It’s been awhile since I did a Remainders posts so I figured I’d throw one together. In theory it’s all the other stuff I didn’t get a chance to blog about. In reality, it’s pretty much everything I’ve been reading that isn’t about mental models/frameworks (and even some of that). You can find previous versions filed under Remainders and, as always, if you enjoy the writing, please subscribe by email and pass around.
Let’s start with some books. Here’s what I’ve read in the last three months (in order of when they were read):
- Judas: How a Sister’s Testimony Brought Down a Criminal Mastermind (Astrid Holleeder): Inspired by the New Yorker story by Patrick Radden Keefe about a Dutch woman who eventually testified about her mobster brother, I decided to dig into the English translation. It was a lot more difficult to read than I expected. The New Yorker story, because of length, isn’t able to go into the extensive psychological abuse Holleeder’s brother put his family through. I found it emotionally exhausting about two-thirds into the book.
- Countdown to Zero Day (Kim Zetter): As far as I know this is the definitive book on Stuxnet, the digital weapon that targeted the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.
- Complexity: A Guided Tour (Melanie Mitchell): Easily one of my favorite books of the year. I’ve read lots about complexity theory, but nothing that pulled all the various strings together so well. (This also helped send me down a deep physics rabbit hole that I’ve yet to emerge from.)
- My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth (Wendy Simmons): I really loved the graphic novel Pyongyang and thought I’d give this travelogue a try when I saw it sitting on a shelf at the bookstore. It was a fine book to read alongside some of the heavier stuff I’ve been reading lately.
- Remote: Office Not Required (Jason Fried): This book sucked, but at least the Audible narration was slow enough that I could crank it up to 2x speed.
- Einstein 1905: The Standard of Genius (John S. Rigden): Like I said, I’ve been falling deeper into a physics rabbit hole, and as part of that I’ve been watching a bunch of physics and math lectures on YouTube. One of the ones I watched was Douglas Hofstadter essentially trying to recreate a talk he once saw the John Rigden, the author of this book, give in 2005. The book, and the talk, are about the ideas behind Einstein’s five papers of 1905 (four of which are considered foundational in physics).
- The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (Michael Lewis): I am almost embarrassed to admit I still haven’t read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (it’s on the list, I swear), so Michael Lewis on the relationship between Kahneman and Taversky is the next best thing. Related: Malcolm Gladwell interviewing Lewis about the book.
- Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century (Masha Gessen): Masha Gessen’s biography (I guess you could call it that) of Grigori Perelman, the eccentric mathematician who solved the Poincare Conjecture (one of the seven Millenium Problems from the Clay Institute) and then disappeared.
- Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations (Jorge Luis Borges): A long and fascinating conversation with Borges.
- Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone (Satya Nadella): Like just about everyone, I’m super impressed with everything Microsoft has done since promoting Nadella to CEO. Although this book promises to be about how it’s all happening, it’s about 75% a commercial for Microsoft’s vision for the future (which although it could be right, is not particularly interesting or original).
- Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs (John Doerr): A mostly interesting read about the OKR (objectives and key results) goal setting system.
- A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking): If you find yourself in a physics rabbit hole, this seems like something worth reading …
- Dreamtigers (Jorge Luis Borges): I read about this in the Borges interview book. He basically explained that his publisher asked for a book and so he collected a bunch of poems and stories that were sitting around his house and hadn’t been published and stuck it together.
Okay, onto some other reading, etc. …
This Wired piece about the possibility of a coming “AI cold war” has two particularly interesting strings in it: One is a fundamental question about the nature of technology and its relationship with democracy (put simply: is the internet better structured to support or defeat democratic ideals) and the other is about how China (and the US) will use 5G as a power play (“If you are a poor country that lacks the capacity to build your own data network, you’re going to feel loyalty to whoever helps lay the pipes at low cost. It will all seem uncomfortably close to the arms and security pacts that defined the Cold War.”)
I’ve been fascinated by the mysterious attacks against Americans in Cuba since I read about them (probably over a year ago now). I was excited to see the New Yorker finally dig in.
