Reflecting on Recent Failures

Game Design Competition

I read The Power Broker as a prerequisite for a game design competition revolving around the book. I did finish the book, but never got around to organizing my notes to post. We did build a game (several, actually, in pursuit of a good mechanic) and though we landed on something we liked, the clock ran out before we could get much polish on it. Though we didn’t win the competition (and the actual winners are very impressive looking!) we’re proud of our game’s weirdness, and are considering if/how/when to get it to a publishable point.

I expected to write a post-mortem about the game, our process, and some lessons learned. The key thing was that I think our process was good and our mechanic had promise, but we didn’t allow ourselves the time we needed to get from 90% to 100% done- or what we call “the other 90%” of production. It’s a common enough problem, and one that was exacerbated by our team being scattered to the four winds.

Despite losing, this was a good use of my time.


Overloaded on Politics

I have to admit that I’m ashamed by how much attention I’ve given this election season. I flagrantly violated my information diet with high-calorie nonsense for months. I’m bursting at the seams with useless trivia. Hours of my life have been lost, in exchange for information that is 99% useless beyond the cheap thrill I get out of it (and maybe the water cooler conversations).

No new information has changed my mind about how to vote during this election. I guess I have grown firmer in my decision, but I suspect that would have happened regardless of how much trivia I consumed. My grasp on some policy details have probably incrementally improved, but at a pretty steep cost in terms of time (and probably health, yeah, a little bit?)

People close to me knew how I was drowning myself in this dreck, and instead of pulling me out they asked me why I didn’t pull everyone I know into it, too. Ugh.

Anyway, of course I will vote because I do think it’s important. I’ll use some of my time, money, and energy to try to mobilize people- especially people who are prone to vote the way that I will vote. I won’t focus much energy here or almost anywhere else to try to publicly convince anyone who doesn’t agree with my voting preference because I’m trying to respect both of our time.


Money Blogs That Aren’t A Waste of Time

– “Money Stuff” column in  by Matt Levine. Light and often humorous recaps of money stuff that has happened that day.

– Most things by Morgan Hausel, who now writes on the Collaborative Fund blog. His themes are very consistent, which I appreciate. The basic principles of “being humble” and “keeping your head on” cannot be repeated enough to me to be boring, and his take is usually fun and interesting. Generally, to me, this kind of material is like going to church. You don’t go to learn something new. You know the stories and can pull out the meanings. meditate on the meaning,


Against Anthropocentricism, Part LXVIII

“An Afternoon in Early Autumn”  by Greer

The Power Broker I

The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920′s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.”

These notes are on roughly the first 1/6 of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, it’s hard to reference specific chapters etc. I can say that the notes below are based on Caro’s retelling of Moses’ life up until his mid-30’s, shortly after he is finally made Park Commissioner.

Early on, Moses is presented to the reader (or listener, as the case may be) as very smart, very literate and extremely self-assured. He also demonstrates an extreme attention to detail, a very elitist attitude, a high tolerance for risk. Robert Moses is a voracious reader, a lover of poetry, and also maybe cruelly aggressive. In the prologue, the author (Robert Caro) offers two glimpses of Robert Moses: one is college-aged Robert at Yale, threatening to quit the swim team if the team’s funding needs aren’t met (which includes his plan to be less-than-forthcoming to a potential donor about where the money is going… this turns out to be a motif); the other is a middle-aged Robert, self-assuredly threatening to quit his assigned posts if he does not also get a seat that he coveted but was denied by the Mayor, who gave him two other seats instead. Young Robert failed and quit swimming altogether. Older Robert Moses got exactly what he wanted, presumably as he always does. Caro questions how a person can have that kind of power in a democracy.

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Before Reading “The Power Broker”

I’m 1/6 of the way through The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The audiobook doesn’t divide in exactly the same way as the book does, but that sixth takes me through Moses’ first 35 years. Most of that time, he personally has no power at all.

Brief overview: Robert Moses would become one of the most influential public officials in 20th century New York. As a city planner, he would build and run unaccountable public authorities to achieve his vision of New York, which favored cars over public transit and dotted and crossed the metropolitan area with public parks and highways (often without regard for who or what was already there). He was the model authoritarian urban planner.

And it’s how he did it that was so remarkable. Robert Moses never held elected office. Mayors came and went, Governors came and went, but Robert Moses was a constant force in shaping New York for decades. He’s a man who turned roadbuilding into a method to reward or punish his political enemies, who invented laws and boards and then used them to sculpt the city as he saw fit.

