heinemeier Hansson, “You can either buy attention or earn it” [rt] [source]
🔗 RabbitMark

I've been using my own little desktop bookmark manager called RabbitMark for about 8 years now, and I finally got a chance to clean it up and publish it. If you save a lot of bookmarks and are looking for a good solution to keep them under control, check it out!

Droop Snoot

The Concorde featured a droop snoot, which meant the snoot would droop.

C’mon, don’t leave early

If anyone knows of a more annoying everyday occurrence than missing a bus because the bus left the stop before the scheduled time, I'd like to hear about it.

🔗 Renting is Throwing Money Away...right? (Afford Anything)

This is the best treatment I've ever found of this age-old and extremely complicated question. Rather than try to simplify, it lists out all of the considerations involved and shows how to crunch the numbers to see what actually makes sense for your situation.

The fundamentality of metaphor

When I was in sixth grade, I, like many people, was tricked into believing that metaphors were some kind of obscure figure found mostly in fancy poetry. Nowadays, I believe that metaphors are the most important – and simultaneously among the most unrecognized – cognitive tools available to humanity.

How do you learn things? By relating them to things you already know. When you learn an unfamiliar concept, you find a concept you're familiar with, pretend they're the same thing, and then add corrections for the things that you notice actually aren't the same. Similarly, even once you know things, you often reduce problems to easier ones or ideas to ones you're more comfortable with. This happens both linguistically (the most traditional use of the word metaphor) and conceptually.

Incidentally, I also believe this is a prime reason that fiction and friends (legend, anecdote, etc.) are effective tools for communicating truth, or, on the flip side, for creating untrue and/or maladaptive beliefs. Nonfiction is honest about its metaphors, which makes it easy for the reader to accept or reject them. Fiction just creates them and lets your brain make its own connections while you aren't looking. Fiction is also free to use much more creative metaphors, which are more powerful and harder to predict the effects of.

Much smarter people than me have explored these ideas in much more detail (perhaps most notably Julian Jaynes; the Conceptual metaphor article on Wikipedia provides an interesting overview of some modern ideas), so I won't blab on any longer, but I was struck today by how undertaught this fundamental feature of the world is and wanted to make sure my readers had thought about this at some point!

Copilot recommends self-immolation

Gnomish scrollkeepers, in my roguelike, are mischievous little creatures generated with 1–3 magical scrolls that do irritating things. A balance problem created by this (not that the game is far enough along to have meaningful balance yet!) is that if one doesn't find a use for all of its scrolls before you kill it, you get to pick up the extras, and if a lot of scrollkeepers show up, you get more scrolls than you probably should. To counter this, I decided to make scrollkeepers have a chance of successfully lighting their scrolls on fire as they died, to avoid their species' magic getting out and all.

Copilot had a…different idea:

The gnomish scrollkeeper lights himself on fire

(Previously: #24, #22.)

Lazy-loading images on websites

As I started adding images to this microblog, I realized I had a problem: since the entire thing is a single page, after a while the page was going to start downloading dozens or eventually maybe hundreds of images every time someone browsed to it, most of which the reader would never look at unless they decided to go through the archives for all of time – hardly the lightweight site I'm aspiring to create. I could have written some JavaScript to load them when the reader came to them, but this also seemed ugly and not in keeping with the philosophy of the site.

Happily, it turns out HTML5 added an image attribute, loading="lazy", that causes exactly the right behavior here. The precise way the browser decides when to load images is up to the browser, but essentially it grabs the images for only the first couple of screens of content, and then as you scroll down it starts pre-requesting images that are 1–2 screens away. So unless you start scrolling really fast or have a really slow network connection, you'll never know the images aren't being loaded up-front, they'll just be there when they scroll into view.

This is supported on all major browsers except Internet Explorer, and if you're still using Internet Exploder in 2022 for anything except an old and broken enterprise website, I'm gonna say you deserve to download a bunch of useless images.

When you're broke but still need some tea...

…you can now pay for your tea in installments.

