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.
Annnnnd here’s my 10th blog post of the month. Hit my goal. (Might even make it to 11 if I have a burst of inspiration.) Thanks again for reading and encouragement. I’m going for 10 again in May. As usual, feedback welcome and you can subscribe by email here (for those of you reading this via email, thanks and sorry about the wasted words, it just emails exactly what I put on the web).
It’s time for another Remainders. This is my chance to share all the stuff I didn’t get a chance to blog about this week. As for me, I’ve been back and forth from San Francisco again. I wrote one long pieces this week on satisficing and the two strategies of marketing. On the reading front I finished up Artemis, which was easy, but nowhere near as good as The Martian. New book is the Master Algorithm, which is all about the different approaches to machine learning. It’s a bit painful at times, but I’m almost to the other side. If you’re interested in machine learning I’d highly recommend this post from Andrej Karpathy on Recurrent Neural Networks.
Okay, onto the links …
By far the best thing I read this week was the New York Times Magazine story “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” It’s troubling and heartbreaking and shocking. Here’s one small bit:
Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel. In one year, that racial gap adds up to more than 4,000 lost black babies. Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.
Skip the time you’d spend reading the rest of my links and go read the whole article. When you’re done, go donate to the Birthmark Doulas.
Good piece from Felix Salmon on why congestion pricing won’t happen anytime soon in NYC (the gist: to do it right you’d have to lower the tolls on the bridges, but that won’t happen because the Verrazano raked in $417 million in 2017). Felix also had a nice Slate Money episode on brands.
The New Yorker on how Kubrick got the aesthetic of 2001 right:
By rendering a not-too-distant future, Kubrick set himself up for a test: thirty-three years later, his audiences would still be around to grade his predictions. Part of his genius was that he understood how to rig the results. Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brands—Whirlpool, Macy’s, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon—which quickly cashed in on their big-screen exposure. If 2001 the year looked like “2001” the movie, it was partly because the film’s imaginary design trends were made real.
Wired on whether two-factor authentication codes are really random. Answer: They are, but we’re wired to see patterns in things.
Emily Nussbaum is the best TV writer working right now. Here she is on the Roseanne reboot:
The show offers a clever finger trap for critics. Call a hit dangerous and you imply that it’s really quite sexy. And, in fact, the seventh episode, which I won’t spoil, pulls a daring switcheroo, one that may offer a new lens through which to interpret Roseanne’s behavior. It’s not enough. The reboot nods at complexity without delivering—there are good people on many sides, on many sides. If you squint, you might see the show’s true hero as Darlene (Sara Gilbert), a broke single mom forced to move in with that charismatic bully Roseanne. But, if that were so, we might understand Darlene’s politics, too. We’d more fully feel her pain and also that of her two kids, transplanted to a place they find foreign and unwelcoming.
This story about a bot Instagram influencer is the weirdest thing I read this week.
Two Japanese words I learned this week:
- Tsudonku: “Acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.”
- Genchi Genbutsu: “This is a Japanese phrase meaning ‘go and see for yourself’, which is a central pillar of the Toyota Way, the famous management system adopted by the Japanese car company.”
An interesting critique of AI from an article about Zuckerberg and techno-optimism:
This is where the promise of artificial intelligence breaks down. At its heart is an assumption that historical patterns can reliably predict future norms. But the past—even the very recent past—is full of words and ideas that many of us now find repugnant. No system is deft enough to respond to the rapidly changing varieties of cultural expression in a single language, let alone a hundred. Slang is fleeting yet powerful; irony is hard enough for some people to read. If we rely on A.I. to write our rules of conduct, we risk favoring those rules over our own creativity. What’s more, we hand the policing of our discourse over to the people who set the system in motion in the first place, with all their biases and blind spots embedded in the code. Questions about what sorts of expressions are harmful to ourselves or others are difficult. We should not pretend that they will get easier.
Rukmini Callimachi wrote that great Isis piece from a few weeks ago, here she is with a Twitter thread on the latest announcement from the Isis spokesman.
