• Seven Years Later

    Sorta Insightful turns seven years old today!

    Writing is not a muscle I have stretched very much recently. This is mostly because I have been busy stretching puzzle construction muscles instead.

    Last year, I mentioned that I had been writing less because I was spending more time writing puzzles for puzzlehunts. This January, the team I was on won MIT Mystery Hunt, the biggest puzzlehunt of the year. One of the rules of MIT Mystery Hunt is that if your team wins, then your team writes it next year, and it’s this tradition that keeps the hunt going. There’s always a team going for the win to get the chance to write a Mystery Hunt.

    It’s also true that after doing so, they usually don’t try to win again anytime soon. See, people don’t quite understand how long it takes to write Mystery Hunt. When I told my parents we won and had a year to write hunt, they said, “oh, a year, there’s no need to rush.” Meanwhile, last year’s constructing team started by saying “Congrats on winning Mystery Hunt! You are already behind.” I deliberately did not sign up for any leadership roles but I’m still spending about 10-20 hrs/week on Hunt stuff.

    When you work in research, they say you carve out time for your hobbies, or else your research will take over everything. But what do you do when your hobbies take over time from your other hobbies? Boy do I not have a great answer to that right now. I don’t expect winning + writing MIT Mystery Hunt to be a regular activity for me, so I’ve been treating this year as a write-off for blogging. There should be more afterwards. At minimum, I’ll write a post about Mystery Hunt.


    I finally got that post about My Little Pony done! Listen, that post was a struggle. I’m pretty happy that it came together, and am at peace with where I am with respect to the fandom. (Following very little, but still following.)

    Also, some papers I worked on came out, most notably PaLM-SayCan. I’ve been thinking more about AI trends recently, probably because I went to EA Global. It’s interesting to see-saw between people who think AI safety doesn’t matter because transformative AI is too far away, and people who think it’s 20% likely to happen in 10 years and the default outcomes will be profoundly bad. My feelings on this are complicated and I’ll try to write more about it at some point, but I would sum them up as, “sympathetic to people with short AI timelines, not sure I’m on board with what they want to do about it.”


    Word Count

    Normally, I include word count of previous posts, but I’m deciding I’m no longer going to track that data. I feel doing so is promoting the wrong impulses. I would rather write concise posts that take a while to edit, rather than longer posts that ramble more than they need to. I try to make every post concise, and in the past I think word count was a reasonably correlated measure of my writing output, because I had similar standards for all posts. But more recently, I’ve given myself more wiggle room on topics, in the name of “done is better than perfect”, so word count no longer matches quite as well.

    Instead, I will just track post count. I wrote 7 posts this year, two fewer than last year.

    View Counts

    These are the view counts from August 18, 2021 to today.

    286 2021-08-18-six-years.markdown  
    261 2021-10-29-invent-everything.markdown  
    342 2021-12-31-why-mlp.markdown  
    414 2022-01-22-mh-2022.markdown  
    400 2022-04-15-do-what-i-mean.markdown  
    363 2022-05-02-r-place.markdown  
    114 2022-07-14-twitter.markdown  

    I’m a bit surprised the ML-related post has fewer views than the Mystery Hunt post. I guess most people just read Twitter threads nowadays.

    Time Spent Writing

    I spent 99 hours, 30 minutes writing for my blog this year, about 40 minutes less than last year.

    Now for context, 74 hours of that were in the 5 months before MIT Mystery Hunt, and 25 hours were in the 7 months after, so it’s pretty clear where the time went.

    Posts in Limbo

    Here’s a review of all the posts I said I might write last year.

    Post about measurement: dead

    I said I’d remove it from the list if I didn’t write it this year. I didn’t write it this year! So it’s gone. I’m guessing shades of what this post would have been will appear in other posts I write later.

    Part of the reason this post never happened is that I wanted to touch on the concept of legibility. To do so, I figured I should read Seeing Like a State directly, since it was the book that popularized the idea, and it would be better to go to the source rather than trust everyone’s 2-sentence summary. Then I never finished Seeing Like a State because it’s a bit long and not written to be an easy read.

    This is why people just read Twitter summaries of papers and skip the paper itself. How else would anybody get work done?

    Post about Gunnerkrigg Court: dead

    Shooooooooot. Look, Gunnerkrigg Court is sick. It is still one of my favorite comics of all time. But, I’m not quite as hype about it as I was when I first archive binged it in 2015, and I’ve forgotten the things I planned to say about it. The right time to write this post was around 2017, but I didn’t, and now I’m not in the right headspace for it.

