The unbearable lightness of my pockets

20.22, Monday 28 Mar 2022

I replaced my wallet and now I’m concerned that I’ve over-optimised my pockets and I’ll mistakenly lock myself out of my own life.

I normally carry a regular wallet but can’t remember when I last used it for anything other than (a) coffee shop loyalty cards and (b) a bulky CVC store. I no longer carry cash.

So yesterday I replaced it with one of those cardholders that magnetically attaches to the back of my phone, relegating almost all the physical stuff to a pot on my desk.

I also carry half a keyring – the other half has my car keys and I only join the two halves when I’m driving.

5,000 years ago:

The oldest proof (so far) of a human sporting a pocket-like feature was a mummified fellow found frozen in the alps in 1991. Otzi or “Iceman”, as he is now known, is thought to have lived around 3,300 BCE. At 5,300 years old Otzi’s was found to be a perfectly preserved and clothed specimen of the ancient world. Otzi had held his plethora of secrets well, as enthusiastic researchers were to discover. One of the most interesting items Otzi was wearing, was a pouch that was sewn to his belt. The contents of his pouch held a cache of useful items including; a scraper, drill, flint flake, bone awl, and a bit of dried fungus.

(Dried fungus?)

That essay is an illuminating read on the long history of women, pockets, and control:

  • Pocket inequality began in the 17th century, when women bore the brunt of insecurity and lack of status by having to secure their possession on their bodies.
  • Purses, invented during the French Revolution: considered ridiculous, because they were barely large enough to carry a handkerchief or a coin. … Women had no need to carry anything of consequence that allowed any form of independence.
  • Pockets as a practical symbol of freedom: A 1910 ‘Suffragette suit’ became the rage, which sported six to eight pockets which were easily accessible and some were in plain sight!

Really fascinating. Go read!

A symbol of liberation. But they also weigh you down, right?

Shorts weather means I want to economise re grams in pockets.

So I no longer carry a ton of plastic cards – I use Apple Pay and carry a single backup card.

I’ve considered whether I would also stop carrying my keys, replacing them with NFC versions, and I guess the answer is probably but I would also need a mechanical backup.

The question for me is not: what do I do incase my phone runs out of battery.

The question is instead: how do I get back up and running if I lose what’s in my pockets.


Not too long ago I reinstalled a bunch of my electronics at the same time and got into a situation where, to get back into my account, I needed a 2-factor-authentication security code that I could receive on any of my existing devices. Which were all currently in the same boat.

And without being logged into my main account, I wouldn’t be able to access my password manager, so I would be locked out of all my other internet accounts too. Including email, which means I wouldn’t be able to prove my identity, etc.

(Yes this is what recovery codes are for.)

I can’t remember what I did - I think I found an old device that was still signed in and generated a 2FA code on that - but it gave me a scare.

The analogy is a Black Start.

Power stations take power to run. So if the electric grid goes down, maybe a solar magnetic storm (we’re due one) and the power station goes offline too, how do you restart it?

Normally, the electric power used within the plant is provided by the station’s own generators. If all of the plant’s main generators are shut down, station service power is provided by drawing power from the grid through the plant’s transmission line. However, during a wide-area outage, off-site power from the grid is not available. In the absence of grid power, a so-called black start needs to be performed to bootstrap the power grid into operation.

To provide a black start, some power stations have small diesel generators, normally called the black start diesel generator (BSDG), which can be used to start larger generators (of several megawatts capacity), which in turn can be used to start the main power station generators.

Regionally some stations are nominated as black-start sources for entire grids. Something to consider if you’re ever in the situation of designing a complex system and considering how to bootstrap from worst case scenarios.


Let’s say I lose all my stuff and my devices need a full 2FA sign-in: how do I black start and ladder my way back up Maslow’s hierarchy - house, money for food, communication, Twitter - with just what’s in my head?

There’s a lot of complexity in the security that comes with tech. By reducing the independent moving parts and consolidating to, say, my phone, which is protected behind a code and Face ID, I’m gaining in object count efficiency but increasing in complex interrelations. What if getting access to cash means needing access to my phone means needing access to the recovery codes in my house which means needing access to cash to pay a locksmith which means needing to my password manager means access to my phone, etc?

(It nearly happened once: we were burgled and I was able to bootstrap back from a phonecall to the credit card company to a locksmith, then from an old laptop to recovering the stolen one. It took a few days. But that was before 2FA etc. It would be harder now.)

What terrifies me is accidentally getting stuck in a circular dependency. Actually circular dependencies are not hugely tricky to spot – what concerns me more is a subtle lockout. I don’t feel like I have the capacity to generate a dependency graph on the build sequence of my own life. How many seemingly disconnected breakdowns sit between life today and me living on the street, desperately trying to remember random recovery phrase syllables? I feel like this is something, with their focus on multitools and nice pens, neglected by the everyday carry folks. The pocket-sized identity black start device.

Long story short, changing my wallet was quite the psychological moment.

Generally all of this is connected to my anxiety about optimisation through complexity. Novel feelings of the 2020s. Or maybe it’s not so new. Maybe Otzi’s dried fungus five thousand years ago had some kind of black start function too. Who knows.

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