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Dec. 24th, 2014 @ 10:00 pm December Days: Explaining Complicated Things
Liv suggested a written version of a couple of rants I've often delivered, on how to explain things. I've little experience teaching, never formally, but when I can I really enjoy explaining things to people who are as intelligent as I am and really get them.

Here's a grab-bag of different thoughts.


It's really easy to forget it may not be obvious why you're explaining something. Most people have some natural curiosity, or even if they don't care, are willing to follow your instructions. Sometimes this happens automatically, eg. "someone says how can I do X" or "why is X" (and explaining when you don't need to is often just clutter). If you ask yourself "do I need to explain why", it's usually obvious whether you do or not. But it's easy to forget to ask.

And, as with step two, explaining why doesn't just mean saying why, but confirming that they get it and are onboard with it. If they are, this is often over in less than a sentence each way! But sometimes it isn't.

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Dec. 23rd, 2014 @ 08:48 pm December Days; How do I interact with fiction?
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Oh, excellent question I hadn't stopped to consider.

I've noticed some fiction I enjoy, and some fiction I immediately want to extend, and sometimes they're the same and sometimes they're not. Sometimes whether something is really good or quite dire, but it trips the "I want to do this RIGHT" switch. Every Shakespeare play, I come out saying "But why...? Well, I think...". And Startrek, most of the individual episodes were meh, but the accumulated experience was invaluable, so it's really made for "these tiny hints about the characters personal lives, where could they go?". Sometimes I love something, but feel I have nothing to add: I have no idea how those characters would behave in some other situation, I don't want to ruin the magic by thinking about it, I just want to be told.

I've occasionally written little bits of fan-fic, but never got into it as a regular thing. I think I'd like it, but have never had the time! I have often enjoyed reading other people's fanfiction though, even for shows that I don't think I could write myself, or even that I've never actually seen. (I loved toft's story about John and Rodney as composer/violinist!)

It's interesting to ask how interactive a book or film is as I'm experiencing it. And the answer is, it varies a lot. Sometimes what happens is really interesting, but there's not much to think about as it goes along, and a habit of inhaling anything vaguely good in one go is mostly harmless. Sometimes a book or film really values thinking through the implications as you go, and I try to do that, but it's hard to deliberately stop if the next bit is already available...

Some books and films, just sink in, and I only realise how much they affected my thought in retrospect. Others feel like they impressionistically painted a whole universe, leaving the reader to mentally delve into any of hundreds different aspects which were introduced but not delved into. In some ways, it's like the different ways of looking at a piece of maths: sometimes it's clearly beautiful from the start, but you just want the emotional reward of experiencing it again; sometimes it's really obvious but only when it's pointed out; sometimes it's layers on layers on layers and each time you examine it you learn more.

Likewise, it's common when I nitpick, but it's not just "this is what's wrong". If a film makes no effort to keep something consistent, it usually just rolls off me, unless it goes out of its way to be INCREDIBLY egregious. I often nitpick things I find really interesting. Or things which seemed perfect in most ways, but there's just one thing I want to fix.

Or, not that it's wrong compared to reality, but it ruined the plot for me (and maybe other viewers) -- I don't care if the assumptions are plausible as long as they're clear, but "clear" can vary between different people. If the film says "don't examine the time-travel too deeply" that's fine. If it says "here's how it works even though that only makes sense to human intuition, it couldn't be a physical law", that's fine. If it says "as far as we know it works like this, but we don't really know", that's fine. What I REALLY HATE is "here's how it works, we know it makes no sense, just accept it" and then at the end of the film "THAT WAS A LIE WE JUST BROKE THE BIG RULE AREN'T WE CLEVER, YOU DIDN'T SEE THAT COMING".

Likewise, for general plots, I would prefer to experience the plot, and only later analyse it. To experience the highs and lows along with the characters. But as you read more books or watch more films, it's impossible to avoid getting more and more experience with how plots often work -- certain patterns are reused because they work well, or because people like them. And often, one establishing shot can tell you "ok, there'll be a chase to start with, and then a set-back, and then the middle, and then a lot of bad-assery, and then the good guys will win, and the most prominent male and female leads will get together".And when you KNOW that's going to happen there's no tension -- it's a delicate art to make the audience feel like the plot is actually happening, and not just up to the whim of the creator, and it works at different levels for audiences with different experience. Usually, children's books are not exciting to adults, and often, the books which retread all the most obvious tropes of a genre are more interesting to people new to that genre, but the books which subvert and change them are most interesting to long-time readers. And that's ok, but it means there's not a standard standard of "how good a book is".

