2019

May

Starry Eyes and Starry Skies, classic Epilson Theory, this time on the “Common Knowledge” (read: myth) of the value of a college education

the importance of post-secondary education in America IS a myth – one of our most powerful.

We hold up our ‘Yay, College’ signs in the same way as we do ‘Yay, Military’, ‘Yay, Capitalism’ and ‘Yay, Equality’ signs, because not doing so is to say that we oppose the right-sounding principles that form the basis of the myth. And just like ‘Yay, Capitalism’, well…capitalizes on our desire to signal our deeply held belief in the power of rewarding economic risk-taking to convince us to permit distortions in economic risk-taking, ‘Yay, College’ exploits our belief in equality, innovation, merit and education to convince us to permit distortions in the capacity of our university and degree system to deliver ANY of those things.

The Myth of College is that it grants invaluable life experience, broadened horizons and deeper skills that no other 4-year experience for a young adult could match.

The Zeitgeist of College is that it is now (grudgingly) really about preparing workers for long and prosperous careers.

The Reality of College is that it sells a license to use a credential.

What do I mean by a credential? I mean the portfolio of Useful Signals that are sent by the achievement of a university degree. Beyond the attachment to the ideals of the Myth of College, much of that signal, I think, exists in our Common Knowledge about what traits a student needs to be admitted to that particular degree-granting institution. You know, intelligence, creativity, breadth of talents, work ethic, having the correct parents and grandparents, things like that. Much of whatever is left exists in the signal from completing the degree. Can you follow instructions? Are you comfortable pulling all-nighters? How do you feel about sitting at a desk with a laptop for 60 hours a week?

America's Hardest-Working Know-It-All, about Ken Jennings, the 74-time Jeopardy winner, whose gone on to cultivate/monetize his reputation for being smart by writing quite a few books

When I ask Jennings if he considers himself a comedian, he demurs — "Twitter makes you a comedian in the same way that digital cameras make you a photographer" — but it's clear that he spends time thinking about the mechanics of comedy. 

How to write like the great entrepreneurs, great tips, one that stands out:

7. Writing is rewriting. Write down your thoughts in a stream of consciousness. Don’t get hung up on diction. Then spend most of your time rewriting and reorganizing—sweat the details. I’m still rewriting posts days after I’ve published them.

15. Writing is a design problem. Example: never use the idiom of ‘the former or the latter.’ It forces the reader to go back and figure out what you’re referring to.

Paid Email Newsletters Are Proving Themselves As A Meaningful Revenue Generator For Writers

“The size of the audience you need to make it work is orders of magnitude smaller,” Substack cofounder and CEO Chris Best told BuzzFeed News, comparing newsletters to ad-supported models. “If you charge $10 a month or $5 a month, or $50 a year — if you can get 1,000 or 2,000 people to pay for that, you’ve suddenly got enough to go as an individual.”

“The internet, originally, was supposed to be about, hey, if you could have 1,000 true fans, you could make a great living,” Jenkins said, citing an idea developed by the technology writer Kevin Kelly. “What Patreon and membership represent is the original concept of 1,000 true fans.”

“I just need a few thousand people, and it’s a good model,” Judd Legum, who left his job as the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning political site ThinkProgress to start his newsletter, Popular Information, told BuzzFeed News. “The one where you really need everyone is the ad model where you’ve got to constantly fight for more and more clicks. Because you start every day out basically at zero.”

Hand dryers v paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands, Big Towel vs Big Hand-dryer. Another weird Big Thing: Big Raisin. Really drives home the point that good writing can turn anything into a melodrama worthy of TV.

Public bathrooms offer three primary options to dry a pair of wet hands. First, there is the venerable crisp-pleated paper towel. Second, the old-style warm-air dryer: those indestructible metal carapaces that, through their snouts, breathe down upon our hands. And finally, the jet dryer sub-species of the sort Dyson makes, whose gale-force winds promise to shear away every drop of moisture rather than slowly evaporating it. In the quest to dominate the world’s restrooms, Campbell discovered, Dryer v Towel is a pitched contest of business strategy and public relations. “Expect to be lied to a lot,” Campbell told me. “It’s almost like the cola wars. You have Pepsi v Coke, and you have hand dryers v paper towels.”


How to Read a Book a Week, HBR’s tips on how to do what I’m currently endeavoring/struggling to do… this was linked to in a negative tone from Fuck You Startup World, which goes:

Fuck reading a book a week. No one can read that fast. Let me repeat that -NO ONE CAN FUCKING READ THAT FAST. How about actually reading that god damn book?! Fuck your references to Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Ariely, and stop fucking quoting Lean Startup, for Christs sake. We’ve all fucking read it.

Anyway the HBR’s tips are actually quite insightful and which my personal experience can validate (or which validates my experience?):

“I hope you’re not reading these books word-for-word like they’re fiction books,” he told me. “Listen,” he said, “you don’t need to read these books. You need to understand them.”

He explained more: Fiction demands that we enter a world of the author’s making, inspiring a more immersive experience. Nonfiction — at least the type we tend to read to support our work as business leaders — makes a point and asks us to learn from it. As readers, we gain momentum with each book we read. The more we read, the more quickly we can understand their perspectives and where they fit into a conversation they’re having with other authors, and the more informed we are when we use their advice or incorporate their perspectives into our work.

In other words, the more books we read, the faster it goes.

Here’s Professor Jimenez’s advice on reading nonfiction, with a few additions of my own:

1) Start with the author. Who wrote the book? Read his or her bio. If you can find a brief interview or article online about the author, read that quickly. It will give you a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.

2) Read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents. What’s the big-picture argument of the book? How is that argument laid out? By now, you could probably describe the main idea of the book to someone who hasn’t read it.

3) Read the introduction and the conclusion. The author makes their case in the opening and closing argument of the book. Read these two sections word for word but quickly. You already have a general sense of where the author is going, and these sections will tell you how they plan to get there (introduction) and what they hope you got out of it (conclusion).

4) Read/skim each chapter. Read the title and anywhere from the first few paragraphs to the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using this chapter and where it fits into the argument of the book. Then skim through the headings and subheadings (if there are any) to get a feel for the flow. Read the first sentence of each paragraph and the last. If you get the meaning, move on. Otherwise, you may want to read the whole paragraph. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the chapter, you may be able to skim over whole pages, as the argument may be clear to you and also may repeat itself.

