Inside Tom's Head - December 2021

02 Jan 2022

This is my last post for 2021. I’m going to skip the long retrospective, since a calendar year is an arbitrary dividing line (as any temporal dividing line is). Some good things happened. Some bad things happened. Overall, I’m happier than I was a year ago. Some of this is due to choices I made (switching jobs) and a lot of it is luck (the same decisions that my family has made could have led to very different outcomes).

In site news, it looks like the site migration broke the sorting for my stories pages. I’m still figuring out what went wrong, so I’ve added a bit of front matter to the stories page and manually sorted the Horizon Station page.

Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading this month:

  • I don’t have much to add to this, but 99% Invisible had an excellent episode about why the English language is so messed up.
  • It’s probably just coincidence, but my feed this month seemed to coalesce around a theme of problems with non-commercial systems. First was Tom MacWright talking about the ways that capitalism corrupts open culture (creative commons, open source, etc.) and how that caused him to sour a bit on the whole open culture thing. Then Yawar Amin had some interesting things to say about how messed up the reaction to the log4j security issue was. Finally, Scott Alexander talked about the pressure that doctors are under without clear guidance on from the FDA on COVID treatments. To me, these posts felt like they were mining separate lines on the same vein: MacWright was talking about feeling taken advantage of when his CC licensed work was used for profit by someone else; Amir was talking about how the log4j maintainers should have walked away when a multi-billion dollar company started pressuring them to work faster (without pay, since it is an open source project); and Alexander was talking about how difficult it is to overcome social pressure and potential damage to one’s reputation when making a decision about something in the grey area. I have minor disagreements with all of these articles, but I think that the important takeaway here is that we as a society tend to have a really hard time fitting reputational status systems into a capitalist framework, whether it be the reputational benefits of sharing creative work being outweighed by the sting of seeing your work exploited, watching as culture (subculture?) norms drive people to exploit themselves, or how difficult it is to try something new when you know it might cause your peers to look at you funny. Reputational currency is a pretty common idea in Science Fiction, but I don’t think that I’ve come across much about the transition from here to there. I wonder what that looks like?
  • Esquire has an article pointing out how inconsistent media coverage of different types of government spending is. We should just create a new unit of spending, the Pentagon, with 1 Pentagon being equal to the annual US military spending. So, if 1 Pentagon is currently something like $700 Billion, then a bill that wants to spend $3.5 Trillion over 10 years could be written as 0.5 Pentagons (since at the current rate we would be spending something like 7 Trillion per decade on the military). this isn’t an argument that we need to spend less on the military, but rather that it’s really hard to have an honest conversation about priorities if you’re not comparing apples to apples. Saying “$3.5 Trillion for infrastructure is a lot” is very different from “maybe we should spend half as much on infrastructure as we do on the military”.
  • Erik Twice interviewed Cole Wehrle (designer of John Company, which you may recognize from my 2021 boardgame top 10 list). There’s some really interesting stuff in there, and it (along with a recommendation from a colleague) inspired me to look at Wehrle’s newest game, Oath, which is now at the top of my list of games to play.
  • This is why TV news is bad: the story here is that buildings burned down but no one was injured. That’s it for the moment. Neither the fire or police department has released any information other than that they are investigating it for arson, but really there isn’t much else to report here other than the stories of people affected by the blaze. We get some of that, but what broadcast news needs is a narrative, so this clip keeps on mentioning the homeless, absent any evidence. Generally, my theory is that for any given news medium, the more news has to compete with entertainment, the worse it will be since the best way to compete with entertainment is by provoking an emotional response, which runs directly counter to the mission of providing information and unbiased analysis.
  • As with most of our infrastructure, our electrical grid is in need of an upgrade. Of course, how to actually do that is an open question: “But these upgrade projects require major investments of time and money, and utility companies are either unable or unwilling to make those kinds of investments — at least not at the scale and pace needed to keep up with climate change.”
  • An overview of the Cobra Effect (though I prefer the term perverse incentives). If you ever wonder why solutions to seemingly straightforward problems so often increase complexity, this is a good read.
  • Apparently buses were really interesting before the industry consolidated.
  • Some interesting thoughts on the usefulness of rankings. There’s some insight into why automated recommendations aren’t very good. I’ve long said that computers made it so that just about anyone can create anything. Connecting creators with consumers, on the other hand, hasn’t progressed nearly so far, and whoever figures it out could easily be bigger than Google. One could argue that Google is already connecting creators with consumers, but I would argue that they aren’t doing it in way that comes anywhere close to the serendipitousness of dense physical spaces such as walkable neighborhoods or libraries. Google is good at search, the next Google will be good at browse.
  • A fascinating account of how someone purchased property in San Francisco while working as a house cleaner. In particular, this quote caught my eye: “In a perfect world I’d much prefer to use my financial resources to build genuinely affordable new housing which society desperately needs. But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s decidedly imperfect. I learned that the hard way. So I’m essentially reaching back into the past and shining up the leftovers from a previous era.” If you want to understand why the author views building “genuinely affordable new housing” as a losing proposition in the current environment, this story from Strong Towns about the difficulty of building some really cool housing even though everyone seems to support it is worth your time.
  • A really cool list of workplace accommodations for people with ADHD. This really feels like an example of the curb cut effect (see also this short video from City Beautiful on the subject) to me, since I already do a lot of these things to keep me happy and productive and I don’t have ADHD. I’m hoping that at some point, organizations that allow for stuff like this will out compete ones that don’t, since it’s basically a very low cost productivity boost. Maybe one day it will even lead to a world without email.
  • Ars Technica has an article about how researchers were able to analyze the genetics of a bacterium that had been thought to only thrive in the lungs of those with Cystic Fibrosis, and found that tobacco smokers’ lungs had provided a reservoir for the disease. “This study marks the first time researchers have used mutational analysis to identify environments a pathogen has lived in.” I imagine that this analysis technique will find some interesting uses in the future.
  • I ran across an article about century-old stone markers warning where not to build in Japan is fascinating it its own right, but my mind bent immediately towards world-building. If you are creating a fictional place, there are lots bits in here about how knowledge is encoded in our physical space, ranging from markers to place names.