And sometimes, you can have a film which sucks you in EVEN THOUGH you know what's going to happen -- a horror film which is tense even when you know what's going to jump out, a romance which is touching even when you know the ending, a climax which is exciting even when the film starts by telling you they succeed. But I don't know exactly when that works.

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Dec. 22nd, 2014 @ 04:13 pm December Days: Delicious Food
And now we're getting into prompts which I was looking forward to, but found it hard to fulfil exactly. I couldn't remember anything _recent_ which really stuck in my mind, so have a random selection of memorable meals:

Mushroom fajitas at Las Iguanas, Illusive-Shelle's gorgeous morning chilli-cream-mushrooms, really good breaded mushrooms, basically any surprising and delicious mushrooms :)

When I've been pleasantly surprised by vegetarian food, in B&B's on the coast which had good vege sausages, or just really really good toasted bread and jam, and random little restaurant which said "oh, we're still working out the menu, but what would you like, we can probably make it", or on top of the mountain in Zagreb, when they improvised something unusual but really nice.

When Liv and I ate at the Anchor in Sutton Gault, and first discussed marriage.

When I first went to Restaurant 22 and exclaimed, "oh posh food can actually be nice"!

At our wedding, from the shelford deli, when we had vegetarian buffet food for hundreds of people, and cheese in the form of a cake, and it felt like I belonged.

At the Lemon Tree in Worcester, eating (I think?) chilled soup, one of the first times a restaurant was really interesting.

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Dec. 21st, 2014 @ 11:06 pm December Days: Favourite prophet
I thought a lot about this. It's probably only since I was an adult that I had an idea what a prophet actually was: not someone who predicts the future per se, but someone who has messages from God, about what to do, or what is going to happen, or what is going to happen if you don't do something, etc.

Liv suggested Daniel, who did all sorts of proto-scientific things like disproving the existance of a rival diety, by showing it didn't really eat the massive offerings laid out for it, but that its preists snuck in and ate them in the night.

But somehow that didn't resonate with me. I also thought about what Jesus said, that he wished all the people were prophets. That it's something we can all strive towards. And that people who have apparently-supernatural insight (into moral or factual things), might approximate prophets. Does Newton count? He thought some of his great scientific insights came from God (at least, according to Neal Stephenson). But in that account, it doesn't feel right to me: his insights didn't seem to come from faith, as much by hard work, refusing to accept entrenched assumptions, and inventing calculus.

In fact, I'm thinking Moses. I've known this story for ages, but only recently actually thought about it. Moses claims to be no good at public speaking, and persuades God to let Aaron be the priest and let Moses get on with all the talking-to-God. And yet, he always ends up the leader anyway. And lots of the time, Moses is planning along with God, not just accepting instruction. And he always seems to have this long suffering leader experience I always sympathise with: he's desperately trying to chivvy people into doing what he thinks is right, but as soon as he takes his eye off them, they're worshipping idols or wandering off or disobeying God, or cursing firstborn, etc. And then he FINALLY gets everyone somewhere near the promised land, and has to die before they get there, and THEN they wander off and screw up settling the promised land for several generations.

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Dec. 20th, 2014 @ 07:37 pm December Days: Special Days (Three prompts left)
If I've counted right, I have three open spaces for prompts. If I've left your prompt off the masterlist do point it out. There are some from other people's prompt lists I'd quite like to steal, but I'd really appreciate some easy prompts :)

I could interpret special days in several ways, but my first thought is Christmas. If I had to live with a different calendar system, it would be not having Christmas, in my culture THE family holiday, which would be strangest. I remember stereotypical child-excitement at Christmas. None of my family have been natural good at choosing presents, but I remember my parents always managed a mix of big-present and stocking-fillers-exciting-to-play-with-on-xmas, that for a long time Christmas was always exciting.