    Post about My Little Pony: done


    Post about Dominion Online:

    Odds of writing this year: 5%
    Odds of writing eventually: 40%

    I’ve come to realize that I like writing about things that I expect other people not to write about. I like novelty, I like feeling like I am contributing new ideas to the conversation. It is my way around the “my cake sucks” problem.

    Two cakes

    What you’re supposed to do is tell yourself that the audience is not nearly as judgmental as you are. They just want cake! Instead of telling myself that, I try to create super wild novelty cakes that are harder to compare to anything else.

    This is a bad solution and I should get myself to be more of a two cakes person. But! Who else is going to write about Dominion or Dustforce’s r/place struggles? Sometimes a story has to be told. There is room for the occasional novelty cake.

    Post about Dustforce:

    Odds of writing this year: 5%
    Odds of writing eventually: 50%

    Speaking of Dustforce, this is a new one I’m adding to the queue. Dustforce is a hard-as-nails platformer, and has a special place in my heart. Most of my ride-or-die games are from my childhood and nostalgia blinds me to their flaws. Dustforce got its hooks in me in college, in a way few games have. It is both really cool and really dense - I entirely understand why people bounce off this game, but there’s a fan community that has been playing the game and organizing Dustforce events for 10 years. There’s a reason why.

    Post about puzzlehunts:

    Odds of writing this year: 20%
    Odds of writing eventually: 99%

    I mean, yeah, this is happening, one way or another.

  • I'm Bad at Twitter

    Twitter profile

    My Twitter profile is not set up to pull people in. If anything, it is deliberately adversarial.

    I’m bad at Twitter. I know I’m bad at Twitter. I don’t know if I want to be good at Twitter.

    Every group seems to gravitate towards Twitter over time. There’s a machine learning Twitter, a philosophy Twitter, a history Twitter, a My Little Pony Twitter, a Smash Bros Twitter. Those communities all have their subreddits and Facebook groups, but I get the sense those are stagnating. Being on Facebook is a deliberate decision.

    All those groups agree that Twitter is awful for having nuanced conversation, but people post there anyways. When I try to probe why, the common reply is that Twitter forces people to get to the point. I can see the logic, I’m certainly guilty of going on and on for no good reason. (I try not to! It’s hard!)

    People tell me ML Twitter is worth it. Parts of it do seem good! It’s just, I have trouble trusting social media in general. I don’t have a TikTok. I know that if I set up TikTok, eventually I’ll be spending an hour a day genuinely having fun watching random videos, with a small voice asking if I could be doing something else instead. It’s not that I wouldn’t get joy out of it, it’s that I’d get joy that aligned me towards the kind of person TikTok would want me to be. Facebook and Reddit already did that to me. There is only so much time for dumb stuff.

    The issue, then, is that there’s real benefit to hanging around ML Twitter. It is not just dumb stuff. The medium makes it easier to find the hot takes where someone deliberately challenges accepted wisdom, which is where interesting intellectual thought happens. It’s easier to promote a paper on Twitter than it is to promote it at a conference - if anything, the two go hand-in-hand. The memes are specific enough to be excellent.

    It’s quite likely that I’m losing out on both ML knowledge and career equity by not being more active on Twitter. But do I want to become more like the person Twitter wants me to be? I’m not sure people understand how good recommendation systems have gotten and how much work goes into improving them.

    “Try it for a bit, you can always change your mind later.” And yet I feel like if I try it enough to give it a fair chance, then it might be too late for me.

    For now, I am okay with floating outside Twitter. Dipping in now and then, but not browsing idly. That could change in the future, but if it does, then I’ll at least have this post to refer to. I’ll at least have to explain why I changed my mind.

  • My 2022 r/place Adventure

    Every April Fool’s, Reddit runs a social experiment. I’ve always had fun checking them out, as part of my journey from “people are too hard, I’m just going to do math and CS”, to “people are hard, but like, in a really interesting way?” The shift was realizing that culture is a decentralized distributed system of human interaction, and Reddit’s April Fool’s experiments are a smaller, easier to understand microcosm of that.

    Some have been pretty bad. Second was trash. I know people who liked The Button a lot, but r/place is easily their most popular one. Each user can place one pixel every 5 minutes in a canvas shared by the entire Internet. Alone, it’s hard to do anything. But working together, you can create all kinds of pretty pixel art…that can then get griefed by anyone who wants to. It’s all anarchy.

