Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Unseeable New

We can’t see our culture very well because we see with it.
– William Gibson

Joseph Banks was the naturalist who came along with Captain James Cook on his voyage of discovery in the HMS Endeavour. When, in 1770, they first sailed into what is now known as Botany Bay, Banks was to write of the natives “Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.” The Europeans weren’t actually invisible to the native Australians, but they were so far out of the norm that there was no mental landscape in which they belonged. They could be seen, but they didn’t fit. Being dislocated in mind, they were rejected in place. In this extra-ordinary sense they did not yet exist.

Seeing is not merely physical. You can’t see something that doesn’t fit in your eyebox.

This beauty was called the Mastodon

I recall this story whenever I think about looking at objects across time. We have to remember always that we see the new with old eyes and the old with new eyes. For example, we can’t look at a picture of a steam locomotive and see it as the new thing it once was. For us it is a quaint and ancient object, forever static, black and white. You can’t see it with 19th century eyes, not for what it was then. To some it was smoke and noise to no good purpose. To others it was the equal of a supersonic jet, the most incredible piece of high-tech machinery on the planet. Sleek and novel and speaking of worlds to come.

Some people are better than others at grasping the implications of the new. I recently finished a book, The First Tycoon, about Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was America’s pre-eminent baron of steamships and railroads. He was able to see, with remarkable clarity, the leverage points of the new industrial economy. In Vanderbilt’s time, people had a hard time thinking about corporations as independent from the people who owned and ran them. Stock ownership was new. The amounts of capital and debt in play were unprecedented. The relationship between public good and competition was understood in a very different way. If competition from a new company wiped out the value of an older company, the sympathy was often with the older company, with the loss of that value. Many people decried this unbridled, value-destroying competition. But the new world was upon them and there was no turning it back. Cornelius Vanderbilt had an intuitive grasp of the new thing, and on it he built an empire.

Yep. That’s him.

We see a similar pattern with others who followed. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and still later, Bill Gates. They saw the new thing, and they steered straight for it, making bold bets at every step. Most of the rest of us can’t make out what’s happening, because we don’t have their eyes. We see them stepping onto clouds. We rub our eyes and say, “That can’t be right.” How strange to think, in a few years those same clouds will be our sturdy mountains, obvious to all.

What is emerging now that we can both see and not see? What is obvious but invisible, because it lacks a mental mail slot? Cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens, quantum computing, metaverses? What do we see when Cook’s floating island first swims into our Botany Bay? Maybe it’s an unfocused blob. But we’ll see it soon enough, and when we do, we’ll lose the art and the memory of not seeing it.

Air Conditioning the Winter

I like the slogan Electrify Everything.

The idea is to replace things that make direct use of fossil fuels (like gas-powered cars and natural gas heating) with their electric equivalents. Then you can work to make your electricity as clean as possible. I have an electric car, an electric lawn-mower, an electric induction stove top, and recently we bought two new heat pumps to keep the house warm. The natural gas furnace is still in place in the basement, but I’m hoping we won’t need it. Winter is upon us, so we’ll soon find out.

Those little legs are to keep it above the snow.

I was raking leaves this afternoon. It was a cool day, and I happened stroll past my new heat pump. I felt a gust of icy air coming out of the machine. Now I’m used to air conditioners dumping heat outside on a summer day, but since I have less direct experience with heat pumps, this caught me by surprise. But of course, by moving heat from outside to inside, my heat pump was reversing the summer scenario. It was effectively acting as an air conditioner for the world. On a cold day, it was exporting coldness. Selling ice to Eskimos. Sort of like propping open the door in the summertime, only it’s not summer. It amused me to think that I was air-conditioning the winter.

The last thing I have to electrify at this point is the water heater. Heat pumps are stepping up to that challenge to, so maybe there’s one more heat pump in my future. Then I need to get going with the solar panels.

Happier with Less Stuff: Escaping the Indulgence Trap

The Indulgence Trap is about the efficacy of efficiency. Energy efficiency is good, right? Sure, but consider: which of these statements is true?

