What are notes?

This is a microblog for frequent, shorter thoughts, interesting links and shaping ideas before they become full posts. The best way to follow is via my RSS feed.

Apps and slow productivity

I simply don’t trust Notion and the myriad of other clones enough to use them for anything in my personal life. Even Evernote, a paragon of software longevity, isn’t looking great.

To quote from @kepano:

The plan for Obsidian is to never grow beyond 10-12 people, never take VC funding, never collect personal data or analytics.

Continue building with the assumption that software is ephemeral, files matter more than apps. Use formats that are open and durable.

And hence all of my personal stuff, notes, blog posts, thoughts, ideas are in simple, mostly markdown files. Sometimes I open them with Obsidian, sometimes iA Writer, sometimes VS Code, depending on what I want to do.

But the companies that take a more sane pace and approach to development are few and far between.

Take Raycast. I like the product (except the annoying release notes that keep getting in my way and I can’t figure out how to opt out of), but they are at least 21 people on the team. Alfred, which does basically the same thing with a bit less polish has 2ish (my guess from looking at LinkedIn).

If I had to bet, Alfred will be around in 10 years. Raycast won’t.

Lately I’ve been around a lot noise. AI this, some new bot for that, more push workflows, more, more, more, and fast!

And the more value I see in things like Cal Newport’s slow productivity.

Technically correct isn’t always the right UX

In iA Writer you no longer delete files. Instead, the menu text is “Move to trash”.

That’s technically correct. Your files will not be deleted, but moved to the trash, where they will be deleted in 30 days.

But this doesn’t sit well with me. My intent has never been to move something to the trash. I want to delete a file. Each time I delete a file, it takes me a couple seconds longer to find the menu item because the interface text is written in the mental model of the developer, not the end user.

I know some people insist on every text being technically correct, but this isn’t always helpful. If you really insist on adding some caveat, still call the primary action delete and consider a success toast the first time the action is done, “File moved to the trash”.

Just talking normal

I’ve noticed that simply talking or writing on the internet in a relaxed, natural way is increasingly harder for many people, especially Americans.

Everyone talks like an influencer, even in casual conversations, in niche hobby subreddits. I notice so many people always talk in brand names as if everything is a product review. My guess is that they’re consuming ungodly amounts of influencer content and started talking like that unconsciously.

I also notice a lot of really awkward phrasings. One example that jumped out at me was a booked that mentioned checking your “communication device”. Simply using “phone” would have been perfectly understandable and I’d wager every reader would get that it applies to tablets, smart watches, and iPod touches — I know they’re still out there. Incidentally, a few pages into this book, the author was already hawking her courses. It feels like everything now is content marketing and an up-sale platform.

The reasons for this are more complex. There’s a misguided belief that in order to “inclusive” you have to have worked out every rare edge case. I suppose it’s a fundamental difference of opinion, but I’d rather write and talk in a way that’s more natural sounding and covers the vast majority of cases.

Going back to the idea of inclusivity, I’ve written about this before, but a quick recap:

[R]ather than ask that “women” present themselves for a smear test, NHS letters and poster campaigns might use gender-neutral language and direct the appeal instead to “individuals with a cervix”, the phrase used by the American Cancer Society. This kind of language is feted as “more inclusive”, but the question we should be asking is, inclusive of whom?

Unless you speak English natively and come from an upper-middle class background, good luck understanding what on earth an “individual with a cervix” is. Thankfully, we have a word that’s much simpler: “woman”. Admittedly there are some fuzzy boundaries with words like man and woman, but understandable communication is always a tradeoff between nuance and clarity.

I think the real motivation to speak in these weird euphemisms is to exclude lower social classes and mark the speaker as educated, erudite. When people talk like this, it’s worth challenging them. Who are they trying exclude by using stilted language?

I’m on the side of simplicity and clarity. In other words, talking normal. This is especially important in a place like Europe, where English is the main way people from different countries communicate with each other despite it being spoken natively by so few people here.

Integration baby steps

Finding opportunities to actually use Dutch in real life are surprisingly hard when you’re a native English speaker, since everyone I interact with speaks absolutely fluent English. But I’ve had my first small step in integration: I’m the only non-Dutch person in my Tai Chi class.

