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Swan

My beautiful partner gave me Mary Oliver’s book of poetry Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. The title poem is one of my favorites:

Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –an armful of white blossoms,
a perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
a shrill dark music, like the rain pelting the trees like a waterfall
knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
a white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Mary Oliver – Swan
A Trumpeter Swan photographed on Lake Washington in February 2021
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3 Types of Creativity

As defined by Margaret Boden in 1992:

Combination

Taking two disparate ideas and bringing them together to form something new. In a sense, I think of this type of creativity as the realm of metaphor extended beyond the explanatory realm and into the realm of realization. It’s maybe more hegelian (I’m a little out of my league here) in that it’s two ideas coming together to form something higher.

Exploration of conceptual spaces

Creativity loves constraint. This type of creativity happens within, or expands upon, a cultural framework. A bladesmith inventing a new design for a sword. An architect a new design for a home. A new strategy in Chess or Go. A programmer discovering a new algorithm.

Transformation

Take the conceptual space we just mentioned in exploration and expand upon or change boundaries or constraints of the space itself. This is the realm of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a new type of poetry a la e.e. cummings. It’s going from linear books to Choosing Your Own Adventure.

More here.

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On the Loss of Tribe

In suburban America we generally interact with our neighbors only at a surface level. Most interactions are limited to waving hi as we walk by or occasionally we stop for sidewalk chats. Sometimes we visit for longer at annual block parties.

In the book Ikigai, the authors share several conversations they had with Japanese people who live in small towns and villages noted for their longevity. The interviews almost universally mention the importance of easygoing but deliberate and frequent hangouts with neighbor friends.

Similarly, Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe speaks about the comradeship he felt as a soldier and its distinct absence when he got home. He’s spent the rest of his life deliberately making life decisions that will bring that sense of community back.

Years ago I moved with my wife and son to Uruguay. There, even though we were in a suburb to the capital city Montevideo, it felt like drop-in friendships formed naturally. Having a friend spontaneously show up at your door to chat, or planning an impromptu asado with neighbors was not uncommon. As cliché as it is to say about Latin American culture, the pace of life was slower and people seemed genuinely more connected because of it. I really miss it.

It’s not that this never happens here in suburbia, but it feels like when it does, it happens in spite of our culture instead of because of it. It reminds me of A Pattern Language (pdf). The book is about the impact that patterns used in architecture and community planning have on our lives. It feels like the patterns that we’ve built most American neighborhoods around, combined with our productivity culture, whether by accident or otherwise, are completely antithetical to fostering that easygoing hangout culture.

What a loss.

A few years ago at work I had a good group of co-workers who became friends. Most mornings we’d hang out just chatting for a half hour or on some days longer. I was lucky to have one co-worker, you know who you are if you’re reading this, who was great at fostering that type of environment as well as a boss who was very tolerant. (For what it’s worth, we were also a very productive team). At the time, I didn’t think much of it but I really miss it now. Especially since Covid and Zoom have essentially erased any potential for those types of hangouts.

In Concrete Cowboy, a movie based on the book Ghetto Cowboy about urban horse culture in Detroit, there are scenes of a group of people sitting around a fire talking. The feeling, at least in the movie, was that it wasn’t at all unusual to sit around at the end of the day, as the sun went down, enjoying each other’s company. Talking about the difficulties life brought each other, and observing how the world was changing brought a sense of place. Of belonging.

Yes, it’s just a movie, but we’ve all seen this type of easygoing hangout happening and we’ve all been part of them at times. The lamentable part is how they now feel exceptional to everyday life.

Online hangouts and the cozyweb are nice and have their a place for sure.

Formal get togethers and parties are also nice and have their place as well.

Neither are substitutes for the feeling of “tribe” though.

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Shorebird Migration

Shorebirds are beginning to migrate South for the winter. Along with ducks, shorebirds are my favorite bird photography subjects. Here are a couple photos from this year’s migration here in the Seattle area:

Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs (very similar to Greater!)
Sanderling – one of the more numerous shorebirds around here.

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Proof of work vs. proof of stake

Disclaimer: I’m not a crypto expert. Please feel free to correct me in the comments.

Proof of work

Proof of work describes how new cryptocurrency coins are created, how cryptocurrency transactions are validated, and it determines how quickly new cryto coins are created. For this article, we’ll discuss proof of work in terms of bitcoin, however there are many other proof of work cryptocurrencies.