  • I finally finished reading Sara Hendren’s book, What Can A Body Do?. I don’t think that I got as much out of it as I wanted, but it could be that parts of it challenged my assumptions in an uncomfortable way. I’m glad I read it.
  • I wish that I could have seen Dune in the theater (but I’m not quite ready to take that risk just yet), but even at home it was amazing. I loved the visuals, the sound, the adaptation, everything. I’m looking forward to rereading the sequels (and finishing the series, which I wasn’t quite ready for on my first pass through in high school). For more thoughts on the movie, I’d recommend Ethan’s review of it over at Examined Worlds (and generally, that blog is amazing).
  • Most of December was taken up with our usual Christmas movies: Klaus, The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch version), The Ref, The Christmas Chronicles (how is it that Kurt Russel makes a great Santa?), and White Christmas.
  • I read Varjak Paw to my kid. I had seen it on the shelf at the library many times and finally got around to picking it up. It was a ton of fun! I loved the semi-mystical cat martial arts! I loved that open mindedness, awareness, and self knowledge were a huge part of the martial arts/magic system even more. I’m looking forward to the second one.
  • I rewatched The Matrix in preparation for watching Resurrections when it becomes available outside of HBO Max and theaters. It holds up pretty well, even 20 years later. I’ll probably write more about the trilogy when I finish rewatching them.
  • I watched the first episode of Book of Boba Fett. It wasn’t as catchy as the opening episode of The Mandalorian, but I’m curious to see where it goes nonetheless.
  • I read Measure What Matters, hoping to find some insight about how to connect quantitative metrics to qualitative goals. The book does a really good job of making OKRs sound cool, but I came out of it with pretty much the same questions I went in with (I had a negative experience with OKRs in the past) and I didn’t get anything about metrics out of it. I’m sure that I’ll incorporate some of the book’s concepts into my thinking, but I doubt that it will be anything profound.
  • I read Sunreach, which is the first novella taking place between Starsight and Cytonic in Brandon Sanderson’s Cytoverse series. I really love the series’ exploration of the theme of empathy in violent circumstances, and this novella adds to that conversation (from a different POV, too).
  • We watched through the existing seasons of Sex Education, which was fantastic. I wonder how much of the show is intended as actual sex education for kids who live in areas where it just isn’t taught in school. I really like the empowering body-positive take on it, and wish that it had been available when I was a teenager.
  • My 2021 playlist on Apple Music.
  • My board game plays for 2021.