At the time this book was published, New York was in a nadir. The subtitle, The Fall of New York, in hindsight, can now be seen as a comical overreach. As one reviewer put it, Moses’ surgical modifications to the city were not necessarily in the public interest, but they weren’t fatal. Cities don’t die easily.

The book is still highly lauded as a story about New York City, about “cities in general” (especially since Moses’ model influenced other cities), as a biography of a fascinating person, and as a study in power.

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I’m starting Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I will probably share some notes or thoughts, but I’m actually trying it as an audiobook (there’s no ebook! What was I supposed to do?) so my usual e-annotation method won’t quite work. I’ll work out how I’ll write to it.

I did not think that writing about my own finances would be as uncomfortable to me as it was. Anyway.

Earlier this year, on one of the many weeks when I broke my promise to write a blog post here, I became debt free. It was a tiny milestone on my personal (and quite boring, I admit) hike towards Financial Independence. I was never in any financial danger, but I was a student not too long ago, and though I had grants and scholarships and even graduated early I still managed to get stuck with a mound of student debt.

At first I did little about it. For most of my employed life I was more focused on investment than in debt reduction. I figured that the same dollar could give a higher ROI in stocks than it would reducing my debt. I had spreadsheets! I paid the minimum amount on my student debt each month.

Last year, though, my approach to this debt changed. I reasoned that hitting zero on my student debt was an achievable and measurable goal in startlingly little time (with some discipline), and more importantly I felt that goal would be a great launchpad to build habits I wanted to build anyway. The student loan amounts individually were small enough that I could tackle each one individually and get a dopamine rush out of zeroing them out in a reasonable amount of time. As a result of my approach, I tackled smaller debt loads first to try to build a habit and keep the game going, instead of the strict Jedi-rationalist approach of attacking larger higher-interest debts and risking those long struggles pushing me off the wagon.

Once I got into it, I found ways to marshal together a bit more money to accelerate the rate that I hit my targets. Due to the aggression that the game instilled in me, I achieved the goal significantly earlier than I projected. My daily expenses were leaned out noticeably but at no major sacrifice; I still paid for trips, including a vacation in Iceland, and I still donated at the same rate that I always have.

Now that the game’s been won, I can muster those forces towards investments with equal intensity.

For what it’s worth, I find this “Order of Operations” to be a great heuristic for how to build:


There are whole communities of people, there are gurus and subreddits and podcasts on Financial Independence- I’d recommend for anyone to take a look. I think it’s an especially worthy goal because I don’t know what 2019Me wants to be when he grows up, or what 2026Me will value, but I do know that by achieving (or even just approaching) this goal of Financial Independence I improve his optionality significantly. And it can feel good to have a measurable goal, to project out futures and then to act to achieve them.

Other caveats: I have no children and few real financial obligations so far. My SO has been supportive and is even looking into adapting with me. I knew these things before, but discussing my ambitions and sharing my victories with friends has made me appreciate the social context that buoys me that much more.


The Internet is a Red Pill Dispensary

I very clearly broke my promise to “see you next week”. I deserve to be shamed.

Below, I take what I think might be a pretty mixed metaphor, and stretch it pretty badly. As I’ve done before, I figured I’d publish it as a snapshot of an idea-in-progress to reference and clean up later.

I would promise to get more anchored and concise with future posts, but you know by now that you just can’t trust me.

I.  The Hairpin Bend

Xianhang Zhang is constantly inventing terms that I wish I knew about ages ago. On Quora ~5 years ago, he casually dropped this answer that has stayed on my clipboard for (literally) years. Disclaimers later.

Libertarians, in my perception, are stuck in what I term a “hairpin bend”. That is, the people who are less wise than them are frequently indistinguishable from the people who are more wise than them.

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What I don’t know

I had a great year last year, although I didn’t return to publish much of anything here (3 pretty short posts in 2015).

The previous year (2014), I published 74 posts, some of which I was even pretty proud of. I felt that writing helped me to crystalize my thinking, even when I didn’t publish. When I did publish, the feedback was useful. I want that back this year. I’ll try for at least one post per week, on the usual topics. Whatever those are.