The Bigelow website showing that you can buy tea in 4 installment payments
Baby Jesus, the projectile

At choir rehearsal last night, we started Michael Praetorius's “Psallite”, which contained the temporarily puzzling Latin phrase:

Christo Dei filio…puerulo iacenti in praesepio!

Which the Latin-reading part of my brain decided to interpret as “baby Jesus, thrown into a manger.” (It would actually have to be throwing, present tense, and it would be more idiomatic to use the accusative for praesepium when motion is involved, but my brain glossed over this in its attempt to make sense of this silly reading.) I spent the next ten minutes with an image of someone chucking a baby across the room into a manger as if throwing a balled-up piece of paper into a wastebasket running through my head.

It was only when I got back to my dictionary that I finally realized I had made the classic mistake of confusing iacio, to throw, and iaceo, to lie (mnemonic: the lowercase letter i looks sort of like a person standing up). But in looking at the dictionary entry, I also realized I had arguably only been half wrong! The two words are closely related in both meaning and etymology; iaceo is an intransitive and stative counterpart of iacio. The sense is that when something is thrown or cast down, it ends up lying where it was cast. Which makes a neat metaphor: Jesus was sent forth, down from heaven, to lie in the aforementioned manger.

In full:

Psallite unigenito Christo Dei filio, Redemptori Domino, puerulo iacenti in praesepio!

Sing to the only-begotten son of God, the Christ, the Redeemer, the Lord, the little baby boy lying in a manger!

Now hiring

About a year ago, I was at the Land's End outlet in Bloomington and went into the fitting room to try on a shirt. I learned that Land's End was hiring, and was evidently in particular need of taller staff who use the whole mirror:

A 'now hiring' sign pasted over a mirror, covering up the spot where my face would appear.

Yesterday I was back at the same store and found this in the fitting room, on the opposite wall from the mirror:

The same 'now hiring' sign on a wall, wrinkled and peeling from having been removed from the mirror and moved over here.

I'm not sure why it's funny that they fixed their mistake, but somehow the moved, peeling sign is just as funny to me as the first picture!

🔗 Illegal condoms (unknown author)

More Obvious Contraception Nonsense: In the United States, it's illegal to manufacture or import a condom larger than 5.5 inches in circumference at the base – a size which is too small to properly fit as much as 10% of men. In addition to being uncomfortable, condoms that are too small are substantially more likely to break. Congrats to the FDA. (Previously: #12, #2.)

🔗 Polish

Polish is a quality of excellent products created by style, attention to detail, and an uncompromising insistence on doing exactly what is supposed to be done the best it can be done. It's about getting all of the details right in a way that creates a great impression. More on my definition of the concept at the link.

The different difficulty of playing the piano

I learned a little bit of piano as a child, then played basically never for about 15 years, aside from plonking out a few notes while practicing some other instrument or figuring out a chord progression. After moving apartments recently, I finally found space for an electric piano, and I'm starting to play a little bit again.

I've noticed several interesting things as a result. First, it's surprising how much I remember; I was worried that, for instance, I might have to relearn how to simultaneously read treble and bass clef, but the moment I sat down I had no trouble with this. I'm not sure I've lost much skill at all (not that I had a whole lot to speak of to begin with; my age was in high single digits when I last practiced).

The more curious thing to me is that the difficulty of piano, as a beginner to intermediate player, is completely different from that of most other instruments, in two ways: First, it is quite difficult to play all of the correct notes even in a simple piece with a reasonable tempo; on most instruments, playing the right notes is fairly trivial with even a small amount of skill, unless you're playing something virtuosic. Second, once you do manage to play all of the correct notes, it usually sounds quite good without having to do much else (except perhaps push the pedal a few times, which doesn't really require practice for simple pieces once you've learned how to do it once). Of course you can continue to improve your articulation and dynamics and so on for a lifetime, but so long as you can hit the right notes, you can accompany yourself or someone else and not be embarrassed.

Contrast this with, say, the violin, where someone with a couple of weeks of practice can easily play any melody and hit the correct notes (albeit out of tune), but will still sound like a dying cat for probably months.