5) End with the table of contents again. Once you’ve finished the book, return to the table of contents and summarize it in your head. Take a few moments to relive the flow of the book, the arguments you considered, the stories you remember, the journey you went on with the author.

The New Yorker on Chasing the Aurora Borealis, something which I’ve done recently and after hours, praying, and copious amounts of post-editing came up with this:

There is something at once mind-blowing and unassimilable about the phenomenon. The aurora borealis is, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s phrase, “immensely foreign,” and it puts you into a kind of panic in which you want to simultaneously observe it, describe it, rejoice in it, interpret it, and record it. Nothing you’ve learned or read about the subject—scientific, folkloric, touristic—seems remotely adequate or even relevant to the experience. You develop the overwhelming impression that some cryptic but staggeringly powerful intelligence is staging a performance expressly for you, even as you remind yourself that this can’t be the case. Surprisingly intense emotions grip you. I remembered something that Kjetil Skogli told me about one of his expeditions: an English guy, overcome by the display, dropped to his knees and proposed to his girlfriend.


April

 The Philosopher Redefining Equality: Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society.

  • Caveat: this is a New Yorker article, i.e. long, but great, related, link (Aeon: A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you)

Much social thought is rooted in the idea of a conflict between the two. If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them.

To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest).

Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence.

Philosophers have often assumed that pluralistic value reflects human fuzziness—we’re loose, we’re confused, and we mix rational thought with sentimental responses. Anderson proposed that, actually, pluralism of value wasn’t the fuzz but the thing itself. She offered an “expressive” theory: in her view, each person’s values could be various because they were socially expressed, and thus shaped by the range of contexts and relationships at play in a life. Instead of positing value as a basic, abstract quality across society (the way “utility” functioned for economists), she saw value as something determined by the details of an individual’s history. Like her idea of relational equality, this model resisted the temptation to flatten human variety toward a unifying standard. In doing so, it helped expand the realm of free and reasoned economic choice.

The challenge of pluralism is the challenge of modern society: maintaining equality amid difference in a culture given to constant and unpredictable change. It is the fashion in America these days to define political virtue by position. Richard is on the side of history, we might say, because he’s to the left of Irma on this issue and slightly to the right of Marco on that one. Anderson would resist this way (political virtue by position) of thinking, not least because it calls for intellectual convergence. It’s anti-pluralistic and tribalist. It celebrates ideology; it presumes that certain models have absolute, not situational, value. Rather than fighting for the ascendancy of certain positions, Anderson suggests, citizens should fight to bolster healthy institutions and systems—those which insure that all views and experiences will be heard. Today’s righteous projects, after all, will inevitably seem fatuous and blinkered from the vantage of another age

Today, people still try to use, variously, both Smith’s and Marx’s tools on a different, postindustrial world:

“Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government.”

What else could you call the modern workplace, where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts? The decisions that a company makes, like the installation of cubicles in the bank in Harvard Square, are presented as none of its employees’ business (hence “private”). Defenders of this state of affairs often counter that people negotiate their salaries and can always leave. Anderson notes that low-level workers can rarely wrangle raises, and that real-world constraints eliminate exit power. (Workers are sometimes bound by non-compete agreements, and usually cannot get unemployment insurance if they quit.) It was as if relational equality could be suspended between nine and five—a habit that, inevitably, affects life beyond work.


The First Rule of Microsoft Excel—Don’t Tell Anyone You’re Good at It

“If someone tells you that they ‘just have a few Excel sheets’ that they want help with, run the other way,” tweeted 32-year-old statistician Andrew Althouse. “Also, you may want to give them a fake phone number, possibly a fake name. It may be worth faking your own death, in extreme circumstances.”

  • Some Reddit horror stories, link, that just go to show how scarily inefficient much of today’s work is still being done! Which doesn’t portend well for the future re: automation

  • Also, Excel’s team takes votes from the community on features — awesome, link; and their team often does AMAs, link, (I counted 2 women in the room of 17)

Tesla bought a battery company, and it’s more about cash flow than batteries

Ultracapacitors are, like batteries, energy-storage devices. The difference between the two is best understood with an analogy. Because batteries store energy in electrochemical form, it takes time to charge and discharge them. It’s like the time it takes for a dam to fill with rain during the year, and then slowly drain as it turns turbines to generate electricity. Ultracapacitors, on the other hand, store energy in electrostatic form, which means they can charge and discharge rapidly. This is like routinely opening the floodgates in a dam as it rapidly refills with torrential rain.

The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education

Selecting a college is one of the most high-stakes financial decisions a person will ever make, right up there with buying a house. And yet every year, millions of people do it on the basis of shockingly little information. College rankings are notoriously unscientific. There’s no form of independent quality control, since every school decides for itself what students need to do in order to pass courses. Accreditors assess the administrative practices of schools, but they are indirectly funded by colleges themselves. And the biggest financier of higher learning, the federal government, can’t force a school to reduce tuition if it believes students are being overcharged. What all of this means is that colleges essentially approve one another to be eligible for government money.

Nor can students expect “the market” to help them figure it out. Universities aren’t like restaurants that rely on repeat customers: pretty much nobody gets two bachelor’s degrees. If you choose the wrong place, as many students do, it’s not easy to signal your dissatisfaction by transferring to a competitor. Besides, every year, colleges are practically guaranteed a fresh supply of high school graduates and adults looking for new skills. The result is a profiteer’s paradise: millions of highly motivated, naive, overwhelmed consumers loaded up with armfuls of government money.

There are two main reasons most online degrees are so expensive. The first is that middlemen like 2U spend enormous sums on marketing, a cost that is then passed on to the student. In materials it provides to investors, 2U helpfully estimates what happens to every $100 in revenue for a typical program that's not being launched or expanded. Approximately $15 is spent on actual teaching. Developing and administering the courses costs around $23. Marketing and sales eats up $19. And the cost of buying ad words and search terms on Facebook and Google keeps on rising, as OPMs compete with each other and with colleges running their own online programs.

What is Amazon

Walmart can be thought of as a bounded search for the optimal selection, inventory, and pricing of SKUs that a local market could support. It was bound, or constrained, by the characteristics of the local economy, and so each Walmart location was a direct reflection of the local market dynamics. The immensely difficult job of the local management team was to predict and implement the optimal mix that could theoretically have been found if every possible permutation were tested by the local economy. Undershooting or overshooting – that is, having too few or many SKUs, or too little or much inventory – would be a costly mistake. By the same token, higher-level managers were responsible for estimating the optimal size and location of the building itself, and for choosing the best associates to manage it, and so on. Each level of management, then, was tasked with managing their own level of the algorithm.