I don't remember perfectly, but I think when I was little, we usually stayed at home, and then for a while we alternated between at home, mum's family, and dad's family. And then for a long time we would go to mum's family, which was a big traditional dinner, slightly more "Official Fun" than my immediate family would naturally tend towards, but I've always good memories of it, of big dinner with piles of roast potatoes, and vegetarianism not being an exception; of seeing extended family; of returning to Grandparents to open presents; of playing christmas games and starting to drink sherry.

And I've snatches of fun memories from earlier. I remember making a nativity scene with paper characters that stood up, mary, and doves, and everything. I remember making giant polyhedral decorations out of old Christmas cards. I remember getting closer and closer to being able to carry an organic Christmas tree home by myself. I remember decorating the tree, and stringing the tinsel and lights and debating whether they should be all round or more at the front, and whether the top should be an angel I made at primary school (which I recognised as a bit cheesy and not theologically accurate, but my parents loved because I made it) or a large star. I remember opening a box packed with wrapping stars, with a small cast of hand puppets in, that (I think?) mum and Grandma had made. I remember all of us having the flu when we first had the computer, and trying to go to Grandparents, and me wanting nothing more than to play with it and mum wanting to sleep.

The last couple of years, Rachel and I have had family time, just us.

The other obvious special day is my wedding and anniversaries. We have plenty of anniversaries, depending how we count, and neither of us are naturally good at remembering dates, but we still love counting them off and remembering the wedding, which went about as well as it possibly ever could have done, with a few small things we wished we'd managed better, but managing our complicated meld of traditions and preferences for "we're not quite sure what we want, but we know what we DON'T want", and being a wedding which was inclusive for everyone, without implying that people SHOULD have weddings, and was the perfect leaping-off point for our marriage.

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Dec. 18th, 2014 @ 12:52 pm December Days: characteristics of a must-read / do-not-finish book
The thing I've noticed about my taste is that I didn't always decide what it is, or even KNOW what it is -- I only observe which things I like in retrospect and then try to generalise. So I've a reasonable idea what I like, but it's still a matter of continually learning more as my tastes grow. In fact, it's something I've talked about elsewhere, that "wanting to do X" and "enjoying doing X" are linked by a chain of positive feedback, but that that feedback is complicated and noisy, and it's more a case that "they're often related" than that "they're automatically the same".

It's quite new that I accepted not finishing books. I always used to feel that if I started something I MUST finish it. Now I'm a lot more ruthless: I know 99% of books, what's about the second half is usually about the same as what's good about the first half, and often things are a let-down. (Building up mysteries, and crafting mysteries well, are different skills.) So I try to avoid automatically rejecting books because they're different to what I'm used to, but if I'm half way through and not really looking forward to reading further, I just stop.

I also consciously noticed that I want to read more often than I have the mental energy to get into a book which is a different sort of thing to what I usually read. So I still value expanding my comfort zone, but I've deliberately made a decision to buy more books that I think will be easy and enjoyable, and ensure I get only a slow trickle of books I'm interested in but are likely to be more effort for me personally, because if I have a whole shelf of those, I keep putting them off forever until I move house and lose them :)

I'll rarely not finish something because I hate it, unless it's really horrifying: "want to finish" and "like" and "hate" are almost three independent sensations I can have any combination of. More often "not finish" means it failed to be sufficiently interesting: I've read mediocre can't-put-down books, and can't-put-down books I hate, as well as good can't-put-down books. Can't-put-down is ONE good aspect of a book, but not the only one, or necessarily the most important one. It always improves an already good book, but it's possible to make an addictive book without any other real redeeming substance, which I want only occasionally (say when I'm tired out but need something to take my attention).

What things ping me well? I don't have a canonical list, but things I've noticed: underdog protagonists who turn it around by their own efforts; well-crafted magical systems that are consistent but not too mechanistic; theology and god-politics; interesting but easy-to-absorb worldbuilding with ideas I've not thought of before. I am starting (late in life) to get more interested in interesting characters specifically, but am leery of too many books which think "depressed and jerkish" is the only sort of character which can be interesting.