We’ve been having lots of trouble convincing our three-year-old to wear a coat in the cold. Turns out its pretty normal.
The Chronicle of Higher Education asked a bunch of academics for their most influential academic book of the last twenty years. Lots of interesting things to read here.
This is from earlier in the year, but it’s worth re-reading Bruce Schneier’s piece on securing elections. More recently he had a good one on mobile phone security.
- Benoît Mandelbrot (of fractal fame) is apparently responsible (at least in part) for the introduction of passwords at IBM. From When Einstein Walked with Gödel (which I’m reading now), “When his son’s high school teacher sought help for a computer class, Mandelbrot obliged, only to find that soon students all over Westchester County were tapping into IBM’s computers by using his name. ‘At that point, the computing center staff had to assign passwords,’ he says. ‘So I can boast-if that’s the right term-of having been at the origin of the police intrusion that this change represented.'”
- Also from the same book, the low numerals are meant to be representative of the number of things they are. Since that makes no sense, here’s the quote from the book: “Even Arabic numerals follow this logic: 1 is a single vertical bar; 2 and 3 began as two and three horizontal bars tied together for ease of writing.”
- When you get helium super cold very strange stuff starts happening.
- A Rochester garbage plate “is your choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, white or red hots*, served on top of any combination of home fries, french fries, baked beans, and/or macaroni salad.”
- There’s a taxonomy of parking garage design (image below).
Barkley Marathons sound awful.
This hit close to home:
It took 200 years for them to start making brown point shoes for non-white ballet dancers …
There’s apparently a big conversation going on in the machine learning community about whether ML is alchemy:
Rahimi believes contemporary machine learning models’ successes — which are mostly based on empirical methods — are plagued with the same issues as alchemy. The inner mechanisms of machine learning models are so complex and opaque that researchers often don’t understand why a machine learning model can output a particular response from a set of data inputs, aka the black box problem. Rahimi believes the lack of theoretical understanding or technical interpretability of machine learning models is cause for concern, especially if AI takes responsibility for critical decision-making.
This is a park covered in spiderwebs:
Tangentially related, here’s how corporate America contributes to politics by industry:
The Article Group email list is worth subscribing to. Back issues here.
I loved this quote from philosopher Daniel Dennet’s talk on what he calls intelligent design (don’t worry, it’s not the same):
Stochastic terrorism is one of those ideas you read once and think about from then on …
I don’t know where I fall on this, but I found Douglas Rushkoff’s argument that universal basic income is a scam being put forward by technology companies fascinating:
Uber’s business plan, like that of so many other digital unicorns, is based on extracting all the value from the markets it enters. This ultimately means squeezing employees, customers, and suppliers alike in the name of continued growth. When people eventually become too poor to continue working as drivers or paying for rides, UBI supplies the required cash infusion for the business to keep operating.
Adam Davidson had a good Twitter thread about “both-sidism” in political reporting.
Wired on “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”.
The changing landscape of business expenses:
It seems like one out of 100 Player’s Tribune articles are amazing. This one from former Clipper Darius Miles fits the bill.
I’ve been really enjoying John Horgan’s Scientific American blog “Cross-Check”.
David Grann, who is probably my favorite author, snuck a book out without me knowing. Called White Darkness, it appears to be an expanded version of his New Yorker article about Antarctic explorers from earlier this year (one of my favorites).
Alright, I’m going to cut this here … I’m only caught up to late October, so look out for a part two. Thanks for reading.
It’s totally crazy that May is almost done. On the book front I finished up God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which was excellent, and am on to How to Think by Alan Jacobs (which I’ve got a quote from in the roundup this week). As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Oh, and a very very happy birthday to my wife, Leila. Okay, onto the links.
There were a few really amazing pieces I read this week:
- The New York Times Sunday had a long piece on the very shady conviction of Kevin Cooper for the murder of a family in California 35 years ago. He’s currently on death row and the state has refused to follow up the case with additional DNA testing despite a number of pleas.