Bezos, in other words, wanted to build an unbounded Walmart. By removing the constraint of geography – and therefore the local economy – and by adding search functionality, the new formula became simpler: the more SKUs it added, the more items would be discovered by customers; the more items that customers discovered, the more items they would buy. In this world of infinite shelf space, it wasn’t the quality of the selection that mattered – it was pure quantity. And with this insight, Amazon did not need to be nearly as good – let alone better – than Walmart at Walmart’s masterful game of vendor and SKU selection. Amazon just needed to be faster at aggregating SKUs – and therefore faster at onboarding vendors.

To make sense of what started to happen after Amazon rolled out Marketplace, you have to understand that things get really weird when you run an unbounded search at internet-scale. When you remove “normal” constraints imposed by the physical world, the scale can get so massive that all of the normal approaches start to break down.

So, what is Amazon? It started as an unbound Walmart, an algorithm for running an unbound search for global optima in the world of physical products. It became a platform for adapting that algorithm to any opportunity for customer-centric value creation that it encountered. If it devises a way to keep its incentive structures intact as it exposes itself through its ever-expanding external interfaces, it – or its various split-off subsidiaries – will dominate the economy for a generation. And if not, it’ll be just another company that seemed unstoppable until it wasn’t.

Coders’ Primal Urge to Kill Inefficiency—Everywhere

Coders might have different backgrounds and political opinions, but nearly every one I’ve ever met found deep, almost soulful pleasure in taking something inefficient—even just a little bit slow—and tightening it up a notch. Removing the friction from a system is an aesthetic joy; coders’ eyes blaze when they talk about making something run faster or how they eliminated some bothersome human effort from a process.

“State Capture”: How the Gupta Brothers Hijacked South Africa Using Bribes Instead of Bullets

What the Guptas pulled off in South Africa has been extensively documented: the backroom deals, the rigged contracts, the wholesale plunder of national resources. The brothers, who declined to comment for this story, have denied all the accusations against them, and have yet to face charges. But the global arc of the tale—from a provincial town in India to the corporate boardrooms of London and New York—offers a case study in a new, systemic form of graft known as “state capture.” This was a modern-day coup d’état, waged with bribery instead of bullets. It demonstrates how an entire country can fall to foreign influences without a single shot being fired—especially when that country is ruled by a divisive president who is skilled at fueling racial resentments, willing to fire his own intelligence chiefs to protect his business interests, and eager to use his elected position to enrich himself with unsavory investors. 

The Guptas, who had been unknown back in India, enjoyed hobnobbing with the elites. They became famous in Johannesburg for inviting politicians to parties at their large, one-acre compound in the tony neighborhood of Saxonwold, and for entertaining the Indian and South African cricket teams after matches. (They also began to sponsor cricket stadiums.) The social investments paid off: before long, the Guptas befriended the man who would be most responsible for wrecking the post-apartheid dream of South Africa—Jacob Zuma.

By the time the Guptas had met him, in 2002, Zuma was deputy president of South Africa. A “conservative traditionalist,” according to one former official, Zuma acquired five wives (in addition to an ex-wife) and has 23 kids. He also lived beyond his means, writing dud checks and refusing to pay his taxes. Strapped for cash, he received interest-free loans from Schabir Shaik, a South African Indian businessman, who engineered an annual bribe for Zuma from a French arms company. In 2005, Shaik was found guilty of having a corrupt relationship with Zuma and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Zuma, facing corruption charges of his own, was forced out of office.

Then, in a revelation that seemed to doom any chance of a political comeback, the daughter of an A.N.C. comrade came forward and accused Zuma of raping her in the guest room of his home. She was 31 and an H.I.V.-positive AIDS activist; he was 63. Never one to shy away from boasting about his libido, Zuma maintained that the sex was consensual and that the woman had worn a colorful traditional wrap—an obvious invitation to sex. “You cannot just leave a woman if she is already at that state,” he testified. He also insisted that he had showered after he had sex with her, to mitigate the chance of contracting AIDS—a comment that made him an international laughingstock. But Zuma survived by painting himself as the victim of a political conspiracy. His supporters swarmed the courthouse with signs proclaiming, BURN THE BITCH and 100% ZULU BOY, and in 2006 the judge acquitted him on all charges. That following year, tapping into an early surge of the populist forces that would soon consume the world, Zuma trounced the neoliberal Mbeki to become head of the A.N.C. In 2009, with the corruption charges against him thrown out on a technicality, Zuma was elected president of South Africa.

Ajay, now 53, sported the diamond ring his father had once worn. Rough-hewn and imposing, with a permanent swath of stubble, he was the family patriarch and the political brain of the operation. Atul, 50, oversaw outreach to corrupt government officials, while Tony, 46, served as the family’s gruff business negotiator.

From the moment Zuma was elected president, the Guptas began to plunder the South African government on an unprecedented scale. It was the perfect arrangement: Zuma did not have to be present in the room, or even included on e-mails, while the Guptas cut deals and moved money in and out of the country. Ajay, one government whistle-blower later recounted, would lounge on a sofa during meetings with his shoes off, wearing a T-shirt and gray track pants, looking like a swami who expected people to “kiss his feet” as he brainstormed ways to bribe officials. The Guptas had taken the model of their father’s fair-price shop and exaggerated it to fit the modern economy.

The Guptas’ brazenness was becoming obvious in government circles. In 2011, to shield the brothers from investigation, Zuma fired the chiefs of all three intelligence agencies and replaced them with loyalists

Then, on October 23, 2015, the Guptas tried to bribe the wrong man.

On that day, a balmy Friday, Mcebisi Jonas, the country’s deputy finance minister, was invited to a hotel to discuss business with the president’s son Duduzane. Instead, Duduzane drove him to the Gupta compound. There, Jonas later testified, he met with one of the brothers, whom he believed to be Ajay. Ajay told him that the “old man”—President Zuma—seemed to like him. The family, he added, wanted to see whether Jonas was someone who “can work with us.”

“You must understand that we are in control of everything,” Ajay said. “The old man will do anything we tell him to do.”

The deal on offer, Jonas recounted in his testimony, was as simple as it was enticing. Zuma would appoint Jonas as the nation’s finance minister. The Guptas, in turn, would pay Jonas $45 million to purge treasury officials who opposed the deal to build Russian-run nuclear energy plants that would operate on fuel supplied by the Gupta uranium mine.