I'm worried this is too general, and more specific examples would be more meaningful. And doesn't really answer the real question, of when nakedtoes and I can share book recs and when we can't :) But basically ALL my december prompts are quite thinky, and I have to let a lot of them go out without much polish, because I simply don't have time to rewrite them all to the standard I'd like.

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Dec. 17th, 2014 @ 10:30 pm December days: dear future jack
This was a great prompt! At first I thought I didn't have much to say to future Jack, since future Jack is usually me but with better information. Which is actually pretty fortunate!

I sometimes wonder if I'm betraying past Jack's principles. But I THINK when I change my mind, it's for good reasons, not for selfish rationalizations. Although obviously it's hard to tell since I would think that :)

However, it occurred to be there are times when past Jack does have something to tell future Jack. What less wrong calls akrasia, when you have a clear idea if medium to long term goals but they are periodically drowned out by short term rationalizations: it's ok, I'll do it tomorrow; I'm tired, I should stop running; it's too hard, I'll never finish this task; etc etc. So things like resolutions: If I decide to do something once a week and decide in advance that's sufficient, and not too worry every time if I should be doing something else... that is basically a message to future Jack, saying I got this, don't worry about the planning, just follow the plan and it'll be OK.

So one thing I have to say is, I have faith in you, don't give up.

Another is, do things seem hard? Does it seem pointless and like you won't succeed? Have you screwed up and it's just not worth it? Well, dear future Jack, NO YOU HAVEN'T, IT'S THE FUCKING BRAIN WEASELS LYING TO YOU, YOU'RE DOING FINE, JUST KEEP GOING AND DON'T TRY TO REEVALUATE YOUR LIFE CHOICES IN THE MIDDLE OF A BRAIN WOBBLE! Ps. *hugs* *hugs* *hugs*, you're doing great thank you for handling my life well and keeping up the good work, love me xx

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Dec. 16th, 2014 @ 06:11 pm December Days: Game design
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Game design is one of many things I toyed with the idea that I might be good at, but ultimately decided would only ever be a minor hobby.

Several friends (angoal, alextfish) have had board games actually published! Which I am very impressed by.

I think I am originally drawn to game design through the same impulse that leads me to try to "break" rulesets when I see them: the urge to tinker with rules and see what I get.

I've dabbled in a few simple concepts, but never gone very far. I still like my "armies moving on a hex terrain grid, movement controlled by a deck of cards to simulate the chances, gains and setback of real combat" concept, but I need to radically simplify and distil it if I return to it.

However, I'm also fascinated by game design, especially computer game design, as it's a combination of things I like designing: programming; a little bit of art; a moderate amount of story; and a sense of reverse engineering people's emotions and making them out of abstract concepts :)

But I think I never really want to make a large story-based computer game as it's a lot of effort for something people will consume once. I'd like to do that as a hobby if I ever have time, but it feels like if I'm going to write any computer program, it should be one that you can't finish, or one that's a matter of taste if you like it, it should get the best possible rate of return on effort invested by being used by as many people as possible!

And I find it hard to accept that other people don't find the same things fun as I do :)

There's one other abstract thing I'm interested in, which is the process of evoking specific sensations by different combinations of rules. Some games (board games or computer games) feel frenetic, some games feel triumphant, some games feel terrifying. Even each of them has about the same chance of ultimate victory. This is like, some things can best be evoked in prose, some in poetry, some in paintings, some in film -- and some in rulesets. Arkham Asylum feels like being Batman, even if you took the graphics and plot away, because you're always striking from the shadows, and always having the advantage over enemies, but only if you exploit it elegantly and ruthlessly. Agricola feels like being a subsistence farmer, because even when you're doing well, you feel like you're constantly racing to stay ahead of starvation. To me, capturing not just the look but the feel of something is a delicate art, one not often appreciated. But any player can tell when it feels wrong :)

When people say "games aren't art" I want to cry, have you tried to evoke an emotion with a small finite state machine?

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Dec. 15th, 2014 @ 10:05 pm December Days: Spirituality
When I was talking about prompts I used the word "spirituality", and simont asked what I meant by it, and I realised that what I really wanted was to spill the religion post onto another day.

Last post, I think I described what I didn't believe about religion. Basically, "anything supernatural".

