Where has October gone? It's suddenly cold and damp in Seattle, the election is almost upon us (😬), and… yeah COVID is still a thing. Another batch of companies (Microsoft and Amazon) announced that their work-from-home plans have been extended to ~July 2021. At Google, we've been working under this assumption for a few months now, but, as recently pointed out to me, we're not even halfway through between March 2020 and July 2021. Oh, and the murder hornets are now in Washington. 🐝🔪 Cool.

It's going to be a long winter.

Reading: Anathem

Over the past ~2 weeks, I listened through Neil Stephenson's Anathem. It was a 40 hour marathon of an audiobook (though, I listen at 1.5x, which cut down the total duration). However, it was worth the time investment; Anathem is in contention for the best thing I've read this year. I had a soft-spot for Stephenson, after listening to his similarly hefty Seveneves during my otherwise boring highschool summer job, and Goodreads kept popping Anathem up on its list of books it thought I'd enjoy. Anathem is truly great scifi, in that you can't really write much about it without spoiling its effect.

I went in completely cold, and I'd recommend reading as little about this book as possible if you decide to jump in. Just the plot teaser on Goodreads gives too much away, in my opinion. It's one of those novels where half of the fun is figuring out what's going on. Yes, you have to wade through a few hours of seemingly pointless exposition, but it pays off in spades. Without spoiling anything, Stephenson adds a few paradigm shifting plot points throughout the book that are truly delightful. It feels like watching a puzzle unravel in realtime.

Highly recommended if you enjoy slow-paced cerebral science fiction.

Autumn Cooking & Baking

I've gotten back into my cooking/baking habit as the temperatures have dropped to the point where it's feasible to have the oven on inside again. The bounty of interesting autumn produce in the Pacific Northwest also makes it a fun time to cook.

On the cooking front, I've been using a lot of root vegetables recently. I tried making celery root puree as a side dish, and it turned out excellent! This recipe made a puree that's a little looser and creamier than mashed potatoes, and it has a really pleasant celery aftertaste. I've also made roasted rutabagas, butternut squash soup, and a super hearty West-African peanut stew (this recipe was the best thing I've made in recent memory). It's hard to go wrong with autumnal produce and warm spices.

As far as baking, I made Bon Appetit's Pumpkin Bread recipe, which came out fantastic. It uses a truly shocking amount of olive oil, but it's worth it. I'd definitely recommend the optional topping of pumpkin seeds, which transformed this from “merely good” to “remarkably tasty”. (I mean, at this point, we're not fooling anyone: this is a pumpkin pound cake.)

TikTok

Sometime in the last 2 weeks, I made the regrettable decision to download TikTok. And… wow I can see why it's popular. It's like a dopamine drip feed – you don't need to tell it much of anything about yourself explicitly; it uses your behavior to curate an endless stream of short videos. No video is long enough that you get bored enough to have the self-awareness to leave, and so it's incredibly easy to get sucked in. There's an aspect of “just one more” that's distressingly sticky. I can dip into Twitter to get a 30 second sense of what's on fire in the world right now, but opening TikTok tends to be a 10+ minute black hole, not unlike highway hypnosis. I know that an hour has passed, but I'm not sure… where… it… went.

Despite the valid criticisms of TikTok, of which there are many, it feels strangely less artificial than other social media products. I suspect part of this is due to content being surfaced on the “For You Page” not relying on you having followed an account, so there's less of a “the big accounts get bigger” effect, as there is on Twitter. You see a lot more “normal” looking people: doctors, students, parents, small business hustlers, restaurant workers. TikTok has a “slice of life” aesthetic that's appealing. Of course, there are still popular accounts, but it feels like the algorithm TikTok uses to surface content is more willing to promote small accounts than other networks.

My ~2 week impression with TikTok is that it's the less performative aspects of Snapchat and Instagram Stories combined with the “wow that blew up” algorithmic promotion of Twitter. If Twitter is the “what's happening” livestream of the physical/political world, TikTok feels like the firehose of the memetic/zeitgeist world.

  • You Reap What You Code
    • Another excellent essay (or, rather, talk transcription) from Fred Hebert. There's lots to glean from this: the human psychology of automation, how to construct useful mental models of systems, and the inherent difficulties in making systems observable. This also gave me a phrase for something that I've noticed many times, but never described: the “curb cut effect” is the idea that making something more accessible for folks that need the accessibility feature often improves conditions for other people as well, even those who weren't the intended benefactors of the affordance.
  • The Overreaction Paradox
    • On the frustrations of enacting successful preventative measures, since preemptively averting a bad outcome is less glamorous than reacting to the bad outcome actually happening.

Cover art: Children And Travellers Along The Canal (1868)