Jonas, a soft-spoken man with a neat white goatee and a tie that always seems on the verge of coming undone, was outraged. When he got up to leave, Ajay tried sweetening the deal. If Jonas was willing to cooperate, Ajay said, he would deposit money in an account of his choosing—in South Africa or Dubai. In fact, he could give him $45,000 on the spot. “Do you have a bag?” he asked Jonas. “Or can I give you something to put it in?” When Jonas again refused, Ajay followed him to the door. If he told anyone about the meeting, Ajay warned, the Guptas would have him killed. (In a sworn affidavit, Ajay insisted that he was not present at the meeting, which he calls an “intentional fabrication to implicate me in alleged wrongdoing in which I played no part.”)


March

SAVE THE LEMURS! EAT THE CRICKETS!

They specifically needed a cricket that was more sociable—in other words, that didn’t turn cannibal when crammed in with its fellows—and that was less finicky about food. The species the researchers landed on is called Gryllus madagascariensis. Then it was just a matter of recruiting the brave six-legged founders of the colony, so they passed around pictures of the cricket for local kids to identify and collect. They ended up with 50 individuals. “We started one-and-a-half years ago with those 50 specimens, and now we have about 350,000 new crickets each day,” says Sylvain Hugel, an entomologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. “It's just crazy.” As of this moment, there are perhaps a million crickets hopping around a facility in the capital city of Antananarivo, yielding 140 pounds of powder a week for the people of Madagascar.

When it comes to feed, crickets are 10 times more efficient than cattle and 100 times more efficient when it comes to water.

Whether edible insects actually take the pressure off endangered lemurs, humans the world over are coming around to the fact that if we want to keep having a world, edible insects are going to be on the menu.


Do you have a self-actualised personality? Maslow revisited, experiment (n=500) with Mechanical Turk workers

‘Taken together, this total pattern of data supports Maslow’s contention that self-actualised individuals are more motivated by growth and exploration than by fulfilling deficiencies in basic needs,’ Kaufman writes. He adds that the new empirical support for Maslow’s ideas is ‘quite remarkable’ given that Maslow put them together with ‘a paucity of actual evidence’.

Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Kaufman said that this last finding supports ‘Maslow’s contention that self-actualising individuals are able to paradoxically merge with a common humanity while at the same time able to maintain a strong identity and sense of self’.

A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you

Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.

In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. [Researchers] found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. 

Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.

While Everyone Is Distracted By Social Media, Successful People Double Down On An Underrated Skill

Right now, somewhere out in the world is a paragraph, chapter, or book that would change your life forever if you read it. I call this kind of information “breakthrough knowledge,” and mastering the ability to find breakthrough knowledge in our era of information overload is one of the most important skills we can develop… 

Key Question:

How do we use the limited time we have to find breakthrough knowledge in a sea of distraction? 

A 2007 essay by novelist David Foster Wallace coined the word Total Noise as “a tsunami of available fact, context and perspective” which provides a sensation of a “loss of autonomy, of personal responsibility for being informed.” He concludes the essay with the following call to action for all of us:

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting… to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion.


February  

Podcasts

Bias And Perception by TED Radio Hour

  • three things important phenomena to address: (1) confirmation bias, (2) Dunning-Kruger, (3) cognitive dissonance. Want an easy example of bias?

“A father and son are involved in a car crash. The father dies, but the surgeon won’t operate on the critically injured son. The surgeon explains: “he’s my son”.

  • How? The surgeon is his mom.

  • Culture shapes what information we seek out: why do we ask whether you believe in climate change? We don’t ask whether you believe in gravity 

The 1MDB Scandal And The Nature of Debt by Odd Lots

  • Interesting discussion of sovereign bonds, and the less savory version that have been popping up: Venezuela’s hunger bonds, Mozambique’s tuna bonds, and of course Malaysia’s 1MBD bonds

  • The prevailing narrative is that countries pay off a previous government’s debts — even if they don’t have to, e.g. China’s Communist Party, or in this case Malaysia… but there is no empirical evidence of benefit from guaranteeing 1MBD bonds that were previously not guaranteed

    • Cui bono suggests, therefore, that new government was involved / at least did not want discovery process 

  • Recommendation: odiousness rating so the free market can price it appropriately, as an effort to create a legal framework “utterly failed”

Articles

The second phase of the opioid epidemic, the patient broker networks and fraudulent treatment centers profiting off the deaths and misery of the most vulnerable

In the standard narrative of the opioid crisis, greedy pharmaceutical companies are the villains and kids like Brianne are the casualties. But now we are in phase two, an addiction epidemic compounded by a treatment network that in many cases sets patients up for failure. Where pill mills proliferated a decade ago, unscrupulous rehabs sprout today. “A lot of the talk until this point has involved more money for rehab,” says Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County, one of the few jurisdictions that has vigorously pursued lawbreaking treatment providers. “Little has been said or done on the issue of patient brokering and insurance fraud that has cost so many lives.” 

How Neopets paved the way for this generation’s female coders

Neopets” was the wireframe for a community of girls that continuously expanded its expressive reach. Not bound by the limitations of a traditional open-world game built on a console system, “Neopets” began a collaborative building exercise for those that played it. Even in the aspects of play that were regulated by “Neopets” developers, users provided input: A player could publish reported and researched stories or opinion pieces in the in-game newspaper, The Neopian Times, or build out shops that filled Neopia’s marketplace. Players gathered in forums and in guilds – partly responsible for the “Neopets” DIY media scene – to forge relationships and share experiences. Communities of storytellers, artists, reporters, designers, and poets emerged, alongside an economy that fed off its collaborators.

Garcia and other girls like her, including Madison Kanna, now a software engineer, looked outside “Neopets'” set system to earn Neopoints, capitalizing on the skills that drew them to the site. “I would build profiles for people with HTML and CSS and exchange that for goods and supplies,” Kanna says. “Just going on and knowing I could create anything I wanted was huge.” Both women taught themselves as girls to design and code websites for their “Neopets,” and, in turn, started “businesses” designed to use those skills. “I designed my profile page, my shop,” Garcia says. “I coded everything. And what came out of that was my first tutorial site where I was teaching people – other girls, mostly – to code. I had a ‘staff member’ when I was 14, also writing tutorials. That’s what I was doing in my spare time.”

Vertical vs. Horizontal reading

Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.