However, I've recently been feeling that there's something I want to explore but I'm not quite sure what. Partly that I know more people who believe in God, but in total have beliefs really similar to mine, and I want to understand that. And partly that I've been thinking in terms of spiritual health, not in terms of a supernatural spirit, but in terms of "being aware of myself" and "giving up being scared of things I'm scared to try" and of "actually doing things I always felt I should do" and generally becoming healthier as a whole mind. And basically everything that is (I think) part of the mind, but in how the mind itself works or doesn't work, not in how it represents facts.

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Dec. 14th, 2014 @ 11:12 am December Days: Dream Job
This is something I've been introspecting a lot about recently, it's interesting to try to distil the latest thoughts down into written form. I've deliberately shot for the moon, on the theory that it's useful to have reference points on either side of the right answer, and build up from what's plausible and down from what's ideal, rather than only assume that you must take baby steps forward and never reach. But I'm ashamed if that makes me sound really arrogant :(

1. Hard things

Trying to synthesise what I enjoy doing and am good at, I think I like doing hard things that work. Both learning new hard things, and putting into practice hard things I've already learned. Probably slightly more to towards the practical than pure academic research, but in that direction compared to most jobs. I like understanding hard things, and putting that understanding into action.

Which all fits programming very well, yay! Other ways programming is well suited to me is that I don't like flying without an undo, and I don't like nebulous things where it's not clear if they worked or not, and you get those in programming, but lots of programming is about avoiding them.

I like building complicated systems, and then looking and them working and saying "wow".

This doesn't have to be programming. If there's a surplus of good programmers, and a dearth of good managers, entrepreneurs, UI designers, economists, politicians, artists... I could maybe do some of those things, which do involve hard, accurate thought and building systems that work. The thing I am best at and enjoy doing isn't automatically actually in demand! But on balance, I hope that actually the best programmers are sufficiently in demand that it's a worthwhile contribution to society (both in terms of contribution I make, and what I might expect to get in return).

My fantasies are still embarrassingly adolescent-mathmo, of people saying "we just couldn't figure it out, and then Jack thought very hard, and then explained it to us and now it's fixed, yay!"

And not necessarily alone, I'd like to lead creating a larger system than I can manage myself, but ideally if the work is primarily in technical design, not in communication overheads and management.

2. Making something that perpetuates

This kind of blended through from the previous point, but is different. I'm not sure how much it's something everyone would like but isn't arrogant enough to hope for, and how much it's just me. But I always want the idea of looking at something worthwhile and saying "I did that". And ideally that would go on being worthwhile when I'm not there doing it any more!

I want to make something awesome, not just do worthwhile things that get absorbed.

3. Worthwhile

Worthwhile, both in the sense of having a measurable impact, and in being socially worthwhile. I probably can't hit both of those poles 100%, but I'd like it if I could. Currently I think I'm making software which is useful, and not actively anti-social, which is generally a plus to society, but I the more my work is immediately needed (by anyone) and makes a real positive difference to people's lives, the more I would like it (although I've not really expected to be able to do that without giving up #1, unless I do it in a completely different way).

4. Respect

I'm embarrassed to call this out specifically, but it would be nice if other people recognised the other points, and generally had an attitude of "thank goodness Jack's doing this, yay" not "ugh, more Jack".

And ideally about multiple different things, not just "here's a black box with Jack in where we throw equations and coffee in and get answers out, but we refuse to discuss whether those are the RIGHT equations, or we're working towards the right goals". Like, maybe I could work with other people who are competent at other things, but are able to explain them enough in broad outlines that I can trust them, and know where they interface to my areas of expertise, and occasionally make constructive suggestions based on my work.

Like, fame would be nice but not necessary, but it would be nice if when I told people what I'd done they said "wow, thank you" not "boring" or "why bother".

I'm embarrassed to list this because it feels like I shouldn't care, and that it's not something you're entitled to ask for, just to get or not. But this is list of things I'd like, not necessarily things I deserve.

5. Financial security

Talking it over with Liv, I don't want more money in the short term, my lifestyle has mostly reached a level I feel sufficient. I only want a larger salary because it represents respect and job security: that people should pay you what you're worth, and if they don't, and there's no specific reason for that, even if it's not bad for it's own sake, it's a pointed reminder that you don't have as much control over your own life as you aspired to...