  • Energy efficiency decreases energy use.
  • Energy efficiency increase energy use.

Both statements are true!

If I give you a more fuel-efficient engine, then hooray! The money you saved on gasoline can now be spent on a bigger vehicle. Or maybe, since miles are now cheaper, you’ll spend more time commuting so you can live in a bigger house in the outer suburbs. You’ve been given “free” money with which to indulge yourself. The indulgence trap says that you can’t efficient your way out of waste. Every penny you save on efficiency, you then re-invest in more energy use. This is sometimes known as the Jevons paradox. Jevons was the economist who noticed that every time steam engines became more efficient, England needed more, not less, coal. Efficiency drove consumption.

But the Jevons paradox isn’t a true paradox. Sometimes the technology changes to such a degree that you are gratified, your needs are fully satisfied with something that requires less to make. That is, you are truly doing more with less. You don’t need to indulge your way out of your savings. When this happens, the world gets a little better.

I recently read a book called, not coincidentally, More With Less. It’s a hopeful book. In it, author Andrew McAfee catalogues situations in which people are satisfying the same needs with considerably less stuff. He calls this “dematerialization.”

The simplest example of this is your phone. This one device, small enough to fit in your pocket, now performs the work of a seemingly endless list of devices. Phone, pager, camera, scanner, fax machine, radio, personal stereo, alarm clock, audio recorder, video camera, GPS device, calculator, metronome, guitar tuner, synthesizer, seismograph, reference library, and on an on. You don’t need to buy any of those now.

Reading the book made me think about how happy I am when I replace something old and big with something new and small. I love ditching stuff.

I love the fact that my TV now is basically a poster that I tape to the wall. My computer monitor is similarly thin. The last CRT computer monitor I owned was a frighteningly heavy monster. I genuinely worried about getting a hernia every time I moved it. And I’m old enough to remember when people would brag about how big their stereos were. (“Dude, my speakers are THIS tall”). My whole stereo cabinet is gone. No turntable, no cassette deck, no CD player, no tuner. These days I have a few Sonos speakers, and the rest vanishes into software. As these old devices depart, they take with them special dedicated furniture: the television hutch, the stereo cabinet, the speaker stands. These things used to be focal points in the living room. Now they are simply gone.

Another form of simplification comes in the form of electrification. Of course you still need to generate the electricity, but you save by having lightweight electrons travel the last miles to the house. I don’t have to take my electric car to a special station where I fill it with gallons of heavy energy liquid. My heat pump doesn’t require regular deliveries from the fuel oil truck. And one of my personal favorites is the electric lawnmower. Man, I hated dealing with my old stinky, hard-to-start gas mower. And I never liked storing gasoline in my garage. Life is better.

Having read the book, I now try to look at things and regularly ask myself the question: can I get rid of this or replace it with something smaller? Can I indulge myself and still decrease my impact on the world? It’s encouraging how often the answer is yes. Matter isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Mathematical Insight in 4 Easy Steps: Huh, Wow, Duh, Wow

Sometimes I think about mathematics in terms of this sequence: Huh, Wow, Duh, Wow. You can stop at any point, but getting to that last wow is really worth the trip.

First you are oblivious. You are marinating in the Slough of Uncaring as Netflix flickers and the unseen stars wheel overhead. But then you notice an odd fact, or maybe someone brings it to your attention. Huh? you say. What’s going on here? There is something there that glows and sparkles. It draws you in.

Example: Take a number, say 7, and square it: 49. Take the numbers on either side of 7, 6 and 8, and multiply them together and you get 48. That’s one less than the square. Maybe you stop here and carry on with your life. So what. Big deal. But maybe you say: Neat! Are there more examples of this?

Does it work with other numbers? 10 squared is 100, and 9 times 11 is 99. Yes!

How about a huge number? Let’s see. 2558 squared is 6,543,364. 2557 times 2559 is 6,543,363. Sure enough! That’s actually kind of amazing!