As reading materials—not just books, but newspapers, magazines, and ephemera—proliferated, more recent centuries saw the rise of reading “extensively”: we read these materials once, often quickly, and move on. Birkerts coins his own terms: the deep, devotional practice of “vertical” reading has been supplanted by “horizontal” reading, skimming along the surface. This shift has only accelerated dizzyingly in the time since Engelsing wrote in 1974, since Birkerts wrote in 1994, and since I wrote, yesterday, the paragraph above.

Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”

We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul. “We hold in our hands a way to cut against the momentum of the times,” Birkerts assures. “We can resist the skimming tendency and delve; we can restore, if only for a time, the vanishing assumption of coherence. The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”

Lincoln’s Depression and one of his favorite poems

In his middle years Lincoln turned from the question of whether he could live to how he would live. Building bridges out from his tortured self, he engaged with the psychological culture of his time, investigating who he was, how he might change, and what he must endure. Having seen what he wished to live for, Lincoln suffered at the prospect that he might never achieve it. Even so, he worked diligently to improve himself, developing self-understanding, discipline, and strategies for succor that would become the foundation of his character.

As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, "I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle." When he was off duty, two things gave him most relief. He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources. And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it.

For Lincoln had long applied the same principle to his own life: that is, continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing that it could never be perfectly attained. Individuals, he had learned from his own "severe experience," could succeed in "the great struggle of life" only by enduring failures and plodding on with a vision of improvement. This attitude sustained Lincoln through his ignominious defeats in the 1850s (he twice lost bids for the U.S. Senate), and it braced him for the trials that lay ahead. Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.

He lost friends and colleagues to the war, and in February of 1862 he lost his eleven-year-old son, Willie. In this vulnerable period Lincoln was influenced by the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, whose Presbyterian church he attended (but never joined). In his eulogy for Willie, Gurley preached that "in the hour of trial" one must look to "Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well." With confidence in God, Gurley said, "our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, 'It is good for us that we have been afflicted.'" Lincoln asked Gurley to write out a copy of the eulogy. He would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.

Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. "Biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives," the critic Louis Menand writes, "in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a 'breakthrough' or arrives at a 'turning point' before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains." Lincoln's melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

Hudson Yards, the city within a city; Stephen Ross and Related: 28 acres, at almost a billion dollars an acre

It’s possible to live a full and varied life here — to sleep, put in an hour at the gym, bring the kids to school, drop the dog off at day care, go to the office, shop, eat out, visit a museum, and catch a show — without so much as crossing the street. That kind of total-service completeness has been a goal of smart-growth urbanists for many years, but it’s one thing to apply those aspirations to a semi-citified development around a suburban transit station, in the hope that it won’t go dead after rush hour. It’s a very different, and more disquieting, achievement to create a high-rise district on a plinth so sealed-off and yachtlike that nobody need ever leave.

Architecture, like politics and war, springs from a million separate decisions made within the context of vast historical forces, decisions that can seem freer or more meaningful than they really are. At Hudson Yards, the path to the ribbon-cutting followed an inexorable trajectory based on impregnable financial logic. Underutilized space must be reclaimed for its highest and best use.

Zillow buying houses

Zillow paid $335,300 for the Chandler house on Sept. 27, collecting a 6.5 percent fee from the seller, or a little less than $22,000. It budgeted $8,000 and 10 days for the renovation and about four months to resell it. That gave it time to replace the refrigerator and microwave, repair a leaky toilet, and make some basic cosmetic fixes, such as repainting the pool decking. The outdated master bathroom, on the other hand, and a purple accent wall in the living room were left untouched. Of course, renovations are beside the point if Zillow can’t value a home properly. In its early days, the company’s home-price estimator had a median error rate of 14 percent. The algorithms improved, but not in every case. Zillow says it shoots for a 1.5 percent profit margin on every house. That means even a small miss on price can eat into the profit margin fast. The Chandler house sold at the end of December for $1,800 less than the company bought it for, highlighting Eisman’s concerns.

The three main iBuyers in Phoenix—Zillow, Opendoor, and Offerpad—bought roughly 4,700 homes last year, or about 4.5 percent of the market, according to the University of Colorado’s DelPrete. Another institutional buyer, the startup Knock, began operating in the city this month. Brooks predicts the iBuyers will soon get to 20 percent of sales in the Phoenix market. In fact, there are now so many players making “offers” that another company, HomeLight, recently unveiled an Expedia-like comparison-shopping tool to make it easy for homeowners to get the best price. Zillow, which began buying homes in Houston on Feb. 11, is aiming to operate in 14 cities by this fall as it races to keep up with Opendoor, which has said it plans to buy and sell homes in 50 markets by the end of 2020. The opportunity is “scary, unknown, dangerous, huge, and awesome,” says Barton, Zillow’s co-founder and executive chairman.

Emojis in court

It’s rare for cases to turn on the interpretations of emoji. “They show up as evidence, the courts have to acknowledge their existence, but often they’re immaterial,” Goldman says. “That’s why many judges decide to say ‘emoji omitted’ because they don’t think it’s relevant to the case at all.”

“Judges need to be aware of the importance of the emojis to the overall communication when we run into these odd evidentiary issues,” Goldman says. “We need to make sure that the emoji get proper credit.”

The Mirror World, future of AR

Someday soon, every place and thing in the real world—every street, lamppost, building, and room—will have its full-size digital twin in the mirrorworld ... We are now building such a 1:1 map of almost unimaginable scope, and this world will become the next great digital platform.

The first big technology platform was the web, which digitized information, subjecting knowledge to the power of algorithms; it came to be dominated by Google. The second great platform was social media, running primarily on mobile phones. It digitized people and subjected human behavior and relationships to the power of algorithms, and it is ruled by Facebook and WeChat.

We are now at the dawn of the third platform, which will digitize the rest of the world. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-­readable, subject to the power of algorithms. Whoever dominates this grand third platform will become among the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies in history, just as those who now dominate the first two platforms have.

UN Population Predictions Are Wrong? Population Will Start To Decline In 30Y? Authors of Empty Planet argue global population will start to decline in 30Y, versus UN estimate of 11B in 2100 (40% growth)

UN forecasting model inputs three things: fertility rates, migration rates, and death rates. It doesn’t take into account the expansion of education for females or the speed of urbanization (which are in some ways linked). The UN says they’re already baked into the numbers. But when I went and interviewed [the demographer] Wolfgang Lutz in Vienna, which was one of the first things we did, he walked me through his projections, and I walked out of the room gobsmacked. All he was doing was adding one new variable to the forecast: the level of improvement in female education. And he comes up with a much lower number for global population in 2100, somewhere between 8 billion and 9 billion.