Much of the difficulty of hitting the right notes on the piano is down to multitasking. There are just a lot more of them, to start with. And then there's combining two hands doing different things. Playing with one hand alone, I might have to stop and work out a few fingerings and land my fingers in the right place, but this tends to be straightforward; it takes a little bit of practice, but it isn't usually difficult. But as soon as I put two hands together – even when the rhythms are basically aligned, or with straight half notes in the bass – suddenly I start making all kinds of mistakes I wouldn't have made before.

Lastly, at my skill level, practicing is very rewarding: I can go from being completely unable to play something simple to sounding quite good in just a couple of days. This is hard to achieve on any other instrument I've played.

Sometimes Copilot…suggests animal abuse?

(Previously: #22)

Copilot suggests that housecats 'can be carried around in a sack'
Why I don't outline my essays

Many people seem to recommend making an outline, or some kind of prepared description of what one is going to write, before starting to write it.

This has never worked for me. I've tried many times, because it seems like it ought to be helpful, and many people say it helps keep them focused, but I've never found it helpful. In fact, I'm rarely able to make a useful outline to begin with, and that has always made me feel like a sloppy thinker – but I seem to get good results flying by the seat of my pants, and it's hard to argue with results.

As I was refilling the soap dispenser in my bathroom this morning, I suddenly identified the fundamental problem for me: the way I normally write, I don't know what I think about a topic, and thus what I want to say about it, until I finish writing – and not just a few words about each of the ideas of that topic, the actual, final form. If I already knew what I was going to say, in many cases I wouldn't bother to write it (it's handy that writing can be so easily shared and both help other people and generate new connections for the author, but the main reason I write is to figure out what I think). So too, there wouldn't be much point in outlining anyway, because if I already knew what I was going to say, why not just…write it down?

Or put another way, it almost never happens that I sit down to write something and don't end up getting up from the keyboard thinking something substantially different – and much more expansive – than I did when I sat down; and this is true even when I am pretty sure I know what I think. I certainly did not, for example, expect this post to be seven paragraphs long, or to talk about my penchant for leaving sentences unfinished or the way people are taught to write in school; I only discovered many of the important ideas here as I started describing my soap-dispenser revelation.

If I'm writing something much longer than an essay, I do routinely note down ideas that I think I want to include later so that I don't forget about them. But I wouldn't call this an outline; it's more like a to-do list, because I don't make any attempt to figure out how the structure fits together at this point, and I'm not necessarily planning to include all of the ideas. I also, in writing of all lengths, often leave sentences hanging and unfinished and go write something different on another line or in another paragraph, when I suddenly think of a new idea I should mention. In a way this is kind of like outlining in that I leave placeholders for things I want to expand later. But unlike traditional outlines, it encourages iterating in place, rather than trying to get the structure right the first time without any details. Here's an example of an earlier version of this post:

A partially written post, demonstrating how I leave sentences half-finished.

This whole thing strikes me as a manifestation of the waterfall writing process problem, where the way one is encouraged or required to write actively discourages changing one's mind or restructuring one's argument later. The way people are taught to write in school targets, essentially, content-farm writing, rather than writing that follows natural curiosity and leads to real insights and worthwhile output (I would call this creative writing, but that's an established term that means something different).

Maybe I'm just weird here? I do seem to think in language more naturally and preferentially than some people.

Sometimes Copilot is amazing

GitHub Copilot is often stupid, making incredibly basic mistakes like referencing variables that don't exist (I'm surprised they haven't figured out how to integrate it with the IDE autocomplete – although maybe it does and the model just likes to ignore it sometimes). At other times, it instantly figures things out that a human would need some significant domain knowledge to work out, to the point that it's hard to believe it's just a fancy language model.

In my roguelike recently, moving up against the edge of the map was doing nothing. I wanted to add a message that said “You are at the edge of the world” when you did this. Here's what I got after adding a conditional for whether there is no adjacent tile in the specified direction:

you bump into the edge of the world

(Incidentally, my experience has been that Copilot works noticeably better with Python than with TypeScript. I suspect this is because I use docstrings extensively in Python and it's remarkably good at interpreting them.)

