Cartoon image of myself

Links, notes & quotes by Louis‑Jean Teitelbaum.

‘The people of Siena wished to have Catherine’s body,’ I learn. Don’t we all.

Knowing that they could not smuggle her whole body out of Rome, they decided to take only her head, which they placed in a bag. When stopped by the Roman guards, they prayed to Catherine to help them, confident that she would rather have her body (or at least part thereof) in Siena. When they opened the bag to show the guards, it appeared no longer to hold her head but to be full of rose petals.

This is constantly happening to me.

Ethics as a cop-out

A NYT essay by Linda Kinstler. It reveals a special kind of fragility that makes talking about being a good person a professional obligation. Yet despite this, having a personal stance on what ethics means remains a dangerous position, especially if one's ethics are grounded in spirituality and traditional religion.

Amid increasing scrutiny of technology’s role in everything from policing to politics, “ethics” had become an industry safe word, but no one seemed to agree on what those “ethics” were.

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James A. Reeves, on the shock of seeing society restarting:

Crypto, personal brands, and a life spent unwittingly training algorithms. Cyberhacked utilities, the mercenary jargon of self-care, and billionaires in outer space. My sense of slippage grows each day, but I know a cognitive leap is necessary if I hope to survive this century and not be left pining for some romanticized past.

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If a Paleolithic ancestor were suddenly to appear in the middle of a modern city, he would likely begin by devouring the squirrels and pigeons in the parks, the worms in the gutter; he would then move on to your cat, and perhaps to you as well. Now that’s a meat-eater.

Oppression by interaction

Maggie Appleton has an essay – or perhaps a light-hearted rant, or a call to arms – about the "oppressive" uni-dimensionality of note taking apps. By being linear streams of text, at most allowing an embedded scribble within the flow, they diverge from the paper they profess to imitate:

It's pretending to be a real piece of paper, but without many of the features that make real paper useful. Like the ability make marks on it that are not simply words in a straight line.
Oddly, few apps put significant effort into becoming more paper-like.

Whether interfaces influence people’s ways of thinking has long fascinated me, but that has always been an elusive thing to establish. Here, the framing is not on a specific tool or interface. Rather, it’s a social ecosystem, the whole scene of people building "second brains", "tools for the mind", or "networked thought" devices, that is deemed oppressive to spatial thinking:

But you're going to have to make your images elsewhere. This is a note-taking app, not a drawing app (we have to wonder when those became two separate things)

We’re not shaped by our tools, but we’re part of the flow of thoughts, conversations and choices around the toolmakers nevertheless. Individual thought is co-constructed by collective intelligence.

And currently, the scenius around those tools is fascinated by a certain kind of thinking: creativity by association, chaining ideas and seeing patterns emerge; algorithmic serendipity; the note as an atom within a larger arrangement. (Which is cool.) Tools such as Obsidian or NotePlan have their most original features in note management, not in note taking. Perhaps there is space for an approach where the note is a living organism, two or even three dimensional, visual, paper-like.

Hoping for new institutions

Alan Jacobs, on the rise of Substack and platforms that foster independence from large institutions:

I envision a world in which the increased fragmentation of our media scene—fragmentation created by institutions that have lost their sense of purpose and individuals who have lost trust in those institutions—leads, over time, to the rise of new institutions that are built on stronger foundations. As everyone used to know, Ecclesiastes teaches that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Yuval Levin says that now is that time to build up; but I wonder if, in the life of the mind at least, that time has not quite come. Perhaps the breaking of the old and decrepit institutions of art and culture has to proceed further before the renewal can, in earnest, begin. But I would be delighted if the Craig Mods and Ben Thompsons of the world, and maybe the Jordan Petersons and Joe Rogans as well, began to advertise for apprentices.

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Do I ever feel self-doubt? The answer is yes, very much so. My self-doubt tends to manifest itself in sudden, hot rushes of embarrassment, and usually emerges alongside a loss of playfulness or humour — or rather, when I start to take myself, and indeed life, too seriously. It seems to arise as a countering response to my own sense of self-importance.

Birdpics, domestic humans and feral individuals

Elisabeth Nicula, ostensibly on archiving bird pics, but profoundly about ways of seeing and being in the world:

How would Frank have accounted for himself? It embarrasses me that I persist in calling this bird Frank when I have no way of knowing how he thought of himself; naming him at all is an imposition of domesticity, when I should be aiming for the opposite. But this is how I say this bird is someone to me, and important — that every bird is worthy of attention, of obsession, of friendship, of being known as an individual, by me and by many. Every lingering of insects, everything that is useful to non-humans, is important; everyone has equal status. And still, I want to be one of those feral individuals who make better choices for themselves and others. My impulse to contain drives and bothers me.

