How to Be an Effective Engineer

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Crux of The Effective Engineer talk by Edmond Lau:

  • Optimize for learning – small improvements compound over time.
  • Invest in tools & automation – automate anything that you do more than twice a year.
  • Validate before you implement – test your ideas for features and designs before investing the time and effort to implement them, you don’t want to work on the wrong thing.
  • Keep it simple – complexity is a compounding tax on productivity and communications.
  • Work with people that value learning, invest in tools, test their ideas, and simplify things.

Man’s Conquest of Nature is Only Temporary

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Crux of Terms of Surrender by John Michael Greer:

  • The belief in Progress has a central theme of Man conquering Nature and submitting her to his will: Disease is conquered by medicine, distance by motorized transportation, the soil by fertilizers, and so on.

  • “according to this way of looking at things, Nature is not supposed to put up more than a pro forma struggle or a passive resistance. Above all, once any part of Nature is conquered, it’s supposed to stay conquered—and of course that’s where the trouble creeps in, because a great many of the things we habitually lump together as Nature are refusing to go along with the script.”

  • For example, “A large and growing number of pathogenic microbes these days are already resistant to the antibiotics that used to treat them; new antibiotics brought onto the market start running into problems with resistant bacteria in a fraction of the time that was once necessary for resistance to emerge; and the transfer of antibiotic resistance from one species to another is becoming an increasingly troubling problem.”

  • But most people “respond with an overfamiliar sentence: “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something.” The increasingly frantic efforts of researchers to find new antibiotics and stay ahead of the remorselessly rising tide of microbial resistance get no more attention than the equally frantic efforts, say, of drilling companies to find petroleum deposits to make up for the increasingly rapid depletion of existing oil fields.”

  • Another example is The Green Revolution in agriculture: “The barrage of fertilizers and poisons the proponents of that movement turned on agriculture won a temporary advantage over the hard subsistence limits of earlier eras, but it was only temporary. The reckless use of artificial fertilizers turned out to have drastic downsides, while the poisons drove insects and weeds into exactly the same frenzy of intensive natural selection that antibiotics brought to the microbial world.”

  • “Farmers faced by resistant weeds and pests, like physicians faced by resistant microbes, are turning to increasingly desperate measures to get the same results that their equivalents got with much less trouble. That’s exactly the situation that’s driving the current fracking boom and bubble, too. Back in the glory days of petroleum exploration and discovery, drillers could punch a well a few hundred feet into the ground and hit oil; now it takes hugely expensive deepwater drilling, tar sands extraction, or hydrofracturing of shale and other “tight oil” deposits to keep the liquid fuel flowing, and the costs keep rising year after year.”

  • Since in the long term all those efforts will cease to be effective, “the age of petroleum, and everything that unfolded from it, was exactly the same sort of temporary condition as the age of antibiotics and the Green Revolution.”

Online Universities Will Kill Mediocre Colleges

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Crux of Napster, Udacity, and the Academy by Clay Shirky:

  • College education is expensive, leaving students in debt.
  • Though online courses may not be able to compete with elite universities, they will improve with time and become better than mediocre colleges.

Read the user manual before you buy

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Crux of User Manual First by Kevin Kelly:

  • Today user manuals are available freely on the Internet.
  • Therefore you can decide which product to get by reading the manual before buying.
  • This prevents errors and returns, and so helps both consumers and producers.

Human work will be more efficient than machines

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Crux of The Recovery of the Human by John Michael Greer:

  • There are three problems with accepting the myth of the machine:
    1. It causes you to avoid necessary adaptation, since you expect a machine will solve whatever problems come.
    2. It makes you depend on others who control the machines.
    3. Although machines were more efficient in the age of cheap energy, they will not be so now that we are passing peak-oil.
  • Machines need cheap abundant energy to function: “That energy powers the machine, (…) manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does.”
  • Since energy is becoming more expensive, human work will become superior to machines: “In a world without vast amounts of cheap energy, human flexibility and creativity consistently beats mindless mechanical rigidity.”
  • We will have to rediscover or invent our human capacities. But mainstream thinkers won’t help in this because they accept the mainstream myths of the machine and of progress.

We Are living a myth of machines as saviors

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Crux Myth of the Machine by John Michael Greer:

  • Americans can’t imagine giving up cars just as they can’t imagine giving up television – both answer important emotional drives: “If the automobile is America’s talisman of freedom, the television is its talisman of community, of participation in a world of shared activities and shared meanings.”
  • But watching tv is isolating, and using roads and highways is dependent on big bureaucracies: “Isolation packaged as participation, dependence packaged as freedom”.
  • Americans allow themselves to depend on these two machines. When they imagine solutions to oncoming problems, they think of other machines: “A solar panel, a wind turbine, an electric car, a thorium reactor, a supercomputer, a flying saucer or a nuclear bomb, take your pick, but it’s got to be based on a machine.”
  • The idea that any problem has some machine that can solve it is a myth, in the original sense of the word: a narrative that directs actions.
  • Machines don’t have an inner world like people, so they allow their users to have power without needing to wield real power over others. This leads to a problematic “nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost.”

The future of online newspapers may be NPR

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Crux of Newspapers, Paywalls, and Core Users by Clay Shirky:

  • Online editions of
    newspapers unsuccessfully tried different pricing models, the latest is to charge only readers that access more than 20 articles a month. In this they choose to “forgo mass in favor of passion”.
  • “Form follows funding”: the people who are willing to pay for content will determine the future form of newspapers.
  • People who pay for papers seem to be of the “God forbid” kind: they pay because “God forbid the paper will not exist”. In this they at similar to people who contribute to NPR – politically conscious citizens.