We consistently overestimate the power of our own judgment. There is no reason that you or I would have looked at the nascent automobile, airplane, radio, penicillin, or the internet, and understood any second-order implications that seem obvious now that they’ve happened. Few at the time had much of any idea, even for years after the idea’s conception. We have records of unimpressed or confused (or even contemptuous) responses by authority figures to these technologies as they developed. Many crackpot websites share quotes of these misjudgments to suggest that their particular wares are in the same category as other revolutionary, once-ridiculed technologies or ideas.

We also have many records of weird wishlists and wayward projections of where the “inevitable” and “totally not path dependent” technology tree will grow and blossom. Various tomorrowlands are forced to close by economic/technical constraints or changing priorities. (Vaguely related, and worth checking out: “Web Design: The First 100 years“, and observations on longing for closed technological frontiers.) Jetpacks and flying cars, etcetera.

In any of the common threads of “progress”- economic, technological, or ethical– there is no particular reason that a given person would be on what we today might consider to be the right side of history. I certainly have preferences. There is no law of nature defending my preferences into posterity.

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How I Have Become Even More Boring (Part 1 of 1000)

This recent(ish) Ribbonfarm article about banal ideas becoming loaded with meaning got to me. I immediately deleted an old draft I had left unpublished on a similar topic, one of a flurry of scribbled-out ideas from my post about Law of Unrecognized Novelty last year that I never picked up. The gist of it was that phrases or concepts can become imbued with incommunicable meaning over time, and seemingly banal phrases can mean much more than the unprepared listener can comprehend.

But anyway, it got me to return here.

This is a post about habits I’ve changed in the past year. In short, I now think accounting and nutrition are interesting, which 2009Me would find totally insufferable.

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Coatesian History

Reading this warmed my heart:

God does not care about history, and history does not care about humans.

It’s a great joy to find someone articulate your beliefs even better than you do. It’s perhaps an even greater joy to find those string of words that you almost feel that you felt all along. It’s as much the appreciation of the prose as the actual content.

I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” recently(ish). It was just short enough, concise without being too bare. My favorite thing about Coates as a writer is his cold, “atheistic” view of history. It is the same flavor of thought that I praised from Kevin Simler’s work on “Personhood“, and that I enjoyed from morphological definitions of species, the same interest that led me to read about others who were tired of the concept of the essence, and to renewed secularized concepts of essence.

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Every time I open my browser there is a countdown to my death, according to some actuarial table. It’s a big hit at work. Anyway, broadly speaking I am expected about 21000 days to live [controlling for almost nothing].

I turned 24 earlier this month. It is an intimidatingly small number. It also maps cleanly to a clock metaphor, being born at midnight-

  • Just as I am in actual mornings, the morning of my Life Clock finds me genuinely helpless and useless to everyone until maybe 6am. Being very generous to myself.
  • I then spend the daylight hours in state-sponsored education, where I learn to sit very still and presumably something else. 12 hours of that. 6pm.
  • I then spend three and a half hours at Carnegie Mellon, where I learn things, make some videogames, do some research, dip my toes into startupland and then more or less pull back. It’s approaching 10pm and I’m exhausted already.
  • I have been an “adult” in the workforce in New York for almost two hours. I’m a consultant, a job that I didn’t know about when the sun was up. A significant amount of my social interaction occurs over platforms that were invented this afternoon (older than I would’ve expected, really), and much of my correspondence is with people who I have never or rarely met in-person. I travel fairly often. My girlfriend and I got a cat. On the whole, I’m quite happy.
  • I guess I’m a few seconds into tomorrow, but that doesn’t really mark the start of a new phase in my life (unless you count my recent promotion, but that seems too small a change at this scale). The idea of looking back on *two* days, 24 years into the future, creeps me out.

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On 2014

I’m certain that no one finds my own wrap-up posts more interesting than I do. That’s fine. I can review old thoughts, I can condense, and with some distance I can ask myself “How could I have said this better?”

I’ve complained about this before, but I still don’t edit much before publishing. There are miles to go before I would call a given post I’ve made even presentable outside of the very tiny pocket of the internet that I inhabit. Hopefully 2015 will be a bit different. My intention is that future posts will be a little more intentional, a little clearer, and maybe even suggest effort in the writing(!(?)).

When I started writing in 2013, my approach to writing was “fire-and-forget”. There’s a time and place for that attitude, but maybe not “attached to my name and in public”. Still, I found topics that still interest me and that might warrant returning to: theories of organization, the ideas of apologetic and legitimacy, and Spengler and other downwing political writers and their concerns about the incomprehensible and the unmanageable in the world. I branched out a short-lived devblog. I don’t like talking about my business, it turns out.

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