Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code

Travelers in landscapes from our past

A post thanksgiving flurry into the holidays always has me thinking about the future. And I spent a lot of this year reading what I want to read. Maybe next year I can focus on writing what I want to write.


If I could find a through-line for a few articles I’ve read recently, it would be this: the web, and the culture of its development, is unraveling at the seams even as it finds new forms. It’s a runaway train.

First, a sendoff from the creator of Omegle, which at the very least offers an interesting perspective. From reading it, I have no doubt that Leif had the best of intentions with the site, but he so clearly wants to cast himself the hero he seems to have missed the point. The web started small and you could build small things for small groups of people. But then it got bigger. Much bigger. And the job of keeping everyone safe got bigger too. And just about everybody failed at it, from the tech giants at the top down to the Omegle’s of the world.

Then, a couple of entries from Garbage Day trying to make sense of what is starting to feel like a pivotal moment. In TikTok teens aren’t stanning Osama bin Laden, a fascinating piece of digital archeology, Ryan traces the backlash of the latest panicked news story and finds that (surprise, surprise) it was the backlash that seeded a bad take’s virality, not some cultural movement.

And then, commenting on AI and copyright, Ryan points out that we have, in fact, done this all before. And everyone needs to stop being ridiculous.

My hunch is that we’re just speedrunning the Napster era and will end up with an AI-protected class of creators and institutions and a wilderness of AI-powered piracy beyond that. In fact, seeing as how I can’t currently generate a picture of Mickey Mouse dabbing in Midjourney, we’re probably already there

Are we doomed to repeat these same cycles over and over again, faster and faster each time? Personally, I’m losing faith in our own ability to capture the world’s information stream and turn it into connection and empathy rather than chaos and ill-will.

Reading a talk from last year, weathering software winter, offers at least one way out. Slow down and rebuild. The founders of Hundred Rabbits take everyone through their journey building emulators and games on old hardware and old software built to actually last. It is not “infinitely scalable” and it doesn’t exist in the cloud. It is simple and resilient and enduring—values we have lost track of.


I recently watched All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a novel I quite enjoyed. And so it’s hard not to think about the same stories contrasted in two mediums.

And this is what I would say on that point. The book is concernned with the humanity, or lack thereof, of war. How old men send the young to die in waves to accomplish very little. And there is a lot about these young men—little more than boys really—growing up and searching for identity amidst great tragedy and horror.

The film touches on this, but it is far more preoccupied with the aesthetics and mechanics of war. It structures the narrative in chronological order, to its credit I think. But it also focuses quite a bit on the machinery, on the mechanics of trench warfare, on the contrast in rhythm between the peace negotiations and the frontlines. All of these create a picture of a useless war and senseless violence. But I do think it loses some of the humanness of the book.

At one point in the film, the wise, older comrade Kat pauses to cotemplate what will happen when these war-torn soldiers return home.  

We’ll walk around like travelers in a landscape from the past… I ask myself if I wouldn’t rather just sit around a campfire with you… and eat fried potatoes, with the skin on.

It’s a memorable highlight that captures some brief moments of calm in between torrid chaos. But many other times the film trades long, contemplative passages from the book for general platitudes (i.e. “I’m a pair of boots with a rifle”).

Thich Nhat Hanh on the essence of self:

It’s funny how much our surroundings influence our emotions. Our joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes are colored by our environment so much that often we just let our surroundings dictate our course. We go along with “public” feelings until we no longer even know our own true aspirations. We become a stranger to ourselves, molded entirely by society… Sometimes I feel caught between two opposing selves — the “false self” imposed by society and what I would call my “true self.” How often we confuse the two and assume society’s mold to be our true self. Battles between our two selves rarely result in a peaceful reconciliation. Our mind becomes a battlefield on which the Five Aggregates — the form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness of our being — are strewn about like debris in a hurricane. Trees topple, branches snap, houses crash.