Learning from Crashes

by Venkat on December 18, 2014

I came up with a neat and compact little definition of a crash as a result of the recent ongoing obsession with the idea we’ve had around here. A crash is an unexpected subjective reaction to an unexpected real-world outcome.

Both parts are important. If you have an unexpected outcome to an activity, but are able to just roll with it without experiencing any mental states you haven’t encountered before, it isn’t a crash. Having a flight canceled isn’t a crash. It’s simply a contingency that you deal with by replanning your travel. Annoying, but hardly a case of unexplored emotional reaction territory.

Equally, having an invisible and private emotional meltdown with no visible external trigger events is not a crash (though it might lead to one).

A crash is something like a failure, but more general and less loaded with negative connotations (think “crash a party”). You can generally predict the kind of emotional reaction in a failure, but not the degree. A crash generalizes this idea: with a crash, both kind and degree of emotional reaction are unexpected. So unlike failures, crashes can be both positive and negative, and are invariably interesting, which to me is a more interesting feature of a situation than its emotional quality.

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Striving, Surviving, Suffering and Slacking

by Venkat on December 11, 2014

The more I learn about the life stories of others, the more I tend to view mere survival as an accomplishment in the median case. This is an odd view of humanity, but an accurate one for the vast majority. We are misled about the actual difficulty of basic survival because societies are built around highlighting and celebrating the two ways you can react to easy conditions: striving and slacking. Striving leads to accomplishment, which we celebrate by according high status to the accomplished.  Entitlement leads to visibly enjoyed leisure, which we celebrate in a different way, by sanctifying it into a utopian view of the “good life” a given society offers. Societies advertise both by way of marketing themselves. What is generally swept under the civilizational carpet into invisibility are two other behaviors that are responses to hard conditions: surviving and suffering. These four kinds of behavior form a convenient 2×2 on which you can plot your life in a useful way.


The x-axis should be self-explanatory: it takes subjective hardship as a serious thing, but not as an absolute thing. Smarter and dumber on the y-axis refer to intelligence in the sense of capacity for pure Darwinian survival — a Hunger Games definition rather than IQ.  Note that being further north does not make you smarter. It means you’re getting smarter faster. These definitions make the entire diagram subjective.

Striving is getting smarter in good conditions. Surviving is getting smarter in bad conditions. Suffering is getting dumber in bad conditions — a progressive failure to continue existing. Slacking is getting dumber in good conditions.  Try drawing your life on this 2×2. Note that equal intervals of time will not map to equal lengths on the path. The trajectory tracks your story of adaptation, not your story of aging. When it comes to adaptation, as Lenin remarked, there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen.

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The Future of Tipping

by Venkat 12.02.2014

A couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to the bitcoin-based tipping service for Twitter, ChangeTip, by Leslie John Dilley. It is a fascinating thing to experiment with, and you should try it out if you’re interested in bitcoin. What makes it particularly interesting is that you can define your own pseudo-currency units called “monikers”. […]

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Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground

by Venkat 11.20.2014

Earlier this year, I turned forty. I’ll give you a moment to choose between “crap I’ve been listening to an out-of-touch old dude who looks younger than he is” and “crap, I’ve been listening to a ponderously self-important kid whose picture I never bothered to look at.” Forty is an milestone in the middle of the uncanny valley […]

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The Design of Crash-Only Societies

by Ryan Tanaka 11.14.2014

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com.  The improv session that inspired this article can be found here. Crash-only software: it only stops by crashing, and only starts by recovering.  It formalizes Murphy’s Law and creative-destruction into an applicable practice, where the end-of-things and the worst of outcomes […]

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Don’t Surround Yourself With Smarter People

by Venkat 11.05.2014

There is an idea that I have been guilty of uncritically parroting and promoting in the past: surround yourself with smarter people. Another popular version is never be the smartest guy in the room.  Beneath the humblebragging  in both versions (your cut-off for smart is a de facto declaration of “look how smart I am; only Einsteins are […]

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Crash-Only Thinking

by Venkat 10.29.2014

A few weeks ago, I learned about something called crash-only software  (ht, Robert Greco). This is software that has no normal “start” or “stop” mechanisms. It can only be stopped by crashing it. Often this means unplugging the computer physically. It can only be restarted through some sort of failure-recovery routine, with a hard reboot being […]

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Playing Games to Leave Games

by Sam Bhagwat 10.21.2014

Sam is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog at Moore’s Hand. When I was a kid I played a lot of chess. On Saturdays my mom and I would get up early and drive an hour to a high school somewhere around Michigan. She would bring a box of old New […]

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The Adjacency Fallacy

by Venkat 10.08.2014

Lately, I’ve been having quite a few conversations with people who are trying to reinvent themselves for the new economy. The most common pattern is MBA-types trying to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurial types. The second most common pattern is mid-career types who would normally be moving into either middle management roles trying to reinvent themselves as […]

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The Political Hangover of Prohibition

by Editor 09.30.2014

This is a guest post by Craig Roche, a data scientist and artisanal landlord. Whiskey is very easy to make.  Farmers used to make it at home using their crops, and Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on home-distilled ethanol.  George Washington distilled 55,000 bottles/year when he retired from being President. Even the mutineers […]

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