This is the first wow, the little wow. If you get off the bus here, you’re still left with a sense of the magic of numbers, the tingling sensation of recognizing beauty. But of course there’s more. There’s always more.

The duh comes when you realize that this observation follows from polynomial multiplication.

(n+1)(n-1) = n2 – 1

Or maybe you realize that you can visualize these products as straightforward geometry. You can see the square that represents 49. Now take one square away and shift the top row to the side. The remaining rectangle is now clearly 6 times 8, or 48.

Well, duh. It’s not magic! I can see the rabbit at the bottom of the hat. It seemed interesting at first, but now I can see that it’s not the least bit interesting. In fact, it’s obvious. It’s inevitable! It would only be interesting if it weren’t true. I don’t know why I bothered to pick up a pencil.

The second wow is subtle and vast. Maybe you see how your observation ties neatly together with some other elements of number theory that you happen to know. Or you might prove something related. Sometimes it’s just the realization that there exist dozens of ways to see how obvious it is. The little wows keep piling up until they overwhelm the duhs. Ultimately, the big wow comes when you realize that you get to live in a world where things like this are possible, where in fact they happen all the time, so long as you keep your eyes open. When you see that the world is stitched together from glowing threads that are both inescapable and miraculous. Obvious and mysterious.

A clever person stuck at Duh can do real damage. They might find terrible pleasure in smiting people with the Duh stick every time they hear a little “Wow.” Armed with the Duh stick and the suffocating net of Well Actually, they can snuff out curiosity and drown delight. There is no school-level mathematical proof or observation that isn’t Duh-obvious to somebody. BUT there is no mathematical proof or observation that isn’t Wow-delightful when approached gently and mindfully. Some days I am amazed that multiplication commutes.

The n2 – 1 example I gave above actually happened to me when I was in high school. I have a vivid memory of surfing rapidly through all four stages of insight. I was lucky to have a good math teacher who could help me past the duh to see one corner of the shining sky.

Never cheat someone out of the wow they deserve. Most wows are little wows, flowers. But every now and then you can help someone navigate through a thicket of duhs to the big wow, a shower of fireworks in the night sky, or the glowing aurora borealis. That’s when your mouth hangs open in wonder. And you think: it’s been there all this time.

Carrier Landings in Context

When I was kid, I was obsessed with airplanes. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since I went on to major in aerospace engineering, but I remember a particular middle-school trip to Washington DC where the highlight for me was, of course, the National Air and Space Museum. Like all museums, you finish at the gift shop, and this gift shop was like a candy store. So many books on cool planes! Bréguet 14, P-38, SR-71, X-15. I bought myself a book about the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

The F-14 had movable swing wings. Sexy, but heavy and complex.

For someone like me in the 1970s, this was the kind of book that you could only get at the National Air and Space Museum. In a pre-internet world, I was never going to find a book about the F-14 anyplace else. After all, my hometown library stocked only a few shelves on aviation. This book had all kinds of intoxicating details in it: specifications, performance numbers, production variants, squadrons where it was deployed, and lots of pictures. It was perfect catnip for eighth-grade me. I felt like I was learning how to fly an F-14. But really, I was memorizing a lot of zero-context factoids.

Poring over this was my kind of fun

For instance, I remember salivating over the cockpit diagrams. I learned the names of the instruments and where they were, but I couldn’t tell you much about what they did. So for instance, I knew the BDH Indicator was in the right instrument panel. But what does BDH stand for? I could guess, but I wasn’t sure.

The original inspiration for this post was a video, a video that reminded me of the gift of the web: bottomless context. These days, you can follow any thread and keep learning more and more. Of course, this means we’ve traded the hazard of too little context for the hazard of never-ending gopher holes. But on balance it’s a much better place to be. It takes no time at all to find a well-labeled F-14 cockpit with every instrument carefully explained. Here’s that BDH Indicator. I mean, that Bearing Distance Heading Indicator

But as much fun as it is to find endless pages of data, what I most value are videos created by experienced practitioners. Here’s the video that inspired this post. It was posted by one Navy pilot, and then commentary was added by another Navy pilot. It’s just a beautiful example of story and data contextualized by experience. Appropriately, it’s called “What Are They Doing?” That’s what I want to know, and this is the guy who can tell me.