Lutz has this saying that the most important reproductive organ for human beings is your mind. That if you change how someone thinks about reproduction, you change everything. Based on his analysis, the single biggest effect on fertility is the education of women. The UN has a grim view of Africa. It doesn’t predict much change in terms of fertility over the first quarter of the century. But large parts of African are urbanizing at two times the rate of the global average. If you go to Kenya today, women have the same elementary education levels as men. As many girls as boys are sitting for graduation exams. So we’re not prepared to predict that Africa will stagnate in rural poverty for the rest of the century.

We polled 26 countries asking women how many kids they want, and no matter where you go the answer tends to be around two. The external forces that used to dictate people having bigger families are disappearing everywhere. And that's happening fastest in developing countries. In the Philippines, for example, fertility rates dropped from 3.7 percent to 2.7 percent from 2003 to 2018. That's a whole kid in 15 years. In the US, that change happened much more slowly, from about 1800 to the end of the Baby Boom. So that’s the scenario we’re asking people to contemplate.

The Cash For Electronic Cash — Coin Center (PDF)

“This paper shows that a cashless economy is a surveillance economy.” Citizens in these countries [those becoming rapidly cashless, Sweden + other Nordics] rely on card and mobile payments systems owned and operated by banks and financial technology (fintech) firms. These companies have an interest in promoting an increasingly cashless society. Every cash transaction is a transaction that takes place outside of the infrastructure that they own and on which they take a fee. Additionally, cash management is a not an insignificant cost for financial institutions.” [see death of free checking]

“7.5% of low income people, who make less than $30,000 a year, get hit with 20 or more NSF fees for an average total cost of $1,568… For low-income people, 56.7% have less than $100 in their checking account when averaged throughout the year. Some will pay $1,568 in order to get a space in the connected economy in order to productive [sic] use a balance of $100.” 

Firms such as Visa have launched advertising and media campaigns to urge consumers to give up cash for card payments.13 Other campaigns are targeted at merchants. In one, Visa offered $10,000 to restaurants and food trucks that committed to stop accepting cash. As Visa UK put it, these campaigns are part of a “long term strategy to make cash ‘peculiar’ by 2020.”

Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Kenneth Rogoff, whose gripes with paper money are plainly stated in the title of his book, The Curse of Cash, nevertheless agrees that “we need cash for privacy.”

The move away from cash in China happened in just a few years. While cash accounted for 96 percent of payments in 2012, today that number is below 15 percent. As of 2018, more than one-half billion Chinese use mobile payments.

The same logic that applies to speech is applicable to association and other freedoms valued by an open society. Respect for autonomy is how such freedoms are given meaning; a legal right is useless if one can be prevented from exercising it. The more intermediated a society is, however, the easier and more tempting it becomes to effect prior restraints on the free exercise of rights.

Privacy is a notoriously difficult concept to define, but a useful definition was put forth by mathematician and computer scientist Eric Hughes: “Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.” In this formulation, it is interesting to note that Hughes does not frame privacy as a right to be respected by others, but as a power to be exercised by individuals.

Economist (and Sam Altman) on UBI (video)

When machines/AI arrive, we’ll have $$$, but it’ll naturally accrue to the owners, with nothing left for the newly unemployed (without UBI)

Animation and in-depth story regarding the two US Navy destroyer collisions in the same year

In those eight months, nearly 40 percent of the Fitzgerald’s crew had turned over. The Navy replaced them with younger, less-seasoned sailors and officers, leaving the Fitzgerald with the highest percentage of new crew members of any destroyer in the fleet. But naval commanders had skimped even further, cutting into the number of sailors Benson needed to keep the ship running smoothly. The Fitzgerald had around 270 people total — short of the 303 sailors called for by the Navy.

At 1:25 a.m., the Fitzgerald was 6,000 yards from the Crystal, 5,000 yards from the Wan Hai 266 and on a collision course with the Maersk Evora, approaching from 14,000 yards away. There was still time for the highly maneuverable Fitzgerald to get out of the way.

But Coppock disobeyed Benson’s standing orders. Rather than call Benson for help, she decided to continue on her own. Coppock didn’t call down to the combat room to ask for help, either.

Coppock could have ordered the Fitzgerald into reverse; there was still time to stop. Arleigh Burke destroyers can come to a complete halt from 20 knots within 500 feet or so.

Instead, Coppock ordered a move that disregarded the very basics of her training.  She commanded the helmsman to gun the destroyer’s powerful engines to full speed and duck in front of the Crystal by heading left. “All ahead flank,” she ordered. “Hard left rudder.”

An entrepreneur’s reflections on taking VC money but failing to build a unicorn; according to Andreessen, “product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” But too often the focus is on latter part of the sentence (a product that can satisfy the market) and not the former (in a good market).

But we were venture-funded, which was like playing a game of double-or-nothing. It’s euphoric when things are going your way–and suffocating when they’re not. And we weren’t doubling fast enough to raise the $15M+ Series B (the second major round of funding) we looked for to grow the team.

For the type of business we were trying to build, every month of less than 20% growth should have been a red flag.

It doesn’t matter how amazing your product is, or how fast you ship features. The market you’re in will determine most of your growth. For better or worse, Gumroad grew at roughly the same rate almost every month because that’s how quickly the market determined we would grow.

What it’s like to a Facebook fact-checker

In case you’re curious, here’s what it was like to be an official Facebook fact-checker. We were given access to a tool that hooked into our personal Facebook accounts and was accessed that way (strike one, as far as I was concerned) and it spat out a long list of stories that had been flagged for checks. We were free to ignore the list, or mark stories as “true,” “false,” or “mixture.” (Facebook later added a “satire” category after what I like to call "the Babylon Bee incident", where a satirical piece was incorrectly labeled false.)

It was clear from the start that that this list was generated via algorithm. It contained headlines and URLs, and a graph showing their popularity and how much time they had been on the site. There were puzzling aspects to it, though. We would often get the same story over and over again from different sites, which is to be expected to a certain degree because many of the most lingering stories have been recycled again and again. This is what Facebook likes to call “engagement.”

But no matter how many times we marked them “false,” stories would keep resurfacing with nothing more than a word or two changed. This happened often enough to make it clear that our efforts weren’t really helping, and that we were being directed toward a certain type of story — and, we presumed, away from others.