At a high level, to generate, or “discover”, new bitcoins, computers do puzzles that generate hashes. Hashes are long strings of characters, like this “81019284c2f9615e20a6825c…”. Once a computer running the bitcoin software has successfully generated a hash, called “mining”, the hash is checked to see if it happens to be a valid bitcoin. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it isn’t.

The work done to create the new hash also has the important side-effect of validating transactions on the blockchain. In addition to potentially generating a new block, miners are paid transaction fees to validate transactions. At some point all 21 million bitcoins will have been mined and no more will be created. At that point, transaction fees will be the sole incentive for miners to continue validating transactions.

To modulate the speed of coin creation, the difficulty of the work that’s necessary to mine a bitcoin block automatically gets adjusted to be more difficult when miners generate hashes faster. Conversely, the work is adjusted to be easier if the overall rate of coin creation decreases. For example, the difficulty decreased recently when China banned bitcoin mining and lots of mining computers went offline.

So when you generate a new bitcoin, you’re “proving” that you did the work to create it. This is what allows bitcoin to be decentralized–anyone can create one if they do the work, no one can create one without doing the work.

Some people consider the energy used to create new bitcoins to be wasteful. I won’t try to argue for that one way or another, but because of this, many other types of cryptocurrencies use other types of proofs to create new coins. The most popular alternative to proof of work is what Ethereum 2 uses, which is called proof of stake.

Proof of stake

Proof of stake also describes how some new crypto currency is created. The main benefit is that it uses significantly less energy.

For proof of stake to work, an initial quantity of the cryptocurrency has to be somehow distributed to a lot of people first. This process, which we’ll call bootstrapping, can happen in any number of ways. For example, the cryptocurrency can be given away or, in the case of Ethereum, it can be mined using proof of work for several years, then switched to proof of stake later.

In some proof of stake cryptocurrencies, no new coins are created in the future. Proof of stake is only used to validate transactions being added to the blockchain. I’ll explain how that works shortly.

Once the cryptocurrency has become proof of stake, if the currency does create new coin, they’re generated without the requirement to generate hashes by solving puzzles. The newly created coins are instead given to everyone who already holds some of the cryptocurrency as long as they’ve “staked” the currency.

To stake the currency, you have to lock it so it can’t be spent or transferred for a specified period of time. Then, when new coins created, anyone who has staked coins will automatically get more coins in an amount proportional to the amount they have staked.

For example: If Bob stakes 10 blogcoins, a fake proof of stake currency, and Maria stakes 20 blogcoins Bob will get 1 new blogcoin and Maria will get 2. In the end, neither is richer or poorer relative to each other than they were before. They just have a larger number of coins.

If neither Bob or Maria gain anything, why create new coins at all? It’s mostly to increase the total number of coins. If you want to sell 20 people a slice of a really big pizza that’s only sliced in 10 pieces, you’d need to cut each slice in half first to “create” 20 slices. You’re not generating more pizza out of thin air, you’re just making it possible to distribute the existing pizza to more people.1

The other function of staking is, as mentioned above, to verify transactions. When you stake your blogcoins, you’re saying “I’m going to validate this block of transactions in exchange for a fee. If I falsely validate it, I understand that the blogcoins I’ve staked will be taken from me. If I validate it correctly, in addition to not losing my staked coins, I’ll get a small reward for doing the validation.” Staking is a way to incentivize good behavior.

Just like energy use is the downside of proof of work, proof of stake’s downside is that it’s less proven in the real world and, as such, potentially less secure. It also could be that it staking results in less liquidity since the incentives to keep your coins staked is very high.

So, that’s a high level summary of why proof of work and proof of stake are different. There’s much more to be said on the subject, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

1 Because of the way staked coins are distributed, it isn’t inflationary in the same way as a fiat currency like the US Dollar. When new dollars are created they’re not distributed proportionally to everyone who already has dollars. The recipients of the new dollars are the winners, and everyone else loses because the dollars they’ve saved decrease in value.

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Photo: Pied-billed Grebe Family

A mother Pied-billed Grebe sitting on her nest while her three chicks beg for food.

This grebe’s nest wasn’t too far from the shore of a small pond in Seattle. To get a clear view of it, I had to slide out on a log that was mostly submerged in the mud. I sat still on the far end of the log for about half an hour, long enough for the birds to become accustomed to me. Once I could tell that my presence wasn’t going to bother them, I slowly scooted close enough to get a photo with a 600mm lens.