- Another very strong piece from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub about Trump. Here’s a snippet: “The Trump family aspires to mafia status, a thuggocracy, but they are manipulable and bumbling where Putin and company are disciplined and Machiavellian. They hire fools and egomaniacs and compromised figures—Scaramucci, Giuliani, Bannon, Flynn, Nunberg, the wifebeating Rob Porter—and then fire them, with a soap opera’s worth of drama; the competent ones quit, as have many lawyers hired to help Trump navigate his scandals. The Trumps don’t hide things well or keep their mouths shut or manage the plunder they grab successfully, and they keep committing crimes in public.”
- Nick Paumgarten on the phenomena that is Fornite (I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it before the article).
- Masha Gessen is as must read as they come these days. Here she is on embracing the idea of “ordinary” terrorists:
“In another respect, the drive to identify reasons for committing extreme violence runs opposite to the very logic of terrorism. I am using the term ‘terrorism’ in its broadest possible meaning, to denote acts of violence intended primarily to terrify. This works only when the violence is unpredictable—when it’s senseless. This is as true of state terror and political terrorism as it is of a school shooting—especially one perpetrated by the shy kid who never seemed to say a word about girls. It is so frightening precisely because most of these shy, unpopular kids who are ignored and spurned by others will never hurt a fly. Nor will most other people, including most of those who claim to want to blow up the world, whether because they are not getting enough sex or because they want to live in a caliphate.”
This is from a few weeks ago, but I can’t resist a good piece about some gamblers who cracked horse racing in Hong Kong.
This episode of the podcast 80,000 Hours with computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg is really fun (if you’re into talking about stuff like the Fermi Paradox). I particularly liked Sandberg’s “Aestivation Hypothesis”. Aestivation is the opposite of hibernation (sleeping during the summer instead of the winter) and the gist of the hypothesis is that maybe the reason we haven’t heard from the aliens is because they’re waiting for the stars to die out so it gets cold enough that they can efficiently run massively complex calculations that would otherwise take tons of power to cool:
So if you imagine the real advanced civilization that has seen a lot of galaxy expanded long distances, once you’ve seen a hundred elliptical galaxies and a hundred spiral galaxies, how many surprises are we going to be there? Now most of the interesting stuff your civilization is doing is going to be culture, science, philosophy, and all the other internal stuff. The external universe is nice scenery, but you’ve seen much of it. So this leads to this possibility that maybe advanced civilization is actually an estimate. They slow down, they freeze themselves, and wait until a much later era because we get so much more. It turns out that you can calculate how much more they can get. So the background radiation of the universe is declining exponentially.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here, David Grann is my favorite writer around. If you haven’t read his stuff it’s all amazing. Anyway, someone recommended I read his story about a “postmodern murder” which I didn’t remember ever seeing before and it’s absolutely amazing. I won’t give anything away, but go give it a read. (Despite how amazing it is, I must have read it in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which I highly recommend. No idea how I forgot this one …)
I was reminded of this really interesting framework for thinking about organizational change:
Good piece from FiveThirtyEight about how a junk statistical measure called “magnitude-based inference” came to rule sports science. This is about as snarky as I would imagine a statistician gets: “It’s basically a math trick that bears no relationship to the real world.” BURN.
Like everyone else I enjoyed the Jordan Peterson
takedown profile from the New York Times. Lobster Twitter was not happy with Mr. Peterson’s adoption of their favorite crustacean:
I ran into The Pudding’s NBA draft analysis visualization again. It’s very cool.
This is the coolest bubble video you’ll watch this week. (Unless you watch this one.)
Sad news: Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son and a serious media scholar in his own right, passed away this week.
This GDPR/WHOIS situation sounds like a big mess. (But is it a snafu, a shitshow, or a clusterfuck?)
As promised, here’s an interesting snippet from the book I’m reading, How to Think on how we don’t actually “think for ourselves”:
“Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”
This David Roth piece from the Baffler on the oppressiveness of the NFL is relevant again thanks to their latest anthem antics.
