The Wikipedia of Maps: OpenStreetMap

My new hobby: editing the Wikipedia of maps, OpenStreetMap (OSM). Click on the link and you’re greeted with a map of the world that’s been drawn entirely by its users. You can take this map and do literally whatever you want. Print it, download it, use it for your own maps, etcetera. And if something’s missing, you can just add it yourself. That’s amazing.

The map used to be painfully bare, but years of effort by volunteers are slowly making it surprisingly comprehensive.

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Live Intentionally: The Results

Last week, I resolved to stay a day without Internet, and I said I’d let you know how it went. Well, I did as promised, and here are the results.

On how I did it technically, I just disabled Wi-Fi on all of my devices. When it comes to my phone, I disabled all apps using Screen Time, with the exception of essential communication ones (WhatsApp and Telegram) and apps that don’t use the Internet at all (like the camera).

On how I felt: throughout the day, it felt as if my brain was looking for something. It was sending a signal, but it couldn’t find an answer. Check the news it said, but that request was blocked. You’re eating, so a video on YouTube would go well with your meal. Blocked too. By the end of the day those signals were still there, of course. To eradicate them completely would need a way longer detox.

I still instinctively pulled out my phone to check for notifications all throughout the day. But of course, there weren’t, and even if I did get a message, the phone would ring, so there was actually no logical reason to check my phone. Reflexes.

One result I was expecting, and which felt particularly good, was the complete eradication of gray areas. If you didn’t read last week’s article, I call ‘gray areas’ those times when you’re just zombie-ing through online content, not fully conscious about what it is you’re doing. Well, since there is no “online content” to speak of, those times were gone too.

As a result, I was always doing someting consciously. This is the best part about the Internet-free day, and why I’m thinking about making it a weekly occurrence. Unplugging from the Internet won’t increase your productivity, it’s not about that. I still did things I’d consider a “waste of time.” But it will make you more conscious about what you’re doing.

If I was resting, it was because I chose to. Anything I was doing, I chose to do with a clear mind. I can’t say that’s true when the Internet is available to me.

Would I do it every day, or most days? Nah. I work remotely, so it’s not an option during weekdays anyway. Plus, the Internet is genuinely useful. I can’t deny, however, that being more intentional and conscious about what I do feels really good. It feels like you’re wrestling back control of the ship, after it was left to float on its own for way too long.

Overall, I’d recommend you give it a try. One day is not enough to rewire your brain, but it’s just enough to give you a glimpse of a life of intentionality. I am now making Saturdays “Internet-free” days for me, since the first went really well. If you want to join me, please do let me know how it goes for you.

Live Intentionally

If I had one thing to tell myself right now, that would be it. Live intentionally.

What do I mean?

With the advent of ubiquitous portable technology, the internet, and companies profiting off of your attention, it’s become easy to drift off in what I call the “grey area.”

You step into the grey area when you find youself doing an action you didn’t really want to do, nearly inadvertedly. In the gray area you’re conscious, but not really. You’re repeating mechanical movements, doing things with rewards that are too small to be beneficial, but big enough to keep you going.

It’s ok to rest by scrolling Reddit. But did you really want to spend half an hour doing it? It’s ok to give yourself a break by watching YouTube videos. But did you really want to spend the whole evening like this?

People will spend their entire days in the gray area now, me included. When I close my eyes to sleep at night, and I realize I spent my entire free time not doing anything intentionally, a major sense of guilt washes over me. It’s a terrible feeling. Then the next day I sit down and do it again.

Just as I was writing this very blog post, my partner was scrolling Instagram a few meters away in front of me. Before writing this paragraph, I caught myself in the gray area again, captivated by her screen.

How do we save ourselves and recapture the intentionality that we’ve lost?

Deleting apps is a possible solution, since it makes it harder for us to access gray areas. Increasing friction between us and the things we shouldn’t do is a classic trms topic. That’s great, but when it comes to solving the “gray area” problem, I feel it just covers up symptoms of a deeper issue. The body needs a shock.

This shock could be provided by disconnecting completely from what distracts us. But like I mentioned in my Quiet Tech Toolkit, that’d be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. YouTube and the Internet in general are massively useful, disconnecting completely permanently would be a net loss.

So the solution I came up for now is to shock my body with an entire day (but just one) without Internet. This Saturday is the day. I’ll let you know how it goes next week and put the link to it here.

On Game Emulation

Just yesterday I came across a video I had uploaded to YouTube eleven years ago. In it, 16 years of age and with an English that was just starting to form, I review my game consoles while holding a shaky, low-res point-and-shoot I don’t even remember ever owning.

Now, those game consoles are sitting in a dusty, nameless box 3000 kilometers from where I am. Of course they are just objects, and to most people, objects with no purpose other than to waste people’s time. To me, though, they are an integral part of my childhood.

