Inside Tom's Head - December 2020

07 Jan 2021

That’s it, December is over and January is here, bringing with it an end to 2020 (although some may disagree). This is the part where I say “good riddance” and talk about how much 2020 sucked. Welp, I’m going to take a page from Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and not do that. After all, very little of what happened this past year bore even a passing resemblance to something that I could control, and one of my goals is to not let things that I can’t control dictate my happiness. Instead, how about:

So, that happened. Where do we go from here?

The answer to that question is, thankfully, pretty short: we adapt to the situation (which for me includes putting on a mask and staying physically distant from others) and continue to figure out how we can use our finite time on this planet to improve things.

Now that we have that out of the way, there are a couple of things that are on my mind as I look back on the past year:

  • I believe that we will look back on 2020 as the year in which our species had the equivalent of a moonshot for virus research. There’s a lot we don’t know about viruses, but I’m guessing that we know a heck of a lot more than we did a year ago. If a decade from now vaccines aren’t our only good tool to deal with them, it will likely be at least in part due to the research we did this year.
  • 2020 is the year that Work From Home will become a Thing. Many of the reasons for not doing it have proved to be less than convincing in the face of it actually working pretty well. I don’t find the idea of permanently working from home to be that appealing, but I could see someone like my partner doing it 3-4 days a week long-term and 1 day a week is good for me. If the average worker is able to work from home 1 day per week, then that is something like 26 hours per year of unpaid time that they get back (assuming a 15 minute commute) to spend with their family, on their hobbies, or whatever, really. This has the potential to be huge, and that doesn’t even factor in the direct costs or transportation related emissions that would be avoided.
  • I imagine that 2020 will be a defining year for a lot of people. If you have been in the workforce for a while, this may be the first time since high school that you had actual time off. Sure, that time off was likely stressful and lonely, but you might be asking if this whole capitalist house of cards is really worth propping up. If you’re on the younger side, this is the second once-in-a-lifetime financial disaster in your life without much experience of the preceding normalcy (which wasn’t all that great, really, the working class has been taking it on the chin since the 70’s), and you might be some of the same questions that people were asking during the 1920’s and 1930’s, namely “If this is the best we can do, what’s the point?” UBI and universal healthcare are looking a lot more appealing and consumer culture is looking more like the suckers’ game that it is.

New stuff around here

Not much, really. I had hoped to write down the second part of my post-election thoughts, but I ran out of both oomph and time.