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What to imitate

Florens Verschelde, on the design of calculator apps:

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll argue that Soulver’s design is “skeumorphic” as well. It reproduces the experience of writing calculations on paper with a pencil, writing down a result, referencing that result later on, etc. (...)
Soulver’s design is superior not because it is less of an imitation, but because Zac [Cohan]’s choice of what to imitate was better.

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Keynotes and Storyboards

Ostensibly an article about working with Jobs, and Apple's Keynote events. What caught my attention was this insight about Pixar's process:

Pixar would work tirelessly on the storyboards before any 3D graphics were ever created, essentially making the movie before making the movie. At scheduled times they would take those storyboards down to Disney for feedback. Disney was funding Toy Story, after all, and was also the gold standard in animation. So, the top brass at Disney would screen these story reels and give notes to Pixar. At that point, you would think that the Pixar team would bring the Disney notes back to their teeny company and implement the suggestions. But that was never ever the case.
What the notes told them was where the problems were in the narrative. John and his team had the confidence in their artistic vision. So they trusted that confidence in themselves to enact the fixes not just implement the Disney feedback.

They're receiving feedback from people whose advice, for some reason, they don't really respect. But instead of discarding the advice altogether, they're treating it as a signal that their intent – the effect they strive for – is not working.

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Rewarding Men Who Code Poorly

Steven Sinofsky, on the Zero Defect policy that Microsoft attempted to institute in 1989:

Melissa [Birch] also connected some dots for me and explained that the way groups were rewarding people who ultimately contributed more bugs than code was in practice rewarding some men and penalizing some women on the team. Teams that were small had few women. There was no hiding that fact. Melissa’s view was that the women were routinely delivering the code they said they would, when they said they would, and at the same time getting feedback about the need to do more.

An evergreen issue that keeps being discovered anew, it would seem.

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Coachability++ Cate Huston on the virtuous feedback between a coachable person and an adaptive manager

The Context And The Logic

Soroush Khanlou, on how little programming time is spent on algorithmic logic, compared to making stuff operate together:

How much of your time at your job is actually spent on writing the logic, and how much of it is spent preparing an environment in order for that logic to run? I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I found out that 98% of my time was spent on context.

Anyone who has had to set up webpack would agree.

Incidentally – when I started working for a design org, I fully expected my most used apps to be Sketch, or a code editor. Instead, it turned out my workhorse tool was Keynote. Comps and code provide logic, but the context around this logic is what is sold to clients, in the form of stories and events.

(Now that I spend most of my time teaching and making learning happen, my most used app is the spreadsheet, or rather the database. Teaching is about managing individual consequences at scale.)

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Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (via Stowe Boyd), in an article that apparently got turned into a book, argues the main cause of bad leadership is our cultural inability to recognize good leaders, or identify the qualities of good leadership. Instead, we conflate being a charismatic blowhard for being competent at leading people and organizations. This has considerable gendered repercussions:

This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.

In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people.

Chamorro-Premuzic arguments are a good counterpoint to the lean in rhetoric (which could be caricatured as: “women should play the game to win”). Instead, we should set the game straight, reflect on what good leadership is, and where hierarchy is actually needed.

His strongest points come from his recognition of the elephant in the room: the wrong people are given the wrong incentives, and do all the wrong things in leadership and management positions. I'm less convinced by his idea that AI would erase bias in recruitment (“less convinced” is a way of saying I'm utterly persuaded that this effort is doomed from the start, ill inspired, borderline evil, and shows an abysmal lack of thought) – but then, he works for a temp work company that would stand to cut costs a lot if its software replaced its recruiters.

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We Need A New Work Culture

A powerful and true post by Stowe Boyd (via Sentiers):

We need a new work culture, one that is larger than company cultures, and one that is not the product of corporate mythologizing or the propaganda of internal communications. We need a deep work culture grounded in science and centered on the welfare — financial, psychological, and physical — of working people, not a shallow culture that glorifies bronze age charismatic leadership while downplaying the strength of emergent order that arises from the messiness of social self-governance.

I particularly like the idea of ditching the preconception that “work” is (only) solvable at the company level. The goal is that someday, private ownership and control of the places where work happen will appear unthinkable:

Just as we no longer allow companies to exploit child labor, or to do whatever they like with the land that they own — which led to pollution, overuse of resources leading to ecological decline, and the subsequent degrading of adjacent land, as well — just so we should not allow companies to be managed however the owners want, or whatever they can get away with.