This is why now, living so far away from my first home, I find myself gravitating towards emulation. Sure, it’s not the real thing. The feeling of opening a jewel case, opening the lid, placing the CD and turning the console on while the cathode-ray tube TV warms up can’t be replicated by emulators. But it’s pretty darn close. And for us with limited space or “nomads” with no fixed, long-term, “settled-for-real” abode, it’s about the only practical choice we have.

Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis emulated on Retroarch with the Genesis Plus GX core and the ntsc-adaptive shader.

If you’ve never heard of emulation, or if you still can’t wrap your head around it, here’s how I would describe it. Your console is a box. On one end, it takes inputs, in the form of the buttons you press and the games you put into it. At the other end, as output, a picture and sound come out. Emulation is the act of replicating this box in software, in such a way that when you give it the same inputs, you get the same outputs.

There are different ways of making an emulator. One way, called low-level emulation, (LLE) tries to replicate the box exactly as it is, not just in terms of input and output, but the whole inside of the box too. People making low-level emulators go down deep, analyze each item that’s in the box, and replicate it exactly as-is in software. They don’t care too much about the fact that the right output comes out in the end: that’s just an accidental by-product of the fact that they replicated the box’s contents so faithfully.

The other, called high-level emulation, (HLE) doesn’t involve itself with what’s inside the box. People making high-level emulators don’t try to replicate the original hardware exactly, what they do is stringing your inputs together with your computer to make sure you get the same output as the real console. They don’t even need to know what’s inside a console to develop the emulator. This is sometimes called simulation rather than emulation, but that’s just semantics.

Each method has its pros and cons. Running an entire system architecture in your computer, at the low level, is not a light task. You’ll need a powerful computer even just to emulate 30-year old systems. If the original system had a CPU that did something every 5 milliseconds, for example, plus a video chip and an audio chip that did something else at the same time, the emulator on your computer needs to tell your one CPU to do all these, exactly as they would have on original hardware. That takes computing power. The result, however, if your hardware is powerful enough, is emulation that is nearly perfect, virtually indistinguishable from the original, warts and all. The opposite is true for HLE: the result is not quite as accurate, but you can run even the latest systems on modest hardware. It’s a question of tradeoffs.

Emulation has often been associated with piracy. In some circles, the two words are one and the same. While it’s true that they can be used to play games one doesn’t own, this can be said of real consoles too. It’s no fault of the emulators. Emulators are just tools: it’s up to the users to choose how to use them. Nintendo’s entire concept of “Virtual Console” is just another name for emulation, to name an example, yet it’s as further away from piracy as it gets. The connection is unfortunate.

Darius Gaiden for the Sega Saturn. Emulated on RetroArch with the Beetle Saturn core, plus the ntsc-adaptive shader.

75% of all movies made in the silent era is now lost. 50% of all American movies made between 1927 and 1950 is also lost. Imagine: a movie comes out, and everybody loses their copies of it, even the people who made it. Movies are an important artifact of our culture: they speak loudly about the times and environment they were made in. And they are often landmarks we refer to when we talk about a particular decade. If I mentioned the 50s, the first thing coming to your mind is probably a black and white still from an old movie. The importance of movies in our culture can’t be understated, so it’s a tragedy when even one gets lost. Video games are no different.

Just like previous generations defined cultures and eras by referring to music and movies, our generation can add video games to this list of media. The ‘70s were PONG, the ‘80s were the NES boom, and the ‘90s were early 3D, just to name a subjective few. When I thumb through decades in my mind, games come at the fore just as much as movies and music do. We need to avoid losing 75% of our culture again. And this is why it’s important to preserve games.

The unfortunate thing about video games is that they require specialized hardware to be played. Hardware which starts decaying as soon as it stops being produced. While some games get officially re-released for newer hardware, most don’t. The only way to officially play nearly all Atari VCS games is by finding a 40-year old used Atari VCS, finding a 40-year old cartridge, and hoping everything still works. While this is still feasible now, hardware won’t live forever. Things get broken, sometimes beyond repair. How many Atari VCSs will still be around in 200 years? This is why the only way forward for complete preservation is emulation.

Besides classic physical preservation work (e.g. museums), emulation is crucially important for the preservation of these cultural artifacts into the future. By documenting the games and the hardware they run on, the emulation and game preservation communities are doing work to keep this media alive. MAME gets a special mention here: they faithfully documented the internal hardware of thousands of arcades, many of which are now only found in landfills.

In my opinion, the state of emulation, right now, is among the best it’s ever been, and only getting better. There are now CPU cycle-level accurate emulators for many systems. Nearly all emulators have free and open source code, which means the work done in one emulator benefits everyone. Many emulator developers found a way, through Patreon, to fund and financially sustain their work. Emulating hardware in software ceased to be the only option: now we can emulate hardware in hardware. Improvements are being made on existing emulators on a regular basis, and there is so much choice that there’s bound to be something for everyone.

This choice can cause paralysis. If you want to start dipping your toes into emulation, I can recommend the Emulation General Wiki as a good place to start. The front page lists pretty much everything you might want to know: just check the page for the system you want to emulate. You don’t need a beefy computer, any old one will do for systems up to the PS1. The Emulation subreddit is also active and friendly.

