May Update

The house project, thankfully, is winding down. I predict there will be many more months of finishing touches and interior design, but at least my home can drop back to the background again. That being said, earlier this month, I briefly started to worry while contemplating the large number of deferred tasks and further improvements: how to avoid the mental overhead that would come from a large backlog? A dear friend helped me with this gem of advice: compartmentalize each area of improvement into its own small, separate project with a timeline, clear scope, and budget. File each project plan away in writing instead of keeping them in my head. This will help me advance the work piecemeal; also, projects that are not started yet are not worthy of anxiety, and those completed already can become a source of pride. We shall see.

I also spent five days in Oslo, and will spend the coming ten days in NYC. In both cases, the primary narrative was to spend quality time with friends, and the secondary narrative was to pull me into a fresher, more creative and foremost more ambitious headspace. It worked / is working. I feel like there is much more to say about both experiences, but it will take me a little while to fully verbalize it.


Quite some reading happened. Let’s start with books.

Record of a Spaceborn Few - Becky Chambers
This is fiction—volume 3 of the Wayfarers trilogy. I needed a break from all the hard work last month! I generally like Becky Chambers’ writing, and this particular volume was intriguing: it is a novel, but it does not follow the traditional structure of a western novel; instead, it weaves the stories of multiple characters together into a reflection of what it takes to build cultural identity for an entire society. This touches close to home for me.
How to be Interesting - Jessica Hagy
This is a short, illustrated inspirational handbook. I picked it up because it had been cited from a few other things I was reading. I think this would be OK to put in the hands of a young adult who is emerging out of college with little life experience. My younger self would probably have liked it. But it is also not very actionable on its own. Maybe good to pair with a coaching program.
Atomic Habits - James Clear
This is another heavyweight that I picked up after Seven Habits of Highly Effective People from two months ago. As I am finishing this, it feels to me that the general principles from Atomic Habits have already pervaded the cultural zeitgeist anno 2024. Even though this was my first read, it felt like meeting an old friend. I liked to “touch base and catch up,” even brush up on a few motivations that I did not have an intuition for yet. This is also definitely something that younger me would have benefited from.


There was also quite a bit of interstitial reading, as usual.

In UI Density, Matthew Ström carefully separates the various concepts of “density” for graphical interfaces, and posits that there is a sweet spectrum in interface design where we increase both the density of stuff on screen and the value provided to users. In that model, interfaces that are too sparse rarely provide enough value to users (ahem, Google’s Material for Android), but a challenge of increasing density is to also maximize value provided—i.e. without destroying the value through excess complexity. One particular insight Matthew provides is that it is also possible to increase density in the time axis, by minimizing the latency needed to switch between screens. An example is given of Bloomberg’s Terminal, with near-instantaneous switches between information-packed screens.

At the complete opposite of this story, the Terminals Text Effects library is full of distracting, but also extremely pretty eye candy. This is niche art, but also art that I happen to like. A lot.


This month, I am finding my dose of AI skepticism in two places.

In How does AI impact my job as a programmer?, Chelsea Troy highlights that programmers need two sets of skills: building and investigating. And the former (building) is less than 20% of what the software industry is about. Large Language Models (LLMs) have greatly helped folk with the building part, but for now all signs point to a total lack of “understanding” what existing code does. The author also points out that even though we have no choice but to integrate LLMs in education, it is not too hard for teachers to show the limits of the technology to students.

Is this going to improve as the tech develops? I believe not, and Walid Saba explains to us why in the Communications of the ACM: as per When Colorless Green DNNs Sleep Furiously in an Unexplainable Fantasy (cultural reference), the current generation of AI tech is simply unable to do symbolic reasoning, and we do not have a plausible path to get there yet.

Tangentially, Andrew Kelley also points out in Why We Can’t Have Nice Software that short-term profit maximization goals are going to “take something well-defined, well-scoped, and completable, and turn it into an untameable monster that will be sure to offer software churn for decades to come.̛ […] For investors, all this churn is attractive. It’s disruptive.”