I love hearing him talk about the disruptive “burble” that complicates the approach. He calls your attention to exactly what the pilot is doing with his hands, where he is looking, and what radio calls he’s making. He also gives some emotional context. We are informed that the last landing in the video would have been embarrassing for the pilot (“That is most likely a one-wire. It sucks. I’ve been there.”). These are things you’d never know without his help.

What would teen me have made of all this? I really don’t know. But I’m convinced that all this access to information and context (and community, which I didn’t even address here) is going to mean that the obsessed teens of the world are going to be building some incredible things in the coming years. Much more exciting than my crappy eighth-grade science project, I can tell you. I’m looking forward to it.

Nostalgia for the Future: Flintstone-Jetson Syndrome and the Digital Sundial

We yearn for the future. We pine for the past. Which is better?

The Flintstones and the Jetsons were the same show, just set in different eras. The family hijinks played out alongside a pet dinosaur or a robot maid, but the plot points were largely the same. Which one makes a better backdrop, the paleolithic past or the space car future? Maybe either one will do. All we know for sure is that the present is not so great. Let me escape to elsewhen. Call it the Flintstone-Jetson syndrome.

Lately, though, optimistic Jetson-style futurism has taken a beating, what with climate change, global pandemics, and the cancellation of Keeping Up With the Kardashians after only 20 seasons. What really gets us going these days is a package that contains elements of the future embedded in the past. Nostalgia for might-have-beens and should-have-beens. A cozy extrapolation down a few avenues rather than the cluster chaos madness that beckons us now.

The Flintstone-Jetson mashup shows up in entertainment genres like steampunk, but it also appears in consumer goods. We take something old, something sturdy and mechanical, like a spring-driven watch, and then we pump it full of high-tech low-tech. It’s still old-school mechanical, but now it’s a gorgeous jewel-bearing triple-axis gyrotourbillon wristwatch, available for small multiples of one hundred thousand dollars. It’s the future and the past in one sexy package. It feels like it came from… elsewhen.

My personal favorite example of the Flintstone-Jetson syndrome is also a timepiece. It’s a 3D-printed sundial. If it was just an ordinary sundial that happened to be 3D-printed, that wouldn’t be anything special. But this sundial is digital. What does that even mean? How can a sundial be digital?

To demonstrate the effect, I’m holding it up at different angles

Behold. As the sun changes position in the sky, the light pathways that make up the “pixels” for the time display are either opened or occluded. The effect only works down to about 20 minutes’ worth of temporal resolution. But who knows? Maybe we can fix that next year with a new triple-axis jewel-mounted turbo-gnomon.

If you want to learn more about this sundial, here is the project page on Thingiverse, and here is a video about it.

Special Times Aren’t Special

I once heard an interview with a woman who, as a young girl, was interned at a Japanese camp in the Philippines during World War II. Her father was sent to a POW camp, and she spent the entire war with her mother and brother in a camp for civilians.

Their situation, while nowhere near as bad as the camps for the men, was terrible. They endured hunger, illness, and shortages of every kind. There was some abuse by the guards, but she said that perhaps the most dispiriting thing she saw was interns cheating and fighting with other interns. Scarce resources, bad behavior.

And then came the most interesting part of the interview, the part that sticks with me even though I heard this many years ago. She said that she and her brother came through the ordeal with a strong and positive mental outlook, something she credited to her mother. The other children were constantly being told by their mothers that the world is broken. Things shouldn’t be like this. Someone will rescue us and the world will be set right. Until then, everything is broken. Her mother, on the other hand, said: This is how the world is. This is where we live. Sometimes people behave like this, and you need to understand it and deal with it.

