Things I've Enjoyed

This is a list of things I’ve enjoyed and think are worth sharing. The titles are, where possible, links to the original source. (If I’ve got lots to say about a particular entry, it’ll link to a page with my notes — but that will contain a link to the original source — again, where possible!)

I keep a note of the things I’m enjoying and how I’m consuming content here. It’s like a blogroll, but more verbose and less particular to blogs.

2024-03-27 » Abstraction, Intuition, and the “Monad Tutorial Fallacy”

(Brent Yorgey)

How do we learn complicated new ideas? Often we’re presented with a bunch of metaphors, and eventually one of them “clicks”. Once we understand the idea, we want to share the metaphor we’ve discovered with others.

Brent Yorgey points out that learning often requires the failed attempts to take a metaphor in. Trying (and failing) to understand a concept is a kind of processing which brings us closer to understanding. When the “lightbulb moment” hits us and we feel like we understand something entirely, the feeling is that we’ve quickly come to terms with a simple idea; more often, we’ve been figuring out a complicated idea for a while, and the feeling is deceptive.

2024-02-07 » How To Comment on Social Media

(Rebecca Solnit)

Rebecca Solnit does it again.

2024-01-25 » The Age of Digital Divination

(Matthew Gwynfryn Thomas)

Calling diviners “skilled technicians” might sound odd to contemporary Westernized, post-Enlightenment ears. But there’s a long history of linking soothsaying with mundane daily activities. In the fourth century B.C., Plato wrote about divination as a highly regarded technical skill (mantikē technē). Around 400 years earlier in the Odyssey, the ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, divination is listed as a craft alongside doctors and carpenters (although Cicero, writing a few centuries later, was somewhat sniffy about the practice). Early Chinese thinkers similarly put diviners into the same category as artisans. Indeed, divination and science were once bedfellows: In the 17th century, when divisions between science, religion, and art were blurrier, the scientist Johannes Kepler practiced both astronomy and astrology, writing more than 800 horoscopes in his lifetime.

The idea of skilled technicians undertaking obscure and seemingly magical practices to forecast the future or reveal hidden information about the world sounds very much like today’s developers of digital predictive technologies.

2024-01-08 » Where Have All the Websites Gone?

(Jason Velazquez)

Jason Velazquez has written a lucid, intelligent discussion about the demise of “the old internet”. I think it’ll speak to a lot of people who are fond of blogs and the fun, personal feeling that the internet used to have. It certainly got me thinking about my own website some more…

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that websites didn’t go anywhere. There are currently one billion websites on the World Wide Web. […] So here’s the bad news— we are the ones who vanished, and I suspect what we really miss are the joys of discovery.

2023-12-02 » The weird, secretive world of crisp flavours

(Amelia Tait)

Fascinating article on the way crisp flavours are developed, and the lengths people go to in the pursuit of keeping their flavourings a secret.

2023-10-30 » Choose Boring Technology

(Dan McKinley)

What counts as boring? That’s a little tricky. “Boring” should not be conflated with “bad.” There is technology out there that is both boring and bad. You should not use any of that. But there are many choices of technology that are boring and good, or at least good enough. MySQL is boring. Postgres is boring. PHP is boring. Python is boring. Memcached is boring. Squid is boring. Cron is boring.

The nice thing about boringness (so constrained) is that the capabilities of these things are well understood. But more importantly, their failure modes are well understood.

2023-07-25 » What AI Teaches Us about Good Writing

(Laura Hartenberger)

Fascinating article on the relationship between AI and writing, written from the perspective of a creative writing educator.

I like to say that I’m not teaching my students how to write — I’m teaching them how to think; how to be observant; how to question the systems around them; how to interpret and build meaning; how to relate to others; how to understand and differentiate themselves; how to become agents of change. But ChatGPT, by producing competent writing with apparent thoughtlessness, threatens the idea that critical thinking is the core of good writing.

With its startling ability to regenerate responses by paraphrasing the same ideas in new words ad infinitum, it mocks the weight we put on paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism. We task students with summarizing texts in their own words to demonstrate their understanding of the material — but ChatGPT shows us that it’s possible to explain others’ ideas without understanding them; to build arguments from their content without metacognition.

Its revelation is reversing how we tend to think writing works: First, you come up with an idea. Second, you find the words to articulate it. But ChatGPT inverts this process. It begins with the words and builds its arguments and narratives based on language patterns, letting its ideas emerge from the text it uses to produce them.

2023-07-13 » Accidentally Load Bearing

(Jeff Kaufman)

Jeff Kaufman points out that, even when you know why something was originally designed, it might not be safe to remove even when those reasons are no longer valid because the existence of that design decision may have become an underlying assumption of others, which it has implicitly begun to support.

