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Res Extensa #7: Interlude — Best of 2020
Looking back on my favorite writing from 2020
In this issue, I'm pressing pause on my now-standard approach of writing on a theme, which has developed over the last few months into a format I'm enjoying. There are another half-dozen topics in the cooker right now that we'll be diving into in the early part of the year.
Since I haven't done this elsewhere, I thought the Interlude would be a good time to reflect on some of the most insightful pieces the internet produced in 2020. It was a momentous year for all of us, and as I was flipping back through the archives for my favorites, there was plenty of fascinating work on many different topics.
I broke these up roughly into a few categories, so feel free to browse those topics you find interesting.
📚 Growth and Learning
In measuring progression on goals, my system was to set a goal for the year, then divide by 12 or 52 to give myself monthly and weekly pace targets to hit to stay on track. With any quantifiable goal over long term, most goals hit hard limits of physics to procrastinating on practice too long. If you want to run 500 miles in a year, it's not realistic to have to run 200 of the miles in December.
Andy Matuschak wrote up a system for habit-building that revolves around moving windows — a "last 7 days / next 7 days" outlook versus fixed weeks, with the added factor of escalating the target over time with successful practice. If you successfully meditate for 60 minutes in a week or run 15 miles, make the next week's targets 80 minutes and 18 miles. If unsuccessful, keep the targets fixed.
2020 was the Year of Roam in my workflow. The product struck a nerve in the space of tools-for-thought. There's an evident latent demand for this kind of tool given the crop of great options that popped up around the same time.
Here's Joel Chan, a researcher at CMU, laying out his process for "incremental formalization." Ideas like Joel’s, along with Sönke Ahrens's How to Take Smart Notes have helped me get my head around better ways use Roam to its strengths, not the traditional flat text file note-taking process I've done for years.
Tyler has this question he poses to each interviewee on his podcast: "What's your production function?" The idea is to get at individual habits that drive peoples' work, productivity, and creativity. This is his approach.
The first thing you notice when following Tyler is his astonishingly broad and deep exposure to so many different topics. He reads more widely than anyone I follow, runs several organizations, runs a podcast, hosts events, and still finds time to blog in-depth every day.
As organizations grow, there's an irresistible urge to systematize, create processes, and measure cadences, and it gets difficult over time to remove or adapt many of those systems in necessary ways. They accrue like calcium in plumbing. We've all seen it: you build up a catalog of recurring "syncs" or "stand-ups" that start off with purposeful intent, but over time they lose their potency and devolve into routines perpetuated merely because they exist. Everyone forgets why we needed a recurring meeting in the first place, but keeps showing up because they assume everyone else is supportive of keeping it. And on it continues.
With larger teams it gets more challenging to have individual problem owners, with agency and motivation to attack problems head on.
This piece from Carta founder Henry Ward was an excellent reminder to keep action in the front of our minds as our companies evolve. Go fast. Iterate, don't perfect. Take risks. Stop planning so much.
There's so much espoused belief in "Lean" approaches or "Agile" methodologies in the industry. But over time they paradoxically develop into opposites of those adjectives. To be truly "lowercase-a agile", you've got to pick up the shovel and do something, even if it's far from perfect (which even the "planned" version will be!).
📰 News and "2020ism"
At the time Scott Alexander wrote this, the discussion on masks was turbulent, to say the least. We were in the depths of lockdown, what was open was extremely cautious with distancing, masks, and restricted hours, and the debate was loud over the efficacy of masks. PPE was hard to come by, with experts exhibiting hesitation on masks in service of This piece was a breath of fresh air at the time.
Dan Wang on the value of "process knowledge" and the US's inability to retool our monumental production capacity to create COVID tests, PPE, or other goods needed in times of crisis. Dan's perspective as a China analyst (and resident of Beijing) shines here. He's always got interesting insights from the inside on China, comparing the agility of their manufacturing complex to our more rigid, unadaptable one.
💻 Tech and Business
There are broadly two ways we generally think about scientific progress: it either happens in small iterations that incrementally improve on an existing framework, or in massive revolutionary leaps. Compare an innovation like a production technique that allows us to further miniaturize microchip production, versus Copernicus taking us from geo- to helio-centrism. One builds on known scientific knowledge, the other upends the existing foundation. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn described this phenomenon The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Jerry Neumann makes the argument here that this bimodal approach is the wrong way to think about it, that what's happening is a continuum of discoveries that are power law-distributed — many thousands of incremental ones, and very few monumental ones, with a healthy middle in between.
If innovation outcomes are power-law distributed then there aren’t really two processes at all, it just seems that way. Kuhn, not to mention Clay Christensen, might have been seriously misreading the situation. It may seem like change faces resistance until it is big enough that the resistance can be swept away, but the truth may be that every change faces resistance and every change must sweep it aside, no matter if the change is tiny, medium-sized, or large. We just tend to see the high frequency of small changes and the large impact of the unusual big changes.
This was one of the most thought-provoking pieces I read all year. I wrote more on this theme in The Distribution of Scientific Discoveries (specifically in reaction to this article) and Progress is Not Automatic.
A sprawling review of the state of online writing from Venkatesh Rao — tools, services, ecosystems. Specifically he covers Roam, Substack, static site tooling (Jekyll/Gatsby), and Twitter.
As already mentioned, Roam has been revolutionary in my thinking, and reading Venkat was one of the reasons I wanted to give it attention to see if it would click for me. Substack didn't start the email newsletter "revolution", but it's certainly amplified the wave to the degree that they've not only rejuvenated email as a medium, but have effectively reconstituted the blogging heyday of the early 2000s in Blogger, Typepad, and their ilk.