The children (and their parents) who were waiting for the world to get fixed, they suffered, thinking they just had to hang on. Years passed without the hoped-for rescue, and they stewed in bitterness or despair. The ones who accepted the situation as it was fared better. Face the world as it is, and try to be decent. The world isn’t broken. That’s just how things are now. It’s the difference between clinging to the ceiling and standing on the ground.

This interview came back to me in 2020 as I, along with you and everyone else in the world, struggled to deal with the pandemic. You can tell yourself “Everything is upside-down and broken, but it will get fixed.” Maybe it will be fixed by god, or maybe by scientists. But I have long believed that the best way through an ordeal is to remember that internment camp. Accept the world as it is and try to be decent. Things might be get better. They might get worse. It’s hard to say. But we still need to make soup for dinner.

Steven Callahan gained fame as a sailor who, after his boat sank in the middle of the Atlantic, managed to survive for 76 days before being rescued. He made a similar observation about attitude and outlook. You can’t count on being rescued. You have to keep busy honing the craft of living from one day to the next with no end in site. This was the only way to manage the maddening frustration of seeing an unresponsive ship go by in the distance. You have to reach a point where rescue, if it comes, will simply interrupt a busy day of taking care of business.

As I mentioned, that interview about the internment camp stuck with me. But I was reminded recently of the notion of radical acceptance by this timely piece:
The crises won’t stop coming. Radical acceptance is the key to coping.

Stop acting like this is all so new! The world is old. You’re not so special. Get over it and make some soup.

Gerrymandering with AlphaPhoenix

You probably know that gerrymandering concerns drawing voting districts, as for state representatives, in such a way that one side gets an unfair advantage. How can you tell if it’s happening? Generally people like to point out the strange snakelike districts that are used to pack certain groups of voters together or break apart others. After all, it was a funny salamander-shaped congressional district that gave gerrymandering its name. So you might expect it to always result in spidery-lizardy districts. But look at these two maps of North Carolina.

Maps courtesy of Brian Haidet

This first one is an actual district map for North Carolina. It has some of those tell-tale salamander districts. By population, North Carolina is a red state, but not dramatically so. With 13 districts, you might expect a 7-6 split in favor of Republicans. But this map manages to squeeze out 10 red districts.

This second map was made by a physicist named Brian Haidet who took a great interest in gerrymandering. He wrote a program that can gerrymander successfully while avoiding the problem of snaky regions. This map “looks” fair, in the sense that the regions are reasonably shaped. And they all have roughly the same population. Yet he’s managed to give North Carolina Republicans 11 out of 13 representatives.

Here’s the video where he talks about the process: Algorithmic Redistricting: Elections made-to-order. It’s long, but it’s both entertaining and eye-opening. And it uses the prize-winning phrase “Markov Chain Monte Carlo Simulated Anneal.”

Here are my big takeaways from the video.

  • Cheating does not mean funny district lines. If you’re good at math and maps, you can totally cheat with nice, sane-looking districts.
  • Fairness is predicated on people’s voting preferences being stable and predictable. You must start with a baseline population and voting preference. This may be a safe assumption in these polarized times, but you still need to keep in mind that “fairness” is based on a distribution that needs to be resampled from time to time.
  • If preferences are indeed stable and predictable, then the outcome is completely known. It is purely an exercise in geometry, foreordained well before the election by an algorithm. This seems weird, but there’s no escaping it.
  • Even when you draw the districts so that they are fair, you still have a few degrees of freedom. Would you like the races to be close, or incumbent-favoring landslides?

Gerrymandering is a hot topic these days, partly because it lends itself to fun simulations that are now tractable on personal computers. So we now know what danger lurks in the redistricting process. There are plenty of good ways to limit cheating, but political interest means that whoever thinks they have the upper hand has no interest in trying to make the process fair.