Required optional types and non-covariate unions

I sometimes find myself wanting a “required optional” type in MyPy or TypeScript. That is, the variable can be either null or some type, but the code shouldn't compile if there's no way for the parameter or return type to be non-null; there has to be some code path in which it could have a value (to figure this out without actually running the code, a true Optional[T] would have to be illegal to assign to a RequiredOptional[T], but a RequiredOptional[T] could be assigned to an Optional[T] – this is nothing new, just as a T can be assigned to an Optional[T] but an Optional[T] can't be assigned to a T).

Here's a recent example of an error this could catch: I'm working on writing a toy roguelike, and a common need throughout is for various NPCs to move around. To handle this, I have functions called travel behaviors that are assigned to each NPC and can be changed at any time; the behavior function is called to determine where the NPC should move. Here's a generic one that tries to move to a specific tile:

def travel_towards_target(
        soul: Soul,
        target: Tile,
        when_target_reached: Callable[[Soul], Optional[Tile]]
        ) -> Optional[Tile]:
    if soul.tile == target:
        return when_target_reached(soul)
    path = shortest_path(soul.tile, target)
    return path[0] if shortest_path is not None else None

When the NPC gets a move, it (the soul parameter) tries to move to the next tile along the shortest path from its current tile to the target tile. If the target is unreachable, it returns None to indicate it won't move at all (in reality we'd probably also want to change behaviors here, but this is an example). This results in a return type of Optional[Tile], that is, either a Tile or None (Python's null value).

Of course, without some intervention, when an NPC reached the target tile, it would just get stuck there forever, so if it's already there, a callback function when_target_reached() is called. This function resets the NPC's travel behavior in some way, perhaps shows the player a message, and then returns the first action it's going to take under the new behavior (since it still has a turn). It does this by calling swap_travel_behavior(), which both changes the travel behavior function and returns it so that we can call it once immediately to get this turn's action.

def on_target_reached(soul: Soul) -> Optional[Tile]:
    # ...change the target
    say("Changed target.")
    return swap_travel_behavior(soul, my_new_behavior)()

But today, I inadvertently left off the return statement, resulting in an implicit return value of None:

def on_target_reached(soul: Soul) -> Optional[Tile]:
    # ...change the target
    say("Changed target.")

This is clearly wrong, and not just because I obviously forgot a statement. It doesn't make any sense for the body of this function to be incapable of returning anything other than None; if that was what I had wanted, I would have just set the return type to None. In other words, the return type of this function should be not “either a Tile or None, or both”, as it currently is, but specifically both, a union of None and something else (Optional[Tile] being essentially an alias of Union[Tile, None]), with both possibilities obtainable from the code inside the behavior function.

However, as far as I'm aware, there's no way to define such a type, which means this (actually fairly common) error can never be caught by the type checker. This is, I suppose, a more general limitation of unions; in both MyPy and TypeScript they're implicitly covariant as return types.

Ultimately, though, I doubt this would actually be a worthwhile feature! It's already hard enough to think about nullable types without adding a different kind of nullable type, and I suspect in most places this kind of checking would be perceived as overly pedantic rather than helpful. (Witness PowerShell's “empty null.” Choice quote: “There is one special type of $null that acts differently than the others.”)

Precious sponges

My small urban grocery store doesn't carry the kind of sponges I like, so I ordered a $20 box of them on Amazon. Yesterday I got a message indicating that they were unable to deliver the sponges – the kind you get when the package requires a signature and you aren't there. Then today, they came back while I was out, and the driver called me to ask where he should leave it, as if it was some expensive piece of equipment that would get stolen and create a disaster if it was left out.

When I got back and opened the box, I found it was double-boxed, with twenty-four air packs around the inner box, to protect the fragile sponges from breaking.

The sponges in their safely packed box
Physical audio controls

One of the best minor quality-of-life upgrades I've found lately has been buying a physical volume knob for my desktop computer. I ran the outputs for my headphones and my stereo system through a splitter switch, then through the volume knob on the way to the computer's output, so the volume knob can be used to adjust both outputs without having to unplug and reconnect anything. The knob is vastly superior to my previous methods (press a fiddly button on a remote control a gazillion times for the stereo, and go click on the audio icon in the system tray for the headphones; my keyboard doesn't have volume controls).