    I didn’t contribute to r/place in 2017, but for the 2022 run I figured I would chip in a few pixels to the SSBM and My Little Pony projects, then mostly spectate. And yeah, that’s how it started on the first day! The MLP subreddit put out a Rainbow Dash template on March 31, and when I checked in, I saw their location was right in the path of the ever-expanding Ukrainian flag.


    ...and After

    The irony of people fighting for r/place land while a real-world land grab was going on was not lost on me. I deliberately skipped joining the coordination Discord, because I had no interest in getting involved more than the surface level, but from what I heard, the MLP r/place Discord decided to play the long game. They believed that although the Ukraine flag was taking over space now, and although most subreddits supported Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the flag owners would eventually face too much pressure and would have to make concessions to allow some art within its borders. The MLP Discord wanted to maintain their provisional claim formed by Rainbow Dash’s torso, to be expanded later. They were correct that the Ukraine flag would make concessions. They were wrong that My Little Pony would get to keep it. There’s a whole saga of alliance and betrayal there, which eventually forced MLP to change locations, but I did not follow it and I’m sure someone else will tell that story. The one I want to tell is much smaller.

    For about 7 years, I’ve been a fan of Dustforce, an indie platformer. When people ask what video games I’ve played recently, I always tell them I’ve been playing Dustforce, and they’ve always never heard of it. It’s one of my favorite games of all time. Maybe I’ll explain why in another post, but the short version is that Dustforce is the SSBM of platformers. Super deep movement system, practically infinite tech skill ceiling, levels that are hard but satisfying to finish, and a great replay system that always gives you tools to get better. It’s not very big, but it had representation in 2017’s r/place.


    Lots of big communities have little interest in r/place, and lots of little communities have outsized presence in r/place. You don’t need to be big, you just need a subset with enough r/place engagement and organizational will. Dustforce is tiny, speedrun livestreams get at most 30 people, but we made it 5 years ago. I believed we could totally make it in 2022. The Dustforce Discord talked about doing something for r/place, but hadn’t done anything, so I made a pixel art template in hopes it would get the ball rolling.


    Dustkid, a character in Dustforce. We’ll be seeing her a lot.

    Pixel art is not my strong suit. To make this, I downloaded the favicon for, then translated the pixels to the r/place color palette. After scanning existing r/place pixel art, I realized our target image was somewhat big for our community size, so I prepared a smaller version instead. Any representation is better than none.

    Dustkid, smaller

    I wasn’t interested in organizing r/place for Dustforce long term, but I’m a big believer that you get movements going by decreasing the initial effort required. Having a template gives a way for uninterested people to contribute their 1 pixel. I’m happy to report this plan succeeded! Although, it was a long journey to get there. To be honest, this is primarily the work of other community members who took up the mantle I started.

    * * *

    We didn’t want to take pixels away from established territory. I don’t think we could have even if we wanted to. Our best odds were to find a small pocket of space that didn’t have art yet. After some scouting, I proposed taking (1218, 135) to (1230, 148), a region right underneath the Yume Nikki character that looked uncontested. I also argued that even though we would mostly coordinate over Discord, it was important to make a post on the r/dustforce subreddit. Since r/place was a Reddit event, we needed a land claim on Reddit for discoverability. With that claim made, we started placing pixels.

    The starts of Dustkid

    The beginnings of the Dustkid hat

    As we continued, we noticed a problem pretty quickly. We had picked the same spot as r/Taiwan.

    Uh oh

    Someone tracked down the r/Taiwan Reddit post. Their aim was to add a flag of the World Taiwanese Congress. For Dustforce, this was baaaaaad news. Flags historically have a lot of power in r/place. Their simplicity makes it easy for randoms to contribute pixels (it’s easy to fix errors in solid blocks of color), and patriotism is a good mobilizer to get more people to chip in. We were right in the middle of their flag, and it would take up all the available free space in that section. Maybe we could have negotiated living on their flag, but I highly doubt r/Taiwan would have agreed, and no one from r/dustforce even bothered asking.

    r/Taiwan flag

    Alright, back to square one. Other people in the community proposed alternate spots, without much luck. Any spot that opened up was quickly taken by other communities or bots. By and large, people on r/place will respect existing artwork, so once we got something down there was a good chance we could protect it. The problem was that in the time it took us to make something recognizable, other groups or bots would place pixels faster. By the end of Day 2, we had nothing. All our previous efforts were run over. We were simply outmatched, and I didn’t think we’d make it.