In a sense, we’re lucky that the people trying to rig elections have been so ham-fisted about it. By making such obviously partisan maps, we are now at least alert to the danger. I think of this as the Photoshop Effect. Photos have been doctored since photography was first invented. But it took the widespread use of Photoshop for ordinary people to realize it. You never could trust photos, but now you KNOW you can’t trust photos. Voting districts have been doctored since Elbridge Gerry was the salamander-loving governor of Massachusetts. Thanks to the good work of people like Brian Haidet, more of us are starting to get wise to it.

Idea Gardening – from Perl to Obsidian

One of my favorite writing activities is idea gardening. I’ll think about something that might make a good blog post and make some notes. But more often than not, I’m not ready (read: I’m too lazy) to finish it. So it gets set aside, incomplete. But that leads me to another idea. I move that idea forward a little bit. But then I get distracted by Twitter.

“Idea gardening” is, of course, a charitable term. It might be less charitably called diffuse attention-deficit bullshit non-writing. I get to pretend like I’m writing, but really I’m moving distractedly from one topic to another without actually completing anything.

But years of desultory experience have taught me a few things. One is that I genuinely enjoy idea gardening, whether or not I finish anything. So, like playing the ukulele badly, I’m willing to call it a hobby and feel good about it. The other other lesson is that good tools can make a big difference. Good tools can help me cycle more quickly through my garden of ideas, pruning and weeding and watering, and occasionally harvesting. I love that moment when a topic becomes substantial enough, mature enough, that it almost seems to grow to completion on its own.

Tools and Tool Hounds

So, if tools matter, what tools should you use? I like watching what the cool kids, the tool hounds who review new tools, are playing with these days. But switching tools can be a dangerous time sink. It’s easy to convince yourself that these are the shoes that will (finally!) let you play like Michael Jordan. It’s easy to spend more time installing and polishing tools than using them. And it’s easy to mistake the honeymoon glow of mere novelty for a genuine productivity boost. After all, what Michael Jordan really does is pull on his shoes and play ball. It’s the rest of us who obsess about the shoes.

But still! Tools really can make all the difference. When it comes to idea gardening, these are the tasks that I’m asking the tool to help me with.

  • Catch ideas. Quickly create new documents
  • Survey ideas. Move quickly between documents.
  • Connect ideas. Find patterns in documents.
  • Polish ideas. Refactor and edit documents.

I could try to do all this in Microsoft Word. But what would be the fun in that?

My history of gardening tools

I’ve been at this for a long time, so some of these go back into the last century. This list is just from my personal history. Any comprehensive list would go on for pages.

  • Perl. When the web was young, I wrote tiny web-enabled perl scripts that would let me edit any text file by clicking on a link. Effectively, this was just a crude proto-wiki. Which may be why I instantly fell in love with wikis when they came along.
  • Trellix. This was a creation of Dan Bricklin, the same guy who wrote VisiCalc. It was a revelation to me that someone else valued this workflow and was willing to make a product out of it.
  • Wiki. Built to support collaboration among multiple authors, wikis also support the idea gardening of one person. I even installed a personal version of MediaWiki (the software behind the Wikipedia), but it proved too heavy for my needs.
  • Scrivener. This is a professional’s writer’s tool I learned about from journalist and tool hound James Fallows. It was fun to play with, but also more machinery than I need.
  • Simplenote. This was closer to my ideal of speed and simplicity. But maybe a little too simple. Moving between files and ideas was still a little clunky.
  • Evernote. I eventually took the big dive into Evernote. I’ve used it for a long time and I still like it a lot, but it’s on a path to excess functionality and bloat. Beyond that, I can’t think of any feature (that I care about) that Obsidian doesn’t do better and faster.
  • Notability. This is a beautiful iPad app, but it’s geared to the pen and tablet note-taking experience. It’s not so great for searching and assembling text.
  • Obsidian. For now, for me, this is the clear winner. Free, fast, text-based, extendable, it checks all the boxes.

I feel like I’ve been searching for the perfect idea-gardening tool for ages, and Obsidian is it. I’m sure it’s not the last word in idea gardening, but it’s passed a threshold that, for me, means it has fully arrived. I’m having so much fun with it. Will it actually cause me to write more? We’ll see.