Volume control knob, splitter switch, and webcam switch on a desk.

The upper-right box is a USB switch that I use to disconnect the power to my webcam when I'm not working, to make sure nobody can see and hear in my living room at off hours accidentally. I used putty to easily affix all the controls to the desk so they don't slide around.

This whole setup was about $75, which might seem a little steep, but I'm playing music, podcasts, work calls, or something else through the computer pretty much anytime I'm in my office or kitchen (which also covers large portions of my off hours), and I often have to adjust the volume multiple times an hour, so it's approximately $0 per annoyance point removed once you multiply it out over a few weeks.


In a series of daring experiments, Lockheed test pilots (wearing parachutes and with the doors open!) deliberately flew an Electra at maximum speed into the strongest turbulence they could find, in the wake of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, while a specialized device vibrated the wings, and then pulled up sharply in an attempt to get the wings to break off.

“Physics Strikes Back: The Crashes of Braniff Flight 542 and Northwest Orient Flight 710” [rt] [source]
Braided cables are worth checking out

I'm a convert to the new style of braided cable that's become popular lately. They're definitely more expensive, and until these came along, I'd never seen any benefit in buying anything but the cheapest available cable – most of the high-end cables have been sold with marketing gimmicks instead of improvements anyone would ever notice. But these look better and last longer than traditional cables. They tangle much less easily, and they're less susceptible to electromagnetic interference (though I can't say I've ever had trouble with interference on a cable in my home, even a 20-foot audio cable). Give them a try next time you see one as an option!

Meta-theft of services

Three Microsoft engineers and three Apple engineers are taking a train to a conference. At the ticket office, the three Microsoft engineers each buy a ticket as usual, but the Apple engineers, after conferring for a moment to decide how minimalist they can be, only buy one ticket among the three of them. The Microsoft engineers ask, “How are three people going to travel on one ticket?”

“Watch and you'll see,” say the Apple engineers.

So they board their train, the Microsoft engineers take their seats, and the Apple engineers squeeze into a restroom. The train starts moving, and shortly the conductor comes through the train taking tickets. When he arrives at the door of the restroom where the Apple engineers are hiding, he stops and knocks on the door and says, “Ticket, please!” One of the Apple engineers opens the door a tiny crack and hands the conductor the ticket.

The Microsoft engineers are watching this and think it's pretty brilliant, so as usual they decide to copy it on the way back. But this time the Apple engineers don't buy any tickets at all.

“How are three people going to travel without a ticket?” the Microsoft engineers ask.

“Watch and you'll see,” the Apple engineers say.

So they board the return train, the Microsoft engineers squeeze into a restroom, and the Apple engineers squeeze into another restroom further down the train. The train starts moving, and one of the Apple engineers comes out of the restroom, walks to the restroom where the Microsoft engineers are hiding, knocks on the door, and says, “Ticket, please!”

Back from hiding

Back from a week alone at a lakeside off-grid cabin in northern Minnesota (no electricity or running water, but with gaslights, a wood stove, and a hand pump in the kitchen drawing mostly palatable water, the only thing I missed was a hot shower on the cold days). Passed the time hiking, rowing, thinking, and reading by the fire. Aside from relaxing and enjoying the outdoors, I find that in today's world, I can't disconnect enough during my daily life to get all the reflecting I need done, so it's important to wander off out of reach of my notifications and daily life and do that. More thoughts on boredom-conducive contexts in my Zettelkasten.

I wish I could tell a funny story here, but almost nothing unexpected happened, good or bad. That means the trip served its purpose, I suppose.

Here's me in my boat, Awkward Annie, on the lake:

Soren rowing Awkward Annie

Those two women will never agree. They are arguing from different premises.

satirist Sydney Smith, on seeing two women arguing through their attic windows [rt]
🔗 Understanding Percentages

Figures expressed in percentages are ubiquitous, and interpreting and doing calculations with them is an important part of the basic mathematical literacy useful in everyday life. Yet few points of arithmetic are as confusing and full of traps for the unwary as percentages. I recently got fed up with being unable to think clearly about percentages myself, so I figured I’d write this article to force myself to understand them completely. Hopefully it will help you, too!

