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We Select Our Distractions

Why are you reading this?

You clicked a link, resulting in some network requests, software churning, and the pattern of lights on your screen changing.

Though that proximal cause is fascinating, why did you click? Perhaps because you clicked something else first, and something else before that. But it’s not quite “clicks the whole way down.”

You are reading this because there is enough of your mind that wants you to. It wants that for a mix of reasons - affiliation (i.e. you know me or are in my “network”), curiousity, avoidance of other tasks, and more. These are the “latent causes” behind clicks that advertisers and others love trying to get at.

But they aren’t just sources of manipulation and dark patterns. In a very real way, by clicking around, skimming, and “doomscrolling” we are being true to ourselves, or at least an important part of ourselves.

We select our distractions.

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Profit from Interest - Starting a Free Email Newsletter

As promised, here is the first followup to my consideration of profit as a series of asymmetries. The first (“best”) reference point in our model is when transactions are motivated by an imbalance of interest - not the percentage charged on a loan, but the “excitement of feeling, whether pleasant or painful, accompanying special attention to some object.”

I find it interesting that Webster’s definition allows for both pleasant and painful possibilities. But regardless of source, interest entails an agent having an intrinsic preference or desire that may impact their behavior.

And so, if a monetary exchange occurs simply because the seller is personally interested in providing the good/service, and the buyer is both satisfied with the terms and is purchasing for their own interest as well, that is perhaps capitalism working at its best.

Or is it? How cleanly does this model actually correspond with reality? To critically evaluate the above claims, I am going to engage in a (meta-ish) case study - I am going to start a free email newsletter.

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Profit as a Series of Asymmetries

Profit is inherently asymmetric - a resolution of an imbalance through the exchange of “survival tickets.” The source of this asymmetry varies - heritage, effort, investment, resources, aptitude, interest, and more. Whatever it is, it is enough that one party lacks it, and it is willing (or required) to pay another party that has it to deal with the details instead.

When considered from this angle, a useful ethical slant appears. Profit that emerges from asymmetry of what I’d loosely term “true utility” (effort, real value, practice) is perhaps good, or at least as good as capitalism gets. But profit that depends on asymmetric information (opaque costs, bureaucratic rules, proprietary knowledge) is problematic - specifically it leads to situations where the incentives of the profiter and their client diverge dramatically.

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Categorizing Transcendence - A Consideration of Music Genres

What sort of music do you like?” - a common question, often used to introduce and discover what one may or may not have in common with another. Along with “what do you do?” and “what are your favorite movies?”, musical preference is a typical icebreaker for people engaging in the never-ending game of social alliances and competition.

Yet many claim their musical identity is deeply personal - a piece of their soul, bared for those who share their tastes. There are movie buffs and foodies and other flavors of enthusiast, but love of music has a rare universality relative to other options in the buffet of life.

Or does it? The key word of our introductory question is not music, but sort - everyone cares about music, but everyone characterizes it quite differently. A lover of death metal may eschew country as “not real music”, and vice-versa.

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A Blog Reborn

Half the fun of having a website is hacking around with it - there are hundreds of static site generators, and popular ones have whole communities creating themes, plugins, and more.

I’ve played with more than a few of these tools, and when making this site decided to keep it simple - use Org-mode, since it’s built in to Emacs and exports to HTML. Just ~100 lines of Elisp was enough to get going, and a dozen or so lines of CSS made it look OK.

It worked well enough for writing and publishing posts - but bit by bit, I wanted more. I still wanted a static site, with content generated from simple markup and built and published via CI/CD. But I also wanted IndieWeb goodies - webmentions and pingbacks, comments, and interoperability with popular content silos (“social media” and even the Fediverse).

Of course, I could do all this with Emacs - you can do anything with Emacs! But after a few dozen more lines of Elisp I realized I wasn’t exactly keeping it simple anymore, and decided to look for other ways.