A Guide to Tagging for Personal Knowledge Management — yes it’s as exciting/consequential to me/you as the title sounds; 4 actionable insights offered:

  • Tag notes according to the actions taken or deliverables created with them

  • Add structure slowly, in stages and only as needed, using accumulated material to guide you in what structures are needed

  • Tag notes according to their internal, external, and social context, and status

  • Develop customized, profession-specific taxonomies

Public defendants

Public defendants have a hard time, e.g. example in article needs to do work of 5 lawyers... most are ineffective, and although courts allow an individual to claim, after they lose, that they received an ineffective defense. But the bar is high. Some judges have ruled that taking illegal drugs, driving to court drunk or briefly falling asleep at the defense table — even during critical testimony — did not make a lawyer inadequate… Roughly four out of five criminal defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer and use public defenders or court-appointed lawyers.

Modern Monetary Theory

What’s modern about MMT is this: the modern sovereign’s balance sheet cannot be understood solely from a fiscal perspective. The sovereign’s balance sheet includes not only the assets and liabilities of the sovereign’s treasury from tax-and-spend-and-borrow fiscal policy, but also the assets and liabilities of the sovereign’s central bank from money-printing-and-pricing monetary policy. As a result, MMT holds that not only are austerity and budget-balancing policies a bad move, but so are balance sheet-reducing and liquidity-draining policies. MMT is the theoretical justification for QE without end.

At its core, Modern Monetary Theory is an argument that would be wonderfully familiar to every sovereign since the invention of debt. It is essentially the argument that significant sovereign debt is a good thing, not a bad thing, and that budget balancing efforts on a national scale do much more harm than good. Why? Because there’s so much to do and so little time for the right-minded sovereign. Because it is fundamentally unjust for the demands of private lenders to thwart the necessary ends of the sovereign, and it is politically difficult to finance those ends through tax levies on a fickle citizenry. MMT is the sovereign-friendly justification for deficit spending without end.

So don’t tell me that the crowding-out effect of sovereign debt on the real economy isn’t a bad thing. Because it is. This is how entire economies are turned into zombies. Don’t tell me that the monetization of sovereign debt, explicitly or implicitly, isn’t a bad thing. Because it is. This is how a middle class is destroyed.

Responses from readers of Epilson Theory to above article

When you accept the language and the structural vocabulary of an insurgent political narrative (and that’s what MMT is … an insurgent political narrative), then you’ve lost the debate before you’ve even begun. It’s like earnestly “debating” Arthur Laffer about supply-side economics in front of an audience of Young Republicans at the Hoover Institution in the mid-80s … the vocabulary and the structure of the conversation are INTENTIONALLY CONSTRUCTED to sound truth-y (to use Stephen Colbert’s wonderful word) and to create a hermetically sealed argumentation chamber where flaws in the theory do not exist because the words to express those flaws do not exist. Like I said in the note: I get the joke. This is what Socrates called sophistry. It was the bane of education and intellectual discourse 2,500 years ago, and it’s the bane of education and intellectual discourse today. The key to successful engagement with a political narrative like MMT (or like supply-side Reagonomics back in the day) is the same key that Socrates identified in freakin’ 430 BC: CALL THINGS BY THEIR PROPER NAMES. That’s all it takes. Seriously.”

“In the modern system, there are more tickets sold than seats in the house (more money/debt printed than products and services, at current prices.) The elites are good at playing for time, but eventually ticket holders will want to go in. So you’re down to a choice among: denying entry to some tickets (default/deflation,) putting 4 people in every 3 seats (inflation/devaluation,) announcing everyone must wait indefinitely (financial repression,) and building more seats (economic growth.) If you’re the global empire, you can also make the neighboring theater honor some of your tickets, or make war to make that happen. There are no other ways out, and even if miracles come out of the labs, people may not spend money on them, so growth is really outside Team Elite’s control. Historically, the Western elites have been pretty good at effecting a combination of the scenarios, to spread around the stress and keep their system alive.

Hypothesis driven development in journalism @ NPR

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Acceptance Speech

Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large, glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?


January

  • On Reading

  • How To Read A Book — Farnam Street, and Ryan Holiday

    • Only read what you’re interested in, and not necessarily cover-to-cover (ego)

    • Know what a book is about before you read it (spoil the ending) so you have the bandwidth to actually counter-argue and enter a dialogue with the author

  • “Reading is a way to consume people’s experiences, to learn something timeless and then apply it to your life.” Farnam Street NYT profile

  • “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction; magnified by attempts to satisfy it.” Nassim Taleb

  • “You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”

  • On fiction

    • Logic isn’t taught to the reader at any point. It comes from living life. Nonfiction defies logic. Fiction is defined by logic. In this way, we can learn more about the logical cause-and-effect of life by reading fiction. A fiction author has to create characters, story, settings, and plot based on nothing but logic. By reading a good fiction book, the reader can see logic stretched to its furthest extent.

    • Reading a lot of fiction, then, makes the reader really skilled at identifying thought patterns. It makes certain scary or surprising decisions people make in the world more understandable. It ties really closely to empathy. When he appeared on The Late Show earlier this year, George Saunders said, “Empathy is like a superpower. Very robust if you do it.”

  • Do What You Love… and Other Lies About Success and Happiness

    • “DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

    • book

  • Tell Me It’s Going to Be OK

    • “But what is a star? Nobody knows. The star rating average is only meaningful in relative terms: it’s higher or lower than the star ratings other striving workers earn. In other words, user reviews situate our performance not according to some stable benchmark—such as increased production per hour worked—but within an ever-fluctuating hierarchy comprised of our peers.”

  • Audacity from Epsilon Theory, and all the links at the bottom, especially Sheep Logic

  • WaPo’s In and Out list

  • a16z Podcast: Talent, Tech Trends, and Culture (38:23),

    • "blockchain is a new computing platform... and like all new computing platforms is inferior to the status quo, e.g. mobile phones... but has new properties like GPS that you didn't have on the PC... blockchain has trust... so money, contracts, and digital property can be programmed... airpods are a tremendous product, increasing productivity, voice interfaces are on the rise... 3 tv shows that embody VC life: (1) Halt and catch fire, (2) burn notice, (3) succession... simplest predictor of managerial intelligence: (1) systems thinking, and (2) people intuition"

  • A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof — Pulitzer 2018 for Feature Writing by Rachel Ghansah

    • The white supremacists of today, having been kicked off Twitter, often have Instagram bios that offer an eerie good-bye to their opposition: Good night, left side. And there are thousands of them. Like Roof, and unlike a typical ISIS recruit, they don’t have handlers or any centralized way of becoming hooked. Instead, they are brought into the fold because they have found something that explains their laggard social progress to them and confirms their narrow worldview as fact.