I've spent quite a bit of time and energy on “employee experience” projects. Never have I heard a boss frame their thinking that way. Sure – people should be well. Sure – burn out and attrition are problems. But work is never thought as a science, and employee welfare is mostly solved by making complains go away. It's not something companies optimize for.

The whole thing is very quotable, and Boyd's body of work seems fascinating as well.

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Chained Art

Robin Sloan, in the conclusion to the first installment of his “media lab” community, explores the minting of NFTs to register art ownership on a blockchain. He loses cash, learns a new API and has fun. Ultimately, what makes it work for him is not the technology but the acts of language that make this a shared reality for the participants:

Again, I’ll remind you — this is so so crucial — when you buy CryptoPunk #2890, you are NOT buying an image of a little blue dude, as depicted above. Rather, you’re buying an entry in a ledger that associates your identity — yours alone — with CryptoPunk #2890, an image of a little blue dude. That’s it. That’s the deal.

This is really 100% social; it’s about conjuring a dream of ownership, of value. The CryptoPunks were, and are, a magic spell; I mean that in a basically literal sense.

What I still don't get – or perhaps I'm being purposefully obtuse, this is still young, unevolved technology with many possible futures – is how building startups, incompatible "standards" and competing art marketplaces around this really is different from what we have now. Wasn't this supposed to be a "protocols not platforms" party? I cannot help but agree with Sloan here:

It feels like the digital utopians (I have been one; I might be still) learn this lesson over and over: that accursed “centralization” often coincides with accessibility, usability, innovation, good design — the list goes on

Sloan's was the singular piece that made me see fun, value and yes, magic, in this area. The blockchain is a tool for telling stories. Only, the people those stories are for need the maths, the formulas, the networks and, ironically, the hefty real world price to believe in them.

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On the removal of the suffering of others

Maureen Swinger (via Alan Jacobs):

Perhaps it is isolation from humanity that breeds the sort of clinical coldness that suggests the removal of suffering by removing the one who suffers. Could the quest to eliminate others’ suffering be a disguised attempt to distance ourselves from pain, because we fear there is no way through it?

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The QAnon Shaman Reminds Me of My Best Friend, and Other Musings on Saving Democracy

Panthea Lee:

Because I don’t have Olympic levels of empathy. I’ve just interviewed enough people that society deems broken or unsavoury to know that everyone has a story behind why they do what they do. I’ve just facilitated enough efforts around intractable problems to know that if we can’t level as humans first, we’ll never make it out the other side. And I’ve just lived enough life as a dismissible demographic to understand what people are capable of when they feel like no one cares about their existential pain.


Who does it benefit if we focus on race and not class? In many powerful media outlets (owned by obscenely wealthy white people), if a person votes Trump, that’s the only part of their identity that matters. In liberal media, profiles are superficially searching and hardly complex — the driving question is not “who are you?” but rather “how could you?” Many liberal outlets treat the Trump voter as aliens with views to ridicule, not humans with grievances to address

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Hopefully someday soon we’ll have algorithm-free zones, spaces that are clearly labeled like a product without pesticides.

Residual Reality

Julian Bleecker:

What Design Fiction does best is to effervesce more of what Roland Barthes called the ‘residue’ of the reality of the world. Good Design Fiction doesn’t hit you over the head with lots of didactic anchorage — exposition explaining technology, or why some techie-looking nozzle does this or does that — or overdone props like pump-action plasma rifles and over-wrought vehicles done up by self-indulgent production designers, or lots of CG lens flare. Good Design Fiction restrains itself and emphasizes a kind of relatable everyday-ness.


Has ML and AI and all of that become so effectively normalized as a component of the everyday software ‘stack’ that not having it as part of your ‘solution’ would be as weird as a company not having a website today? What is a world where all that stuff is hygiene - just routine to where you don’t think twice about using an AI to promote your wares, evaluate and interview prospects, and talk to the algorithmically represented personalities of deceased friends and family (as Caleb does in this episode)?

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Venkatesh Rao, on managing your psyche like a child's:

The greatest endemic risk to the psyche in 2021 is not that you’ll end up on the streets next week or fail to fund your retirement in 30 years. The greatest risk is that you’ll feel so relentlessly battered by the weirdness all around that you’ll go numb and simply disengage from the world entirely today.
Short and long-term security are moot if your life minute-to-minute is unlivable due to overwhelming weirdness. And your inner Parent and Adult have no clue how to handle the trauma of weirdness.

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