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):
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.)
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.”)
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Been awhile since I got one of these Remainders posts out. For the uninitiated, it’s a chance to share some of what I’ve been reading/seeing. You can find past versions filed under Remainders. Also, if you want to subscribe to the email so you actually find out when things are published here (on the rare occasion they are), please sign up here.
Alright, let’s start with books. Since last time I’ve read:
Jennifer Government & Lexicon (Max Barry): Two sci-fi(ish) novels by Max Barry. Jennifer Government is about warring loyalty programs and Lexicon is about mind-controlling words. The latter is better. Fun and easy.
Men Explain Things to Me (Rebecca Solnit): Given everything that’s happened with #MeToo over the last year, it’s fascinating to go back and read this as it foretells a lot of what we’ve seen. Also, Rebecca Solnit has become a must-read for me and I’m looking forward to digging through more of her work.
Born Standing Up (Steve Martin): Steve Martin talking about his life as a comedian (I did the audiobook for this one, which he narrates).
E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation (David Bodanis): This was probably my favorite of the bunch. Sounds dry, but it’s a fascinating account of an equation I didn’t really understand. Takes you through in a step-by-step manner (it literally starts with “e” and then “=” and so on).
Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows): I’ve read most of this once before, but I thought I could use a refresher. This is a foundational text in systems thinking and is actually easier to read than it first seems.
Bad Blood (John Carreyrou): The story of Theranos. Couldn’t put this down once I started.
Much more research exists on giving cash to the poor in developing countries. Jeremy Shapiro examines the effects of giving money to people in need through his work as a co-founder of GiveDirectly and as a researcher with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics. At GiveDirectly—a nonprofit that, as its name suggests, offers cash with no strings attached—he worked on a study in Kenya; between 2011 and 2013, the researchers determined, the program improved people’s food security, allowed them to buy other crucial goods (from soap to school supplies), and was beneficial to their psychological well being. Counter to my childhood lesson, recipients didn’t spend any more than they had in the past on so-called temptation goods like alcohol and tobacco. “The takeaway is surprisingly unsurprising—when you give money to poor people good things happen,” Shapiro said. “People eat more, they invest in businesses; you see people reporting being happier and less stressed out.”
The origin of inches and centimeters from E=mc2: “The conversion factors seem arbitrary, but that’s because they link measurement systems that evolved separately. Inches, for example, began in medieval England, and were based on the size of the human thumb. Thumbs are excellent portable measuring tools, since even the poorest individuals could count on regularly carrying them along to market. Centimeters, however, were popularized centuries later, during the French Revolution, and are defined as one billionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, passing by Paris. It’s no wonder the two systems don’t fit together smoothly.”
If you’re a total basketball nerd you probably already listened to the Dunc’d On Mock Offseason (part 1 and part 2). If you’re not, listener beware: It is like D&D meets fantasy basketball for nearly 5 hours.
And at some point during this work, it dawned on Kasson that he was working with illicit substances. Psilocybin, in particular, is a Schedule I drug, and researchers who study it need a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I thought: Oh, crap,” he says. “Then I thought: OH CRAP. The DEA is going to come in here, tase me, and confiscate my flying saltshakers.”
The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.
Speaking of the the NBA, I’ve been waiting for someone to write a definitive story of how the NBA came to be a “pace-and-space” league full of threes, layups, and free throws. ESPN’s Kevin’s Arnovitz and Pelton are the men for the job: “Through much of the ’90s, a basketball possession was commandeered by a coach on the sideline who shouted the set to the point guard, who transmitted that play call to the other four players on the floor. But today’s fast-paced NBA teams have tossed away most of the playbook in favor of a series of basic principles and patterns that empower the guys on the floor to make decisions based on feel. Gentry, whose teams were ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace five times in his six seasons as a head coach before his arrival in Phoenix to join D’Antoni’s staff, is himself a convert.”
The New Yorker profile of John Feeley, ex-Ambassador to Panama, is yet another story of a smart and capable person who has left government because of a combination of incompetence and purposefully harmful policies from the Trump administration.
We identity three specific negative effects in this regard: that the pyramid is a poor representation of Maslow’s [hierarchy of needs]; that the preoccupation with the pyramid obscures the context within which the theory was created and that by focusing exclusively on the pyramid, we miss the other contributions that Maslow’s thinking can make to management studies.
Suddenly, there were video stores all over America that needed to purchase at least one copy of every major new Hollywood movie. In “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency” (Custom House), an oral history compiled by James Andrew Miller, Tom Hanks recalls the effect that this had on Hollywood in the eighties. “The industry used to be so flush with free money that it was almost impossible to do wrong even with a crappy movie, because here’s why: home video,” he says. By 1986, video sales and rentals were taking in more than four billion dollars. Income from home viewing had surpassed that of theatrical release.
