← Back to Kevin's newslettersPublished: 2021 June 7

I’m in the Bay Area

Hi friends,

I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area through July and, since my girlfriend is determined to avoid Taiwan’s hot/humid summer, we’ll stick around the US — probably Seattle, maybe NYC or Boston, open to suggestions — through autumn.

If you are in any of these places and interested in meeting/collaborating, get in touch! Especially if:

What’s next?

Over the past two weeks in rural Pleasanton, in-between translating designer mRNA and making up for 16 months away from good avocados, I’ve been thinking more about our January discussion on important work and how to spend my next years.

Since winding down Subform in 2018, I’ve had several collaborations with folks living the “life of mind” — graduate students, under-subscribed contractors, programmers-between-jobs, etc. While some of these collaborations have resulted in public work like Sketch.systems and Reltron, most have yielded private prototypes at best (though the world might someday see our gesture-based Mac window manager or tensegrity structural optimizer).

While enjoyable and intellectually satisfying, such collaborations have typically been short bursts of working together — more akin to casual pickup games rather than a dedicated team training program with scheduled practices and coach-enforced diets.

They haven’t cultivated in me the intensity I’d need to stand alongside the folks that my 14 year old self would admire (and 33 year old self does admire, for that matter): The people building space Internet, reviving nuclear energy, 3d-printing metal, solving protein folding, and manufacturing urgently-needed lipid nanoparticles.

While it’s possible that this “hey, Internet Friends, let’s jam on a Google Meet sometime!” strategy could lead to fruitful, intense collaborations, I doubt it’s the most effective route.

What would more deliberate approaches look like?

Long-time readers know that 5 years ago I looked into building a workshop out in the forests of the American Pacific Northwest. What I had in mind was not just a workshop, but something closer to a seasonal research institute (monastery?) that’d host visiting scholars for a few months of focused chalkboard talks / pair programming / furniture making / machine prototyping, broken up by long hikes and fishing trips.

Perhaps a formal “artist in residence” arrangement in a distraction-free environment would induce more productive collaborations.

One option is to go hard for this; lean into current technologist compensation trends to pull in $700k/year writing OCaml for traders (a friend’s recent offer), then check out after 5–10 years to build a nice monastery in the woods and invite interesting people out to work.

The tricky part here is, presumably, remembering to quit your lucrative job before your intellectual/aesthetic ambitions have been crushed from years of extinguishing (or igniting) the latest single-page-app tire-fire trends.

Furthermore, while an isolated, scenic nerd retreat would be aesthetically amazing, it won’t obviously lead to intellectually fulfilling work or a positive impact on the world more broadly. Without a deliberate culture and incentive structure, I suspect visitors (and residents) might slip into a retirement/vacation mindset, leading to a perpetual “conference after-party” of excited conversations that don’t quite survive beyond the campfire.

Not to say such an arrangement couldn’t work, but there are a lot of important details to resolve first. Have you heard of any such “institutes” that’ve made a substantial impact? Or do you have any bright ideas for co-living coordination mechanisms by which five people might sell out for two years each rather than one person for ten?

Of course, there’s the traditional mechanism by which people collaborate to solve hard problems: The Corporation.

Not that corporate structure is any guarantee of meaningful collaboration on useful work — companies large and small get caught up in status games just as badly as any university or government, and they can all manifest perverted incentives rewarding rents and financial games over generating tangible, actual value.

But there’s something telling in that most compelling work I see towards inventing the future is happening within companies.

I’m not sure whether it’s the focused thinking required to raise money, the Schelling point provided by a common plan and timeline (in contrast to the academic’s unhurried introspection), or the cultural and economic incentives that have us prioritize “work”, but empirically all the people I know who’ve been driven to start or join specific companies all seem to have accomplished much more than the folks I know who’ve taken on self-directed research projects and bootstrapped solo-businesses.

In any event, while I’m (clearly) not sure what’s next, I appreciate having the clear decision point of returning to America as a chance to reflect on how I’m spending my time.

Please accept my apologies for leaving things unresolved yet again.

And, in the mean time, if you know of any inventing-the-future companies I should check out, can introduce me to friends looking for co-founders, vouch for trustworthy limited-partners, or make a strong argument that I should sell out and build that workshop so you can use my sliding table saw, do get in touch. I’m looking forward to hearing from y'all =D

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