I liked this definition of speed versus velocity from Farnam Street: “Speed doesn’t care if you are moving toward your goals or not. Velocity, on the other hand, measures displacement over time. To have velocity, you need to be moving toward your goal.”
Fact of the week: “More Americans work in museums than work in coal.” (The whole article on the real America is worth reading and was written by Rebecca Solnit who also wrote “The Loneliness of Donald Trump,” one of my favorite pieces of writing from last year.)
Amazon released an Echo update that encourages kids to say “please” to Alexa.
If you didn’t see Lebron dominate the end of the Cavs/Pacers playoff game on Wednesday night, here’s the last two plays: A block and a three. The guy is amazing.
On the other end of the sporting spectrum, the Times got a hold of tapes from a meeting between players and owners and I can’t imagine it making the NFL look worse. Here’s a small example from Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula: “For years we’ve watched the National Rifle Association use Charlton Heston as a figurehead … We need a spokesman.” These guys are such bad news.
Last, but not least, I had no idea radio buttons were … radio buttons.
That’s it for this week. As usual, let me know what I’ve missed and thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.
I’ve set (what I originally thought was) a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Two more to go with one week left. Thanks for following along and please let me know what you think. Also, you can now subscribe to the blog by email. Sign up here.
Alright alright alright. Quick status check for me: Spent the week out in SF for Percolate’s Transition Conference where I gave a talk about how to use supply chain thinking and the Theory of Constraints to deal with the content marketing bottleneck (I’ll share the video when it gets online). We’ll be in London in early June, so if you’re around and interested in coming please reach out. I just finished the book Soldiers of Reason which is about the history of the RAND Corporation (I’ve got a half-written post I’ll try to get out about it). I’m taking a break from game theory and nuclear warfare with Andy Weir’s new book Artemis (which I haven’t heard was great, but I liked The Martian a lot and my library hold came through the day I finished the other book). Now onto the links.
The biggest story in advertising was Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP, the largest holding company in the world. I spent a little time on Twitter looking back into the commentary around his original takeover of Wire & Plastic Products. The highlight: The company still makes wine racks.
Speaking of Wire & Plastic Products, here’s the history of the shopping cart, an under-appreciated invention.
On a more serious tip, The New Yorker had my favorite profile of Sorrell. For what it’s worth, I met him once or twice and emailed with him a few times and my takeaway were a) he knows his company and the ad industry inside out, b) he emailed me back immediately, and c) he was a good performer (it was a lot of fun to watch him interview folks on stage and make them wiggle a bit, especially media owners).
Two really excellent long-form pieces from this week:
- Wired on a group of video game hackers who took things too far.
- The Verge on the mostly failed One Laptop Per Child experiment (I’ve still got one somewhere around the house)
Matt Haughey (who, amongst other things, started one of my favorite sites Metafilter) wrote about his experience trying to recreate just one custom prop from Beyonce’s Lemonade as a way to illustrate her incredible attention to detail.
If you want to get a jump-start on my post about RAND, here’s an article from a few years ago by the author which covers many of the pertinent points (one of the amazing RAND facts is that they’ve had over 30 Nobel laureates as either employees or advisors in their ~70 years of existence).
A few weeks ago I shared an excellent Planet Money video about why Coke cost a nickel for 70 years. Well, here’s another about the economics of graveyards:
While we’re on videos, here’s one from Vox on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Continuing with the audio/visual theme, the best podcast episode I listened to this week exponent from a few weeks ago on Facebook.