The grebes seemed to pass their entire day doing the same thing. One of the parents would stay on or near the nest with the chicks while the other left to search for fish. Every 5 or 10 minutes, when the fishing parent came back with a meal, the chicks would get super excited while they were fed. Then, after a quick 10 or 15 second visit, the parent would go back to fishing and the chicks back to waiting for the cycle to begin again.

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Creative robots, transpilers, & carnivorous plants

Can Artificial Intelligence truly be creative? It’s starting to seem like it. Some of the recent GPT-3 demos feel like they’ve moved beyond being derivative and into the realm of actual creativity. Marcus du Sautoy wrote The Creativity Code to explore the question and its existential implications. He calls the test of whether an AI is creative “The Lovelace Test” in reference to the Turing Test and in homage to Ada Lovelace. Check out Michael Harris’ review of the book here.


Languages that compile to Javascript seem to be here to stay. I spent a lot of time in the past writing Coffeescript, but if I were to do it again, I’d probably start with either Elm, here’s a recent write up on it, or Imba. Both make web programs less error prone and ostensibly more fun to write.


No-code platforms and languages are also still going strong. I’m very skeptical about these because in the past they’ve almost never seemed to amount to much and always fizzled out after not too long leaving their users to start over writing code. Even so, some of the more promising ones I’ve come across are Bubble as a general purpose no-code environment, Judo for mobile apps, and Retool for internal tools. Whether they can surpass their predecessors remains to be seen.


Edward de Bono, the famous creative thinker and the man who coined the term “lateral thinking” recently passed away. Here’s a great obit with many of his life’s achievements.


It’s no secret that China has been tough on its own tech companies recently. Why? Here’s an article by Noah Smith arguing that rather than focusing on distracting social media and shopping, China is instead concerned with doing real things in the world. An interesting and very plausible take.


Instead of simply letting local governments throw resources at whatever they think will produce rapid growth (the strategy in the 90s and early 00s), China’s top leaders are now trying to direct the country’s industrial mix toward what they think will serve the nation as a whole.

Recently, here in the Pacific Northwest, a plant was newly discovered to be carnivorous. The western false asphodel captures bugs on its sticky stem rather than in its leaves. Hopefully I’ll find one of these plants out yonder some day.


And, to finish it off, here’s a picture of what’s universally considered by everyone to be The Best Duck on the planet. The Bufflehead.

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Summary of How to Have Impossible Conversations

This is raw outline of Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay’s fantastic book on how to have tough conversations that potentially change minds.

Focus first on instilling doubt rather than changing beliefs.

Basics

  1. Goals – why are you having the conversation?
  2. Partnerships – be a partner, not an adversary
  3. Rapport – build the relationship
  4. Listen – talk less, listen more.
  5. Delivering messages does not work. Conversations are exchanges, not debates. Deliver a message only on explicit request.
  6. Intentions – Socrates Meno dialog. People don’t knowingly desire bad things.
  7. Walk Away. If your primary emotion is frustration, it’s time to quit. Breathe.
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The Tough Problem for Glass

As you may have seen, there’s a new photo sharing app called Glass. You pay $5/mo or $30-$50 dollars a year to use the app. it has no ads, no tracking, and no mysterious algorithms. It’s a great looking app and has a lot of hype that was generated by some vood0o-genius marketing.

In a sense, the mood around Glass feels the same as Clubhouse a few months ago. Given Clubhouse’s spiral, that’s an ominous comparison to make, and I’m only making it because photo sharing apps are very hard to bootstrap. Especially paid apps.

Photo sharing apps are very hard to bootstrap. Especially paid apps.

Instagram works because it successfully caters to two groups:

  1. Casual consumers: people who mostly want to look at other people’s photos and videos while occasionally sharing something themselves.
  2. Photography pros: people who are promoting something. They’re promoting their own photography, their business, or products they share as influencers. They may not be trying to make money, but self-promotion is still promotion.1

To make a photo sharing community sustainable, any app that wants to compete with Instagram needs to successfully attract people from both groups.


If an app’s community is missing users from the casual consumer group and only has the photography pros, it ends up being a bunch of people who mostly only engage with other people’s photos because they’re either hoping for reciprocal engagement or they’re trying to get ideas for how to make their own photography more competitive. In short, without casual consumers, engagement solely from other photography pros will not be genuine, it will only be comparative and competitive.2

Without casual consumers, engagement solely from other photography pros will not be genuine, it will only be comparative and competitive.

