This is a partial list of things I've read with some thoughts. My goal isn't to give a summary or a recommendation, though on occasion I might, but just to give a series of thoughts that I have about the work or that the work made me think. Maybe just share the anecdote of how it ended up on my desk. Something between a blog and a tweet.
It is an outgrowth of my resolution to read at least 5 pages of something mathematical everyday. A resolution I've been successful at and which I intend to make small entries about here. In the mean time it's just best sellers though.
Those who just want one of those categories can use the category filter buttons.
- One should own index funds instead of stocks. At least don't just own a few stocks anyway.
- One shouldn't keep all their data in the cloud e.g. google drive.
- One should own their own domain and means of distribution.
- Humans have been precipitating ecological collapse since the beginning. Most large mammals in Australia and South America had gone extinct long before European colonization. In particular there used to be 300 lb. kangaroos.
- The Spanish word Dinero comes from the Roman word for coin. Actually Harari doesn't say this so it may be false but I inferred it from him saying the Muslim Caliphs issued dinars, deriving from denarius. This is still the official name of currency in several countries.
- Zarathustra, who I only know about from Nietzsche, is the principle prophet of Zoroastrianism.
- The passage on Buddhism: 'The Law of Nature'. It's so obvious in his retelling of religions that he sees Christianity and other monotheistic religions as essentially preposterous scams which inexplicably duped billions whereas Buddhism is a deep, essentially correct, philosophy.
- His passage on memetics: 'Blind Cleo'. It strangely felt like a blog post I've been drafting in my mind for a while. The strange thing about memetics is how the idea has spread mostly memetically. I never read Dawkin's original stuff on memes (I could even tell you what the source is. The Red Queen?). Just somehow the idea that how ideas spread is worth studying is viral. It's also interesting how Dawkin's notion of meme has been out-competed ecologically by internet memes. It seems like internet memes have out-competed a lot of forms of human expression.
5/7/2021: Founding vs Inheriting
Editors note: This is a review of Balaji's post written partially for a shot at $100. I'm always looking for new and creative ways to sell out.
This is a deep and important dichotomy that takes many names and often goes unnoticed. Those who cannot do, teach. Everyone's a critic. P vs. NP. Founding vs. Inheriting. They all mean slightly different things but they all get at the basic truth that it's easier to build on things: to copy, read, verify or maintain, than it is to start with a blank page and create, write, solve or start.
When stated abstractly it's obvious. Something we all know. But somehow the vast gap between watching and doing is easy to forget in practice. Think of the student who imagines themselves understanding the steps of a lecture but then can't do the problems later. Think of an individual with strong opinions on some subject who can't defend their position in conversation when they can't recall the data, anecdotes or other evidence they had imagined they had learned from reading.
Similarly from the outside founded and inherited institutions can present so similarly it can be easy to forget the essential difference in the relationship of their executive to the organization. Consider the US government and Facebook. They're both massive organizations that have been around for decades. They're both entities that I to some extent have to interact with to live a normal life when and where I am. Both of them make decisions through opaque process I have no effect on (though they like to pretend otherwise) which effect me directly. If either organization becomes aware of me as more than an entry in a database I'm probably completely fucked.
But Zuckerberg can move quickly and break things. He can expend a huge amount of capital acquiring early stage competitors like Instagram or key adjacencies like WhatsApp and Oculus . He has much more agency to bring Facebook towards his vision of its future than Biden.
By analogy consider admitting states to the union . From 1791 to 1912, 35 states were admitted to the union. That's an average of a state every 3 years with a longest gap of 13 years. The last state to be admitted is Hawaii over 60 years ago. Imagine trying to get Puerto Rico admitted to the united states today. It's twice as populous as Hawaii, closer to the United States and has been a US territory for two years longer. But it's not going to happen . And why not? To first order surely it's in the best interests of the United States to grow to as much territory and as many people as possible. But the people in charge are not thinking about the first order effects they are thinking of the second order effects. Any given new state will change the balance of power of republicans and democrats and is therefore politically impossible. Many other issues are understood in this way by those in power:
I'm not sure about this. I'm toying with the idea that any Democratic President can force Republicans to pass any bill they want, simply by threatening to let in 3 million refugees a year unless they pass stuff. https://t.co/WR1a41PpwS— Noah Smith 🐇 (@Noahpinion) February 11, 2020
But what does this mean for the individual and society? I think as an individual one shouldn't organize their life with the assumption some organization will always be around, benevolent and competent.
As a society maybe we should be more willing to let things fail? Maybe we shouldn't bail out banks? Maybe when we make an organization we should have an idea of how it'll die instead of letting it decay slowly? Honestly I don't know anything about how that would look so don't take those thoughts too seriously.