And, linked to the previous point, respect from friends and peers, not just employers, which shouldn't depend on money, but I feel like everyone always assumes I'm a loser because I don't have anything obvious holding me back, I don't have an obvious disability, I don't have a family, I didn't deliberately make a trade-off to do something I thought was worthwhile, and yet, I'm not wildly financially successful :(

However, there are ways earning lots of money would make a lot of difference, not in terms of getting a better lifestyle, but in terms of preventing it getting worse. Enough of a cushion that if I lost my job, I wouldn't need to worry at all, or that if I decided that I'd rather spend two years developing some piece of software I thought was worthwhile without being beholden to investors, I just could. Enough that if some other disaster happens, to me personally or my financial situation, I can ride it out. Enough that I don't need to worry about my lifestyle when I need to retire, or if my parents need a lot of support as they get older. Enough that if Liv needed help I could give it.

And lots of small ways that a superfluity of money would not enable me to be decadent, but would make lots of things easier. Maybe I'd like to spend a month every spring or summer working from the med coast. Maybe I'd like to spend six months living in a completely different country to see what it's like. To split my time between Cambridge and Keele however I liked, or to be able to stay somewhere else for a week working from home without worrying about arranging accommodation, negotiating leave, etc. I'd like to not waste time on all the little things that waste time every week, if I could just buy my way out of them. Money can't be immortality -- but it can buy more life, by removing time spent waiting for buses, wrestling with bureaucracies, fixing problems, etc, etc.

6. Good process

It would be nice to work somewhere with a clear shared understanding of what we're trying to achieve, and measuring success working towards that. Including a clear sense of achievement and progress; clear decisions about what we're doing and not doing, not just assuming that everyone that some things will never be finished; that we'll be realistic about important goals and have stretch goals and actually MEET them, not always have too-ambitious goals that we fail every single time.

I work so so so much better when I've got something to work towards, not swimming in shared and unshared assumptions...

Moving from the general to the specific, from a software point of view, it would be nice to have all the obvious good practice:

* requirements
* unit tests and release tests
* coding standards
* clear procedure for committing, building, releasing
* nightly builds, fast builds
* agile-ish (but not too scrum-y)
* clear process for bug database
* as much communication as needed (hopefully daily), but not endless rehashing
* etc, etc

7. Low but not zero hectic-ness

I hate sudden disasters, especially ones that everyone thinks, or I feel, are my fault, because I didn't have enough control over how much advance planning to do. (That doesn't mean, I think everything should be polished until it's perfect, it means there should be a positive decision on how much to prioritise perfection and reliability, and if that's underchanged, we should budget for future problems coming to light, not just treat them as bolt-from-the-blue "oh look, Johnny McWeDidn'tAllowHimToTestOrTellHimTheRequirements fucked up again,")

But I do like a certain amount of handling real-time response, when I have the freedom to anticipate it and assign priorities, because I like the satisfaction of doing it well and not panicing :)

So, ideally, not big one-shot events which succeed or fail, nor constant fire-fighting, but maybe rapid and flexible release cycles? I'm not certain of what I DO want, but I'm certain of what I DON'T want :)


If I put that together into a little story, how might it go? Someone comes to me and says "I was talking to a mutual friend and I plan to do [socially constructive thing], but in order to do that, we need to do [hard things] and it seems like your experience and ability to learn new things rapidly would be perfect. I've a lot of experience with [field] and with hiring good people, but not with building software. I'm thinking of several other good people, but I'd like your input on them. Can you handle a small team of committed techies? No problem if you think someone else would lead better."

"We don't have infinite money, but we have resources to tap for anything that seems important, and we don't want to scrimp on day-to-day comforts for the team. Most of the time you should probably work from Cambridge, but you'd have to travel occasionally and you can arrange it however you like. You'd have [some fancy job title] and a [serious salary], plus a significant stake in the success of the organisation."

"The code should probably be open source, because it might be useful in other fields even though the real advantage in what we're doing is the people not the code base. Is there anything else you think I should know?"

I also note, I'm mostly agnostic whether the organisation is a new department in large company, a start-up, a non-profit, or something else -- I think any of those can fit the role of "doing something worthwhile".

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