    • They are young, they are white, and they often brag about their arsenals of guns, because these are the guns that will save them in the coming race war. They are armed to the teeth, and almost always, they are painfully undereducated or somewhat educated but extremely socially awkward. That is, until their eyes are opened to the fact that within the world of white supremacy they can find friends. These young white supremacists call this reversal “weaponized autism.” What once alienated them now helps them relate to others, people like Dylann Roof, over a common desire to start a race war.

    • This new generation thrives off of subtext—small cues, images of a cartoon frog called Pepe, reconverted swastikas that can go undetected. And they view the transmission of these cues as a kind of trolling of their enemies. It is like the passing of a note behind the teacher’s back. Roof even wore shoes to federal court that were decorated with neo-Nazi codes and Klan runes. He thought himself part of a secret fight for the future, in which, Roof wrote, he imagined he would one day be pardoned by a sympathetic president.

  • Ghansah is “writing a book at the moment where I take the lives and stories of icons such as Dave Chappelle, Toni Morrison and Serena Williams, and look at how they are self-defining what it will mean to be the outsider in the 21st century. They're complicated figures who teach us about the legacies that follow people around.”

    • her David Chapelle essay

      • “But Chappelle, like Kanye West, grew up in a home where black activism and black leftist thought were the languages of the household. No wonder, then, that both Chappelle and West have wrestled so bitterly and publicly with their sense of responsibility to and also their failure to meet those same obligations. “It’s a dilemma,” Chappelle told Kevin Powell. “It’s something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere.””

    • her Kendrick Lamar essay

      • “Thomas Chatterton Williams, who in his book Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture : After failing his first year at Georgetown because he preferred to party at nearby all-black colleges rather than stay on campus with the more studious, mostly white students, he came to the realization that hip-hop had literally hoodwinked black youth culture into settling for less. In a chapter unironically entitled “Beginning to See the Light,” Williams recounts his decision to begin dressing up for class, writing that, “If it is true that it feels good to look good, then it is equally true that it can feel gangsta to look gangsta and it can feel thugged-out to look thugged-out, or on the other hand, it can feel smart to look smart. I wanted to feel smart.””

    • Pulitzer Finalist on lonely deaths in Japan

  • The Fighter, Sam Siatta and PTSD — Pulitzer 2017 for Feature Writing

    • His satisfaction was temporary. War plays on the mind. Marksmanship can seem simple one moment and complicated the next. Siatta’s doubts nagged him anew. He wondered if the kills were luck. “Was it a fluke?” he asked himself. “Was I a good-enough shot?” Other thoughts plumbed darker depths. Siatta had been curious about what it felt like to kill. His journal shows his unease upon finding out.

    • It was a great day and one of the worst days Iv had so far. Today I thought my family was going to get a folded flag and bullshit letter saying wat a great Marine I am and shit like that but I made it.

    • I hope my family recognizes me when I get back. and I hope they understand I’ve changed but only through the acts of self preservation. My mind cannot be healed from the horrors of war. I hope they understand.

    • In the next two weeks, Siatta shot at least six and perhaps as many as 10 more people, according to his diary and Marines present.

    • No matter these feelings, Kurtz speaks of his former D.M. with sadness. Siatta’s transformation, he said, was welcomed on the battlefield but is painful to think about now. “Watching Sam evolve from that sweet, innocent kid to that killer he became, the killer we needed him to be,” he said, “it breaks my heart.”

  • Trip Treatment — The New Yorker, video

    • Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor. Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. 

    • A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants… But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.

    • “I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”

    • Since 2006, Griffiths’s lab has conducted a pilot study on the potential of psilocybin to treat smoking addiction, the results of which were published last November in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The sample is tiny—fifteen smokers—but the success rate is striking. Twelve subjects, all of whom had tried to quit multiple times, using various methods, were verified as abstinent six months after treatment, a success rate of eighty per cent. (Currently, the leading cessation treatment is nicotine-replacement therapy; a recent review article in the BMJ—formerly the _British Medical Journal—_reported that the treatment helped smokers remain abstinent for six months in less than seven per cent of cases.) 

    • The pinnacle of human development is the achievement of the ego, which imposes order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by magical thinking. (The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has speculated that the way young children perceive the world has much in common with the psychedelic experience. As she puts it, “They’re basically tripping all the time.”) The psychoanalytic value of psychedelics, in his view, is that they allow us to bring the workings of the unconscious mind “into an observable space.”

      In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley concluded from his psychedelic experience that the conscious mind is less a window on reality than a furious editor of it. The mind is a “reducing valve,” he wrote, eliminating far more reality than it admits to our conscious awareness, lest we be overwhelmed. “What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” Psychedelics open the valve wide, removing the filter that hides much of reality, as well as dimensions of our own minds, from ordinary consciousness. Carhart-Harris has cited Huxley’s metaphor in some of his papers, likening the default-mode network to the reducing valve, but he does not agree that everything that comes through the opened doors of perception is necessarily real. The psychedelic experience, he suggests, can yield a lot of “fool’s gold.” 


2018

December

  • The free energy principle, Karl Friston, and potentially where the next big AI advance will come from link

  • Gentle introduction to deep neural nets, link, great analogy for gradient descent

  • Google’s interactive immersive thing on National Parks, link, really fun experience but 360’ video doesn’t stream nicely

  • UXDesign’s State of UX 2019, link

  • a16z: Software + housing market, link; legal proposal right now to house value, link that requires appraisal

  • YC CEO/partner Michael Siebel on startups, with topics and timestamps, link; especially identifying bias in advise givers — great, desirable companies hire the best because (i) they’re the best, (ii) to keep them away from competitors, (iii) to keep them from doing their own thing

  • Hello World, a Bloomberg series (recently <10m/video in length), new episodes ~monthly; two I liked: (1) Geoff Hinton, (2) Israel Startup Nation, which describes dominance of army’s Unit8200 (which everyone has to serve usually aged 18-20): first thing people do coming out is think of what startup they’re going to build

  • Also CCTv’s series on Chinese Innovation (no English subtitles)

  • Quartz Obsession on Orchids is a fun read: the moth orchid retailed for $70 in the 80’s, tech+globalization -> wholesale price of $3 today