🔗 Condom Failure (Pervocracy)

Postscript and counterpoint to my contraceptives article (see #2): as this article highlights, the primary cause of “condom failure” is not using one. To be clear, this doesn't contradict anything I said in my article; I was then and am now in favor of using condoms, ceteris paribus, and the 98% perfect-use effectiveness rate this article crows about is not so great once you multiply it out over many years (which is the focus of my article). I think most people who regularly have sex that could result in someone getting (unintentionally) pregnant should use something more effective instead of or in addition to condoms, if practical. Nevertheless, this article epitomizes a broadly important point, that, in this realm as in the rest of life, most people leave shockingly easy gains on the table; simply, you know, using the condoms at all will reduce your chances of unintended pregnancy well past those of an average person.

Topic: A word or phrase for this maladaptive pattern of motivation

I'm searching for a concise way to describe a pattern I've started noticing, in which someone wants to achieve a particular goal A, or likes a particular process or activity in total, but is incapable of, scared of, or strongly dislikes a necessary component or step of that goal/process/activity A′, creating an infuriating tension and an obstacle to progress.

For example:

  • Alice joined a fantasy football league for the first time last year. She enjoyed it, but really didn't like the research and draft process. She's not sure if she can get herself to go through it again, so she might not play this year.
  • Bob really wants to get married and start a family, but he hates dating, so he's struggling to make any progress.
  • Carol is considering accepting a promotion and would like to continue climbing the ladder, but she doesn't want a particular responsibility that's an integral part of the next step. She consequently has major qualms about accepting, but also can't stand turning it down.

This could conceivably be phrased as an emotional condition of the person, or as an attribute of step A′: Alice, Bob, and Carol are experiencing ________ —or— The draft is a ________ for Alice's enjoyment of fantasy football.

This concept is distinct from laziness in that the reason is much more deep-seated than not wanting to put in work; it's not that the task requires more effort or time than one wants to expend, it's that it's somehow distasteful. It's closer to akrasia, in which one acts against one's better judgment or will, but different in that there are two distinct components to the mystery concept; in akrasia one knows one should do A and doesn't want to do it, while here one knows one should do A and actively wants to do it, perhaps desperately, but doesn't want to do A′, which is a necessary component or dependency of A.

Is there an existing term or concept representing this idea or something close to it? Or can you think of a clever way to describe it?


I occasionally offer awards to internet strangers who send me recommendations I love. If I am so moved, your choice of:

  • $10 USD sent via PayPal
  • a personal thank-you note via snail mail
  • grab a drink with me sometime you're in Minneapolis (or I'm near you) and talk about the recommendation or anything else
Gratitude and brownie points awarded in all circumstances!
Topic: Fiction involving shared consciousness

I'm fascinated by fiction about or involving telepathy or sharing of consciousness between characters, especially when used creatively or to enjoy/strengthen a relationship with someone. Looking for leads on more stories fitting this description!

Doesn't have to be exclusively humans, can also involve supernatural beings, aliens, alters, computers, or something weirder I haven't imagined yet; but the motivations of at least one participant should ideally be recognizable as human-ish. I'm hoping for a significant part of the story to involve the personal experience and/or interpersonal or sociological consequences of such capabilities/contacts. Stories merely including the trope in some corner are probably not what I'm looking for.

A few examples:

  • His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (people have animal-formed companions called daemons who are mentally linked to their humans)
  • Slapstick, Kurt Vonnegut (Wilbur and Eliza are fraternal twins who are mentally disabled when apart, but explosive geniuses when they are close enough to share their minds)
  • Inception, Christopher Nolan (people can share their dream worlds with others)
  • Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman (people can temporarily join John Malkovich inside his head)

(Not sure about Ender's Game. I've only read the first novel, which hints at interesting ideas but doesn't yield up much on the personal experience or interpersonal/sociological consequences; the consequences for the plot of the Buggers'/Formics' collective consciousness are also entirely predictable. Is there enough in later books to be worth reading with this theme in mind? If so, which ones?)