And so the class is in Dutch. I can get most of it, since it’s not exactly rocket science.

I hope this is the start of finding more things to do that require me to use Dutch. And of course, learning Tai Chi is a nice thing too.

Tolerance & tribes

This older piece, I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, recently did another round of internet popularity (the comments on HN are interesting). Some excerpts:

The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Virtue Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”

Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.

The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why.

Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”

The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”

And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”

In other words, unless you’re tolerating someone whom you genuinely find repugnant, you aren’t actually practicing tolerance.

And as the next point makes clear, most of those praising their own tolerance are unlikely to even know a single person who actually thinks differently than they do:

There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.

This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.

I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government and occasionally voting for Romney. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is – well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.

And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.

And thus tolerance became tribal:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

I think these “tribes” will turn out to be even stronger categories than politics. Harvard might skew 80-20 in terms of Democrats vs. Republicans, 90-10 in terms of liberals vs. conservatives, but maybe 99-1 in terms of Blues vs. Reds.

It’s the many, many differences between these tribes that explain the strength of the filter bubble – which have I mentioned segregates people at a strength of 1/10^45? Even in something as seemingly politically uncharged as going to California Pizza Kitchen or Sushi House for dinner, I’m restricting myself to the set of people who like cute artisanal pizzas or sophsticated foreign foods, which are classically Blue Tribe characteristics.

Are these tribes based on geography? Are they based on race, ethnic origin, religion, IQ, what TV channels you watched as a kid? I don’t know.

People don’t care about ideological consistency. They care about signaling and belonging to their respective tribes:

The worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post was when I wrote about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ve written all sorts of stuff about race and gender and politics and whatever, but that was the worst.

I didn’t come out and say I was happy he was dead. But some people interpreted it that way, and there followed a bunch of comments and emails and Facebook messages about how could I possibly be happy about the death of another human being, even if he was a bad person? Everyone, even Osama, is a human being, and we should never rejoice in the death of a fellow man. One commenter came out and said:

I’m surprised at your reaction. As far as people I casually stalk on the internet (ie, LJ and Facebook), you are the first out of the “intelligent, reasoned and thoughtful” group to be uncomplicatedly happy about this development and not to be, say, disgusted at the reactions of the other 90% or so.

This commenter was right. Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us.

And I genuinely believed that day that I had found some unexpected good in people – that everyone I knew was so humane and compassionate that they were unable to rejoice even in the death of someone who hated them and everything they stood for.

Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in”. From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”

I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.

This has profound implications for how we should approach dialogue:

  1. There’s very little point in arguing about truth or facts as they won’t change many peoples’ minds.
  2. The media and, really, all of us have a responsibility to not tribalize things. Us vs. them thinking makes it incredibly hard for anyone to change his or her mind. So if you find yourself thinking that people who disagree with are idiots, take pause.
  3. Loosening various tribal identities, widening their scope, and moving them to things that basically don’t matter such as sports teams, iOS vs. Android (ok, just kidding, I really don’t get Android people) are a net benefit.
  4. There’s value in seeking out true ideological diversity, and it’s often hiding in plain sight.
  5. American media and tech companies have made a fortune off of building tribal identities and then pitting them against one another. Due to the dominance of American culture around the world, this is having a negative effect everywhere.

An ancestral bottleneck

There’s a fascinating study out that posits human ancestors came from a group of 1,280 individuals:

Human ancestors in Africa were pushed to the brink of extinction around 900,000 years ago, a study shows. The work1, published in Science, suggests a drastic reduction in the population of our ancestors well before our species, Homo sapiens, emerged. The population of breeding individuals was reduced to just 1,280 and didn’t expand again for another 117,000 years.

These sorts of things come and go, and I’d be surprised if this is the final word on human origins from a scientific perspective.

What I found more interesting were the comment sections on various blogs and forums. There’s nothing stronger than the faith of materialists, and it was fascinating to see the rage, denial, and wanting to throw this whole thing out because it is seen as something akin to Adam and Eve by some Christians.

The type of person in a tizzy over this shows that the modern, educated, scientific materialist has a type of faith and is just as closed-minded as the caricatured religious fundamentalist. Covid showed this — by doing nothing Sweden had better outcomes than the vast majority of other countries. The critics of modern academia demonstrate this time and again, such as the difficulty in publishing counter-narrative research about discrimination against men. Although I find the whole anti-woke trope nauseating, I think many people embrace it as the only way to criticize what I call Western Consensus Thinking while secretly despising the right-wing politics. Another take on the Ketman.