What of the future? This view seems to predict Google, Amazon and Apple should be in the decline. Balaji extols the victories of tech and the failures of the east coast over the past year but all these company's founders are gone. They'll sunder on for a long time but I suspect in the fullness of time it will be clear that by 2021 their best years were behind them. Google cancels products left and right, I just ordered something from Amazon Tuesday that won't be here until Saturday and Apple hasn't done something terribly cool since 2008. It's easy to dump on the NYT (and perhaps I'm taking Lindy too seriously here) but I think it's not unlikely it outlives the FAANG companies. At least some of them.
 Obviously not a perfect analogy and there are some geographic reasons for the slowdown. But I think the comparison highlights how these organizations are in different stages of their life cycle
 disclosure: I hold NO here and am trying to get out at 98.
2/13/2021: A Simple Model of Grabby Aliens
Disclaimer: this is some meandering thoughts and only vaguely about the paper. (Really I should say this before I say anything)
This was a very interesting paper. I myself have often that it was curious that the ratio of earth's age to the universes was so small and that life has been present on Earth basically since the beginning. I think Age of Earth - Age of Life is only provably smaller than 200 million but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I guess the reason those two facts surprise me is because of the opposite facts that I am very young in the context of history, humans are very young in the context of mammals and mammals are very young in the context of life.
I'm not sure I totally understand the thesis of the paper or the supporting model but it's something like: A universe in which many alien civilizations evolve vaguely analogously to us and then develop the ability to travel across space at some fraction of the speed of light settling planets on their way in an externally visible way eventually filling most of the universe's volume is consistent with the available evidence. The available evidence being a universe which hasn't been observably changed by intelligences and a look back at some of the difficult things life and humans had to overcome to get to our present state of development.
They have a model which takes in parameters like number of planets per unit volume, the number of 'hard steps' life has to overcome to become multi-planetary and the fraction of the speed of light civilizations eventually expand at.
What I love about this paper is this vision of a future where the best way to understand the large scale phenomena in the universe isn't by understanding physics but by understanding the intelligent civilizations which fill its volume. Already it seems more productive to analyze the behavior of humans to predict what will happen here on Earth than physical phenomena. Though maybe that's an illusion caused by me just being much more interested in people than other things.
The predictions of the paper seem somehow quasi-religious. And I don't mean this as an insult. I remember once watching a talk by a futurologist science fiction writer type (I really wish I could find and link it. My apologies) who said something like 'The singularity (in the sense of evil AI?) as a belief is isomorphic to some christian eschatology so can be dismissed outright' and I remember thinking it was such a lazy dismissal. At the end of the day, at the end of the world, it will be the case that humanity will increase in power until we barely recognize it, it will destroy itself, or it will reach some sort of steady state. And maybe the sober minds will say 2100 will be like today but 50% better or worse. But somehow that doesn't seem more likely than the extreme outcomes to me.
I had a thought recently that religion is all the most important questions which one can never answer. (Actually religion is probably more of a practice and a community and not constant rumination on the end of oneself and the world. But at this point I wouldn't really know) I was discussing aliens with a friend and he said that ultimately the existence of aliens wasn't a scientific question because one couldn't test it with experiments. That perspective made me so sad. We can still have discussions and weigh evidence in matters we'll never be able to conclusively settle. We'll just probably be wrong.
My dad got me Sapiens from the library while I was home during Christmas time. Getting Library books for other people is one of my dad's principle hobbies. Every time I come home there's a dozen or so waiting for me. Usually I don't find the time to read them but it so happened I was interested in reading the book after listening to some podcasts with Harari. There are definitely some things about Harari that make some of my 'grifter' alarm bells go off, like following up his best seller with a listicle and talking about things like big data and meditation. But in all his interviews he comes across as so earnest and I found Sapiens to be a very interesting and engaging book.
There's a lot of human history so the book is sort of a whirlwind tour. It definitely raises more questions than answers, as any book so ambitious will. Some fun facts I picked up along the way:
Some passages which stuck in my mind:
Overall I love the perspective Yuval gives. Reading the book you get the sense of how strange a world we've all gotten used to. How it all could have gone differently. Maybe some processes are inevitable, but many thing's prevalence seems purely accidental when you consider their origin.
12/30/2020: Man's Search for Meaning
I read Man's Search for Meaning because Rhiannon's advisor got it for her for the holidays. A little melodramatic if you ask me. PhDs aren't that bad. The book made me think I should seek out more meaning in my life. I guess what prompted me to start my PhD was intellectual curiosity into mathematics. It's faded a little bit and now I feel like I'm eeking out a vaguely meaningless existence. Sort of, I don't want to be too melodramatic. But maybe Frankel primed me to be.
As a rule I'm very skeptical about psychology. People love to bash Freud as essentially pseudoscience and I've always thought it's a little strange because from my perspective it doesn't seem like the field is in a healthier state now than then. Not that I really know anything about it. It's possible I take the replication crisis too seriously.
That being said Frankl's book is certainly inspiring. The first half of the book is about Frankl's experience in the camps. The second part is about Frankl's psychotherapy practice of logotherapy. The central message as I understood it is something like: Life is meaningful no matter what. A lot (most?) of human suffering comes not knowing what one's meaning in life is, or believing life has no meaning.