New stuff elsewhere

  • Automated traffic enforcement is no replacement for transitioning away from single-occupancy vehicles, and there are legitimate privacy concerns that need to be addressed, but they are also the best path forward that I’ve seen for reducing bias in law enforcement (especially given that traffic stops are the main way that many people interact with the police). To be clear, privacy concerns are solveable, and even if they weren’t, traffic cameras are nowhere near as good at spying on us as the smartphone in your pocket.
  • I ran across this in a reddit comment and don’t have much to say about it but found it interesting nonetheless. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development
  • Sharrows, the bicycle infrastructure that doesn’t work and nobody wants. I would contend that sharrows are useful, but only in the sense that they are a very clear signal from the government that my safety (as a person on a bicycle) isn’t important, and that I’m on my own. Snark aside, I think that they create a very real danger for newer riders who may come to the (incorrect) conclusion that a sharrow means that drivers are going to share the road. If a road needs a sharrow, you probably shouldn’t be riding on it.
  • Charlie Stross has a pretty good overview of Brexit and what comes after that’s worth a read. I’d be surprised if things went exactly as he predicts, but as an ignorant American, I found it to be a helpful framework.
  • File under “ways in which cars make everything worse”: Apparently one of the chemicals used in tires is killing salmon. It is unknown at this point what other ecological effects it may have or if it affects animals up the foodchain that eat salmon (worth looking into, since you may be one of those animals). I took issue with the author’s assertion that we “can’t control what’s in our tires”. Since car tires don’t drop from the sky fully formed, I would argue that, actually, we can change how we manufacture them, even if it is difficult. Heck, at the very least we could calculate the ecological costs and slap a tax to cover mitigation/deterioration of our food supply and the market sort it out (not a great solution, but it is a solution).
  • Robot Exclusion Protocol by Paul Ford. I loved it and think you should give it a read, it will take about 2 minutes (it is shorter than this post). Also, when you’re done, take a look at the publication date.
  • Fishless fish is coming. Even though I miss seafood, I haven’t tried any of this yet (though I must admit that I’m really excited about Kuleana). The most interesting bit of the article to me is the discussion of lab-grown meat, namely that it’s years away and that for terrestrial animal protien the current options are already amazing so it’s hard to see lab-grown meat competing with them given that it will have the same amount of time to advance.
  • I’m going to go ahead and say that I called it back in 2013, though I surely wasn’t alone and definitely wasn’t specific enough to take any sort of credit. Amazon is shutting off access to it’s API, which means that other sites can’t access the data. There are some alternatives out there that look promising, but honestly I stopped using goodreads a while back in favor of a really simple paper-based reading log (includes year read, title, maybe author, and a proprietary smiley-face rating system). I have considered doing some sort of self-hosted reading log like Tom MacWright does but honestly I don’t think that I’d use it. I also have concerns about how a digital reading log influences me as a reader, since it creates pressure to read as much as possible and I would prefer to focus on my enjoyment and what I get out of my reading (goodreads-era me would hate that I’ve spent almost a year reading Worm at this point, but I’m loving it). Of course, I work in a library, so my reading list never needs refilling.
    • As a side note, be aware that Amazon also owns IMDB. At some point, it will come into conflict with Amazon’s bottom line, and it will lose out. If you want an alternative, The Movie Database looks okay (though I’m not a heavy user of IMDB, so I could be way off).
  • Can Organic Farming Solve the Climate Crisis?
  • VMT tax? Actually expecting states to reduce fatalities? This is exciting. What Secretary Pete Could Mean for the US DOT
  • With terrible federal broadband data, states are taking matters into their own hands. This is probably what is behind the work that Washington State’s Broadband Office is doing with it’s surveys. If you haven’t done their speed test yet (and live in WA), please do so, it will help us all out. If you don’t live in WA, see if your state is doing something similar.
  • I’ve never thought of snow-narrowed streets as prototypes before, but it is kind of perfect.
  • It looks like some local governments are starting to do a public version of Uber.
  • The Biden Administration needs a VP of Engineering, not a CTO. I had never considered things quite this way before, but I like the idea.
  • Erik Twice has a good primer on what exactly a eurogame is. Even though I consider myself pretty familiar with modern board games, I learned some stuff.
  • I don’t have much to say about this one, but I find precolombian Caribbean societies to be fascinating. Ancient DNA Shows Humans Settled Caribbean in 2 Distinct Waves
  • Car ownership is absolutely brutal for lower income families (this article is talking about money, but it is worth pointing out that traffic violence also disproportionately impacts lower income families). If you want to help people economically, getting rid of the $5,000+ inflexible annual expense of owning a car is a good way to go.
  • A handy takedown of some of the arguments that get trotted out in defense of widening roads.
  • You have probably seen the headlines about the SolarWinds attack, but Scheier makes a solid argument that it’s really a symptom of a deeper problem, namely that our government is focused on being able to infiltrate networks (both foreign and domestic) but not terribly concerned with actually helping to secure our networks, which would serve both us and the rest of the world much better.

What I’ve been up to

  • I received RingFit Adventure for Christmas. I had been interested in it for a long time, but had assumed that it was a bit of gimmick (which is why it was on my wishlist rather than in my cart). Turns out that I was wrong. There is an actual (light) RPG underneath the exercise component, which is itself excellent (I am usually done after one level). What is more, I really appreciate the game’s focus on having a healthy relationship with your body (the main antagonist is the embodiment of toxic fitness culture). If you were thinking of giving it a try, you should definitely pick it up. I’m probably not the best person to do a decent write-up, but I found this one to closely mirror my experience and opinion so far.
  • I read Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots and it was amazing. It will definitely be my go-to recommendation for the next few months (or longer). In particular, it is the best depiction I have run across of what it’s like to find something interesting in a dataset then pull that thread until it feels like the whole world is unraveling. Do yourself a favor and read it so that I don’t have to nag you about it. Also, if you want to see more about how to think about data in a practical setting, I would recommend Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan, nonfiction, about how to change things (in this case streets, but the approach is broadly applicable).
  • I really love Serious Eats’ recipe for the Best Crispy Roast Potatoes Ever, but I’ve been experimenting with dicing the potatoes a little smaller (and parboiling them less), and adding onions, peppers, and vegan chorizo analog partway through the roasting (also using a different set of spices) for Potatoes O’Brien. It’s pretty freaking amazing. If people ask I’ll write up the recipe here.