Knowing is Nothing

Throughout the months I spent writing for trms, I realized one thing: I know a lot, but that knowing hasn’t helped.

I tell people how to maintain their habits, why they should do this and shouldn’t do that. I tell them how to get lucky, and how to get this and that done. Someone applying everything I write would be a superhuman. Yet, even I, the one writing those things, am far from that.

I myself know, yet do not always follow, what I write. Why?

I don’t exercise every day, and I forget to journal constantly. Often, I’ll refuse opportunities that my article about luck would consider to be great for me.

I truly believe what I write, and I always speak from experience, yet when it comes to sticking with them in the long term, I just don’t do it.

Clearly, knowing is not enough. I need something more. I need to have something that will turn this knowledge into long-term practice. I know that if I exercised once a day, that would be good for me, but another part of my brain shuts that thought off.

If you’ve been reading my articles, you might say: that’s resistance. But that’s just the thing: knowing about it doesn’t help. This very research into why I’m not sticking with things is a fool’s errand. I am looking for yet more knowledge that I won’t apply.

So, we determined that knowing is nothing, or close to it.

What’s the alternative then?

Key Takeaways from “Skin in the Game” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb’s books have long been in my recommended reads list. The reason for that is that they feel like eye-opening conversations with someone who’s seen it all. His books feel raw, almost unedited streams of consciousness right from his brain. I’ll take it.

His books are notoriously unsummarizable, just because there’s so much information in them. So think of this post as a few chosen servings from an otherwise very rich meal, not as a replacement for the book itself.

In Skin in the Game, Taleb opened my eyes to some of the hidden inbalances present in life, from the everyday to governments and more.

The key point he makes in Skin in the Game is that if you are going to receive rewards from the positive outcome of a certain action or decision you make, you must also bear the cost in case the outcome is negative. This seems obvious enough, except in the real world, there are countless examples of actors not having to bear the negative outcomes of their decisions.

When an actor gets the potential benefits of an action without having to bear the costs of its failure, Taleb calls that an asymmetry. We must avoid asymmetries.

Most of the book is dedicated to exploring examples of how this plays out in the real world. I will give some.

You want to buy an object, and you see it being sold on Amazon for a certain price. For a lower price, you can buy it second-hand on eBay from a reputable seller. And for an even lower price, you found it being sold on Craigslist by someone you don’t know. What would Taleb do?

If you buy the object and it turns out to be great, the seller gets the benefit of having gained money and a positive review as reputation boost, and you get the benefit of having gained the object. You’ll know the seller, so you might buy from them again. It’s a win-win.

But what if the object turns out to be broken, or it’s not what you expected? On Amazon and eBay, you will leave a negative review on the seller’s page, plus you’ll ask for a refund. The seller does not want their reputaton to be tarnished, so they’ll do whatever they can to provide you with a good experience. On those platforms, if the agent causes something negative to you, something negative will happen to them as well. Things are in symmetry.

On Craigslist, there are no reviews. There are no refunds. If the object turns out to be broken, and the seller used a temporary phone number, you have no way to get your money back, and you can’t inflict damage on the seller’s reputation. The seller is in asymmetry: they don’t have to bear the costs if they fail. This is why things are cheaper on Craigslist: you’re paying by being exposed to someone with asymmetry.

If you look hard enough, you can apply this to nearly every interaction you have and action you take. For example, I prefer having my house cleaned by someone whom I pay more but I know, rather than a more affordable stranger. This is because I know that the former cares about their reputation and wants to offer their services repeatedly. A stranger could (potentially) come, steal some stuff, and run away.1

Also, a couple of months ago I added my name and surname right under the title of this blog. This is to add skin in the game. If I write a terrible blog post, with a terrible opinion, or I create something abhorrent, the world will know that it’s Lorenzo Gravina who made it. Therefore, I am signaling that I have no intention of doing that. I now have something to lose (in reputation) if I make blunders. Similarly, after a streak of good blog posts, you’ll start to see my name under a better light, and I stand to gain from that.

This ties into a game theory concept Taleb mentions in his book, that of repeated games. One of the most “obvious” ways in which someone has skin in the game is if they are planning on encountering you again in the future. In other words, they want to play repeated games with you. If you aim for stability and want to avoid risk, you should try to play as many repeated games as you can.

Your local barber wants to have repeated games with you. He wants you to come to his shop as often as possible and for as long as possible. He understands that scamming you, or providing you with a bad experience, will lead you to look for another barber. But when you buy something from a stranger on Craigslist, you’ll never see them again. There won’t be any new games after this one. He is not interested in you purchasing more things from him.

In a nutshell, this is what Skin in the Game is about. Learn to see these “hidden” asymmetries in life and you won’t be able to un-see them.

I do recommend the full book. This was but a single serving.

Featured image credit @black_swan_man.