I've used Jekyll and static markdown for my site for a decade now, so I'm a believer in those technologies' staying power.
Venkat still has one of the best descriptions of Roam and why it's unique (for those of you unconvinced):
It implements a few key features of 1980s vintage hypertext visions — block-level addressability, transclusion (changes in referenced blocks being “transfer-included” wherever they are cited), and bidirectional linking — that utterly transform the writing experience at the finger-tips level. You end up organizing high-level structure as you work at fleshing out low-level chunks of information, because the UX collapses high and low-level thinking into a single behavior.
Alex Danco's thoughts on postmodernism's intersections with innovation. His take differentiates the modernist and postmodernist views on how to build the future: the former thinks in terms of superiority over nature, moving forward in risky leaps of progress, the latter orients on risks and tradeoffs (can we move forward by remixing or re-skinning things we've already got?).
The modernist invents the car, the highway, the satellite, and the cellular phone. The postmodernist recombines those to create Uber, Tesla Autopilot, and Google Maps. The modernist looks at Uber and doesn't see "progress" as they'd define it — simply a new recipe of existing technological ingredients.
Sriram Krishnan's collection of notable writing on strategy in tech. Seminal works in here from the likes of Joel Spolsky, Chris Dixon, Ben Thompson, Steven Sinofsky, and others.
Modern marketplace businesses have built on the strategy of using the internet to increase exposure to underutilized fixed assets. Distributed assets that were once "illiquid" once you owned them — cars, bedrooms, stuff — can now be made available online (Uber, Airbnb, Ebay). This is a solid analysis from Kevin Kwok on what drives these businesses.
John Palmer on interface design and the expanding prevalence of spatial interfaces in software. After being pretty popular in the word of gaming for a long time (think older entries like Second Life and Halo, or newer, more social entries like Fortnite), examples are popping up in the collaborative software space. Figma, Miro, or Teamflow are hitting strides alongside the shift to distributed work forced by the pandemic. I think we're at the very seed stage of applying spatial techniques to our tools for work. Teamflow's proximity-based persistent audio is a phenomenal example of what can be done simulating spatial relationships virtually.
🎭 Culture and Politics
Marc Andreessen made waves this year with his essay "It's Time to Build". Most loved it, some criticized it. Broadly, I think he was onto something — that it's a cultural problem rather than a capability one. In this riff on Andreessen's post, Tanner Greer zooms in what's causing this stagnation.
His "TL;DR" up top is a great summary:
In the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not "how do we make that happen?" but "how do we get management to take our side?" This is a learned response, and a culture which has internalized it will not be a culture that "builds."
Instead of picking up a shovel and doing, we wait around for permission, expecting our institutions to come to the rescue rather than acting through them to get things done.
I really loved this bit he quotes from Tocqueville, where he contrasts the up-by-the-bootstraps mentality of Americans with the passive "subject" disposition of the Europeans of his time:
There are European nations where the inhabitant sees himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the place he inhabits. Major changes happen there without his cooperation, he is even unaware of what precisely has happened; he is suspicious, he hears about events by chance. Worse still, the condition of his village, the policing of his roads, the fate of the churches and the presbyteries scarcely bothers him; he thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called government. He enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any feeling of ownership or thought of possible improvement. This detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.
This speaks directly to Greer's "appeal to management" framing, which I think is a powerful way to describe an attitude all too commonplace today.
There's a theme here shared by a couple of the books from my 2020 list: the decay of institutions as formative systems for progress, rather than platforms for performance or faceless entities that tell us what to do.
Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey makes a strong case here for the The Great Enrichment (a period defined as roughly since the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present, and one resulting in a staggering expansion of economic growth and individual living standards) originating with the expansion of liberalism, rather than the rise of the nation state or other explanation.
The Great Enrichment came from human ingenuity emancipated. Ordinary people, emboldened by liberalism, ventured on extraordinary projects—the marine chronometer, the selective breeding of cotton seed, the band saw, a new chemistry—or merely ventured boldly to a new job, the New World, or going west, young man. And, crucially, the bold adventurers, in parallel with liberations in science, music, and geographical exploration, came to be tolerated and even commended by the rest of society, first in Holland in the 17th century and then in Britain in the 18th.
This sits nicely alongside Matt Ridley's thesis that innovation "flourishes in freedom", that people need to be permitted to experiment, to try and fail, and to be held back as little as possible by authority.
I've mentioned regularly the work of Martin Gurri, and continually recommend his The Revolt of the Public as the best comprehensive analysis of what's driving polarization and the broader culture war.
He posits an interesting idea here: that one of the drivers for extreme outrage is a redirection of emotions. Individuals' private feelings — strong, personal opinions you once held close or shared and debated with a close group of family and friends — have been redirected into the public sphere: onto Twitter, Facebook posts, and viral videos.
A long read, but an excellent breakdown of the physics of internet discourse, incentives, and weird pseudo-conflict that many people seem addicted to as a proxy for something real. This one does for internet troll culture what Rao did with corporate culture in The Gervais Principle series.
During mid-summer, when COVID was raging, protests were widespread, and we were approaching the inevitably tumultuous election, Adam Elkus wrote this piece on what happens when so many of our social norms and consistent references for what "normal" means get overturned simultaneously.
I'm a couple weeks later getting this out than I wanted to. We made the snap decision to buy a new house in late December, so the first few weeks of the year have been filled with paperwork, moving, and improvement projects at the new place, with little time for much else!
I want to wish a late, but very happy (and much-happier-than-2020) New Year to everyone. We all shouldn't be surprised to see some tumult on the way out of the gates into 2021, but let's hope we can all get back to some sense of stability and greater progress over the next few months. Will see everyone back here in a couple of weeks.