On the other hand, if the community is missing people from the photography pro group, for starters, it won’t truly be a photography app. It may be another social network, and that’s fine, but here we’re specifically talking about photography apps. More importantly, it won’t work as a paid app. There are simply too many free alternatives. The model of paying for privacy and fair feeds with no algorithms has sadly failed over and over.

So, what’s to be done? What’s the alchemical concoction that will compete with Incumbentgram without sacrificing the privacy of its users and integrity of its founders?

The Solution

To succeed, Glass needs to be free and attractive to casual consumers while offering features compelling enough for photography pros to pay for. It’s a hard balance to strike and no one does it well right now. Flickr is probably the closest, but they seem to have given up on being anything other than a niche community for photographers.

Casual consumers almost certainly won’t pay $50/year for Glass when they can use Instagram for free.

If I was a product manager at Glass, I’d focus on attracting users in the casual consumer group. I’d make their experience viewing, discovering, and sharing of photos excellent and free. Glass currently has no #hashtags or categories of any type and has no location based discovery features. Finding photography that appeals to your tastes is currently much too difficult.

I’d also focus on providing an experience for photography pros that’s good enough to pay for. An experience that showcases their work beautifully (luckily, Glass already does this) and gives them tools to successfully promote themselves to the niche audiences that are looking for the type of content they provide.

It’s tough to do that without going the Instagram way where pros have to either pay for views or blindly struggle to reverse-engineer the ever-changing algorithm but I think it can be done.

Glass doesn’t need to offer premium placement or algorithmically controlled feeds. Instead it can offer photography pros paid tools to enable them to compete among each other for the views of casual consumers in a free-market type environment. Not everyone will win all the time, but if pros sense that the competitive environment is fair and unbiased, the community will grow and pros will be willing to pay for it.

I don’t know if that’s what Glass is going for. Maybe they have a different vision or different goals and would find all this silly and completely missing the point. My response to that would be that in order for the business to be sustainable, this is The Way.

I hope Glass succeeds, but from what I’ve seen so far, I feel they need to make some changes to stay relevant and competitive. Today photography pros are joining Glass because with Instagram’s shift to video, they’re feeling the pressure to find what’s next. But this endless loop of competitive self-promotion can only last so long before good photographers realize that they can’t build a truly engaged audience on Glass.


1 You may be tempted to disagree with this simplistic dichotomy, but the fact is, high level photography is a commercial endeavor. Good photographs are expensive and time consuming to make. There will always be people (like me) who just want to share their photos and not make any money, but with the amount of time and equipment photographers have invested into gear and travel, good photographers are almost always promoting something.

2 This is, in some ways, where Flickr is now. There are some genuine communities on Flickr, but for the most part, it’s primarily populated by people who think of themselves as “photographers,” with very few photography aficionados. It’s closed and stagnant.

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Creative Cauldrons

Sometimes when the right circumstances evolve or are intentionally created, an environment is where creativity can run free appears. I don’t know if there’s a name for this already, but I call these special times and places “creative cauldrons.” Here are a few of them along with some very brief descriptions:

The Harvard Psychedelics Club

In the 1960’s Steward Brand, Andrew Weil, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), Timothy Leary, Huston Smith defined psychedelic culture (for good and ill) for the next 50+ years. Read more about it in Don Lattin’s book The Harvard Psychedelic Club.

Vienna at the turn of the 20th Century

Painters Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, Egan Schiele. Writer Arthur Schnitzler. Sigmund Freud. Read more in The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel.

Gustav Klimt – Fir Forest I, 1901

Compton, CA. 1980’s and onward

A relatively small town with a population of about 100 thousand was the starting place for a disproportionate number of of great and influential rappers. Among them, MC Ren, N.W.A., YG, Coolio, Eazy-E, Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Tyga, Kendrick Lamar.

Paris in the Late 18th, Early 19th Century

The movie Midnight in Paris does a great job of imagining the vibe: Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Juan Belmont, and Gertrude Stein.

The University of Utah in the Late 1960’s

John Warnock, Alan Kay, Jim Clark, Ed Catmull. These computer science luminaries all came from an environment that specifically catered to fostering innovation.

University of New York at Buffalo English department in the 1960’s

As described in Evolution of Desire, a book by Cynthia Haven about René Girard, this English department, through the intentionality of Albert Cook, attracted critic Leslie Fiedler, playwright Lionel Abel (whom Sartre called the most intelligent man in NYC), novelists John Barth and Raymond Federman, posts Robert Creely and Robert Has, and of course René Girard himself.