A “magic eye” poster is called an autostereogram: “An autostereogram is a single-image stereogram (SIS), designed to create the visual illusion of a three-dimensional (3D) scene from a two-dimensional image. In order to perceive 3D shapes in these autostereograms, one must overcome the normally automatic coordination between accommodation (focus) and horizontal vergence (angle of one’s eyes). The illusion is one of depth perception and involves stereopsis: depth perception arising from the different perspective each eye has of a three-dimensional scene, called binocular parallax.”
My friend Tim Hwang launched the Trade Journal Cooperative, wherein you pay $60 a year to get random niche trade journals sent to you. I couldn’t be more in.
These are summed up in a motto frequently cited by one of China’s leading economists, Justin Lin, who attributes it to Premier Wen Jiabao: “When you multiply any problem by China’s population, it is a very big problem. But when you divide it by China’s population, it becomes very small.” The point is simple, though easy to miss: China’s size means that any challenge it faces—unemployment, environmental degradation, social unrest, you name it—exists on an almost unimaginably large scale. But it also means that the resources available to tackle the problem are gigantic. The difficulty lies in marshaling all those resources and deploying them effectively.
Are there certain ideas that you find yourself drawn to again and again? For example, you’ve used the threshold model of collective behavior to explain both school shootings and why basketball players don’t shoot free throws underhand. I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things.
Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.
Ok, that’s it for this week. Thanks for bearing with me while I tried to get this out. If there’s anything I should definitely check out that I didn’t mention, please send it my way. Otherwise please share this with your friends and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to the email. Thanks and have a great week.
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.”
“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 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 promised, here’s an interesting snippet from the book I’m reading, How to Thinkon 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.”
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.
Another week with lots more to read. On the book end of things I finished up Play Bigger, finally got around to reading Fun Home (yes, I’m counting graphic novels against my 30 book goal for 2018) and started my first Vonnegut with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (more on that in a bit). Didn’t write anything new this week myself, though I’ve got a few things in the hopper. As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Okay, onto the links.
Last October, Tillerson’s office announced the launch of a “FOIA Surge,” a campaign to process a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, which would require three hundred and fifty State Department staffers. The work was rudimentary (“You could do it with smart interns,” one participant said), but the list of those assigned to it included prominent Ambassadors and specialized civil servants. They quickly discovered something in common: many had worked on issues of priority to the Obama Administration. Lawrence Bartlett had been one of the department’s top advocates for refugees. Ian Moss had worked to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. (Bartlett and Moss declined to comment.) “It seemed designed to demoralize,” one participant said.
But I also think it goes to something deeper than that, when people will make this argument — in a way that really bothers me. It goes to this idea that … as we’re making all of these amazing strides in society, in terms of increasing our social awareness, and making efforts toward ideas like diversity and equality, and just sort of creating this more inclusive world … somehow sports should be an exception. It’s this idea, for some people, that sports should almost be this haven, where it’s O.K. to be closed-minded — like a bubble for all of our worst ignorance. And that as athletes, if we have any problems with the way things are, we should (as the saying goes) “stick to sports.”
The father of value investing, Benjamin Graham, explained this concept by saying that in the short run, the market is like a voting machine–tallying up which firms are popular and unpopular. But in the long run, the market is like a weighing machine–assessing the substance of a company. The message is clear: What matters in the long run is a company’s actual underlying business performance and not the investing public’s fickle opinion about its prospects in the short run.
Another good podcast from this week is the latest Reply All on the birth of the incel movement. I thought this comment from the host, PJ Vogt, was a particularly interesting insight into why certain communities go toxic: “Alana says the big mistake she made, back when she started a movement in her 20s, was that she overlooked what she now calls the student government problem. You can’t build a movement of people whose whole reason for joining the movement is to leave it. It’s not just that the people who find love then go disappear. It’s that you don’t get to have what every other movement takes for granted — the old guard.”
The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.
How did sports come to be so divisive? Hint: It has a lot to do with September 11th. “What was once ostensibly a unifying moment in the country has helped transform sports, with flags and flyovers, kneeling and protests — into the most divided public spectacle this side of Congress.”
As I mentioned, I’m reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Vonnegut from 1965. It feels like it’s all about this moment. I’ll try to put together a bigger post of quotes when I’m done, but here’s a little nugget to illustrate the connection:
And Samuel bought newspapers, and preachers, too. He gave them this simple lesson to teach, and they taught it well: Anybody who thought that the United States of America was supposed to be a Utopia was a piggy, lazy, God-damned fool. Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.
Song’s issue is that most enterprise-software companies offering blockchain solutions don’t benefit from decentralization. Blockchain technology is supposed to eliminate the need for a trusted third party to verify things like transactions and contracts. But most of the use cases available today still need some sort of third-party involvement, be it a bank, lawyer, or regulatory body.