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code_flows_forth.py

#!/usr/bin/env python

code = ["print('flows')", "print('forth')"]
code.append("code += code")
code.append("exec(code.pop())")
code.append("pass")

the_limit = len(code)

[exec(_) for i, _ in enumerate(code) if i < the_limit]

while code:
    print(f"{len(code)=}")
    exec(code.pop())
    if code:
        if not len(code) % the_limit:
            code.pop()
        if not len(code) % 1337:
            code = list(set(code))

print(code)
assert not code
del code

The Disruptor’s Dilemma

You've done it. You've invented the better mousetrap, the best thing since sliced bread, the next wheel - you've created an inexorable transformation that will suffuse society like electricity. Sparking innovation and spurning orthodoxy, your creation will foster new industry and enervate those too slow to change. Like a celestial creator, your work both gives and takes away - and it is this power that drives your confidence in purpose and inevitability of outcome.

Or maybe not. In fact, almost definitely not. You probably are clever, and you've come up with something special that at least some people want, or maybe even need. Your invention is novel in at least some regards, and your confidence and drive are key to its success. But, unless you're making the sorts of key discoveries tantamount to harnessing fire (such as really cracking cold fusion or finding that P=NP), your creation is not actually all that disruptive, at least in a general sense. And even if you have figured out something big, it will take time and resources for it to live up to its potential.

No matter how clever you are, incumbents have power - and that's not a (necessarily) bad thing. Innovators commonly fancy themselves as a Robin Hood to the decrepit and corrupt ways that predate them, but institutions exist for a reason. And, like biological entities, they defend themselves - which can be anything from entrenched politicians gerrymandering their districts to supportive neighborhoods holding a potluck fundraiser.

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A Selfishness I Wish To Share

Why do I make? I write, and publish online. My creations are accessible freely and globally, with a potential reach unprecedented for most of human history. You are reading my words right now.

But, you excepted, my "impact" is not that great. Everyone has a megaphone the same as mine, and my creations are stubbornly eccentric (this does not make them original or worthwhile, but is true nonetheless). I eschew marketing - you (being here) probably know that, but it is worth emphasis.

The need for artists to be marketers is fairly new - for most of history, art did not need mass appeal to succeed, and indeed most of what has lasted is art that pleased the elite. Popular works spread organically and were relegated to the world of "folk", and generally not recorded as fastidiously. We are left only with "high art" impressions of it, a subset of its original creativity.

Past art depended on the sponsorship of elites - modern creators have more options for monetization. But as with most things, these reference points imply a continuum of possibilities, not discrete outcomes. To answer why I make, I will consider the range of reasons why people have made.

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Play The Indicated Pitches At The Indicated Rhythms

It's pretty easy to romanticize creativity. An artist or a writer, a poet or an engineer - humans yearn to make, and perhaps through that have impact. The possibilities are endless, and so the framing is often fanciful - creators are visionaries, turning chimerical dreams into fantastic realities.

Music is a particularly romanticized institution - not just commercially, but in the personal experiences of those who study it. For many it isn't simply an extracurricular interest or a hobby, but a defining aspect of their identity, both socially and privately. It requires dedication (and luck) to achieve professional success with music, but its spiritual fruits are much more accessible.

Anybody who has been a member of an educational or community ensemble can attest to the verve typical of conductors. Inspired by masters such as Leonard Bernstein, they don't simply cue and keep time - they emote, act, and invest in the expression of art. It's easy to see why - Seinfeld's "The Maestro" is an able parody of the genuine prestige and satisfaction enjoyed by those who lead even modest ensembles.

I have played in more than a few such ensembles, and their conductors (and members, and supporters and audience) deserve much credit. But romanticization often goes a step too far - we pay so much attention to what something could be that we lose track of the steps it takes to get there.

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Hello World

How this site works

This site is built with Emacs, and uses Org-mode to manage and publish content.

It borrows from a variety of existing Emacs setups:

I also referred to both the Official Org manual, the Worg Org-mode HTML publishing tutorial, and just reading the Org-mode source code as sometimes documented functionality is a bit off or unclear (in particular various publishing options when exporting as HTML).

It is hosted by GitLab Pages, which conveniently generates the site on commit - but really any static file hosting would do.

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