On the topic of corporate operations and funding, I came across a few new things that I did not know I was missing before.

Some person whose name I can’t determine created Founder’s library, a growing list of hand-picked videos from other people creating or running their business. (If you can help me determine who made this I would be grateful.) The selection of videos is valuable on its own, but I also found value in the site’s many blog posts. For example, in Lessons learned from studying 4000 YC startups, the author breaks down how venture capital gets allocated, and reveals that only comparatively little of it goes to true innovation.

In Paying Freelancers in Equity and Dividends, Sahil Lavingia shares how Gumroad pays freelancer with stock options alongside cash, with a yearly cash bonus to exercise the options. The future value of the stock is clearer to the grantees because Gumroad actually pays dividends instead of reinvesting all profits into future growth. I found it refreshing to see at least one profitable business using equity “the way it is meant to be used.”

I also liked Tom Blomfield’s lengthy recollection of Monzo’s growth, especially the first few “chapters” where he explains how the organization was very scrappy and created a narrative of itself far bigger than reality.

On the practical side, funding firm Wing VC launched an online knowledge base called Founder Docs. It is similar in intent and structure to YC’s library and startup school. I found the content worth skimming to scavenge bits I hadn’t caught elsewhere, for example the difference in signals between emerging and established markets and how to overcome stereotypes during early sales. Much of Founder Docs is targeted towards how to hire, but I did not find it as grounded in first principles as Elad Gil’s High Growth Handbook, which remains my reference in that area.

Finally, as I was discussing oddities of the Dutch tax code with another company founder in Amsterdam, he taught me about Phantom Stock Plans. Phantom stock is an instrument that contractually bind the grantor to a future cash payment whose amount is determined by the company’s stock at the date of payment. The two main differences with regular stock are the fact that phantom shares do not convey ownership (thus no voting right, nor access to investor documents) and that the payout is taxable as income and not capital gains. The flip side to these possible drawbacks is that the realization of the value is entirely deferred to the time of payout (this is tax-advantageous to the grantee) and that there is much less paperwork (advantageous to the grantor). Related: Rabbi Trusts.


There were also three pieces that touched me more dearly.

In Emotional and Physical Therapy, David R. McIver offers an intriguing proposal: reframe therapy for depression and other mood disorders with a goal to orient the patient towards physical exercise (in addition, or even in replacement, to other traditional therapy goals). The proposal stems from the observation that physical activity has been proven to be more effective than many other medical treatments, and the fact that patients do not (easily) consider this approach points to some friction or other obstacles between the patient and exercise, that could perhaps be addressed via therapy. Choice quote:

Maybe therapists should be starting by asking about how your relationship with your gym teacher was rather than your relationship with your parents.

In Where are the Builders, near ( observes that we can find highly capable individuals spending astonishing amounts of time developing skills to become expert builders in video games (Factorio, Minecraft, etc), and wondering whether all that effort is not misallocated by society somehow. Why are these brilliant people not looking for a “real job”? I find this line of inquiry interesting, but then I would also like to ask its complement: what of all the skilled individuals hired by Facebook, Google etc. to create ad-tech and/or addictive software? Is that not also a misallocation by society? Why are these folk not working on solutions for climate, energy, housing, inequality, mental health?

The strongest piece yet was the dangers of self-expression by BBC journalist Adam Curtis. To paraphrase, Adam posits that our economy has optimized for the maximal development of individualism and self-expression (which is maximally profitable for an ad-based marketplace — instagram, tiktok, etc), at the expense of the power of a shared sense of common identity across groups. Adam further offers that people generally want more of the latter and less of the former, but have been strongly conditioned to believe individuality is virtuous, resulting in some sort of permanent cognitive dissonance.

The three pieces above are, to me, fundamentally connected. They touch on a shared feature of humanity that is hardly, if at all, reflected through today’s internet. What can we collectively do about it?