Last year I talked about how I felt like a car where the steering wheel fell off but the engine kept on running, so I found myself crashing between topics with no control over what they were or how long I'd stay interested in them. This year I still had no steering wheel, but also the engine has been pretty erratic too, so I haven't been very productive.
This bothers me less that it might have done, because at least work is working. I still like technical writing and the texture of the work suits me well. But writing outside work has not gone particularly well. I mostly don't even remember anything I wrote. Time to find out, I suppose...
Hm apparently I wrote 22 posts this year, that's more than I remembered, what did I write?
- I kept on with my 'let's understand Derrida' slow-burner project. I wrote several more short posts that like three people will ever read, and made notes on Signature Event Context.
- I wrote a post on my experiences with meditation that got a bit more interest than most of what I write on the notebook
- I wrote about being a node in the Global Computer.
- I like this little post, Back facing outwards. I want to look out for more opportunities to do these short quote-and-some-thoughts type posts.
I only wrote one post there all year, oops, a review of Brian Cantwell Smith's The Promise of Artificial Intelligence: Reckoning and Judgment. It was ok.
Smith is interesting to read alongside Derrida. There's an interesting parallel between their ideas about representation (I covered this briefly in Broaching and breaching on the notebook) and I expect I'll keep poking down this rabbit hole for some time.
As I expected, the notebook has completely cannibalised the blog, which I'm not too happy about because I'd like to get back to writing higher effort posts that take more than one or two short sittings. I'm still in this stuck position of having the blog on wordpress.com with the stupid Gutenberg editor, so there's this ugh field around writing there, but also I like having blog comments and all the trendy newer alternatives make this much harder. Blergh.
There are some positive signs here? In October I went to Vienna for a meeting of the physics society I'm in, and that started to poke me towards thinking about physics again. Also I bought The Book of Why, Judea Pearl's popular book about causal inference with the science writer Dana Mackenzie, and liked the early chapters on the history of the subject a lot. I'd tried to read about causal inference several times before and it didn't stick, but this time I got the context I was previously missing and got properly interested at last. The later parts were disappointing, it does the pop book thing of showing you a couple of equations but not explaining what they mean, but by then I was well enough oriented to read more technical accounts.
Anyway, the reason that this links to physics is that various people in quantum foundations have used the tools of causal inference to think about the weirder causal structures you get in things like the Bell experiment, and now I can read their papers! Wood and Spekkens is the classic, and Spekkens is always very clear and insightful, and I'm enjoying plugging through it slowly and following any tangent I want to follow.
It's been a year of real comfort food reading, mostly children's books, mostly about ponies or boats. The full list would be frankly embarrassing, so here's the stuff that isn't children's books about ponies or boats:
- Smith - The Promise of Artificial Intelligence. Already wrote about that one.
- Salmon - An Event, Perhaps. Good new biography of Derrida.
- Orwell - The Road to Wigan Pier. Reread, don't remember why.
- Millerd - The Pathless Path. I liked this and generally approve of internet people writing books about their stuff.
- Le Guin - Earthsea quartet. This was still sort of in the comfort food category but has much more depth than the rest of it. I was going to write some stuff about Tehanu specifically but didn't get to it in time.
- White - How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind. Reading Marie Kondo has got me interested in tidying, and David MacIver likes this one. It was ok but didn't quite work for me.
- Judith - Eastern Body, Western Mind. Silly chakra book with some kind of useful bits mixed in.
- Jacobs - It's Not Always Depression. I found this by chance, and the title is really terrible, but it's a self-help book about noticing and feeling emotions, my one-tweet summary is here. Potentially useful but I didn't follow up with the exercises and tbh I'd already forgotten I'd read it.
- Pearl and Mackenzie - The Book of Why. Wrote about that above.
- Rao - The Art of Gig vol 1. Book version of newsletter.
Plus bits of:
- Chögyam and Déchen - Spectrum of Ecstasy. This is really dumb but I bought this very obviously Buddhist book and then was surprised by how Buddhist it was. Most of what I've read before has gone through a layer of secularisation, but this was lots of ritual stuff I had no context for. Will give it another try some time.
- Wells - Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Mikael Brockman rates this book, but it didn't really do much for me. I didn't learn my lesson from Spectrum of Ecstasy and had the same kind of surprised-Pikachu-face 'wait, this book about Christian ethics is really offputtingly Christian' problem. Need to learn to engage better with books that come out of an overtly religious framework that I don't share.
- Staten - Wittgenstein and Derrida. Skimmed this one. I was hoping that it would explain how they are different, but it was more aimed at convincing analytic philosophers that they had a lot in common. I'm already sold on that part so not as useful as I thought.
- Le Guin - Tales from Earthsea. I bailed on this one half way through, but the first story, about a boy captured by an insane wizard to find a new lode for his mercury extraction operation run by slaves who are slowly poisoned to death, was really compellingly horrible in some way that I can't get out of my head.
As an experiment I wrote a few email newsletters for a tiny audience I recruited on twitter. I enjoyed doing this in 2018 and 2019, and didn't like the open Substack version anywhere near as much, so I thought I'd try it again. This was pretty good – I do still like this type of writing – but not spectacular.
I did 100 TIL tweets for Threadapalooza.
I've been meditating pretty consistently and it's going well.
OK, hm, that wasn't so bad. I think it's more that there are no stand-out memorable big things this year, rather than that I did nothing at all.
Now I need to think about next year. I don't have a very clear sense of what I want to do, but maybe:
- write more about technical writing. It's an interesting field, kind of underdiscussed and undertheorised, I can probably say something worthwhile about it even though I've only been doing it for a year. Plus there are links to the sort of research distillation ideas I've talked about before.
- write up a more accessible post on Derrida, and iterability and différance in particular, with lots of concrete examples. I finally feel like I could make an alright job of this.
- keep going with any physics-related thing that feels appealing - the main point is to ramp up my motivation and interest again. Currently causal inference seems promising.
- move the blog and notebook into one place that I actually enjoying writing in.