    * * *

    On the last day, Reddit doubled the size of the canvas once more, saying it would be the final expansion. With a new block of free space, that expansion represented our best chance of getting something into r/place. It’s now or never.

    First, the expansion had increased the color palette, so we adjusted the template to be more game-accurate.

    New template

    By this point I was content to leave organizing to others. They first reached out to the Celeste community, asking if we could fit Dustkid into their banner, seeing as how both Dustforce and Celeste are momentum-based precision platformers. After some discussion, they felt it would clash too much. This wasn’t entirely fruitless however - during this discussion, they invited Dustforce to the r/place Indie Alliance. It was exactly what it sounded like: an r/place alliance between indie game communities.

    I joined the Indie Alliance Discord to stay in the loop, but quickly found it was too fast for me. Lots of shitposts, lots of @everyone pings, and lots of panicking whenever a big Twitch streamer went live and tried to force their will onto the r/place canvas. There were even accusations of spies and saboteurs trying to join the alliance. I never quite understood how having a spy in r/place would help things. In a real fight, there’s fog of war, it takes time to mobilize forces, and intelligence on troop movements or new weapons can be a decisive edge. But in r/place, there’s no fog of war because the entire canvas is public, people can “attack” (place pixels) anywhere they want with no travel time, and everyone knows how to find r/place bots if they want to. There’s no real benefit to knowing an r/place attack is coming, nor is there much benefit in knowing a place will be defended - by default, everything is defended.

    Our eventual target was a space nearby the Celeste banner, currently occupied by AmongUs imposters.

    Target location

    They laid out the argument: AmongUs crewmates were scattered all throughout r/place, usually to fill up space without compromising the overall artwork. Since there were so many crewmates, the odds any specific patch was fiercely defended was quite low. That meant AmongUs space looked more defended than it really was. If we blitzed the space fast enough, we likely wouldn’t face retribution, since the AmongUs people likely wouldn’t care. We went for it.

    Dustkid, round 2

    We did run slightly afoul of r/avali, a subreddit for a furry species. Our art template and their art template overlapped by 1 pixel, and we both really wanted that pixel. In a dumb parody of the Israel-Palestine conflict, they wanted both an orange and indigo border around the Avali, but our pixel threatened the indigo border, and we really didn’t like the aesthetic of having an indigo border everywhere besides that pixel.


    Indie game-Furry mascot conflict, April 2022

    Now, if r/avali had decided to fight, we would have lost. Luckily, we figured out a solution before it came to that. If we shifted the Dustkid head diagonally down-right 1 pixel, it would resolve the dispute. Plus, we’d be more symmetric between the Rocket League bot logo towards our north and the Mona Lisa towards our south. We let r/avali know, and did the migration.

    Conflict resolution

    With that, we made it! We even had time to adjust our template and fill in more space with Dustforce pixel art, adding the S+ icon we had last time r/place happened.

    Final image

    It was surprisingly low on drama. Everyone nearby was friendly. The Go subreddit r/baduk to our right could have conflicted, but they recognized our land claim and adjusted their template so that it wouldn’t clash. We eventually made a heart connecting the two. A Minecraft wolf invaded the space where we planned our pixel art expansion, but we found it was all created by one user (!), so we offered to adopt and relocate the wolf to a separate corner, which they were happy with. RLbot to our north even offered to give us more space, since they had abandoned their logo a while back. We never took them up on that offer, since by the time we were done tuning things in our corner, r/place had ended.

    We really lucked out on our location, and were never the target of a community big enough to trample over us. The theory was that we were close to big art pieces like the Mona Lisa and One Piece, and although those art pieces weren’t looking to expand, no one wanted to challenge them and this gave us protection by proxy. Perhaps you could call Dustforce a vassal state, but I’m not sure they even care about us.

    With Dustkid settled, I went back to helping cleanup My Little Pony art, which had been griefed enough that they had added a counter for “# of times we’ve rebuilt” to their template.

    My Little Pony

    (It’s the 22 on the middle of the right border, just above Rarity)

    I also helped a bit when someone from the Indie Alliance got raided. But that was small fry, compared to the work beforehand. I was happy to be done with r/place. It really took up more of my attention and time than I expected it to.

    There’s this old quote from The Sandman. “Everybody has a secret world inside of them.” Nowhere is that more true than r/place. The adventure to put a 15x15 Dustkid head was just one piece of the overall 2000x2000 canvas. There’s all sorts of complexity,

    Zoom 1

    that gets lost,

    Zoom 2

    as you take in the bigger picture.

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