What I learned last week (#104)

Hands holding scissors and cutting paper. Illustration.

A quote from the week:

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.

John Le Carré

Did John live through lockdown? 😉

Make your own art:

“Recognising that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

Elizabeth Gilbert

Book excerpt I enjoyed:

“Martin Luther King was asked how, as a pacifist, he could be an admirer of Air Force General Daniel “Chappie” James, then the nation’s highest-ranking black officer. Dr. King replied, “I judge people by their own principles—not by my own.”” (Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People)

Cameras and lenses from first principles:

A massive explainer on how cameras work. The graphics alone in this post are enough to gawk at. By itself this is a work of art.

Over the course of this article we’ll build a simple camera from first principles. Our first steps will be very modest – we’ll simply try to take any picture.

The image sensor of a digital camera consists of a grid of photodetectors. A photodetector converts photons into electric current that can be measured – the more photons hitting the detector the higher the signal.

In the demonstration below you can observe how photons fall onto the arrangement of detectors represented by small squares. After some processing, the value read by each detector is converted to the brightness of the resulting image pixels which you can see on the right side. I’m also symbolically showing which photosite was hit with a short highlight. The slider below controls the flow of time:


How search engine optimization (SEO) is gentrifying the Internet:

Because of the type of work I do, a lot of people ask me how to make their site more SEO-friendly and I wish that it wasn’t a thing that people asked me about. This kind of sums up why.

For the average internet user, this SEO arms race has made the internet both less interesting and less usable. When we want to discover whether blueberries are poisonous for cats, we have to sort through hundreds of words answering irrelevant questions like “what are the health benefits of blueberries” and “can cats eat vegetables.” When we get frustrated and try the next result down, we’re greeted by a story that looks and reads much the same as the one we just abandoned (the standard formula now is LARGE HEADER – a few paragraphs of text and a bulleted list – LARGE HEADER – a few paragraphs of text and a numbered list, ad infinitum). Here’s a quote from a doctor that feels like it was cut-and-pasted from a different interview; there are some citations from scientific studies presented largely bereft of context. Hooray for the illusion of clarity. Hooray for the death of creativity.


Quote I was was thinking about:

Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Why being earnest matters:

A genuine interest in something is a very powerful motivator for some people, the most powerful motivator of all. Which is why it’s what Jessica and I look for in founders. But as well as being a source of strength, it’s also a source of vulnerability. Caring constrains you. The earnest can’t easily reply in kind to mocking banter, or put on a cool facade of nihil admirari. They care too much. They are doomed to be the straight man. That’s a real disadvantage in your teenage years, when mocking banter and nihil admirari often have the upper hand. But it becomes an advantage later.

It’s a commonplace now that the kids who were nerds in high school become the cool kids’ bosses later on. But people misunderstand why this happens. It’s not just because the nerds are smarter, but also because they’re more earnest. When the problems get harder than the fake ones you’re given in high school, caring about them starts to matter.


Playing chess is a life lesson in concentration:

One of the highlights of my chess career was beating the Russian-born grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky at the World Open in Philadelphia in 2002, because it was a palpable experience of self-overcoming. ‘Yermo’ is a two-time US Champion. On paper, he was the favourite, but I’d recently been training by solving chess exercises, setting up carefully vetted positions and deciding what I would play, then comparing my thoughts with the book answer. Yermolinsky offered a pawn as bait, and I very nearly didn’t take it because doing so would allow him to play a series of forcing moves, including an elegant counterattack that appeared decisive. Looking deeper, I discovered a surprising detail right at the end of the line, in which my knight could retreat back to its original square, solving all my defensive problems and leaving me with a decisive advantage. I checked the variation just once – the wise side of neurotic! – and we briskly played straight down the line. The clock clicked gently with each move. Yermo played the impressive-looking tactic that we’d both anticipated as if it was decisive. Then I executed the additional detail only I had seen, and he immediately resigned. I felt strong.

As a chess grandmaster, I find the familiar injunction to ‘Concentrate!’ a little naive. Concentration is not like a bulb that we can turn on and off with a switch, because we are not just the bulb; we are also the switcher and the switch. Humans are more like thermostats receiving and sending out signals, seeking the optimal ‘mental temperature’ as ambient conditions around and within us change, and we’re often abruptly adjusted against our will. We succeed in concentrating when we manage to convene the dispositions that matter for a task at hand – for instance, our awareness, attention, discernment and willpower – and that is possible only if the right emotions co-arise and come along for the ride.


Scotland names their entire snowplow fleet:

…and the name are incredible.


Map of Scotland with snowplow routes hightlighted and snowplow names listed next to icons of trucks on the routes.

Lastly, check out what we’re up to now.

Comments welcome!