In addition to considering why something was created, you also need to consider what additional purposes it may have since come to serve.

See also Chesterton’s Fence.

2023-01-23 » The Enshittification of TikTok

(Cory Doctorow)

Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two-sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

2022-06-30 » Potato Diet


The insane story of a diet composed exclusively of potatoes, and the surprisingly — universally?! — positive response it’s received.

2021-03-31 » Looking Closely Is Everything

(Craig Mod)

Lovely essay from the inimitable Craig Mod on how important the skill of paying attention to minor details is.

2018-03-09 » Get News. Not Too Much. Avoid Social.

(Farhad Manjoo, New York Times)

A well-written and simple article laying out — quite simply — what the author learned in getting his news almost entirely from print news for a few months. He sums up his lesson like Michael Pollan does with nutrition:

Get news. Not too much. Avoid social.

Interestingly, his take would ultimately eschew sites like this for news, where the curated sources with my own distilled take are the main feature. I’m not sure how this fits now, on reflection, because the main intention of the site to begin with was to curate ideas and information that other people could enjoy, and that’s kind of out of the window if a major problem is curation from people who don’t understand their sources well enough or look to curations instead of finding more primary sources.

Still, I do think this has a place — better curated here than somewhere like Facebook, as he also notes — and it helps me to find my voice, too — ultimately, I write this for myself as much as anything else.

2018-02-22 » Sweetest Little Song

(Leonard Cohen)

You go your way

I’ll go your way too

2018-02-22 » From Blossoms

(Li-Young Lee, via Rachel McElroy)

Just a really beautiful poem.

O, to take what we love inside,

To carry within each of us an orchard

Worth reading.

2017-12-29 » 40 Questions to Ask Yourself Each Year

(Stephen Ango)

A set of questions to frame the year as it draws to a close.

Honestly, I don’t have much to say on this, except that I think things like this feel gimmicky but can actually be very valuable exercises. It reminds me of the way I plan every three months or so, asking myself what’s happened in the previous season and how I intend to continue in the next one.

[You can find them in Stephen Ango’s Medium post here.] I hope people actually give this a go — and not necessarily on the new year, just at the same time every year. It could be every May 17th. Just reflecting can be a phenomenally valuable exercise, and this set of questions feels like a good foundation to build one’s reflections from.

2017-12-28 » Arline's Letter

(Maria Popova, Brainpickings)

A heartbreaking tale of Richard Feynman’s first love. I remember reading this first at 20:00 in the office and crying. It’s on absolute love, in the face of certain death.

Feynman began to glimpse the special powerlessness that medical uncertainty can inflict on a scientific person. He had come to believe that the scientific way of thinking brought a measure of calmness and control in difficult situations — but not now.

You can read the entire thing at Brainpickings, here.

Interesting side note: Arline’s coded messages — and later letters with holes and jigsaws — technically constitute ergodic literature. The idea of jigsaws as ergodic literature is novel and fascinating, and if the letters still exist I’ll bet they’d be brilliant to study just for their literary technique.

On a similar note, I’d love to read things written to be difficult to read even for someone like an Intelligence Officer: one where not just non-trivial effort was required, but quite serious effort.

2017-12-27 » Who Is Reality Winner?

(Kerry Howley, New Yorker — long post, click link)

2017-12-26 » Winning Is For Losers

(Jacob Falkovich, Ribbonfarm — long post, click link)

2017-12-25 » Got What I Wanted

(Shawn Blanc)

2017-12-21 » What Do You Call A World That Can't Learn From Itself?

(Umair Haque — long post, click link)

2017-12-18 » Charlie Ravioli

(Adam Gopnik, New Yorker)

Bumping into Mr. Ravioli is a story published in the New Yorker about how we became so busy, and what it means for our culture writ large.

The real question, I saw, was not “Why this friend?” but “Why this fiction?” Why, as Olivia had seen so clearly, are grownups in New York so busy, and so obsessed with the language of busyness that it dominates their conversation? Why are New Yorkers always bumping into Charlie Ravioli and grabbing lunch, instead of sitting down with him and exchanging intimacies, as friends should, as people do in Paris and Rome? Why is busyness the stuff our children make their invisible friends from, as country children make theirs from light and sand?

Interesting read, and I imagine even more true now than it was when originally published in 2002. You can read a scan of the original print version, in charming three-column format, here. There’s a very good audio version of the story, told by the author 10 years after the original airing, right here.

2017-12-14 » Cat Person

(Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker — long post, click link)