The Best of 2018
Reviewing the highlights of things from 2018. The best blog posts, books, games, music, and other life events. Also available are posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014.
Great blog posts
Ask Polly: 'Why Am I So Lazy?'
- Complaints about being a procrastinator or being lazy seem to be common among millennials, but what I like about Polly's answer here is the idea that if you self-identify as a being lazy, you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
America’s Fastest Spy Plane May Be Back—and Hypersonic (paywalled)
- This article is now hidden behind a paywall since I first read it, but it offers tantalizing hints that the aerospace industry may have already developed hypersonic aircraft that are seeing use by the American Air Force.
Lessons from Optics, The Other Deep Learning
- Here's a fun piece of cross-disciplinary writing that lays out how we could build mental models for explaining hugely complex systems like neural networks, using lessons learned from designing optical systems.
Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls
- In software development there's a widely-held belief that the smartest engineers can accomplish ten times the amount of work as the least talented can. However, this pattern may not have as much to do with intelligence as it does with hard work.
The one ring problem: abstraction and our quest for power
- Writing code requires the creation of abstractions; a software model that represents some other kind of thing. But abstractions can be interesting in that the more power and capabilities we give to the model, the less we can definitively say about what it does or how it works.
How to build a brain - An introduction to neurophysiology for engineers
- I find it amazing that both brains and electronics are able to perform basic math while taking two completely different approaches to the problem from a physics perspective. Calculators are wires, electricity, and voltage. This post explains the basic physics of neurology.
What Color is Your Function?
- I'm beginning to believe that the pattern of asynchronous callbacks in programming languages is considered harmful. This post does an excellent job of how code requiring callbacks will grow to infect and disrupt the flow of an entire program without careful planning.
How 2 M.T.A. Decisions
Pushed the Subway Into Crisis
- Even if you have no interest in the regular delays faced by commuters on the New York subway system, this article is worth a look for the incredible diagrams and animations that dramatically help readers understand the crisis faced by transit riders in The Empire City.
US cell carriers are selling access to real-time phone location data | Hacker News Comments
- This isn't an article itself, but a series of anonymous comments from engineers working in the mapping and geography sector trying to raise the alarm about how your personal movement and location information is being collected and sold by data brokers to anyone from advertisers to hedge funds.
Don't Get Distracted
- No, it's not yet another blog post about human attention and productivity. Instead, here is a story from a software engineer who unknowingly took a job doing development on a project that was secretly designed to track and kill people.
Too Clever By Half
- A lone genius can invent surprising and world-changing ideas, but all too often these ideas end up in the hands of criminals, dictators, and other unsavoury types. How can we protect genius from the darker side of humanity and put it towards greater benefit for everyone?
How One Las Vegas ED Saved Hundreds of Lives After the Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History
- I think that some of the best lessons for making humans smarter come from those of us that face the greatest stress, particularly those in law enforcement, the military, and emergency medicine. In this article, Dr. Kevin Menes explains how he organized the ED at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas to treat 215 gunshot wound victims in 24 hours in the wake of the 2017 county music festival shooting.
Objections Are Goals
- When faced with a controversial idea, it's easy to think of reasons why the idea is silly, or unworkable, or otherwise bad. This post introduces some mental tools for converting an objection (e.g., Can't do X because Y) into an action item (Can do X when not Y) as a way of coming up with innovative ideas.
Favourite books read
- "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason" begins Neal Stephenson's latest novel. An exploration of human psychology and the fight to survive when faced with global destruction.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
- The title makes a bold claim that the book largely delivers on. Author Marie Kondo describes a actionable process for getting rid of things and organizing possessions to reduce the cognitive burden that comes with having a lot of stuff.
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
- An intimate look at the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman as told by himself, covering his work on the atomic bomb, learning to paint, teaching at Cornell, and making friends and doing ketamine in New Mexico strip clubs.
A Higher Loyalty
- The dynamics in American politics between US Attorneys General, the FBI, and the American President has been generating a lot of news in the past two years. James Comey's book describes what some of those interactions look like from the inside, and shares some of his thoughts on what makes a good leader.
- Written in 1945, Animal Farm was intended to be a mocking criticism of Stalinism. It lacks the subtlety of more modern science fiction, but provides some views on the corrupting influences of power that seem to still be relevant today.
Favourite musicians discovered
- I can't say that The Decemberists is entirely new to me as I'm sure I heard some of their work before, but this was the first year that I really dived into their complete discography. They're an indie folk band featuring a number of talented multi-instrumentalists playing with a style that I'd love to be able to replicate.
- The year is 201X. Nostalgia for the '80s is at an all-time high. Roving synthwave artists descend upon polluted, millennial-infested cities and deliver coarse, ear-destroying computer generated music to crowds of ravers desperate to escape from their reality of unaffordable home ownership. Enter ＣＡＲＰＥＮＴＥＲ ＢＲＵＴ.
- A Norwegian folk music group that plays dark music and draws much of their inspiration from ancient Norse cultural traditions. Their music features many traditional instruments such as the goat horn and lyre.
Favourite games played
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
- While I wouldn't say the core gameplay itself is particularly notable, Hellblade is a very beautiful and thoughtful exploration of ancient Norse and Saxon mythology and mental health issues.
Into the Breach
- A turn-based strategy "rogue-lite" from the developers of Faster Than Light. With a stripped-down set of characters and abilities compared to larger strategy games, individual missions feel quick and keep action tight without needing to spend a lot of time on managing a large set of characters.
- Remember point-and-click adventure games? Primordia is a modern take that puts you in the role of an AI attempting to find his purpose in a post-apocalyptic world and discover why the humans went extinct.
Favourite papers read
Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System
- The rise and fall of cryptocurrencies was a big story of 2018. If you're interested in software development and cryptography, you owe it to yourself to read this 8-page paper.
Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects
- There has been an explosion of interest in the medical community towards the use of psychedelic drugs for the treatment of everything from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder. However one of the barriers towards more widespread adoption of these drugs for treating mental illnesses is the duration and inebriating psychedelic effects. This paper describes some unifying theories that may help us understand how the brain works and find novel medications for treating mental health issues.
Programming languages I still haven't tried
State of plans from 2018
Write 3 blog posts about climate change and technology.
- I did write a few drafts but have yet to publish anything.
Read 5000 pages.
- Actual pages read: 3038, plus a few hundred uncounted pages about tool sharpening and instrument building. I'm pretty happy with hitting 3000. Reading takes a long time, and there's certainly a trade-off between reading about things versus doing them. Tracking pages read instead of books read turned out to be a great idea.
Write and record two original pieces of music.
- Didn't do this either. Again, I spent a lot of time this year learning to play other peoples' music and adapting it for solo guitar.
Plans for 2019
- Complete 5 projects. I'll leave this deliberately open-ended and see what I end up building this year.
- Read 3000 pages. I'd like to read more than 3000 but I will budget myself more time to build things instead of reading about them.
- Develop deeper social connections. 2018 was a great year for that, and I'd like to take it even further.