2022-09-27 17:42
Heinlein's "juvenile" SF novel _Time for the Stars_ is very much centered around telepathy between twins. The story takes a rather, uh, surprising turn by the end - also driven by telepathy...and Heinlein's proclivities.

The indy comic book series _Elfquest_ features telepathy ("sending") between specific elven characters and their animal companions. The series may seem dated, but I re-read it pretty recently I think the story has held up extremely well.

The Pinis have also made Elfquest free to read online:
2022-10-20 12:34
I quite enjoyed Mother of Learning which features a variety of mental communications. Don't want to spoiler anything, but there is an extensive wiki, if you are interested in the concepts primarily and don't want to read 800k words. IMO it's worth it though.

I occasionally offer awards to internet strangers who send me recommendations I love. If I am so moved, your choice of:

  • $10 USD sent via PayPal
  • a personal thank-you note via snail mail
  • grab a drink with me sometime you're in Minneapolis (or I'm near you) and talk about the recommendation or anything else
Gratitude and brownie points awarded in all circumstances!

There is no secret math. The biggest mistake people make with statistics is to distrust their intuition. In reality, once you do all the math, the things that seemed like they’d be problems are in fact problems. If anything, the math just turns up more things to worry about.

“The Cathedral of Statistical Control”, Dynomight [rt] [source]
🔗 Short Posts and Short URLs

Control-Alt-Backspace post announcing the creation of this microblog, as well as a move to short URLs on CAB.

🔗 Shortest date, and ketchup (Derek Sivers)

Pro tip: don't start a date by insulting the other person's interests (this may also end the date). Also, I've spent a grand total of ten hours in New York, most of them asleep, and I was able to pinpoint 35th Street and 8th Avenue on Google Maps in fifteen seconds.

🔗 Searching for outliers (Ben Kuhn)

As explained in the popular consciousness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, some things are more or less evenly distributed and you can think about them in averages, while other things are very unevenly distributed, to the point where only the outliers matter. Kuhn usefully terms these “light-tailed” and “heavy-tailed” distributions and points out that many if not most of the important distributions in an individual’s life are heavy-tailed (jobs, romantic relationships, business ideas, leisure activities, etc.). Then he explores strategies for improving your chances of obtaining a good outcome from heavy-tailed distributions in your life.


One way I often like to think about behavioral questions is this: if everyone followed in these footsteps, would it make the whole organization (or community) overall better or worse?

Sophie Alpert, “Yak Shaving and Fixing” [rt] [source]
🔗 Effective Flashcard Writing: Decomposing half a chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow

I find it is often helpful to watch experts do things, whether they explain their thought process or not. In this video, I make some spaced-repetition flashcards in RemNote and explain why I'm making the choices I'm making.


Has someone tried unplugging the United States and plugging it back in?

sign in front of an independent computer shop in Lindstrom [rt]
🔗 Understanding the Long-Term Risks of Contraceptive Failure

Most people don't have an intuitive understanding of how small risks add up over time. When sex, bad statistics, and bad public-health messaging are thrown into the mix, people end up making bad decisions. In this article, spreadsheet simulator, and demo video, we explore the chances of unintended pregnancy over a person's lifetime – which are almost certainly higher than you think if you're never looked into it – and what you can do to reduce them. (I got interested in this topic on a whim after reading a history of AIDS had me thinking constantly about sexual health messaging for about a solid week.)


Since I quit regularly using most social media, I haven't missed the ads or political screaming one bit, but I have found I miss being able to easily share random interesting things with the world. I'm hoping to resolve this and recapture a bit of the energy of Web 1.0 by posting on a simple website instead; perhaps a few people will still be interested enough to follow a website or RSS feed (remember those? I still use them!). This weekend, I wrote a tiny, likable tool called attopublish to manage the posts, and I'll tweak it as needed. attopublish will also be available as an open-source tool sooner or later for anyone who's interested.