Getting back to the original topic. It’s a stretch, but suppose early human ancestors had some memory of time where all of humanity was a tiny group living in a narrow yet lush space. And this memory was preserved in the numerous Mythologies that have something of an Eden story. This is something that could never be proven, but it’s always interesting to wonder.


Not saying everything has a powerful effect. From The Economist’s newsletter:

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said that wolves in Europe had become a “real danger” for livestock and potentially people, and promised to review the animal’s protected status. Wolves were once nearly extinct across Europe but an EU ban on hunting them in 1992 triggered a spurt in their population. Wolves killed Mrs von der Leyen’s pony, Dolly, last September.

My sympathies, of course, go out to Dolly. Nonetheless, this is a great illustration of the well off only supporting conservation efforts if it doesn’t actually crimp on their lifestyle.


Continueing about the idea of the indigo blob, there’s a related concept of “weathervanes”. These are pundit-eque types that continually appear on the TV news, look like scientists but are actually nothing of the sort. They’re merely repeating political talking points while wearing a lab coat.

Quoting Vinay Prasad:

Weathervanes often have similar characteristics. First, they self identify as ‘science communicators’ and less often as ‘scientists.’ Some have published papers, but these are often un-original and plodding. Rarely, in their scientific work have they held a position or stance against others in their own field or discipline. Almost never has their work taken place on a controversial issue, in the midst of a scientific debate. I will return to this.

But they fundamentally are not able to read primary literature and process it themselves. They betray themselves by always talking about a new study— for instance the CDC’ study on diabetes rates in kids post covid19— using only the terms/ findings presented in the media the day before. That’s because they haven’t read the actual paper!

And I’d expand this concept even further. Ever notice the people in a group who never have anything original to say, never do any actual work, yet seem to always be talking about the latest buzzwords? Weathervanes.

Telegram stories

My initial reaction to seeing that Telegram is launching stories was to roll my eyes at yet more FOMO-driven product development.

But thinking about it, there’s more to it. The whole concept scratches a very primordial need to share something ephemeral with an audience, wether that be just some friends or “followers”.

Thinking more about it, my notes are the indie web version of stories. I publish some fleeting thoughts and don’t make them easy to find after their expiration date — the permalinks still work, they’re removed from the site navigation and blocked from search engines.

There’s something nice about that. I like writing, sharing, refining my thoughts in public. I really appreciate emails and feedback. But I’m not so keen for random thoughts of mine from years ago being a click away from a homepage that’s in my real name. The internet doesn’t seem to get that people change and grow.

Low-level programming

Something about Instagram and TikTok is able to hack into people’s the low-level programming, and once it gets to a certain point there’s no real use in talking about will power or free will.

And you see it people who can’t take even a few seconds of boredom or lack of stimulation. You see it with people who have to take pictures of everything, stage everything, crave attention, and validation constantly.

We’re primates, after all. Having these sorts of apps with you all the time is simply too much to resist if you don’t get adequate amounts of socialization in real life. That was the other part of Skinner’s experiments: rats in fancy cages with plenty to do didn’t kill themselves via drug addiction.

And so we get cases like two Ukrainian women who filmed themselves dancing and twerking on their father’s grave, who had been killed in the war. My take is that a lot of people simply can’t control themselves anymore. They have to do things for attention on social media. Telling them to just stop it is no more effective than telling a fentanyl addict or alcoholic to just stop it.

One of the frustrating parts of Ukrainian society in recent years was just how over the top phones became. Go to a restaurant, and everyone is staring at their phone. Try to have a conservation and eyes are constantly darting to check for new notifications.

These sorts of things are cultural. I notice extreme phone obsession in Ukraine (and I imagine it’s only gotten worse since I’ve left) and the US. For whatever reason, I don’t see it to nearly the same degree in the Netherlands. You can look around a restaurant and see that most tables don’t have a single phone out.

You’ve reached the end, kind of

Notes are meant to be fleeting, so I only display the last 10 of them. Older notes are still accessible either via their respective permalink or the random note link.