Are centrists the most hostile group to democracy? Maybe.
Reminds me a lot of this Current Affairs piece on the problem with bipartisanship. Here’s a snippet:
Bipartisan posturing of this kind would be absurd in a healthy democracy, even at the best of times—after all, one of the reasons we elect people is so that they can debate and disagree. If you’re not fighting with anyone, you’re not fighting for anything. But given the stated agenda of the current administration, not to mention countless other Republican-led administrations across the country, bipartisanship is perilous and counterproductive almost by definition.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend and memorial day.
As everyone now knows the UK voted to leave the European Union today. I happen to be in London this week and so have been paying close attention to the vote and having many conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about how it came to this and what it means for the future. I’m no economist or pundit, so I’ll leave those takes to the professionals, but I wanted to take a minute to share a few thoughts on the obvious parallels between what’s happening here in the UK and with Trump in the US.
The two most enlightening things I’ve read about Trump happen to come from FiveThirtyEight. The first, published at the end of April, spells out the difference between what we think of as “normal America” and what the reality actually is:
We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America. But the large metros that today come closest to looking like 1950 America are Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Ogden and Provo, in Utah; and several in the Midwest and South.
Normal America, the article explains, is actually best represented (by similarity to American population across “age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity”) in cities like New Haven, Connecticut or Tampa, Florida. That means when people say that politicians or elites are out of touch with normal America, it may be true, but that’s not because normal America is still small-town America. We are a more diverse, older, and more educated country than we were 50 years ago.
The second bit, also from FiveThirtyEight, is about why Hispanics and other minority groups are more optimistic about America than average Americans:
But for many non-whites, the pattern [not very concerned about the present, pessimistic about the future] is the opposite: They are concerned about the present but optimistic about the future. In the Pew poll, Hispanics were sober about their immediate financial circumstances — 40 percent said their finances were in good shape, compared with 43 percent for the public at large — but they see brighter days ahead. More than 70 percent expect their children to be better off than they are. Previous polls have found similar results for other minority groups: According to 2014 data from the General Social Survey, three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics expect their children to enjoy a higher standard of living than they do, compared to just half of whites. A poll commissioned by The Atlantic last fall found that blacks, Hispanics and Asians were far more likely than whites to report that “the American Dream is alive and well.”
Put those things together and what you get is clear: “Make America Great Again” actually means make America look more like it did in 1960. The problem, of course, is that America was a pretty bad place for a lot of Americans at that point (women, minorities, and LGBT to name a few). But most people don’t remember that, because nostalgia is broken and doesn’t work that way. From a 2013 New York Times article on nostalgia:
Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.
But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.
Put it all together and you have a confluence of circumstances that tells a pretty good story for how both the US and the UK have gotten to now and what it really means to make a country great again. Of course, like others, I don’t have answers of how to combat this, but understanding what we’re up against is the first step.
I never finished Taleb’s Black Swan, but I vividly remember a point from the opening chapter about what would have happened if a senator had pushed through legislation prior to September 11th to force all airlines to install locked cockpit doors. That person would have never recieved attention or recognition for preventing an attack, since we never would have known:
The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statuses in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease.” Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office . . .
I was reminded of this as I was reading Tim Harford’s Adapt and this point about how we interpreted the US domination of the first Gulf War:
Another example of history’s uncertain guidance came from the first Gulf War in 1990–1. Desert Storm was an overwhelming defeat for Saddam Hussein’s army: one day it was one of the largest armies in the world; four days later, it wasn’t even the largest army in Iraq. Most American military strategists saw this as a vindication of their main strategic pillars: a technology-driven war with lots of air support and above all, overwhelming force. In reality it was a sign that change was coming: the victory was so crushing that no foe would ever use open battlefield tactics against the US Army again. Was this really so obvious in advance?
In what I assume is a response to this article that was floating around about placebo buttons (buttons that are there to make you feel better, but don’t do anything), William Gibson tweeted this:
I love the internet. That’s all.
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