January 17, 2020

Inventions are memes

Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, referred to cultural norms that get imitated and spread as memes.”1

Cultural memes - such as how we gather for Thanksgiving, the Happy Birthday song, how we drink and greet each other and mourn together - are similar to our biological genes: the successful ones survive generation after generation, even if they slowly change.

Last night when I was driving up snow-covered Highway 50 in a row of other cars with our engines humming, I thought about how not a minute goes by that a combustion engine isn’t running somewhere in the world. They’re always going. And this has been true every single minute of every single day for about 140 years.2

Successful inventions are memes. Their concepts succeed and spread.

The behavior of memes isn’t limited to only cultural and biological realms, but also to academic and mechanical realms. And how many other realms?


  1. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with cream’.” -Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene

  2. The internal combustion engine was invented in 1876.

January 16, 2020

I’ll finish that tonight.”

I seem to get done exactly what I need or want to finish whether or not I have a deadline. But when there’s a deadline, I get things done sooner.

At 3pm yesterday, sitting in Industrious, I thought to myself, It’s okay the day is running out, I can finish that up later tonight.”

But then I realized I’ve learned two things. First, I’ll do it later today” is an excuse to not get it done right now. And second, Later Today” is really about an hour of unfocused anxious time after the dishes are put away but before my eyes start to droop.

So I’m going to stop allowing myself to work at night.

It’s a 2.7 mile walk back home from the office to our apartment. That should be the time I decompress, walk out what’s rattling in my brain, and walk into our apartment finished for the day.

If I can’t get it done before I leave the office, then it has to wait until the next morning.

January 15, 2020

AIM and Identity

My AIM username was scribbler. My Xbox username was scribbler. So was my email. And my Facebook ID. And my Kazaa. I liked having a unifying name across all services.

Nowadays, kids not only have different usernames for Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter and TikTok, but most kids have multiple usernames for each platform.

Boomers have very strong identities. They enjoy certain kinds of wine, they are loyal to certain carmakers, they put the same hotel brands and airlines on repeat.

But young people are promiscuous. Trying new beers, new airlines, new travel experiences.

I wonder if the iPhone generation is more comfortable with changing identities. Boomers have carved their identities in stone. But when you’ve got 20 different usernames on a dozen different services, who are you? And does it matter if it changes?

I think fluid identity is a net positive for society. But we’ll see.

January 14, 2020

Annualized expenses.

Car dealers try to sell you a car for just $225/month.” The company Lemonade sells you renter’s insurance for only $0.25 a day.” But when you’re offered a job, they tell you your annual salary.

Instead, expenses should be annualized and income should be accounted for per diem.

Your morning latte is $1,642.50 a year.

Your post-workout-smoothie is $1,404 a year.

Taking that 15-minute YouTube break is 91 hours a year, or two full working weeks.

January 13, 2020

Cigarettes, scotch, company, writing, and conversation

The day Christopher Hitchens died, his longtime editor and friend at the Vanity Fair posted an In Memoriam.

He was a man of insatiable appetites—for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation.”

That sentence nails it. I don’t care for cigarettes or scotch. But Hitchens’ appetite for opposition, for combat, for conversation was contagious.

I don’t have the appetite Hitchens had. But debate was my favorite activity in high school. The tournaments were fun. But it was even more fun staying up late in Hampton Inn’s, arguing about philosophers we couldn’t pronounce and foreign policy we didn’t understand.

My best college memories are similar. We’d leave Rippy’s, and get cabs back to Convent. Typically a pizza would be waiting for us on the porch. And then we’d start playing music videos on the TV, and we’d start arguing. About space, about economics, about Bush and Obama and about how many beers we could possibly drink.

I craved those nights.

One night in particular still cracks me up. We were watching a video featuring Carl Sagan’s deep voice opining about the humility of man amidst the vastness of space.

At the end, my friend from Texas (cowboy boots and all) said he didn’t understand why we invested so much in space travel. I spoke at length about Ernst Stuhlinger’s letter to a nun who’d asked Why go to the moon?” in 1970.

At the end of what I thought was a passionate defense of the hope and promise of space exploration, the innovation it provides, the beautiful expression of physics and math, the unifying force it has as an Earth vs. the Universe” framework, my friend shakes his head and goes, I just don’t get it. There isn’t whiskey on the Moon.”

My craving for conversation has reached a new high, and so I’m going to start using Twitter and the Internet more deliberately to reach and chat and argue and talk to more and more people. If it’s fun I’ll keep doing it!

January 9, 2020

Hitchens in North Beach

He Knew He Was Right, The New Yorker, 2006:

At a dinner a few months ago in San Francisco with his wife, Carol Blue, and some others, Hitchens wore a pale jacket and a shirt unbuttoned far enough to hint at what one ex-girlfriend has called the pelt of the Hitch.” Hitchens, who only recently gave up the habit of smoking in the shower, was working through a pack of cigarettes while talking to two women at his end of the table: a Stanford doctor in her early thirties whom he’d met once before, and a friend of hers, a librarian. He spoke with wit and eloquence about Iranian politics and what he saw as the unnecessary handsomeness of Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco.

[…]

In the noisy front room of the North Beach restaurant where the friends had met, Hitchens made a toast: To the Constitution of the United States, and confusion to its enemies!” The conversation was amiable and boozy; Hitchens might be said to care more for history than for individual humans, but he was in an easy mood, after a drive, in beautiful early-evening light, from Menlo Park. (He and Blue, a writer working on a novel, live with their thirteen-year-old daughter in Washington, D.C., but spend the summer in California, where her parents live.) During the ride, he had discussed with the Pakistani-born taxi-driver the virtues and vices of Benazir Bhutto, while surreptitiously using a bottle of Evian to put out a small but smoky fire that he had set in the ashtray.

And then the young doctor to his left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a pathological liar.”

All politicians lie!” the women said.

He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.

But he’s a politician.”

No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) Fine,” Hitchens said. Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”

That’s wrong!” they said.

You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”

But Christopher . . .”

Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”