Speaking of Facebook, I’m skeptical Zuckerberg doesn’t know what’s going on with the ad business as Wired suggests. The guy is very smart and runs a giant company who makes the vast majority of its money from advertising, I’d be pretty shocked if he just doesn’t know what’s going on as suggested (emphasis mine):
That isn’t to say the hearings went over perfectly, even at home. One mystifying thing to employees was that Zuckerberg frequently seemed to come up short when asked for details about the advertising business. When pressed by Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)—who, Zuckerberg restrained himself from pointing out, was a client of Cambridge Analytica—Facebook’s CEO couldn’t specify whether Facebook tracks users across their computing devices or tracks offline activity. He seemed similarly mystified about some of the details about the data Facebook collects about people. In total, Zuckerberg promised to follow up on 43 issues; many of the most straight-ahead ones were details on how the ad business works. It’s possible, of course, that Zuckerberg dodged the questions because he didn’t want to talk about Facebook’s tracking on national TV. It seemed more likely to some people on the inside, however, that he genuinely didn’t know.
My favorite headline this week: Someone Convince Me That an iPhone Wallet Case Isn’t the Dumbest Idea in the World.
The Register had a good primer on the current economics of bug bounty programs.
The always smart Tim Harford wrote about what made Stephen Hawking great. I particularly liked this bit, “First, he did not patronise his audience: presenting the most complicated ideas was a sign that he respected our intelligence. If we did not grasp everything, we would still be better off for having tried.” I have thought about this a lot in building Percolate, both internally and externally. It’s always been important to me to assume your audience is brilliant and work from there. At Transition over the years we’ve had talks on how cities grow like biological organisms, promise theory, and whether humans will follow the path of bacteria and hit the edge of the petri dish and die. The positive feedback I got on the most complex topics (told well) was always huge.
Finally, I wrote about The New Yorker, basketball, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect earlier in the week and last week I wrote a piece about the idea of an information fiduciary and how it might be a good way to think about regulating Facebook. And, of course, here’s the Remainders post from last week.
Thanks for everything and have a great weekend.
I’m a really big fan of security analyst/guru/cryptographer Bruce Schneier. I’ve been reading his blog for years and actually got a chance to meet him in November at a talk he did for a very small room of us on the NSA and just about anything else anyone wanted to talk about. Schneier is one of the people Edward Snowden allowed access to his documents, which obviously gives him a particularly interesting point of view on the subject. His basic take was best summarized in three statements: (1) This isn’t overly surprising and won’t be going away anytime soon, (2) the very best thing that happened out of all this is that the private companies involved have been exposed and some, like Cisco, have seen their business fundamentally hurt, and (3), everything else aside the one thing to know about everything the NSA was/is doing is that it doesn’t work. The last is obviously the most damming (and Schneier is definitely not the only one saying this). This method of collecting everything with hope of finding something just doesn’t work as well as good, old-fashioned, detective work.
Interestingly I was talking about the Snowden/NSA stuff with a friend from DC who mentioned that the story hadn’t gotten a ton of coverage there (as compared to government shutdown or Healthcare.gov) because it’s perceived as an issue people don’t really have a problem with. Basically we have seen over and over again that we’re willing to throw away liberties for our “freedom” and to fight “terrorism.” Not much to say on this one, just an interesting take.
Finally, and actually the real point of this post, was to share two interesting quotes from an interview Schneier did with Motherboard. The first is about our general perception of what’s secure and what’s not:
Probably the biggest problem with the public’s perception of security is that things are secure as a default. We see this a lot in the voting industry. The voting machine companies will come up with an internet voting machine or electronic voting machine and the onus will be on the security company to prove that it’s broken. It’ll be assumed secure, and that’s just nonsense. When you see a new system, you have to assume it’s insecure, unless you can prove it’s secure. The public perception is reversed. “I have a door lock, it’s secure unless you show me you can break it.” That’s not right—it’s insecure unless you can show me that it is secure.
The second is on the sort of security threats Schneier finds most threatening:
I’m most worried about potential security vulnerabilities in the powerful institutions we’re trusting with our data, with our security. I’m worried about companies like Google and Microsoft and Facebook. I’m worried about governments, the US and other governments. I’m worried about how they are using our data, how they’re storing our data, and what happens to it. I’m less worried about the criminals. I think we’ve kinda got cyber-crime under control, it’s not zero but it never will be. I’m much more worried about the powerful abusing us than the un-powerful abusing us.